God save us from humble men

Few things are more irritating than the passive aggressive mode adopted by white, male, heterosexual Christians when debating issues such as transphobia. It will be familiar to many of you. The person concerned makes a statement which basically writes off a swathe of people as broken, corrupt and perverse, but does so by appealing to scripture or natural law: ‘hey, it’s not my fault, this stuff is revealed/written into creation! I’m just humbly passing it on’. When called on this, they react as follows: ‘look, I’m just trying to have a reasoned debate here, and you are all ganging up on me to silence me. And you’re supposed to be the tolerant ones!’

The conservative accusing the liberal of being illiberal and intolerant is of course a standard rhetorical trope these days. What I’m wondering is whether there is something particular about Christianity which breeds this kind of stance, and what might be done about it.

My starting point is accidental: in my context I just happen to come across such strategies most often from Christians, or from cultural conservatives, Islamophobes and the like who appeal to a ‘Christian culture’ as somehow normative. So it would be interesting to hear how it plays out in other contexts.

But let me offer a hypothesis: Christianity is an especially fertile breeding ground for passive aggression. The reason lies in its central narrative of the crucified and risen Christ, and in the requirement that the believer becomes Christlike. This can be read as involving a double move: humility is adopted as a mask for a triumph already achieved. Dying and rising with Christ becomes a way of assimilating the affect of vulnerability into a project of redemption.

Of course, Christian theologies have all sorts of ways of resisting this particular outcome, whether they be liberationist, eschatological or whatever. However, I propose that these efforts remain incomplete as long the circuit between humility and redemption remains unbroken. If humility is seen as redemptive in itself, this offers the illusion of passive acceptance of grace combined with a claim to privileged judgement of whatever is deemed corrupted.

Feminist theologians have long since questioned the use of humility as a tool to keep women in their place through internalised discourses of patience and submission. Perhaps we need to add to this the powerful way it functions for men as a protective and diversionary mechanism for fantasies of domination and control. It deflects attention from real oppositions of class, for instance, setting up a highly stratified, domesticated idea of ‘tolerance’ in their place.  

If so, what might be done? All too briefly: refuse the nexus of humility and redemption. Escape might be found in those apparently arrogant claims made by Gnostics and mystics. The claim to be one with God, or to know God without self-abasement, is also a claim to be unfettered by the vicious circle of humility and pride, to be immediately in solidarity with all creatures – and to be indifferent to redemption.

Either that, or pray God to open a new circle of the Inferno for whining male martyrs.

13 Responses to “God save us from humble men”

  1. Remy Says:

    Excellent post that puts into words what many of us have had to put up with! I think once a certain ontological privilege or security is established, everything is read as symptomatic of other people’s failure to “really know the truth.” Unfortunately, in my experience, no amount of empirical data can be used to unseat this. The more we try, the more we are to be pitied for our blindness to the obvious, and the more virtual credits they get for “being persecuted for the truth.” Fun times.

  2. atxlw Says:

    This is an excellent post. Thank you for it

  3. Kampen Says:

    Are you proposing a wholesale rejection of the notion/language of humility in speaking of redemption? (Because when I think humility and redemption I think kenosis, but maybe you don’t like that either?). And if so, what alternative concepts or language would you propose to the humility/pride binary?

  4. Steven Shakespeare Says:

    Kampen, I think it’s more a matter of questioning the dynamic of the discourse about humility and pride, than replacing those concepts with others. And one part of that is indicated in your comment: the fact that they are supposed to compose a binary. One thing we’ve learned, e.g. from feminism, is that the humility/pride binary is loaded with masculinist assumptions. That doesn’t mean that there is never any place for keeping your mouth shut and not acting like an arrogant dick (if that is an example of pride) – but the context is incredibly important. The problem I have with an appeal to humility is that, in the redemptive context of Christology, it too often becomes a weapon: imposed on women or minorities to shut them up, but also, and perhaps more insidiously, used by men to disguise their dominance. It’s the binary way of thinking I have a problem with, and I think that does connect to the idea of redemption (a transition from corruption to salvation/safety/wholeness) in a way that makes me suspicious of the latter.
    On kenosis – it’s a very rich trope, one I’m drawn too. But it can also be used as a vehicle for promoting Christian imperialism by other means (only the Christian God is *this* self-giving!). Again, the actual dynamics in play are what matters.

  5. dbarber Says:

    See, for instance, Gianni Vattimo’s account of kenosis, in which Christianity secularizes / humbles itself, in order to end with a condemnation of the hijab, because in this way Islam cannot enter into a humble community of interpretation.

    Agreed with the entirety of this post. It’s how Christian domination survives its failures, precisely by confessing the failures. (Central in fact to book i’m working on now.)

  6. dbarber Says:

    Put otherwise: when you inscribe debt on others, it doesn’t make any difference if you do it humbly, because you’re still inscribing debt on others. If i recall, Nietzsche said something to this effect.

  7. dbarber Says:

    One more thing: also absolutely agreed about the mystics and Gnostics you mention, the idea of knowing God w/o self-abasement, to be one with God. Exactly. This is a big issue in the “religious” asymmetry between Islam and Christianity.

    As Kanye put it (and pretty brilliantly commentated upon in that interview): I *am* a God

  8. Adam Kotsko Says:

    This all seems exactly right to me. It’s amazing how willing white dudes are to humbly submit to a system that gives them every conceivable advantage.

  9. Kampen Says:

    Steven, I understand what you’re getting at. I don’t want to replace it with another binary either. But I was also thinking of kenosis, and I think that we would lose an important, rich, and even liberating trope if we were to reduce kenosis to self-abasement. That’s the only thing I would be worried about – that humility becomes understood entirely as humiliation/self-abasement and therefore done away with. As you’ve said, the function of humility really turns upon context and power.

  10. Freeman Gilbert Says:

    Fascinating post. I’ll have to ponder this for a while, but my first response is that this strategy is especially fostered by the American Protestant experience of redemption. If you ask an evangelical if he or she is saved, you could very well hear a response like this: Yes, I was saved at 9:08 PM, August 21, 1989, On the other hand, if you ask me as an Anglo-Catholic if I’ve been saved, I can’t respond that way. I could say, “i’ve been baptized, if that’s what you mean, but I haven’t died yet, so I can’t really answer the question on a personal level, but even if I could, there is still no ‘new heaven and earth’ so I think the question is irrelevant.”

  11. Nathan Says:

    Hi – Thanks for the post. Let me offer some facts to add to the mix: There are 2.2 billion Christians in the world. About half of those are women (i.e. not men). Less than half of all Christians are accounted for by the less than one billion white people in the world, not all of whom, obviously, are Christians. (That’s to say there are a lot of non-white Christian woman out there – more than the total number of people in the United States). Also, you can hear similar lines of argument to the Christian/White/Male one you mention above from Muslims and from Orthodox Jews and from Seikhs and Hindus and Buddhists (not of course from bookstore Buddhists) about those parts of traditional morality that don’t square with our contemporary queer politics. “It’s not me, it’s (fill in the blanks: it’s the Koran, it’s Dharma, it’s Leviticus 18:22; it’s the natural law, etc.).” It’s not a specifically Christian strategy. Ok, all that means is that your inspiration for the hypothesis you’re offering is bogus. It doesn’t necessarily follow that your hypothesis is bogus). Also, passive aggressiveness is a way of life in parts of the world that Christianity hasn’t influenced for millennia. Famously, crazy obsessive passive aggressiveness is a trope in Iranian culture for instance.

    It occurs to me that when a person blames her scriptures for the content of her moral beliefs, it’s just another way of saying, “there is a moral chasm under your feel, pal. I realize I am sacrificing a little bit of open-mindedness here, but I’m doing it for the sake of insisting that up is up and good is good and wicked is wicked, since otherwise, it’s all just opinion and that’s no way to live in the world.” And is that really such a horrible thing for people to say? People base their whole lives on vague and imperfect versions of their religions’ prescriptions. The queer agenda asks them to uproot all of that for unclear moral gains and absolutely vivid moral losses (i.e. an entire moral order). It’s not trivial.

  12. Steven Shakespeare Says:

    Nathan, apologies for a delayed response.
    I don’t think your statistics really prove anything. I am asking about the structure and dynamics of Christianity. It would be no answer to a feminist critique of Christian doctrines or institutions to say ‘but look how many women are Christian! Surely that shows it can’t be patriarchal?’. The same applies here. I’m proposing a link between Christian doctrine and associated virtues with dynamics that implicitly support male privilege. Headcount is neither here nor there.
    Second, I explicitly anticipate in my post that there are developed Christian alternatives to the dynamic I am critiquing, and I also expressly anticipate that passive aggression is not limited to Christianity. My point is that a certain reading of the core Christian narrative has lent itself to such a reading in a distinctive way. So the fact that people in other traditions might appeal to scripture or other teaching as an authority doesn’t really tackle what I am saying is the particular Christological form this passive aggression takes in Christianity.
    I’m not sure what you mean by ‘the queer agenda’ side swipe. I don’t mention queer theology and I rather think you are using that as a way of dismissing a critique you don’t like by suggesting it has an’ agenda’, no doubt driven by a ‘queer lobby’ intent on depriving ordinary believers of their security. And, as you can tell from this post, that’s not a tactic I have any sympathy for whatsoever.

  13. Anya Says:

    I’m transgendered (bi-gender, more specifically) and trying to figure out how to come out in my church community, and it’s daunting and terrifying. The church is very open and open-structured–and, yes, would fall under the ’emergent’ category if one held a gun to my head–but all the same…I worry sometimes about how self-congratulatory the church can be about how open and accepting it is. And that there might be underlying resistance that’s built deep into the theological structures of the church. Also being a queer parent, are there going to be essentialist gender role assumptions that are going to rear their heads? I don’t know. It’s going to be hard work no matter what. And many trans people have a far harder road than I will.

    I think I can be prepared (as much as it may hurt) for the obvious transphobia, but more subtle transphobia is sometimes so difficult to parse out. The reason for that (for me) is that I’ve internalized so much of the transphobia throughout my life that it becomes normative–just like whiteness, maleness, etc. So much so that the shame and guilt of that normativity was a blinder for coming out to myself for so long. Much less integrating that with any type of spiritual community! (The one I’ve found that I’m out to is all online).

    Also I should say Nathan that the top-secret “queer agenda” for every GLBTQ person I’ve known is: (a) not being harassed/assaulted/killed and (b) being treated like a human being with full agency.

    Anyway, thanks for the discussion.


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