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.