Theology and Ideals can get in the way of good communication – with God and with others.
This is something we have seen in recent cultural developments – particularly discourse around ‘Black Lives Matter’ and the addressing of issues such as racism and sexism within the church. We see people defend church or systems before truly listening to the pain that people express.
I have spent many years explaining, teaching and confronting sexism and misogyny within church experience – both mine and others. There is a thing that happens when I recount my female friends experiences with men in the church, it happens every time I do this teaching or have this conversation. Its become known colloquially as “Not All Men-ing”. It takes two forms: the first, is that the man/men in the room will be shocked by what they hear and get defensive saying that they would never do such things, not all men are like this; the second is much more sad, it is when I or the woman telling the story prefaces her story by saying she knows the men in *this room* wouldn’t behave like this. I say the second is more sad because when you hear a woman do such a thing you need to know that she is a) prioritising the feelings of the men over her own pain even as she tells her story and b) she is used to getting such a bad reaction from men when she tells her story that she is minimising the harm in case the reaction is bad.
What is happening often when these issues are talked about is that the person who identifies with the group being criticised is experiencing some cognitive dissonance between what they consider ‘true’ and what someone is telling them is ‘true’. The ideal of a respectful church leader/respectful christian man is being undermined. The need to maintain that these ideals exist kicks in and, rather than listening and hearing the criticism, they say ‘No, but that doesn’t undermine the ideal’ ‘Not all men though’. The need to uphold our ideals and ideas is strong. Within faith our ideals are often to do with identity – we have built our understanding of ourselves, God and our community on theological ideals – when something criticises them we want to defend them.
Discussions about the phrase ‘Black Lives Matter’ have helped us understand this better recently. There is a response to ‘Black Lives Matter’ that goes ‘but don’t all lives matter, Jesus loves everyone’. [Though I will discuss this here I wish to make it clear that the ‘All Lives Matter’ campaign has its roots in white supremacist groups trying to derail the campaigns against racist violence within the US and should not be used by Christians who wish to challenge the BLM movement]
What Black activists have made clear to us white people that in defending the ideal that all people matter equally before listening to why they are saying Black Lives Matter we aren’t listening. The movement Black Lives Matter upholds and defends the ideal that all people matter not only to God but within secular society – and even more so that if we believe that God loves everyone equally then we should be able to stand shoulder to shoulder with those who demand that Black Lives Matter because of, not in spite of, the fact that all lives matter.
For many it was a hard lesson to learn that their ideal position (that everyone matters) needed in that moment to be subsumed to promote only a part of it. It also was hard for many to hear that despite our constant protestations that racism is bad, that we accept everyone and our churches are open for all, that actually our Black siblings in Christ were not feeling that. Or that they felt it in church but that the church had rested on these ideals rather than fighting for the systematic freedom of Black people in our communities. I, like many, felt the urge to say “but I’m doing my best” or “but what should we have been doing?”. I felt that knee jerk reaction to centre my experience of racism from ‘my side’ and express it in conversations. I felt the desire to compare it to the sexism I had experienced. And then I remembered the lesson I had learned with ‘not all men’ and realised I was ‘not all white-people-ing’. Not only that but that to compare my suffering of being ‘othered’ was to centre myself once again.
The reason we often try to relate to someones experience by relating our own is that we think it helps show that we are empathetic. But there are some experiences that you cannot empathise with becuase they are distinct.
I will never know the pain of being judged for the colour of my skin or my ethnicity. It is not the same as being judged for being female and I am white, and any prejudice against white people is not systemically destructive.
If you are male, you will never know the pain of being judged for being female, any prejudice about men is not systemically destructive, and its not the same as being judged merely for how you were born.
I will never know the pain of being judged and excluded from church for being homosexual, my femaleness, though how it manifests is debated and that can be painful, the essence of me is welcome in church.
If when someone tells me that it is hard to be a gay Christian I respond by saying that Christian life is hard for everyone, I am defending my ideal of the Christian journey instead of listening to their experience. I’ve placed my bigger truth in the way of their experience – I’m not wrong. but I’m also shutting down their questioning.
Our ideals and the need to defend a theological point of view frequently get in the way of listening and hearing the other to whom we are talking.
I was raised with apologetics as one of the important parts of evangelism. Being able to ‘defend’ the gospel, and our faith, was key and still is key to many discipleship programs. Its a very western way of doing conversation – our job is to assert a premise and convince someone to assent to that premise. But it causes problems. It is hard to hear what someone is saying when you are constantly weighing how that affects one of your theological ‘truths’. It is extremely hard to re-evaluate that truth in light of their experience and new information if the point is to ‘defend the gospel’. It is even harder to give someone space to evaluate their experience if we are insisting that they see it through the lens of a particular theological truth.
I want to take you back to Martha and Jesus in John 11. My hope is that you went to read the chapter and saw the wider context and the end of the story. I am always struck by the way that Jesus hears Martha’s pain. He doesn’t deny it. Or say ‘But he’s not dead so just wait’, despite knowing for sure that Lazarus will be raised from the dead. Jesus doesn’t even defend the gospel to her by saying “but I’m the Christ” . Rather, Jesus allows her challenge, allows her pain, and even allows Mary’s challenge to him. He allows it to move him. Verse 33 says that Jesus saw their weeping and was greatly moved in his spirit. Its a strange thing to include when you think about it: at the beginning of the chapter Jesus has told his disciples that God’s will will be revealed through Lazarus death – and yet we are told that he is moved by their grief. Jesus allows himself to be moved by their pain despite knowing that there is a greater, bigger truth that exists and will be seen shortly. In that moment when Jesus doen’t tell Martha to be quiet, but feels and engages with her pain, and lets her own it, Jesus helps her to bigger revelations.
Sadly we are not Jesus. We cannot be sure that the ideal or bigger theological principle we are holding is right. All the more reason then to allow someone’s experience or pain exist before we tell them why they need to think about it differently. All the more reason to let ourselves be moved by their opinion, to give space to that opinion and hear it before we bring our own.
If we are trying to create places where people can sit with each other in the difficult space of disagreement – we will need to learn to let go, at least for a time, of our ideals and theological certainties and merely listen. This is not about setting them aside permanently and being without any ideas, or just throwing off our ideas for theirs. Rather it is about learning how to understand ourselves and what we bring with us to conversation so that we can listen without being defensive, consider without responding straightaway and being willing to know that we have bias as much as they do.
I shall talk about this in my next post – Pt 3: putting down our ‘stuff’.