Kindness Is A Tool Of Empire, Too: In Which I Respond To Sarah Bessey

Kindness Is A Tool Of Empire, Too: In Which I Respond To Sarah Bessey September 14, 2014

Recently, Travis Greene wrote a blog post about the state of the “Progressive Christian Internet.” This seems to be a popular topic lately–I’ve already written about it myself, arguing that one of the problems with the “Progressive Christian Internet” is that we assume there actually is a homogenous group of Christian progressives on the internet who are want the same things and have the same goals.

Greene’s piece alerted me to another piece that appears to be on this same topic, written by Sarah Bessey (author of Jesus Feminist). Like Greene, I thought this post contained some good stuff. Also like Greene, “there’s a But coming” from me. 

I’ll start with what I liked.

Much of Bessey’s piece strikes me as a “one body, many members” argument. We all have different personalities, talents, callings, and passions. Bessey contrasts the midwives in the Exodus narrative of the Hebrew Bible with the character of Moses. While Moses performed miracles on God’s behalf, confronted the pharaoh, and parted seas, the midwives practiced a more quiet rebellion.

Both are essential to the narrative–without the midwives, there would be no Moses.

She states that she blesses the work of those flipping over tables, but also calls for affirmation of those doing quieter work behind the scenes.

I recently wrote something similar in a call for a refreshed definition of the concept of Third Way–there are many ways to fight oppression, and that’s a good thing, because oppression is slippery and sneaky and good at adapting to anything that threatens to extinguish it.

Where I take issue with Bessey’s piece is in the last section (emphasis original):

I’m also suspicious of empire tactics being baptized and employed to “build the Kingdom of God.” 

My soul recoils from the use of the very tactics of the empire – silencing, bullying, judging, other-ing, dehumanzing, mocking, name-calling, ganging up and piling on, violence – used against the oppressed and marginalized now somehow being used for “good purpose.”

Bessey then puts up a call for the foolish things of this world–kindness, love, etc.–to confound the wise:

To the world, it’s foolish to choose peace instead of war. It’s foolish to forgive. It’s foolish to be kind. It’s foolish to hope. It’s foolish to offer grace and conversation.

I don’t deny that “The Empire” (the systems of oppression–racism, sexism, transphobia, etc.) uses silencing and bullying, other-ing and mocking, etc. to their advantage. In my research on Christian dating books, I came across a term that describes this: hostile oppression*

A hostile oppressor might use the tools of silencing and mocking. A hostile oppressor might use hurtful slurs. They might advocate for violence against marginalized people, or even use it themselves. In the case of hostile oppression, yes, the tactics that Bessey lists are tools of empire.

Here’s the thing though–hostile oppression doesn’t operate on it’s own.

Researchers Glick and Fiske believe that hostile oppression works side by side with benevolent oppression. What are benevolent oppression’s tools? Benevolent oppression isn’t focused on name-calling and criticism, but on putting marginalized people on pedestals. On exceptionalism and dehumanizing idolization. On gently forcing people into roles “for their own good” or “out of love.”

Love.

Kindness.

Gentleness.

Forgiveness.

I know we don’t always want to admit that these “fruits of the spirit” can be used as tools of oppression too, but we’re not going to get anywhere unless we do.

How many LGBTQ people are sent to abusive “therapy” sessions in the name of “love the sinner, hate the sin?” How many abusers are not held accountable in the name of forgiveness? How many women stay in abusive relationships because they are trying to be kind?

Kindness isn’t an inherently anti-empire response to injustice, nor is mocking an inherently pro-empire one. 

If you’ll recall the gospel narratives, Jesus did a little of both. 

You can defend these traits as “not real” love, kindness, gentleness, forgiveness…

And go for it. I agree.

I also do not want to let the empire define my words for me. 

You don’t want to hand kindness over to the empire. Why then should we hand over these seemingly “negative” tools so easily? Both silencing and kindness can be tools of empire: if we can reclaim one, why not the other?

Is it not a good thing when oppressive voices are silenced, drowned out by voices crying for justice?

Is it not a good thing when workers “gang up on” their employers to demand better treatment?

These types of actions are often caricatured as bullying and violence by empire, even as abuse is called love, and passivity in the face of injustice is called kindness.

Maybe the answer is to stop letting empire define our tools for us–and to stop letting empire decide which ones are and are not moral for us to use as Christians fighting oppression.

In fact, maybe kindness can sometimes look like silencing those speaking injustice, “ganging up on” abusive people and demanding change, or even name-calling and mocking in order to reveal that the emperor has no clothes.

As h00die_R (Rod) says in this important post,

YHWH’s kindness is sort of unruly, and is mentioned a lot throughout the Hebrew Bible…

God’s kindness and compassion are not restricted to ever-fluctuating rules of civility that give those with privilege the advantage. Rather God’s lovingkindness for all persons shines through in God demonstrating God’s preferential option for the poor.

There are many ways to fight injustice. Bessey affirms that, and I agree with her 100%. But there are also many ways to be unjust–injustice doesn’t always look like meanness and bullying. Sometimes it looks way too damn close to love and kindness.

I want to look at the tools I’ve been given, how they’ve been defined and used by empire, and I want to wrestle them back–make them mine. Find new and creative ways to take them into my own hands.

___

*My research focused on sexism, so the actual terms I came across–in the work of researchers Glick and Fiske–are “hostile sexism” and “benevolent sexism,” but I think the concept can apply to other forms of oppression as well and have altered the terms appropriately).

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