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Belligerent, Bullying Believers: Spite, not the Spirit

Recently, the polymathic Susan Wise Bauer wrote generously about my book, Finally Feminist: A Pragmatic Christian Understanding of Gender (Baker Academic, 2005) in the fine magazine, Books & Culture. (Full disclosure: I happen to be a contributing editor to said journal.)

She begins, however, by testifying to the oh-so-concerned correspondence she has received by those who stand with her regarding such issues as Christian home schooling, but who are also aghast at her endorsement of Biblical feminism. These folks don’t just disagree with Ms. Wise Bauer and her opinion: They see her and it as dangerous and warn others, as well as her, against the spiritual peril she poses.

Islamic activist Irshad Manji’s website records a fraction of the many simply disgusting things that other people have written to her in opposition to her campaign for the liberalizing of Islam. There is plenty to argue about in her sweeping agenda (I myself don’t agree with it all, as Irshad herself knows), but many of her opponents don’t argue. Instead, they stoop to vile name-calling and worse: threatening her with divine retribution–in the prospect of which her opponents too obviously seem to revel.

And then an e-mail from one of my publishers came today today, telling me how a representative of her company went to his first convention of evangelical Christian booksellers and returned shaken and dismayed at how often he was asked whether he was “saved,” how often he was warned about his doom, and how he finally was denounced as–horrors!–a “Roman Catholic.”

I have suffered my own share of abuse (let’s call it what it is: not “prophecy” or “exhortation,” but abuse) from those whose self-righteousness and self-importance far outstripped their insight, let alone their charity. My book on feminism, which Ms. Wise Bauer reviewed, particularly has riled up certain patriarchalists who have gone far beyond questioning my theological method, and even my basic intelligence (!), to concluding that I am a vicious dissembler and in fact not a Christian. As Ms. Wise Bauer shows, this all makes a certain sense. If you think you inhabit a religious North Pole at the top of the world, then every step someone takes away from that position is South–down, down, down to perdition.

And it’s not just people to the right. I remember being deeply bemused, when I used to write a column for a major Canadian daily newspaper (the Winnipeg Free Press), at nasty mail I got–not only from reactionaries (I got that, too)–but from New Agers and religious liberals who were furious with my old-fashioned orthodoxy.

One particular gem was a greeting card, with a rainbow and flowers on the cover, that included a long note that began ominously with, “You seem to need a little sunshine and colour in your life,” and slowly morphed into a rant that concluded: “God damn you for your intolerance: You remind me of my father!”

The point here is not that everyone should pretend to be happy with each other. The point is not that we should avoid honest disagreement, even criticism. The point is the Golden Rule, and the apostolic injunction to “speak the truth in love“–sincerely seeking the good of the other person, not just seeking to get something off one’s chest.

Yes, sometimes we might have speak to certain people in order to address, not them, but others listening in. But to do so means to write off the ostensible subject of our remarks, and that is a very grave thing to do.

Most of the time, then, whether I am speaking the truth in love is the test. Am I addressing the other person to advance my cause, my interest, my agenda, or to help him or her?

It’s a simple test, yet one that would shut up a lot of us a lot of the time–including me, alas.

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