The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly Faith

Many of the questions I get from readers are about how to handle various situations in which family or pastors or people from the church are asking questions with ulterior motives. These questions are those posed in bad faith, ones that are clearly digging at something other than the topic at hand, attempts to “catch” a person in a lie or a sin or some kind of other problem. If you “catch” someone with one of these questions, you can dismiss them entirely and don’t have to deal with them as a person.

As a blogger, I encounter this a lot, especially as a feminist Christian blogger who has discussions ranging from queer theology to masculinity to the legitimacy of premarital sex throughout my week. And I field numerous questions about my personal life, about my ‘justification’ for certain things, and about who I am as a person. People asking questions in bad faith have tried to invoke my mother, my father, my former professors, and my academic credibility in order to bait me into answering.

Any higher profile blogger – especially female writers – can tell you about this phenomenon. We get so many questions throughout the day that we very quickly notice the key words and the tone of questions that signals a bad faith inquiry about something we said or did. Any time one of my tweets goes semi-viral, I get people in my mentions who don’t know me, don’t follow me, and haven’t read anything but this one tweet trying to catch me in a bind or to give a response they can dismiss.

In most mainstream blogging, dismissing questions asked in bad faith is a simple matter of mocking and blocking. I watch feminist bloggers on my feed routinely mock people who clearly only wrote in to be a thorn in their side.

But I have trouble doing this in Christian blogging, because there’s a peculiar dynamic at work not found in more mainstream and secular spaces. That dynamic is grace, or rather, the wielding of grace and graciousness as a standard by which all interaction must be set. And the meting out of grace and understanding is always balanced in favor of those with more social power and privilege.

One of my barista friends recently followed me on Twitter and commented that he enjoys watching me have conversations and debates with people around the web. In the time he’s been following me, I’ve debated both the radical feminist Meghan Murphy and the conservative editor of The Gospel Coalition, Joe Carter. Of those two debates, the one with Joe Carter left me by far more frustrated, because discussion in the evangelical world has a whole separate layer of pressure.

We are pressured to respond in the most gracious and Christlike way we can, even if it’s clear the questions are being asked in bad faith. It is always the burden of the marginalized to carry the grace through the conversation, to bear the brunt of the nastiness and to show deference and respect, even if we are not receiving the same.

This burden certainly exists in secular spaces as well, but I can’t help but find it more acutely defined and present in the Christian sphere. Perhaps it is because we have actual theological principles about sacrifice and giving oneself up to crucifixion that this fascination with respectable grace and behavior comes into play. Even if the person approaching us in bad faith is a fellow Christian, it is we marginalized people who must carry that cross. We are to look to the best of people at all times.

This is a good virtue in theory – that we have the grace to see how much God loves our fellow humans and to treat them with utter, sacrificial kindness. But in practice, this doctrine turns into a cudgel, allowing people who are participating in unloving behavior to claim the upper hand the second you step out of line. Over and over, in discussing theology and women’s studies with white, cisgender, heterosexual men, I find myself on guard for the inevitable moment when I go “too far” or don’t respond with enough deference. Even if I am, in many cases, actually more knowledgeable than the people I am talking to, I still must be the gracious educator, the one who must set everything aside to help Poor Little White Boy figure out why his condemnation of LGBT people isn’t actually loving.

It requires a superhuman patience and ability to take beatings and get back up. And it’s impossible to do when you’re already trying to balance a life of microaggressions, oppression, and fear. And yet, you go into every interaction knowing that it’ll be picked apart; your tone will be analyzed to death and once some unsavory has been found, you will be excommunicated from the Christian Blogging fold.

But is excommunication from such a tense and frustrating environment really all that bad? Do we really want to continue to exist in a world where the expectation of graciousness falls unevenly, and those already oppressed are required to carry the burden?