This was initially written as a weekly reflection paper for a course on Clarence Jordan’s Cotton Patch Parables. The book referenced here is “Cotton Patch Parables of Liberation” by Clarence Jordan, ed. Bill Lane Doulos.
In public discussion of social movements for justice and civil rights it is common – distressingly so – to hear comment on the presentation and behavior of whomever is active in the movement. Sometimes it is journalistic shock over protesters in Hong Kong cleaning up after their rallies, sometimes it is praise of peaceful tactics, but far more often it is criticism. Loudly and publicly we are told that to be taken seriously, to have our movements treated as legitimate by the powers that be, we must behave according to certain standards. We have to play the game. Flamboyance at gay pride events is condemned, visible anger and deviation from conventional beauty norms among women are slammed, young Black men are told that they wouldn’t suffer such violence if only they would pull up their pants and turn down their music. The message is: be respectable, fit in to the norms of a white heteropatriarchal society and maybe – maybe – you will stop deserving the violence you face in our society. Become well adjusted to a sick society and perhaps it will kill you less quickly.
I do not get the sense that respectability politics have ever actually lead to respect. It is common in these conversations for people to point to images of Dr. King and other Civil Rights protesters marching in suits and dresses. “See,” they want to say, “they wore suits so they were respectable and people listened to them.” Besides being wildly ahistorical – anyone who has taken more than a cursory glance at history should be aware that that particular fight for civil rights was not won by means of well tailored clothing – that message suggests something with which I am deeply uncomfortable: that justice consists of convincing those in power to let you in to power. I have very little use for this and, beyond that, it is increasingly my sense that God doesn’t have any use for it either.
Near the beginning of the chapter on Disturbing the Peace we are asked “Is there any recklessness that we can muster, or have we become too civilized for membership in God’s family? Have we made ourselves at home with the “peace” of this world?” (71) While I see much of this chapter as an argument against the sort of don’t-rock-the-boat incrementalism that is so common among the comfortable, it also strikes me as being in direct conflict with the respectability politics that insist that we behave politely and in line with society’s existent values in order to be deserving of even crumbs of human decency. “If Jesus has indeed come to cast fire upon the earth, it will not be kindled by modest and polite women and men.” (78) As I read, the refrain in my head was this: God doesn’t give a fuck about your respectability politics.
Since parables are about stories, and my approach to explanation also tends to be about telling stories (and since I rarely think about swearing in class or in a paper without thinking about this), it seems appropriate to end these thoughts with a story. In the fall of 2012 I was traveling around the country visiting some of the seminaries I had applied to. While visiting Iliff School of Theology in Denver I had the opportunity to sit in on a class on social ethics with Dr. Miguel De La Torre. I cannot remember the particular topic of that day’s discussion, but one moment in particular has stood out in my mind since then. The discussion had gotten passionate and a student said something to the effect of “that doesn’t make any damn sense” and then immediately began apologizing for her language. Not knowing the culture of the school, and with propriety high on my list of concerns about entering the ministry, I found myself very anxious to hear the response. “I would rather ministers who swear like sailors and tell the truth,” Dr. De La Torre said to a room full of rather surprised looking faces, “than pious ministers who never say anything real.” I would much rather flamboyant queers, angry and “unfeminine” women, and young Black men with loud hip hop and sagging jeans telling the truth than the entire world’s supply of polite and perfectly dressed people unwilling to really challenge the social order. I think God would too.