Don’t Confuse Respecting a Culture with Using It

Western society is beginning to move from the colonialist attitude that European values and ideas are better than indigenous or traditional values and ideas. It’s a slow move. Much of academia is still dominated by the dominant, with marginalized voices struggling to be heard. However, slowly there are those who are bringing to the forefront different cultural views and practices.

I’m taking a distance class right now (not taught by my current school) on traditional modes of healing amongst certain cultures (loosely termed shamanism). At first, I was excited about the possibility of learning about other cultures and approaches, but I have found myself squirming with the same discomfort that I have if I encounter a class that automatically dismisses “native” practices as illegitimate. My reaction concerned me since this class is far from critical or disrespectful.

Initially, when feeling my discomfort, I immediately checked on my own biases to see if latent racism needed to be confronted. I was surprised to realize I was feeling something incredibly familiar but not what I expected—indoctrinated.

My discomfort in this class was stemming from the nigh-on worshipful tone towards the faith healings we were talking about. It wasn’t an anthropological approach, where we merely learned that this is what some cultures believe about illness and healing, with a goal of understanding but not adopting. Nor was it a counseling class where we learned alternative modalities for working with clients who may have different cultural backgrounds or needs. It was a class about personal experience and opinion with teachers who exhibited an unquestioning admiration and acceptance for all things indigenous.

There was no question as to whether it was true, healthy, safe, etc.

Even as I write that last sentence, there is a part of me that wonders if that is such a bad attitude. I don’t necessarily see it as my place to question someone else’s culture. However, I’d argue that it’s a subtle form of racism and colonialism to glorify traditional practices beyond reason.

The point of multiculturalism is to show that there are multiple worldviews and ways of approaching things…and then to show how they can all have value and how we should be willing to listen and learn from one another as well as to respect one another.

I don’t think it’s true multiculturalism to blindly accept a different cultural practice as perfect and effective. It feels more like a form of collection—cultural appropriation (though I rarely use that word because I have strong questions about its application).

More so than that, unquestioning acceptance and over-glorification serves to continue to erase the experience of those within the culture. It assumes everyone from that culture has the same experience or that they do not face relational, ecological, or physical difficulties as we do.

It doesn’t question whether people are being abused or controlled or deceived. It removes that right of a people to have struggles and areas of needed growth, turning them into less than human symbols and archetypes that promise us the healing that we desire within our own culture and denies them their right to change.

What happens, then, when our cultural archetype of supernatural native healing has a human problem? When they can’t magically heal cancer as we would like to believe? When a medicine man abuses his position of power over another person and we, as the ones worshipping the culture, are faced with the failure of the culture to live up to our expectations?

Then it makes for an easy return to the previous assumption that native people are full of shit and superstition because they obviously weren’t able to prove the magical abilities we expected of them; therefore, easier to go back to our Westernized ideas of the world and once again degrade and suppress other worldviews.

In the end, unquestioning admiration and worship of a culture is not respect. It’s another form of using that culture.

Reaching Out to Christian Allies: An Apology and a Challenge

I talk a lot about my dislike for Christianity.

As a survivor of an abusive Christian cult, I think I’ve earned that right.

But I also recognize and appreciate that not all Christians are abusive sociopaths. I have some friends who identify as Christian who are wonderful people. I’m so proud of them for finding a way to turn Christianity into a positive faith experience (not that it’s my place to feel proud of them, but I have to give them credit and respect for doing what I could not).

I thought that my disdain and criticism of Christianity were clearly not something they would perceive as directed at them.

I was wrong.

Within most systems of oppression, there is a way to differentiate between individuals within the privileged group and the system that grants them privilege and oppresses others. Patriarchy and male privilege delineate a system that oppresses women and gives men power without implying that men are all horrible, misogynistic asses. The same goes for White privilege and racism and for homophobia, heterosexism, and straight privilege (or biphobia and monosexism for that matter).

I’ve never heard a differentiation made between religious oppression and religious people.

It might be clear in my mind when I rail against Christianity that I’m not railing against all individuals who identify as Christians, but someone else may only hear a word that identifies them personally.

I don’t want to make Christians feel targeted as individuals by my hatred.

Some have tried to argue that what I dislike about Christianity “isn’t really Christian.” But you can’t say that someone who identifies as Christian isn’t Christian because you dislike the way they act. It’s a logical fallacy, commonly known as “No true Scotsman.” It should be an obvious logical fallacy. No one ever tries to argue, “That’s not really a White person. They’re racist, and I’m not. Since I’m White, they can’t be.” It doesn’t make sense, and it’s not a valid differentiation method.

But I understand what these people are getting at . . . I also want to be able to differentiate between Christianity as a faith identity and Christianity as an oppression/prejudice.

What we need is a word, like sexism, to identify Christianity as a system of power. Whether Christianity was meant to be a system of power is beside the point. We have to deal with what Christianity is, not lament what it should have been. Being a Christian is not bad, but just because an individual Christian doesn’t want to participate in oppression doesn’t mean that the religion suddenly loses its oppressive elements.

I came across something on Urban Dictionary the other day that feels like a solution. “Religism” hasn’t come into wide usage yet (I’m hoping to change that), but it exists to identify prejudice against those of a different religion.

Voila! Just like that, I have a word to describe the prejudice and oppression that comes from the Christian religion as a whole that doesn’t target individuals!

I feel it’s important to say that I’m truly sorry for the allies that I’ve inadvertently hurt. I should have done my Google search far before now. I want to work with Christian allies.

But in return, Christian allies need to also do work to recognize where they have privileges because of their faith identity. Just as I have hurt Christian friends without meaning to, many Christians unintentionally contribute to the oppression of others, even with the best of intentions. This article has a great beginning list of privileges Christians often enjoy without realizing it. I’ve added some of my own additions below.

  • If a person who shares your religion commits a violent crime, your neighbors, co-workers, and acquaintances aren’t likely to view you as an imminent threat.
  • If a person who shares your religion commits a violent crime, the media and law enforcement aren’t likely to see your religion as the root of that violence.
  • If being questioned by the police, you have reasonable expectation that stating your religious faith will be an asset rather than a liability.
  • If arrested, you have reasonable expectation of a speedy trial without excessive detainment.
  • If you talk about your faith on the phone, you can feel relatively secure that the NSA won’t monitor you for simply mentioning your religion.
  • Lawmakers and judges who oppose laws on religious reasons refer to your religion.
  • In cases of civil rights violations, your religion is likely to be favored.
  • The morals of your religion are so commonly accepted that they are represented even in media and entertainment that claims to be from a different religious perspective (e.g. Charmed, a supposedly Pagan show, featuring Christian-esque demons despite the fact that most Pagans do not believe in the Christian version of the Devil or good and evil.)
  • Accepted alternatives to scientific theory reference your religion’s mythology.
  • Despite a violent past, your religion is not considered violent.
  • TV shows that portray your religion favorably aren’t likely to be boycotted or recalled because of public outrage.
  • History often favors your religion’s perspective and portrays the work of those from your religion as beneficial.
  • Even non-religious people are likely to use your religious buildings for special occasions unless they have cultural ties to other religions.
  • If neighbors or acquaintances find out about your faith, they are likely to assume you are a safe person for their children to be around.

I could go on, but I hope that my point has been made. It’s hard to see all the ways that Christianity is favored above other religions in the U.S. until you step out of Christianity. It doesn’t mean that these privileges are always present for all Christians, nor does it only refer to rights acknowledged by the government. Privilege is about societal structure that favors one group above another.

And I’m not saying that having privilege automatically makes someone a bad person. Privilege, by its very definition, is something that is given to a group of people whether they want it or not. It’s not necessarily something they have a choice about, and those who are aware of their privilege are limited in their ability to decline to participate.

However, being aware of privilege and taking steps to counter it can pave the way for healing and change.

I’m taking the first step to acknowledging how I’ve hurt the conversation by failing to differentiate between people who have a Christian faith identity and the Christian religism that pervades society. I’m changing my language in order to open the door for that conversation to begin again. We can work together to address the oppression within Christianity but only when Christian allies are willing to acknowledge that it exists.

Now, the ball is in the court of the allies. Are you willing to do your part to address and raise awareness of the system? Can you meet me in this place of differentiation? It won’t be easy. It may challenge you to examine your own life and faith a bit closer. It may challenge you to change perspectives, which is going to be extremely difficult when society is designed to validate your perspective. It may require you to bite your tongue when a wounded person is writhing under the agony of what Christian religism has done to them and to practice patience, love, and space-holding for those too hurt to recognize yet that you are not the same as the system. It may require stepping back from the conversation and listening instead of talking, following instead of leading, acknowledging instead of defending.

The good news is that if you’re a Christian ally, you’ve probably already had to do these things in other areas. You’ve probably already done some work to address white privilege if you’re white, male privilege if you’re a man, and straight privilege if you’re straight. This is nothing new to those who love equality. The trick is to take what you’ve already learned to do and apply it to a new aspect of your life.