It was one of those Twitter conversations I probably shouldn’t have gotten sucked into.
We were debating whether or not it’s helpful to use language like “act like a man,” or “true womanhood,” or “real men” in our religious dialogs, and I was arguing that the goal of the Christian life is to be conformed to the image of Christ, not idealized, culture-based gender stereotypes. He was making the case that men are “hardwired” to protect women and women are “hardwired” to be protected by men, and so the lifeboats on Titanic prove that women should not teach or lead in the church. I suggested that perhaps the lifeboats on the Titanic point to a more general sense that the stronger in a dangerous situation are morally compelled to protect the weaker in a dangerous situation, and that mothers can be awfully protective of their children after all, and that a man who (for whatever reason) might be weaker than a woman in a given situation should not feel like less of a man if she protects him. “What about a husband who is confined to a wheelchair?” I asked. “Is he ‘less of a man’ because he may be dependent in some situations on his wife’s assistance? And should we perpetuate the stereotype that ‘real men’ must be physically stronger than the women in their lives?
“Yes, but that’s an unusual circumstance,” he responded. “We can’t base our theology on the outliers.”
When he said it, something clicked in my head in a way it hadn’t before, something that seems pretty obvious when you think about it, yet is so easy to forget:
“Yes, but Jesus STARTED with the ‘outliers,’” I said. “If it doesn’t work for them, it doesn’t work.”
There is this tendency within certain sectors of Christianity to assume that if our theology “works” for relatively privileged (often for white, upper-middle-class American men), then it should work well enough for everyone else, and everyone else should conform to it.
We see this a lot in the gender debates, especially among those who suggest that the only way a family can truly honor God is with a husband who functions as the family breadwinner and a wife who functions as a stay-at-home mom to their 2.5. children, regardless of finances or practicality. This may work for some people, but it doesn’t work for the family earning minimum wage, or the couple facing infertility, or this awesome church community of immigrants that shares the responsibility of child-rearing together.
Same goes for theologies that suggest the poor are poor because of their sins, that if only the sick had more faith or gave more money they would be healed, that the tsunami or the earthquake or the flood that devastated a community was clearly the result of God’s wrath on its gay inhabitants, that we can stop rape by teaching women to cover up better, that sex before marriage makes a person ‘broken’ and ‘unwanted.’
Sure, we don’t always think about women who have been sexually abused when we preach that wives need to be super-sexy to keep the interest of their husbands, or about infertile couples when we talk about how “a woman’s highest calling is motherhood,” or about our African American brothers and sisters and our indigenous brother and sisters when we trumpet America’s great “Christian heritage.”
But maybe we should.
If the gospel isn’t good news to the so-called ‘outliers,’ then it’s not good news at all. And, in fact, if our theology doesn’t start with the ‘outliers,’ then maybe we’re doing it wrong.
Jesus started with the outliers and made no bones about it:
“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (from Luke 4)
In the Sermon on the Mount:
“Blessed are you who are poor,
for yours is the kingdom of God.
Blessed are you who hunger now,
for you will be satisfied.
Blessed are you who weep now,
for you will laugh.
Blessed are you when people hate you,
when they exclude you and insult you,
and reject your name as evil, because of the Son of Man.
But woe to you who are rich,
for you have already received your comfort.
Woe to you who are well fed now,
for you will go hungry.
Woe to you who laugh now,
for you will mourn and weep..." (from Luke 6)
Jesus talked theology with women. He hung out with prostitutes and tax collectors. He drew crowds made up of the sick and poor. He criticized religious leaders who try to "slam the door to the Kingdom of Heaven in people's faces."
I think also of the Ethiopian eunuch (from Acts 8), a man who was ethnically and sexually “other,” who was welcomed and baptized without question or hesitation into the early church, but who would no doubt fail all of Mark Driscoll’s rigid categories for a what makes “real man” were he a part of the American evangelical church today.
Now, the point of this rambling reflection is not to further entrench the imaginary divide between the privileged “in” and the underprivileged “out.” (It should be noted that with the center of Christianity shifting to the global South and East, and with the demographics of American Christianity changing so rapidly, white American Protestants will soon find themselves in a minority, which will make this whole conversation a lot more interesting!) The point is, we can’t go around dismissing as irrelevant those for whom our pet theologies turn the good news into bad news. We have to start with them instead.
Because at the end of the day, we’re all in this Kingdom thing together. We’re all loved by God, all in desperate need of grace, all in need of one another.
In a sense, we’re all outliers.