‘Let no one despise’

In the first epistle to Timothy, the author includes this challenge and encouragement:

Let no one despise your youth, but set the believers an example in speech and conduct, in love, in faith, in purity.

It’s interesting there that the writer assumes that this will be advice that Timothy will need — that some will, in fact, “despise” his youth. And these despisers, the writer suggests, may well be among “the believers.”

The writer was most likely not actually Paul, but there’s a Paul-esque logic at work there. Don’t let the haters “despise your youth” — it’s wrong for them to do that. But haters gotta hate, so do your best not to give them the slightest excuse. They shouldn’t be so despicable, and it’s not your fault if they insist on doing what they do, but try not to make it easy for them.

[Update: I botched that pretty good. That came across as more or less the opposite of what I intended to say. I’m sorry for doing that. Let me try that again.]

I think the writer of this epistle — who most likely was not the apostle Paul — is echoing a line of argument Paul took in the mini-Sermon on the Mount section of his letter to the Romans. “Live peaceably with all,” Paul wrote.

And then I imagine he stepped back and re-read what he had just written, realizing it was inadequate. It’s a lovely piece of advice — “live peaceably with all” — but it’s not really up to the Roman Christians whether or not they could do this. Paul knew all too well that the world is full of people who refuse to allow you to live peaceably with them — people who are determined not to allow you to live peaceably, period. So then, I imagine, Paul rewrote that section as the passage we have now:

If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.

Paul provided that double qualification to ensure that he avoided the sloppy victim-blaming implications I slipped into in the original version of this post. He was clarifying, emphatically, that “living peaceably with all” isn’t always possible and often doesn’t depend on you. This takes place within the context of that larger passage, which is all about responding to the hostility and evil that Paul assumes and acknowledges to be an unavoidable fact of life for the people he’s writing to.

I think the writer of 1 Timothy is doing something similar here. “Let no one despise your youth,” is a piece of advice that can’t stand alone because it’s not something the reader is responsible for. How, exactly, are you supposed to go about disallowing this? You can’t withdraw permission for something for which you never granted permission to begin with. It’s not up to you whether or not the despicable despisers decide to despise your youth. Despisers despise — it’s what they do, no matter what you do. Youth is just one pretext — one of many concocted, imagined or invented so that they can do what they do. If you’re too old for them to despise your youth, they’ll latch onto whatever other flimsy excuse they can conjure up and go right on despising just the same. It really doesn’t have anything to do with your “letting” it happen.

I think that bit here — “let no one …” — isn’t meant to assign responsibility for this despising to the victim. I think it’s more like the “don’t let” in “don’t let the bastards drag you down.” And that, I think, is what the writer is trying to say to Timothy. It’s also what I’m trying to say here.

The latter half of that passage from 1 Timothy, I think, simply means “you’re better than they are, so remind them of that.” And I think there’s a strong implication there, too, of “rub their noses in it.”

This is another echo from that same passage of Paul’s. “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good,” he wrote. And “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.” And “Do not repay anyone evil for evil.”

Much like all the cheek-turning, extra-mile, also-your-tunic, love-your-enemies business in Jesus’ original Sermon on the Mount, all that overcome-evil-with-good stuff can sound a bit too … well, too something. And a bit not-enough something, too. It seems naive, namby-pamby or ineffectual, or too blithely unconcerned with correcting injustice.

But Paul acknowledges that objection and even affirms it by appealing to that objection as the basis for everything he’s saying. Love your enemies, he says, “for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.”

“Never avenge yourselves,” Paul writes, and then — in the very next sentence — he says, (and here I’m paraphrasing) “I know, I know, you want to heap burning coals on their heads, don’t you? Of course you do. And you should, they deserve it. But this is even worse for them!”

I think that’s the same line of argument that the writer of 1 Timothy is offering.

Don’t let the bastards get you down. And don’t ever let them forget who’s better.

Let no one despise your youth …

Let no one despise your gender …

Let no one despise your sexuality …

Let no one despise your legal status …

Let no one despise your poverty …

Let no one despise your [ ____________ ] …

 

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  • Raymond

    Let no one despise your WEALTH, but set the believers an example … ?

  • http://accidental-historian.typepad.com/ Geds

    Let no one despise your WEALTH, but set the believers an example … ?

    Sounds about right, coming from a religion started because of a guy who said, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than a rich man to get in to Heaven.”  Because there’s no way at all that this isn’t about people using their privilege and power to push the unprivileged and powerless around.  And we all know the wealthy are weak, downtrodden people…

  • Lori

    Let no one despise your WEALTH, but set the believers an example … ? 

    The supposed despisers of wealth are, at least in the US, almost all straw men.
    Virtually no one despises wealth. They despise what people do to get and keep
    wealth, what wealth makes people feel entitled to and how wealth makes the
    wealthy treat the poor.

    Set an example, indeed.

  • Ursula L

    Let no one despise your WEALTH, but set the believers an example … ?

    And I believe that the example the wealthy were supposed to set is “sell all you have and give it all to the poor.”  

    And which point, you’re no longer wealthy, and no longer to be despised for your wealth.  Problem solved!

  • http://www.facebook.com/l.andrew.spencer Leonard Andrew Spencer

    Warren Buffet and Bill Gates set an example for us all, not just their fellow billionaires.

  • Guest

    When I was a teenager, I “tried not to make it easy for them.” I tried to be nice and smile wanly when he or his friends made an insulting sexual comment to me or passed a vile note to me — which was nearly every day, in nearly every class, because he was in four of my six classes. I tried to sound reasonable when I told teachers what was happening. I knew they wouldn’t take me seriously if I wasn’t in every way “perfect”, in their eyes. If I was sexually active, they would make it my fault. If I dressed in any way they could think was “provocative”, they would make it my fault. So I didn’t date, and wore baggy, unflattering clothes that covered everything.

    They didn’t take me seriously. They said it was my fault. What “worked”, finally, after three years, was being a 17-year old girl who was tired of taking shit. I humiliated him in front of the entire classroom and his mother, who was teaching that day. He finally stopped — though we only had a month or so left of high school, so who knows what he would have done if he’d had more time. He got suspended for groping another girl. I’m sure he had an excuse for that one, a reason to blame her, and I’m sure she had been trying for a long time to not give him a reason.

    They don’t need a reason. If you are a girl, they will slut-shame you and sexually harass you, and you won’t know why. There’s a very high chance you’ll get sexually assaulted, and you will get the blame for it. They will say you “gave them a reason.” If you are not straight, they will hate you, for reasons of their own. If you are not white, they will try to keep you out of their neighborhoods, for reasons that have nothing to do with the content of your character. If you are poor, they will say you are lazy, no matter how hard you’ve worked. If you are disabled, they will say you are lying, weak, and, again, lazy.

    Trying to act in a way that will not give them “an excuse” is exactly what “they” want us to do. They want us to internalize their hatred of us, so that we will be too busy second-guessing and blaming ourselves to tell them, “no. You are the problem. I am not.”

    Fred, I have never been upset with you for anything you wrote before. But I am furious with this post. It feels like an emotional gut-punch. Please check your privilege.

  • MikeJ

    Sounds an awful lot like the nonsense the church tried to feed me as a kid.  “Well no, staying out til 2am watching bands play isn’t *technically* a sin, but it will hurt your witness.” Why should it hurt my witness for people to see me doing something that isn’t a sin?

    That was when I decided that they were either a) using mythology to control people or b) more concerned about what humans think than what god thinks. Neither one was something I wanted to be involved in. 

  • http://mordicai.livejournal.com Mordicai

    Read this as “in the first episode of Timothy.”

  • Anonymous

    “Let no one despise your [lower privilege status], but set the believers an example” wants for clarification: example of what?

    It could be a good thing, the way I think Fred means it: an example of someone who practices unassailable ethics (that is, real ethics concerned with freeing the oppressed, helping the poor, etc.) and for whom therefore the only justifications for hatred are the unworthy ones, like slut-shaming, gay-bashing, etc.

    Or it could be a very bad thing, the way I think Guest read it: an example of someone who behaves in the “proper” way for a gay person, woman, poor person, etc.  Which, spoiler alert, there is no “proper” way for a woman, gay person, poor person etc. to behave.  The phrase “don’t make it easy for them” is extremely unfortunate in this context because those are the exact words used when slut-shaming women whose “behavior” doesn’t “live up” to the imaginary “ideal.”

  • Anonymous

    I have to hope this is a sarcastic post, because I read it the same way Guest did.

    “Don’t make it easy for them” results in circumscribing your life, your self, your soul in a series of concentric and tightening circles, because everything you can do is pretext for despite, until you are pushing yourself to meet a series of contradictory and impossible standards, which will net you nothing, because the standard-setters have no interest in anything but seeing people strive and ultimately fail.

    It is always going to be easy for a hater to hate, because nothing requires them to hate based on reality and very few will call them on hating based on fiction, no matter how harmful.

    I seem to recall someone here saying some things about a place at that table, and how walking away from that rigged game is not a bad thing.

    But if this is sarcasm, and the point of it is “so quit despising already,” all that is moot.

  • http://accidental-historian.typepad.com/ Geds

    “Don’t make it easy for them” results in circumscribing your life,
    your self, your soul in a series of concentric and tightening circles,
    because everything you can do is pretext for despite, until you are
    pushing yourself to meet a series of contradictory and impossible
    standards, which will net you nothing, because the standard-setters have
    no interest in anything but seeing people strive and ultimately fail.

    Oddly, I read this in a very different way.  I read it as, “Don’t let them push you around just because they think they’re better than you.”

    Part of the problem, as Guest more-or-less pointed out, is in language.  For the advice-giver in Timothy the best way to not get pushed around is to show that you’re a more holy and pure person than the other, and as such, you DESERVE respect and a place at the table.  In a lot of cases, though, following through on the specific advice from Timothy does turn in to, “Be a good little tool for your betters.”

    The way Fred generally seems to take this idea, however, doesn’t allow for that sort of interpretation.  I have a hard time seeing him running across a downtrodden person and saying, “Buck up and be a good little peon and eventually they’ll respect you.”  It just does not compute.

  • Anonymous

    I like your reading better.

    I do encounter the problem that, for me personally, “don’t let them push you around” has never, ever worked; and the second problem that “Don’t make it easy for them” has very often been applied to me in the way that makes “be a good little tool of $SYSTEM and you’ll get along fine.”

    It is only my experience with Fred, and with the Slacktiverse in general, that allows me to make the more generous reading. Some of that’s my stuff (perhaps most of that’s my stuff.)

    I am going to give the benefit of the doubt here, and say that Fred saying “just Be Nice and you’ll get what you deserve, jam tomorrow!” makes no sense whatsoever, so he probably meant it the other way – but if I’d stumbled across this without knowing the rest of the blog, I’d have surfed away and never come back.

    Edit: But, for what it’s worth, I’d probably have read the comments first. =)

  • http://accidental-historian.typepad.com/ Geds

    I am going to give the benefit of the doubt here, and say that Fred
    saying “just Be Nice and you’ll get what you deserve, jam tomorrow!”
    makes no sense whatsoever, so he probably meant it the other way – but
    if I’d stumbled across this without knowing the rest of the blog, I’d
    have surfed away and never come back.

    Oh, holy shit.

    Context.  It matters.

    Timothy: an epistle supposedly written to a young church leader who was being/in danger of being pushed around by the elders of his church/group/area.  So of course that would be how the advice came out.  Timothy already had the blessings of a bunch of higher ups and had a certain amount of respect, anyway, so the advice wasn’t intended for someone who had no privilege whatsoever, just someone who was the potential victim of gripes and sour grapes.  Hence, I feel much safer assuming Fred wouldn’t take the letter of the advice so much as the spirit, especially since he directed the post at people who don’t have privilege in the church at the moment.

  • Twig

    “Fred, I have never been upset with you for anything you wrote before. But I am furious with this post.”

    If you are generally in agreement with most of his posts, maybe you misunderstood what he was trying to say or he was not clear enough.  I seriously doubt his intention was that people being hurt or abused is a good thing.

  • Anonymous

    And let no one despise the Slacktivites for their generosity, you guys are amazing, you guys raised enough to send a sheep, a goat, and a pig, through Heifer International with money left over for swarms of honeybees and flocks of chicks. Bravo! 

  • Anonymous

    o/
    Congratulations, Jessica_R and the whole community!

  • Lori

    Thanks so much to you for handling this and to all the people who were able to donate.

  • Anonymous

    …THE MONEY!  I knew I forgot to do something Christmas-related this year!

    Kudos to the generous Slacktivites–I’m making a note for next year.

  • Anonymous

    “any of the many pretexts they will find, imagine or invent” (emphasis mine)

    I’m pretty sure Fred was being darkly sarcastic with this post, based on my reading and in agreement with Morilore and redsixwing’s points. Just keep on keeping on, even when they decide that your 80 hours a week in service isn’t good enough! That your tithes aren’t good enough! That your perfect marriage, 2.5 kids, whatever aren’t good enough! That if you just put in a little more effort, surely that would be enough… it’s never going to be enough for the “haters.” Ever. You can’t be good enough. You can’t. It’s like playing chicken with an oncoming train. The train isn’t going to stop!

    Enough with the despising! Ugh. Fred’s right. Definitely a Paul-esque logic at work here: the onus is on you to be perfect, not on other human beings to treat you with respect for who you are in the first place.

  • http://twitter.com/Jenk3 Jen K

    There’s also the question of how to prevent them from despising you. As noted above, context matters.

  • http://stealingcommas.blogspot.com/ chris the cynic

    Given the context, this coming as it does after a thread where people talked about trying to change their churches for the better and having a hard time of it because they lacked this or that privilege, I’m guessing that the example Fred is thinking about setting is not acting in the way that they want.

    Even if we ignore what takes place in the comments, consider the main text of that post, what example did Fred set when he was being despised for his youth?

    “We suggested, delicately but firmly, that the older generation’s preoccupation with a peculiar set of social issues seemed off-putting and weird to many people our age. (That’s usually about where they stopped taking notes.)”

    Delicately might not be the best example to set for believers, but firmly saying that if you don’t want your church to die out you’d better quit being anti-choice and homophobic is probably a pretty good example for the believers.

    Falling in line rather than doing the right thing is a bad example to set, refusing to do so is a good example.

    Fred’s already brought up the example he tried to set in his youth.  The second thing on his list, and the first one he chose on his own, was gender.

    Well behaved women seldom make history.  If things are wrong, and they are, then history needs to be made.  Which means that if you follow the advice the example you give to the believers in speech and conduct and so forth should be of a woman who is not well behaved in the eyes of the patriarchy.  Otherwise you’re setting a pretty crap example, don’t you think?

    If you want things to change but you’re setting an example of supporting the way things are, I think you’re setting a bad example in your own estimation.

    That’s how I read it.

  • Another Guest

    With the update/clarification, I’m still uncomfortable, just more confused.  What’s unpleasantly sticking with me is “rub their noses in it” and “don’t ever let them forget who’s better” and I know the kind of people with whom I associate that kind of thinking with, and it’s never been Fred Clark or the people in this community. 

  • Anonymous

    Yeah, Another Guest, I’m still uncomfortable and also more confused too, especially with the bits you cited. I don’t know. I’m just going to write this off as an aberration because 99.5% of the posts here don’t give me this vibe and I’ve been really disagreeable today in general. Hrm. I’ll do more thinking on it.

  • Kim

    Yeah, I’m getting that vibe too, of “well, you hate me? I’ll just be very nice so you feel like shit for hating me!” Which just…doesn’t seem very nice. :|

    I could see someone saying to be especially nice to those who hate you, in order to show them that hey, it’s okay, I actually -am- a good person, and I want you to see that. I know that being hateful is very tiring and unfulfilling, so come check out my side, where I’m kind to you and you’re kind to me, and we’re both happy.

  • http://profiles.google.com/marc.k.mielke Marc Mielke

    “I could see someone saying to be especially nice to those who hate you”

    Makes me think of Obama, and how he caves more to his opposition than base. 

  • FangsFirst

    Makes me think of Obama, and how he caves more to his opposition than base.

    Psh, who’s more base than his opposition?

    *rimshot*

  • http://stealingcommas.blogspot.com/ chris the cynic

    But then that comes back to setting an example thing, right?  Caving to the opposition a lot is not a good an example for the believers.

  • Lori

    Yeah, I’m getting that vibe too, of “well, you hate me? I’ll just be
    very nice so you feel like shit for hating me!” Which just…doesn’t
    seem very nice

    Not everyone thinks that ‘nice” is something worth aspiring to be. Personally, I’m not a fan.

    Whether it’s nice or not and whether nice is a good thing to be or not, it is Biblical.

  • Another Guest

    I’ve been reading Fred’s posts for years, and admiring this community for the same length of time, including you, Lori, whom I’ve nearly always found to be admirable.  Which is why this post and some of the responses to it are so heartwrenchingly dissapointing.  I’m not necessarily a fan of being nice solely in a (usually fruitless) attempt to make other people feel bad about themselves.  But if it’s Biblical…well, that’s your sacred text, and that’s how you choose to interpret it, and that’s my heart that just got hardened.
    Taking it personally?  Yes.  Yes I am.  Because I’m being told to shut up and sing louder in the choir in the vain hope that I’ll drown out everyone else.  And that’s not being true to me, or to the other voices in the choir.

  • vsm

    It isn’t fair at all, but members of minorities will be interpreted as representative of their group by outsiders, especially ones with little experience of them. Thus, when I chose to spend my year of obligatory service to the state by working at a non-profit nursing home instead of going to the army (yeah, that’s how it works in some European countries), I made a point of being really nice to the old folks and staff who initially wondered if I wasn’t some kind of a communist traitor. That wasn’t an exaggeration, by the way, nor an uncommon view of us even among somewhat younger folks. After a while, they warmed up to me and the whole idea of young men not doing military service, which as I understand it made it much easier for the next guy doing the same. Mind you, I wasn’t going to be an asshole anyway, but I was probably nicer at points than I would have normally been.

    I realize that unlike most minorities, joining this was my personal decision. However, I think the logic still applies. If you want to advance your cause, acting nice and “normal” helps. It’s the exact same reason why series and movies that want to give positive portrayals of gay characters tend to focus on monogamous relationships, or why gay rights activists are lobbying for gay marriage so hard. The message they want to send is that gays are just like straights and want the same things, only with a partner of their own sex. Now, this is obviously true of many gay people, but it rather sweeps the parts of the community not interested in monogamy under the rug. It sucks, but it might just be politically necessary at this point.

  • vsm

    re: my earlier post
    However, there are definitely times when being nice is not enough. It works well when deal with people who haven’t completely made their minds or are open to changing it. If the despiser is set in their ways and trying to hurt you by whatever means, niceness most likely will not cut it. Then it’s time move on to more aggressive tactics, whatever may be appropriate for the moment.

  • Lori

    But if it’s Biblical…well, that’s your sacred text, 

    I’m an atheist, so the Bible is not my sacred anything. My point was that the Bible is Fred’s sacred text and the idea of being nice to people in order to make them feel lousy for acting like an ass is in it, so it’s not really a surprise if Fred believes that in some way.

  • http://stealingcommas.blogspot.com/ chris the cynic

    I’m guessing guessing that I’m one of the people making posts you find heartwrenchingly disappointing.  I am sorry for that but I honestly don’t understand your point of view.

    For example:

    Because I’m being told to shut up
    I don’t see where you’re getting that.  I’ve tried, but I just don’t see it.  I do not understand.  I’m worried that this might come off as patronizing or something, like I’m saying this as a rhetorical device instead of honestly, but I literally do not comprehend how that statement in any way follows from Fred’s post.

    It seems to me like that would be setting a bad example, and while a bad example is an example, when I read, “…set the believers an example…” I take it to mean set a good example.  Maybe that’s where the disconnect between us is?  I don’t think it’s a big leap to stick the “good” in and I’ve been assuming everyone else is doing it too.

    As near as I can tell, if you’re being told to set a good example in speech, you’re being told not to shut up.  You’re being told to speak your mind.  You’re being told to speak truth to power*.  I gather you have a completely different reading, but I can’t see where that reading is coming from.

    Likewise something like this:
    And that’s not being true to me, or to the other voices in the choir.

    I don’t understand, at all, where it comes from.  Because that sounds to me like you’re saying it would be a bad example, and I’m having a hard time reading, “but set the believers an example in speech and conduct, in love, in faith, in purity,” as a command to set a bad example.  It reads to me as the opposite, a command to set a good example.  Which would mean it’s a command to be true to you and the other voices in the choir.

    I really don’t understand where you’re coming from at all because I can’t see what you’re responding to.  If you’re being told to shut up, I agree that’s heartwrenchingly disappointing.  If you’re being told not to be true to yourself then I’m in agreement that that’s something you should take personally.  But I’m not seeing where you’re being told either of those things and so I utterly fail to comprehend your position.

    Hopefully you understand where I’m coming from, because otherwise this post is a lot of wasted words.

    * Note that this is not always good advice.  Sometimes people who try to do this get squashed.  It feels uncomfortably like those who say that gay people should all come out of the closet because that would make things better.  Yes, it would almost certainly make things better as a whole, but it would come at enormous cost to some of those people, and generally speaking the one making such a call isn’t one of the people who would suffer most if it were heeded.

    We don’t know the lives of others, and sometimes being a good example for “the believers” would be an enormously bad thing for oneself.  As advice to one who has already demonstrated a willingness to take that risk it’s good, but sometime being told to speak up even if your voice shakes is being told to destroy your life, and some people can’t afford to take that advice.

  • http://twitter.com/jclor jclor

    Every writer has an off day, during which he fails to convey his meaning with sufficient clarity.  Fred has many fewer of those than most.  But, entertain the possibility that, once in a great while, it happens.

  • Another Guest

    Howard Johnson is right!  In fact, in a rough draft of the comment I eventually left, I did mention the possibility that Fred wasn’t at the top of his game here, but as the comment got longer, I was afraid that I might also be having an off day and not expressing myself well; clearly that was a bit I should have left in.  It happens that way sometimes.

  • Jam

    how about:  “don’t lose sight of who you are, just because there are people (with at least some power) who will use any perceived weakness as a means to thwart your enthusiasm or determination.”

    We, perhaps, can’t change the way people react to us; but, we can change the way we react to them.

  • Anonymous

    Here’s how I took the original post:
    I’m an avowed nerd. There are people who complain bitterly and incessantly about nerds needing to grow up and stop wasting their time on all this nonsense, and so on and so forth.
    I could try to make them happy by swearing off all science fiction and fantasy and other such interests. But that would just make me miserable, and the haters would likely not be any happier.

    Instead, I try to fulfill my obligations as a citizen and a human being. I pay my taxes, I vote, I volunteer, I exercise, I generally try to be conscious that my actions affect others.
    As long as I keep doing that, the complainers and haters have very little that’s substantive that they can complain about.

  • Another Guest

    But do you really only do those things solely to keep the complainers and the haters off your back and to make speculative fiction fans look good?  Do you think LGTBQ folks should also do those things, many of which are beyond basic legal requirements of US citizens (some of them aren’t required of US citizens but are required of citizens in other countries) to keep the haters off their backs?  African-Americans?  Asian-Americans?  Latinos? At what point are despised minorities allowed to be as lazy as anyone else?
    Sorry to pick on you, Tybult, because I’d lay a substantial amount of money on the idea that you do these things for reasons other than mitigating your nerdly status, just as the majority of the people in this online community seem to be likeminded and likeactioned.  Your post just happened to articulate the core of my concern with the overall post and subsequent edit of said post.

  • Anonymous

    You’re right, the point isn’t primarily to keep the haters off your back. 
    The point is to be a good human being, and I take the epistle’s meaning to be “direct your efforts towards what matters, rather than towards what foolish critics think matters.”

    I realize that it’s a lot harder, if not impossible, to do this when people are obsessed with your skin color, your sexual orientation, your religion, your gender.

  • Anonymous

    I took “don’t ever let them forget who’s better” as the “kill them with kindness” sentiment my mother always proposed. Depending on the situation, that can either mean eating a LOT of shit in an attempt to out-nice the opposition or it can be really, really satisfying. I’ve had both experiences, and, as always, YMMV.

  • Anonymous

    The original, Biblical, advice-giver is writing to Timothy about people who despise him because they do not think he should have the job he has been given as a church leader.  In that context, it is useful advice: they don’t think you’re up to it, but don’t let them convince you.  Go ahead and shine – do your job fantastically well and their criticism will rebound on them.

    It only works because – despite the disadvantage of youth – Timothy’s role as a leader gives him a bit of power to go ahead and do his thing and publically prove those who despise him wrong.  It’s not ideal (in a perfect world, Timothy would not have to excel to be grudgingly recognised in the role) but it’s a practical approach and it carries the implicit encouragement of confirming that the advice-giver believes Timothy can excel and prove them wrong to such an extent.

    Fred seems to be trying to spread the compliment by saying to [insert less privileged group here] that they are excellent, that they do excel, and that just by doing so they are winning the argument.

    The only thing is, without the specific job that’s the focus of the original advice, the argument is different.  Timothy was trying to prove he could lead a church.  The people that Fred’s addressing are trying to prove that they exist, or that their everyday concerns are valid, or that they deserve the same treatment as everyone else – not just in a specific job but every day of their lives.

    It might fill a privileged bigot with fiery bile and impotent fury to observe their victim excelling in every aspect of daily life, and that might be an extremely satisfying thing to watch.  But for the victim what is at stake is not whether they can lead a group of people but whether they can exist, as themselves, a decent life.

    It’s not fair that Timothy had to excel in order to lead a church, but it’s even less fair – it’s outrageously unjust – that many people have to excel in order to lead normal lives and defend their basic human rights.  And responding to that with “don’t let the bastards drag you down” comes perilously close to victim blaming.  No, scratch that, it is victim blaming, if it is presented as practical advice (as Fred’s post does here by linking it to the practical advice to Timothy).*

    Full disclaimer: I am privileged in pretty much every possible way and am therefore only speaking with an outsider’s perspective here.

    * It seems to me that “don’t let the bastards drag you down” generally avoids victim blaming because it is understood as being spoken by somebody afflicted by the same set of bastards, as a wry expression of mutual sympathy and stubbornness.  Any other voice and it quickly turns icky.

  • Ursula L

    I agree that the advice, which works in the context of Timothy’s problems, doesn’t translate well to dealing with more general prejudice.

    It’s a familiar situation.  You work someplace for years, the CEO comes in from out of town, and gives a promotion to the bright young guy over people with more experience and seniority.  

    And this letter is advice from the CEO to the new boss, telling the young guy not to mind what the old-timers he’s now supervising think about his lack of experience, but to prove them wrong by doing the job well. 

    It’s really advice for the entitled and privileged – to dismiss the concerns of those older and more experienced, because you’re better than them.  Timothy gets to be the leader, despite his youth, and over people with more experience and maturity.  

  • Anonymous

    That’s pretty much what I was trying to say, but far more snappily expressed.

    It’s easy enough to forget that Timothy was coming from a position of privilege in this context, because he and the church he led were all right at the bottom of the social pecking order.  But in the church-hierarchy sense, he was a leader and they weren’t.

    (Parenthesis: with nothing else to go on, I’m happy to accept that he was genuinely better than his critics despite his youth, and that he needed this encouragement to develop the confidence to do well.  Age discrimination: not solely a problem of the modern world.)

  • Ursula L

    Another point about the advice to Timothy is that, since the job he has is as clergy, “set the believers an example in speech and conduct, in love, in faith, in purity” is pretty much his job description.  If he doesn’t set an example for believers, he’s not doing his job right.

    And it is quite different to advise someone who is facing doubts about their work to do their job well than it is to tell someone who is facing oppression that they need to set an example of love and faith etc.  

    When you’re new in a job, people wondering whether you’ll be good at that job is something that happens – it’s not oppression.  People having reservations about whether you’re the right person for the job because of a lack of experience isn’t oppression either.     

    In the early church, would the letter writer consider Timothy to be working for the congregation he’s leading?  Or working for the letter writer, who put Timothy in charge?  It feels like the tension between a congregational model for churches and a hierarchical model – the congregation thinking the pastor works for them, and that they have the right to judge if he’s good for the job, while the hierarchy thinking that Timothy works for the hierarchy, and that the congregation should accept their assigned leadership.  

  • Lori

    It’s easy enough to forget that Timothy was coming from a position of privilege in this context, because he and the church he led were all right at the bottom of the social pecking order.  But in the church-hierarchy sense, he was a leader and they weren’t. 

    The thing is, we aren’t talking about the modern church. At that time there really wasn’t much of a hierarchy. There was in-fighting between groups loyal to various apostles and teachers, but none of them had much in the way of authority in the hierarchical sense. Ultimately you can’t lead people who won’t follow you and can’t be forced to do so, so Timothy’s privilege was a pretty thin thing.

  • Ursula L

    The letter gives evidence for at least three levels of functioning hierarchy.  There is the letter writer (called “Paul” but probably not THE Paul), who has appointed Timothy to be the leader in that area.  There is Timothy, a local leader.   And there is Timothy’s congregation, at least some of whom don’t approve of having Timothy as their leader.  

    And this letter is very much about the higher leader giving advice to the lower-level leader.  It’s about asserting leadership, rather than looking at the substance of the congregation’s concerns. 

    The letter begins: “As I urged you when I went into Macedonia, stay there in Ephesus so that you may command people…”  The hierarchy may not be formally and fully developed, yet, but it is still there, and this letter is deliberately reinforcing the idea of hierarchy in the church.  

    And one of the tricks of authority is to know to act as if you’re the person who should be in charge, and to act as if you have the right to be in charge.  That’s what the letter writer is telling Timothy to do.  Timothy is there to command, not to serve.  

    “They’re just jealous because you’re young, you’re white, you’re a man, etc.” is a way of dismissing the concerns of those questioning authority.  The 99% are just jealous of the 1%.  In a communication from one person in authority to another person in authority, as this letter is, I wouldn’t take the authority’s dismissal of the congregation’s concerns as telling the whole story, not without hearing from the ordinary members of the congregation in their own words.  

  • Anonymous

    “They’re just jealous because you’re young, you’re white, you’re a man, etc.” is a way of dismissing the concerns of those questioning authority.

    Is that what’s being said here, though?  “Don’t let them despise you” is not the same as “they’re just jealous because…”.  We come from a culture which often privileges the young over the old, but Timothy and Letter Writer (can we call her Paulina?) come from a culture where age and wisdom are privileged over youth and energy.

    I agree that there is a hierarchy implied in the letter, but I think Lori has a point about it being a new and possibly vulnerable hierarchy in an organisation that had not yet solidified into a formal shape.

    I have privileges and advantages and am just shy of suicidal and that just makes me even worse as a person.

    No.  No it doesn’t make you a bad person, let alone even worse as a person.  Privileges don’t ensure an easy life, and they don’t devalue your concerns or your struggles or anything about you.  I have tons of privilege – I reek of the stuff – and my mother’s family have even more – and while in some ways it can make it easier to cope with some things, it does not and never meant that any of us can avoid depression or plain old ordinary misery or lack of energy or any of the other nasty stuff that saps the joy out of life.  And that doesn’t make any of us – or you – a failure or a bad person.

  • Ursula L

    Is that what’s being said here, though?  “Don’t let them despise you” is not the same as “they’re just jealous because…”.  We come from a culture which often privileges the young over the old, but Timothy and Letter Writer (can we call her Paulina?) come from a culture where age and wisdom are privileged over youth and energy.

    I agree that there is a hierarchy implied in the letter, but I think Lori has a point about it being a new and possibly vulnerable hierarchy in an organisation that had not yet solidified into a formal shape.

    We really don’t know why the congregation is complaining, because we have only the hierarchy’s side of the story.  But we do know that they are complaining.  

    And we know that they have a right to complain, and to have opinions, even negative opinions, about their leaders.  And we know that leadership dismissing the concerns of the people they think they’re “above” is a chronic problem. 

    And even if the hierarchy is new and vulnerable, that doesn’t make it good.  And it doesn’t make hierarchy good in general, or something that shouldn’t be vulnerable.    This letter is very much a piece of establishing a hierarchy, of shutting down dissent (Timothy is to command “false prophets” to stop teaching, women to be quiet, etc.) and establishing inequality (leaders versus congregation) over equality.  If the hierarchy is vulnerable, it should be vulnerable to dissent, and shifting from tolerance of diversity to conformity is a negative step that needs to be undermined.  

    What we have, and all we have, is advice from one leader, to a subordinate leader, about what to do when there are complaints from the people they believe they have the right to lead.   That is how the writer identifies the relationships, both between himself and Timothy and between Timothy and the congregation.  The letter-writer put Timothy there to command.

    We don’t necessarily have advice for what to do about illegitimate complaints, because we don’t know enough about the complaints to know whether or not they are legitimate. 

    We don’t necessarily have advice for someone who is oppressed on how to deal with oppression, because we have no way of knowing if the complaints are legitimate or if there is actual oppression going on.

    And without knowing whether the congregation’s complaints are legitimate, without even knowing what they are, it is a misreading to take advice that is explicitly for someone in a leadership position and read it as if it is advice for people who are powerless.

    Because it’s a form of victim blaming to expect people who are powerless to have the resources to follow advice for people with authority.  

    “People doubt your leadership skills, so show them you’re capable of leading well” is practical advice for someone in a hierarchical system who is newly appointed to a position of authority.

    “People are oppressing you, show them that you’re better than they are” is another burden for the oppressed.  Likewise “people are oppressing you, so you have the extra burden of having to treat them extra-nice.” 

    Pretty much the only thing we know about the power dynamics involved is that the letter writer considers himself (and I think it is fair to say “himself” since he instructs women to be quiet) superior to Timothy, and Timothy to be superior to the people who are complaining about Timothy’s leadership.

  • Lori

    Timothy gets to be the leader, despite his youth, and over people with more experience and maturity.

    Being more experienced and mature doesn’t automatically make someone a better leader.

    Hence the discussion 3 days ago about the position of Millennials in the
    church and how they’re going to respond to the fact that the more
    experienced and mature folks want to keep doing mature, wise things like
    hating on QUILTAG folks.

  • FangsFirst

    I am loathe to even get involved here, but this is sort of an idea with which I wrestle a bit on occasion (mostly due to my strange penchant for getting in arguments with people, which I generally try to avoid dealing in here).

    I think the point (and it’s not easy to express) is not to become society’s idea of better or worse or your enemies’ idea of better or worse, but to be true to your own idea of a “good person,” in spite of awful things.

    I don’t suffer any outrageous discrimination, but I feel like even those who do could get behind the idea of trying to be the good person *they* want to be in spite of everything. Is that insane? I’m afraid it might sound like it to those who have to deal with it. And may, indeed, BE that to those who have to deal with it. I’m only trying to offer a viewpoint, not the absolute truth.

    But then–doesn’t that mean that stretching it to whatever point you can manage IS trying to be the good person? If you slip or fall back or think that responding forcefully in some fashion is the *right* response, have you not done that? Maintained yourself, not up to external delineations of “acceptable” behaviour for your “grouping” or whatever component is being attacked, but your own?

    In other words, I guess, the point is, try not to give up and just be a jerk, because it will only confirm their suspicions and gain you–for yourself–nothing. Sure, maybe sometimes there’s a little satisfaction in throwing something back (and I’m not one to begrudge anyone that), but it doesn’t often make things go away and can occasionally make them worse.

    But not to do it because you’re “better” or because it will be the victim’s way of preventing/resolving negative behaviours of others, but because it maintains an internal integrity. Of course, we’re talking about minor levels of degradation from the original context, so relentless emotional (or other) bullying, torture, etc is not, perhaps, relevant.

    I’ve only been harassed the one time, and it was in the minor leagues of harassment (if not mere “practice”/”amateur”/”friends playing ball together on the weekend”), but whenever I would get disturbingly offensive or vaguely threatening messages and phone calls, I responded to those responsible as if they were indeed human beings–I didn’t offer up my throat by any means, and attempted to keep the upper hand as best I knew how, but maintained the sort of sense of myself that I feel is important, and an awareness of the fact that, as unpleasant as those things were, it was some kind of human sending them. It didn’t prove jack to them, it didn’t make me have a magic aura of “better person,” but it meant I felt I continued to be a good person in those instances, despite the behaviour I was being subjected to.

    I don’t think it’s a universal truth by any stretch of the imagination, and I may be imbuing this entire idea with my own personal philosophies, but perhaps that interpretation is less offensive?

    In all though: I’m not demanding or even suggesting this approach. It’s exhausting even for my miniscule problems. But the personal sense of integrity I’m left with is pretty valuable as it maintains an internal defense against damages that could be rendered by those remarks. Might not be valuable to others, though, I suppose.

  • Anonymous

    Fork theory. Like spoon theory, except talking about tolerance of discrimination against oneself (willow specifies racism, but the concept appears to translate to other forms of discrimination) instead of about one’s ability to do the tasks that get one through the day.

    Read those yet? Yes? Good.

    One should not need to use all one’s forks just to get treated as though one is just as much of a human being as those who, having certain privileges such as those connected to pale skin and the gender programming most often associated with dangly bits, need use no forks at all.

  • FangsFirst

    One should not need to use all one’s forks just to get treated as though
    one is just as much of a human being as those who, having certain
    privileges such as those connected to pale skin and the gender
    programming most often associated with dangly bits, need use no forks at
    all.

    Er, that’s exactly why I said this:

    “If you slip or fall back or think that responding forcefully in some
    fashion is the *right* response, have you not done that? Maintained
    yourself, not up to external delineations of “acceptable” behaviour for
    your “grouping” or whatever component is being attacked, but your own?”

    It’s not about using all your forks. Using all your forks is living up to society’s standards of what a QUILTBAG person, woman, person of race X, religion Y should do to “come up to” the “superiority” of straight, white, middle/upper class, Christian men.

    No one’s self-determination of “acceptable behaviour” should ignore the increased difficulties associated with perpetual discrimination. No one should think they are a bad person for having to grit their teeth daily, or snap once a week, or spend an entire day for once not just tolerating the bullshit. Or snap for three weeks straight–whatever–I’m not intentionally setting a time limit here, so please don’t mistake me on that.

    It’s about using your forks in a way that seems appropriately judicious to yourself. So that you don’t think later, “Jeez, I think that might have been worth a fork.” Not because you should have to use forks, or there’s some ultimate minimum quota, but because *you* think you’re using fewer than is appropriate to meet what standards *you* think make a good person, which should include, “Incidentally, I’m not a white male, so I should be given a liiiiiittle extra space to deal with this crap before it affects my standing as good person”–or even as cause choose the reactions *you* think make you a better person. If you feel better about yourself for gritting your teeth and walking away, do that. If you feel better pointing it out, do that. If you feel best ignoring or tolerating it, do that. I’m not saying there’s some ultimate answer to fork usage, whether you should have to use any, all, none, or at what rate. But that you probably have your own sense of how many to use, and to stick with what tells you you’re still a good person.

    Or maybe your whole point is that self-definition isn’t as easy as I think, which is probably extra fair considering I have privilege to protect my brain’s rather isolating understanding of things.

    All that said: I have the benefit of not having minority expectations or condemnations attached (which I guess means I’m handed an extra supply of utensils), but every day of social interaction that doesn’t serve a clear purpose is some kind of utensil for me all the same. It’s a nonsensical waste and it’s severely draining. I (sometimes) do it anyway because *I* think it’s important. Doesn’t make it important for everyone. Which is my point, however awkwardly phrased it might be: keep to the standards *you* set for yourself, and don’t set standards that are insane and no one could possibly live up to considering your life and the discrimination within it. Maybe that’s an utterly stupid statement and “who doesn’t?” but I imagine at that point it’s more hopeful encouragement than anything else.

    TL;DR: Use however many (or few) forks you think is appropriate, but do so for your own, personal, self-defined standards of good, and make sure that definition includes what you have to deal with.

  • Ursula L

    Use however many (or few) forks you think is appropriate, but do so for your own, personal, self-defined standards of good, and make sure that definition includes what you have to deal with.

    You’re missing the point of the spoons/forks metaphor.  

    The point of thinking about one’s forks, is that you never have enough to really manage well.  That’s why you’re rationing them in the first place.  You can’t use as many as you think is appropriate for any given situation, because you’ll burn through a month’s worth of spoons by two in the afternoon.  

    Having forks or spoons at the end of the day, and wishing you’d used them?  It doesn’t happen, at least not often enough that checking to see if you’re using enough is worth bothering with.  

    Yes, life is that crappy, when you’re disabled and counting your spoons, or when you’re oppressed and counting you’re forks.  That you can imagine spare forks at the end of the day shows your privilege – you live a life that throws you few enough problems that you aren’t routinely burned out by dealing with them.  

  • FangsFirst

    Yes, life is that crappy, when you’re disabled and counting your spoons,
    or when you’re oppressed and counting you’re forks.  That you can
    imagine spare forks at the end of the day shows your privilege – you
    live a life that throws you few enough problems that you aren’t
    routinely burned out by dealing with them.

    I have plenty of privilege but almost no energy. So, except when I carefully arrange my life so that I don’t have to have any real interaction with other people, I’m only imagining forks left. Though sure, I have one left here or there when I stay in all day and don’t interact at all.

    And all I can ever figure is basically that makes me a worthless human
    being, because I can’t deal with the world as it is despite having
    privileges and advantages. Which isn’t intended to make you feel bad. Or to be sarcastic. Or to suggest I have it bad. As best I can figure that’s just how it is: I have privileges and advantages and am just shy of suicidal and that just makes me even worse as a person.

    Which is the whole reason I originally intended not to get involved in this conversation at all. But I have an impulsive need to try to broker peace and understanding and find common ground and things like that, so…hell. I suppose I deserved both responses anyway.

    Thanks for not being a jerk about it, though.

  • Ursula L

    Oh, dear, I’m so sorry.  I messed that up badly, didn’t I.  

  • FangsFirst

    Oh, dear, I’m so sorry.  I messed that up badly, didn’t I.

    For the record, please do not feel bad for this or anything. Nothing you need to make right. I’d say, “Sorry is enough,” but that implies I think I deserved an apology (which has no effect on whether you think I did, so if you did, then it is graciously accepted).

  • Anonymous

    I meant my post to be in support of your point, not as a takedown of your point. Not that my intent means jack. I’m sorry.

  • FangsFirst

    Intent maybe doesn’t (and shouldn’t) mean anything to most people, but it does mean something to me. I have the greatest difficulty intimating it, out of all the things people communicate. It has a little kind of ‘magic’ for me, personally, I guess.

    So I do appreciate that comment, sincerely. Thank you for taking the time to mention it. (PS: my final comment to Ursula was not intended as contrast, to say she was not a jerk and you were or something. I didn’t feel terribly “attacked” on either front.)

  • Tommy Holland

    Let no one despise your [ ____________ ] …

    Lack of belief in God?

  • Anonymous

    Thank you, Fred – that update makes a big difference in the way I read the post.

  • Anonymous

    Living well is the best revenge.

  • Anonymous

    Privileges don’t ensure an easy life, and they don’t devalue your concerns or your struggles or anything about you.  I have tons of privilege – I reek of the stuff – and my mother’s family have even more

    The whole point of the excercise, I’d say, is to increase the level of privilege in the world.  It depends in part on how one defines priviledge of course… Not in the sense of ‘advantage over others’ but in an absolute sense.  The priviledge to buy a new video game without having to worry about the budget, or the priviledge to have your opinions acknowledged… (This category overlaps a bit with rights (or things that should be rights anyways…)

    “People are oppressing you, show them that you’re better than they are” is another burden for the oppressed.

    If you turn around and treat them just as badly, then it’ll quickly become nothing more than a cycle of revenge… atrocity met with atrocity in a perputual circle of annihilation.  It’s not a duty of the oppressed to ‘show them that you’re better than they are’.  It’s a duty of everyone to be better than the oppressor.

  • Ursula L

    If you turn around and treat them just as badly, then it’ll quickly become nothing more than a cycle of revenge… atrocity met with atrocity in a perputual circle of annihilation.  It’s not a duty of the oppressed to ‘show them that you’re better than they are’.  It’s a duty of everyone to be better than the oppressor. 

    Being better by not oppressing, certainly.  

    But you don’t deal with oppressors by simply treating them kindly.  You call them out on their inappropriate behavior. If there are laws against the type of oppression they’re doing, you use those laws.  You protest.  You demonstrate.  

    People don’t stop oppressing, don’t give up prejudice, if the people being oppressed just take it.  If people are prejudiced and oppressing, they won’t give justice to the people they’re treating badly just for the fun of it.  Segregation laws weren’t ended because black people were so nice to white people, laws and policies against harassment weren’t created because people being harassed were kind to those harassing them.  

    The way to deal with oppression is to demand justice.  

    The advice here is lousy for dealing with oppression, but well tailored to someone new to a position of authority establishing themself. 


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