How to Break Through the Gender and Race Stalemates: 5 Methods

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Does it seem like we’ll never find understanding between men and women?

Do you lament the patterns of disconnection, distrust and miscommunication between folks of different races?

Do you watch the same cycles as conversations make us feel further apart, less understood? Do you long for something more generative than “us vs. them” reactivity?

I’m finding hope in a surprising place: imagination.

Do you watch the same cycles as conversations make us feel further apart, less understood? Click To Tweet

Too Sensitive?

Recently I was part of a mediation process on a college campus as a student expressed her frustration with several young men in her class. She said she’d never before felt so misunderstood, never experienced such condescension. She shared how, when she respectfully disagreed and gave a well-considered response in class discussions, they told her she was too opinionated.

Throughout her description of events, she tried to see the best in them, saying, “I don’t know if they intended to, but when they spoke that way, it made me feel this way.” Tears came to her eyes as she said, “And if I get frustrated with their response to me, they just tell me I’m too sensitive or I need to learn to take criticism.”

She didn’t strike me as a girl with an “attitude” or a chip on her shoulder. What I saw was a young woman who was very bright and unusually confident, who could politely but articulately speak her mind. I could see how the young men in the room didn’t know how to begin to understand her. I could see they thought she was kind of cool and wanted her approval. I could see they hadn’t been around many girls her age who were as honest or as interested in ideas.

I have been in similar situations (and sadly, the church, can be a regular setting for them). I was torn how to help her. In my desire to break the cycle of this kind of treatment, I wanted to tell her, “You just tell those boys this or that.” But I hesitated because I’ve never seen that work to bring about understanding.

So then I considered helping her understand the young men so she could speak their language to bring about peace: “See, when they do this, it’s actually because they feel this. Here’s how to navigate that. Here’s how to speak so they’ll hear.”

But, again, I hesitated. How will these young men learn how to understand themselves or understand women if women do all the work of understanding?

How can women invite men to speak their language so we can all be “bi-lingual?” How can men be encouraged to use language like hers: “I don’t know if you intended to but when you say/do this, it communicates this to me.”

How can women invite men to speak their language so we can all be 'bi-lingual?' Click To Tweet

The college administrator in the room proposed ways forward: maybe the young men could read a particular book, or take a class. As I looked at these young men I had a feeling they weren’t too keen. As they heard the administrator use words like “marginalized” and “power” and “misogyny,” I saw these young men shutting down. If they already saw this as “us VS. them,” more information would not be the way forward. If they felt cornered they weren’t going to care about how others feel.

From Stalemate to Imagination

It felt like a stalemate.

Afterwards the administrator turned to me in exasperation and said “What resources would you suggest to overcome misogyny on college campuses?” My mind went to articles, books. My anxiety, anger and frustration built. Nothing seemed powerful enough to break the cycle!

And then words from one of my favorite ministry books came to mind:

Everyone’s pain is locked into the system, and everyone stays stuck together in a circular flow. Until someone frees themselves from the loop or someone else from outside the emotional circle intervenes into the feedback pattern, the chain reaction repeats and perpetuates itself…In periods of intense anxiety what is needed is what is most unavailable—the capacity to be imaginative.

How Your Church Family Works: Understanding Congregations as Emotional Systems, Peter Steinke

What might it look like to set aside the problem-solving mode which grew from frustration and anxiety and instead engage my imagination? I began by asking, “How have I seen understanding take place in the past?”

Which brought to mind the work of neurologist, Curt Thompson, on imagination and his brilliant example of the prophet Nathan challenging David through story. While Nathan could have confronted with “You were wrong to kill Uriah and steal his wife!” he chooses to engage David’s imagination. As Thompson puts it,

[The] power of storytelling goes beyond the border of the story itself. It moves into the nooks and crannies of our memories and emotions, sometimes gently, sometimes explosively, revealing, awakening, shocking, calling. This is what happens to David, and his heart is revealed. He is caught off guard when the story brings his right hemisphere to life unexpectedly.

Anatomy of the Soul

I’ve always loved that way of seeing this story and in this context I saw a new possibility— Nathan’s story upended a power dynamic, helped a King understand the position of a soldier. If Nathan had come in with force—argument, accusation—it would have likely perpetuated the power dynamic. But instead he engaged the heart of the king.

How to Evoke Imagination

What could this mean for our conversations between genders or races which come to stalemates? As much as we’d like to think these misunderstandings and cycles of pain and anxiety only happen outside of the church, we find ourselves in them regularly in church staff meetings, choir rehearsals, small groups. In the church, sadly, we are no less reactionary or angry or anxious.

What might it look like for us to discover God’s imagination for human interaction? The trouble is that when we’re in a stalemate we rarely feel like using our imaginations. We want to debate ideas, argue with strong emotions, protect ourselves and react from our hurt and anxiety. To engage imagination costs us. It takes work to set aside our anxiety and anger. It takes courage to tell a story. And it can’t be a manipulative story. It only opens new possibilities when we let ourselves be seen.

What might it look like for us to discover God’s imagination for human interaction? Click To Tweet

Ways to evoke imagination:

  1. Ask ourselves, as mediators: “How have I seen understanding begin in the past?” and “What moments have been significant for me in my ability to see through someone else’s eyes?”
  2. Ask those caught in a stalemate: “Imagine what it might look like to overcome this misunderstanding. What would it take?” and “Have you seen it before? What part have you played in the past to bring breakthrough and understanding?”
  3. Invite a third party to share their moments of insight. Ask them to share stories that communicate: “I remember being in your situation and here’s how I’m learning to break the cycle.” Or ask two friends or co-workers or a married couple who represent the two sides of this stalemate to share their stories of how they’re learning to listen and understand the perspective of the other. It will be most meaningful if they don’t gloss over the very real conflicts and misunderstandings.
  4. It’s become a cliche to ask “What would Jesus Do?” but he had a great way of breaking through cycles of anxiety. Imagine what he’d do if he were in the room. Would he take sides or would he ask a question to change the direction of the conversation? What would he ask to open minds to imagine how God sees the situation?
  5. Contemplative practices allow us to step outside of the conflict. Being in nature, resting, breathing give us new perspective. We can watch a bird in flight and remember that it has no thought for what seems so pressing and frustrating to us. It helps us enlarge our minds.

If these are crucial practices of living out our unity, how might we develop Christian leaders in the skills required for dreaming together as communities?

While we often equip leaders with content (preparing them to explain), how could we also equip them with emotional skills to differentiate from the anxious systems they lead? How can their development include developing these skills of imagination?

If we, as leaders, are called to draw people out of unhealthy reactive patterns, it’s only natural, especially when situations turn to race and gender, for us as leaders to also fall into those old roles and reactions. The best way we can prepare to lead such systems is to learn how to both be part of the system and speak from outside of it. (For me the best training has come from the work of Edwin Friedman and Peter Steinke, both of whom acknowledge that any human organization is an emotional system.)

I’m seeing that mediation process in a new way, and while we haven’t yet resolved the stalemate, I’m returning to it with a renewed imagination of what could be. What stalemates do you find yourself witnessing? How can we see them in new ways and together imagine a more hopeful future?

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17 responses to “Desire is Essential: A Little Riff On The “Unthought” Behind All The Sexual Controversies

  1. Some deep thoughts on a July Wednesday morning. The notion of the “unthought” influences and presupps around desire are profound and need to be articulated, if not challenged. Thank you for this insightful piece Fitch!

    1. I love this post. I’m a Calvinist with some reading in the anarchist tradition, with a lot of post-modern influences and I am finding this article to be such a resource for my imagination, both as a critique for our society’s enlightenment/liberal values (which from a huge part of our ‘unthought’) and as a positive vision for how the church can transform culture and act as a force for the new creation that anticipates the kingdom of God. Pressing the issues in this post can be the most powerful type of transformation to deal with sexual brokenness, to root sexuality back with human dignity, for holiness as both a reconstructive healing force and a constructive positive force, etc. etc.
      So much at work here.

  2. This is such a great post David, thank you. As one of those living in a sactificationist tradition (never heard it called that before, but I like it), this has been at the root of all my conversations on sexuality. Desire defines us in our culture, but even in the church there has been little work on transforming that desire. As you stated it has mainly been focused on suppressing or ignoring desire.
    There is such a link between sexual desire and worship in scripture. I just wrote an article for an upcoming book called Renovating Holiness that explores this connection and our submission of our desires to intimacy with Christ. I think this link can be seen in the link between idolatry and adultery in the prophets and Paul’s language about worship and adultery.

    Desire is an essential part of our connection to God, but it must be submitted to that covenantal relationship and transformed by it. Our broken desires will define us until we do so.

    I am going to send this blog to a number of friends I have been talking with this about. Thanks again-

    Greg Arthur

  3. Yes, and no. Yes, modern western popular culture is satisfied with the themes of “desire” and “authenticity.” I think you’re missing the “authenticity” piece. It’s not just about fulfilling “desire.” It’s that, at each person’s core, there is a basic, constituting desire that must be released and fulfilled for the person to become an authentic self. This is the theme, for example, of every Disney movie: “discover WHO YOU ARE”. This theme doesn’t, however, eschew all asceticism. One might have to sacrifice lots of lesser desires to get at that core identity: think Rocky, the Karate Kid, Frozen, Katy Perry (Baby, you’re a firework!)
    That isn’t really Foucault’s conception of desire. It’s more like Maslow, or even like Augustine in the Confessions, before he realizes that the true desire lies outside himself, in God. Foucault’s conception of desire shows up in the next “layer” of our popular culture — the young adult and adult cynical, nihilistic posture that recognizes and celebrates the final emptiness of seeking the source of what we desire in ourselves. This is when we realize, with Foucault, that there is nothing but desire, which is nothing but an animal biopolitic. Whatever is twisted, whatever is dark, whatever is uncontrollable, whatever is orgasmic, whatever exposes the beast within — finally, brothers, think after these things. Kids graduate from Frozen to South Park.

    So the remedy, as Augustine said, is to move from being curvatus in se to being curved out onto God. That isn’t a loss of desire, it’s the true call of desire from which all other desires derive and without which all other desires become distorted. The Anabaptist santificationist tendencies are helpful here but I wonder if their spareness sometimes results in an ascetical practice that remains focused on the self rather than curved out to God. Iconography is an interesting test case here. The richness of ecclesial and iconographic art, vestments, censing, and so-on traditionally helped focus desire on beauty outside the self and directed it towards God. The iconoclastic tendencies of churches in the radical reformation traditions can become so spare that desire has no where to go but back inward.

    1. David,I was with you til you got to the commentary on Anabaptism … and the authenticity piece – tied to the self expressivism culture .. is all part of the unthought. That was helpful to hear it made more explicit.
      But the conceptionof Anabaptism – put together with sanctificationist … extracts either out of American individualism … and into God’s mission, and broader embodiment… which inevitably requires a liturgy. … There’s my rambling general affirmation of most of what you said!
      Thanks my bro.


  4. Thanks David. I’ve been working along similar lines in my blog series “A Better Conversation about Homosexuality.” I think my next post will be “Not About Desire”- in that this debate is not about our sexual desire but about how we define marriage. I’ll probably link to your post as I discuss that desire does not equal right (as in the right thing) or right (as in I have a right to this).

  5. Now, having read this twice and pondered David Opderbeck’s help response, I have to say both Yes and No.
    I am not fully convinced that contemporary culture has essentialized desire so much as it has said that fulfillment of one’s desire is essential. I think Gregory of Nyssa and (gasp) Augustine both point to desire (thumos) is part of the human person. So maybe there they agree with modernity. Yet, it seems that today, as you noted, that this fundamental desire is unshapable. It just is. And our goal then is to fulfill that desire.

    Two things, then, come to mind. First, the modern value of “Fulfillment” ignores the very nature of desire in that once it has been satisfied it is no longer a desire. But for it to be truly desire, it must and does, remain never completely satisfied. In the end, there is a kind of violence in the modern sense of desire– it is always consuming others in the quest of satisfaction. Once someone no longer fills our desire (or sparks new desire), the exhortation is to move on to the next desire. Sounds a bit like an escalating addiction.

    For both Nyssa and Augustine, though, there is an equal balance to human desire in wrath/anger (epithumos). This counter move is one of pushing away. (I think Coakley handles this well.) In this (gasp) Platonic anthropology there is a dual movement of pushing away and drawing near in the search for fulfillment. That, I think, is the root of the ascetic project. The ascetic acknowledges that both anger and desire are central to “formation”, or as Nyssa calls it, “eternal progression.” There is to be both a rejection of some “goods” in the quest for some greater good.

    Where I disagree with David a bit here has to do with an Anabaptist/Holiness asceticism. Basically, asceticism is not equivalent to a kind of self-focus. There is a clear sense in many of the patristic ascetic teachers (Basil and Cassian) that the communal formation is equally important. For Basil especially, the ascetic project is entirely engaged in the world. Take for example his noted rhetorical question- If I am in not with others, whose feet will I wash?


  6. Of course, there can be varieties of “anabaptist” ascetical practice that correct the iconoclastic tendencies of historic anabaptism. I’m encouraged by anabaptist-tinged new evangelical churches that are trying to foster ancient-future type practices, being attentive to aesthetics, etc. (which is my own ecclesial location right now!) Still there’s a bit of a basic tension — what is being “sanctified” or “redeemed”; what is _need of_ being “sanctified” or “redeemed?” How do “nature” and “grace” relate?

    1. Thanks David(s).
      I think the nature/grace thing is present here, but at the same time that tension might be a bit over-determined. In other words, performance/practice and formation are present here. Maybe Fitch is pointing to this through the language of sanctification. My take, though, is that askesis (or as Jamie Smith puts it, cultural liturgies) is a key aspect of the desire question. What are we doing (both intentionally, and by participation in various intersecting communities/cultures) that orients and shapes our desire? Those practices of cultural formation (pre-conscious formation a la Bourdieu’s Habitus) and intentional askesis seems to me to be both individual and communal in nature.

  7. I’ve appreciated the original post AND the ensuing discussion! It’s very encouraging to hear thoughts that are at a deeper level about the public discourse around sexuality.
    In addition to these reflections on “desire” in relation to identity and fulfilment, would it be appropriate to extend the discussion to include thoughts on suffering – as in, a theology of suffering – perhaps the suffering that comes from, or is a consequence of, the personal and social consequences of desires that are (rightly) restrained? For example, polygamy may be a perfectly natural consequence of natural sexual desire but we have largely accepted a cultural understanding that defines polygamy as unacceptable (and yet in some cases the desire is not actually constrained but finds other routes to fulfillment – prostitution, pornography, adultery, etc.). Is there a link between suffering and restraint?

    Our culture routinely views suffering as something to be avoided. Why should we suffer? If norms and values are uncomfortable or unpleasant for us, then it’s possible for us to work to change the norms and values. There is no need to deny ourselves any desire or pleasure if we can convince enough people, and especially policy makers, that our desire is natural. Jesus’ words (Luke 9:23) that “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me” seem appropriate, though in sharp contrast with the culture around us.

    I realize that such references, however, can be quickly dismissed as vestiges of a theology of repression and asceticism. But let’s not be too hasty. It does seem to me that understanding holiness and sanctification is at the heart of these discussions.

  8. “The way forward for the church, I would argue, is to display a way of life before the rest of the world that defies its very ideologies. You cannot argue with an ideology. You cannot confront it head on. You can only live a life that reveals its holes until it comes crashing in on itself, and be there to provide help.”
    Great quote and great post, David! The church spends too much time arguing about specific issues rather than living a truly counter-cultural life.

  9. Coming late to the game, I know…
    I wonder if the bifurcation between the inability to say NO to desire, to recognize any desire as less than natural and admirable, and the cultural infatuation with Buddhism, which at its most basic is a denial of desire, gives our culture a false map of the territory. It’s EITHER accept all desire as good, or reject all desire as leading to death/frustration/suffering.

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