Saturday, October 28, 2006

church (n.):

As part of my job I participate in a number of county-wide and tri-county coalitions focusing on various issues. Coalition meetings serve to coordinate services among different agencies, and also to organize joint projects that no agency by itself could pull off. Good for us.

Now, maybe it’s because I grew up in Woodstock, or maybe it’s because I went to socialist summer camp, … whatever the cause, I often find myself surprised at progressive, well-meaning people who turn out to be way less radical than I assumed them to be. Sometimes they are also way less smart than I assumed them to be. It throws me off. I often don’t respond as well as I could.

An example happened the other day during one of these coalition meetings. Many of the participants in this particular coalition are also part of the city’s Interfaith Council. I’ve heard them talk about the Interfaith Council before, but I don’t know much about it. We were trying to work out what seemed like a minor scheduling issue, revolving around the fact that church buildings are unavailable for public events, other than church, for most of Saturday and all of Sunday. I became confused during this conversation, because the people who are part of the Interfaith Council kept speaking as if everyone were Christian, and as if churches were the only religious organizations/buildings in town.

Now I like to think of myself as a smart person. I don’t like feeling as if I’m missing something. So when I am confused, I ask questions, and try to acquire better information. I asked, “So, is the Interfaith Council made up of only churches?”

The person who had been speaking seemed disoriented by my question.

“Well, yeah. It’s the Interfaith Council. All the churches come … ”

“So it’s the inter-Christian Council?” (I know, this was not my most tactful moment. But I wasn’t trying to be obnoxious. I was honestly confused.)

“…and the synagogue and even the Wiccans come, to.”

“Oh! See, that’s what I was asking. Because those are different from churches.”

“Right. So anyway, all the churches come, and of course they can’t do a Sunday event …”

I didn’t have the chutzpah to interject again. No matter what I said, it seemed that this person would continue assuming that all religious organizations are churches, and all churches have services on Sundays. Like my friend hamakotaco says, oppression makes people stupid.

This wasn’t the first time I asked an accidentally tactless question in this group, having to do with churches. I think they gather by now that I don’t go to church. But I don’t think they’ve figured out yet that I’m Jewish. And I don’t know if I want to tell them.

I have rarely felt as isolated, as a Jew, as I do in these meetings. It brings up all my I.O. (internalized oppression). It makes me want to crawl into a corner and disappear. It makes me want to stop participating in the coalition, so that none of us have to deal with the awkwardness of my presence. It makes me want to pinch myself, hard, to remind myself to keep my mouth shut. Or failing that, it makes me want to rebel – to be that grungy queer Jew who sits in the back row of the lecture hall and disagrees with everything the professor says and always gets A’s to spite him. I have some practice with that role. And it makes me want to go to shul, any shul, even a conservative homophobic zionist shul where I’m the youngest congregant by 30 years, just so I won’t be the only Jew in the room.

I am still trying to strike a healthy balance – speaking up just often enough to stay sane, and contribute to the group, and yet not offending anyone too badly or running away. But there is one place where I think they should be able to meet me:

church (noun): (from

1. a building for public Christian worship
2. public worship of God or a religious service in such a building: to attend church regularly
3. (sometimes cap
ital letter ) the whole body of Christian believers; Christendom.
4. (sometimes initial capital letter ) any division of this body professing the same creed and acknowledging the same ecclesiastical authority; a Christian denomination: the Methodist Church.
that part of the whole Christian body, or of a particular denomination, belonging to the same city, country, nation, etc.
6. a body of Christians worshipping in a particular building or constituting one congregation: She is a member of this church.

A church is a Christian building, or a Christian congregation. A Jewish building or congregation is not a church. Church is not a neutral word. It is specific. Only Christians think they can apply it broadly to all religious groups and buildings. They don't even realize that it's a metaphor. (A synagogue is like a church, but using "church" to mean "synagogue" is figurative - like using "nest" to mean "house".) That is an example of Christian Hegemony. And if you don’t believe in Christian Hegemony, than please believe me that it is just incorrect usage.

If you mean all the Christian congregations, then you can say “all the churches.” If you mean all the Christian, Jewish, and Wiccan congregations, then say “all the churches, synagogues, and covens.”

It is true that we sometimes use the word “church” to mean religious authorities as opposed to secular authorities – as in “separation of church and state.” Sociologists, including some notable Jews, also use the word “church” in this way. That’s because no European sociologist has ever come from a society where the dominant religious authority was anything other than Christian. (In fact, the borders of Europe have been defined in part by the borders of Christendom, as witness recent debates about whether Turkey will be accepted into the European Union.)

Those theorists and politicians did not say “separation of coven and state” because in their world there was never any danger of any coven, or synagogue, or mosque, or temple or anything other than a church taking over the government and instituting theocracy. So while it might seem that "church" can mean any religious authority, the theorists and politicians who use it that way are actually talking about Christianity.

Oppression wants you to be stupid. But even if Christian hegemony isn't the issue you're pouring your energy into these days, you can still be smart. You can start by learning one small, simple thing that oppression has tried to make you stupid about: Church is a Christian thing, and not everyone is Christian.

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