‘No, Really, Why Are So Many Christians In Colombia Converting To Orthodox Judaism?’

Scott Alexander writes:

* I enjoyed reading a recent Washington Post article, subtitled Why Are So Many Christians In [Colombia] Converting To Orthodox Judaism? It had good interviews and beautiful photos. The only thing it lacked was any explanation of why so many Christians in Colombia were converting to Orthodox Judaism…

* The best information I can find comes from this article, which tells the story of a group of Colombian converts in more depth. A megachurch pastor visited Israel, met some Jews for Jesus, liked it, and incorporated Jews for Jesus ideas into his megachurch. But the more he learned about it, the more he realized Jews for Jesus was incoherent, and wanted the real thing. So after a while, he asked his church to convert to Judaism en masse; most of them said no, but a few hundred stuck around and became Orthodox Jews.

* Orthodox Judaism is about the least-hip and least Latin-American-culture-compatible religion imaginable.

* And this reminds me of a friend’s review of The Reformation Of Machismo: Evangelical Conversion And Gender In Colombia. Its thesis: Colombian gender roles are terrible. The men are supposed to drink lots of alcohol and be macho and probably violent, the women are supposed to sit back and take it and do all the actual work. Nobody likes it much, but bowing out looks non-macho and is hard to do unilaterally. Some families solve this by converting to evangelical Christianity – the evangelicals have a goody-goody reputation, and if you avoid alcohol and violence out of pious Christian humility, that looks better than backing out because you’re not macho enough to handle it.

See for comparison this story about Brazilian narco-gangsters who convert to Christianity to escape retribution. If they just left their gangs, the gangs would view it as a betrayal and kill them; if they leave because they convert, that’s a known quantity and they’re okay. I’m not saying all the Latin Americans converting to weird religions are trying to get out of gangs, but some of them might be trying to get out of a society that’s gotten stuck in a bad equilibrium, and religion is an accepted way of doing that. The new Colombian Jews have already picked up the important Jewish skill of separating from the rest of their society…

* We’ve been talking here recently about charter cities in Latin America, where you escape a corrupt society by letting yourself be governed by the law code of a different polity. We’ve even talked about ZEDEs, the new and improved version, with a free-floating law code that binds non-continguous areas in a way only tangentially linked to the logic of space and territory. The idea seems as appropriate for Colombia as it is for Honduras. And the Jewish Diaspora was the world’s first ZEDE. It’s got all your favorite ZEDE features: complicated legal codes nobody voted on, frequently-reneged-upon guarantees of protection from local rulers, and newspaper articles complaining that they’re greedy rootless capitalists preying on their host country. Yet it works. Getting political independence is hard. But getting social independence is – well, hard but possible. It’s the secret secondary goal of every movement, religions do it better than most, and one religion in particular has had lots of practice.


* CS Lewis wrote about the shock some new Christians have when they attend church, and it’s at a shabby building full of local randos dressed in weird clothes. “So…this is Christianity, huh? I expected something a little more special.”

* The most popular and growing religions seem to be the ones with more restrictions that put practitioners farther out of the mainstream of their local culture. The economist in me says it is probably to keep out of the riffraff and ensure members of the club are serious and likely to contribute. Yet I expect the separation from the normal culture is itself a big draw in addition, as a dissatisfaction with the culture is exactly what one wants to remedy by joining a religious group. If you wanted to be just like the rest of the culture, you would just do more of that.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see Amazon.com). My work has been noted in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (Alexander90210.com).
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