Important Disclaimer

Since I currently have several employers/supervisors/churches/etc., please know that none of the words on my blog represent them or their beliefs. This blog is my own creation.

It also does not represent my children's perspective, nor my mother's; they think I am funny, but misguided.
(Quick update: only my mother thinks I'm funny now.)

Monday, June 17, 2013

Donkey Dung

Yesterday's post was about triggers ("Trigger Me This, Trigger Me That"). In the spirit of that, here's a trigger warning: I will be talking some about intimate violence in this post. I will also be talking about Redemptive Suffering--entered into with consent--but nevertheless a frightening, distasteful, and triggery subject. Your mental health is more important than reading this particular philosophical musing, so please feel free to close the window anytime.

Also, upon finishing this post, I realize there is a certain absurdity to engaging internet blog conflicts with the seriousness that I have here. Yet, social media is becoming a primary method of interaction and relationship; this conflict mirrors our face to face interactions in many ways.

In thinking through triggers I was also thinking through why women might enter "masculine spaces" (I really need to unpack this phrase, but today is not the day) and then claim to be triggered, describing abuse and generally making themselves vulnerable in spaces not particularly open to it. I wasn't wondering whether women should do this or judging whether it is effective. I was just thinking through the various reasons I myself might do this--and even why I myself blog about intimate violence in an open forum. There is an element of additional suffering in exposing oneself to the world.

So here's some possibilities--and again: not judging whether we should do this or whether it works. Just saying that I do it, have done it, and others do it as well, and thinking my way through what my/our purpose might be. If you doubt my own participation in this, here is a link to Intimate Violence posts on my blog. Let me just slap a trigger warning on that too.

The example I want to use comes from Tony Jones' blog post "Where Are the Women?" This is my last post on this particular kerfluffle. The first two posts can be found here and here.

Dr. Jones' question and comments section was highlighted by Ana Mardoll in her post, "The Cycle of Fauxgress", which I got to from @graceishuman's post, "When dudebros protest too much". Both of those posts are excellent. And pointed. With good reason.

The comments on this post, "Where Are the Women?" continue across several threads. What I've been able to glean is that one woman shared that she does not visit Dr. Jones' blog because his behavior (and that of his regular followers and commenters) reminds her of abusive men in her past. Dr. Jones
responded, in part, that this was a low blow--to be accused of being abusive as a man is as low as being called Hitler. There are 338 comments on that post, a lot of them rambling. I'll leave it to you to pick through it if you want more nuance.

I was struck by this exchange, because I am both attracted and repelled by this work of being vulnerable with "the oppressor". I recognized in the exchange my own behavior, and in Dr. Jones' response a similar pattern I have encountered. This post, then, is an exploration of my own motives and not those of the commenter at Dr. Jones' blog.

Here are some reasons I tell my stories of intimate violence, even or especially in vulnerable places:
(I'm not proud of all of these and they aren't always true)

1. I see what I consider to be bad behavior, and I want to shut it down. My stories can have that effect. I had a professor who used to talk about "white women's tears" and their magical powers. A lot of us have honed the subconscious skill of tears as a defense in our interactions with men, and we bring it to bear in many situations. Sometimes we might understand this behavior as Paulo Freire's "weapons of the weak", and other times inappropriately use it to avoid culpability as oppressors. Nevertheless, using our own vulnerabilities and weaknesses to stop an attack can be effective.

2. I want others to know they aren't alone. Even though large numbers of women (and men) have experienced intimate violence, many of us feel like our situations are unique and not shared. Connection with others willing to speak publicly of intimate violence can be a lifeline, especially in what feels like hostile territory.

3. I want to name and shame bad behavior, regardless of whether I can get it to stop. In the words of Anne Lamott: "You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better." Having experienced intimate violence, it is my right to tell the story of it. Being human, if telling that story is painful to one who has hurt me, that carries satisfaction.

4. I believe that some people are simply uneducated--that they do not know that stories like mine are non-fiction. If that's true, then hearing my stories might be a vital piece of information that could alter their perceptions toward justice and compassion.

5. Making myself vulnerable in unsafe situations is a familiar pattern to me--I know how to navigate that kind of hostile space, having been involuntarily trained to do it. If I can shift the conversation into oppressor/oppressed dialogue, then I can speak with passion and clarity around this good vs. evil polarity. And I know how to escape the conversation with dignity, claiming the space has become unsafe and retreating.

6. Redemptive Suffering: I believe (sometimes) that Christ calls me into vulnerability for the purposes of being in relationship--for it is through relationship that God's love manifests.


I first heard of Redemptive Suffering in an ethics class at Princeton Theological Seminary, taught by John Bowlin. He assigned an essay by Marilyn McCord Adams titled, "Redemptive Suffering: A Christian Solution the Problem of Evil". The link is to the book of essays, which is out of print and stupidly expensive. Best bet is a library.

I was totally disgusted with the concept of Redemptive Suffering. That was the fall of 2007, so it's taken me nearly 6 years to find a way to apply this in my own life. In fact, in my 2012 art journals I illustrated my thoughts on Redemptive Suffering precisely:

Donkey. Dung.
Redemptive Suffering is the idea that there could be some value to our suffering in terms of God's redemption of individuals and the world. There might be value in the suffering of the victim to God, to the abuser, and to the victim (I can barely type this). Adams explores the concept thoroughly in her essay, and as I read it again today for the first time since 2007, I saw much more nuance and possibility than I could at that time. One of the challenges for me is that Adams' primary example was a situation of intimate violence: a stressed business man and his wife (and seriously, Trigger Warning on this story):
...One night after he has drunk even more than usual, his wife says quietly but firmly, "I think you've had enough." He protests that everything is fine, but she repeats, "I think you've had enough," whereupon he hits her and knocks her out. At first he thinks he has killed her, but she recovers and no charges are pressed. In this incident, the man's anger and hostility, which he had been so carefully hiding (more from himself than from everyone else) by drowning in drink, is externalized on a comparatively innocent victim. He cannot rationalize away his behavior in terms of any commensurate attack from her. It is an occasion of judgment, in which the man is brought face to face with who he really is and with the choice of seeking help or pursing ruin.
So in 2007 I choked on this story and the subsequent suggestion that in the wife staying with her husband, he might be redeemed, and she might find herself more intimate with God in the martyrdom. If I remember rightly, Dr. Bowlin suggested the ensuing passionate and frustrating class discussion around this article would be exactly what Dr. Adams was aiming for in writing the essay. As I tried to find a copy of this essay to link for you, I discovered hundreds of essays and articles which have engaged Dr. Adams' essay. It strikes a nerve.

I remember that I told more of my story than I probably should have in the class discussion. Part of my argument against Redemptive Suffering was that something similar to that woman's story had happened to me. The one argument that stayed with me went something like this, "Of course she shouldn't be obligated to stay in the marriage. But what if, knowing the risks, knowing the strength of her own mental and spiritual health, she decided to stay as a sacrifice--her cross to bear, for the sake of the other and the sake of God's redemption of the world."

Well, to that, I said Donkey Dung, and washed my hands of it. And I still would not recommend that people stay in situations of intimate violence. I've gotten to the place where I recognize that people have the right to stay, and it's not my business, but I ain't Jesus, and I don't care enough about abusers to sacrifice their victims for their abuser's salvation.

But when I read the comments at Dr. Jones' blog, I immediately recognized something of the Redemptive Suffering dilemma in the interaction. It occurred to me that to a lesser degree, women who choose to be vulnerable about intimate violence are choosing to stay in relationship with the oppressor, and are engaging in a form of Redemptive Suffering through the telling of our stories and the continued offer of relationship to those who don't honor those stories.

William C. Plasher puts it like this in his review of a later book by Adams: "Is there anything you can say in the presence of burning children? But after the burning has ended, [Adams] notes, survivors have to deal with their experiences, and they may have questions to which a philosopher can say something helpful."

Last night I tweeted this in conversation with a friend: "I mean, I really think the world is a beautiful place. At this point, I don't want anything changed about my past. I don't know how to convey that I am utterly content with myself and what I've come from w/out sounding grateful for the bad, cuz I'm not. Not at all."

So I was startled in the re-reading of Adams' essay to find these words: "Nevertheless, he [a Christian engaging suffering] might be led to reason that the good aspect of an experience of deep suffering is great enough that, from the standpoint of the beatific vision, the victim would not wish the experience away from his life history, but would on the contrary, count it as an extremely valuable part of his life.

Never let it be said that Christianity lacks paradox.

This essay needs to be read and engaged thoroughly as a whole piece, because Adams offers several cautions and caveats. Perhaps most importantly she writes this, "My bold contention will be that the Christian approach to evil through redemptive suffering affords a distinctive solution to the problem of evil, for believers and unbelievers as well." A distinctive solution, not the prescriptive solution. A solution we are free to not engage in.

A lesson I've learned: When the trauma is fresh, or when it resurges like it happened yesterday, that is not the moment I am willing to give up my suffering for the glory of God. In a very real sense, Redemptive Suffering is a performance art. Mark Lewis Taylor, in his book The Executed God: The Way of the Cross in Lockdown America, wrote this:
When a policeman puts his knee in your back and is putting handcuffs on you, your face to the ground or pavement, you may have a sense that you are closer to real power in that moment than you are to the arresting officer, who thinks he is the powerful one...For the demonstrator open to it, there can be in that moment of bodily subjugation a discovery of a confidence and power believed to come from the depths of the earth.
"For the demonstrator open to it"
"can be"
a descriptive solution, not the prescriptive solution
a performance art of suffering

There is something of this performance art when I write so intimately about violence on my blog and in other spaces where I venture. When I choose to share stories or allude to triggers, I am very deliberately putting myself out there to clash with whoever chooses not to treat me gently. It is hard to hold tight to one's privilege, one's perspective, one's philosophical internet points when one is confronted by somebody else's concrete horrors. If, in the middle of your oppressive behavior, my performance causes you to consider what is happening, then you benefit, I benefit, and God rejoices.

a descriptive solution to the problem of evil.

Marilyn Adams writes from a particular Christian perspective, which calls for a trust in God's presence, God's intentions, and that the ultimate good is continued relationship with God. She posits Christ's assumption of humanity and death on the cross as an expression of God's extreme desire to be in relationship with us and to redeem sin. For many of us, this posture toward God is not possible or desirable in the midst of trauma, and it is years later (if ever) before we can reframe our suffering.

For some people, though, their suffering cannot be ended. They are stuck, for whatever reason, in the middle of oppression. And if they choose to frame their suffering as redemptive--even in the midst of their suffering--what right do I have to say this is wrong?

And if I (or any other woman) choose to insert my experience into conversations to make my suffering known, what right does anyone have to say that I cannot engage my suffering in this way, in the hopes that what I am doing might be redemptive for you, for me, for God?

This is hardly a novel idea. A Russian woman, Iulia de Beausobre wrote an essay called "Creative Suffering" in which she wrote about the suffering of life and humans and her own experience grappling with it. She wrote in particular about a Russian folk figure called the yurodivy—a sort of wanderer like we might understand a bard or a troubadour. Using this folk figure, she suggests a way in which we might engage suffering on a deeper level, to live more fully into the joy and life that can be found in the midst of suffering.
This matter of participation brings us to a figure as popular as he is typical in Russian history and life--to the yurodivy, 'the born fool', so hard to describe to anyone who has not grown up in Russia...It is perhaps best to begin by pointing out what the yurodivy is not. He is not a monk, though there is much about him that might lead the passer-by to think that he was: his speech, intonation, cant phrases, sometimes his clothes, and always his absolute voluntary poverty lend him a monkish air. He is nobody's son, nobody's brother, nobody's father, and has no home. He is as old as the history of Christian Russia and wanders over the whole of that huge country feeling equally at home everywhere. But he settles down nowhere and is usually to be met on the road...From a practical point of view, no useful purpose is served by anything that the yurodivy does. He achieves nothing. Yet there must be some strong attraction at work to draw men (and women too), poor creatures most of them, to choose such a rough and comfortless life, manhandled from time to time, pelted by children and set on by dogs. The attraction is found in participation, participation in all the dregs of life. The aim of the yurodivy is to participate in evil through suffering. He makes of this his life's work because, to the Russian, good and evil are, here on earth, inextricably bound together. This is, to us, the great mystery of life on earth. Where evil is at its most intense, there too must be the greatest good. To us this is not even an hypothesis. It is axiomatic.
<a pause in thought. I'm not sure how to transition this. 
I think perhaps I have drifted off too far from my usual anchors.>

I suggest that the comments on Dr. Jones' blog exhibit the way in which men and women are still locked in traumatic relationship. Most of the time, I think this is a sort of low-grade, daily trauma. Jean-Paul Sartre, in his play "No Exit," suggested that hell is other people.

Three people who have died find themselves in hell. They are locked in a room together for all eternity, unable to sleep, eternally stuck with each other’s company. They don’t even have toothbrushes. At first it doesn’t seem so bad, but after a little while they begin to drive each other crazy. In an effort to make the situation more bearable one of the characters suggests, “Let’s all sit down again quite quietly; we’ll look at the floor and each must try to forget the others are there.” For a while they try it until suddenly one of them cries out, “To forget about the others? How utterly absurd! I feel you there, in every pore. Your silence clamors in my ears. You can nail up your mouth, cut your tongue out—but you can’t prevent your being there.”

I can run as far away from my abusers as is humanly possible, but I cannot run away from other people. We are interconnected to the point that even when we are alone, our thoughts are shaped by the absence of people. W.S. Merwin: 
Your absence has gone through me
Like thread through a needle.
Everything I do is stitched with its color.
I feel some days that our inescapable connection to one another means that we are locked into place, into wrestling with the suffering we cause and experience. If that is the case, Redemptive Suffering may be donkey dung, but it may be my best option to confront the ongoing, daily oppression of sexism (and racism and heterosexism and cissexism...).

And what about safe spaces? Isn't there any place we can rest? I don't think so, although there may be safe-r spaces. I wrote about that in this post: "Safe Space." If we are following Christ to the cross, there may indeed be no safe space: 
As they were going along the road, someone said to him, ‘I will follow you wherever you go.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.’ ~Luke 9:57-58
Hell is other people, and Jesus can attest to that.

Marilyn Adams writes:
..the martyr's sacrifice can be used as an instrument of divine judgment, because it draws the persecutor an external picture of what he is really like--the more innocent the victim, the clearer the focus...In allowing himself to be crucified, [Jesus] permits their sinful attitudes to be carried into action and externalized in his own flesh...Unable to hear divine judgment through other media, there was at least a chance that they would be moved by the love of such a martyr and accept the painful revelation.
This is a dreadful picture--as dreadful as the cross. Adams reminds us that this "divine" strategy does not always work! It is non-coercive! In her example of a woman hit by her husband, she ends the story happily: "Our commuter chose to admit his need, seek help, and change his life-style." That is a rosy picture, indeed! And one not often repeated. Most stories of abuse and violence do not end so neatly. Jesus' own story did not end so neatly.

But it may be that the conversion of other people is not our aim in Redemptive Suffering. Knowing that I cannot control the other, knowing that the other may never see my suffering for what it is, I may nonetheless choose to enter into relationship with the other, trusting that whatever suffering I experience (and hell is other people, so there will be suffering) will be redemptive for me, pulling me more intimately into relationship with the Spirit, whom on my good days I trust is present.

I am twisting here to Andrew Root's essay, "Reexamining Relational Youth Ministry: Implications from the Theology of Bonhoeffer" (because one cannot engage a discussion that included Hitler without throwing in some Bonhoeffer!). 
I am free to open my humanity at the pace I desire, but at some point I must make myself known if I desire true relationality. Too often, relational ministry has been a one-way street. In a relational youth ministry of influence, adolescents are expected to let us come close and know them, but youth workers are not required to reciprocate. Place-sharing demands that in freedom I make myself known to the other by being with and for the other. The other may choose to remain closed to me due to his or her harsh reality or developmental location, but this is of secondary concern to the place-sharer. The youth worker's primary concern is freely to make his or her humanity available to the adolescent, inviting the adolescent to respect and honor the youth worker's distinct boundaries while sharing in his or her unique suffering and joys.
Am I comparing women and men to youth workers and adolescents? Perhaps! There is a tender boundary between men and women and the sharing of our suffering with one another--tender in the sense that it is painful and fragile. Share too much of my suffering and a man will shut down with fear and anger and denial. If a man threatens or blusters or makes himself too big, I will batten down the hatches and weather the storm. If we are to walk with one another, men and women (and across other power boundaries as well), place-sharing is as good as any suggestion of how to do it. I can make myself open to the other, without expectation that the other will change, repent, or even understand. I can offer my suffering in the knowledge that this will be redemptive for me and in the hopes that it might be redemptive for the other.

hope, but not expectation.
descriptive, but not prescriptive.



Do men not suffer too? Is their suffering somehow smaller? The "plight of the white/straight/man" has been mocked mercilessly--heck, I've participated in that. In the grand scheme of Oppression Olympics, straight/white/men are credited with the teensiest bit of suffering out of the all the competing categories. My point here isn't to argue if this is true, merely to acknowledge that men/white/straight also experience suffering--and that therefore they are eligible to participate in this economy of Redemptive Suffering.

Let us suppose that straight/white/men have the least amount of suffering to throw in the pot here--let us imagine for a moment that they are disadvantaged by a poverty of suffering. Consider this scripture:
[Jesus] sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. Then he called his disciples and said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.’ ~Mark 12:41-44
We can see that God honors the sacrifice made from poverty--if men are the poor widow, and out of their suffering (which many argue is smaller) they offer it up to God for the purposes of redemption, surely this will be considered an acceptable sacrifice!

And what might that look like? What would Redemptive Suffering look like for the men of the Emergent Christian blogosphere (or wherever else one might be engaging the oppressor)?

If women speak of abuse and triggers, and make unfair accusations--and after all, the men many of us are engaging are not the men who damaged us particularly (even if they are behaving in oppressive ways), is it not the lowest blow to be accused of spiritual abuse? What could men do with that suffering (and despite my snarky ways, I really am not intending to diminish that suffering in this moment)?

Perhaps a descriptive solution (not the prescriptive solution), might be to engage that suffering as Redemptive Suffering. Stay in relationship with women, even as they hit you with accusations of spiritual abuse. If you are an innocent canvas, all the better for women to see the ways in which they are sinning in their misguided accusations.

Without the expectation that women will change their ways, stay present: place-share. Be vulnerable. In your willingness to stay in relationship and to engage along tender fault lines with compassion and the conviction that God can redeem this suffering, might it not be possible for me to see how I have sinned against you (a man) by assuming that you are just like all the other men who have caused my suffering?

I once sat with a man who had done nothing to me. But he was a man, and I have been well-trained to be afraid of men. I spoke harshly of things that had happened to me. If I heard a man speak of women the way I spoke of men in that moment, I would have been defensive and angry. He held my hand gently and whispered, with tears in his eyes, "Wait. This happened to you?"

A gift that man gave me. A gift of redemption.

Sources Cited:


In addition, I cited several of my own posts on this blog

Books and Articles:

Marilyn McCord Adams, "Redemptive Suffering: A Christian Solution to the Problem of Evil" in Rationality, Religious Belief, and Moral Commitment: New Essays in the Philosophy of Religion, ed. by Robert Audi and William J. Wainwright (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1986), 248-267.

Iulia de Beausobre, Creative Suffering, (Cistercian Publications, 1988).

William C. Plasher, "An Engagement with Marilyn McCord Adams' Horrendous Evils and the Goodness of God" in Scottish Journal of Theology, 55/4 (2002): 461-467.

Andrew Root, "Reexamining Relational Youth Ministry: Implications from the Theology of Bonhoeffer " in Word & World, (Volume 26, Number 3, Summer 2006), 269- 276.

Jean-Paul Sartre, "No Exit" in No Exit and Three Other Plays, (Vintage, 1989).

Mark Lewis Taylor, The Executed God: The Way of the Cross in Lockdown America, (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 2001), 121.


  1. Astounding work Katie. I'm no innocent canvas, but I will gladly bear whatever slings and arrows are necessary to remain in relationship with you.

    1. It was a joy to see you last week, Aric. When I am tempted to throw in the towel, I remember how you stopped using the royal we in our communications. We are deeply grateful.

  2. This makes me uncomfortable the way a refining fire makes silver uncomfortable.

    Katie, This is my first time reading your work, but this i incredibly raw, honest, and stuffed to over flowing with kingdom tension.

    I don't have the words to respond well right now, but let me say thank you for this. This counts.

    1. Probably nobody on earth is more uncomfortable with this post than I. Thank you for reading and engaging. Blessings.

  3. Thank you for writing this! I want to see if I'm hearing what you're saying. I want to make sure I'm getting it clearly, because I might just be overexcited that I feel someone is agreeing with me - if you are indeed agreeing with me, which you may not be! Which is fine! But anyway. Are you saying that a powerful reason women share their experiences and make themselves vulnerable in spaces that aren't guaranteed safe is because willful suffering for the sake of helping others find redemption is a martyrdom of sorts, and something that God gives us the choice (not the requirement) to do. Because those are my thoughts on the subject of vulnerability, but I don't want to be putting words in your mouth!

    1. Stephy, I would say that I am engaging Redemptive Suffering (which Adams indeed calls martyrdom) as one of several options for interaction. If you are interested in this, I very much recommend Adams' essay. It is the best I've seen in terms of carefully examining the possibilities of Christian martyrdom.

      Of the options I listed in the beginning of my post, I think Redemptive Suffering offers the best route for men to engage this conversation.

      Last, while I am fiercely determined that people should have the right to decide whether or not they wish to engage with their oppressor, I also know that real life isn't that tidy. Redemptive Suffering is one possible avenue for those who are stuck (and that might really be all of us) in relationship with an oppressor.

      Thanks for engaging :)

    2. Love it. Want to read that essay.

    3. I'm @grammercie on twitter. connect with me there?


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