Y’all’s heavenly…mother?

Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly father feeds them. -Jesus (Matthew 6:26, NRSV)

Or, in my translation: “Y’all, look at the birds of heaven, because they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and y’all’s heavenly father feeds them.”

The “birds of heaven” thing might sound weird. But the word usually translated as “air” when it comes to the “birds of the air” is very closely related to the word translated as “heavenly” when it comes to God, the heavenly father. 

So I’m not sure which is weirder: writing “birds of heaven,” or translating the same word two different ways within the same sentence.

Alternatively, since this word for “air” or “heaven” could also be translated as “sky,” perhaps we’re talking about the “birds of the sky” (makes sense)…and God the “sky father” (atypical of Christian language). I’ll just leave that there. 

Anyhow, since we’re talking about God our heavenly (or sky?) father, let’s talk about what this father God does, according to Jesus: God is the one who feeds the birds. 

As Jesus preaches his Sermon on the Mount, he wants his listeners to know that they have a God who pays attention to the birds, a God who takes care of the birds—and, to be specific, a God who provides food for these birds.

I think it’s interesting to think about God as one who feeds. 

The God of the Bible has both masculine and feminine aspects—or something like that. It’s clear, at least, that both male and female humans were made in God’s image (Gen 1:27). 

But when you try to get into any sort of specifics about what those masculine and feminine aspects might be, it starts to get kind of dicey, kind of fast. It’s hard to talk specifics without wandering haplessly into the realm of gender essentialism—the idea that men always have one set of characteristics and women always have another. I’m not about that. 

So I guess I’m not really into descriptions of God that try to specify which aspects of God, exactly, are more masculine, and which are more feminine. I think the concepts of masculine and feminine are culturally determined; they’re defined very differently by different communities in different places and times.

At the same time, I recognize that, in most times and places and cultures, the work of food preparation—of cooking and serving food to families and communities—has tended to fall primarily to women. I think about this, when I think about God feeding the birds.

It strikes me that, while Jesus does use the word “father” to refer to God, really, his point is not particularly to masculinize God. His point is to put words to the kind of parent/child relationship he has with God: Jesus is a child of God, family of God, kin of God. Jesus is as intimately connected with God as a child to a parent. 

I don’t mind picturing God as an awesome (heavenly) father figure who loves to cook up meals of seeds and worms and such—generously offering food for his family, the birds, to eat.

On the other hand, I’m sure it wasn’t lost on Jesus that the women in his world were usually the ones responsible for meal prep. Could God, then, be a (heavenly) mother figure just as much as a heavenly father—cooking up delicious meals for her family, the birds, to enjoy?

I feel like this adds some texture to the image—a different angle, and a little more fullness. We can picture God as an awesome (heavenly) mother figure who loves to provide nourishing meals for her (avian) family. God is doing “women’s work” here; why not imagine God as feminine? 

I wonder what insights, thoughts, or feelings this kind of image might evoke. How might it help us relate more fully, more wholeheartedly, to the fullness of who God is? How might it change our view of the God who is Jesus’ heavenly parent, and ours—of the one who takes care of the birds, the one Jesus invites us to trust for our own care and nourishment?

I wonder how spiritual life is different when we remember that God is as feminine as God is masculine. I wonder what this might mean for women—and for people of all genders, and for churches as a whole. Maybe we’d picture God differently; maybe we’d picture God a little more fully.

Thoughts? Feelings? Accusations of heresy? I’d love to hear!

Super chill book review: The Making of Biblical Womanhood: How the Subjugation of Women Became Gospel Truth (Beth Allison Barr)

I wandered into an Amazon bookstore a couple months ago and saw Beth Allison Barr’s The Making of Biblical Womanhood: How the Subjugation of Women Became Gospel Truth featured on the shelves. Which totally makes sense, because Barr’s work has been profiled in the likes of The New Yorker and NPR. But it also kind of surprised me, because the book is quite, well, Christian.

I wasn’t sure what to expect. Because the book has gotten so much mainstream—as in, not specifically Christian—attention, I thought it might be more of a secular historian’s take on women in church history and such.

But Barr, at least in my perspective, stands very firmly both within the church world and within the world of a professional historian. I think that’s awesome. And also a little complicated. 

I could see people who haven’t spent much time in conservative evangelical churches reading about “biblical womanhood” and thinking, wait…is this really a thing? Churches are—still—like this? 

Unfortunately, yes, (many) churches are—still—like this. And yes, this hypothetical reader would be absolutely right to be shocked and horrified. 

And then I could see people who have been quite steeped in the conservative church world thinking, wait…is it really okay to reexamine this? Isn’t male authority just what the Bible teaches? It’s what my church teaches… 

Sometimes you spend so much time around otherwise lovely people who operate from a certain mindset that this mindset starts to seem normal. Patriarchy should not be normal.

All this to say, I think Barr wrote a book that’s well-worth reading. 

Barr expresses regret that she stayed silent so long in her patriarchal church, going along with its practices and theology even though she knew these things were wrong. I’m so glad she’s speaking up now.

A few things that stood out in my totally-biased reading:

1. I appreciated Barr’s honesty in articulating the reasons she didn’t speak up more about gender equality in her (now former) church for a really long time.

For example: 

“I kept telling myself that maybe things would change—that I, as a woman who taught and had a career, was setting a positive example. I kept telling myself that complementarianism (the theological view that women are divinely created as helpers and men are divinely created as leaders) wasn’t at its root misogynistic. I kept telling myself that no church was perfect and that the best way to change a system was by working from within it” (p. 5).

“I realized the hard truth about why I had stayed in complementarian churches for so long.

Because I was comfortable.

Because I really thought I could make a difference.

Because I feared my husband would lose his job.

Because I feared disrupting the lives of my children.

Because I loved the life of youth ministry.

Because I loved my friends.

So for the sake of the youth we served; for the sake of the difference my husband made in his job; for the sake of financial security; for the sake of our friends whom we had loved, laughed, and lived life with; and for the sake of our comfort, I chose to stay and to stay silent” (p. 7).

“Complementarianism rewards women who play by the rules. By staying silent, I helped ensure that my husband could remain a leader. By staying silent, I could exercise some influence. By staying silent, I kept the friendship and trust of the women around me. By staying silent, I maintained a comfortable life” (p. 69).

I feel like Barr hits lots of nails square on the head here. Beyond the particulars of her situation (like her husband being the youth pastor), there is so much here that I think a ton of women in evangelical churches can relate to.

There are the things we tell ourselves about the changes we might be able to bring about. (Often, not true—people in power are often less open to change than one might hope for…especially from leaders in a religion that, in theory, emphasizes humility and wonder before a God whom we only know in part. And sometimes, true—but at what cost to the people who stay and fight for these changes?)

There are the fears: job loss, loss of friendships, disruption of family life, the pain (or just inconvenience) our decisions might cause to those we love.

There are the rewards: comfort, trust, influence, leadership, respect, security.

Then there are the loves. Barr and her husband really loved youth ministry. They loved the youth at their church, and they loved a ton of people at their church in general. They loved their friends. Speaking up on controversial topics can jeopardize some of the things that give your life a sense of purpose and joy. That isn’t something to be taken lightly.

I appreciate Barr articulating all these things in a way that (hopefully) holds grace for the person she was and the reasons she had.

And, at the same time, she makes it very clear: “I had good reasons. But I was wrong” (p. 7). And, “By staying silent, I had become part of the problem. Instead of making a difference, I had become complicit in a system that used the name of Jesus to oppress and harm women” (p. 6).

2. It was interesting to learn that it wasn’t so terribly long ago that (at least some) people who now call themselves “complementarians” were openly calling themselves proponents of patriarchy. 

Of course complementarianism is patriarchal. As Barr writes, “Patriarchy by any other name is still patriarchy” (p. 18). But so many complementarians argue so hard that women and men have equal value and worth—and that headship is a nice warm friendly fuzzy concept that’s really all about serving and laying down one’s life, and that sort of thing—that it was helpful to see the connection laid out so clearly. 

Complementarians, as a group—however nice they might be as people, and however well-intentioned, and I know plenty of nice, well-intentioned complementarians—have taken up the mantle of what was formerly known as patriarchy, calling it by a different name in order to sound, well, nicer and more well-intentioned.

3. I liked this quote, which sums up a lot of Barr’s biblical arguments:

“Patriarchy exists in the Bible because the Bible was written in a patriarchal world. Historically speaking, there is nothing surprising about biblical stories and passages riddled with patriarchal attitudes and actions. What is surprising is how many biblical passages and stories undermine, rather than support, patriarchy” (36).

I think it’s helpful to think about the directions early Christianity was moving in—and especially the directions Jesus was moving in—relative to the surrounding culture. If that direction was toward freedom, honor, and equal status for women—and for others, like sexual minorities, people of lower socioeconomic status, and foreigners—then yikes if Christians are doing the exact opposite relative to our surrounding culture today.

4. Since I quoted Barr on the Bible, I feel like it’s worth saying that her strong suit is history. Which is not to say that her stuff on the Bible isn’t good too, but just that history is her academic discipline—you know, like, she has a Ph.D. in history and teaches it at a university level. Which is super badass.

Maybe this is just because I know more about the Bible and women than I know about women in church history, but for me, the biggest value Barr brings to the table is her deep knowledge of women’s history in Christianity. 

The medieval period and the Reformation stood out to me as especially strong points, as well as the “cult of domesticity” from the 1800s. If you’re interested in learning more about women in Christianity in those time periods, this book is totes for you. 

I wish I’d been able to dig more into some of this stuff in seminary. I took a course on Women in Church History & Theology, which was great, but only had some overlap with Barr’s work. I also wish more time was spent on historical women in general church history classes, such that there wasn’t as much need for a separate elective. 

On that note, Barr writes, “the problem wasn’t a lack of women leading in church history. The problem was simply that women’s leadership has been forgotten, because women’s stories throughout history have been covered up, neglected, or retold to recast women as less significant than they really were” (84).

I’m bummed that we aren’t farther along in recovering these stories. But grateful for the work of people like Barr toward that goal.

5. I found it maddening, but also really helpful, to learn a little more about the origins of the ESV (English Standard Version) Bible translation. According to Barr, the ESV was “a direct response to the gender-inclusive language debate. It was born to secure readings of Scripture that preserved male headship. It was born to fight against liberal feminism and secular culture challenging the Word of God” (p. 132).

I kind of figured something like that was the case, but I hadn’t really looked into it directly. Sometimes I feel like I’m being unnecessarily divisive if I try to tell people that the ESV is (intentionally) not very friendly to women, and it might be better to try a more gender-inclusive translation like the NIV or NRSV. 

I never really wanted to be one of those people who had a favorite Bible translation and thought everyone else’s was inferior. That always struck me as something Jesus wouldn’t want to waste time on, when there are people to love, and so many injustices to address. 

And yet. Barr helped clarify for me that the ESV kind of is one of those injustices to address. And it’s probably worth speaking against, even if that’s uncomfortable to do. 

All in all, I think Barr does a great job of showing how the notion of “biblical womanhood” is a load of baloney. I’m here for it. 

Of course, I didn’t really need to be convinced of this. But at another time in my life—when I thought complementarianism was, if not what I personally believed, then at least a legitimate, good-faith, Bible-based way to see things—this book would have been so helpful. And, even though I’m thoroughly in the smash-the-patriarchy-with-the-mighty-nonviolent-fist-of-Jesus camp now, it was still fascinating to learn more of the relevant history from an awesome professor.

Hope you enjoyed this super chill review, and please don’t hesitate to holler with your thoughts!

Super chill book review: Mediocre: The Dangerous Legacy of White Male America (Ijeoma Oluo)

Well, it seems that I took a *totally intentional* hiatus from blogging for most of August. But I’m back, woohoo, with super chill book reviews and more. (Hopefully, more = poems, scripture reflections, prayers, sermons. We’ll see.) 

For now, I’m excited to share some quotes and general brilliance from Ijeoma Oluo’s 2020 book Mediocre: The Dangerous Legacy of White Male America.

This is one of my favorite nonfiction books I’ve read so far this year. I’ll probably make a list of top recommendations at the end of 2021; I’m not sure what all will be on it, but I know this one will.  

I’m also a fan of Oluo’s 2018 book So You Want to Talk About Race. For me, Mediocre takes the awesomeness a big step further. I’m here for it. 

Here are a few quotes and other tidbits from Mediocre that stood out to me.

1. The central idea of Mediocre, at least the way I see it, is that there are certain ways of being, certain qualities we admire and perhaps aspire to—or, if not admire, then at least recognize as things that tend to get people “ahead” in our society, land people in leadership positions, etc.—that are actually anything but desirable. These characteristics are far from healthy and good for individuals. And they’re far from conducive to the wellbeing of our society as a whole. 

This really resonated with me. I feel like I’ve seen it and felt it, in everything from politics on a national level to people who have been influential in my circles more personally. 

Oluo does a great job of pinpointing what some of these qualities are, and why they’re counterproductive. I appreciate how she ties these qualities to both patriarchy and white supremacy—or, as Oluo puts it, to “white male supremacy.” I think this is a useful term, because it helps us see that everything is interconnected. Misogyny and racism are so deeply intertwined. And we need to recognize this, if we want to have any hope of untangling and detoxing from…everything.

Some memorable quotes, to this end:

While we would like to believe otherwise, it is usually not the cream that rises to the top: our society rewards behaviors that are actually disadvantageous to everyone. Studies have shown that the traits long considered signs of strong leadership (like overconfidence and aggression) are in reality disastrous in both business and politics—not to mention the personal toll this style of leadership takes on the individuals around these leaders. These traits are broadly considered to be masculine, whereas characteristics often associated with weakness or lack of leadership (patience, accommodation, cooperation) are coded as feminine. This is a global phenomenon of counterproductive values that social scientists have long marveled over.

The man who never listens, who doesn’t prepare, who insists on getting his way—this is a man that most of us would not (when given friendlier options) like to work with, live with, or be friends with.

And yet we have, as a society, somehow convinced ourselves that we should be led by incompetent assholes (p. 10).

No lies detected there.

As I looked back through our history, I started to see patterns. I started to see how time and again, anything perceived as a threat to white manhood has been attacked, no matter how necessary that new person or idea may have been to our national progress. I started to see how reliably the bullying and entitlement we valued in our leaders led to failure. These are traits that we tell our children are bad, but when we look at who our society actually rewards, we see that these are the traits we have actively cultivated (p. 12).

I feel that. Most people don’t want their kids, or the people they love in general, to be “incompetent assholes” who operate in ways marked by “bullying and entitlement.” But I totally agree that these traits are rewarded—you know, if you’re into things like promotions, fancy job titles, high salaries, success in your field, and the like.

The hard truth is, the characteristics that most companies, including boards, shareholders, managers, and employees, correlate with people who are viewed as ‘leadership material’—traits most often associated with white male leaders—are actually bad for business. The aggression and overconfidence that are seen as ‘strength and leadership’ can cause leaders to take their companies down treacherous paths, and the attendant encounters with disaster could be avoided by exercising caution or by accepting input from others. These same qualities also mask shortfalls in skills, knowledge, or experience and may keep leaders from acknowledging mistakes and changing course when needed. They prevent healthy business partnerships and collaborative work environments. These traits can and do spell disaster for many businesses (p. 182).

Oluo backs these kinds of statements up with all sorts of insights from history and present-day experiences throughout the book. I appreciate that. It’s definitely worth a read.

They’re also statements that, to me at least, just feel true. I realize that this feeling is subjective, and we aren’t always right about these things. (Brett Kavanaugh’s nonsense about judging the “truthiness” of his claims vs Dr. Blasey Ford’s claims during his confirmation hearings back in 2018 comes to mind, and it still makes my blood boil.) But still. I think many of us have felt what Oluo is saying and have experienced it viscerally. If nothing else, we’re still reeling from the extreme example we saw in our four years of Trump.

Oluo puts words so well to what I think many of us—especially those on the underside of power structures—know in our gut.

2. Oluo brings out the idea that a lot of the things that seem so wrong (and are so wrong) with the U.S. are actually, as others have put it, features, not bugs. A lot of the things that seem shocking, like they should be unusual, are actually just evidence of a shitty system working as designed.

Oluo writes: 

What we are seeing in our political climate is not novel or unexplainable. It works according to design. Yes, of course the average white man is going to feel dissatisfied with his lot in life—he was supposed to. Yes, of course our powerful and respected men would be shown to be abusers and frauds—that is how they became powerful and respected. And yes, the average white male voter (and a majority of white women voters whose best chance at power is their proximity to white men) would see a lewd, spoiled, incompetent, untalented bully as someone who best represents their vision of America—he does (pp. 11-12).

This might sound harsh. But it also sounds about right to me.

I’m hoping we can move, together, beyond the “this is not the America I know!” reaction to various bad things the U.S. and its politicians do. I’m hoping we can move toward a realization that, downer though it may be, this is exactly the America that lots and lots of people on the margins have always known. 

We need to be able to see the way things were designed, and not be in denial about it, if we’re actually going to change anything.

3. Another memorable quote: 

Even for those who will never don a cowboy hat, the idea of a white man going it alone against the world has stuck. It is one of the strongest identifiers of American culture and politics, where cooperation is weakness and others are the enemy—to be stolen from or conquered. The devastation that the mythological cowboy of the West has wreaked did not stop with the extermination of the buffalo. It may not stop until it has destroyed everything (p. 45).

First, omg, the story Oluo tells about the buffalo. It turns out that white men going West to kill buffalo back in the day wasn’t just a dumb, violent-toward-animals, shortsighted, hypermasculinist thing. It was also—primarily—the government’s attempt to destroy indigenous peoples whose lives were interwoven with the buffalo herds. That got me in all the feels. Lord, have mercy.

Second, I may not be a white dude, but I think part of me has internalized the competitive, go-it-alone mindset, where “cooperation is weakness and others are the enemy.” Yikes. 

I want to learn to be my best self in a way that helps others be their best selves too. I want to recognize and live out of the reality that we really are stronger together. The point is not to be better than others, but to figure out how to live in whole, healthy communities together. 

I’m not always there. No matter how many times I might say these things, and how deeply I believe them, there’s still something in me that wants to compete. (In an individualistic, unhealthy way, that is—not just, say, in a swim meet, or a 5k. Speaking of which, Burien Brat Trot, anyone?)

4. Sorry for the long quote. But not really sorry, because it’s a good one:

The idea that women were not made for work is only true to the extent that men have ensured that work was not made for women. Men have designed offices that don’t suit women’s needs, have established work hours that compete with child-rearing, have developed education and training programs that regularly discourage women’s aspirations in male-dominated fields, have formed mentoring and networking relationships on golf courses and in clubs, places where women are not welcome or comfortable—or sometimes even allowed.

Men have used these deliberately structured environments to prove why women are naturally ‘not a fit’ for the workplace. Nursing mothers who cannot work in spaces that don’t accommodate breast pumps are ‘obviously not that interested in the job.’ Women who need flexible hours to care for children, in a society that still expects women to do the majority of child-rearing regardless of employment status, ‘lack the work ethic necessary to put in the hours needed for the job.’ Women who have always loved math but were told from primary school on that they would be better at English and art than science and engineering ‘must not be interested in STEM.’ And men who make all their business connections at the country club or through their old fraternity buddies ‘just haven’t come across any women who are as qualified for a job at their company as men.’

As promotion after promotion goes to men, as men are encouraged to start businesses and women aren’t, as men flow into fields that are more open to them, the definition of an ideal worker and leader becomes even more stereotypically male—even if those ‘ideal’ traits and skills are not the most beneficial (pp. 153-4).

Yeah, that feels right. Not sure I have much to add. Maybe just that I really appreciate the intersectionality of Oluo’s analyses in general. I feel like she really gets at the realities of race and gender each in their own right, very effectively—sometimes focusing on gender, like in the quote above, and sometimes on race. And she’s also very effective in getting at the connections between them. 

5. I think Oluo has a lot of grace and empathy for white dudes, and I appreciate that. They’re not all bad—but they are stuck, as all of us are, in a toxic white male supremacist system.

To me, Oluo strikes a great balance of sympathizing with the situation white men are in—and the ways our society is toxic to them, too—while also not letting them off the hook for the things they are responsible for.

Another long but good quote (again, sorry / not sorry):

White male identity is a very dark place. White men have been told that they should be fulfilled, happy, successful, and powerful, and they are not. They are missing something vital—an intrinsic sense of self that is not tied to how much power or success they can hold over others—and that hole is eating away at them. I can only imagine how desolately lonely it must feel to only be able to relate to other human beings through conquer and competition…

I don’t want this for white men. I don’t want it for any of us…We have become convinced that there is only one way for white men to be. We are afraid to imagine something better.

I do not believe that these white men are born wanting to dominate. I do not believe they are born unable to feel empathy for people who are not them…I believe that we are all perpetrators and victims of one of the most evil and insidious social constructs in Western history: white male supremacy.

The constraints of white male identity in America have locked white men into cycles of fear and violence—where the only success they are allowed comes at the expense of others, and the only feelings they are allowed to express are triumph or rage. When white men try to break free from these cycles, they are ostracized by society at large or find themselves victims of other white men who are willing to fulfill their expected roles of dominance…

We need to do more than just break free of the oppression of white men. We also have to imagine a white manhood that is not based in the oppression of others. We have to value the empathy, kindness, and cooperation that white men, as human beings, are capable of. We have to define strength and leadership in ways that don’t reinforce abusive patriarchy and white supremacy. We have to be honest about what white male supremacy has cost not only women, nonbinary people, and people of color—but also white men (pp. 273-5).

Curious to hear white dudes’ (or anyone’s) thoughts on this. I like the sentiment of wanting better for all of us, including white men. White guys aren’t the devil. They just tend to be socialized to play a particular role in an evil construct; and, to the extent that they refuse to play that role, they’re often penalized for it. That makes sense to me. 

Grateful for Oluo’s leadership in naming all these things and imagining a different way. 

Holler if you read the book (or not) and let me know what you think!

Super chill book review: You Are Your Best Thing (ed. Tarana Burke and Brene Brown)

In the last year or so I’ve read four of Brené Brown’s (many) books, and I’m a fan. She has great stuff to say. So much of it. I really think that she has changed (and continues to change) the conversation around things like empathy, shame, vulnerability, connection, and belonging. 

At the same time, as long-time Black activist (and casual creator of the Me Too movement) Tarana Burke discusses with Brown in the introduction to their new book You Are Your Best Thing: Vulnerability, Shame Resilience, and the Black Experience, Brown lives a very white, upper-middle class life in Texas, and you can tell. If I remember correctly from some of the stories in Brown’s books, she didn’t necessarily come from money. But she definitely has it now. And no matter how intentional she is about interviewing a diversity of people for her research—and she is very intentional—she also loves to use personal examples and stories, and lots of them. I’m all here for Brown’s stories, while also recognizing that, because of these stories, as Burke points out, Brown’s books tend to skew toward speaking more (and more effectively) to fellow white upper-middle class people.

All that to say, this new book, You Are Your Best Thing, feels much needed. And I enjoyed it, too. It’s an anthology, edited by Burke and Brown together, with chapters written by many different Black writers who work in many different fields, reflecting on what they know about some of the stuff Brown has written on: shame, shame resilience, and vulnerability. 

Here are a few random thoughts:

1. This probably doesn’t come as a surprise, given the subtitle (Vulnerability, Shame Resilience, and the Black Experience), but vulnerability is a key word that comes to mind when I think about this book. Vulnerability, and embodiment. The contributing authors do an amazing job of keeping these things front and center—of thinking and reflecting deeply, and bringing in data and research where relevant, but also never straying far from the reality of how these things show up in their own real-life experience. 

It’s just as Tanya Denise Fields writes in her chapter, Dirty Business: The Messy Affair of Rejecting Shame: when Fields began to publicly and loudly “rebuke shame…then my sisters came out of the shadows, empowered and vulnerable, sharing narratives of violence, hurt, and the shame that was always right there, not really below the surface but subconsciously always moving the hand that led our lives. I was in turn empowered, and I found a powerful voice I didn’t realize was there. I saw my reflection, what we were and what we could be” (p. 28). 

I feel like that’s the heart of this book. To put words to some of the realities Black people often face when it comes to shame and such, and to help people feel seen—more seen than they’ve felt thus far in Brown’s work, as lovely as her books are in many ways. To tell stories that empower people, and that broaden the scope of this important work beyond the experiences Brown has been able to speak to as a white woman.

I felt like this stayed the focus, and that’s how it should be. I realize this book isn’t primarily written for me, as a white person, and I think that’s a good thing. At the same time, I also feel like I benefited from reading it. I think it has the potential to build understanding and empathy among non-Black people. And I’m thankful for that—for the chance to sit in on and listen to a conversation that isn’t about me and isn’t primarily for me, but one that I’m still interested in and still benefit from hearing. 

2. The subtitle made me a little nervous at first; specifically, the part about “the Black experience.” Is there really just one “Black experience”? (Of course not.) 

So, I was glad to find that the contributing authors come from all sorts of different backgrounds and identities within the wide realm of Blackness, and that they were empowered to write about their own, very personal, experiences. It was good to hear, for example, from women and men, trans people and nonbinary people, younger people and older people, and people from different socioeconomic backgrounds. 

If you’re Black, I’d be interested to hear whether or not you agree with this, or what I might be missing; but to me, it felt like, through all of the authors together, the book painted a really rich and nuanced picture of some of the common struggles Black people tend to encounter when it comes to shame and vulnerability, while also making room for SO MUCH DIVERSITY within Black experiences. I thought that was really good.

In her work, Brown writes a lot about gendered shame, and that’s been helpful for me. I often agree with (and deeply feel) her assessments of the different forms shame can take for men and women. And I think that’s important—not because all women are the same, but because there are ways things like shame and vulnerability tend to operate that are profoundly connected with our experience of gender. 

I feel like this book works on similar lines when it comes to race. Burke and the other contributing authors flesh out the idea of racialized shame, and this is important—not because all Black people are the same, but because there are ways things like shame and vulnerability tend to operate that are profoundly connected with our experience of race and racialization. 

3. At the risk of centering white people too much when writing about a book that’s written by and for Black people, I guess I still want to say that, as a Brené Brown fan, it was cool to see her using her (quite extraordinary, for a social sciences researcher) fame and influence to open doors for Black voices to be heard. 

At my church, Lake B, we’ve been talking recently about gatekeeping. Gatekeeping is one of those things that can sound pretty negative, and is often used in a negative way, but that can also (in some cases) be transformed and redeemed into something really cool. It’s worth thinking carefully about any or all gates we might have access to or influence over, and worth moving intentionally toward operating these gates in a way that promotes equity and justice. 

There are lots of gates that just shouldn’t be there, and lots of gatekeepers that should rebel and step down. And yet, until we get there, there are still gates, and there are still gatekeepers; given that reality, it’s great to see influential gatekeepers using their power well.

4. On the scale of loaded-with-academic mumbo-jumbo to accessible-and-easy-to-read, I found this book delightfully accessible. Which is not at all to say that the authors who contributed to it aren’t brilliant and highly knowledgeable, so much as to say that I think they’re also really good writers, and I appreciate that. 

My husband Ken read some of this book and said it was slow going for him. At first I thought, really? I’m loving that the chapters are easy to read and don’t get too caught up in academic lingo. Then I realized that he wasn’t talking about writing style so much as the emotional intensity. He was taking time to chew on the feelings, the pain, the weight of it all. Which is something I probably should have been doing more of!

All that to say, maybe this book isn’t necessarily a quick read, but I do think the style is more accessible and less dense than a lot of nonfiction out there, and I liked that. 

5. Since I’ve been mostly focusing on reading stuff by women (with no regrets at all!), it was good for me to read from the Black men who contributed to this book. I was struck by the ways many of them reflected on our society’s toxic ideas about gender, gender roles, and masculinity, and how all this has impacted them. 

It’s helpful for me to be reminded that this nonsense is bad for everyone, not just women. I appreciate these men’s bravery and sensitivity in writing on these things.

6. Like many other anthologies (including This Bridge Called My Back), You Are Your Best Thing is a great jumping-off point if you’re looking for other good stuff to read. Besides the editors (and Laverne Cox), I hadn’t heard of many of the contributing authors before reading this book. But most of them have written and are writing other things, and hosting podcasts, and doing all sorts of interesting stuff. I’m grateful to now know who they are, and I’m looking forward to reading more.

7. I appreciated the diversity of spirituality represented in this book. I feel like sometimes people who aren’t specifically trying to write for a religious audience tend to either ignore religion entirely or only have bad things to say about it. (Not that these bad things aren’t usually true or fair…) 

But, whatever you think of religion, and whether or not you want to participate in it, it’s hard to deny that it has a ginormous (in technical terms) influence in our U.S. society and in our world. Even if it isn’t real to a particular author, it’s very, very real, for lots and lots of people. So I appreciated that this book didn’t try to cut off the religious and/or spiritual realm from the rest of our lives.

In this vein, and because I think about church a lot, I especially liked Tracey Michae’l Lewis-Giggetts’ chapter, Love Lifted Me: Subverting Shame Narratives and Legitimizing Vulnerability as a Mechanism for Healing Women in the Black Church. I don’t think it’s really my place as a white person to critique the Black church, but I did appreciate getting to listen in on Lewis-Giggetts’ experiences and reflections. And so much of her analysis applies to the American evangelical church as a whole—so I could relate to that, and that’s something I don’t mind critiquing :). 

Here’s one excerpt I liked, from Lewis-Giggetts’ essay:

“A long way from the teaching of Jesus, the Christian church too often uses shame as a tool for control and manipulation, but even when we think it’s working, it’s not. In fact, what’s actually happening is that folks who have been shamed by the church have become disenchanted with the faith; what should be safe and holy communities only look like rigid and loveless institutions. American evangelical churches, in particular, cling to law and government as tightly as their interpretations of the Bible, but don’t seem to realize that the Jesus they claim as Savior would have likely broken those laws in order to extend love, peace, and wholeness to those identified as the ‘least of these’ (the marginalized)” (pp. 60-1). 

Amen to that. I wish I could quote most of this essay, really, but I don’t want to keep you forever. 

I hope you get the chance to read Lewis-Giggetts’ essay, as well as the rest of the book. If you do, come back and let me know what you think!

Super chill book review: This Bridge Called My Back (ed. Anzaldua & Moraga)

This one is an oldie, but a goodie. The book is This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color, edited by Cherríe Moraga and Gloria Anzaldúa, and it was originally published in 1981. It’s what it sounds like—an anthology of pieces written by lots of different women of color. I read the fourth edition, published in 2015.

A few thoughts:

1. I notice that, sometimes, when (white?) people want to diversify their reading, or predominantly white educational institutions want to diversify their syllabi, and that sort of thing, often the first (and/or only) authors added to a mostly-white reading list are Black. 

This was true of many of my seminary classes. The syllabi were full of white authors, and if any of the authors weren’t white, they were likely Black. 

Other classes featured a reading list full of white people and then, at the end of the quarter, a choice of one book among four or so options—often a Black (male) author, a Latino (male) author, an Asian or Asian-American (male) author, and a (white) female author. What an awful choice: you can learn from a woman, or you can learn from a person of color. And it erases women of color entirely.

But in the classes that actually assigned books written by people of color, these authors were usually Black.

On the one hand, that’s great. The more, the better. Most of us, as far as I can tell—Black, white, or otherwise—could use more Black writers in our lives. There’s nothing wrong—and everything right—about individuals reading, and institutions assigning, more work by Black authors. 

On the other hand, I think there is something wrong when Black authors are the only people of color being paid attention to. As I understand it, different racialized experiences tend to have some commonalities but are also very different. And there are brilliant people from every possible sort of ethnic and racial background, writing brilliant and wonderful things.

All this to say, one of the awesome things about This Bridge Called My Back is that the editors were clearly quite intentional about incorporating perspectives from a mix of brilliant Black, Latina, Asian, indigenous, and multiracial women. The authors of the different chapters that make up this book tend to draw on their own racially specific experience and also have things to say more broadly to women of color in general—as well as to white women, and to men of color, and the world as a whole. The book is rich, full, varied, and complex because of it.

2. In her memoir Recollections of My Nonexistence, Rebecca Solnit wrote, “When you pursue creative work, immortality is often held up as an ideal”; however, “there are two ways of making contributions that matter. One is to make work that stays visible before people’s eyes; the other is to make work that is so deeply absorbed that it ceases to be what people see and becomes how they see…Works of art that had an impact in their time sometimes look dated or obvious because what was fresh and even insurrectionary about them has become the ordinary way things are…They have been rendered obsolete by their success―which makes the relevance of even much nineteenth-century feminist writing a grim reminder that though we’ve come far, it’s not far enough” (pp. 221-2). 

I thought of this when I read lots of parts of This Bridge Called My Back. It’s striking how much of it—as in, basically all of it—feels relevant, timely, helpful, fruitful, and much-needed today, even though it was written forty or so years ago. A lot of its authors are saying things that activists and other antiracist and feminist leaders are still saying today. 

The authors say these things really well, beautifully, insightfully, and (appropriately) incisively—which makes the book, on the one hand, a fascinating and very worthwhile read. 

On the other hand, though, it’s one of those books that I very much wish had been “rendered obsolete by [its] success,” as Solnit would say, by now. I wish things had changed in our world such that the authors’ observations from another generation no longer felt so prescient. But here we are.

3. I loved that the editors sought out writing in many different forms. There are poems, mixed in with essays, mixed in with letters, and speeches, and transcripts of interviews. 

I thought a lot of the poems were especially striking. I’m sure I’m biased, because I write poems, but I do think that poetry is absolutely the right form for, well, a lot of important things. I feel like poems belong in books more often than we see them.

Plus, at least for me, it can be kind of hard to read a whole book of poetry all at once. But poems interspersed between essays and other things provide a nice break, a different way of thinking and processing information, a way of helping the reader engage from different angles. I really liked that about this book.

I also liked the interview transcripts. Kind of like a podcast, before podcasts were cool…or possible. By including interviews, I feel like the editors affirm that spoken words are important—that something doesn’t have to be an officially published essay or book to be worth paying attention to. Wisdom comes in lots of different forms. 

4. I feel, sometimes, that the feminist sisterhood—if there is or ever was one, and I know that some women of color would argue, very reasonably, that there has never really been one—is weak. Women of color are often (again, very reasonably) frustrated with white women, and white women often just don’t get it—or don’t want to get it, or aren’t willing to put in the work to get it. 

I think this book is full of the kind of work that can strengthen—or help build, help create—the multiracial (and multi-socioeconomic class) sisterhood. Its authors aren’t afraid to call out white feminists on our counterproductive nonsense. It felt honest, like no one was particularly mincing their words or catering to fragile white woman feelings. 

And, at the same time, I also felt called in—like I was being graciously shown how to embody a feminism that is actually relevant to all women. 

I don’t mean to say that I expect this from all women of color all the time. I hope to listen, regardless, even (or especially?) when what I hear puts me on the defensive rather than giving me warm fuzzy feelings of hope. So, without any particular implied criticism of any other work, I just wanted to say that this is how I felt about This Bridge Called My Back—like I was being shown and taught a lot of unvarnished truth, and also being given hope of a more genuine and fruitful sisterhood that can be built. 

For more on this kind of thing, by the way—on what it’ll take for feminism to be a movement of/with/for all women, not just relatively well-to-do white women—I thought Mikki Kendall’s book Hood Feminism: Notes from the Women a Movement Forgot was really great.

5. I feel like sometimes (white and/or male) people make excuses about why they’re still just reading and listening to the same old white dude stuff. They say they can’t find female authors or authors of color, let alone female authors of color—for their book club, or course syllabus, or Sunday school class, church group, etc.

I feel like this is the kind of book that takes away excuses. It’s not the only thing out there, of course, or anywhere near it. But it may be a place to start. 

Because it’s an anthology that a lot of writers contributed to, it’s a way to learn the names of some of the brilliant women of color who were writing in a recent generation, some of whom are still writing today. And there have been so many more in the meanwhile. 

There’s really no excuse not to seek them out. We all need their vision for what a freer, healthier, more sustainable world could look like. 

6. One of the essays in this book is The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House, by Audre Lorde. This is a phrase I had heard before, but I didn’t know where it came from. Now I know.

 From Lorde’s essay:

“Those of us who stand outside the circle of this society’s definition of acceptable women; those of us who have been forged in the crucibles of difference; those of us who are poor, who are lesbians, who are black, who are older, know that survival is not an academic skill. It is learning how to stand alone, unpopular and sometimes reviled, and how to make common cause with those other identified as outside the structures, in order to define and seek a world in which we can all flourish. It is learning how to take our differences and make them strengths. For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change. And this fact is only threatening to those women who still define the master’s house as their only source of support” (p. 95).

We can “take our differences and make them strengths,” rejecting all hierarchies and all twisted notions of winning and losing, and instead learn to live as equals and build a better kind of house together. “Divide and conquer, in our world, must become define and empower” (p. 96).

7. In a preface to the 2015 edition of this book, Cherríe Moraga writes, “I watch how desperately we need political memory, so that we are not always imagining ourselves the ever-inventors of our revolution; so that we are humbled by the valiant efforts of our foremothers; and so, with humility and a firm foothold in history, we can enter upon an informed and re-envisioned strategy for social/political change in decades ahead” (xix). 

I think this book does all that really well. I like the idea of reading older stuff—previous generations’ insights and struggles and wisdom—mixed in with recently published books, so that we are not, in Moraga’s words, ever-inventing ideas and practices that previous generations have already developed. We want to build on previous generations’ work. 

Sometimes we tend to forget quickly, to over-value new things and under-value old things, to assume that the progress our society has achieved must have rendered older work irrelevant. And, of course, most of our schools and other institutions actively suppress revolutionary things (or oversimplify, over-sanitize, and otherwise distort them, as has been done to the Civil Rights movement).

We need books like this to help us develop a better memory together. They help us realize that a lot of our struggles are not new. They help us learn from previous generations and refuse to forget their work and wisdom. 

Holler with your thoughts, on this book or anything related!

Extraordinary Courage, Extraordinary Kindness

Sharing a sermon from a couple years ago: feel free to listen here, or the text is below! The passage is Ruth 2, where Ruth meets Boaz.

As I reflect on the story of Ruth, I wonder if the world of our heroines, Ruth and Naomi, might in some ways not be as different from ours as it may seem. They may not have social media posts and internet trolls and competing news networks on TV that present very different versions of events, but Ruth and Naomi lived in the time of the judges. They were no strangers to political chaos and troubling news.

In a very quick skim through the book of Judges, which tells us what that time was like, I saw war. Forced labor. Ethnic tension. Repentance and remorse, which always seem to turn out to be short lived. The people of God just doing what everyone else around them is doing. Widespread corruption, and stubbornness about it. People not listening to God. Violence. Poverty. Treachery. Broken trust. More war. Siege. Oppression and distress. Vicious vengeance. Betrayal. Murder. Devaluing and abuse of women. Making and worship of idols. Greed and selfishness. Everyone did as they saw fit.

There were good things too, of course. But there was a lot of evil. A lot of things to be distressed about and overwhelmed by, to be sad and angry about. Do you recognize some of these things? Widespread corruption, lack of accountability, tension between different racial and ethnic groups, devaluing and abuse of women, greed, selfishness? 

Like us, Naomi and Ruth lived in difficult and troubling times. And yet there is something about their story that feels like a bright spot in the midst of the time of the judges. It’s the story of ordinary people  who live their ordinary lives with faithfulness, goodness, agency, integrity, courage, and hope. In our crazy time, and in our own ordinary day to day lives, we need their story. We need the model of these strong women, to spark our imaginations of how we might live our own lives in our own time with the same kind of courage and faith.

This morning we’ll be stepping into the second chapter of this short four-chapter book, and we’ll look at it in three scenes. We pick up Naomi and Ruth’s story after Ruth, despite her mother-in-law Naomi’s insistence otherwise, has journeyed with Naomi back to Naomi’s hometown of Bethlehem. When we left off last week at the end of chapter one, Naomi was feeling bitter, like she has nothing. Now the two women have made it back to Bethlehem, still with nothing and no one except each other.

What would it have been like to be Ruth at this time, at the beginning of this chapter, in this first scene? The narrator tells us that there actually is this wealthy man, Boaz, who is a relative and might be able to give her a hand as she struggles to find a place for herself and make ends meet in this new and foreign place. We know that, but Ruth doesn’t know that.

Back in Chapter 1, when the women of the city said, omg, it’s Naomi! She’s back! (that’s a Liz translation), they didn’t even mention Ruth. Maybe they’re not sure what to do with her, how to categorize her. She’s a stranger, a new person, a foreigner, in a place where she doesn’t know anyone and no one knows her. This is an intense time of transition. She’s left everything and everyone familiar to her (except Naomi). She left a culture she knew, and a community in which she had a place.

When Ken and I moved to Pasadena about a year ago, we experienced some of what Ruth might have felt as she left Moab and entered into the Bethlehem community. We left a life we had spent the last several years (eleven in my case and six in Ken’s) building in the Bay area. Work, friends, church, community, commitments. Knowing the best places to get cheap produce. Having a car mechanic I liked and trusted. All of these random things you take for granted when you spend a while in a place. We left all of that familiarity behind, like Ruth did when she left her family and community in Moab and went with Naomi to Bethlehem.

Can you relate to Ruth in her time of transition? Many of us here have recently started a new school year, or perhaps a new school entirely, or a new job, or are new in Pasadena, or in California, or even in the United States, or have undergone a big life change like getting married. These are big transitions. They can be jarring.

In times of transition sometimes we wonder things that maybe we didn’t have to wonder before. Things like, will I make friends, and who will they be? Will I find a church community, and what will that be like? Will I do well in my classes or my work? Will people notice me, respect me, think well of me? Times of transition can be vulnerable times.

For Ruth, moving from Moab to Judah had another layer of difficulty on top of all that, too. It wasn’t exactly like moving from NorCal to Socal…although there are some weird dynamics there too, where NorCal people throw a lot of shade at SoCal and talk trash about SoCal people, while SoCal people don’t really think about NorCal at all, it’s like it doesn’t exist.

But for Ruth, being a Moabite is a little different than for me, moving from the Bay area. There was a lot more historical animosity than that. In the view of the Israelites, the people of Moab didn’t look so good. They had their origin in a story of incest. They had been historically violent toward the Israelites, cursing them rather than welcoming them, and engaging in many battles with them over the years. They were seen as especially arrogant and defiant of God.

And Moabite women in particular were seen as sexually promiscuous and aggressive, sexual predators that posed a very dangerous threat to Israelite men, whom they might seduce and lead into idolatry. I’m sure the anti-Moab sentiment was stronger at some times than others, but on the whole, being a Moabite in Bethlehem is not an easy thing for Ruth. Everyone knows that she’s from Moab, the land of Israel’s enemies. The employee who answers Boaz’ question about who Ruth is, what family she belongs to, her identity, answers not with her name but with her ethnicity. She is the Moabite who came back with Naomi from Moab. Oh yeah, did I mention she’s from Moab?? 

Our sermon series is called strong women, but right now Ruth is so vulnerable! She’s young. She’s a woman. She’s only connected with Naomi, in a time when being connected with a man, like a husband or son, meant economic and physical security for women.

She’s a foreigner, an immigrant. She’s from a different ethnicity than the dominant one in Bethlehem. She’s associated with Judah’s enemies. She’s new and doesn’t know anybody, doesn’t know one field from another or who to trust. Can you feel her vulnerability in this time?

If I were Ruth, I might think, all right, Naomi, I came here for you. This is where you wanted to be, and I have no idea what to do here, and no one wants me here. Maybe I should have stayed with my family and my people back in Moab. You even told me, twice, to go back! Why did I come?

I might think, Naomi is depressed. All she does is talk about how cruel God has been to her and how she has no one. What about me? Well, Naomi got us into this situation, so I’ll wait until she gets us out. Maybe I’ll just watch a bunch of Netflix until she figures out what to do. At least that way I’ll be safe and not have to worry about all these things.

That’s not Ruth. Ruth takes initiative, exercising her God-given agency to say to Naomi, hey! I heard your people have this practice of gleaning. I hear people who are down on their luck and don’t have land and money can follow behind the workers harvesting the barley and pick up what gets left on the ground. I’m going to go do that. And I’m going to try to do that not just anywhere, but I’m going to try to find someone in whose sight I may find favor. Someone who will notice me here in this strange place and not just see me as a hated Moabite, but see me as me. Someone who will treat me with kindness and respect. I’m going to get to work. I don’t know if anyone else will treat me with dignity and honor, but I know that I’m worth these things, and I’m going to go look for it.

We feel Ruth’s vulnerability, and we also see her courage, her strength, in the midst of it.

I think God loves that about Ruth. That she takes initiative, takes action, exercises her agency as a human being to see what needs to be done and do it. To go. To try. To figure out how to obtain the things she needs and the things Naomi needs, basic things like food, and more complicated things like kind people, community. To figure out what she needs from other people in this process and to ask for it.

I think God loves that Ruth is not passive. The text doesn’t say this directly, but I see this in the sense we get, that God is ever-present and is blessing the efforts of these women. “As it happened,” she came to the part of the field belonging to Boaz. I think that’s a bit of a “wink wink” on the part of the narrator. The field could have belonged to anyone, but it just happened to belong to Boaz. And “just then” Boaz came back from the town to visit his field and his workers.

Ruth had no idea what the lay of the land was like and whose fields she was in, but she “just happened” to come to Boaz’ field, and Boaz “just happened” to come visit the field once she started working, and so she ends up in this situation that’s far better than what it easily could have been. I don’t think anything in this story “just happens.” God is behind it all. God is with her. God blesses her and provides the favor she seeks as she takes initiative and steps out in courage in the midst of her vulnerability.

In this next scene, I want us to shift gears a bit and think from Boaz’ perspective. First Ruth took initiative to get to work and try to find favor, to take advantage of Israel’s God-given gleaning laws and to gather grain as well. Now Boaz takes initiative in noticing and starting a conversation with Ruth.

In these interactions he goes way above and beyond what Ruth asked for. She asked to glean and gather, and Boaz says, yes, you are welcome to glean and gather here (v. 8). But also! Follow closely behind my employees who are harvesting so that you get first pick of everything they leave behind (v. 9). But also! I am not blind to the ways you are vulnerable as a woman, and I am making sure my male employees will not harass you, verbally or physically. But also! Here’s water if you want it (v. 9).

She is taken aback and says, I was looking for favor, but this is much more than I expected to find. Also, do you know I’m from Moab? Why have I found favor in your sight? (v. 10)

Boaz says, I have seen everything you’ve done for Naomi. I know you’re from Moab, but I don’t see you as an enemy. I see how you have suffered the loss of your husband and persevered with strength and courage. I don’t see you as the stereotype of a sexually aggressive, dangerous, idolatrous Moabite woman; I see you as doing what my esteemed ancestor Abraham did, when he left his father and mother and native land and came to a people he did not know before (v. 11). You talk about yourself like you’re a foreigner without value, but you know your value, and I know your value. The way you’ve acted shows that you trust God as a refuge, and I hope you experience that (v. 12) 

Ruth finds comfort in Boaz’ remarkable kindness to her (v. 13).

Then there’s more! At lunchtime he says, but also! Come eat with me, from the good food, bread and wine, the same food I’m eating. Sit with me and my employees, we want you to belong with us and be one of us. Have as much food as you like. You won’t be hungry here (v. 14). Also! Harvesters, pull out some extra handfuls of grain for her to make her work more productive and less difficult and backbreaking, and don’t reproach or rebuke her. Don’t just not assault her, but treat her with respect and dignity, speak kindly to her. Accept her as one of our kin (v. 15-16).

This is remarkable kindness indeed. Think for a minute about everything going on here for Boaz. He heard through the grapevine that his relative Naomi had come back from Moab, accompanied only by a young Moabite woman. And now this young woman just shows up, there in his field. Think about all the things he might have said, or might have thought, or might have done. After all, it was the time of the judges, and everyone did as they saw fit. What might have been a more “normal” reaction from a person of Boaz’ wealth and standing, to a person like Ruth? Let’s think about this in terms of four different aspects of Ruth’s identity that made her particularly vulnerable: socioeconomic status, immigration status, ethnicity, and gender.

Take her socioeconomic status. It’s not hard to imagine someone in Boaz’ place thinking: who does this poor person think she is? People are poor because they don’t work hard enough. Sure, she seems to be working pretty hard now, but she should have worked harder to make sure she didn’t fall into poverty in the first place. She’s taking advantage of the welfare system. I’ll let her do it, because that’s the law, but I don’t like it. I didn’t get rich by taking advantage of other people’s property, why should she? I’ll let her glean, but she’s not of my class, and she needs to know her place. Maybe she’ll move along soon to someone else’s field so I stop losing grain and money on her.

Boaz could have easily treated Ruth as someone undeserving of his kindness and respect, because he had wealth, and she didn’t have anything. Instead, he showed her kindness. Treated her as an equal. 

Or take her immigration status. It’s not hard to imagine someone in Boaz’ place thinking: who does this immigrant think she is? She’s not from here. She looks different, talks differently, smells different, wears different clothes, has a different accent. And here she is, in my field, trying to take advantage of the laws of my country that were set up for my people. She isn’t part of the hard-working Israelite farming families that have lived on this land for generations and deserve to reap the fruits of it. This barley, these resources, are for my family and my employees. 

Boaz could have easily treated Ruth with disdain, resenting, fearing, or treating her as an other because she was an immigrant. Instead, he chose to welcome her in, inviting her to eat with him and his employees. He built bridges rather than walls and chose to recognize their common humanity.

Or take Ruth’s ethnicity. It’s not hard to imagine someone in Boaz’ place thinking, who does this Moabite think she is? I remember the stories my family always told about the Moabites. Violence, seduction, idolatry, incest, curses, battles. The Moabites have caused my ancestors pain, and my people remember that. And here this Moabite woman is, just casually gleaning away as if her people never did anything to wrong mine. The Moabites have been inhumane to us; do I really have to be humane to them – to her? 

Boaz could have easily treated Ruth as less than human, assuming the worst about her because of her ethnicity and the rumors he had heard and assumptions his community made. Instead he took the time to see who she really was.

Lastly, take Ruth’s gender.  It’s not hard to imagine someone in Boaz’ place thinking, who does this woman think she is? She can glean in my field, but I don’t owe her anything other than that. How my male employees treat her is none of my business. What happens in the field, stays in the field. Boys will be boys. There’s really not much I can do. Plus, is it really that bad, anyway? She’ll probably be fine. And if not, she can go elsewhere. 

It would have been easy for Boaz to downplay the risks Ruth faced as a woman, telling her it’s not that big a deal, dismissing or minimizing her experience, or recognizing the realities of sexual harassment and assault but placing his concern for his own reputation ahead of his concern for her wellbeing. Instead he chose to take responsibility, not only for treating her with respect personally, but for holding the people under his authority accountable to do the same. Boaz didn’t need a #MeToo movement to recognize the seriousness and prevalence of sexual assault and to do the right thing when Ruth showed up in his field.

Boaz goes out of his way, above and beyond what might have been normal or expected, to use his relative wealth, security, and power to affirm Ruth’s dignity and value. He did this in the midst of a world that, like ours, did not always value people who are poor, or immigrants, or minority races and ethnicities, or women.

In this last scene, Ruth goes into town to meet Naomi, her arms overflowing with an entire ephah of barley. That’s thirty or so pounds. Naomi sees how much she has gleaned – enough to feed the two of them for a couple of weeks! Maybe even, as time goes on, enough to sell the extra and obtain money to provide for their other needs beyond food. 

Naomi could have said, this can’t be. I know the Lord afflicted me and brought me back empty. Ruth, what did you do, steal all this? Or maybe, well, that’s more than I expected, but nothing really matters if I am not able to have sons and continue my family line, and I am too old to have sons, and Ruth is a Moabite and I don’t think anyone here will want to marry her. I’ll take some grain and stay alive, but there is still no hope for me. 

Naomi doesn’t react in these ways. Naomi is overjoyed. She can hardly contain her excitement. Where did you glean? Where did you work? You went out this morning looking to find favor with someone who owns a field, and I was praying about it and worrying about all the bad things that could happen to you as you tried, but our prayers have been answered. God has provided for us, and God has worked through someone, some landowner, to do that. Who is he? May God bless him. May God bless him. God is kind, after all. And Boaz! That’s amazing. He isn’t just anyone, Ruth – he’s one of our nearest kin. If he chooses, he can legally help restore to us our land and our family name. Ruth, stay with him. This is good. You have found a work situation where your risk of sexual assault is minimal, and it could have been very high. Stay there. 

This is a new side of Naomi, a hopeful side. It takes courage, to hope.

Do you see these three ordinary people, Ruth, Boaz, and Naomi, in these three scenes we’ve looked at, living their ordinary lives with great faithfulness and courage? Do you see Ruth, in her time of transition and great vulnerability, taking courage and initiative? Do you see Boaz, who refused to write Ruth off as a poor person, an immigrant, an enemy, or a woman, but welcomed her into his community, seeing her for who she was, and treating her with honor and dignity? Do you see Naomi, who last chapter wanted to give up on everything, finding new vitality, hope, and sense of God’s presence and provision?

And do you see God, behind the scenes, in everything? God is mentioned directly only through people’s words: when Boaz and his employees bless one another, when Boaz blesses Ruth, and when Naomi blesses Boaz. But God is there, orchestrating Ruth’s gleaning location and the timing of her meeting Boaz; working through Ruth’s extraordinary initiative and courage; working through Boaz’ extraordinary kindness. Do we see God working in these kinds of ways in our lives, or if not, can we take the leap of faith of choosing to believe that God is at work even when we don’t see it? 

In the midst of a time when everyone, and especially the judges, the leaders, of Israel, were doing whatever they saw fit – in a time of evil governments and violence and greed and lawlessness and people not treating each other well – we see Ruth, a poor, immigrant woman, brand new and in transition and on the margins of Bethlehem’s society, exercise her agency as a human being created in the image of the living God; and we see Boaz, a wealthy and powerful man, choose to honor and lift up that agency that Ruth exercises. We see ordinary people taking action and doing difficult things, and God blessing them as they do so.

By the grace of God, may we be people who live our ordinary lives with courage, faithfulness, and agency in the midst of our own difficult and troubling time. And in so doing, may we find the favor of God and be part of God’s work in bringing new hope and life into our world.

Some feminist-ish musings on Jezebel

Revelation 2:18-23 reads, literally translated, something like this:

(18) And to the angel of the church in Thyatira, write: these things says the child of God, the one who has eyes like flames of fire and feet like burnished bronze: (19) I know your works and love and faith and service, and your steadfast endurance, and your last works (are) greater than the first ones. (20) But I have against you that you put up with the woman Jezebel, the one who calls herself a prophet and teaches and leads my servants astray to fornicate and to eat food sacrificed to idols. (21) And I gave her time, that she might repent, and she does not wish to repent from her fornication. (22) Behold, I throw her on a sick-bed, and the ones who commit adultery with her into a great affliction, if they do not repent from her works, (23) and I will kill her children with death. And all the churches will know that I am the one who searches innermost thoughts and hearts, and I will give to y’all each according to y’all’s works. 

This is the first half of what Jesus says to the church in Thyatira, according to John’s vision. (I’ll get to the second half next week.) There’s a lot going on here, and, as usual, I don’t intend to try to speak about all of it. But I do have some thoughts about Jezebel. 

Basically, I think it’s kind of bonkers that the idea of Jezebel ― of a female false prophet who leads people astray, or, really, just any woman cast as troublesome or villainous ― has become such an outsized religious and cultural image since biblical times.

For many (Western male) writers, preachers, and other people-whom-people-listen-to, Jezebel has been a go-to label for a woman who does not fit the confines of what is considered (by men in power) to be respectable and good, demure and feminine. Additionally, in some usages, it has been a racially-specific stereotype directed at Black women to further their intersectional oppression. It is also a label that has been reclaimed by some feminists who see the biblical Jezebel as a sort of icon of female empowerment.

Reading this passage in the context of what Jesus has to say to the other three churches before this one ― which I’ve been reflecting on in my last three posts (“Jesus, Pergamum, and Trumpism,” “From Jesus, to those who are suffering,” and “Where is the love?”) ― makes it pretty clear that the actual New Testament reference to Jezebel really has nothing to do with gender.

It’s not her female-ness that’s important; rather, it’s the content of her teaching. And the reference to fornication, or prostitution, or sexual immorality, or however you want to translate πορνεύω, is likely a metaphor for idol-worship and general unfaithfulness to the ways of the God of love and justice ― not a literal reference to female sexuality.

Jesus rails here against the teachings of Jezebel; in previous passages, he railed in a similar way against the teachings of Balaam (2:14) and of the Nicolaitans (2:15, also mentioned in 2:6). We don’t get any specifics about the teachings of the Nicolaitans, but we do know that the teachings of Balaam involved eating food sacrificed to idols and committing fornication (2:14) ― the exact same description as we get of Jezebel’s teachings in v. 20. 

To be fair, Jezebel has quite a history in the Old Testament (see 1 Kings 16-21) ― but then again, so does Balaam (see Numbers 22-24). And Balaam is referenced three times in the New Testament, by three different New Testament writers: here, in 2 Peter 2:15, and in Jude 11. Jezebel is mentioned only this once. 

And yet, (Western) men have latched onto the idea of Jezebel as an image of the kind of wicked woman who clearly needs to be brought under (male) control ― while Balaam, as far as I can tell, has been kind of ignored. No one sees a male leader doing something immoral and thinks, “ah, another Balaam,” or, “clearly this is why men should not be given power.” 

I’m also kind of interested in the simple fact that ― assuming “Jezebel” is being used here as a sort of code name for an actual woman who was teaching and misleading people ― this means that there was an actual woman who was actually teaching and leading people in Thyatira, and people were actually listening to and following her. Bummer that the people of Thyatira were being led to do bad things and believe things that weren’t true ― just as the people of Pergamum were, likewise, by “Balaam” ― but good for them for at least being open to seeing women as spiritual authorities.

It seems that, in some ways, late first century Christians weren’t really hung up on questions about whether women should be teaching and preaching and leading. (So much for our convenient myths of progress.) It’s kind of encouraging, in a way ― to think that, if this kind of church community where women taught and led freely could exist two thousand years ago, surely more of these kinds of church communities could be built today.

(By the way, if anyone says that it wasn’t a good thing that the people of Thyatira were willing to listen to and follow Jezebel, I would like to reiterate this: the fact that she was a false teacher had nothing to do with her gender. If we say that women should not lead because Jezebel led poorly, we also have to say that men should not lead because Balaam led poorly.)

I don’t exactly want to look to the biblical Jezebel as a role model ― although I don’t fault other feminists for looking for strong women in the Bible amidst a religious tradition in which strong women are often ignored or downplayed, and finding her. At the same time, I really don’t want to, in the language of  v. 20, “put up with” people trying to use this passage to imply something about women in general that it absolutely does not, or using Jezebel language to shame and silence women who step up and speak up in ways men in power don’t like.

Perhaps the image of Jezebel and the ways it has been used are the things that now need to be, in the literally-translated words of v. 23, “killed with death.”

Marginalized Women, Bold Prophetic Speech: an Advent sermon on Elizabeth & Mary

I guess I’ve thought for a little while now that Luke 1:39-45 is a pretty awesome Bible passage. I wrote about it a little bit last December, in this post, toward the end of “25 Days of John the Baptist.”

This is the text (in the NRSV):

39 In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, 40 where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. 41 When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit 42 and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. 43 And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? 44 For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. 45 And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”

Last Sunday I had the opportunity to preach on this passage at Inglewood Presbyterian Church in Kirkland, WA, as part of a series called “Christmas from the Margins.” It was great to have an excuse to dig into the text a lot more. I feel like good things came out of it for me, and I share the sermon here in case good things come out of it for you too! I’d love to hear your thoughts or reactions in the Comments section.

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I understand that this Advent season you all are exploring the idea of “Christmas from the Margins.” I love that―both in general, and because I think all of the challenges of 2020 have impacted and maybe changed how a lot of us think about marginalization. 

Some of us may have experienced being on the margins ourselves in new ways―a sense of being pushed to the edge of a kind of stable center we used to have―whether that’s through disrupted plans, or isolation, or fear and anxiety, or sickness, or the sickness of loved ones, or the loss of loved ones, or through job loss and unemployment. 

The last few months have also brought movements toward racial justice and against white supremacy to the forefront of national attention. We’ve seen―highlighted, and made more visible for more people―some of what it’s like to be racially marginalized as a person of color in the US.

This is 2020. This is where we’re at. And these are the kinds of things I hope we can keep in mind as we think about our story this morning, and as we begin this Advent season.

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By the time we get to our passage this morning, a lot has happened already. 

An angel appears to Elizabeth’s husband Zechariah, while he’s serving as a priest in the temple. The angel says, you and Elizabeth are going to have a son, and you should name him John. Zechariah says, wha? No way, man, we’re both way too old! (Which, to be fair, is totally true. Some scholars think they must have been in their sixties.) But the angel says, this is going to happen, and, because you didn’t believe it, you won’t get to speak again until the baby is born. And Zechariah says…well, nothing. Because he can’t.

Then, about six months later, the same angel appears to Mary―not to Mary’s fiancé, or father, or any other male authority figure in her world, but to Mary―and says, you are going to have a son, and you should name him Jesus. Mary says, how, since I am a virgin? The angel says, that’s the power of the Holy Spirit! And Mary says, okay. Let it be as you say

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Can you imagine being Mary, here? An angel just appears to you, out of nowhere, just about gives you a heart attack…and then tells you, don’t be afraid. The angel says that you―you, in your small town in the middle of nowhere; in your youth, as a teenager; in your vulnerability and insignificance as a young woman who is not yet married or a mother, which would have given you a little more status in your world―you are going to miraculously give birth to a king, to the holy one who will be called the Son of God.

Talk about a disruption of the normal, humble life you planned on living―making life work, alongside your husband-to-be, in the midst of poverty; surviving together under the thumb of the Roman Empire; living faithfully to God, as well as you can, in your own quiet way. 

What do you do with this kind of life-disrupting news? Who do you talk to, about the angel and the miraculous pregnancy, and everything? Who do you go to, there in your small hometown, full of people who tend to expect things like pregnancy to work in the usual way?

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Mary remembers that the angel told her that her older relative Elizabeth is also pregnant. So, Mary sets off to visit Elizabeth. This is where we find ourselves in the story this morning. 

Mary grabs a water bottle and a granola bar, types in “Judean hill country” in Google Maps on her iPhone, hops in her parents’ trusty old Subaru, and heads off toward Elizabeth’s place. 

Just kidding. In reality her journey to the hill country of Judea was a slow one. It likely lasted around three to five days, depending on where exactly Elizabeth lived. The roads were known to be dangerous, full of robbers. My hope is that she found a caravan she could travel with that would help keep her safe. Regardless, it took courage to go off on her own like that, apart from her family and fiancé and hometown community. 

She must have felt it was necessary. I imagine her thinking, this is all so wild, and unexpected, and incredible, and awesome, and terrifying, and good, and very complicated. I don’t know if anyone will understand. But if anyone could, maybe it’s Elizabeth, in the midst of her own miraculous pregnancy. 

It was the only thing to do.

People on the margins are often people on the move. Taking risks, seeking safe places to stay, seeking compassionate communities who will welcome them. And God is with them as they do so. God is with those who, like Mary, find themselves desperate enough to make dangerous journeys― not quite sure what they will find on the other side, but knowing that they have to go.

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So Mary arrives, enters the house, and greets Elizabeth with the usual type of greeting. 

Elizabeth does not give a usual greeting back. There’s no what’s up?? So good to see you! Long time no see! Or whatever they said in those days.

Instead, Elizabeth cries out loudly: you are blessed among women! And the fruit of your womb is blessed too! And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the child in my womb leaped for joy. You are blessed because you believed that what the Lord said would happen.

Immediately after Elizabeth says all this, Mary launches into a beautiful, prophetic poem that we might know as the Magnificat. It’s all about God lifting up the humble―those on the margins―and bringing down powerful people who are proud. It’s about God being full of mercy, from generation to generation, doing mighty things, filling up the hungry, being faithful, keeping promises.

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When I read this story, and I think about the idea of Christmas from the margins, I think about the very patriarchal, very male-dominated world that Mary and Elizabeth lived in. 

Because she is a woman, Elizabeth is not a priest like her husband Zechariah―even though she is the daughter of a priest. She’s descended from the line of Aaron (Luke tells us this, earlier in the story, in v. 5). If Elizabeth had been around the temple area when Zechariah was chosen by lot among the priests to be the one to go inside, she would have had to stay outside, in a court called the Court of Women, which was where women could go to pray. It was outside the Court of Israel, where the men could go to pray. The worshipping women were physically distanced from the temple because of their gender―very literally pushed to the margins of the place that was considered holy.

We also see, earlier in the story, that Elizabeth was the one who was blamed for her and Zechariah’s childlessness. When Elizabeth becomes pregnant, she says, The Lord has shown his favor and taken away my disgrace among the people (that’s in v. 25). For her, infertility was not only a source of sadness, and disappointment, and vulnerability in old age, but also a social disgrace. It was a source of unending shame that followed her around throughout her adult life, even into her sixties. 

Many people likely assumed that her infertility was caused by some sort of sin in her life. What was wrong with her, that she had never been able to have a baby? What awful thing had she done? People must have given her the side-eye and whispered behind her back. Maybe in her darker moments Elizabeth whispered these things to herself, too. What is wrong with me? Maybe she internalized the blame and shame that others kept placing on her.

We also see evidence of women being pushed to the margins in their world within this passage itself. Verse 40 tells us that Mary entered the house of Zechariah. The house was considered Zechariah’s property only, even though both he and Elizabeth lived there. 

Lest we think this world is so far removed from our own, remember that it wasn’t until the mid 1970s in the US that women were allowed to have our own credit cards, and to buy our own houses without facing blatant and totally legal discrimination because of our gender.

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In the midst of this male-dominated world, this scene, where Mary and Elizabeth greet one another, is incredible. It’s a man’s world, but there are no men to be found here. Zechariah is who knows where. The baby boys John and Jesus have not been born yet. It’s just a raw, unfiltered, real, beautiful, human interaction between two female relatives, one older, one younger.

In a world where women are supposed to disappear into the background, Mary and Elizabeth take up space. They take up space in Luke’s narrative. They take up space in the story of Jesus, in the story of God’s love and redemption in the world. 

They are an important part of the story―not just because of the sons they will give birth to, but in their own right too. They are examples of faithfulness, of believing God, of working with God, of participating in the joy of what God is doing. 

And they must have found so much comfort in their time together. Mary ended up staying for three months, until Elizabeth’s son John was born. 

When we talk about Christmas, we often talk about Jesus as “Immanuel,” as God with us. Sometimes “God with us” can look like another person coming into our life and being a source of comfort and encouragement. Someone who has walked or is walking some of the same roads that we are. Someone who understands. Someone who can, just by being there, remind us of God’s presence with us.

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When the sound of Mary’s greeting reaches Elizabeth’s ears, little John the Baptist does a little jump inside Elizabeth’s tummy. Elizabeth interprets this as a jump for joy, or in exultation.

Elizabeth, then, is filled with the Holy Spirit. This exact language―being “filled with the Holy Spirit”―is only used a few other times in the New Testament. It’s used when the angel tells Zechariah that John the Baptist will be filled with the Holy Spirit even from his mother’s womb. Zechariah is then filled with the Holy Spirit himself, later on in this chapter, and he speaks his own prophetic poem, a few verses after Mary’s. Later on, the group of believers at Pentecost in the book of Acts are filled with the Holy Spirit, and they speak in other languages as the Spirit enables them. Peter and Paul are each described as being filled with the Holy Spirit in some parts of Acts, particularly when they have something especially bold and risky to say.

Elizabeth, here, joins the ranks of people―of men―like John the Baptist, and Zechariah, and Peter, and Paul. She is filled with the same Spirit. And she, too, speaks boldly. She speaks in a loud and confident voice. 

The Greek actually uses three different words here to express how intense her voice is as she speaks: she “exclaims”―meaning that she spoke out, or cried aloud. Her voice is “loud”―or, literally, “great.” 

And it sounds like a “cry.” This is a word that can also be translated as outcry, or clamor. This word is actually used by Paul when he writes to the Ephesian Christians that they should try to stay away from anger, and malice, and brawling, and clamor, and that sort of thing (that’s in Ephesians 4:31). 

It’s a fighting kind of cry―a loud, great, clamour. And, in Elizabeth’s case, it’s holy. It’s full of the Holy Spirit. It’s bold and prophetic and true and important…and very, very unladylike. 

While Zechariah, the priest, is at this point still unable to speak, Elizabeth, not allowed to be priest because of her gender, speaks loudly.

Women, as well as others on the margins, are often socialized to just get along. We’re told, in a million different ways, don’t make waves, don’t be too loud, don’t draw attention to yourself, don’t stir up trouble, don’t make anyone upset. Hold your tongue, speak gently and quietly, defer to others, defer to men.

Add to all this the shame Elizabeth’s community has burdened her with. People use shame to push people to the margins, and to keep them there. To make them feel like their marginalization is somehow their fault. To keep them from speaking up. 

When the Holy Spirit fills Elizabeth, Elizabeth breaks out of all of these confines of what is considered respectable behavior. She has something important to say. She has prophecy to speak. She has inexpressible joy to try to express. And she doesn’t have time to take a step back and make sure her voice is gentle enough and her words are inoffensive enough and nothing she says is threatening to anyone.

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Maybe it’s jarring to think about Elizabeth in this way. Or, maybe, if you’re someone who feels marginalized in some of the same ways she was, maybe it’s freeing and healing. Maybe it’s a bit of both. 

Maybe for some of us, we’re thinking, yes! Speak up! Speak your truth! Embrace your empowerment by the Holy Spirit! You’re awesome! 

And yet, is that how we see voices from the margins today, who speak boldly as Elizabeth did, full of truth and fire and a longing for justice? How open are we to hearing from the marginalized prophets and prophetesses of our time? 

Do we expect them to conform to some sort of respectable standard before we’re willing to listen? Do we bristle and get defensive because some of them are too loud, or too angry, for our taste?

Elizabeth’s bold speech invites us to pay attention to who might be filled with the Holy Spirit, to who might be speaking prophetic words, around us in our world today. 

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And, the words that Elizabeth speaks, so loudly, after being filled by the Holy Spirit―these words are a series of blessings. You have been blessed, Mary, among women. The fruit of your womb has been blessed. Blessed is the one who believed.

Elizabeth, who wasn’t allowed to be a priest, embodies the priestly role of pronouncing blessing, of calling Mary blessed. She recognizes God’s incredible work in Mary’s life and names it as such.

Who do we tend to imagine, or assume, are the people who get to proclaim blessings? Who gets to be in that powerful and joyful position of saying with confidence: God is with you, God blesses you? 

Pastors? Powerful people? Influential people? Respectable people? 

Do we hope and expect to hear blessings from the mouths of people on the margins? Can we receive those blessings? 

Do we expect that people on the margins have something to offer us―that there are ways we can learn from them, even as we might also see their needs and try to serve them? Are we open to the wisdom they have, the things they can teach us? 

And, in the ways in which we might experience marginalization―whether from gender, or race, or ethnicity, or unemployment, or disability, or sexual orientation, or anything else―do we see ourselves as empowered to be a blessing, to bless others? Do we see ourselves as people who can speak boldly and call forth the best in others? 

As Kathy Khang writes in her book Raise Your Voice, “Elizabeth is unafraid and generous in her word of blessing and exhortation. I imagine that’s because she knows what I often have to remind myself: finding and using our voice isn’t a zero-sum game where we compete with others. Elizabeth isn’t competing. She knows this is a journey for both of them, and she sets the stage for Mary to speak out words we now call the Magnificat. Elizabeth isn’t there just to provide an audience or to be a foil or competitor. She’s the one whose presence and words remind Mary who she is and what is to come.”

Isn’t it beautiful, when we can do this for one another? 

Blessing people isn’t just for some subset of extra holy or powerful people. It’s something all of us can do.

And, blessing one another isn’t just for the times when everything is easy, and things are going well. It’s for the difficult times too. 

Elizabeth and Mary did not live easy, comfortable, happy ever after kinds of lives. Living in poverty as a religious minority in the Roman empire was no easy thing. Add to that the task of raising children who will both end up being killed as revolutionaries. Elizabeth and Mary lived difficult lives in difficult times.

Many of us in 2020 have not had a particularly easy, comfortable, happy ever after kind of year either. And yet, even in these times―maybe especially in these times―we can bless one another. We can call forth the best in one another. We can be present with and be a comfort to one another, as Mary and Elizabeth were. We can remind each other, this Advent season, of God’s presence with us.

And, we can seek out and listen to the prophetic voices from the margins. God is still speaking through them. We can hear their challenging, blessing, life-giving, world-altering, disruptive, uncomfortable words. We can receive and respond to the ways they are inviting us toward justice and goodness and wholeness, as people, as the church, and as a society. We can echo and amplify their voices to people we know who might not listen to them, but might listen to us.

May we receive the gifts and the challenges of Christmas from the margins this Advent season.

Women, I Would Like to Call Forth

Women, I Would Like to Call Forth

Women, 
I would like to call forth
your holy anger.

Let it rattle the sidings 
of your churches―the ones 
that keep telling you to serve,
but do not serve you well.

Let it be no longer 
held constrained within your bones
in bonds unspoken, swept 
beneath the doormat to your soul―
the one they wanted you to be
as they kept telling you to sweep
and sweep.

Let it rise like yeast 
through sixty pounds of dough.

Let it boil and spill 
over the edges of respectability,
over the steaming rims 
of pots and pans
that do not hold you.

Let it fly forth until they can 
no longer put a cover on your head
like cloth over your face 
to stifle your unruly sounds.

Let there be words, so many 
words for every time they 
tried to shame you into silence.

Let there be tears, so many 
tears for every time they 
said they needed you to smile.

Let there be open confrontation,
exposed wounds for every time they 
turned to you, like Absalom, and said
don’t take this thing to heart―
for every time they wanted you to bow 
and place your fierce God-given power 
in their grasping hands.

Let there be squalls,
twenty-foot swells,
and Jesus in the boat 
who says with kindness,

you of little faith,
I made you for much more.

Won’t you turn and own the power 
I breathed into you.

Won’t you join me 
as I flip over the tables they 
have closed to you and 
make a whip and drive them out.

Yes,
with him,

women, 
I would like to call forth
your holy anger.

Wives and participles and Bible and I’m done defending Paul

I thought I might write a post exploring how the original Greek of Ephesians 5:21-33 comes across a little less patriarchal―or at least a little more ambiguous in some ways―than our English translations suggest. 

And there are plenty of things that could be said to this effect. 

I could write about how Paul’s call to submit in verses 21-22 is not actually a command form, as many translations would have you think. For example, these all sound like commands:

  • “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ. Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord” (NIV).
  • “Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ. Wives, be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord” (NRSV).
  • “And submit to each other out of respect for Christ. For example, wives should submit to their husbands as if to the Lord” (CEB).

In the Greek, however, the word translated as “submit” or “be subject” in verse 21 is actually in its participle form, not its command form. This means that a more literal translation might start off, “being subject to one another…” or “while y’all are submitting yourselves to one another…” or something along those lines. The action is ongoing and assumed, not instructed or commanded. 

I could also point out that verse 22, in the Greek, doesn’t actually have a verb. In other words, a literal translation would not read “wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands,” but rather just “wives to your own husbands.” Our translations take the verb “submit” from the previous verse and fill it in here. 

Similarly, moving on a couple verses later, verse 24 also lacks a verb. While the NIV reads, “as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything,” a more literal translation would read, “as the church submits to Christ, so also the wives to the husbands in everything.” The part about the wives has no verb in Greek, but translations take “submit” from the part about the church and add it in. 

I could write about how these details come together to make verses 21-24 sound less harsh and commanding toward women than one might think. 

I could also point out that the first time Paul actually does use a command form is in verse 25: “husbands, (y’all) love (your) wives, just as Christ also loved the church and handed himself over on her behalf.” It’s directed toward the husbands, not the wives.  

Husbands are commanded to love their wives, whereas wives are just assumed to submit to their husbands. Thus, maybe Paul isn’t trying to control women’s actions so much as influence and instruct men to be better and more loving husbands―which, of course, if we share for a moment Paul’s assumption of heterosexual marriage, benefits their wives. 

I could also say that, in reading this passage in Greek―perhaps because of the Greek itself, or perhaps just because the act of translating forces me to read more slowly and carefully―I was struck by how much this passage is not actually about marriage, but about Christ and the church. 

I could say―and I think I would not be wrong―that Paul’s main point here is to work from the cultural assumptions he shares with his readers about marriage, and to use these assumptions to say some important things about Christ’s relationship with the church. What he really wants to do here is help the church community better understand what Christ’s love is like.

He wants people to know that Christ’s love is deep, great, and sacrificial―the way, in Paul’s worldview, a good husband loves his wife. He wants people to see how the church is invited to submit to Christ’s leadership and follow Christ’s example―the way, in Paul’s worldview, a good wife submits to her husband. He wants to help them understand the profound, intimate unity between Christ and the church―not unlike the profound, intimate unity between two marriage partners. 

So here we are, with many things to say that might seem to make this passage more palatable, especially to women―and, perhaps, to all modern-day humans who have no particular interest in building their marriages on the dubious foundation of ancient Greco-Roman gender roles.

Ultimately, though, via something of a fraught and winding journey, I find myself now in a place where I no longer feel the need to try to soften Paul’s words or make them sound better. And it’s very freeing to be able to say that.

I find myself no longer able to deny what I very much wish were not true about Paul: the fact that he says some patriarchal, sexist stuff. 

(Or, more precisely: he says some stuff that likely made things a bit better for women of his time, compared to what they would have experienced otherwise―but which, when we try to apply it to our lives and marriages today, tends to have the opposite effect.)

After all, Ephesians 5:21-33 might be (relatively) indirect and gentle toward women in its tone in Greek―and it might be about Christ and the church more than it is about marriage―but there is a parallel passage in the book of Colossians that offers none of these sorts of caveats. And I don’t think we can speak honestly about Paul’s words toward women if we’re only willing to talk about one passage and not the other. 

Colossians 3:18 really does directly command wives to be subject to their husbands. There is no nuance of missing verbs, or participle forms, or anything like that. There is no analogy to Christ and the church that we can focus on to make us feel less uncomfortable.

There isn’t really any getting around Paul’s patriarchal instructions.

And I think I’m done trying to argue otherwise. I think I’m done defending Paul―trying to make excuses for him, sanitize his writing, make him sound more palatable and less sexist.

Paul really does, in both Ephesians and Colossians, write about husbands and wives in the same breath as masters and slaves, and parents and children―each, in Paul’s mind, clearly a hierarchical relationship in which there is some kind of analogous power dynamic. Paul takes commonly known Greco-Roman household codes and makes some Christian edits to them, but he does not really make an effort to change the hierarchical assumptions they are built on. 

(The master/slave part, of course, is a whole other can of worms―a critically important one, and one I’m also not particularly interested in trying to sanitize or explain away. But that’s another post for another time.) 

When I read passages like this, as a woman, I don’t think that I can settle for trying to find ways to make them sound gentler and more palatable as I apply them to my own life. The core of what they say and assume about women and men and relationships exists in too much friction with everything I am and want to be, everything I have experienced as good in this world, and everything I see Jesus saying and doing.

And I think that Paul’s letters are best read in relation to all these things. They are not meant to be read in isolation from the words and life of Jesus, or from our own lives and experiences. And they are especially not meant to be read in isolation from the lives and experiences of the people who are most vulnerable to being dehumanized, marginalized, or otherwise abused by them.

 We can take the Bible very seriously and believe very deeply in its truth while also admitting that there are some passages which, if applied in our time and culture in any kind of direct and straightforward way, diminish the humanity and dignity of women, or people of color, or LGBTQ+ people. And we can lament this and seek to walk a different path, rather than making excuses for it. 

The Bible is a complex set of books, not meant to be read like a list of instructions or do’s and don’t’s. It’s a lot more complicated than that―and a lot deeper and more interesting.

It’s meant to be read in community, among a wide diversity of people who are all empowered to speak freely and candidly. And in this diverse community that reads and understands the Bible together, women’s voices should be at the center of the conversation when it comes to passages like this one. 

(For that matter, communities would also do well to center the voices of single people and of LGBTQ+ people―people whose experiences of gender, sexuality, and relationships may be very different from the experiences of people in heterosexual marriages.)

The Bible is both a deep well from which to draw living water, and a set of ancient texts written in times and places very different from ours. There are so many things we can learn from it and so many ways it can be life-giving for us. And we can do this learning and life-receiving without needing to share all of each human biblical author’s assumptions about how things are or how things should be. 

So, I’m done trying to explain away Paul’s patriarchy. But I’m not done reading his writings and being inspired by them. I’m not done pondering what truths about God, life, and community lie among them. 

May we learn, in diverse communities together, with every voice heard and honored, to read and love the Bible in all of its beauty and its complications, without needing to airbrush its ugly parts or try to reduce its maddening, wonderful complexity.