Christonormativity

A taster of the upcoming second issue of my zine, Anarchia. Shouldn’t be too much longer til it’s done. 

Growing up as a Jew in Aotearoa/New Zealand, the month of December has always played host to some weird feelings that I’ve never quite been able to pin down, and certainly never able to name. This year, for the first time, I have really tried to dig deep within myself and work out what it is about the “holiday season” that really gets to me, and for the first time, I have been able to get a real feeling for the issues, and to put a name to them – Christonormativity.

Christonormative practices legitimise and privilege Christianity and Christian practices as fundamental and “natural” within society, to paraphrase Cathy Cohen’s definition of Heteronormativity. In doing so, of course, they serve to delegitimise my experiences and culture as a Jewish person and further alienate me from the surrounding society. Needless to say, this becomes most noticable in the “Christmas period”, with advertisments, songs, signs, trees, tinsel and family gatherings, even amongst my nominally atheist friends.

In a South Park episode I once saw, Kyle, the Jewish character, sings a song with the chorus “I’m just a Jew, a lonely Jew, on Christmas”. Indeed, this has traditionally been the feeling I have had around this time of year, as many of my friends return to their parent’s hometown to celebrate this so called “secular, family holiday”. I recall when growing up never quite knowing how to talk about this – even on a simple level, as a child, wondering what to say in January when friends asked “so, what did you get for Christmas?” The question was asked with a surprising frequency, even from friends who knew I was Jewish. My answers changed from year to year as I became more and more sure of my own culture – what began as attempts to fudge the question and move the discussion on soon moved into affirmative statements of my Jewish identity, These affirmative statements, however, are often met with a response that I’m sick of hearing: “Christmas isn’t a Christian holiday, it’s a secular family one!”

This is the key to Christonormativity – rather than outwardly and openly forcing Christianity upon people (as in the Inquisition), Christonormativity seeks to make Christian practices applicable to all and to allow non-Christian practices only so long as they reside within a Christian framework (see the relatively new tradition of giving presents at the Jewish festival of Channukah, often at a similar time to Christmas). In doing so, it disempowers those who are not part of the dominant Christian culture and gives them two choices: assimilate or consign yourself to the margins.

Through the implicit threat of violence, this pressure to assimilate or marginilise has been internalised by the Jewish community. Right through my childhood, we were told it was not a good idea to be “too” open about our Jewishness, and in a community where the majority of people have family members who either survived or were murdered in the Holocaust, this feeling was especially strong. We should be proud of our culture, we were taught, but there’s no need to take it beyond the walls of our homes and community centres. The threat of violence was visualised by the community security that would stand at the entrance to any community event. This threat was further reinforced by many ultra-Zionist members of the community – those who would constantly state that Jews needed Israel because, even though New Zealand might seem friendly at the moment, things could change at any moment, and ultimately, we could only trust Jews to look after Jews.

Many friends of mine who have moved to Israel from elsewhere have expressed how one of the things they enjoy most about living there is the fact that they live in a culture where it is normal to be Jewish and to celebrate Jewish holidays – in short, Israel has replaced Christonormativity with Judeonormativity. Unsurprisingly, the dominant culture pays little heed to the many Muslims, Christians, Druze, Bah’ai and others who live there, who have become the minority cultures and again, given that same choice – assimilate or be marginalised. Again, the threat (often acted upon) of violence is used to enforce and display the power of the dominant Judeonormative culture.

There is a third option that the varying forms of religonormativity tries to hide from us, an option infinitely preferable both to assimilation and to marginalisation. This option, of course, is social revolution – a revolution to destroy not only religonormativity, but also capitalism, patriarchy, statism, racism and all other forms of oppression and social control.

16 Responses to Christonormativity

  1. jo says:

    hooray for the third option! can we also destroy lifestylism at the same time though? perhaps this (as an extension of middle class values) needs destroying first or at same time. also thanks for sharing the ‘christonormativity’ concept, I’d never thought much/at all about this before, yet its very true.

  2. Ken Perrott says:

    Of course Christonormativity is actually an imposition on all the 48% of New Zealand society who don’t have a Christian religion. And for us non-theists there is the extra insult of the assumption that you have to have a religion, even if not a Christian one, to be acceptable! The recent discussion round the National Statement on Relgious Diversity highlights this.
    However, as an atheist I have had few problems with the “Christian” holidays (except society “shutting down” in the old days). I am aware that these festivals generally have a non-religious, pagan, origin connected with agriculture, the change of seasons, etc. In effect, Christianity “stole” these, giving them their own name and meanings.
    And in modern society we are adopting more secular meanings for these festival/holidays. Christmas (and to some extent Easter) has strong family meanings, and of course the annual transition from year to year. Some of the northern hemisphere meanings for the end-of-year festival are being developed in our Matariki. These can have strong meaning for the non-theists, as well as the non-religious believers. (I think the religious significance tends to cheapen the more secular human significance anyway). Society seems to need holidays/festivals irrespective of religious beliefs or traditions.

    Ken (http://openparachute.wordpress.com/)

  3. omar says:

    exciting! another anarchist zine in the wings. hope you liked the first issue of ASI. the second issue will be very interesting…

  4. Asher says:

    Some of the articles were good, for sure :)

    I agree with one of the Indy comments though about page numbers – was very confusing!

    An idea might be to have two .pdf versions – one imposed for printing, and the other in page order (for online reading).

  5. Lived as a minority and coped with it. says:

    Revolution yeah right. When has that ever worked out for the so-called oppressed. The new rulers, in this case you lot, would end up enforcing your worldview on others even if the ‘others’ numbered only 1 person.
    There is no way of running a society composed of people with conflicting desires and values without law, and law discriminates. Thats what law is for. It decides what values get priority. You can’t please all the people all the time. If you can show us a community that can truly live out your ideals over a number of years with everyone having equal say and influence then the world might listen to you (Christ will return before that happens, even if he waits ‘ooo’s of years).

  6. Whatever. It’s a dumb fucking holiday.

    Oh yeah, and a big ‘ol BAH HUMBUG to your commercialized capitalist “holiday season”; from the PCPCBCRCISMYMJHAMURLA (People’s Collective for Putting the Christ Back in Christmas and Returning Chanuka to Its Status as a Minor – Yes, Minor – Jewish Holiday; and Also for Making Up Ridiculously Long Acronyms).

  7. IMESS says:

    You’re being precious. Christianity is not forced down anyone’s throat in NZ. If you feel disempowered by Christians celebrating Christmas then it’s not them, it’s you. If I ran a department store of course I’d play along with the tinsel and carols at Christmastime – it’s only good business and besides, it’s pretty and Christmas trees are really cool, happy things. Channuka is supposed to be the festival of lights so really Christmas trees belong more in Jewish homes than Christian ones anyway…;). Lighten up.

  8. hanaleah says:

    absolutely. very glad to hear someone saying it. and only a little frustrated to see the comments nicely showcasing smug christonormative privilege in action. i’m already very cautious about who i discuss anti-christmas sentiments with, as, just like here, i’m likely to be sneered at and undermined by christians and unpoliticised jews and atheists alike, as well as people with great politics generally, who just haven’t thought about this before.

    yet see the power of vocabulary as i now go to talk about christonormativity to whoever will listen, use the concept to back my campaign to stop central station and other public institutions from broadcasting jesus songs and write an article on religionormativity in queer communities, which i was already struggling to do without the word. thanks!

    however i’m intrigued with ken’s mention of ‘shutting down’ being ‘in the old days’. have you really gotten rid of it? in sydney we still suffer it every december and april and there’s little consciousness of it being a problem because some people get some time off.

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