Recently, a Christian lady wrote what probably seemed like a really easy, low-stress blog post for the Gospel Coalition (TGC*). The post concerned how she had somehow learned to live with the shocking realization that her nice white daughter wanted to marry a black man (fetch the smelling salts!) .
It was exactly the sort of post one would expect to see on that site, expressing exactly the sort of kinder, gentler racism that one often sees out of fundagelicals nowadays. It was aimed at exactly the sort of people who would be expected to agree with it.
And to the writer’s (and, clearly, TGC’s) astonishment, all hell promptly broke loose.
A firestorm of criticism erupted all over social media. The scandal even got picked up by the Washington Post.
I found myself fascinated by the blogger’s response to that outrage. It took the form of a basic Christian not-pology, but there were some elements to it that stood out even by those standards. I want to show you what that not-pology meant and where it misses the mark. If you’ve ever been mystified by the weird way Christians talk (or if you’ve ever been frustrated about receiving an apology from one of them that really didn’t seem, well, apologetic), then maybe today’s post will answer a few questions for you!
Gaye Clark is an occasional blogger with TGC. On August 8, she wrote a post on their “Christian Living” channel called “When God Sends Your White Daughter a Black Husband,” which is archived here (since it is long gone from TGC’s site). Her post was a decent fit, thematically, with the channel. Other writers’ posts there talk about how single Christians care too darned much about their prospective spouses’ appearance and how modernity is the “greatest challenge Christianity has ever faced.”
In other words, TGC’s Christian Living channel is a fundagelical echo chamber for John Piper fans, and Ms. Clark had little reason to think that her post might get her into any trouble.
She begins thusly:
For years I prayed for a young man I had yet to meet: my daughter’s husband. I asked the Lord to make him godly, kind, a great dad, and a good provider. I was proud of a wish list void of unrealistic expectations. After all, I knew not to ask for a college football quarterback who loved puppies, majored in nuclear rocket science, and wanted to take his expertise to the mission field. I was an open-minded mom.
But God called my bluff.
This white, 53-year-old mother hadn’t counted on God sending an African American with dreads named Glenn.
From there, she breathlessly marvels at Glenn’s many good qualities as if this is the first time she’s ever seen them in a black person and she just wants to share the sheer novelty of this discovery with her fellow white people. Then she earnestly outlines America’s onetime taboo against interracial marriage while managing to avoid ever mentioning that evangelicals had a big hand in creating and maintaining that taboo.
Our intrepid explorer then tumbles into a listicle about how to cope with a family member’s interracial marriage. She even finds a little time to chide the folks who keep calling the racists in her group “bigots” (because the real dehumanization here, she asserts, is being called out for saying racist things) and to recount how she used to playfully wink at horrified church peers who were aghast at the relationship (because what’s funnier than that?).
But I hear you asking with bated breath: Does–does–does she actually manage to overcome her horror over the idea of her daughter being part of a mixed-race marriage?
In case you’re perching on the very edge of your seat in suspense, allow me to soothe you by letting you know that somehow, against all odds, our heroine shouldered through Jesus’ divinely-assigned and daunting challenge of fulfilling the most bare-bones basic requirement of being a halfway decent human being. And now she just wants to
be given cookies share her emotional journey with other racists to help them become enlightened like she is.
It’s a really racist post, in short, and once the outcry got serious attention, action had to be taken.
And it was.
The Not-Pology in Question.
A not-pology is a fake apology issued by someone who knows they need to say something after being called out for doing something wrong, but doesn’t want to admit error or learn from what happened. This gesture is meant to mollify the people who called out the wrongdoing without changing anything or making the wrongdoer look too bad. (Sometimes you’ll hear these called nonpologies, fauxpologies, and other such terms.)
Members of right-wing Christian groups are past masters at the not-pology. They learn from their earliest childhoods to be terrified of saying or doing the wrong things. So there’s a real art to composing a proper Christian not-pology. It has to look like it’s humble, contrite, and sorrowful, but it has to simultaneously deflect as much blame as possible and–ideally–make the apologizing person look even better than before the offense was given.
When the internet rightly exploded over Gaye Clark’s shocking post, this was the apology she went with:
I have asked TGC to remove my article from their website. I am profoundly grieved over the hurt and harm it has caused. Would covet prayers.
— Gaye Clark (@ClarkGaye) August 10, 2016
Transcript: I have asked TGC to remove my article from their website. I am profoundly grieved over the hurt and harm it has caused. Would covet prayers.
In its scant 140-ish characters, this carefully-crafted, polished tweet manages to check off just about every single item on the list of features of a perfect Christian not-pology.
☑ One: Timing.
Ms. Clark’s post went up August 8th. By the 9th, hundreds of blog posts, tweets, and other social-media responses had been posted. On the 10th, she issued her not-pology.
Jesus did not “convict” her until many hundreds of people had spoken up. Often fundagelicals apologize in ways that make them look like what they’re really sorry for is having been caught–and this is definitely one of those times. If nobody had said anything, would she have apologized at all?
It sure seems like she wouldn’t have.
☑ Two: Distancing.
Notice the passive positioning all through the tweet. Ms. Clark almost sounds like she’s describing someone else’s offense entirely. She puts the ball immediately in TGC’s court by hinting that it’s totally not in her power to remove the post. And she’s “profoundly grieved,” as opposed to being sorry, for the “hurt and harm it has caused,” rather than being sorry about what she herself wrote.
When you see a lot of passive, sterile, distanced, impersonal phrasing, be alert for someone who isn’t yet ready to take responsibility for themselves. This phrasing indicates not only insincerity, but can sometimes also be a way to minimize an error or even to make it seem like someone else’s problem.
The use of the formal phrase “profoundly grieved” is another red flag. When we’re really distressed, we tend to use shorter, less formal words. But she used not one but two very formal ones here. The more formal the wording, the less sincere the apology sounds–especially in text format.
☑ Three: Victim Blaming.
If you look at the tweet’s comment history, you’ll notice that Ms. Clark later adds that she only asked TGC to take the post down “because my brothers and sisters [in Christianity] misunderstood it and were hurt.” This sentiment is not actually as kind, generous, repentant, and loving as she thinks it is because she sounds like she genuinely doesn’t think that she did anything really problematic. She thinks she simply phrased herself poorly–that her “tone was arrogant.” She’s sorry that people were offended–but not for having offended them. And that’s a huge distinction that is lost on most Christian not-pologists.
In other words, if nobody had outright told her that her message was a problem (rather than her wording or her tone), then there wouldn’t have been a problem at all. Remember Phil Robertson’s insistence that because black people never told him they had a problem with his town’s racism, that clearly meant there had never been any problem with racism in his town? The same mentality is at work here.
Right-wing Christians tend to operate under the assumption that if their victims aren’t screaming bloody murder in a way that cannot be ignored under any circumstances, or trampled underfoot and then ignored, then there isn’t a problem. When that pushback is expressed an undeniable way, then usually the resulting not-pology will make explicitly clear that the victims themselves are the ones with the problem, not the person who offended them.
What would Toxic Christianity even do if its members weren’t allowed to victim-blame?
Would it even exist anymore or would it poof into thin air?
I’m having a vicarious existential crisis here and this isn’t even my religion.
☑ Four: All the Christianese.
Almost every single sentence in this not-pology is a textbook example of the impenetrable cloud of jargon that Christians use around each other.
And the person who wrote it is using it that way for a reason.
As we discussed recently, Christians use this coded language for a number of reasons. It usually signals membership in the tribe or tries to send a coded message that outsiders aren’t supposed (or intended) to understand.
“Profound,” for example, is a word used to convey admiration for Jesus-y things. The Bible is called profound, as is Jesus’ supposed love for his pet humans. Sunsets, cherry ice cream, basic operations of mathematics, and other earthly delights do not get called profound. Use of this word is supposed to get Christians in the right frame of mind. Here, the person using this word is telling her tribe that her grieving is on the level of Psalms 23 and the meaning of the Crucifixion. It’s profound.
“Grieved,” for that matter, is a fundagelical word for really Jesus-flavored sorrow or anger. It is only used in situations where the otherwise off-limits emotion would totally be Jesus-approved. When you’re angry about getting the wrong topping on a hamburger or upset that you didn’t get a job you had applied for, that’s not grieving. Instead, Christians get grieved about borshuns and the gay agenda. So yes, she’s sad, but she’s sad about this whole TGC scandal like Jesus would be sad about all the zillions of people he’s quite deliberately condemned to Hell by being so coy about himself–if he existed and actually gave a shit about anybody.
The word “covet,” of course, is an extra-Jesus-y way to say “want.” Normally coveting is really off-limits; indeed, most of us only ever hear the word in relation to the Ten Commandments, as in “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s property (like his wife, since the Christian god totally thinks that women are men’s property**).” But for some weird reason fundagelicals have revived the term and now use it to indicate wanting something they imagine that Jesus really wants–notably prayers. If a Christian says he or she “covets” something, that’s almost always an indication that the coveted thing is extra-important and would further some Christian goal either on a personal or group level.
Finally, she asks her peers to pray for her. There’s an insidious undercurrent to this last bit. She’s reminding other Christians that when all is said and done, one of their tribe’s rules specifically covers forgiving all past offenses. Christians may joke about “shooting their wounded,” a phrase particularly relished by Christians who are themselves guilty of rampant hypocrisy, but this command to forgive is a powerful one to invoke. I don’t think for a moment that the invocation was done by accident.
In summary, Gaye Clark’s tweet is carrying a coded message that fundagelicals will not fail to hear:
“I’m one of you! I’m totally one of you! And our giant invisible friend says I’m back in his good graces. Stop talking about this now.“
And many of her tribe heard her loud and clear.
Next time, we’ll touch on the reaction itself–see you then!
* On that note, I suppose the title probably reads better as “the TGC’s Scandal,” but after the last sub-comment-thread about redundant phrases, I couldn’t bring myself to do it.
** Isn’t that a strikingly odd thing for a moral, enlightened Being of infinite wisdom and knowledge to think?