I had an interesting talk with an aunt last week. We were talking about my public school’s spring break, and this family member had mentioned that “they (the school) should have planned it better so that it coincided with Easter”.
I pointed it out to her that Spring Break was, in fact, a nod toward Easter, even if the schools didn’t say so. But public schools today can’t promote or establish one religion over another, without running aground of unconstitutionality, inequality or what I call the ‘sibling treatment’: Either they all get a chance, or none of them do.
This seemed to push toward the surface the “War on Christmas” (aka Christianity) fears that her church has stoked. “They’re making it so that Christians can’t say ‘Merry Christmas’ during Christmas!” my aunt fumed.
“Who are ‘They’?” I asked.
“The Muslims!” she exclaimed. My aunt, who otherwise has not a mean bone in her body, was talking resentfully about a group of people she has not, in the least, ever gotten to know. It sounded more like scapegoating than a real thought.
I always ask the question when I sense the complacency of an argument. “There is more than one religion in this country. Why are the Muslims to blame?”
“There’s a lot of them now, and they’re going to change the laws so that they drive Christianity away!”
“The U.S. operates as separation of church and state. Even if Muslims became the majority” (I honestly doubt it in my lifetime, let alone my aunt’s) “no one religion is supposed to dominate.”
“But why are we not allowed to say ‘Merry Christmas’ at the office?! They’re the ones who came to the U.S. They’re supposed to blend in with the culture, not changing anything. Before there wasn’t a lot of them, but now they must see what’s happening in the world, and they’re trying to make themselves big!…”
“How are they making themselves big?” Please don’t say terrorists, please don’t say…
“It must be because of the terrorists.”
Oh God (of every religion)! “So the Muslims in your office are working with the terrorists.”
She seemed to hear the sheer ridiculousness in her logic. “Well, no…” She talked about how the only thing her Muslim coworkers did differently was pause to pray during the day. Her memories of their talks made her happy and relaxed, but she started to talk in THAT way. “It must be the work of the devil in the world.”
“Please, please don’t talk that way,” I said. “When you start blaming the devil, you’ve given up trying to think about the other person as people. That’s how terrorists work.”
“It’s not like that…”
“It is like that. You’re an Asian American who immigrated here. Remember how the white coworkers in your office used to think you stole the job from a fellow white American?” My aunt had arrived here in the 70s, not knowing the sheer turmoil and sea-changes of the 60s. “They were asking why they had to make room for YOU. It’s not like there are a lot of Asians back then.” There were a lot of thoughts moving across her face, though she wasn’t seeing the connection between discrimination against her then, and discrimination against Muslims (or whoever the church deems Enemy of the Week). Then I remembered, the one story that illustrated how she responded to the white man who said she stole the job.
“You told that guy that he reminded you of me, the Americanized child, and the other cousins that were born here. ‘You just got here ahead of me,’ you said to him. Now you’re the one complaining about why things are changing, about having to make room for people new to you. You’re that guy. You just got in ahead of them.”
Being THAT GUY seemed to shake my aunt’s righteousness. For a long time, that incident at her office represented how she overcame prejudice in her workplace. Suddenly being shown that she was thinking the same way as THAT GUY made her pedestal shake. We talked about other things, and went the rest of our day mostly at peace.
It’s probably because of my own spiritual journey that I don’t fear other religions the way she would be. Catholicism is a deep part of her (and my) culture, and threatening that hegemony is a threat to her identity, is it not? I also do have a friend who is Muslim (yeah, I know, the ‘my best friends are (minority demographic here)’…but really, even just knowing her has made me more aware of how much I can learn from one person. Even though my aunt did experience a level of discrimination that I haven’t encountered in my life, Christianity has privileges in this country. Those privileges are taken for granted, until someone (Muslims, Pagans, Jews, Buddhists, Voodousants…) wants to make space for themselves.
Seeing her sputtering reaction to Islam, I know darn well I cannot come out of the broom confessional just yet. Instead, I’ll be a persistent ally for religious and spiritual diversity.