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Commentary: Christian-centric thinking

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 10, 2011 - In light of my recent column on systems, I was struck by examples of Christian privilege that flourished this past week. To disclose, I am Christian and feel strongly that people in privileged positions should be willing to name their power.

In the United States, Christians are privileged. It's not a dirty word sort of statement. It's merely naming what is. My comments are not to suggest that Christianity should be stripped of all such privilege and subjected to discrimination (i.e., role reversal - a common fear of the privileged that keep them from acknowledging inequities).

Some privileges (called unearned entitlements in the anti-ism field) are things we should all receive. For example, we should all, regardless of religious affiliation (or none for that matter), have the privilege of respect over belittlement or minimization. Note I said "respect" rather than "agreement" or "tolerance."

My reflection began with the Williams-NFL controversy. Most of the media focused on the extreme nature of the analogy. (On Fox, Hank Williams Jr. expressed chagrin that Speaker of the House John Boehner, R-Ohio, played golf with President Obama, which he compared to "Hitler playing golf with (Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin) Netanyahu ...") In the first days of the week, I had to go to sites with Jewish-related content to get what struck me: how flippant to remark about Hitler in such an off-handed way. It wasn't an attempt to highlight mass killings or ethnic cleansing. He wasn't even building up to a grand and complex point.

It would (thankfully) be seen by many as tasteless and unnecessary to invoke slavery, rape by masters, and the treatment of people like chattel to express my frustration with the person driving in front of me or even a political figure. I think our anti-Semitism allows us to frame Williams' remark so that we are upset about the analogy to our president rather than more immediately sympathizing with our Jewish brothers and sisters. I feel similarly when people joke about being a _____-Nazi in a lighthearted way. It's not appropriate, and Jewish people are not being hypersensitive if offended.

As the week wore on, more people explicitly expressed concern about the underlying anti-Semitism, although not in those exact words. However on one of ESPN's shows, the focus strayed from minimizing Williams' political views to highlighting his other lyrics that might be offensive to Blacks (70 percent of NFL players) to his misunderstanding of free speech. When one commentator explicitly mentioned his family connection to the Holocaust, he was dismissed by two others as being off topic. So, while the slight was recognized by some, it was certainly not the centerpiece of most coverage.

Add to that the fact that the final game of the Cardinals-Phillies series happened on the holiest of days (Yom Kippur) on the Jewish calendar, and maybe you can see the system more clearly. To baseball's credit, the Red Sox-Yankees game was shifted from the evening to the afternoon two years ago to accommodate a large Jewish fan base.

Again, pointing out these discrepancies is not to say that we should start intentionally disrespecting Christian holidays. In fact, NBA playoffs were on Easter this past year, and the NFL schedule has several regular season games scheduled for Christmas Eve (leaving just one on Christmas, which falls on a Sunday this year). My point is to raise awareness and note the constellation of incidents. How often do we check multiple religious calendars when setting events and meetings? When notified of a conflict, do we appreciatively see how to facilitate a shift or act annoyed at our slight being highlighted?

It's not only Judaism that is marginalized; Mormonism got its weekly dose of minimization on Rick Perry's campaign trail.

While introducing Perry, Pastor Robert Jeffress stressed the need for a true Christian. Later on in the political gathering, he referred to Mormonism as a cult and has continued to stand by his remarks. Christianity is the litmus test for acceptability, and anything that strays from that mainstream is judged. Furthermore, members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have expressed dismay at being considered a cult rather than part of the Christian faith. So, you need to be the right kind of Christian.

These moments speak to the underlying yet prevalent reality that Christianity is considered the norm. What gets targeted or must be defended is often what is not Christian. Let me be clear, this statement is not to suggest that Christians don't ever have to defend themselves and live perfect, easy lives. However, on average, you're "OK" and get lots of privileges being Christian.

Look at your own workplaces. Are there breaks for all employees structured around major Christian holidays? If the employees are diverse in terms of religion, is there flexibility for them to take blocks of time around their major holidays? Are they offered flextime when their celebrations revolve around the sunrise or sunset? It might be equal opportunity disappointment if you are in service or other industries where no one gets a day off. Are you bombarded with Diwalilights to the same extent as Christmas trees? Perhaps Hinduism or Jainism is not represented, but my hunch is that some belief system other than Christianity is.

Be willing to reflect, consider who is at the table, and explore if they are being validated by the community. You might find that you are already doing a great job acknowledging varied beliefs. But given the norms of our society, don't be hard on yourself if you see some opportunities for improvement. Such reassessment behooves Christians as well, because religious diversity should not be about marginalizing one or more groups but rather intentionally validating multiple perspectives. It does not need to be a privileged takes all mentality.

For those Christians reading, consider for a moment what it might feel like if the major holidays were not just unknown to your workplace, and friends even, but were also not given special consideration in the form of days off, general awareness of workload and project completion, decorations or acknowledgement. It is likely quite difficult, but if you push yourself to reflect, my hunch is that it doesn't leave you feeling so great.

Workplace engagement, satisfaction, retention, productivity and other benefits are by-products of employees working in supportive environments. For Christians the privilege is often a given, and it is an entitlement that should and can be extended to other faith traditions.

Kira Hudson Banks, Ph.D., is assistant professor of psychology at Illinois Wesleyan University in Bloomington. The native of Edwardsville is a regular contributor to the Beacon. 

Kira Hudson Banks