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?
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