Tuesday, March 28, 2006

how slapping a woman's butt helped me overcome patriarchalism

Disclaimer: for males only. Do not try this at home, church, or anywhere else.

In South Africa, during apartheid's legislated racial oppression and exploitation, a white Afrikaner Baptist pastor was visited by a white security policeman (sic). The policeman's visit was intended to intimidate the pastor from continuing with his anti-apartheid activities in a grassroots Christian organization called Koinonia. Koinonia organized multiracial fellowship groups among ordinary South Africans at a time when the state was doing everything to segregate the racial groups that it had created.

The Baptist asked the policeman whether the security branch of the police force was an equal opportunities employer. Taken aback, the policeman stuttered that it was.

Then the pastor asked whether the policeman was a racist, which he denied. The pastor said:
“I ask, you see, because every morning when I look at myself in the bathroom mirror, I see a
racist, brought up in a racist society, which taught me that those who were not white were
inferior. And every day I have to struggle with that racist, to undo his racism. And that is
why I do what I do.”

The story of the Baptist pastor and the security policeman pretty much sums up my story with regards women. Like him, I regularly have to scan for and root out my own attitudes of superiority because I am a male. Or, just because I am [...your prejudice here]. But I was not always able even to do this.

My own stupidity became clear to me only courtesy of an angry woman.

Earlier in my life I had been completely unaware that I thought that women was inferior to men. My first recollection of my thinking along these lines comes from a Methodist church council meeting. While listening to a woman speak, I was suddenly struck by the thought that she had no idea what she was talking about because she was a woman. From that day this is how I consciously thought about women in general, and women leaders in particular. I soon found that the male authors of the Scriptures and the male ministers of our church seemed to completely agree with me. As God was male – after all, Jesus was a man, duh! – we men were obviously meant to be in charge. When I found out that my gender entitled me as a high school teacher to more pay than my female colleagues, this, too, seemed natural.

Thanks to my male genitalia, I was not only the boss of all women everywhere, wiser than any of them (perhaps even all of them collectively), but obviously superior to them in every other way as well! Ah, to be a man... Never mind that pesky verse in Galatians 3 about there being neither male nor female in Christ. Like Christians slaveholders of old, I was free to ignore Paul in this instance.

I would probably still be thinking that way if I had not playfully slapped Julie's butt while walking up the stairs behind her at the Youth With a Mission base in Cambridge, Ontario. She whirled around, eyes blazing, and demanded to know why I thought I had the right to do what I did. I fished around for some lame reply, but she told me in no uncertain terms that her body was hers. No-one had the right to touch her without her permission, she insisted. She told me how fed up she was with men and their superior attitude to women. I had never seen a woman so incensed before. I knew that as a male I should be able to dismiss her quite easily. But for some reason, my obvious intellectual superiority failed to manifest itself right then.

Julie's anger led me to consider how my thoughts and actions towards women were not only hurtful to her, but wrong in general. Just as my male prejudice had reduced her to an object, it gave me the impression that I could treat women physically as I thought fit. I understood later that this attitude could quite easily support more brutal acts of violence by men against women. I came to see how my attitudes and actions supported and expressed a system of discrimination that benefits males at the expense of females. In some cases, such as apartheid South Africa, women of color even suffered dual forms of oppression, due to their gender, and their race.

How could I undo my male prejudice? The apostle Paul waffled in 2 Corinthians 5 about how I was a new creation in Christ, but in my Christian reality such instant magic is in short supply. In any case, everybody knows that miracles have to be hoarded for use only in finding parking for SUVs and deciding all-male sports championships in favor of my team.

So I would have to take responsibility for my own failings. In short, I would have to repent. I wish I could say that the plan I hit on was noble, but no, it was ugly and mechanical. In order to escape from my prejudice, I, like the South African Baptist minister, started by acknowledging that patriarchalism was part of me. Like him, I had to actively wrestle with its effects in my own life. I am ashamed to say that I began by consciously thinking of women as men (which reminds me of Jesus' curious advice to use mammon to make friends in Luke 16). Initially, this was the only way that I could see women as equals. After practicing this patronizing conceit for some time, I began to see women as persons with the same value and rights before God as me. I no longer have to consciously work as hard at this as I used to. I even sometimes confront male prejudice in others as I do in myself. But I always need women to point out those blind spots that I could and would not acknowledge by myself.

I could now never be part of a church that assigns inferior, or “equal but separate,” positions to women.

Which brings me to the age-old question about whether a male leopard can change his spots.

The answer is yes, but not easily, and certainly not without the help of an angry woman.

Thanks Julie, wherever you are.

unmaking our dominance

Recently, a number of posts have raised the issue of racial and gender diversity within the emerging churches. In particular, white and male dominance have come under scrutiny. I have been thinking about how a global view could expand our perceptions not only of how we are enmeshed in relations of dominance, but how these can be turned into opportunities for liberating ourselves and others.

We can start by imagining ourselves somewhere within a number of concentric circles of dominance, which we objectively and subjectively help maintain. Our location within these relations of oppression are not always of our choosing; moving beyond them does require our active participation, though.

Obviously, if I was born as a male or as white, neither of these are options that I had any say over. But I do have control over how I act as a male towards women, for instance. My implicit support for comments other males make that denigrate women - or silence about such comments - contributes to structures of male dominance. By speaking out against patriarchalism I can contribute to unmaking male dominance. I can attempt to contribute to alternative occupational structures that prevent women from fulfilling their capabilities. Or, I can remain passive and so support the glass ceiling. In relational settings I can choose not to be dominant. I can encourage women who hold on to images of their own subordinance to let go of these self-perceptions.

I am talking here in systemic terms; we have to think about how we contribute to maintaining systems of dominance through our actions and perceptions. We need to see these systems as global, as closely linked to economic and political structures, but expressed in local ways. We also need to bear in mind that systems are constructed from the actions of individuals, and so can be deconstructed by the same actors. This insight prevents us from losing hope, and helps us recover a sense of our own power.

If I sound paternalistic, I apologize. My intention is rather to think through this for myself as I go along.

Let us look at a cultural example. Consider how Anglo cultural dominance affects other cultures within the US. This is effected by males and females, and their participation in political, economic, religious, and social systems. Then think about male dominance which stretches across perceived boundaries of race, and is kept in place by the underlying cultural systems. Reflect on how the US dominates the world in cultural terms (music, videos, dress, sports, speech codes), to say nothing of military terms.

Or think about our participation in global economic dominance. All who live in the the US
passively benefits from exploitative actions undertaken in "our" name, through the cheap prices obtained by "our" multinationals, for example. Obviously, through the manipulation of
the political system, the economic benefits do not extend equally to all, as much of these actions worsen the condition of those at the margins of society (read both Barbara Ehrenreich's detailed firsthand descriptions of life as a blue collar and as a white collar worker). But,
we all do benefit - regardless of ethnic identity, gender, or class - when we buy goods from companies that exploit their own employees, or get goods through "third world" sweatshops, or pollute their communities.

My point is that while one may be dominated within the US, from outside the US one would be viewed as part of those who globally subject others to their way of life.

I am not sure how we move beyond this. At each level, those who dominate have to "repent" (reverse actions and thoughts) towards those that they dominate. In part, the terms in which the dominant live out their repentance have to be set by the dominated, though, otherwise liberation does not occur.

To make it concrete, if I am white, how do I repent of my whiteness? Obviously, I cannot change my skin color.

But I can, first, acknowledge my own embeddedness in white dominance and the concrete ways in which this affects me and others. Second, I should express some regret towards those that I have directly affected (e.g. through racial slurs). Third, I must make some form of symbolic restitution towards those whom I have indirectly affected (contributing to an education fund for underprivileged students, for instance). Fourth, I must act and think differently about others over and against whom my social location have advantaged me. But then what? What if African Americans, or Native Americans, or women, continue to view me as part of the problem, despite my attempts to change? Or, what if they continue to see themselves as dominated?

This is where the terms of my repentance need to be set by others, and accepted by them. Otherwise, we are into an eternal destructive cycle, in which our objective repentance is undermined by others' subjective perceptions of who we are.

I guess this is a long-winded way of trying to think through how one could merge a theology of incarnation (identifying with the dominated), repentance (acting to undo the structures
of domination), and justification (accepting that what little one can do is not enough, but
awaits the acceptance of others over whom one has no control). Ultimately, our sense of
powerlessness forces us to acknowledge that this is a project that we cannot achieve by
ourselves. We need to be embedded in a community which helps us, particularly a community of those whom we dominate.

Of course, our actions of undoing need to address individuals and systems at the same time
-- not one or the other. This involves political, economic, social, and religious actions in which we participate with others across the globe. The undoing of apartheid in South Africa can serve as an example of what is required in practice in the undoing of a systemic evil.

refractions of the emerging church movement

As a rural outsider looking in, this is my attempt to participate in the wider conversation about the
emerging church. The emerging church refers to a
movement that is trying to rethink what, where, and how Christians could meet and act corporately in the
light of our current postmodern condition.

The emerging church movement arose during the 1990s out of frustration with the irrelevance of much that passes
as church, coupled with a desire to take seriously the teachings, acts, and person of Jesus. There is a nice
(i.e. brief!) Wikipedia article that defines what the emerging church is about.

The "Red Herring" title subverts my own thoughts (and its seriousness) in an ironic way. At the same time,
the title suggests that both my own contributions and the comments of others could well also be irrelevant.

In this way, "herring" indicates irreverence, irrelevance, and yet immanence.

There is also a tenuous connection with the Christian fish symbol. The herring has additional symbolic meanings
- including prosperity (Scotland), abstinence (France of the Middle Ages).

As the herring family occurs in both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, the title also signals for me a global unity.

If you have any questions, let's talk!