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Guest Post: Thom Stark Responds Regarding Marginality

[Thom, one of the more prolific writers at “Religion at the Margins” (RATM), has written a reply to my recent post on “The Bourgeois Appropriation of Marginality.”  He was going to post it as a comment on my original post, but I suggested that these remarks appear as a guest post, with the hope that this will encourage us to continue to think and dialogue about these things.  What follows are Thom’s words.]
I’ve had a conversation with Dan and we’ve come to a better understanding I think, and so I offer this response in good will and with humility.
Dan is right that many Christians with power in North America have a persecution complex, and it is true that the language of marginality is often appropriated by those with power to legitimate their ventures, political, theological or otherwise. This is important. It is also true that the persecution complex isn’t unique to conservative Christianity. But Dan seems to suggest that Religion at the Margins is an example of a bunch of predominantly white radical Christian people who have a persecution complex vis-à-vis conservative Christianity. Dan writes:

The particular element of this that set my wheels spinning is the way in which those who criticize Conservative American Christians for their persecution-complex, usually end up reworking that same complex to their own advantage.  The obvious twist is that these people — who often come from a background of some sort of close relationship to Conservative Christianity — claim that they are the ones persecuted… by the Conservative Christians.  You see this a lot in the “Christian Radical” or “new monastic” or “Emergent” circles.  Essentially, you have a group of predominantly middle-class, well educated, white males claiming that they (and not the other middle-class, well educated white males) are actually the ones who can occupy the high ground.

Dan then immediately cites our website, Religion at the Margins, as an example of this:

Take, for example, the blog Religion At the Margins (NB: I have nothing against those who post there, but chose this blog as an apt example of this phenomenon).  Here you have eight contributors (six white males, one white female, one non-white male, all well educated) laying claim to the discourse of marginality.

I’ll take a moment to respond to this so far. First, no one at RATM is claiming to be persecuted by conservative Christians. Even if some of us are, RATM does not exist to celebrate or highlight that fact, nor is there any indication on RATM that that is the case. To insinuate that some of us at RATM have a persecution complex seems uncharitable and unwarranted. Just because some of us engage conservative Christianity doesn’t mean we have a persecution complex. Of course, the reality is that conservative Christians do persecute a lot of Christians who find themselves at the margins of a Christianity in which they were once at the center. The reality is that many Christians suffer serious emotional and psychological damage because of such persecution. No one at RATM is claiming to be that kind of victim, but some of us do hope to speak up on behalf of such victims, me personally, for instance, by undermining the ground on which such conservative Christians stand when they persecute and marginalize those who are struggling with their faith. Note that the website is Religion AT the Margins, not Religion FROM the Margins. That was intentional, because we did not want to imply that all or any of the contributors at RATM considered themselves to be the ones who are marginalized. What we want to do is explore marginalized perspectives and locations, highlight them, and, if warranted, defend them against the powerbrokers at the center. I receive emails every week from Christians who feel or have felt marginalized, ostracized, or even threatened, by conservative Christians, and it is their struggle at the margins of the faith they love or once loved that I want to highlight and support in my work. That’s not everything I do or wish to do at RATM, but it is a significant part of it, and an important one.
Dan quotes our About page:

Religion at the Margins is a space dedicated to the exploration of marginalized perspectives in religion, politics, and culture. “At the margins” might refer to a class or group of people, or a heterodox theological perspective, or to those who find themselves on the margins of a faith that was once central to their lives. In any case, the theme here is marginality—however we feel like interpreting that at any given moment.

He then goes on to comment:

As far as I can tell, this means that we have a bunch of bourgeois writers who, despite their ongoing intimacy with privilege and power, lay claim to “the margins” because they aren’t as close as they used to be to Conservative Christian doctrines or communities (I’m open to being wrong about this, but the authors’ bios certainly suggest this conclusion).

This is the second time that Dan has suggested we are attempting to “lay claim” to the language of marginality. That was never our intention. Many (though not all) of us at RATM are academics, which means as students of religion and society we try to understand the different ways that religion functions in society. We come first from an academic approach, but we don’t hide our agenda. We are not claiming to be marginalized; as an academic, I don’t foresee ever seeing myself that way, unless something significant shifts in culture where certain academics are silenced by an authoritarian regime; it’s happened before, but it’s not happening here and now. Anyway, as an academic, I don’t claim to stand “above” a social location, but I strive to understand such social locations and to take sides. We try to take sides with those at the margins, where we think that is warranted. We’re not “laying claim” to marginal status. We simply want to highlight marginalized people and perspectives and stand alongside them where we feel we are able, authentically, to do so.
It’s true that many of us (though not all of us) aren’t as close to conservative Christian communities as we used to be, but again, we’re not whining about that. As the educated so-called “elite,” we recognize that we have privilege and power that others don’t. And that’s why we’re trying to exercise it by calling attention to the way that the power at the center (of various institutions and traditions) is often abused and/or misplaced. We’re not only concerned with the “margins” of conservative Christianity. We also have posts on the socio-economic margins that Dan explores and is committed to, and we are committed to them as well. We don’t pretend that by writing a blog we are doing serious work or anything like sufficient work to help those at the socio-economic margins. Nothing we have said, as far as I know, implies that we think that way about our blog posts. Those of us who are committed to people at the margins try to employ other more substantial methods for being effective there. Some of us excel at that, others try and fail, and others still are working toward such a life of active engagement, without being able to fully commit just yet, for various reasons. Of course, still others feel less of a call in that regard, and that is fine too. No one is pretending to be anything other than what we are.
Dan continues:

Really any person at any time and any place could lay claim to being on the margins of something.  For example, I could claim to be “on the margins” of the fast-food industry (although I long ago gave up on places like McDonald’s, I still buy the occasional sub from a chain store down the street from my work), or I could claim to be “on the margins” of working with female survivors of sexual violence (since I do work with some survivors but do not work, and am not permitted to work, at the sort of female-staffed space that does the best work in this area).  However, it should be apparent that, while technically true, these are pretty banal statements that don’t carry a lot of weight.  Generally, people easily recognize that some spaces of marginality and some experiences of marginalization are more significant than others.

This is of course very true. But what is insinuated here is that being at the margins of Christianity or at the margins of faith is on par with being at the margins of the fast food industry. Of course, no one at these margins is claiming to be in a morally equally space as those at the socio-economic margins, but that fact makes their different kind of marginalization no less important or real. I see the implications of Dan’s commentary here as an assault on the marginalized people I interact with everyday who happen to be white and middle class. Their suffering and pain is real, even if it’s more psychological and emotional than physical.
While it’s true that being “at the margins” of the fast food industry may be banal, it is not necessarily true that being “at the margins” of the Christian faith is banal; nor is it true that being “at the margins” of belief is banal. These are important issues that transcend class distinctions without being irrelevant to class issues. While I obviously agree with Dan that socio-political marginalization is extremely important, I also think that other forms of marginalization deserve to be highlighted and deserve to be identified precisely as marginal. For instance, heretics are marginalized, and I want to call attention to the way that power from the theological center pushes them to the margins in various ways.
Those who find themselves at the margins of Christianity or of faith are not experiencing a banal shift; those who are marginalized by religious communities because they cannot in good conscience conform to a certain belief structure are not experiencing banal bourgeois problems, even if they are the bourgeoisie. To be in a state of faith or family crisis is not banal. To fine oneself suddenly lost without the support of the only worldview one has ever known is not a problem that can be described as banal. It is significant, and it can have significant effects. These sorts of problems do significant damage to honest, well-meaning people, in all classes and social locations, and I see the effects of it all the time.
When Dan implies that we’re making banal use of marginality I think that is disrespectful to the suffering of many, the kinds of people who email me every week, the kinds of people I’m writing for and to. Conservative or “orthodox” Christianity has inflicted deep wounds on countless honest people, people who feel desperately alone and who are looking for a place where their difference can be affirmed and their antagonists antagonized, and marginality describes their experience cogently.
Dan then proceeds to contend that our use of the term “marginality” is a power-play: “Therefore, when people do employ the language of marginality it is usually done as a discursive power-play in order to gain the benefits I mentioned above (claiming the high ground and all that).”
This is again a mischaracterization of what we’re doing at RATM. I suspect that it continues the assumption that we are “laying claim” to the language of “marginality” and applying it to ourselves. No, we are using the term “marginal” appropriately to refer both to people who find themselves at the margins of communities that are important to them for various reasons, and the perspectives that are marginalized by perspectives at the center. While some of us at RATM may be willing to call our own perspectives “marginal,” that does not imply we think we are marginalized people. But more importantly, some who share our perspectives <i>are</i> marginalized people, and I (personally) write for them. I don’t pretend my writing for them is going to solve their problems, but I do hear regularly that my work is a comfort to people who find themselves feeling marginalized. That may not be much, and it certainly isn’t as important as spending time in the streets with prostitutes and helping homeless people to get into homes and find ways to function in society, but it’s still important, and it’s part of what I do, and part of what I want and always intend to do with my time.
Dan then suggests that by employing the language of “marginality” to describe people who are marginalized in ways other than socio-economically or racially, we are distracting from the plight of those who are marginalized socio-economically or racially:

Unfortunately — and here I’m going to make my discursive power-play — the people who genuinely suffer debilitating forms of marginalisation are the ones who end up being forgotten and neglected in all of this.  When one group of bourgeois Christians lays claim to marginality over against another group of bourgeois Christians, then the significance of the death, dying and exploitation of other people groups is minimalised or completely forgotten (this despite the fact that one group of bourgeois Christians may like to read and write about those people groups). Therefore, I think that is time that we all reconsidered the ways in which we deploy the language of marginality, why we employ that language, and what the repercussions of that deployment may be.

I find this claim to be untenable. First, it continues to assume we are “laying claim” to marginal status for ourselves; it continues to assume that we are merely reacting to conservative Christianity. (Even if we were, so what? To be on the margins of conservative Christianity is still a scary and profound place to be for many people, even if Dan and others have gotten past that long ago. ) But I can’t for the life of me figure out how by having a disagreement with other middle-class Christians we are minimizing the reality of the suffering of those at the socio-economic margins. If this is what we’re doing, wouldn’t that be what we are doing whether we use the word “margins” to locate our subjects of interest or not? If instead of calling our site “Religion at the Margins,” we called it, “Non-Conservative Religion” (which would be too narrow for our purposes but it’s what Dan seems to think we’re all about), would that mean that our “bourgeois in-fighting” is no longer a distraction from the socio-economic margins? Is it just our use of the word margins that causes our in-fighting to be a distraction? I can’t imagine how that is coherent. In reality, if what we’re doing is a distraction from the socio-economic margins, it’s not because we use the term “margins” to refer to margins other than socio-economic ones; it’s because we’re focusing on highlighting petty bourgeois quibbles (according to Dan’s characterization) at the expense of focusing on the socio-economic margins.
So, Dan’s criticism of our use of the term “margins” to describe a broad swath of marginal locations and perspectives fails. If he wants us not to distract from the socio-economic margins, he should critique us for the content of our posts, not the title of our blog. The reality is that “margins” is an appropriate term to describe the kinds of perspectives we want to explore and people we want to support, and it functions, due to its broad application in the English language, as a nice catch-all title for a blog devoted a diversity of subjects and concerns.
As to the question, then, of whether our appropriation of the language of marginality is a “power play,” the answer is that it really isn’t. We’re not claiming that we have the moral high ground over against conservatives Christians because they are (boo-hoo) marginalizing us. We don’t feel marginalized; we feel empowered, and we want to empower those who do feel marginalized, and who really are, even if not in the same way as a transsexual street prostitute is marginalized. I’m not interested in weighing the degrees of profundity of various forms of marginalization. Yes, some forms are banal, like being at the margins of the fast food industry. But a form of marginality doesn’t have to be the most morally profound form of marginality in order to command our attention, nor should it have to. Just as Christianity teaches that Jesus liberates physically, politically, socially, spiritually, doctrinally, and so on, we want to explore the margins of all of those spheres of human existence as well, not just a few that are (rightly) considered to be of the most immediate importance.
Dan concludes his post with a cute contrast between socio-economically, sexually and racially marginalized people, and Brian McLaren. Marginalized. Marginalized. Not marginalized. I felt that this was a very cheap shot, and I’ve described it to Dan as juvenile. Not because I disagree that McClaren isn’t marginalized, but because nobody, least of all McClaren, is claiming that McClaren is marginalized, especially not in the same way and with the same profundity as those disappeared women. I think it’s a cheap rhetorical move on Dan’s part, and he should probably know better. Maybe he did it with a smirk and didn’t expect for it to be taken too seriously. That’s fair enough, but the reality is that there really are bourgeois Christians who are marginalized in important ways. I don’t think McClaren is, but maybe he was for a time and needed someone to take his plight seriously in order for him to overcome it. I understand that Dan doesn’t struggle any longer (if ever) at the margins of conservative Christianity. I’m glad for Dan and wish more people could be in Dan’s position, but they aren’t. The scars are real. Perhaps Dan (like myself) escaped relatively unscathed. Not all have, and they deserve to be identified as marginalized, even while it’s (very obviously) understood that they’re not in the same plight as disappeared Salvadorian women. Do we really have to point that out?
In the end, Dan offers a good reminder to keep our in-fighting in perspective. What’s unfortunate, I think, is that he had to do so by insinuating that we had lost perspective. While it’s obvious (and always will be) that a middle-class woman who is ostracized by a Christian community, but still has house and home and financial security, is not in the same plight as those who are poor and physically persecuted or mistreated, I am not interested in guilting the middle-class woman into forgetting her struggle just because she is not less fortunate socio-politically. We can take her problems seriously without exaggerating their significance, and we can take the plight of the poor seriously without using them as a blunt instrument to minimize the significance of the real problems with the real people in the first world.
That’s my response. I apologize for taking too much offense to Dan’s post initially. After speaking with him over the phone, I came to a better understanding of his intent.

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  1. I think Thom is pointing towards something important which I’m only just beginning to grasp.
    If you deny the suffering of your average people in the pews, you also on some level prevent them from genuinely feeling towards others who are more marginalised than they are. I mean they will still care, but something of them won’t be there.
    I used to completely oversee my own suffering and struggles because they weren’t that significant in the broader scheme of things and I should focus on real serious issues instead. But losing touch with them isn’t the way forward, it just makes me more phoney and less loving.
    It’s of course of crucial importance to keep reasserting that God wishes us to care for one another, but we can’t de-empahsise that God embraces (and is fond of) each one of us individually and cares about what affects us, even if it seems fairly trivial in the light of the 8 o’clock news.
    Each one of us is special and beloved, not just those who are most oppressed. If those who are relatively privileged lose sight of that, they are being amputated of something absolutely vital.
    I mean sure, God spends a lot of time reprimanding Israel left right and centre, but God also spends a lot of time affirming God’s love for Israel and concern for what affects them.
    So I’d like to thank Thom for reminding us to keep caring a lot about the people who are in the pews (or in his case, disillusioned by the more traditional expresions of church) and not reprimand them all the time but affirm them too.
    I’ll end up with a passage from a cool universalist-ish hymn:
    I cannot tell how he will win the nations
    how he will claim his earthly heritage
    how satisfy the needs and aspirations
    of east and west, of sinner and of sage.
    But this I know, all flesh shall see his glory
    and he shall reap the harvest he has sown,
    and some glad day his sun shall shine in splendour
    when he the saviour of the world is known.


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