I Can Imagine a Safe Place, But That is Simply Not Enough

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Update, 12/20/13: Thank you to everyone who has commented. Hännah has written a clarification about her post here and is working on a follow-up to make clearer her intended context.


I am going to step out on a limb here and publicly disagree with someone for whom I have immense respect — Hännah Ettinger, blogger at Wine & Marble and dedicated advocate for abuse survivors and young women escaping Quiverfull and Christian Patriarchy backgrounds. I am choosing to “publicly” disagree with Hännah because I believe and hope my disagreements are not personal. They are not directed to or at her. My disagreements relate to her ideas and language, and I feel those ideas and that language need to be a part of a larger conversation.

Earlier today Hännah wrote a post entitled, “The Ethics of Leaving Fundamentalism.” Her post contains veiled references to internet controversies as of late in so-called “ex-fundamentalist” communities. As Hännah has chosen not to mention specifics, I shall do likewise. (See clarification.)

Hännah’s basic argument is that “fundamentalism” is not something specifically Christian (or even an ideology) but rather “a habit of thought patterns,” patterns which are “based in fear.” The reason that Hännah redefines fundamentalism this way is because she wants to point out that, even in “ex-fundamentalist” communities, fear-based thought patterns can persist. Overcoming those thought patterns is far more complicated than simply adopting stereotypical “anti-fundamentalist” positions — e.g., positions in opposition to conservative American Christianity. One can switch from being anti-gay marriage to being pro-gay marriage, in other words, and remain a fundamentalist (as Hännah defines it).

This is an extraordinarily complicated subject and one that does in fact need to be explored in a number of communities — the ex-fundamentalist community, for one, as well as the responsible homeschooling movement of which I am a part. Speaking personally, there are aspects of Hännah’s analysis that I appreciate and I believe are extraordinarily productive. I do have significant reservations, though: I believe fundamentalism is more about valuing ideologies over human beings than it is about fear. I believe fear is a crucial aspect but fails to be adequately inclusive.

What most concerns me, however, is not the analysis itself. It is the dangerous and damaging conflation of “fundamentalists” with abuse survivors and marginalized groups. In defining fundamentalism as fear-based thought patterns, Hännah says the following:

Fear of not being heard, fear of being invalidated, fear of attack, of erasure, of silencing.

I honestly did a double-take. These are straight-forward descriptions of abuse survivors and marginalized groups. These are not normative descriptors of fundamentalism. If you are beginning your analysis by describing the natural positions of abuse survivors and marginalized groups as “fundamentalism,” that is highly disconcerting.

Fundamentalism may be grounded in fear and may be present in a multitude of communities. This is why human rights and social justice activism requires ecumenicity and intersectionality. But the fact that fundamentalism appears across ideologies and communities does not necessitate the conflation of fundamentalism with those individuals and groups that fundamentalism marginalizes and oppresses.

Fundamentalists are being heard, they are being validated; they are attacking, erasing, and silencing.

When you’re half-way in fundamentalism (however we are defining that) and half-way out, it can be extraordinarily uncomfortable. You feel like you belong in neither your old fundamentalist community or your new ex-fundamentalist community. But your discomfort does not mean you are suddenly persecuted. It does not mean you are suddenly being invalidated, attacked, erased, or silenced. It does not mean you get to don the mantle of those who have been invalidated, attacked, erased, or silenced their entire lives.

When one defines something negative (like fundamentalism) in such a way that it includes groups which advocates like Hännah and myself fight to create safe places for, you create cracks in those safe places that welcome the very language, mentalities, and actions that we are fighting against. You are giving freedom to victimizers to re-victimize. Worse still, you are enabling them to parade around as victims themselves. I cannot think of an unsafer place one could create.

Because I fundamentally disagree with and caution against conflating fundamentalists with those whom fundamentalists have hurt and erased, I simply cannot go with Hännah to her next idea that compassion is an act of imagination, that we “ex-fundamentalists” or “half-way fundamentalists” just need to put ourselves in the shoes we already wore for years and feel sorry for those who are still in those shoes.

In a sense I get it. We were once there. And yes, Wendell Berry’s “compassion is imagination” sentiment sounds poetic. That sentiment can teach us important lessons, like “By imagination we recognize with sympathy the fellow members, human and nonhuman, with whom we share our place.” Or like “Objectivity functions in art much the same as in science; it obstructs compassion… it is a failure of imagination.”

But we are talking about flesh and blood. We are talking about women who have been raped and then silenced their entire lives; we are talking about LGBT* individuals who have been told their very being is evil and they will burn in hell for something they never chose. This is the bright line:

Are we content with the platitudes of Wendell Berry, or are we fighting for a better world?

Compassion honestly does not require much. If Hitler’s mother was hit by a drunk driver and died, I could theoretically feel compassion for him. I can theoretically be moved by any individual’s emotional state. Compassion does not require me to change who I am, what I say, or how I act, nor does it put any demands on the other person. It simply requires feeling sorry for someone else’s emotional state, regardless of why that person is in that emotional state.

The fact is, feeling sorry for someone is not a cure for “fundamentalism,” whatever that means.

I think the Dalai Lama makes an important observation concerning compassion: “The real test of compassion,” the Dalai Lama says, “is not what we say in abstract discussions but how we conduct ourselves in daily life.”

There is a word for this: Praxis.

Praxis is the point where I side with social justice activists, those oh-so-evil “radical feminist-extremists of the Left,” and anyone else — Christians, atheists, and otherwise — trying to ecumenically and intersectionally tear down institutions of oppression and marginalization. Praxis means “practice,” normatively set up in opposition to “theory.”

I do not want to get into a debate about “praxis versus theory” or liberation theology or “leftist versus rightist” activism. What I simply want to point out is that, as the Dalai Lama says, how we conduct ourselves is the far greater test of compassion — or empathy — than “imagination” is. We can imagine all sorts of things. We can imagine that, since we “have lots of gay friends,” we therefore cannot express homophobic ideas. We can imagine that, since we are abuse survivors and consequent advocates of other abuse survivors, we therefore cannot have privilege and thus should not be called out when we further marginalizing structures.

In the world of imagination, the sky’s the limit.

But we live in radically relational and contextualized moments. We make choices in those moments and we are responsible for the choices we make. We choose whether or not to speak hurtful things to abuse survivors or LGBT* individuals. Even when we do not know that what we say is hurtful or why that is the case, we choose whether or not to educate ourselves prior to that to avoid doing so. We choose how to handle the resulting controversy and whether we will take time to listen or simply plug our ears.

If you get nothing else out of this blog post, get this:

If a marginalized person says you are defending those who marginalize, that’s your cue to shut up. That’s the time to be quiet and listen, not feign and broadcast outrage. Even if you are an ex-fundamentalist. Even if you are an abuse survivor.

Being an abuse survivor is not a Get Out of Privilege Jail Free card.

Yes, “Fundamentalism isn’t something you can leave by deciding you’re LGBTQ* affirming.”  Similarly, fundamentalism isn’t something you can leave by deciding people of color are human beings. (Many abolitionists were racists.) But it is a hell of an improvement.

Safe people are defined by neither fundamentalism nor compassion. They are defined by the actions they take to actually be safe.

Published by R.L. Stollar

R.L. Stollar is a child liberation theologian and an advocate for children and abuse survivors. The author of an upcoming book on child liberation theology, The Kingdom of Children, Ryan has an M.H.S. in Child Protection from Nova Southeastern University and an M.A. in Eastern Classics from St. John’s College.

10 thoughts on “I Can Imagine a Safe Place, But That is Simply Not Enough

  1. A couple thoughts…

    I really don’t like the “shut up” line that often circulates in the blogs I read. The thing about “allies need to shut up.” I get the imperative to listen. I mean, I hold it to be sacred, by which I mean one of the most important things in the world. Listening is important. Everyone should do it. People who have blind spots should find it in themselves to do it. This is needed. Still – to tell people to shut up is not my way. I find that language destructive, alienating and mean. p.s., This is less a response to what you wrote than it is to the larger trend of “shut up” that goes around.

    About your original impression of her article. I read it and saw a ton of truth in what she said. I didn’t perceive her to be labeling abuse survivors as fundamentalists, or to be saying that anyone who’s afraid of attack or of being silenced is automatically a fundamentalist. As I heard it, she was saying that anyone, even the good guys like you and me, can make the mistake of fundamentalism; that even we who’ve been so hurt may have our own blind spots; that the fact that we’ve been hurt and may be afraid aren’t an automatic immunization to fundamentalism. I didn’t hear her talk of “fear” as the definition of fundamentalism – instead, I heard her defining fundamentalism as being rigidly attached to your particular community’s rulebook, no matter which community or rulebook that may be. Like you yourself said, it’s prioritizing ideology over humans. I don’t think you’re disagreeing with her to put it that way.

    My takeaway from her article was not that compassion means feeling sorry for people, or that anyone has an obligation to treat any particular individual a certain way. Instead I heard her saying that, as communities, we should at least give some thought to the idea that our rulebooks may be smashing people. Not always just oppressors, either.

    1. I took away similar thoughts when I read Hannah’s piece. I do have compassion on abusers. I don’t have pity. I think compassion is more of a form of sorrow – sorrow that man turns against man, sorrow that we are broken, sorrow that we are pieces so lost. I cannot affirm an abuser, but sometimes rememembering that they were abused themselves does help me not harbor bitternness, and sometimes I weep over it. And I think this is right.

      I also would feel uncomfortable about making laws out of this. We should never tell an abuse victim they must have compassion for abusers. But if some of us want to reach out, then it is right that we should too. Of course, boundaries are needed. It would be wrong of me to affirm abuse. It would be wrong of me to bring an abuser to my church. It can even be wrong when I don’t rebuke them for their abuse.

      I guess the Bible is right at least about this – there is a time for everything. And every moment is not the time for everything

    2. People with privilege love to tell marginalized people who are expressing valid anger that we’re mean. And that’s bullshit. That anger deserves respect. It deserves to be listened to, and sometimes, people do in fact need to shut up instead of trying tone police someone who’s articulating what it’s like to be oppressed.

      And I don’t apologize for this. Ever. I don’t think anyone should apologize for that. I too felt defensive when confronted with the idea of white privilege. I too felt that the anger people of color expressed was ‘mean.’

      But you know what? Their anger taught me something. I learned to listen. I learned to respect why that anger exists. And I am a better human being for it.

      So no, I’m not going to spend my time worrying whether or not I’ve hurt a privileged person’s feelings. The onus is on them, and not on me.

  2. I really appreciate this. My initial reaction to the original article was a cautious, “Yeah! Absolutely! I agree!” Then crippling guilt & self-gaslighting began, and I couldn’t put my finger on why, other than feeling like setting boundaries & distancing myself from people and communities I find unsafe to me and many around me was somehow a compassionless not-okay prideful divisive thing to do. I’m still thinking through everything, but this analysis has helped me feel a little less crazy. Thank you.

    1. I don’t understand, she said that boundaries are good, and that no one has any kind of moral obligation to interact with people that hurt or trigger them or make them feel unsafe.

  3. I get where you’re coming from, and I had some of the same reservations. If we take that opening couple of lines as the whole of Hännah’s characterization of fundamentalism, then it is indeed problematic. However, I think it’s somewhat less than charitable to present it that way, as she goes on to say much more about what characterizes fundamentalism than just those few words in the opening. So, to say that Hännah’s “basic argument” revolves around that particular characterization is, I think, a bit of a misrepresentation.

    The claims of conflation fall flat as well, I think, and strike me as the sort of “synecdoche on first impressions” that Hännah refers to in her piece. Don’t get me wrong, I think conflating abusers and abused is most definitely dangerous, harmful and altogether counterproductive, but I don’t think that’s what’s happening here.

    I’m with you on praxis, and I think we’d probably agree way more than disagree on that front, but I do wonder if setting up a dichotomy between “the platitudes of Wendell Berry” and “building a better world” is really helpful. I guess the way I see it, we’re not just going to stumble into this better world. Our collective imagination (or lack thereof) ultimately drives our trajectory, so imagination grounded in compassion and empathy is, I’d argue, a crucial part of any move toward justice. I think the quote from the Dalai Lama actually reinforces this idea, in that it shows how our contextualized actions act as gauge of whether or imagination is grounded in empathy or apathy.

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