Here’s a thought experiment: I’m sure you know churches that host soup kitchens, or groups of Christians who serve food through hunger ministries. Am I right?
Now, let me ask: do you know churches who simply get together and then go eat at soup kitchens?
The difference between serving a free meal, or gathering with all those who need a free meal in order to eat with them, is navigated according to the parameters of “respectability.”
I’m going to leave “respectability” in scare quotes throughout this post, because I want to treat the word in Derridean fashion…
… the demands of “respectability” diminish Christian witness. There is a general middle class captivity of the church in North America that keeps the faith trapped in a prison of its own design.
The concept of “respectability” is a function of class. And since the majority of middle class Christians rarely ponder class, it’s not surprising that “respectability” is simply assumed in Christian faith communities rather than examined and critiqued. And such “respectability” is also inextricably tied up in issues of race and power.
White people call for “civility” when their power is challenged by people of color.
White people criticize “political correctness” when social norms don’t allow them to get away with being horrible to people of color.
These elements of political discourse are all about group monitoring and power maintenance. (Bobby Howard)
Let me offer a few examples.
One form of respectability polices language. There are things that can be said, and things that ought remain unsaid. According to “respectable” Christianity, Christians aren’t supposed to swear, and discourse in Christian community is supposed to be moderate, careful, nice.
Ask a pastor how often they are in a room in which people are swearing, and when it is made known that they are a pastor, the whole room apologizes and the language “improves.”
Yet some of the most powerful Christian speech in our world emerges from artists and other leaders who refuse to conform to middle class respectability, and so their art, their music, their speech is typically excluded the category “Christian”, because the demand for “respectability” in liturgy and preaching supersedes other demands like truthfulness, or justice, or beauty.
Try to imagine worship music that is truly authentic, that emerges from the voice of the people, rather than from the simulacrum of middle class-ness (which humorously my auto-spellcheck wants to correct to middle crassness). It would sound like language bubbling up from the people. It would not be evaluated by committee. It would discomfit.
Some creatives are attempting such worship, like a recent Beyoncé Mass.
But of course a Beyoncé Mass only pushes out from middle class respectability in a couple of directions. But once you realize that middle class respectability is a cage with really wide bars, you can step out of it in many directions.
For example, who ever made up the idea that you had to dress up for church? It’s certainly not biblical. As far as we can tell, whenever Jesus worshipped, he wore the same cloak he always wore (which was probably soiled and smelly), and entered the sanctuary barefoot.
Faith communities that demand by their homogeneity a certain way of dress, a certain type of car to park in the parking lot, or whether to drive a car at all, all of these throw off certain values of “respectability.”
But “respectability” extends far beyond dress code and speech patterns. It’s also about the content of speech, the form of life, the values that are assumed as dominant. What kinds of topics are off limits in your community? Who is excluded when such topics are excluded?Pay attention to “respectability,” and bring it into relationship with Scripture. You see immediately how heretical “respectability” is as a replacement for the moral vision of Scripture. The Bible cares little at all about whether you live in a single-family dwelling, drive the right car, or drop scatological terms into your conversation.
Want examples of non-“respectability” in Scripture? They are legion.
Remember those Israelite spies who go into Jericho and stay with Rahab the prostitute?
Or consider Rahab’s great-grandson David. Remember that story in the Bible, when Saul needed to go into a cave to take a dump, and David was hiding in the cave? So he sneaks up to Saul while is indisposed, and cuts off a corner of his cloak, then presents the corner of the robe later to Saul to show that he had refused to kill him.
I could go on, and tell the stories of the prophets. Ezekiel laid on his left side for 390 days. Isaiah wandered around naked. Hosea married a prostitute.
Paul the apostle boasts in beatings, imprisonments, and his general foolishness. In fact, he calls himself a fool.
And then let’s not even get started with Jesus, who seems at every opportunity to undermine the “respectability” of religion, even the respectability of God. The Son of God always and consistently gravitates to the least “respectable” person, typically touching or being touched by them.
I’m reminded of that song in the opening of Joyce’s Ulysses (a book that itself respectably undermined the “respectability” of “literature”):
- I’m the queerest young fellow that ever you heard
- My mother’s a Jew, my father’s a bird.
- With Joseph the Joiner I cannot agree
- So here’s to disciples and Calvary.
- If anyone thinks that I amn’t divine
- He’ll get no free drinks when I’m making the wine
- But have to drink water and wish it were plain
- That I make when the wine becomes water again.
- Goodbye, now, goodbye! Write down all that I said
- And tell Tom, Dick, and Harry I rose from the dead.
- What’s bred in the bone cannot fail me to fly
- And Olivet’s breezy… Goodbye, now, goodbye!
Only the freedom of non-“respectability” allows a truth-teller to play fast and loose with traditional norms, and just so step out of the prison established by the controls of “respectability.” It is only beyond “respectability” that the rich find themselves proximate with the poor, addicts feel comfortable in church pews, failures preach from the pulpit, and the dirty find their way to the font.
And not to be made “respectable,” mind you. No, if the heresy of “respectability” is to be undermined completely, we need to remember the waters of baptism were already dirty to begin with, that dirt is life, and God is in the muck.