Rethinking Privilege; Pursuing Justice

I have written and rewritten this article more times than I have for any other article, because what I say here is sensitive but critical, so I want to make sure I say it right: privilege, and the narrative which surrounds it, has turned into a problem. This is not to say that privilege is wrong, because it is not. The things it highlights are real, so please do not think that I am a straight white male Protestant from an upper-middle class family trying to discount racial, gender, or other types of inequality. And do not suppose that I am trying to couch inequality in a light that makes me and other white people look better. I want to refine the narrative in the ways that I think will bring us back to the end goal we are all seeking, which is justice for all.

Before I start, I would like to recommend that everyone read Drew Hart’s piece, Beyond a white privilege model, in the Christian Century. He touches on a lot of the points which I had in mind when I first began writing this piece, and his observations are top-notch. Reading that article was a breath of fresh air for me, because I had felt as though I were challenging that which should not be touched when I discussed with other progressives the shortcomings of privilege as the central framework for social justice.

In short, the problems with privilege have largely to do with three things:

  1. The refocusing of social justice on the dominant class
  2. Its tendency toward unproductive guilt
  3. The imprecision of the term

Hart touches on the first two of these issues in his article, and I believe these are the most critical. In fact, the third issue may take care of itself as we adopt new terminology to solve the other problems, but it is worth exploring the issue to avoid similar mistakes in the future.

Refocusing on the margins

I have read seemingly-countless articles written by white people about how they have privilege. This is not itself a bad thing, but it is not enough. By contrast, I have seen very few white articles discussing the nature of the problems facing minorities or delving into the structures which support institutionalized racism. Case in point, I have heard little or nothing about the Drug War in the entire coverage of Ferguson and Mike Brown, but the Drug War is the very heart of the school to prison pipeline.

There could be any number of reasons for why people rarely move beyond discussing privilege, but I will guess at a few. I cannot make direct accusations, as this is speculation as to others’ motives, but I will instead leave it to the reader to examine him/herself to see if any of these apply.

Firstly, talking about privilege affords a certain degree of moral license; that is, having sufficiently acknowledged our privilege, we can now go home for the day, because our work is done. This is an incredibly selfish approach to injustice, because it turns others’ plight into good moral feelings for the dominant class; however, it is an especially pernicious mindset, because these feelings of moral satisfaction occur automatically and without our notice. We have to be conscious to avoid discussing privilege as a sort of therapeutic exercise, because it is not about us.

Secondly, people may not feel like they are supposed to give this kind of input. This is closely related to the second overall problem with privilege: unproductive guilt. It can be distinct, though, in that some may simply be mistaken about what addressing social justice requires of them. Because there is such a great emphasis on terms like “voice” and “platform” and who is in control of these, the dominant class may feel hesitant to use its own voice/platform to speak directly to the subject, leaving that strictly to people on the margins. This may be a simple mistake of thinking that this is an “either/or” rather than a “both/and” problem: the dominant class needs to give a platform to the marginalized, and it needs to speak to the issues.

Whatever the case may be why the dominant class fails to move past discussing privilege, it needs to happen. If I had to suggest a new center for the social justice conversation, it would be — and this should not be a surprise — justice. This is the entire point, is it not? –to seek justice and rectify injustice? If there is a better center, then someone please point it out, but if we frame the conversation around justice and the lack thereof, then the marginalized stay in focus at all times.

This will grow clearer as I discuss the imprecision of the term “privilege”. The mental motion accompanying an invocation of privilege only places us thinking about the person benefiting from that privilege, because we do not structure our societies around privileges. That is, privilege does not lend itself to an understanding of the bigger picture; it focuses us on the privileged class. Our vocabulary should instead refocus us on the goal. A justice-based vocabulary always invokes the question of who suffers from injustice.

Rather than consider this in the abstract, consider an example. In the privilege framework, we would say that it is white privilege to be treated with respect by the police. As I say this, it throws the focus back on me and makes me feel bad that I am treated respectfully, but this should not be; the problem is that black people and other minorities are not treated respectfully by the police. Reframing this in terms of justice — and bear with me, as I am experimenting with the terminology — we could call fair treatment by the police something like “selective justice” in order to demonstrate that (a) it is just for someone to receive such treatment, and (b) such justice only goes to a certain portion of the population. This raises the question: who was not selected? And the hope is that this inquiry draws our attention back to the margins.

Overcoming guilt

Through no fault of my own, simply by being born, I entered a world where I was a member of most every dominant class in America besides the ultra-rich. While I do want to do something about the fact that there are dominant and marginalized classes, I have absolutely no intention of sitting around feeling guilty about something I had no part in creating. Rather, I will simply refuse to be a part of the systems which perpetuate my dominance — no guilt required.

Perhaps because of the influence of evangelical moralism on American culture, the Internet discussion surrounding the privilege narrative has grown, in my estimation, self-righteous and moralizing. The trope of the Internet Social Justice Crusader is all too common, and such people seem intent on making people feel bad about the privileges (selective justice) which they enjoy. I would cite examples, but I do not wish to offend certain people engaging in what I assume to be some well-meaning but misguided efforts.

I had problem enough overcoming the life-crippling guilt that came with my prior evangelicalism. I have moved on from that, and I have no interest of going back. I do not believe anyone else should, either. Misplaced guilt is a place of stagnation, because there is no course of action one can take to overcome it. Productive guilt corrects fault, but people born into an unjust circumstance share in no fault. The person of privilege (selective justice) then is stuck with guilt and no recourse to overcome it. Granted, there may be a temporary corrective period during which one admits to past mistakes which abused a position of dominance, and guilt may be a temporary salve to cure vice, but it is not a position where we need to stay.

A better alternative would be honesty and sorrow. We need to own up to the fact that we still enjoy the benefits of selective justice, but we do not need to feel guilty about something which we had no part in creating. We also should feel intense sorrow that there are those who continually experience injustice. These are both productive emotions that we should use to supplant the thoroughly guilt-ridden and moralizing narrative which pervades the Internet.

Additionally, we need fewer self-deprecating diatribes from people of the dominant class talking about how bad it is that they have privilege. As stated earlier, this has the effect of pretending we have done something of substance toward the cause of effecting justice for all. Such diatribes could pass as Calvinist rhetoric with but a few careful word-swaps, trading “privilege” for “total depravity” or “fallenness.” I am sensitive to such bullshit, for lack of a better term, and it strikes me as pure self-serving false humility, especially given the aforementioned dearth of articles tackling relevant issues besides privilege. I have said enough of this earlier; we should avoid self-deprecation as a source of good moral feelings.

Making Relevant Distinctions

If we start reframing the problems we face in terms of justice, these last problems will likely disappear of their own accord, but I will argue this point just to illustrate further how we really do need to move past privilege to a new framework.

Consider three different scenarios:

  1. White people being treated fairly by the cops
  2. White people opting out of a conversation which forces them to acknowledge injustice
  3. Only offering services to white people

These each have a remarkably different character, yet all three lose their distinctions and become a single concept, “privilege.” When we frame the conversation in this manner, it prevents us from making the relevant distinctions that we need in order to be able to address each problem correctly. The list above is hardly comprehensive of all the different sorts of things that fall under the “privilege” heading, but allow me to attempt to categorize each in the proposed new framework:

  1. Selective justice: explained earlier, this is a just treatment for white people, but it needs to extend to all.
  2. Exploitation of justice/weaponized justice: the person opting out uses their just treatment as a means to ignore others’ problems.
  3. Injustice: this is a direct offense.

The terminology I use here is not set in stone; this is just an early attempt to reframe the problem. Even still, it should be clear that in this new framework, each term gives an implicit reference to the marginalized; at no point is only the dominant culture in view. I highly recommend that we recenter the conversation around variations on the theme of justice/injustice, because justice is the ultimate goal. Any implication that there is less than perfect justice serves as an impetus for people to rectify that condition, whereas privilege tends to be an unwieldy concept that variously angers, confuses, or wracks with unnecessary guilt.

I should point out that the essay by Peggy McIntosh which helped shape the current state of the social justice conversation, White Privilege and Male Privilege: A Personal Account, is an imprecise first foray into the subject by its own admittance. It is, as she says, “not a scholarly analysis.” We should take this to heart: her essay only intended to set the ball rolling on the conversation and was not intended to be a final word on the subject. Still, I find many articles on social justice issues following her example to the T as though she had written the definitive treatise on all things social justice. We should not take offense if someone wishes to correct our course, then, because the one who set the course seems to have desired someone to help correct it in the first place!

So while my proposed vocabulary is not final, either, we should take steps to avoid the pitfalls of McIntosh’s model, which is far too much of a blunt instrument. Better explanatory systems mean more convincing arguments, and more convincing arguments mean that more people will side with justice rather than perpetuate injustice through ignorance. We should leverage our critical and creative thinking skills toward the development of better frameworks, vocabulary, and argumentation rather than adhering to the old framework as though it were dogma.

Final thoughts

Much of this essay has come out of a conversation with a friend over the nature of the privilege narrative. He makes a strong contention that we should allow the people on the margins to frame the conversation in terms that they find acceptable. I really do want to agree with him, but I find this hard to accept in full. I agree that the terms of the framework should be acceptable to those on the margins; however, as one gifted with philosophy and analysis, I would consider it a waste not to help and provide feedback.

Bear in mind that McIntosh was framing the discourse on privilege from the position of dominance; however, if there really are problems with the nature of the discourse as set by those on the margins, then my first intuition is that I should raise my objections respectfully — not to delegitimize the experiences of those on the margins but to enhance the nature of the dialog. And so it is that I offer the contentions of this essay: not as a final word to silence the people on the margins talking about privilege but as a good faith effort to help bring about needed changes to our society. I am certainly open to correction and critique.

Posted in Christian Culture Issues, Ethics, Social Justice | Leave a comment

Mark Driscoll is no accident

If you haven’t heard what is going on at Mars Hill church in Seattle, a long history of abuse is coming to a head in just the last few weeks and months. People are finally standing up for what is right, even if some of it isn’t going quite how I would like. Still, as someone hurt by people who looked up to Mark Driscoll and emulated some of his behavior, this is something of a symbolic victory. I hope that people who support — or even once supported — Driscoll will take this as a time to reflect on their own actions.

In the spirit of reflection, allow me to make a suggestion: Mark Driscoll is not an accident. This would be very convenient if it were so, if Driscoll were a weird hiccup in the evangelical world where one pastor went power-mad and made some bad decisions. Then, by kicking him out of his position, we could rest easy, and our work here would be done.

But no, this is no accident. Driscoll is a product of a corrupt culture, not the other way around. Let’s look at another case study to see why that is by examining the kind of horrific logic a white supremacist would use to justify violence and abuse:

1. The highest good for man is for the superior white race to have political power and for their values to be enshrined in law.
2. There are people who would try to make whites share power with people of other races.
3. Therefore, there are people who would try to undermine what is good.
4. One is justified in taking action that promotes the highest good.
5. Therefore, one is justified in preventing others from making whites share their power with other races.

Outside a few fringe readers, I’m sure we can all agree that this kind of thinking is horribly evil, but it happens. The logic itself is valid in the sense that, if the premises were true, the conclusions would follow, but the problem is that white supremacists have bad values. They have a corrupt sense of what is good, and this justifies their horrible actions.

It is no great stretch to suggest that the same thing is happening here, and the problem may actually hit closer to home than many are willing to admit. Consider a similar syllogism:

1. The highest good for man is for people to go to Heaven to be with God.
2. To go to Heaven, one must adopt Christian beliefs and practices (caveat for the “faith alone” crowd: the assumption is that true faith will produce action, per the book of James).
3. There are people who undermine Christian belief and practice.
4. One is justified in taking action that promotes the highest good.
5. Therefore, one is justified in preventing people from taking action that would keep people from going to Heaven.

I am assuming a lot of you don’t see the problem with this logic. And, if you start looking for a problem, let me assure you that the logic is valid, so the question is this: which premise do you throw out? Which of them isn’t true? The best candidates are 1, 2, and 4, because 3 is obviously true. A lot of Christians are also going to want to uphold 1 and 2, so naturally they would attack 4. But how is one justified if not in taking action that promotes the highest good? What kind of actions are good but those that produce goodness? 4 is, by my count, trivially true.

Many of you reading this should feel very uncomfortable right now, because if there is a problem with the logic, then we would need to throw out a premise which someone like Mark Driscoll would consider to be an unquestionable part of Christian orthodoxy. And if you look at Driscoll’s rhetoric in his attempt to account for his mistakes, you see him talking extensively about both premise 1 and 2: he has done sooooo much to guide people to God by persuading them to enter the faith! And what’s more, if you really think about it, all of the actions Mark has taken — the ones for which he now stands accused — are more or less in service to helping people go to Heaven by converting them to Christianity. The bullying, the manipulation, etc.: all of that is fairly justifiable if it sends more people to Heaven. He’s just being a good servant.

It is no wonder Mark has such a difficult time understanding what he has done wrong. He might have been loud, crude, or rude, but it was all in service of the Gospel — it produced results. It sent people to Heaven. And so he talks about wanting to be more of a fatherly figure, because he thinks his tone is the problem. Hint: it’s not. It’s really not. There is plenty of room for loud, crude people in this world. The problem is right there in the logic, but is it 1 or 2? Or is it both?

Let me offer you a familiar parable.

A man lay injured on the side of the road. A drunk man had struck him unknowingly as he sped down the highway. Another man, a pastor, saw the injured man, but, thinking that this wasn’t his problem, left the man and continued down the road. An evangelist, too, saw the man, but he had a conference to go to, and he didn’t want to be late. An atheist, though, saw the man, took pity on him, and brought him in for medical treatment. The injured man being homeless, the atheist used her money to cover his medical bills.

Which of these three — the pastor, the evangelist, or the atheist — had goodness in their hearts? Which of them acted righteously? Let the answer to this parable tell you why Mark Driscoll is the result of a much bigger problem. You will have to discard one of the premises which you hold dear. Let me submit this much: to the extent which you do not act as Mark Driscoll did, you are persuaded by your better nature to be inconsistent with what you say you value.

To him who has an ear, let him hear!

Posted in Christian Culture Issues, Ethics | Tagged , , , | 9 Comments

Does theology have a reason to exist?

deal with itThe following is semi-formal discussion of theology and philosophy. While I am passionate about the subject matter, it could come across as stuffy and impersonal compared to my usual posts. I will use words like “situatedness.” Deal with it.

Theology is both wrong and harmful in its common use

This came up in a private conversation: I would contend that theology is simply harmful in general or at least as people usually go about working in the discipline. Outside of a very select group of claims, any time that theology tries to make metaphysical assertions, it both fails and harms.

Theology fails because it does not provide justification for its beliefs beyond the pure assertion of those beliefs, the assertions usually taking the guise of direct revelation from God. The guise fades when one asks theology to defend the status of revelation.

Theology harms because these unjustified claims then go on to become boundary markers which delineate the shape of the in-group or the tribe, thus excluding and marking as “heathen” and “other” those who take up alternate positions.

Theology fails in making metaphysical claims

So, then, does theology have continued relevance? As a discipline similar to the sciences or philosophy, which aspire to answer questions of truth, my answer is quite simply “no.” Theology certainly has no (or few) shared interests with science, and whatever it shares with philosophy, philosophy does better. The only plausible claim to truth which theology might hold over philosophy is divine revelation; yet, so far as I am aware, all instances of supposed divine revelation are suspect. Such instances are much more easily explained in human terms.

If theology were to attempt to continue investigating metaphysics in the same or similar manner as philosophy, then it would do so as though it were trying to describe the universe using a translated ancient vocabulary with its meanings mangled by a centuries-long game of telephone.

Foremost among the metaphysical failures of theology is, I believe, that theological meta-ethics frequently settles on divine command theory.* Divine command theory gives special metaphysical status to every moral command, supposing it to be a fundamental part of the moral fabric of the universe. For example, from now til the end of time will sex before marriage be forbidden; this is what God has commanded.** To the theologian, it is as true as the laws of physics. Yet by taking this approach, the theologian forgets the historical situatedness of the Biblical prescriptions for sexuality, firstly in the ancient near eastern world and secondly in Roman-occupied Hellenistic Israel.

* Thomas Aquinas approached ethics from the vantage point of natural law and virtue theory, which are decidedly philosophical positions. This excuses Aquinas and others like him from my criticisms here.
**This presupposes that the theologian assumes both divine command theory and the eternal unchanging nature of God, which are fairly common beliefs to hold in tandem. If one were to hold DCT but not God’s unchanging nature, I would criticize DCT differently, but I exclude this argument for brevity’s sake and to criticize the more common position.

Treating morality this way, the meanings of the various Biblical prescriptions regarding sexuality or any subject, then, take on bizarre shades that may or may not share any attributes with their original contexts, even though they may pretend at this status: because God supposedly commanded various things through Scripture, they must apply in the same fashion even today. Additionally, the theologian assumes that the prescriptions were appropriate in the first place, i.e. that the Bible always gives good moral advice, which is questionable if not simply incorrect. For all of the Bible’s many merits, it is the product of sexist, homophobic people. It follows that theology attempted in such a manner should fail miserably to meet the moral challenges of the present generation.

In other areas of metaphysics, such as in claiming attributes about God, theology fails similarly. Among other things, one cannot provide any sort of justification, including revelation, that God exists as a Trinity. Even supposing that (a) Jesus was God and that (b) the Gospels accurately record his sayings (at least (b) is dubious), one must contend with Jesus’ statement in John 3 that he has revealed things to us by analogy so that we may understand and relate to them. Theology is thus impotent to make claims which extend beyond analogy, yet it demands more than analogy if it wishes to make strong claims about morality, a seeming necessity to those who hold theology most dear.

Theology creates hostility

Among those who approach theology as a metaphysics, there is a decidedly strong tendency to cast dissent in a combative light. Because the theologian tries to say that some things about God are right and some are wrong — and this without justification, as previously discussed — contrasting opinions are not simply wrong but also dangerous. The fates of immortal souls hang in the balance.

Contrasted with, say, differences between the opinions of virtue theorists and consequentialists, differences of opinion between theologians and the laypeople who ascribe to various schools of thought are not merely differing perspectives, each with their merits. Rather, each theologian supposes that the others are making some grievous mistake which will have horrendous results in the eternal scheme. Depending on exactly how grievous this mistake may be, the theologians may either forge an uneasy alliance or engage in outright verbal or, if society should allow, physical combat.

And because theology as a metaphysics relies on the false assumption of revelation, differences between theologians are intractable. The conversation boils down to the arbitrary selection of which passages are definitive out of the contradictory whole of the Bible, as even the best hermeneutics can only interpret a passage, not resolve a contradiction. One camp places importance on one set of texts, whereas another camp reveres another set. They duke it out in various arenas until one camp silences the other, usually by some means of coercion. Then another group decides a different set of texts to be most important, and this cycle continues ad nauseum.

The only solution for a sustainable theology as metaphysics is to establish a governing body which imposes its arbitrary selections on all others. Thus, the authority of the Catholic and Orthodox churches seems momentarily inviting to the bedraggled Protestant who tires of constant inter- and intra-denominational bickering. It resolves by force, under the guise of apostolic authority and not by reasoned justification, the otherwise endless debate. Yet, because no human authority is omnipotent, the occasional dissent may still arise, resulting in the various schisms.

Theology must abandon metaphysics and embrace mythology

If one looks at the earliest myths prior to their later misinterpretation and misuse by later generations (one could consider this the earliest theology), one sees various people-groups attempting to define themselves and their cultural values. Whereas Jewish theologians pretending to metaphysics in the first century AD and immediately prior supposed themselves to be good because of their actual lineage to Abraham, the myth-makers who invented Abraham (or at the very least mythologized him) did so to carve out an identity around which their people could gather. Historicity was of secondary importance to establishing a culture.

Theology must reclaim myth-making and myth-telling to retain its importance in society. Myth affords us both a common set of values at the same time as it allows for flexibility within those values. Myth can hold high stories of virtuous or flawed heroes without requiring that we emulate those heroes precisely. It gives us the freedom to consider philosophy individually while also tying us to our neighbor.

Yet one could very easily question why myth-making and -telling should be theological; there is nothing which explicitly forbids secular myths. Here, we should say two things: first, it would be widely beneficial for secularists to craft or select their own myths, preferably in tandem with those of theists in order that the competing but similar myths should give us a sense in which we are both participating in the same human experience. Second, I should point out that the original question was for the future of theology, not culture in general, thus presuming that there is at least some agreement that God probably exists (or at least is a useful concept) among those to whom this question is relevant.*

*Such an agreement would be either philosophical or historical in nature, not theological, deferring either to strong arguments for the existence of a god in general, such as those by Aquinas (though they fail to support Christianity in specific), or to arguments for the divinity of Jesus, which are less widely-supported but which I personally hold to have at least a modicum of plausibility.

In myth and its close cousins analogy, allegory, and metaphor, theological concepts like the Trinity may regain significance. While one has little reason to believe that God exists metaphysically as the Trinity, the Trinity can exist as part of our cultural identity as a descriptive metaphor for how God desires cooperation and unity (among other things).

Another natural question which arises is why we should engage in mythology rather than, say, theistic philosophy. The latter is important and should continue; however, mythology is not just simplified philosophy in story form. Mythology may partially be this, but it is also a common framework for understanding cultural identity and value. I draw heavily from MacIntyre here (After Virtue) in suggesting that virtue in society consists of excelling in those things which the culture values, and mythology is an excellent way to frame cultural values: something like Harry Potter can capture the values of a society not just for the philosopher but also for the doctor, the salesman, the engineer, and the janitor. It may be up to the philosopher to help us refine or reconsider our values, but he/she cannot simply decide what we find valuable, and mythology helps us decide our values together by engaging us with a single narrative.

Theology has a future but perhaps not the future it wants

I sincerely doubt that my contentions here will resonate very strongly with the majority of people engaged in the discipline of theology at present. And of course, with this being a blog post and not a paper or book, I am sure I have made some oversights, and I would welcome discussion on anything I may have missed. Still, I do believe that the future of theology lies in reintroducing society to the mythic mindset, no matter what its current practitioners may desire. Theology as metaphysics is dead just as speculative metaphysics in general is dead, though perhaps some have tied puppet strings to its lifeless limbs. We should instead embrace the mystery of God and learn new ways of relating to Him and to each other.

Posted in Christian Culture Issues, Metaphysics | Tagged , , , , , | 7 Comments

This wasn’t what I wanted (on Mark Driscoll)

driscollThe Mark Driscoll saga has taken some pretty big turns in the past few weeks. The Acts 29 Network threw him out along with his church, and LifeWay Christian Stores has rescinded all of his books pending further investigation. Now, finally, Driscoll is stepping down from being the lead pastor at Mars Hill while hiring a major PR firm to handle damage control. Part of me is glad, because it is high time people in power stood up to Driscoll and others who abuse their power. Part of me, though, is upset. Something doesn’t feel right. In all that is going on, I don’t feel like I matter. I don’t feel like the people who suffered matter.

In particular, I cannot shake the feeling that Driscoll has grown into a public relations nightmare for people associated with him, and thus, like a cliche mafia boss tying up a “loose end” in a crime drama, they throw Driscoll under the bus as too much of a liability. The complaints piled up too high; the stench was too great. Kick Driscoll out and continue business as usual.

Stories about abuse in Driscoll’s church have circulated for years. The worst of what he has done is in the past and well-documented. The primary thing that has changed is that people have mounted a successful campaign against him. Church members are holding protests outside the Mars Hill church, and no, it is not Westboro holding “God hates…” signs; these are groups of normal people who are sick of what Driscoll is doing and hoping for reconciliation and repentance.

If you read the various press releases, however, the victims of abuse are rarely a concern. In Warren Throckmorton’s detailed coverage of the events, all the major released statements have little if anything to say about the victims. It’s all about “love for Mark” or “the cause of Christ” or “the gospel.” What about solidarity with the victims of his abusive behavior?

Look at the statements from when Driscoll was first kicked out of Acts 29. The statement by Acts 29 cites “love for [Mark], Mars Hill, Acts 29, and most significantly, the cause of Christ” as its major reasons for removing Driscoll. Former Mars Hill pastor Kyle Firstenberg states, “I believe this would be the most God honoring thing to do as it would show their love for Jesus and the Gospel is greater then their position, authority and influence.” Ron Wheeler, pastor of the first Acts 29 church, also says of the Network’s decision, “Not only did you recognize the credibility damage to the network due to the continuing association with Mark Driscoll, but more importantly, you recognized that the cause of Christ was truly more important than Mark Driscoll, Mars Hill, Acts29 or anything else.”

Unless “the Gospel” and “the cause of Christ” is really Christianese for “the victims you have abused,” then I have a hard time feeling glad about all of these statements. I sincerely doubt that, though; here is how I suspect these phrases translate: “we are glad that you value converting people to our particular worldview more than your own personal power and influence.” There is no regard for the victims and no regard for the damaging ideas which harmed them. To address these things would require wrestling with their own demons. Instead, this is simply an exercise in missing the point.

And as for LifeWay? As someone pointed out to me, there are countless other books besides Driscoll’s which they shouldn’t be selling if they had any actual interest in integrity. Aside from Peter Enns’ fabulous book, The Evolution of Adam, which I highly recommend, there isn’t a single book in LifeWay’s evolution category which they should sell. All of them are garbage, spreading lies and misinformation. The problem is that, while Driscoll’s books are bad, too, the difference between Driscoll’s books and all the other garbage they sell is that Driscoll is bad for business.

So if you will excuse my cynicism, I’m not exactly giddy at what is happening to Driscoll. I don’t think anyone taking major action against him really gets it. Bad as he is, they are treating him as a scapegoat for their own sins. Matt Chandler’s church (Matt is the head of Acts 29) states very explicitly within its bylaws that it is “imperative” all church staff agree on the sinfulness of all things LGBT. Furthermore, only men can be elders — the only requirement explicitly stated by the bylaws besides agreement with the church’s beliefs and active participation in the church. It is as if the church is going well out of its way to be homophobic and misogynist.

For Matt Chandler to give a pass to his own beliefs and practices yet criticize Driscoll is like a leper breaking a mirror to cure his sickness. I do not want the Acts 29 Network as an advocate against Driscoll, and I hope I can gather others to share my concerns and cast this back upon them so that they realize they are part of the problem. Sure, Driscoll is hotheaded, but at least he is entertaining. The other churches which preach the same things — but with nicer, smoother words and softer edges — are even worse, because it is harder to spot the problems before they have taken root and done their damage.

This is nothing but a better disguise for evil. Unfortunately, Driscoll wasn’t wearing a very good disguise and became a problem. At Chandler’s church, it’s okay to believe people should never have a sex change or fail to observe “associated gender norms” (quoting from Matt Chandler’s bylaws again), yet the church forbids “hateful and harassing behavior or attitudes.” Sorry, but too late there! This statement only tries to hide the knife as it plunges into the gut of the LGBT community.

All this to say that I’m glad the pressure is on Driscoll, but this isn’t what I wanted. I would prefer that Driscoll and others took seriously the complaints against them and addressed the systematic abuse perpetrated by their teachings. Instead, we have opportunists trying to save face as our biggest advocates.

Excuse me while I’m not excited.

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Robin Williams, Matt Walsh, Morality, and Mental Illness

Popular Christian morality has a strained relationship with mental illness, and this has scarcely been more apparent than right now. With Robin Williams’ tragic suicide yesterday, everyone seems to have an opinion to share — not a bad thing, as I had my own, but some of the opinions have been rather offensive. As a general rule, the worst time to preach about the morality of suicide is immediately after the fact. Even if you say something true, which seems to be pretty hard for a lot of people, the more moral proclamations you make, the more likely it is that your comments on the situation are ill-timed at best, horrible at worst.

And so it is with Matt Walsh’s insultingly-titled article, Robin Williams didn’t die from a disease, he died from his choice. The article itself is not as bad as the title, but it is still bad. Even if the article were good, the title is an offense of its own. Matt Walsh should apologize for the post (and honestly all his other posts, too) for speaking well beyond his expertise. To put Walsh’s advice in a nutshell, he basically states that people battling depression are faced with a difficult choice, and they ultimately need to be sufficiently spiritually-aligned to keep from making that fateful decision to end one’s life.

It’s not for me to comment on the exact nature of depression, and the same is true for Walsh. Read a trained therapist or maybe just study psychology if you want to know more. We have experts for a reason, and you should realize the limits of your knowledge and defer to people who know more than you.

Here’s the thing, though. We don’t expect people with Downs syndrome to perform rocket science. We don’t expect people with cerebral palsy to compete at the Olympic level. We never fault them for this, and we do our best to love them and support them in their limitations.

Why, then, do we treat people with depression and similar illnesses as though they should be able to perform at a level well above the limitations of their disease? Why do some people — like Matt Walsh — try to fault people for not making all the right choices, even when those people have problems which preclude making all the right choices?

Christian folk morality really needs for Williams’ suicide to be a choice. If it’s not a choice, how can we say that suicide is bad? How can we assign it moral value? And whose fault is the suicide if not the person who killed himself? This last question is critical, I believe.

It is trivially true that Robin Williams and no one else ultimately placed the noose around his own neck, but this is not enough to start assigning blame. This is precisely the mistake that Walsh and others make. They ask the question, “Whose fault is the suicide?” and then take the immediately-obvious answer without a deeper consideration of what could be the case. The action is too complex and premeditated, so folk morality has a very hard time placing blame elsewhere or perhaps placing no blame at all; the simplest explanation then prevails in spite of the facts which complicate the matter.

Folk morality has a long list of similar simplifications. Poor people should just make better decisions — even though the education necessary to make better decisions is expensive and out of reach. Black people should stop committing so many crimes and tearing apart their community — even though the criminal justice system unfairly targets the problems facing minority communities, even though the felonies received for minor crimes all but preclude finding a decent job. Women in a crisis pregnancy only do harm receiving an abortion — even though single mothers face horrible poverty and food security statistics.

Curiously, I began crafting the previous paragraph before I realized that in every case, Matt Walsh had already said the sorts of things I criticize here: over-simplifications of complex problems. So, I just made some minor edits and linked his articles. He writes as though his solutions are obvious to everyone, so people should just bow to his wisdom. Here’s a hint: the world is a complex place. Our first intuitions are frequently wrong. We have to do the hard work of researching a topic thoroughly before speaking about it — a concept which Walsh frankly fails to grasp.

One of the things that we will have to give up if we do this, though, is our naive outlook on free will which we inherit from folk morality and which informs Walsh’s latest gaffe. If only people would just choose to do the right things, right? If our choices were not colored by chemicals, by past experiences, by knowledge and experience, by disease, by bacteria in your stomach, and by a whole bunch of other factors, then sure. But the reality is that free will is such a complex subject that honestly not even the brightest philosophers, psychologists, or neuroscientists comprehend it. I certainly don’t, and I’ve studied it a good deal — far more, I assume, than Walsh, whose credentials and background seem totally elusive.

We really must divest ourselves of the tendency toward easy answers. Walsh is easy to pick on because he is so frequently wrong, but he is certainly not the only person who does this. Mental illness is a complex topic, and the answer to suicide isn’t just “don’t do it! Be more spiritual!” No matter how loudly we scream, that approach simply fails to address the situation. If we are serious about combating suicide, let’s address the systemic problems with our society that engender feelings of loneliness and abandonment, let’s end the stigma against getting help, and let’s learn a bit more about mental illnesses. Again, go read a psychology textbook or at least a good number of Wikipedia pages before presuming to make a judgment.

In tragic cases like Robin Williams’ death, it is easy to fall for simple explanations to make sense of the world, but we have to be better than that. We need to acknowledge the complexity of reality and recognize the limitations of our knowledge. If we fail, we make asses of ourselves, but I think we can succeed, and if we succeed, we make the world a better place. Let’s strive to be compassionate, informed citizens proudly working together to support the downtrodden and depressed. Let’s hope for a world where the next Robin Williams doesn’t have to die.

Posted in Christian Culture Issues, Ethics | Tagged , , , , , | 11 Comments

To stab the giant in the eye (RIP Robin Williams)

 

despairthegiant

Facing the giant, Despair; original work

“Yeah, well, I’ve got a dream too. But it’s about singing and dancing and making people happy. The kind of dream that gets better the more people you share it with. And, well, I’ve found a whole bunch of friends who have the same dream. And it kind of makes us like a family.”

- Kermit the Frog, The Muppet Movie

I can’t help but think that Robin Williams was a big fan of Jim Henson, creator of Kermit and the rest of the Muppets. Given that Williams appeared numerous times on Sesame Street, this has to be the case. I grew up on the Muppet Movie, and to this day, “The Rainbow Connection” tugs at all my heartstrings. While I never liked Robin Williams as much as I did the Muppets, in reflecting on Williams’ work, I see that same spirit. And now Williams joins Henson and so many other entertainers who died just trying to accomplish that very simple task of singing and dancing and making people happy. For that reason, the loss of Robin Williams feels a lot like the loss of part of my family, because he made it his life goal to make people like me happy.

With all the injustice and death in the world right now, it doesn’t feel like any of us deserve happiness. It also seems silly to mourn this one man none of us really even knew in the first place over the thousands upon thousands dying in Iraq, Gaza, and elsewhere. But what makes something like Williams’ death so poignant is that he challenged us all to find joy in a world that contains atrocities like Iraq and Gaza. He asked us to confront despair and death with a brazen smile. Against the odds, it all felt a little absurd, and honestly that was always what unsettled me about Williams’ work: why was he trying so hard to make people smile? What was with how he tried so hard to find simple-minded joy even in the face of death?

In retrospect, knowing that Williams fought and lost a lifelong battle with depression, I understand. This was his struggle, to smile and laugh and tell jokes. But he lost. If even such a man should give in to depression, should we abandon the hope he taught us to seek?

I continue to believe in Williams. I still hold on to hope. Let me tell you a little story: the Norse people said that at the end of time, the gods would knowingly ride to their deaths. The giant Surtr would rise up from the south to destroy the world. During the Ragnarok, the god Freyr would ram an elk horn deep into the giant’s eye, but the giant would swing his burning sword and kill Freyr.

This is Williams’ story. He faced the giant Despair with the utmost courage. With his smiles, his jokes, and his unabashed joy, Williams drove a horn deep into the eye of the giant only to be slain in the process. He could not kill it, but he would be damned if he did nothing to resist!

And this is how we should remember Robin Williams: a man of incredible bravery who fought to the last against an insurmountable foe — a man who tried to make people happy in a world that so often tempts us to give up hope. And maybe we can’t fix the world. Maybe death and misery will never leave us. I don’t care. Let us all cling to the hope of a better world even to the point of death, because that makes us better people.

Let us mourn for a life lost, but let us honor him by never giving up on joy. Let us keep singing, dancing, and making people happy — each in our own small ways, just as Williams taught us.

And to Williams, thank you so much for your life. We will miss you. Goodbye.

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Progressives, Paradigms, and Problem People

“If only everyone thought like me!” said pretty much everyone, ever. Unfortunately, such is not the case. And when it comes to important ideas, we often wish that the problem people — those who stubbornly refuse to change their views — would either just go away or, even better, have a sudden change of heart. Hopefully, I have something of a solution.

For a long time, I was one of the problem people to the various liberals I had befriended through Facebook. We had long conversations about different topics, and while most of those conversations didn’t go very far, they were at the very least informative, and I have to credit their graciousness in putting up with me as formative in my eventual change of opinion (which I outlined in my last post).

But as much as it might accomplish in the long run, I hardly think subjecting conservatives to religious abuse at the hands of a manipulative pastor (the tipping point for me) is a very good strategy for convincing more people to be religious liberals. Fortunately, I think there is a good solution. It obviously won’t work 100% of the time, but it may be quite more effective than just general arguing. The answer? Paradigms!

Photograph of Thomas Kuhn punching Rush Limbaugh/Jerry Falwell in the face.

Photograph of Thomas Kuhn punching Rush Limbaugh/Jerry Falwell in the face.

Philosopher Thomas Kuhn wrote about paradigms in his influential book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. To give a very crude summary, a paradigm is a general way of thinking about a subject which goes relatively unchallenged for a long period of time until people start discovering boundary cases where the general way of thinking has to make up all sorts of excuses as to why the paradigm is still any good at explaining those cases — the worse the excuses, the more likely it is people abandon the paradigm. Poor excuses push the paradigm into a crisis, which results in a paradigm shift.

But why should this apply only to science? What happened to me, for example, was that I had to deal with mounting evidence that my beliefs did not lead to the results I would have expected. The religion which claims “you will know them by your love” did not seem very loving, especially when I found the knife in my back at the end. This was the boundary case which I couldn’t explain, and it wasn’t enough just to make excuses. I had to undergo a total paradigm shift.

Manufactured pop music has to deal with the boundary case of why it is not this awesome.

By contrast, I remember a conversation long ago, when I was still something of an inerrantist, in which some people had tried to convince me that there were at least two separate stories of how David met King Saul in the Bible. Indeed, there are (1 and 2), but the problem is that it’s really easy to make excuses. “Oh, well Saul was a king, so he probably met a million people and just forgot who David was.” This and similar excuses are really easy to employ against minor inconveniences to the paradigm.

My solution, then, is to focus on the major problems with the problem you may be criticising. Fundamentalists already do this to would-be religious moderates who want to have their cake and eat it too on the intersection of LGBT issues and Scripture. The so-called “clobber verses” are very difficult to overcome on Biblical grounds, and honestly, I don’t think it’s possible to believe both in LGBT equality and Biblical inerrancy — pick one.

Fundamentalists seem to understand paradigms in an intuitive sense, and they are smart to take the approach they do, even if they support the wrong ideas. It is indeed a bit silly to suppose a startling new revelation in interpretation will suddenly change both the Bible and Christian history. Both/and approaches to LGBT equality and inerrancy frankly fail to make a strong case. Fundamentalists press their points where it hurts argumentatively, not just argue about every little thing that might be wrong. Hence, everyone gets really tired of the clobber verses, but honestly, it’s the best argument the fundamentalists have.

Social progressives, then, should focus on very clear counterexamples to the fundamentalist paradigm. My favorite example right now is Romans 1, which provides a supposed account of how same-sex attraction occurs. That passage is demonstrably wrong, and thus it has proven itself to be a very difficult problem for many of the fundamentalists to whom I’ve mentioned this. There are usually excuses about why psychology is bunk (and to be honest, as a nascent science, psychology does sometimes have issues), but the problem is even more insurmountable for the fundamentalist paradigm when one leaves out the moral judgments of psychology about same-sex attraction and focuses strictly on the attraction’s origin, which is very well-documented and directly contradictory to the Biblical account.

Photograph of Thomas Kuhn making excuses for his behavior.

Photograph of Thomas Kuhn making excuses for his behavior.

My point is to focus on things which stretch the paradigm the hardest. There are lots of ways in which fundamentalists are wrong, but many of the legitimate arguments against fundamentalism also have very strong excuses. “It’s not loving,” for example, has the tough-love counter, which is true in enough other cases to feel legitimate when countering pro-LGBT arguments. In fact, this is the primary reason why I think sharing the stories of LGBT persons will be particularly ineffective in convincing fundamentalists to change their positions, because the tough-love objection is so strong in excusing abusive behavior. Granted, that is not always the case, and stories sometimes really are convincing, but

So while I’ve noticed the progressive blogosphere tending toward sharing people’s stories, which is good, I think it is important to recognize that there really are intellectual issues at play here, too, and we need a holistic approach which stretches the fundamentalist paradigm to its limits and forces them to create enormous excuses. Additionally, we need to make people aware of their behavior so as to lower the number of excuses necessary before someone abandons a paradigm. If we keep repeating arguments which have easy excuses, then our objections will fade into obscurity and generally fail to convince, even if they are legitimate arguments.

Unfortunately, though, one of the problems (or perhaps just “sad implications”) with paradigms is that perhaps there are no arguments or experiences powerful enough to shake the incumbent paradigm out of someone’s mind. Even among scientists, whom you would presume to be eminently reasonable, sometimes the death of a particular idea coincides very directly with the literal death of those supporting it. But let’s do what we can to minimize the number of “problem people” by focusing our efforts on our most convincing arguments in order to push people into a whole bunch of individual crises of belief that require a total paradigm shift to solve.

I certainly do not have the exhaustive list of the most persuasive techniques, though. Let me ask this: if you, the reader, ever changed your mind on a major issue related to fundamentalism, please let me know in the comments below what eventually convinced you to change your mind. What was it you found most powerful? What did people try that you found ineffective? Or, if you are still fundamentalist in your beliefs (against LGBT rights, feminism, historical infallibility; pro-Biblical infallibility, religiously exclusivist), what do you find unconvincing about progressives’ arguments? I look forward to hearing your feedback.

All “photographs” copyright 2014 by me, Chris Attaway. But seriously, you could do better than copy these images…
Posted in Epistemology | Tagged , , , | 5 Comments