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Power and Resistance: What we can learn from Mark Driscoll and Mars Hill

posted 25/8/14

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Previously I’ve written about how ideology doesn’t merely offer us an explicit set of practices that are acceptable and unacceptable, but also an implicit constellation of acceptable ways to do unacceptable practices.

Ideology doesn’t simply police the borders between the law and transgression, but also offers up ways of transgressing what is acceptable to the law. An ideology thus does not only create the distinction between the category of orthodox and heretic (or sacred and profane), but also offers up ways of being a heretic (profane) that are allowed by the authorities (the sacred).

An interesting example of this can be seen in a recent campaign by the Australian group Love Makes a Way. In protest against the imprisonment of children seeking asylum, various religious leaders in Adelaide engaged in an illegal sit-in at the electoral office of Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott. For a time this protest was allowed, but eventually the police were called in to remove them.

What we witness here is the slide from an acceptable form of transgressive protest to an unacceptable one.

Initially the act was tolerated. Indeed, if they had simply entered, made a statement, then left this would have been an acceptable transgression allowed by the authorities. It would also have been largely ineffective in making change. But there came a point when the transgression of the protestors was no longer acceptable to the authorities and the police started making arrests.

This wasn’t the first time Love Makes a Way had engaged in such activities. Previously some religious leaders who had been arrested were charged and brought to court. Yet this only caused embarrassment to the Government, for the media covered the story and citizens started to ask difficult questions concerning the unjust policy. In addition, the protestors were acquitted and the Judge commended them for their stance (another serious embarrassment to the Government).

Of course ideological systems quickly adjust to such acts. Hence, those who place themselves in the camp of resistance need to constantly adjust their strategy. In the above example the police quickly learned that they should quietly release the next batch of protestors rather than put them through the courts.

The point here is that ideological systems operate with a subterranean network of transgressive practices, practices that are needed for the smooth running of the system itself. A Government might, for example, champion human rights, freedom and justice, while implicitly engaging in torture, the creation of Black Hole prisons and imprisonment without recourse to the legal system. These subterranean activities are needed by the system to manage a crisis within that system, but the abusive practices cannot be named.

Effective protest involves bringing these unspoken truths to the surface, confronting the system with its own disavowed truth. This can only happen when dissidents refuse to play into the perverse system of acceptable protest (protest endorsed by the system it attacks) and instead find ways of bringing those things into the light of day. Yet, with each move dissidents make, the system will attempt to compensate, adjust, and normalize. Hence new ways of transgressing the norm must be found.

This cat and mouse game is what we see play out in the events surrounding Mark Driscoll and Mars Hill in recent years. As such it offers an instructive example of the relationship between between power and resistance.

Mars Hill, like any ideological system, was able to maintain its equilibrium through a subterranean network of disavowed activities (plagiarism, manipulation of book sales, unfair sacking, totalitarian leadership structures, anonymous outbursts of rage etc.). These activities were, to a greater or lesser extent, known by many members of Mars Hill. But they remained part of the secret pact of the organization.

While Driscoll recently said that he had wished these transgressions were dealt with internally (rather than in the “court of public opinion”) the problem is precisely that these transgressions are generally already known internally (for example, many employees of Mars Hill will have known about how book sales figures were being manipulated and people were being unfairly dismissed). An internal process would then be an impotent gesture that would lead to little more than token changes. For real transformation to happen resistance needs to occur in a way that isn’t endorsed by the system it critiques.

It was only because many who left Mars Hill became increasingly vocal about the abuse, combined with the persistence of individuals like Stephanie Drury, Matthew Paul Turner, and Rachael Held Evans, that the implicit constellation of acceptable transgressions within the Mars Hill edifice (transgressions that enabled it to function), were directly exposed. An exposure that led to the exposure of a fundamentally unjust and oppressive culture.

It’s hard to tell what will happen next, for the system will try hard to adapt. For example Driscoll is currently closely working with the highly skilled conservative PR firm DeMoss. Their job, which they will do well, will be to attempt to re-establish equilibrium within the system via token gestures, minor adjustments and highly orchestrated attempts to appease critics. In contrast, those who have been bringing up the subterranean network of abuses within Mars Hill have few resources at their disposal. Yet regardless of what happens at Mars Hill, what we see playing out is a very clear example of how power and resistance operate.

Politically speaking, this can help us understand the importance of what is currently taking place in Ferguson. What we witness there are protestors who are finding ways to bring to light the systemic racism operating within the political system itself, a resistance that is drawing to the light of day the ubiquitous, normalized violence operating in disavowed ways. Distressingly, when exposing such abuse within a system that controls the police and military, the results will often be brutal, horrifying and deadly. But the world is watching and, if the protestors are successful, change will gradually come.

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