So as I write this, it’s Advent, a time when traditionally people have focused on the time of waiting in the midst of deep and dark tension for good things to arrive. But speaking of darkness, bits of the Christmas story itself are remarkably dark and horrific, as the story of when Joseph and Mary have to flee the country because Herod saw a potential baby born to be the Messiah as a huge threat to his power. This week’s blog post delves into that topic. Which is to say: what happens to assertiveness when nasty aggressive people will take anything you do towards the common good as a threat? And how does unhealthy theology play into that?
Sooooo yeah, that question—about unhealthy people taking assertive attempts to make the world better as a threat—is entirely too relevant in our current world, isn’t it?
Ugh. I would much prefer it not be so d*mned relevant. But because it is, let’s unwrap the dynamics so we can better understand them and speak back against them. Thanks for giving me a bit of your time to unwrap a few more of the complicated things at stake here.
Building on Past Themes Here
And yeah, this is definitely not a new topic on this blog. I’ve already talked about it a bit–for instance, last week and here. But I’ve been thinking about it a lot, and I definitely more to say. So here we go.
My Background and Standpoint
As always, I’m coming at this topic as a pastor’s kid from a moderate Protestant denomination in the Midwest US who went on to get a PhD in Communication and now studies and teaches with a focus on stress, trauma, and conflict communication.
Where My (Recovering) Conflict Style Fits In
I’m also writing this as a recovering avoider-accommodator when it comes to conflict, which means I’ve had to work to pull myself out of what stress and trauma scholars call the fawn response, which is the way in which our neurobiologies get trained to “befriend the threat” as a way to survive tricky situations.
I’ve talked a lot before about how I see the fawn response at the root of a lot of the toxic sides of Christian “Nice.” And how I see Christian Nice in some cases as the overspiritualization of an unhealthy version of the fawn response, in a way that too often ends up enabling and even being complicit with nasty things like authoritarianism, bullying, exploitation, and supremacy culture.
A Frustrated Disclaimer I Hope Isn’t Truly Necessary
QUICK NOTE before I dive too deeply into this: So help me if I get any comments on this piece calling people who are pro-choice “Herods.” That’s a really incredibly inappropriate connection to draw, and that line of totally inappropriate reasoning enables a LOT of really actually Herodian behavior in the US in recent years and decades. I talked about the deeply unhealthy demonization of pro-choice positions here. It is NOT OKAY, folks!
When Accommodation Is Actually Deeply Appropriate
So yeah, back to accommodation as a conflict style–that is, situations in which one person gives in and (mostly) doesn’t get their way.
See, if bullies get confronted and find themselves giving up their bullying because they feel threatened, that doesn’t actually mean the fawn response they’re enacting—befriending what they SEE as a threatening person—is necessarily a bad thing. That would actually be an appropriate conflict response to that situation. It also doesn’t mean the assertive person calling them out actually is being aggressive, though.
But yeah, it’s highly appropriate to accommodate, or give in, when you’re the one who’s in the wrong, has been working on inaccurate information, etc. Or, importantly, has caused damage to others.
Oh, Wait, That’s Just Repentance—and Doesn’t Mean Assertive People Are Aggressive
In fact, pretty standard interpretations of the Bible show us the latter kind of accommodation is deeply ethical in THOSE situations where someone has caused damage. I believe there’s so much talk about repentance in the Bible—for THOSE situations specifically.
I also think this is the type of accommodation that’s actually nodded to when the Bible talks about submitting to one another out of love. (You know, as opposed to the bastardized understandings of those verses that have been selectively edited, mostly to hurt women and minorities and other vulnerable folks.)
Does Fawn=Shaming Someone?
And here’s the tricky part. Because the logic of bullying in most bullies’ minds is that competing or accommodating are the only real options, bullies fear fawning as a sign of loss and as a sign of potential shame.
But wait. Accommodating—especially when we are wrong—definitely doesn’t have to automatically mean shame or weakness. It’s actually a huge strength of character to admit when you’re wrong.
So yeah, accommodation under the right circumstances doesn’t actually have to mean fawning. Because, let’s be clear: not all competition or disagreement, including calling people out on unhealthy crap they’re doing or participating in, needs to be a personal threat.
But If You Listen to the Bully, You’d Think The Only Choices Are Dominating or Fawning
The bully uses twisted logic to excuse them always trying to get their own way. After all, if accommodation is shame, and that’s the only option besides getting their own way, well….that must be bad.
For the bully, of course. But to have their own way, others get told they must fawn, and that there are no other options. And since only the bully is supposed to win, well, that means that the other person is being transgressive if they don’t fawn instead.
How Christian Nice Unfortunately Fits in Here
Soooo yeah. Unfortunately, some segments of Christianity—even well-meaning ones that just have trouble imagining that multiple conflict styles might be useful in light of different power dynamics and situations—have suggested that accommodation is ALWAYS the healthiest conflict style. I talked about some aspects of this previously here and here.
What this boils down to is the church encouraging people to kowtow to bullies, often at the expense of the vulnerable.
Which is how even well-meaning theologies of Christian Nice end up being complicit in abuse.
How We Come to Internalize Fawning by Everyone All the Time as Somehow “Moral”
The thing is, that if you grow up in a church that feeds you this kind of messaging repeatedly, that means you get trained on a deeply visceral level to feel that resisting authoritarianism, even in an assertive manner, is actually a moral transgression as well as automatically really aggressive.
So yeah. In this schema, good Christian Nice folx too often come to believe on a visceral level that there is no possibility for assertive protest against exploitation in the world. No room for people to take care of both themselves AND others. No space for healthy calling out of behaviors.
To paraphrase Yoda here, they argue that there is no win-win (at least when it comes to speaking truth to genuinely unhealthy power). There is only win or loss.
Yup, Even in Pretty Educated Denominations: The Theology of Bothsidesism
This is a really fascinating thing to me, looking back at my upbringing, because thinking this way requires an extremely selective look at the Bible. And, I mean, my tradition frequently read and carefully studied the Bible in all its weirdness. So it just fascinates me that still, this unhealthy pattern slipped through our understanding.
And yet it very much did. As I’ve noted many times before, the depth to which it did has become intensely clear to me over the past few years.
It’s been like watching a trainwreck as I’ve seen our Christian Nice-based bothsidesism has often kowtowed to and often even collaborated with alt-right Christian nationalist extremists who are acting an awful lot like Herod while gaslighting everyone about that being some sort of weird righteousness. (I talked about that here.)
Lead Us and Others Not Into Completely Unnecessary Trauma
So yeah, this kind of theological “Nice” pattern can very very easily lead us into situations that traumatize us and others. And since we’ve been taught through our Christian leaders that we would only be safe if we don’t speak up, it can lead to a disturbing number of situations in which an existing trauma resulting from such situations gets compounded by spiritual trauma.
Back to Herod in the Christmas Story
All of these points are super important to bring up when talking about trying to be assertive in an age of Herods—because, well, if you’ve read that dark chapter in the Christmas story in the Bible about him slaughtering all the babies under two because he was so scared that one of them would usurp his power….. Well, to make a huge understatement, that’s not exactly healthy behavior.
In fact, it’s the epitome of unhealthy evil behavior.
Wait, Jesus Was Only a Baby…
And here’s the important thing to keep in mind here—Jesus was only a g*ddamned baby at this point, if you’ll pardon the french. (I hope you will—if you haven’t read my piece on swear-policing, you can find it here.) Yes, prophecies and miracles AROUND him had been recorded in the story, but Jesus was a BABY when Herod tried to kill him.
That’s right, folks: it really doesn’t take DOING anything actually aggressive to p*ss off a malignantly narcissistic authoritarian, as Herod certainly seems to have been.
And that’s a really key point.
Why Does That Matter?
Well, for years I had this internalized idea that if surely I did the right things, said the right things, that I would be able to stop unhealthy people from seeing me as a threat. That, in fact, is the root of the idea behind the fawn response.
And because of the theology of Christian Nice, I actually believed on a visceral level that it was downright immoral and transgressive if I called out bullies and exploiters instead of fawning to them.
Again, Fawn Can Be Appropriate
Going to back to the fawn response: I mean, if you’re in a genuinely dangerous situation, such as a domestic violence situation, it’s very natural and appropriate for you to temporarily fawn to keep yourself alive until you can plan a safe getaway.
But It Wasn’t What God Directed in the Christmas Story
But back to the Christmas story, Joseph and Mary and Jesus didn’t actually fawn. The wise men did, temporarily, so Herod wouldn’t attack them. But then they enacted the flight stress response by going home by a different way.
And Joseph and Mary and Jesus enacted the same flight response. God actually told them to.
No Silver Bullets When Dealing with Herods, Though
None of that means that the flight response is always the most appropriate response either—Jesus’ life and ministry as well as those of the prophets shows an awful lot of calling out of people.
So yeah, the Herod figures of that time weren’t fans of any of these stress responses that didn’t let him kill the people they wanted. They found Jesus and his peops to be threats no matter what.
Doesn’t Take Much To Be Seen as a Threat
Here’s the thing: when you’re dealing with unhealthy authoritarian personalities, whatever you do, you will automatically be seen as a threat.
Let me say that again, though, going back to Herod seeing Jesus as a threat in the Christmas story. Jesus was *only a baby.* He was in the age where he was pretty fully dependent on others to take actions.
And yet, already, Jesus as this potentially prophesied Messiah figure, was seen to be SUCH A HUGE THREAT that Herod didn’t only hunt him specifically down and kill him. He gave out orders to have ALL the babies that were even potentially in his age range killed.
That’s Right, Jesus Was Profiled—and Other Babies Died for His Perceived Sins Before He was Two
Sooooo yeah. Just being a seemingly ordinary person—even a baby—that fits a profile is sometimes all it unfortunately takes to make you very very unsafe.
Sound familiar? Yup. Sigh. See, this is too often how bullying dictators and other narcissists and authoritarians and supremacists in power have protected themselves at the expense of the vulnerable for millennia.
And in the face of such evil, all the fawning in the world done by either those babies or those babies’ mothers on their behalf wasn’t enough to keep those other ordinary babies Herod targeted safe.
So Yeah, Authoritarians Lie to Get People to Fawn
I’m getting close to winding this up, but this is a super important point. See, authoritarians tend to enforce their power by convincing people that the fawn response will at least mostly keep them safe.
Because of that, people tend to keep their heads down, and they try to enforce that with others as well.
Sometimes they even get super mean with those who choose to speak up assertively under those conditions.
Sometimes they tell others that they’re actually being downright immoral if they speak truth to power.
Not that Assertiveness Is a Silver Bullet Either…But It’s What Jesus Mostly Did.
Soooo yeah, let’s be clear. When Jesus grew up and actually did assertively speak truth to power, that did make him unsafe.
But speaking truth to power on behalf of the vulnerable and the common good—calling out unhealthy dynamics toward better health and wellness for all—was actually WHAT JESUS DID once he grew up.
Doing the same is only immoral within a Christian framework if you’re on the other side than Jesus.
So Yeah, Assertiveness Has Benefits Beyond Keeping Us Safe
At any rate, if you ARE speaking truth to unhealthy Herodian dynamics, it’s important to note that two things will be true:
- You’ll be actually following in Jesus’ (grownup) steps; and
- You’ll be seen as a threat no matter how softly you speak truth to power.
See, the reason to be assertive instead of aggressive isn’t actually because it always keeps us safe.
Speaking Truth to Power CAN Bring Healthier Results
One remarkably pragmatic reason to be assertive instead of aggressive is that the only way to keep ALL of us as safe as possible, including the vulnerable, is to have enough of us speaking truth to power to make an impact. And it should be noted that that WILL be seen as aggressive to those aggressive peops in power no matter what you do.
Toward Healthier Relationships with Non-Herods
And yes, let’s be clear: there are lots of benefits to being assertive rather than accommodative to bullies beyond these big picture safety possibilities.
For one thing, not everyone IS a Herod. And if we use a fawn response automatically in interpersonal relationships that aren’t with bullies as though they were bullies, it actually often ends up meaning we accommodate to others in ways that both diminish us at the same time it diminishes them.
Our assumptions that we have to accommodate in all situations as the only healthy form of spirituality so often ends up cutting us off from a richer understanding of relationship.
It too often means we accommodate to what we think the other person or the situation wants and needs, which is often deeply and sadly false and keeps everyone from knowing and being known in a real way.
Refusing Abuser Conflict Logic
Finally, spiritualizing the fawn response as the “best” stress response cuts us off from genuinely win-win solutions that these stunted views of spirituality keep us from.
And this in turn keeps us constantly thinking in hierarchy. Which leads us internalizing the idea that if we’re constantly meant to be fawning as the only way to be, surely the bully is winning.
The idea that the bully is not always right—because none of us is—and actively needs to be challenged many times, for the common good, simply isn’t part of these equations.
But it desperately needs to be for us to have a healthier world.
Toward an Actually Healthier World
So yeah, please don’t come to me saying that it’s “the only Christian thing” to be “nice” in the face of oppression. Or that if I just used nicer language then surely the bullies wouldn’t find me to be a threat.
These are only fallacies that we impose on top of Scripture to justify our unhealthy elevation of the fawn response in our theologies.
And right now, let me say that that is not okay.
Don’t Believe Me? Here’s a Theologian Saying It!
Don’t believe me? Well, one of the primary theologians from the church I grew up, Abraham Kuyper, actually spoke to this point in prophetic ways my people too often tend to overlook.
Here’s what Abraham Kuyper said: “When principles that run against your deepest convictions begin to win the day, then battle is your calling, and peace has become sin; you must, at the price of dearest peace, lay your convictions bare before friend and enemy, with all the fire of your faith.”*
So yeah, that ought to speak for itself. When [unhealthy] principles…begin to win the day…peace has become a sin.
Watch What Those Convictions Are, Though!
I will say, though, if you find your deepest convictions worrying about whether someone swears for emphasis over and above something like holding white supremacists and Christian nationalists accountable, then mayyyybe, just mayyyybe, that’s a sign you should reconsider those deepest convictions of yours.
That may be a sign that you’ve bought abuser logic. And there’s a good chance that if you’re using that logic, that you’re enabling them.
I’ll just leave that with you and an amen, and a final charge.
A Final Charge
Go team #AssertiveSpirituality! Let’s continue to do what we can where we are with what we’ve got to speak up against the toxic crap toward a healthier world for us all. And remember, it’s a relay marathon—it’s not up to any of us individually to make the world better, but we can keep working on it as we’re able. We can do this thing.
Looking for more resources toward speaking up for what’s right and dealing with the conflict that results?
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*Many thanks to Kristin Kobes Du Mez for recently posting about an event where Rachael Denhollander quoted this line from Abraham Kuyper—it came just in time to fit perfectly in this article.