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.

Super chill book review part 2: The Will to Change (bell hooks)

This is part 2 (of 2) of some reflections on bell hooks’ The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love. Here’s part 1 if you missed it or want a refresher. 

The Will to Change was also very much on my mind as I was writing this essay, posted yesterday at Feminism & Religion: The People Who Have Always Had Questions. Check it out if you like.

Otherwise, since super chill book review thoughts #1-3 were in part 1, I’ll jump right back with…

4) I appreciate hooks’ clarity in laying out how exactly patriarchy harms men. It’s not only that everyone is harmed when women are prevented from flourishing fully, although this is true. It’s also that, in a world shaped by patriarchal thinking, men are subjected to violence, and they are expected to do violence to themselves. They are cut off from full humanity in their own way.

hooks explores the impact of patriarchy on boys during childhood; for example:

“The first act of violence that patriarchy demands of males is not violence toward women. Instead patriarchy demands of all males that they engage in acts of psychic self-mutilation, that they kill off the emotional parts of themselves. If an individual is not successful in emotionally crippling himself, he can count on patriarchal men to enact rituals of power that will assault his self-esteem” (66).

And she explores the impact of patriarchy on men during adulthood; for example:

“Men who win on patriarchal terms end up losing in terms of their substantive quality of life. They choose patriarchal manhood over loving connection, first foregoing self-love and then the love they could give and receive that would connect them to others” (72).

I thought this was an interesting way of framing things. Men are pressured to compete and win patriarchal contests that are not actually good for them. There’s a toxic construction of masculinity that’s at odds with real “loving connection”—both self-love and love shared with others.

For men, divesting from patriarchy entails healing from the “psychic self mutilation” that is pushed on them from a young age.  

I appreciate these perspectives, because I feel like sometimes we tend to think of justice in terms of one group with outsized power needing to hand some of this power over to those who haven’t had enough. But it’s not just that—it’s not just about men, or white folks, or other privileged groups giving up some of their privileges, although sometimes that needs to happen. It’s also about making a way for men (and white folks, etc.) to regain the fullness of their humanity—the self-esteem, the emotional richness, the loving connection, the love of self and others, all of which has been cut off by a violent system of domination that isn’t actually good for the ones trained to dominate.

5) I have a long quote for you. But at least it’s the last one? I would have made it shorter, but it’s just all so action packed… 

hooks writes:

“Many of the critics who have written about masculinity suggest that we need to do away with the term, that we need ‘an end to manhood.’ yet such a stance furthers the notion that there is something inherently evil, bad, or unworthy about maleness…

“There is a creative, life-sustaining, life-enhancing place for the masculine in a nondominator culture. And those of us committed to ending patriarchy can touch the hearts of real men where they live, not by demanding that they give up manhood or maleness, but by asking that they allow its meaning to be transformed, that they become disloyal to patriarchal masculinity in order to find a place for the masculine that does not make it synonymous with domination or the will to do violence.

“Patriarchal culture continues to control the hearts of men precisely because it socialized males to believe that without their role as patriarchs they will have no reason for being. Dominator culture teaches all of us that the core of our identity is defined by the will to dominate and control others…

“To offer men a different way of being, we must first replace the dominator model with a partnership model that sees interbeing and interdependency as the organic relationship of all living beings. In the partnership model selfhood, whether one is female or male, is always at the core of one’s identity. Patriarchal masculinity teaches males to be pathologically narcissistic, infantile, and psychologically dependent for self-definition on the privileges (however relative) that they receive from having been born male. Hence many males feel that their very existence is threatened if these privileges are taken away. In a partnership model male identity, like its female counterpart, would be centered around the notion of an essential goodness that is inherently relationally oriented. Rather than assuming that males are born with the will to aggress, the culture would assume that males are born with the inherent will to connect” (114-117).

Whew. That’s a lot. But there’s so much good stuff there. 

I like this idea that we’re not looking for an end to manhood or masculinity, but an end to the patriarchal kind of manhood that harms people of all genders. We’re looking to transform the meaning of maleness. 

We’re looking to “become disloyal to patriarchal masculinity,” to find a new “place for the masculine” and new ways of being men. We’re looking to “replace the dominator model with a partnership model”—with interdependency, interconnectedness, and a healthy sense of self esteem at its core. We’re looking to assume males are born with the desire and need for connection, mutuality, and love. 

If you don’t mind a religious turn to a not-super-religious post so far, all these things—hooks’ visions of what a healthier, more life-and-love-affirming version of masculinity could look like—remind me of Jesus. 

In the Christian tradition, Jesus’ maleness is an interesting thing. God is not exactly male or female, but when God took on human flesh, that flesh was male. Some people use this fact to suggest that God was showing God’s preference for masculinity, perhaps demonstrating the naturalness and rightness of male authority in the world. Jesus’ maleness has often been among the arguments used to support solely male priesthood or solely male pastoral leadership. 

What if, instead, Jesus’ maleness was meant to call forth a better kind of masculinity—better than that of the patriarchal cultures Jesus was born into, and better than what we see in today’s patriarchal cultures as well? If any man was disloyal to the ways of domination—rejecting power plays, remaining true to his core self, partnering with others, respecting and loving others at every turn, always speaking peace and moving toward healing—surely it was the God-man who came to serve and not be served (Mark 10:45). The one who made sure everyone was fed. The one who made sure women knew they could be disciples as equals alongside men (Luke 10:38-42). The one who did not use his equality with God to his own advantage but embodied humility in every fiber of his being (Phil 2:5-11). 

Perhaps as we imagine healthier ways of being male—and just being human—in this world, we can look to the gospel stories. (And we can notice how at odds all of this is with the patriarchal evangelical masculinity Kristin Kobes Du Mez did such a great job of detailing in Jesus and John Wayne—super chill book review here and here.)

Well, as always, there’s a lot more that could be said. But I’ll leave it here, for now anyway. bell hooks has some hard-hitting words, and you might be thinking some thoughts and/or feeling some feelings. If you’re willing to share, I’d love to hear about it!

Super chill book review part 1: The Will to Change (bell hooks)

I started reflecting on bell hooks’ The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love (Washington Square Press, 2004), and it got kind of long. So, here’s part 1! 

In all the “super chill book reviews” I’ve done so far (and I believe I’ve done twenty now in total—check ‘em out here if you like), I haven’t written yet about any of bell hooks’ books. In the last year or so, I’ve read All About Love: New Visions, Feminism is for Everybody: Passionate Politics, and, mostly recently, The Will to Change

bell hooks is one of those authors I’d heard about and seen quoted a lot before I ever actually read any of her stuff. I’m very glad I started reading. Because quotable quotes are great, but they don’t begin to scratch the surface. There’s so much depth, so much insight, so much courage, so much omg that’s still true a couple decades later and I wish it weren’t but I’m glad she named it so directly and brilliantly

There’s also, at least for me, some I don’t know if I fully agree with that, but I’m glad she said it, because there’s definitely something there worth talking about. This is also valuable. 

So, here are some thoughts on The Will to Change, just because that’s the book I’ve read most recently—but I’d recommend them all. (And maybe there’s a bell hooks book—or something else related to these topics—I haven’t read yet that you’d recommend. If so, I’d love to hear!)

1) I was interested in how bell hooks writes about the separatist impulse that can sometimes arise in feminism. Personally, I haven’t really been involved in any separatist movements (is that still a thing, or is it more tied to the second wave feminism of a few decades ago?), but I do very much appreciate women-only spaces. 

I sometimes find men frustrating—certainly not all men all the time, but many men, much of the time. I really enjoy the chances I have to seek friendship, mentoring, perspective, advice, etc. from women. I think this is all good. 

At the same time, hooks writes, “It is a fiction of false feminism that we women can find our power in a world without men, in a world where we deny our connections to men. We claim our power fully only when we can speak the truth that we need men in our lives, that men are in our lives whether we want them to be or not, that we need men to challenge patriarchy, that we need men to change” (xv-xvi).

I definitely agree that “men are in our lives whether we want them to be or not.” And, of course, even though I’m very frustrated with the way many men often act, especially in groups and/or in positions of power, I also have connections with men that I value deeply. 

And so, I appreciate hooks’ perspective: the point isn’t necessarily to build female power apart from men, but to speak our truth about the ways we want to see men change—for our good, and for their good too.

2) This was an “oof” for me:

“The unhappiness of men in relationships, the grief men feel about the failure of love, often goes unnoticed in our society precisely because the patriarchal culture really does not care if men are unhappy. When females are in emotional pain, the sexist thinking that says that emotions should and can matter to women makes it possible for most of us to at least voice our heart, to speak it to someone, whether a close friend, a therapist, or the stranger sitting next to us on a plane or bus. Patriarchal mores teach a form of emotional stoicism to men that says they are more manly if they do not feel, but if by chance they should feel and the feelings hurt, the manly response is to stuff them down, to forget about them, to hope they go away…

The reality is that men are hurting and that the whole culture responds to them by saying, ‘Please do not tell us what you feel’” (5-6).

For any men out there—I’m curious how you’d respond to this. It kind of feels right to me, but…it’s not exactly my lived experience. 

When I read this, I thought about Brené Brown’s research and reflections on how men are shamed above all else for being (perceived as) weak—and how many men want to be more in touch with their emotions and more vulnerable in sharing their feelings with their loved ones, but their partners sometimes shame them for doing so. (Unfortunately I’m not totally sure which Brené Brown book this was in—maybe I Thought It Was Just Me?)

I wonder if men today sometimes get a mixed message—“it’s okay to feel feelings, I want to know what’s going on, you don’t have to hide it and be so stoic,” but also “oh, you have that feeling? I’m surprised by that and don’t know what to do with it, so I’m going to laugh at you or criticize you for it, or respect you less because you shared that with me.” Or something like that.

It was helpful for me to hear bell hooks frame this expectation of stoicism in terms of patriarchal thinking that harms us all. Being deeply concerned with women’s experiences and committed to calling out ways women are not regarded as fully human does not have to be at odds with paying attention to men’s pain, hearing how men are hurting, caring about their unhappiness.

Really, these things go together. Each gender’s different ways of becoming liberated from oppressive patriarchal norms help liberate us all.

3) hooks writes, “Despite the contemporary visionary feminist thinking that makes clear that a patriarchal thinker need not be male, most folks continue to see men as the problem of patriarchy. This is simply not the case. Women can be as wedded to patriarchal thinking and action as men…

Patriarchal thinking shapes the values of our culture. We are socialized into this system, females as well as males” (23).

I always appreciate—and, to be honest, often need to be reminded of—a hearty distinction between maleness and patriarchy. hooks has some helpful ways of writing about this. 

She is very clear that the issue is “patriarchal thinking,” and it’s a “system” we’re all “socialized into.” Women and men are impacted by it in different ways, and liberation from it looks different depending on gender (and other things)—but we all need to consciously choose to reject patriarchy, to divest from it, to change.

That’s all for now. More to come next week! I welcome your thoughts, as always. I know gender and patriarchy and masculinity are such complicated things, and I bet you have thoughts and/or feelings. I’d love to hear them (and will attempt to throw my subconscious expectations of stoicism out the window!).

Out there on the web: food security & well-intentioned patriarchs

Hi there. I realized I’m not always great about making sure everyone who might want to read things knows that these things exist. Particularly since I became a very late adopter of Instagram a little over a year ago, I use IG a lot (feel free to follow @lizcoolj and @postevangelicalprayers). But I know not everyone has an IG account, and not everyone who has an account looks at it regularly. (I fully encourage not being addicted to social media, and cultivating an IRL life—I guess that would just be an RL, if you will—outside of it!)

Anyhow, all this to say, I thought I’d start being a little more intentional about posting here to point your attention toward things I’ve written that appear elsewhere on the interwebs. I did sneakily make an “on the web” page a while back, where I’m keeping an up-to-date list of articles and such, so feel free to check that anytime as well if you’re looking for some reading material :).

But for now, I wanted to point you toward two recent pieces:

1) If a Person Doesn’t Work, Let Them Eat Anyway (Christians for Social Action)

There’s a Bible verse (2 Thess 3:10) that kind of sounds like it’s against some basic social safety nets for food security and such. In this article I unpack why I don’t think that’s actually the case. Like many parts of the Christian scriptures, there is more to it than meets the eye.

I felt like this was relevant especially in light of all the choices governing bodies (at national, state, and local levels) have been making about food-related safety nets—including universal free school lunches—as we emerge out of a time when COVID defined everything and into a time when COVID still very much exists but we’re all kind of in a collective denial about it. I would love to see our leaders resist the urge to pretend that COVID was the only source of all of our problems and inequities—and to think very carefully before slashing funding for programs that may have been initially sparked by COVID but are really just good ideas in general. 

2) Well-Intentioned Patriarchs Are Still Patriarchs (Word&Way)

I feel like the title of this one might sound a little odd, especially if you don’t spend all your time reading and thinking about patriarchy and such. (What, not everyone does?) So…better title ideas are welcome, in case I write something in a similar vein in the future!

In this one I tease out some of the implications of seeing patriarchy not just as individual men’s attitudes or desire for power, but as structures and systems that harm all of us. Sometimes it isn’t easy to talk about what I see as nice churchy patriarchy (and its devastating-ness) with my Christian female friends, and I think at least part of the reason is that Christians often tend to see everything both in individual terms and in terms of good vs evil. So basically it feels like calling out patriarchy is the same thing as calling individual men evil. 

This provokes cognitive dissonance, because we all know and love a lot of good-hearted, well-intentioned Christian men. Even the ones who perpetuate patriarchal systems—not because they’re power hungry, but because they think it’s what the Bible says and therefore the right thing to do. This article explores that dissonance.

I hope you enjoy one or both of these lines of thought! I don’t think either article (at CSA or Word&Way) is open for comments…which may be a good thing (nervous laugh)…but feel free to comment here and/or shoot me an email, as always. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

“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!

New post at Feminism & Religion

Just got done with a Zoom book discussion of Kyla Schuller’s The Trouble with White Women: A Counterhistory of Feminism. What a book. Definitely “super chill book review” material, so keep on the lookout for that sometime soon-ish.

(And spoiler alert: as a white woman, I didn’t feel nearly as offended as the title might perhaps make one worry. I didn’t feel like the book was criticizing me so much as inviting me into better ways of thinking about things and moving in this world. Which most of us very much need.)

One of the (many) things The Trouble with White Women made me think about was the (complicated) legacy of Margaret Sanger in regard to birth control and reproductive rights and that sort of highly-relevant-to-current-events thing. I wrote a post about all this at Feminism & Religion – check it out here if you like!

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.