A few years ago, a friend loaned me a copy of My Own Words by Ruth Bader Ginsburg. I carried around that book of speeches and lectures and briefs for a couple of weeks, absorbing Ginsburg’s work and becoming fascinated with her as a person.
I went on to read Ruth Bader Ginsburg: A Life and fell in love with RBG. Lucky for you, you don’t have to read hundreds of pages. You can watch RBG, a 2018 documentary, or On The Basis of Sex to learn more about her life and all she has accomplished. America was a completely different world for women before RBG. I appreciate that work but spending time with her life taught me to admire her as a woman.
Here are some things I greatly admire about RBG:
-her ability to foster strong friendships with people who disagreed with her
-her marriage to Marty
-her work ethic
-her commitment to her beliefs/standards
-her lifetime of work
-her brilliant mind and logic
-her unswerving commitment to lead others to incremental growth
I have been talking about my love for RBG on Instagram on and off since I read her biography, but since her death I have commented on her legacy and frequently am questioned by people who disagreed with some of her stances. I understand that, especially since recently the Hobby Lobby contraceptive debate got the most publicity in conservative circles. I have deep concerns over some of the pushback because it seems to represent a bigger problem in the church: we lack the ability to both admire someone and disagree with them in some area.
This is the short note to why everything is so polarized. This inability is why different denominations fight, why secondary and tertiary issues are hotly debated, and then disagreement leads to ostracization. This is why our friend groups tend to remain similar without sustained effort at diversity. But I think we can practice some skills that will lead us forward.
One thing that has been revealed by some of the pushback is that people don’t read primary sources. We think social media blurbs are enough. We think other people’s critiques of someone are enough. We lose so much when we don’t read their writings or a longer form biography. What people often carried away from the news or their social media influencer about RBG is that she was pro-abortion. She did fiercely defend abortion because she believed that women should make their own choices instead of the government making them. (This is an area where I disagree with her. I am overwhelmingly pro-life, but I also no longer believe that banning abortion is the best way to lower abortion rates.)
Tiny bits of information also leads us to state our case in the most extreme way possible. This article outlines her argument (that, remember, I don’t agree with but understanding is crucial) for supporting abortion, but also reveals she was the reason many women got to keep their babies and their jobs as well. If we engage with caricatures such as “RBG loved killing babies!” instead of reality, we shortcut our ability to understand one another and make meaningful progress. Straw-man arguments may feel powerful but disintegrate beneath calm logic and questions.
Practice disagreement + interaction.
As believers, we have historically found ourselves a minority. This has been different in much of American history, at least on paper, if not in practice. We haven’t needed flexed our muscles that enable us to engage with a culture that holds different world views, admiring and cooperating with the parts that are good and also drawing a firm line at the things that contradict our own ethics. Common grace and revelation mean that unbelievers frequently show us the beauty and truth of God, even if it is mixed with error. In fact, an honest look at the church would show a large portion of error in all that is done there even with a professed allegiance to Jesus.
If we are firmly established in the truth of Scripture, we can interact with secular sources and people of other faiths without fear. We can be intellectually rigorous and still be steadfast in our beliefs. We can freely admit the impact that unbelievers have on our lives. RBG has been formative in who I want to be as a woman and, yet, I still do not think abortion is a moral choice. My admiration of her life work and her character has not affected my ethics. I can find points of commonality and distinctions of disagreement. In fact, I think believers should consistently practice this. Go to the source and make honest evaluations. We should do this with other believers as well instead of restricting our conversations to the small group that mostly agrees with us.
Develop nuance about humanity.
We often lack the nuance we need to make distinctions about humanity. Occasionally one of my boys will ask at the start of a movie or a story if a certain character is a “bad guy.” I tell them to pay attention to the story and then we’ll discuss it at the end. It’s rarely a blanket “yes” or “no.” I’ve spent time teaching them that all of us are sometimes the “bad guy.” It’s not that we can “other” a group of people into being the bad guys who never do any good and that we are only the good who never do any bad, intentionally or unintentionally. Yet this lack of distinction is tearing at the foundations of the American church. We prop up leaders who live devoid of character and the fruit of following Jesus because they have a position and affirm the tenets of our faith. We cannot look at our own lives and see both good and bad, the evidence both of what God made good and what sin has corrupted.
While there are people in the history of the world that seem overwhelmingly evil, most of the people we know do not sink to that level. They are both, just as we are. Viewing ourselves with humility means acknowledging that truth about ourselves and being a person of integrity means holding that same stance about our leaders, the people we admire, and the people with whom we disagree.
The overt criticism of RBG also leads me to believe that we are unaware of her body of work. Sandra Glahn wrote a short article listing changes she has seen in her life and it would be good for all of us to refresh our memories. I would challenge women and men both to understand the world that existed before the judicial work of RBG and ask if they want to live in that world or pass that world on to their daughters. The (white American) church is often willing to ignore problems and struggles of people groups, whether it’s women or minorities, and yet rail against the solutions offered by others. The church would do well to engage with feminism and critical race theory recognizing that we have contributed to or ignored the problems instead of seeking a solution. We must do more than denounce solutions offered by others.
On a final note, I do not hold people who do not share my faith to standards built upon the authority of my faith. I cannot offer a “the Bible says so” to people who do not care what the Bible says because it means nothing to them. In the same way, I would ignore an argument based on “the Koran says so” because I do not recognize it as an authority in my life.
All of these points make interacting with the world messier. There is more gray and less black-and-white. I have to read more and reserve my off-the-cuff judgments. I must practice nuance and distinction while yelling less. I must be humbler about myself and offer others the same grace I desire. But the benefits far outweigh the difficulties. Practicing these ways of existing in the world means I can interact without fear. I’m not afraid of reading other viewpoints or scared of what critical race theory will do to Christianity. (I don’t know where we’ve gotten the idea that Christianity is fragile anyway.) I can admire the work of both believers and unbelievers while also acknowledging where they’ve gotten it wrong. I can have rich conversations and relationships with people who are unlike me. I can love others in ways my boxy fundamentalist worldview would not allow me. This has led me to a richer life and a more developed understanding of God at work in the world.
I expect I’ll be growing in these areas for as long as I’m alive. And you don’t have to like RBG for us to be friends.