world council of churches

Religious Diversity in My Life and Work
Traci C. West

In my life and work, my most meaningful encounters with issues of religious diversity have been intertwined with racial and gender tensions. The following brief comments introduce some of my background and perspectives as I have experienced these intersections. With regard to religious diversity, I have chosen to focus upon Jewish-Christian relations.

Recognizing Constraints and Barriers

There is a childhood story that my mother always told about me that I think I remember actually happening. I'm not really sure if my mother's repetition of the story over many years created the memory. Anyway, one day when I was five years old, I was very upset when I came home from kindergarten because I could not answer an urgent question about my identity that one of my classmates wanted to know. I asked my mother: "Am I Jewish? Tommy Stein wants to know if I am Jewish. Am I?" There were sexual politics attached to this religious question because I think that Tommy Stein and I had a mutual "attraction" for each other and he knew --even at age five, that I could only be his "girlfriend", if I were Jewish. Also implied in what my mother found so endearing and amusing about this incident, is that I did not seem to know that I could not possibly be Jewish, because I was not white. [The fact that there certainly are black Jews is generally absent from the everyday consciousness of most U.S. Americans.] This illustrates some of my earliest informal learning about racial and religious constraints that overlap and shape the construction of our social identity and interaction in U.S. culture.

My life-long friendship with Amy, a white Jewish woman, has been a primary source for teaching me varied lessons about race and religion in American society. Amy became my "best friend" at age eight and we remain close even though we are now separated by geographical distance and differing lifestyles. When we were children, we bonded together at school as "outsiders" in the small, socio-economically elite, predominantly WASP, private school that we attended. Once when we were about thirteen years old, our private school tennis team played a match against another school. It was held at the private country club of the town where the school was located. The club had a reputation for barring blacks and Jews from its membership. Amy and I clung to each other as we entered to play in the tournament. We were frightened and paranoid with fantasies about someone jumping out from the tall hedges and doing something to us. Even in this moment of shared fears, there were differences between us that needed to be acknowledged. At that club and at school, I was a more conspicuous "outsider" than she was. Her whiteness yielded her a significant "cover" from the unremitting barriers of "difference" that I negotiated. It was only as adults that she talked with me about how hard it had been for her that our middle school said the "Lord's Prayer" at chapel every week, or that we performed "Hallelujah Chorus" for the school's commencement ceremony. Because of my deeply entrenched participation in the religious majority, I was oblivious to the everyday Christian assumptions of the school environment that demanded conformity.

This friendship is so significant because it helped me to learn how to talk about racial and religious differences that made us feel simultaneously united and divided against each other. More importantly, since the oppressive realities that inform those differences never dissipate, I learned how to practice the vigilance required to confront their impact on our lives.

The Struggle to Institutionalize Inclusion

In my current work life, I try to maintain a commitment to teaching, writing and activism about violence against women. As part of that commitment, I work with a small organization that is dedicated to training clergy to improve their response to domestic violence. The leader of the organization, as well as ninety percent of the board of directors, are white Catholics and Protestants. At one of the meetings, it was suggested that the organization start including Jews. Someone began suggesting names of Jewish clergy to bring onto the board. I quickly halted the process and pointed out several issues I felt needed to be addressed before Jewish board members were recruited. I listed areas that we needed to change and broaden. It is now a Christian organization where only Christian clergy function as teachers for our program, our curriculum uses books that are about Christian theology and the church's response to domestic violence, and the primary institutional resources we use, are a Christian seminary and a Christian pastoral care center. One person became angry with me and suggested that the Jewish board member could tell us how to deal with any of those issues if she or he found them to be a problem. Their attitudes were dreadfully familiar. They seemed to mimic a typical paradigm of white dominance in U.S. culture. When making the attempt to include anyone other than members of their own racial group, whites frequently indicate to the minority "other": "you must come into my framework and adjust yourself to fit into it;" or, "teach me\convince me to amend my framework to help you." The onus is placed upon the minority to do the work of achieving their own inclusion. Inclusion of "the other" remains a paternalistic gesture.

To summarize the next few steps that occurred in this organizational process, a sub-committee was formed to look at issues of "diversity" and of course I was asked to play a leadership role in that process. I helped to outline the range of issues that needed to be addressed in relation to changing our organization into an inter-faith group, and then the group discussed these issues. Several meetings later, when I asked about what we were finally going to do about taking steps to include Jews, a member of the group turned to me and said, "Oh, that's settled Traci. You helped us to see that that was too big a deal to take on right now." Albeit unintentionally, it seemed that I had blocked inclusion of Jews.

I have a strong belief in the need to comprehensively institutionalize the inclusion of religious and racial minorities, rather than create mechanisms of pseudo or symbolic inclusion. Yet, there is a deeply entrenched cultural compunction for the latter, especially among liberal white Christians in the U.S., that is quite difficult to surmount.

Frontiers of Resistance to Change in My Teaching

Finally, I want to briefly mention a couple of relevant issues in my teaching of Ph.D. and seminary students that I find compelling and disturbing. In a section of a course that I teach on deconstructing U.S. racism, I focus on racism and the religious right. I find that it is always difficult to enable students to develop as great a concern for anti-Semitism and attacks on Jews in the Christian theology and activism of various "hate groups", as they have for the racial slurs and attacks on African Americans by these groups. Moreover, when I study Martin Luther in my course on the history of western Christian ethics, I frequently encounter a troubling, polarized intellectual approach that I try to shift. When we read Luther's explicit and quite influential anti-Semitic writings, students are often reluctant to include these ideas as "really" part of his "Christian ethics and theology". It is crucial for those like myself who are involved in Christian theological education to foster leaders, who will preemptively recognize and oppose Christian sanctions for intolerance and prejudice against Jews, before acts of anti-Semitic hatred are carried out in their communities. There are (at least) two factors that significantly impede our work on this. Our contemporary U.S. political climate reinforces an image of racial/ethnic groups which designates blacks and Latinos as "problem groups", and Jews as a "power group". This antagonistic notion combines with a prevalent ethos of moral meanness that has greatly diminished a capacity for empathy toward any group but "your own".

Traci C. West is Professor at Drew University Theological School, Madison, New Jersey.

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