Monday, February 20, 2017

What Feminism Taught Me About Saving the World

Elastigirl, from "The Incredibles." Image text: "Leave the saving of the world to the men? I don't think so." Image source.
I've been blogging about the book Runaway Radical: A Young Man's Reckless Journey to Save the World. In last week's post, I described the ideology of radical Christian missions, which inspired Jonathan to go to Africa and made him vulnerable to spiritual abuse. The book condemns this ideology and instead presents a healthier perspective based on these two ideas:
  1. Grace: You don't have to be "radical" in an attempt to earn God's approval. God already loves you, no matter what you do.
  2. "Loving the person in front of you": Jesus doesn't expect that you're going to go out and single-handedly save the world. Don't worry about doing something huge, just focus on the opportunities you have to show love in your normal life. You don't have to travel to the other side of the world; just love the person in front of you.
In my opinion, this perspective does a good job of addressing half of the reasoning behind radical Christian missions, but does nothing about the other half. What I mean is, there are two motivations given for the radical Christian missions ideology. The first is about obedience to God, about giving up your life, being like those missionary heroes we hear about in church, doing great things for God, striving to live every single moment of your life in obedience to the bible's commands about loving others and caring for the poor. It's "This is what you do if you are a real Christian, if you are really devoted to God." And "Runaway Radical" answers that by talking about grace. God loves you no matter what. You're not required to live "radically" in order to please God.

But what about the second motivation? There are people in this world suffering in conditions that we can't even imagine. There are people who don't have food or clean water. There are people who are trapped in slavery. And if I can give up a little bit of my comfort in order to help them, don't I have a moral obligation to do so? Really, shouldn't I donate as much money as I possibly can to help them? How can I justify having a savings account, when that money could have fed a hungry child in Africa? How can I justify taking a vacation, when I could have donated that money to a relief organization instead? Their problems are so huge and unimaginable compared to mine; therefore I don't deserve to ever buy any nice things for myself.

This "second motivation" isn't about religion or God at all, it's just based in logic. And "Runaway Radical" didn't really give any answer to this. Which is fine, that wasn't really the purpose of the book. But I have an answer that feminism taught me, which I'd like to share here.

See, feminism is also about helping people and righting the wrongs of the world. But there are a few key ideas that make it totally different from (and much healthier than) radical Christian missions:

1. Don't play "oppression olympics."

Radical Christian missions motivates people to action by finding the most extreme problems and claiming that you are obligated to help because you have it so good compared to those people. Back when I believed in that ideology, I donated a lot of money- but ONLY to organizations which were fighting against things that I considered the biggest problems: Lack of food, lack of water, human trafficking, and people not believing in Jesus. (If you think I'm joking about that last one, then #YouDontKnowEvangelicals.)

I remember one time, I was buying something at the mall, and the cashier asked if I'd like to donate a dollar to this organization that does after-school activities for poor kids. And I said no, because those kids in the after-school activities have it way better than the hypothetical starving African children whose lives I imagined I was saving with my donations to global Christian relief organizations like World Vision. I thought people in the United States didn't deserve any donations, not when there were children in other countries who were starving.

The idea that "it's wrong to fight against this particular example of injustice because there are worse injustices that exist in the world" is called "oppression olympics." You see this in blog posts about how American feminists are wrong to fight against rape culture because look at how Middle-Eastern countries treat women- they have it so much worse, so you're not allowed to complain. (Samantha Field has a good post about this.) Often, oppression olympics is about criticizing people for caring about the "wrong" issues- and this criticism comes from people who aren't even doing anything themselves to advocate for the issues they claim are more important.

But feminism rejects the idea of oppression olympics. There are a lot of different bad things happening in the world, a lot of different causes worth fighting for. It doesn't do any good to rank them in terms of which is worse and then say that only people suffering that problem deserve our help. We should fight against poverty- both internationally and locally. We should fight against racism, whether it takes the form of Hollywood whitewashing, discrimination in hiring, or police brutality. We should fight against sexism, whether it takes the form of telling girls they're cute instead of complimenting their abilities, purity culture ideas about virginity determining a woman's value, or intimate partner violence. We should advocate for LGBTQ rights. We should advocate for the rights of disabled people. We should improve public schools so all children can get a good education. We should support scientific research to develop life-saving medical treatment. All of these different things are causes worth fighting for, and it doesn't really help anyone when you say "this problem is not as bad as that one, therefore you're wrong to care about it."

Radical Christian missions says you have to donate to help those starving people because, comparatively, they have it worse. But feminism rejects the idea of basing advocacy on "who has it worse." And perhaps the most important result of this view is that your problems matter too. If you're feeling overwhelming guilt and so you're donating so much money that you're constantly worrying about whether you have enough for yourself- while at the same time worrying about whether you're doing enough to help others- that is just AWFUL for your mental health, and mental health is definitely something we need to care about. So don't do that to yourself.

2. Different injustices are connected. We have to dismantle the system.

In radical Christian missions, it's common to be presented with an image of a starving child, with no context. The message is, "This child has no food. Give us money so we can buy food for him." People rarely talk about why he has no food, what causes poverty, and what the long-term solutions are. It's just a simple problem, with no context, no connection to anything in our lives, and a simple solution.

In contrast, feminism is all about examining the connections between different kinds of injustice, and showing how "extreme" cases like poverty and murder are made possible by seemingly-harmless stereotypes and attitudes woven into our culture.

Let's take patriarchy as an example. Women experience the harmful effects of society's sexism in many small ways, such as assumptions that girls like dolls instead of science kits. These "small ways" aren't that bad when viewed as individual, isolated events, and we internalize the idea that this is just normal and it's not discrimination. But those same attitudes and prejudices lead to women being rejected for jobs they are qualified for, or paid less than men. And in some of those faraway "poor countries" that radical Christian missions is so concerned about, there are huge gaps in education between boys and girls- girls don't have the opportunity to go to school because society thinks women should just focus on taking care of kids. There are even places where child marriage is common- but ensuring that girls have access to education significantly reduces child marriage rates.

In American society, we have these cultural ideas about what women are supposedly good at or not good at, ideas about how mothers should mainly focus on their kids instead of their career (unlike fathers). Then we read news articles about girls in India forced into marriage even though they are children, and we're shocked. We see it as a faraway, foreign problem that we can't imagine or relate to at all- but it's not. It's patriarchy. It's all connected.

Studies have found that giving more resources to women in Africa can help to end poverty. In particular, helping women in developing countries access birth control is incredibly important. Well that's kind of awkward, because birth control is a culture-war issue that people fight over in the US. There are ideologies that believe birth control is bad, that empowering women to take control of their own lives, their own bodies, their own financial situation, is bad- we see people arguing this in our churches and in our government. And it's that same ideology that perpetuates poverty around the world- and in the United States too. It's all connected.

So if you just pick the most extreme examples- the starving child, the human trafficking victim- and imagine that you can do one simple thing to save them, you're only treating the symptoms of the problem, not the problem itself. The problem is patriarchy- or imperialism, or white supremacy, etc. And we can only fix it by dismantling the entire system- even down to our own subconscious biases.

3. There's no "perfect victim."

Radical Christian missions presents people suffering in faraway countries as "perfect victims." They're innocent children. They're mothers who are just trying to provide for their families, but they never had a chance because were born in that country. Christians often tell stories in the "they have so little, but they're so full of joy" genre- as if people who struggle with poverty are automatically perfectly moral, full of gratitude for what little they have, shining examples of selflessness that we should all learn from.

They're perfect, completely innocent, and definitely never had a chance to escape poverty. These are the people worthy of our help, in the radical Christian missions ideology.

Christians who follow that ideology are eager to help those "perfect victims" on the other side of the world, but often aren't willing to do anything for people who live in poverty in their own communities. Because, you see, we're more familar with the people in our own communities; we create negative stereotypes about them based on the flaws we see. We ask, "Why don't they get a job?" or "Why did she have so many kids if she can't even take care of them?" or "They should have gone to college, then they wouldn't be stuck in minimum wage jobs" or "Don't give them money, they're just going to waste it on drugs."

We can see so many things that "those people" should have done differently, so we blame them and decide they aren't worthy of our help. (Though in reality, those things are easier said than done; there are barriers that keep underprivileged people from having access to things like education and job opportunities. And a mistake which an upper-class person could easily recover from- like a $50 parking ticket- can snowball into a huge disaster for someone who doesn't have the money to pay it.) We imagine that the poor African families never made any bad choices.

In contrast, feminism doesn't point to people's mistakes and conclude that they aren't worthy of our help. The goal of feminism is to create a society where people aren't condemned to a life of poverty just because of a few bad choices. And we understand that even though, theoretically, this poor person "could have" gone to college and then they would be able to get a better job, in reality there are systemic barriers that can make it almost impossible. We need to work to make those "theoretical" things actually accessible to everyone in reality.

4. Self-care.

As I said in point #1, radical Christian missions teaches that, as long as you have food and clean water, you're not allowed to complain about any of your problems. Instead, you're morally obligated to give up anything and everything you possibly can, because there exist people who have it so much worse. Feminism rejects this idea, and teaches that your problems matter too. Your emotions matter. Your needs matter. Your mental health matters. It's good to take care of yourself, to do nice things for yourself.

I've heard pastors preach that we shouldn't ALWAYS spend ALL of our energy helping other people, that we need to rest and take care of ourselves sometimes too. But the reasoning is always along the lines of "you won't be able to serve people very well if you're burned out." Feminism is completely different. Feminism teaches that you should do self-care because you matter and you deserve to be happy and healthy. Your happiness is a worthy goal in and of itself- not just a factor in how efficiently you can serve other people.

The feminists I know understand that not everybody has the time, energy, or resources to do a lot of advocacy. They encourage people to just do what they're able to do, and make sure to take care of themselves too. If you don't have the energy to go to a protest, or to educate random people online about rape culture, then that's okay, you don't have to do it. You matter, and you know your own needs. Just do what you're able to do.

This is completely different from what I heard in church. There were sermons whose goal was to guilt us into donating more money or doing more evangelism, there were calls to "give til it hurts" and trust that God would provide for your needs. Serious mental health issues like depression or anxiety were dismissed as "selfishness" or a lack of faith. And we were never EVER told that we could be trusted to know our own needs; no, the church knew us better than we knew ourselves. If you had a difficult-to-explain need and you spent your time or energy on taking care of that need, rather than doing the Christian things you were supposed to do, you were rebelling against God. (Ask me about what it's like to be diagnosed with autism at age 23.)


Both radical Christian missions and feminism are about fighting against injustice in the world, but they have completely different views about the nature of that injustice. Radical Christian missions focuses on only the most horrific conditions, teaching that we have to sacrifice everything we possibly can because other people have problems so bad it's hard to even imagine them. Feminism teaches that all the different forms of injustice are connected and reinforce each other, and that injustice isn't some faraway problem we can't relate to, but something we ourselves are subconsciously perpetuating through the biases in our own hearts. It's not as simple as "This person is hungry, let's buy food for them, problem solved"; it requires tearing down society-wide systems built on racism and patriarchy. It's not about sending help to the other side of the world; it requires changing our own culture into one which truly believes in equality.


Posts about Runaway Radical:

The Stories You Can't Tell In Church
Radical Christian Missions
What Feminism Taught Me About Saving the World

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