Monday, September 28, 2009

"Real" Christians don't....

Melissa McEwan is one of the bloggers hounded out of working on John Edwards' presidential campaign by shrill conservative voices who accused her of being anti-religion and anti-Catholic in particular. This resulted in threats of violence that drove her to resign.

She has written a new piece On "Real" Christians and Christian Privilege that is provocative, addressing the tendency especially on the religious left to say that those whom they believe mis-use tenets of religion are not "real" Christians.

I thought it would be interesting to discuss, given that much of this community finds itself at odds with some parts of their own church. This is particular apparent on some of the other liberal TEC blogs in the comments right now, where several commenters on the left are angrily slamming the door on conservatives, some of whom are obviously equally happy to fling terms like "heretic" and "apostate" around as they slam in return. There's a battle over "real" Christianity on both sides.
Frequently, when I write about religion, of my lack thereof, I get requests to distinguish between "real" Christians (those Christians who centralize personal beliefs of love and service, and are generally more progressive) and "Christianists," or some variation thereof (those Christians who centralize cultural beliefs of evangelism and control and seek to impose/legislate their beliefs, and are generally more conservative). Often, Christians in my life identify themselves to me as "real" Christians by approximately this measure. Occasionally, a reader will even request that I stop identifying certain people as Christians.
And my answer about distinguishing between "real" and "unreal" Christians, beyond noting that there are Christians who try to impose their beliefs on others and those who don't, is .... no....

They might not be the same kind of Christian as you are, but they are nonetheless Christians. 
I think this is the crux of it. Who gets to decide who claims the term, "Christian"? The right certainly does this, but so does the left. And it's much the same thing.
Frankly, it's hurtful to me when Christians address what happened to me by saying, "Those aren't real Christians," expecting me to salve their discomfort about the baggage of privilege by not disagreeing. People who would never in a million years think to try to console a victim of a hate crime with "All [white/straight/cis/abled] people aren't like that!" nonetheless responded that way to me when I was targeted and threatened by droves of self-identified Christians.

I already know that all Christians aren't like that—and everyone who said it to me knew I was well aware of that fact. But in the wake of large members of a certain segment of Christianity attacking me, most of the Christians I knew felt obliged first and foremost to distance themselves from the group that hurt me, and do it in a way that protected their idea of Christianity, that reasserted their privilege—a privilege that is shared by the very people who attacked me, solely by virtue of their calling themselves Christians.
You should read the whole thing.

So who gets to decide what the label "Christian" means? Isn't this just another form of exclusion?



Erp said...

From my point of view, a Christian is someone who identifies themself as a Christian.

Paul M said...

I have never challenged the right of conservatives to use the term Christian, and I never will. I simply regret that many of them do not return the favor.

JCF said...

I started reading the comments, and quickly came to this (it's #14 out of 216!):

Melissa McEwan 09/24/2009 03:29 PM

To be perfectly clear: If liberal Christians want to say themselves that conservative Christians aren't "real" Christians, that's their right and prerogative, but:

1. I don't want to be expected to make the same distinction from outside the group.

2. I don't believe "They're not real Christians!" is where any Christian's responsibility re: their Christian privilege ends.

That strikes me as pretty non-controversial---enough so that I wondered what all the Sturm&Drang of the blog entry was about.

I think that what McEwan is really getting at, is that she wants us (Progressive Christians) to change the minds of (what I call) the GeeZus Worshippers.

What she doesn't seem to realize, is that Progressive Christians actually have less clout w/ the GeeZus 'Nuts, that even SHE does. There's no one that the Wingnuts have contempt for and loathe more than Progressive Christians (esp. if we're LGBT!).

Just ask Dr. George Tiller (if you could). He might be alive today, if he hadn't gone to his (ELCA) Lutheran church a few months ago...

Anonymous said...

I like the definition that Fr. Laurence Freeman gives in his book Jesus the Teacher Within (in Chapter 7, Jesus and Christianity):
"To love and pray in his name is an adequate definition of what it means to be a Christian."

Bill Ghrist

Counterlight said...

I prefer to let God sort out who is a "real" Christian and who is not.

I have to agree with JCF on this one. There's no one the far right hates worse than liberal/ progressive Christians.
I remember that for years we had a hater contingent for every Gay Pride march in New York. They were usually parked around Rockefeller Center. I remember watching them go ballistic when the gay and gay friendly Christian groups would march by; much more so than they would over the Pagans or the Atheists.

Elizabeth said...

I am pleased to see that using the term "Christofascist" to describe conservative Catholics is considered in order here.

Well done.

McEwan should have realized at the time that her writings weren't going to be good for Edwards, although in retrospect, he deserved her.

IT said...

Well, at some level the Edwards campaign should have realized that too, don't you think?

David |Dah • veed| said...

Progressives are not going to be drawn into a debate on who is not a Christian. That is something that the Right does.

We are more about expanding the definition to include more folk.

While the Right is busy building fences to keep everyone out, we go about knocking them down to let more in.

Marshall said...

Where and when I grew up (and to no small extent, probably still) the cultural definition of "real Christian" included Biblicism and commonly literalism; personal conversion experiences; and a list - usually detailed - about who was not acceptable. That list always included Roman Catholics and Jews; sometimes included Methodists and Presbyterians,; and would have included Episcopalians, Unitarians, and the Orthodox had any of us been large enough to come to the attention of those making the claims.

One result (usually unhealthy) was to find extreme ways to distinguish ourselves; for it is as well to be hung for a sheep as for a lamb. So, for a while I was lay minister in a small congregation where each household had its own distinctive cocktail, provided when that household hosted a parish event. It was troubling enough when one young couple raised mint on their apartment balcony for their special juleps. It was particularly problematic when an elderly couple served Long Island Iced Tea by the punch bowl (a good mix, too: it did taste remarkably like tea!).

I do find it annoying when someone wants to measure my Christianity by some narrow standard (that all too often makes no reference to Christ at all); but we are no better off when our response is as reactive as any reactionary.

(The verification word is "hypes;" and surely there is more than enough hype around this topic.)

Elizabeth said...


I absolutely agree. The Edwards people clearly did no vetting. So whose fault is it that her writing was exposed as radical, resulting in her being "hounded out"? Edwards' campaign officials? McEwan? "Shrill" conservatives?

Seems to me she used the term, and the campaign didn't vet it. There would have been no "hounding out" if those two things hadn't happened. Of course, given what we're learning about John Edwards, maybe he had a thing for her.

IT said...

Yes, but quite apart from teh debacle of the campaign, she got death threats.

Regardless of whose "fault" it was that her writing was too edgy for the campaign, she was pursued and harassed and threatened, and I 'd say those doing the pursuing earned some bad names. The death threats weren't her fault, or Edwards'. They were the fault of the "Christians" doing the threatening.

She wrote, threats are simply not an appropriate response to expressing an opinion, which is something on which we should all be able to agree. And no one should be expected to allow themselves to be terrorized indefinitely with no protection, just because most threats may never materialize into action. It's a loss for us all that two more people have been driven from their jobs because people who disagreed with them couldn't just leave it at a fair criticism.

I don't hold a brief for her, and I don't particularly care for her writing. But the shrill conservatives who threatened her, or who created the environment where peoplefelt they COULD threaten her....they are the same types who have led to threats against Barack Obama, or Gene Robinson.

Apparently no one is allowed to disagree with the right wing Christians without being threatened these days.

Elizabeth said...

I agree with Counterlight. Let God sort it out. Each of us have enough to do just trying to follow Jesus' lead. I do feel that we need to comment on hate because it hurts the hater as much or more than the target of the hate.

Another Elizabeth

JCF said...

Of course death threats are wrong, IT. That goes w/o saying.

But is it any worse for McEwan as a non-Christian to be threatened, than for Tiller as a Christian to be both threatened and actually killed?

FWIW, I support Hate Crime legislation---inc. on the basis of religion (or non-religion). It's just possible for a Christian to be persecuted for their religion by other Christians (so-called!), as it is for a non-Christian to be so persecuted.

I WISH I had a magic wand to wave, that would make EVERY "Christian" follow the command to "Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you" and "If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn and offer your left also."

Unfortunately, such magic wands are not part of my Christian faith... ;-/

IT said...

The point of the post wasn't death threats or not. The point was that Christians told her that the people threatening her weren't "real" Christians. But of course the threateners think they are. Her point is that she's not th eone who decides who's "real".

I don't htink that this is competition of wrong-ness. She was threatened with rape and murder. That the bad guys actually went through with it with Tiller in no way excuses ANY threats of violence.

Fran said...

This is a great post on a difficult topic.

I find McEwen hard to take in exactly the same way that I find the very conservative Christians that writes of.

JCF's comments really resonate with me here.

I will add that the argument that McEwen makes has some virtues but overall, I have some questions.

My own wish and hope is that we will *stop* finding ways to divide and that means the use of qualifiers such as liberal, conservative or whatever. Of course we need these identifiers but it is my opinion that they just set us all up for division.

Honestly, one could spin McEwan's argument out further so that basically all humans are worthless if some of them are worthless.

The way she was treated was an abomination and the threats she received... well there is NO excuse.

That said, while I support her need, and anyone's need for that matter, to burn off their anger, at some point that has to change.

Otherwise we end up in the same us versus them world that we have always had. Whoever is "in" gets to dismiss (or threaten or ruin or whatever) whoever is "out."

It is pointless. My own ideals may be hopeless in the eyes of many but that doesn't mean that after my own long anger burn in life that I will give them up.

No I am not talking some asinine kumbayah. But when can conversations - however tense - start and all the verbal bombs, from ALL sides end.

Everyone says "the other" has to stop first before they consider it. That is one of the reasons that Jesus remains compelling for me. He seems to think and do otherwise, at least for me.

IT I see your comment about the competition of wrongness and please know that I have considered that as I write these words. And Tiller is an example of that.

As I said - real humans continue to mistreat, abuse and kill other humans. Where do we begin to change? That is indeed a rhetorical question, but one that needs to be very, very real. Like JCF, I have no magic wands to remedy any of this.

Fran said...

Lest I sound like a complete jerk, which I worry that I do sound like, I am adding a link.

I found it via the RD article that linked to you and to Shakesville. It is from July, but not stale and why I have an issue being lumped in with all Christians, as McEwan has done. Like I said, I can understand her anger - born out of very real threats to her life.

Click here.

IT said...

You're not a jerk Fran, Don't worry.

What is "RD"? I like to find who's linking to me.

At some level, the point of posting this was to ask who gets to make divisions. McEwan is saying, really, don't tell her who is "real" CHristian. You all are "real" Christians with the equivalent position of Christianity (although you don't consider each other that way). I found her essay interesting because I had noticed a lot of "you aren't real Christian" being flung around in the comments of other blogs between conservative and liberal.

You wrote, "My own wish and hope is that we will *stop* finding ways to divide and that means the use of qualifiers such as liberal, conservative or whatever. is my opinion that they just set us all up for division.YES emphatically. So does the term "real".

Who decides on division? I think the hardest thing is to figure out how to reach across that divide. To share the bucket, rather than fight over it. How do you do that to someone whom you see as your implaccable enemy?

I don't know. I know I can't do it, not very well. I'm generally a peacemaker and I try to avoid conflict (really....I'm a Libra ;-) but on some issues, when I am deeply hurt, I can't get past that. My wife can. I think that reflects that she really IS a Christian, and truly tries to embrace and lives that ideal. I don't have that angle to get over it.

Let me be clear that I hold little truck with much of McEwan's writings. She's too PC-ishly feminist for me (I have a libertarian streak on top of my progressivism) and a bit too much of the victim as identity politics tend to be. I respect her views, of course, as I try to respect everyone's, but for the same reason I don't identify with the "Professionally Gay, Poor Me" (and I don't, really) I don't really relate to this side of progressive politics.

But I thought that in the context of both sides accusing each other of not being "real", which I see a lot, her essay was interesting.

Fran said...

Thanks IT, I am glad I did not say something completely awful!

RD is Religion Dispatches, hold up - totally progressive place! The post I found you at, quite by accident is here. You were at the second link in the first sentence. Here.

It was written by Dan Schultz, aka Pastor Dan of Streetprophets.