The Perspective of Religious Minorities

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  December 27, 2011 — 45 Comments

We in the West live in a world that is dominated and shaped by Christianity. That dominance may be fading in places, particularly in Europe, but few can deny that Christians continue to occupy a place of cultural and political privilege. This is especially true in the United States, where an unofficial religion test of our political candidates for national office is enforced by various pressure groups, religious leaders, and our own (theoretically secular) media.

As America’s favorite satirist put it:

“Yes, the long war on Christianity. I pray that one day we may live in an America where Christians can worship freely! In broad daylight! Openly wearing the symbols of their religion… perhaps around their necks? And maybe — dare I dream it? — maybe one day there can be an openly Christian President. Or, perhaps, 43 of them. Consecutively.”

The simple fact is that Christianity remains the world’s largest religion, and nearly 37% of the world’s Christians make their home in the Americas. Despite this dominance, or perhaps because of it, many Western Christians feel uneasy about the future, thinking that some secular/pagan/Islamic overthrow is just around the bend. This fear is often exploited by politicians to win votes, framing any limitation on Christianity or Christian institutions as a stalking horse for persecutions.

“You don’t want the gay liberation movement to morph into something like the Ku Klux Klan, demonstrating in the streets against Catholicism.” – Cardinal Francis George, Archbishop of Chicago

I think few realize how limited the discussion of religion really is in our media, often limited to debates between liberals and conservatives (or progressives and traditionalists) within Christianity, sometimes with a token Jewish or secular voice thrown in. Any deviance from this pattern is seen either as satire or scandal. Coming out of the Christmas holiday, where a yearly fabricated “war” over Christian celebrations continues to garner press, it can be easy to forget the millions of individuals who fall outside the Christian paradigm, and how we exist, worship, and compromise in a culture that alternately enforces a Christian culture while claiming that culture in under constant threat. For example, CNN looks at how “other faiths” celebrate Christmas (aka December 25th for anyone who isn’t a Christian).

“Sometimes in the West these days there’s a kind of tendency to clump all the religions together and say, ‘We’re all climbing the same mountain,’ and I think the intention there is nice. There’s a harmonious intention there. But I think it’s much nicer to say, ‘Let’s respect the differences and love and appreciate the differences of the other faiths,” [Buddhist monk Ajhan] Yatiko said.

Meanwhile, at RealClearReligion, columnist Jeffrey Weiss bemoans the “Xmas Borg” and discusses just how difficult it is to avoid wall-to-wall expressions of Christianity for two to three months out of every year.

“I defy Bill O’Reilly and his compadres to locate the smallest corner of our nation immune from the months-long drumbeat of Christmas stuff. For us, the holiday seems closer to Star Trek’s Borg Collective (“Resistance is futile!”) than anything I can find in the Christian scriptures. To be Jewish (or Hindu, Bahai or Brama Kumari) in America requires some effort to wall out the overwhelming pressure of our national majority faith.”

The tendency to bundle non-Christian Winter holidays together and treat them like cultural add-ons to the Christmas juggernaut has started to find some dissenters, but most of us rationalize celebrating the holiday in the secular-religious hybrid that has now become the norm (particularly since most of us have Christian relatives and friends). Pagans perhaps have the best excuse, as many traditions and observances have their genesis with our religious ancestors, but we still exist in a culture where those elements: trees, gift-giving, various decorations and customs, are understood by most as function of a nominally Christian holiday, not some syncretic hybrid.

So long as Christianity remains the dominant religious force in our lives minority religions will have to hope that secular separations of church and state hold (or in the case of Mexico, progress), and that Christians of good conscience start to understand how their power works, and how that affects those who aren’t Christian.

“The most searching way to discover, recover, or practice one’s faith is to be a member of a religious minority–to live on a small island of Otherness in an archipelago of bigger religions or in the lake of a theocracy. The situation can be agreeable or dangerous. This is a truism for religious minorities, but it may surprise many in “Christian America.” Not everyone belts out Christmas carols.

Being a minority tests the temper of a faith, its resilience and fiber […] Being a member of a minority entails the ability to bend and to negotiate. This, in turn, demands a deep understanding of the majority and local conditions, deeper than the majority may have about the minority; respect for them whenever possible; diplomacy; patience; and the building of relationships, infinitesimal gesture after infinitesimal gesture.”

The author of that piece, Professor Catharine Stimpson, was writing about being a Christian in the Islam-dominated United Arab Emirates, and how that perspective has shifted the way she sees all religious minorities. I think that her experience is important, and her testimony much-needed. Christianity has a historical and theological persecution narrative, which can unfortunately become something of a complex that distorts reality,  instead of calling its adherents towards a witness of tolerance and coexistence for all. All persecution narratives, even and especially our own, run the risk of becoming a toxic method of making people of different faiths or perspectives an inhuman “other.” Faceless villains who sport labels instead of human qualities, who become distorted monsters not to be trusted. The challenge for the formerly persecuted is to rise above their own persecution narratives, to build a future where none are persecuted, while it is the challenge of minorities to avoid enshrining them in the first place.

I hope that as this holiday season winds down we’ll all take a moment to consider the perspectives of others, and to critically think about the narratives we are participating in.

Jason Pitzl-Waters

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