When I Say Christian, It Sounds Like B*&^%

This is one thing to be grateful for in the Trump presidency: Donald Trump identifies so crassly and insincerely as Christian that when he speaks no one can pretend it has anything to do with an actual faith in a living God who could assert any sort of authority (moral or otherwise). Even the right-wing evangelicals who support Trump make no pretense of endorsing his lifestyle or faith. Instead, they speak of him as an example of “God using flawed means to accomplish noble ends.”

It’s a small blessing for the progressive Christians who read Jesus as a revolutionary peasant who condemned the extreme wealth disparity of his time and gave away free healthcare and food.

But it doesn’t actually mean that the reputation or moral authority of Christianity is improving. Christianity is still rightly and popularly linked to the most destructive events of American history: genocide of Native Americans; assimilation of Native Americans; slavery; Jim Crow; anti-suffrage; massive ecological destruction; and so much more.

Christianity has a deservedly bad reputation, even if its core message is one of love. To be Christian is to reclaim a term loaded with baggage. Have you ever said the word “Christian” and watched someone flinch? Or scowl? Or quickly end the conversation?

As a pastor and a feminist, I’m increasingly aware of the one word that functions most similarly to Christian in my own life—the word bitch.

Feminists from Gloria Steinem to Cardi B have tried to reclaim bitch, in the same way that post-inauguration women tried to reclaim nasty woman. I have female friends who regularly greet me with “Hey bitch!” or identify themselves as “that bitch,” always with a positive meaning.[i]

I hear the word bitch at least a dozen times most days—almost always from women and almost always intended positively.

But no matter how many times I hear bitch, I still hear it through the long history of every use it has ever taken. I know that its root meaning is other, is more animal than dignity, that it is being applied to me to separate me from the world of men and all the rights that men have tried to defend exclusive access to.

I don’t really believe in the redeemabiltiy of language, even though redemption is the most fundamental Christian belief. I’m not sure we can, as a society, commit to hearing a word as good after generations of hearing it as insult and exclusion.

When I hear the word bitch, especially from the mouth of a stranger or a man or at a moment when I wasn’t expecting it, I flinch.[ii] I flinch at the history and pain that I pass in order to get to the compliment it is intended as.

It’s the same flinch I’ve seen many times in the faces of friends and strangers when I identify as Christian—the flash of Manifest Destiny, white supremacy, fear of being judged or guilt-tripped—invoking trauma in the name of an identity that has so often sought to negate all others.

But language is fluid, and bitch winds itself into more and positive spaces in spite of my discomfort. So, I think, does Christianity, whether in the lyrics of Chance the Rapper or this week’s public art display at a church depicting Mary and Jesus detained at the border.

Language cannot be controlled by an individual’s discomforts. If it were my choice, I’d abolish bitch from the language entirely. It is a place where I ascribe to the wisdom of Audre Lorde, “the master’s tools can never dismantle the master’s house.”

Then again, I come from a Christian tradition whose name also carries the weight of bitch—the Anabaptists, whose name was coined as an insult 500 years ago. It was a callback to a violent dystopian experiment in Munster, Germany, but was reclaimed by a peaceful church movement. Maybe all radical social movements begin with reclaimed language, maybe accepting an insult is the first step to undermining oppression.

There’s no reasonable argument for replacing Christianity with some other term, like disciples or Jesusians. There’s nothing to be gained by forsaking the title to fundamentalists. Christians are stuck excavating the word from under the damage it has done.

But Christians should carry their identity as if it’s a curse word–a curse word that is satisfying to say, sometimes appropriate for context, but nonetheless has the power to wound. It’s a word that invokes trauma and oppression even when we are trying to tell the story of a peasant, fully human and fully divine, born an ethnic minority and killed in an act of state violence.

When we say Christian, we are reclaiming a word that wounds. When we say Christian, we’re wielding a curse word. In the last ten years our culture has become far more comfortable with curse words, but all curse words have complicated and painful legacies.

Christians should be aware that their identity is a trauma-trigger for some people. That doesn’t mean they should avoid saying it, but they should be self-conscious and self-critical in using it. Be conscious that invoking Christian is like invoking bitch. It’s a struggle to pull something redemptive from something wounding.

In a way, it’s a fitting metaphor for Christian discipleship. All we do is pull something redemptive from something wounding, all we confess is that the power of the One who created the universe is strong enough to create something redemptive at any moment. It’s an uncomfortable place to stand, but it is in the literal sense a gospel place—a place of good news.

 

 

[i] There’s a parallel conversation to be had here around the n-word; I’ve had some of those conversations with black friends and encourage you to talk with yours and work through your thoughts on that, but as a white woman I don’t want to claim any authority to speak to it in this context.

[ii] The major breakdown in this analogy is that bitch was developed as an insult and is used to denigrate or other one group (women); Christian is as a positive identity marker that became an oppressive and manipulative term after the Constantinization of Christianity in 313, when it was wedded to the ideology of the Roman Empire. Functionally, in many contemporary spaces, it has the affect of insulting one or more people groups, and is often heard as, “I’m homophobic,” or “I’m a neo-Nazi.” Christians are often short-sighted about the baggage of that word, and so my point here is to bring attention to how closely linked Christianity is to trauma in many people’s minds, even though it is used by a group rather than against a group.

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3 Easy Things to Do if You Want to Help with Family Separation but Don’t Know How

If you want to help and you have no idea what to do–that’s okay, and it’s completely normal. It means your heart is working, and you’re trying to translate it to your voice and your hands.

When I arrived at church last Sunday, the weight of all the border issues, pushed into our faces and all at once, threatened to pull all of us down. What to do? What needs to be done? Slowly, together, we built a list of ideas that felt manageable, important, incremental. I  volunteered to work on a list of resources and actions. As I built the list, along with others, several things became clear: my church wasn’t the only one struggling with how to respond. And our response was stunted by years of being systematically under-educated about immigration issues.

The list had to be short—choice paralysis is real; manageable—despair paralysis is real; and informative—ignorance can be paralysis, too.

The result is a list that I hope is to be just long enough to offer options and just short enough to avoid overwhelming.  Continue reading

How we Keep Going When “Not Inhumane” feels like the Only Thing we Can Accomplish

Is this what we’ve come to? Defending the moral claim that families should be together and children should not be in cages? After days of denying the family separation policy and pleading helplessness to change the law, early this afternoon Donald Trump said he would suspend the Homeland Security policy of family separation at the border.

Trump offered no details on the new policy and maintained his tough-on-crime rhetoric. (BTW, almost half of all undocumented immigrants have not broken a criminal law; many immigration violations fall under civil law, which means there’s no crime against the public and should be no prison sentence attached to these violations). As with so many political moves, we’re left with the promise of justice but no evidence of it. Through popular pressure, the Trump Administration made a public promise to not be deliberately inhumane–but that’s far from a promise to treat migrants humanely. Continue reading

Is it Time to Stop Watching the NFL?

Last month when NFL owners approved a new rule requiring players to stand for the national anthem, many activists on the left cried game over. (Activists on the right cried boycott last fall when the protests continued for a second season.) If owners regulate their players’ behavior—in the name of regulating their love of country—it’s time for the populace to tune out. In the words of Chris Long, who played with the Philadelphia Eagles’ Super Bowl winning team in the 2017 season, “This is not patriotism… These owners don’t love America more than the players demonstrating and taking real action to improve it.”

With this declaration from the NFL owners, the ball is in the spectators’ court. Should we stop watching football in 2018? Should these regulations become the straw that broke the camel’s back? After lukewarm responses to domestic violence, after minimizing the risk of brain injury, how many bitter pills will we keep swallowing? Continue reading

Why I Don’t Call God “Father”

God the Father is such a popular term for God that it’s almost redundant—by the time I say “God” from the pulpit, many people are already imagining a sullen, ripped, bearded fellow who may or may not be a father, but whose identity is reinforced when followed by the word father. That’s why, from the beginning of my ministry, I chose not to call God “Father.”

I believe the word is theologically accurate. I believe Jesus identified with God as a father (although he had an unfair advantage at his conception). I’m also cognizant of what the term means to me and that church attendance in North America is at record lows and that something in Christianity is “off” for many people.

Is it a mistake to throw out God the Father? Does nixing Father tempt us to throw out the whole notion of the Trinity’s Father, Son, and Holy Spirit? Continue reading

A New Litany for Ordination

Ordination is a big deal. It only happens once in a lifetime. There is a standard litany for ordination. But, being a writer, as I prepared for my ordination last month, I couldn’t help rewriting the litany.

The standard Mennonite ordination comes from the Minister’s Manual, a handy little book published in 1998. The pocket-sized manual contains the words of institution for all our critical rituals and life transitions.

I believe in the power of a standardized litany, the power of all pastors reciting the same words of commitment at ordination. I also believe in low church, that each of our ordination reflects each of our journeys, and after all as a low church, ordination doesn’t set us spiritually “above” the congregation, but alongside of it in a particular way. Each candidate for ordination can adjust the words and be faithful to the ritual itself.

When I read Form 1 and Form 2 in the Minister’s Manual, neither one fit me well. The words were dry and formal, without imagery, the gospel commitments had no edge, no risk. It asked me to reaffirm the vows of my baptism, but didn’t say what those vows were. The repeated use of “brothers/sisters” excluded my gender nonconforming friends. There was an optional insert for the candidate’s spouse, but no insert for a single pastor to acknowledge the relationships that hold them in ministering work. Even more, the insert called the spouse to deeper commitment of their gifts without acknowledging the stress pastoral work (and helping professions) can put on a relationship and the importance of sabbatical, sabbath, and self-care. All of these seemed like very solvable problems, with a few substitutions and rephrasings. Continue reading

How to Read Half the Bible for Lent (and Still Take Days Off)

Two years ago for Lent, I decided to read a book of the Bible every day. It was more manageable than it sounds, mostly because you don’t realize how many short books there are until you start reading them. I more or less kept to my reading plan, which included Sundays off, as Catholics do in their Lent observations (the theory being that “each Sunday is like a mini-resurrection celebration”). I worked my way through two-thirds of the books of the Bible…. which left me with 23 very long unread books.

This year, I’m picking up where I left off. Coincidentally, these unread books fit well with the Year B lectionary theme, which is all about covenanting. It’s a good time to dwell in the Abrahamic promise; the covenants the Israelites developed in the wilderness; the failed covenant of kingship; and the somewhat obtuse covenant expounded in Hebrews. Continue reading