A Progressive Vision of the Benedict Option: Part 3, How to Avoid the Dark Side

As I noted in yesterday's post, Rod Dreher, father of the Ben Op, recently asked for input about how a Ben Op group can become toxic.

As I described yesterday, Ben Op communities go "dark side" when they become pharisaical, inward-looking communities focused on moral policing and purity boundaries. Rod gives an example of what this looks like in his post:
True story: some years ago, long before the words “Benedict Option” ever occurred to me, I was thinking of moving to a particular conservative Catholic enclave, which struck me from the outside as a good place to raise a family. Turns out that somebody who lives there was a friend of a friend, and our mutual pal put us in touch. The person who lived in the community warned against it. This shocked me, because I had been told that this person, whom I’ll call X., was an orthodox Catholic, just like me.

X. was, but said this community was not a healthy one. It was driven by fear and extremism, and far too many people were obsessed by policing the boundaries on negligible things. I was trying to wrap my mind around what X. was saying, and put it to X. like this: “Are you saying this is the kind of place where, if I had a daughter someday and let her wear pants instead of ‘Little House on the Prairie’ dresses, people would shun us?'”

“That’s exactly what it’s like,” said X, and then gave me more examples like this.

I crossed that place off my list, though it’s a place that looked good from the outside.
What Rod is describing here is exactly what I described in my last post, the pharisaical temptation that will haunt Ben Op communities that define themselves as a group of the morally pure and righteous holding the line against the impure and unrighteous.

So that's one way a Ben Op goes dark side, a pharisaical pursuit of moral purity and righteousness over against depraved and unclean outsiders.

In this post I want to mention a second reason Ben Op expressions go dark side.

The point is simply made, conservative Ben Op expressions are dangerous because of patriarchalism.

Insular and patriarchal communities are simply not safe for women and children. To be clear, this is not to say that insular and patriarchal communities are inevitably and always unsafe to women and children. Just that insular and patriarchal communities are more prone to harm women and children than are more open and egalitarian communities. Women and children are always safer in communities where women share leadership with men. Especially in communities which are insular and cut-off from the world.

And many Ben Op proponents gravitate toward the insular. The Ben Op has been described as a sort of "withdrawal" from the world. Next week, in Part 5, I'll give my progressive take on the Ben Op withdrawal. But for this post we're focusing on the safety of Ben Op expressions that involve some sort of separation from the world--socially and/or geographically.

Insular groups, because of their insularity, are prone to abuse for a variety of reasons rooted in group psychology (e.g., groupthink, conformity, obedience to authority). Insular groups lack the social resources, due to their insularity, to combat dark turns. And when an insular group goes dark the most vulnerable members of the group, the women and the children, will be the most likely to be harmed and abused.

Again, insular groups aren't inherently evil. But insular groups are vulnerable. Insular groups are risky. I'd go so far to say that insular groups are dangerous. So any call for the Ben Op has to have an honest reckoning with that risk. And the conclusion I draw from this is that if a group chooses to become insular--as many Ben Op proponents suggest--it must take preventative measures to protect the most vulnerable members of its community.

And the simplest and most reliable way to accomplish this is that Ben Op communities must be egalitarian. Women and men have to share leadership responsibilities in Ben Op communities if they want to protect their women and children. This is another reason why progressive Christians are well suited for the Ben Op. When progressive Christians turn inward they will have women in leadership positions. Conservative Ben Op communities, by contrast, will exclude women from leadership, placing the women and children of the community at greater risk should the community go dark.

I'm not trying to be provocative with this assessment. Poll woman with this question: Would you feel safer moving with your children into an insular, patriarchal community or into a community where single women, wives and mothers shared leadership with men, and where you yourself could be a leader?

And if you're a man ask yourself the same question: If you were a woman which community would you feel safer in?

Rod, the father of the Ben Op, has asked a very important question. What are the factors that will cause the Ben Op to go dark?

I think one answer is clear. When you hear a tale of a Ben Op going dark it will be, more often than not, a story from an insular, patriarchal community.

And what this suggests to me is that for the Ben Op to thrive it has to be egalitarian, with both women and men in leadership.

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