An Education

Today, I found out I had a doppleganger: an unfamiliar Twitter account with my face and name, posting things I’d never said. A surreal and even terrifying moment, even for this child of the digital age. The source of ire for the account’s creator? My support for the parody I mentioned in my last blog post: EmergentDudeBro. Inspired by Tony Jones, the account’s creator takes specific and devastatingly witty aim at public hypocrisy, whether it’s Tony Jones’ refusal to understand the meaning of white privilege or Brian McLaren’s latest fundraising campaign. I do not run this parody. I wish I ran this parody. I am actually flattered that people think I run it because I find it hilarious and also accurate. Regardless, I am not EmergentDudeBro and EmergentDudeBro is not me, though I suspect we’ve got some experiences in common.

I have repeatedly stated that I’m not EmergentDudeBro’s creator, in public and in private to figures like Jay Bakker, but that didn’t satisfy either Bakker or the creator of the account, and so someone decided to impersonate me. I don’t know who decided to do this. Based on Bakker’s earlier conviction that I’m behind EmergentDudeBro, I suspected him, but he denies it and that’s that. Tony Jones has refused to condemn this act of cyberbullying and given his own history of cyber harassment, my money’s on him. To date, he still insists that I’m a ‘meanie,’ according to his Twitter account. Apparently, applying postcolonial theory to his statements about Pentecostal Christianity in the developing world is mean.

And that brings me to my next point, or points. Let’s examine my experiences with writing about Christianity.

Age 15-16: as a student at a Christian high school, I wrote a poem about religious hypocrisy. The poem wasn’t directed at anyone or any church in particular. The school, however, refused to publish it in its literary magazine, despite having gladly published all of my previous contributions. I’m later expelled, sans any demerits, for being a ‘disturbing influence.’

Age 18: entered Cedarville University and began writing Facebook notes about gender and sexuality. Got labelled a radical. Cue four years of abuse and harassment from classmates, faculty and staff online and in person, which included hate mail and the vandalization of my property.

Age 20-21: began writing for the student newspaper. I reported on local poverty and wrote critical editorials about gender and modesty. A faction of the Board of Trustees, led by Paige Patterson (you might know him as the president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary) decided my writing is dangerous, and directly requested that our faculty sponsor remove me from staff. That’s right. The president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary felt threatened by a feminist editorial from a 21 year old student journalist. In protest of this and other attempts at censorship, we pulled publication. A year later, the university resumed publication of the paper–without an opinion section.

Age 21: Left the church. Quietly.

Age 22: found myself in an abusive relationship with the son of a high profile Cedarville staff member. My ex was given a job on campus and when I reported certain aspects of the abuse (not the actual sexual assault, because the school wasn’t in compliance with Title IX and therefore had no process for reporting sexual assaults, and because I was terrified), my ex kept his job and was granted a front row seat at my graduation. Decided I was probably right to forget this Christianity business.

Age 23: Finished my degree. Moved to London to pursue graduate studies in postcolonial theory–and a life free of religious abuse.

Age 24: My Christian alma mater begins systematically removing faculty deemed liberal. Graduated from Goldsmiths, University of London without having experienced a single incident of censorship, harassment or abuse.

Age 25: Finally came forward about my experience with sexual assault. Cedarville began an investigation but since it still didn’t comply with Title IX, I filed an official complaint with the Civil Rights Office of the Department of Education. Continued to blog about American religion, from a postcolonial and feminist perspective. My tiny blog and its tiny following somehow earn me the ire of Tony Jones, who decides that I’m mean and refuses to engage my critique or the even more valid critiques offered by women of color. Offered my support for a parody account with maybe one third of Tony Jones’ following and found myself the subject of unrelenting harassment that escalated until someone decided to steal my identity.

The object of this timeline isn’t to incur sympathy. I know people, outside the church and within it, with experiences far worse than my own. Nor do I think of myself as a martyr. I’m not a public figure and I don’t particularly seek to be one; I have other priorities, like pursuing a civil rights complaint against my hypocritical mess of an alma mater. I write because I love to write and I write about the things I write about because I feel that they’re important. If you’re a public figure and you publish racially insensitive comments in the name of Christ, of course I’m going to write about that. Unless I engage in ad hominem attacks, I’m not being mean. I’m using my brain in public. Just like you did.

And my consistent experience with using my brain around Christians, especially Christian men? See above. I have not once spoken from a position of power. I have never enjoyed a large public platform. Yet I am consistently dismissed and harassed and silenced by people in power, people to whom I pose no actual threat.

That, Tony Jones, is ‘mean.’ That is privilege in action. That is what is like to be a woman in the church (or outside it) with opinions about the men who lead it. It’s not satirical to steal the identity of a woman with a fraction of your online following and appropriate her voice. That’s actually abusive behavior. It’s about power and retaining dominance. It’s behavior I’d expect from my abusive ex-boyfriend, not from men who expect people to seriously consider them as public leaders and thinkers. If this is your response to criticism, and to satire–a satire that I didn’t even start–then that tells me all I really need to know about you and the  movement you represent: it is not for me. There is no spiritual home for me there. And you do not offer an alternative to the fundamentalist environments I described earlier in this post. You offer me more of the same.

Thanks, but no thanks. It’s safer in the wilderness.

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An Open Letter to the Emergent Church

Dear Emergents,

Congratulations on conducting perhaps the most successful marketing campaign the American church has ever seen. Maybe it’s not the most original tactic, this  repackaging of the same old structural inequalities, but it clearly works for you. You decry the megachurches, the prosperity gospel, the Republican takeover of Christian doctrine and offer followers a smaller, humbler alternative.

But for all your talk of community and shalom, I want to know: whose community is it? And is it really shalom if harmony depends on the dismissal of dissent? Because from my perspective, the community you offer isn’t structurally any different from the mainstream church and its myriad flaws. Your community remains fundamentally conservative. It remains dominated by straight white men. There are no prominent queer Emergents, no prominent women, no prominent people of color.

And here’s the remarkable bit: you still believe you’re different. You really believe you’ve got the concept of social justice nailed. You’ve graciously chosen to acknowledge the church’s failures on immigration, poverty, and sometimes even GLBT equality, and somehow, you seem to believe this is enough. You believe this is what shalom looks like. And gentlemen, I’m not at all sorry to inform you that is simply not the case.

It is not shalom to dismiss people of color when they tell you that you have been racially insensitive.

It is not shalom to dismiss your critics as ‘mean‘ when all they’ve done is offer a dissenting perspective.

It is not shalom to behave in a hypocritical manner, then have online meltdowns when that hypocrisy is satirized.

Let me ask you seriously: has it occurred to you even once to ask yourself, or someone else, why that satire exists? Have you wondered why so many people seem to appreciate that satire? Because there are two options here. Either those people are cartoon villains, or they have valid criticisms. And if those people have valid criticisms, do you think that maybe, just maybe, they’re resorted to satire because you have steadfastly refused to acknowledge them?

Maybe I’m crazy.  I’ve certainly heard that I’m mean.

But I spent over two decades of my life engulfed by the American church, it has educated me and abused me and on rare occasions it’s reminded me why it’s good to be alive. Even now, prodigal that I am, I know that I owe much of who I am to the church. She’s a whore and she is my mother, and I know her like I know myself. And I am telling you, Emergents, you’ve done her no favors. You say you’re radical?

You don’t understand the first thing about that word.

It’s radical to listen. It’s radical to react with humility when someone with experiences that aren’t yours corrects you about them. It’s radical to step back and allow suppressed voices to speak. It’s radical to admit when you’re wrong and it’s radical to put the interests of the world’s marginalized ahead of yourself, or even your best friends.

You, white men who lead the church, have had your milennia in the sun. And you’re threatened by a parody account on Twitter? I’d be amused if it weren’t all so depressingly banal. Your involvement in the Emergent movement doesn’t remove the social privilege you enjoy. From one white person to another: unpacking privilege is an ongoing process and being an anti-racist ally requires more from you than your good intentions. If you want an inclusive church, you will have to sacrifice your position of privilege. You will have to step back. Some of you might even have to step down. And that, Emergents, is what real reconciliation looks like. That’s shalom. That is how you build community.

Sincerely,

A former sympathizer

HSLDA Renews Opposition to UN Disabilities Treaty

Back to my coverage of HSLDA and the Christian homeschool movement today, thanks to their latest onslaught on the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. The treaty, which guarantees a set of basic legal rights to disabled adults and children in signatory states, is set for a June 4th hearing by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. The arguments marshalled by the HSLDA in anticipation of this hearing reiterates the same rhetorical themes I’ve previously documented: a fear of the state, and a fierce defense of parents’ rights that does not acknowledge the complementary rights of children.

The HSLDA’s opposition to the treaty can be briefly summarized. Specifically, they believe  that the treaty grants the UN the legal right to interfere in private parental decisions, which by extension includes the decision to homeschool. Homeschooling is never mentioned in the treaty, and the treaty itself contains no stipulations not already domestically enforced, primarily through the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). But this isn’t enough for the HSLDA. The global focus of the UN treaty merely compounds their paranoia regarding the state: this is statism on an international scale, a supranational entity with, allegedly, supranational power. The real level of influence possessed by the UN is debatable, particularly in this instance, given that the treaty as proposed does not contradict US law on the subject.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee has provided further guarantees that the United States would not change its laws in order to adhere to the UN treaty. The HSLDA insists, though, that this is not the case, in hyperbolic rhetoric that also promises a a moratorium on spanking, involuntary public school attendance, and “nothing less than the complete eradication of parental rights for the education of children with disabilities.” Not once does the HSLDA acknowledge the existence of children’s rights or even recognize the need for specialized education for children with disabilities. The emphasis is, again, entirely on parents and parental rights.

I write this post as a person with disabilities: I was born with dehydrated hereditary stomatocytosis, an extremely rare genetic blood disorder that causes chronic fatigue and pain. I actively benefit from the Americans with Disabilities Act, for DHS and for earlier adolescent struggles with anxiety and depression. The ADA has protected my right to an education and my right to work without discrimination. And it is from this perspective that I approach the UN treaty the HSLDA has so strenuously opposed. The HSLDA has ignored the voices of disabled adults and children and therefore I feel it necessary to present that voice. Disabled Americans are no strangers to self-advocacy. Yet this self-advocacy is itself a privilege, one often denied to disabled children. The HSLDA believes that parents have the natural right to make decisions for disabled children; this is embodied in HSLDA President Michael Smith’s assertion that ‘parents know best how to care for children with disabilities.’ This language is telling, and not only because it utterly contradicts the reality that doctors and trained special educators possess beneficial expertise that parents do not. Parenting is not framed as a privilege. In fact, the HSLDA omits any mention of certain responsibilities parents might just owe their children. Instead, children are once again located as intrinsically inferior, a class entirely without agency or indeed, any rights of their own.

This framework oppresses able-bodied and disabled children alike, but the consequences are particularly pronounced for disabled children, who are already often rendered invisible by the stigmas associated with their conditions. The HSLDA’s opposition to the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities is further evidence that the HSLDA’s primary concern isn’t the protection of vulnerable children, but the transmission of literalist Christian doctrines. It is unlikely that, if enacted, the UN treaty poses any immediate threat to the Christian homeschool movement. The true threat is represented by the implications of the treaty’s recognition that children possess certain inalienable rights.

Tony Jones and the Need for a Postcolonial Christianity

Today, I’m taking a brief break from my coverage of the Christian homeschool movement in order to weigh in on another controversy plaguing the Christian blogosphere. Yesterday, Emergent theologian and pastor Tony Jones defended himself against recent accusations of racism by noted African American pastor and psychologist Dr. Christena Cleveland. On her personal blog, Cleveland addressed Jones’ public assertion that he, and other Emergents, had identified the most accurate interpretation of the Gospel. Cleveland’s critique of this remark is based on certain incontrovertible truths: that the Emergent movement is dominated by white men, and that Jones, as a member of this class, possesses the highest possible degree of social privilege. In a theological context, this cultural hierarchy is informed by centuries of Christian collusion with political imperialism, domestically and in the developing world. Historically, white men (particularly straight white men) have enforced interpretations of Christianity that deliberately marginalize the Other in the name of doctrinal purity. This tendency is evident from the beginnings of Christianity onwards; it is particularly evident in the missions movement.

It is to this marginalization that Dr. Cleveland reacts, and rightfully so. Her criticisms of Jones are historically grounded, and reveal the privilege inherent in Jones’ claim that he, and by extension his movement, provide the most accurate interpretation of Christianity. There is a presumption of superiority embedded in this claim, and in Jones’ defensive response to Cleveland’s critique. Jones asserts that he is ‘tired’ of being called a racist, and as blogger Sarah Moon reports, he turns up in the comment section of his piece to provide the following suggestions for anti-racist work: “Let’s work on dismantling those systems. We can do so by 1)stop calling each other racists and 2) stop lecturing people who are just like us.”

Moon provides an excellent take down of Jones’ arrogant reaction to Cleveland’s critique; she rightly points out that Jones is wrong to believe that he, a person of privilege, has the authority to correct people of color on the appropriate direction of anti-racist work. In his response to Cleveland, Jones complains that progressive Christians “pussyfoot” about their convictions; the implication is that Cleveland, and Christians who agree with her, are willing to sacrifice sound doctrine to the conservative bogeyman, political correctness. By extension, this also implies there is nothing doctrinally valid about Cleveland’s critique, which further marginalizes an already repressed perspective. Tony Jones hasn’t simply refused to acknowledge his privilege: he is actively strengthening it at the expense of people of color.

This is also evident in his assertion that Pentecostal theology is ‘weak’, made two years ago at Fuller Seminary. Jones claims this is merely an honest representation of an intellectual disagreement, but his language is telling. Rather than specifically state that intellectual disagreement, he issued a blanket condemnation that implied the intellectual superiority of his own theological beliefs. He even repeats this perspective in yesterday’s post: “I made a statement of preference, that I think the nascent Pentecostalism practiced in much of the Global South would benefit from being in dialogue with the older, more developed theologies of the West.”

Our preferences aren’t formed in an intellectual void. The Pentecostalism of the global South has a distinct history, greatly influenced by the legacy of Western colonialism. The relationship between the South and the West hasn’t been shaped by dialogue, but by imperialism, and if dialogue is the goal, the onus of compromise is on the West, not on the South. Additionally, dialogue is impossible as long as the West continues to assert its intellectual superiority to the South. The Pentecostalism of the Global South is correctly considered a syncretic belief system, and that syncretism ought to be viewed as a colonized culture’s attempt to retain agency in the face of Western Christianity’s theological colonialism.

In my master’s dissertation, I argued that Western missionary and aid efforts in the South constitute a theological colonialism, an imperialism ultimately shaped and directed by doctrinal beliefs rather than the political interests of the state. I believe that Jones should be considered an advocate of this theological colonialism, and that in response, Christians committed to anti-racist work ought to consider a postcolonial theology. This theology ought to be primarily shaped by marginalized voices, and should acknowledge the influence of social attitudes on this consuming emphasis on doctrinal purity. It’s time for the Tony Joneses of Western Christianity to take a step back and allow people of color to helm the discussion. His refusal to do so does, despite his protestations, make him a racist.

Jones closed his piece with the complaint that he is also tired of being called a misogynist. There’s no evidence yet that he’s willing to relinquish his position of power.

Michael Farris’ Strange Allies

Michael Farris, chairman of the Homeschool Legal Defence Association (HSLDA) and president of ParentalRights.org, has established himself as a leading figure in the Christian homeschool movement.  His suspicion of the state and his emphasis on parental rights–his definition of liberty. In my last blog post, I published documentation of homeschool parents’ reactions to revelations of abuse within the Christian homeschool movement. The themes revealed–anti-statism and a consuming, passionate belief that parents know best–reflects in micro the message Farris so effectively peddles at the national level. These concerns make for some strange bedfellows, as a close examination of ParentalRights.org’s list of allied organizations reveals. Allies include AbleChild, an anti-psychiatry organization affiliated with the Church of Scientology, and Glenn Beck’s Black Robe Regiment. Several allies erroneously link vaccines to autism and other forms of ‘vaccine injury.’ These allies include the Canary Party. Given Farris’ belief that parental rights are absolute, even divinely derived, his alliance with organizations that lobby for the end of state interference in private affairs is not a surprise.

However, the other entries on this list of allies reveals a new facet to Farris’ parental rights advocacy. Nine allies lobby for fathers’ rights, either explicitly or under the guise of ‘parental alienation syndrome’ or ‘shared parenting.’ Superficially, these sound like benign causes. Nobody sane wants to deprive fathers of their rights, or alienate children from their parents. Shared parenting sounds entirely fair–and in many cases, it is.  But further research reveals another, more sinister reality. The overlap between the fathers’ rights movement and men’s rights activism has been well-documented by a variety of media sources. Both are often referred to as the ‘domestic abusers’ lobby’ and with reason. The leaders of Fathers and Families, listed as one of ParentalRights’ allies, actively lobbied against the passage of the Violence Against Women Act. According to the members of Fathers Unite, another ParentalRights ally, the judicial system systematically discriminates against men in divorce and custody proceedings. This is a common complaint of men’s rights activists. According to the Fatherhood Coalition, yet another ally, this amounts to nothing short of a war on fatherhood itself.  And let’s not forget Farris’ association with Doug Phillips of Vision Forum, an organization that explicitly promotes extreme female submission and discourages the higher education of women. The enemies here are mothers, and by extension, a judicial system that supports them unconditionally.

So why would Farris ally himself with these groups? After all, he supports parental rights, and mothers are parents. The healthy families Farris promotes are, presumably, also free of domestic violence. His alliance with this movement therefore appears to be totally contradictory. But for those of us who grew in conservative Evangelical and fundamentalist families, the reason is obvious: Farris allies with these groups because the only rights he really seeks to preserve are father’s rights. His primary interest is the protection of the patriarchy. No fault divorce, the Violence Against Women Act, and current custody laws threaten paternal supremacy. Farris fights for limited government because the state’s interference in domestic affairs usurps the role his movement assigns to fathers. If Farris and allies succeed in their goal of establishing parental rights as a constitutionally recognized right, the cultural hierarchy he seeks to protect will be successfully embedded in federal law. And let’s be clear: that is their ultimate goal. Homeschooling is merely a means unto an end.

Michael Farris’ unusual allies are further evidence that he, and the organizations he has founded, have no intention of addressing abuse within their ranks. They can’t. If they acknowledge that abuse is a problem, then the limitations of the cultural hierarchy they promote will become publicly evident and will become more difficult for them to successfully argue that it is superior to mainstream alternatives. Failures in leadership typically demand a change in leadership, and the patriarchy cannot sustain this. If homeschool parents are truly concerned for the well-being of children, it is therefore in their best interest to separate from Michael Farris, HSLDA and their allies.

The Southern Poverty Law Center has more information on the men’s rights movement. 

The HSLDA and Abuse: More Denial and Deflection

Yesterday, the Homeschool Legal Defense Association (HSLDA) released a public statement regarding blogger Libby Anne’s recent coverage of its defense of the Gravelles, a homeschool  family accused of horrific child abuse.  Libby Anne, an ex-homeschooler and a survivor of religious abuse, has meticulously researched the HSLDA’s consistent opposition to child welfare legislation that acknowledges children’s rights. A screenshot of HSLDA’s statement, made via its official Facebook page, is available. It addresses a mere portion of Libby Anne’s coverage, but that is itself notable. HSLDA states unequivocally that they will represent any family in a homeschooling dispute. That policy is responsible for its defense of the Gravelle family: despite the suspicious death of a child in the Gravelles’ care  and mounting evidence of child neglect and abuse, HSLDA will defend their right to homeschool.

This policy likely appears nonsensical to anyone unfamiliar with the HSLDA or the Christian homeschooling movement. But a critical examination of HSLDA’s rhetoric reveals certain common themes: an emphasis on parental rights, suspicion of the state, and the absolute right to privacy. These rights are, obviously, quite selective. There is no recognition that children themselves possess rights and agency, or that the state has a right to protect the welfare of children, or that the right to privacy is naturally limited and does not extend to abusive punishments and neglect. Revelations of abuse in the movement have met with responses that are structurally identical to conservative Christian responses to abuse in the Christian adoption movement, and in various Christian colleges, churches and ministries. Below are my screenshots of homeschooling parents’ responses to me, and other members of Homeschoolers Anonymous, after we expressed support for tighter regulation and transparency about HSLDA’s support of abusive parenting techniques.

Deflection: 

Joy Rose

Belinda Rogers Wilmouth

Charity Almer (comment made in reference to blogger Libby Anne)

Julie Winters Walmer

Denial: 

Joy Rose

Kirsty Potter Knapp

Mylene Brinker Eliot

Steve Rogers

Patricia Hopson

Often, this tendency to deflect or deny the existence of abuse is supported by a deep-rooted paranoia regarding the state. I’ve included a couple examples below. This fear of government is not limited to Christian families, and exists as a locus point for secular support for the organization.

Fear of Government: 

Ganit Bas Noach

Selena Bryant Hutcheson

If you have Facebook, the thread itself is worth viewing. HSLDA has yet to offer a substantive response to the abuse allegations. It has not offered any practical solutions for addressing abuse in the Christian homeschooling movement; rather, it maintains its opposition to stricter regulation of homeschool families. In this, HSLDA is remarkably similar to the responses of Christian adoptive parents to journalist Kathryn Joyce’s recent coverage of abuse inflicted on adopted children. It also resembles the official responses of ministry leaders in ABWE, Sovereign Grace Ministries and countless churches and Christian schools to allegations of abuse in their ranks. A clear pattern has emerged. The religious right is steadily proving that it is incapable of appropriately responding to abuse, whether sexual or not, because it is incapable of acknowledging failures within its organizational structure. When you believe that you are on a mission from God, that you can access an absolute, divine truth incomprehensible to most, you behave with a certain arrogance. To acknowledge failure is to acknowledge that perhaps, just perhaps, you’ve heard God wrong. And that is a direct blow to the mythology that conservative Christian leaders require to support their continued control of the church as a political entity.

 

Dear Progressive Christians: Abortion is Actually None of Your Business.

Typically I enjoy Rachel Held Evans’ blog, but her latest piece is not exactly an improvement on the abortion debate. It reiterates most of the same, extraordinarily tired rhetoric on abortion: that it is tragic and overwhelmingly complex. In some cases, this is likely true, but the question of abortion’s legality is certainly not complex, nor do I find the practice of abortion to be particularly tragic. Women’s rights ought to be paramount in any discussion of abortion because their rights are the only rights threatened by the discussion’s outcome. To suggest that not only does a fetus have rights, but that those rights outweigh a woman’s right to bodily autonomy, is to reduce women to the status of sentient incubators.

No. It is not that complicated after all.

Should abortion itself be celebrated? Not necessarily. Should the legal right to obtain abortions be celebrated? Absolutely. That legal right is intrinsic to gender equality. It ends back alley abortions. It enables women to pursue education and career paths that would be potentially unavailable to them if they carried an unwanted pregnancy to terms. It facilitates healing for pregnant rape victims. It allows mothers to provide optimum care for the children they already have. It makes it easier for abused women to leave their abusive relationships. Abortion is an uncomfortable topic, not a complicated one.

The anti-choice movement relies on lies: pseudoscience about abortion’s link to breast cancer, sterility and trauma. It supports Lila Rose’s edited videos and the false advertising of crisis pregnancy centers. It rallies behind politicians who claim that Plan B and hormonal birth control are really abortifacients. It relies on this level of coercion because there is a vast void at the heart of its rhetoric, a void that ignores the importance of gender equality. That is why they have to lie to women. Because if they don’t, they’ll simply have to convince us that we are less important than fertilized eggs, that we should be ashamed of our sex lives, and that the role of motherhood takes primacy over career and education.

We’ve fought this battle. We’re not going back.

So, progressive Christians: do you have a right to find abortion distasteful? Of course you do. But you don’t have a right to interfere with a woman’s private medical decisions simply because you think she’s selfish. And if you want me to believe that you really want a productive conversation on abortion, I advise you to take the beam out of your own eye. Take a stand against the abusive tactics employed by the anti-choice movement. Don’t picket clinics and harass patients. Don’t demonize doctors, because that has a tendency to result in their murders. Don’t lie about biological reality. Don’t assign a fetus rights that you’d deny a woman. And stop agonizing over what someone else decides to do in the privacy of a doctor’s office.