I attended my sister’s graduation from South Carolina School of Leadership a few months ago, and took away some real zingers of examples of what the religious world I grew up in is still like. The pastor of the church that hosts SCSL, Stephen Chitty, took the opportunity of speaking as the “pastoral address” at the graduation ceremony – in place of a commencement address. He made some of the most outrageous statements I’ve heard from a Christian minister in a long time.
Not that I’m in a position to hear a lot of what ministers say when they’ve got a friendly audience these days, so I’m not saying he was particularly egregious, only that I noticed it especially.
In any case, he said: “Don’t question those in authority because you don’t know until you’ve been in these shoes.” Whew. I have heard this all my life but never quite so baldly put. I’ve heard that those god places in authority have to be shown respect (c.f. David, later to be King David, wouldn’t kill then King Saul because he “couldn’t lay a hand on the Lord’s anointed, see 1 Sam.26:9,11,23). I have heard that you don’t always understand what they are going through until you’ve been where they are (naturally, empathy takes work), etc. But with his sweeping statement he wiped out all respectful dissent, all revolution, all personal accountability, all checks and balances, everything. It was one of the most self-aggrandizing power justifications I have ever heard in my life, and I know he didn’t mean it about anyone he felt needed questioning. If you asked him about whatever politicians he happens to disagree with, he would feel questioning those in authority was part of his Christian duty as a citizen.
Then later he said that as a father he has learned the art of sitting back, watching his children succeed, and then claiming credit by saying “I made that.” After talking a bit about how he worked to have SCSL founded, he said he wanted to be able to say of an entire generation of Christian young people “I made that” so that he would take credit for their success – which he claimed could include hastening the return of Christ to Earth. Er…refer back to self-aggrandizing.
Sitting in a large southern church in South Carolina, my mind immediately went to civil rights for minorities, and as my mother nodded her head and amened the preacher’s words, I couldn’t help but think how such an attitude prolonged oppression for people of color – not could have, but did.
And sitting there, I realized this attitude is still used as a bludgeon for women in the church. We are told that we have to be “under the covering” of the “men of God” who have the ear of the Almighty and we just don’t have the equipment (supposedly spiritual) to understand why or how it’s different for them. We can lead – women. We can work, oh yes, we can work of course, under the direction of male authority. And we can obey and submit and thereby please god – and I think that’s the hardest part to buck. If it was just men saying these things, it would be hard enough, because often they are men we respect and love – or used to respect and love, feel we ought to respect and love – but they are supposed to speak for god in our lives.
And some of them, maybe very many of them, are quite happily, quite intentionally, using the situation to amass power and security and wealth for themselves. Someone said to me recently, it’s really easy to lead and make decisions when you don’t care what happens to the individuals following your lead.