We Are Not Issues, We Are People
I remember the first time I was referred to as an “issue.” Growing up in a Church of Christ as a strong-willed, outspoken, female leader had its ups and downs. But rather than shut me down, my family tried to foster spiritual formation in my gifts, and my church family loved me despite my reckless neglect of the so-called gender roles. There were even a few people in my context who welcomed my gifts. Yes, I was painfully aware of the fact that our church was not gender inclusive. Yes, I became aware that my gifts and abilities were a bit problematic for my context. But I never felt like my existence was redefined as a problem until college. I remember sitting in a Bible class as one of just a few girls. Many of the boys who had grown up in our tribe were uneasy about the presence of women in the class. Mockery and sexist jokes helped to cut their anxiety. These jokes were often spoken out loud to the whole class, and the professor rarely, if ever, addressed the jokes. In fact, there were times when the professor joined in on the jokes, unaware of the harm they were inflicting. It was in the first few weeks of this class that I realized I am a problem for many of these people.
Over the course of that year, I came to recognize that I was seen as a symbol of the “women’s issue.” My peers and my professors would use this term to refer to my life experience. In class my male peers would say things like, “How do we address the women’s issue?” and, “I don’t think my church is ready to take on the women’s issue.” I was an issue. No longer was I a beloved sister in the faith; I was an issue. Oftentimes when the “women’s issue” would emerge in conversations, my existence became neutral, as if I was not one of these women being discussed. I would watch as an invisible spectator as the men surrounding me would try to pick apart this problem without my assistance. Eventually I found this conversation beyond the walls of my classroom. I discovered that the “women’s issue” is a popular conversation among male ministers and elders. Oddly enough, very rarely were women being asked to contribute to these conversations.
Eventually, I did find my way into other contexts where I was addressed as a person and not a problem. In these healthier contexts I was invited to share my experiences, and speak on my own behalf. Eventually I found a lot of healing in these new safe contexts. But here is what I have found, even in my gender-inclusive contexts: people are still being treated like they are problems instead of people.
We have the “race issue,” the “LGBT issue,” the “poverty issue,” the “transgender issue” (which has become distinct from other LGBT “problems” as of late), and a whole number of other issues. If I might make an observation, while recognizing my many privileges as a white heterosexual individual, oftentimes the people who have the most privileged voices in our communities are not recognized as problematic. The most privileged voices get to determine what is normative for the community. Therefore, those in privilege rarely identify themselves as problems. Other people are problems that must be addressed.
What happens when we start to reduce people to issues or problems? I think there are three primary harmful outcomes that result from this behavior:
Reducing people to issues or problems enables the dehumanizing of those people. In the process of dehumanization there is an apparent disregard for the Imago Dei—that is, the Image of God—in the people we are reducing. When we betray the Imago Dei in others, we stop seeing them as creatures made with divine purpose, and thus begin to treat them as negligible objects in our communities.
When we refer to entire groups of people as a collective issue, we ignore the diversity of experiences within that particular demographic. The entire group of people is reduced to a set of assumptions and generalizations that may not be true for everyone. These assumptions gloss over the complexity of each life that is lived in the margins.
This categorizing of people perpetuates what I might call the insider/outsider illusion. As I watched men have the conversation about the “women’s issue” all around me without engaging me, it became clear that they did not consider me an insider even though I had given my life to the work of the church. When I heard ministers refer to the “women’s issue,” they spoke about us women as if we were not present or not a part of things. I have watched as ministers and elders have begun to address the “LGBT issue” from the pulpit as if none of their congregants identify as LGBT. But here is the truth: we are already in your communities, and we are already in your church. Women, homeless, black, Mexican, gay, transgender—you name it, we’re all here. We have been here. We are already on the inside, and we want to be treated as insiders.
So here is what I ask of you, as a sister in Christ. Please stop calling us an issue. Please ask to hear about our experiences. Please respect us as individuals with unique experiences. Please invite us to be a part of the solution to the systemic brokenness we face every day in this world. I think it would be beautiful for all of us to work together toward reconciliation, but that begins with honoring each other’s humanity. It begins with honoring the Imago Dei in everyone we meet. People are not issues; people are children of God.