Few things are more irritating than the passive aggressive mode adopted by white, male, heterosexual Christians when debating issues such as transphobia. It will be familiar to many of you. The person concerned makes a statement which basically writes off a swathe of people as broken, corrupt and perverse, but does so by appealing to scripture or natural law: ‘hey, it’s not my fault, this stuff is revealed/written into creation! I’m just humbly passing it on’. When called on this, they react as follows: ‘look, I’m just trying to have a reasoned debate here, and you are all ganging up on me to silence me. And you’re supposed to be the tolerant ones!’
The conservative accusing the liberal of being illiberal and intolerant is of course a standard rhetorical trope these days. What I’m wondering is whether there is something particular about Christianity which breeds this kind of stance, and what might be done about it.
My starting point is accidental: in my context I just happen to come across such strategies most often from Christians, or from cultural conservatives, Islamophobes and the like who appeal to a ‘Christian culture’ as somehow normative. So it would be interesting to hear how it plays out in other contexts.
But let me offer a hypothesis: Christianity is an especially fertile breeding ground for passive aggression. The reason lies in its central narrative of the crucified and risen Christ, and in the requirement that the believer becomes Christlike. This can be read as involving a double move: humility is adopted as a mask for a triumph already achieved. Dying and rising with Christ becomes a way of assimilating the affect of vulnerability into a project of redemption.
Of course, Christian theologies have all sorts of ways of resisting this particular outcome, whether they be liberationist, eschatological or whatever. However, I propose that these efforts remain incomplete as long the circuit between humility and redemption remains unbroken. If humility is seen as redemptive in itself, this offers the illusion of passive acceptance of grace combined with a claim to privileged judgement of whatever is deemed corrupted.
Feminist theologians have long since questioned the use of humility as a tool to keep women in their place through internalised discourses of patience and submission. Perhaps we need to add to this the powerful way it functions for men as a protective and diversionary mechanism for fantasies of domination and control. It deflects attention from real oppositions of class, for instance, setting up a highly stratified, domesticated idea of ‘tolerance’ in their place.
If so, what might be done? All too briefly: refuse the nexus of humility and redemption. Escape might be found in those apparently arrogant claims made by Gnostics and mystics. The claim to be one with God, or to know God without self-abasement, is also a claim to be unfettered by the vicious circle of humility and pride, to be immediately in solidarity with all creatures – and to be indifferent to redemption.
Either that, or pray God to open a new circle of the Inferno for whining male martyrs.