Monday, February 10, 2020

The Four Ideologies of Abortion

TW: Abortion

I can’t turn off comments on individual posts, so I’m asking you to be respectful of my page. Remember, social media consumption can be modulated, and you are welcome to move along if you disagree. Debates on this subject are not going to get very far with me, so please take it to your own page. Let’s be sensitive to the fact that the numbers say about 1 in 4 women will have an abortion in her lifetime, so if you comment, do so knowing that people reading this are the people you’re commenting about.


I wrote a post like this awhile back ago, but I always feel led to bring it up during politically charged seasons.

There are generally four Western ideologies around abortion, and often, you will find yourself fitting in one.

#1. “Control”

This is often the ideology adopted by politicians and religious leaders. Abortion is an anathema, not necessarily because of what it is (after all, if ending abortion was the goal, sex education, free contraception, universal healthcare, and living wages would be the answer), but because of who gets the choice. Control of women and their bodies is a cornerstone of patriarchy—it is the same mindset that leads to rape, domestic violence, and abuse. What’s interesting is that we find that many of the men who fall into this category have also paid secretly for abortions. People who suggest things like jailing women over abortions, re-implanting ectopic pregnancies, etc. are not concerned about the safety, care, or thriving of the child. Just controlling women.

#2: “Protect”

This is where most “pro-life” people fit. They are truly concerned about infanticide and believe that a zygote becomes fully human and soul’d at the moment of conception. You will hear a lot of rhetoric around women’s bodies being hosts for babies and that once pregnancy is detected, her rights are less important than the rights of the child growing in her uterus. Most people who sit here are concerned greatly for the unborn and deeply grieved by abortion. While a lot of this has to do with one’s conception of God, science, innocence, and life itself, people who protect find themselves as the voice for the voiceless. Nothing is more important than the abortion issue, and all of humanity and morality rests in whether or not abortions are banned and punished.

#3: “Free”

Many “pro-choice” people rest comfortably in this category. There is an acknowledgment that a woman should have full autonomy over her body—what is put into it, what grows in it, and what risk she is willing to take. They often take major offense at the labeling of non-viable pregnancies as babies, and reject the naming of abortion as infanticide. Pro-choice individuals do not see most abortions as killing, but do see late-term abortions as regrettable and tragic (due to the structural poverty, racism, ableism, and abuse that usually leads to them). Pro-choice people often support policies that improve the lives of single and struggling mothers, while supporting abortion as a means to safety, health, and autonomy.

#4: “Choose”

Finally, most of the people you find here are those who claim a consistent life ethic (against the death penalty, war, policies that disenfranchise the least privileged, abortion, and societies that allow homeless, sick, and immigrants to suffer). Honestly, they don’t have a great answer to how to hold the tension well, but choose to keep on naming it. Their voting habits may differ, but they honor the souls of the born and the souls of the potential born. And in that, they struggle to fully explain to the other groups how to honor it all at the same time. People in this lane might vote for pro-choice policies in order to curb abortions through reducing the need for them.

Wherever you fall (other than #1, if you’re #1, get out of here), there’s a reason for it. And you have to decide what that means for your life and your interactions with others.

Personally, I’m a mix of 3 and 4. But I am also a person of faith and someone who values the life of all. To reduce this conversation to 2 vs. 3, ignores the fact that the 1s will always manipulate 2s to hurt women and the 4s are a very valid option for staunch 2s.

One of the things that is vital in these discussions is understanding that the language of “infanticide” does nothing to further the conversation, save lives, or reduce abortions.

And (I know I’m showing my hand here), voting for people who are firmly in the “Control” box will not reduce abortions. Studies have shown that those people will hike the abortion rate through cruel and inhumane policies.

At the end of the day, the women around you have either had (or known someone who had) an abortion. How are you talking about them? What message are you sending teens about pregnancy? Is it shame? Disgust for women who choose to end their pregnancy? Disgust for women who get pregnant?

If you don’t believe in a consistent life ethic, please don’t act ideologically pure around this issue. It does nothing to save babies from abortion, but throw them out on the street once they are born.

Also, if you’re talking to #3 as a #2, there is a very huge disconnect when you start to say abortion is “killing babies.” You disagree on science and soul, and if that’s not reconciled first, you won’t be able to have any productive conversation at all.

All in all, the point of this is that you take a breather, figure out motives and beliefs, and then proceed.

(Also, can we change the names? Pro-life and pro-choice are not accurate or helpful in describing these belief systems.)

Do least harm. That’s what 2-4s want. There’s just a disagreement on what that means and how to get there.

Figure it out, and proceed from there. Just don’t dehumanize people in the process.

Monday, December 9, 2019

Catering to Abuse: When Forgiveness Becomes Toxic

Trigger Warning: mentions of sexual assault, domestic violence, spiritual abuse

I recently watched a movie with Tom Hanks called "A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood". In it, he plays Mr. Rogers and depicts a fictionalized version of a relationship he had with a journalist. As Tom Hanks' (self-professed) biggest fan and a huge Mr. Rogers fanatic (I have good taste), I was more than excited about seeing this film. I say all that so you can understand how pained I was to realize I hated this movie. I had a visceral reaction while watching it and wanted to leave in the middle of it. Afterwards, I was shaking. Why are so many people praising this movie? I got online to see what people were saying. All good things. Finally, I found a Scary Mommy post that was able to put into words my experience: this movie celebrated something I like to call toxic forgiveness. And no-one was seemingly aware of it. Comments poured in on on Facebook calling the author of the post names and accusing her of harboring bitterness. These comments betrayed something I've always known:

Our society fetishizes forgiveness and normalizes abusive relationships. 

It is an interesting experience to be a Christian that finds herself often arguing against forgiveness. That's kind of our bag, right? God is synonymous with grace, and forgiveness is the virtue that is hailed as the ultimate practice. To be unforgiving is to be sinning, and to reject forgiveness is to reject God. And honestly, there is no nuance at all in this conversation. So I come aware that as I write this, I've already lost people. Putting the word toxic in front of the world forgiveness seems like such cognitive dissonance that most people will write it off bitter, arrogant, and sinful. Forgiveness, to many, cannot be questioned, dissected, or more delicately defined. But I'm going to do all of those right now. 

I always write from the lens of centering survivors of abuse. I want those reading to know that when I mention forgiveness, I'm not talking about forgiving people for cutting you off in traffic. These are  conversations around forgiving people for abusive actions, patterns, and behaviors. 

What is forgiveness?

I always like to define terms. Forgiveness means different things for different people. And here's my hypothesis: if you ask a person to define "forgiveness" they are not going to be able to give you a precise definition. 

The dictionary says forgiving means to stop harboring anger or resentfulness against the person who did you wrong. Another definition shows forgiving to be the same as canceling a debt. These seem to be agreed upon definitions, and work well for this conversation. The Bible itself doesn't so much as provide a definition as stories. Often, Scripture shows forgiveness as cancelling debts more so than cancelling anger, but both are given up as good examples.  

Theology of Forgiveness

Anytime we encounter a “wrong” (perceived or real, against us or others) we are faced with a decision about how to respond. Typically, we’re given two choices: let it go or address it. It’s how we choose that reveals to us our inherent beliefs about grace, sin, and atonement.

I call this our theology of forgiveness. That may not be the most accurate language academically, but for me, it gets the message across. Our approach to forgiveness is not only a paradigm, but also rooted in how we view God and his expectations for our relationships. As Christians, when we talk about forgiveness, we mainly do so in the context of God’s rules and regulations on us as a community. My belief (and experience in working with survivors of abuse) is that this communal response is an extremely dangerous way of approaching forgiveness.

I know that hearing this may be jolting. “How can forgiveness be dangerous? Its very essence is grace! It’s a good thing!” But as we begin to understand more about the dynamics of abuse and the way trauma impacts individuals, it becomes clear that the way we address forgiveness can have a long-lasting impact on survivors.

Who gets to command forgiveness?

Forgiveness has a bit of a mythic reputation. It is often seen as a magical “reboot” button that wipes away all pain. We’ve all heard it: 

You can’t heal unless you forgive. Your wellbeing depends on whether or not you forgive those who have wronged you. Forgiving means “letting go.” God wants you to forgive; be the bigger person!

It’s interesting that these comments always come from the other person--the one who wasn’t wronged. As if we believe that controlling someone’s response to trauma will erase their experience. 

Abuse is about power and control. 

The last thing an abused person needs is to feel further controlled once they are removed from their situation. When we expect (even command) forgiveness, we are making them question their experience and setting an inappropriate agenda for their healing. (Claiming that forgiveness helps people heal from their trauma is absent from research. While thoughts of revenge have negative psychological effects, forgiveness in situations of abuse has not been shown to increase wellbeing or decrease symptoms of PTSD.)

There are two types of forgiveness we encounter in society: 
  • Communal forgiveness
  • Individual forgiveness

Communal forgiveness is when the community, as a whole, forgives those who have wronged them. (Think about the church that Dylann Roof targeted. That community practiced a communal forgiveness.) Individual forgiveness is when the wronged person forgives the one who wronged them. The first is guided by the community and leadership, the second by the individual.

The problem is that we get these confused.  

We don’t see them as separate entities--we often expect that the community is called to forgive
in place of the individual, and that the individual must follow the community’s lead. 

But actual instances where the community is entitled to be a part of the forgiveness process are few and far between.

Forgiveness for abuse should never be a trickle down action. The survivor must always be the first to initiate and if they don’t, people must respect and understand that choice.

The Trauma of Forgiveness

When someone is pushed to forgive, especially in cases of abuse and assault, retraumatization is bound to happen. Commanding that she forgives not only minimizes her feelings and effectively silences her, but also shifts the focus away from her trauma to the feelings and needs of her abuser. Furthermore, some studies have found that an increased willingness to forgive abuse often led to women returning to their abusive partners. There are many examples of this communal forgiveness happening within society. From Josh Duggar to Bill Cosby, we have an obsession with wanting abusers to feel forgiven.

Why do we do this? Why do we seem so dead set on asking people to forgive their abuser?

To begin with, testimonies from abusers sound a lot more dramatic and impactful than the messy testimony that can arise from a survivor. People would rather touch on the former because it allows God’s power to be shown in a dramatic, clear-cut way. “Oh look at how God intervened in this situation!” We can tie the story into a nice little bow.

For a survivor’s story to be shared, however, there is often still hurt, frustration, and no easy fix. It ends up being a story that is still processing, changing, continuing, and often contains very uncomfortable truths (like the ones that say to the church, “I wish you would have intervened here”). These stories aren’t as simple as twenty-minute sermons and often, can’t fit on cardboard for snappy video presentations. I think this is how people started to preference hearing about the abuser who changed his ways, rather than the battered or raped woman still dealing with her bruises.

Along with the comfort factor, there’s an inherent centering of an abuser because he (or she) is well-versed in manipulation. One of the biggest barriers in the support of survivors arises from the polished reputation of the abuser. He manipulates his environment so that it seems absolutely crazy that he would be the source of the issue. 

For example, Tony Jones is a very popular Christian author. He is also accused of abusing his now ex-wife. When she came forward with this, no one believed her, citing her mental health, calling her “bat-s*** crazy” and denying anything ever happened. Though there were medical records showing bruising and fractures, her testimony seemed less reliable than his. His network, authority, wealth, and power has allowed him to sue her for custody of their children and leave her without resources to support herself. Even today, some of the most popular Christian authors and bloggers take his side because he “would never” do anything like that. And besides, don't you know that she is crazy?

Even when everyone agrees that the abuser perpetrated against his victim, he still often gets the platform to tell his story--pushing aside the person he abused. There’s a large church on the East Coast that hired a sex abuser, featured his testimony on stage and on the website, and when criticized, said they were in the right because that’s what God’s grace is all about. Several years ago, Ken Starr wrote a letter to a judge asking for leniency for a friend who perpetrated on a teenager—vouching for his friend’s character and saying that he was a good guy because he was sorry for his actions. There are even some examples of Churches of Christ hiring known sex offenders for leadership positions under the guise of “grace and forgiveness”. Yet, families directly affected by their abuse are pushed out in the name of the same “forgiveness.”

This is, without a doubt, toxic forgiveness.

Toxic Forgiveness

Toxic forgiveness commands that forgiveness be given as an atonement or peace-offering and looks like people commanding the following:
  • That abused women forgive their husbands in order to “save” the marriage.
  • That sexual assault survivors forgive their assailant as a recognition that they, too, must have played some part in their abuse.
When people engage in this type of messaging, they are trying for two things:

1. Path of Least Resistance
2. Reconciliation

The first is damaging, but easily fixable. It may be hard work to stand with survivors (messy, uncomfortable, even jarring), but that’s the work we must do. The second, however, goes a lot deeper than just pulling up our bootstraps and getting to work--it requires extensive examination of our teachings and biblical interpretations on grace.

Speaking of Grace

Grace is the “free and unmerited favor of God.” The grace we receive from God is boundless. We are right to elevate and proclaim its wonders. But God's grace is not our grace. And we are not called to match it in instances of abuse. 

We seem to like a good grace story. So much so that we seek it at the expense of the hurt and abused. Under the guise of grace, people often leave victims of abuse in the dust as they seek to redeem the abuser. But grace is not a “get out of jail free” card, and crimes are not merely mistakes to be simply brushed aside. There are consequences to actions—not just governmental, but spiritual. And a community that invites the offender, but excludes the offended, is a dangerous community indeed.

But what if they are really, really, really sorry?

When we hope for reconciliation, we must be careful that we aren’t seeking it at the expense of the survivor. We don’t get to dictate grace or reconciliation. We don’t set the time, place, or agenda for a survivor to forgive her abuser. And if she decides she doesn’t want to? That’s ok. That’s what centering her and her needs looks like.

Toxic forgiveness can mask itself well. But healthy forgiveness looks a lot different than the toxic kind.

What is healthy forgiveness?

1. Toxic forgiveness says “Forgive and forget.” Healthy forgiveness says, “I let go, but I still hold you responsible.”
2. Toxic forgiveness excuses actions. Healthy forgiveness confronts actions.
3. Toxic forgiveness is forced. Healthy forgiveness is voluntary.
4. Toxic forgiveness is shaming. Healthy forgiveness is affirming.
5. Toxic forgiveness holds both parties at fault for abuse. Healthy forgiveness recognizes that the abuse is the fault of the abuser and the abuser alone.

It’s important to understand that mental health professionals can encourage forgiveness in abuse situations, but only if it comes with the recognition that (1) forgiveness doesn’t (and shouldn’t) mean reconciliation, (2) forgiveness is never coerced and can take many years before it is offered, if at all, and (3) forgiveness does not erase consequences.

Forgiveness doesn’t always mean reconciliation, and in the instance of abuse or sexual assault, people should never suggest, teach, or require it.  

But here's the deal:

Forgiveness is NOT required to live a flourishing life. And shaming people into forgiving is just wrong.

Committing to Center the Survivor

The benefits of supporting the survivor will always outweigh the benefits of supporting the abuser.

Glib comments about “submitting in all things” or that people who are close to God are the ones that forgive “no matter what” do more harm than good. People have a responsibility to the most vulnerable, and that includes survivors of abuse and sexual assault.

Instead of centering forgiveness, let us become experts in the arena of resourcing. Where are your domestic violence shelters? Do you know what a mandated reporter is? Who do you call if a child tells you they’ve been sexually abused?

The story of the victim--not the victimizer--must be prioritized. We cannot and should not force someone to forgive their abuser. Not under the guise of love or grace or pop psychology. We need to be extremely comfortable with the fact that the abused may never forgive their abuser—and that they don’t have to feel joy and peace and love. Everyone gets to own their own story—I may find forgiveness freeing, but that doesn’t mean everyone will. Richard Schwartz calls this unburdening. Everyone can unburden--but it may not resemble forgiveness as the church has traditionally taught it.

So all this to say, here are my rules about forgiveness. I encourage you to think about them before you tell someone that forgiveness is the gold standard.
  1. Forgiveness shall not be coerced by the community.
  2. Forgiveness is never offered in someone else's place.
  3. No one should be shamed into forgiving.
  4. Forgiveness is not a replacement for accountability.
  5. Forgiveness does not mean forgetting.
  6. Consequences stay--even after forgiving.
  7. Do not offer forgiveness to someone not asking for it.
  8. Abused people did not cause their abuse. Don't make forgiveness something they need to seek from their abuser.
  9. Do not forgive indiscriminately.
  10. Do not force forgiveness as a spectator sport for the curious.

Sunday, September 8, 2019

Loyal Follower, Treasonous Faith

Icon by Kelly Lattimore, “The Good Shepherd”

Watch the Video of This Sermon Given at All Saints Church of Christ:

Luke 14:25-33

Now large crowds were traveling with Jesus; and he turned and said to them, "Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it will begin to ridicule him, saying, `This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.' Or what king, going out to wage war against another king, will not sit down first and consider whether he is able with ten thousand to oppose the one who comes against him with twenty thousand? If he cannot, then, while the other is still far away, he sends a delegation and asks for the terms of peace. So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions."

Well, that escalated. 

I just love the voice of Jesus in Scripture. I am always comforted to know that he does not shy away from conflict and see him use words that aren’t always sweet, but often salty. Because God knows I tend to prefer salty over sweet, and it just feels good to see that same preference in Christ every once in a while. 

I’m trying to imagine this interaction. Were the large crowds with Jesus just talking amongst themselves as he turned to them? Did this call to hate family and carry crosses come out of nowhere?

What, exactly, would make the God of Rhetoric stop what he was doing to call attention to this group? What conversations prompted this holy hyperbole to a group of already dedicated followers? They were traveling with him after all, they were presumably already convinced. And any other religious leader would have been happy with that. It’s weird that Jesus is trying to thin his crowd. No, don’t just follow me. HATE your family. Your children. Your life.

He goes on, questioning their commitment. “Are you even thinking about this? Are you even powerful enough to do this?” I don’t want to project anything on this text, but I almost hear his slightly sarcastic tone, and I’ve got to wonder, “Why?” Who are these crowds that Jesus is working to convince that this journey is too difficult for them, that the cross is too heavy. And since when did hate come into this equation?

I find it helpful to take this passage out for a while and let it breathe. It sits smack dab in the middle of Luke and if ingested verse by verse, way too quickly, I’m afraid we might get too inebriated to figure out what exactly Jesus is saying and to who. So, let’s give it a moment while we look at what’s happening in the larger context of the story Luke tells. 

Each biblical author (or community of authors) weaves commentary throughout the narrative itself. Luke, in particular, focuses on telling of a King Jesus. From birth story to death story, Jesus is presented as an alternative to the current government and powers that be. It is a political story. A story about economics and loyalty where at each turn, Jesus calls people to follow him into His empire—the one that flips the script on power and authority, that privileges the least of these, and one that flies in the face of allegiance to Rome, to the Synagogue Leaders and Gatekeepers, and the wealthy and exploitative class. 

And I think this is why we see Luke constantly present Jesus as a foil to the rich and powerful. Wealth and power are constantly challenged, in parables and in real life. The story of the Rich Ruler. Of the Prodigal Son. Of the Good Samaritan. All these address wealth, power, and even loyalty. Even the story of the crucifixion, as women are weeping and wailing for Jesus, Luke reports that Jesus quotes Hosea 10, and in doing so, condemns the earthly kingdom, the political authorities, and religiously powerful, all while inviting the sinner—the “least of these”—into his own kingdom. For someone who many Christians today deny ever “getting political”, Jesus sure uses a lot of political language. King of the Jews—and all of people. 

So when we see Luke tell any story about Jesus, we have to keep this in mind. Who is Jesus talking to? And why?

Hate your family. Carry the cross. Lose your life. And then he says this, “Which of you, intending to build a tower, doesn’t sit down to estimate it? What king would not consider it first?  Therefore, none of you can be my disciples unless you give up all of your possessions.” 

Now, we know a few things: these people had the power to build towers. The analogy of being a king landed with them. They had possessions to give up. These large crowds had to have been privileged people. People with economic and familial security. And Jesus is telling them to give it all up and to pledge loyalty to him. Loyalty to the death. 

I’m going to go out on a limb to say that this isn’t just about wealth. Jesus himself benefited from patronage—although even in that he turned on its head, using the money and support from women, who were some of the least privileged and powerful at the time. 

If Luke is presenting an alternative empire through Jesus, then these words must be challenging something more than just economic standing. He must be challenging privilege. Because what is costlier than laying down one’s privilege, one’s security, and one’s power to take up a cross that leads to certain death? 

A point of clarification is required. I have seen my share of sermons and platitudes misuse Jesus’s words to heap guilt upon the poor and those marginalized by society. “Don’t complain. The cost of following Jesus means you aren’t going to be rich. Just be ok with your suffering.” 

But Jesus is not speaking to the poor or the powerless or the disadvantaged.

It’s generational wealth and privilege and security that are being challenged—not those in trauma or crisis or who are unsafe. 

Here he’s renouncing family ties for the well-connected—not the disconnected. 

To one group he describes a cross too heavy to bear, but to another, he says “I will give you rest.” What separates those two groups? Privilege. 

And the only bootstraps that are in this conversation are those of the rich. The ones of the poor are being washed. 

But today, while I think economic disparity can be a conversation that’s helpful and important in its own right, there’s another parallel to be made. Religious conversations today about security and safety and protection seem to revolve less and less around dying for Jesus and counting the cost, and more and more around protecting one’s family for Jesus. From guns to walls to bringing back prayer to schools and increasing policing and prisons and fighting wars on drugs and nations and news, safety, protection, fear become the driving factors of so many Christians’ behavior. And it’s not just these things, lest we “other” a particular group. Safety, protection, and fear seem to drive all of our behaviors—especially for those of us that hold multiple privileges and powers. From gentrification to private schooling to “peacemaking” that looks more like “status-quo keeping” and “just wait and be patient and calm down” that looks more like “be complicit in your own oppression.” And we don’t like these things pointed out either. It threatens our sense of security. 

The cost we are counting is whether or not we will give up our privilege and safety in order to follow Jesus into his alternative empire. Where do our loyalties lie? Protecting our family and our security and ourselves—or dying to serve the sinners and oppressed and sick and poor and defeated.

What does it mean, then, to be a loyal follower of Jesus? To, for lack of a better analogy, pledge allegiance to a different flag? A flag of peace and sacrifice and death and treating people better than we treat ourselves?

We know from his life it’s not to be fearless. This is a holy man, son of Parent God, who trembles in a garden alone, begging for mercy, sweating from the fear of his body being broken, bruised, bloodied, and destroyed by the empire. This faith—this treasonous faith that put God above country, above law, above past allegiances, above family, above wealth, above status—resulted in death. He knew all of this, he was scared of this, and still had the audacity to ask others to join him. 

And I think those who did. The ones who didn’t really have the capital to spare in the first place. The ones who didn’t have the power or money or status. Not really. 

Only two swords between them. 

Women funding them, but lacking social power. Women with sexual trauma, men with radical ideas of overthrowing government, children, the disabled, the poor, those in prison. They were the ones who followed Jesus to the ends of the cross. 

And those who didn’t? The ones with the money and power and authority? The large crowds that Jesus turned to and said, “Count the cost. Die. Give up your possessions. Your safety. Your security.” Yes, they followed Jesus to the ends of the cross, too, and then they hung him on it. He said to give up everything and they said, sure, but not this. 

And today we have to make the same choice. What will we give up? Who will we pledge loyalty to? 

I call this a treasonous faith because it betrays the power of this world, of this country, of our leaders, of our privilege and comfort, and invites us into a holy mutiny, where we speak peace, free captives, feed the hungry, invite the immigrant, love the addicted, house the unhoused, accommodate the disabled, clothe the unclothed, connect the disconnected, and stand against the powers that falsely promise safety. It invites us into death, but promises us resurrection. 

And it’s ok if you’re scared. I am too. But this is The Way—the only way—to follow Jesus.

Friday, July 5, 2019

Raze the Roof (And the Rest of the House)

I want to address a critique I get often in my DM's and on some of my public posts about the church, racism, sexism, and violence against women. 
I can think of a few posts recently where people have said that my language is divisive, bitter, or unproductive. This usually doesn't bother me--I've been unfriended and blocked since the beginning of my deconstruction journey. But it is interesting to hear these calls of peace from people contributing to the problem. It often puts me to mind of the passage in Jeremiah (6:13-14) where God is offering a warning to Jerusalem:
"From the least to the greatest,all are greedy for gain;prophets and priests alike,all practice deceit.They dress the wound of my peopleas though it were not serious.‘Peace, peace,’ they say,when there is no peace."
For the longest time, Jeremiah has been my go-to for lament, frustration, deconstruction, and validating my experiences in the church. While so many cry "Peace, Peace" through calls not to be embittered or divisive or unloving, they fail to understand the severity of the wounds of those around them. 
We are surrounded by people bleeding out from the wounds inflicted by their faith systems, and yet, so many observers wish to pass over the hurt and focus on the "positive." 
Hard truth: For many, there is no positive. 
Another hard truth: For many, it is unfathomable to return to these faith systems. 
The hardest truth: Your whitewashed tombs are not attractive to those on the outside. 
Let people lament. Let people deconstruct. Let people tear it all down and start over. 
When the foundation is cracked, the whole thing needs to be razed. Don't stop people from creating safer, stronger spaces.

Thursday, June 27, 2019

The Women's Issue: How Progressive CoC Men Continue to Do Us Harm

Clip art of four women or female presenting people with backs turned and arms around each other, next to picture of a microphone, and clip art of five hipster looking men facing the camera, underneath are the words: The Women's Issue: how progressive cox men continue to do us harm.

No matter how hard I try to veer away from it, I find myself constantly coming back to the “gender” discussion as it relates to the Stone Campbell Movement (i.e. the Churches of Christ). My passion for this topic is born out of necessity and identity. As long as I have some ties to the Church of Christ, I am going to see this fight as my own. As long as I am a woman, I am going to see this fight as my own. And as long as I am someone mourning a calling that was never fulfilled, I am going to see this fight as my own. 

The further and further I grow away from the faith of my youth, the more urgency I feel at conveying this message. Honestly, the more relationships I build with women leaving Christianity in droves, survivors of violence, queer women, black women, women of color, disabled women, young and old women, I find my insides bubbling with an anxiety to tell ALL THE PEOPLE of the harm complementarian and misogynistic theology perpetrates. 

A while back ago, on my other blog, I wrote a series discussing the verses and exegesis needed to come to support a “broadening” of women’s roles in the church and encourage mutuality and egalitarianism. There are blogs and books and journal articles and several voices that can contribute to that discussion. I’m grateful for them, because in 2014, that’s exactly what I needed to read and hear. But the 2019 me is a little less tolerant of that discussion. It could be that 5 years after seeing the discussion and progress in my church tradition stall, I have become disenchanted. More likely it’s 5 years of constant interactions with conservative AND progressive men in which this conversation is still intellectualized and women are still being harmed. It’s 5 years of experiences and stories and relationships that have propelled me to a place where I am fed up with tip toeing around things that should be easy and simple—treat people equally and with respect. This is Kindergarten level stuff that is still being debated. And I’m through. 

So, this post is not going to be exegetical in nature, nor pulling from Scripture or any other Holy text, or even appealing to Greek or Hebrew. Go to the library or your nearest friendly neighborhood theologian and explore the complexities of culture and language and the Bible and do some digging into your belief system. If you aren’t willing to do that, then my comments aren’t going to sway you anyway. 

In fact, the only time I’m ever going to mention Greek is when I tell you to stop using Greek to prove whether or not I can exist as myself in a space. When you use Greek to gatekeep, you’ve really sunk to a weird place. Quit trying to make it happen. Or, as I say…

Text of a bad pun which says Kephale this misogyny away from me

This post, instead, is for the men who are interested in understanding how to talk about gender justice in a way that honors women, improves their own allyship, or are just curious to why “letting women pray or preach” doesn’t cut it anymore. For the people in the back, please take out your earbuds, straighten up, and pay attention: Gender justice is not a “close enough” kind of sport. I’m going to explain a little why this requires your full participation and commitment.

Also, as a note, I can only speak to all this as a white, cis-het woman. That’s my social location and context. When I address gender justice in the CoC, I am doing so as a white woman commenting on white-majority churches. Knowing this is understanding that what I say may not completely make sense in other contexts, with other marginalized groups. But here’s the thing about marginalization. The more identities you hold, the more likely you are to experience everything I’m about to say 100x worse and in more traumatic ways. Which should grieve us all deeply. 

In the past, I’ve caveat’ed and tiptoed around this, holding hands as much as I could to people reading, hoping and praying they would feel led by my words. While I still truly believe in the power of words, I think these conversations best happen in relationship. So while I’ll welcome anyone to this space who believes women are meant to, as I saw in a CoC Facebook group just moments ago, “stay at their post” rather than be consumed by feminism, I recognize that sweetening and disguising my words will never be what helps you understand the harm your theology is causing. It’s going to be other men that do that. 

So, other men. Let’s go. 

Someone asked me the other day how men who are trying to do this work can be better allies to women. I appreciated the question, mainly because many of the men I meet who call themselves allies believe they deserve accolades just for showing up. But this is a dangerous place to be because instead of actually helping women, it stalls the movement and puts us in harm’s way. 


Two women with arms raised and a conversation bubble saying "Join us." Above them are five men behind a pulpit saying, "We're good."

When you say you are an ally or express to a woman that you are working towards mutuality or egalitarianism or gender justice, you have created a point of trust between her and you. She is rightly expecting that in situations where men or women are calling into question her ability to lead or treating her as a subordinate or harassing/abusing her, you will intervene. NOT as a savior, but as someone who is going to call out the behavior and be by her side to pick up the pieces. This is especially true if you have any kind of influence, power, or privilege in the spaces in which she participates. If you are a preacher or deacon or elder or professor or influential blogger or speaker or podcaster (you get the idea), she will assume that you will use your platform to affirm her, align with justice, and act against the systems that subordinated her in the first place. 

Just reading the above paragraph, however, it becomes fairly clear that the allyship claimed by men in the CoC and what is actually happening are distant cousins at best. I think this is because there have been a few misconceptions about gender justice, as well as some major missteps men have taken on the path to opening up “roles” to women in the church. Now it’s time to step into the “Ouch, Oops” territory and figure out what clean-up looks like.


Gender justice and gender roles are often discussed interchangeably, but are two very different things. To be anti-sexist and anti-misogynist, it takes a lot more work than just allowing women in the pulpit. In fact, "letting" women preach is an action that may flow from a commitment to gender justice, but definitely can be an action devoid of justice. 

For example, an "egalitarian church" that opens up their pulpit/eldership to women can also be one that ignores violence against women, participates in defined gender roles ("men are like this, women are like this"), and generally treats women like second-class citizens. (I have had direct experience with men and churches like this. My friends have had direct experiences with men and churches like this. Remember when I said women are being put in harm’s way? This trauma lasts a long time and doesn’t go away with time.) 

We typically don't do a great job at making these distinctions, and as such, all these conversations become what women are "allowed" to do, rather than valuing women as human beings deserving of the same rights, respect, and attitudes as men. (This right here is not only the gold standard, but NECESSARY for women to know, feel, and live into as they participate in faith communities.) 

What happens is that all these discussions are grounded in "roles" or "what can women do" rather than "how do we conceptualize gender and treat women." This last part is really what makes or breaks an ally—I could say a prayer or teach a class of men, but if I am still seen as subordinate or the people I’m teaching are teaching my daughter things like purity culture or the preacher is beating his wife or the elder is coming on to the teenage girl—that space is not safe and those men are not allies. They are dangerous.


We tend to frame all these discussions around "allowance/freedom" rather than "justice/wholeness." God's intended kingdom looks inclusive. So instead of saying, "Well, we now live in the freedom of allowing women to serve," we should be saying, "We have the command to make our spaces just for all." 

Instead, what happens is what I see in so many comment threads about women's roles: 

comic strip describing two men having a discussion about women. First man says, "here are verses that support my belief women can't lead men, insert Timothy and genesis and corinthians." Second man says, "let's talk about exegesis and background and culture." First man says, "slippery slope, conservative view of the Bible, literalist." Second man responds, "We need to move towards grace and freedom." First man (who is red in the face) says " are you telling me what to do? I'm not a bad person! I just have a different opinion." Second man, now almost invisible in the picture, says "I'm not saying your opinion is wrong. Just let us live in our freedom, with our interpretation, and we'll let you live in yours." Above both men are pictures of women crossing their arms.

I understand everyone's inclination towards peace, and what I often hear (especially from the autonomous, yet progressive crowd) is that we can't police people's behaviors. I agree. But I am surprised (no I’m not) that these discussions always seem to end with men telling other men, "let's agree to disagree."

As a woman, what that says to me is that my trauma from this very dangerous and devastating theology is less important than the relationship between these two men. The kicker, is that often this relationship is only one built around social structure. Preachers allowing other preachers to say these things in order “not to rock the boat” so they can speak at the next lectureship. Men writing for complementarian publications and appearing on podcasts with their “dudes” and letting these comments slide. 

I have seen so many male "allies" back down or go radio silent when pushed on the question, "Are you saying I'm wrong about this?"

Here’s the deal. 

The answer to that question should always be a resounding and absolute "YES. Yes, you are wrong. Your theology is wrong. It is harmful. We can stay friends but I am very much in disagreement with you on this and I think it is sinful."

Progressive CoC men who call yourselves allies? You need to be like Jeremiah in the dirty pit shouting to these men that their theology is poop. 


I said poop. 


Men who study the Bible (whether professionally, academically, or just as a hobby) tend to intellectualize these discussions—especially online. 

Comment threads and blog posts and tweets devolve into a match about who studied the most verses or knows the best Greek or is the most well-read. 

First, it is TOXIC for women to continue to watch these interactions. It feels as if we are "issues" or "philosophies" rather than living, breathing, human beings. It is exhausting because we have heard it all before and honestly, I don't care one iota whether the Greek word for "head" means source or authority. I care whether I'm seen and treated as an equal. Whether I experience harm or violence. 

Second, these conversations should ALWAYS point back to the women being discussed. I'm all about alleviating the burden of women always having to jump in, but true allies are the ones quoting women, directing people to women's writings and talks, and constantly reframing the discussion to talk about justice. (And backing women up when they do jump into the discussion. A rarely used, but wonderful phrase, is “She already said that.”)

Yellow graphic with pink writing that says "she already said that". Clipart next to words of five women looking at the reader.

While I don’t believe it is on the person being harmed to walk people through how not to harm (take responsibility, guys, and do some deep learning), I do find it helpful to frame these discussions around steps people can take to do better. If anything, the education is here. You have to decide what it is worth to take or leave (and understand the impact that will have on the women around you). 

How to Ally Better

So, in a perfect world, all these conversations around gender justice and women's roles in the church would be full of male allies calling out the misogyny of their friends and fellow ministers. 

Gendered jokes, stereotypes, excuses, and even discussing rape allegations using terms like "credible" or "not credible" are all things that need to stop. And women can't be the only ones saying they are wrong. 

One of the things I have witnessed are calls to peace from people who have no skin in the game, so to speak. Responding to women by tone policing or telling them to "be peaceful", "calm down" or "realize these are good guys, trying their hardest," means nothing in the face of violence. 

Men need to amp it up so women don't have to. 

And here's where it all culminates:

Any form of telling or showing a woman she is a second-class citizen is sinful. Full stop. That absolutely needs to be called out, and women just do not have the social capital in our tradition to do that. (We still do it. All the time. But every time we do it, it costs us something. And that something is usually a piece of our dignity, souls, or faith.)

Here's the deal. 

I completely understand the complication of being reliant on income and a job. People who protest are typically not allowed access to the systems they are protesting, and people with access to those systems are typically kicked out if they start to protest. Having influence to change people's minds slowly and infiltrating the system through targeted conversations and moving strategically has often been the gold standard among progressive CoC men. 

Almost too gold of a standard. 

It seems as if all y'all are doing it. 

We've got to have some protestors, guys, or eventually, you'll all look around and not only lose women to your congregations, but to faith altogether. I've got the receipts. It's already happening. 

I don't expect all men or male leaders to say, "Do this right, or I'm leaving." 

But I do expect subversion. 

And respect. 

And showing allyship in safe spaces (like secret social media groups). 

And participating in actions that won't cost as much (like refusing to appear on a podcast or speak at a lectureship or write for a publication if those things contribute to misogynistic, patriarchal, or sexist practices). 

At the end of the day, there must be the realization that anything less than full justice is not good enough. It's not. It's not ok to say, "Well, the women can do everything BUT a, b, and c," or "We're having these discussions, and that's a big step," or "It doesn't happen automatically and we're making some progress."

Maybe you just can't get there. Maybe your church community can't make the leap and you can't afford to leave and you can't afford to speak out. Lament about that, but don't fool yourself into thinking it's fine to give women a "little" bit and that's fine. 

It's not.

It's still harmful.

Fess up to that. If you can't change it, fess up to how horribly crappy that is and support women who need to leave those systems. 

Because eventually, we will need to leave those systems. If they don't kill us first.

Quote from Dorothy Sayers that says the following: “Perhaps it is no wonder that the women were first at the Cradle and last at the Cross. They had never known a man like this Man - there never has been such another. A prophet and teacher who never nagged at them, never flattered or coaxed or patronised; who never made arch jokes about them, never treated them either as "The women, God help us!" or "The ladies, God bless them!"; who rebuked without querulousness and praised without condescension; who took their questions and arguments seriously; who never mapped out their sphere for them, never urged them to be feminine or jeered at them for being female; who had no axe to grind and no uneasy male dignity to defend; who took them as he found them and was completely unself-conscious. There is no act, no sermon, no parable in the whole Gospel that borrows its pungency from female perversity; nobody could possibly guess from the words and deeds of Jesus that there was anything "funny" about woman's nature.”

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