"The people you meet": gender and the church edition

Monday, 5 September 2011

The "Chesney Hawkes" "The choices I have made are the ONE AND ONLY indicator of true womanhood and YOU CAN'T TAKE THAT AWAY FROM ME. You say that equality is about choice, but if you had your way I wouldn't be able to be a wife and SAHM, which is, by the way, MY CHOICE, thank you very much."

The "Delusions of Gender" "But I'm a girl! I like baking and babies! If equality means having to do icky guy stuff like go on camping trips and walk the dog, then it's not for me!" Sadly, I haven't even made that up.

The "Keep It Sweet" "Isn't it such a shame when our dear sisters turn from the Lord's plan for their lives, bless their hearts!" You know what they say about the phrase "bless your heart"? Yup. 

The "Velvet Glove" "Why, of course I'm interested in productive discourse on this issue! Go ahead and debate with me!" Five comments later: "I no longer feel it is helpful to comment further as the opinions of over-emotional women seem to be the only counter-argument, when I everything is say is totally clear and correct from a plain reading of scripture."

The "No Questions Asked" "You know I don't think it's good to rock the boat. All this upset and bad feeling. This is how it's always been and 90% of people have always been happy with it, right? I mean, look at me! I'm content with my lot in life! AND I can't believe you criticised Mr Famous Pastor's opinions!"

The "Shiny Happy Blogger" "I am sad to say that after posting this comment, I will be removing this blog from my reading list. I used to come here for the inspiring, joyful posts. Posts about "issues" such as this are a sorry indicator of the way the author has changed and I no longer want their negativity in my life."

The "Christianese Overkill" "This is a wordy comment. I mean, it's a really wordy comment. Isn't it just so sad that so many people live their lives blighted by such bitterness and anger? Such a critical attitude! I pity their unhappy, empty lives. Here are some more words, lots of words. Words about bitterness, and critical attitudes. Words about further bitterness and sadness. Let's end with more musings on bittterness. You want lemons with that?"

The "Unoriginal Atheist" "At the end of the day, you wouldn't even have to bother having these discussions if you didn't believe in the SKY FAIRY. Ya hear me? SKY FAIRY. The most amusing description of your so-called 'God' OF ALL TIME. Of ALL. TIME. Never gets old!" Hint: it does. Fast.

The "Older/Better/Faster/Stronger" "You think you know everything about the world because you listened to a bunch of deranged screeching career-obsessed harpies in the so-called 'learning environment' of university?! HA! As you're under 40, you clearly don't know as much as I do. Furthermore, as someone who has no children, your opinions about everything are automatically invalid. Come to think of it, we haven't discussed why you don't have children yet. Oh wait - it's because you're a selfish disgrace ignoring your high calling."

The "Anti-Choice Broken Record" "Yeah, but as a supporter of 'women's equality', you're a baby killer. Nothing else you say matters, because you're a baby killer. I don't care if this discussion has nothing to do with abortion. In case you haven't got the message yet, you're a baby killer."

A couple of weeks ago, Rachel Held Evans wrote a post about the way women get pigeonholed when they try to write about or debate the issue of women and the church. Rachel has been writing about this a fair bit of late and she has noted that with her posts on the topic have come the accusations, via comments, of being "emotional", "snarky", "self-righteous" and "out-of-line". There seems to be concern from commenters that this issue leads women to get angry - and that this is something that automatically invalidates everything they have to say.

Although I meant to, I didn't comment on Rachel's post, but I read everyone else's responses with interest, because the post made me think - a lot. Rachel offered some ideas as to how we can effectively engage with others about women and the church - and for the most part I agree with these. As she says, debating any issue from a place of anger probably won't get us very far, because it means we won't listen to each other properly; we'll be prideful and clumsy in our arguments. She asked readers to offer ideas about effective discourse and how the ways we respond to difficult issues make a difference.

In my time reading about and discussing gender and the church, I've come across all the "people" above. Some of them, if I'm honest, just have to be ignored. Some are really frustrating to talk to. Some just get nastier and nastier until you have to leave it, because you know it's not going to go anywhere productive. The funniest thing about this is even when the comment thread is starting to go that way and you're trying to be "as civil as heck", you know that someone is going to accuse you of being the "emotional, hysterical harpy". You also know that this would not happen to a man blogging about the same issue (as Rachel talks about being the case when she wrote about "Effemigate").

As an aside about the sort of people who declare they're no longer going to read your blog due to a change in subject matter or one post they didn't like, I think this is part of a wider problem where readers of blogs have come to see themselves as the "customer", complaining about posts that don't fit their expectations and being hard on the blogger for not sticking to their usual style or topics, when truthfully, any blogger should be able to write what he or she wants without obligation and shouldn't feel beholden to anyone to avoid controversial posts.

On the other hand, you get people who'll be just as angry as the vitriolic ones you have to ignore, but they'll couch it in "nice" language. And that's something you can't escape if you read blogs written by Christians. People are very sensitive to tone and enjoy calling people out on it. They often don't like snark. For some, expressing a alternative opinion in itself is rude and "critical". They "struggle" with things. They find things "problematic" and they use the word "bitterness" a whole lot. Heck, I even use those first two a fair bit. And why? Is it because I know that my interpretation of scripture alone might get you labeled a "screeching feminist" (that's feminist in the pejorative; I am definitely liable to get called out as one of these except I have quite a deep voice so I don't really screech as such, fyi), so I don't want to open myself up to more abuse? Or is it because, as one commenter on Rachel's post said, because "nice girls don't rock the boat"?

Anger can be unproductive, but I think it's also a necessary step in recognising, dealing with and healing injustice. Mike Clawson, the commenter I just quoted, talks in his first comment of the fact that anger should not be silenced because when people have been put down and abused it's a natural reaction. It can be cathartic, it can help express feelings and impact others who don't have a voice or struggle to articulate their anger about the same issue. When we are told it's not appropriate to be "emotional" or "negative" about something, it can suppress things that need to come out and be dealt with - and this can be devastating. One example we can draw on here is the blogs and other accounts written by people who have come out of the Christian patriarchy movement.

Something which has been a real problem in the past - and continues to be one today - is the line of thought which tells women they shouldn't criticise, shouldn't cause trouble, shouldn't disagree, should "keep sweet" and do as they're told. Anger, even righteous anger, isn't feminine - and it emasculates men. One of the insults most frequently thrown at us women is that we're "too emotional". Those who disagree disdain our unpleasant hormonal fluctuations and sneer at us if we cry. It's been used as a reason for us not to lead or preach. Hysterical behaviour. For some, a woman expressing any sort of strong opinion is "out of line".

Obviously, this isn't right. It shouldn't be the case that we can't express anger. As women today, where would we be without yesterday's women of strong opinion? But sometimes we have to sit back, leave it a few hours before we write the post or send the message, and word things carefully. Some of my favourite and most popular posts on this blog have been ones I've hammered out in half an hour after becoming absolutely incensed by something. On occasion, it works - but it can't always be like that. Sometimes it's about knowing your audience and how to best engage with them. Other times it's about thinking things through a bit more and realising that while there's righteous anger, there's also the anger that comes from being trolled, or the frustration of trying to debate with someone who won't stop patronising you because you're female - and that this might not translate into anything productive. As Rachel says:

"So I guess that I'm trying to say is that the anger is certainly justified, but if we let it control us - if we write and speak while seeing red - we'll lose opportunities to affect change."

PS: When she calls for us to make sure we know our scripture, that's vital too.

Image shows a depiction of harpies, via Duncan Harris's Flickr.


Maria said...

This is a really interesting post. I have major issues with legitimising anger in girls and anger being thought of as not feminine. Young girls are so often told that they:
- don't have a right to be angry (implying there aren't any injustices left to fight)
- don't have a right to express themselves
- don't have a safe place in which to express their anger healthily

All these basically culminate in one of two options: girls bottling up anger and taking it out on themselves in unhealthy ways such as self-harm, abusive relationships and eating disorders, OR taking it out on other people. Both options are incredibly destructive, but what other options do the girls have?
You see this so much in the classrooms in secondary schools and the rise in 'ladettes'- I dislike that term but what I mean is basically girls mouthing off, disrupting lessons, starting fights- being angry all the time and not knowing how to channel it.

I wish that parents and schools could work together to show girls that their anger is legitimate, it is a feeling they have a right to, and there is a right time and place and- more importantly- way to express it.

I can't comment too much on experiences of the church's opinion on female anger since I'm an atheist. I hope I'm not the 'unoriginal atheist' as I do try to engage as much as possible- currently writing a master's dissertation on religious experience, faith and evidence.

(I can't stand phrases like 'don't rock the boat'. Sometimes the boat needs to rocked so hard it capsises.)

grahamsgrumbles said...

I was having a discussion with someone just the other day about the way in which many politicians and wannabe politicians, particularly right-of-centre, are increasingly resorting to an image of being Reasonable to get their own way. Any and all opposition is illegitimate if someone puts their point in a way that deviates from being Reasonable, i.e. shows any emotion in making their point.

It seems to be born partly out of the belief that scientific reason should dictate policy, blind to any and all human suffering that may arise. It seems incredibly at odds with what Christianity is meant to be about (but then what would I know, I'm a charismatic, a social justice activist and a feminist).

It really irks me that what is going on is men defending their own position in the church by refusing to listen to anything they don't like. For the men talking calmly, safe in their own position of relative authority, any woman who doesn't do likewise must seem like quite a threat. Perhaps men are a lot less vocal on problems in the church? Or they're not seen as a threat when they are?

I'm not sure its strictly limited to women or to gender issues, as I've found on numerous occasions that applying any kind of political analysis to a church or Christian organisation will anger those who feel secure in the assumed safety of their unchallenged privilege.

But the reason its so horrifying to see it in gender debates is that this is where the greatest, most common and most stark internal injustice of the church so often rears its head. Race? We often have separate churches. Economics? Very often the working/under class are just plain excluded. Gender? Its laid out clearly inside many churches, with men visible at the front and women (who usually outnumber the men) invisible at the back.

(Perhaps that should have been a blog post response instead of a 'comment'!)


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