Monday, December 24, 2012

Considering Christian History and Culture at Christmastime

The postings on this site are my own and don’t necessarily represent IBM’s positions, strategies or opinions.

Alienation and Attraction

It's practically guaranteed that if I had grown up Christian instead of Jewish, I'd have believed unflinchingly in Jesus as the Son of God. That's how I am as a Jew -- unquestioning of monotheism. I'm a loyal person to whatever I'm affiliated with; it's the best way I can explain it.

Growing up, I was taught to be wary of Christians, even as they were my neighbors and friends, because of the:

  • Grand Commission, which compelled a number of Christians to proselytize, which always felt disrespectful, even though unwittingly, to my family, faith and me
  • Crusades, Spanish Inquisition and Holocaust, not to mention the many other Christianity-affiliated (I wouldn't call them truly Christian) rulers who had ultimately exiled and/or killed Jews throughout history.

I've grown up ashamed that my parents weren't able to be more forgiving, or at a minimum, less suspicious, and also ashamed that their frame of reference informed mine, and at how hard it has been to let it go...and how I may never fully.

What bad timing and even poor taste to bring up any charged feelings about Christian history so near to Christmas! Here's what made me think of it:

  • Pat recently described Christmastime to one of our Christian friends as the most alienating time of the year for Jews in this country, since it is not our holiday, but it is the holiday of a majority of the rest of the U.S., and her stark assessment resonated with me, so I needed to blog about my associations with Christian history and culture to clarify for myself how to deal with my alienation
  • On Facebook, Sue Sena and I just connected. Sue is the head of a marvelous gay-straight alliance called Swish and before I saw her profile, which includes a quote from St. Theresa and a thumbs-up for the Gospel group, Mary Mary, who I *love*, I did not know of Sue's religious affiliation, "Protesting Catholic", and Christian in any case; it's Mary Mary's "Walking" that I love especially:
  • Yesterday, Pat and I went to a Christian rock concert by accident, and it was mostly wonderful -- we didn't love *every* song, but not because of the theme, but just because not all were stellar; Pat ordered tickets for the Trans-Siberian Orchestra (TSO) in September, not considering that December would be a Christmas show and boy, was it! (It was also our first-ever hard rock/heavy metal concert):

Sue Sena and Trans-Siberian Orchestra are doing good in the world. Sue is helping further human rights and TSO gives a dollar of every ticket sold to a relatively local charity, every time they tour. Yesterday, they gave a check for more than $21,000 to a metro-NY children's hospital. At their best, religious people of every religion, I'm confident, do good in the world.

I fear that I sound like I'm trying to convince myself. Maybe it's because the chip on my shoulder has been there for 47 years, and still moves me compulsively to express suspicion periodically. For example, I was speaking with a couple of new colleagues by phone last week and one, who had a Christian-sounding name, mentioned that he had been in the U.S. Navy, in submarines, during Vietnam. I told him that my dad (z"l) had been in the U.S. Navy during WWII.

"I'm a bit of a World War II buff," he said. My knee-jerk thought was, Creepy! How can anyone who's not a Nazi-lover refer to himself as a "buff" in association with World War II?

Accordingly, I responded, "I'm a bit of a Holocaust buff, unfortunately," I said, "Being Jewish. I took a graduate-level course in it and have done tons of reading."

"Yes, what a terrible time in history," he said, and I regained rationality and felt like a kill-joy, as I realized then that he was likely thinking of the heroism of our military, having been in the military during a war himself. I guess that's the way I'm wired....

For the rest of this blog-post, I'd like to catalog more of what I've loved from Christian culture, in addition to Mary Mary and TSO because it doesn't feel good to feel alienated and because it reminds me that life, belief, faith and I are all complex. And I want to affiliate with what I love from it while not feeling paranoid that a proselytizer will pounce on me and try to show me how close I am to accepting Jesus. There's that shoulder-chip again!

"Some of My Best Friends/Memories/Literary Experiences Are..."

  • Many friends, including Didi, Helene, Honeybee (aka Barbara), Mirja, Lisa, Jen, Rob, Clay, Stan, Jack, another Jack, Bernard, Stacy, Donna, Mia, Deb, Linda, Rahel, Esther, Joy, Pam, Suzanne, Jim, Chitra, Elizabeth, Paul, Tim, Rita, Jan, Donna and Lorraine are devoted Christians and whether we were friends especially in childhood, high school, college, when I lived in Chicago or through meeting at work, I'm fond of all of them and have enjoyed exchanges about our religions with each of them, though not having revealed -- before now -- to all of them my historical (and sometimes lingering) paranoia around the Grand Commission
  • Being an angel among my nursery-school classmates, and each of us getting to pin an aluminum-foil-covered cardboard star to the stage-curtain during the school's Christmas pageant (before my parents switched me to a Modern Orthodox Jewish day school for 1st-8th grades); it was thrilling to add my star and to be in that winged angel costume, complete with halo, and I don't recall participating in as magical a pageant of any sort since
  • Christmas mornings at Didi's and Helene's -- When I was a little kid, our neighbors graciously let me come over first thing to celebrate with them and I felt the specialness and totally included, and my parents were fine with my going there because when Didi came home from Catholic school and asked her mom, "How come the Jews killed Jesus?" her mom said, "Don't believe everything you hear," and so my mom trusted her forever based on her telling my mom the story and her response
  • C.S. Lewis and Madeline L'Engle were two of my favorite authors since childhood; they had the best brand of magic -- and I never knew the New Testament metaphor of C.S. Lewis' series till adulthood, and then I read a number of his adult works that were explicitly religious and they comforted me hugely
  • Falling in love with the writing of Flannery O'Connor and Thomas Merton in college; my favorite teacher in high school, Mr. McWilliams, introduced us to Flannery O'Connor and I included her "Good Country People" about a hypocritical and criminal Bible salesman in my senior thesis, and found Thomas Merton in an East-West comparative religion course
  • Most recently, discovering Tonéx, a gay Gospel star who was rejected by the Church when he came out, especially this hit, which re-inspires me every time I hear it and makes me believe that God and I believe in my abilities. He sings, "There is no failure":

Please, God, release me from my Christian-wariness bias and let me purely enjoy the parts that appeal to me without feeling anxious that I'm betraying my own religion, or that I'm doing anything but finding new avenues for connections with more of humanity. Amen.

Merry Christmas to all who celebrate it!


Br. Bernard Delcourt, OHC said...

Dear Sarah,

Thank you for your December 24 post to your blog. It called on me as your friend and a Christian monk.

I ended up having so much to say that I turned that into a posting on my own blog so as to not clog up your comments area.

I'd welcome an ongoing conversation on these important themes you and I touch upon.

I miss you and Pat. I hope you'll come and visit your "genteel gentile" again some day.



Sarah Siegel said...

Bernard, you are dear. As you saw already, I left a comment in response to you and your blog-post over in your blog. Wishing you a wonderful 2013.