This is the text of a short presentation I gave at Wild Goose Festival as part of the Sexuality and Spirituality Visual Slam.
Growing up, I learned that sex was bad and dirty. The people that taught me that, in my home, church, and Christian school, would have conceded that it was a good thing within marriage, but there was so much shaming of sexual behavior in general that the unspoken message remained the same.
I learned that sex outside of a divinely ordained marriage was dangerous, that it could ignite a blazing inferno that would corrupt our bodies and souls, that would leave us so emotionally and spiritually damaged and broken that we would be incapable of maintaining healthy and God-honoring relationships. We were taught, girls especially, to “guard our hearts” and that if we were careful, kept it in our pants, and read and prayed everyday, God would provide us with the perfect soul mate and fairy tale marriage (as long as you were heterosexual).
The upshot of this is that is that many of my friends married young and divorced a few years later as their relationships collapsed under the weight of the expectations, the perfect love and amazing sex promised in exchange for wearing a purity ring. We know now that divorce rates for evangelicals aren’t much different from the rest of society. Sex therapists report that people who were taught to deny and repress their sexuality during puberty and young adulthood often have trouble expressing it in a healthy way once they eventually marry and/or begin having sex. It seems clear that the “traditional morality” of the evangelical subculture is deeply disordered.
And yet it’s not fair to blame all sexual dysfunction on religion when the culture at large harbors its own confusing and damaging messages regarding sexuality. Women have long been held to impossible standards of beauty and this is increasingly becoming true for men as well. A key part of a child’s sexual education now includes exposure to porn- and let me be clear that I do believe it is possible to make good and redemptive pornography and erotica- but what we have now is a porn industry that caters almost exclusively to male desire and portrays human beings and especially women as objects, with interchangeable body parts that exist for the sole purpose of being something to come on (or in). In the words of the British music critic and feminist Caitlin Moran, “21st century pornography blasts through men’s and women’s sexual imaginations like antibiotics and kills all mystery, uncertainty, and doubt- good and bad.” Sex has been separated from spirit and instead become “just sex,” a skill to be obtained, a commodity to be monetized. Something that should be free and available to all, a God-given gift and birthright, has become another product that is packaged, homogenized, marketed and sold to us by our capitalist economy.
Both of these approaches to sex pay lip service to the essential goodness of sexuality while treating it as either a problem to be managed or a deficiency to be sated with consumption. Why do we allow this? It strikes me that both the moralizers and the marketers are preying on some essential fear we have regarding our sexuality and offering us a system to control it and make it manageable- one by inflating the spiritual aspect of human connection while pathologizing and shaming the physical, and the other by inflating the physical aspect while delegitimizing and mocking the spiritual. Anything capable of creating great pleasure also contains the possibility of tremendous pain, and so we look for ways to attenuate that power and limit the damage.
I am well aware of how much brokenness we all have when it comes to love and sex. There’s the pain of rejection, of not measuring up to some physical or psychological ideal when someone decides they don’t want you. There’s the grief of losing someone you felt so connected to that you couldn’t tell where you ended and they began. There’s the shame of having failed at the difficult task of making real the promise of life-long love and faithfulness pledged to another person. No wonder we want to avoid these things. No wonder we make rules and limitations designed to keep us from risking too much, from breaking too wide open.
But what if that breaking open is precisely the point? What if sexuality is supposed to be a spiritual, emotional, psychological, and physical experience for a reason? Leonard Cohen sang, “There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.” John Donne wrote “”Batter my heart, three personed God… That I may rise and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.” Throughout all religious traditions there’s this idea that brokenness is what leads to learning, growth, even enlightenment or transcendence. What if sexuality is an integral part of the path toward holiness, and all our attempts to hem it in- to ensure it’s only expressed within the false safety of marriage, or according to the template of a market-provided empowerment experience- is an attempt to avoid its natural end, the breaking down of the false self, the ego, or the flesh as Paul called it?
In some of the so-called Gnostic gospels, sexual union is seen as a powerful symbol of divine union between God and man, and for this reason what happens here and now, with our bodies, is seen as profoundly important because it prefigures what happens in the spiritual realm. Learning to be truly and freely naked before another being, whether physically or spiritually, can be a terrifying experience, and yet it is the only way we can ever be truly known. Richard Rohr says that “it’s on the level of embodiment that change happens,” and that sexuality cannot be separated from spirituality because they are two sides of the same coin, designed to take us beyond ourselves and open us up into a mutual giving and receiving not only with one another but with the divine, and that we learn to do this right, as with most things in life, by first doing it wrong.
This is not a safe process. It is not just a romantic happily ever after, or a fun, sexy good time, although there’s certainly a time and place for those things. It’s a journey that requires grace, determination, humility, and faith- faith that as we try to figure this thing out, as we have good sex and bad sex, meaningful sex and meaningless sex, committed, monogamous relationships and honestly open non-monogamous ones, loving relationships and shitty ones, painful separations and joyful unions, as we strive for ideals and fall short of them again and again, that it is not all for nothing. If we open ourselves up to the work of Love in the midst of all of this, if we learn to let go of our rules and judgement and systems of control, maybe, just maybe, we can get closer to the core of who we truly are and can catch a glimpse of what it is that we are becoming- a people who learn from our mistakes and break that we might make room for light, love, and understanding. A people who can be fully alive in our bodies and open and vulnerable in our hearts. A people who can let go when it’s time to let go and a people who when we are hurt are capable of healing and growing without lashing out and perpetuating cycles of pain and violence. We are becoming a people capable of loving our partners, our families, our friends and our communities generously, faithfully, and eternally.
I read your piece “I’m Tired of Being Called a Racist" earlier today. I’ll admit you’re not always my favorite person. I’ll also admit that I’ve said unkind things about you in public, which I deeply regret. I’ve written about some of the history behind that here. So my first reaction when I read your post today was to roll my eyes and say “here we go again, Tony is being reactive, defensive, and refusing to see the point.” I thought about commenting on your blog, but it seemed like so many of the readers were already saying what I would have said, and I wondered why I was wasting my time worrying about you anyway. So my second reaction was to let it go. And yet the more I’ve sat on things, I can’t let it go, not because I’m angry or bitter, but because as someone created in the image of God you deserve thoughtful and honest engagement. I am going to make my best attempt to do that.
Christena Cleveland wrote what I thought was a gracious and insightful post illuminating subtle power of language and the way it continues to divide us. She wrote this as part of an ongoing series examining the structures of oppression and offering solutions for dismantling them. There are many of us, both victims and perpetrators of oppression (and we all find ourselves on both sides of this line from time to time), who deeply value and welcome her perspective. I have to believe her post was not intended to shame you or call you out in any way, which is why she didn’t use your name or name the event, but rather to illustrate the point that the language we use unthinkingly and even with good intention often serves to exclude others and maintain homogeneity in groups. By using “we” language and acknowledging her own tendency to view her gospel as the best, she included herself in the indictment. The post wasn’t really about you. It was about all of us.
I confess that I do believe that a gospel that preaches the bountiful love of God, accessible to and inclusive of all, is a better version of the gospel than many I have heard. But I also realize that there probably aren’t a whole lot of Christians who would consciously disagree with the statement that God’s love is bountiful, accessible, and inclusive. It’s all the other words and actions that betray their true beliefs, the caveats and subtle exclusions they append to the gospel, the way they behave toward those who are not like them. And so it goes with all of us. If we talk about a loving and inclusive God and a kingdom where all are one in Christ Jesus, but refuse to examine our own complicity, however unconscious, in the oppressive power structures of this world, then we make the good news we preach out to be a lie. What’s more, we become another group of hypocritical Christians for the next generation to react against.
I don’t in any way believe you are an intentional racist. I believe you are, like me, trapped in a system beholden to the powers and principalities of this world. It’s a system that keeps us apart in subtle and overt ways. It’s a system that creates winners and losers, us and them, “better than” and “less than.” It is a system that we all are sometimes benefitted by and sometimes hindered by (though some of us benefit more than others). It’s a system I would guess has left you feeling excluded more times than you care to count, to the point where you’ve understandably developed a defensive posture to allow yourself to feel safe and secure. It is a system that is absolutely opposed to the beautiful vision of God’s kingdom we proclaim as gospel.
I know we both, along with Christena, believe in this gospel and want to see the walls of division and machinery of oppression torn down. This cannot happen until we each are willing to honestly and painfully examine ourselves and the ways in which we have both been supported and wounded by these structures. Those of us who have historically benefitted from this system have to be willing to be open and vulnerable to hearing voice of the oppressed and allowing ourselves to be convicted and ultimately transformed by it. Those of us who have historically been on the losing side of this system have take care that in fighting the system, we don’t succumb to it and replace one oppressive structure with another.
In Joshua 5 Joshua, in the midst of war with the Canaanites, sees an unfamiliar man. He stops him and asks him, “Are you for us, or for our adversaries?” “Neither,” the man replies, “but as commander of the army of the Lord have I come.”
I have to believe, however much I’d like to succumb to it, that all this talk of quantifying the worth or truth of anyone’s version of the gospel, or of one winning out over another, is missing the point entirely (and whether the words we use are “better” or “best” are irrelevant here). If we don’t allow the gospel to bring us into greater wholeness and greater unity, within ourselves, with God, and with one another, then it’s all just a bunch of pretty words. If we can’t love, then we are nothing.
I’ve chosen to engage you here even though part of me would rather not. Part of me would rather stick with my people, the people who think and talk like me, the people who understand and love me for the weird little quirks that others might find obnoxious. I know people who have chosen to do that, and I don’t begrudge them. Maybe that’s where they need to be right now. Not me, though. I can’t do that because the gospel is calling me to something beyond myself. Something beyond my ideas of good, better, and best, something that requires nothing less than a death of all that I thought I knew and was. It’s calling me to an understanding that none of us stands alone before God, but that we all serve a place in the greater whole, that no man is an island, to quote Donne, but that every man’s (or woman’s) death (or separation) diminishes me because I am involved in mankind. Or to quote scripture, the hand cannot say to the foot I have no need of you.
I believe that you, Tony, through your writing, speaking, leadership of Emergent Village, and no doubt countless other actions of which I am unaware, have contributed immeasurable value to the cause of Emergent Christianity and the world as a whole. I believe you still have a great deal of value to contribute. But when you dismiss and continue to adopt a defensive and even at times hostile posture toward women, minorities, and others who find your tone and language dismissive and alienating, what it sounds like you are saying to us is “I don’t need you. You are not important. I am unwilling to allow myself to be changed in any way by an encounter with you because you have nothing of value to offer me.” I don’t think you intend to convey this message, but I do think your fear and defensiveness blind you to seeing the hurt that your tone, words, and actions have caused others.
I hope my words are received with the deep concern and care I have for you and all the men and women involved in this disagreement. I am certainly willing to receive any criticism you care to level at me. I am also willing to facilitate any dialogue you care to have with me or anyone else, as far as I am able. Grace, peace, and love to you and your family.
Last weekend some of you attended the Emergence Christianity conference in Memphis. I wasn’t there, so I don’t know exactly what happened. What I do know is that there has been some criticism of what transpired there. Julie Clawson and Marci Glass highlighted some troubling statements regarding gender roles and people with disabilities made by one of the main speakers, and Holly Roach asked whether a pre-event, invitation-only gathering to discuss the future of Emergent Christianity was undermining the expressed goals and values of Emergent Village and the movement as a whole. As a result, there’s been a lot of discussion on Facebook, Twitter, and blogs about privilege and oppression (Bo Sanders has a good roundup). These criticisms are nothing new. They’ve been made before, about other events and gatherings, and will continue to be made as long as there are structures in place that privilege certain people and oppress others. I’m glad we’re talking about these things. I know it’s been painful for some, and tempers and emotions have flared here and there, but I honestly believe this is the necessary pain of refinement, of burning away some of the ideas and modes of action that are not serving us as individuals and a community well, and making room for something new.
A lot has been written about the concept of privilege in the past few days, and I don’t want to rehash all of that, other than to say this: privilege is real, almost all of us find ourselves benefitting from some type of privilege at some point in our lives, we are frequently unaware of the privilege we possess, and we need to be willing to take some criticism if we ever hope to be free from it. I’ve written before about why I don’t think these conversations about privilege can be easily dismissed as “identity politics.” At the same time, I believe that the language we use to talk about privilege and oppression can sometimes be a hinderance- it can be used to maintain divisions as well as tear them down. When I become so focused on defending my tribe that I lose sight of the fact that we’re all part of a bigger tribe, we all lose.
The truth is, I think each of us, no matter our gender, sexuality, race, class, physical or mental ability, really want the same thing. We want to be seen. We want to be heard. We want to be understood and valued for the unique reflection of the divine that we embody. And while we each need to individually examine ourselves for the unseen prejudices, judgements, and attitudes that prevent us from fully valuing one another, we also need to collectively turn our attention to the structures that subtly reinforce these attitudes.
Emergents have always been criticized for our lack of results. Evangelicals have criticized us for not producing any solid doctrinal statements or “saving souls.” Mainliners have criticized us for failing to stem the tide of exodus and attrition from our churches. “It’s not a denomination, it’s a conversation,” many defenders of Emergence have said. For many of us who are still here, or even just arriving, the value we find in the emergent conversation is not measured by our traditional metrics of success. It’s found in the relationships we’ve developed, in meeting people with whom we share common values and ideals, in being exposed to challenging ideas, or in being allowed to issue challenge to those who had previously silenced us. Through this conversation I’ve made dear friends who have loved, prodded, and encouraged me into finding my voice and my gifts (I won’t say this is limited to the emergent church, but it’s been a significant contributor). Despite our aversion to and frequent criticism of the marketplace measures of success that we find in many of our churches and denominations, our conferences and gatherings still seemed to be modeled on the events put on by any other industry or interest group. We seem to be stuck in a paradigm of what a conference should look like and what it should accomplish. It’s a paradigm that is beginning to show its limitations.
In October of 2011, Occupy Wall Street was everywhere in the news. Like many of us, I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it. There was something exhilarating about the idea that a bunch of average people could band together to bear witness to the injustice of our economic and political systems and speak truth to power in a way that couldn’t be ignored. And yet, there was something incredibly maddening and frustrating about it. Where’s the list of demands, everybody wanted to know, why isn’t anything happening, why isn’t the system changing? A lot of people wrote the movement off as the pipe dream of a bunch of moonbat lefties.
That October I had the chance to sit in on a general assembly at Occupy Long Beach. It started with a communal meal. Various people cooked and brought food to share. Those of us who didn’t chipped in some money to eat. Those of us who had neither food or money ate anyway. There was plenty of food for everybody. After we ate, everybody chipped in to clean up. Then the assembly began. There were a few rules to keep order, but to someone used to parliamentary procedure it would have seemed like chaos. For the most part, anyone one who was allowed to speak was allowed to speak. There had been some arrests the night before, and that was one of the major topics of discussion- whether they should avoid arrest or seek it, whether they should use common funds to bail the arrested out of jail. Some spoke from years of experience as activists about practical strategies. Others fixated endlessly and to the exasperation of the rest of us on whatever pet peeve was pissing them off that night. There were one or two people that were incoherent and possibly mentally ill. Each of them was given a chance to speak, and an honest effort to be understood, even the ranters and ramblers. It was clear as the night went on that many were frustrated that no clear progress was being made, not enough tasks were being checked off. One of the members of Occupy LA who had come to coordinate efforts spoke up: “I know this is frustrating, but you have to understand that we do things this way because we believe the process itself is valuable. If you’re not committed to consensus decision making for its own value, and only see it as a means to an end, it’s going to drive you crazy.” I don’t remember what consensus, if any, was reached that night. What I remember is the fellowship of sharing a common meal. I remember the respect that was given to each person, including the homeless people who always occupied the park, as a valuable member of the community. I remember most of all an elderly gentleman who spoke in broken English about spending the last few nights in jail: “I’m an old man, and I can do this. If I can, so can any of you. This is worth it to me, because I finally have a voice.”
Most of the protesters have left the parks, the politicians, corporations and bankers remain in charge, and it seems that nothing much has changed. And yet this fall the occupiers were able to use their experience and connections to mount Occupy Sandy, a successful, large-scale, grassroots hurricane relief effort that was able to mobilize more rapidly and effectively than the Red Cross. They’ve formed Strike Debt, which is working to challenge the system of debt and predatory lending, and has already initiated buy-offs to free people from medical debt. The fruit of whatever it was that happened in those parks is being borne, even if we can’t always see it.
The Emergent conferences I’ve attended have largely been some variation on the standard “expert speaker” model. You get someone who’s an expert on X topic, usually someone who’s written a book, and they give a speech, some people take notes and some people surf the internet or doodle. Maybe you have smaller breakout sessions that are more conversational in nature. This is not necessarily a bad model. I’ve heard a lot of really great talks and learned new things through these speakers. But conferences like this are always going to privilege the articulate, educated, and connected over others. In the past, this has been white men. That’s changing, especially with regard to gender, but there’s still a huge chunk of people who are always going to be on the outside looking in at these things, not because anyone’s trying to keep them outside, but because the structures we’ve erected prevent them from getting in.
I think we need to take a hard look at changing the type of gatherings we have, and getting away from the traditional conference model. I’m not saying that those types of gatherings are bad, or that they haven’t been tremendously valuable, but maybe we need to push ourselves to try something new. Something that allows everybody to have a valuable role and a place at the table. Something that’s focused less on doing and more on being, less on accomplishing goals, and more on bearing fruit. Something that looks less like a TED conference and more like an Occupy general assembly. Something that embodies this idea of Yoder’s (to steal a quote that my friend Kimberly Roth used in her own reflection on the EC13 event):
The transformation that Paul’s vision calls for would not be to let a few especially gifted women share with a few men in the rare roles of domination; it would be to reorient the notion of ministry so that there would be no one ungifted, no one not called, no one not empowered, and no one dominated.
I’m not sure what exactly this would be, but I have a few possible ideas:
1. We need less speaking and more hanging out- One of the best conferences I went to was Outlaw Preachers 2010. It wasn’t because of the speakers, most of whom were not particularly accomplished or well known (not that this kept them from performing admirably), but rather it was the times we had in the pub down the street or hanging out in the common areas. It was in getting to know some folks who I had been a bit suspicious of, and learning that we had more in common than I thought. It was in the joking and sharing drinks and singing “Push It” around a gas heater on a cold patio. Since then I’ve often found myself playing hooky when I’m at conferences- skipping sessions to just relax and enjoy the company of friends.
2. When we do have speakers, they need to be someone besides the usual suspects- We need to be deliberately seeking out those who don’t get attention, maybe even those who don’t realize they have something to say. We need to find people who are outside of our usual contexts of churches and religious organizations but who may have something to offer us anyway. And our sessions need to be less presentation and more conversation. Bo Sanders makes these points in his post about the recent controversy, and I think Steve Knight has done a good job trying to implement some of these things at the Transform conferences.
3. We need to find way to engage the talents of everyone at our gatherings- Are there people whole love to cook? Get them together to make a big feast for everyone. Are there musicians? Let’s have more open mic nights and sing alongs (beyond the usual “worship sessions,” which for some people carry a lot of baggage). Let’s have artists lead us in massive communal art projects. Are there people who are really good at quantum mechanics? I’m not sure what to do with them, but there’s got to be something they’re good for. I know the Wild Goose Festival has been successful in engaging the arts.
4. We need to throw out our agendas- "Behold, I am doing a new thing, now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?" So often we don’t perceive the rivers in the desert springing forth because we’re off somewhere banging a rock, trying to draw water from stone. Maybe this is the latent charismatic in me, but sometimes we just need to hang out and listen and let the Spirit show up. I like what UNCO does in letting the agenda be determined by the participants.
5. We need to get out of the lecture halls, sanctuaries, and conference rooms and into the public square- Let’s stop shutting ourselves up in our safe spaces. Let’s assemble in parks and party in the streets and make people ask what the hell we’re doing. It’s cheaper, too.
6. We need to become more localized- As much as I love to travel and make new friends all across the country, it makes attending these gatherings prohibitively expensive for many and ensures that those who do attend are largely the people who can have their costs reimbursed or written off as professional expenses- i.e., pastors, theologians, authors, and academics, or the usual suspects. Maybe as we make our gatherings more accessible to those who have different talents and skill sets, we will find we can draw more people to sustain more gatherings.
7. We need to be transparent, open, and intentionally inclusive- We need to be clear about who’s on our planning committees, issue open invitations to anyone who wants to join, and deliberately seek to include those on the margins. We need regular turnover in leadership roles to make room for new participants. And no one individual should ever have ownership of vision- that’s one of surest ways to kill community.
8. We need to go balls to the wall, because we’re never gonna survive unless we get little crazy- I keep thinking about the parable of the sower. He just goes around flinging seeds all over the place, with no regard for whether or not the ground looks even remotely hospitable to life. He doesn’t check the ground for rocks or thorns or fertile soil, he just throws it all out there to see what takes root. We need to do more weird things, things that scare us a little, things that have a high risk of failing, to see if something might just work. I participated in an Ash Wednesday flash mob in a subway station one year in Atlanta. It was a little anticlimactic. A lot of people didn’t understand what we were doing. Someone stole our ashes the night before. I have no idea if it was a success or not. But I had fun, and I’d do it again.
None of these suggestions is original. I’ve tried to highlight some groups that have done or are doing some of these things. But we need to do more of it. We need people more creative, inspired, and crazy than I am. We need people who get bored by all the debates and words but love to create and interact and who know how to throw a good party. If you are reading this, and any part of what I’m talking about resonates with you, then we need you. So let me ask you- what kind of gatherings would you like to see? How do we build tables with a place for everyone? What gifts can you bring to the table? What will you do to make it happen?
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.
I think that the vision of the right is the idea that I can go into the wilds of Alaska with a .22 and a bag of rice, and [say], “Fuck all y’all. I can make it on my own, and I don’t need you. I don’t need anyone.” But, first of all, it’s incredibly unrealistic and incredibly arrogant … and it’s a very idolatrous position where you are worshipping yourself and your own will. And it’s all about you, and you don’t see that you’re affecting other people, and you don’t give a shit.
It’s fun to believe that you are all-powerful. It’s fun to believe that you are a God in yourself. Everybody would like to believe that. It’s fun because it’s only about your ego and your ego would love to believe it. But it just isn’t true. And you can’t build a policy on top of a fucking delusion. Which is the place where we have come.”