Out there on the web: asking for what we need, and Christians with questions

Hi friends, there have been a couple additions to the “out there on the web” category of things since I last posted an update.

  1. I Didn’t Know How to Ask (Or What Would Have Happened if I Had) (Guest blog for Rose Madrid Swetman)

This is a guest post as part of Rose’s series on being a woman in ministry in a patriarchal world. Since she used the word “pioneering” in her series tile, I thought of that one time I started a new on-campus Christian group at my alma mater.

It was a good time in a lot of ways – well, really mostly just because the students were great, and also because it was exciting to try new things and dream of what could be – but it was also a rough time. This essay explores part of why it was rough, and how I see gender and patriarchy playing into that.

I imagine these reflections are relatable for anyone who’s had a hard time asking for what they need – or who has asked but has not been received well.

2. The People Who Have Always Had Questions (Feminism & Religion)

I liked this piece by Jemar Tisby about evangelicals as “the people who don’t have any questions,” and I see my essay for Feminism & Religion as a sort of addendum to it. I’m not disagreeing with anything so much as wondering out loud how gender plays into everything.

Reading bell hooks’ The Will to Change at the same time as I was thinking about these things felt relevant and fruitful. This need for certainty as a means of control, this impulse to have an answer to every question and to coerce everyone to agree with these answers – all the things Tisby names – are endemic to white evangelicalism, and also to patriarchy.

(Agree? Disagree vehemently? Read Tisby’s The People Who Don’t Have Any Questions, read my The People Who Have Always Had Questions, and let me know what you think.)

Hope you enjoyed this brief update and find these articles thought-provoking! As always, I’d love to hear from you.

Gutsy faithfulness in a world where money fails (reflections on Luke 16:1-13)

I’ve got another church eblast reflection for you all – unabridged (read: slightly longer) version! 

This one’s on Luke 16:1-13:

16:1 Then Jesus said to the disciples, “There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property.

16:2 So he summoned him and said to him, ‘What is this that I hear about you? Give me an accounting of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer.’

16:3 Then the manager said to himself, ‘What will I do, now that my master is taking the position away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg.

16:4 I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.’

16:5 So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he asked the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’

16:6 He answered, ‘A hundred jugs of olive oil.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.’

16:7 Then he asked another, ‘And how much do you owe?’ He replied, ‘A hundred containers of wheat.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill and make it eighty.’

16:8 And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.

16:9 And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.

16:10 Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much.

16:11 If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches?

16:12 And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own?

16:13 No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.”

When we read parables like these, it can be tempting to try to figure out who exactly every character in the story represents. This is called allegorical interpretation, and many biblical scholars have pushed back against this approach.

Perhaps Jesus’ stories were meant to be just that—stories. Conversation starters. Feeling-evokers. Thought-provokers. Open-ended, with multiple possible interpretations and takeaways. Maybe that’s the beauty of the parables—even though it also makes them…difficult.

I mention this because I am not at all convinced that the “master”—a fraught word, if I ever heard one, given the U.S. history of slavery—in our story this week is meant to represent God. Not only does he engage in dubiously-just firing practices—he lets the steward go based on an accusation from a third party without even bothering to hear his side of the story (v. 1-2)—but also, on top of this, his massive wealth is persistently described as “unjust” or “unrighteous.” 

Perhaps the steward, then, feels free to play fast and loose with the master’s money because he knows the whole system is unjust. 

What does it mean to be faithful, in a world where a few rich folks hoard while masses of people go hungry? Perhaps crossing our t’s and dotting our i’s when it comes to wealth management takes a back seat to figuring out how to survive—and helping others survive too. Maybe strict adherence to rules and regulations is less important than mercy. And surely mercy is what the steward shows to the debtors when he tells them to lessen the amounts of their debts. 

The steward in our story is often referred to as the “shrewd manager,” but I feel like the word “shrewd” can have some funky connotations. In some church contexts, people use the story of the “shrewd manager” to say that we as Christians should also be more shrewd. As in, we should be more cunning. As in, it’s okay to manipulate or mislead people if it’s all for a higher cause. To me, this is hardly what it means to be “children of the light” (v. 8). 

Perhaps it helps to know that the word translated as “shrewd” is often translated elsewhere as “prudent.” I’m not here for the manipulative cunning, but I’m okay with Jesus encouraging his followers to be prudent.

Prudent, like counting the cost of our discipleship (see Luke 14:25-35). Prudent, like acknowledging that all wealth in our unjust system is in fact unjust—and, accordingly, holding onto material stuff lightly. Prudent, like refusing to spend our lives serving a cruel death-dealing capitalist system that does not love us—refusing to destroy our souls in service of wealth that will one day be gone (v. 9). 

(This word translated as “be gone,” by the way, is actually quite strong in the original Greek; it could be translated as “fails,” “ceases,” or “dies.” As in, money will fail. Money will one day cease to exist. It will die.)

In light of all this, I wonder what we might learn from this passage about what it means to be faithful. Some of us may have been taught that faithfulness is a passive thing, measured by the sins we avoid and the things we do not do. But in Jesus’ story, faithfulness is active. It’s creative. It’s risky. It’s gutsy. It requires intelligence and courage. It involves trying something and being willing to face the consequences of our actions.

The steward is hardly a meek rule-follower. But there is something about him to be admired. With his actions he calls out the lie that unjust wealth is to be served at all costs. He points toward a different way.

Like this steward, we too take part in unjust systems. Under patriarchal white supremacist capitalism, a few rich folks keep getting richer, and any cost is acceptable in terms of human life and wellbeing. We may not be able to completely escape this system—but we can resist it. We can make choices that fly in the face of its logic. We can flout its expectations. 

We can rest. We can play. We can build genuine relationships that aren’t just transactional, based on what we can get out of someone. We can be radically for others and refuse to compete. We can treat ourselves with kindness and compassion. We can share resources generously, knowing there is enough for all. 

We can’t necessarily avoid unjust systems, but we can refuse to serve them as masters. We can build something new—something sacred and beautiful—in the midst of them. 

Peace to you this week. If you have thoughts about what faithfulness means to you (and how that’s changed over time), or how you live in unjust systems without serving these systems as masters, or anything else this passage makes you think about, holler in the comments or otherwise. I’d love to hear from you.

The unbound woman (reflections on Luke 13:10-17)

Now Jesus was teaching in one of the synagogues on the sabbath. And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight.

When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God.

But the leader of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had cured on the sabbath, kept saying to the crowd, “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day.”

But the Lord answered him and said, “You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water? And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?”

When he said this, all his opponents were put to shame; and the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing.

-Luke 13:10-17

I wrote a reflection on this passage for my church’s newsletter this week, and I thought I’d share a longer version of it here:

I’ve been blown away by the stories we’ve heard these last couple Sunday evenings. One of the themes I’ve heard again and again is a longing for—and a great joy when we experience—a kind of Christianity that is more concerned with love than with rules and regulations. Many of us have spent time in religious communities that were perhaps a little too caught up in their own rules. Perhaps some religious leaders made us feel like there was a certain list of things to do (or not do) in order to be right with God and respected in the community.

The synagogue ruler in our story from the gospel of Luke was one of these leaders. Jesus cures a woman from an ailment that literally, physically caused her body to be bent over for eighteen years. The appropriate communal response would be joy, delight, wonder, celebration. Throwing a big party. Praising God, as the woman does (v. 13). Rejoicing with those who rejoice (Romans 12:15, 1 Cor 12:26). 

Instead, this particular religious leader is indignant (v. 14). He’s displeased. He’s angry. He’s pissed because Jesus didn’t follow the rules. He misses the wonder of a sacred moment of healing because it didn’t fit his prior expectation of what holiness looks like. 

The synagogue leader, then, instead of addressing Jesus directly, speaks to the crowd. He tells them to come to be healed on the other six days, not on the Sabbath. It’s as if he’s blaming the woman who was cured, trying to make her feel ashamed for her own healing. 

And she didn’t even do anything. She didn’t talk to Jesus, grab onto his cloak, shout at him, fall on her knees before him, or do any of the other things people often do in other gospel stories when they want Jesus to notice them. She was just there (v. 11). Jesus was the one who initiated with her. He saw her, called her over, and told her, you are set free (v. 12).

The rule about not working on the Sabbath is important to the religious leader. But perhaps it’s important for the wrong reasons. Perhaps in trying so hard to follow all the religious rules, he’s missing the point of them all. He’s missing the point of Sabbath—a time of restoration and healing. 

On the Sabbath, as Jesus points out, even the most rule-abiding religious leaders would not hesitate to do what is necessary for the wellbeing of one of their oxen or donkeys (v. 15). Just so, Jesus does not hesitate to do what was necessary for the wellbeing of the bent-over woman. The analogy is even clearer in the Greek: the same Greek word is used for loosing or untying the ox from the manger in v. 15 and for loosing or untying the woman from her ailment in v. 16.  (A related word is also used in v. 12 to say that the woman was released from her ailment.)

I like this image of loosing or untying—as a donkey is loosed so he can go take a drink, and as a woman is loosed from her bent-over-ness. The word unbound—also the title of Tarana Burke’s memoir about starting the Me Too Movement— comes to mind as well. Jesus unbound this woman. Perhaps this is one image that can help us better picture what liberation can look like. 

Sometimes ideas like justice and liberation can seem a little vague. What do they actually look like? Sometimes, at least, they look like loosing, like untying. They look like people who have been bound for many long years becoming unbound. Standing up straight. Walking with the confidence of a beloved child of God, whether or not the world around them affirms this reality. Finding spaces where this reality is affirmed.

As a community, we can cultivate liberating spaces where we unbind one another. Many of us have been bent over by spirits of white supremacy, patriarchy, homophobia, materialism, greed, selfishness, narcissism, toxic individualism. The good news is that Jesus is here to untie us, to set us free. 

Sometimes we wonder where God is in this world. I think God is wherever liberation is happening. Where there is curing, unbinding, healing—that’s where God is. Where there is beloved community, that’s where God is. Religious rules optional.

What does the metaphor of untying or unbinding make you think of? What other images might help us understand what liberation looks like?

“You are a Samaritan and you have a demon” – reflections on other-ing, compassion, and discernment

The [religious leaders] answered and said to [Jesus], “Do we not speak well that you are a Samaritan and you have a demon?” -John 8:48 (my translation)

Sometimes when I’m translating New Testament passages from Greek, a phrase jumps out at me like I’ve never really seen it before, even though I’m sure I’ve read it multiple times. It might be something about the way things are put in Greek that made me see it differently, or it might just be the slower pace required to read in a language that’s foreign to me. Sometimes it’s unclear.

Either way, this verse was one of those verses for me yesterday. I’m replacing the literal Greek word “Jews” with “religious leaders” here, by the way, because the point isn’t that they’re Jewish specifically; the point is that they are claiming a special kind of relationship with God due to certain aspects of their religious and ethnic heritage and societal position. This is a mindset available to people from many faith traditions and is certainly common among Christians. I think of the white evangelical pastor who claims to know more about God and God’s will than those he (yes, usually he) has authority over, because of his job title, whiteness, maleness, seminary education, or whatever it may be.

Do we not speak well—that is, do we not speak trulythat you are a Samaritan and you have a demon? Yikes. The casual pairing of a (misplaced) ethnic identity and the accusation of demon-possession really got me here. 

These religious leaders take an ethnic/religious group different from their own—one they don’t particularly like—and say, Jesus, you’re one of them. You aren’t one of us. And that’s basically the same thing as having a demon. All this because they don’t like what he’s saying. (Which, to be fair, is kind of understandable, given that Jesus is saying that their father is the father of lies, and that sort of thing.)

I think it’s interesting that Jesus only responds to the demon part, not the Samaritan part. Perhaps he ignores the ethnic insult as not worth responding to? Perhaps he sees the two accusations as so closely linked that responding to one basically means responding to both? I’m not sure.

Regardless, the phrase you are a Samaritan and you have a demon reveals so much. It reveals exactly what these religious leaders thought of those they considered ethnic and religious outsiders. You aren’t part of our group? Then you might as well be of the devil. (Which strikes me as perhaps not all that different from the evangelical claim that everyone who is not an evangelical is going to hell. But that might be a can of worms for another time.)

I wonder what some modern-day analogies might be, at least in a U.S. context. Maybe it’s any time someone uses the name or characteristics of any sort of identity as an insult. “That’s gay,” for example, or “you throw like a girl”—or, of course, a more vulgar variant, “don’t be such a pussy.”

Maybe it’s also anytime (white evangelical, usually male) religious leaders accuse people of empathizing too much with people who have a different perspective. (Side note: I feel like anytime you’re accused of having too much compassion or too much empathy, you’re probably doing something right.)

I’m thinking of things like, you’re spending too much time reading critical race scholars and not enough time reading the Bible. Or things like, you’re empathizing too much with women in difficult situations who choose abortion; you aren’t staying true to the immovable moral principles of God.

I accidentally stumbled on a blog post recently that basically said exactly the latter. It was deeply disturbing, to say the least. I believe in a God whose empathy is much bigger than my own—and so I believe that the more compassionate I am, the closer I am to God’s will. I don’t know what moral principle would be more immovable than that.

I believe in a God whose deep compassion is best described in the New Testament by one of my favorite Greek words: σπλαγχνίζομαι. Literally, “I am moved to the bowels.” This word is often used to describe Jesus. Jesus was moved in his innermost being by people’s suffering, by people’s loneliness and longings and weaknesses and pain—that is, by the realities of human experience. He had no higher moral principle than the principle of love.

Sometimes things are confusing. It can feel like there are good arguments on both sides of a scenario, and it can feel hard to tell what’s actually good and godly. I offer what I’ll dub the “Samaritan/demon” test, which may help with discernment in some cases. If there is a side that’s saying something like “you are a Samaritan and you have a demon,” I do not want to be on that side. 

I don’t want to be on the side that uses ethnicities or races or genders or sexualites as put-downs. I don’t want to be on the side that weaponizes its own religious, racial, gender, or other sorts of privilege to try to silence others, like the religious leaders tried to silence Jesus. I don’t want to demonize people who have had experiences different from my own. I don’t want to live like the religious or ethnic “other” is the devil.

I want to live like I have nothing to fear and everything to learn from these “others.” I want to be on the side of compassion, of empathy, of being moved to the bowels by humans’ honest testimonies to their own experiences—especially those who are most vulnerable and most marginalized. I want to live by love.

What does the “you are a Samaritan and you have a demon” accusation make you think about? What other modern-day analogies would you draw? Feel free to holler in the comments or however you like.

Super chill book review: God is a Black Woman (Christena Cleveland)

God is a Black Woman by Christena Cleveland (HarperOne, 2022)—what a book. It’s basically a mix of spot-on critiques of what Cleveland calls whitemalegod (you may know the one) and compelling explorations of what it can look like to ditch whitemalegod and seek the Sacred Black Feminine instead.  

I was a fan of Cleveland’s work back when she was trying to help the white-dominated evangelical church do better in terms of racial justice; I’m still a fan of her work now that she’s jumped ship and is finding healthier, more honest, more life-giving forms of faith outside of white evangelical spaces. 

I feel like I’m over here rooting Cleveland on in her journey. And I’m grateful for her being willing to share this journey with anyone who would benefit from reading about it. Which is lots and lots of us, I think.

A few thoughts and memorable quotes:

1) Cleveland’s book kind of strikes me as a race-conscious version of The Dance of the Dissident Daughter (by Sue Monk Kidd) for a new generation. I really enjoyed The Dance of the Dissident Daughter and learned a ton from it—and I also felt its whiteness. 

I’m grateful for Cleveland’s exploration not just of the Divine Feminine—who many of us might imagine, by default, to be just as white as whitemalegod—but specifically of the Divine Black Feminine. This brings so much richness and complexity into the picture. 

As Cleveland writes, “She is the God who has a special love for the most marginalized because She too has known marginalization” (p. 17). That feels right to me. I’m not Black, but this is a God I could get on board with. 

2) In a similar vein, I appreciate how Cleveland writes about the Sacred Black Feminine in a way that centers Black women but is not exclusive to them. 

Cleveland writes, 

“She is the God who is with and for Black women because She is a Black woman. She is the God who definitively declares that Black women—who exist below Black men and white women at the bottom of the white male God’s social pecking order—not only matter but are sacred. And, in doing so, She declares that all living beings are sacred. She is the God who smashes the white patriarchy and empowers us all to join in Her liberating work” (p. 17). 

Yup, all for that. It makes sense to me that we might have to imagine God as Black and female to really get it into our heads and hearts and souls that, as Cleveland puts it, “all living beings are sacred.” 

The whitemalegod of the colonizers—and of those who do things today like incarcerate way too many Black men and deny women access to reproductive health care—doesn’t really affirm, or help his followers affirm, the sacredness of all humanity. But perhaps the Sacred Black Feminine can, and does.

It reminds me of what many activists have pointed out—that we should all be able to get behind the project of Black female liberation, not only because Black women matter, but also because it turns out that what is good for Black women is good for everybody. It isn’t a competition or a zero-sum game; it’s a matter of implementing systems, policies, and practices that promote the liberation of the most oppressed and the flourishing of the most marginalized—and that therefore promote liberation and flourishing for us all.

3) I appreciate Cleveland’s reflections on need and neediness. I’m reminded of an evangelical idea that resonated with me for a while back in the day, but which I now consider a load of baloney. The idea is that we as Christians have everything we need in Christ, so we come into relationships with other people not needing anything from them. The implication is that we can just give, and give, and give—and this is how Christians ought to be.

I’ve really moved away from this mindset over the last ten years or so. And I’ve moved toward the reality that I am a needy human, and my relationships are at their best and most beautiful when I’m both giving and receiving. Anything else is some combination of arrogance and denial of my own humanity—as well as denial of the other person’s humanity, to the extent that I’m tempted to think that “I don’t need anything from them” means “they have nothing to offer.”

Related to this, Cleveland writes, “in whitemalegod’s society…patriarchy and white supremacy partner to proclaim that to be human is to express no need. In whitemalegod’s society, toxic masculinity screeches ‘boys don’t cry,’ young girls struggle to get dates after being labeled ‘high maintenance,’ and women are demoted for being ‘too emotional.’ Further, our infinitely vast gender diversity is squeezed into two suffocating male/female boxes in which men are more valued when they express no need, women are devalued precisely because they are often unable to adequately hide their need, and all other genders are completely erased unless they cram themselves into one of the two ‘official’ gender boxes” (p. 85).

This strikes me as true, and important. To be human is to express no need is a lie that’s closely connected to a toxic form of masculinity. I’m all for building a world where people of all genders are free to feel what we feel and need what we need, without being shamed for it.

4) Relatedly, I resonated with this from my evangelical days:

“The only time people in whitemalegod’s world are allowed to talk openly about their need is when they are regaling themselves with tales of how they triumphed over it. We love to exchange stories about how we used to be homeless but now own a home with no mortgage on it, were once illiterate but now are a New York Times best-selling author, once struggled to manage our anger but now are a celebrated mindfulness teacher, previously had marital problems but now it’s all good. In other words, it’s okay to struggle, as long as you triumph in the long run. Just please don’t tell us about your need in real time. Need is only acceptable in the past tense” (p. 86).

I’m reminded of the way testimonies are often framed and shared in evangelical churches. In one of the more extreme versions, I knew of a college campus ministry that gave its students a particular outline for their testimonies to follow (and, in this case, to be filmed and posted on Facebook). Students were to talk about what their life was like before they met Christ, and how much better their life is now.

These students were to share about their needs in the past, not their needs in the present. But they were human. Surely they had present needs, too.

Why is it so hard to be honest about the fact that we are needy? Can we talk about how we’ve experienced God as real and good in some ways, while also being honest about the things that are still difficult and painful, and the ways we want to see God but haven’t yet? 

I want to be part of faith communities that can voice present lament, as so many writers of the Bible did—not just victory over past difficulties.

5) I don’t know if I’d really thought about matriarchal cultures in this way:

“As scholar Heide Gottner-Abendroth is quick to point out, matriarchal societies aren’t simply the reversal of patriarchal societies, with women ruling over men. Rather, they are need-based societies that are centered around the values of caretaking, nurturing, and responding to the collective needs of the community. In matriarchal cultures, everyone—regardless of your gender or whether you have any biological kids—is taught to practice the societal values of caretaking, nurturing, and responding to the collective needs of the community. In such cultures, these values are the basis of what it means to be human” (pp. 113-4).

That’s cool. And very much in line with what I see as the goals of feminism. Feminism isn’t a scary and threatening thing where women are trying to grab and hold power over men in the same way men have often grabbed and held power over women. 

Rather, we’re trying to build a different kind of world—one based on mutuality, equality, and healthy interdependence, where no one is trying to grab and hold power over anyone. A world where values for things like authority, hierarchy, individual success, and personal accumulation of wealth are replaced by values for things like “caretaking, nurturing, and responding to the collective needs of the community.” Matriarchy for the win.

6) I appreciate the clarity and honesty of Cleveland’s reflections on her work for racial justice in white-dominated spaces:

“Somewhere along the line, I had been taught that in order to accomplish justice, I needed to convince white people that I am worthy of justice…Somewhere along the line, I had been taught that it was my work to convince white people to affirm my humanity…Though I had been heralded as a ‘trailblazer’ in the mostly white, male-dominated Christian world, my justice work had extracted me from the safe spaces that nurture and protect me as a Black woman and catapulted me into the unsafe and oppressive spaces of the powerful where I was exposed to the soul-crushing forces of its institutional racism, sexism, and poisonous theology. In those spaces, I gave much yet received little more than lip service and a steady stream of macroaggressions” (p. 149).

I hear and feel Cleveland’s (totally valid) anger about all this, and I stand with her in it. None of this was right. And I think that her testimony (you know, the honest kind, not the kind with only victories) is a crucial one for church folks to hear.

7) Cleveland writes:

“That’s how whitemalegod controls us, by convincing all of us…that we’re not enough. We must constantly strive for whitemalegod’s version of excellence and conquer our imperfections in order to prove to whitemalegod that we are worthy to sit at his table. But since we’re all desperately scrambling to get a seat at a table in whitemalegod’s exclusive club, we never stop to ask ourselves: Do I even want a spot in whitemalegod’s tiny circle of acceptability? No, we’re too busy scrambling and trampling others as we chase the acceptance we will never receive” (p. 169).

I’ve totally felt this vibe and this struggle. For me, it was a feeling of tension between wanting to be accepted—and, in my case, as someone who worked in Christian ministry, wanting to be accepted as a leader—in evangelical spaces, but knowing, or at least fearing, that if I expressed (or just existed as) my authentic self, I would not be. It’s a feeling of having to hide something to belong. Which means, of course, that you—the real you—does not actually belong. 

I’ve felt this, for example, as an introvert, feeling like I needed to act like an extrovert to be accepted as a leader—or even just as a valuable and respected human. And I’ve felt it as someone who came around to LGBTQ+ affirmation, feeling like I didn’t know what would happen if I talked about these views openly.

Like Cleveland, at some point I started to think, Wait a minute, do I even want a spot here? Do I really want to chase the affirmation of people who fundamentally don’t accept me for who I actually am, or to chase power in their circles that are actually quite toxic? 

That would be a “nope.” Hard pass. But, like Cleveland, it took me a minute to get there. The pull of acceptability is powerful—especially when it can seem like acceptance in a particular evangelical circle equals acceptance by God. Fortunately, in truth, these things couldn’t be farther apart. But that isn’t always easy to see when you’re in the midst of it.

__

I hope this gave some worthwhile food for thought! I’d love to know what you think about any or all of it.

Super chill book review part 2: Jesus and John Wayne (Kristin Kobes Du Mez)

Back with part 2 of a super chill book review for Kristin Kobes Du Mez’s Jesus and John Wayne. (Part 1 is chillin over here.) A few more thoughts and quotes:

5. I appreciated Du Mez’s reflections on the blurring between the evangelical mainstream and (extra-conservative extra-patriarchal) margins.

This quote made sense to me, and helped me make sense of things:

“United in their concern about gender and authority, conservative evangelical men knit together an expanding network of institutions, organizations, and alliances that amplified their voices and enhanced their power. [Doug] Wilson invited [Mark] Driscoll to speak at his church; [John] Piper invited Wilson to address his pastor’s conference; leaders shared stages, blurbed each other’s books, spoke at each other’s conferences, and endorsed each other as men of God with a heart for gospel teaching. Within this network, differences—significant doctrinal disagreements, disagreements over the relative merits of slavery and the Civil War—could be smoothed over in the interest of promoting ‘watershed issues’ like complementarianism, the prohibition of homosexuality, the existence of hell, and substitutionary atonement. Most foundationally, they were united in a mutual commitment to patriarchal power.

“Through this expanding network, ‘respectable’ evangelical leaders and organizations gave cover to their ‘brothers in the gospel’ who were promoting more extreme expressions of patriarchy, making it increasingly difficult to distinguish margins from mainstream. Over time, a common commitment to patriarchal power began to define the boundaries of the evangelical movement itself, as those who ran afoul of these orthodoxies quickly discovered” (p. 204).

Back when I was a little more connected to the circles Du Mez writes about here, I remember being vaguely aware that people with some very different views on some very important things (like racial justice and whether spiritual gifts are still a thing) seemed to be friends with each other a little more than one might expect. (You know, the kind of friends who promote each other’s work and speak together at conferences and generally express agreement with one another’s theology; not the kind of friends who know they’re really different but decide to be friends anyway.)

Du Mez helped me connect the dots: the common thread was a shared commitment to patriarchy. That makes so much sense. (And is so gross.) Definitely something to chew on for anyone who’s been to conferences or heard sermons or read books by the likes of Wilson, Driscoll, or Piper—or others in the same sphere, like James Dobson, Doug Phillips, and John Eldredge (Du Mez names these other dudes elsewhere).

Incidentally, it also confirms that I have no regrets whatsoever about the time in my early twenties when I didn’t end up dating a guy I had a brief crush on who was super into Wild at Heart by John Eldredge. So there’s that.

6. It was fascinating to find myself (more or less) in these numbers:

“Support for the president [George W. Bush] dropped most precipitously among younger white evangelicals. In 2002, 87 percent of white evangelicals ages eighteen to twenty-nine approved of the president’s job performance; by August 2007, his approval rating among this group had dropped by 42 percentage points, with most of the decline (25 points) occurring since 2005. Younger evangelicals weren’t just unhappy with the president; since 2005, Republican Party affiliation among this demographic had dropped by 15 percentage points” (p. 232).

First, these numbers are bonkers. From 87 percent support to 45 percent support in five years—and from 70 percent support to 45 percent support in just two years? Yikes. 

I was 14 in 2002 and 19 in 2007, so I’m a little younger than the folks surveyed. But not too far off. And I definitely was happy that Bush was president in 2002 and unhappy that Bush was president in 2007. 

I appreciate Du Mez offering a broader context for these things. I tend to think of my journey away from Republican party affiliation as a very personal one. And it was that. But it was also taking place in the context of broader shifting currents in U.S. society as a whole and particularly among young white evangelicals. 

Similarly, there are these numbers:

“Seventy-four percent of white evangelicals voted for the McCain/Palin ticket. But 24 percent of white evangelicals—up 4 percent from 2004—broke ranks and voted for Obama. The Obama campaign had targeted moderate white evangelicals, the sort who had been voting Republican for twenty years but who wanted to expand the list of ‘moral values’ to include things like poverty, climate change, human rights, and the environment. Obama doubled his support among white evangelicals ages eighteen to twenty-nine compared to Kerry’s in 2004, and nearly doubled his support among those ages thirty to forty-four” (p. 237).

As someone who would have voted Republican if I were old enough to vote in 2004, and who then voted excitedly for Obama in 2008, I feel like I found myself in these numbers too. I was definitely one of those “moderate white evangelicals” who wanted our government to care about “poverty, climate change, human rights, and the environment.” I don’t know if I would have described it in exactly those words at that time, but as I look back, the description pretty much hits the nail on the head. I guess the Obama campaign targeted me and it worked? I think I’m okay with that.

7. Sometimes I think John Piper has a special talent of making my blood boil. (Maybe it’s a spiritual gift.) So, feel free to read this next quote if you want your blood to boil too, or feel free to skip it if that’s just not something you need in your life right now…

“Palin’s candidacy, however, raised the issue of gender. For evangelicals who believed in male headship, was it appropriate for a woman to be in such a position of power? If the alternative was Barack Obama, then the answer they gave was yes. Days before the 2008 election, John Piper wrote a blog post with the title, ‘Why a Woman Shouldn’t Run for Vice President, but Wise People May Still Vote for Her.’ Piper made clear that he still believed that ‘the Bible summons men to bear the burden of primary leadership, provision, and protection,’ and that ‘the Bible does not encourage us to think of nations as blessed when women hold the reins of national authority.’ But a woman could hold the highest office if her male opponent would do far more harm by ‘exalting a flawed pattern of womanhood’” (p. 236).

Seriously? Why a Woman Shouldn’t Run for Vice President, but Wise People May Still Vote for Her. First, the arrogance. Second, the logic: both utterly terrifying and exactly what one might expect. 

Basically, the thought process is this: we don’t want women to have any power—but better one woman in power if she helps keep women in general down, as opposed to a man in power who might try to empower women. Or, said differently, we don’t mind if a handful of particular women have power and influence—as long as that power and influence is used to uphold patriarchy. Charming. And relevant to all sorts of contexts, including the current Supreme Court. 

8. I feel like the news cycles have moved on already from the Southern Baptist Convention’s abuse issues, but sexual abuse in (all sorts of) churches is still a thing. (Would recommend Emily Joy Allison’s #ChurchToo: How Purity Culture Upholds Abuse and How to Find Healing and Ruth Everhart’s The #MeToo Reckoning: Facing the Church’s Complicity in Sexual Abuse and Misconduct as two excellent books on the subject.) I’ll leave you with some of Du Mez’s thoughts on it:

“The evangelical cult of masculinity links patriarchal power to masculine aggression and sexual desire; its counterpoint is a submissive femininity…The responsibility of married women in this arrangement is clear, but implications for women extend beyond the marriage relationship. Women outside of the bonds of marriage must avoid tempting men through immodesty, or simply by being available to them, or perceived as such. Within this framework, men assign themselves the role of protector, but the protection of women and girls is contingent on their presumed purity and proper submission to masculine authority. This puts female victims in impossible situations. Caught up in authoritarian settings where a premium is placed on obeying men, women and children find themselves in situations ripe for abuse of power. Yet victims are often held culpable for acts perpetrated against them; in many cases, female victims, even young girls, are accused of ‘seducing’ their abusers or inviting abuse by failing to exhibit proper femininity. While men (and women) invested in defending patriarchal authority frequently come to the defense of perpetrators, victims are often pressured to forgive abusers and avoid involving law enforcement. Immersed in these teachings about sex and power, evangelicals are often unable or unwilling to name abuse, to believe women, to hold perpetrators accountable, and to protect and empower survivors” (pp. 277-8).

I appreciate Du Mez making these connections explicit. That feels important to me. It reminds us what is at stake when churches insist on maintaining patriarchal theology. Not that all the other things that come with church-y patriarchy are remotely okay—but sexual abuse seems especially obviously not okay. 

The other implication here is that if churches and denominations are serious about addressing their abuse issues, they have to address the patriarchal theology that enables this abuse. I don’t really see many churches where patriarchy is deeply woven into theology and church culture being willing to seriously look at these connections or admit that they’re there. But it’s something to chew on.

There’s so much in this amazing book, and it might be a lot to process. If you’ve read or are reading it, please feel very free to reach out (comment, message, email, whatever you like)—I’d love to talk about some of this stuff together.

Super chill book review part 1: Jesus and John Wayne (Kristin Kobes Du Mez)

Well, this is looking to be another two-part super chill book review… 

(Some might ask, does it still count as “super chill” once it gets to be this long? To which I would say, the chill factor isn’t about length so much as style—these aren’t really book reviews so much as just collections of quotes that stood out to me and things the book made me think about. But if you want to call these “zero chill book reviews,” that’s cool too.)

Anyhow. Kristin Kobes Du Mez’s book Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation (Liveright, 2021) is an extensively-researched deep dive into the intersections of patriarchy, militarism, toxic masculinity, violence, Christianity, many decades of US politics, and basically all the things. 

It’s one of those books people kept recommending to me for a while before I actually got around to reading it. I’m not totally sure why it took me a minute. I definitely believed everyone that the book was awesome (which it totally is). But maybe part of me also felt a little jaded on the topics involved. 

Part of me felt like, didn’t I go to seminary to try to figure out what the hell is wrong with (white) U.S. evangelicalism—and how it became what it is? What more could there be that I didn’t already learn in my American Church History class, biblical studies and theology classes, ethics classes, or the whole frickin’ class I took on Dr. King? What more could there be—and what more could there be that I would actually be excited to read about and not just totally depressed by?

Joke’s on me—turns out there really was (and I’m sure still is) much more to learn. So, so much more. I was blown away by Jesus and John Wayne. Here are a few thoughts and quotes:

1) One of the oddities of my own spiritual journey is the fact that, as a teenager, I held some surprisingly Religious Right-leaning views for someone who grew up in a liberal part of the country, in a moderate-to-liberal family, and in a moderate-to-liberal church. 

This is mostly explained by the fact that, unfortunately, I read the Christian Internet. The Christian Internet told me that if I loved Jesus (which I did), then I would vote Republican (which I would have, if I were old enough to vote), because opposing gay marriage and opposing abortion rights outweighed every other political concern. 

I thought about this when I read these words from Du Mez:

“At any given time, numerous creeds have coexisted and competed for influence within evangelicalism. Even today, the evangelical tent includes Calvinists and Pentecostals, ‘social justice warriors’ and prosperity gospel gurus. However, over the past several decades conservatives have consolidated their power within the broader movement. Offering certainty in times of social change, promising security in the face of global threats, and, perhaps most critically, affirming the righteousness of a white Christian America and, by extension, of white Christian Americans, conservative evangelicals succeeded in winning the hearts and minds of large numbers of American Christians. They achieved this dominance not only by crafting a compelling ideology but also by advancing their agenda through strategic organizations and political alliances, on occasion by way of ruthless displays of power, and, critically, by dominating the production and distribution of Christian consumer culture” (p. 9).

Strategic organizations, political alliances, ruthless displays of power, and dominating Christian consumer culture. That sounds about right. There are and have always been many different kinds of Christians, many different Christian ideologies, many different approaches to life and the world and the political realm.

The Religious Right not only aggressively markets their own ideas but also aggressively markets the lie that their ideas are the only ones out there—that is, the only truly Christian ones out there. I used to believe that lie.

Personally, these days, I would say that the values of a certain strain of Christianity (like opposing gun control, supporting the death penalty, opposing immigration reform and refugee resettlement, and generally trying to keep the US as white as possible—all realities Du Mez mentions on p. 4) are completely opposed to what I understand as faithfulness to the religion of Jesus. Others might disagree, and that’s okay. (Not okay in the sense that I think they’re right or that their views aren’t terrifying and deeply harmful, but okay in the sense that different people have different perspectives and that is their right.)

What we should all be able to agree on, though, at a bare minimum, is the clear fact that there are many streams of Christianity, many ways the Bible has been interpreted, many different approaches to politics by those who sincerely want to be guided by the Christian faith. While I tend to think I’m right about things (or at least some things—some important things) and want others to agree with me because I think our world would be better if they did, I also have no interest in pretending that my views are the only ones. I find myself enraged by the ways a certain conservative stream of Christianity has tried to control Christians’ thinking (and voting—mostly, voting) by doing exactly that.

2. Du Mez reflects on the Obama years and on conservative evangelicals’ response to his presidency:

“In 2008, the election of Barack Obama ratcheted up evangelical fears. Initially, the culture wars appeared to be lost and the power of the Christian Right seemed to have reached an ignoble end. But conservative evangelicals had always thrived on a sense of embattlement, real or imagined, and this time would be no different. Donald Trump appeared at a moment when evangelicals felt increasingly beleaguered, even persecuted. From the Affordable Care Act’s contraceptive mandate to transgender bathroom laws and the cultural sea change on gay marriage, gender was at the heart of this perceived vulnerability. On the foreign policy front, the threat of terrorism loomed large, American power wasn’t what it used to be, and nearly two-thirds of white evangelicals harbored fears that a once-powerful nation had become ‘too soft and feminine.’

“Evangelical fears were real. Yet these fears were not simply a natural response to changing times. For decades, evangelical leaders had worked to stoke them. Their own power depended on it. Men like James Dobson, Bill Gothard, Jerry Falwell, Tim LaHaye, Mark Driscoll, Franklin Graham, and countless lesser lights invoked a sense of peril in order to offer fearful followers their own brand of truth and protection” (p. 13).

Looking back on my eleven years at a conservative evangelical church, including a couple years working full-time there in college ministry, I feel like I was very much immersed in the evangelical world but also very much not immersed in that world. It was an independent church, not connected to a broader denominational network. And while the church’s (elder board) leadership turned out to be more conservative than I first realized, the community as a whole really was composed of a broad range of people with all sorts of different views. So, in some ways I was pretty unaware and kind of naive about the kinds of things that were happening in the broader conservative evangelical world. 

One time, though, a college student I worked with forwarded me a chain email about how then-President Obama was a Muslim and the anti-Christ, or something like that. I thought, Surely no one in their right mind believes these things. I knew this college student. I liked her. She was an entirely reasonable person. So I replied to her email asking if perhaps her message was a joke, or did she maybe have her email hacked? 

I was shocked when she responded quickly and told me that no, it wasn’t a joke, and yes, she did intend to send me that email. She felt it was important for people to be aware of the truth about our president. 

I didn’t know what to do. Turns out that the evangelical fears, the persecution complex, the embattlement, all the things Du Mez writes about—these things reached into my own community more deeply than I knew. At the time, I brushed off the student’s email as a bit of an anomaly, but really, it wasn’t that at all. It was likely what a lot of people at my church believed but didn’t necessarily say out loud.

3. As someone who has thought a fair amount about LGBTQ affirmation—because I had to, once it became clear that I had no future at my church if I embraced affirming theology—I resonate with these words from Du Mez:

“Within evangelicalism itself, this [antigay] activism is often depicted as an expression of long-standing opposition to same-sex relationships triggered by the gay rights movement of the 1960s and 1970s, but the virulence with which conservative Christians opposed gay rights was rooted in the cultural and political significance they placed on the reassertion of distinct gender roles during those decades. Same-sex relationships challenged the most basic assumptions of the evangelical worldview” (p. 63).

That feels about right. Opposing gay rights wouldn’t necessarily have been that big a deal for evangelicals if it hadn’t directly challenged everything they believed about rigid gender roles for women and men. 

You can be egalitarian (when it comes to equality between men and women) but non-gay-affirming, and I know plenty of people in that camp. At the same time—as I slowly realized when I started to dig deeper into the beliefs of my own church leaders when it came to gender and sexuality—the logic of non-affirming theology directly stems from patriarchal (complementarian) theology.

I’m not saying every non-LGBTQ-affirming person came to this conclusion in the same way or for the same reasons. But historically speaking, as Du Mez points out, that was kind of how it happened, and it seems good to be aware of this.

4. Given the current state of the U.S. and the mess we’re in when it comes to reproductive rights, I felt like this paragraph offers some helpful historical context:

“In 1968, Christianity Today considered the question of therapeutic abortion—was it a blessing, or murder? They gave no definitive answer. As late as 1971, the Southern Baptist Convention passed a resolution urging states to expand access to abortion. But with the liberalization of abortion laws, and as abortion proponents began to frame the issue in terms of women controlling their reproduction, evangelicals started to reconsider their position. In 1973, Roe v. Wade—and the rising popularity of abortion in its wake—helped force the issue, but even then, evangelical mobilization was not immediate. Only in time, as abortion became more closely linked to feminism and the sexual revolution, did evangelicals begin to frame it not as a difficult moral choice, but rather as an assault on women’s God-given role, on the family, and on Christian America itself” (pp. 68-9).

Ah, yes. Roe v. Wade? Not sure what to think about it. Mostly a Catholic issue, I think. No definitive answer here. Oh wait, the feminists are advocating for abortion rights? Well then it must be a problem. It must be contrary to what we believe as Christiansbecause clearly anything feminist must be contrary to what we believe as Christians. Sounds about right.

I don’t think this was the only thing going on. There was also the way conservative evangelicals had opposed racial desegregation, and when it became clear that that was becoming an unpopular position and a losing battle, they needed another heated issue to rally people around in a partisan way. 

But I think abortion was a ready choice for this issue because of its connection to changing ideas about gender roles and women’s empowerment—ideas that Christians whose faith was tied closely to their patriarchy found incredibly threatening. 

As with opposition to LGBTQ+ inclusion and affirmation, individual Christians who oppose abortion rights today didn’t necessarily take the path Du Mez outlines to get here. But this is the reasoning that was involved historically.

That’s what I’ve got for part 1! Please feel free to comment, email, or otherwise holler with your thoughts on these nice little noncontroversial issues. And don’t worry, I’ll be back next week with part 2!

Super chill book review part 2: All the White Friends I Couldn’t Keep (Andre Henry)

As promised—and eagerly awaited, I’m sure!—this is the second part of a super chill book review of Andre Henry’s All the White Friends I Couldn’t Keep. (The first part is chillin over here if you didn’t catch it before.) 

Here are a few more quotes and thoughts.

4) On the language of “can’t”:

“That was the second time [seminary friend] Kevin used the word ‘can’t’ in regard to condemning slavery…He echoed his predecessors, who often wrote about how they couldn’t abolish slavery, because the world they were building depended on it too much. A straight line can be traced between the colonizers who claimed they couldn’t abolish slavery to white people today who ‘can’t’ condemn it in the present, nor imagine a world without its descendants: the police and prisons. Perhaps they do this because they know they can’t categorically condemn the violence that structures their world without implicating themselves” (pp. 87-8).

I hear and honor the specific context of race and racial violence that Andre’s writing about here. And, at the same time, when I read this, my mind also wanders to all the other things I’ve heard Christians say they can’t do.

For example, “I want to support women in ministry, but I can’t—it isn’t the way our church/denomination does things, and there isn’t enough will to change.” Or, “I want to affirm LGBTQ+ people and relationships, but I can’t—I just don’t see how the Bible could be understood in any way other than condemning.” 

What is this “can’t”? 

In a sense, it’s a sort of appeal to a higher authority. I want to do something, but some thing/person/rule/structure/system/theology/authority won’t allow me. At some point, though, in my view, we don’t get to absolve ourselves so easily of responsibility for our own choices and the impact they have. 

Sometimes, in order to be whole and healthy humans who want wholeness and health for others as well, we have to go against the way things have always been done. Sometimes we have to disagree with church/denominational higher-ups. Sometimes we have to read the Bible differently from what we’re used to or what everyone around us is doing. These things are not easy. But we can do them. 

We get to make choices, and we are responsible for these choices. Those who felt they couldn’t abolish slavery are still responsible for the suffering it caused; those who feel they can’t challenge the status quo today are still responsible for the suffering in our current world, whether by way of racial violence, institutionalized misogyny, homophobia, or any other forms it might take.

I don’t find it easy to imagine, as Andre writes, a world without…police and prisons. But, in solidarity with people who are most impacted by the injustice and violence of these systems, I can try.

5) On God and racism:

“I don’t think they always realize this, but when a Christian says God isn’t concerned about racism, they’re saying God doesn’t care about Black people. Those statements are inseparable. We fight for people we care about, period. If you saw a friend in danger, love would compel you to try to save them. So to say God won’t intervene against anti-Black violence, because it’s not important, could only mean God doesn’t love us” (pp. 120-1).

I read this, and I think about how sometimes Christians get some weird ideas about redemptive suffering. And it gets especially gnarly when people try to apply these ideas to other people’s lives rather than their own. 

If someone went through something difficult and felt that it was redeemed in some way, whether through character growth or something else good that came out of it, that’s great. I’m all for it. But I don’t think I get to tell someone who is not me that their suffering is redemptive.

Yet that is often what white people do to Black people. And it’s violent. It’s the opposite of loving. For those of us who are not Black, if we love our Black sisters and brothers and siblings, as Andre writes, we won’t try to tell them that God isn’t concerned about racism. We’ll believe with them in a God who fights for them—and we’ll join them in the fight.

6) On what comes next:

 “The question I have today is whether or not all those millions of people who filled the streets in 2020 for George Floyd and Breonna Taylor have realized that their next task is to use nonviolent direct action to cripple the operations of a repressive society. We’re not just fighting for white Americans to be nicer; we’re fighting against a corrupt empire. We must connect the struggle for Black lives today to previous movements against imperialism, authoritarianism, and fascism around the world and at home. We must learn from those movements and apply their lessons to our situation today, with the understanding that tinkering with the current system isn’t enough. The current system was built to oppress, which means it must be replaced. We must go from being a fundamentally unequal society sustained by violence to a truly egalitarian society sustained by mutual care. A revolution is necessary to make Black lives matter, and we have to plan it” (pp. 144-5).

I don’t really have anything to add to this—just wanted to include it here, because I feel like it captures the heart of a lot of what this book is about. 

Where do we go from the summer of 2020? What more is needed? What does continued and genuine antiracist engagement look like? We’re not just fighting for white Americans to be nicer. We’re fighting to become a truly egalitarian society sustained by mutual care. Amen to that.

7) On white folks who want to get involved:

“If white people are serious about fighting white supremacy and anti-Blackness, they need to start within themselves. This kind of work is essential because without it, white people will enter movement spaces and cause the same kinds of harm Black people are trying to get away from. They need to confront the ways they’ve been shaped by anti-Black ideas and been complicit in defending the racial hierarchy. They need to dedicate themselves to the work of fighting against racism in their own communities, instead of rushing straight into spaces where Black people are trying to heal and organize for our own freedom.

“White people should consider how they can organize for racial justice in ways that give Black people space: space where we’re free from the pressure to educate them, perform for them, or coddle them. One option is for white people to join non-Black ally movement groups that work in parallel with Black-led organizations and are accountable to trusted Black leaders: White People for Black Lives (WP4BL) or Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ), for instance. White people who really get it understand that such space is necessary” (p. 163).

As a white person hoping to be useful to the cause of racial justice—and who knows a lot of fellow white people in a similar boat (hi, Lake B)—I appreciate this warning and encouragement. Not every justice movement space is a space for us—and that’s okay. Not every space needs to be for us, and not every space should cater to us. 

This doesn’t mean we can’t be useful. It just means that anti-Blackness is so deeply ingrained in us that we need to be thoughtful, careful, and humble about where and how we show up, so that we don’t do more harm than good.

8) On hope:

 “Frankly, I thought hope was bullshit. Mostly because all of the hopeful people I knew had a tendency to minimize problems in order to stay positive. It seemed that the only people I knew who had hope weren’t paying close attention to what’s going on in the world. [Activist Rebecca Solnit’s book] Hope in the Dark was the beginning of a journey that would permanently shift my perspective.

“The idea that struck me most in Solnit’s book was that there’s a difference between hope and certainty. To be hopeful doesn’t mean we’re sure about the future. ‘Hope is an embrace of the unknown and the unknowable, an alternative to the certainty of both optimists and pessimists,’ she explains. ‘Optimists think it will all be fine without our involvement; pessimists adopt the opposite position; both excuse themselves from acting.’ My mouth dropped open when I first read those words. They gave me a concept of hope that looked ugly truths in the face and left room for human agency. It felt like good news” (p. 169).

I feel this tension between holding onto hope and trying to pay attention to what’s actually going on in the world. I also really enjoyed Hope in the Dark. I have not been engaged in activist scholarship and struggle nearly as deeply as Andre has, but in the ways I have tried to engage, Solnit’s book felt like good news to me, too.

As far as good news goes, I feel like many of us who’ve been involved in the evangelical world have been awakening to a realization that the white American evangelical gospel doesn’t actually feel like good news. (As Andre articulates in his song Playing Hookey.) So I think it’s worth asking, and paying attention to our answers: What does feel like good news?

What’s actual, legit good news for you? For your community? For those “with their backs against the wall,” as Howard Thurman writes in Jesus and the Disinherited? I don’t know if the answers that come to you will line up very well with a conservative evangelical version of Christianity. But I suspect God might be in them. 

Well, this really just scratches the surface of a few parts of Andre’s book. There’s a lot there. I hope you get a chance to read it, and I’d love to chat about it if so (here, FB, email, real life, whatever you prefer)!

Public property, 73%, centering, and quickening: four brief thoughts on abortion

You may not be surprised to hear that, over the last few days—like much of the U.S.—I’ve been thinking about abortion. Sometimes I see people—mostly Christians—say that they feel like they “need” to weigh in. I don’t really feel that need. 

Part of it is that I generally don’t feel the need to weigh in on anything right away. My first reaction is usually not the best-thought-out one, and I would rather stew for a while and then hopefully say something more thoughtful if or when I have something to say. 

I also don’t really want to play into the news/media/outrage cycle that tends to happen. Often an issue gets a lot of attention for a few days, but really it’s a long-term, long-standing thing. And there are lots of people who have devoted many years of their lives to it. I’d rather listen to those people—the experts on a given topic, those who are committing their time and energy beyond the two days when it’s trending and at the forefront of everyone’s mind—than feel the need for everyone to speak all at once, whether or not we know much at all about it.

Basically, if I speak or write, I want to contribute to movements working to build a better world for the long haul—which often means choosing not to react spontaneously to whatever seems most egregious at the moment.

Caveats and hesitations aside, though, I’ve been thinking about abortion and the complex web of issues that come up whenever people start talking about it. And I have four brief thoughts.

1. Women’s bodies as public property

This is what I think about when I see abortion-related conversations go down. I find it kind of mind-blowing that people have so many opinions and philosophies and theologies about this thing that is so intensely intimate and personal. It’s not just an abstract topic for debate; it’s real women’s medical care, pregnancies, bodies. 

People feel so free to state their opinions to anyone who might listen and many who will not. This is a reminder, to me, of how women’s bodies are often treated as public property. 

I believe Paula Stone Williams writes about this in As a Woman: What I Learned About Power, Sex, and the Patriarchy After I Transitioned. Paula is a transgender woman who reflects on how life is different for her now since transitioning in her sixties. Among many other things, once she transitioned, she noticed that people feel free to comment on her appearance in a way they didn’t feel free when they saw her as a man. She felt as if her body, for the first time, was considered public property.

Would people feel the need to state their opinions on difficult health care decisions—not to mention related topics of pregnancy risks, and rape and incest, and teen pregnancy, and that sort of thing—if it were primarily a conversation about men’s bodies? It’s kind of hard to imagine. What men can or can’t do tends to be seen as their own decision. 

So I guess I generally feel like it should feel more uncomfortable to talk about abortion than it is. And when we do talk about it, I would love to hear more respect for the privacy, autonomy, and agency of every woman who has had to make difficult pregnancy choices. 

There’s something a little dehumanizing when this sensitivity is lacking—something a little disturbing about how everyone feels the need to weigh in with opinions that are often more intellectual than personal, more overly generalized than sensitive to individuals’ needs, highly ideological and not nearly nuanced enough to take into account all the complexities life and pregnancy and birth and parenthood hold. 

2. 73% of Americans care about my life

I’ve been sitting with a statistic I saw the other day: “73% of Americans say abortion should be legal if the woman’s life or health is endangered by the pregnancy” (see full Pew Research article).

(To be fair, only 11% say it should be illegal in that case—but I’m also not super happy with the 14% who say “it depends.” I’m not at all sure I want people looking at each individual woman to decide whether her life matters—and when people do that, it’s hard to imagine that things like race and socioeconomic status wouldn’t come into play.)

73%. What this statistic makes me feel is that if I were pregnant, and if there were complications such that my life were at risk, less than three out of every four people I meet in daily life or shop with at the grocery store feel quite sure that they would want my life to be saved. That doesn’t feel very good. 

I think of the psalmist’s lament: no one is concerned for me; no one cares for my life (Psalm 142:4). I’m sitting with this—for myself as a woman, and also, especially, in solidarity with women who have experienced real danger in pregnancy.

3. Center those most impacted

This is something we’ve learned from various social justice movements. Why would it be any different when it comes to conversations about abortion?

I remember the time, back when I was working in college ministry, that some of the students wanted to attend an on-campus debate about abortion. So off we went to the debate. Both speakers were men. 

On the one hand, I was used to stuff like that. On the other hand, and especially in retrospect, it was kind of surreal. It didn’t make any sense. What exactly qualified these two men as experts on something that impacted other people’s bodies more than their own?

If we’re going to talk about uteruses, we have to center the voices of people who have uteruses. If we’re going to talk about pregnancy, we have to center the voices of people who have experienced pregnancy. If we’re going to talk about abortion, we have to center the voices of people who have made a difficult choice to end their pregnancy. Likewise, if we’re going to talk about various options for abortion-ban exceptions—things like rape, or incest, or risks to the mother’s life—we have to center the voices of people who have experienced these things.

I don’t want any of these people to feel like they have to speak. They get to choose whether they want to speak. But there are those who are speaking. Are the rest of us listening?

4. Quickening

In my younger and more conservative days, I used to think that since I was a Christian, I believed that life began at conception. It was all part and parcel of being a believer. 

I’ve learned, since then, that the “life begins at conception” argument is really a rather recent one. There is a long, long historical Christian tradition of people who didn’t necessarily think this way. (Alternatively, if you think there weren’t any true Christians in the world until the last half of the twentieth century…I suppose that’s a view you could take.)

I think of this fascinating article from a couple years back. Its author, Dr. Freidenfelds, is a historian who spent fifteen years researching and writing about miscarriage. Freidenfelds suggests that, in the earlier years of Christianity, people believed the soul of a baby entered the baby’s body when the mother first felt her child move in her womb—a moment known as “quickening.” 

That makes a lot of sense to me. And even if it doesn’t make sense to you, it’s an example of how Christian beliefs about souls and bodies and fetuses and life have changed dramatically over time. “Life begins at conception” is a newer idea, and it is not a statement every Christian must believe. 

Well, those are my four thoughts. I don’t really want to provoke more debate, but do feel free to share your own thoughts and feelings over these last few days—I’d love to hear.

Super chill book review: Red Lip Theology (Candice Marie Benbow)

Candice Marie Benbow’s new book Red Lip Theology: For Church Girls Who’ve Considered Tithing to the Beauty Supply Store When Sunday Morning Isn’t Enough (Convergent 2022) strikes me as a combination of memoir, Black feminist manifesto, ode to Benbow’s mother, and work of theological deconstruction and reconstruction. Or something like that. I’m here for it. It’s a sort of coming-of-theology story, if you will. 

Benbow works with womanist (academic) theology, both what she loves about it and where she thinks it could go further. She’s looking to develop spiritual belief and practice that works for a new generation of Black women. And she has a ton of important stuff to say.

She isn’t looking to write something “prescriptive for all women,” because, as she puts it, “there’s no one-size-fits-all solution to life and the people who say, ‘yes, there is—it’s Jesus’ are being lazy and willfully obtuse” (p. xxx). Amen to that. At the same time, I’m grateful for the chance to be one of the “other women”—that is, non-Black women—who are “eavesdropping and looking for freedom, too” (p. xxx).

A few quotes and thoughts I especially liked:

1) “Even as I desired to navigate it, womanist theology didn’t feel like it was created for women like me: sisters who didn’t tuck in their ratchetness in favor of righteousness to occupy certain spaces or get in certain rooms. I needed something to speak to the totality of who I am” (p. xxv).

I like the part about not tucking in ratchetness in favor of righteousness. Not that I’m particularly ratchet. But for those who are, who the hell am I to tell them—who the hell is anyone to tell them—that they can’t bring the fullness of who they are to church, or theology, or anywhere else they like? 

I need the perspectives and gifts and brilliance of my ratchet-est of sisters. The church needs all these things, as does the world.

2) I appreciated Benbow going hard against Calvinist theology—or at least the sketchier, ickier parts of it. She effectively communicates, in many different ways throughout the book, that humans are inherently worthy, valuable, and good. That the biblical story doesn’t start with sin; it starts with good creation. That we are not slimy worthless worms (my words, not hers—I’ve heard others call this “worm theology”) before we invite Jesus into our lives, or whatever you want to call Christian conversion. 

For anyone for whom this sort of dominant evangelical theology isn’t really working—I’d recommend this book. Benbow does a great job of articulating what exactly isn’t working and suggesting what we might believe instead. She invites us into a more humanity-affirming, goodness-affirming, worth-affirming kind of spirituality.

“Where did Christians get the idea we are these wretched creatures who need so desperately to be thrown the bone of salvation for our lives to have any value or meaning?” Benbow asks. “The way I read it, the work of creation was an act of love. This omniscient, omnipresent, sustaining force took the time to make one of the most significant things it ever would. The Holy Maker called every single aspect of the design ‘good.’. . . yes, the biblical narrative is replete with examples of humanity fumbling the ball and God extending grace and mercy. We can look to our own lives and see where God has done the same thing. Yet, that doesn’t change the fact that God has seen us as only one thing since the beginning: good” (pp. 18-9).

God has seen us as only one thing since the beginning. I like that. Whatever else we are, we are also good. We are loved. 

I appreciate this message in general, and I also feel like it’s especially powerful and healing and necessary for those who constantly get the message in our society that they are not good, that they are not worth anything, that they are less than. People on the underside of oppressive power structures especially need to know that they are good, they are loved, their lives are sacred. From the beginning, and all the time.

3) I appreciate Benbow’s perspectives on God and gender, and more specifically, God’s gender. 

I got to teach a three-week class at my church back in January on “feminine God-talk”—that is, biblical, historical, and contemporary feminine imagery and metaphors for God, including the use of feminine pronouns. I think if I do the class again, I’ll include some of Benbow’s reflections.

For example, this:

“In my mind, God was a man, and men stuck together. God would look out for my dad and cosign his foolishness because that’s what men do. After all, God was only referred to as ‘He’ and ‘Him’ in church and in the scriptures. Add to that the trifling things I’d heard men—pastors included—had done and gotten away with. God was on the side of his homeboys.

To this day, I’ve seen men lie for each other, gaslight the hell out of women to make us second-guess ourselves and our own common sense—all to protect their boy. I saw it when the men would assist each other in the creation and perpetuation of false alibis. And it was up close and personal for me when I got my heart broken and men I deeply respected said, ‘Well . . . maybe you misconstrued some things’” (p. 30).

I don’t know if I’d really thought about God’s perceived masculinity in these terms—that speaking of God as if God is male makes God seem like one of the boys. But that totally makes sense to me. 

It’s not just an issue of, say, whether women and nonbinary folks can see ourselves as being made in God’s image fully—fully human. It’s also a question of: Whom does God side with? Whom does God stick up for? Whom does God betray? Does God participate in male church leaders’ gaslighting? Does God lie to cover up for men?

It’s important for people and communities to know that God is not one of the boys. God does not lie to women or gaslight them. God does not protect abusive men from the consequences of their actions. God does not hide or cover for them. 

I appreciate how Benbow connects the dots here. The ways we gender God are deeply tied to the ways gendered power dynamics play out in religious spaces.

4) More on (particularly masculine) gendered language for God:

“God stood before language or identity and is not defined by them. God is compassionate and empathetic enough to make room for us to come to know God as we need to come to know God. While I think it gave us an initial point of reference, the push to understand God through gendered language does not come from the Divine. It comes from our need to control, to lay claim, to create proximity to those whose authority we believe shouldn’t be questioned. But domination is not God’s will for us” (p. 39).

This strikes me as a helpful addition to the stuff I was thinking and writing about God and “they/them” pronouns a couple months ago. God can make Godself known through various pronouns—for those in the Christian tradition, often masculine ones—but that doesn’t mean that those pronouns limit God or encapsulate the entirety of who God is. 

We don’t need to try to control the language people use to speak about God. We can embrace the beauty of different ways of speaking about God, whether or not we understand all of them. 

5) Back to Calvinism and such:

“I don’t need a God who knows what I will do before I do it. I am not a robot. I was created with emotions and feelings that can shift in the moment. Plus, I don’t think we realize how much our thoughts of predestination and God’s omniscience take us off the hook. They make God responsible for our decisions so we don’t have to accept any responsibility . . . And because God trusts me with free will, it comes with great responsibility. I owe it to God and myself to live a life of authenticity. That requires I make decisions true to the core of who I am and that honor me” (pp. 57-8).

I don’t have much to add to that except an amen. Just wanted to share.

6) One small part of the awesomeness of Benbow’s mother, who plays a major role in this book:

“I had a mother who believed in my gifts and talents, believed they were called to shake things up, and believed I could be kind while doing it. She didn’t believe in calling someone out. Mama favored the notion of ‘bringing someone to’ something. By being direct, clear, kind, and compassionate, she believed you could provoke someone’s awareness and change their hearts” (pp. 103-4).

Something to aspire to, I think. Direct, clear, kind, and compassionate. Provoking awareness. Not necessarily being nice or playing into whatever notions of respectability people might have, but being kind and clear. 

7) One last quote:

“There is power in saying no. Women don’t say it enough and Black women say it even less. Saying yes to everything becomes our ‘reasonable service.’ American culture teaches men to say no almost without thinking, without a care about who it may harm or hurt. Women consider entirely too many people’s feelings to the point of self-sacrifice and self-sabotage. ‘No’ is a holy word. Our agency is sacred. God honors our agency through free will. We must honor it ourselves. When we say no, we are affirming that our capacities and intentions could be useful elsewhere . . . ‘No’ is a complete sentence and offers no explanation. Because we care about the people we say no to, we choose to explain ourselves. But it’s okay to say no and leave it there” (p. 168).

As someone who finds it awkward and a little stressful sometimes to say no—in more than one recent instance I’ve found myself muttering “errmm…mayybe…” when I wanted to say no but didn’t want to offend—I need all of this. ‘No’ is a holy word. Amen. Our capacities and intentions could be useful elsewhere

If someone is offended by us exercising our agency to say no, the problem is generally with the person who is offended—with their own unreasonable expectations or entitlement, not with the person who says no. I want people to feel very free to say no when I ask them for something; why wouldn’t I offer them the same authenticity I want to receive?

I also like the idea that we can choose to explain our “no” because we care about people, but we don’t have to. It’s okay to say no and leave it there. Saying yes, no, or maybe is the free choice of the person who is asked something — and so is whether or not to give an explanation.

None of this is one bit at odds with Christian faith. As Benbow writes, it’s God honoring our agency.

Hope you enjoyed these thoughts and quotes! Lots of good stuff in this book. Holler if you read it!