Theology

theological foundations: a personal survey

A note on this series: I am currently writing a six-chapter report on my Capstone Project for my seminary degree in Social Transformation. I have been working on this project, in various forms, for the last three years and this report is the culmination of all that work. One of the chapters I must include covers the “theological foundations” for my project, and I realized that it is a perfect fit for this space. This series of five posts will be a “rough draft” of sorts of that chapter.

I have mentioned in passing a few times two elements of my journey out of fundamentalist Christianity and toward a progressive, loving faith. The first is how I deeply struggled to reconcile my values with my religion, and ultimately decided that if Christianity and my values — things like feminism, affirming queer people– conflicted, that it was going to be Christianity that got the boot. Obviously, since I’m still a professing Christian and even did one of the most Christian-y things one can do and went to seminary, I decided they did not conflict. The second element I’ve mentioned from time to time is how Christianity is commonly understood as being a “motivation” for advocating for progressive values. I think we run into this idea a lot– abolitionists were motivated by their Christian faith, Martin Luther King Jr. was inspired to engage in the Civil Rights Movement because of his Christian faith, etc.

What I have not often seen examined is what do these things actually mean. What do I mean when I say that Christianity can be practiced and understood to have a place for feminism, for affirming all queer people? What does it mean that Christianity inspires me to advocate for civil rights, for justice, for peace, for restoration and and repentance and liberation? What are the theological foundations for my work, exactly? How do those foundations affect what I build on them, like this project?

Another important part of this conversation is what it means to be “inspired” by and “motivated” by religion when engaging in areas of our culture that are public, secular, and political. We’ve seen this sort of motivation go absolutely haywire in the US– “Christianity” as commonly practiced by evangelicals and other conservatives is a civic religion* and it’s brought us white supremacist terrorism, chattel slavery and its historical offspring (redlining, Jim Crow, for-profit prisons, police), theocratic authoritarianism in churches and government, brutalities against queer bodies, especially trans women … People have used their “Christian” religion to baptize all sorts of atrocities both individual and communal. It can be very dangerous to be “motivated” by religion, especially a religion that enjoys such an incredible amount of power like Christianity does in my culture.

Clearly, religion playing such a public role in society can be harmful. And while I think there are essential differences between how progressive Christians talk about their faith in public ways, we’re not immune to these types of problems. It’s also critical to remember that even if I am deeply informed by my faith practice, that it shapes how I interact with society, I must respect public spaces and other people. I cannot assume other people are Christian– or even religious–and part of “freedom of religion” is freedom from religion; pushing people’s boundaries and expectations around religion is not always appropriate. Jesus encouraged all of us to “pray in private,” after all.

There’s a tension here, however. Is it alright for presidential candidates to speak on what their Christianity asks of them as public servants on a debate stage? What about in a private interview, or when they’re directly asked about it? If I’m giving oral testimony in a legislature committee hearing, can I quote a compelling biblical passage? If I’m writing a letter to my representative, or calling their office, should I reference our shared Christian faith and ask them to vote according to my understanding of its principles? What about brief mentions during PTA meetings, or homeowners associations, or when volunteering for non-profits? I joined #NeverAgainAction a few weeks ago to help shut down ICE headquarters in DC, and some of us who were arrested talked openly about our faith for hours: how we struggle with it, how it’s harmed us, and how it can heal us, too … and I could not help but reflect on Paul and Silas singing hymns in prison. Several people said afterward how participating in that conversation, in the context of sitting in jail for protesting concentration camps, was deeply restorative to them even though they do not consider themselves particularly religious.

The reality is that while most of my faith exists below the surface and it rarely ever explicitly comes up in my public work as an activist and policy advocate, I have been indelibly molded by it. My experiences with Christianity and my appreciation for Jesus’ ministry continue to evolve, as well as inform my point of view. I fight for women’s rights and LGBT+ rights and reproductive rights because I am a Christian. I am anti-racist because I am a Christian. I am a lobbyist for children’s rights and protections because I am a Christian. My Christianity shines a light on my path toward wholeness, healing, and liberation–and it provides the nudge I occasionally need to keep going.

*an excellent resource to understand this concept better is Migrations of the Holy by Cavanaugh.

Photography by Leonora Enking
Theology

re-reading Ruth

I am riding the crest of a pretty incredible wave at the moment. I’m graduating seminary on Sunday, the 2019 legislative session is pretty much wrapped up, and I’m heading into summer break with a profound sense of accomplishment and achievement. Life, at least for the time being, is good, and I’m very happy. There’s also lots of incredible things to look forward to, one of them being my blog that I’ll be finally able to start up again in July-August. I can’t wait to get back to regularly writing for myself.

Speaking of, Crystal Cheatham reached out to me a bit ago and asked if I’d be willing to write a devotional series for the Our Bible app. If you haven’t heard of this app before, they describe it “as an alternative to devotional and Bible apps made by large, conservative, and destructive ‘Christian’ media organizations. Our Bible App was started to be a place where every person would feel welcome to explore the Christian Bible and tradition.” Their posts and writers are anti-racist, pro-LGBT+, and write from a progressive and liberative lens. I’ve been in love with the concept since they started, and was thrilled to be approached to write for them. I pitched a couple of ideas, and one of the series, “Re-Reading Ruth,” launched yesterday.

Since they’re an app there’s not a great way to link to it, but they have the first post in the series, where I explain what I’ll be doing and why, up on their blog. I’m proud of the way it turned out– I wrote prayers for other people to pray for the first time. That was an experience, for sure, but I think I did a good job? Y’all should let me know (wink). I’ll also be on Crystal’s podcast, Lord Have Mercy, to talk about it.

What are y’all’s plans for the summer? Mine include: a stay-cation, going to a friend’s apartment’s pool all summer, visiting Denver in June, and then maybe visiting family I haven’t seen in a while. There will be lots of video games–Elder Scrolls Online: Elsweyr is launching in June, I am going to do nothing but play Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey for a week after I get back from graduation, and I’m pretty much addicted to Overwatch (I play Sombra and Ashe, mostly– if you play, who are your mains?).

Also I’ve decided to learn embroidery and got Needle Painting Embroidery: Fresh Ideas for Beginners by Trish Burr and can’t wait to get started. I started practicing back stitches and satin stitches last night while watching Bon Appetit YouTube videos and had a blast. Any tips, tricks, instagram accounts, blogs I should follow?

Theology

The Blessed Unrest: Black Theology and the Salvation of the White Church

Note: this is my term paper from a class last semester, Black Theology. The assignment was to write on “Black theology and the church,” and our primary text to engage was The Divided Mind of the Black Church by Raphael Warnock.

I’m telling these tears gonna fall away
May the last one burn into flames
Freedom, cut my loose
I break chains all by myself
Won’t let my freedom rot in hell.

Beyoncé, “Freedom” from Lemonade

No way to make the pain play fair
it doesn’t disappear
just because you say it isn’t there, so
When they ask why’d she go you can say ’cause
life in Eden changed

Sara Bareilles, “Eden” from The Blessed Unrest

In the summer of 2014, I was invited to be a guest on BBC4’s Things Unseen radio program to relate my experiences in American Christian fundamentalism and with religious trauma. I recorded my segment several weeks before it aired, and while I knew that my story was meant to imbue some color into a program that was mostly a dry conversation among academics, I did not know who they would be or what angle they would take. One of the questions I answered was about my faith location at the time: was I still a Christian? Why? I became animated as I explained my encounters with liberation theologies and spoke of Gutiérrez and Cone. A few weeks later when I listened to the broadcast, I was surprised and dismayed by how the theologian responded: he was utterly dismissive. Liberation theology, he said, was not real theology, and Cone was too “narrow and limited” to apply to the Church universal. I knew immediately what I have only recently been able to articulate: the specificity, the particularity of black and womanist theological work is exactly what makes it a salvific gift to the white American Church. Black theology offers us a chance at redemption by offering an opportunity for critical self-reflection, revival, and social transformation.

Let me paint a picture for you then I’ll have to teach you to see it
~Sara Bareilles, “Eden”

The modern white Church desperately needs a reckoning. For centuries we have participated in an utterly corrupt system constructed around white supremacy, and it has grown into a beast so familiar we cannot even recognize how it has been twisted and malformed. A terrible reality is that we have inoculated ourselves effectively against criticism; we are no longer capable of growth or of living out what Jesus calls us to as his disciples. At this point, the white church is still the living embodiment of what Warnock calls a “racialized hierarchy within the body of Christ.” With all of our talk on “racial reconciliation,” an “emerging” church that “values diversity,” or of “missional living,” we still have not even begun confronting the realities of cisheteronormative white supremacist capitalist patriarchy embedded in the foundations of our churches.

However, black theology offers us hope if we truly humble ourselves, listen, and embrace a season of critical self-reflection. The words and lives of black theologians is a mirror to look at ourselves honestly and unflinchingly confront what appears. One of the first truths we must face is that “in the face of a determined, organized, and incorrigible evil, good intentions will never suffice for an authentic encounter with God.” White supremacy and racism is that “incorrigible evil,” and the white Church has spent the decades since the Civil Rights Movement attempting to cover it up with nothing more than good intentions. Instead of examining our institutions, systems, and hearts in order to flush out our communal sin and repent of the wreckage we cause, we turned to individualism and rhetoric to make ourselves as whited sepulchers. We have made racism a “heart issue” constrained to isolated people—and carefully selected a handful of phrases, words, and attitudes as the only permissible evidence of it. As long as we avoid saying (and we made sure racism is always about words, not actions) the N-word or anything about inferiority, to us our slate is clean. Black theology makes it clear that this is not enough. We must reckon with how we are a “co-opted church [which] knows only the cross of Rome, with its varying secretions of violence and victimization.” We have deliberately made ourselves forget the central message of Jesus’ ministry, which focuses on liberation, love, and healing for the wounded and marginalized. Black theology can remind us of what we lost. As J. Cameron Carter makes it clear—if we do not “receive the ‘new wine’ black Christians have to share” we will have “lost the chance of a lifetime.”

when you love me / you love yourself / love god herself
~Beyoncé, “Don’t Hurt Yourself”

The white church, because it has been consumed by racism, is stagnant. Its only institutional interest is how to maintain its access to whiteness, its source of power. Preserving that power requires massive investments into upholding the status quo, which means that the modern American white church is rendered incapable of growth. We cannot become more like Christ because we are cut off from any ability to change—we are beholden to a system that is focused myopically on replicating itself and nothing more. Without change, we cannot live. Without change, we cannot be revived.

Listening and self-reflecting on black theology could bring the revival we have been searching for. Black theology is an invitation to reexamine every area of our theology and belief systems, to evaluate what has born good fruit or bad fruit. Warnock highlights this invitation to revival in Martin Luther King Jr.’s work, showing how his “mass meetings and impassioned preachments … served as a catalyst for a tectonic shift in theological emphasis.” Rev. Dr. King urged us to reject a “dry-as-dust religion” in favor of one full of vibrancy and hope; he called on Christians to embrace a lived-out gospel driven by God’s call for liberation. White churches should renew their commitments to the central themes of our faith by seeing salvation, the Cross, and the Resurrection in the light of black theology. “The doctrine of salvation is the place to begin when speaking of the church’s mission because … the Bible … ‘introduces on practically every page the theme of salvation.’ … Communal liberation was the focus of salvation talk,” as Warnock makes clear. Brown Douglas speaks with power on the Cross, illuminating how “the crucifixion-resurrection event reveals … that God does not use the master’s tools. God does not fight death with death. God does not utilize the violence exhibited in the cross to defeat deadly violence itself.” And Williams shines a compassionate, multifaceted light on the Resurrection, arguing “the resurrection of Jesus and the flourishing of God’s sprit in the world as the result of resurrection represent the life of the ministerial vison gaining victory over the evil attempt to kill it.” We have an opportunity in black theology to become a new theological creature, to put off the old man and put on the new. As Cone put it, “To change communities involves a change of being. It is a radical movement, a radical reorientation of one’s existence in the world. Christianity calls this experience conversion.”

it’s time to listen / it’s time to fight / forward
~Beyoncé, “Forward”

A thread woven throughout black theology, and Warnock’s The Divided Mind of the Black Church especially, is that the work of liberation is “not merely the work of a movement, but fundamentally the church’s reason for being.” The prompting I have felt throughout this semester is to “radically reorient” how I think of the function, purpose, and embodiment of the Church’s mission. If the church’s core task is liberation, I must ask, isn’t it also true that the Church is wherever liberative work is taking place? I believe that, guided by black theology, the Church should find a different mold and grow into a wholly new conception of itself.

Black theologians have generously put forward a vision for faith-based social transformation, one grounded in the experience of oppression and living on the margins. Through their work they have made it clear “Theology that is not lived is not theology at all.” Grant, in her essay the “Sin of Servanthood,” shows how easy it is for church folk and preachers to embrace a form of spirituality and piety that does not work for liberation: “to speak of service as empowerment, without concrete plans for economic, social, and political revolution … is simply another form of ‘overspiritualization.’ It does not eliminate real pain and suffering, it merely spiritualizes the reality itself.” We should move away from spiritualizing pain and suffering to actively working on a revolution that eliminates it. Our religion and faith should motivate us, like how Williams relates in stories of black women who “were not afraid to let their religions express itself in the rebellious action they caused.” She quotes Katz, noting “on many plantations, they kept the rest of the slaves in a state of unrest.” Her admonishments are pragmatic and embodied: “Fight, and if you can’t fight, kick: if you can’t kick, then bite.” Black people have been creating and recreating the church on the margins since they were forced through the middle passage. Martin writes about one way this is currently happening, showing “the dance clubs have become spaces for reclaiming fragments of their traditional faith.” Each of these writers demonstrate the life-restoring beauty and particularity of making Church happen wherever we are.

All of these paths toward self-reflection, revival, and social transformation are not locked away behind church doors or tucked away under our pews. The white American church should look to black theologians on how to join in the work of liberation and social transformation, and perhaps, on that journey, find a way to survive.

Feminism

y’all. I’m in COSMO

Something that has been gently simmering away on the back burner of my life for a good long while is an article that dropped this morning, and one I’m proud to be a part of.

Inside the Scam of the Purity Movement” by Sarah Stankorb, in Cosmopolitan Magazine.

Sarah is a writer I’ve been in contact with for several years at this point– I appeared briefly in another article she wrote for Marie Claire covering the stay-at-home-daughter movement. She’s done a lot of work to understand the point of view of those of us who have survived these cultures, and I have a lot of respect for her. You should absolutely read both these pieces– “The Daughters Great Escape” is just as good.

I do have two notes about the Cosmo article. The focus of the piece changed a little bit after our first interview back in November– our first conversation centered on the way that my experience and Harris’ experience overlapped, and why it’s not a coincidence that I Kissed Dating Goodbye was written by a homeschooler (about half of the top 12 purity culture books are written by homeschoolers, and we’re only 2% of the population. That’s a huge over-representation.)

In that interview, I talked a lot about how purity culture can trace its ideological heritage straight back to white supremacy, a fact I bring up every time someone asks me about purity culture because they can’t be separated. Purity culture’s roots are buried in the murk and mire of how white supremacy codifies bodies as “clean” or “unclean,” or “pure” and “sullied.” White bodies are good, pure, chaste and maintaining that state is of absolute critical importance– we must not taint our bodies with the “filth” of sexual sin or miscegenation. Black bodies are beyond redemption; black men are viewed as inherently sexually ungovernable and black women have no right to autonomy over their sexual and reproductive lives. This is a critical piece of purity culture that somehow always gets overlooked by editors when they decide to run a piece on it (insert eye roll here).

The second note I’d like to make is that, probably due to length constraints, one of the nuances of my story gets a little muddled in this paragraph:

Samantha Field, now 31, describes staying with a sexually abusive partner for years, believing that because they’d had sex, she was “disgusting garbage” that no one else would want. “I have to constantly fight against the lie that because I wasn’t pure enough, that because I had ‘dressed provocatively’ and allowed myself to be alone with him, that I invited it,” she wrote on her blog.

I did not have sex. I was raped. However, being a rape victim in purity culture made me unable to identify that what was happening to me was rape. I even verbally said no and physically resisted during one of the assaults and still did not understand that he was raping me. I was responsible for anything that happened to me– I must have incited his “lust” in some mysterious way (rape is about power and control, not arousal). I was alone with him, so of course anything that happened is my fault. It took me literally years to figure out things like “no means no” because of how badly purity culture damaged my understanding of consent.

I’ve written about this a bit. The post the Cosmo article references is this one, “How Purity Culture Taught Me to be Abused,” and I’ve also covered this for Rewire: “Purity Culture Itself is the Problem.”

Anyway, that’s a critical part of my story of surviving purity culture, and it’s a common thread among those of us from purity culture who are sexual abuse victims, and I just want to make sure that it’s a part of any conversation we have about it.

Many of the people in the article are my friends and colleagues, as well, and you should 100% check them out. I met Linda Kay Klein a while ago, and she invited me to speak on the white supremacist origins of purity culture at a gathering she hosted last spring. Her book, Pure, is fantastic and you should absolutely read it. Dianna Anderson wrote Damaged Goods and Problematic, and is as amazing in person as she is on twitter. Emily Joy is one of the fiercest, most badass people I know and I have loved all the work we’ve done together (the article mentions #IKDGstories, but we also covered the disastrous #GC2Summit a few months ago). I don’t personally know Lyvonne, but her work is definitely worth a look.

Photography by Angie Smith, who was absolutely wonderful, and owned by Cosmopolitan.
Uncategorized

vision-making and rabble rousing

First, I want to thank everyone for being patient with me, my work, and this space while I’ve attended seminary. Many of you have been loyal Patreon supporters over the last several years despite the lengthy pauses between posts and updates, and I very much appreciate it.

I took a good long break over the holidays, and I’m starting back to seminary this week feeling well-rested and excited about the work I’ll be doing. It’s my last semester, so most of my time will be taken up with my capstone project which I unfortunately will not really be able to talk about in a lot of detail, although it’s incredibly exciting and fulfilling. I joined the board of the Coalition for Responsible Home Education a little while ago, and am helping out with their organizing and lobbying efforts– which will be a part of my seminary degree. That’s going to be keeping me incredibly busy this spring.

Looking ahead, especially past graduation, my plans are to really dig back into my writing. Seminary takes up all of my reading-writing-researching energies (a big reason why my World History and Cultures series has been languishing), but I’m really starting to feel the itch to return to the topics and audience I care about the most. Ask me sometime about progressive Christianity’s limited scope and audience in academia and I will get up on a soapbox and shout for an hour, maybe more.

My hope is, after graduation, to take a short break and then start working on a book proposal. Remember way back when I said I was working on a book about how complementarianism = abuse, and you’ve barely heard more than a peep about that since? Well, one of the reasons I went to seminary is so that I’d look more credible as an author, and –fingers crossed– I’ll have a book proposal to start sending out to agents by the end of this year.

I’d also like to start speaking more. I just got back from the Q Christian Fellowship conference in Chicago, where I spoke on queer hermeneutics (my breakout session title was “Reading the Rainbow” because I’m a 90s kid). I think the workshop went really well; my goal was to help bring some playfulness, joy, and redemption to a book that has been used as a weapon against so many of us, and I think I was successful. The interpretations and themes the groups shared …

Larry the Cucumber dressed as “Larry Boy,” telling Bob the Tomato “I laughed, I cried; It moved me, Bob.”

I wish I could’ve recorded the session just so I could have the twenty minutes at the end when everyone was sharing what their group had come up with. It was delightful– I’d been working with the passages I’d chosen for months and some of what was shared had never occurred to me before. I couldn’t have been happier.

So here’s to 2019: may it be filled with triumphs for all of us, great and small.

(If you’re curious about what I was reading and playing, here you go: Shadow of the Tomb Raider, Assassin’s Creed: Origins, Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi, Deborah Harkness’ All Soul’s Trilogy and Time’s Convert, Skyward by Brandon Sanderson, and Spinning Silver by Namoi Novik.)

Photography by Yamavu
Theology

folk and formal theology

My partner and I were taking our usual walk around our apartment complex and through the woods around it when I announced that I wanted to go to seminary. I had been thinking about it for a while, but by that evening I was sure that’s what I wanted. When he asked why I had several answers ready, and one of the most significant was that I wanted to formally study theology. As a lay person and average church goer I’d been obsessed with different theological subfields my entire life (bibliology being at the top of that list), and I wanted to engage one of my passions in an academic context. I wasn’t satisfied with approaching it through the “accessible” and “popular” texts anymore, but I didn’t know how to wade through the ocean of theological works and contexts on my own. I wanted the hand-holding, the guidance, that a solid seminary would give me.

One of the things that brought me to that reason was the church we’d been attending at the time. The head pastor had never gone to seminary, had no real intention of going to seminary, and I felt that a lot of my frustrations with his sermons stemmed from that. Often he’d include something I knew to be wildly inaccurate (but a popular myth among evangelicals) in his interpretations, or as illustrations, and I felt that a seminary education would have prevented some of that.

I was also in a two-year class the church offered called “The Theology Program.” Interestingly, I’d found the classes helpful in deconstructing fundamentalism even though the video instructors were themselves fundiegelicals who’d graduated from Dallas Theological. While I wildly disagreed with most of their conclusions and thought many of their arguments against “heresies” were strawmen, the act of going through a historical look into the Christian tradition and touching on most of the significant theories was informative. It gave me the words and the tools to go looking for things on my own.

One of the things I picked up from the instructors, though, was a condemnation of “folk theology.” Their use of that term was fairly loose, and generously applied– basically anything that didn’t belong in one of the major systematic theologies was “folk theology.” Essentially, if something you believed wasn’t straight-up Wesleyan, Calvinist, Catholic or in one of the catechisms (like the Westminster Catechism), then it was “folk theology.” In a way, this made sense to me. My experiences had showed me the harm that can be caused by reckless, inconsistent, pick-and-choose theological structures. I didn’t assume that every “systematic theology” was immune from problems because it was supposedly all-encompassing, holistic, and internally consistent; however, I thought systematic theologies had value because they at least had the benefit of being well thought-out.

I started seminary a few months before the election, and threw myself headfirst into as many theology classes as I could take. I became familiar with the theologians who were known for developing progressive systems and tried to absorb as much as I could about the structures and interconnecting ideas that shaped feminist, liberation, and queer theologies.

***

One thing that 2014 me would be surprised to learn is that I’ve almost completely changed my mind about both folk and formal theology.

I’ve loved (almost) every second of seminary and every day feel blessed to be able to access the wealth of knowledge and experience at United. I have learned and grown so much, and the sheer breadth of perspectives I’ve been introduced to is breathtaking. I will be exploring some of these authors and fields for the rest of my life, probably.

One thing I’ve come to realize through all these books and classes and discussions is that a heavy-handed emphasis on “systematic theology” is inherently oppressive. Most of the well-known “systematic theologies” are incredibly Eurocentric, and nearly all of them were developed by straight, white, upper-middle-class (or upper class, or noble) men … and it all comes with the implication that straight, white, well-to-do men are the only objective source of theology. Now, when I hear someone expounding on the importance of adhering to systematic theologies all I hear are empty words from someone who is afraid of engaging with varied and diverse experiences, or of allowing the voices and perspectives of marginalized groups into their theological conversations.

Systematic theologies tend to generalize the specific, make universal the contextual, and strip the humanity from our sacred narratives.

Many of the kinds of theologies I’ve been exposed to in seminary would fall under the “folk theology” umbrella I heard condemned in those video classes, but what I’ve discovered is that there is a wealth of beauty and wisdom in concrete, experienced, lived-through, lived-out theologies. A phrase that’s stuck with me came from one of my professors, Dr. Alika Galloway, who said she always preaches “with a Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other.”

The upside of “folk theology” is that it is endlessly adaptable. It’s the theology that we make work for our lives, fit into our contexts, and shape around our experiences. It’s flexible, and practical, and real. Sure, a lot of it can go off the rails and loose all grounding in logic or fact, but the obverse is true of formal theology: experience and compassion can be sacrificed on the altar of internal and hermeneutical consistency.

I went into seminary thinking I’d come out on the other side with Samantha Field’s Very Well Thought Out, Consistent, Progressive, and Universal Theological System, and instead I’m going to leave seminary with Screw It, Believe What Works For You.

Photography by Tim Wilson
Feminism

I was arrested for protesting Kavanaugh’s nomination. Here’s why.

The image at the top of the post shows me being arrested at the #cancelKavanaugh direction action organized by the Women’s March and the Center for Popular Democracy Action. You can see my head just beyond the woman in orange.

There’s still a lot to process from yesterday, but I wrote down what motivated me to be willing to do that for Sojourners, in “A Christianity that Makes Room for Rage.”

The rage I began expressing scared many of the people who knew me, who cared about me. They came from the same faith tradition I’d been brought up in, a tradition that teaches that “negative” emotions like rage, despair, sadness, anger, and bitterness have no place in a Christian’s life. My rage deeply concerned them, and I began receiving a consistent stream of worried messages, texts, emails and phone calls. They all tried to persuade me that I could only be healed if I let go of my rage, but I knew deep in my bones they were wrong. Rage was the only sensible path forward, the only roadmap I had to recovery.

I slowly came to understand that if I was going to remain a Christian, I needed to find a path that had room for the rage and grief I carried with me as a rape survivor. Rage is the only human and rational reaction to the trauma I’d experienced, and I could not smother my humanity in order to remain a Christian.

Read the rest of it here.

Photography by PBS.

Feminism

being cannon fodder in the war on women

I turned 31 the day I found out about the first allegation against Brett Kavanaugh. Two days later, I read Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s story for the first time, although she was still reluctant to be identified.

It has been fourteen days of hell.

The second I picked up my phone and saw the headline from the New York Times in my notifications, I felt myself instantly brace. My stomach became a bottomless, yawning pit and every muscle in my body tensed. I closed my eyes and felt my soul begin to prepare for the coming barrage. Emotionally, the closest image I’ve been able to conjure that captures what it’s like is “Bastogne” from Band of Brothers. The words from that headline screamed into my heart like the piercing whistle of an incoming shell. Old battlescars, like the one his watch made when it dug into my knee as he blooded me for the first time, begin to ache.

I wasn’t ready for this. I’m never ready for this. Every time, I believe I’ve gotten a little bit better at handling all of it, that I’m a little more battle-hardened. For about a week I even fooled myself into thinking that I was managing. Looking back at the last two weeks, though, I have not been even anywhere close to calm. The evening of the 17th was the first sign of the damage I was taking, the first time I was forced to acknowledge the shrapnel ripping through my body. I got a migraine, so I implemented my first line of defense, a stronger version of naproxen or ibuprofen. By the next morning, those defenses had crumbled so I buffered them with a dose of frovatriptan, a medication that costs $547. Two hours later, I needed another.

It didn’t work, and by that night I was clutching my head, digging my fingers into my scalp, and all I could do was lie in bed, rocking myself back and forth, and moan through the endless, agonizing hours of the night. The groans I couldn’t keep inside belonged in a frontline medical ward, not in my comfortable suburban home. The next day, I tried another two doses of frovatriptan … but nothing helped. Finally I was able to drag myself into the hospital, where a nurse stabbed me in the leg and injected a massive dose of toradol straight into my bloodstream. I limped back to my car, and barely managed to drive home. The bruise I have, days later, is a dark mottled eggplant two inches across.

I haven’t been able to sleep. Each day for the last two weeks I’ll lay in bed until exhaustion eventually drags me back into my nightmares just as the sun rises. Every hour I desperately try to dig my foxhole just a little bit deeper, give myself just a little more cover. But nothing can block out the constant whine of bombs, the sharp punch of gunfire. Innocent until proven guilty drops down and sends a scattering of dirt and rock into my face. This is obviously a political hack job goes off like a grenade and I can practically hear my sisters, my comrades-in-arms, screaming in anguish. She’s lying, and I flinch as that one lands just outside my meager shelter and I don’t even really feel the pain until I feel the blood trickling over my skin.

But then my world is rocked and I can’t tell down from up as an crushing shockwave blasts through me. What boy hasn’t done this in high school? and I know I’m screaming, I know it because I can taste the blood in the air and I can feel my throat ripping itself apart, but I can’t even hear it.

Valiantly, at first, I load my weapon and charge into the fray. Innocent until proven guilty doesn’t apply; we’re not demanding that he be stripped of all his rights and sent to prison, just that he not be rewarded with one of the highest offices in the land– we are allowed to use all of the evidence available to us to practice sound judgment and discernment in selecting a Justice nominee. I’m horrified as I watch this volley practically bounce off the enemy combatent’s armor. But I know my duty, so I keep going, keep trying. Here’s a study about false accusations and the kinds of person who make them, Dr. Ford doesn’t fit that pattern, she’s a credible eyewitness. Still, I’m pressed on all sides. Isn’t it important for our elected representatives to consider a serious allegation like this, no matter where it comes from? And it’s like my well-honed arguments turn to dust in my hands. None of it matters. Nothing makes a difference.

So I retreat, and hunker down, and hope to wait out the storm of bullets and fire raining down from the sky. But I can’t, not when What boy hasn’t done this shatters me. It breaks me, and now all I can do is try to drag my wounded body away from the front lines, crying out for help, begging someone, anyone, to get me to safety.

My partner comes home and I’ve managed to prepare a meal for the first time in over a week and I try to eat the roasted chicken and vegetables I usually love but everything tastes like sawdust and churns in my gut so I leave half of it uneaten. I am tired. Weary. Struggling. Again, there’s a pop from a distant rifle and my phone screen is like the light from a muzzle flash. Senate Democrats Investigate a New Allegation of Misconduct and I look up to see Deborah Ramirez climb down beside me and for the first time I feel a glimmer of hope.

It’s just a glimmer, though, and the night is dark, and long, and terrible. For the first time since the battle began again I scream aloud, and rage, and beg my partner for an explanation– any explanation that could comfort me in a world where people hear Christine’s story and aren’t drawn to their knees in compassionate surrender, but level the field with a warhead like what boy hasn’t done this. I see it puff up into a mushroom cloud as my local representatives join the chain reactionif what Brett Kavanaugh did was that bad, I wouldn’t even qualify for office! Vote to confirm him!

My partner holds me as I shake, and sob, and he shores up the only desperate defense I have left: what the fuck?! How the fuck is this possible?! How can they do this?

HOW THE FUCK CAN THEY DO THIS?!

How do you hear about a young woman, a little girl, being dragged into a room and forced into a bed, then mounted by a man several years older than you and you’re screaming, begging, for him to stop, for someone to help you, and he silences your cries, silences his conscience, and begins to tear the clothes off your body?

My screams turn into whimpers, and the sobs quiet into tears that pour down my cheeks without wracking my body to get out.

***

I am still suffering. I still have not been able to sleep. The migraine is mostly gone, but it hovers, waiting to strike at the first sign of weakness. But tonight I rallied– I joined a conference call to plan a direct action at the Capitol on Thursday, and polished my battle armor once more. It lays on my dining room table now, two pieces of posterboard that still smell faintly of ink. Dr. Ford is an American Patriot and Christine is my Hero will be both my battle cry and a missile to cast into the halls of Congress when I join my band of sisters in those whited sepulchres. On Thursday, I’ll be joining Christine in No Man’s Land while she takes all the fire.

I hope, I pray, that we will emerge victorious.

Social Issues

stuff I’ve been into: pumpkin spice edition

September is the best month.

In most of the places I’ve lived, September is usually balmy, filled with a chaotic mix of sunshine and thunderstorms. It signals that the long, hot days are over; it makes me remember everything I love about summer while whispering that autumn is winding closer. I’ve always experienced September filled-to-brimming-over with anticipation and this year is no different. I’ve started seeing cocoon cardigans and blanket scarves in my pinterest and tumblr feeds, my birthday is just around the corner, and crisp Friday nights make me want to light a bonfire in my yard and keep candles burning.

For ten years, September has also brought scholarship and learning back into my life after lazy summers, and I’m a little bit sad that this will be my last year in college and I’ll never need to order textbooks or read a syllabus again after I graduate. It makes sense that I’d feel this way in September, which has always been synonymous with change and beginnings– both of which require me to let go and move forward.

This is also my first week back to seminary, so I thought I’d share some of what I’ve been enjoying, mulling over, and carrying with me.

Reading

One of my seminary textbooks this semester is Sister Outsider by Audre Lorde, and one of the readings we did this week included excerpts from her essay “Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power.”

“There are many kinds of power, used and unused, acknowledged or otherwise. The erotic is a resource within each of us that lies in a deeply female and spiritual plain, firmly rooted in the power of our unexpressed or unrecognized feeling. In order to perpetuate itself, every oppression must corrupt or distort those various sources of power within the culture of the oppressed that can provide energy for change. For women, this has meant a suppression of the erotic as a considered source of power and information within our lives. We have been taught to suspect this resource, vilified, abused, and devalued within western society.

As women, we have come to distrust that power which rises from our deepest and nonrational knowledge.

The erotic has often been misnamed by men and used against women. It has been made into the confused, the trivial, the psychotic, the plasticized sensation.

The erotic is a measure between the beginnings of our sense of self and the chaos of our strongest feelings.

When I speak of the erotic, then, I speak of it as an assertion of the lifeforce of women; of that creative energy empowered, the knowledge and use of which we are now reclaiming in our language, our history, our dancing, our loving, our work, our lives.”

I went and read the rest of the article and … I think this article might be one I reference for the rest of my life. It struck a chord in my soul that makes me ache, wonder, long, and rejoice. It’s been a few days since I’ve read it and every time I read it again, especially the last paragraph I quoted above, I feel … expanded. Reading this feels like Sophia Wisdom brushing my hair back from my face and touching her lips to my forehead. I read this and know something deeply true. I learned, somehow, something I always knew.

***

I’ve been promoting “Cravings” by my friend, Hännah Ettinger, since it went up at Autostraddle in July. I mentioned it in my post about how whiteness absorbed my family’s cultural heritage, but if you haven’t had a chance to read it yet … it’s beautiful and powerful. I just read it again looking for a quote to help draw you in and again I’m moved and crying.

“I’d say, it’s my grandmother’s favorite cake, the one we make for her birthday every year, and tomorrow is her birthday. It’s my mother’s scone recipe, it’s like small sweet cakes. This is cornbread for me to take to Talas City tonight; it’s a volunteer’s birthday and she misses her mom making this for her. These are snickerdoodle cookies, my brother’s secret recipe. He called me last night.

I would not say: I remembered the way my skin felt one night in Zoey’s arms, and I have to touch other things to distract myself from the crackle running up and down my spine. Never: I missed my parents and I cannot talk to them the same way anymore, but I still miss when I believed were all safe together, and when I believed that, I used to eat food just like this. We made this spice cake together, just like this.

***

The last two years have been excruciating as we careen wildly from incident to scandal to catastrophe and back again. As a kid I loved arcade racing games, and like many kids I adopted a form of “steering” that made heavy use of guardrails, bouncing back and forth between one side of the track to the other, and using walls to turn corners. My dad aptly named this youthful style as “bang-bang driving” and I’m reminded of it every time I think of everything we’ve been through since the election. It’s hard to keep track, but there’s one article that’s been really helpful to me in putting everything into a cohesive, coherent timeline and context. “Will Trump be Meeting with his Counterpart– Or his Handler?: A Plausible Theory of Mind-Boggling Collusion” puts a lot of things all in one place, in one narrative. I’m still not sure what I think of Chait’s argument, but it was still eye-opening to see everything together.

***

Chris Stroop is one of the most brilliant and incisive writers I’m aware of, and I respect the hell out of him and his work. He’s incredibly good at demystifying fundamentalism and the pervasive influence it wields in American culture, and I think “Educated Evangelicals, Academic Achievement, and Trumpism: On the Tensions in Valuing Education in an Anti-Intellectual Subculture” is a good place to start with his work.

“Fundamentalism is authoritarianism in microcosm, or on the margins. Fascism is essentially fundamentalism in power, and it continues to nurse a sense of being “the moral majority,” as well as a sense of being “beleaguered” and “treated very unfairly” – at the same time.”

***

I spent my summer mostly playing video games and reading, and the best of the books I’ve inhaled over the last few months have been: The Hidden Sea Tales by A.M. Dellamonica, The Liveship Traders set by Robin Hobb, and the All Souls trilogy by Deborah Harkness.

Watching

I finally watched Interstellar and it is as good as everyone says it is. If you haven’t see Miss Sloane I highly recommend it– it’s one of the very few movies I’ve actually decided to buy.

Iliza Shlesinger’s Elder Millennial made me literally shriek with laughter, and at this point anyone who hangs out with me has to watch John Mulaney’s Kid Gorgeous at Radio City for half of what I say to make any sense. I’m going to join everyone else on the internet in saying Nanette by Hannah Gadsby is a must-see. Hasan Minhaj’s Homecoming King is equally as incredible as Nanette IMO and I wish it got as much press as hers did. W. Kamua Bell’s Private School Negro was also hilarious and amazing.

… and I watch a lot of standup.

I rarely ever subscribe to YouTube channels, but Natalie Wynn’s ContraPoints is one of the best things on there. Her videos The West,” “Jordan Peterson,” and “Incels” are the sort of YouTube-video-essay-with-costumes-and-set-pieces-that-refute-conservative-arguments that I feel like my blog would’ve been if I could make myself not hate video editing so much.

***

And that’s all I’ve got for now. As always, I’m curious to see what has kept y’all busy this summer. Give me your recommendations! (Also, if you know of any historical romance-ish fantasy-ish bodice rippers that you think I’d enjoy, toss those recommendations my way! I need light and fluffy reading material in between Black Theology and Black Power and Sisters in the Wilderness.)

Photography by Silvia Viñuales
Feminism

redemption for rapists: a how-to guide for predators, abusers, and churches

[content note: discussions of sexual violence]

When I first started writing this blog at Defeating the Dragons, I initially intended to never talk about the fact that half a dozen men had sexually assaulted me. I didn’t want to reveal that I had been raped and sexually abused. I didn’t want to talk about it at all … but I quickly realized that deconstructing my faith experience meant I was going to have to be honest about what these men had done to me. For me, there was no way forward in my Christian path without coming to terms with rape and its presence in my life. I was abused by Christians, and Christians used our religion to cover it up and silence me through intimidation and shame.

For the past five years I have wrestled with my spirit, with God, and with Scripture. There have been sleepless nights when putting my faith back together felt like repairing a shattered mirror, when trying to collect the broken pieces meant feeling the knife-sharp bite of jagged glass.

Remaining a Christian, for me, has been a deliberate choice to make room for repentance, forgiveness, and redemption. I am drawn to Jesus and Christianity because of God’s love for the marginalized, for what I believe is an intrinsic call for liberation and justice. I stay because of the Incarnation, because I believe in resurrection.

I am challenged by the expansiveness, the sheer breadth, of God’s mercy.

I don’t want there to be a way back for abusers. I want the men who violated me, who exploited their position and the institutional cover most churches provide, to be forever cast out and forsaken. I want them to suffer– to be like Esau, to “find no place of repentance, though they seek it carefully with tears.”

As I’ve healed, though, I have become open to the idea of redemption for abusers. I’ve inched closer to forgiving the men who harmed me. However, as I’ve begun understanding those concepts in the context of my Christianity, I am growing ever more furious with anyone who abuses the God-given grace of redemption as just another tool to protect abusive men.

So if redemption doesn’t look like a pastor who raped a teenage girl, begged her to cover it up for him, and then getting a standing ovation from his church for admitting he’s predator while his victim tries to bring some measure of justice … or a comedian sneaking back onto stage less than a year after admitting that he harassed multiple women and damaged their careers … what does it look like?

Here’s my answer, nine years after being ordered to repent for causing a man to rape me, eight years after telling the first person who compassionately listened, seven years after a three-day bender I went on to avoid facing the depth of my hurt, six years after a counselor informed me that being a victim means I’m a “poisoned well” and shouldn’t date anyone, and five years after receiving the first of many death threats for talking about it in public. It’s an answer that has come slowly and at times painfully, but has been shaped by almost a decade of learning to forgive.

***

Step 1: Repentance

I have a lifetime of experience in many different types of Christian communities: from fundamentalist to evangelical, Reformed to Arminian, conservative to progressive. Unfortunately, I’ve found the same thread woven through every single one of them, and it is the belief that repentance is limited to acknowledgement and forgiveness means absolution. In order for a person to repent in these circles, the offender should grant the public a mea culpa along with some version of the phrase “please forgive me” or “I’m truly sorry.” Depending on the community, this acknowledgement has no need to be specific, and can often incorporate a measure of blame and fault on the person they’re ostensibly apologizing to.

This is not repentance. This is Apology Theater. It’s public relations. It’s image management.

When a Christian uses this form of repentance, it’s to change the narrative. When someone accuses Savage/Hybels/Gothard/Driscoll/Mahaney/Tchividjian/et al of abuse, all these men have to do is shallowly acknowledge the accusation, perform a few palliative acts of contrition, say the words “forgive me,” and then six months later slip the mantle of power back onto their shoulders. Any further criticism can be dismissed by the community because of the repentance narrative: stop criticizing them, they served their time, they repented, exile shouldn’t be forever, God forgave them why can’t you, etc. Tullian Tchividjian’s recent “Grace for the Disgraced” post is an excellent– and disturbing– example of how this works.

This isn’t, in my opinion, biblical repentance. I’ve written a few posts about repentance before (one on communal repentance, another on transformation), but I’d like to focus on what repentance should look like in the context of sexual harassment, abuse, and assault. My thinking on this subject has been informed somewhat by the Jewish articulation of teshuvah, and I believe repentance has several parts:

  • confess all of what you did in a holistic, encompassing way
  • understand not just why you harmed someone but how you were able to do so
  • take the necessary precautions to ensure that you do not ever harm someone that way again

Confession is not just a bare-bones acknowledgement of sin. If a rapist wants to seek redemption, their journey should start with the complete picture, a soulful and spirit-filled understanding of the harm they caused. When John* forced his penis inside me, the harm wasn’t limited to that specific action, that single event. The harm was the sexual violation and it was ruining my ability to trust romantic partners, the damage to my faith, the nightmares, the shame, the fact that I will probably flinch any time I see someone who looks even vaguely like him, the fact that I can’t take a shower in an unfamiliar place, that I have fibromyalgia likely as a result of trauma. The confession can’t be a mere “I’m sorry I hurt you,” it has to come with the realization that you are responsible for all of the destruction your actions led to– emotional, psychological, financial, spiritual, physical.

Second, abusers need to spend a lot of time digging through all the elements that permitted them to sin in this way. What ideas do you have about women, about gender roles, about sexuality, that numbed your conscience to sexual harassment or assault? What beliefs allowed you to see your victim as nothing more than an object that you could control? What systems, institutions, structures, gave you the ability to harm them? How did you get the power to drive a teenage girl down a dark road, tell her it’s for a “surprise,” and then shove your dick in her mouth? Who gave that power to you, and why did you want it?

Finally, and this is absolutely essential: an abuser must never allow themselves to enter any of those structures again. A teenage girl trusted you because you were her spiritual guide, her youth pastor? You must never serve in that role, ever again. You harassed a woman you hired, who worked for you for years, who trusted and respected you because you were widely esteemed and celebrated? You must never allow yourself to be put on that pedestal, ever again. You manipulated parents to let their pretty, blonde daughters come work for your ministry and then install them in your office for “counseling” so you can be alone with them and put your hand up their skirt? You must never lead a ministry or think you are capable of “counseling” anyone, ever again.

Step 2: Restitution

“Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anyone, I will pay back four times the amount.”

And Jesus said to him, “Today, salvation has come to this house.” ~ Luke 19:8, Zacchaeus the Tax Collector

I can’t make pronouncements about what restitution will look like, since I believe every case would be different.

In my own story, restitution would look like paying for the hotel rooms that have pictures of updated, spotlessly immaculate bathrooms (and that are usually $70 more per night). He’d pay for five years of therapy. He’d quit his job as a pastor and find a career path that makes sure he’ll never have power over women or girls. He’d go back to PCC and tell everyone in the administration that he’s a rapist, I tried to tell them so, they should have listened to me, and that he will not stop fighting for them to change every single one of their policies that continue to retraumatize victims. He would go back to every single one of our college friends and tell them he was the monster and how he tricked them into making my life a living hell because he wanted revenge for not taking him back.

Whatever it is, restitution is when an abuser shoulders the responsibility for what they did. It means taking over the work of living with their sin, instead of leaving their victims to deal with years–decades– of emotional, spiritual, and physical labor on their own.

Step 3: Redemption

Churches, abusers: you cannot grant this. It cannot be taken by a repentant sinner, it cannot be given by a magnanimous community. It cannot be claimed when atonement seems odious and interminable, or when a church has forgotten the enormity of the offense.

I am not necessarily arguing that every predator or abuser should be shunned by every church until their victim is ready to welcome them back. That may never happen, and should never be forced to happen. However, I think it’s critical that we as Christians understand that redemption and restoration are not the same thing.

Bill Hybels will not be redeemed when he inevitably falls back into his position as an evangelical figurehead somewhere else in American Christendom. Driscoll was not redeemed when he moved to Arizona and started another church. Tchividjian is not redeemed now that he’s back to writing for The Gospel Coalition and has another book coming out.

I believe that for these sorts of men, redemption could come when they are held accountable for their sin, when they assume responsibility for what they did, and then use that to do transformative work in themselves and in their church communities. Redemption would come when these men refuse to let the church be a haven for other abusers like them. Redemption would come when they let their own souls, and the souls of their churches, be cleansed.

Redemption for all these men could come if, by their repentance and restitution, no one else is hurt.