One of the low points--other than my unHappy Meal encounter--was hearing not one but two joking references to "mixed marriage" while in Nashville. The first came through a mike, immediately preceding a prayer. And, while it did occur to me at the time that it was tasteless and grossly inappropriate (especially since I had, just a few minutes before, from my vantage point at a corner table, been struck by the fact that I could count the number of black faces in the room on one hand and still have fingers left over), it didn't outrage me nearly as much as it should have. It just sort of washed past me, an enduring legacy of having grown up in the South. It wasn't until the next day, when I heard it forthrightly named as racist by someone who was paying more attention than I was, that I realized the full depth of what it means to casually joke about "mixed marriages."
The next day, I heard another joke about while standing in the middle of church. This second time, it reverberated in all of its unintentional overtones. And the nervous wry bark of a laugh with which I responded to the first reference was replaced by simply a deep sadness, without any tinge of judgment, because I too had had to learn belatedly that this is nothing to laugh about.
Once in high school I heard a pillar of our church tell a joke, standing in the center aisle of the auditorium, with a punchline that ended with the n-word. Not even tempted to laugh nervously, I just stared in confusion. We can recognize racism in our midst when it comes packaged in blatant and socially unacceptable forms. But what's the difference between a joke with the n-word and a joke about "mixed marriage"? In the end, both rely on the same categorical racism--without it, they are incoherent.
This adds a new dimension to the discussion from the Dating Jesus session at CSC 2010 about the relationship of theology and justice. I suspect--as does my bro Robert Foster, whose comment was very insightful--that dismantling injustice in one context is a gateway to becoming cognizant of the need for social justice in other contexts as well. But one problem is, many people simply don't seem to see that there's anything unjust about the role or status of women in our churches. How could that possibly be? I dimly remember not being outraged by it, but I can no longer recapture the logic of that former point of view--I can no longer remember how it feels to not be bothered by this. This leaves me with the necessity of constructing some kind of coherent intellectual explanation for what seems now to be an inexplicable blindness to justice matters.
There are surely multiple factors in this, but here is the one that seems the strongest to me right now. Men and women are supposed to be ontologically distinct--this is the crux of "hierarchical complementarianism" just as much as it is straight-up patriarchalism. (To borrow a phrase from another CSC session, hierarchical complementarianism seems to me to be the theological construct justifying "benevolent sexism." Perhaps a post for another time, there.) So it's no biggie that men do X and women do Y; they are just essentially different kinds of human beings and therefore women could never do Y and it's stupid to get angry over it.
Like the logic of "mixed marriage," the concept of hierarchical complementarianism doesn't make sense without assuming categorical difference. And if we are still, as a church, joking and laughing about mixed marriage--demonstrating that on some level we still are not questioning the working assumption that white people and black people are essentially different kinds of people--no wonder we're not able to question the same logic when it shows up with regard to gender. These two things are linked at a deep conceptual level. We cannot have gender justice without racial justice. And maybe we're banging our heads against a brick wall with some people about gender justice because we've never adequately dealt with the generations-old sin of racism that still permeates our vision of the world, even as we bow our heads to pray and stand in the middle of our churches.