tragically hip: privilege, sexism, & the emerging church


Conversation heated this week surrounding a recent Emergence Christianity gathering and the seemingly anti-feminist sentiments offered by Phyllis Tickle in her closing keynote. Julie Clawson (and other women) unpacked some of the tensions those words presented in a faith movement that prides itself on being forward-thinking, inclusive, and postmodern only to be chided by male leaders for launching "attacks".

Here we go again.

Can we talk about privilege? I've noticed that people's interest in discussing or accounting for privilege may be inversely proportional to the amount they possess. Which can be sort of a problem.

No one likes to admit to possessing any advantage over anyone else. You know, Bootstraps! and all that. Remember the Romney campaign and the Republican National Convention this past summer? We built it!

(I don't think this is a peculiarly American tendency.)

Upon hearing the word "privilege," many conjure images of prep schools, country clubs, and Old Money and launch into defensive mode: You have no IDEA what my life is like! / how hard I work! / what my family of origin was like!

You'd be right. I probably don't. You don't know my whole story, either, but these conversations can be windows into one another's experiences and a chance for us to learn.

Having privilege doesn't mean that one's life is easy or that you've never experienced disadvantage or pain. It is not a personal indictment but an acknowledgement that social and institutional benefits enjoyed by some are denied to others.

These conversations are complicated by the fact that many people will experience privilege in one realm and oppression and disadvantage in another. (Shay unpacks this well here.) I experience privileges as an able-bodied and neurotypical person, including easy access to buildings and restrooms, being able to hear fire alarms and announcements, and trusting that people aren't much concerned about my potential for "violent" break-downs.

Education and socio-economic status grant me other advantages, as does my Christian faith (despite what the distressed might have us believe). White skin confers an invisible knapsack full of privileges about which I rarely am made to give a passing thought. (Dianna Anderson explores this more.) Being heterosexual and cisgender allow me social and legal benefits that many cannot claim--or take for granted.

Beauty and intelligence confer advantages, along with speaking English (extra points for doing it without a perceivable accent), affluence, class, and age (or youth, depending), and there are certainly other areas I'm leaving out.

Privilege is largely invisible unless you don't possess it. Although it's easy for me, especially as a straight, white person, to remain oblivious to many of the advantages that I enjoy, in the areas where I lack access or power, that void is glaringly apparent and not so easily forgotten.

Which brings me to male privilege. Lord, have mercy.


In the early '00s I was a church youth minister, and during that time, my supervisor begin planting a missional, emerging church that Jim and I were part of as well. I read the books, relishing the wrestling that stretched my faith and energized the ministry.

But in 2005 we relocated to a small town, trading city life and our emerging church for camp ministry and a decidedly unsexy church full of modernist sort of folks who are double and triple our age. There was nary a goatee or guitar in sight, but we found a home there anyway, embracing liturgical tradition and the grace and generosity of community unlike ourselves in age, income, and often worldview.

It's only in recent months and years, though blogging and twitter, that I've waded back into the "emergent conversation." (Or whatever it's called now. I'm rusty.) My theology still overlaps, but I don't feel the same vigor. I feel like an outsider and not only because of the time that's passed.

As a woman, I am outsider looking in on a movement that appears to have lost much of its initial Kingdom-oriented vitality and practical, boundary-busting appeal.

Emergence Christianity online is largely a boys' club dominated by academics, celebrity voices, and professional clergy, and the climate can be dismissive of or even hostile toward the voices of women and people of color. They talk about being welcoming, affirming, open, and inclusive, but not everyone experiences that in actuality.

It's disheartening to hear white guys dismiss concerns about diversity and justice work as "identity politics," favoring theory and theology over people, stories, and meaningful change. What does it matter if you've got a rigourous Marxist argument and a brilliant vision for achieving actual systemic equality if you are actually talking over and silencing the very people excluded by current systems favoring you? There is nothing progressive about mansplaining.

the best Tumblr ever
Accusing people of "playing identity politics" is a fun trick played by voices on the Right, too, on gay people who speak up about bullying or discrimination, women who expose rape culture, and people of color who highlight racism in America. One privileged man's "politics" is another's identity, culture, and daily experience of injustice in the world. This dismissive categorization comes across like an intellectualized version of pipe down / play nice.

Is it possible to unite across demographics and to experience identity in being the body of Christ and liberation through growing the upside-down Kingdom of God together? Absolutely. That is part of the hope of the gospel, and I've certainly seen healing, beauty, and reconciliation come through Christ's love and common work. But privileged folks, whose identity and experiences are also socially located, must stop expecting others to check their personhood at the door and assuming the sort of faux neutrality or moral high ground we may not, in fact, possess.

We can't build the Kingdom of God with the tools of Empire and privilege.


Lack of female participation on a popular emerging theology blog led to an invitation not long ago for women to speak up, and they did in spades. I was particularly interested in how emerging pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber responded:

In general women are socialized to be fair-minded and aware of not stating our opinions too boldly (lest we offend or alienate) and to make sure everyone stays friends. This isn’t a completely bad thing, but as a result most of us have never learned to hold a position or stand firm in an argument because we are too busy trying to make sure people like us. So of course less women comment on the blog of a guy who’s not terribly concerned with any of that.

I don't disagree with her assessment of a particularly feminine tendency not to rock the boat. We are socialized that way, but it's patriarchy that enforces it, frequently painting (and punishing) assertive women as divisive, shrill, vitriolic, crazy, combative, contentious, and worse. Tony, who has made a brand out of being an ass (his words), is rewarded as a man for engaging aggressively, but when women accepted his invitation to comment and reacted strongly to his abrasive brand, he wrote a follow-up parable "releasing" angry critics from hanging around.

To me, this begs questions about what are the more "feminine" ways of relating, and why do progressive Christians preference [in men] more argumentative and "masculine" styles? Is this a value to uphold or subvert? Is there room practically in a movement framed as a conversation for a variety of personalities, backgrounds, gifts, and leadership styles and for people who don't conform to the prescriptive gender assumptions many still cling to, even unconsciously? Can we differentiate critique from attack, and is there room to disagree?

We aren't anywhere close to being post-racial, post-feminist, or post-equality, and I wonder into what are we "emerging" if the old ways of patriarchy and protected, hierarchical leadership still hang on so doggedly?


Despite all of this, I'm choosing to be encouraged. My hope is not in Emergence, politics, denominations, or celebrity pastors, but I do hold out hope for the one holy catholic and apostolic Church wherever She loves well. I hope in my sisters and brothers, in the Spirit moving, and the Kingdom of God taking root in even the darkest, most barren reaches of Empire. I'm choosing to sing freedom songs with Sarah Bessey who is done fighting for a seat at the table:

I have a tremendous well of hope for the voice of women in the church. The men at the table may be loud but the pockets of hope and love and freedom are spreading like yeast. I see it. I feel it in the ground under my feet. More and more of us are sick of wa
iting for a seat and so we are simply going outside, to freedom, together. And here, outside, we’re finding each other and it’s beautiful and crazy and churchy and holy. 
We are simply getting on with it, with the work and the community and the dreaming and the loving and the living out of the hope of glory.
We are getting on with it indeed, and no label, conference, leader, or small-c-church will legitimize or erase the work that God in doing in our midst.

So let's raise a glass to the lovers and truth-tellers. To servant leaders, liberation seekersencouragers, dreamers, readers, fighters, thinkers, pilgrimsstorytellers, and friends. To womanists, activistssages, survivors, and scholars. To artists, listeners, prophets, pastors, mamas, writerswrestlersmystics, feministscontemplatives, and women of valor. To question-askers, shit-stirrers, breach-menders, Kingdom-builders, boundary pushers, and trail blazers. To the bold, brave, honest, real, kind, and wise. To bakers, peacemakers, and rule breakers; to all the unsung faithful; and the daily practice of sacrificial, resurrecting love.

To lighting bonfires and raising something beautiful out of ash.

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