Culture

Race, Gender, Justice: How Should the Church Respond When People Reach the Boiling Point?

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It happened as I was waiting for the Metro. 

It was Friday night, and I was going home after a successful meet up with a group to rollerblade around the monuments in DC. Of course, at almost 10:30pm, the Metro was busy with people going out and people going home, summer tourists and sleepy kids, and even late-working businesspeople still conference calling as they waited for the train. Even so, those who waited were all spread out across the platform. The electronic sign said two minutes til my train, so I lay down my skates for a half minute to take out a water bottle from my backpack.

That’s when a man pushed his way by me and another woman, quickly and intentionally pressing up against us from behind, and then wove his way through the crowd down the platform. I was more shocked than anything. I remembered a sign I had seen which had advertised for a woman to “get help” if someone brushed by you in an uncomfortable way – but what did that mean here, at 10:30 at night with a train to catch? 

And so, lumping this experience in with all the cat-calls I’ve received, negative comments about “feminization,” not being considered for ministry positions for being female, well-intended remarks about being “good for a girl,” and hearing conversations about women needing to “stay attractive” for their men, I reacted in the same way: I did nothing. I got on the train and kept moving.

But something reached a boiling point inside of me.

Something continues to boil inside of me.

It’s not that I like it. I guess the reason I haven’t shared this event with anyone before this blog post is that I really don’t want to be seen as a victim or receive any pity, that life goes on and this stuff happens. And even as a pastor, I often don’t know the “Christian” thing to do about it.

Raising an issue that seemingly of which most people know its existence and of which they might even be tired, I risk becoming “one of those feminists” or a complainer – or worse, I will have people ask about what shorts I was wearing or why I was by myself.

The easy thing to do is to act like everything’s fine and this stuff is normal, the way things are, time and again.

But it takes time to boil.

And boiling occurs as the result of putting on a lid.

I have a sense that at this point in history, in society, and especially in the church, a lot of boiling is going on. I am a white woman, and I’ve experienced boiling because I’ve experienced life as a white woman. My African American brothers and sisters have experienced boiling because they have experienced life as black men and women. My immigrant friends have experienced boiling because they have experienced life as immigrants. And I must acknowledge that each of our boiling is different from one another, that in no way, shape, or form can I feel the same boiling as a man or woman whose skin is black or someone who just moved to the U.S. from Pakistan, Thailand, or Guatemala.

Regardless of what we agree or disagree about, what position we take, or what party we hail, the boiling exists and the events and experiences that have turned up the temperature in each of us actually happened. I don’t like it and admit I often fight it too. On the surface, things might look ok – we are more outspoken and willing to engage in conversation, we speak of words like “progress,” “equality” and “change,” we’ve increased opportunities for those who have been limited in the past, and we see changes as we compare our century to the last.

But events in the past year and stories I’ve heard from people in my own life reveal that the boiling hasn’t gone away – perhaps it’s even intensified.

Videos and blogs travel from phones and computers around the world in seconds, and heated debates on social media contribute more to “unfriending” than breakups.  When the pot boils over and spills into areas of life that used to be clean, neat, and tidy, we panic – well, those of us who aren’t boiling are the ones to panic. We take sides and positions, some of us jumping into the pot, while others run away. We create structures and containers to temper the boiling and produce hashtags and signs that admit and warn of causes of boiling – like the one in the Metro. 

And all the while, many of us well-meaning Christ-followers just don’t know what to do. We’ve never experienced this before. What we don’t realize is that all along, the temperature still has been rising, even if we, ourselves personally haven’t experienced it. And it will continue to.

But the worst thing that the Church can do is ignore the boil and shove the lid back on.

In his famous illustration in 1 Corinthians 12, Paul describes the Church as a body. We think it’s cute to think of each one of us as important and united in our diversity – that somebody is the toe and somebody else is the liver but both integral to the body. But what we don’t realize is that this was a common analogy of his day, especially for politicians and military leaders in important speeches. However, the difference between their use of the body imagery and Paul’s use was extreme – exact opposites. The Romans used the body to put people in their place, to stop complaining, to understand they would never be a dominant part – nor should they be. They declared that there was an established hierarchy among the parts and their differences, and there was nothing to talk about. Paul, on the other hand, flipped the whole analogy on its head – literally. When one part rejoices, all parts rejoice, and when one part suffers, all suffer. 

The best thing we can do as the Church is to share our emotions and what’s boiling inside us – face-to-face.

The Church is a body that has a face to the world – a face made up of parts. Just because one part faces a circumstance that the others have not experienced doesn’t mean it’s not real, that he/she is “just complaining,” or that everybody should be happy we don’t live in 1880 or 1960.

Just because the Caucasian lady on the praise team has never said anything about how she was raped in college, or the African American man who just started coming to church has never told his story of being stopped and pulled out of his car by a state trooper for changing lanes, or the Latino woman in our small group has never mentioned being the subject of crude jokes in the office doesn’t mean those things never happened.

The hidden stories below the surface are often the most painful, hurtful, and harmful. And the Body of Christ should be the best – not worst – community in which to share real events, real feelings, and be real about life. Admitting there is a problem is a start. And it often starts with us, as pastors. It starts with how we acknowledge what’s real, whether or not we have experienced it in our own lives, and how we connect ourselves in relationship to other, different, body parts. 

In history, the Church always has been a sanctuary for those on the margins more than it has been a stronghold for those in a dominant position. Like Paul, those who have been born into a place in society that would be considered privileged should use that privilege not to deny or put down others’ experiences but to stand in solidarity with them, turn down the temperature, and bring God the glory. 

It’s my hope that someday we might look back at this time and not regret how we responded when so much was bubbling beneath the surface. 

[Photo: Sharat Ganapati, CC via Flickr]

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