“I feel more vulnerable as a Christian in our world today than I do as a gay man”
This is part 2 (part deux, if you’re fancy) dealing with the above quote. In the previous post I spoke about the things that make me vulnerable and the things that are empowering in relation to my experience as a sexual minority. Here, I hope to highlight that although Christianity ISN’T really a minority, for many people, in many scenarios, it certainly can FEEL like one.
But before I get to that, let me explain why you should continue to read this post and how it fits with the major theme of what I’m writing about in this space. Full disclosure; we’re about to talk about stats (zzzzzzzzzz).
You should keep reading because the recent census results (not that recent, I know, I’m a bit late to the blog-party) would have you believe that a smidge over half of the Australian population is Christian; a convincing majority. Firstly, that’s highly unlikely as fellow blogger Stephen McAlpine can demonstrate to you in his response to the ABS research. He argues that the title of Christian is a weighty one and if people understood that weight then the stats would read differently. For example, you would expect most Christians to be attending church on a regular basis. Apparently, that’s not a criterion for identifying as a Christian if faithandbelief.org.au is to be believed.
Secondly and following that, statistics, though helpful and valuable, have unwarranted power to form public opinion and socio-cultural conversation. They’re dangerous in their own way as McAlpine talks about along with Joe Carter in his article about opinion polls (which are a different thing, I know, but I think many of the same dangers are faced when dealing with both opinion polls and nation-wide statistical research). Basically, using broad, numerical, unnuanced data as the basis of how you think and talk about real people and real communities doesn’t lead to something productive, rather a smug and poorly informed attitude.
So if the above is true, then I would say that such a statistic ascribes significantly more power, privilege and population to the Christian community than what is accurate.
I propose to you that it’s unhelpful to label Christianity as either a majority or a minority. We experience attributes of both. We’re an unusual cocktail of power and vulnerability and we who are Christian would do well to learn how to live appropriately in this reality.
To do so we must practice transparency (surprised?). Transparency, disclosure of truth, is necessary if we want to think about ourselves and our standing with sobriety and if we want to talk about social, cultural, political vulnerability and power in a balanced, honest way.
So let me try to disclose what I think is experientially true for most western Christians.
Why Christianity Can’t Claim Minority Status
We are a significant population within Australia.
As much as the 51% of Australians being Christian stat is misleading, we have to acknowledge that, yes, we are the major religious group which makes us the primary reference point in issues of faith.
Also, even though far less (maybe as low as 7%) than the majority are truly genuine, practicing Christians, at least it shows that many people are still willing to be affiliated with the church in some way, even if just culturally or because of familial ties.
We have ownership over institutions and presence within them.
The Lord’s Prayer is still uttered in parliament. Almighty God is mentioned in our constitution. Many Christians still feel ownership over marriage. We have churches which are historically important buildings and secure spaces for our communities in which to meet and worship.
Many Christians would say that journalistic media (mainly the ABC) are constantly in opposition to us and fail to give us the chance to speak. I would argue that that’s untrue. I think that we have plenty of opportunity to be present within our news and public discourse. Perhaps the issue is that we just don’t utilise that opportunity as best we could. See point 5 in Nathan Campbell’s response to Julia Baird’s exposé on domestic violence in the church.
Point being, although it is receding, there is a sense that the environment in which western Christians occupy is secure and, in many ways, set up for us to live, speak and practice freely. This can be seen in the way we have often engaged in politics; expecting legislation and rights to work for our ideals and our shape of life.
We have historical power.
Both Christians and people opposed to Christianity love to draw from history to either promote or denigrate (ground-breaking, right?). No one can deny that the Church is a hugely formative part of western society. We are usually not far from the foreground of any significant part of our history. Real minorities have had to work to retroactively recover the societal and cultural story that they are a part of and weave it into the already existing narrative. A work that Christianity has not had to do.
Yet it remains that many people within the faith have a similar emotional experience to a minority.
Christianity feels like a minority
I was speaking recently with an assistant-principle friend of mine who mentioned a conversation she had with a colleague about gender non-binary people. She was able to say that as a Christian she knew what if felt like to identify as something alien to others around you.
My personal example is spelled out in a prior post and it relates to my initial comment at the beginning of this post…
“When I’m walking through the university at which I work I don’t feel insecure because I’m in a sexual minority, I don’t feel at risk of judgement because of my orientation. I DO feel at risk of judgement because of my convictions. I’m not worried that I’ll be considered irrelevant because of my sexuality, quite the opposite in fact. Conversely, I AM worried about being considered irrelevant because of my faith.”
Primary to this is that people don’t consider Christians to be vulnerable. The church is thought of as something that can and often should be assailed. People aren’t going to be considerate in how they speak about the Church in the way they would when dealing with, for example, a racial minority (not that I think the experience of a racial minority is similar to the Christian experience). As I’ve said, information such as the recent ABS research bloats the reality of how much power, privilege and population Christianity holds.
Nothing and no one is 100% vulnerable or 100% powerful. Mostly because any people group is made up of individuals with their own set of strengths and weaknesses, and then those strengths and weaknesses are contextual. Meanwhile, the people observing those strengths and weaknesses have their own securities and insecurities that change context to context. It’s messy is what I’m saying!
So as much as the institution of the church has had a fire lit underneath it regarding things like child abuse, supressing sexuality and domestic violence, the people within the community who hate and fight abuse, bullying, secrecy and violence feel the heat of those same flames as they navigate life in our society. I, as a Christian who is also gay (though celibate), feel the same pressure as the wider church when Christianity is called homophobic, bigoted and suppressive.
Secondly, I said a moment ago that Christianity is overtly present in history and our story is quite clearly charted. True, and yet our current situation is difficult to find equivalent examples for. It’s hard to think of another people group that once held broad and high power, deeply loved, integral to the fabric of society, but has now fallen out of favour, not through being overthrown or militaristically opposed, but through a shifting of what is celebrated and cherished. I would love to hear examples if you have them!
This position we find ourselves in now wields little frenetic energy to influence culture. We are recognised by our failures and the abuses of our ideology rather than our actual beliefs. We are only celebrated and considered beneficial when we relinquish our Bible based doctrine and practice to more closely align with the world.
To be tolerated is not to be loved and accepted. After feeling such wide-spread acceptance and significance for so long, the suspicion and taciturn posture Christians encounter now feels especially cool. Our emotional intelligence to deal with this is only just beginning to take form because we’ve been slow to recognise the changing landscape.
I don’t know the way forward in light of all this. I’m not a sociologist. I’m a guy with a laptop. But I do know that when dealing with issues of power and vulnerability the thing that interrupts imbalance is transparency, experiential and emotional truth. So, Christian, let’s be honest, be open to risk and live in the light of God. He prepares us through His word to live in awkward alienation.