The Race to the Margins

So, all this talk about checking your privilege, and making sure we hear the voices of people on the margins has created a new phenomena – a race to the margins.

That is, everyone wants to prove they are marginalised, because if you are privileged you shouldn’t be heard. We need to make room for the voices of the marginalised. Me, me, pick me, I’m marginalised, so listen to me.

Of course, what happens, is that all sorts of people who aren’t marginalised are trying to make out they are in order to prove that they are worth listening to.

Just this week I was reading a post by Rachel Held Evans (her of middle class white America book deal and internet commentator fame) making out that she was “on the margins” of evangelicalism, and thus we would do well to listen to her. I am constantly reading posts by rich westerners with families and jobs and (clearly) internet access about how the church marginalised them by not making them welcome or letting them preach or yaddah yaddah yaddah. People, there really are marginalised people in the world, and they are not you!

First, you are making a nonsense of the term. To say “I am on the margins of evangelicalism” is like me saying “I am on the margins of the refugee community.” In a way true, I know that community in my city and am not involved in it, and therefore don’t have much of a voice there, they are (rightly probably) not that interested in my views on their life issues. But they are the marginalised group. It is gobbledygook to claim that they are marginalising me. Evangelicalism is a tiny minority of people in the world whose views are generally rejected by mainstream thought. To choose, as Held Evans has done, to make your views more mainstream on the key issues of the day and then claim evangelicals are marginalising you is nonsense, and a rather crass attempt to gain attention for yourself, frankly. It is, incidentally, the erroneous tactic that Christians often use to combat gay rights: claiming that progress in that area is marginalising them, without acknowledging that the other group is the one with the history of actual exclusion. Claiming they are marginalising you as a tactic is an insult to all those in that group who have actually really suffered because of the legal imposition of Christian morality and the subsequent cultural fallout. As evangelical views become less mainstream and you gain a hearing in the secular media by not subscribing to them, to claim evangelicals are marginalising you is just a wrong use of the word. 

Second, you are claiming marginalisation when it’s not true. Feeling left out at church does not make you unprivileged. Not being allowed to preach is not marginalising your voice, if at the same time you have access to the internet and a telephone and a democratic political process and the choice to change your church and religion. By definition if you are able to have this discussion using the internet you are not one of the world’s marginalised people. There are millions (billions?) with no access to information, the internet, education, healthcare, or choices who actually are voiceless. By all means fight for them to be heard. Don’t claim to be so when you are not.

And that’s the damaging thing about this discourse. We have middle class rich western feminist Christians high fiving each other that they are making progress in their “battle” to “have their story heard” and clogging up the church’s attention to their deep seated hurt at not being allowed to wear the same funny dress as the men, when Christians who have nothing, really nothing, the ones in whom Jesus says we will find him remain with hardly any voice at all.

Can I suggest two ways through this mess, that, I hope, are more productive than me just telling those people to check their privilege?

1) There is a whole philosophical background here where language is viewed as a means by which to exercise power over each other. Thus every exercise of language is examined to see what powerful force behind is being used to gain mastery over me. If I look behind the words and find that the person actually is powerful, well, my hermeneutic of suspicion kicks in and I dismiss their opinion as merely an attempt to dominate. Perhaps, we would be better starting with God, that self giving relationship of love who communicates with us through a word, and investigate and take seriously the possibility of the constructive and relationship building effects of language even from those towards whom we feel suspicion. No need to check who is speaking before I acknowledge what they have said, but take seriously the relational opportunity of their words.

2) Do we need some doctrine of the Holy Spirit here? All Christians can prophesy and encourage other Christians and should seek to do that. That means I can take the words of a seminary educated white man and seek encouragement, bearing in mind all the wonderful educational resources to which he has had access. I can look for the poorest Christian I know and not seek to give them charity but listen to their experiences knowing I will learn something of Christ because the Holy Spirit works there. The Holy Spirit changes my hermeneutic of suspicion to one of expectation.

Love always hopes for the best. The Spirit brings that attitude to other Christians, no matter their background. He qualifies them to speak words of encouragement to me.They need not prove their unprivileged credentials in order to be listened to.

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