We Need to Talk

November 10, 2014

“Hoe, stfu”
“Shut up, ho, and get off the stage.”
“What I would pay for someone to shut the power off and shut her up.”
“Of course I believe in equal rights for women. Just kidding, suck my d***.”

This is how Christians talk. We might not like to acknowledge that fact, but a fact it is, since all of these quotes were taken from the Yik-Yak feed at a Christian college campus. Obviously, not all Christians talk this way, but a quick browse through social media sites and comment sections of news articles and blogs reveals that these comments are not isolated incidences in the Christian community. Many Christians talk this way (at least online). So how can things like this be said by Christians about other Christians?

We can’t answer that question yet, as a Christian community, because we haven’t yet found a way to talk about gender issues. It’s too hard, and too divisive, to have those conversations, given the wide diversity of opinions that Christians hold on these topics. Some Christians describe themselves proudly as feminists, while others think that word has no more legitimate place in Christian discourse than the other F-word. Others would claim that, while the comments above are definitely off-color, they are also just a few college kids goofing around—the comments are dumb, but harmless, and people need to “get over it” and “lighten up.” For still other Christians, comments like the ones above make them think that the church is not a place for them or their gifts, and they either leave the church altogether, or live thinking they’re second-class citizens in the eyes of their church (and maybe even of their God).

But while there may be some grey areas, and some gender issues on which we cannot all agree, there are certainly some things that we can agree on. For one, all people, male and female, are created in God’s image. To honor the God we cannot see, we must honor the image of that God that we can see (1 John 4:20). Does anyone think the comments at the beginning of this post honor God or God’s image-bearers? Is the person being talked about honored by those comments? The speaker? The hearers? Anyone?

We also all know the world is broken. We believe God is working to restore the brokenness brought to this world by human sinfulness because God is not ok with sin distorting the creation God made to be “very good” (Genesis 1:31). Hating, belittling, or harassing someone on the basis of their gender is an example of the brokenness of the world, and should have no part in God’s very good creation. If we are willing to condemn sin, why can we not condemn the distorted understanding of humanity that leads to the comments given at the beginning of this post? Why can’t we even talk about it?

Part of the reason we can’t talk about it is because we can’t agree on what exactly it is. One person’s gender discrimination seems, to someone else, to be God’s creative will; where some see differences to be used, together, for the betterment of creation, others see domination; where some see oppression, others see complementarity.

But part of the reason we can’t agree on what it is, is because we are unwilling (or unable) to talk about it. We are convinced (perhaps in part from previous experiences) that we will not be understood, so there’s no point in trying to talk about it. The hurts we’ve experienced from previous conversations come with us, causing us to put people into camps: the person in front of us becomes a ‘type’ rather than a person, someone like ‘them’ rather than someone like God. And we know what ‘they’ are like, so this person will be just like ‘them,’ and so they can never get what I’m trying to say, and instead they’ll just assume I’m wrong or crazy or evil. And I’ll assume the same about them.

The more we let the bad experiences of previous conversations prevent us from talking meaningfully with the people before us now, the further we get from genuinely knowing each other, and the further apart the church grows. And that distance between us makes it even harder to talk with each other.

So we talk at each other instead. The image of God gets lost amid the stereotypes and assumptions. And things get said. Things that do not honor God, or God’s image, or anyone or anything. Things that cause a great deal of pain and separation and brokenness.

Things like those Yik-Yak comments. And in those comments, and the things that get said (or don’t get said) in response to them, Christian communities seem to perpetuate the pain, separation, and brokenness of sin, rather than offering a sanctuary from it.

Can we talk about that?

About the Author
  • Neal DeRoo is founding editor of in All things and Associate Professor of Philosophy at The King’s University in Edmonton.

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  1. I had some thoughts about the use of this type of language when some recordings of a politician calling someone a b***** surfaced within the last year. In general, that word sometimes seems less bad than the F-word, but I then started to think that it actually was worse, because it was directed at a person in a demeaning way.

    I think Yik Yak’s anonymity seems to be a release for people to take off the masks they are wearing and let their true colors shine though (no matter how ugly). There is a lot of pressure on a person who is raised in a Christian culture to be/act a certain way and I suspect that some of them use Yik Yak to say things they can’t say in “real” life because they have an image to maintain–because we love the image of the perfect Christian, right? Nobody wants to be accused of “backsliding” or not having the right amount of faith, or not being a “true Christian”.

    1. That’s a great point, Kelly.

      I think part of the reason that talking about this stuff is so hard for Christians is because people don’t feel comfortable to say what they really think. Instead, they say what they think they ought to think, and everyone is happy. But no one has learned anything or engaged with anyone in a meaningful way. So even when we have these conversations, we aren’t really having a conversation–we’re just play acting. We need to be able to talk openly and honestly, which means being willing to hear other people be honest, even if what they think bothers us. And that’s much easier said than done.

      1. I would question what “Christian” home/family/school/culture means if basic decency falls away in favor of the gutter the minute someone thinks they are not going to be identified or held accountable. It is very clear if a young person has been raised by thoughtful and not simply authoritarian adults who present them with a disciplined approach to the pop culture gutter — or simply ignore it. Regardless of where they went to school, they are very unlikely to express themselves so sickeningly.

        @Kelly – It’s not really about anonymity or true colors — it’s about contingent choices that get made every day, and it’s always possible to choose differently that you did the day before. But I would *not* expect that to happen if the culture being swum in is rotten. What you see on “Christian Yik Yak” is exactly what I would expect to see from a “Christian culture” that has remained substantially bigoted and misogynistic while also severely relaxing its expectations for young people, public discourse, and simply the way people dress and talk. Previously repression and “good taste” kept people from speaking on impulse and revealing their depravity. But now we have the free choice to be responsible to others — and higher standards — or not. Having raised generations of consumers whose expectations for themselves are low, are we going to tell them and their parents the truth and risk their ire?

        1. Anthony,

          Could you expand a bit more on your claim that, as you see it, ‘Christian culture’ “has remains substantially bigoted and misogynistic”? I’m not sure what you are referring to with that, exactly, and I’m curious how you’d explain that.

          I’m also curious to see how it ties in to what I take your other main point to be: that people acting this way is a sign of the decreasing sense of ‘good taste’ and decency among Christians. You seem to want to lay the blame for these people’s actions on their parents and an improper upbringing, because you seem to be claiming that their parents should have taught them better how to speak and act ‘properly’ rather than just “speaking on impulse”. Is that a fair summary of your point here?

          If so, I’m not sure I agree with it. It seems to me the problem is not that these people are willing to say what they think when they think they can get away with it (because of the anonymity of Yik Yak or other commenting forums), but rather that they think these things in the first place. In which case, I would say the problem is one of failing to adequately appreciate the humanity of other people–the failure to love people as people, that is, as image bearers of God–rather than a problem of saying ‘undecent’ things. The comments are a symptom, not the problem. And the problem, fundamentally, is one of love, not of decency or decorum.

          1. Neil, I don’t think it’s controversial that the “Christian context” as you mean it is at least a generation or three behind the cultural mainstream when it comes to certain things, like matters of equality, inclusion and prejudice. That’s not simply “bad” in every case, and the cultural mainstream is not the standard of health in every case — in fact the “secular” and “Christian” worlds are both grappling with how young men and women should relate — but as you wrote it’s not even been possible to talk about gender in the “Christian context” because it’s too divisive. So many people still can’t get past the idea of “feminism,” which is now in it’s 4th (or 5th?) wave? That’s just not true in other Christian or non-Christian contexts. The context you’re talking about is one where one of its own mainstream figures tells battered wives to stick it out if they don’t need anything more serious than stitches to be patched up. The view of women as subservient is not just present in a small sub-sub-culture among religious conservatives; rather it substantially controls the microphone.

            Now I submit that once you take away the old culture of class and decorum (for lack of a better phrase) that used to dress things up at least and you swap in the culture of the gutter where women are “b*****s and hos” you are just amplifying and letting loose this existing “traditional” culture of female subservience and swaggering macho bigotry. That hardly means that a return to 1950s expectations for college students is the solution for the heart of the problem, but it would not hurt to move in that direction too, especially since it’s easier to guide speech and social behavior than get into people’s hearts and figure out what’s gone wrong there. Sometimes, as the Proverbs and modern psychologists tell us, putting on your best clothes when you feel terrible is just the thing to lift your spirits. If I were a woman I would take the routinized politeness of a gentleman who doesn’t really care for me over the authentic disdain — or catcalling “appreciation” of a classless clown.

            I agree with you that the core problem is a failure of love that expresses itself in individuals who think in sexist or other bigoted categories, but the reason they do this and do not care about others as if they truly love God and neighbor is the responsibility of their elders and the culture we create together. I thought I was pretty clear about saying it is still the fault of at least two generations. Nobody can forever blame their parents; once we are old enough to do that, we are old enough to learn from others’ mistakes and take responsibility for our own lives, whatever was done to or not done for us. Let’s address hearts and minds, but let’s also give care once again to “class.”

          2. Thanks for your response Anthony. I take your point about class/manners as a way of dealing with the symptom of this kind of talk. I also probably undersold the amount to which you did originally assign responsibility to both generations, so I apologize for that.

            I want to pick up your statement that the reason for people’s lack of care and love for others is the responsibility of “their elders and the culture we create together.” I guess part of what I’m trying to explore is how we, as Christians, may be (unwittingly?) complicit in creating a culture in which this kind of thing can flourish. You point to a certain strand of Christianity in your response (one that you do not seem to self-identify with) and I agree there is a lot to talk about there, but I take it from your use of the terms ‘we’ and ‘together’ that you are also willing to take some blame for creating this kind of culture. That is, I take it that your point is that the problem is not strictly with ‘them’ or with ‘that kind of Christians’, but with all of us together.
            I’d like to hear more about what you meant by that. In what ways do you think other Christians (those not in the particular strand you highlighted) are also complicit in creating this kind of culture?

          3. @Neal – I don’t feel I’ve personally contributed to either the creation, toleration, or spread of rubbish in our culture — definitely not the sexist and bigoted aspects, but it is something none of us can ever say we’ve fought enough. I don’t identify with most religious conservatives either. I think my own upbringing among them was spared much of the mess. On the one hand their fear and oppositional stance toward “the world” was not something I retained, but it had the value of protecting my time and attention as a kid. On the other hand, conservative as they may have been, most of my family is one or two generations removed from the type of “conservatism” that treats women as second class people. Getting free from that was largely accomplished already.

            I don’t think the theological distinctions on this issue matter a bit to anyone but those who are trying to justify a position intellectually that they already hold because of their experience and background. Men (and women) treat each other poorly when they have been treated poorly or have been witness to certain behavior as “normal.” As a young adult I certainly realized there were some residual tribal tics to work out mostly due to the broadly chauvinistic groupthink of any cultural conservatism, which mainly has to do with anxieties over race and class. But that is the sort of thing college was very good for exposing and working out simply through exposure to different people, ideas, and history. By having come to “know better” you could say I feel responsible for the many ways our country fails to resist the urge to “other” and then attack those who seem strange, contrary, or threatening. I really don’t see this as a task for Christians of any kind more than anyone else, and where the failures happen is not exclusive to any one group either. Anyone who allows their children or their students’ attention, time, and money to be misspent or wasted on rubbish, who allows them to speak and act brutishly without consequence has helped make all of us weaker, dumber, and less virtuous. This sort of failure occurs high and low, left and right.

          4. @Anthony: You’re painting with very broad strokes here. It would be useful if we defined some terms with regard to who exactly you’re targeting with your harsher pejoratives and what exactly makes up the subservience that you’re criticizing.

            There are certainly misogynists out there, but there are also issues of conservatives with very good intentions who paint with too broad of a brush, confusing the normative aspect of male headship with the normal forms and behaviors that will mark that belief. That is to say, while women working in the home might be more common in this structure, the practice itself is not normative (i.e. women working in outside careers are sinning). I don’t think that the confusion is the same thing as misogyny, and I’m much happier to engage the latter, but I would rather we tried to avoid the accusations until we’re sure they fit.

            At the same time, there is some concern with the progressive side arguing that an ineligibility for leadership equates to subservience and dehumanization. It’s the same struggle that feminism has wrestled with in its language of arguing for opportunities outside of the home; namely that this implicitly makes things like being a homemaker or serving as a congregant in the body of the church into inferior callings. I can understand the argument that there’s something unfair in denying certain opportunities to women, but if the language used to characterize that is too strong, it sounds more and more like the argument is that women are stuck with the crappy jobs and want to get access to the better ones. While that’s a fair feeling to have, as a rhetorical strategy, it ends up stripping the dignity from “lesser” service.

            In interest of fair and full disclosure: I am a member of and was raised in the URCNA. I mention this because I almost refrained from commenting because it felt like the direction of the commentary here was the same general aspersions I’ve often heard cast on my church and denomination, but Neal was asking for dialogue, so… well, here I am.

          5. Donald — I think it’s getting off topic to try to parse out distinctions between acceptable/unacceptable prejudices and “strongly encouraged inequality” and “misogyny.” That’s just not something we’ll ever agree on. Working from a possible point of agreement instead, if you see overstated, exaggerated, and confused teachings and practices about “male headship” in your community, do you think it is a serious problem, and do you think it may contribute to, inter alia, young men feeling freer to use the type of language this article opens with? Do you feel there is more exposure or passivity and less disciplined restraint for what young men are saying/doing/watching/consuming than, say, what young women are wearing?

      2. Well, yes, people are afraid to say what they really think but there’s also more to it than that. I think that what Anthony says below about Christian culture that is misogynistic has some merit because that does exist (but we don’t always talk about it!) when we refuse to see women as image-bearers of God. There are strands of Christianity where women are seen as subservient to men and only exist for men. Those YY comments are along those lines.

        1. What strand of Christianity are you referring to, Kelly? I suspected that Anthony was referring to John Piper with his comments about the “mainstream figure,” and so figured he was referring to strands of Christianity committed to a “complementarian” account of gender roles. I’ll admit I’m not real familiar with either Piper or the complementarian account, but from what I’ve heard, I think that strand of Christianity would deny that women are “subservient” to men and “only exist for men,” and would want to affirm that women are in fact image-bearers of God. I actually think there could be common ground here between you and the complementarian position–but as I said I’m not overly familiar with this material, so perhaps I’m mistaken. Is there someone out there reading/listening who is more familiar with this material who could weigh in here and help us out?

          1. I’m not sure if I could list specifics, but it seems to be fairly prevalent in a lot of what I’ve read from people who have left various denominations/non-denominations. I’ll put a question out on twitter to my followers and see if I can get anyone who has experienced this to contribute.

  2. Neal, this could have been written by C.S. Lewis – and other great leaders who also caught nuances between cause and effect, words and brokenness that follows to break us more. So much truth to reflect! Thanks!