In the nineties I served a church that defined itself a great deal by what it was NOT. It was NOT, after all, like the church down the street which had defined itself as “bible based,” “contemporary,” “evangelical,” and “growing.” I’ve seen this a lot in congregations since then, too. We are not like (fill in name of growing church across town). But when you ask them to define who and what they ARE it becomes more difficult.
At the same time I was serving that nondescript congregation, I had an enlightening conversation with a father of my daughter’s best friend as we watched the girls ice skate. He was a lawyer and Jewish. I was lamenting about how the American Church was losing its influence in culture and politics and about how faith had become nothing more than another “hobby” in some courts. “Don’t complain,” he said, “the Jews have been on the margins for millennia and it has made us stronger.” Being part of a religious group that is outside of the mainline culture can do a great deal to strengthen the identity of the community and the commitment of the people. As a Jew, he shared, being outside the culture means faith is vitally important in the home and defining who they are and whose they are is central.
In the United States, mainline liberal protestantism was the default faith option of the mid twentieth century. It was the religion of a culture that had no official state religion. Presbyterians, for instance, were influential in politics and academia and the corporate worlds. Being the default religion is empowering; we were able to influence education, legislation, and even the design of our government. It meant, though, that we became so much the normative culture that we no longer needed to define ourselves in a way that was non-default.
In conversations around racism and sexism we acknowledge that the default “person” is usually depicted as a white male. “Draw a man,” my mother asked me when I was nine and she was taking a course in psychological testing. Very few boys or girls, by the way, ever draw a black man or an Arab woman, when asked to “draw a man.” Typically, they draw, as I did … a white male in his mid to late twenties. In choosing a featured image for this post, I tried to find an image that could as easily be black or white, female or male. I couldn’t. The avatar pictured above may be the best I could hope for, but it is still undeniably white and male. In building our distinctive physical characteristics in an avatar, we start with a male-like physique and a white-ish tone — default.
Inclusive language was a huge feminist issue when I was in seminary. Using gender inclusive language not only for people but for God, is an empowering act. Thirty years later, we’ve reverted to the default … male language for God, and, while we do a little better in our liturgy regarding the use of the pronouns for people (probably thanks to my cohort of feminists in the church), I still hear the male default a great deal in public speech … broadcast news, podcasts, writing, movies, etc. Younger feminists tell me language just isn’t an issue anymore, and that “everyone knows ‘he’ is gender neutral.” Really?
There is privilege in the default … There is power in the default. When you’re the default you can expect that clothes will fit and you’ll be welcome at an event. You can assume that seat belts are built to keep you safe and medications were tested on people like you. People assume you have the best of intentions, your new pay package will be fair, your holidays will be celebrated in the office, and more.
What happens though, when your default position is challenged? We have experienced that in the mainline church as the evangelical movement seemed to take over politics (at least right leaning politics). Or as the “nones” grow in popularity, and the privilege of Sunday morning and Wednesday evening scheduling is lost to soccer practice and band rehearsals. We grow angry, sometimes confused. We don’t know how to function in the non-privileged world. And we attempt to re-claim our place.
This explains the backlash we see and hear about Black Lives Matter. When we counter with “All Lives Matter” we move back to a default-centeredness. The uniqueness of the Black experience and reality of increased police brutality is erased from the picture. It takes us further away from the distinct and critical message of racial injustice that #blacklivesmatter defines for us.
Claiming our position because it’s the default position of privilege is … well … NOT the story that is at the heart of our faith. Our faith is rooted in the story of a nomadic minority, a people in exile, a people who were hardly ever in a position of power. Our early Christian heritage, too, is a story of counter-culturalism and persecution. Perhaps my Jewish friend is right and we can do a much better job defining who and whose we are if we don’t try to hold onto the normality of our privileged position. What if we knew we have to customize our avatar with characteristics that truly define us as being something apart from the default and customary. What if, instead, we were marked as being different or distinctive?
This is the challenge, too, our culture is facing in the issue of privilege. Whether it’s an issue of race or gender or religion, we are fighting over power. Those of us who’ve been in the default position are reluctant to give it up. It’s comfortable. It feels so natural. And when we have to acknowledge that others have as much right to influence education or legislature or have clothes that fit and are made well. Well, it’s hard for us. Because we have to work harder, we have to better define ourselves, we have to better understand our own gifts in the mix of diversity, we have to become more fully ourselves.
Defining who we are when we’ve been used to the default position is challenging. It can be hard. It can be humbling. It can be empowering. It can be liberating. It can be truly authentic. The kingdom of Christ … the one in which there is no Jew or Greek, no male or female, no slave or free … is not a kingdom filled with a multitude of unified black & white defaults, it is one in which everyone is so keenly defined and refined, so respected and worthy, that there is no default. No privilege, no assumptions, no stereotypes, no prejudice, no cookie-cutter solutions … but a highly defined uniqueness and an unequivocal love.