NOTE: this is part of glenn hager’s monthly synchroblog. june’s topic is “community” and you can check out all of the links here. erin started the lively conversation about finding a place for the church-homeless, the vagabonds, those who no longer can go back to the old ways but don’t have a new place to go, either. it is clear that among so many there is a deep longing for community & the question is how to create it, nurture it, sustain it without the bondage & baggage of typical church systems. i am in a bit of a different situation because for the past 2+ years i have been part of developing a community–the refuge–a wild, wacky, beautiful, ugly rag-tag group of men & women trying to live out some of our dreams. my little contribution to this conversation is to offer a few thoughts on how to incorporate equality into the fabric of any new community’s future. to me, equality is an action word. and i am seeing the beauty & value of it up-close and personal in ways that have drastically changed my view of community, the church, the kingdom.
* * * * *
the definition of egalitarian is: “asserting, resulting from, or characterized by belief in the equality of all people, especially in political, economic, or social life.” (and for those of us who are christian egalitarians we can add “church”). interesting is that the word stemmed from the word “equalitarian” (i sort of think they should have just kept it the way it was because it would probably make more sense for people). it’s a core belief that everyone is equal, period. i am not going to get into a theological argument about equal in value, different in role. i will always disagree with people who think that women can only do certain things & men do others and live their entire lives and ministries upon that principle. i think that core belief damages the foundation of the value of equality far beyond just women but to all of the underrepresented, voiceless, power-less. so in creating these new, hopefully equality-infused communities, i believe core questions needs to be:
how will we live out the value of equality?
what will that really look like?
how can we diffuse power & give everyone a voice?
how will we work to make sure the pull towards the old power default doesn’t happen?
if there’s one thing i have learned in the past few years is that true equality in community is way easier said than done! some of these things sound good in theory but the reality of living them out isn’t always quite as pretty. here are a few things we are learning:
equality goes far beyond girls & boys (but i do think it’s a great place to start!). when it comes to the male-female issue, this is one of the refuge’s strengths. we really are learning how girls & boys can work alongside each other, take out the weird power dynamics and be friends, equals, partners in ministry. it is a glorious thing and we have worked our tails at it to get there. but what is more important to us is that we try to extend equality beyond just gender. young, old, married, divorced, educated, unschooled, charismatic, not-so-charismatic, excited about God, mad at God, artsy, not-so-artsy, democrat, republican, making good money, living at the poverty level. those are all represented on our team, our community. (the one thing that’s really missing for us is color diversity. my husband’s hispanic & we have some other refuge friends who are, too. the funny part is that they have 6 kids & we have 5 so actually with our 11 kids we contribute proportionally to the ethnic mix pretty well! but honestly, we long for more color at the refuge). to me, diversity across all levels is what helps with equality. without diversity, i don’t know if the value of equality can be fully expressed.
equality means we have to give up excellence. this is the biggest lesson we are learning. you can’t have both. i will say it again (and i know strong leaders out there are cringing at this thought): i really believe you can’t have true equality and excellence. you can have partial equality and excellence, sure. that means you can keep power with some talented people, give some not-as-talented people a shot at things now and then, and keep your level of excellence high and consistent. if you are talking about true equality, well, that will immediately lower the bar and lower it fast. when the person who can’t sing that great is given a true equal shot at participating, the music won’t sound as good. when the person who stumbles over their words a bit and isn’t super smooth at communicating is speaking it makes new people feel a little uncomfortable. when people who actually could do stuff better don’t so that other people who aren’t as “good” at it technically get a chance, well, the quality decreases. i don’t mind it a bit anymore but i know that it drives some people a little crazy and they probably long for someone to step in and “clean it all up” a bit. the reason we don’t, won’t, is that it is a piece of our DNA that we always want to protect–that everyone in this community is equal. sure people do things better than others, but who really cares, let’s give everyone a chance to participate as much as possible and take a huge brutal hit on appearance. it is my favorite part of our community. it is also why it is small! inside so many people is an expectation of performance and excellence (and churches have done a pretty good job cementing this idea over the past few decades). we give a lot of things up for the sake of equality but the cost-benefit is so worth it when you look underneath what’s on the surface.
equality will get on your nerves. see above! i just wanted to remind everyone that somewhere along the line you might long for some strong powerful leader to pull it off for you and make things happen in an easier, smoother way (or maybe it’s the temptation for us, as a leader, to step in, get the power, and get the job done). it’s so in the core of our how we’ve lived for so long that even with all of our high hopes & dreams of new ways, the longing for the familiar, the easy, the predictable creeps in (not for long, i promise).
equality will always have to be tended to because there’s a natural pull against it. we are all prejudice toward talent, charisma, ability, power. we don’t mean to be, it’s just in us. we will be drawn to people who are educated, good communicators, leaders. that isn’t a bad thing so i’m not dismissing its importance at all. i am just saying that we have to be extremely careful that we don’t rely on those people and then subtly separate them from “the other people”, the underlings, the less pretty, smart, squared-away. it is so easy to do because of our humanness. as one of the pastors at the refuge, i automatically get power that i need to be very very aware of and very careful with. it is easy and natural for me to lead, but if i am not careful, too much weight will get put on me & equality in our community will take a hit. that is as much my responsibility to manage as it is the friends in my community’s responsibility to not let that happen. this is why the kingdom principles of the beatitudes are important in developing community so that a humility & value of the least, a desperate need for God’s ways and not ours, can permeate our cultures. i don’t think equality comes naturally & i think we will constantly battle against power’s pull.
we do not have any of this nailed, that is for sure. we have so much more to learn and try and experiment with. there are so many more ways we can infiltrate our community with the value of equality, true equality, so that everyone feels just as valuable as the next person regardless of gender, giftedness, contribution, and life circumstance. we really are just babies at nurturing and developing this, but in the past few years i’ve become much more passionate about this issue because everywhere i look i see power systems that directly negate the kingdom value of equality.
as pioneers continue to stake out new ground, my hope is that all of us new community-planters keep asking ourselves “what does equality look like for us and how can we do everything we can to preserve, promote, nurture it at the expense of looking stupid & not being as cool as we had hoped?”. i strongly believe it’s worth it. equality is definitely an action word.