Thursday Reflection: From a First-Generation Non-Christian American

This week we have been exploring Christianity in the midst of a theological and religious context that is becoming increasingly diverse. Today’s Thursday Reflection is posted by Geera Butala Demers. (Full Disclosure: Geera is the daughter-in-law of Rev. Mark Demers.)

“How do you worship so many gods?”

If you drove past a home with a sign on the front lawn that said “Allah is Alive”, what is your first reaction?

When Micah (my husband) recommended that I write something for the church’s blog, I hesitated. I didn’t grow up Christian and I don’t identify with Christianity. I didn’t feel that I had a right to share how it feels to be a non-Christian growing up in a Christian country on a Christian blog. After much personal reflection and several conversations with loved ones, here I am. Before I get started, let me assure you that I am not here to offend. I am not here to criticize your personal beliefs or faith. I am not here to convince you to come around to my way of thinking or that I am right. I am here to offer a different perspective on how it feels to grow up as a first-generation non-Christian American.

This all started because of a New York Times Motherlode blog post I read.   If you have never heard of Motherlode, the lead writer and editor, KJ Dell’Antonia, describes Motherlode as contributions from different writers on “living the family dynamic”.

The post starts off with blog contributor Christin Taylor’s daughter requesting that the family place a sign she received from church stating “Jesus is Alive” on their front lawn. Taylor is unsure of what to do because she lives in what she describes as a secular neighborhood. To summarize the post, she feels that advertising their Christianity would invite comments and questions about her intellect. She feels that you cannot discuss your Christian faith today without inviting negativity.

Once I get past my first thought of why is a church giving a 6-year old a sign to display without discussing this with parents, my reaction to this post is “how ridiculous”. Before you put up your defenses, let me explain. According to the 2008 US Census, 76 percent of Americans identify themselves as Christian. You cannot get voted into office without reassuring your constituents that you are a good Christian. I started off my school day since Kindergarten reciting the Pledge of Allegiance and when we got to the part “Under God,” even as a five year old, I didn’t feel comfortable. Our money acknowledges that “In God We Trust.” [Interesting side fact – both “Under God” and “In God We Trust” weren’t added until the late 1950s. They served as political tools against communism, distinguishing America as a place of “faith”–learn more here].

When I hear or read that being Christian in today’s world invites negativity, I wonder if the real reason people feel that way is because they are losing the privilege of never having been questioned about their faith. Christians now must share their beliefs with others who do not feel the same way. People want to know why you believe what you believe. This is a good thing and we should see this as an opportunity and not a threat.

I don’t dismiss Taylor’s concerns or feelings. She is quite right that people have a reaction if you start talking about church or your faith. However, I doubt that displaying a sign “Jesus is Alive” would cause people to threaten your life (or your family’s lives) the way I suspect a sign saying “Allah Is Alive” would. I doubt that people instantly hear “terrorist” when you tell them you are a Christian. And I chose Islam as it is an easy way to make my point but I would be surprised to see a Wiccan, an Atheist or Buddhist president voted into office in my lifetime.

The truth is non-Christians have dealt with negative stereotypes and reactions to their faith all their lives. Could I discuss being agnostic openly without someone questioning my moral compass? Can atheists? It was rare for me to discuss my Hindu upbringing with outsiders without them asking me how Hindus can worship “so many gods”. The library places several religious Hindu texts such as the Rig Veda and Bhagvad Gita under mythology. Why isn’t the Bible in this section too? I knew of one girl who was a Wiccan in high school and had to deal with comments about how she was a weird new-age Goth who worshiped the Devil.

When you are surrounded by Christmas in December instead of Diwali (a major Hindu holiday), you recognize it is because more people identify with Christmas than Diwali. The majority of Americans celebrate Christmas and commerce continues to cater to consumers who will buy their products and that’s fine. I recognize that I live in a nation that is primarily of one religion (76 percent!) and that does not offend me.

I do take offense when Christians get upset because someone questions them. Are they upset because we are questioning the status quo? I ask that you simply stop and pay attention to the world around you and count the number of references to Christianity vs. any other religion. People can outright protest building a mosque near Ground Zero or comment that “Barack Obama is a Muslim” as if it is negative. Are these not simply statements of faith?

Do you feel defensive when someone talks about a faith that doesn’t align with yours? Is that person really attacking your faith or are they sharing their own with you? Perhaps this is the first step to opening a dialogue: There are other faiths out there. What about being a Christian makes Taylor feel others see her as not intellectual? What does it mean to her to be a Christian? Why can’t Taylor educate others about her faith? After all, that is what us non-Christians have been doing all our lives.

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US Semate – Thursday, July 12, 2007 – Prayer Interrupted.

YouTube Video of the July 12, 2007 incident.

Text of the Prayer offered by Rajan Zed in the US Senate:  “May we meditate on the transcendental glory of the Deity Supreme, who is inside the heart of the Earth, inside the life of the sky and inside the soul of the heaven. May He stimulate and illuminate our minds. Lead us from the unreal to real, from darkness to light, and from death to immortality. May we be protected together. May we be nourished together. May we work together with great vigor. May our study be enlightening. May no obstacle arise between us. May the Senators strive constantly to serve the welfare of the world, performing their duties with the welfare of others always in mind, because by devotion to selfless work one attains the supreme goal of life. May they work carefully and wisely, guided by compassion, and without thought for themselves. United your resolve, united your hearts, may your spirits be at one, that you may long dwell in unity and concord. Peace, peace, peace be unto all.”

Mark Demers

Want to talk about sex, politics, spirituality? So do I. I grew up in a religious home in the 1950’s and 1960’s. Our country was reeling from assassinations and the devastation of the Viet Nam War. Looking for something beautiful, I got a degree in music, married the love of my life and had children. Looking for God, I then went to seminary. Looking for something that might transform the world, I became a local church pastor. Now, I’m always looking for people who want to talk about important things. I cherish conversations with emerging leaders, people who are antsy to try an idea they believe would change the world for the better. I’d would love to hear from you.