Noticing the Shadow of the Cross

As a rabbinical student and someone who wears a kippah every day, I think of myself as being pretty comfortable with being Jewish. Since starting to wear a kippah in public in 2009, I have gradually grown more and more comfortable with being publicly Jewish and religious. While I have been harassed for being Jewish in public, I do not fear this on a daily basis. I study Hebrew texts in public, I have prayed, wrapped in my tallit in public in airports, parks, and on busy streets. I am no stranger to public displays of Judaism.

Recently, I read Paul Kivel‘s newest book, Living in the Shadow of the Cross: Understanding and Resisting the Power and Privilege of Christian Hegemony. Appropriately enough, it was only through reading this book in public that I began to realize how deeply Christian hegemony has impacted me psychologically. I found myself trying to hide the book cover, reading with the book in my lap or turning it face-down when on a table when I wasn’t reading it. I generally feel safe as a Jew in the US, but apparently, I do not feel safe as a Jew who calls Christian hegemony into question. Would such a book push me out of the zone of precarious safety, a zone whose boundaries have been unexpectedly moved out from under our feet for thousands of years?

Kivel defines Christian hegemony as “the everyday, systematic set of Christian values, individuals and institutions that dominate all aspects of US society. Nothing is unaffected.” He goes on to talk about how Christianity and Christian institutions have shaped public policy, national holidays, colonialism, militarism, the way we think and relate to our bodies, and much more. He is careful to remind us that while there are many denominations and variations of Christianity, as well as many wonderful Christian individuals and institutions, this does not change the fact of Christian domination in the US and the legacy of violence that is part of Christianity’s history.

As someone who has participated in various forms of multifaith dialogue, this framing of operating within a context of Christian hegemony seems too often to be missing from our conversations. Very rarely have I heard Christians reflect on their own Christian privilege or the violence of Christian institutions in meaningful ways. Even in the Jewish/Muslim dialogue I have been a part of, we all seem hesitant or unable to bring this into the conversation. What is holding us all back?

The answer is more complex than any single explanation, and yet I am sure part of the answer must be the fear that keeps me putting my book face-down. This fear has shaped us all, including Christians. We are afraid of the consequences of speaking our pain, afraid of punishment, guilt, sin, anger, and failure. If we are committed to religious freedom, pluralism, justice, and multifaith dialogue, we must make Christian hegemony a part of our conversation. What would our conversations about Israel and Palestine look like if we took into consideration Christian theological and political power, influence, and interest?

Billboard by the United American Committee

Thankfully, no one ever bothered me while reading the book. The inherited traumas of centuries of anti-Jewish persecution still sit in my body though, making the fear real enough for now. The one person who asked about it was a Muslim man working at the cafe I was sitting at when I happened to finish book. We talked about the good and the bad that Christianity has brought to our world. We talked about the challenge of fasting for Ramadan and working at a cafe. We talked about our head coverings. We (somewhat awkwardly) wished each other a Ramadan mubarak and shalom.

I pray that this may be one of many times that talking about Christian hegemony unites us across difference, to build a world of curiosity and compassion, rather than judgment and domination.

Photos courtesy of Ilanit Goldberg and http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Sharia-law-Billboard.jpg

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4 thoughts on “Noticing the Shadow of the Cross

  1. Thanks for this thoughtful invitation to open conversation. I particularly appreciate your observation about your experience of reading the book in public and how that informed your thinking — that sort of self-reflection can only help when we confront these fraught issues.
    I’m a friend of Paul’s and have valued his long-time leadership in Bay Area Jewish social justice community, but I admit I haven’t read the book yet. The pervasive influence of Christianity in our culture is undeniable, as is the history of violence that has been done by Christians and Christian institutions and states in the name of Christianity. And that definitely deserves to be discussed more — being aware of that context can only bring greater insight to our conversations about our world and the way we interact in it. In the interfaith training we at Philadelphia Emerging Religious Leaders held I was glad that the presenters from the Dialogue Institute reminded us all that Christians can take for granted that everyone in this country knows a fair amount about their religion — whether we choose to or not — while they are not required to know much about other religions, and that in the context of dialogue this necessitates Christians making extra efforts to reach out and understand others.
    What I’m unsure about is whether this particular framework of hegemony is the right way to open that conversation and increase that awareness. And when I say I’m unsure, I really mean that — maybe it is, maybe it isn’t; I don’t know. As with any model that describes society, “Christian Hegemony” is only one way to describe social reality, and there are others. Each model will highlight some things, help us understand certain things, and it will also have its blind spots, the things it doesn’t particularly account for or illuminate. It will tend to lead to certain conclusions over others. And it will color the quality of the discussion in certain ways, as well. The question is just whether the things this highlights, the conclusions it suggests, and the way it influences how we talk about it are more or less valuable than those of another approach. Of course, the answer for me has to be that I should read the book! But in the meantime, I wouldn’t mind hearing your thoughts on the relative advantages (and disadvantages, if you see any) of this frame.

  2. Thanks Alex for approaching a difficult subject, albeit, one that needs to be acknowledged and challenged. I have been studying Judaism for a few years now and realize that leaving Christianity is a huge step away from the norm in my house, my community and my country. This nation is built upon the Christian tradition and it seems “everyone” is following suit because it is the thing to do. Christmas, WWJD bracelets, etc. I admire your courage in your hesitations and know that your actions truly speak louder than your words, like leaving a book face up.

  3. Thanks for this thought-provoking post, Alex! Very interested in further discussion on this topic and will also check out Kivel’s book. Yasher Koach for writing on such a big and potentially scary topic.

  4. This is a topic close to my heart, as a Jew-by-choice who converted from Christianity. In addition to all the other mishegas of conversion, one source of pain for me has been experiencing Christian hegemony through the actions of my nearest and dearest, my Christian family. They mean no harm, but they are also quite unaware of how much their own perspectives are affected by a worldview that is reinforced by mainstream US society. In short, they are not conscious of their Christian privilege. (In fact, friends from my old church sometimes complain on Facebook about the “persecution” they face as evangelicals!) I identify with your fear, Alex, as I am loathe to bring it up even with those closest to me.

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