The Superiority Complex

The Superiority Complex January 22, 2014

There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

Galatians 3:28, NIV

Without blushing, Paul is simply stating that when it comes to leading in the church, women are unfit because they are more gullible and easier to deceive than men. While many irate women have disagreed with his assessment through the years, it does appear from this that such women who fail to trust his instruction and follow his teaching are much like their mother Eve and are well-intended but ill-informed. . . Before you get all emotional like a woman in hearing this, please consider the content of the women’s magazines at your local grocery store that encourages liberated women in our day to watch porno with their boyfriends, master oral sex for men who have no intention of marrying them, pay for their own dates in the name of equality, spend an average of three-fourths of their childbearing years having sex but trying not to get pregnant, and abort 1/3 of all babies. . .

— Mark Driscoll, Church Leadership, p. 43

“The feminist agenda is not about equal rights for women. It is about a socialist, anti-family political movement that encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism and become lesbians.”

—-Pat Robertson, 1992 Iowa fundraising letter

Martin Luther King Jr Memorial Entrance
Martin Luther King Jr Memorial Entrance (Photo credit: Scott Ableman)

In 1968, the day after Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated, a third-grade teacher named Jane Elliott wanted to teach her young charges why so many people in her society acted the way they did toward black people. The results of her off-the-cuff idea, sometimes called the “blue-eyed/brown-eyed experiment,” have reverberated through psychology ever since.

And it highlights one of Christianity’s biggest flaws.

Who’d Have Thought Unwarranted Power Could Ever Do That?

It started very simply. Jane Elliott separated her students into two groups based upon eye color, and arbitrarily decided to make the blue-eyed students the superior group. She put the brown-eyed students into distinctive brown fabric collars so they could be spotted from any angle, and began to treat the blue-eyed students as superior–giving them more privileges, making the brown-eyed students drink from separate fountains, etc. When the “superior” children objected to this inherent unfairness, she lied to them and told them that no, it was actually fine because having blue eyes meant you were a quicker learner and more intelligent (kind of like that Republican group that put out that immigration survey recently about Latino people being inherently less intelligent).

Interestingly, once the blue-eyed students became convinced that their superiority was innate, they hopped on board the Discrimination Train and really got into the idea of dominating their schoolmates.

Within a shockingly short period of time, the privileged students became truly evil toward their classmates. Their grades improved, while those of the brown-eyed students disintegrated. The blue-eyed students became arrogant and bossy, while the “minority” kids became more submissive and timid. Ms. Elliott reversed the kids’ positions the next day, and about the same thing happened then, though it wasn’t as extreme, and after that, she ended the experiment.

The writeup of it went about as viral as stuff could get in those pre-internet days; Ms. Elliott even ended up on sitting on Johnny Carson’s guest couch on The Tonight Show, and has received various honors from all sorts of folks. She is considered the spiritual mother of our modern ideas about diversity training and education. And all she did was try to teach her kids how discrimination really felt–how it felt to be treated as an inferior human being simply because of some inborn characteristic they couldn’t control or change about themselves. (In much the same way, the infamous Stanford Prison Experiment arbitrarily gave one group unquestioned dominance and power over another group, with truly sickening and barbaric results.)

Totally There’s Male and Female.

I don’t know if diversity education works–the jury seems to be out on that one–but it’d sure be nice if Christians as a whole woke up to what they’re doing to society by treating this or that group as innately superior and destined to lead. It probably didn’t take long at all after “there is neither male nor female” got written before it was turned into “duh, there’s totally male and female.”

Somehow we’ve gone from there being no male or female in Christ to women being innately incompetent to fulfill leadership roles purely because they identify as female. And that’s not all. We’ve also gone from there not being Jew or Gentile in Christ to non-white people being innately subservient, criminally-minded, dishonest, and sexually immoral compared to white people (as Ron Paul famously wrote in his newsletters). And we’ve somehow gone from that idealistic verse in the Bible about there not being slave or free to Christians who genuinely believe that slavery is okay sometimes, as long as it’s for a good cause (like forcing non-believers by law if necessary to act Christian even if they’re not, or forcing women to gestate against their wills, or forcing workers to endure terrible conditions with no recourse because unions are totally anti-Christian).

The need to reconcile this inherently biased attitude with the Bible verse quoted above about bias being bad has led to some truly contortionist thinking, like the incredibly vile and obviously self-serving concept of complementarianism, which is just “separate but equal” phrased in gendered terms and used to excuse, rationalize, and justify the practice of sexism in Christianity (and the other Bible-based religions, for that matter). Men and women are totally equal, you see, but they just fulfill different purposes, and that’s totally fine, and they obviously have different “jobs” to do in Christianity, and we’re just going to declare entire sections of Christianity off-limits to women because we actually value them soooo highly… and yeah, I’m not fooled either, and I wasn’t even as a Christian.

When someone is told he or she cannot lead because of a physical trait, like having blue eyes or dark skin or a tragic lack of outdoor plumbing, then it isn’t hard to make the mental jump from there to thinking that person is inferior in some way. When someone is told that he or she can only fulfill subservient roles, or is relegated to the person who is always led, then it isn’t hard to see the “leaders” thinking that they are inherently superior by virtue of their own physical traits. It isn’t hard to jump from that inherent superiority to really entitled and demanding behavior toward that less-privileged group. It isn’t hard to deny that less-privileged group rights and privileges based upon their inborn traits. And it really isn’t hard to jump from thinking that less-privileged group is inherently weaker or less worthy to treating the people in that group with contempt and disrespect. Indeed, this blog has written many, many times about the abuses and predations of Christians, especially Christian men, upon those less privileged, especially women.

Carte Blanche, Backfiring.

I follow a lot of religion news sources these days. I’m not even shocked anymore when the newest, freshest scandal comes out. Of course there’ll be a newer, fresher scandal; if this one surprises you, just wait a few minutes because shortly some Godly Christian Man will come along to do something else that’s disgusting and evil. I’m usually just relieved if all the participants are of legal age to consent to the shenanigans going on. So believe me when I say that it takes a lot to shock me.

It takes, say, seeing a blog post about a Godly Christian Husband and leader in the Christian Patriarchy movement, a proper Quiverfull sort who believes one-hundred-and-crazy-percent in the Bible, who thinks it’s totally okay to spank his wife during a dinner party.

But I don’t know why it shocked me so deeply. It’s not really that surprising.

That whole mindset glorifies maleness and thinks force and violence are totally acceptable. The entire extremist-Christian mentality dehumanizes and infantilizes women as well as non-white people. I’d already noticed many times that hate speech, child abuse, and spousal abuse were rife within the movement. What else was I expecting? But even so, this was a manifestation of that repulsive mindset that I hadn’t even thought about. I hadn’t thought that these predators were using their “god-given” superiority to physically hurt their own wives in such a deeply humiliating way.

When a person has a mandate from no less than a living god that tells him he is superior to others, when he is told that by sheer virtue of his plumbing that he is fit to lead others, when he is given carte blanche by his group and leaders to do whatever he thinks is necessary to dominate those around him, this is the sort of abuse you’re going to see.

This teaching brings and attracts men who are inherently weak, insecure bullies at heart–and that there are way more of these men in the extreme fringes of the movement than there are good people. The good people are all leaving, you see; I’ve talked to quite a few great ex-Christian men who left their extremist faiths because they really hated the rigid gender roles and bullying environment. See, it’s possible for men to reject sexism! And I think more men reject that thinking than accept it.

The problem is that people have all this trouble with this sexist and evil doctrine, but even the less-toxic adherents of it just think the problem is purely about implementation. They think they’re just getting the message wrong. They don’t even wonder if the message itself is the problem. From Jen’s Gems comes this quote from a pastor, Robert Gifford, who worked with the disgraced adulterer and sexist Lizard King Doug Phillips, who we’ve discussed here before:

When Doug left Virginia to move to San Antonio to start Vision Forum, I warned him to stay away from John Thompson and Patriarchy. I told him “It’s a tyrannical way to lead the family. It’s not biblical”. I think men like Doug get into Patriarchy because they’re weak insecure men. So they gather a bunch of other men around them to figure out how to make their wives do what they want. They don’t know how to lead their wives. All they know how to do is force them. A man is supposed to lead his wife lovingly, sacrificially. unreservedly. It’s clear from Ephesians 5. The Bible calls the wife a “helpmeet”. What that means is that she’s a counselor. She’s supposed to give counsel to her husband, and the husband is supposed to listen to her. I’ve taught this for years. We men have blind spots. We need godly women to give us counsel. She’s a counterbalance to us.

It doesn’t even occur to this man that maybe he’s drawing down to gender-essentialist thinking. He doesn’t even stop to consider that maybe the problem is seeing women as a giant monolith who he feels entitled to draw upon and force into a particular role. He doesn’t even actually understand that there’s no such noun as “helpmeet” in the Bible–that this is a misunderstanding of the term “a help meet for Adam,” meaning “a help who is suitable, or meet, for Adam.”

Like all his pals have, he’s heard this word from somewhere and assimilated it as if it’s a real word without even wondering about it, just like he’s assimilated the idea that men “lead lovingly, sacrificially, and unreservedly” and women “give us counsel” and exist to be “a counterbalance to us.” As concerned as this pastor is about the evils of the Vision Forum group and extremist ideology Doug Phillips started, he doesn’t even wonder what happens if a man isn’t suited for leadership or if a woman would rather lead than follow. In his little world, that just doesn’t happen. Men are like this. Women are like that. Marriages work like this. And people don’t get to pick and choose what they’ll be doing.

The only problem Mr. Gifford has with Doug Phillips’ sick ideology is that it takes things a bit too far. He has no recourse whatsoever for people who are preyed upon and abused because of this mindset, and no way to stop predators from committing abuse upon those in their care–by his own admission in that link–because not only he but these predators are all convinced they are hearing from a god that their individual ideas about behavior are not only okay but mandated for the smooth functioning of society.

A Trumpet Call to Predators.

Most Christian extremism relies upon such thinking. People who are inherently weak and insecure get drawn to a movement that tells them they are in fact superior, and then gives them all the tools they need to dominate those around themselves.

This is exactly what happened to Biff, and he was shocked on those rare occasions when I flat refused to accept his “leadership” because he wanted to do something flatly insane or harmful and the pastor backed me up rather than him; our pastor for most of our relationship was a dear, sweet old man who’d been married many years and I suspect didn’t buy into the crazy as much as most of his flock did, because he tended to come down on the side of rationality and common sense a lot more often than you’d guess an extremist right-wing pastor should. When the rubber dogma of male superiority met the road of destroying a marriage, he tended to advise men to chill out and be cool.

(This is also the pastor who advised my best friend Angela’s husband to finish his college education at the worldly, godless secular university his parents had paid for rather than outrage them by dropping out to go to the local Bible College, even though doing so would fulfill what this young man was 100% convinced was our god’s will for his life and actually would have put money into this pastor’s pocket as he sort of owned the college, so basically this pastor was all right in my book.)

Biff never liked hitting against those railings of compassion and common sense, though, and he sure wasn’t the only man in our church who was like that. And I sure wasn’t fooled by the pious, sanctimonious show he put on of being oh-so-very-put-upon at being put into the role of leader. I knew he reveled in it and loved it. I knew it was a huge part of his self-image that he, as a man, was naturally the leader between us despite his total lack of leadership skills and even personal integrity. He was like that little boy in that “Twilight Zone” episode who could wish anything into existence and who became a little monster who dominated and terrorized everybody around him.

And I seriously thought, for the longest time, that my role in life was to be his wife and try to make him into a halfway decent human being–and to serve him with a smile.

Look, we could argue all day about whether or not the various men who’ve shown themselves to be complete monsters with the toy of “complementarianism” they’ve been handed are TRUE CHRISTIANS™ or not. We could talk all day about whether or not they did it right, whatever we think “it” is. We could insist up and down that the model works great, as long as the people doing it are 100% doing it with the right spirit, even though we have no way of discerning just who those people are in advance before they’re given authority over those viewed as weaker. Or we could acknowledge that the model itself is deeply flawed and not a good way to conduct an organization of people. We could acknowledge the huge risk of abuse and predation that comes along with trying to enforce rigid gender codes like the one most Christians think is appropriate.

We could, but we don’t even need to try. The reason the United States, like most other civilized countries, does not allow discrimination is because we know where it leads.

We know that discrimination based upon inborn traits like gender, orientation, or skin color will only lead to horrific abuses against those deemed inferior. There’s just not a way to ensure that all white people, or men, or straight people will graciously lead and dominate those around them without hurting them. Human nature is what it is, which is why we let people serve and lead according to their own natures rather than pinning those roles to people regardless of their natures. We can be terribly bigoted creatures, meaning it is difficult to resist the lure of thinking that some characteristic of ours makes us inherently better people, or to see ourselves as the norm and not even notice those who are different, or to view ourselves as inherently the leaders and speakers of a mixed group. That’s why laws exist to protect minority groups from being trampled over by even the most well-meaning majority groups.

It’s a pity so many churches still think that “separate but equal” works as a social prescription. It’s a pity so many families still struggle to live the ideal preached at them when the roles just don’t fit.

It’s not loving or compassionate to demand subservience from another human being. It’s not loving or compassionate to insist that one gender, one skin color, or one orientation gets full rights but that another does not. Love makes people want to lead. It makes people want to follow. It sees clearly when someone’s either been forced into an unwanted role or who is using a role to prey upon others. And it recognizes and celebrates the personal differences that make all people unique, and encourages all people to use their gifts as best they can to advance everybody. Love doesn’t have to use violence, coercion, threats, or strong-arming to get its way. It doesn’t need to trick, compel, or deceive people. It’s so awesome that it doesn’t have anything to fear from the truth.

All of that is why love is going to win.

Because as society moves away from a model where violence, coercion, threats, and strong-arming are seen as legitimate avenues to and expressions of power, love is going to be left standing there and shining at last. Christianity, the longer its big names insist that their brand of violence, threats, compulsion, and fear are how families and societies ought to work, is going to find itself losing more and more people as they start to wonder why their lives are filled with violence, shame, compulsion, threats, and difficulty when the religion itself keeps saying that the burden is easy and the yoke light, and Bible verses like the one I quoted at the beginning keep flying in the face of these leaders’ bigoted, sexist, racist words.

Don’t be deceived, beloveds: as minority groups move away from the control of these Godly Christian Men, the blowback is going to be ferocious as they try to claw back their own privilege. Abusers tend to reach their nadir of cruelty when their targets are finally walking out the door, making the victim’s act of escape the most dangerous moment of all. I’ve heard more than a few feminists suggest that the current crop of “Men’s Rights” groups exist purely because women are gaining a little ground–that these weak, angry little men-children’s dominance has finally been challenged sufficiently for them to take up arms against feminism. And did you notice that Pat Robertson quote I linked at the beginning up there? That’s his attempt to not only demonize feminism but to make it sound so horrifically terrifying that nobody under his influence would ever dare consider treating women with respect and dignity–or demanding it. Giving women equal rights will make babies die, witchcraft flourish, and marriages dissolve.

Strangely, none of these predictions have actually come to pass in countries that actually do a much better job of treating women equally–in fact the opposite has happened: abortion rates plummeted, religion tended to vanish, and the divorce rate drops in secular countries.

But Pat Robertson is crying his own terror of what would happen. His god requires subjugation and inequality to keep things running smoothly. His vision of society would fall apart if equality became law. But I say, if society requires inequality to continue running, then maybe society deserves to fall apart.

Perhaps Some Hope.

Thankfully, there is hope for everybody, as bleak as the picture can so often seem.

A long time ago, I tangled with a Christian on a forum devoted to ex-Christians. I’m not naming names because in the end we figured our shit out. But he was a complementarian, sexist Christian for most of our association, and I was of course me, so you can guess we were like oil and water for a while there and any time we were together on a thread chances were good that there was going to be fur flying.

One day I mentioned off-handedly something about Biff and his sexism, and this Christian replied along the lines of, “No offense, I really don’t mean this in a mean way, but I just can’t see you putting up with that now. That’s just not the kind of marriage that you’d be happy in.” And I realized he’d hit a turning-point–that he’d crossed a very important Rubicon. That instead of saying that I was wrong for not being a good little subservient wifely type, that I was the problem in that marriage, that I’d done something wrong, he recognized that different types of people function best in different types of marriages, and the Happy Godly Christian Marriage type of marriage that conservative Christians espouse just wasn’t a good fit for the type of woman that I am.

That’s about when we began figuring our shit out and finding a little harmony. He’d learned that the mold didn’t fit everybody, and that when someone didn’t fit that mold, that person wasn’t the problem at all. And if he could learn that, then honey, anybody could. All it takes is one step toward empathy and compassion to realize that the current models just don’t work and are guaranteed to bring nothing but continued abuse and predation.

Conservative Christianity’s had a long time to demonstrate how effective its sexist, racist, ableist, bigoted views of society function. The votes are in, amigos: it doesn’t. We can see that a society formed on such views doesn’t function well at all. We can see that these views produce nothing but misery and dysfunction for all but a very small percentage of people. The problem isn’t implementation. The problem isn’t the growing number of deconverts and skeptics. The problem isn’t how hard they’re drilling indoctrination into children.

The problem is the viewpoint itself that someone is inherently inferior based on innate traits. The problem is how this viewpoint is being pushed on the have-nots and sold as the BONUS PLAN and oh how very lucky we have-nots are that we have such a wonderful and totally not evil at all plan for our lives and such wonderful leaders and masters, and how totally lucky we are that we don’t have to do all that heavy lifting like thinking and managing and leading and can just be happy subservient little have-nots and society will be just wonderful as soon as we can force everybody else to live this way too and stop questioning it and demanding stuff like equality which is totally demonic and sinful, if the haves do say so themselves, so quit asking and quit wondering and quit seeing how well equality works and how evil bigotry is, and quit wanting more because this is all you are ever going to get.

I reject this BONUS PLAN. I refuse to buy into this idea that some people are just inherently born to do this or that based on their color, orientation, gender identity, or any other inborn characteristic. I refuse to allow one group to own another group under the idea that they’ll treat them well and kindly when history has shown us time and again that that’s not actually what happens when one group is given dominance over another.

As that pastor I quoted last time said, “Legalism produces lawlessness ten times out of ten.” I think he’s right, but he’s not taking it far enough. I’d say the same thing about -isms of any kind: they produce evil, ten times out of ten. There’s just not some magic endorsement of sexism and racism that will produce anything but anger and bitterness between the sides. There’s not some magical way to push anti-gay bigotry that will make gay people feel included and loved.

There’s just not ever going to be some magical way to practice “separate but equal” that will magically produce a happy, well-adjusted society full of people who all work together and link hands and sing hymns.

The only way to win with these biases is to reject them entirely, not to keep trying to figure out some new and exciting way of incorporating them into society.

I may have blue eyes, but that doesn’t make me better than anybody else. My ideas and my behavior toward others is what matters most, not any physical characteristics I possess. My aptitudes and skills are what should carry me, not my affiliation with any particular group or my luck in being born with particular characteristics. If my desire for social justice and equality makes me an anti-Christ, then maybe Christians need to wonder why “the good guy” seems so intent on eradicating inequality and injustice. They might be worshiping the wrong guy here.

We’re going to talk about the anti-Christ next. Right-wing toxic Christians just love to think about the anti-Christ–accusing people of being it, fearing it, fighting it. We’re going to talk about just what this anti-Christ is, how to identify the anti-Christ, and what this concept means for modern Christianity. I hope you’ll join me.

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