“Merry Christmas”: The Language of Power in the Season of Grace

Woodstock and Merry ChristmasThis semester, I taught the history of antisemitism and the Holocaust in two different courses. My students know that I am Jewish and that I also work as a rabbi. I don’t hide those facts.

Last week, after a semester’s worth of information about Christianity’s history regarding Jews, the second-to-last student in the undergraduate course finished her final essay, handed it in, and cheerfully wished me (you guessed it) a “merry Christmas.”

I am encountering, as minorities will, the realities of power.

The dominant discourse of the West is Christian. Sixteen weeks learning how Christian assumptions and Christian language affected Jewish history did not, it seems, prompt this particular student to reappraise her buy-in to that discourse. For that student, everyone celebrates Christmas.  Even her Jewish teacher.

This semester, my upper level and graduate students spent a semester reading David Nirenberg’s masterful Anti-Judaism. They encountered, again and again, the ways in which Europeans make sense of the world by encoding Jews and Judaism as the embodiment of all that is dangerous.

Nirenberg goes to work on this problem for over four hundred and fifty pages. He covers over two millennia with extraordinary care. Setting one’s opponents squarely in the synagogue, it turns out, is an almost automatic intellectual reaction to social, economic, or political problems of any kind. At turns, particular heresies inside the Christian church, or the dangers of mercantilism, or revolutionary ideals, or capitalism, or socialism are all “Jewish.”

This is a matter of power wedded to a given discourse.

Minorities can only protest, educate, teach, and hope to be heard. But power-holders don’t give up entrenched ideas easily – in part, because they rarely have to examine the premises on which their authority is based.

Recently, I was invited to speak on a local and beloved radio show, “Charlotte Talks,” for a program called “The State of Faith on Higher Education Campuses.”

Those who designed the program assumed that the word “faith” was key to religious practice. But “faith” and its use as a defining characteristic of religious life is a Protestant perspective. Jews don’t make “faith” the yardstick of Jewishness. Creed as a determining factor of one’s status simply isn’t an issue for most Jewish communities. It hardly works as a litmus test in a good many other religious communities, either.

No one had to think critically about the Christian assumptions at work in the program’s narrative, in its publicity, or in its composition.

One of my co-presenters, a chaplain at a local liberal arts college, maintained that it was his job to teach his students that there was “no such thing” as a Christian world, a Muslim world, a Jewish world.

I protested then. I protest now. Those worlds do, in fact, exist. It is my job to teach my students to think critically about systems of power and discourse in these worlds.

We must examine the ways we exercise power and privilege in our everyday, ordinary discourse. We collude in and support systems of power that denigrate, ignore, or oppress others — sometimes in brutal, sometimes in subtle ways.

The kindest people can do just that.

Less than two weeks ago, I visited a church headed by a liberal and open-minded minister. He introduced me and thanked me for coming.  Then he told me how grateful he and the church community were for their Jewish brethren.

“After all,” he said, “without you we wouldn’t exist!”

I have been told this countless times by well-intentioned Christians.

But this is the language of privilege.  Jews and Judaism can (now) be valued by Christians. Not because of what they might offer in the way of wisdom or insight. Not because of the richness of their traditions and culture. Not because of who they are and have become over millennia. But because they “birthed” Christianity, a religion Jews have legitimate reason to associate with grief and loss.

Discourse has actual and material reality (see Foucault). The way white America speaks about black America has systemic and discriminatory outcomes. The way heterosexual America’s culture hammers home the message that no other sexuality exists and that gender is mappable only according to (apparently) male or female bodies does real harm to the LGBTQ community.

We have to consider the possibility, Nirenberg writes, “that Christian ideas about Judaism might have greater impact on the conditions of life for real Jews than anything those Jews might actually do.”

Perspective: I am not being asked to convert at the point of a sword. My family is not threatened by the Inquisition. For American Jews, the world is not particularly dangerous.

But it is a Christian world and it speaks Christian.

I don’t want to be greeted with “Merry Christmas.” I don’t want those I meet to assume I am their reflection, or that I should pretend to be. This is not a harmless expectation on their part.

We must name and address the language of power, not excuse, ameliorate, or condone it.