My parents began attending a new church before I graduated from college, and I only had about eight months at home before I was off to attend graduate school so the new congregation never really felt like a home to me. I made a few friendly connections, though, went out to concerts and the movies with the over-20 women’s group, and generally participated in the church’s traditions.
One of the friendly connections I made was with a man around my parent’s age who had also attended Pensacola Christian and was mildly critical of it– mostly because of the way the college had treated some of his college buddies who had become instructors. Besides that, we also shared a few common interests, like an obsession with nerd culture. So when, over my holiday break, he and his wife threw a 2011 New Year’s Eve party for the young adult group from church, I was excited about attending.
That night, over cups of root beer and non-alcoholic wassail, a few of the women took a moment to pass along a warning. They noted that I was friendly with our host and then remarked that “he could be … a little too friendly, sometimes.” The look that followed conveyed what their words couldn’t: danger, danger Will Robinson.
Just a few hours later, I experienced a little bit of that too-friendliness when he came and found me alone outside by the fire pit and started a conversation that felt over-familiar and inappropriately intimate. I quickly found a way to escape back inside and then spent the next several years walking a mental tightrope: sure he’s a little creepy, but he’s just socially awkward. He doesn’t mean anything by it, right?
Fast forward to Christmas 2013: I’m married and visiting my parents, and I’m excited about attending the annual “Cookies and Carols” event the church throws every year. By the time I make my way to my family’s table after saying my hellos to everyone, Mr. Too-Friendly is already seated there. He gets up to great me and gestures for a hug, which I accept– I don’t mind hugs, and I don’t want to navigate the why-wouldn’t-you-hug-me-I’m-so-confused-and-hurt cultural shoals, so I hug him.
Except it’s not a hug. He kisses me, full on the mouth.
It is big and wet and sloppy and I feel like I’m being strangled by him and my own nausea. I’m shocked, and furious, and hurt, and the night was already going badly (dying my hair bright purple and wearing a fingertip-length skirt with tights and slouchy boots had been a bridge too far, apparently, for the women in my over-20 group) and I just wanted to get home without making a scene. I sat at that table, seething and violated, and left the event as soon as I possibly could.
As I sat out in the dark, unheated van, I thought back to the carefully-worded warning I was given. I realized I hadn’t seen any of their faces in a while, and I connected the dots. The women who had been bold enough to warn me had also been bold enough to dye their hair, wear short(er) skirts, date non-Christians, embrace sarcasm and ribaldry … to be their own person. It struck me that they’d probably been ousted like I had that night, otherized and shunned for defying fundiegelical conventions. He’d also probably assaulted them the way he’d assaulted me, knowing that we were vulnerable in that church community. We were the “wild” women, the ones with the too-loud laughter and the too-bright hair. They’d done their best to protect me, and even after they were proven right the very same evening, I still wanted to dismiss them. Yeah he was too friendly, but ultimately harmless, really.
After all. I’d been told all my life that gossip is a sin, and that listening to it– let alone acting on it– was just as sinful. It was my job, as a good Christian, to give him the benefit of the doubt.
I could fill a book with all the examples I have of Christian pastors spending an inordinate amount of time focusing on feminine-coded “sins” like vanity or gluttony, and the focus on the particularly womanly sin of talking to other women about stuff that matters, i.e. “gossip,” would probably take up half its pages.
Today, looking at a practically endless wave of #metoo and #churchtoo stories coming out of Christianity– from the Pennsylvania Catholics to Willow Creek–I no longer think the focus on “gossip” is merely a natural consequence of sexism in Christian culture (although that’s clearly part of it). I’m convinced that when pastors go out of their way to vociferously condemn “gossip” or “the rumor mill,” they’re doing their dead-level best to dismantle the whisper network. They want to render one of the few tools women have to protect themselves from their violence ineffective.
Over the last several months, especially, as a cleansing light has finally begun to pierce the morally bankrupt, cowardly cloak many Christian communities have wrapped themselves up in, I’ve seen the following question at least once on every post: how could this have gone on for so long? How could it be so systemic? My answer is usually a remixed version of this response:
Abuse, even sexual abuse, is not hermenuetically or doctrinally aberrant in conservative Christianity. Abuse is woven into the fabric of Christianity, and has been true since the first millennia, since misogynistic men ripped The Way out of women’s homes and made Christianity a tool of the Empire. It’s not that churches want to cover up their crimes, it’s that churches seek out the qualities abusers have and award them with leadership. This is why criticizing church leadership is often painted as criticism of the Church: if abusers lose their authority, so does the religion they preach.
Many of the men who are drawn to ministerial work take it up precisely because Christianity gives them the license to abuse and call it mercy.
Think about that the next time you find a sermon or podcast or blog post about how women bloggers are destroying the church with our bitterness and rumor-mongering or how we shouldn’t listen to gossip.
It’s not “godly teaching.” It’s not “biblical.”
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Photography by Oliver Dodd