Being Unreasonable: Culture, Abuse and Support

Others have said it before and better and for some time I have indeed believed or understood those who have it said before. However, it seems that I am only coming to feel or, not really to feel, but to have those beliefs rub against, agitate, a deeper formation in me that, it seems, has remain largely undisturbed.

Almost by definition a culture (perhaps this is not the right word, we may be talking about a world here) can only convict and condemn that which is not culture, uncultured. While we might talk about a culture of violence or abuse this designation proves the point of what tends to be signified when we talk about culture in itself. To be cultured is to be good. This remains the track record of black, indigenous, poor, mentally ill and other populations. These groups and individuals (not to fully equate them) are often defined apart from, are deviant from culture. What I am coming to more deeply understand is how this relates to questions of abuse.

When abuse is perpetrated by people who already occupy an uncultured position then the conviction of abuse tends to be easier. However when an individual occupies enough of a cultured position then allegations of abuse tend not to stick. This is logical. Explicitly, our culture denounces and condemns abuse (the term itself of course remains contested). Culture condemns abuse. Therefore if a cultured environment cannot readily identify an experience or event as abusive and yet an individual emerges with an accusation of abuse then that individual is not only accusing an individual but is also accusing a culture.

That is, if a person is cultured and has not themselves admitted or confessed to abuse then the culture itself has little resources to convict one of its own. Culture has no inherent capacity for siding with those making accusations of abuse against a cultured person. An accusation against such a person is an accusation against the culture. I have not fully appreciated this reality because I also have been intimately and fundamental formed in contexts that have explicitly normalized, enculturated actions and individuals that are abusive. I was brought up in a logic that dismissed and rejected the disruption of accusation. This is not as easy to dismantle and discard as I once thought.

If the connection between culture and cultured (or the in the church you can substitute the words ‘faithful’ or ‘righteous’ here) individuals is true then accusations of abuse may be by definition unreasonable. As I have begun wading into my own experience of those speaking out about their abuse I can testify as to how quickly and easily rationalizations emerge. I remain a deeply cultured person. Within this logic there is always a reasonable explanation for what happened that softens (at the least) or can fully discredit the accuser’s claims.

I suspect that the working assumption in dominant culture is that real abuse will be self-evident, that a clear outlining of the ‘facts’ will render a verdict irrefutable. Perhaps we can accept that ‘good’ and cultured people do from time to time abuse and then deny it to protect themselves but surely we as a civilized culture will be able to discern these matters clearly. But if we listen to advocates of abused individuals we will hear the refrain that our culture and courts create an environment that benefits and protects abusers. We may agree that such injustices occur but have we interrogated our own enmeshment with a culture that by definition exists to protect its own? What follows are observations that I have read before but now they come more as confessions of my own enmeshment and as validation for those who needed to break this ground pioneering outposts rejected by culture.

  1. There will always be a reasonable explanation to deny or minimize abuse allegations. The accused would never do such a thing. The account is exaggerated. The accuser has ulterior motives. The accuser is not well. There was a misunderstanding. I knew these things but when in closer proximity to such accounts I was astonished at how quickly and how naturally these responses came. Do not underestimate this.
  2. You will probably never get the ‘victim’ you want. We likely have an image of a victim we want to help save (and it should be noted that image was likely produced by our culture). It may feel easier to support a victim who seems victimized and needs our protection from an easily identifiable predator. Perhaps it is someone unsure needing our confirmation. This image may well fit some situations but there is also a good chance that you will encounter a victim who is also, by personality or circumstance, a bit of a jerk; or, if not a jerk tends towards hyperbole in expression or uses ‘inappropriate’ language or characterizations. The accuser may be exceedingly angry or disarmingly confident. And unless you have a lot of experience in this area most accusers, in whatever form they express themselves, may well seem unreasonable. Be prepared for this.
  3. To side with an accuser is to take a risk. To side with someone who has experienced abuse is to leave your investment in power and your cultural protection. You won’t know the facts first hand and you may never feel like you know ‘the truth’ or that some lingering doubts remain. This is the risk. Reason, reasonableness is culture’s terrain of safety. To side with someone making accusations of abuse is almost by definition to be unreasonable. Culture tells us that abuse is in fact unacceptable and so the fact that someone needs to make accusations is to already make an accusation against the culture. To accuse the culture of at the very least being inadequate. This is a risk, understand that.
  4. If you are like me you will make mistakes. Your formation, despite your best intentions, will work against you. Expect this. Apologize when you have actually seen the error but don’t make the apology about you. My sense is that there will be times when you just need to get out of the way if you are no longer the person to be trusted.

These are expressions, articulations that I have read often enough but slowly I am trying to articulate them from my own experience, particularly as my own formation is working against my attempts to be consistently supportive. This is not as easy and not as clear as I thought. For those of us who have fit well enough in our culture there tends to be little reason to articulate the negative conditions and forces of that environment because to do so means questioning an authority that has protected us and perhaps being criticized for biting the hand that feeds us. Rearrange your humility and your defensiveness so that it might better serve those vulnerable to our culture. It is unreasonable to consistently walk with those making accusations of abuse. Learn to be unreasonable and keep walking.

So sad and beautiful

Speeding toward the ground
Through the air without a sound
So gracefully

Each one in awe, for they’d never seen a girl so sad and beautiful

– Pedro the Lion ‘June 18, 1976’

My neighbourhood shifts noticeably in spring. Through fall and winter everyone has the same destinations and schedules but we are all hurried moving from warmth to warmth in a cold world. In spring it seems that the neighbourhood grows. Children in particular appear to multiply through the slower commutes to and from school. Now they talk and laugh and tease meandering the sidewalks and lingering at bus stops. My walk to work takes me through the paths of numerous school children. In the past few days I have found myself feeling almost unbearably sad walking through these scenes. I have witnessed nothing to be sad about. They are beautiful. There is a boy who is probably around 12. He is large, not quite obese, just large framed and slow moving. There is nothing that commends him by the world’s standards but neither is he dirty or in worn out clothing just poorly styled in nearly every respect. Wide straight jeans, large t-shirt, short uniform hair, fuzzy hair on his upper lip. In the past two days my timing has been such that I watch him walk out his door on his way to school. By the gate to the sidewalk he turns and looks back to his mother or grandmother and offers a huge smile and vigorous wave.

This morning there was a car accident at the corner of my street. I took a little longer slowly walking by and then when I turned to go up Toronto St and little girl quickly left her house and caught her stride alongside me and asked what happened. We had never met. I felt awkward and unsure what protocol was for such an occasion. We fell into conversation and walked for a block as she was going to meet a friend who she walks to school with. She was in grade four, curious, good-natured and a good conversationalist (did I mention I was a stranger). She liked recess and gym, school was going well for her. As quickly as came alongside of me she crossed over the street to meet her friend. I wished her a good day and as she faded away she said, ‘Maybe I’ll see you tomorrow.’

After walking on for a while I started to cry, just for a bit. I treasured these images. But where did the sadness come from? It was my speculation. I speculated about their place and future in this world. I considered how the world might value and use them. Maybe I was wrong. Maybe this was all just my own arrogance. But these images have added to many, many others that lead me to believe that beauty is something plus vulnerability. I don’t know what the something is but I know the vulnerability. If we value beauty we must also at some point reject the world.

This led me to think of the church. I have been highly critical of the church. Increasingly my only real concern is whether the church can be a place of rest, refuge, and resistance to the evaluation of the world. That is all that really matters. I find I have much more grace for the church but this only comes with an increased sense of complete intolerance for vipers who may reside within. The only course of action there is strike at the neck or crush with the heel.

White weddings, farm boys, and drag queens: Adorning and adoring the church

Ryan Jantzi’s column, ‘Honouring the bride of Christ’ struck a chord with me. In the short article Jantzi conjures the well known image of a group gazing at the adorned bride coming down the aisle of at a wedding. Jantzi observes, this is how we adore brides, but this is not how we adore the bride of Christ, the church. I admit that I was put off with Janzti connecting the church to imagery that remains deeply embedded in the history of brides as prize and property. It is easy to offload all of our ideals of purity, beauty, and faithfulness onto women who already face endless demands by our culture while excluding those who do not conform to these traditions.

However, as I sat with my discomfort this image did bring to mind a memory growing up on the farm. I was probably around 8 years old when my two older sisters dressed me up as girl by putting me in a skirt and makeup. I remember twirling around to make the skirt rise and fall, much to the joy of my sisters. My sisters then brought me out to the field where my fathers and uncles were working. I remember going in anticipation, carrying my experience of being adorned and adored, hoping to bring them this joy as well. I don’t remember exactly what happened when I got to the field but I was left with a feeling of wrong doing; that such adornment was not to be repeated and was certainly not adored.

I agree with Jantzi this is indeed is how the bride of Christ is often left to feel. Adornment is not a traditional value for Mennonites. But thinking of myself as part of the church, thinking of myself as the bride of Christ I was encouraged to wonder about how men (in particular) can embrace being adorned and adored. In May a number of drag queens are offering public readings for children at two libraries in Winnipeg. I confess that I had mixed feelings hearing about this event. I still have my own gender stigmas and preconceptions. However, thinking of my own experience I was reminded of how easy it is to internalize shame and criticism then projecting it onto others; the cycle is easy to reproduce. I really did find joy dressing up as a girl, I enjoyed the beauty that this performance offered my sisters. Why would I want to take that from others?

I am as active as any in criticizing the church. I am never sure if or when I cross the line from being insightful and creative to being boring and cynical. While I will continue to strive for healthy criticism I also want those in and around the church to be renewed with a sense of how to adorn and adore themselves and each other.

Paul Verhaeghe on power and authority

Towards the end of his recent interview by the New Books Network Paul Verhaeghe makes the case for authority (which apparently is the topic of his next book now released in Dutch). Verhaeghe distinguishes between power and authority. Power is the relay of competitive forces that is maintained by the creation and imposition of rules. Verhaeghe is thinking mostly of the current neoliberal context in which economic power structures are imposed on the various relations that determine much of our lives as well as promote the pervasive myth of ‘meritocracy’ and the goodness of competition.

Verhaeghe sees this as filling the void after the dismantling of patriarchy which he views largely in terms of authority. Authority is a structural relationship in which two individuals or institutions are defined hierarchically by their relationship to a third element. So in patriarchy the ‘third’ was the figure of the Father (ultimately based in a certain concept of God; though Verhaeghe does not say as much).

The West has dismantled much of this authority structure and Verhaeghe has no wish to go back to it. However, he does advocate for authority as opposed to power (I am sure his terms could be debated). He says that when authority is in place very few rules are actually needed. In this model (I am expounding here) more acceptance and collaboration is possible because of the unifying (or at least acknowledged) element of the third. Now of course the third can be tyrannical in need of being overthrown.

When asked to offer a suggestion of a positive relationship of authority Verhaeghe responds by naming the ‘horizontal collective’ as the third, the people. Theologically this appears to be the hegelian/zizekian move of the death of God and the movement of the Spirit in the community of the believers. I think care needs to be taken though that this move does not become equated with the posture of #alllivesmatter. Overall I like Verhaeghe’s clear and simply articulation of authority and as someone in a position of some authority it is always helpful to be given a grammar, vocabulary, and accountability for it. So while I would, at least in principle, accept Verhaeghe’s articulation I would argue that we need to continue to be accountable to ‘the least of these’ (to put it biblically) as our third. I understand there is a certain presumptuousness here and hypocrisy. However, in terms of expressing the theology and work that can and should be done in the church I still think this is most responsible and faithful posture towards questions of power and authority.