Working my way from fundamentalism to freedom (without losing my mind)

On equality, humility, and privilege: A response to Matt Appling

35 Comments

When I first began blogging, one blogger that I both read and respected was Matt Appling of “The Church of No People.” He was even on my blogroll for quite awhile. I start with this because I want you to know that I once thought like he did. I was raised to think like he did, and I’m sure he was raised in a similar way.

I want you to understand, before I write this response, that I do so with as much understanding and empathy as I can sum up, because I’ve “been there.”

But I want to write this response because all the understanding and empathy in the world cannot neutralize the harmful effects of the teachings that it seems both Appling and I have received our whole lives. I want to write this response because I’ve been hurt badly by these teachings. I’ve probably hurt others with these teachings.

What teachings am I talking about here?

The idea that Christ-like humility means that it is wrong to stand up for our rights.

Matt Appling, in particular, takes up issue with bloggers who fight for equality. In his first post on the subject, he describes those who blog about equality as a “nearly deafening cacophony of noise and disparate voices.”

He continues (emphasis mine):

Every day, someone is marching on, demanding equality where some perceived inequality exists: between the sexes, the races, the classes, whomever.  And the people who feel slighted or abused cheer them on, anxious to finally feel that their injustice has been righted.

He then explains why he does not stand with their struggle for equality. He doesn’t believe in it. Why? He quotes six “reasons,” which are really just out-of-context Bible verses having to do with humility, putting others first, and taking up a cross to follow Christ.

In a follow-up post, he claims that he was talking about himself–as a privileged white male–yet his calling out other bloggers and his statements about “perceived inequality” and those who “feel slighted or abused” are never mentioned. He continues to assume that legitimate struggles like classism (he mentions the “1%”) are just silly complaints, comparable to those complaining about “soda sizes in New York.” He also goes on to pull the whole “people over THERE have it so much worse” line, saying (emphasis his):

But complaining about your own rights being infringed on while millions of people survive in slums under tyrannical dictators, that is what strikes me as coming from an egregiously oblivious position of “privilege.”

I want to take a moment to talk about where Matt Appling gets the concepts of equality, humility, and privilege wrong.

Matt Appling, by admission, is a “middle-class, white, American male.” He believes that no one is oppressing him or abusing him. That’s good for him!

So when he says he doesn’t believe in equality? He says it as someone who apparently has no understanding of what it’s like to not feel fully human, not feel fully a part of society. 

Perhaps his angle was meant to mean “I don’t need to fight for equality for myself because I am already treated as human,” which would be fine. However, he makes claims about groups that he doesn’t understand when he talks about those who complain about the 1%, about those who “perceive” racism/sexism/classism or “feel” abused.

That’s the problem with privilege. When one is privileged, one assumes that he/she is the norm. One assumes that everyone else has the same experiences as him/her. 

One assumes, as Matt does in an older post, that There is no war on…blacks…or women…at least in Americajust a lot of stupidity.”

In this post and in his two more recent posts, he not only dismisses the idea of equality for himself, but appears to do the same for black people and women. For those involved in class struggle. For those who “feel” hurt and abused. He chooses to ignore the readily available statistics and stories of the rapes, beatings, murders, and abuses that happen to oppressed groups on a daily basis…yes, in America. Because there is no war on him, because he does not see, understand, or experience war, he claims that there is no war.

He claims being Christ-like. He calls this humility.

But this is not humility. It is the epitome of pride. 

I’ve written on humility before.

I’ve written about how this idea that humility means we stop fighting for our rights turns the concept of humility into a “twisted tool of oppression.” I don’t believe Matt Appling means to be an oppressive person. I don’t believe he really wants to bring women down or hurt people of color. But he is buying into ideas about humility that are being fed to him and to the rest of the church by a culture of domination and oppression. 

Ideas that are used to neutralize struggles for liberation. To silence victims and survivors. To protect the powerful who already have all the rights they could ever need.

Regardless of Matt Appling’s intentions, his words have consequences. His vision for humility dismisses the very real, often life threatening oppression that people face as “just a lot of stupidity.”

I propose a different kind of humility.

One that means listening to the experiences of those who say they have been hurt by racism, sexism, and classism, instead of assuming that their oppression is only “perceived.”

One that means believing abuse survivors instead of assuming that they only “feel” abused or want to “put themselves in the role of the victim.”

One that means considering the fact that just because I have not been oppressed in ____ way doesn’t mean that this oppression is not happening.

I want a humility that affirms the struggles of those who fight for justice rather than trying to shut them down with Bible verses.

I want a humility that inspires privileged people to join those who are less privileged in their fight for justice, instead of one that inspires privileged people to say “I don’t believe in equality.”

We need to stop eating this harmful, oppressive version of “humble pie.” We can do better. 

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35 thoughts on “On equality, humility, and privilege: A response to Matt Appling

  1. When he wrote that ‘there is no war’ against certain groups of people, I think he was criticising the hyperbole of using the term ‘war’ and comparing it to people who are trapped in actual war zones or affected somehow by armed conflict. On this point, he is absolutely right to criticise the use of the term ‘war’. I objectd to him describing himself as a feminist because he was watering the term down to mean ‘I don’t want equal rights for women but I DO love my wife and treat her good’. Diluting the term ‘war’ down from meaning armed conflict functions similarly. I think you’ve taken him a little out of context there. In the comments section he admits that there are ‘attacks’ on groups in the USA and that where there is ‘an organized army of resistance’ against a minority group there is indeed a ‘war’, whether in the USA during segregation in the 60’s or against women in the Middle East. I think that’s a fair assessment.

    • I’m okay with letting the people who are, as a group, being raped, abused, and oppressed at systematic levels deciding whether or not there is a war against them. Not interested in hearing a straight white dude decide who is really suffering and who is just exaggerating.

      • Who, exactly, are you referring to that is being raped, abused, and oppressed at systematic levels? I’m not being dismissive; I really want to know. And maybe you have already said elsewhere, but I missed it (or it didn’t stick or something).

    • And, you know, if you’re going to criticize the language, at least recognize that what’s happening to women and black people isn’t “stupidity.” It’s abuse, oppression, rape, discrimination, etc. It’s deliberate, hurtful acts that dehumanize them.

  2. Thanks for this. Something about Matt’s post was just sticking in my craw and you and, I think, Diane Anderson(?), in your comments over there, articulated the problems much better than I did.

    It all kind of reminds me of trying to talk to my dad. My dad’s a good guy and a far cry from your typical ultra-patriarchal evangelical. But sometimes he’ll just spout of with stuff that was similar to Matt’s statements and just not understand why someone might disagree.

    This is going to sound cliche, but I kind of blame the right-wing press for this. They’ve sold so many people on this fear of “political correctness run amok” that whenever someone tries to call attention to real-life injustice, they get stereotyped as bleeding-heart whiners.

  3. Very great post, Sarah. I loved the line, “The idea that Christ-like humility means that it is wrong to stand up for our rights.” I’ve struggled with this, too – the tension between sticking up for myself and turning the other cheek. What do you think about that: how far should we as Christians go in turning the other cheek before we “stand up for ourselves?”

    • Obviously, this question was addressed to Sarah, and I am not her (and this reply is over a month late anyway) but I wanted to respond because it’s something I’ve been thinking about recently.

      I think turning the other cheek *is* standing up for ourselves. Think of it this way: if I were to walk up to you and punch you in the face, you would ordinarily have two obvious options for a response. You could submit to me and acquiesce to whatever it is I want from you, and thereby affirm my (illegitimate) authority over you. Or you could hit back, hoping to overpower me and assert your own authority over me. Either way, you would be acting out of fear of me hitting you again and supporting the whole system of “might makes right”.

      But Jesus suggests another response. You could invite me to hit you again. This doesn’t assert anyone’s authority over anyone else; instead, it affirms our inherent equality. You refuse to submit to my injustice, but you also refuse to oppress me yourself. And ultimately, I think that is what Sarah is arguing that humility ought to be redefined as: seeking justice without setting any one group or individual over another.

      Anyway, that’s my two cents. If you ever see this (again, I know this is a month late) I’d love to know what you think!

  4. If children being abused by family members isn’t war, I don’t know what is. Or any other type of abuse where the consequence is lifelong suffering or death. Certainly sounds like a kind of war to me!

    • This was in response to Ed Taylor, by the way.

      • But, Gwen, I’m not sure I get how Matt’s post belittled what those people go through. Also, while it is certainly heinous and terrible and unconscionable, how is it “war” necessarily? A war implies that there is one side fighting against another side in some sort of systematic oppression. That is just one terrible person imposing his terrible will on someone who is powerless to resist. That is, as you have said, “abuse” not “war.” What institution is systematically oppressing women in the US? Blacks? Children? There are certainly millions of cases of terrible systematic abuse by individuals, but institutions? I suppose it could be argued that the fundamentalists are at war with women or gays, but that doesn’t seem to be what you are talking about. Am I missing something? (very possibly, I am. I can be thick sometimes)

  5. Powerful thoughts. I think in many cases people in Mr. Applings position are unable to see the forest for the trees. They are stuck in their own perspective.

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  7. I love that you wrote about this Sarah. I used to think like this too. Freedom to love happenened the day God saved me from this thinking! Great stuff!

  8. I’m pretty sure Matt telling other people to be humble because he’s right is the opposite of humility, if he wants to get all nit-picky (and it sounds like he does!).

  9. I would agree with you, Sarah, but I think you are misreading Matt. In the earliest post you cite, he is not saying there is nothing to be upset about when it comes to treatment of women, blacks, etc., but rather that it is hardly a war – the stupidity he references is not the war claims, but rather the terrible things done to people that are sometimes misnamed “war,” and that perhaps using hyperbole in these cases actually marginalizes the discussion. Whenever real discussion is replaced by hand wringing and war cries, there is a greater danger that the crier will be dismissed.

    When Matt mentions the out-of-context Bible verses, he is calling us to something greater, not lesser, than a call for equality. He is, I believe, calling us to all put aside our claims to equality in exchange for a greater call to self-sacrifice – but this in service to the needs of the oppressed. Never does he suggest that we should see the suffering of the other and turn away like they are just whiners. But he does suggest that we might want to quit singing our own sad song in order to get sympathy.

    However, nothing he says suggests that it would be a bad idea to share our own misfortunes if it might help someone else overcome theirs. He is just saying we should stop trying to draw attention to our own troubles for their own sake. Not to sound overly spiritual, but we empower the other by relinquishing our rights – not to oppressors, but to a loving Father, in an effort to love as he loved.

    I fear, as you do, for the oppressed and marginalized, the de-humanized. But I don’t think Matt is your enemy on this. I think you may be seeing things that are not there.

    But then again, I might be misreading you.

    Much love, Sarah.

    • No, I know exactly what Matt is trying to say. But first, it’s not hyperbole to call something a war when people are dying and being raped. He doesn’t seem to understand that it is not just little stupid acts being committed against black people and women. It’s not the same as the little things that Christians in the US complain about–someone saying “Happy Holidays” to them. People are being abused, unfairly imprisoned, beaten, raped, having their ability to live and control their bodies stripped away. No, that’s not stupidity and Matt’s refusal to educate himself on these issues is what I take issue with.

      And secondly, though Matt claimed over and over again that he was talking about privileged people giving up their rights to those in power–as I’ve pointed out here–he references the powerless as powerful. He calls oppression by race, class, and sex “perceived.” He is assuming that the very groups asking for equality already have enough and should be giving up power instead. I mean, it’s not like they’re under a dictatorship, right?

      I’m sure Matt is no enemy of the oppressed. But he assumes that HE knows who is *really* oppressed and who isn’t and that is not humility.

      • Also, again, easy to say “Give up your fight for equality” when you’re already treated as more fully human by society/church. For many, the fight for “equality” is often one for survival.

        • But, again, I don’t think he’s suggesting AT ALL that we give up the fight for equality in general, but only that we INDIVIDUALLY and SPECIFICALLY choose something better. Not groups – individuals. Blacks shouldn’t give up the fight for equality, but maybe an individual who is calling for equality for HIMSELF could choose a better path, worrying less about waving his own flag, but perhaps waving the flag of his cause instead.

          And perhaps, he is not referring to whatever systematic, institutionalized, warlike oppression you are describing. I am sure it exists, but I would imagine that is the kind of thing he is referencing when he cites the things that really ARE war (like the poisoning of muslim schoolgirls that he references). It is this very “education” that led him to the first post; so maybe he is not refusing to be educated on such things. Maybe it would be more constructive to educate him on exactly what you are talking about?

          He seems to be speaking of the “cacophony” of people decrying their own personal suffering – not to be belittled or marginalized but maybe not “war” per se.

          And I also never got the impression that he thought that the “stupidity” was “little” or anything akin to something inane like Christian’s imaginary war on Christmas.

          So, perhaps weirdly, I totally agree with you, but I also kinda agree with Matt, because I don’t think he actually disagrees with you. I do respect your discomfort with some of his terminology, but I think you are making an enemy of an ally.

  10. Uh yeah he is off base- you are dead right!

  11. This idea of “humility = putting up with anything and trying to like it” kept me silent and beat down for so long. Thank you for inviting a different way. I am working on listening, believing, considering, affirming, and inspiring, even as so many lovely people do those things for me!

  12. Thanks for writing this, Sarah. Especially about understanding where he’s coming from. I read his posts a few days ago and I was like “ohhh this is not going to go well”- I get where he’s coming from, but like you say, those teachings about “humility” have been used to keep women/minorities beneath privileged white men. (for example, women who want to be pastors are told that it’s wrong to fight for their rights, it’s wrong for them to think they can be a pastor- does anyone ever tell men that?)

    And what he wrote seemed totally blind to the ACTUAL REAL issues of inequality that women and people of color face. I like your definition of humility- actually LISTENING to people and believing them, not assuming that we know all the right answers.

  13. Great post, Sarah. I’m going to be writing a post for Preston soon on what justice looks like in the modern day for his “sex and marriage’ series. Would you mind if I included some of this post (crediting you, of course)? You can always email me with any other thoughts you’d like me to include in the post.

  14. Listens, believes, considers, inspires, and offers affirmation….LOVE how you summed up a *different* kind of humility.

  15. Yeah, I saw that on Matt’s blog. I was confused. Humility equals non-equality? I may be a feminist n00b, but I knew something wasn’t right.

  16. I can understand this so well. It wasn’t that long ago that I was spouting all the same ideas- some verbatim. As a woman in Christian fundamentalism, I was oppressed, but these ideas made me dismiss what I felt was true, but had no words to describe.

  17. Great post! Much respect to you!

  18. YES and Amen. Thank you for writing what needed to be said. I stopped following this particular blogger awhile ago for the reasons you mention.

    Very thoughtful response, Sarah. I hope he reads it.

  19. Humility, means being of the humus, of the dust if you will. On Ash Wednesday we acknowledge that we are all “of dust..and to dust we return.” Those of us who’ve been oppressed, been victims of the privileged, be they white middle class males or otherwise, know experientially what due to their privileged status, this fellow and others can’t, and maybe never will. Not sure why I want to state that…except that I am grateful that my own small experiences of inequality and victimization have given me a capacity to suffer with those who are suffering, join Job in his ash pile–in the dust— be one with them in a way this guy may never be able to do.

  20. Thank you Sarah for this insightful, powerful post. As a Christian, I agree with your message. This kind of teaching is destructive and not at all what I believe Christ stood for. Where would we be today if people had not fought for equality? And we have soooo far to go.

  21. I was wondering when you were gonna write about this. Especially since I thought of your post on humility as i was writing my response earlier.
    Linked here.

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