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

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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A new recipe for humble pie

I once read a manifesto by the anti-feminist True Women Movement that stated as one of its points:

Selfish insistence on personal rights is contrary to the spirit of Christ who humbled Himself, took on the form of a servant, and laid down His life for us.

Though I cringe when I read this now, I once thought the same thing about humility. To be humble, I mustn’t assert my right to anything. Humility meant viewing myself as I was taught to believe God viewed me (without Jesus’ intervention of course)–as a filthy, disgusting, vomit-inducing sinner that deserves no more than eternity in hell. Humility meant, in the face of oppression, I was to be submissive. I was to let people hurt me, take advantage of me, and I was never to retaliate in any form.

Humility meant there was nothing good about me. Humility meant I didn’t deserve anything. Since I was no good and didn’t deserve good things, the greatest expression of humility meant to be “like Jesus (who was good and worthy, of course, but was acting in my place),” and submit myself to anyone that I felt might be oppressing me.

There was a huge double standard in all of this, of course. The feminist movement was prideful and selfish for wanting to help women, while white, male, Christian leaders were allowed to rant about how oppressed they were because the cashier at Walmart said “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas.” Basically, the standards of humility were most heavily enforced on those who were already oppressed in order to prevent them from rising up against their oppressors who, (surprise, surprise!) were often white, male Christian leaders

Humility, as I learned it, was not a Christian virtue but a twisted tool of oppression.

Jesus spent his whole life standing up to religious leaders, asserting his rights and the rights of the oppressed. He spent his whole life boldly asserting himself. Jesus’ death did not occur because he humbly submitted himself to authorities but because he did the opposite. He terrified the authorities and they killed him in a desperate attempt to put his followers in “their place.”

Knowing what I know about Jesus, I can’t buy into that idea of humility anymore. However, I don’t believe I should throw the concept of humility out the window either. I have to find a new way to express the virtue of humility–one that allows me to stand up for myself and others, to boldly assert my personhood and to define my own identity in Christ, to speak my mind and to claim my rights.

Rosemary Radford Reuther–whose book, Sexism and God-Talk has recently become one of my favorites–offers a different perspective on humility.

One gains humility in one’s criticism of arrogant egoism in [oppressive groups]. Humility here is no longer a tool of timidity and servitude but assumes it’s rightful meaning as truthful self-knowledge of one’s own capacity for oppressive pride.

Oppression is complicated. There isn’t always a black and white divide between the oppressed and the oppressors. Most of us occupy a context that situates us as both. I am a woman, therefore, in the context of patriarchy, I am oppressed. I am engaged to a man, therefore, in the context of heteronormativity, I am potentially an oppressor.  I have a mental disability, therefore in the context of our ableist culture I am oppressed. I am white, therefore in the context of racism I am potentially an oppressor.

So, what if we made humility about recognizing where we stand in the matrix of oppression? What if humility could mean that, as I criticize the way powerful men treat women, I stopped for a moment to listen to my own words and to rethink how I treat people of color? What if humility could mean that, as I demand that mentally able-bodied people listen to me before they judge people on medication for mental illnesses, I also remember to listen to the stories of LGBT people or poor people or people from different countries?

If we rethink humility, it can become a powerful virtue that breaks the cycle of oppression and sets captives free. A bit of humility can keep us in check, making sure that we’re always fighting for justice, not just fighting for a seat at the table of power.

Distorted, power-hungry Christianity may try to use this virtue to tear down movements of justice, but we can reclaim humility. We need to reclaim humility, because without it, power structures stay in tact. Without it, nothing changes.