This article was originally going to be about Freemasonry, and how even in a society which is supposed to be dedicated to no specific creed there is still Christianity around many corners. I started writing it in July; but then in August there was another event that came up and reminded me of the scope of what I was talking about. It reminded me of the simple truth that every Jew in America, or indeed most of “Western” civilization, knows either actively or instinctually:
Being Jewish in America or Europe is to live in a world which was not designed for you. Whose baseline assumptions come from a culture you don’t belong to. And which is frequently blind to that fact, and often hostile once exposed to it.
On 8/31 I checked into the Carol Joy Holling retreat center in Ashland, Nebraska for the Nebraska State Bar Association Leadership Academy Retreat. A class of lawyers in their 3rd to 15th years was going to meet for the first time, discuss leadership and ethics, and get to know one another. As instructed I arrived at 7:45 A.M. to check in and drop my clothes off in my hotel room before the retreat started. I walked into my room, and probably the third thing I saw was a cross on the wall.
Being Jewish in America is to always be finding crosses on the wall when you don’t expect them.
It didn’t take me long to realize that the whole camp was Christian. The logo of a leaf had a cross on it that I hadn’t noticed before; the conference room we were going to be meeting in was sponsored by Lutheran Financial Services. I hadn’t expected it, because why would I? I was meeting with the NSBA, which is about as secular a group as one can imagine.
I had been exposed, once again, to Surprise Christianity.
That’s not a formal or academic phrase, it’s one entirely of my own making as far as I know. And it is not intended to be derogatory toward Christianity or any of its adherents. It is not a criticism of any of the theology or dogma of any Christian branch or sect. But it is a label I use to describe any of those times when one, either as a Jew or a Muslim or someone raised completely irreligious, is forcibly reminded that for all of our protestations otherwise all of the baseline assumptions in America are set to a Christian default. Surprise Christianity is when you find Christianity in a thing or place where you otherwise wouldn’t expect to find it, and you’re suddenly reminded of your other-ness from it.
Later in the retreat we did a Privilege Walk, where everyone starts in a line and walks forwards or backwards based on certain statements the moderator reads; this is to help you consider the privileges you have benefitted from in life, and let everyone in a group see how that looks for each person. I was thrilled because one of the statements was to take a step forward if “your work holidays and religious holidays have always lined up.”
Everyone in the group took a step forward except for myself and one other person.
After the walk was done, I thanked the moderator for including that because I felt like it was a common privilege that was often under-discussed. She agreed, and then told me that they’d had to consider that even with the Leadership Academy itself–because it had originally been scheduled to start on 9/7/2021 instead of 8/31. On Rosh Hashanah, one of the High Holidays, in other words. And this had only been corrected because the facilitator’s law partner is herself Jewish, and pointed it out.
Surprise Christianity, you see, goes both ways. Going one way it is the fact that Christianity is so baked into our culture that your holidays are the norm and your schedule the default. Going the other way, however, is that when something is being scheduled it is presumed to be fine so long as it doesn’t interfere with that default schedule. So long as it isn’t over a U.S. civil holiday or a Christian holiday, it’s fine. Right?
Every year around this time (late August through early October), Jewish Twitter begins sharing the stories. Of mandatory back to school nights on Rosh Hashanah followed by mandatory Parent/Teacher conferences on Yom Kippur. Of retreats and meetings booked on the High Holidays, and looks of confusion or annoyance when it is brought up. To be Jewish in America is to have someone look you in the eye and say “Don’t you guys celebrate a lot of holidays? Do you really need all of them off?”
The vast majority of Americans will never need to worry about scheduling events on their holidays, because their holidays are already enshrined. Christmas is a Federal holiday, and don’t worry if it falls on a Saturday (as it does in 2021)–we’ll observe it on the 24th! Easter is always protected, because it’s on a Sunday. And let’s be clear, it isn’t just that it happens to be on a Sunday and is thus on our traditional weekend (as are services for most Christians): Sunday is part of our traditional weekend because Christian services (and thus Easter) are held on that day. I’ve never seen a Christian denied the ability to go to Ash Wednesday services, while I have seen plenty of Jews not denied but pressured or even shamed for wanting to take our holidays off.
When I was in high school, I wore a Star of David. I don’t any more, because I don’t always feel safe while wearing it. But at the time I did, and a well meaning student came up to me and asked me if I worshipped Satan because he thought that’s what it meant.
The Jews are tired.
The original impetus for this article was a Masonic brother discussing the Scottish Rite. He mentioned that for one of the degrees (the 18th, I believe), there is an included preparatory explanation that while it uses Christian imagery it is not intended to imply that it is only for Christians or to force Christianity on anyone. This brother was perturbed, because there are apparently other degrees using Jewish or even Islamic imagery and that there was no similar preparatory explanation for those degrees. Why, he asked, was Christianity signalled out so singly?
I told him that I couldn’t speak for the author, but that for me I appreciated it. Because of that warning, when I go into the Scottish Rite I will be prepared for one of the degrees to involve big crosses and other Christian imagery. I can go in knowing it is coming, and not feeling the sudden panic of “is this a conversion attempt, or am I just unwelcome?” In a way that I don’t think, although I can’t speak for everyone, a Christian would feel when being presented with Jewish or Islamic imagery put on by other people they know or have good reason to believe are co-religionists in a symbolic setting.
When I was in elementary school, my class went on a field trip. We were up, I think in the foothills, passing old mines on a hike. I saw what was labelled as a “Non-Denominational Chapel” down a side trail, and I thought that was so cool! A prayer space that was open to anyone, not specifically Christian, in case the beauty moved them to prayer. When I told my teacher that (Hi, Mrs. Appell), she got a look on her face that I now recognize as “Oh no, I have to tell this excited child they’ve fundamentally misunderstood something and now they’re going to be sad.” She then explained to me that non-Denominational in this case didn’t mean “no specific religion,” but instead meant “not any specific form of Christianity, but still very much specifically Christian.”
Surprise Christianity also works behind the scenes, ensuring that in some ways our lives will always be a tension between Judaism and Society, or that we’ll always be finding new and exciting ways to be exposed to it. As a member of the Society for Creative Anachronism, I dress up in historical clothing and go hang out with people doing the same. And 90% of the time that means that I am traveling on a Friday, going to an event on a Saturday, and then going home on a Sunday. Which means, of course, that unless I’m going to a week-long war, I could not ever really participate in the SCA and keep an Orthodox Shabbat. And even if I did go to every week-long war in the Society, I would find it difficult to advance because so much of the SCA’s structure is based on attending Kingdom events on Saturdays and doing things–fighting, teaching, working–that would be explicitly outlawed on Shabbat under an Orthodox interpretation.
I brought that up in an article, and someone commented that even as a Jew they’d never really considered how the SCA’s event structure all but precludes Orthodox and many Conservative Jews from participating. The Vorkosigan Saga points out that fish don’t recognize water as a way of pointing out how someone doesn’t recognize the basic assumptions and conditions they’ve always lived in; Surprise Christianity even affects those of us who are very much outside of it, because it’s just the way we’ve always lived.
This article doesn’t end with a solution, or a way to change society to make it better. I don’t know how to make the Jews un-tired; I don’t know how we become unbothered, moisturized, in our lane, well-hydrated, and flourishing, to quote the prophet Cardi B. All I can do is end with this.
If you are a Christian or former Christian in America, please recognize the amount to which your faith tradition is not just acknowledged or even protected but intrinsically woven into our society. Please recognize the ways in which those things may well be invisible to you, because they are as normal as breathing. And please be patient with those of us who deal on an almost daily basis with a culture whose baseline assumptions we don’t share, and whose customs we have only absorbed through pop culture. It can be frustrating, and exhausting, to be so frequently surprised by reminders that we are others in our own homes, even in such small ways.
7 thoughts on “Surprise Christianity”
What an outstanding essay on an important subject. As a practicing atheist I’ve become quite proficient in ignoring all religious trappings, but I’m also not exposed to many. I don’t say under god in the pledge – never had. I do wish the US had listened to president T. Roosevelt and kept god off the money but oh well.
Your writing always astounds me. I am in awe.
Well done. As a former Christian, I became aware (first, when I married a Jewish man, and later when I decided that I am atheist) of the pervasiveness of Christian imagery and influence in the United States. I cannot fathom how tiring it is to be stymied at every turn in one’s own cultural and religious needs. I am lucky that most of the time it is merely an annoyance, rather than an implied or overt request to yield my own holy days and practices to assumption.
Well said my friend
Bravo Zulu, Sir
Thank you, Thank you, Thank you.
–Tarmach ben Yehuda al-Khazari
Thank you for this, Matt. I’d like to relate a similar story I read on askamanager.org (HIGHLY recommended if you enjoy reading notalwaysright.com). A writer to askamanager wrote to say they weren’t sure how they should handle a situation; namely, that one of their direct reports, observant Muslim, seemed to always have an excuse for not making meetings, and why they were creating extra work for the writer by asking for “special holidays” (the writer’s words). The site’s host took them apart with savage elegance using much the same examples you used here. If I can find the story again (it’s nowhere near as well organized as notalwaysright.com), I’ll post the link.