Silence is Deafening, Even in a Vocal Crowd

The infamous “hot mic” recording of Donald Trump bragging to Billy Bush about the various ways he’s forced himself upon women is now more than a week old, but it’s lurid shock-waves continue to reverberate. (NBC fired Billy Bush just yesterday). In the intervening days, I have applauded public figures who have denounced Trump’s behavior as inexcusable and unacceptable. I have “liked” a number of posts by friends on Facebook, especially female friends, rebuking his misogyny. I have cheered the pundits who have criticized politicians for couching their disapproval of Trump in terms of familial relationship (i.e., “as the father of [insert number] daughters, I am deeply offended…”) as if women’s value and self-respect somehow derive from their male relatives. I have also cringed as a handful of political surrogates, partisans, and (most abhorrent of all) religious leaders have either defended the Republican nominee or dismissed the recording as much ado about nothing. “It’s just ‘locker room talk,’ like he said.” “Bill Clinton did much worse” – you know, because Clinton’s philandering should clearly excuse Trump’s, or anyone else’s. Rush Limbaugh even went so far as to reject the very idea of consent as left-wing propaganda.

Yet, in my own words, I have said nothing publicly. Today I want to remedy that. I need to remedy that.

This has been my reasoning: “What can I add to the conversation? What can I possibly say that hasn’t already been said?” I’ve never engaged in this type of behavior. I agree that Trump’s acts, and his boasting about those acts, are both appalling. My wife knows that. My friends know that. Trump is flailing and failing in his retorts because there is no defense for either his behavior or his attitude. When something is indefensible, there is only so much that can be said about it. What would my repetition of these condemnations accomplish that hasn’t already been accomplished?

Well, one thing it will accomplish is to add my voice to the chorus of critics. Even if I don’t have anything new to say, my voice makes the chorus louder and more formidable. This is a chorus that needs to be as sonic as it possibly can be.

Another thing it will accomplish is to make me personally accountable for furthering the cause of gender equality, not just cheering it on.

Behavior like Trump’s persists because too many men, as well as too many women, remain silent about sexual harassment. We know why women often remain silent. They feel ashamed and embarrassed, and they know from centuries of experience that nothing consequential is likely to happen to the perpetrator. Instead, their stories will be questioned. Their dress, their body image, and their body language will all be scrutinized. And for their courage in speaking out they’ll be rewarded with the ongoing suggestion that they “must have done something” to bring this upon themselves.

Men remain silent for different reasons. Sometimes we don’t speak up because doing so would involve standing up to a friend, co-worker, or a boss and we simply don’t want to strain those relationships or jeopardize our careers. Sometimes we simply don’t see the more subtle acts of sexism for what they are. Other times we actually remain silent because we consider ourselves feminists. I know that’s why I personally have remained silent in the past. I admire the women around me. I see them as smart and strong and capable as well as beautiful. So, even when I’ve noticed the odd sexist comment or chauvinistic gesture at the office or in the church, I’ve typically let it slide because I’ve assumed that these smart, strong, liberated women will say something if it’s truly a problem. Or I’ve left it to my wife and others to “stand up for themselves,” because I believe they can and they should, because I’ve come to believe that a woman really does need a man like a fish needs a bicycle.

And I’ve been wrong – not about women, but about the nature of sexism. Even as deep into the 21st century as we are, sexism isn’t a series of isolated incidents here and there, like shooting stars that zing across the sky once in a rare while; it’s a smog-like haze that never fully lifts in a woman’s world. Sexual harassment, in particular, is so much more pervasive than I’ve wanted to believe, because it’s about power as much as sex. It’s about sending clear patriarchal signals that, even if women are smart and strong and capable, they still exist primarily for men’s enjoyment, and they still don’t have the right to be fully present in the world except on men’s terms. @kellyoxford pulled back the veil on this toxic reality the day the Trump tape first leaked, when she asked women to Tweet their first experience of sexual assault. At one point, she received fifty tweets per minute – for fourteen straight hours.

So, every time I’ve let those sexist comments and gestures slide, even for “feminist reasons,” I’ve sided with the sexists. Every time I’ve chuckled at “locker room talk,” (much, much tamer than what Trump contends was just “locker room talk”), I’ve tacitly condoned rape culture. Every time I’ve applauded someone else’s stand against misogyny while I myself have remained seated, I’ve felt good but I’ve done little (if anything) to actually help advance the cause of equality.

That’s why, even if it’s a little late, speaking up is something important for me, personally, to do here and now. What Donald Trump said on that tape is reprehensible. At a minimum, he needs to apologize to and ask forgiveness directly from each and every woman he has molested.

And in the future, * I * need to speak out more quickly whenever women are objectified or patronized. All men need to, if we truly believe in equality.  It’s easy to pretend patriarchy isn’t really our problem, because we’re “not like that.” We’re enlightened and progressive. Nevertheless, the lust – both the carnal lust and the lust for superiority – that undergirds patriarchy, misogyny, and sexism resides in the male psyche, not the female body, and that makes it our problem. It makes it our responsibility. We need to own it and deal with it at the source.

This is especially true for those of us who claim to be disciples of Christ Jesus. There’s an old bumper sticker that reads: “Feminism is the radical idea that women are people.” Christians should take this assertion one step further, because the gospel contains the radical idea that women are people created in the image of God. Who would ever talk about God the way Trump talked about Nancy O’Dell – or defend someone who did? I wonder.

So, men of the world: we need to speak up, each one of us, each and every time sexism rears its devilish head – individually and collectively. We need to check ourselves each and every day. We need to talk to, talk about, and interact with women as people made, like us, in the image of God. If we long to see a world in which women and men are truly equal, that’s the only way it will happen.

The cause of equality needs more than our applause or our thumbs up on Facebook.

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In Memoriam

Today marks the tenth anniversary of the death of my dear friend and mentor, John Claypool. To commemorate his passing – and celebrate his enduring legacy – I’ve composed this reflection, portions of which appear in the September 2015 issue of Baptists Today, alongside the reminiscences of others who were fortunate enough to learn from him during his time at the McAfee School of Theology.

________________________________________

I don’t have to look far to be reminded of John Claypool each day. In our house hangs a copy of a black and white photograph showing the Rev. Dr. Claypool and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. having coffee in the refectory of Southern Seminary on the day the civil rights icon visited the campus in 1961. It’s very special to me – and not just for featuring two men whom I believe to be 20th century saints in the same frame. It’s special because, like most everything to do with John Claypool, there’s a story behind it: a story about choosing love and grace over all other available options.

My wife gave me this photograph as a Christmas present. Dr. Claypool brought the original from the Louisville Courier-Journal with him to class one day in 2002 as a prelude to the day’s lesson. As an aspiring preacher, seeing my professor with Martin Luther King, Jr. was like a basketball player seeing his coach with Michael Jordan. But Dr. Claypool hadn’t brought the picture to brag. He’d brought it to illustrate a point. That picture got him into a whole lot of trouble.

Claypool and MLK 1961

John Claypool (second from left) shares coffee with Martin Luther King, Jr. at Southern Seminary in 1961.

Dr. Claypool was the Pastor of Crescent Hill Baptist Church in Louisville at the time, and as soon as the paper hit the stands he knew he had to brace for the backlash. It was one thing to be present when the prestigious Southern Seminary hosted a controversial but undeniably significant figure like King; it was quite another to be spotted sharing refreshment with a Black man, especially an “agitator” and a rumored Communist. Dr. Claypool knew what people in town would think – and perhaps do. But Dr. King had asked if there was a place to get a cup of coffee before he gave his address, so Dr. Claypool led the way. To hear him tell it, it was as simple as that. Of course, what he really did was make a profound choice. He chose the grace of hospitality over the safety of propriety. He chose to share a cup of coffee in calm, holy defiance of his culture’s bigoted, ungodly conventions.

The humility with which Dr. Claypool shared this photograph, and the openness with which he told the story behind it, forever endeared him to me as a mentor and exemplar of prophetic pastoral leadership. Throughout our time together, Dr. Claypool impressed upon me that simple but purposeful acts lie at the heart of Christian witness. Living intentionally out of Christ’s love, compassion, and generosity matters more than profound exegesis or homiletic agility. It’s through such simple yet purposeful acts, like welcoming the outsider, that you tell Christ’s story through your story. It’s through such simple yet purposeful acts, like the breaking of bread and the sharing of a cup, that God has long revealed God’s self.

I am one of the many to whom God revealed God’s self more fully through the simple yet purposeful witness of John Claypool. His humble, confessional reflections on the grief and joy of this world, and the mystery and wonder of the Holy, have helped me navigate the complex task of living faithfully in a complex world. He’s also inspired me to directly engage the civil rights issues of today. I’ve often wondered how he’d respond to the recent police shootings, and the riots, and the mass incarceration of Black men. No doubt he’d be offering refreshment, physical and spiritual, to anyone in need – and getting into what John Lewis has called “the right kind of trouble.” [1]

 

[1] https://kmslibrary.wordpress.com/page/2/.

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