I go to check out at the library and the library clerk asks to see my card.
Fair demand. Am I or am I not a member in good standing entitled to check out these books? Here we have a controversy, a dispute, an unsettled question in need of settling. The clerk has asked a legitimate question and the burden of proof rests on me to respond.
So I give her my library card. That settles things easily. I have met the burden of proof and no longer need to shoulder it. The objection has been addressed, responded to and satisfied. The controversy is resolved. The dispute is ended. I check out my books.
That is how the library works because that is how life works.
Legitimate questions can and should be asked, but there is no reason to keep asking them after they have been answered. If they continue to be asked after the answer has been provided, then they cease to be legitimate questions.
We will all, at times, rightly be asked to bear the burden of proof. But after we have met that burden, we can no longer rightly be asked to keep carrying that weight.
This is how life works most of the time.
But not all of the time. Not with the perennial controversies — those disputes that are never resolved.
I’m not talking here about the perennial questions pondered by philosophers since the beginning of time — the big questions that defy certainty and resolution. The perennial controversies are not like the perennial questions. The perennial questions cannot be answered conclusively. The perennial controversies can be. And have been.
But those who have answered these questions, who have responded to the substance of every objection, who have satisfied every protest, are never allowed to move on. They have met the burden of proof, time and time and time again, yet they are forever being asked to continue carrying that burden.
This is unjust, and a bit silly. But it happens because the perennial controversies aren’t really controversies at all. They are not about questions in need of answers, objections in need of response or assertions in need of support. They are about power. Those who have it do not wish to share it, cede it, grant it or allow it for anyone else. Instead, since they have the power to do so, they just keep asking the same questions over and over, pretending they haven’t been answered, burdening the powerless with an inescapable and permanent burden of proof.
That is the cycle in which we’re stuck — an endless repetition of the perennial controversies.
Which brings us to Rachel Held Evans’ Week of Mutuality. This is a Very Good Thing. Held Evans is a whipsmart, engaging writer and she’s enlisted or inspired plenty of other excellent bloggers to take up this theme with her this week. Here’s how she summarizes this effort in a preface to her first post in the series:
One In Christ: A Week of Mutuality [is] dedicated to discussing an egalitarian view of gender — including relevant biblical texts and practical applications. The goal is to show how scripture, tradition, reason, and experience all support a posture of equality toward women, one that favors mutuality rather than hierarchy, in the home, church, and society.
That’s an excellent goal and she and the other participating bloggers are doing a great job of meeting that goal.
But note the dynamic here. They’ve accepted that the burden of proof is on them — that somehow, in the church and among Christians, the default setting is a presumption against equality and mutuality. That’s an accurate assessment of where things actually stand in the church. That presumption against equality is a real and widespread phenomenon. Women’s equality with men is not the status quo in the church.
It ought to make a difference, though, that having accepted the burden of proof, Rachel Held Evans et. al. are meeting that burden. They’re supplying the proof, satisfying the objections, responding to every counter-argument. That ought to make a difference. That ought to mean that the burden of proof is shifted back onto those who oppose equality.
But it won’t mean that. I know this because I’ve seen all this happen before, again and again. RHE & Co. aren’t the first group of smart, patient, reasonable Christians to sit down and marshal all of this evidence, address all of the opposing concerns, and present a compelling and thorough rebuttal of every defense of inequality.
And they won’t be the last to do that. Because women’s equality in the church is a perennial controversy. It’s not an argument about questions and answers, biblical interpretation, evidence, tradition, reason and experience. It’s a power dispute.
They answered all the questions, but those with the power will keep on asking them just as though they hadn’t said a word. They have met the burden of proof, but those with the power will insist they continue to carry it just as though they hadn’t done so.
In a recent post titled “How to win a culture war and lose a generation,” Held Evans wrote eloquently about how the tone and substance of the culture warriors was driving the Millennial generation away from the church. But here’s the other immensely frustrating thing about those culture wars that the Millennials will eventually learn over time: They never end.
Worse than that, they never change. They never leave Square One. They just endlessly repeat the same questions, the same objections, the same demands that the powerless shoulder the burden of proof.
If the powerless — in this case, women in the church — want equality and a seat at the table, then they’re going to have to earn it, they are told. And so they do. They earn it. They prove they belong. They make their case. They meet every demand and every burden of proof.
And then they’re sent back to Square One and told to do it all over again.
I absolutely want to commend Rachel Held Evans and her participants for the excellent stuff they’ve put together this week. And I want to recommend it to everyone else. But I also think back to something Sarah Bessey wrote late last year, which ultimately is the only appropriate response to the perennial controversies.
“I am done fighting for a seat at the table,” Bessey wrote:
Enjoy your table, gentlemen.
… The men at the table may be loud but the pockets of hope and love and freedom are spreading like yeast. I see it. I feel it in the ground under my feet. More and more of us are sick of waiting for a seat and so we are simply going outside, to freedom, together. And here, outside, we’re finding each other and it’s beautiful and crazy and churchy and holy.
D.L.M. quoted from Bessey’s post in a piece for McSweeney’s. She, too, turns her back on the perennial controversies, gladly rejecting the fingers-crossed promise of a seat at the table for the reality of a place in the kingdom:
And while the church still argues about who can and can’t bring it, it is already coming. I have seen it with my eyes. I have tried in my own poor way to tell you all this time: it is already here.
It is already here. And it is not to be found at that table.