On Opening Our Doors to Critique

This post was originally written in September 2013 and it reflects issues that were going on then.

Reflecting on the questions that relate to John Howard Yoder’s fall, I have been pushed to consider my own blind spots and complicity in the brokenness of the world. I have written some suggestions below for how we – male theologians, pastors, leaders, bloggers, authors, dads, etc. – might participate in this work and open ourselves up to critique. (This is by no means exhaustive or even the best list for how to be an ally.)

1) Read and learn from the experiences of those who are not us and who do not reflect our power and privilege and read it as though our lives depend on it.

One of the problems with the kind of behavior that Yoder, Tillich, Barth, and others exhibit is, as Shelly F. said to me recently, it gets pathologized within theology, largely because many of us continue to read straight white males of privilege. Without a diversity of voices there is no critique, there is no challenge, not only to the power and privilege of these folks, but also to the fact that their behavior, our behavior and beliefs, is limited to subjective experience.

In opening ourselves up to different perspectives and experiences we may find that the issues hold to so tightly are far more complex and nuanced for who do not share our experiences and privileges.

For instance, what you find a lot less in minority communities and theology is an obsession with peace in the way that those of us in Quaker and Mennonite circles are. This is because they are coming at it from a different direction. In fact, this was one of the main critiques I picked up from Fuller around liberation theology. Liberation theology to many is problematic because, at least in some iterations, it allows for the possibility of revolt. Making space for the revolt of a group of marginalized folks tends to make those who are comfortable in power nervous. But seriously, can you imagine that? An entire movement of poor rural farmers doing theology and working to renew their church from the ground up can be completely discounted because of the possibility of violence. How is that act not itself a violent move? And why would we assume that our perspective and experience and beliefs around violence ought to be assumed by people living in radically different subjective experiences from ourselves? What is contextual theology if not allowing for and considering these differences?

2) We need to open ourselves up for critique, but especially when it comes from people who do not share our power and positions.

I am constantly blown away by how folks in the “radical” movements and emerging church circles completely block off any and all criticism. Comment sections will be turned off. Twitter followers get blocked. Comments like “this is too much to talk about online, if only we were in person we could really talk about this face to face” get made. The walls go up. What I have seen too often is largely just stonewalling women and people of color when they raise a prophetic voice. (And in an attempt to be truly open, I am often too afraid to lose “friends” by getting in the middle of it.)

We go about playing nice, until someone gets up in our face.

This defensive posture is not good for the soul. It reveals that there is a “peace that is preserving violence” and that while you like to think that you’re better than everyone else because of this or that idea, you are in fact not better at all.

It was brought to my attention that Piper’s final outburst in the season finale of Orange is the New Black nicely illustrates exactly this point. The white educated woman in prison who is more liberal than everyone else, who is “spiritual and not religious,” who doesn’t really belong there with all those other people, and is always seeking the high road has a monster in her too. And finally, the gloves come off and monster is allowed to rise up and she cannot control it any longer.

Despite all our fancy theology, our super reasoning skills, calling ourselves radical, and the fact that Zondervan gave us a book deal, you and I, are no better than anyone else. And all this masquerading is really dangerous stuff. People get hurt, abused, and even die in the process.

Let’s stop trying to protect ourselves from the outside world and the much-needed critiques we think we are immune too. We need to open ourselves up to critique, and work from a posture of listening and learning. I believe that it is the only way for us to grow and move towards the kind of church Jesus wants from us. We cannot continue to accept the kinds of abuses to persist that have dogged the church for so long.

3) If we say we are people of peace then lets lay down our arms. The next time we feel we are being attacked let’s hold our tongues. Let’s assume the other person actually has a valid point and something to teach us!

Let’s pull back on that nasty, passive aggressive comment we’re about to type and instead write, “thank you for sharing your perspective. I am going to sit with this and see what’s in here for me to learn…” Let’s imagine what it would be like to incorporate that insight into our own system of thought and consider what about our own thinking might need to be tweaked, changed or dropped. How about we take a sabbatical on all the defensiveness and stop pretending to be better than everyone else?

4) It’s not enough to just open ourselves up to critique, we need to scoot over and share the power we have. Let’s stop “giving voice” to people – it sounds so patronizing. Give others the stage and let them be in charge.

Put your own power into use for others, and let it be undermined by the people who you are in dialogue with and who you share the space with. Stop hoarding the microphone. There’s enough to go around. We need to see the difference between “giving voice” to someone and creating a “many voiced” movement. Giving voice means I maintain my status and power, I hold onto the microphone and put it up to someone’s mouth. I give them voice. And when they are done doing the part I’ve assigned, I take the mic away from their lips.

To create a many voiced movement we recognize that we have been given a stage or a book deal or a lead pastorate, a classroom or a popular blog but then we begin to utilize that that space in ways that amplify the voices of others. I’ve seen a number of women bloggers do this really well – Suzannah Paul & Sarah Moon. I have noticed that these women and many others have have guests post on their sites, giving them a chance to share their stories and give a different perspectives. Conversely, there are plenty of guys I know, and I have been guilty of this as well, who say we’re egalitarian, but then our blogrolls, twitter buddies, quotations, and books we read are all straight white dudes with beards (and probably Macs and Ray Bans). What gives??

A many-voiced movement is the counter-response to this kind of lip-service. Because a many-voiced movement is open to discernment, it is open to dissent and different perspectives. It is based in listening and sharing out of our collective intelligence. It operates off of the same principle of “nothing for us without us.” And if we are embodying the kind of leadership that goes along with it, we’re more likely to be open to critique and willing to own up to our own BS.

(I have been greatly helped in this learning process by three specific friends: Shelly F, Aaron S. and Jade S.)

Edited 9pm October 22, 2013

Edited February 3, 2015

18 responses to “On Opening Our Doors to Critique”

  1. Great suggestions, Wess! I am grateful for the ways that I have seen you living them out, by being open and listening to critique and by inviting a variety of people to preach at Camas Friends Church.

  2. This reminds me of the Quaker church I was a part of in which I was often ignored or disregarded as an African-American female. I left, so now they have their mostly white, suburban, middle-class church back where the powers that be can continue their agenda unhindered.

    • Pat, I’m sorry to hear that this was your experience and I don’t think it’s as unusual as we let one.

  3. A response to my own blindness and enemies has become, “I Love You, Teach me.”

  4. Nonviolence can be a burden that the ‘powerful’ use to hobble their victims; and it’s fine to say we should realize & repent where we’ve done that.

    The truth continues to be that: violence and fear are what feed and benefit our enemies — in maintaining their privileges, which is not as good for them as they imagine.

    It is one thing to tell oppressed (and violently oppressed at that): “No, no, mustn’t” — but the truth of it is: “Mustn’t, better not; you’ll be sorry.” Because “You have the right to remain angry. While you remain angry, everything you do will be counterproductive in ways that your indignation prevents you from realizing.”

    People in general get damaged in infancy in ways that make us do/think/feel all sorts of crazy things…

    and it’s mutual forbearance that makes for healing, the realization that “that evil bastid over there is me.” Not ignoring misdeeds, neither “letting them get away with it” nor “giving them what they deserve” but responding in a spirit of recognition. If we think what we’re trying to forgive is something we couldn’t possibly have done — we simply are not understanding what we have in common. Evil is real enough, but it springs from distortion, denial, despair of our human need to be loved.

    • Forrest, thanks for your response. I agree that a large part of this is recognizing that about not ignoring our own misdeeds, seeing where we are complicit and finding ways to respond that are mutually healing.

  5. I really appreciate this post Wess. It’s a critical point to make because often we hold our privilege in idolatrous ways and rarely bring those assumptions into question. A humbling invitation if we read your words honestly. These thoughts coalesce nicely with the idea in Mark Vansteenwyk’s book the Unkingdom of God. In it he suggests the subversive power of a posture if repentance and that it is an ongoing posture that seeks to tell the truth, not just privileged truth. Thanks!

  6. I don’t read your stuff enough, Wess, but I wondered if this most recent piece pertains specifically to Quakers or whether you’re speaking more generally?

    • Julie, hi! Thanks for the comment. Yes, I am writing this more generally, but I do think it applies to Quakers as well.

  7. Wess, I’d like to share with you a blog post a Friend in Baltimore Yearly Meeting wrote last year on this topic: My Quakerism Will Be Feminist and Anti-Racist or it Will Be Bullshit.

    I said essentially what you did in #4, much less eloquently, to a Friend at the Meeting I attended for 4 years, in response to an idea he had that was very much in the “giving voice” vein. His response was such that I now attend a different Meeting. I don’t think he sees either the hurt done in his response (to me) or the hurt done in his refusal to acknowledge point number 4 (to those marginalized within the Meeting or kept from it), so I don’t expect a repentant apology.

    • Mackenzie, it sounds like a painful experience. It is very difficult for people to “scoot over” because it is so threatening to give up control and power. I’ve seen it a lot in our yearly meeting lately too. There’s a lot of suspicion around younger leadership (or this is what I perceive anyways) a number of whom are women (and men) trying to find their place. It’s one thing to be a token “young person” and quite another to be trusted to actually hold a space of power. I am glad you found another meeting where I assume you have found the space you need?

      • I tried out a few other Meetings in the area, and I like Friends of Jesus (if Micah Bales is one of the other Quaker bloggers you see often, that’s his thing), but the timing is difficult.

        I started attending this one last month when my boyfriend, who is a member there, asked me to marry him, and it seemed like maybe I ought to go to the same Meeting if we were asking for marriage under their care.