May I remind you of the good news: there’s a Christian party and everyone’s invited. No dress code, as such. Well, just for the ladies (cover up and don’t go tempting anyone – thank you so much for your co-operation). Guys*, as you were. Whether you live in a palace or a hedge you’re equally welcome. (In fact, the hedge-dwellers might have the upper hand; palace residents, check your portfolios for issues restricting access. The traditional VIP list doesn’t apply). It’s set to be a non-stop joyfest – we’ve read the invite and accompanying handbook from cover to cover and know exactly what’s required. No disagreement, no dissent, all on the same page. Front-led, orderly and to a schedule, as all the best parties are.
There are a few accepted traditions to learn quickly. A few party hosts – the ones who helpfully point out where to stand, who to talk to and what to say – and the partygoers generally find a way to fit in with the way things are done. Yes it can feel a tad awkward but hey, this is what we’re meant to do, right? Effort is expended presenting a united front to a curious/disinterested/hostile world it is hoped might want to come and join in.
There are always a few party poopers. They’re invited, of course, but they don’t seem to be having fun. What’s wrong with them?! Haven’t they heard everyone gets to play? Even them. I suspect they’ve heard it. Probably over and over. But they might have heard it from someone who wasn’t kind or who wasn’t interested in their opinions or whose explanations didn’t make sense or who didn’t think they should speak up at all or who may even have used their position as a host and figure of trust to abuse them. They’re invited to the party but they don’t feel welcome.
Some stay and try to explain the problem, some drift away, some leave purposefully. They are rarely missed because they messed with The Unity. They made things awkward, even unpleasant. The partygoers and hosts would prefer if they left quietly and didn’t mention the catering, the small talk or even minor issues of, say, structural inequality. The language of unity can be used to hide a multitude of sins. And I mean real, proper, heavy duty sins. A glance at the Sovereign Grace Ministries furore demonstrates what happens when injured, marginalised or dissenting voices are dismissed. Thankfully not every issue is as heart-breaking and despicable as the SGM situation but many are or have the potential to be. Lives can be crushed as the partygoers do the spiritual conga and tune out the voices insisting something is wrong.
Important reflections will be lost if the only voices allowed to speak up do so on terms, in language and at a time the party permits. Power is present in all our structures and our interactions and it would be naïve to think we will be hearing people’s unvarnished opinions if they have any position of influence or authority at the Christian party. No matter how approachable we believe we are. People sometimes need to shout over the music to be heard. Not shutting out sarcasm, repeated complaints or dialogue with people outside our trusted circle may be the trade-off to ensure we don’t become complicit in unsafe situations. The tone may not be calm and reasonable, the source not a kindly friend, the method confrontational, it may clash with the party playlist, but before that complaining voice is dismissed, before pre-recorded assurances kick in that all is well, can someone listen to what is actually being said?
*I almost wrote chaps but I don’t want to be responsible for anyone turning up in chaps. Really.