I’ve been thinking a lot lately about grace. Not only grace, but justice, mercy, love, truth. They’re topics that Christians, of which I am one, like to talk about a lot. We’re not always sure what we mean when we talk about them. Different people have different definitions, opinions, versions of the truth.
Recently I have become involved in a conflagration over a prominent progressive/emergent Christian blogger and speaker. This blogger asked why more women weren’t reading his blog and commenting. Some women replied that they felt the tone of much of his blogging and most especially the comment sections was disrespectful and uninviting. This man’s response to most of the critique was defensive and dismissive, which in turn engendered increasingly angry and bitter responses from many women as well as a few men. Things got pretty ugly on all sides. There were accusations of sexism and gender bias, accusations of hypocrisy and malice, and many personal insults. A lot of people were really worked up over it. I was really worked up over it. I ended up taking a social media fast last week in part to avoid obsessing over it.
I don’t want to spend too much time rehashing this. What I want to do instead is tell you a story about myself and this man, who I will call Bob. I’m calling him by this name not because I’m trying to conceal his identity. Most of you reading this will probably know who I’m talking about, and if you don’t, it will be easy enough to figure out. I’m calling him this because this is not an attempt to call him out publicly, and it’s not really a story about him. It’s a story about me.
Several years ago I became involved in the emergent conversation, as it’s called, as many of us did, as a way out of the impasse I had reached between my brain and the fundamentalist faith I was raised in. It was a place for me to wrestle with the questions of faith that I had never been allowed to name, much less wrestle with, in the evangelical culture. It was a place that in many ways provided healing for me as I found a post-evangelical identity, faith, and voice. It was a conversation where for the first time in my life I found true respect and mutuality from Christian men instead of the false respect that paid lip service to the idea of listening while leaving room to ignore, discount, and dismiss, the false respect that characterized so much of my formative faith experience.
That’s not to say it was perfect. The EC as a whole was largely male, well-educated, and overwhelmingly white and heteronormative. There were a lot of people making really good and challenging critiques regarding these issues of privilege, and these were issues that I and a lot of my friends were honestly trying to work through. By this point I was living in Atlanta and with my friend Jeff, co-leading an Emergent cohort (basically a discussion-cum-support group that took place primarily in bars). One week there was a conference on the emerging church at one of the local seminaries, and we asked some of the speakers if they would be willing to speak to our group.
We ended up having three men respond to us, one of whom was Bob. He requested we meet at a local pub of wide and greatly deserved renown. This pub did not allow space for large gatherings, so we decided we would have two events- one which would feature the first man who had responded to us, and which would be publicized and held in a large space, and the other which would be a small and intimate conversation with Bob and the other man at the requested pub.
The first event went off well with Bob emceeing at the request of the first speaker. This was the first time I had ever met Bob, and I will confess I sensed a certain chill in his demeanor toward me, a reluctance to engage that I did not detect in his interactions with the other organizers, who were all male. At this point in my life I was well aware of my own tendency toward paranoid self-doubt, and my inability to really know what was going on in someone else’s head, and so I made a very conscious decision to give him the benefit of the doubt and not take it personally.
Now leading up to the event, in emails with the other organizers, in trying to find a topic for our second night intimate discussion which we planned to limit to 10 or 15 people, I threw out the topic we had been wrestling with lately, that of the lack of diversity in the emergent conversation. I realized that this was not a particularly original, or to some, even interesting question. But to us, it was a question that the people in our little group in a city haunted by the specter of the civil rights movement struggled to address in a practical way. A few people replied that it was a good idea, the rest didn’t respond, and no one proposed an alternative, so I assumed that we all agreed on that topic. I am not sure if the topic or the limited size of the second gathering was ever communicated with the speakers, as I was not the one in contact with them. If not, it was a huge misstep on our part and probably played a role in what followed.
The evening of the second event I sat in the pub drinking a few beers with friends while waiting for the speakers and the few other attendees to arrive from the conference when we received a frantic message from someone who was in attendance. “Someone just announced this gathering to all the attendees. I think there are going to be a lot of people showing up. Maybe 30 or 40.”
“Fuuuuuuuuuck!!!” I thought, in my mildly buzzed state as I frantically ran down all the options for gathering spaces nearby. Where was I going to put everyone? We would never fit in the current pub, and any place that might be able to accommodate a group that large was halfway across town. This was going to be chaos.
I remembered that there was a recently opened Irish pub just across the square from the bar we were at, and I ran to check the space. It would be tight and awkward, but we could probably fit everyone if we were lucky. I stationed someone at the door of the first pub and had them re-direct anyone who looked like a theology nerd or religion junkie (believe me, we’re not that hard to pick out).
I found myself wedged in the corner of the bar by a large round table appended to more tables and surrounded by a crush of bodies. Jeff looked across the room at me, motioning that I should start and call the meeting to order. The headliner from the first event was sitting next to me and began whispering in my ear.
“Ok, you need to start out by asking Bob this, and then ask the other guy this in response. They have a whole schtick worked out. It’ll be great.”
I looked at him in bewilderment and more than a little annoyance. First, they throw us for a loop by inviting a bunch of extra people and now they wanted to stage manage the whole conversation? I didn’t quite understand what he was talking about, so I decided to ignore him and proceeded to call things to order. I threw the question out to our two speakers:
“There’s been a lot of criticism lately regarding the lack of diversity in the emergent movement. It’s an issue we here in Atlanta have really been struggling with given that we are an overwhelmingly white group in a very racially diverse city. How do we open ourselves up and create spaces to interact with and learn from others?
To my left, the first speaker was all up in my ear, frantically whispering something along the lines of “Abort, abort! Danger Will Robinson!” Across the table from me, Bob began to answer the question. I cannot even try to recall or re-create the words he used. All I can say is that they seemed angry, and they vehemently denied not that there was a lack of diversity, but that the lack of diversity was in any way a problem. I do believe he said something like “If the emergent conversation attracts educated white people, then that’s who it attracts. This is not a problem.”
At this point, aided by the effect of two high gravity Belgian beers, I was completely disoriented. Was he really saying what he was saying? I myself had experienced the effects of feeling marginalized as men grappled with one another to dominate the conversation in our gatherings. While I had no problem with shouting and telling everyone to shut up and listen, for God’s sake, I had often thought to myself that many of the theological arguments that erupted would have been best settled with a tape measure. No wonder there weren’t many women coming to our meetings. I imagined there were a lot of men who didn’t communicate in this aggressive way that felt left out as well, not to mention people from entirely different cultures. I my bafflement, I protested that it WAS a problem, and passed the baton to my friend sitting somewhere to my right, a friend who in recent months had spoken of little else but this problem and how it affected him as a minority.
“I don’t want to talk about it,” my friend said when I threw the question to him. It was at this point that I realized the mood in the room, which a few moments before had been all bright, convivial chatter, was now cold and dark. Everyone sat for a moment in deeply uncomfortable silence. I was stunned. Eventually Bob and the other speaker awkwardly transitioned and began to talk about whatever it was they came there to talk about.
I wanted to do nothing more than leave, run to the bathroom or back to the bar across the square, but I was stuck behind the table and could not leave without displacing at least 5 or 6 people and making a huge commotion. Instead I sat there, listening without hearing. I began to think of all the times my questions, suggestions, and opinions had been dismissed and ridiculed by men in the church and by the women who demurred to them. As much as I tried to redirect my thoughts to the conversation at hand, I couldn’t help it. I felt all the hurt and anger from those experiences rise in me and begin to spill out of the corners of my eyes. I sat there silently, and in full view of everyone in attendance I wept.
I don’t in any way enjoy recounting this. It was deeply, deeply mortifying to be trapped, like a beetle pinned to a corkboard, with all the evidence of my broken humanity, my emotional femaleness, running down my face.
Some of you may think that I overreacted. That I was too sensitive and I needed to toughen up. Maybe. All I know is that when I minimize the wounds that have been inflicted upon me, it becomes much, much easier for me to minimize the wounds I inflict upon others. I’ve learned to respect my pain and my emotions. It’s what gives me empathy and compassion for others. That doesn’t mean I wallow in it, but I do respect it.
I realize that this is a flawed rendering of the events that night. Someone else who was there and in a clearer state of mind would tell it differently. I realize that my attempt to address the problem of privilege was probably naive and somewhat clumsy, especially when I failed to read the mood in the room and chose to put my friend on the spot. So I know that I was not perfect. But I was genuine. The question I asked came from a sincere desire to seek freedom for all of us who had been devalued and dehumanized by our religious, political, and cultural structures. It deserved a better answer.
Was it sexist? It felt that way to me. To many there, it probably felt racist as well. My purpose here is not to expose anybody as racist or sexist. Certainly you can be those things without realizing it, but I don’t know Bob, I have no idea if he is. While I think conversations about power, hegemony, oppression and bigotry are important, and certainly feminist discourse has been extraordinarily meaningful to me as I’ve searched for my own identity and voice, I think that sometimes they can distract us from the real issue. When we only talk about the specifics of various types of bigotry isolated from the underlying cause, it makes it easy to say “I’m not a racist- some of my best friends are black!” or “I’m not homophobic, my brother is gay!” or “I’m not a misogynist! I love women, I have sex with them all the time!”
The issue at the heart of sexism, racism, heterosexism, ableism, elitism, classism, and all the other isms is a lack of respect. It is a failure to value someone who is not like me. And we all do it. We all create our own private taxonomies of isms- people who like Nickelback-ism, people who like Arcade Fire-ism, people who read the right kind of books-ism, people who understand all the subtle things that make me awesome-ism. Left unchecked, at some point, these little isms will become big isms, especially if we find ourselves in some position of power or authority.
I’ve stayed in the emergent conversation over the years, watched as many if not most of us have settled down and transitioned into other Christian communities and conversations. I’ve attended several conferences and managed to avoid another encounter with Bob. I’ve spoken to several women and a few men who have had similar experiences with him or other individuals, usually, but not always, men. I’ve shared my story and felt vindicated when others have shared theirs, feeling more secure in my assessment of Bob as a total asshole.
When the furor over his blog post and subsequent response erupted, my reaction would probably be best described as unrestrained, cackling glee. It felt so good to see him get his ass handed to him, to know that I was not alone in my feelings toward him. When a friend posted about it on Facebook, my comment was:
Hahahaha. I can say from personal experience with Bob, he’s kind of a dick. I’ve heard other women tell me they feel that way about him as well, and several have speculated he seems to resent women for some reason.
And later in the thread:
Unfortunately, any time someone suggests the conversation needs to be broadened beyond the typical white male, Bob bristles at it- unless it’s his own idea. There was a reason he was asked to step down as the face of an organization.
Bob ended up commenting on the FB thread, which I hadn’t expected. It was clear that he was very hurt by what I and others were saying. A still, small voice inside of me reminded me of all the times I had heard a negative opinion about myself, opinions formed by those who didn’t truly know me, but who had taken one sliver of my humanity and chose to let it stand for the whole. I became genuinely grieved. The Holy Spirit is such a bitch sometimes.
I repeat these words I said not for the sake of repeating them, but because I need you all to understand that my hands are not clean in this matter. I allowed the hurt I felt at being devalued and disrespected by him to curdle and become something worse, something that led me to exult in another’s humiliation and repeat second and third-hand gossip. I fed the cycle of violence by allowing hurtful words and actions to become my own weapons to throw back at another.
It’s become clear to me that I need to forgive. I have no idea whether Bob desires or feel he needs it from me, but that’s not the point. I need it. I need to lay aside my hurt and anger, to not let it warp me, for my own sake.
We all understand the need for justice, and by justice I mean the assignment of merited rewards or punishment. I have rights! I’m a human being who deserves respect! When someone wrongs me, I need to be able to say that it’s not OK, and to know that they won’t be allowed to get away with it, that there are consequences for wrongdoing. But I’m also a human being who is flawed and confused. I often find myself in situations where I don’t realize how wrong I’ve been until it’s too late and judgement is closing in on me, threatening to crush me. I need grace, and by this I mean unmerited favor, kindness, clemency.
Justice and grace can seem like difficult things to reconcile. I was part of a community that experienced schism last year in large part over these very issues. They’re not easy. The religious ideal of justice has often been used denigrate, degrade, and oppress those who can never live up to an impossible standard, which is all of us. It is good to know that even when we are imperfect, and fail, we can be forgiven. And yet the concepts of forgiveness and grace themselves can be used to oppress. When abused women are told to forgive their husbands and return to them, or Amish girls who have been raped are told to keep silent and not shame men who have been anointed by God, both justice and grace are perverted.
I believe that the ends of justice and grace are both one and the same: That we might all be reconciled to God and one another. I don’t just mean forgiven. Forgiveness is primarily for the one doing the forgiving, it’s a releasing of anger. We don’t need God’s forgiveness, we’ve always had that. What we need is reconciliation, something more than just a decision not to be angry, but a restoration of right relationship. What we need is to be healed and made whole. But we can’t receive the cure if we are unwilling to receive the diagnosis. We can’t be reconciled to God if we are unwilling to admit our sin. We can’t be reconciled to one another if we are unwilling to be honest about the wounds we’ve given and received. There is no healing or reconciliation without truth.
I do believe that when there is a consistent pattern of disrespect and arrogance from someone, there’s nothing wrong with calling it out, especially when the feedback is solicited. I understand it can be hard to hear the truth. Believe me when I say I understand. In the past month, I’ve been forced to confront truth in my own life, truth I’ve been running from for several years, running from to the point that I’ve driven across the country three times in the past 18 months in an attempt to avoid it. Truth is fucking terrifying.
And yet, it’s the only thing that will set us free. The only thing that can. And so I will share a few more things that I believe to be true.
None of us is without sin. Hurt and anger are not necessarily sin. They are emotions that let us know something is wrong. What is sin is when we hang on to them and allow them to become hate and violence, thus perpetuating the never-ending cycle. We all do this from time to time.
No matter the damage someone inflicts on us, no matter how horrible, nasty, or vindictive we believe what we’ve seen of them to be, that is never the full picture of their humanity. I genuinely believe that we were all created by God and pronounced “good.” I would hate to be judged by the worst thing I’ve done. During the times I have been at my angriest and most destructive, I have been incredibly lucky to have people in my life who have seen the good in me and nurtured, nourished, and called it forth into being. We all need to have those people in our lives. We need to be that for one another.
To my feminist ladies and men, and to all those who fight to expose unjust power structures I say this: What you are doing is good. Injustice, bigotry, and oppression need to named, called out, and exposed to the light of day. I know it’s hard when people are telling you you’re crazy, or trying to shut you up, or push your buttons and set you off to undermine and discredit you. I thank you for what you’re doing. But we must not allow ourselves to think that power itself is the goal. Power structures never last, because they are decaying and rotten at the core. They are always built on pride and on the oppression, devaluing, and dehumanizing of others.
There may be times- and I have friends who would disagree with me on this, but I believe there may be times- when we are called to participate or be a part of these systems of power. The truth is we all, on micro and macro levels, participate in them every day, whether we see them or not. We must not allow them to consume us. They hurt not just those who are oppressed by them, but those who ostensibly benefit from them. They are corrosive to the human soul. The Kingdom of God is not up there in the teetering skyscrapers, but down on the ground, in the wild anarchy of all creation. It’s with the living, not the dead. It’s in the places where power has been overturned, where the first is last and the last is first, where there is no Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, gay nor straight, Republican nor Democrat, rich nor poor, urbanite nor redneck and no “Isms” of any kind because we’ve finally realized we’re all the same and we need to love one another.
My own system of “isms”, my failure to respect and value my fellow human beings, was recently made clear to me in a powerful way. I have, like many of us, queer friends, a few of whom are transgender. While I love all my friends, and will passionately advocate for love, understanding, and respect for them, I have to confess that the whole sex change thing has always freaked me out a bit. It’s one thing to be attracted to a member of the same sex, or to want to express yourself outside the bounds of gender norms- I believe that these norms are in large part culturally constructed, and challenging and deconstructing them is on the whole a good thing. But the idea of surgically altering one’s body, of cutting off one thing to make another, has always disturbed me. If I’m honest with myself, I have thought in my heart, whether I was willing to admit it to my brain or not, that someone who was willing to do this must be profoundly disturbed and damaged. I don’t think I fully realized I believed this, like most of us do I told myself comforting lies and half-truths about my open-mindedness. But it was there.
Until one night when I read an online acquaintance’s blog post, writing about the Last Supper and why he transitioned from female to male:
As her older sibling, I want my sister to be happy in the world. To be at peace in her own skin. I want her to wake up in the morning, look in the mirror, and love who she sees. I want her to walk through the world with her head held high. I want her to be her most authentic self at all times. How could I possibly inspire her to be herself if I wasn’t being myself?… This is my body, broken for you, so that you understand that sometimes you have to do hard things that no one else understands in order to be true to yourself. Sometimes people will hate your body or judge your body; whether because of how it looks, what color your skin is, or who you love with it. But that doesn’t matter. What really matters is that you can look in the mirror and love who you are. This is my body, broken for you so that we can both learn to hold our heads up high. So we can learn to look in the mirror and love what we see.
This is my blood, shed for you, so that you know that even if you have to bleed you know you will be okay in the end. So that you know that we are family and that the same blood runs through both our veins even if you are grafted into the family by adoption or marriage or whatever. We are family. This is my blood shed for you so that you understand that doing the things you know are right, even when people don’t agree, isn’t enough to make the people who matter stop loving you.
Jesus knew that even after he died that he would be remembered and carried on in the lives of the people who loved him. And he knew that by living the life he was called to, even if it meant death, was a better example for the people he loved than playing it safe and living unscathed.
That is the legacy I want my siblings to have. To know that a life lived truly, authentically, bodily is a life well lived. That to follow your heart, to follow your gut, even if it leads you to scary places is worth it. I want them to know that no matter who they are they will be held in my embrace and loved. So I broke my body for them, so that I could show them that even with scars you can be okay. To be wholly yourself, living wholly in your body is a holy endeavor.
This is my body. This is my blood. For you.
I read this, and I was confronted with with something I had failed to see, the thing we all fail to see when we ignore and marginalize one another. God. We are all, every one of us, created in the image of God. I read his post, and came face to face with God. Not God buried deep down beneath all the weird brokenness of his transgender status, but God in the beauty of it- God in the specificity of his sexuality and gender. I saw this, and it broke me. I cried to think that I had denied the image of God in another.
For Christians, this time right now is the time we call Advent, as we wait and prepare for the birth of God incarnate. Anne Lamott says:
In Advent — we wait; and hope appears if we truly desire to see it. Maybe it’s in tiny little packets here and there, hidden in the dying grasslike winter wildflowers, but we find it where we can, and exactly as it comes to us, while the days grow dark. We remind ourselves that you can only see the stars when it is dark, and the darker it is, the brighter the light breaking through. Advent is about the coming of Emmanuel, which means “God with us,” and so as the fields outside our windows go to sleep, we stay awake and watch, holding to the belief that God is with us, is close and present, and that we will be healed.
“We will be healed.” That’s what I want so desperately. That’s what I need. It’s what we all need. Later in the same piece, Lamott shares this wisdom from her friend Tom:
So I’ll tell you what the promise of Advent is: It is that God has set up a tent among us and will help us work together on our stuff. And this will only happen over time.
That’s what the incarnation is all about. God coming to earth in fragile, easily damaged human form. God breaking, bleeding, and suffering with us. God pitching a tent under the bridge with all the homeless people, the crazy and the washed up and the washed out. God saying, “Here I am. I am one of you, and yet I am so much more. You are so much more too. I know you can’t see it right now, and that’s okay. We can figure this out together, in time.”
The greatest truth about human beings, each one of us- the truth that terrifies and causes us to run and hide in fear, is this: We are, each and every one of us, an incarnation. We are all in our own unique way, the image of God, and if we give him room, he will pitch his tent in our hearts.
Maybe that sounds cheesy, like a Sunday school platitude. All I know is that whenever I have been willing to be quiet and still, to wait in the dark, openly and expectantly, I have received revelation: the light of God in the people I least expect, in the places I would never think to look.
I’ve seen a lot of photos posted in the last few days of that classic symbol we see everywhere this time of year, that of the candle shining in the darkness. The recent events in Connecticut, the massacre of so many very young and vulnerable children is a reminder of how dark our world can really be. It’s the kind of darkness that makes you despair of ever seeing the light. And yet we do. We choose, as we always do in situations like this, to light candles, to try to find a little more kindness and love, in ourselves and one another, because we realize how desperately we need it.
We need reconciliation. We need to be able to see the light in one another, to honor the image of God, because a world in which more people are respected, valued, cared for, and loved is a world with fewer angry gunmen.
I want to close this with a prayer that I first discovered at the age of 16, on a bookmark in a Zondervan Christian bookstore. It was Christmas time, and I was out shopping with my family during a very dark time in my life, feeling very angry, despondent, misunderstood, and entirely alone. Something about the words called out to me, and I purchased it, although I didn’t really understand what they meant. I eventually lost the bookmark, but not the prayer, which is something I’ve returned to again and again over the past 18 years.
Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury,pardon;
Where there is discord, union;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
and where there is sadness, joy.
O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
to be consoled as to console;
to be understood as to understand;
to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive;
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life. Amen
May we all allow our weapons of violence to become instruments of peace. May we learn to let our hurt and anger not harden into fear and hatred, but instead to be transformed, transmuted into the divine and passionate energy of love. The same love whose incarnation we expectantly, hopefully, desperately await, here, in the silence and the dark. Grace and peace to each and every one of you. Thank you for listening.