Most of you know that Rachel Held Evans died late last week. Tragedy is not a strong enough word. If you’re not familiar with Rachel and her work, just go to Twitter and search for #becauseofRHE. It’ll tell you everything you need to know. Actually, that’s really all you need to know, you don’t need to waste your time reading this post. I’m not qualified to say anything about what her life and work meant. I’ve read one of her books (I started a second today), several of her blog posts, and I’ve followed her on Twitter for several years. That’s it. But I’ve seen enough to know that aside from the fact that we’re all jackasses, Rachel Held Evans was about as un-jackass as they come. And so much of her ministry was devoted to fighting jackassery. We have a lot to learn from what she spent her short life embodying.
Rachel took a lot of crap on Twitter. A LOT. She brought it on herself, but not at all in the way we usually use that phrase. I just mean that she was not afraid to make herself a target for angry, hateful people. In my experience, gracious, patient, loving people don’t intentionally step into intense conflict. Rachel was unique in that as far as I can tell. Brian Zahnd said it well when he tweeted, “It’s going to be weird coming to Twitter and not see[ing] what bear Rachel Held Evans is poking next” (@BrianZahnd). He meant that with so much respect. The day she passed he had tweeted, “Christianity has a long history of vigorous debate. But at the end of the day we belong to the body of Christ. Rachel Held Evans was an important interlocutor in our ongoing debate. Today she finished her race.”
There are exactly zero people with whom I agree on everything (which I’m sure is a type of jackass—I’ll have to start writing that post!). Rachel was one of the all people with whom I had disagreements. But I learned a lot from her writing; I was constantly challenged to think and rethink. And my grief at the loss of Rachel and my massive admiration for her are bigger than the way she made me think. I think I’ve been most inspired by the way she loved in the midst of debate.
I’ve seen Rachel take on some of the biggest bullies on Twitter. I can’t imagine how terrifying it must have been to stand up to people who called her horrible things and used Bible verses to shout hate at her. And these are people with thousands of followers eager to do the same. Yet she set what God put on her heart in a gracious but firm way and didn’t allow herself to be pushed around. In doing this, she earned the respect of people across the theological spectrum. For example, she would push back on Russell Moore from time to time (btw, NOT one of the bullies I just mentioned), but the interactions were constructive. After her death, one of his expressions of respect for Rachel was, “Let’s not conform to the pattern of this vicious social—Darwinian age. Let’s kindle kindness, even (especially!) for those outside our tribal silos” (@drmoore). Beth Moore (another conservative Moore), tweeted out, “Thinking what it was about @rachelheldevans that could cause many on other sides of issues to take their hats off to her in her death. People are run rife with grief for her babies, yes. But also I think part of it is that, in an era of gross hypocrisy, she was alarmingly honest” (@BethMooreLPM).
Shane Claiborne (@ShaneClaiborne) tweeted this quote from Rachel, and it seems an excellent summary of what she embodied for so many people from so many different traditions: “Imagine if every church became a place where everyone is safe, but no one is comfortable.” She kept people from making loud but lazy assertions and pushed us all to think more carefully and love more sacrificially.
So much of Rachel’s fight was for the dignity of marginalized people. She was tireless in fighting to see women, the LGBT community, and people of color empowered, treated with respect, given space for their voices to be heard, etc. To many people, Rachel became a sort of online pastor. She gave them so much love, encouragement, and truth through her public voice, but I’ve also heard so many stories of her reaching out personally to encourage and assist and strengthen. That’s a pastor in the truest sense, and it’s all the more impressive because she was able to do it through an online platform that most find impersonal and dehumanizing. She brought love and humanity to debates that had become dehumanized, to platforms that had become loveless, and to people who had been dismissed and mistreated their entire lives.“Rachel Held Evans was a pastor in the truest sense, and it’s all the more impressive because she was a pastor through an online platform that most find impersonal and dehumanizing.”
Audrey Assad gave one of the most powerful statements I’ve read yet about Rachel’s impact: “I find myself praying and hoping that @rachelheldevans’ severest critics will read #becauseofRHE and see the garden she tended, the fruit it has borne, the way it has flowered in the world” (@audreyassad). I literally tear up at the thought of someone saying something like that about me when I’m gone. Her impact, ultimately, was “the garden she tended.” She was a generative person (in the rich sense of Makoto Fujimura’s Culture Care concept). She was a culture maker (in the rich sense of Andy Crouch’s Culture Making concept). She loved persistently and modeled inspiring debate on important issues, even while aggressively loving the people affected by those debates. She’s an amazing model for me of what it looks like to fight jackassery. It’s tragic that she’s gone. We’ll all have to carry the work forward in as Rachel-like a manner as we can muster.