It’s easy for me to resent my Jewish background sometimes. It’s the biggest reason I still feel like an outsider around Christians.
But there’s one big reason I’m grateful for growing up a minority: being Jewish in a WASP-y, socially conservative suburb taught me radical compassion for those who are also misunderstood, or wrongly categorized. I didn’t just want to be respectful or “tolerant” of people who were different than me, but actively engaged in making my corner of the world more welcoming and inclusive.
So when the Black Lives Matter movement was formed, I couldn’t help but pay attention. While my experiences as a marginalized Jew are in no way comparable to the struggle of being black in America, witnessing Christian privilege made it easy for me to understand the concept of white privilege, and the ways I am subconsciously guilty of benefiting from it.
I can wear hoodies and walk through my neighborhood without worrying about getting shot; I don’t have to worry about my name tipping off potential employers that my race is something other than white when they look at my resume; I have sat waiting at multiple coffee shops to meet someone without making a purchase first, and never had the cops called on me.
I have, however, been treated with hostility by parents of classmates who hear “Jewish” and think that means I have an ax to grind against Christians. I was called a “Christ killer” before I had the training wheels removed from my bike. I’ve been harassed for being the only kid in class without an ash cross on my forehead on Ash Wednesday.
Perhaps growing up a minority helped me understand privilege as a fact of life, something that is not good or bad by itself, but has potential to be either, depending on how I use it.
But for many Christians, systemic racism is not so obvious.
A “woke” Christian friend of mine write this in response to the black men who had the cops called on them at Starbucks while they waited for a friend to show up.
If I had been raised in a white, evangelical Christian bubble, and had little to no exposure to people who are different than me – different races, social and economic classes – I wonder if this is the sort of comment I would make
I wish this type of response was an anomaly, but it’s not. If you pay attention to the news at all, and dare to wade into comment threads (a habit I really need to stop), these types of comments come from many self-identified Christians. Even well-intentioned comments like “I don’t see color” or “There’s no race but the human race” are problematic. In an ideal world, a person’s race shouldn’t matter, but we live in a world where it does.
I have experienced similar forms of erasure in my struggle to balance Christian faith with Jewish cultural identity. I could never get used to kneeling in prayer, for instance, because it was forbidden in my tradition. I still couldn’t get excited about Christmas, knowing full well that my family doesn’t celebrate. Well-meaning Christians in my college ministry told me none of that mattered, because “There is no Jew or gentile in Christ!” Was I accusing the apostle Paul of lying if I couldn’t live like I believed those words?
Even if they are true in principle, there are no magic words to make the issue of identity disappear or simply resolve itself. We are not a monolithic species; there is beauty in diversity and powerful insights to be found in traditions other than our own.
There is so much I’d like to say to the person who wrote that comment, though I’m trying to avoid getting tangled up in arguments where I can’t see a person’s face. It’s a frustrating comment on multiple levels, but more than anything, it just saddens me.
It’s indicative of a faith movement that has strayed far from the teachings of a man who is himself a minority – a Jewish man whose skin was likely more black than white – and whose story has more in common with black men falsely assumed to be dangerous than the white people who sermonize about equal value from the comfort of their suburban neighborhoods and churches.
Perhaps people, Christians in particular, feel it’s an act of racism to classify others as human and black. While I can’t speak for black people, I assume this is preferable to saying you “don’t see color,” as it validates an aspect of their identity that cannot be hidden or turned off at will. As for myself, I joke that I am Jew-“ish,” in culture if not in spiritual practice. This validates a critical part of my identity that I did not choose, but nonetheless shaped who I am.
Even if Christians are united by belief in Christ, and ultimately find their security and worth in him, it is not wrong to recognize the differences we bring to the table. The church is made up of Christians of all colors, sexual orientations, and gender identities, which I don’t think is a coincidence. Rather, it’s evidence that diversity is to the benefit of the church at large.