The truth is I am nervous to write this one. There were tears and a long conversation about how to approach the topic of social justice with my husband. This happened on International Women’s Day.
At first, I was wrestling with a lot of anger and confusion. My sweet and thoughtful husband had little to say regarding how I should engage my experiences with oppression and now that I think about it that is appropriate. I think they are just so big they scare me to approach alone. After talking with him I knew there was only one place to turn. God’s Word.
As per usual (and most Christians can attest to this phenomenon), the Scripture passage I read assured me I was doing the right thing in both praying for wisdom to use the right words and to use writing as my outlet for expression, so as to avoid the nasty things that are sometimes said in the heat of a conversation. God spoke directly to my situation.
The heart of the righteous ponders how to answer, but the mouth of the wicked pours out evil things. (Prov. 15:28, ESV)
What I am about to say is not popular. All I will preface it with is this. Be faithful to your convictions, but make sure the convictions you hold are yours and no one else’s. Make sure you have been convicted of this reality based on both your own experiences and reason. If after considering, say feminism, through the lens of your own experience and using your God-given reason and you come out aligning with popular culture, that is great. But if you come out thinking like me, please realize you are not alone and your views are valid.
Over the past few years I have learned more about popular culture and the trends within. I attended a large state school for a year for graduate study in English Literature and was exposed to an array of agendas being discussed under the umbrella of social justice. The umbrella covered everything: race, gender, orientation, class, oppression, war, government, environment, body image, and the places where these concepts meet (intersectionality).
I learned that in today’s culture, victim status carries cultural currency – you, your body and your experiences become a commodity. And I learned that the more intersectionality one could claim, the greater the currency one could claim. While part of this effort produces positive results for truly marginalized and underrepresented peoples (like black folk and Native Americans and certain segments of women), there is an underlying, subversive energy to the social justice movement. Namely, there is a hierarchy within social justice, and currency primarily relies on oppression centered on physical appearance and demeanor (phenotype) and downplays other manifestations of oppression that exist behind the surface.
For example, most people would look at me and assume that I have struggled with little. I am a white woman. I am educated. I am tall and slender. I dress pretty conservatively. I am a Christian in America. From the outside, I have all the privilege in the world, and the movement for social justice from this angle looks like a leviathan, ready to devour me and all of my perceived privilege.
The problem with perceived privilege is that it dismisses my experiences with oppression. Even if there are people who listen, the majority will take what I say with a grain of salt. I can gain little currency which impacts my ability to effect change. But if you didn’t know those things about me and you only heard my story, the privilege would be mightily diminished. If you did not see me, maybe you would begin to recognize me.
I grew up in a low-income household, on a street with a trap house at the end of it, in a neighborhood that my white friends were afraid to visit for good reason. If you have ever had to put food back at the grocery store or were not allowed to play outside as a kid for fear of drive-bys, you recognize me.
I was a sexually-promiscuous teenager and became pregnant at 17. If your self-esteem and worth has ever balanced on the scale of how boys (or girls) accept or reject you, you recognize me.
My daughter is mixed race and until recently her father has been relatively absent from her life. I have represented myself in court proceedings and raised her as a single parent for the majority of her life. I have been the one to teach her about her worth and beauty in a predominantly white society. If you are the mother of a non-white child – carrying them through the trenches of race relations, attempting to fill the roles of both parents, and worrying about how to buy them the things they need for lack of resources, you recognize me.
I have struggled with mental illness since I was 10. I have attempted to end my life, twice. I spent a good part of 2006 in a locked psychiatric facility and participating in outpatient services. If you have ever faced the dark abyss of your own mind and felt afraid of what you found inside, you recognize me.
The drug epidemic has directly impacted my family. I am a successful graduate of a pretrial intervention program I was blessed to go through to keep me from a criminal record for possession. The year I graduated, my little brother died from an accidental overdose. If you have lost parts of yourself to the disease of addiction, you recognize me.
I was once married to an abusive man. I wrestled with the shame of anyone ever finding out and endured infidelity, his own addiction, and marital rape. At one point, I was pregnant with his child. At 22 weeks, I delivered her stillborn and spent my time in the hospital, alone.
Do you recognize me now?
I am not sharing these experiences with you for the sake of gaining victimhood status or cultural capital. I am sharing part of my testimony to show how problematic it is to limit the social justice movement to the status quo of culture.
The social justice movement, as it stands, is divisive. It keeps us from seeing the universality of our experiences by prioritizing the value of experiences associated with external factors. It values the oppression faced by those who are marked as other in society above those whose differences are masked. It values individual humanity at the expense of corporate humanity.
But the movement for social justice was never meant to attain cultural capital. It was meant to reflect God into a broken world.
In his essay “The Prophets and Social Justice: A Conservative Agenda,” Old Testament scholar Terence Fretheim asks:
Might the ongoing practice of social justice be salvific in some basic sense? God’s concern about matters of social justice was believed to be so strong and so pervasive that it was built into the very heart of the covenantal promises. (163)
At the center of all OT covenants is what we see fulfilled by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. His fulfillment of these covenantal promises gives us the opportunity for unity in diversity. It is only through this intersection that we find truth in our differences because we all end up on the same road despite those differences. It is only on the narrow path that we gain kingdom capital.
Real change can happen only when people take action – not in protests or cultural activism or social justice gatherings as we now know them. Real change can happen only when we stop labeling, segmenting, and ghettoizing ourselves and begin to share our differences for the sake of showing God’s work in our lives to others. I may be white, thin, middle class, and educated, but I am also broken, sinful, tempted, and struggling. More than any of those things, however, I am Christ’s.
Do you recognize me now?