Julie Clawson wrote on her Facebook status this past week:
"Why is it always white, middle-class, highly-educated males who argue that dying to the self for the sake of commitment and accountability to a local church despite disagreement, silencing, or abuse is the only way one can be a part of the kingdom of God? And who then say that experience and emotion are not valid ways of knowing so that they do not have to ever listen to such theological voices that challenged the theologies of privilege that support their places of power in the system while silencing others. I don't care if my view is 'Romantic' or birthed from identity politics, when men tell women and minorities that they just need to shut up and submit to abuse for the sake of Jesus I do not see the kingdom of God at work."
This is why there are going to be more women--including women who are pastors, theologians, and therapists at the Sacred Friendship Gathering this year than there will be white men (white men who are leaders). More evangelical women than men see friendship as a healthy path for healthy community and gender reconciliation. White men are vulnerable to continue to emphasize abstract systems designed with one-size-fits all solutions to authority, voice, and leadership.
There are huge challenges when educated white men emphasize the death of self, accountability within a local church as the only way for "real" Christian and spiritual experience and authority. Educated women in the 21st century like Julie get it.
I dare to speak up since, I too, am a white male. Aware and perhaps unaware of how my own privilege is embedded into my writing this post.
As I white male, I stopped emphasizing "submission" and "death to self" as the be all, end all when I plunged myself into the vocation of male-female friendship. In genuine, healthy friendship, you're not going to go very far in friendship with your friend, if you approach her, "Hey, I believe we are going to have a great friendship. I can't wait until you start submitting to me!!"
I began to see friendship as a far reaching paradigm for gender reconciliation when I started to pay attention to what feminists (yes, I know for many conservative evangelicals that's an "F" word) including Christian (Catholic and evangelical) feminists were saying.
The more I devoted myself to reading feminists, philosophers, theologians, and therapists on friendship, the more I could see systems devoted to "death to self" and "submission" were fraught with fear and power issues--unless of course you drank the kool-aid. For those, fear and power are just accepted as a norm rather than a systemic sin to overcome.
Although submission and surrender are wonderful and necessary to all of Christian spirituality and life, to have white men position an ongoing unnuanced center of death to self and submission is deeply challenging at many levels. Permit me to ramble off these 5 challenges off the top of my head. I am sure there are more.
1. The challenge of Niebuhrian pride and privilege in intimate male-female relationships and in the world
This is a the foundational issue to deep gender reconciliation and friendship between men and women in the 21st century. By "intimate" here, I am not merely including marriage but also any close relationship which men and women share.
I can guarantee you this: any white male who tweets all the time about submission to the church and death to self without any robust nuanced support of autonomy-voice is going to be viewed as suspicious in the 21st century--and that's putting it kindly.
Is he promoting patriarchy? Or is he promoting an out-of-touch-privilege of systemic power (with good intentions but out-of-touch with issues of how self-hatred impacts unhealthy submission?). Brennan Manning remarked a few years ago that self-hatred was one of the biggest issues in America. Scores and scores of Christian women (and men) fight with self-contempt issues.
Its entirely possible that a white man who continues to promote death to self, self as a problem, a self that needs to submit to "discernment" or communal authority--may be oblivious that he is equating narcissism with Niebuhrian pride. Or that people hearing him assert death to self is the same as Niebuhrian pride.
In the words of Terry Cooper, "Niebuhr believed that self-exaltation is a universal problem." For Neibuhr pride was the essence of sin, self-mastery, self-sufficiency, self-elevation. Feminists came along and critiqued Neibuhr and this form of pride as saying this primarily was a male experience as a social sin. Women wrestled with self-contempt.
For a good treatment of this I recommend Cooper's book, Sin, Pride & Self Acceptance.
Which man or woman, dealing with self-contempt, dealing with chronic self-contempt, wants a steady diet within their church pulpit and church social media, "You must die to self, you must submit your voice to others because we're all guilty of self-exaltation"? I myself, deeply wrestled with chronic self-contempt for years and sermonic appeals to trust God, etc. did not help. For years I did not wrestle with Niebuhrian pride. I wrestled with self-contempt, wrestling with shame wondering how God could love me.
Because of my history, I cringe when I see white male leaders so tightly knit death to self with submission in their ecclesiology and spirituality without a healthy understanding that in the 21st century Niebuhrian pride is not all there is to self-understanding. Niebuhrian pride is not a universal experience for all people. It's probably not even at the heart of most postmoderns. It's certainly not at the heart of many women and minorities. White male leaders like this can keep good Christian (and nonChristian) therapists with an unending list of clients wrestling with self-contempt.
They can also promote systemic sin as Julie noted.
It's challenging and heartbreaking when you see good white men with good hearts come to grips with their genuine Niebuhrian pride and then they want to universalize it for everyone else in their sermons, tweets, and social media.
But white men who come to see their Niebuhrian pride and strongly desire a good self in community can have another challenge.
2. The challenge of welcoming space for autonomy-voice in community.
White men who set up a tight connection between submission and death to self face the uphill challenge of welcoming space for healthy autonomy and voice. There needs to be a space for autonomy and voice to act as a healthy agent in community in order for there to be genuine mutuality in marriage, friendship, and community.
In other words, in marriage, friendship, and community--we don't run to the opposite extreme of Nieburhian pride and passively yield our voices, our identities, our individualities to the sameness of fusion.
For women who have struggled with relational hierarchy (or a dynamic of power over them in marriage and church) for years, this is quite a relational and interpersonal challenge. It doesn't dramatically change overnight. There are deep grooves to walk out of. Deep grooves to exercise their agency to rise up. But this would also be true for minorities and for white males who struggle with self-contempt.
We're in the 21st century and if you have an eye on the issues of autonomy, identity, self-contempt and pride, you're not going to gloss over the issue of self love. That's why for example, the book I currently have in my hand written by two Catholic authors (Paul Wadell and Patricia Lamoureux), The Christian Moral Life emphasizes that our great calling is to love--to put others at the center of our lives and come out of self-centeredness. But then they also have an in-depth section on necessity of self-love. "Love for others should not lead to the annihilation of the self that has been given to us by God." I don't hear much of that coming from leaders who have tightly woven death to self and submission.
But there are evangelicals who get the need for autonomy in relationship to others (marriage, friendship, community). James Olthuis says:
Mutuality is attunement of expression, recognition, and desire, a dance in which simultaneously the differing gifts and needs of each person are honored, recognized, and met...We recognize each other, seek each other's good, identify-with each other--in the process loving the other as we love ourselves....The aim is not to eradicate, accomodate, suppress, or repress difference, but to allow contact with difference to move, enhance, and change us as we become ourselves more fully.
One of the fallouts of not allowing the depth of autonomy-voice to flourish is leaders forcing "herding." Edwin Friedman describes herding as "a process through which the forces of togetherness triumph over the forces of individuality and move everyone to adapt to the least mature members."
If we are not in touch with the fact that many women, (even women living in households where the theory of egalitarianism is embraced) struggle with a denial of one's own individuality for the sake of the family or church, we're not in the 21st century yet. Too many women hearing "turn the other cheek" and "die to self" and the virtue of submission end up in unhealthy marriages and communities.
Autonomy-voice is all about relational dignity, equality, and healthy community in the 21st century. This is a Western ethic for women (and all those who struggle with self-contempt--other minorities and white men) in the 21st century.
Okay, well this is getting too long. I have to stop off here and continue with part 2.