At worship recently the anthem was a duet titled “Why is There Such a Thin Line?” and included such questions as “Why did God make such a thin line between darkness and light, peace and war?” etc. It was a haunting piece of music with strange harmony and dissonance to complement the words—a piece of music that required some effort and some thought on the part of the listener as well as the singer.
This duet reminded me of a conversation I’d had a few days earlier, in which I was trying to convince a friend that there is something that feels qualitatively different about church members commenting on the hair/clothes/weight of a female pastor than that of a male pastor. Yes, I believe men get those comments as well, though I doubt they come as often as they do to clergy women, particularly young women. And yes, I believe that these comments are generally made when a congregant can’t think of anything else to say—the sermon has already left their brain by the time they get to the door and they need something to say while they shake the preacher’s hand. But still…as a woman, I’ll just say that it feels different when people choose to comment on my appearance rather than any aspect of a worship service or education opportunity or whatever else might be going on. It feels like a devaluation of our ministry—a way to reduce the minister to something to look at and dismiss anything substantive that she might say or do.
Yet in other contexts, if people say “you look great!” or “I love your haircut” or “you’ve been losing weight and your hard work shows” or “that’s a great skirt,” then it sounds like a compliment. So why, in the pastoral context, is it pretty much the opposite? Why is there such a thin line between a compliment and a demeaning word? I don’t think church members mean to belittle the work that we do, I don’t think they mean to put us in our place, I don’t think they mean to objectify our bodies rather than think about our work and the ministry we try to empower them to do.
Or maybe they do mean that, and I simply don’t want to believe that’s what is happening.
It’s such a fine line between compliment and sexual harassment, such a small step from praising the hard work I’ve done to have a healthier body to objectifying that body, such a little leap from making a polite comment to using that comment to devalue the rest of my life and work. Sometimes that line is as obvious as the gender or age or tone or body language of the person saying it, sometimes it’s as clear as a comment that is blatantly inappropriate, and sometimes—like any system—it’s more complicated than that.
Maybe I’m too sensitive and I just need to smile and accept that people are admiring my hair (it is fabulous, after all) or wondering if that’s the same outfit I wore last week (probably, I don’t have money for new clothes and only a few pieces in my wardrobe work with our clip-on microphone system) or thinking about the fact that my robe seems to hang differently as I stop stress-eating and start stress-exercising instead. I know that comes with the territory—but why does it need to? Why is that the status quo, rather than comments about the sermon, the liturgy, the atmosphere of worship?
Don’t get me wrong—I get those comments too. But sometimes it’s the seemingly innocent “compliments” that add up in my psyche, and they don’t add up to feeling good about my clothing choices, my hair products, or even my exercise regimen. Instead they add up to feeling that how I look is more important than what I say or do. And they add up to a culture that permits objectification—it starts small and “friendly” and soon balloons into something much less hospitable, something that slides easily toward sexual harassment without the hard edge, a culture in which ministry is hard, if not impossible.
Our whole society seems to be in on this game—the one in which we can focus on anything other than what the person is saying – using race or weight or the style of our eyeglasses to distract from the message. Politicians have been playing the game for decades (Remember the tie-color controversy during the 2004 election, or the comments about Hillary’s hairstyle and makeup choices in 2008?), homing in on inconsequentials in order to diminish the words coming out of the other person’s mouth. Our TV shows and movies make workplace sexual harassment humorous, something to imitate in order to get a laugh. Our celebrity culture is all about measuring up to standards of beauty, not standards of talent or integrity.
I should not be surprised that the church is a place playing the same game…and yet I am. I want the church to be a place where all are welcome, all are valued for who they are as beloved children of God, all are encouraged to do ministry, all are seen through God’s eyes. I’m reminded of the story of Samuel going to anoint David, and how Samuel first saw how handsome David’s brothers were—he was certain the man who looked the part must be the one. But God reminded Samuel that God sees inside, not the outside. Sure, David also turned out to look the part, but that wasn’t what mattered. I long for a church where the inside matters, where the things we reward are love, compassion, service, integrity, hope—things grounded in who God is and who God calls us to be, which is the only thin line I want to cross.