Posted by: Dan | February 22, 2009

A Less Gracious Radicalism? A Response to Mark Van Steenwyk

Mark Van Steenwyk, one of the editors of Jesus Manifesto, recently published an article there entitled “A More Gracious Radicalism“.  In it, he repeats a few common remarks about those who aspire to some sort of ‘radical’ or ‘counter-cultural’ or ‘prophetic’ expression of Christian life today — you know, that such people are more accusatory than gracious, more angry than brokenhearted, more embittered than joyful, more defined by what they are against than by what they are for, and so on.  As he summarises his lament, ‘radicalism often turns people into jerks rather than lovers’ (emphasis removed).  Thus, he proposes a ‘more gracious radicalism’, one that is gentler, more attractive, and more recklessly loving of all.

Now, that’s all well and good, as far as it goes.  I reckon that a good many so-called Christian radicals — especially those who like the ‘radical’ label — might be jerks (even if it’s worth noting that I don’t know any who would fit this description), and I reckon that we all need to be reminded that all of this comes down to love.  So, yep, hooray for peace and grace and love and all that.

However, before we all join hands and start belting out some old school rock anthems (which is a lot more fun than singing Kumbaya), we should be clear on what exactly love and grace look like in situations of exploitation and oppression (i.e. in situations like our own).  Indeed, in response to Mark, I would like to stress three points.

(1) Being gracious does not mean that we should avoid an honest and direct confrontation with reality.

The fact of the matter is this: in a death-dealing culture — wherein almost every aspect of one’s life is premised upon the despoliation, deprivation and death of others — those who speak truth on behalf of the pursuit of life (and life for all) will be decidedly unpopular.  Tell a parent that the McDonald’s toy they gave to their child was made be other children in brutal working conditions and what will that parent say to you?  Probably something like this: ‘Hey, what are you, some kind of jerk?’  Tell a friend that the blood of children is staining their favourite sneakers or brand of clothes, and you’ll probably get the same reaction.

So does a ‘more gracious radicalism’ require us to avoid these conversations or ignore these and a plethora of other facts?  I hope not.  Being gracious does not mean pussy-footing around harsh realities or trying to blunt the edges of that which is, and if espousing a ‘more gracious radicalism’ means ascribing to this sort of cheap grace, then I want nothing to do with it.

(2) Partisanship does not equal élitism.

This is an important distinction to make.  While those often labeled as ‘Christian radicals’ are also often charged with practicing a ‘sneering élitism’, the fact of the matter is that Christianity requires us to practice concrete allegiances with certain people-groups — notably people who are poor and oppressed.  Naturally, this particular calling tends to produce a great deal of discomfort amongst Christians who benefit from structures of oppression — notably the wealthy and the comfortable.  Thus, rather than recognising this partisanship for what it is (i.e. a necessary component of membership within the body of the crucified and risen Christ) these Christians find it easier to accuse those who practice this form of partisanship of ascribing to some form of ‘élitism’.  Two things must be said in response to this.  First of all, to make an allegiance with a particular group is not the same thing as saying that one is superior to other groups — it is simply to say that this is where one’s identity compels one to be.  Second, this accusation tends to distract us from the observation that those who make it tend to be counted amongst the actual, concrete economic and social élites of our world.  That is to say, one’s focus is shifted from actual historical realities, to the supposed snobbish attitude of these so-called Christian radicals.

(3) What matters is not our feelings but concrete historical action.

Our society is one that is both terribly abusive and hyper-sensitive.  Everyone wants to appear compassionate and well-intentioned, while simultaneously living self-absorbed and death-dealing lifestyles.  Therefore, when addressing these matters, we must remember that our top priority is advocating on behalf of the bodies of the oppressed and not protecting the feelings of the oppressors.  After all, at the end of the day, what matters is not how a person feels when confronted with the truth of her or his situation — what matters is the action she or he chooses to take in response.

So, for example, if a fellow at work is abusing his girlfriend, I will confront him on that abuse  — and though I will be open to working through his own history and presenting issues with him, I will also make it clear that such abuse will not be tolerated.  What I will not do is refuse to directly confront the abuse simply out of a desire not to hurt his feelings, or out of some misguided desire to be ‘more gracious’.  Thus, while it may hurt this fellow’s feelings to be told that he is (currently) an abusive boyfriend, I can’t allow my concern for those feelings to stop me from speaking this truth.  The same applies, mutatis mutandis, to how we address broader socio-economic and political issues today.

Indeed, we must remember that speaking these difficult truths is itself an act of grace.  It is only by coming to an awareness of oneself as an oppressor that one is enabled to cease oppressive activity, and one only comes to this awareness in a painful process of confrontation with an other who speaks the truth.  This, at least, has been my own experience.

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Responses

  1. I agree with every point you make. Thank you. My hope in writing my article wasn’t to encourage a sort of sentimental sloppiness that refuses to take a clear stand in confrontation to the powers. But I realize that some would take my article into that direction. Would it be ok if reposted the article on Jesus Manifesto and kept the comments closed, encouraging folks to comment here?

  2. […] was made that radicalism can turn someone into a jerk rather than a lover – which is no doubt true. On Journeying with those in Exile followed up claiming that the prophetic speaking of difficult truths is in fact gracious, and specifically that […]

  3. […] Note: This post was originally published here. We’ve decided to close the comments on this article so that you can go to the author’s […]

  4. “Therefore, when addressing these matters, we must remember that our top priority is advocating on behalf of the bodies of the oppressed and not protecting the feelings of the oppressors.”

    This is a tough one for me, probably because I’ve always understood and related to the oppressors so I usually feel like I can take the perspective of them in their intentions and motives for doing it, or even what brought them to those motives. So it’s not so much protecting the feelings of oppressors, but still protecting them and trying to offer them as much grace as the ones being oppressed as to not just allow the system to eventually be flipped.

  5. Because oppressive violence is not necessarily subjective but instead systemic, it is very possible that the oppressor has little to no knowledge of their role. Therefore I in a sense agree with your comment Nathan, grace should be offered, but not necessarily sentimentality. I am probably far guiltier than I would like to admit…

  6. It is only by coming to an awareness of oneself as an oppressor that one is enabled to cease oppressive activity,

    I’m pretty good at the first half of that one…

  7. Amen Dan. Awareness is cheap. Action is hard. Especially when it often takes a complete rethinking of how we are a part of a system and a reimagining of a new way to live. We need to be liberated, but most of our energy focuses on how we can lessen our oppression of others (which is vital, no doubt). We need to see a move away from oppression as necessary for our own liberation, and understand how we can embrace the kingdom of God along with our poorer sisters and brothers.

    Does anyone know of any hopeful examples of such liberation?

  8. That is better than most people.

  9. I grew up in a black community during the seventies. Because I was white, I was associated with all the things that white people have done to oppress black people. I learned that the oppressed are just as prejudice as the oppressor.

    While I agree whole heartedly that truth needs to be spoken, I think it is just as important how it is spoken. I agree that we should care for the oppressed, but I think victims stay victims because of their own attitudes. Even after the Lord freed the Israelites from slavery, they wanted to go back to Egypt. If a person never accepts responsibility for being a victim, they will remain a victim. That doesn’t mean we excuse the oppressor, its just we recognize that both parties need to change; its not a one-sided problem.

    The oppressor needs as much grace as the victim. Patience, and persistence are two forms of grace. Persistently calling for change, persevering to make the changes we are already aware of, and patience when we return to old habits instead of keeping with new ones.

    So often ‘radicals’ want to change the world right now. From my observations, true change takes some where from fifty to one hundred years to happen. Even in this Jet age, where we’ve seen so many changes in what seems to be a short time, those changes had their seeds a very, very long time ago. As much as I too would like to see change happen right now, I have come to realize that change requires the faith of Abraham, who looked forward to a promise he did not receive.

  10. I totally agree with where you’re at. However, I will add one note of caution. I absolutely agree that human rights violations are serious and should be dealt with. However, before berating the folks at McDonald’s who just bought a Happy Meal (and why should we be at McDonald’s in the first place?), we should check our own closets and shelves for that “Made in China” label. We would do well to look at the speck of sawdust in our own eye before attempting to remove the plank in another’s.

  11. Its overwhelming. The temptation is to see the little ‘made in’ labels everywhere and then not do anything differently.

    Will any of us ever get all the specks of saw dust out of our own eyes? It seems to me that once I clear my eyes, it doesn’t take long for something else to come along. Does perfection preclude any speaking to the facts of life?

    I think the point is that we need to be wrestling with our own issues, aware that we are blinded by our own problems so we come to conversation with humility, careful of being accusatory and condemning, leaving people with a sense that we feel superior to them.

    I think the church is generally guilty of avoiding the hard conversations. We deal with the issues on the surface that are easier to handle, but many of the questions that need asking leave people uncomfortable with us.

    Innocent and wise, we need to hold on to the things God is convicting in each of us. Some people will think we are jerks… people pleasing is not our calling.

  12. Will any of us ever get all the specks of saw dust out of our own eyes? It seems to me that once I clear my eyes, it doesn’t take long for something else to come along.

    It is worth noting that this is exacerbated by the co-option of just about everything by oppressive systems. You see it in people who feel really iconoclastic and radical because they own a Mac or the Joe Strummer edition Fender Telecaster. Or in people who feel really iconoclastic and radical because they can spot poseurs (I just went meta on myself).

  13. Amen fellas. We should be the ones willing to walk alongside another and help them out of the system of oppression. It is far easier to chide others about their consumer practices and then leave than it is to journey with them. We have an obligation to graciously share with others what we have been given.

  14. So it’s not so much protecting the feelings of oppressors, but still protecting them and trying to offer them as much grace as the ones being oppressed as to not just allow the system to eventually be flipped. -Nathan C.

    hey nathan, perhaps i have not fully understood your comment but i just wanted to address this specific part. ideals of equality can not be achieved without the concept of equity, and equity is not reverse oppression but it is a concept that addresses historical oppression that places the oppressor in positions of power.
    although i do not fully understand how you are defining the word “grace”, i think you are not using the same definition as the posted use of “grace”. instead i have interpreted your use of “grace” as provision (perhaps i am wrong). i would like to mention that oppressed and marginalized groups may need more “grace” (resources, access, opportunity, etc.) than dominant groups in order to address historical oppression.
    although some may think that equitable practices is reverse racism, sexism, etc. and may claim that the order of society will be “flipped” where the oppressor will become oppressed, this is only the in the view of the oppressed who are in conflict of giving up their privilege…

  15. opps made a mistake in my last comment…

    “this is only [the] in the view of the [oppressed] who are in conflict of giving up their privilege…”

    what i meant to say was…

    “this is only in the view of the OPPRESSORS who are in conflict of….”

    sorry


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