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Evolving Faith Conference

Allegory of Justice Punishing Injustice
Great Smoky Mountains | image via Wikipedia | public domain

I’m at the Evolving Faith Conference this weekend, hosted in the mountains of North Carolina by Sarah Bessey and Rachel Held Evans (I met Sarah Bessey today, and I fangirled a little bit). I’m a bit burned out after hearing so many fascinating talks from fascinating people (and having fascinating conversations with a friend I don’t see often enough).

So I’m not writing much; I’m not sure I can formulate many cohesive sentences tonight. But I was struck by how the speakers, ranging from Pete Enns to Wil Gafney to Jen Hatmaker to Osheta Moore, kept returning to a theme of lament.

Lament for friendships lost, for conceptions of God lost. Lament for the pain and isolation of experiencing a deconstruction of faith. Lament for the hurt and sorrow caused by faith communities both personally and in the world through patriarchy and white supremacy.

But each speaker also affirmed that, out of this sorrow and pain and loneliness, we can find God again, even in places where we didn’t expect to find God. We can find community. We can regain, regrow a faith that is deeper, more resilient. We can rediscover hope in the peace and justice of God.

We can find hope in knowing that we are God’s beloved.

My journey of deconstruction and reconstruction hasn’t been particularly dramatic; it’s been slow, and I’ve been blessed with community along the way. I haven’t experienced a dramatic break or a traumatic expulsion from a community of faith. But even as I’ve intellectually wrestled with various doctrines, part of my heart has always been afraid to engage, afraid of God’s rejection and disappointment.

I’m working — I’ve been working for the last year — to integrate my head and my heart. And I keep hearing (as I wrote last week) the word that I am beloved.

Hearing the speakers today, I was reassured that I am beloved. That if I earnestly seek God, I will find God. That God is never disappointed in my questions and confusion and sin and even anger.

And that, right there, is the gospel. All I can hope to do is to immerse myself more and more fully into this truth.

Tagged: faith

Victimhood as Weapon and the Power of Justice

Allegory of Justice Punishing Injustice
Jean-Mark Nattier, Allegory of Justice Punishing Injustice, 1737 | image via Wikimedia Commons | public domain

Weaponizing Victimhood

A few weeks ago, around the time of the Kavanaugh hearing, I saw a post shared on Facebook. This post started by expressing sympathy for victims of sexual assault, but then began to criticize women who “weaponize their victimhood” in order to hurt others — in this case, Brett Kavanaugh. Weaponized victimhood is, according to this poster, fake or exaggerated victimhood that then creates a real victim: not the sexually assaulted woman, but the man faced with the possibility of being held accountable for his actions.1

I was struck by the idea that victimhood can be weaponized, and just a few days later I heard this idea again from Trevor Noah. In this clip, Noah describes Trump weaponizing victimhood: “He [Trump] knows how to offer victimhood to those who have the least claim to it,” allowing men to see themselves as the real victims of the #MeToo movement, rather than the women coming forward with accounts of sexual harassment and assault.

I was struck by the way that, despite their deep differences, the two positions both emphasize the power of victimhood.

This emphasis on the power of victimhood shed some new light on a critique I often heard in my conservative home of so-called “victim mentality.” Those with this mentality, I was told, imagined slights in order to claim certain benefits, like restaurant patrons planting hairs in their soup to gain free meals. In this view, many women, minorities and people in poverty were scamming the system — gaining power — by portraying themselves as victims instead of doing the proper American thing and bootstrapping themselves into success.

And what is the power of these victims? Why is victimhood either coveted or denounced? After all — filers of frivolous lawsuits aside — who would want to be a victim? Who would want to be sexually assaulted or racially profiled? Who would want to be trapped in cycles of poverty?2

The power, or perceived power, of victims lies in their call for justice. To announce oneself as a victim is to demand justice: a powerful call in a nation founded on the idea of liberty and justice for all.3

The Power of Justice

I imagine that Trevor Noah, the writer of the Facebook post, and the conservative adults of my childhood would all agree that justice is important, even vital to the success of America and American democracy. But crucially, they disagree over who gets justice.

Does Christine Blasey Ford get justice, or Brett Kavanaugh? The women raising their voices in the #MeToo movement, or the (few) men who are falsely accused?

The problem with justice is, often, like the problem of fairness for my children: they are all for fairness when it benefits them, but not so much in favor of fairness when it doesn’t. We want justice when it suits us or benefits us, but not when justice’s scales might tip against us.

Take reparations, for example: there’s a compelling argument to be made that black Americans deserve recompense for centuries of slavery and Jim Crow, centuries that have prevented black Americans from accumulating wealth at anything approaching the level of white Americans. Justice, in this argument, would require not just the granting of legal equality but also financial reparations to right past injustices.

But even someone like me, who can agree with this argument in the abstract, feels uncomfortable with the thought of this justice touching my pocketbook: after all, I have an ancestor who enlisted in the Union army at the age of 16! How can it be justice for me to give my money to right a wrong that I never caused?

Claiming victimhood is asserting a right to justice. But despite our claim in the Pledge of Allegiance that America offers justice for all, most of us see some people as more deserving of justice than others. And because of our biases — conscious or not — we imagine that the people most likely to be victims, those with the greatest claim for justice, are the people most like us.

And so some of us hear the call to believe women as a call for justice, while others hear it as sanctioning injustice against men. Or some hear Black Lives Matter as denying the importance of other lives, while others hear a cry for equal protection.

Responding as Christians

So how are we, as Christians, supposed to navigate victimhood and justice in our current cultural climate? I wish I had a tidy answer for that question. But I would suggest a few principles:

First, we must remember that throughout the entirety of scripture, God is concerned with justice for the socially marginalized. Over and over in the Old Testament, prophets condemn Israel for exploiting and oppressing those with few resources and little power — the poor, the widowed, the foreigner, the orphan. Jesus embraces the marginalized in his ministry, healing and loving them no less than (and sometimes more than) the powerful in society.

This doesn’t mean that every marginalized person is a victim. But it does mean that, when people on the margins of society call for justice, Christians should pay particular attention to these calls. Especially in a society like ours where Christians often have power and privilege, we should use that to amplify calls for justice from those who may lack power or a voice.

Second, we must be cautious when we present ourselves as victims who desire justice. I want to tread carefully here: I absolutely think that Christian women should press charges against abusers and Christian minorities should report the racism that makes them feel unwelcome. But Jesus also tells us to turn the other cheek, give away our tunic as well as our cloak, walk the extra mile.

We believe that God’s justice will come, that Christ will reign on earth as in heaven. And so at times, as we await the arrival of God’s perfect justice and mercy, we might need to endure some injustice. This especially applies to those of us who have positions of privilege in society. Sometimes that injustice will simply be in our perception: fairness sometimes feels unfair when we don’t get what we want. But sometimes we may have to risk a minor injustice to right a greater one.

We believe that God hears the cries of the wronged and that God’s justice will one day arrive, tempered by mercy, but still a justice that rights all wrongs. Right now, we cannot fully reproduce God’s justice. But may we be people who work towards justice, who honor the oppressed and the injured by earnestly discerning the nature of true justice, God’s justice. May we be willing to hold people — even ourselves — to account as we seek justice.

  1. Alleged actions — but guilty or innocent, Kavanaugh’s reaction demonstrated that he simply could not accept being held accountable for any of his actions, even for what seems to have been a well-attested tendency to get blackout drunk in high school and college.

  2. I understand that many people who have experienced sexual assault or other forms of violence prefer not to call themselves victims, often using the term survivor to emphasize their own agency and not the agency taken from then by their attacker. I’m using victim in this essay to emphasize the wrong done against a person, a wrong they did not invite, a wrong that demands justice.

  3. With the caveat that “all” did not exactly mean all for nearly the first two centuries of America’s existence.

Tagged: MeToo | justice

Five Minute Friday: Who

Song of Songs
K. T. Miura, ‘The Song of Solomon’ (morocco leather and silverfoil), 1987 | image via Flickr | CC BY 2.0

This post is part of the Five Minute Friday linkup. This community of bloggers writes on a one-word prompt every Friday for five minutes, then shares their post. You can read other posts from this week here and learn more about the Five Minute Friday linkup here. To comment on this piece, head over to my Facebook page.

The question that floats into my mind: who am I?

It’s a question that’s hovered for the last two years, as I decided to leave my job and, eventually, my academic career. Who was I if I wasn’t a college professor?

Many things stayed the same: I was — am — still a wife and a mother and a friend and a nerd and a baker and a person who wishes she liked beets but who really just can’t eat them.

But losing that big piece, that career piece, was difficult. And then came the guilt: as a Christian, shouldn’t I be finding my identity in Christ, not my job or my title?

And really, what in the world does it mean to find my identity in Christ? How does that work?

Slowly, though, over the last year, I’ve begun to realize what my identity is in Christ: I am beloved.

I struggle with this, because I’d rather find my identity in what I do; what I do is under my control (or at least, I can imagine that it’s under my control). Being beloved by God doesn’t depend on my achievements; it’s constant and steady and unchanging even when everything else around me shifts.

Yesterday, reading Tish Harrison Warren’s Liturgy of the Ordinary, I was struck by her words:

Jesus is eternally beloved by the Father. His every activity unfurls from his identity as the Beloved. He loved others, healed others, preached, taught, rebuked, and redeemed not in order to gain the Father’s approval, but out of his rooted certainty in the Father’s love.

I want that “rooted certainty in the Father’s love.” I want that to be at the core of who I am. It’s hard to let go of the idea that I have to earn that love, but if who I am is a person who earns God’s love by succeeding in some form, failure or even reformulation moves from difficult to devastating.

And so I lean into being God’s beloved, and allowing my action to flow out of my security in God’s love.

Who I am? Beloved daughter of God.

Tagged: FMF | identity

Five Minute Friday: Share

image via Pixabay | CC0 1.0

This post is part of the Five Minute Friday linkup. This community of bloggers writes on a one-word prompt every Friday for five minutes, then shares their post. You can read other posts from this week here and learn more about the Five Minute Friday linkup here. To comment on this piece, head over to my Facebook page.

Share your toys. Share your blanket. Share your space, your books, your pencils: I have 3 children in elementary school, so I constantly remind people to share.

And why do I fight this battle? Because I want my children to grow up to be generous and not miserly, clinging fearfully and angrily to what is theirs. I want them to give with open hands, to invite others in with open hearts. And if I lay that foundation now, with their family, I hope they will carry that generosity on into adulthood.

Because as adults, the temptation to hoard, to be greedy and avaricious, doesn’t fade. And sometimes, it’s difficult to tell if we’re being greedy or prudent: should I stash extra money in savings, or donate it? Do I need a back-up coat? How much really is enough?

It’s not wrong to have some things we don’t share; just as I don’t expect my girls to share their precious lovies, we all have things that are not for sharing with everyone.

But as I strive to cultivate generosity in my children, I’m pushed to consider where I can also share more — time, money, talent, material things. That urge to selfishly cling to what we want lingers, but it can be overcome by a counter-narrative of plenty and openhandedness rather than scarcity.

Tagged: FMF

Turkey Sandwiches and Gender Essentialism

A Woman Baking Bread
Jean-François Millet, A Woman Baking Bread, 1854 | image via Wikimedia Commons | public domain

Have you ever been in a restaurant that uses cutesy or thematic names for their restrooms, and hesitated a moment before choosing the (fingers crossed) correct one?

Yeah, it’s annoying. And often just a bit sexist.

Apparently, though, these cutesy restroom names are yet more evidence of the essential differences God created between men and women. Brett McCracken asserted in a July essay on The Gospel Coalition website that we instinctively know who goes in the “Bread” room versus the “Meat” room, confirming deep-rooted differences between the genders.

Yes, that’s right: McCracken thinks we instinctively associate women with bread and men with meat because … I guess because women like carbs and men like protein? Or women bake and men hunt? Because something in the essence of women whispers “bread,” while “meat” belongs to the inborn nature of men?

McCracken’s whole article is problematic, but instead of addressing it specifically I want to talk about gender essentialism, since McCracken is asserting that the essence of men and women differs — and not merely their biology or their social conditioning.

In its simplest form, gender essentialism is the belief that women and men differ not just in their outward biology but also in their inner beings, their essential natures. Many people affirm some form of gender essentialism, not just complementarians; even some feminists are gender essentialists. The debate about how our biology (which everyone agrees is different) shapes or intersects with our nature is long and complex.

People who hold to gender essentialism may believe that women are more peaceful and men more violent; women more emotional and men more rational; women more verbal and men more computational. While most gender essentialists are more than willing to admit individual variation, they see men and women on the whole as having distinct, inborn qualities that go beyond biology.

I’m not a gender essentialist because I am not convinced that, absent social conditioning, men and women have different natures. But we can’t fully test these theories, and it’s certainly possible to be a gender essentialist without denigrating women (or men).

McCracken’s article seems to fall into this category of not particularly thoughtful but also not particularly damaging gender essentialism. I’m fairly confident that associating women with bread and men with meat is cultural rather than essential, drawing on stereotypes about the foods men love and women love but shouldn’t eat. But his point is that women and men, in their differences, complement one another and together form something greater, something better, than either alone.

And I agree. When God created Adam, God said it was not good for him to be alone, and so God created Eve: another human also created in the image of God, an equal and a co-laborer in the work of the Garden. Dissension between the genders is one of the oldest disruptions in human relationships caused by sin; as God’s people living in the already-but-not-yet kingdom, women and men should strive to work in harmony with each other.

The problem with the gender essentialism of complementarianism, though, is that it doesn’t stop with two binaries balancing and enhancing one another.1

Instead, the qualities often assigned to women by complementarians denigrate them and place them in an eternally subordinate position. Women are more easily deceived. Women are more submissive. Women are less capable of logic. Women are less skilled at leading. Women are nurturers, bound to home and family, while men are providers, able to move freely in the public sphere.

In short, in this view women’s natures make them followers and men’s natures make them leaders: a state far removed from two equals complementing each other.

I’m all for combinations in which the separate parts form a whole greater than any single part; I still dream about the most perfect turkey, bacon and avocado sandwich I’ve ever had. Vive la différence and all that. But when “different” places one gender above the other, we’ve stopped working towards a greater whole. We’ve instead made one part the whole, allowing the other part in only when it enhances the first.

If we’re going to rhapsodized about the beauty of complementary combinations in God’s creation, we have to create space for the complex dance as different flavors, different people, weave together an amazing new reality. As God’s people we are better together, creating harmony rather than dissonance out of our differences — whatever the origin of those differences. This is only possible when we value all the differences equally, not subordinating one and elevating another. And that can only happen when we wholeheartedly affirm that, in their essence, women and men alike reflect the image of their creator.

  1. The idea of two binaries is also problematic, but beyond the scope of this blog post.

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