Something remarkable might be happening within U.S. evangelical Christianity. While evangelical identity has always been theologically and politically diverse, it has largely been imagined as a mostly conservative stance. This popular notion results from the political and cultural efforts of the religious right. However, we might be witnessing a reshaping of the contours of evangelical identity and community. (Even the New York Times is paying attention.)
By now, basically anyone reading this post will be familiar with the recently surfaced audio recordings of Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump. On the tapes, Trump brags about how his fame provides him license to commit sexual assault against women. Asked about his comments during the second presidential debate with Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, Trump repeatedly characterized his remarks as “locker room talk.”
That characterization of his comments (it sounds to me like one of the "proverbs of ashes" Job complains about when his friends try to force him to overcome his suffering) has been ringing in my ears throughout the last week. So has this phrase: “stand with women.” Vicki Tolar Burton—a friend and a mentor-from-a-distance—wrote that this stance is what she seeks to achieve in her historical research into early British Methodism. That’s what I hope to do here as I think about some recent developments at the intersection of the presidential race and U.S. evangelicalism, as I think about grace and the church.
Here’s the main thought (a theoretical proposition) I’ve been wrestling with, and the rest is a bit about how I got here: when I look at the rhetorical work of evangelical women leaders in the wake of the Trump tapes, many of them use their platforms to enact what I’ll call “rhetorical grace.” That is, they create opportunities for a relational openness that generates new understandings of painful experiences and for community transformation in light of those experiences and understandings.
Over the course of an hour-and-a-half on October 9, popular evangelical writer and speaker Beth Moore offered a series of four tweets that are widely perceived as responding to the sexualized language and abusive acts Trump described:
“Wake up, Sleepers, to what women have dealt with all along in environments of gross entitlement & power. Are we sickened? Yes. Surprised? NO”
“Try to absorb how acceptable the disesteem and objectifying of women has been when some Christian leaders don't think it's that big a deal.”
“I'm one among many women sexually abused, misused, stared down, heckled, talked naughty to. Like we liked it. We didn't. We're tired of it.”
"’Keep your mouth shut or something worse will happen.’ Yes. I'm familiar with the concept. Sometimes it's terrifyingly true. Still, we speak”
A little over three hours later, Christine Caine, another popular Christian writer, retweeted Moore’s third post, introducing the shared tweet with a single word: “This!” Retweets of Moore’s fourth and second posts followed shortly thereafter.
Jen Hatmaker, who writes about her life as a Christian woman and speaks to large crowds, took to Facebook with a direct confrontation to Donald Trump, with comments of compassion for those who’ve experienced the acts he described, and with a call to her readers: vote for somebody else.
In Moore’s first tweet, she addresses those who might be surprised by Trump’s comments as “Sleepers.” Moore speaks directly to those who fail to think about issues of sexual violence or who, perhaps, disbelieve reports about the prevalence of gender-based violence, assault, and harassment. She appears to reference Christian Scripture (Ephesians 5:14). If so, then Moore makes this comparison: the church learning about and coming to terms with the specifics—and the widespread nature—of women’s painful experiences is like the light of Christ resurrecting the dead.
Moore then masterfully throws shade at evangelical leaders who either dismiss or downplay the importance of confronting sexually violent language and actions. By taking to task high-esteem figures within her own community without specifically calling anyone out, Moore opens space for others to distance themselves from stances, positions, and sentiments held by some Christian leaders.
Moore has elsewhere disclosed her status as a survivor of childhood sexual abuse. Invoking those experiences in this comment series connects her with other survivors and, by extension, connects “Sleepers” who haven’t dealt with women’s pain to the community of survivors and their concerns. The authority of Moore’s experience established through this confessional disclosure also allows her to claim her own desire and voice her own frustration.
By closing this series of related tweets with an example of intimidation tactics and violent threats visited on women who might confront abusers, rapists, or harassers, Moore names her and others’ commitment to speak even if raising their voices is a costly endeavor.
These comments—from Moore, Hatmaker, Caine, and others—open space for deliberative democratic engagement about what Christian values should look like in the church and in the world at large. This opening is a form of grace.
Grace is a theological concept within Christianity that speaks to God’s mercy toward humanity for our sinfulness. In secular terms, we use grace to speak about a task artfully accomplished, a tumult endured with relative composure, an attack peaceably met.
Within my discipline of writing and rhetoric studies, grace has also received some conversation that helps me think about what’s happening in recent social media writing by evangelical women. In the 1980s, Sylvia Scribner identified “grace” as a way to think about how those with relatively high literacy are viewed as possessing a special character (think learned Oxford dons), and she positioned grace as the culmination of literate development after adaptation (for everyday purposes) and power (for exercising agency). Beth Daniell, studying the literate activity of women in the recovery program Al-Anon, argues for reversing Scribner’s trajectory when she finds that the spiritual grace of community-grounded shifts in perception can serve as the basis for literacy for daily functions and for advancement. The participants in Carol Winkelmann’s study of women in a domestic violence shelter lead her to see grace “as arising in connection with other people; that is, grace is not simply God’s divine power to forgive and transform, but their own relational openness in the context of family . . . and community that redeems” (212). Daniell’s and Winkelmann’s studies show us women reading, writing, and talking in community toward a grace that transforms pain and that creates grounds for agency.
Given these insights, when I look at the rhetorical work of evangelical women leaders I cite above, I reiterate that they appear to use their platforms to enact rhetorical grace--creating opportunities for a relational openness that generates new understandings of painful experiences and for community transformation in light of those experiences and understandings.
One way of thinking about grace that has been cited and valued by both liberal and conservative Christians comes from Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He wrote about the problem of “cheap grace” for the Christian church. Against the background of rising Nazism in Germany, in 1937 Bonhoeffer wrote, “Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession.”
Enough of the cheap grace that accepts the people brought to the church by women’s leadership, but that refuses to reorder priorities toward the needs of this segment of Christ’s body.
Enough of the cheap grace that lifts up women’s testimonies, but that doesn’t allow those stories to more richly shape the church’s witness to the culture or other Christians.
Enough of the cheap grace that offers maxims about purity and precepts about proper places, but that doesn’t recognize how these proverbs of ashes fail to speak life into the harm the world and the church has inflicted on women.
The rhetorical grace that helps people connect with others who can help them reinterpret past experiences also calls out to the larger community that allowed, authorized, or remained silent about violence. And the call of rhetorical grace bids the community come and die—so that it might be reborn.