white feather
Feminism

my church says I’m dirty, my mother says I’m awesome: lessons on sex

Today’s post is a guest post from Mara.

I grew up in a very average, white, suburban Evangelical church. My church was not extreme or controversial in any way. But what I learned from church about gender, sex, and relationships has ultimately hurt me. Some of these lessons were explicitly taught; some were insidious undertones, assumptions, or cultural norms that I absorbed over the years.

These are the lessons I learned from church about sex and relationships:

  1. Your purity is valuable. If you have sex, you’ll disappoint God and harm your relationship with him, and harm your relationship with your future husband.
  2. What you want is irrelevant. All that matters is what God wants. What you want is probably sinful.
  3. You can’t trust yourself. You aren’t capable of good judgment when it comes to sex.
  4. You are not in control. If you ever find yourself alone with a guy, the mere proximity will cause the two of you to spontaneously combust. All people want sex all of the time, and men are ruled by this desire.
  5. Listen to your guilt. Guilt is the Holy Spirit convicting you of sin.
  6. Women shouldn’t be in charge. My church paid lip service to gender equality while excluding women from leadership and exclusively using male language for God. Subtly, the way gender roles were played out in the church conditioned me to believe that it was weird (and maybe wrong) for a woman to be in charge – and by extension, weird for me to be calling the shots or in control.
  7. Sex is wrong outside of heterosexual marriages. The only thing worth discussing about sexual boundaries is, “How far can I go without damaging my purity?”

Fortunately, my parents acted as a buffer to many of the destructive messages I was absorbing from “purity culture” at church. As I was growing up, they told me constantly that I was loved, smart, beautiful, good, and competent. My mother also gave me the best relationship advice I have ever gotten. She looked me in the eye and said insistently,

Listen. This is important. Never let a guy talk down to you, because you are awesome. If any guy ever says differently or puts you down, punch him in the face. I mean it. You are awesome. Don’t believe any guy that says differently. And if you try to tell a guy something and he doesn’t understand, he’s the crazy one, not you. You are awesome.

But all of their affirmation wasn’t enough to undo what I had learned from church. I sincerely wanted to be faithful; I wanted to do the right thing. My naïve sincerity worked against me.

The first time these lessons failed me was the first time I was kissed, in high school. I turned to say something to the guy sitting next to me and found his mouth suddenly on mine. I froze. I knew I didn’t want his tongue in my mouth, but it never occurred to me to push him away. I didn’t know I had that option. In matter of seconds, a debate went on in my mind about what I should do.  The conclusion I came to in those seconds was that if it was a sin, I should pull back and do what God wants. But most people I knew didn’t consider a kiss to be “too far”, so it probably wasn’t sinful. And I felt guilty about “leading him on”: since I had flirted with him, I felt he had a right to expect I would kiss him. Therefore, I decided I should let him kiss me because my guilt told me it was the right thing to do. I was very uncomfortable, rather confused, and wished he would stop. True to the lessons I had learned from church, I didn’t trust myself, I wasn’t in control, and what I actually wanted was never part of my decision-making process.

Nothing in my religious education taught me that it was wrong for him to touch me in a way I didn’t want.

I didn’t really start dating until my junior year of college. The first time I met him, I awkwardly blurted out that I didn’t want to have sex until marriage. I was deathly afraid “leading him on,” and I feared that talking to him at all without an upfront caveat would be deceptive. I fully believed he would walk away, since church had taught me that all guys always want sex. But he didn’t care. I was shocked that he actually just liked being around me. We kept seeing each other, and I liked hanging out with him, and I liked kissing him – some of the time.  Once when we were kissing his hand reached behind me for my bra clasp, but he paused, looking at me to see what I wanted. My mind froze, torn between what I thought the church expected of me, and what I thought he expected of me. I didn’t know I was allowed to make decisions based on what I wanted. I didn’t know what to do, so I kissed him to end the panic. And the bra came off, even though I was definitely not ready for that. The next time I saw him, I wore a tricky front-clasping bra, hoping it would deter him without my actually having to communicate with him. It was ineffective.

Throughout the relationship, he would ask me if I was comfortable and what I wanted, but I didn’t know how to answer those questions, and my voice would stick in my throat. True to his word, he never asked for sex. But still, after some encounters where paralysis from my underlying beliefs left me unable to communicate my discomfort, I would start shaking and shivering uncontrollably, exactly as I had after that unwanted kiss in high school. Trying to make decisions based on guilt was disastrous. I felt guilty for telling him no (because by flirting with him or kissing him, I must have been “teasing” or “leading him on”), and I felt guilty for doing anything physical and damaging my “purity.” I ended the relationship after a couple of months because I couldn’t handle the anxiety from the conflicting guilt messages, or the resulting paralysis. I had no concept of what a healthy dating relationship looked like or what consent meant.

Eventually, as my beliefs and understanding around sex evolved and I dated other guys, I learned (slowly and painfully) how to communicate, how to ignore guilt, and how to make decisions based on what I actually wanted and what was right for me. I finally learned that no man ever has a right to touch me. I remember distinctly the first time I was able to actualize this newfound insight. After a date, a guy walked me home, and kissed me at the gate. Then he tried to put his hand down my pants. I pushed him away and told him no, clearly and firmly, and I didn’t feel guilty. I walked away and laughed. I celebrated that night. I celebrated belonging to me, and to no one else. I was 21 years old.

***

Experience has taught me that just about everything I learned about sex and relationships from Evangelicalism was wrong, unhelpful, or dangerous. I’ve discovered that it’s a complete myth that men unilaterally have stronger sex drives than women or that they are controlled by such an imperative for sex. The only guy I’ve gone out with who actually believed that was one who tried to rape me. It was how he justified the assault.

In that situation and many others, I may have been able to protect myself better if I had been taught to trust myself, to trust my instincts when they sense something is going wrong. But the church’s message that I can’t trust myself has been the most insidious, the hardest to root out. It’s an issue beyond just sexual situations. I was recently in a serious relationship with a man that I loved and adored. He was a good guy in every measurable way. But something felt off, and it bothered me. He always felt distant; I felt like I couldn’t get close to him, even though he said he loved me and he called me every day. I explained it away as being the result of a long-distance relationship. But the feeling grew over time, to the point where I felt like I wasn’t a priority to him, like he took me for granted. I told him how I felt, and his response was that I was overly sensitive and I was imagining it or that he already does enough and it was unreasonable to expect anything else. Eventually, when I was miserable enough, I remembered my mother’s advice: he must be the crazy one, not me. My emotions were legitimate, and deserved to be taken seriously.

A few months after we broke up, I found out he had been in love with another girl since high school. He told me that if at any time she had become available, he would have left me for her. He literally said I was his “second choice.” My instincts had been dead on: he was distant and emotionally unavailable, and I was not his priority. I’m not about to be anybody’s second choice. I’m too awesome for that.

As I have come to believe more firmly that I’m awesome and valuable, I have also come to see the value in having sex within a committed relationship. I didn’t always see this value. I felt secure having sex with a guy I felt safe with and who treated me well, as long as we always used condoms and I was on the pill. Then came the unfortunate week in which a condom malfunction coincided with a missed birth control pill – which was followed by a missed period.

During the ensuing panic, three things became very clear to me: I wanted to keep the baby, but having a baby would make graduate school (which I wanted more than anything) very complicated, maybe impossible; and I was horrified at the thought of having this guy be the father of my child, and being tied to him for the rest of my life.

Even after finding out I wasn’t pregnant, the impression of the riskiness of sex stuck with me.  Around this time, the logic of my father’s theory on sex began to sink in. He always said that it was best to keep sex inside marriage (even common law marriage) because it was protective against some of the consequences of sex. I now saw his point: I decided I wasn’t going to risk that kind of sex again until I’d finished graduate school and I was with someone I at least wouldn’t be horrified about being connected to for the rest of my life.

While a serious relationship with someone I know and trust can be protective against the risks and dangers of sex, I’ve realized this is a guideline, not a rule. It makes it less likely I’ll get a sexually transmitted infection, less likely a pregnancy would be unbearable, less likely the sex is exploitative or harmful. There’s value in that.

But it’s also true that some sex outside of committed long-term relationships could be beneficial, and some married sex is extremely harmful.

This is the reason I would not marry someone without having some kind of sex with him first.  You can’t tell for sure how a guy is going to behave or how he communicates or what he prioritizes about sex until something physical starts happening. There are certainly signs to pay attention to before that; if he treats you poorly outside the bedroom, you can be pretty sure he won’t be any better inside. But I’ve been with guys who are respectful, considerate, good guys, but don’t communicate or behave in a way that I’m comfortable with when things start to get physical. Before I agree to spend the rest of my life with someone, I need to know for certain that I’m as safe with and respected by him with the bedroom door closed as I am when we’re at dinner with my parents.

Looking back, these are the lessons I wish I had learned from my church as a teenager, lessons my church would have been well equipped to teach:

  1. You are valuable. Not your purity, not your vagina, you – the person made in the image of God – are valuable. No matter what happens to you or what decisions you make, you are valuable.
  2. What you want is extremely important. If someone touches you in a way you don’t want, that’s called sexual assault. That’s a crime that person perpetrated against you. It is not your fault.
  3. You have good instincts. Trust your instincts. You can sharpen your instincts even more by learning about red flags of abuse to watch out for so you can keep yourself safe.
  4. If you don’t feel in control in a situation, something is wrong. Take a step back. Are you in danger? Do the two of you need to communicate better? Are you not sure yet what you want, and need to pause until you are?
  5. Guilt is a terrible measure for decision-making. You will feel guilty for telling a man yes. You will also feel guilty for telling a man no. Don’t listen to the guilt. Listen to your own, God-given wise mind. Check in with your emotions and your reason. Are you feeling any outside pressure to make a decision one way or the other? Do you actually want the sex itself, or do you want to have sex because you want to make him happy or to be closer to him or because you think it is expected of you? Make sure you know why you are making whatever choice you are making. Double check if this is really a good idea, if this is really what you want. Is this right for you? Is it safe? Are you sure you can trust him? What will you think about this decision three months from now?
  6. Women are equal partners in sex and relationships. Both parties should be benefiting. Both parties have a say in what happens. If you’re not enjoying it as much as he is, do something different. Communication is always necessary, always good.
  7. Sex is wrong when it is exploitative. This is true no matter what type of relationship you have, from strangers to spouses. This means that sex is wrong if:
    1. There is not clear, enthusiastic consent, every time for every act (and continuing through each act).
    2. There is a power differential (employer/employee; adult/minor; sex trafficking; etc.).
    3. There is coercion, force, or manipulation of any kind.
    4. It’s used as a weapon to control, harm, or humiliate.
  8. Make informed choices. Make sure you understand human anatomy, the way birth control works, how to have safe sex, and how to get tested for STDs. Make sure you understand the risks and possible consequences of sex, including pregnancy, HIV, other STDs, and potential changes in the dynamics of your relationship.
  9. You are awesome. Remember you are awesome when you’re making decisions, especially about sex and relationships. Remember how awesome you are before you take unnecessary risks. You are awesome.
Photo by Tall And Ginger
NYX
Social Issues

stuff I’ve been into: May edition

Articles

Hookup culture is bad for women– so why do we force ourselves to participate?” by Leah Fessler was interesting to read. I’d add the two thoughts: “hookup culture” is a little overblown in the general imagination. It exists, but the research says it’s made too much of. However, I’ve talked about a related concept– raunch culture– and my problems with it, so I think the criticism Leah makes is valid. Second thought: she talks about how women are “emotional,” but doesn’t ever clarify what she means so it plays into the “women are emotional, but men aren’t” stereotype, even though her research indicated that men wanted intimacy and commitment just as often as the women.

Stop Trying to Choke Me: The Rise of Rough Sex Culture” by Rose Surnow was thought-provoking. I have a nuanced view of pornography– I think porn could, theoretically, be a good thing if it is ethically made and treats human beings with dignity. However, that’s not often the reality and I’m troubled by the thought that people are being exposed to the relentless degradation of women when they consume porn.

Service Work is Skilled Work” by Hanna Olsen is fascinating. I’ve been reading a lot about the future of America’s labor force and I think we’re going to experience … no one seems to have any clear idea of what but all signs are pointing toward something big. I’m firmly convinced that trying to bring back manufacturing is both fruitless and problematic– the men and women building our cars in Mexico are making $10 an hour, and that’s a “good job” for them. Why do we feel the right to take back that labor from them so we can pay our manufacturers here $30-50 an hour? I’m very much feeling a Workers of the world, unite! sentiment, and for that we need both free trade and to change our perceptions of “burger flippers” here at home.

The High Cost of Low Teacher Salaries” by Dave Eggers and Níneve Clements Calegari got a bunch of fist-pumping from me. As an education major, I once had to read a book that advocated paying teachers the minimum wage and specifically hiring married women so you could justify paying them less, I shit you not. One of my peers qualified for food stamps during the years she taught. That’s not ok.

Why Do We Give Robots Female Names?” by Laurie Penny was good. So good. Read it. It’s really stuck with me.

Re-examining Monica, Marica, Tonya and Anita, the ‘scandalous’ women of the 90s” by Sarah Marshall was fantastic and a little bit mind-boggling. I was a kid during the 90s– I was 13 when they ended– so everything I absorbed about these women’s stories was the extremely tricked-down version. It’s amazing to me how much hate and misogyny I inherited through hearing about them … especially concerning Tonya Harding, who I knew the most about because I was figure skating-obsessed as a teenager.

Books

I stayed up all night last week to finish Red Queen by Victoria Aveyard. The magic concept is essentially a good way to start discussing race, segregation, civil rights … and I don’t want to spoil too much so let me just say that there’s also an amazing jumping-off point to talk about problems with a certain kind of “ally.” It wasn’t the most amazing book I’d ever read, but it was interesting and entertaining.

I just started A People’s History of Christianity by Diana Butler Bass is a variation on a theme that Howard Zinn started with A People’s History of the United States. Christianity isn’t a monolith, and never has been. “Orthodoxy,” for all it means “having the right opinion” isn’t the same thing as truth, which no one person has an absolute claim on.

Television and Movies

Still re-watching The West Wing, still loving it especially now that Sam is off in California. Interestingly, I”m tending to agree less with CJ, too, who tends to have a narrow focus. Yes, the young pianist should be allowed asylum, but it’s not like trying to make sure North Korea doesn’t sell its nukes to Iran is bad.

We’re also really enjoying the second season of The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. We’ve discovered that it’s better if you don’t binge-watch it … it’s much more hilarious in smaller doses.

I have also watched Star Wars: The Force Awakens two more times since I saw it in the theater, and I think I love it more now, which I wasn’t sure was possible.

If you haven’t seen Madam Secretary, the season just finished and I’m enthralled. I can’t wait for it to start up again because TWIST. Yay. I love good twists instead of heart-shattering ones. Speaking of heart-shattering twists …

Anyone who’s seen the season finale of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. I’d be more than happy to have a spoilerific conversation in the comment section because FEELINGS.

Also, Elementary is still fantastic. Femme!Watson is still the best damn thing on television.

***

So basically I ran errands for much of today but didn’t want to leave you hanging, especially since there won’t be a post on Friday. My cousin is graduating high school, so we’re heading up to hang out with family for the weekend.

Photo by Jon S
I Kissed Dating Goodbye
Feminism

I Kissed Dating Goodbye review: 111-122

“Starting with a Clean Slate”

Sections like these remind me of what Joshua was going through at this point in his life. He didn’t grow up in the Sovereign Grace cult-like atmosphere headed up by the charismatic and powerful C.J. Mahaney. He’d only been there a few years, but like the old saying goes there’s no zealot like a convert. At this point in his life he’d been inducted into an inner circle, was being tapped for leadership, and he most likely achieved all of that through his commitment to SGM and its way of thinking, way of living, way of believing.

That’s demonstrated fairly clearly in this chapter (in my opinion), especially with the self-flagellation he performs. At multiple points through this part of the book he’s going to rip his teenage self a new one, and as a spiritual abuse survivor myself it practically screams of religious trauma. There’s a lot of shame wrapped up in how he viewed himself at this point in his life– he has no room for grace for his mistakes, no way to say “well, that’s not how I’d handle it now, but I was sixteen and I’ve matured since then.”

I wonder what he’d say if he looked over this now that he’s left SGM behind and been in seminary for a bit:

The lesson … is an important one for all of us who have built our relationships on the faulty attitudes of this world. (112)

He had important relationships tied up in SGM … and I imagine it all sort of exploded on him after he found out that Mahaney and other church leaders had covered up child sexual abuse in his church, among the people he pastored. After I realized I’d grown up in a cult and most of what I’d been taught was utter horseshit, I had to re-evaluate statements like these more than any other. Some things were easier to toss, but the belief that my relationships weren’t “faulty” and “of the world” because I was friends with Christians and we saw each other as brother and sister in Christ was deeply ingrained … but then you find out your mentor protected a rapist. What do you do with that?

But, let’s dig into the “5 Steps to Build a Godly Lifestyle” that’s the bulk of this chapter.

1. Start with a Clean Slate

Two points to highlight here. He’s talking about being truly repentant and what that means, and uses a young woman he met after a music festival as an example:

With a giggle that contradicted her words, Emily told me she kept “messing up” with boys and wanted God to help her change. As I asked her additional questions, it became clear that Emily wasn’t actually convicted of her sin … there was no sadness over disobeying and failing to honor God. (113)

This is a problem I encountered a lot in fundamentalist culture: the belief that you can see the deepest motivations of a heart after a brief conversation. So far, I haven’t encountered this in the Outside World in the same way … especially when men and women like Joshua (Debi Pear comes to mind) think that something like a giggle can be used as evidence against someone and their Standing with God. I know I’m not the only person who giggles/chitters/chuckles/laughs when nervous or embarrassed, and Emily was probably both. But Joshua was such a good Christian that he can just tell that her giggle meant she wasn’t sincere.

This section is the place where a lot of people were hurt by this book because he encourages his readers to break up immediately. He tells them to “have the courage to obey now” (114). Obey. Joshua is so utterly convinced as a 23-year-old that he’s right about how everyone should act that following his advice is obedience to God.

2. Make your Parents your Teammates

There’s nothing wrong with involving parents you trust in difficult decisions, including romantic ones. Simply by the nature of having been alive longer they can be extremely helpful. They also know us pretty well and have spent a lot of time figuring out what could help or hurt us … unless, of course, they’re abusive, something Joshua doesn’t even hint at. He does, however, go out of his way to highlight how much of a problem it could be if your parents aren’t Christians, though … because non-Christian parents can’t possibly offer sensible advice (116).

Another problem with this “step” is that Joshua doesn’t understand adolescent development. I’m not shocked by that– he was among fundamentalists who mocked the very existence of psychology — but like anyone who dismisses entire scientific fields as irrelevant, he’s going to run into problems. Notably, here, it’s clear he doesn’t understand individuation and sees a perfectly natural and healthy behavior as sinful. Teenagers are supposed to start branching outside of their parents and start making independent decisions. Without that process, without learning how to make decisions wisely and safely, they could be emotionally and intellectually compromised adults.

3. Establish Clear Guidelines

I found one bit of this entertaining. He tells us to “establish guidelines … that are based on the wisdom of God’s Word” (116). Apparently God’s Word (which means the Bible, not Jesus) can tell us “what constitutes a romantic setting” in 21st century America.

However, the actual problem with this section is that Joshua disguises what is blatantly legalism:

There are not hard and fast rules. These are issues of wisdom and will differ based on your age and spiritual maturity …

So I’ve created a policy about this issue: I will not go to a girl’s home if no one else is there … I don’t have to weigh the situation or pray about it–I already know that I won’t accept the invitation. (116-17)

I grew up among Christians who did this sort of thing all of the time. It’s not truly legalism if it only applies to you, personally. If you are personally convicted about a particular thing. We don’t make rules for everyone, just ourselves. Personally. And, anyway, the code is more what you’d call “guidelines” than actual rules.

guidelines

However, Joshua does make it clear what’s so attractive about legalism in the first place: you don’t have to think. Making determinations about individual situations with all their complexities and nuance is difficult, so just make a rule for yourself and voilà problem solved! Except … this is not very useful. In fact, my experience demonstrates that it’s damaging. Life doesn’t work this way, and being a person means tailoring your responses to the situation at hand. If you’re not allowed to do that, ever, then your emotional growth is being stunted.

5. Season Your Conviction with Humility

Step 4 was really just more of Step 3, only applied to music and TV with a dash of build yourself an isolating bubble and never leave it (118).

Step 5 is … bad. It’s so bad. He’s trying to to tell us how to “communicate your convictions without coming across as self-righteous” but he epically fails. After telling us that it’s probably not smart to shove your convictions down the throats of strangers (I agree), we get here:

But your main goal is to humbly communicate what you feel God has shown you, to encourage your friends, and to contribute to their growth … If you maintain this humble spirit, you’ll often find your listener willing to share his or her own struggles and questions. This opens up the opportunity for you to give counsel and support. (119)

He’s already made it clear we’re supposed to be having these conversations with friends, perhaps colleagues. Y’know. Peers. How in the world are you supposed to come across as not a self-righteous prat if you view your friends as “listeners” that you are helping to “grow” and that you “give counsel” to? I do not counsel my friends or my peers. Sometimes I can offer an outside perspective that someone might find helpful, but I am not counseling them toward anything. I don’t view myself as someone who will “contribute to their growth.” We’re all just people. Equals.

But, if you’re so convinced that you’re right that you think following the advice in I Kissed Dating Goodbye is tantamount to obeying God … yeah. Someone needs to look in a mirror.

black heart
Theology

sinful hearts: the consequences of Inherited Sin

One of these days, as I keep promising, I’m going to write an in-depth article on why I’m against the concepts of Inherited and Original Sin, but today I have a migraine that I can’t shake so for now I’m just going to make an observation.

There are many good conversations out there talking about the negative consequences of teaching people that their innermost selves, that the core of who they are, is absolutely corrupt and wicked. I’ve talked about one here– that telling me that I cannot allow myself to trust my instincts caused emotional harm. When you’re utterly convinced that everyone else’s opinion of you automatically carries more weight than what you think about yourself … you’re going to be particularly vulnerable to emotional abuse and bullying.

On top of that, teaching your children to believe that they are horrible, disgusting, repulsive monsters is an inherently abusive thing to do to them. If your theology even remotely resembles the tactics that nearly every abuser relies upon, you need to evaluate your beliefs. My friend R.L. Stollar has an excellent long-form article on this subject, and even though it might take you a while to plow through it, you should. While Stollar is dealing with the way Inherited Sin appears in the fundamentalist homeschooling subculture, the same basic idea– although not taken to the same extreme– is present in the rest of Christian culture and the bulk of Christian tradition, fundamentalist or not.

I don’t need much else to convince me that teaching Inherited Sin is a woefully bad idea, but this morning I saw this come through my private facebook feed:

The truth is that the more intimately you know someone, the more clearly you’ll see their flaws. That’s just the way it is. This is why marriages fail, why children are abandoned, why friendships don’t last. You might think you love someone until you see the way they are when they’re out of money or under pressure or hungry, for goodness’ sake.

Love is something different. Love is choosing to serve someone and be with someone in spite of their filthy heart. Love is patient, love is deliberate. Love is hard. Love is pain and sacrifice, it’s seeing the darkness in another person and defying the impulse to jump ship.

I won’t deny that love is hard sometimes. Forgiveness can be difficult. Relationships can be trying. Occasionally, you’ll saw your tongue in half just to keep the peace. People can be careless, thoughtless, and sometimes you’ll find yourself staring at your reflection repeating “she didn’t mean it that way, you know she didn’t, just let it go” while you practice breathing exercises and your heart pounds with frustration and hurt. You’ll even hurt the people you care about, and you hope they have same patience with you.

However, if you are convinced that all people are born with “filthy hearts” and “darkness,” that they’re innately evil, and that it’s your job to “love them in spite of their filthiness” … you’re going to stay with an abuser, and you’re not going to be surprised when someone is horribly cruel or incomprehensibly selfish. You’ll expect it. “Love is patient, love is kind” will exist against a backdrop of believing that every person was inescapably born to be an abuser.

Becoming an abuser isn’t something that happens to people because they were born monsters. Our culture is permeated with millions of tiny little ways that enable abuse, that teach us all that abusing others is how to win, how to be successful. After all, racism and misogyny are really just abuse writ large.

However, becoming an abuser is not our default. It is not the thing we’re born with that only accepting Jesus into your heart can overcome. What happens is the opposite: only a few people become abusers, and they target specific victims. Most of us can cause harm, could even do abusive things on occasion, but the intentionality of abusers is absent from decent people. Most of us don’t want to break down another human being into a tool we can use for our own gratification. Instead, when we look around the world, we generally see people who have a right to their autonomy.

The consequence of teaching us that we are all born desperately, unimaginably evil is that we won’t be able to recognize true evil when it happens to us. All we truly know is ourselves, and systematically destroying another person’s sense of self wouldn’t occur to us– but we’re all evil, right? So if our partner spends a lot of time telling us how untrustworthy we are, how terrible we are, how we deserve having our possessions destroyed, our body beaten, our souls violated, where is the space to call this abuse in the context of Inherited Sin?

I’m not saying it’s impossible, of course. I was calling my ex an abuser and rapist long before I stopped believing in Original or Inherited Sin. But what I do know is that I told myself love is patient, love is kind when he was abusing me. I comforted myself with the understanding that we’re all Fallen, but God is doing a work in him. I just had to stick it out until Jesus overcame his “Old Man.”

Jesus gave us a tool to help us evaluate doctrine: a good tree cannot bear bad fruit. If the doctrine is good, then the natural outworking and practice of that doctrine will be beneficial, just, and life-giving.

The lived reality of Inherited Sin is none of those things.

Photo by Sophie & Cie
perfume bottles
Social Issues

the smell test: 5 signs of a toxic church

This weekend we drove past a billboard advertising a “Christian Center” with one of those buzzword names, like Thirst or Resurgence or Ember or Pathway or Crossover (and, suddenly, these are also names for cars). I didn’t know what a “Christian Center” could be, so I looked it up thinking maybe it was like a Christian-themed recplex or something. Turns out it was a church, with trendy, mobile-responsive design, but the copy for the website was so bad it cracked me up. I started reading portions out loud to Handsome, but one phrase (“mode of dress”) pulled me up in my tracks.

Startled, I started digging, and my feelings were quickly confirmed: the website celebrates how the pastor and his wife both went to the same fundamentalist college (West Coast Baptist, which meant nothing to Handsome but sent up a red flag for me because they’re associated with PCC), and while the pastor’s wife clearly heads up several ministries in the church, she performs those duties under the “leadership of her husband” and with no formal title.

Check and check. They’re fundies.

That experience was disconcerting, because apparently fundamentalists have gotten sneaky in the past decade. They’re making themselves look like the slightly more harmless mainstream non-denominational evangelicals. In my opinion, this is the result of the mainstream evangelical movement becoming more fundamentalist and the fundamentalist movement getting a touch more “with it,” but the end result is that people are going to wind up in an environment where they won’t know what hit them until it’s far too late.

The leopard is trying to change its spots, so I’ve come up with a few you-don’t-have-to-have-15-years-of-experience-to-spot-them Signs of a Toxic Church. Before we begin, though, it’s important to keep in mind, like with my “signs of toxic people” post, that each of these markers should be considered possible warning signs. No post like this could possibly hope to be universally applicable, so you’ll have to use your own judgement.

1. They have “Bible” somewhere in the name or organizational associations.

After my family left our cult, I had a conversation with someone at PCC about the IFB movement, where she agreed with me about its general problems. “This is why I like Bible churches,” she tossed out. Me, having never heard of “Bible” churches, was curious. She defined a “Bible” church loosely– non legalistic, but rooted in an inerrant view of Scripture. I would bump into them myself after I graduated, since the church I attended after that is a member of the Bible Baptist Fellowship. It’s not anywhere in their name, though, or on their church website; I found out about it because I saw BBFI bulletins in the lobby and asked a deacon about them.

You can see the historical roots of fundamentalism in these “Bible” churches– clinging to a fundamentalist understanding of Inspiration and Inerrancy, for one–but, if you go to BBFI’s website, you’ll note a heavy emphasis of supernaturalism in their articles of faith, a classical fundamentalist stance, which was a response to anti-supernatural scholarship.

Bible churches are a different flavor of conservative non-denominationalism. They’re not exactly “seeker friendly,” they may not have modern services or worship bands, but they’re ideologically fundamentalist and that’s going to come with baggage … baggage that will damage its members in large or small ways.

2. The leadership structure is homogeneous and isolated.

If every single last leader in the church is a white man (with the exception of “Children’s Director” or “Secretary”), I’d stay far away. Even if it’s all men but some are racial minorities I’d still be leery. My last church went out of their way to include people of color in their leadership but excluded women, with one pastor justifying that decision as “biblical” (although an elder contradicted him, and said it was politics).

More important than the gender and racial makeup, though, is how the leadership operates. The red flags I’d been seeing became a blazing inferno of run run run run when I realized that every time I raised a question about the executive pastor’s decisions the only response was to Circle All the Wagons. It took me forever to even figure out how to raise a question, because the church leadership was largely invisible– most people in the church had no idea who the elders even were. Other former members were frustrated by the fact that there was no public way to get in touch with the leadership if you had a problem or a question– all we had was a directory to the various volunteer ministries (they have since updated the website to include the names and pictures of the elders).

When we confronted the staff about this problem, they said it was intentional, that the executive pastor was “easily overwhelmed” and “needed space” and “has to be shielded” from the congregation.

nopetepus

If the leadership is inaccessible and warded against good, balanced dialogue and/or criticism, it is not a healthy church.

In contrast, although I can’t attend the local ELCA congregation, I e-mailed back and forth with the pastor and had a fairly extensive phone call before we even darkened the church door. My conversations with multiple pastors assure me that being engaged and willing to communicate is an important part of their pastoral role.

3. Their “About” Page is really, really long.

And by “really long” I mean “longer than a few paragraphs,” although I’ve seen a few that were large booklets. This sign should be taken with the appropriate grains of salt. A long “about” or “statement of faith” or “what we believe” page could simply be the sign of an enthusiastic nerd or an aspiring theologian, and nothing more. However, long “about” statements tend to be focused on laying out in exacting detail everything the leadership/pastor thinks is “correct doctrine.” If their list of “correct doctrine” is longer than “God loves you,” I’d become wary (although that’s me. I’m jaded and suspicious).

If you see lots of tertiary things on this list– like veiled references to Creationism (my last church has “nothing in nature ‘just happened’. God made it all”) or getting vaguely confrontational about dispensationalism– caution might be warranted. Maybe they’re just trying to honest, which is good, but if it seems like its all worded to weed you out rather than offering you information about them …. ehhhhh.

Also, extensive histories of their building projects, unless their church is a historical building, just seem weirdly off-putting and, in my experience, tend to be associated with narcissistic leadership. But again. Grains of salt.

4. They use language about being “called out” or “separate” or “set apart.”

Other phrases, from the research I’ve done over the past few days can be: “discernment,” “salt of the earth,” “distinctions,” “avoiding reproach,” and possibly even “sanctification”– although that last one only popped up a couple times in the context of being separated in a traditionally fundamentalist sense.

I’ve explained some about the Doctrine of Separation as viewed by fundamentalists. It’s a concept that deserves a more complete treatment than I can give it here, but in short I think it’s poison. Jesus was never separate– in fact, that was The Reason why the religious establishment targeted him in the first place! He ate with “publicans and sinners” and oh the pearl-clutching. Aside from the orthopraxic reasons for why I have a problem with Separation, it (almost) inevitably leads to isolating the membership, creating an insular and self-perpetuating environment that is ripe for abuse. The more withdrawn a church becomes from its community, the more power the leadership has over the congregation. Actively seeking that sort of power by insisting that being a “faithful follower” means cutting yourself off from the outside world … that’s dangerous.

5. They use a “membership covenant” and/or practice “church discipline.”

I had to explain “church discipline” to my grandfather once, after we’d gone to a Wednesday night service where we’d shunned a woman. The more he asked questions about it, the more I grew disgusted at what they’d done. I wasn’t a voting member so I didn’t have a hand in it, but long story short she’d been talking about the Charismatic movement, and loaning people books and pamphlets. And we excommunicated her over it. The pastor’s rationale for it made it even worse– it wasn’t that she was “spreading false doctrine” it was that she’d defied his authority.

One of my best friends is the “Andrew” in this story about “church discipline” at Mars Hill, and his experience was horrific. He left the freaking city because of what Mars Hill put him through.

In my opinion, after being a loyal member of the fundamentalist movement for twelve years, dedicated to this evolving branch of it for another four, and writing and researching about these things for another two years: nothing good can come of “church discipline.” It will be used as a weapon against innocent people for not toeing the line, for not bending their neck to narcissistic abusers. It will. It will be used to ostracize the vulnerable and silence victims. It will be used to publicly humiliate and shame women— even when her “crime” was divorcing her child-rape-watching-and-enjoying husband.

If the church makes it clear that you have to sign a “covenant” or “contract” of any kind and especially if that contract includes a line about the right to exercise “church discipline,” run as fast and as far as you can.

***

I’ve done my best to keep these broad enough to be helpful, but not so broad that they become expansively meaningless. I’d love to hear about your experiences, too– what signs have tipped you off to a possibly toxic church?

Photo by Vetiver Aromatics
I Kissed Dating Goodbye
Feminism

I Kissed Dating Goodbye review: 87-110

“The Direction of Purity” &
“A Cleansed Past: The Room”

The bulk of chapter seven is dedicated to a concept I disagree with: any sex outside of monogamous marriage is a sin. I’ve laid out an argument for why I think sex that causes I or someone else harm should be our standard, starting here, but I am aware that my argument is not the only way to interpret the New Testament passages regarding porneia, usually translated “fornication” or “sexual immorality.” While I feel that my argument is sound, it does reflect a hermenuetic that conflicts with a more conservative understanding of the Bible and Christianity. I asked why NT writers would condemn porneia, and then based my position on the answer to that question. However, if your answer is “because God preserved penetrative intercourse for marriage,” then obviously you’ll end up in a far different place.

Personally, I feel people like Joshua aren’t taking a holistic approach to the Bible when they make arguments like “God preserved sex for marriage.” That narrow view comes out like this:

God guards [physical intimacy] carefully and places many stipulations on it because He considers it extremely precious. (94)

The only “stipulation” that (according to conservative evangelicals) God places on sex in the New Testament is “don’t have it unless you’re married,” so it seems logical to assume that when Joshua refers to “many stipulations” he’s referring to the Law. Unfortunately, the Law includes such “stipulations” as a woman being required to marry her rapist. I don’t think it’s possible to argue that a woman being forced to spend her life with the man who raped her represents sex inside marriage being precious.

However, I’m not the only Christian in the world and I believe one can make a “biblical” argument for saving sex for marriage, so I’m not going to fully address his argument. Instead, I’ll point out where I think he went wrong.

***

This chapter sees Joshua using The Quintessential Example of A Good Man Gone Wrong: and if you guessed “David,” you’d be right. As is typical, he talks about David and Bathsheba as if they had a consensual affair. There are so many reasons that interpretation is disastrously wrong– David raped Bathsheba, David is a rapist— but I think it’s important to highlight something else.

When men like Joshua talk about David and Bathsheba, they’re using David as an example of what could, theoretically, happen to anyone. You stay home from the battlefield. You indulge. You see a naked woman, and then you choose not to look away. You decide you want to sleep with her, and you figure out how to do it. You plan. And then you cover it up.

The problem with this narrative is that this is not a story about a man plotting out his affair. It’s about a man who decides he’s going to abuse his power and rape a woman. Every time this goes unacknowledged, these men inculcate rape culture in their congregations just a little bit more. They entrench, just a bit more deeply, the idea that they can kidnap a woman in the middle of the night and force themselves on her and that’s not rape. This is a total erasure of what consent is and what it looks like.

This is important because rapists are not monsters. They’re normal, everyday people. They’re our friends, our parents, our siblings, our pastors, our co-workers. They buy you coffee, they open doors for you, they preach messages about self-sacrifice and loving your neighbor … and they are rapists not because they’re so different from “normal” people, but because they believe that women are something they can just take. They believe that because we tell them so.

Because Joshua told them so.

I’ve talked some about why purity culture is incompatible with teaching consent, and it comes out here:

You can’t slow down, you can’t turn around; you can only continue speeding farther and farther from your destination. How many Christians in dating relationships have felt the same way as they struggle with accelerating physical involvement? They want to exit, but their own sinful passion takes them further and further from God’s will. (91)

Again, for this post I’m not challenging the idea that “God’s will” is to save sex for marriage. However, this section illustrates a problem because it views people as being in a default state of consent, when the reverse is true. A person’s default state is non-consenting. When you think every man, every woman, exists in a frame of mind where they simply cannot say no, even when “they want to exit,” then rape is impossible to commit. A healthy sexual ethic (even one that assumes that sex is sinful outside of marriage) must include consent as its basis. Except teaching consent undermines purity culture– and they can’t give up using fear of “being unable to stop” as their primary weapon.

***

Toward the end of the chapter he encourages “guys and girls” to help each other stay pure, and unsurprisingly I have problems.

We [men] need to stop acting like hunters trying to catch girls and begin seeing ourselves as warriors standing guard over them … we must realize that girls don’t struggle with the same temptations we struggle with. We wrestle more with our sex drives, while girls struggle more with their emotions. (98)

Beat my head into a friggin wall.

This is, in short, benevolent sexism. Joshua places women on a pedestal and tells men to guard it … and then he goes on to reassert the myth that women are chaste angels who are lured in by romance. It’s not his fault he thinks this– I’m pretty sure every woman in his life has spent a long time reinforcing the message that women just don’t experience arousal, not really— but it’s frustrating nonetheless. Women are just as capable of experiencing hubba hubba feelings as men are, and science backs me up.

He then goes on to share a story about his friend Matt who wanted to date Julie, but refrained from flirting with her for a period of time because “God made it clear to Julie that she had to focus on Him and not be distracted by Matt” (98). Joshua says look at him, that was the right thing to do, and I agree– but for an utterly different reason. In Joshua’s telling, Matt’s focus is on honoring God by not interfering with Julie’s time of “serving Him.” In my view, Matt did the right thing because Julie set a boundary and Matt respected it. Julie said “I like you, but I want to wait” and Matt, instead of interfering with her decision or trying to get her to do what he wanted, made himself be ok with waiting.

But talk about boundaries in relationships subverts the teaching that women aren’t allowed to have boundaries once they’re married. They’re not supposed to deny their husband anything. After all, their body doesn’t belong to them, but to their husband. And vice versa, supposedly, but when have women ever literally owned their husbands?

It gets worse when he turns to “The Girl’s Responsibility,” where he focuses on women being modest:

Now, I don’t want to dictate your wardrobe, but honestly speaking, I would be blessed if girls considered more than fashion when shopping for clothes. Yes, guys are responsible for maintaining self-control, but you can help by refusing to wear clothing designed to attract attention to your body. (99)

Anyone who’s ever criticized Christian modesty teachings points out that when they say that men are “responsible for maintaining self-control,” and it’s not a woman’s fault when a man “stumbles” they’re not being honest. Joshua contradicts himself not even a paragraph later:

A single mom who had recently rededicated her life to Christ told me, “I went through my closet and got rid of anything that might have caused a brother in the Lord to stumble. I asked God to forgive me and to help protect the purity of those around me.”

If it’s not her fault, why does she need forgiveness?

Hilariously, the problem with telling women they have to be modest or they’re sinning is highlighted in this little line: “even in the summer, when it seems impossible to find a modest pair of shorts!”

Ah, Joshua. This is one of the reasons why I wasn’t allowed to read your book when I was a teenager … you think shorts can be modest. Not just pants. Shorts. Dear Lord, you’d allow a woman to expose her knees?!

And that right there is the biggest reason why teachings on “modesty” are the biggest load of crock. There are no clothes a woman can put on her body that a man can’t conceive of as sexy, because it’s not actually the clothes. It’s the man and his own personal issues– what he personally finds attractive or sexy, or what his personal fetish is. It’s impossible for a woman to “cause” her brother to stumble because no woman is psychic, and even if she dressed to avoid one man’s fetish, she’d just end up in an outfit that is some other man’s fetish. It’s ridiculous.

***

The last chapter of this section is Joshua telling us about a dream he had that he thinks illustrates God’s forgiveness and grace, which I think is a good thing to include. As much as I disagree with the way he’s handled … almost everything … one thing he hasn’t done (at least so far) is talk about how ruinous sex outside of marriage supposedly is. Oh, he’s talked about how “dangerous” it is, and how we can’t give pieces of our heart away, so he’s definitely contributing to the damaging consequences of purity culture, but he hasn’t said anything like “having sex makes you a half-eaten candy bar or a cup full of spit” so I guess that’s something.

The next section we’re getting into is “Building a New Lifestyle,” so we’ll see how that goes.

American flag
Feminism

feminism and American exceptionalism

Every so often I bump into an anti-feminist or an MRA who tells me that it’s ridiculous for me to be a feminist in America. If I was really a feminist I’d expel all my time, energy, and attention on real problems like the horrible subjugation of women in the Near and Middle East. Jessica Valenti has written a response to this sort of false equivalency, saying “The goal of feminism is justice – not to just be better off than other oppressed women. There’s no such thing as equal by comparison.”

But, I want to talk about this because I have something Jessica Valenti doesn’t: lived experience with Christian Patriarchy.

The above accusation– that if I were really a feminist I’d only care about “third world country oppression”– is driven by the belief that American-focused feminism is petty, shallow, ridiculous, unnecessary, and somehow vengeful, like how this article paints it by limiting American feminism to “banning the word bossy.”

First, I’m not interested in playing the “who has it worse” game. I’ve never engaged in Oppression Olympics, and I’ve never gotten behind the idea that, for example, my partner shouldn’t complain about his headache because I have fibromyalgia and endometriosis. Yes, I think it’s absurd that women in Saudi Arabia can’t drive. Yes, my stomach turns at the rape crisis happening South Africa and the growing frequency of acid attacks in India. Yes, I’m horrified that, last week, a 15-year-old girl was strangled and then incinerated for helping her friend elope.

But, the people who tend to throw this particular accusation in my face aren’t actually upset at my supposed lack of empathy for these women. Their argument is made from ignorance, and they make it because they are privileged and willingly blind. They say we can vote, and we have [some, and eroding] legal rights, so I should just stop being such a harpy and getting my panties in a twist because I don’t like how often women say “sorry.”

***

Almost 1,500 American women are killed by their husband or boyfriend every year. More than half of them will be shot to death. 1 in 5 high school girls report being physically or sexually abused by their male partner, and 1 in 4 women will be sexually assaulted or raped in college (and to be pre-emptive, that’s a link to the Post-Kaiser poll, which was a random sampling of 1,053 of current college students, so you can take your “that 1 in 5 statistic doesn’t count ‘cuz it was only two colleges!” bullshit elsewhere).

But these are all problems we’re familiar with, mostly.

What they don’t know is that all the problems they point to in those foreign places (which are populated by brown people and are usually culturally Islamic, let’s be real about the racism and Islamaphobia happening)— they exist here. In different forms, sure– we don’t use the term “honor killing” when a man murders his wife for adultery– but the consequences of misogyny and patriarchy in America are far-reaching.

I grew up in a culture that explicitly taught me that I, as a woman, shouldn’t vote. In fact, I must not vote if my vote were to contradict my husband’s, they argued. Thankfully my parents countermanded this, but the reality is that I personally knew a few dozen women in college who didn’t vote because they thought that women’s suffrage was wrong. Since I’ve started moving in ex-fundamentalist circles, I’ve found that it wasn’t limited to my neck of the woods, either– Libby Anne once argued as a teenager that “in an ideal world, women shouldn’t vote,” and she’s from the Midwest, not the Deep South. Oh, and this argument still exists today. In fact, Nancy Leigh DeMoss called the women’s suffrage movement sinful in her enormously popular Lies Women Believe.

So while yes, technically women can, legally, vote– a toxic and widespread culture frequently forbids it. Even if something is legal, what good is it if women can’t access it?

I was taught in the Stay-at-Home-Daughters movement that women shouldn’t be educated, and were forbidden from leaving home to seek employment. I was taught that women can’t be trusted to supervise, manage, or govern anything– we barely even run our own households, and we certainly shouldn’t be given control over our finances. We didn’t have to wear burkas or hijab (although the definition I was taught for “modesty” was based on a Hebrew word that means “long and flowing” and a lot of us wore head coverings), but we were prevented from basically ever leaving our houses or existing in the public sphere.

And even though marital rape was made illegal everywhere in the US in 1993, there are still eight states that have “marital exemptions” for rape– and that’s not even touching all the Christian people who think “marital rape is an oxymoron,” including people like Nancy Wilson, who’s the wife of one of the biggest names in conservative evangelicalism. She’s written regarding marital sex that “But of course a husband is never trespassing in his garden.” Your basic, run-of-the-mill, everyday conservative Christian is as rabidly misogynist as Vox Day.

It looks different than what people think happens in the Arab world, but it’s a similar ideology with similar practical consequences.

These positions are championed by the homeschooling world’s biggest names, presented at basically every convention, and the related (although not identical) Quiverful movement has had multiple reality television shows about it, most famously 19 Kids and Counting. That supposedly nice, happy, perky, oh-so-chipper family share the same fundamental beliefs about women as those who shot Malala Yousafzai in the head. Christian fundamentalism can no longer be discounted as “fringe” when Ted Cruz is almost as fundamentalist as they come, and he earned 45% of the Republican delegates– with plenty of evangelicals feeling that he closely aligned with their values and beliefs.

Oh, and just in case you thought that the oppression of women and children was limited to keeping us chained to our homes and dismissing marital rape as impossible, it’s not. A few weeks ago I saw a bunch of articles on child marriages go through my feed, with many people shocked and horrified (which they absolutely should be). When I told a woman who’d exclaimed “I’m so glad that doesn’t happen here!” that child brides do indeed exist right here at home, she didn’t believe me. It’s not her fault. Most people are unaware of the long and continuing history of child marriage in America.

Growing up, one of the most romantic, lovely, well-circulated and highly praised stories of courtship I’d ever heard was told about Matthew and Maranatha Chapman:

When Matthew first expressed his interest in Maranatha … Maranatha was 13 and Matthew was 26. When Matthew heard from God that he was to marry Maranatha, and begged Stan [her father] to let him propose marriage to her, Maranatha was 14 and Matthew was 27. When Stan gave Matthew the go ahead to propose to his daughter, Maranatha was 15 and Matthew was 27. They were the same ages when they married just over a month later.

A 26-year-old man was sexually interested in a 13-year-old little girl, and this story gets passed around as the ideal courtship. In fact, when Matthew confesses his attraction to Maranatha’s father, Stan’s response to is say that his feelings for a 13-year-old are from God, I shit you not.

But that story is from the 80s! It’s over two decades old! Well, this one isn’t. It’s from this week. A misogynist decided to organize an event where patriarchs can go and sell their daughters for a “bride price,” and the man running it said this on the event’s website:

The woman who has arrived physically and sexually at a point where she is ‘ready’ for a husband, is ready for a husband, else we make God out to be a liar… Calvin and Gill, quoting the Jewish authorities in reference to the term Paul uses in I Cor 7:36, place the lower limit of this at twelve years old for girls

Scripture speaks of the father of the son “taking a wife” for his son, and the father of the bride “giving” her to her husband  It gives example after example of young women being given to young men, without the young woman even being consulted …

And while this stinking pile of shit thinks “not very many girls” are truly ready for marriage at 12 years old, they could be and he says there’s nothing wrong with marrying her off for a bride price without her consent.

Burn it down. Burn everything down.

Our belief in American exceptionalism prevents nearly all of us from seeing these things as they really are, as they really happen. We hear about some “Get Them Married Retreat” and think “oh, that’s Kansas, that’s Christian fundamentalists, that’s hilarious.” As if the thousands upon thousands– if not millions– of children being raised in conservative and fundamentalist households don’t matter, or aren’t significant enough to care about. It’s easy to think of brown, Islamic people being horrible to women and children because that fits in with our imperialist and white supremacist view of the world. It’s easy to dismiss anything white, Christian people do because we can justify them as “outliers” … and because they look like us, it can’t be that bad.

Except it is. It’s worse than you think.

Photo by Joe Campbell
crucifix
Social Issues

the Crucifixion and #NeverTrump: what the Cross teaches us about politics

In case you’ve missed it, Trump is the presumptive GOP nominee for president after Cruz withdrew from the race yesterday. The news kept me up last night, mostly because my emotional state resembles something like Edvard Munch’s The Scream. Handsome and I have been watching a WWII documentary recently, and the episodes describing the political movements that brought Hitler and Mussolini into power left us in dumbstruck horror. I know comparing Trump to Hitler at this point is basically passé, but it doesn’t change the fact that the comparison works for a reason.

While I’m relieved that the theocratic Dominionist-Reconstructionist fundamentalist is out of the race, I’m still terrified of a Trump candidacy and the possibility of his presidency. His campaign has already incited horrific violence against black and queer and female bodies, and I believe it’s only going to get worse. God forbid he’s elected.

As his candidacy has grown more and more successful, winning primaries by ever-wider margins, I’ve looked around at my fellow citizenry and despaired. I honestly thought we were better than him– that sure, maybe some of us were just that bigoted and racist– but certainly not enough of us to get him nominated. Watching this has been a brutal corrective and I’m far more cynical about America than I was back in September.

Aside from his hatred, lewdness, and blatant dishonesty, aside from the fact that he’s advocated for torture and war crimes and directed a miasmic bombardment at women, Trump is the representation of Empire made flesh. He is, quite literally, an anti-Christ in the sense that he stands in direct opposition to everything Jesus Christ taught us to do.

  • Trump tells us that we must fear and hate our enemies. Jesus tells us not only to love and forgive them, but to radically resist oppression through turning the other cheek, to carry the Roman conqueror’s pack not one mile, but two.
  • Trump tells us to ostracize or exile those who look different, to barricade them behind a wall. Jesus tells us that all people are our neighbors, and that our example is the Good Samaritan who sacrificially brought aid to a stranger.
  • Trump calls on us to enact abominations against women and children. Jesus says that anyone who hurts a child deserves to be thrown into the sea with a millstone tied around his neck.

I understand what he’s appealing to. He is a tool of Empire– he is slavering and rapacious, greedy for power, for control, for prestige, for wealth, for domination. It doesn’t surprise me that when he says “Make America Great Again” he’s pulling on the fear and lust that dwells in all our hearts. We don’t want to feel threatened. We want to feel secure. And, worse than that, we are a nation built on the principle that white men deserve land ownership, deserve enfranchisement, deserve gainful employment– and these white men were quite willing for hundreds of years to enrich themselves off the fact that they literally owned women and didn’t even recognize black people as human beings fully endowed with the imago dei.

Trump is conjuring an image of America for white men where they can have all of that again– all that power, all that wealth, because they deserve it for no other reason than an accident of birth. If they serve Empire, they’ll be rewarded by the restoration of their power.

Jesus asks us to walk a different path than this.

He said that whoever wants to be his disciple must take up their cross and follow him (Mt 16:24, Lk 9:23, Mk. 8:34). It’s clear that he was speaking metaphorically, but I think that over time we’ve lost the bluntness, the absolute starkness, of the imagery he chose for this teaching. Today we think of “bearing our cross” as a form of drudgery– it carries similar cultural weight as putting your nose to the grindstone, and has a feeling of daily wear-and-tear. Our “cross” takes on various forms, usually none of them all that weighty. Fulfilling your obligations as a parent. Chronic illness. A narcissistic employer.

We’ve lost it partly because we abandoned public executions like the crucifixion; today, as despicable as it is that we still execute people, we tolerate it because we culturally accept the lie that lethal injection is somehow humane. We don’t have the absolute brutality of crucifixion as a part of our public consciousness– it’s not something we associate with our government as a daily reminder of their authority and what they will do to us if we try to subvert their power (at least, not if we’re white). We don’t have to move about our day with crucifixion as a constant threat.

The people Jesus was speaking to, though, they did. They knew that if they put one toe out of line, that’s where they could be– hanging on a Roman cross, enduring Roman humiliations, bearing Roman torture. Jesus’ call to discipleship demands that we face that risk, that we stand in the face of Empire and say No!–no, I would rather die a horrible, agonizing death than serve the Empire and Mammon.

Handsome and I were talking about the evangelical notion that the Cross is the pinnacle of God’s love for us– like how Joshua Harris said, that “God’s perfect love for a fallen world is more clearly seen in the death of His Son.” As I argued in response, under the penal substitutionary atonement theory, this doesn’t hold true– but in some theological positions, it could. Handsome argued how God loved us enough, wanted to be with us enough to become Emmanuel, to face what they knew was coming. He said that there was something important enough to teach us that they left heaven and put on a body and walked among us… even knowing that he’d be crucified.

I think that’s true, regardless of what Atonement Theory convinces you most. Setting aside the Atonement for the moment, I think it’s important to concentrate on the “pre-Easter Jesus,” as Marcus Borg puts it. Forgetting all the theological implications for the moment, what does the Cross mean? What does it mean that Jesus suffered this form of death: an execution by the state for treason and sedition?

Like all mythical stories (and, before you clutch your pearls, mythical doesn’t mean untrue), the story of the Cross has a multiplicity of meanings and Truths tied up in it. What it means can change, can flicker, and that is one of the glorious beauties of myth. Today, as Trump ascends to the throne of the Republican party, I think that one of the things that the Cross is meant to teach us is this: we are to resist Empire with all our hearts, souls, strength, and minds. Empire is a siren’s song, luring us in with promises of security and wellness, but those are not our priorities as Christians. In fact, being a follower of Christ means that we’re willing to risk being hung on a tree right beside him because we refuse to bow to our oppressors. We will not give in to white supremacy, or misogyny, or the belief that we have the right to slaughter countless innocents because their communities oppose our nation– either through active war or passively refusing to take in the tired, the poor, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free.

I believe that’s what it means for us today to take up our cross and follow him. Are we going to do it?

Photograph by Brian
I Kissed Dating Goodbye
Feminism

I Kissed Dating Goodbye review: 59-86

“Looking up ‘Love’ in God’s Dictionary” &
“The Right Thing at the Wrong Time is the Wrong Thing”

This week we’re entering the second Part of IKDG: “The Heart of the Matter.” I was hoping this meant that we’d be digging into different ideas, but so far these two chapters were repetitive. There’s building your argument, and then there’s just restating yourself, and Joshua is going in circles at this point. However, it did make it clear that there are two realities that are affecting his judgment: 1) his utter lack of experience, and 2) the cynicism and suspicion he’s been taught to see The World through. These combine to form an inaccurate understanding of how The World actually works; a side-effect is that he’s far too sanguine about fellow Christians and their behavior.

For example, he cites Eric and Leslie Ludy (although he doesn’t use their last name, which seemed odd to me) as a model for how courtship should work and why it’s successful, contrasting it with a high school friend who lied to his parents in order to sleep with his girlfriend. However, he does nothing to address the fact that in the early days of their speaking tours, the Ludys talked about the fact that they didn’t consummate their marriage for over a year. Joshua presents them as the ideal: “You’d be hard pressed to find two more romantic people” (61), but he glosses over (or doesn’t know about) their lack of sex, which Joshua has argued is central to marriage.

In the next chapter he cites William Bennett, using a parable of Bennett’s creation about self-discipline and patience, concluding with Bennett’s line:

“Too often, people want what they want … right now. The irony of their impatience is that only by learning to wait, and by a willingness to accept the bad with the good, do we usually attain those things that are truly worthwhile. (76)

This statement serves as the chapter’s main thesis, except … Bennett had such a severe gambling problem that he lost millions of dollars in Vegas. But sure. It’s “The World” that has the problem with selfishness and impatience.

I’m also worried about Joshua’s view of sex. He has consistently portrayed sex as something that happens primarily because of selfishness, because a person is consumed about their own gratification– and has applied this definition to his own view of sex. This worries me because what you believe about the nature of sex doesn’t change simply because you signed a piece of paper. If he thinks that sex outside of marriage can only be selfish (65), what miracle happens to suddenly transform selfishness into benevolence when a couple signs on the dotted line?

His lack of experience shines through here: he doesn’t believe it is possible for sex outside of marriage to be anything except selfishly motivated. And sure, it frequently can be. However, that’s not an intrinsic part of pre-marital sex, but a problem with the individual person. In my experience, pre-marital sex was one of the most affirming, life-giving, healing, and beneficial experiences of my life. With Handsome’s help, I was able to overcome some elements of my PTSD. If we’d waited until we were married to start exploring this area of our relationship, I am 100% positive that it would have been disastrous for us. In our case, it was the least selfish thing we could do for each other.

He’s being overly cynical about what sex outside of marriage can look like for people. It’s probable he’s only ever heard horror stories used to bolster the abstinence-only position. If someone ever came into his church’s pulpit and said “we had sex before we got married and everything was fine” I’ll eat my hat. Except, for a lot of people, that is the reality of their experience– everything was fine.

One of his points is that “Love must be sincere,” following Romans 12:9. He uses this to denounce the “fact” that dating comes with a “an angle, a hidden agenda” (70). He describes a conversation he once heard between young men where they talked about negging (although he doesn’t use that term) and other manipulative PUA-style tactics. So while I agree with him that love is sincere and honest, and he’s right to condemn horrible things like negging, he’s holding up betas and PUAs like they’re the standard form of secular dating. Hint: they’re not.

He also condemns the type of boyfriend who says “If you really loved me, you’d do it” (65) but infuriatingly ignores the ubiquitousness of “if you don’t sleep with your husband, you don’t love him (and you’re responsible if he cheats on you!)” in his complementarian culture.

***

In the next chapter he breaks down what he views as cultural problems that affect romantic relationships, like how The World is supposedly all about impatience– and the more impatient our culture becomes, it affects how we treat sex, such as having it at increasingly early ages. Spoiler alert: the trend at the time Joshua wrote IKDG was actually the opposite of this. The rate of girls ages 15-19 who’d had sex fell by 8% from 1988 to 1995, and that trend continued past the original publishing of IKDG. Today, the average age for a woman to have sex for the first time is 17, and the number of high-schoolers who say they’ve had sex has dropped below 50%.

But, little things like facts and research shouldn’t stand in the way of a perfectly good pearl-clutching moment.

The latter half of this chapter is dedicated to the concept that you have to trust God and their perfect timing, which is one of the primary messages of purity culture. If you try to rush things, you’ll inevitably be losing out on “God’s best.” Wait for the person God has for you. God knows best. God knows better than you ever could. You can’t be allowed to make your own decisions because you will screw it up.

This is all based in a view of God that is primarily punitive:

God takes us to the foot of a tree on which a naked and bloodied man hangs and says, “This is love.” God always defines love by pointing to His Son. This was the only way our sins could be forgiven. The innocent One took the place of the guilty–He offered himself up to death so that we could have eternal life. God’s perfect love for a fallen world is more clearly seen in the death of His Son. (67)

My marginalia for this section is “UGH.” Because that specific understanding of the Atonement is supposed to be viewed by us as the pinnacle of love. God points at the torture and crucifixion of Jesus, the beating, the misery, and says “that’s what love looks like“? It looks like violence and terror? It looks like an execution performed by the state? Just … this articulation always makes me want to beat my head into the wall. I also find it disturbing that, according to penal substitionary atonement theory, it is impossible for God to be merciful and forgiving. They must exact vengeance, a price. Sin must be paid for, or we will all burn in hell.

That’s not love. That’s not forgiveness. That’s not mercy.

Jesus paints such a different portrait of God. In his Parable of the Unmerciful Servant, Jesus portrays God as a king who forgives his servant of an enormous debt– a number that would look something like $10 million dollars when you make $30,000 a year. He forgives the debt for no other reason than that his servant begs him to be merciful, and he is. This is what the kingdom of heaven is like, Jesus says. A king who forgives incomprehensible debt for no reason besides mercy.

But if your view of God is the opposite of this, then of course it makes sense to see our human relationships as being extremely precarious. There’s no room for grace or second chances, of making mistakes and learning from them, if this is who you think God is.

goddess
Feminism

it’s not about you: feminism and men

One of the workshops I attended at the Gay Christian Network Conference was led by Emmy Kegler (who is a solidly good human being and I adore her). During the “workshop” bit of her presentation, she asked us to split into groups and identify characters from the Bible who were marginalized in some way, and then pick one to share with everyone. I loved the conversation I had with my group, and we decided on Veronica, the Woman with the Issue of Blood– as y’all could probably have guessed, if I had anything to do with the decision.

The first person to share his group’s character started by saying “at first, the only people we listed were women until one of us asked but what about the men? There are plenty of marginalized men, why don’t we talk about them?” and he went on to share a list of different oppressed and marginalized men.

I was up next, and as you can probably imagine was feeling just a teensy bit bellicose: “Well, the only people my group talked about were women, but I’m a feminist so I don’t have a problem with that,” and then attempted to talk about Veronica.

Oh, but that wasn’t going to happen so easily. The man who’d spoken before me shouted “hey, I’m a feminist!”

Right, buddy. Sure you are. Because shouting at a woman and interrupting her presentation is totally what a feminist man does. Unfortunately (and imagine me saying this infused with as much exhaustion as is possible), this is exactly what “feminist” men usually do. After my post on complementarianism as a form of sexual coercion went up, I spent over half an hour arguing with a “feminist ally” about a conjunction I’d used in the post. A conjunction, my hand to God. Eventually, after I asked him to stop talking to me, his response was, and I quote: “Block all dissenting views. Create the perfect echo chamber. Do what you feel you need to do. I’ve got no qualms.” Hilariously, he’s since blocked me. Shocker.

But what about the men?

I used to take that question seriously. I’ve spent hours upon hours responding to e-mails and comments– on my blog and elsewhere. Using every fact and every shred of research at my disposal, I’ve constructed responses that were full-blown essays personalized to the individual man with his individual questions. Over time I realized how incredibly fruitless those efforts almost always were, so I ended up turning to pieces other people had already put together, like these:

There are even entire books dedicated to this! I’ve got The Macho Paradox, Angry White Men, and Man Enough sitting on my bookshelf. However, as even more time has passed, when I get the “but what about teh menz?!” question I realize a) it’s a derailing tactic and b) I cannot be called upon to give any more fucks.

Behold! The field in which I grow my fucks. Lay thine eyes upon it and thou shall see that it is barren.

I do not care about men (especially cis, straight men) in my feminism.

Oh, I care about men generally and especially in specific instances, like friends and partners and family. I care when you’re hurting, when you’ve been shamed, when you’ve been victimized. I care about your lives. It matters to me if I’ve done something to harm you, if other people have stomped on you, if random events occur that makes things stressful or disappointing or horrific. I care about you as people, and I will do my best to be kind.

However, the question of whether or not, or how, the patriarchy affects men no longer matters to me. Sure, it “affects” men … just like it’s illegal for both rich people and poor people to beg. Technically, rich people and poor people are equal in the eyes of the law and society when it comes to whether or not we approve of panhandling. However, we all know exactly how laughable it is for rich people to be legally prevented from panhandling. They wouldn’t do it anyway (this, obviously, does not include all the other ways rich people and corporations can legally obtain funds that really amount to nothing more than highbrow begging).

The same thing applies to cis, straight men (and trans men and gay/bi men, in limited ways).

With vanishingly few exceptions, all the ways that men are “hurt” by patriarchy are not directed at men. Men are not the targets, even when they’re being affected. Women are the only target of patriarchy, and sometimes there’s the occasional splash over onto men. In all those “__ Ways Patriarchy Hurts Men” pieces, the “ways” are driven by misogyny and femmephobia.

For example, recently a young man was sent home from school because the principal said his hair was too long. That was certainly not a good thing to have happen to him, and the principal was obviously wrong for doing that. However, this was not “sexism against men,” as one Facebook commenter put it. He was being sent home because he was perceived by his principal as womanly. The principal was so offended by the idea of any man appearing “feminine” that he banned this young man from his sight. That’s how big of an insult femininity is to men. Our womanly existence with all its trappings and constructs is, by its nature, offensive to men.

Should this man have been sent away from school? Of course not. However, he can chop his hair off and come back. I will never be able to chop off my womanhood. I will never escape my female body. There is no way I can do my hair that isn’t “wrong” to somebody, somewhere. If its short and easy to maintain, I’m clearly damaged and insane (and no, I’m not linking to the “articles” that say so). If it’s long and styled the way I like, I’m clearly just trying to be a sex kitten, so I’m a slut and men can say/do anything they want to, including following me all over the metro or saying I “look like a woman who has a lot of sex” behind my back.

There are no clothes I can wear that can be perceived as neutral. If I wear jeans an oversized hoodie, like I am today, then I’m dowdy and lazy (forget that it’s cold and rainy outside and I just want to be comfortable). If I wear a short skirt with a sweater, tights, boots, and accessories then I’m obviously gunning for attention. If I wear a blousy, floral shirt with a big chunky cardigan on top of my flair jeans, then gawd I’m a pothead hippie. Skinny jeans and chucks? What are you, some sort of fucking hipster? (And yes, that last has been said to my face.) A boxy suit, with plain black shoes and hose? Well, would you look at that bitchy businesswoman. A stylish pantsuit? You’re not being serious enough.

But my partner can wear dress pants with an Oxford, and as long as it’s clean and relatively unrumpled, no one ever thinks anything about him besides the fact that’s he’s a complicated human being who probably has an office job. He overslept and didn’t trim his beard this morning? Would anyone even freaking notice? However, if I walk outside without any makeup or doing something with my hair, then people will frown at me at the check-out counter and wonder why I’m “letting myself go.”

And all those other things that “hurt men” in the patriarchy, like having your claims of woman-on-man sexual assault or domestic violence dismissed? It’s horrible that happens, but it happens because it’s just not possible for a mere, pathetic, weak and insipid woman to have hurt a man. Any woman, any man. If a man has been victimized, then he’s been womanized, and that’s the problem with that scenario. Not that his bodily autonomy has been violated, his agency violently discarded– it’s that he’s allowed himself to be treated like a man treats a woman.

Feminism can’t get anywhere if we center men. Helping men is a side effect of feminism, not its goal.

Photo by Rosa y Dani