I posed a philosophical question on Twitter this week: “Can systems really be changed from within?”
A couple of years ago, I got drafted into the PTA at my kids’ school. I say “drafted” because I initially volunteered for something else entirely, but was talked into taking it on when no one else would do it. I was moving out of a season of political and social activism, and I wanted to throw that energy into something closer to home. In everything I do, I want my kids to see how important it is to engage their community, and for them, it doesn’t hit any closer than working in their school.
Most people think of the PTA and they think about the stereotype.
Honestly, that’s what I thought of, too. But the PTA as an organization has a long history of social change, and a lot of it has centered on creating more diversity, protecting the poor, and advancing a democratic philosophy of education. Our school has some demographics that to me, made the prospect of PTA work more interesting. For one, our school is only 28% white, 40% of our students are hispanic, 16% are Asian,10% are black, the rest of the students, 5%, fall into that nebulous and pejorative racial designation “other.” Our school is also a Title I school, and half of our students are on free and reduced lunch. I was interested in getting involved in a PTA that served these families.
But when I got there, there wasn’t too much that defied the stereotype. We had a couple of people of color on the Board, but it still didn’t look like our school. I was at the helm, another white lady, and most of the Board was white as well. Most of our Board was from the more affluent segment of our families. And many of the programs and activities were institutionalized, driven by the “we’ve always done this” factor. Most of our Board, however, was likeminded in wanting to see an increased inclusivity in the organization. The national PTA’s standards for family engagement call for shared power: between parents, between parents and the school, and between teachers and administrators. The goal is partnership, with the understanding that both parents and educators want children to succeed and discover their unique capacities so they can contribute to the betterment of society for all people.
The first year, I just struggled to keep up. Being a part of a new class of leaders while veterans were still hanging around in Board-level positions meant dancing between preservation and innovation, history and future. We made some strides, but were really hoping to do more as sophomores. The second year, we worked to set up the next class of leaders, hoping they would build on what we started when we set out to create an environment of invitation for new stakeholders to participate. But this new class has their own ideas. Most of them are in sync with what we wanted to see change, but they’re compelled to do the same dance.
Because in the PTA, the power resides with those who show up. There’s often talk of “those parents” who don’t come out to meetings or volunteer. But there’s not a lot of curiosity about what holds parents back from PTA involvement. Rarely do we talk about how a PTA can “show up” for families.
In my time as President, and even now in my current role as membership chair, I’ve seen the best in PTA leadership: parents volunteering for hours, working full-time jobs and enduring thanklessness to make our school better for our kids and families. I’ve seen moms and dads who show up for teachers (who themselves spend their own time and limited funds on the kids in their classes). I’ve seen leaders at the district level pushing for restorative justice rather than punitive procedure in school disciplinary policies. I’ve watched them agitate for healthier meals and a more dignified treatment of children receiving free or reduced lunches.These people are champions for children. And a number of them are empty-nesters without any kids in the system.
But I’ve also seen the worst in PTA leadership. I’ve seen parents “in it” for their kid alone. I’ve seen leaders cut budgets for student activity scholarships arguing that “scholarships only benefit a few of our students,” “it’s not fair to the kids who CAN pay for us to adjust programs just because they’re completely inaccessible for poor families.” I’ve heard diatribes about parents who “don’t care enough to come to meetings/volunteer like we do.” I’ve seen leaders stand in front of our Superintendent and say their academically gifted student should be “penalized” by efforts to move kids into a mainstreamed, diversified setting. I’ve heard them say they didn’t want to shift school boundaries because they might end up at “that school” and on and on. I’ve seen elitism run amok and a concern for the bottom-line that compels poor decision-making and in-fighting over which kids get served. Every time, kids with special needs, kids living in poverty, kids that need language services (which at our school is 38% of the student body), are pushed to the margins.
Writer Suzannah Paul articulated my frustrations this week in her tweet:
See, the argument I’m getting into with my colleagues 90% of the time is a disagreement about two things: 1) what we see and 2) how we respond to it. Several of my cohorts are blind to the disparities that exist in our population, and even the disparities between the work of our school and the work of our PTA. Our educators know they have to diversity their instruction: that one size does not fit all. They *see* the population we’re serving, and they adjust their strategies to get all our kids to a point of confidence and success. They don’t always hit the mark they want to hit, but at least they aren’t wearing a blindfold and just throwing punches in the dark.
So we need to be serving the school we have, not the school that, in all our privilege, we wish we had. Secondly, we need to get real about the solutions. “Treating everyone the same” will not help all of our kids succeed. I’m very attached to this “share power” idea, and I like what Suzannah says about privileging the margins. I have no idea how I can help our current Board, myself included, take a back seat and elevate the voices of the unheard and “uninvolved” parents, but it has to be done. I’m a little concerned that our efforts to diversity leadership thus far have only achieved tokenism, window-dressing change, and not a real shift in power.
I actually got a little riled up (shocker) at a recent meeting and after several attempts to calm me down, looked at my colleagues and said, “I’m passionate about this because our PTA doesn’t exactly represent our school. Someone has to speak up for the people who aren’t at the table here.” But I’d rather have people at the table than speak *for* the marginalized. If anyone has ideas on this, please please please share them with me in the comments. Perhaps I’m taking up space by participating at all. But I’m hoping in this role that I can reach out and bring new folks into the organization, and maybe by sheer numbers, we can begin to see people with different perspectives and ideas enter and voice those ideas.
I don’t know if organizations can be changed from the inside. I don’t know if an institution can be “reformed” this way. I keep thinking about what Audre Lorde said, “The Master’s tools will never dismantle the Master’s house.” But given that the PTA is a membership organization of teachers and parents, I’m inclined to think that there’s a possibility for it to be what *we* make it. Maybe that’s naivete or romanticism. I’m open to that possibility. And I’m open to investing my efforts elsewhere, but for now, I won’t give up the ship on it.
Feel free to disabuse me of my hopefulness or to offer practical suggestions or encouragement below. I’m still working this out, so I’m pliable, y’all.
Over the last few years, I’ve been an on-and-off-again member of a local gym. When I first joined, I honestly was looking for reprieve from life as a stay-at-home mother. I had two small kids, very little energy that was left when they were done with me each day, and no babysitter. The gym has a childcare center (SUPER important priority) and a couple of pools. Behind the child care, the pool was the big sell for me.
As a person living with Rheumatoid Arthritis, you get a lot of lectures about the importance of exercise. You hear a lot from your body, however, that exercise is for fools and that there heating pad is your BFF. You can’t betray HER!
Exercise is hard for anyone other than the people who are frighteningly disciplined about it. But it’s particularly difficult to be motivated when you’re already hurting before you even get to the gym. And I don’t care how many professional golfers shill for drug companies, RA isn’t the kind of disease most of us can battle while playing all manner of sport.
By far, the best form of exercise for an arthritic is swimming. The water offers resistance, but also has the added benefit of making you lighter than you are on land. I love swimming. It’s like flying, but wet.
It seemed like a natural decision, therefore, to join a water aerobics class. I had tried arthritis-based exercise once before in high school when I joined a class held at the local office of the Arthritis Foundation. It was called “arhtrobics,” and it was awful. I felt like a big jerk standing there in my limited, but still outwardly 16-ish, body with seriously-old people who could hardly move doing modified jumping jacks (lifting your arms while sticking your legs out one-at-a-time. Imagine a sideways version of the hokey pokey with absolutely NO turning all about). I did not return to arthrobics.
I was a little concerned that water aerobics might be similar, but there’s a nice window you can watch the class through and everyone seemed to be able to lift their arms, etc. It looked like the right amount of challenging for me, even though the only woman remotely close to my age was a pregnant lady.
The first few times I went, it was just like any other first-day-of-school experience. Everyone seemed to know what equipment they needed for class, so I walked over to a giant white bin and grabbed a noodle and two noodle-wrapped barbells and set them down on the edge of the pool. The water was obscenely cold. So I started to bob like the other attendees and soon enough, class was underway.
A svelte middle-aged woman started to play club versions of 90’s songs (Waterfalls, anyone? Pool puns!) and then she told us there would be no “cheet-chat.” I couldn’t discern her accent then, and I’m still not quite sure if it’s German, but when she’s gesticulating and yelling at an old woman to “give me more POWER! POWER!” it sure feels like German.
And it was hard. Water aerobics is that kind of sneaky exercise that just feels like you’re playing around but then, a few hours later, say, when you’re at the grocery store, there’s an overwhelming warming in your arms that makes you think they’re going to fall off, and you start to panic because you bought three gallons of milk that are definitely not going to be lifted out of your cart by you. I was shocked at the pain, but glad that at least that hour of splashing had done something (even if it made me want to end Germany or wherever, once and for all).
But what surprised me most about the class was the camaraderie. While we were all grunting and nearly drowning ourselves with exertion, our instructor got pretty chatty about her newfound love of spaghetti squash. She called many of the women by name, even threatening the class with more reps if one particularly social woman named Millie, starting “cheet-chatting.” We were all supposed to say, “Thank you, MILLIE,” when we got the extra reps. Yep, gotta be German.
As we were cooling down, the instructor mentioned that the class would be having lunch together in a week. She held up a sign-up sheet and encouraged us all to come. I thought about it, but didn’t sign up that first day. I’ve been going for a while now, and I’ve talked to a couple of the women, but it’s always, “Man, the pool’s cold today” level, pre-class chit chat.
Today, when we were done, there was another invitation. My kids are currently home for the summer, so I told myself I’ll just catch up with the Aqua ladies in the fall, when the kids are all back in school. As I was walking into the locker room, I noticed the woman in front of me had a hip scar like mine. I heard several women telling the instructor how much they needed this class: its blend of rigor and the grace to do what they could do. Another couple of them were inside-joking about their book club. I thought to myself, “this is a group of women I get.” It’s always been like this for me with my own grandparents, other people’s grandparents. I know all their medicines, their therapies. And now, thanks to my hip replacement, I’ve had a taste of their surgeries.
One of the women spoke to me while I was getting dressed (still not used to having conversations with strangers in my bra, but that’s gym life). She introduced herself and asked me if I had come to class before. I have. She told me about their lunch group and asked if I wanted to put my name on the e-list for updates about their social gatherings. I told her to sign me up and gave her my address.
Just yesterday, my rheumatologist ordered a relatively new lab test that can help determine how active my disease is so we can assess the rate of damage being done to my body. When I think about it too much, it’s a strange thing to be physically withering at my age, but I am. I’ve been living with RA since I was little, growing and withering simultaneously. Most of the women in my class have only known the physical pains of aging for a decade or two. I’ve known them for three. It shocks them, but it’s my normal. Like my grandparents, and now my parents, the women lament how “they just can’t do anymore.” I’ve been able to do my fair share, but in some of the more typical ways of doing, there are things I’ve never been able to do.
This would seem to be a sad state, and it’s not fun. It’s not profound nor heroic. But it does give me opportunities to see and be with people that the rest of the world tends to miss (or dismiss). The slow-moving people. And that makes it a little easier to endure. I get to be part of the Aqua ladies who lunch. And that’s not a bad gig, even if a soft-hearted German fusses at you from time to time.
**Though this post was published in July, I’m linking it up for the August #SpiritofthePoor blog round-up. As a disabled woman living with chronic illness, I’ve been thinking a lot about how rest factors in to my writing and activism for myself and others.**
Last week, I got all geared up to begin this new adventure with writing. I had plans, I tell you! Big plans. For once, I had a pile of fodder for this blog, that blog, my other blog, and for pitching to several outlets where I stand a slim chance of getting paid for writing. I was pumped. And then, a flare hit.
In case you’re new around here, I have spent the last thirty-four years battling Rheumatoid Arthritis (yes, kids get arthritis, too). The last couple of decades, my flares are worst in my hands, though I’ve had several surgeries on my lower extremities, including a total hip replacement. I’ve worked full-time, and part-time, and as a stay-at-home mom, all trying to find the right kind of work to suit my particular challenges. I’ve become convinced, over time, that somehow writing should be a part of that.
Now, here I am in all my gumption with a full brain and broken hands, and a looming sense that the world was passing me by. This is what it is to be chronically ill: unpredictably stricken and frequently thwarted. It’s one of the reasons I’ve hesitated to call myself a writer. Because of the inconsistent nature of my disease, I’m reliably unreliable.
In my everyday life, I often push through pain to get stuff done, but then I pay for it with more pain, more damage. I have a few cheats and tricks here and there that can make some tasks easier, but every day hurts. Almost every minute. Doctors telling you to “listen to the pain” doesn’t really work in my case because pain is the constant. That makes it hard to pull back and rest when I need to: the whole idea of “need to” is consistently subjugated to what I think I “have to” do to participate with my family or my community.
Tonight, I read this article on rest as an act of resistance by Rhesa Storms. She writes:
Resting may be the most countercultural and spiritual thing we can do as people who follow God.
It’s as if God knew we would have a hard time with rest. Living a crazy, busy life isn’t just a modern problem, living a crazy, busy life is a humanity problem.
From the very early dealings with his people, God desires to give them rest. That is the beauty of the fourth commandment: remember the Sabbath and keep it holy.
The word Sabbath means to stop. Full stop. Whatever you are doing, stop. Let your hands rest. Cease the constant consumption of ideas and information and products and simply be.
It is easy for us to get caught up in ourselves and begin to overestimate our own importance. So God gives us rest to set us free.
For weeks (he’d say years) I’ve been lecturing my husband on his work habits and the importance of Sabbath. I should hear myself talk. It’s hard to admit that rest is important when most of your struggles are invisible and can overwhelm you any minute: when one minute you’re hauling in groceries, and an hour later, you can’t effectively turn the steering wheel of your car. How do you stop doing when, at any time, you could be forced to stop doing? Even now, I’m typing notes for this post with swollen wrists and screaming fingers.
[Momentary internal interlude: Stop writing because this is ridiculous and you've caught on to your own hypocrisy here. But I have a point to make! Then get there already, lady.]
Could it be that this is a matter of trusting God? Perhaps. Sabbath usually involves relinquishing control over things we don’t really have full control over. I believe I trust Him with my success or failure here. If He leads me to this new avenue of expression, so be it. I can accept His timing on this writing gig. Truly. I know enough of Him to know that He does what He pleases the way He pleases because He always does good, even when the good hurts.
What I struggle to accept is the idea that the world ISN’T passing me by when I rest. That there isn’t some big empty scorecard or a shot clock that dwindles while I sit. I’m using sports metaphors here and they make me feel more inadequate because I don’t *do* sports. Based upon what I know from living here, not just in America, but in my own eroding bones, we value output. We value forward motion. We don’t value stop. We don’t value wait. I’ll be judged by those values. I’ve been judged by those values.
I’ve been told by people, “you’re so lazy.” “Get up and *do* something.” “All you did today was watch TV/play on the internet/talk on the phone.” “What have you even DONE today?” “It’s nice you get to lay around while the rest of us work our butts off.” I suppose to people who don’t have the luxury of forced rest, the sight of me sitting or laying down is cause for contempt or even anger. My slowness reminds them of their own hurried pace. It interrupts their agendas. Hey, I get that. It interrupts mine, and that is infinitely frustrating.
What I’m wondering though, is can I embrace the disruptive nature of my disease? As much as I enjoy being the up-front person or the woman with a soapbox, it’s always been difficult to shine a spotlight on the broken parts. I’d rather make you angry with a rant or make you laugh with a joke than invite one moment’s pity. And talking about arthritis this way, explaining how it messes things up for me and makes life hard, violates everything I’ve done in life to make all this look easy and fun. Everything I’ve done to be less of a burden on the world because the worst thing in the world is to be “needy,” or so the bootstrappers tell me. The sight of me “just laying there” is unfair, not because I’m laying there, but because they’re not. It’s unfair because we all feel pressed to live this way, as productive citizens on one big assembly line that never stops churning out who-knows-what. Laying here reminds you and me that life should be different. I shouldn’t hurt, and none of us should keep chasing after the wind.
I want to accept these limitations and frailties for myself, and see the good they can bring about in temporarily disrupting the selfishness in me and in the people in my community. It’s a risky thing to willingly become the [often unwelcome] speed bump in the lives of the people you love. But the idea that rest itself can be an act of resistance is an empowering thought. As someone who gets weary from fighting to participate in a race I cannot possibly win, it might be a nice change of pace to take the fight to bed with me. I’d like to think that as a disability rights activist, I would be more consistent in how I treat myself in this regard, but I’m not. In many ways, I’ve internalized ableist attitudes about my own worth, and that’s a whole load of crap I’ll have to keep working through, particularly if I want to set a better example for my children.
Perhaps I can wrap my head and hands around all that tomorrow. Tonight, the therapeutic ice packs and heating pad await.
I went clothes shopping last night. Lord have mercy, I hate it with a passion. In this case, I went to Kohl’s and did the usual pack-mule routine:
- Amass forty-eight items, besting the “six items, please” policy of most places eight-fold, make sure to get two sizes of everything you remotely like.
- Hurry into the dressing room before you catch the eye of a re-stocker or another shopper trying to beat you to the last stall.
- Sift through the stash and put the favorites on top, hopeful that at least five of these items will fit and be a reasonable price.
- Pause every six or seven items to just breathe and give myself a pep talk, “You’re going to make it. Yes, you really should have worn different shoes/pants/bra/hairstyle today.”
- Make sure the coast is clear before putting forty-six of the original forty-eight things on the rack at the front of the dressing room.
- Give the rack a once-over in case someone your size left something decent.
- Buy the two things that fit, neither of which you came here to buy.
I know I’m taking a risk here that one of you, my beloved readers, works in retail and just reading that list lights in you a fury that burns with the heat of a thousand suns. But it’s what I do. And I’m going to play the disability card here because walking laps around a store, fastening and unfastening countless buttons, bending over to find the last size 14 on the rack, and everything else that goes into clothes shopping is a pain in my…well, everything. So, I call arthritis. Sometimes, I can’t get those sliding, pinching things closed over pants either, and I just leave the hanger in the dressing room and the pants in a bin. There. Now you know I’m a horrible customer. If you see me coming, at least you’ve been warned.
I cannot remember a time when I had fun clothes shopping. There have been moments of satisfaction when more clothes fit than usual: like when I lost some weight, or during college when my boobs finally arrived. But historically, it’s been a nightmare. Perhaps this is why I wear so many fandom shirts?
The older I get, the more sense my mother makes to me. The woman has been going out in public in a muumuu for decades. She slips on some shoes, puts on the appropriate undergarments, and heads out to Harris Teeter or the hardware store in what she politically refers to as “a patio dress.” She won’t go out to eat like that (unless it’s a drive-through situation), but she gets the paper, waters the lawn, and generally gallivants in that thing. In the winter, there’s a button-up over-muumuu.
As a young woman, I was mortified that my twangy Southern mother would play to stereotype this way. Now, as a mom in her mid-thirties, I have come to believe that the woman is a bonafide genius. She’s not playing by anyone’s rules with her muumuu. Heck, it’s practically a form of protest to dress this way. There are women I know who won’t leave their house without make-up. I labored in that Kohl’s last night trying to find something, anything, that fit and fashion-wise could be placed in this decade. But my mama’s patio dress is timeless. It never goes out of style because that sucker was never in style in the first place. Well, maybe long ago…
Speaking of, the main reason I was in Kohl’s today looking for shorts is because, for the weekends, I have decided to participate in the #offTarget effort of Moms Demand Action. The group has been identifying businesses where gunslingers have been showing up needlessly armed to the teeth. And Target has been in the news lately for such antics. At a store in South Carolina, a customer found a loaded gun in the toy section. So far, Moms Demand Action has been able to get Chipotle, Sonic, Chili’s and several other large chains to change their policies about open carry in their places of business.
Given how often I’m at Target (hint: it’s more than I’m at church, which is saying something), I felt I could easily give up weekend shopping for the sake of our families’ safety. Still, it’s so hard. We had to buy bedding today and we actually went to the mall for it. The mall! Target is our go-to for almost everything. But, I believe in this effort and it has everything I love in a good protest: clever use of social media, personal sacrifice, and endless pun/slogan potential.
Several of my friends who are defenders of a more generous interpretation of the 2nd amendment than I have told me that they find these open carry parades ridiculous. Even the NRA denounced them, but then they retracted their denouncement.
I hope you’ll consider joining me and other citizens in this #offTarget effort. I don’t mind shopping for clothes in a store that has a Pizza Hut in it (that’s actually a win-win in my mind). I draw the line at buying shorts in a saloon.
Have a great weekend and as Johnny Cash says, don’t take your guns to town.
These last few months have been a bit tumultuous for me. I’ve been finishing a two-year term as PTA President at my children’s school, which was a stop-gap attempt at dealing with a painful job loss two years ago. God was gracious giving me that time to recover my confidence, and my convictions, but it’s left me here, once more at the point of “Now, what?”
I’m honestly now sure I’ve answered that question yet. But I’m walking in a direction, and that direction is my writing.
I started a new blog where I can explore some of my thoughts on social justice and biblical misunderstandings about compassion, mercy, humanity-at-large.
In some ways, I thought that start might help me grow out of my smart-alecky Becky phase, but it’s showing me that I really am the person this particular blog is about. I’m sassy. I’m a mom. I’m challenged by chronic pain from Rheumatoid Arthritis. I’m the perennial weirdo navigating conservative, white, evangelical circles. And because God has made me to be this things, I’m learning to like it.
I have more to say about my life than I thought I wanted to, so I plan on keeping this Becky not Becky thing going a while longer. I’m not sure where it will end up, but ain’t that the way faith journeys usually go? Here’s to enjoying the ride.
If you look back at the history of this blog, you’d quickly see that I’ve been less-than-committed to posting with any regularity. In fact, I haven’t written a thing (other than short responses on social media) for a year. The writing life is hard, and I’ve taken a few knocks personally over the past two years. As a result, I lost confidence in my voice as a woman and as a follower of Jesus Christ.
Several friends have encouraged me to get back to the things I love and in the last year, God has shown me time and again the calling He has for me to be a witness for mercy, compassion, reconciliation, and justice. Yet the fear was (and is) persistent. Several years ago, when I attended a leadership conference sponsored by Willow Creek church in Chicago, I heard Bill Hybels teach about calling. He described his own passion as the feeling that Popeye used to get watching Brutus bully others. Popeye would hang back, waiting on the situation to resolve, then inevitably, he’d roll up his sleeves and say, “I’ve had all I can stands, and I can’t stands no more!” You can guess what happened next:
A week or two ago, I reached that point. In honor of Women’s History month, I’ve been sharing facts and bios of overlooked women in history on Facebook. Several friends have remarked to me that they’ve learned a lot, but they want to know more. Specifically, they want to learn about the “F” word: feminism. [Cue Spinach]
For me, this is the perfect on-ramp back into writing. We decided to call it our Social Justice Boot Camp on Feminism. As much as I disdain militarism, I kinda dig it. (What can I say, I contain multitudes of contradictions, y’all.) I hope for you, dear readers, that it will provide you the opportunity to engage with concepts that might be new to you. Over the next few weeks, I’ll be looking at Scripture, history, and current events to articulate my own understanding of feminism. I invite you to join me and interact in the comments. I moderate responses on this blog because that’s just good sense to me, but I will review them as quickly as possible so that you can give and receive feedback if you’d like.
Before we launch into full introductions, however, I would like to start with a few caveats:
- I am not the gatekeeper for feminism. As we will discuss later, there are lots of feminisms and historically, certain groups have been excluded from so-called “mainstream” conversations. I want to be as inclusive as possible, but I do have my own perspective. I will do my best to point out sources when my knowledge or viewpoint falls short.
- There are a TON of resources on feminism. There are NOT a ton of resources on feminism from a Christian perspective. That’s not to say that there aren’t Christian feminists (whoa, Nelly, there are a jillion). But there will be times when I’m talking about things that maybe only a few other Christians are publicly talking about. And those people and I may disagree. (dum dum DUUUUM) That’s okay. We’re in this together. Feminism, like any other work of justice, can be a lonely place. I want us to do our best to hear from people who don’t necessarily agree with us.
- I believe Scripture is inerrant. I do not believe its interpreters are. We will be cautious in how we handle the Bible around here because many of us have experienced firsthand injury from other believers who thought they needed to wield the sword of the Spirit in dangerous ways. I am, frankly, more frightened by this than any of you. I take the Bible very seriously, and I believe my worldview to be based upon its principles. Still, there are times when Scripture flies in the face of “conventional” thought, and when it comes to feminism, you can bet your buttons that the Bible has been used to beat back efforts to disrupt or dismantle patriarchal tradition. So there will be moments of controversy around here.
The closest historical analogy for this that I can think of is the abuse of the book of Philemon where Paul writes,
I appeal to you for my son Onesimus,who became my son while I was in chains. Formerly he was useless to you, but now he has become useful both to you and to me.I am sending him—who is my very heart—back to you.I would have liked to keep him with me so that he could take your place in helping me while I am in chains for the gospel. But I did not want to do anything without your consent, so that any favor you do would not seem forced but would be voluntary. Perhaps the reason he was separated from you for a little while was that you might have him back forever— no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother. He is very dear to me but even dearer to you, both as a fellow man and as a brother in the Lord.
For centuries, these words were used to justify slavery. You might wonder, how can that be since it clearly says Paul considers him “a fellow man” and a “brother” or a “son”? The short answer is: people do that. We want the Bible to support our bias or lifestyle or comfort, or we read the text without meditating on it and internalizing it .
I want us to be careful not to read more into the thing than can be textually supported, but I will be bringing contexts like culture and history to bear when we talk about the Bible. I will be judging the characters’ behavior with my modern sensibilities (can’t always help that), but I will be cautious about all of it because the Bible is not a sociological textbook. We learn how to live, but a lot of that is learned through example, metaphor, parable. We can’t always get a straight answer from the Scriptures, but we CAN get to know God and understand who He wants us to be in light of that knowledge. We live in an age where, ironically enough, the orthodoxy squad are just as bad as the feminists sometimes about policing for non-compliance. I’m going to occasionally be non-compliant with the dominant parties in any of the camps. I’m always going to be non-compliant with somebody. That makes me nervous, but I’ll do this scared because that’s the life of faith. As Eleanor Roosevelt once said,
We gain strength, and courage, and confidence by each experience in which we really stop to look fear in the face… we must do that which we think we cannot.
So with those things out of the way, let’s have a quick introduction.
Why do we need to talk about feminism? Because we humans have a fundamental problem. Sin. We sin as individuals, we sin in herds, and quite often, we institutionalize sin. Solomon said, “there’s nothing new under the Sun.” As we look at the narratives in Scripture, we’ll see that for women and other marginalized groups, the song remains the same. Societies have organized themselves differently throughout the ages: dictatorships, oligarchies, monarchies, republics, democracies, etc. but there has been a persistent alienation of certain groups of people. We see them most often referenced in Scripture as “widows, orphans, and strangers/aliens/foreigners/sojourners.” But Jesus included others, too:
[T]he King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’
Here Jesus identified Himself with the poor, the stranger, the criminal, saying whenever you serve people on the margins of society, you serve Him. Many of us see this and immediately think, “Okay, so Jesus told us to help these people, let’s go do it.” We don’t really look into why Jesus is asking us to do these things. We assume it’s because He’s loving, good, a nice guy. All true. But there’s more to it than that. He tells us to recognize these people and see Him in them because He knows these are the people we ignore. These are the people we exploit. These are the people most vulnerable to our individual and collective pride, cruelty, contempt…sinfulness. I once had a professor tell me that we don’t really have to address poverty completely because Jesus said “the poor will always be with you.” The problem with that thinking (aside from the fact that he was taking that Scripture out of context) is that by saying so, he was interpreting Jesus’ statement in a way that would absolve him of any responsibility. But isn’t that what all of us comfortable people do with marginalized people? We take for granted that the world will be this way. But it doesn’t have to be this way.
When God tells us us to care for widows and orphans, it’s because in every place and time on earth, women and children are dominated, exploited, and abused. That’s not to say that the same doesn’t happen to men and boys. It does. This is where people often get justice wrong. At it’s core, justice work, including feminist work, seeks to reimagine a world in balance and harmony: a world of mutuality and concern for one another. A large part of that reimagining and engaging means pointing out the places where things are wholly out of whack. That’s what God is doing when He tells us to advocate and serve those on the outs. He’s restoring the order that He intended from the beginning. The order that was thrown into a chaotic eat-or-be-eaten paradigm because of our sin.
From the beginning, God spoke to this problem. In ancient Israel, He called the nation to implement a justice system that to us Americans looks downright preferential. Greg Ogden writes in his book, Discipleship Essentials:
…the role of judge and justice in Israel was to actively and redemptively seek to protect the poor from the wiles of the rich and powerful., So strong was the skepticism toward the powerful that the poor in the courts were often viewed collectively as the innocent and righteous.
This idea offends us. God is partial toward the poor? He encouraged them to consider the poor innocent? Yes. God is striking a balance here. Despite what we’ve learned from American iconography, justice is not blind (nor is justice a white lady).
This is a huge hang-up for a lot of us. We want God on our side. And we can have God on our side, when we get on His side. His side is full of a lot of people that we’d rather not hang out with, but it’s where Jesus Himself went. It feels threatening, though. To call us to identify with the marginalized, to consider them better than us, to look at them and see Jesus seems unfair. I didn’t do anything wrong! I have privileges, but I earned them, or maybe I don’t think I have privileges at all. Life is hard for everybody, right? But God invites us to change our point-of-view. To see things we don’t want to see because then we might have to give up something, or apologize. We might have to upend our lives and swim upstream.
The beautiful part of working for justice is that in upending everything we think we know, we begin to see things set right. Contrary to popular belief, justice is not a zero sum game where if one person benefits, another person loses. What might feel like a loss is but a loss that heals, like the excision of a cancerous tumor that is slowly killing our own soul and taking others down with it. When we work for justice, sharing power or resources or our voice, we see God repay beyond anything we thought we were giving up. Because in God’s kingdom, when justice prevails, everyone wins.
This is especially important to understand as we undertake a conversation about feminism. Many continue to resist feminism because they see it as a war between the sexes. They say women just want to be men or women want to be in charge. Feminism rejects the idea of dominance and rejoices in the full spectrum of gender identity and expression. Feminism doesn’t argue that women should be the priority at the expense of men. It says the marginalized should be a priority because they are unfairly and consistently excluded.
I also want to include a word about those in a position of privilege. We all have some measure of privilege. Very few of us are utterly devoid of some measure position or advantage in society. One of the biggest challenges when working on any issues of justice is that when we finally do see and understand the plight of the oppressed, we are tempted to view the privileged as the enemy. Frankly, the privileged often act like the enemy. As believers, we know that our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against supernatural forces that separate us from God and one another. So, we have to pull back a little and see the big picture. We keep our eyes on the oppressed, but we also see how injustice afflicts the soul of the oppressor and those complicit in oppression. James Baldwin wrote in The Fire Next Time about racism:
I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain…Love takes off the masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within. I use the word “love” here not merely in the personal sense but as a state of being, or a state of grace-not in the infantile American sense of being made happy but in the tough and universal sense of quest and daring and growth.
We have to be willing to take off the masks of our privilege and humble ourselves in solidarity with those who are made humble by society. But our God wants freedom for all: the oppressed and the oppressors, the privileged and the marginalized. This can only be achieved when we commit ourselves to seeing the injustices in front of us, eschewing privilege as our birthright or an endgoal. As we begin our conversation here, let’s start asking key questions about how we can better serve one another and how we can open ourselves up to have our ideas challenged, our feelings hurt, and our worldviews transformed for the better.
Note: This series is continued over at Spice Tithers.