Part II: Civility: Why the Church Can’t Hear You Scream by Daniel Fan

Objectivity has a first cousin.  It’s called civility.  In fact, you often find them married in the same attempt to put down minorities and women.  Sometimes when the opposition plays the “civility” card, it’s good sign because they’re no longer attempting to deny your truth, only the manner in which you bring it.  More specifically, it occurs because they are trying to rationalize a rejection of that truth, as if your objection to your own oppression and exploitation is somehow disorderly and ill-mannered.

When we talk about civility, we have to go back to the real-world pragmatic base of that word, which for most people is “civilization.”

Civilization in the American setting, as it turns out, has a rather perverted and totemized working definition, one that most people who claim it won’t admit to, but rely on implicitly.  I’ll throw down an example of contrast:

A planet is inhabited by two groups of people:  one is a hunter-gatherer society steeped in ritual and the other is a space-faring society.  The first uses herbal medicine, while the other is able to employ advanced medical, pharmacological, and surgical techniques.

Which one is more civilized?

The correct answer is: you don’t have enough information to come to a conclusion.  Why?  Because I didn’t tell you how members of either society relate to their fellow residents.  If you said the space-faring society, then you’re judging “civilization” purely on a technological level.  Despite the West’s humanistic idolization of technology, “civilized” behavior is still frequently and easily eludes our grasp.

Now, what if I said that factions within the space-fairing society have armed themselves with nuclear weapons, resolve conflict through war, and that the entire society dances at the edge of mutual destruction?  By contrast, the hunter-gatherers resolve issues peacefully at tribal councils and through mutually agreed processes of partnership and restitution?

Now who’s more civilized?

Put succinctly, the Western definition of civilization reflects an idolization of technology rather than  the strengthening of interdependent relationships.

If history is any indicator, simply possessing lasers, robotic surgery, or nuclear weapons does not make us more civilized.

The original root of civil is the Roman word civis, generally translated “citizen.”  Citizen is a relational term, not a technological one.  But because the West loves technology and individualism and was founded on a patriarchal base, we have chosen to define civilization along those lines.  The more like us you are, the more civilized you are.  How’s that for a framework that maintains the status quo?

Before America was conquered by whites, most American political structures were egalitarian or even mildly matriarchal.  Women had a say in both strategic and every day dealings.  As the story goes, these Americans were conquered by a technologically superior European expedition—one that did not allow women to vote at the time, and for many years after the initial invasion (Mississippi did not ratify the 19th Amendment till 1984).   The current colonial power structure still bears much European influence, particularly in the Church, where—in many instances—women are prohibited from serving in various leadership capacities and where wives are denied equal authority, even within their own households.

So, which society was more civilized?  The pre-1492 egalitarian one, or the colonial, post-1492 patriarchal one?  Strip away the technology, and look at how members of society treat each other.  Take away the guns.  Take away the internet.  Take away the cheez-whiz.  How can a society that oppresses its women make an argument for the continued subjugation of those women while simultaneously appealing to an ideal of civility?

So here we come to the pointy end of the spear. In my experience, when you bring truth to the table, there’s two ways the opposition counters you.  First, they deny that truth.  Second, they deny the manner in which you bring that truth:  it’s “too edgy,” “a little harsh,” “kind of extreme,” “people aren’t ready for that yet.”  This denial is based on some violation of their definition of civility, one which inherently attempts to maintain the status quo.

When you get to this point you can take one of two forks.  The first is that whipping out the civility card in order to stifle civilization inherently doesn’t work.  Furthering relationship is the purest definition of civility.  Freeing oppressed peoples shouldn’t take a backseat to the oppressor’s ideals of manners or timing.  An entity or structure that oppresses women is inherently uncivil and therefore cannot call upon civility as a means by which to silence voices calling for gender justice.

The second fork is even more harsh, but just as true.  It should really only be used in places where you feel like you’re not making headway and are willing to put the throttle to the wall.  The hardest nuts to crack are patriarchy advocates (elders, deacons, pastors, etc) who think you’re appearing before them because you need something that they’ve got.  They think they have the political power and that you are absolutely desperate for them to change their minds. Take that paradigm and reject it out of hand, because you have something even more powerful—God’s truth.  Therefore, you don’t need what they have.  They need what God has, and God is delivering that message through you.  When I get to this point, I’m up front with them: I tell them that I’m not there to affect change. I’m there to point out their sins.  Whether they repent and change their behavior is between them and God.  What I am there to do is take from them is their ability plead ignorance. “What you guys are doing is actually biblical in an ironic way: Pharaoh didn’t change either: you don’t have to listen, you don’t have to change, but you can’t tell God you never heard there is a better, more God-honoring way to live.”  You won’t win any friends while you’re in the room.  But sometimes people will take what you’ve said to heart, especially the part about answering to God.  If your audience harbors any doubt at all, cracks in a heart of stone, this can be the chisel that breaks the facade.

And before I get called “unloving” for exposing the truth: if I didn’t love, I’d be objective, “civilized,” and very much on the sidelines instead of trying to bring a message of equality before a hostile audience and using every tactic in my book to get them to listen.  I love Creator, my sisters, and the Body of Christ.  Not speaking up for them would be unloving.  Letting people continue in sin by oppressing others would be unloving, to both oppressor and oppressed.

So where do we go from here?  Surely we wouldn’t want to be uncivil? The good news is we don’t have to be: we work from the definition that civility is relational.  Use what language(s) and approaches are necessary to establish relationship or to break the ice in order to bring relationship back into focus. In the struggle for equality, this may mean that you have to demonstrate someone’s sin and privilege to them.  If  what someone needs is a timeout with God to reconsider their position before they continue to damage the Body, then the civil thing to do would be to point that out in whatever way is necessary to get the message across.  Only after that repentance, and possibly restitution, takes place, can relationship and true civility be restored.  Be as harsh as you have to be, in order to effectively act in love.

(Final Part III coming soon)

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6 Responses to Part II: Civility: Why the Church Can’t Hear You Scream by Daniel Fan

  1. Thank you for writing. This is so where I’m living right now, feeling like when I open my mouth about the things that really matter, I’m breaking the rules of my culture right and left.

  2. ““people aren’t ready for that yet”

    Really? Let’s go ask them. You aren’t afraid to hear their honest reply, are you?

  3. Daniel Bingamon says:

    Hunter Gatherer and Space Fairing… Well, there was an episode of Farscape where the Astronaut character was changed to three historic time periods of human development.
    The first, a caveman version of the shows character..
    The second, the current modern character.
    The third, a evolved version the show’s character.

    While the evolved character had some really ideas for the ship, he was the first one to think the the less developed characters were unimportant and ready to “throw them under the bus”.
    The caveman character was the hero, he cared for the others and sacrificed himself and helped rid the ship of the evolved character that was putting the others in jeopardy.

  4. Pingback: Part III: Recovering the Voice of Your Heart by Daniel Fan | Ethnic Space Blog

  5. Thought of your post today when I read this line: “What we call ‘civilization’ is a smoldering heap of violence constantly on the verge of bursting into flame.” (Dallas Willard, _Renovation of the Heart_ p. 145).

  6. Daniel Fan says:

    Abby,

    It is an unfortunate consequence that those who are splattered against the wall of “Objectivity” and “Civility” often find themselves suffering from self doubt and are made to feel mentally defective, immature, or perhaps even insane (“everyone else thinks our way, why don’t you?”).

    I hope my words have reassured you in some small way that you are not any of the three.

    And yes, our “civilization” is a thin veneer of order, but thinness is not its only vice: it is also purposeful in maintaining a colonial, and patriarchal power structure.

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