If you’re part of the post-evangelical/social justice/progressive Christian world, you can’t have missed the recent conflict between a few of our most beloved figures. In the past couple of weeks, our space has seen a number of social ruptures occur along previously-obscured fault lines, with bloggers and activists either staying silent or rallying towards one of two primary personalities.
One of these leaders is Rachel Held Evans, the blogger and author who largely dedicates her writing to the advancement of gender equality in the church, and more recently to the inclusion and liberation of LGBTQ Christians. Rachel is well-respected in many progressive faith circles for her commitment to marrying strong egalitarian beliefs with a robustly evangelical faith, and for her ability to articulate her spiritual journey in a way that resonates with and helps transform her readers.
The second leader is Suey Park, the prolific writer and racial justice activist who rose to national attention last year for sparking several worldwide conversations on race and white supremacy. Suey is a highly sought-after figure in both secular and spiritual spaces for her academic writing on critical race theory, her community organizing skills, and her innate knack for all things social media. Suey is a Christian committed to racial reconciliation, and she recently co-founded a group called Killjoy Prophets, a faith-based collective that works to disrupt and challenge both conservatives and progressives, inviting all to re-conform to the image of Christ by centering the most marginalized voices.
Recently, Rachel was publicly challenged by Suey to pay more attention to racial justice issues, and to not speak over or tokenize the voices of women of color (some call this process “decentering whiteness”). The two exchanged brief correspondence on a few separate occasions, and among other things, we witnessed the peculiar distorting effect that 140 characters can inflict on our clearest arguments and observations, as the limits of the medium played their hand.
Soon, this little bubble of the Internet seemed to split in half. People who I had thought were all “on the same side” quickly splintered and divided. Some folks were called out, others lashed back, and there has also been a notable chasm of silence from many folks who probably aren’t quite sure how to react to the trauma. (I apologize if I’ve summarized anything inaccurately here or mischaracterized anybody. Please let me know if this is the case.)
Because I’m not a professional activist or author like Suey or Rachel, it’s unusual for my online commitments to eclipse my daily slate of Real Life activities – I’m a full-time undergraduate student, an RA, an event planner, and plenty more besides. I write, tweet, and read when I can, but it’s all in between attending classes and hanging up bulletin boards.
However, I’ve had more phone, text, Twitter, and Skype conversations this week than I can count – all with friends who are paying a lot of attention to this situation. All of them admitted to being general fans of both Suey and Rachel, to feeling caught in the middle, wanting so badly for some kind of reconciliation to occur, but feeling increasingly hopeless, powerless as to where to begin.
And so I feel obliged to say something. It might be easier to sit this one out, because I’m deeply wracked with the fear that I’ll say something wrong and alienate the very people I’ve come to love and trust so much. And my friend Mihee already wrote something similar, so maybe this is unnecessary. But if there is even a small chance of good resulting from this post, I have to write it. While I’m ill-prepared to step into this conversation and try to serve as some kind of moral arbiter, I can speak as someone who really respects both of these women, someone whose only desire is reconciliation.
At the same time, I hope I’m not trying to slap a band-aid on a gaping wound, to call “peace, peace,” when there is no peace. I’m not ignorant of the pain this recent conflict has caused those involved, and I want to be clear that I’m not proposing the sort of stand-in-the-middle-with-your-eyes-wide-shut “third way” that some Christians are constantly hawking above the voices of the hurting. My goal in writing this is just to ask for an actual conversation between two women I admire, and the chance at healing.
Suey and I both publicly repented earlier this week for the damaging ways in which we have conducted ourselves in the virtual world, whenever those ways have negatively impacted the justice work we are trying to accomplish. We both decided to stop getting into unnecessary Twitter fights, to think more critically about how our virtual vitriol can hurt actual human beings, particularly when a softer word might get the job done just as well.
Mark Driscoll recently claimed that his days of an “angry young prophet” were over for good. Though he was certainly never a prophet (or any sort of responsible spokesperson for God) I want to borrow his wording here because I believe the idea of an angry young prophet is apt for those who are called to challenge ecclesiastical patterns of sin. Yes, our lethargic, bloated North American church needs more killjoys and angry young prophets to stir up a mess, to fasten a whip of cords together and shake our congregations out of their lazy, oppressive systems – to purge homophobia, misogyny, white supremacy from our ranks.
Yes, naming institutional sin is a sacred role. But it can’t be the only one all of us ever play. Our Church needs more angry young prophets, but also more healers, more writers, more fishermen and reconcilers, more doctors and social workers; our call is as much a builder of good as destroyer of evil. We’re supposed to be as sharp and striking as snakes, yet as peaceful and innocent as doves.
I’m not talking tone policing, and this isn’t me asking for marginalized people to play by respectability. This is me personally trying to grapple with the fact that as a follower of Christ, I give into the temptation to lack grace and demonize and dispose of my opponents far too often.
This ethic of disposability is so attractive, and it can play out in all sorts of online spaces, whenever we find ourselves disagreeing with a single aspect of someone’s politics or doctrine and subsequently write them off entirely. Yet our ultimate enemies in the war we wage against fundamentalism and white supremacy are not individual human beings, but powers and principalities.
Each one of us are Imago Dei, remember? We are always more than one digital dimension, greater than the rote sum of our piecemeal profiles and portfolios. We are human beings. Not brands. Each online persona that we malign or antagonize or dismiss as a liar is a real someone. Someone who loses people, who gets dumped – someone who makes mistakes on too-small phones, who also loves Taylor Swift, who cries themselves to sleep over the horrible things that people have said about them on the Internet.
I think part of the problem is that we can conduct ourselves so differently in virtual spaces. I know that I have the tendency to be more assertive and aggressive online on social media, where bravery is cheaper and magnified by pixelated courage. It has become so easy to dehumanize each other, which is maybe the greatest sin we can commit.
I can see why some people might be afraid of Suey’s online persona. Watching her release sharp streams of thought can be harsh and entrancing, like witnessing the searing beauty of an active geyser. Yet it’s another thing entirely when you’re sitting across from Suey in person, talking about faith, and she actually says “the s word” because she doesn’t swear in real life. I have felt a safety and affirmation in her presence that is impossible to convey online. Like the Wizard of Oz, my impression is that we can easily become enveloped and obscured by our bluster, our projected personalities.
I can see, too, how someone with as much respect and influence in this niche world as Rachel might naturally unsettle those with smaller platforms, or those who are less familiar with how many streams of the “progressive Christian Internet” operate. (We are an odd bunch – very white, very reactive, frequently myopic and hostile towards those who threaten our sense of comfort.) And yet I suspect that many who judge Rachel prematurely are, in person, completely disarmed by her warm presence and kind drawl. I’d imagine that an actual in-person conversation would melt away any fears that this woman is intimidating or above reproach.
* * * * *
I hope it’s obvious by now that I consider Suey a teacher and a dear friend. There’s scarcely a day that goes by that she doesn’t care for me in some way. I wish I could express in a sufficient way how much positive impact her friendship and influence have had in my life. I’m more convinced than ever that we need her voice and prophetic witness in the world, in the church, in our in-person and online conversations.
I’m afraid I don’t know Rachel very well, so I can’t speak for her or how she might be learning or feeling or hurting right now. But I do know that I am profoundly grateful for her work, which has touched so many people. (Including myself: Rachel’s writing was what helped give me the courage to finally leave a spiritually abusive faith community – by coincidence, the exact same group of people that Suey also survived).
I know too that Rachel – like both Suey and myself – has come so far in the way she treats and advocates for LGBTQ Christians. She’s challenged biases and led the captives out of the same circles of fundamentalism that have left all three of us scarred. I really believe that if we ever lost her voice, it would not be a cause for celebration.
I feel my loyalties torn between these two brave and imperfect Christian leaders who have each taught me so much, who have both inspired and influenced my faith journey in countless ways. Neither of these women are monsters. They deserve charity, dialogue, and at least a chance at real conversation – in more than 140 characters. I want reconciliation. I want resolution. That’s how you act when you’re #MyChristianLeader.
(Maybe someone should start an anonymous Kickstarter campaign…to buy Rachel and Suey plane tickets and day passes to Disneyworld, where they can spend the day getting to know one another and talking faith/justice over taffy apples and roller coasters? Is that too wishful?)