Who Are Your Acceptable Victims and Who Do You Choose to Believe?

It is some time since I last wrote anything in long form – and whilst it has been mere months in reality, I look at the glare of the blank white screen, eagerly consuming the the letters I type, and I smile at it like a long lost and much adored lover. I have missed writing intensely, but for many reasons it has been a long way down my list of priorities.

But I’ve had some thoughts crystallising in my mind of late.

I was at my PIP assessment today and I wanted to scrub myself with a wire brush after.  I’m sure the chap who conducted the assessment is nice to his old Mum, and he seemed like the type of bloke who has a muscular, slightly ugly mutt at home he adores, and he wasn’t… unpleasant as such.  Its just that he hasn’t had to sit on my side of the table and would probably be personally offended if I had told him I found the whole process utterly dehumanising. Because it wouldn’t matter how nice the person conducting the assessment is (or how truthful they may, or may not, turn out to be).

When you go to these assessments (or – if you need one, and have jumped the endless hoops you are required to jump through to get one – had a home visit), you go as the person with the disability/disabilities, and/or chronic illness, and/or mental health issues. Your physical/medical/mental health has prevented you from working for a whole host of reasons, the vast majority of which are not your fault. Nobody asks or wants to be disabled, chronically ill, depressed, addicted, be involved in life changing accidents, or the (repeated) victim of crime – or whatever unexpected life altering thing it is that you couldn’t possibly have seen coming. You sure as hell don’t want to be in that office discussing whether or not you wet yourself, or cannot with the best will in the world fill in a form without hyperventilating.  And you would rather gauge your eyes out with a rusty spoon that sit there hoping the assessor will decide you are sick enough for some small amount of help, but you hope for it anyway because the alternative is being told you aren’t sick enough and should be working, and you’ve probably half killed yourself working for longer than you should of already, because you anyway live month to month and the roof has to stay over your families head.

You are only at that assessment because, metaphorically, your house is burning and the flames won’t go out.

But the benefit system as it is now is based on this simple premise: you have to prove you are on fire.

Its archaic – literally. The powerful, demanding that the powerless (who cannot conform to the prescribed behaviour set out by the powerful) prove their truthfulness/need for assistance by performing the claimed ‘weakness’* to the satisfaction of those with the power to help.

(*In this context, it is the powerful who perceive and promote the disability/illness etc as a weakness in a negative context. The idea of illness/disability/sexual and/or gender difference as a weakness or failing, is promoted by the powerful to maintain control).

Yet no matter how archaic it is – and to some extent, irrespective of the ideologies attracted to this method of achieving and maintaining power and control – it perpetuates, re-invented in some new form every few decades, but surviving largely intact and otherwise unchanged no matter what century it is.  And there is an uncomfortable truth at the centre of that.

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When I was writing more regularly about my experiences of rape culture, I was then – and remain now – utterly perplexed by how normalised it is for victims and survivors not to be believed.  There are those who would tell you that its simply hysteria to suggest that sexual abuse, assault, and rape are as much of a problem as they are. And whilst it means that those who should be taking responsibility are not, it is not the expected intransigence, arrogance or duplicity of a system that will of course seek to protect itself, that causes most perplexity. Or even, arguably, is the most difficult thing to resolve.

There is an extraordinarily simple reason why a rape victim needs to hear the words “I believe you”.  If you believe them, then (setting aside, just for a moment, the positive impact on the victim), you have acknowledged that there is a problem. If you have acknowledged the problem, you are more likely to accept the problem needs to be resolved. If you accept the problem needs to be resolved, you are more likely to look positively at what will resolve that. Because whilst prevention is better than cure, you still need the cure.

But since prevention is better than cure – what happens if you believe that most people would rather swallow a bottle of castor oil than lie about being raped or abused, and that (however uncomfortable it might make you feel), the overwhelming majority of victims of sexual violence are telling the truth?

What happens when we all acknowledge that? And what’s stopping that?

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The thing is – it isn’t just rape victims who need to be believed. That’s not the only systemic abuse problem. For disabled and chronically ill people the benefits system is inherently abusive, predicated as it is on the presumption of guilt. For Black/of colour/LGBTQ+ disabled and chronically ill people the problem is still more pronounced.  The politics of belief around chronic illness and hidden disability is a minefield. You are reduced to someone who has to permanently prove yourself innocent of a crime that never occurred, far less was ever committed.

But if we accept that most people would rather work than put themselves through the Dickensian benefits process, and we believed disabled and chronically ill people, then would we really continue to tolerate and normalise the thousands upon thousands of disabled and chronically ill people dying, every year?

What happens when we believe black people and people of colour about racism, and about how we as white people, need to address our internalised racism and do something about it?

What happens when we believe trans women and trans men, believe that they are who they say they are and that they receive the abuse and discrimination they are telling us they receive?

What happens when we believe the refugees who tell us of the brutality and wars they are escaping?

What happens when we actually do think of the children, and believe them when they say they are being abused?

What would happen, if we chose to believe them all?

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The uncomfortable truth is this: we choose to believe the victims we are comfortable believing. And we choose to acknowledge the oppression’s we are comfortable enough to acknowledge.

And whilst its the system that sells the lie, it only keeps working because people keep believing it. And all of us do, at one level or other: some people will believe disabled people about the how the benefit system is killing people – but not a person of colour when they say that something is racist, and won’t believe the refugee escaping war and brutality; and some people will believe disabled people and people of colour, but won’t believe that trans women are women and trans men are men . Or they will believe a person can be gay – but not bi. Or accept all that, but won’t believe that the respectable man up the road with the good reputation could possibly be an abuser, and will tell you how terrible it is that he has to live with that accusation…

And the still more uncomfortable truth is this – because we choose to believe some people are living under oppressive systems, but do not, cannot or will not believe the same of others – the cycle of abuse across the multiple layers of society continues. It might be chipped away at, in piecemeal fashion – but you only have to look around you to understand that the foundations of that system remain as strongly entrenched as ever, and that all we have successfully and systemically managed to do is disbelieve black people, rape victim, the disabled, trans people, LGBQ people, women, the sick and refugees.

We believe who we are comfortable believing. We believe those who don’t challenge our world view – and we definitely don’t believe those who challenge more profoundly our view of ourselves. We believe those we perceive as being acceptable to believe.

And we can choose to ask ourselves why we don’t believe the black person, or the disabled person or the trans person, or the refugee – and then answer that honestly, or not.

Because belief is a choice. So the perplexity remains.

 

 

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Between a Rock and a Hard Place Pt 1: The Gendered Language of God and Praying to My Divine Parent For A Church That Puts Victims First

Gheorghe_Tattarescu_-_Magdalena

But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong;  God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are,  so that no one might boast in the presence of God. 1 Corinthians 27-29 (NRSV)

If your understanding of the discussion around the gendered language Christians use about God was based only on what you have read recently in the national media, you would be forgiven for thinking that the use of feminised worship and liturgical language was the concern of a few white middle class cis women. And indeed in the UK, WATCH (Women And The Church) who led the successful campaign for women bishops, is driving much of the current  national conversation. I agree with them: I am, however, frustrated with much of the mainstream church discussion** and media coverage. Whilst the Rev Jody Stowell has at least acknowledged that this is also about race, and has written and spoken about the need for more inclusive church for the LGBTIQ community, there is little acknowledgement about how this conversation matters for women who are black, of colour, transgender, bisexual, lesbian, or intersex people – and no acknowledgement at all about what this would mean for victims of abuse, and the intersections of all these.

This conversation of course did not start when Rachel Held Evans was called ‘heretic’ for referring to God as ‘She’, or with the recent discussion at the Westminster Faith Debates. But this conversation matters, because this is not just about sexism and misogyny in the Church. Its also about homophobia, transphobia, and the systemic sexual, physical, emotional and spiritual abuse and victim blaming which so plagues, the world – and the Church.

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The medium is the message.

When we [Christians] speak about our faith, our message of the liberation, transformation, reconciliation, forgiveness and – above all – the eternal and encompassing love of Christ, we too often fail to think about who and what we are when we speak it.  Christians most normally fall to the arrogance of assuming that our faith provides us with a mantle that erases whiteness, maleness, heterosexuality and gender identity, magically giving us the insight to assume that know and understand what, in fact, we do not. Instead we take passages of scripture (all too often without recognising it’s cultural, historical context) and apply it like a sledgehammer against people and situations.

The overt use of masculine, white, language and imagery when speaking of God to people who find themselves excluded, rejected, oppressed, unloved, and silenced by white masculine cultural, political (and yes, religious) dogma’s of society distorts the message: and it is not Christ that people hear, but the white masculinity that abuses and oppresses them.

So often I see cis, white hetrosexual men claiming a mantle of ‘counter cultural’ and I wonder at the cognitive dissonance which allows them to believe this. There is nothing ‘counter cultural’ about people who embody the dominant power structures, and speak its language, albeit wrapped up in scripture, God and Jesus. It makes the very liberation promised in the Gospel a tool through which the oppressor maintains its dominance. The Gospel stops being hope, love, faith and restoration – it stops being a language of repentance and reconciliation. Instead it becomes a rigid and unbending ideology, the cage within which people are imprisoned, rather than the key which sets them free.

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Regardless of denomination, the Church is not very good at dealing with the abuse: it is too quick to excuse the abuser, and does not listen to and believe the abused. Instead of being people who ‘come out from among them’ to be separate and truly ‘counter cultural’ – instead of going against what the world does when it excuses the abuser and does not believe the abused – it acts with the world. It replaces the excuses the world gives to the abuser (‘he was jealous’, ‘he was stressed’, ‘he was depressed’) with ‘we are all sinners’: the words are different, but for the victim the impact is the same – the abuser had no control, no responsibility. It couldn’t be helped. Forgive them – everyone deserves a second chance.

For the victim, this attitude is tantamount to the trauma and damage being brushed aside, swept away as though it were just dirt on the floor that simply requires a decent broom for everything to be made clean again, potentially deepening the wounds the inflicted. Instead of offering the love and justice of Christ – who would not break a bruised reed or snuff out a smouldering wick – the church offers instead exactly the same as the world does. Thoughtless indifference at best – cruel disregard at worst.

It is an approach that fails the abused – and an approach that makes the possibility of genuine, radical and effective ministry to the abuser impossible.

In the moment that the abused comes forward, instead of finding the mother bear who will love them and fight ferociously to protect and care for them, they are met instead with the embodiment of the very cause of their trauma – powerful people, protecting the person who had the power to harm them in the first place. Instead of the mother crying with and for her child, the abused are met instead with disbelief, or even shame.

This is what the world does – it excuses the abused and shames the victim. Language alone is not responsible for that – but language matters when the weakest, the most vulnerable, those ‘made low and despised by the world’ are found amongst us, or come to us.  The abused should not hear from us the language of the world which despises them, but the God – the parent who is Mother as well as Father – who will take care of them and make them safe.  And they should hear that because that is what the Spirit of God is: both (and neither) feminine and masculine, not one predominant over the other but the Divine parent, taking the best possible care of the children that are so loved that it would, and did, sacrifice anything for them

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**In various corners of the internet, a deeper conversation can be found about feminine images for God, and the use of feminised language.  Here are two posts by Sarah Moon over at Patheos Blogs, which I really love.

 

Am I Being Naive.. Isn’t An Ism Always An Ism?

Shouldn’t be as simple as this:

  • If a Person of Colour (PoC) says that something which has been said, written or done is racist – then it’s racist.
  • If trans*/transgender person says that something which has been said, written or done is transphobic/cis-sexist – then it’s transphobic or cis-sexist.
  • If a physically or mentally differently abled person says that something which has been written, said or done is ableism – then it’s ableism.
  • If a LGBTIQ person says that something that has been written, said or done is homophobic/queerphobic – then it’s queerphobic.
  • If a woman says that something which has been said, written or done is sexist – then it’s sexist.
  • If a Woman of Colour (WoC) says that something which has been said, written or done is both racist AND sexist (intersectional) – then it is, and further more if she also says that we white women need to stop using the word we should respect that.

I will grant you that this is awfully simple stuff. Which is why some might see it as naïve, or be able to provide a whole smorgasbord of reasons why some those might not always apply.. but really – shouldn’t it actually be as simple as this?

Isn’t anything else just an excuse?

The Politics This Christian Cannot Avoid


Politics and the pulpit are terms that have little agreement. – Edmund Burke

Faith and politics – they are a dangerous, and frankly unwelcome, combination.  So often the voices raised are those from those whose politics are on the right of the spectrum: the religious who want to police people’s bodies, gender identities and sexual orientation and place these things under the banner of ‘sin’; who maintain a white Colonial stance and are active or complicit in the silencing of People of Colour; whose resistance to state assistance for the poor, disabled and sick ranges from simple apathy to active objection; and whose voices are so often raised in manner which silences, ‘others’ and erases those who do not ‘fit’.

I am a Christian – it is a faith associated with a politics that is right-wing, Conservative and frequently oppressive. It would be too easy for me, in the face of right-wing Christian oppression, to say ‘not in my name’ and try to distance myself from those who deal with the consequences of such ideological representations of that faith. It has too often been my stance.

Not any more.

It is no longer good enough for me to say ‘not in my name’ – it has become the same thing now as ‘not all whites are racist’, as though (as a white woman) I am somehow not a part of the colonial, structural oppression which people of colour are still forced to confront every single day.  And the inescapable truth is that I am, and no amount of ‘not in my name’ changes that fact.

The same is true of cis-sexism, trans*-misogyny, and abelism and the rhetoric applied to those dependant (to a greater or lesser extent) on state support. It is too much like a cop out now to say that these are oppressions occur, but ‘not in my name’ – I do not believe my responsibility begins and ends with not speaking a racist/homophobic/transphobic/abelist word.

Politics and faith have been a dangerous combination because they have all too often resulted in – and continue to result in – oppression. To live my faith, therefore, means engaging with this politics of oppression. How can I ‘spend myself on behalf of the hungry’, or loosen the yolk of oppression without engaging with politics? I could give money to a charitable cause, sure – by how does that address the cause of the poverty in the first place? I can sign petitions for equality rights for the LGBTIQ community – but does that really help address the societal structures which have led to such injustices taking place?

It may not be true for every person of faith, but my faith cannot exist in a bubble, and it cannot avoid the politics of oppression.  Edmund Burke may have been right that, but I doubt in the way he likely meant.