19 October 2017

My heart is breaking. So what?

We left Russia on Tuesday evening. Now we're traveling on Amtrak from New York City to Portland, Oregon. Our train stopped for nine minutes in Charlottesville, where we spent the first two years of our marriage. A lot has happened since then, with us and with Charlottesville.

My heart is breaking with the flood of #MeToo stories from people who've experienced sexual violence and objectification of all degrees. CNN reports a Facebook statistic: "...More than 45% of people in the United States are friends with someone who's posted a message with the words 'Me too'." Seems entirely possible. Just based on people I know, that proportion might actually be low.

But my breaking heart is completely beside the point. The problem is people whose hearts aren't breaking and will not soon be breaking. Many of them don't consider themselves predators, and their behavior is often supported and protected by their surrounding culture, as noted in Teri Carter's article, "Saying 'me too' isn't enough. Women have to stop excusing men." Some no doubt plunge into cycles of offense and remorse, hoping that their remorse counts for something....

Last year, a similar online phenomenon took off in Russian and Ukrainian social networks. Natalia Antonova described the origins of this movement and some of the assumptions it unearthed. She did not express wild optimism about outcomes, but there is a path toward progress:
We are seeing an example of real collective action — not sponsored by any government, not popularised by marketing or television. The very fact that there is such a big controversy, an outcry, criticism, and counter-criticism tells us that quite a lot of people are emotionally invested both in the problem of violence and trauma — and are also invested in public life and public discourse.
Before we protest that the USA (for example) is more progressive on this score than the post-Soviet world, can we honestly say that we never see examples of  the "hypocritical blending of patriarchal and liberal norms" mentioned by Antonova?

One thing that seemed possible in July 2016, the time of Antonova's article, was a woman serving as president in the USA, something that no Russian I spoke with thought would happen in Russia in their lifetime. Most Russians told me that it shouldn't happen, in Russia or in the USA. Of course, for the USA, that moment didn't come to pass.

(But yesterday came the announcement that Ksenia Sobchak plans to run in the Russian presidential election next year! The conventional wisdom so far seems to agree that this is just a way that the Kremlin wants to make the highly stage-managed Putin re-election process more interesting and entertaining. My question: Can Sobchak's candidacy nevertheless have subversive benefits in widening the forums for discussing sexual violence and related topics?)

Back to #MeToo and the chorus of male grief. The sad truth is that the existence of men (and women) who have no desire at all to offend, or are supposedly too nice to offend, or who repent, or who simply have learned how to manage their "needs," hasn't been enough to prevent that "more than 45%" statistic. Our goals should go way beyond expressing sympathy; they should include ending cultures of impunity. This isn't an easy thing to advocate -- my conscience is stabbed by the question, How often have I been given the benefit of the doubt?

Ending cultures of impunity ... what might this imply? How do we get there? For one thing, it would help to have offenders' peers confronting offenders, and for these stories to circulate. I'm reminded of a case I know personally: an alcoholic wife-abuser being confronted by his older brother, himself a recovering alcoholic: "Hey, take it from me, you straighten up or you're going to lose the best thing you have, and I'll want to know the reason why."

Victims' and survivors' dearest ones also have a role to play, especially in cultures where the "boys will be boys" attitude prevails. In theory, we know that love trumps shame, but we need to make that true in every concrete situation where shame smothers the truth. This is especially important where victims end up entering into alliances with their attackers and therefore feel complicit. Again, for cultures that don't value lofty theories, we need stories of families and sweethearts taking shame out of the equation. Let's tell our stories of shame being healed, whether we were the channels of healing or the ones experiencing healing.

What about men? (After all, the majority of offenders, and also the apparent beneficiaries of the prevailing power systems, are men.) Sometimes my inner cynic worries that this arena is just another channel for men to entertain fantasies of heroism, or (given the persistence of sin and addiction) to use a veneer of sensitivity for seductive purposes. But there are concrete steps we can take:
  • Listen, don't rush to fix. Be rooted in grace. Listen, listen some more. Be human! 
  • When women exert leadership, respond positively. That may simply mean getting out of the way without waiting for recognition or credit.
  • Replace the old "men have needs" excuse with active encouragement for any decent efforts to teach young people about sexuality and boundaries. Maybe it's an opportunity for liberals and conservatives to work together -- for liberals to assert the importance of equality, for conservatives to remind us of sin's devious persistence.
  • Other ideas?
One of my biggest frustrations is the lack of attention to sexual discipleship in the church. The resulting harm includes not just violence and harassment, but endless shame, anxiety, hypocrisy, homophobia, and ultimately cynicism, alienation, atheism, ... in total, a lot less joy, intimacy, and long-term pleasure than God intended for us.

I think I understand the reluctance to tackle sexual issues; I don't know about you, but I really don't go to church to talk about sex! That means finding creative ways to confront the old boundaries and allergies that ultimately served oppression, and create new boundaries that put sexual discipleship in proper perspective with other topics of life as believers -- such as financial discipleship, to name another awkward theme.

Think of the rewards of expanding our discipleship education: building a far more rewarding model of whole-life Christianity that doesn't keep two sets of emotional books (one for display at meeting, and the other reflecting our private anxieties and agonies). Think of the evangelistic advantages as well -- inviting skeptical people into a community that behaves as if it actually believes in the abundant life Jesus promises.

A related post from last year: Trust and its erotic dimension. ("Now it gets personal.")

How badly have traditional Christian sexual ethics failed?
In the absence of any concept of consent, patriarchy might have been the best humanity could do to provide a stable social order that somewhat protects vulnerable people from the kind of mayhem we see in Sodom in Genesis 19 and Gibeah in Judges 19. Unfortunately it fails to provide full protection; it just keeps the violence behind closed doors.
Postliberalism for Quakers. (Thanks to @MeetinghouseBP for the link.)

Another view of Ksenia Sobchak's candidacy, from a pro-Kremlin outlet.

"Johnny B. Goode" Russian style.


Anonymous said...

What is the difference between post-liberalism and post-modernism?
I tend to see myself as, in an important sense, a post-modernist.

Johan Maurer said...

Hi, Vail! I see post-modernism as "skepticism toward meta-narratives" (as someone said whose name isn't coming back to me at the moment) and a willingness to probe the sources and vested interests powering those meta-narratives.

I guess post-liberalism does the same sort of unmasking of interests and assumptions specifically for liberalism. I guess it sees liberalism as a specific manifestation of modernism.

I remember that Berdyaev credited atheism as being a purifying agent for Christianity, helping break Christianity's captivity to imperialism. I think post-modernism and post-liberalism can help liberate Christianity from its compromises with mindless optimism, reductionism, affluence, individualism, and other unexamined assumptions from the surrounding culture. What do you think?

Anonymous said...

Hi Johan!
I pretty much agree with your thoughts -- might add, they help liberate Christianity from its belief in inevitable (moral) progress.

Unknown said...

Thanks for addressing this important topic!