The “persecution complex” maintained by Conservative Christians in North America is a widely noted and rightly criticized phenomenon. By employing this method those with power — and those who wield that power in a way that is oppressive and death-dealing — attempt to paint themselves as embattled victims or martyrs serving the cause of goodness and truth. By attempting to establish a certain framework around our sociopolitical discourse, they seek to claim the high ground and make their position unassailable.
Of course, Conservative Christians are not the only ones acting this way. Within North America, they provide but one (glaring) example of the ways in which a “culture of victimization” has spread so that everybody lays claim to the moral authority and the lack of accountability, not to mention the sympathy and assistance, that is supposedly (or supposedly supposed to be) the domain of “victims.”
It is interesting to note this feature of our culture given that we are actually the most death-dealing, violent, and oppressive gathering of people that has existed to date in history. No other culture comes close to equaling the amount of damage that we are doing not only to other human beings but to our plant and to life itself. However, people with guilty consciences have been playing the victim card in order to avoid taking responsibility for their actions since at least the beginning of the biblical stories — Adam blames Eve, Eve blames the Serpent (and God blames all three of them!) — so I guess this shouldn’t surprise us.
Be that as it may, the particular element of this that set my wheels spinning is the way in which those who criticize Conservative American Christians for their persecution-complex, usually end up reworking that same complex to their own advantage. The obvious twist is that these people — who often come from a background of some sort of close relationship to Conservative Christianity — claim that they are the ones persecuted… by the Conservative Christians. You see this a lot in the “Christian Radical” or “new monastic” or “Emergent” circles. Essentially, you have a group of predominantly middle-class, well educated, white males claiming that they (and not the other middle-class, well educated white males) are actually the ones who can occupy the high ground.
Take, for example, the blog Religion At the Margins (NB: I have nothing against those who post there, but chose this blog as an apt example of this phenomenon). Here you have eight contributors (six white males, one white female, one non-white male, all well educated) laying claim to the discourse of marginality. Thus, they define their blog in this way:
Religion at the Margins is a space dedicated to the exploration of marginalized perspectives in religion, politics, and culture. “At the margins” might refer to a class or group of people, or a heterodox theological perspective, or to those who find themselves on the margins of a faith that was once central to their lives. In any case, the theme here is marginality—however we feel like interpreting that at any given moment.
As far as I can tell, this means that we have a bunch of bourgeois writers who, despite their ongoing intimacy with privilege and power, lay claim to “the margins” because they aren’t as close as they used to be to Conservative Christian doctrines or communities (I’m open to being wrong about this, but the authors’ bios certainly suggest this conclusion).
Now, as the passage quoted above makes clear, the notion of marginality is somewhat vague. Really any person at any time and any place could lay claim to being on the margins of something. For example, I could claim to be “on the margins” of the fast-food industry (although I long ago gave up on places like McDonald’s, I still buy the occasional sub from a chain store down the street from my work), or I could claim to be “on the margins” of working with female survivors of sexual violence (since I do work with some survivors but do not work, and am not permitted to work, at the sort of female-staffed space that does the best work in this area). However, it should be apparent that, while technically true, these are pretty banal statements that don’t carry a lot of weight. Generally, people easily recognize that some spaces of marginality and some experiences of marginalization are more significant than others (in fact, it is this recognition that is at work in those who criticize the persecution complex of some Conservative Christians — while it may be true that they are more marginal than they used to be to the functioning of the American Empire, the assumption is that this relative marginality doesn’t carry any moral force). Therefore, when people do employ the language of marginality it is usually done as a discursive power-play in order to gain the benefits I mentioned above (claiming the high ground and all that).
Unfortunately — and here I’m going to make my discursive power-play — the people who genuinely suffer debilitating forms of marginalisation are the ones who end up being forgotten and neglected in all of this. When one group of bourgeois Christians lays claim to marginality over against another group of bourgeois Christians, then the significance of the death, dying and exploitation of other people groups is minimalised or completely forgotten (this despite the fact that one group of bourgeois Christians may like to read and write about those people groups). Therefore, I think that is time that we all reconsidered the ways in which we deploy the language of marginality, why we employ that language, and what the repercussions of that deployment may be.
This poster has made its rounds through the theology blogs:
But we may want to consider something like the following images.