(I’m just an ordinary person who has grown weary. Although I don’t intend too, there are times when I do offend people. There are times when being “nice” doesn’t work. I am not going to shout or make a loud fuss. I’m just going to put my thoughts out “here” – truth spoke in whispers – gently, quietly, simply. Because I can’t keep quiet, the cost to my soul is too high).
People on Facebook are talking about the Hulu show “Rev” about a Vicar in the Church of England. I haven’t seen the show but I suspect what makes it good is how the Rev portrays a Rev. Admittedly, except for the Vicar of Dibley, I tend to cringe every time a “Christian” is portrayed on television or in a movie. I know their lines before they are spoken. And they aren’t phrases I say as a member of the clergy. There is a readily recognizable set of characteristics, or stereotypes, that identify a Christian.
Stereotyping offers a portrait of a group of people with characteristics that limit, diminish or belittle the group or exaggerate qualities. Stereotyping is similar, but not exactly the same as prejudice, in part because prejudice is about our emotions, it’s affective, while stereotyping is cognitive, it’s like making a list and may not provoke or invoke emotion.
Some researchers indicate that stereotyping may actually be a “good” thing. People stereotype in order to group physical and/or social aspects of their surroundings into categories, because it is easier for them to understand their surroundings in smaller parts than in its entirety.[i]
According to Wikipedia, stereotyping can have positive and negative social consequences. On a positive note, stereotyping allows individuals to acquire an understanding for those for whom they possess little or no individuating information. The downside to stereotyping is that over time, some victims of negative stereotypes display self-fulfilling prophecy behavior, in which they assume that the stereotype represents norms to imitate. Other negative effects may include forming inaccurate opinions of people, scapegoating, and erroneous judgmentalism, thus preventing emotional identification and causing undo distress, and impaired performance.” [ii]
I wonder why it is that people feel the need to group people into categories of “characteristics.” Are we so overwhelmed by the diversity of the world that we need to clump our reality into sound bites and short lists of behavior? Is not stereotyping typically employed to diminish or belittle another?
Admittedly, the Christian stereotypes are an accurate portrayal of some Christians. So, who then is diminished or belittled? The one who gets hurt may not be those stereotyped (Christian clergy), but the rest of us, those who fit the group (ordained) but not the stereotype (narrow view of God and humanity).
Stereotyping begins in our earliest years. Parents who attempt to raise their children without stereotypical reinforcement soon discover that their children pick up on the stereotypes for girls and boys anyway.
Researchers Dr. Kathleen Moritz Rudasill and Dr. Carolyn M. Callahan reported this in article on the website “Education.com:”
“However, despite efforts by us (including our husbands) to model androgyny in our behaviors at home, our daughters still managed to absorb societal beliefs of what is for “girls” and what is for “boys.” For example, when Kathy asked her daughter what she wanted to be as a grown-up, she said she wanted to be a nurse. When asked why, she said “because I’m a girl.” What a logical conclusion – every time she has gone to the doctor, her nurse has been female. And virtually every doctor has been male. You can bet that the very next thing Kathy did was search for a female doctor and a male nurse! We began to wonder why these beliefs continue to be so pervasive and what effects they were having on Kathy’s daughter, Carolyn’s daughter, other girls, and young women as they form their career goals. And, more importantly, what can we do to counter these effects?”[iii]
I celebrate that progressive women and men, clergy, and Christians, are coming together and raising our voices. We are finally getting media attention. Our voices are making a dent in the media portrait of the stereotypical Christian persona, values, and beliefs.
My concern today is that those of us who have been cast into molds by stereotypical characteristics will now do the same thing to others. As a Christian I lament the way people of my faith are portrayed in the media and onscreen. As a woman I know the confines of being stereotyped because I am: white; married; have children; a priest; a feminist.
No doubt many men are squeezed into stereotypes. My husband often hears me sigh and state my dismay with resigned disgust whenever another middle aged white guy “wins” the contest or is “called” to the position or is “elected by the American people.” We Americans like our white men. (and there’s nothing wrong with that, per se).
No doubt white men in America have held privileged status for hundreds of years. That is a reality not a stereotype. However I have recently read articles written by smart, articulate women whom I admire, that have inverted stereotypes used to demean women and applied them to men. I have read on a variety of social media intelligent, sensitive women who would never deride a person because of their race, ethnicity, religion or gender, stereotype men in derogatory ways.
My plea today is to women, in particular clergy women, and to progressive Christians in general. As women it is not useful for us to do to others what has been done to us. Centuries of having our wisdom belittled, our sexuality degraded, our autonomy diminished, our skills derided, our gender repressed from full autonomy and used to prevent us from living into our full calling, should be enough to propel every one of us to rise above the slum of disrespect and model integrity and dignity for all.
So let’s call people on their inappropriate behavior. Let’s name racism, sexism, genderism, or whatever “ ‘ism” for what it is – wrong. Let’s just not call it out by inverting the inappropriate phrases used against us (women, Christians, etc.) and propelling it against others.
Let’s talk about issues and behavior – what is appropriate and what is not. But let’s do it with dignity for ourselves and others.
The baptismal covenant in the Episcopal Church asks this of me, (of Episcopalians), to respect the dignity of every human being. As a Christian, as a woman, as a priest, I have promised, with God’s help, to seek and serve Christ in everyone. I understand this promise as one in which we learn to name what is inappropriate and unjust without stereotyping, diminishing, or demeaning any human being, individual or group.
(Tajfel, H. (1981). Social stereotypes and social groups. In J. C. Turner & H. Giles (Eds.). Intergroup behaviour (pp. 144-167). Oxford: Blackwell)