Feminism, Social Issues, Theology

rage and grace


Back when I was a Christian fundamentalist know-it-all teenager, I spent a lot of time laughing at liberals– religious liberals, political liberals, it didn’t matter. One of the more common jokes I heard– and made– was about how those “liberals talk a big talk about tolerance, as long as you agree with them.”

I still see this pop up in my life occasionally– and it showed up in my facebook feed a few times yesterday, in relation to this article. The author, Brandon Ambrosino, hasn’t flinched away from controversy, and has faced some intense pushback as a result. In conversations about his New Republic piece, a few people cracked the “wow, liberals are so tolerant, aren’t they?” joke, and it bothered me.

A little while ago, Stephanie Drury of Stuff Christian Culture Likes, made an argument that people (including victims, she never specified), should extend grace and forgiveness to oppressors and take the opportunity to educate them, and that this was important and anyone who didn’t was doing life wrong. When a non-binary person critiqued this argument, Stephanie’s response was to post a single tweet on facebook, out of context, and claim that she was being bullied. It was the same thing– those liberals are just so tolerant, ain’t they?

There’s been a common thread going through my facebook, twitter, feedly, and wordpress feeds– it frequently comes up in flesh-and-blood conversations, and it’s an idea worth spending some time on. It’s this thought that we’re Christians, and that means we’re supposed to love people, and turn the other cheek, and forgive, and be gracious. Why, then, are you speaking or writing this way? Why all this rage and frustration?

And, to an extent, I very much appreciate the thoughts behind this question. I am a Christian, however confused I may be about what that means right now. Regardless of what I’m sorting out in my soteriology and theodicy, I do believe in following the teachings of Jesus, and that includes “they’ll know you by how you love one another.”

What this looks like for me, personally, is that I do my best to recognize the imago dei of someone I’m responding to. If possible, I try to familiarize myself with their body of work if I’m going to critique a single article. If I’m talking to someone in my comment section here, I do everything I can to be patient and gracious (mostly. I have, occasionally, uhm… not been). In conversations I have on twitter, even with people I disagree with, I do what I can do be calm, gentle, and kind. I think those things go a long way.

However, there have obviously been times when that hasn’t held true. I’ve occasionally “rage stomped” on articles, as I call it. I’ve blocked people on here, on facebook, on twitter. I’ve outright refused to engage with some. Some posts have been full of fire and rage. I made a Grumpy Cat meme that was slightly less than “turn the other cheek” material. I’ve sometimes taken some people to task, and then there’s the fact that I spend most Mondays ripping Fascinating Womanhood to pieces (I’m a “Katniss Everdeen of post-evangelical anti-fundamentalism,” not gonna lie, that was awesome).

So . . . why?

It’s all tied into another question that’s related: don’t you think being calm and gracious will get you a lot further? Don’t you think that being angry will just make people defensive? If you want people to listen, you shouldn’t talk like that. It doesn’t get anything done. You’re just talking into the air if you do it that way.

And, again, to an extent . . . they have a point. Anger and rage, no matter how legitimate, no matter how justified, no matter how necessary, will make a lot of people defensive. It can shut certain doors, end conversations before they even begin. That’s just . . . true. However, there’s another, equally important question.

How far do we go to protect the feelings of oppressors?
How little do we say in order to engage with abusers?
What are we willing to suffer in order to be nice?
How much do we allow in our relationships that hurts us?
How many boundaries must we pull down, and make ourselves unsafe?

There’s a place for rage. For anger. For hurt. For the expression of suffering. And yes, sometimes this means that people who hurt us– inadvertently or not– are going to be uncomfortable. Reading some of the twitter feeds that I follow– @sophiaphotos, @thetrudz, @jaythenerdkid– don’t make me feel very comfortable sometimes, that’s for sure. But comfort is rather beside the point when people are suffering and dying every day because of oppression. That’s why we’re angry, and no, we’re not going to “tolerate” it.

And, I’ve made this argument before, but there’s also the fact that, honestly, no matter how hard I try to be gracious, and loving, and compassionate, and kind, and long-suffering . . . the abuser, the oppressor, the privileged are always going to be able to silence me if they don’t like what it is I’m saying. There will always be a way to dismiss me, no matter what I say or how I say it. Oppressors will find a way to oppress. And yes, sometimes it is worth it to take the time to educate someone (what am I even blogging for if not to try to offer an explanation?) . . . but not always. And it’s the not always part that deserves to be recognized.

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  • Have you read any of Dan Allender’s work? He’s an evangelical Christian therapist who specializes in sexual abuse, and I think you and him have a lot in common. The Wounded Heart is his most famous book, but in his book “Bold Love” he wrote about what it looks like for a Christian to love their abusers: and how it’s not nearly as neat and clean as those who haven’t been abused would think. How it’s understandable that an abuse victim would hate their abuser and still be Christian, and how any love that is shown must, absolutely must, be surrounded by safe boundaries with the primary concern being the protection of the abused from further abuse. And how sometimes that isn’t possible.

    If you haven’t checked out his work, I’d be really interested in your take on it. I’ve never been abused myself, and it wasn’t until I read his works that I really got any idea about it.

    • I read “Wounded Heart” when I was in therapy a few years ago and liked it. “Bold Love” sounds good.

  • Mark Kubo

    I found this extended piece on “Toleration” at the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy helpful in understanding the apparent paradox of tolerance: http://www.iep.utm.edu/tolerati/

  • kategladstone

    ” I do my best to recognize the imago dei of someone I’m responding to. If possible, I try to familiarize myself with their body of work if I’m going to critique a single article.”

    So do I — but I’ve always wondered how one would apply these aims if responding to, oh, the writings of Hitler or Stalin, of their inspirers, or of analogous living people

    • Even Stalin and Hitler were formed in the imago dei. It is painfully difficult to remember that, sometimes. They were just as human as their victims. No matter how many atrocities one commits, they are still in the image of God somewhere, somehow.

  • Jon

    Great post.

    I’ve discovered that abusers will say, “You’re not being loving,” to try to make the abused person feel guilty for refusing to interact. It can be incredibly devious.

    Every person has an absolute right to find safety and healing.

  • even Jesus toppled the tables of the money changers – those taking advantage of the people. There is a place for righteous anger.

  • I am a criminal prosecutor, and know a lot of about victims. The one thing that I will say with absolute conviction, always, is that no one gets to tell a victim how, when, or even if, they forgive. Victims process their emotions in their own way and on their own time, finally and for once without reference to what the person who hurt them needs or wants.

    Forgiveness cannot be demanded, required, or coerced. It must be a gift, freely given, from victim to offender which may or may not ever be forthcoming. It is up to the victim to decide if forgiveness is in the victim’s best interest. Telling someone that they must forgive or that they are a bad person if they don’t forgive is just a secondary form of victimization that yet again attempts to put their experience in a position of subservience to that of the person who hurt them.

    • This. All of this.

    • Courtney

      I also agree with this wholeheartedly. One thing I find extremely uncomfortable (and just flat out morally wrong) is when TV shows and movies portray victims as “bad” or “cold-hearted” when they don’t forgive their offenders. Even if the person who hurt them is truly repentant, they aren’t entitled to their victim’s forgiveness just so they can ease their conscience. Living with that guilt, however long it lasts, is a consequence of the choices they made.

  • Rage is an appropriate response to injustice. Somehow it’s a “masculine” emotion, though. Therefore you’re being all unfeminine and not modeling proper Christian behavior for women (cf. Pearl). Plus, you are making them uncomfortable by pointing things out in a way that’s hard to ignore.

    You go, girl. Afflict the consciences of these modern Cotton Mathers! (Although Cotton Mather was a lot more introspective.)

  • Elmo

    My workplace has a diversity policy which often produces the same twisted logic: “You’re not tolerant of my religion because we feel that homosexuality is a sin and that women belong in the home and….”. Sometimes it gets a bit more obscure — did you know that having a Darwin fish on your car means you hate Christians?
    When this question is raised during training, the stock response is that your personal belief is your own business but your behavior in the workplace is everyone’s business so if you think that one of our Directors (openly gay) is sinful that’s your business but don’t be disrespectful in the workplace.
    In my personal life, I promise to respect your right to be an intolerant jerk and I won’t try to convert you to my way of thinking as long as you don’t try to convert me to your religion. That’s where I draw the line.

  • In the past, I’ve been very guilty of raging against those I disagree with. I have a sharp tongue. And frankly, I think that in many instances “agreeing to disagree” and being respectful to all viewpoints is a crock. But as a Christian, I know that my favored scorched earth tactics aren’t really ok. Except on rare occasions anyhow. Over the years, I’ve adopted a few tactics which have helped me find a comfortable and I hope Christian way of conducting myself.

    The first, and probably most important one is to promote what I love rather than bashing what I hate. As much as possible, I try to let my arguments stand on their own terms rather than as against something.

    Second is I try to remember to leave the other person room to be wrong. I can be incredibly harsh and argue people so hard and fast into a corner that all they can do is defend themselves. So I had to start asking myself if I could deal with the onslaught I was directing towards others without taking a defensive stance just for survivor’s sake.

    Third, I needed to realize that while I might never get the person I was disagreeing with to change their mind, other people reading the exchange could be trusted to see the difference between my (excellent, correct) argument and one that is lacking. So I don’t have to have the last word or respond to every ridiculous point.

    Fourth, I feel no need to punt when it comes to abusive behavior. I call it like I see it and make no apologies. BUT I do not apply the label to people. There are abusive behaviours, but the people engaging in them are image bearers struggling with a false identity and internal demons. People and their behaviors are two separate things.

    Finally, I will make myself refrain from conversations on subjects I simply cannot engage in without being awful. For a long time I didn’t let myself get involved with conversations regarding creationism or women’s roles because of this.

    Anyhow, I’m not trying to tell you what to do. Just offering a sketch of what’s helped me to stand strong in my beliefs and against what is harmful and wrong without behaving in ways that I feel are unbecoming for a Christian. Honestly, managing to find a way to do this has required me to become much more mature in my dealings than I was ever inclined to be. I still struggle (and fail) not to just lash out in righteous indignation at times. But generally, I feel comfortable with the way I manage myself. I get a lot more “you make some really good points” comments than I used to and it’s become incredibly rare for even those who disagree with me to complain about my tone or approach.

    • It’s good that you’ve found something that works for you.

      However, I simply cannot agree with you that people and their behaviors are different things. People whose behavior is physically abusive are abusers. Their hands do not form fists and beat up other people independent of them. People who rape other people are rapists. Their penises do not leave their bodies and rape other people independent of them.

      When I prosecute people for crimes, I prosecute the individual, not the behavior. The caption on the indictment says The People of the State of Wherever versus Joe Smith not The People of the State of Wherever versus Joe Smith’s Assaultive Behavior.

      You are the ultimate expression of your behavior and your behavior is the ultimate expression of you. Your behavior does not exist as an independent entity. People who behave badly with enough consistency are, ultimately, bad people. Let’s just be realistic here.

      • I agree with you Christine 100%

      • Please understand that I have experienced all manner of abuse myself. I in intimate relationships with people who have also suffered all manner of abuse. I have also done minstry with kids in juvi, street people, single moms in crisis and just everyday folk. I am completely aware of the damage crime and abuse creates. I am not naive in the least.

        But, each human has an identity handed to them by our creator. It is the truth of who they are and it can be sulled, betrayed and completely hiddden, but it never changes and never goes away. I have no right to tell God that I refuse to see each person he created as anything other than an image bearer due to his or her poor behavior. No right whatsoever.

        Additionally, having been around the block a few times, I have rarely, if ever, seen a circumstance where labeling someone according to their worst behavior was helpful. It could be a matter of personality and style, but I’ve found that if there is any hope of a person turning from their ways, it comes from reconnecting them with their humanity, often by having them face the reality of the effect of their behavior on other people.

        Besides, Jesus says not to judge. Only God can judge and vengance belongs to him. I can’t just pull those words out in self-defense. I have to be bound by them even when it’s hard or unreasonable. At any rate, you may disagree, but I’ve walked the walk in circumstances you probably can’t imagine – even after your time in court. It works for both victim and the person so splintered from their humanity that they abuse. I stand 100% by my refusal to label people according to their behavior.

  • Purple

    Samantha, this post reminds me of Martin Luther King, Junior’s Letter from the Birmingham Jail:

    ” History is the long and tragic story of the fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily. Individuals may see the moral light and voluntarily give up their unjust posture; but, as Reinhold Niebuhr has reminded us, groups are more immoral than individuals.

    We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have never yet engaged in a direct-action movement that was “well timed” according to the timetable of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word “wait.” It rings in the ear of every Negro with a piercing familiarity. This “wait” has almost always meant “never.'”

  • Courtney

    I’m going to forward this post to my husband because this is something we struggled with earlier in our marriage (and still do sometimes). I’m a very non-confrontational, don’t-rock-the-boat kind of girl, whereas he’s much more comfortable with conflict and won’t hesitate to call someone out on the carpet. He deals with some very disrespectful coworkers, and one day when he was talking about it, I kept trying to convince him to take the high road. He finally got so frustrated that he asked me “So what you’re saying is that it’s OK for them to be rude and hurtful toward me, but not the other way around, because their feelings are more important than mine?” That really made me stop and think.

    It caused me to reevaluate some of my own relationships, and I’ve since changed my stance quite a bit. I definitely don’t go looking for confrontation, but I no longer allow people to victimize me, or those I love, without calling them out on it. You’re right in that oppressors will always find a way to oppress, but I will no longer be guilty of giving them power. If they’re going to be hurtful or disrespectful, then they’re going to have to do it knowing that I and others see it for what it is.

  • The way I look at it is everyone is trying the best they can to live their life to the best of their understanding. With this idea above everything else, it leaves you the opportunity to seek understanding in that there are reasons why they act the way they do. It doesn’t mean you shouldn’t get heated up about certain topics, but it does better allow you to overcome your personal bias allowing a better opportunity to connect the understandings of the other person with your own understandings.

  • ellen

    I appreciate this post. I grew up feeling afraid of my mom because of the way she expressed anger. It was a weird dynamic–she stomped on me, my sister, and my dad at home, but outside the home she avoided conflict like the plague. She didn’t stand up for herself or set healthy boundaries. I never saw anger handled constructively and unconsciously buried my ability to feel and express anger at all. As a young adult I sought treatment for depression. I was shocked to find that expressing rage opened the door to healing.

    Shortly after this I found Jesus, and unfortunately, evangelical culture. I got the continual message that having boundaries is wrong, as is anger. The pastor at my church regularly preached that depression was a sin and a result of being self-focused. The solution was to stop paying attention to my evil self and help others. This did not work, which brought shame. I retreated to my old habits of repressing anger, developed depression again, and once again found healing by feeling and expressing anger and rage.

    This pattern has occurred a few more times since then–finding healing, joining a more promising evangelical church community, then developing depression or other health problems as a result of being in a culture that adores stoicism and poor boundaries. I grew tired of this pattern. I’ve come to the conclusion that I cannot be a healthy person if I stay in an evangelical environment, so I am churchless. And the healthiest I have been in a long time!

    For me, rage is a necessity. Some situations call for high intensity of emotions, and some abusive people will be affected by it in a good way. Rage has helped me process extremely negative experiences so that I can later think clearly and decide what to do. Then I can make decisions from a place of love. Rage has been my way to grace.

    • Purple

      Ellen, your post reminds me of the book “12 ‘Christian’ beliefs that can drive you crazy: a relief from false assumptions.” It’s by Henry Cloud and John Townsend. It is a great book about a healthy emotional life. It talks about how a lot of so-called Christian beliefs are actually contrary to the Bible and God’s nature. The book was really helpful for me.

      Two of my favorite chapters address the ideas “it’s selfish to have my needs met” and “if I’m spiritual enough, I will have no pain or sinfulness.”

  • Slow Learner

    Samantha, this dynamic is an interesting one, which played out in atheism over the last few years. The labels changed (appeasers, diplomats, accommodationists, as against firebrands, hellraisers, confrontationalists), but the basic argument was quite similar.

    That particular fight has died down, I think because it gradually sank in for most of the participants that there is a place for both approaches.
    Any movement that actually wants to change things in the real world needs rage and diplomacy; needs a crashing iron fist to bang on the door and a glad hand to welcome new allies…and the same is true for an individual, that there are times and places for gentle discussion, and times and places for an impassioned rant.
    This is something that you clearly understand already – I compare some of your writings here with the way you are going about trying to make change at your church, for example, and you can clearly work in both registers.

    Keep raging, keep fighting, keep the fire running when it’s needed, because you are doing good.

  • Kreine

    This tension between our definitions of love and grace is difficult.

    A rabbi on an Internet community I was part of explained that it isn’t loving to the abusers or manipulative individuals to allow them to continue their destructive behaviors unopposed. It is loving in the truest sense of the word to call them out, to show them they are hurting others, and to set boundaries.

    Hard to conceive (for me, anyway), since that doesn’t quite line up with my warm, fuzzy definition of love, but it’s something I’ve had to keep in mind when I just want to ignore the abusers & focus solely on the helping the victims.

  • It’s important to separate out righteous anger from simple cruelty. When an oppressor demands that someone he or she is oppressing not show anger at being oppressed, then that’s nothing more than abuse and gaslighting. I am under no obligation to smile and keep sweet when I am being abused and oppressed. I am not required to address my oppression in a way that makes my oppressor all comfy and happy. Anger in that case is not only called for but required, but to get the best results, it should be used constructively, to highlight the abuse and oppression and to state how categorically unfair and unwanted that abuse and oppression feel. It takes anger sometimes to wake oppressors up to how their actions and attitudes are really affecting those around them. Until anger gets shown, they act like everything’s fine and nothing’s wrong and everybody’s happy. Remember that “Duck Dynasty” jerkweed? He thought the vicious racism of his town was perfectly fine and that black people were happy with the racial hierarchy there because none of them were coming up to him personally to object to the treatment they received. None of them felt safe to express anger or discontent with the situation, so he figured everything was fine. In the same way, I’m sure most women have dated or married men who were thoughtlessly sexist who didn’t realize there was any kind of issue, even after repeated attempts to speak civilly about things, until their partner spoke in anger about it. Anger gets people’s attention, as well it should. Anger is often the first indication oppressors have that an injustice is happening. And we know it is righteous anger because resolving it involves resolving the injustices occurring.

    On the other hand, I can also see a lot of butthurt rage in the Christian community about how their control over others is deteriorating. They are downright furious. I’ve been threatened physically by gloating Christians who are downright thrilled and lusting to see me get gang-raped by demons for all eternity–several of these “loving” Christians even knew how long the penises would be of these rapist demons! Their anger is unmistakable and even shocking. But it is over the disappointment of losing control over others and not being allowed to abuse and oppress those they think are sub-human, over the sting of their hatred no longer given cultural consideration anymore. It is still important, this anger they feel, but it is not constructively used because all it does is alienate people further from their religion–and highlight their own fading and unwarranted control over others. To resolve that anger would involve handing them back that control and letting them run roughshod again over others. So it is simple cruelty and not righteous anger. We don’t dismiss it, or try to gaslight it, but we do try to move these Christians to a place where they realize their emotions are not based in love or addressing oppression but in the sting of losing privilege.

    The picture becomes murkier when we add the misogyny inherent in Christianity to the mix. Especially when women show anger at their own oppression, Christian culture doesn’t even have the faintest idea how to cope with that display. First, most of ’em think that women who don’t like oppression are acting out against the Way God Meant Everything To Be, so they don’t take very kindly to the idea that they’re oppressing anybody. And second, women aren’t supposed to show negative emotions. They’re supposed to be compliant, meek, gentle, and sweet. The reaction women’s anger gets is usually tone trolling rather than engaging with the reason for the anger: “be a good little girl and speak meekly and sweetly and maybe then Daddy will listen to you.” It is repulsive, but thankfully, fewer and fewer women are putting up with it. So yes: I am angry about what I see going on in religion-land. I won’t make apologies for it. I will use that anger constructively by ending oppression however I can. Dang, this was long.

  • Lan

    There HAS to be a time for both. I’ve blocked people on twitter too But if liberals become known as being intolerant, it will not do any good.

  • I’ll cut a person a lot of slack if I know they are open to having their prejudices challenged. I can “turn the other cheek” in situations like this. Sadly, what I’ve learned from dealing with a family full of intractably prejudiced tossers, is that “turning the other cheek” only delays the inevitable familial spit for about a decade or so, and then everything falls apart anyway.

    The sad reality is that some people will never change. If they are too invested in the joy of hatred and too blinded by deep, unyielding ignorance, they will not change. On the contrary, they will happily inflict damage upon anyone who will let them. These are not the kind of people who I dare turn a cheek too. Usually, when I turn that cheek, they start rummaging around for a baseball bat while I’m not looking.

    And so, I’m happy to trust and forgive those who deserve it. However, I feel little compunction against firing with both barrels against those who fall outside of this set of boundaries. Then again, I’m not guided by Christian notions of ethics or a belief in Jesus. I’ll do what I need to protect myself and those I care about without an ounce of guilt or shame.

  • “Why are you so angry about this? It’s just the way it is,” seems to be the mantra of oppressors. A lot of Christians seem to use, “Why are you so angry? This is what the Bible says!” Church-sanctioned oppression is a terrible form of oppression. And I don’t think God honors that.

    So keep writing. Keep being passionate. Keep fighting for the abused and oppressed! Sometimes that may be a gentle correction, and sometimes that may be a rather angry comment.

    I recently took an apologetics/theology course, and our professor gave us this quote, which I found fascinating.

    “Remember what Emerson said:arguments convince nobody. They convince nobody because they are presented as arguments. Then we look at them, we weigh them, we turn them over, and we decide against them. But when something is merely said — or, better still, hinted at — there is a kind of hospitality in our imagination. We are ready to accept it.” ~Luis Borges

  • I appreciate your thoughts in this post, and just followed your blog. Look forward to reading more as you share your journey with us. And thanks for listing my blog as a new one to follow.