I’ve been thinking a lot lately about this article about the Wild Goose Festival in North Carolina, as the festival is gearing up for its second year. The festival was so popular last year that the organizers are adding a west coast version, in Oregon. While the article is obviously hyperbolic, and the author is in danger of having her critiques dismissed because of the strong language she uses, I do think it’s important to take what she says seriously.
Wild Goose markets itself as a conference that concerns itself with ‘justice, spirituality and art,’ and the intersection of all three. When a group of Christians and other affiliated or sympathetic people attempt to create a weekend event that aspires to be at the cutting edge of Christendom, it’s important that they respond well to criticism, such as that leveled by Kristin Rawls in the Killing the Buddha article I’ve been thinking about. Wild Goose is not just meant to be a music festival. They’re clearly aspiring to say something important about social justice, as well, and as such it’s fair game to critique them.
I think I’ve written on here before, although I can’t find the posts in the archives right now, about my ambivalence towards New Monasticism (particularly the awful story about a group of Americans going to Iraq and putting Iraqis in danger). I’ve at least been pretty candid with a number of people on here privately about my encounter with Shane Claiborne. I’ve met a number of other leaders of the evangelical left, emergent movement, and New Monastics, and I’ve read too many books written by the kind of people who speak at Wild Goose. I wrote a large chunk of my thesis on the evangelical left from the 1970s on, so I have studied this. So I’m coming to this article, and this topic, with a fair amount of personal and academic experience.
Furthermore, I don’t live in the edge of poverty, just precariously in the edge of the middle class. I graduated from one of the snottiest private colleges in the US, incidentally only a few miles from the Wild Goose Festival. I have the financial safety net to take a low-paying job next year, and I have the spare time to waste on Tumblr. As a vaguely-evangelical, high church-obsessed upwardly-mobile person, I have the sneaking suspicion that I am the kind of person that the Wild Goose festival hopes to attract.
Some of the problems Rawls lays out with Wild Goose are:
- treatment of LGBT people
- complete absence of feminist analysis
- lack of intellectual rigor (‘that made me twitch a lot’)
- the pervasive classism
In particular, the last bullet point is why Rawls needs to be listened to, even if she’s too snarky for a lot of Christians:
Notwithstanding the fact that “love” is perhaps the vaguest, most unhelpful political prescription of all time, this kind of thinking removes any analysis of power from the conversation. It falsely presumes that we all enter the conversation on equal footing. Indeed, everyone is so busy preaching “unity” and “loving one another” that there is never any interrogation of privilege or power. It’s a bit different out in mainstream society, but the message is clear: Love your oppressors. “Love” rhetoric is less pronounced in secular society, but we are accustomed to being silenced because we have a “mean tone.” We’re asked to speak more respectfully so that we can earn a hearing. We’re taught to submit to our oppressors. We’re being angry and irrational, and it’s our job to make everyone comfortable.
As Christians, we are not called to make everyone comfortable. If anything, being Christian mandates that we make people uncomfortable most of the time. Jesus was a prickly person, and he always ended up on the side of women, children, and the oppressed. This is not really hard to come to grips with, honestly; it’s just really hard to live out.
The way they spoke of poverty at Wild Goose, all of the big name speakers—Wallis, Campolo, Shane Claiborne, Richard Rohr, Brian McLaren—you know, the guys who neglect “the gays” and “the women” because they “care” so deeply for the poor, have, among other things, never heard of intersectionality. They simply do not grasp the fact that it’s not possible to differentiate poverty from femaleness or blackness or queerness or illness. All of these things can make us more vulnerable to poverty.
Here’s what I wish I’d had the presence of mind to say to the people at Wild Goose this summer: You speak of poverty as if it is something “outside,” something “other.” It is never “us.” “We” are upwardly mobile, well-educated people who grew up in the suburbs.
You insist on praying for people like me, but you haven’t the slightest idea that I walk among you. I have conversations with you. I hold my own in arguments. I call you out on your bullshit. I am unlucky, but I don’t think “downtrodden” describes me very well. I’m not downtrodden. I’m pissed off. So, no, I do not want your prayers. I do not want an invitation to your church, and I’m not interested in discussing “the poor” as if they are some kind of abstract concept. The things you had to say—the things you’ve built your careers on—are irrelevant in the face of actual poverty. It was shameless, the way you paraded a few token “poor people” around for kicks.
If it makes you feel better, go ahead and dismiss me as “bitter.” That’s the evangelical Christian’s favorite insult. Do it.
I am not bitter. I am outraged. I want “fellowship” with people who are outraged with me and who practice solidarity by showing up when it matters and advocating for real economic justice. I want you to use your clout and influence to help shut down predatory lenders like Sallie Mae and Citibank. When I say, “fuck your prayers,” I say it with teeth.
I don’t share Rawls’ liking for the Occupy Movement, but I do recognize her anger at Wild Goose and the kind of Christians it attracts. This connects to my frustration with the current evangelical-ish interest in telling stories, as if telling stories is a good way to affect social change or revitalize the church.
In a much more even-keeled critique of Wild Goose in Faith and Leadership, I read the following:
To me, Wild Goose seemed more a place to talk about what Christianity is not than a place to talk about what it is and what it will be. It seemed a throwback to a decade or so ago, a belated response to conservative fundamentalism rather than a step into the future.
So much of what I heard was formed in reaction to something else, framed by a rejection of the other side of the argument. We are not the kind of Christians who judge. We are not the kind of Christians who hate. We are not the kind of Christians who speak loudly about other people’s sins. Certainly, this is something to celebrate: the whole festival had an air of openness, gentleness, kindness and inclusion.
Yet it left me wondering — What about sin? What about evil? Where do we go when we get to the point where our understanding of how the world works, however progressive, fails us and we are lost? I felt like we were in danger of trying to save everything and everyone ourselves, trying to explain our faith and our God to ourselves in the most palatable way possible.
This, I think, is my main issue with Wild Goose and its speakers, although I don’t necessarily agree with the conclusions of the Faith and Leadership article. Rawls’ critique was not a fundamentally theological one, but I recognize that the anger she expresses needs to be faced. I get the feeling that in an attempt to be welcoming, to be open, to be progressive, Wild Goose tried to get away from actually facing fundamental societal injustices head on.
I want to be fair, here. I don’t think that the people at Wild Goose, either the speakers or the attendees, have bad intentions. I believe that most of them really do want to help with issues like poverty. They want to point evangelicalism away from some of the excesses of the Religious Right. That’s all well and good.
But there comes a point at which structural injustice need to be addressed. Before that can take place, though, some of the blinders need to be ripped off. If Rawls’ article forces Wild Goose to stop assuming that poverty, or feminism, or LGBT issues, are things outside of ‘us,’ then that’s a good.