Radical. Not.

So, I was reading this article someone posted on Facebook about Nadia Bolz-Weber, a “radical” priest in Denver Colorado. She’s like so kurr-razy, she has tattoos! She swears in sermons and people think it’s really cool! She supports gay marriage and she’s a feminist! She uses social media to promote herself! How amazingly radical! Not.

It really doesn’t sound that radical to me. I mean, let’s get this right. Swears in order to sound cool: been normal since I was in secondary school. Has tattoos – sitting in this coffee shop I can see 5 tattoos from my seat, and that’s only the ones not covered by clothes. Feminism; yup pretty much everyone I know thinks you’re under a moral responsibility to be one of those. Supporting gay marriage – well that’s basically the mainstream view of everyone in the west at least. And social media to promote your product (in this case, herself) – well hardly groundbreaking is it? I struggle to think of many church leaders who are more un-radical, and less a projection of the culture in which they live.

Let me tell you about some real radicals. They reject society’s emphasis on appearance and are therefore often don’t have tattoos or other very trendy accessories. Their priorities are different and their resources go elsewhere. They tend not to swear, not because the words are inherently bad, but because they don’t take Bolz-Weber’s zeitgeisty view that “I shouldn’t have to pretend I’m something I’m not.” Rather, putting others first, they try not to be needlessly offensive in order to be accepted. In fact, the whole acceptance thing is interesting, because it doesn’t seem to matter to them that much. They seem, sort of, safe in who they are.

They radically depart from the orthodoxy that two people who love each other have a right to get married whoever they are. That’s because they don’t think that marriage is about happiness and fulfillment at all, but an opportunity that some people have to reflect something beyond themselves. And sex, belonging there, is not for everyone either. A “right to marriage” makes no sense to them, for it is not something anyone has a right to. For some, this is a painful and difficult conviction, for it means permanent celibacy, to the constant scorn and derision of their peers, even, as I have talked about before, to the point of suggesting they aren’t human at all. But they choose to use the love they feel to serve and love outsiders, and they make homes that aren’t built around nuclear families but are family to everyone who comes in.

They aren’t feminists, because they think all philosophies based on selfishness are lacking in humanity. Much better to accept that a loving creator made us all different and that is fine, and we can work together to show what he’s like and that might well mean I don’t get to do the things I’d most like to do, and submission to that won’t hurt me or anyone else. Self denial might actually be a good thing.

They have depression and don’t hide it, but talk about it publically in the hope it’ll help others dealing with the same thing.

They spend Sundays plugging stuff in, moving chairs, playing instruments, serving coffee, welcoming people they don’t know, talking to a God they can’t see, singing (outside the shower and in front of other people) and sitting through sermons, even without swear words to spice them up.

They are wonderful godparents to precious children, even when their first response might be expected to be jealousy of your family. They weep for your pain as if it’s their own instead of being embarrassed by it, they say they’ll pray about it and really do. They paint your house, they cook you meals, they aren’t ashamed to ask for help when they need it, they move to strange places in the world with strange people to introduce them to an invisible God, they pitch in when there’s a crisis without being asked. They put up with awkward conversations with people with whom they have nothing in common, they live on hardly any money in order to have time to meet up and talk with people, they welcome people who are strange to them who are in need as peers and friends; they don’t set up projects and employ people to “help” them.

These are my people. My funny misfit radicals, actually rejecting the norm and doing something different.

Oh, and you probably don’t know about them because they swim against society’s tide of self promotion, of capturing and publishing everything to promote our endless fun to the rest of the world, to instagram and archive every moment so people know how good it was. There’s a bit in their book which says that their ambition should be to live godly, quiet, lives, loving the people near them, giving what they have for the sake of others, enjoying what has God has made with the hope that we’ll enjoy it without end. That’s what they do. It doesn’t make the papers because they aren’t interested in campaigning to silence or shame those with whom they disagree.

My radicals. My guys. Thanks for doing something really different, and taking all the flack that goes with it.



Recently, I read this post by Hannah Mudge on threads about privilege. It’s a good article with a reminder (not very controversial I’d have thought) that if you have privilege as a Christian it’s your responsibility to listen to others who are less privileged and use your privilege on their behalf. It strikes similar themes but totally different notes to this ranty post by IFES Secretary for Dialogue (ironically) Vinoth Ramachandra. He is offended at the thought of “American men” (their gender a point he underlines twice) investing in theological education for African pastors.

All of this got me thinking about the discourse about privilege. Hannah’s piece is saying, I think, that privileged white men should use what they have to serve other Christians, who are not the majority. One could be forgiven for thinking that’s exactly what the white men Vinoth critiques are doing. But no, they are to be criticised for what they are doing, for this talk of privilege has moved from something to consider to a way of attempting to silence people with whom we disagree. Privilege poisons their input.

It seems to me this is another example of Christians buying into the presuppositions and terms of secular discussion unthinkingly. I’m sure Hannah only wants white men to consider people who are not white men. In fact the use of “privilege”, as Ramachandra shows, is more likely to be a way of discounting the views of people we don’t like and who we identify (whether fairly or not) with oppressive voices. It’s racism in reverse. Very obviously in the case Ramachandra cites – for while I do find the name “theological famine relief” rather patronising, what’s clear is that the call for help has come from African pastors and that these white men ARE using their privilege to respond to that request for help. But writing them off as white men allows him to sideline their theological views as imperialistic, limited, sinful even.

And of course that’s just silly – because the very fact of their privilege means that they have had access to top class academic institutions, they can read widely and fully, and importantly, they can travel to gain a world perspective on Christianity. In this case, I’d have thought it’s their very privilege that makes their input to theological training valuable.

What’s also true is that they have much to learn from female Christians with a different skin colour in the developing world – something none of them would deny I’m sure. But their privilege is being used against them as a weapon, as it often is in secular rights based discourse, and that is not something into which Christians can buy.

Rather, it seems to me, Christians are assured of their value in Christ apart from skin colour, class, ability or education, and are gifted by God’s Spirit, every single one empowered to serve other Christians. Which means I should spend more time wondering how to love the Christians I know and know of, with what I have, rather than slapping down Christians I don’t agree with using secular tools. I wonder if this whole “hermeneutic of suspicion” of people with privilege is getting us anywhere at all – the people for whom it seems to be valuable are the people who want to poison the well against Christians with whom they disagree.

Mark Meynell said all of this in a much wittier way here.

Feminism. Again.

Yesterday, my colleague posted this article about feminism here. Through the comments on that article, I read a very interesting exchange between Hannah Mudge (a Christian feminist) and Phil Whitall (a complementarian pastor) his summary of which is here  and all of which is well worth a read. As a complementarian myself I found it extremely educational and feel very challenged about addressing the hugely pressing issue of violence against women in my preaching and pastoral work.

I am left with two real questions.

1) Hannah was unable to say what the differences actually are between men and women (not just what they aren’t – they are not personality types or gender roles). If you are an egalitarian or feminist, can you please explain to me what you think these differences are? If you think they are merely biological (like most secular feminism, it seems to me) then can you explain to me why you don’t take the position (if you don’t) of affirming same sex relationships, as people like Steve Chalke and (as far as I can tell) Rachel Held Evans would do. (I chose these examples because they seem to explicitly link their view on that issue, as far as I can tell, to their view on gender equality) That seems to me to be much more consistent. The reason I ask is that I think for the complentarian, men take the role of servant-leader and women as helper supplying-what-is-lacking and that imaging of God’s diverse nature gives a reason for insisting that equal but different is necessary for marriage. But if there are no real distinctions in role – then for what reason can you say two men or two women can’t image God’s character in marriage?

2) A more serious non academic question. It seems to me that the real emphasis on equality but without difference actually encourages men to treat women like they treat other men. This, it seems to me, is not a very healthy model because men do not treat other men very well. I can’t help but wonder if this view actually increases the risk of someone who is violent being sexually violent, because the socially accepted deference to women’s general physical weakness is removed. (As I say I’m guessing, so I may be totally out of order here.) The beautiful thing about complementarianism as I understand it is that it says to men “Generally women are weaker than you physically. Moreover, the nature of having children means that they are often removed from positions of social influence for longer periods than you. Use the “power” that gives you to serve, love, care and honour women as beautiful and precious gifts from the Lord”. I guess most feminists would find that patronising. I can’t help feeling it’s healthier than encouraging men to treat women the way that they treat other men.

I might be wrong. I have no wish to throw brickbats or rule anyone out of conversation. I want to learn. But those seem to me to be two important implications of this debate that strengthen the complementarian view.

Why I am not feminist

Well, dur…that one is obvious. It’s because I am a man, and I already hold the power and so the only interest I could possibly have in not being a feminist is that I want to hold the power for myself and my kind, and oppress the ones who are different to me. Or so you’d think if you’d been reading blogs about feminism and Christianity this week.

Here’s my real reason, which I would quite understand you not being interested in if you are feminist, as I am a man who is to compound my issues, not a feminist, and therefore not worth paying attention to.

However, if you bear to read my views, hopelessly shaped by patriarchy as they are,  it’s all got to do what you think a person (of any gender identity) is. I don’t buy the twentieth century view, heavily influenced by Sartre, that human beings are essentially free, and people are at their most human (he would say authentic probably) when they are most autonomous. It was his partner Simone de Beauvoir who borrowed this analysis of consciousness to develop into a feminist ethic. And so our communal life has become this zero sum game; for this type of freedom is mysteriously elusive and always (in the real world) means someone else’s radical freedom being limited. Feminism argues that the losers of this perpetual freedom game have, by and large, been women. Which is true. And so the discourse, even in Christian circles, is about “my right to use my gift” being “limited” or “crushed” or “ignored”. Or indeed about uppity women stepping up and “stopping men” from leading as they should.

Whereas the real view is that we actually are communal beings. I am not at my most human when I’m free from the bonds other people place on me. I am at my most human, most male or female when I serve and love people of all different genders, races, nationalities and sexualities around me, and that is my value. Not seeking respect for myself, but for Christ, and hence for others.

It’s not that I’m against women’s rights. I guess I’m against rights, at least as they are rooted in this Sartrean sense of freedom. I’m against a philosophy, like feminism, that says autonomy is the end of personhood. It’s not  actually a possible goal, nor do I think that people are most authentically human when they are radically free to express some inner essence, magically formed and expressed apart from their relationships. Relationships are part of who we are, not just a means to express my freedom.

Of course, because this type of freedom is zero sum – one person’s freedom inevitably impinges on another’s –  any philosophy based on these premises becomes oppressive to someone, whoever the the person is who is blocking the realisation of this type of freedom for me or my interest group.

I finish with this example: at the time of the women bishops in the C of E debacle I witnessed the following exchange on Facebook, with some details changed to protect the innocent.

A: Oh no, the religious oppression of women in the church continues. Why can’t men see that by insisting certain roles are for men they are oppressing women?

B: I’m genuinely sorry that you feel oppressed, but I’m in a church with male leaders and I don’t feel that oppressed.

A: You are oppressed, you just don’t know it.

B: I honestly don’t feel that I am. But I really am sorry that you do.

A: If you participate in a system where there are any fixed gender roles for men and women you are oppressed. And you are oppressing other women too.

B: I don’t think I am oppressed.

A: You are, you are just too stupid to realise.

Now tell me, who is oppressing who here?

P.S. Thanks to my colleagues who helped me get thinking about all of this.