detox {on conflict, criticism, & who writes the history}

Innumerable blog posts, tweets, and think pieces churned out over the past few months offer blazing indictments of "toxicity" in progressive Christian and secular feminist online spaces. As someone who follows conversations in both niches and writes on faith and feminism, I'm particularly interested in how this trend plays out in parallel.

No one would argue the fact that the climate online can and does become hostile sometimes, but in fairness, so can the climate of the local bar, the church down the road, and my own home, if I'm honest. Sin is hardly native to the internet; humans behave badly everywhere.

I have no interest in the defense of personal attack, which has no fruitful place online or anywhere else. But I do tire of how easily and often honest disagreement and even the most careful criticism are conflated with bullying and among Christians, with sin, particularly when those pointing fingers have a stake in propping up the status quo and less-than clean hands.

The Power of Language & Discipline of Criticism

Receiving criticism is never fun, and it can take a personal toll. But it also comes with the territory of offering one's work and words for public consumption. Everyone love accolades, but critique is the other side of the coin. Public ideas invite public responses. It's is the nature of the medium.

We seem to understand this as a community when we're the ones talking back to corporations, politicians, megapastors, and gatekeepers. We laud the democratizing power of social media when our little words are heard, shared, and go viral, but how quick we are to cry foul when the tables turn and our own ideas inevitably come under scrutiny. I'm just the Little Guy, the Good Guy! Critique ought to be reserved for the Big and the Bad, right?

But media is media, no matter the scope, and each of us is accountable for the words we share, Joe Politician as well as Jane Blogger. If we want the platforms and re-tweets (and paychecks and book deals), we've got to accept that criticism is par for the course. Critique can't just be acceptable when we engage and hateful when she does, prophetic when it's our side holding the mic and the spotlight but nasty if it's them, (particularly if they are women of color). It's neither fair nor honest to assign malicious motives to anyone else's critique or to hold my own critics to different standards than I keep for my team, my friends, and myself.

Words shape reality, and Christians who worship Jesus the Word who spoke creation into being ought to understand this better than anyone. Feminists who recognize that "mankind" isn't inclusive language or can deconstruct modesty debates in their sleep, should not recoil if it's pointed out that our own language is transphobic, ableist, or otherwise harmful.

The Enemy Within

Our fight is not against people. Feminists don't fight men; we fight the patterns of patriarchy entrenched in our culture's discourse, institutions, and practices. Similarly, Christians affirm that "our struggle is not against flesh and blood" and that sin is as present in power and systems as human hearts (Eph 6:12).

Oppression. Injustice. Selfishness. Sin. Patriarchy. Racism. Violence. These are The Enemy, and they are in all of us to varying degrees. Contrary to popular belief (and privileged distress), critique is not synonymous with nitpicking, infighting, backbiting, or catfighting. We who've read movie reviews, written blue books, studied the liberal arts, or learned a bit about media literacy should recognize this. Criticism is a discipline about analysis and even reform, illuminating patterns that we might acknowledge and dismantle the systems that keep us in chains and inhibit shalom in our communities.

White supremacy doesn't crumble if people stop using slurs or because white people adopt black babies, just like sexism didn't end when women got the vote. The work of intersectional feminist or liberationist criticism is to connects the dots, identifying the persistent and systemic patterns that elevate some voices while punishing others, and illuminating another way.

I critique to make the invisible visible. There is power is naming, not to demonize but to demonstrate that words matter and that with them we can speak life or death. I don't believe in heroes or monsters; the potential for both is in all of us, and criticism of my work or behavior is not an indictment of me as a person, even if it hurts.

All The Feels 

Feelings are important, and feelings make us human, but feelings are an insufficient gauge of the whole truth of any given situation. When I am criticized, I might feel embarrassed, frustrated, or angry. I might believe I am being criticized unfairly, and the tenor or passion of someone's disagreement might make me feel uneasy, but "bullied" and "attacked" are not feelings but verbs. Feeling bullied or attacked is not equivalent to actually being bullied or attacked, and if we're going to introduce those accusations, we better be prepared to back them up. Similarly, feeling ashamed or uncomfortable is not sufficient evidence that another's critique is shaming.

I am responsible for my words and actions, including the harm they cause that I never intended. (No one gets up in the morning with "Marginalize people!" on their to-do list.) I am accountable because my words, behavior, and even inaction can reinforce oppression and stereotype without my meaning to(How often are men described as hysterical, catty, or contentious? Are white people generally spoken of as savage or brutal?) Misogyny and racism are rooted not in personal prejudice but in structures, institutions, and systems.

I am also responsible for expressing my own feelings in healthy ways. Perhaps I need sabbath, exercise, or firmer boundaries. Maybe I need to stick up for myself, broach a tough conversation, or get away for a while, but ultimately I cannot hold other people responsible for how I feel. Validating each other's feelings is a key aspect of being a good friend or partner, but we don't owe that to strangers on the internet.

Feeling bad isn't a solid indicator that I've been wronged. Discomfort with conflict is valid, but it can't on its own reveal whether a conflict is toxic. Feelings matter, certainly, but using my feelings to derail a conversation that isn't chiefly about me isn't fruitful or fair.

Being implicated in racism, homophobia, sexism, etc. feels crappy, but dealing with that is on me. Can I choose to see beyond my own feelings far enough to care about another's person's lived experience of injustice and my own hand in it? In the grand scheme of things, oppression is significantly weightier than personal discomfort, and compassion looks like acknowledging not just feelings but the uneven and unjust power dynamics at work.

Talking Back

Ugliness exists online, as everywhere, but it's careless to conflate strong words with malice or something that requires cleansing (by whom?). "Women of color know that when we leave the supposed 'toxicity' of Twitter, we are not going to another place that is not toxic" (Kaba & Smith).

There are no shortcuts around conflict to unity, and not every conversation that makes my heart race must be indicted or shut down. Sometimes I just need to shut down my computer and take a deep breath. Other times I need to commit to listening and doing the work, because "constructive crisis and tension are necessary for growth," and constructive is rarely akin to comfortable.

Having or cultivating distance from anger isn't any sort of inherent moral good either. Anger is often fruitful, catalyzing desperately needed change. It's not a fruit of the Spirit, but then neither is apathy, protected power, or smarm.

Social media is eroding the control the gatekeepers have historically held to shape the dominant narrative, and that's a breath of fresh, decidedly non-toxic air. The democratizing effect trickles down, and it's foolish to presume I should be able to control the narrative either. I can't always foresee what will happen after I press publish, which can be paralyzing or scary, but it also can be tremendously liberating.

Any of us is able to talk back, and each one speaks on her own behalf. There is power in naming and in making the invisible visible. Speak we life.

Interlopers on Social Media: Feminism, Women of Color and Oppression
The Color of Toxicity
Bigotry Not Twitter Makes Feminism Toxic
White Supremacy's Toxic Twitter Wars #BigBadWolfFeminism
This Is What I Mean When I Say White Feminism
words like weapons - poem

[shared with #FaithFeminisms]

on parenting honey badgers

I’m a natural with babies. One of those earth mama types with babes slung close to my heart, I rarely met an early parenting problem that couldn’t be fixed or at least ameliorated by proximity to my breasts. Put a boob on it! It was like having a superpower.

But even as a kid, I was good with babies. I had a booming babysitting business watching the neighbors’ infants and toddlers for three bucks an hour. The 90s were different, man. Back then, no one thought twice about leaving tiny children in the charge of an eleven year old Girl Scout with a child care badge.

Connecting with teens comes pretty easily to me, too. I’ve got over a decade of youth ministry under my belt and know more ice breakers and group facilitation tricks than a lifetime of team-building retreats could exhaust. Nerdy, popular, troubled, loud–I enjoy all sorts of teenagers, even the stinkiest, silliest middle schoolers.

Babies are my jam. Awkward adolescents are my cup of tea. But little kids are tough. Little kids are honey badgers. I have two whom I love fiercely, and parenting them is the hardest thing I’ve done in my life.

Remember My So-Called Life? “I cannot bring myself to eat a well-balanced meal in front of my mother. It just means too much to her.”

Grungy, melancholic Angela Chase captured my fifteen year old heart, and she’s still among my most beloved fictional characters. But these days, I feel a peculiar affinity for her mom Patty, because Kyrie eleison, being on the other end of that fork might just be the death of me. My fiercely independent children never met a hill they weren’t willing to die on, and our dinner table is their perennially favorite last stand. At just four and six, their sighing, eye-rolling, and angst-y tears could give Emmy-winning Claire Danes a run for her money.

If they aren’t battling each other, it seems like they’re double-teaming me. Some days feel acutely like a losing battle I never signed on for. Aren’t we supposed to be on the same side?


They came by their stubbornness honestly. Truth be told, their mama can be something of a honey badger herself. Parenting is nothing if not a mirror into our own flaws and inadequacies.

But slowly, we’re learning–the whole Team Paul. To control our emotions and manage our tempers. To listen with our ears and move our feet. Speaking kind words or holding our tongues, we’re helping with our hands (or keeping them to ourselves). We’re turning and walking another way into repentance, forgiveness, new mercies, and resurrection.

Learning to love with our whole selves, we honor God with all that we are. Honey badger ferocity included.


playing for keeps

We are our brothers' keepers, but
not like this:

kept and quieted, tightly bound,
melled and molded, muzzled, quelled.

One-size-fits-few and yet we clip each
others' wing to suit our style, curse the
gifts another brings: a Trojan horse! a trick!
a trap! Cast aspersions, try to flatten nuance,
dulling spectrums, shrink to fit. Weary, wear,
until we quit, but what if

we kept safe, kept boundaries, and kept fewer
records of wrong? If we kept covenant and vigil
together, and the command to love like Christ,
could we keep our word and the Sabbath holy,
keeping watch over the door of our lips?

Could we keep to the path of the righteous
and our hearts and feet from evil? Keep we silent--
or not at all--at the Spirit's urging only?

Keep calm and be not afraid
Produce fruit in keeping with repentance
Keep lamps lit and conscience clear
Keep up courage, in step with the Spirit
Keep the unity through the bond of peace

Keep praying
Keep loving
Keep each other warm and
Keep the faith


when the darkness seems impenetrable

When we are discouraged by the apparently slow progress of all our honest efforts, by the failure of this or that person, and by the ever new reappearance of enemy powers and their apparent victories, then we should know: the time shall be fulfilled. Because of the noise and activity of the struggle and the work, we often do not hear the hidden gentle sound and movement of the life that is coming into being. But here and there, at hours that are blessed, God lets us feel how he is everywhere at work and how his cause is growing and moving forward. The time is being fulfilled and the light shall shine, perhaps just when it seems that the darkness is impenetrable.

This excerpt is from Eberhard Arnold's "When the Time Was Fulfilled," a meditation from the wondrous Watch For The Light: Readings For Advent And Christmas.  The publisher, Plough, has dozens of titles available--including many pdf and e-reader files for free--and the whole essay can be found here.

Happy new year, friends. May 2014 be full of love and hope, life and light. Time shall indeed be fulfilled.
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