Cultures of Fear and Some Notes on a Hashtag: #YesAllWomen in the Church

There are times when you just need to shut up and listen.

A few days ago, following the misogynistic murder spree of Elliot Rodger, the #YesAllWomen hashtag took hold of Twitter, a reaction against how so many reports of sexism and sexual violence get shut down by cries of “Well, not all men are like that.” And, of course, no-one’s really suggesting that all men are like that, but apparently hurt feelings are an effective way of silencing conversations that need to be had.

I’m a man. I’ve reacted with the “Not all men!” thing before now. I was wrong; instead of making the conversation about us, men need to keep quiet and get reading, and while we’re doing that, we need to be asking questions:

Why is the fear of rape so pervasive?

Why is it so difficult for women to report being sexually assaulted?

Why is a girl who gets molested in a bar “asking for it”?

Why do women with an online platform get bombarded with rape and death threats?

Why are online groups declaring Rodger a hero?

We live in a sexist society, but it’s only recently that I realised the sheer sociopathy of what this society has become; maybe what it always was. I’m a man, after all, I don’t normally need to get nervous walking across a car park at night. This is so far outside my experience that I’ve never even considered just how much it’s part of day to day life for people around me.

So why am I posting this on a Bible blog?

Because a great deal of these offensive, dangerous attitudes are rooted in patriarchal structures, and when it comes down to it, the church is pretty patriarchal. And there are way too many cases when church organisations have defended the perpetrators rather than the victims – no, the survivors. Men in the church are powerful, and there are times that power has been privileged over discipleship. Followers of Jesus are called to love one another, to protect and defend and speak out for the powerless. But we often trade God’s Kingdom for our own empire, and in doing so become part of the problem.

That’s when we create our own culture of fear. And we don’t recognise it as such because we’re not the ones who are scared.

If you’re a leader with a book deal and a nice car and a list of speaking engagements longer than your arm, you need to take a day off, meet with the most marginalised members of your congregation, and listen to their stories. Only you don’t get to explain or fix or exegete or silence those stories, you just get to listen and go home and pray on your knees about whether you’re perpetuating systems that make the most heartbroken stories you hear happen in the first place.

Of course, eventually we’re going to have to figure out a response to all this. We need to think about the language we use. We need to be more open when it comes to issues of gender and sexuality. We need to model more positive attitudes for the young people in our churches. We need to stop covering up crimes while pretending we’re doing it to promote ‘unity’. We need to realise that we’re living in the 21st century and that we need a theology for social media. We need to accept that women are called to positions of leadership and authority in the church and to support those already serving in those roles. We need to truly affirm the gifts and talents and experiences of everyone in our congregations: female, male, black, white, disabled… And we need a pastoral revolution that’s based less on a business model of leadership and more on servanthood and compassion and relationship.

But first we need to shut up; to shut up and to listen.

Cheek Turning and Nekkidness: Remembering the Subversive Jesus (Matthew 5:38-42)

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Sometimes we forget how subversive Jesus is.

It’s not surprising; we’ve spent 2,000 years trying to tame him, to make him part of the establishment, to use his kingdom as a way of consolidating our own empires rather than accepting who’s really on the throne. He calls us to radical discipleship; in return we’ve used him to justify violence, oppression and hate. Forget the shrill accusations of heresy over some point of doctrine, co-opting Jesus as a figurehead for our own agendas is often the worst kind of blasphemy.

Take his command to “Turn the other cheek”. Read that from a position of power and privilege and it’s easy to turn it into a way of maintaining the status quo. Don’t cause trouble, don’t make accusations, just wait for your reward in heaven.

The world’s a comfortable place when you’re at the top of the pile. So when that comfort is disrupted we find terrible things happening. Look at the mess surrounding abuse within the evangelical church. Look at some of the misogynist responses to the #YesAllWomen Twitter meme. The response to these outrages from those perpetuating and empowering often amounts to “Stop moaning and go away.” Don’t threaten the system. Don’t be disruptive.

Do we really think that Jesus, Prince of Peace, healer, the Good Shepherd calls us to that level of passivity when innocents are being abused, when those in a position of power make excuses for that abuse?

“Turn the other cheek” isn’t about being passive, it’s about non-violently asserting your humanity. We’re not talking here about a bar fight, we’re talking about a back-handed slap designed to humiliate and keep you in line. Turn the other cheek – reversing the situation – means establishing yourself as an equal. You don’t respond with violence, but you sure as heck don’t have to empower your oppressor.

If you’re dirt poor and give the guy who’s suing you for your tunic your cloak as well, you’re going to be standing naked in the court room. That’s going to draw some attention to the injustice of the situation.

If you’re forced to carry an occupying soldier’s pack for a mile, then insist on carrying it an extra mile, you ‘re breaking the rules – the soldier would beg to take the pack back or risk court martial.

Jesus never promotes violence, but that doesn’t mean we cower and embrace victimhood. After all, Martin Luther King was a proponent of non-violence but no-one can call him passive. Rather we’re called to creative ways of confronting oppression, violence and abuse – there are ways of winning through storytelling, through satire, through direct action, through modelling a better way… We’re called to live in God’s kingdom, not use the tools of empire for ourselves. And that’s sometimes a tall order for those of us who benefit from worldly privilege, even when that privilege flies in the face of Christ calling us towards love and justice. Remember, the Sermon on the Mount was delivered mainly towards people at the bottom of the pile. Those with power are called to not slap or sue in the first place.

God’s Kingdom is more creative and counter cultural than we ever give it credit for. We’re citizens of that kingdom, and empowering other empires is sometimes a form of treachery; we need to embody the love, grace, justice and compassion of Christ, and that means turning the other cheek as a way of helping everyone. It’s not an unrealistic ideal; it’s a way of telling, a way of living a new story.

PostScript: If you’re encountering domestic or sexual or emotional abuse then please, get out of there, seek help and tell someone. Because what’s happening to you is wrong, no matter how often you’re told that you should respect and forgive your husband or your pastor or whoever else is abusing you. You are a human being, you are made in the image of God, and you do not deserve to be treated with violence or contempt.

And if you’re carrying out abuse, if you believe that hitting your wife is okay, if you’re a leader covering up sexual assaults on kids because it protects your organisation, if you believe that sex is something to be taken rather than something mutual and consensual, then stop. Get help. You are harming children of God and none of your excuses and justifications will change that. Do something about it today.

The Woman at the Well: Innocent as Charged? (John 4:1-30)

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Sometimes you’ve got to challenge your preconceptions.

Take the story of the Samaritan woman in John 4. Jesus goes to Samaria and asks a woman to draw him some water from the local well. It’s noon and it’s hot and no-one in their right mind wants to be carrying heavy jars full of water at that time of day. The inference is that the woman is there, alone, for a reason; that’s backed up later in the conversation when Jesus reveals that she’s had five husbands and she’s not married to the guy she’s currently with.

So, test your preconceptions: why had she had five husbands?

The traditional explanation I grew up with is that she was immoral. Put bluntly, she’d been sleeping around town, and she went to the well alone because she was an outcast. The man she’s currently with? Just her latest conquest.

Okay, so where exactly does John say that? There’s an argument to say it’s inferred, but adultery wasn’t the only ground for divorce at the time. It’s possible she was just too outspoken. It’s possible, if statistically unlikely, that she’d been widowed five times. It’s possible that she couldn’t have children. Why do we assume immorality?

Sure, living with someone who wasn’t her husband could imply a problematic relationship in that culture. But maybe that’s less about remorseless promiscuity and more about finding comfort where it can be found. After all, losing five husbands and a community is going to leave scars, regardless of who’s responsible. Maybe it’s a case of outcasts banding together.

Of course, it’s possible that she was guilty as charged, but look at how the story plays out – she becomes, effectively, an evangelist bringing the townsfolk to Jesus. We don’t hear “Go and sin no more” and the encounter it’s most reminiscent of to me is Jesus’s first meeting with Nathaniel. There Jesus displays supernatural knowledge of a situation and ends with the calling of a disciple. Nathaniel’s sarcasm, the woman’s marital status… Where these people started is less important than where they end up.

(There may also be something a little subversive about how the outcast woman ends up discussing theology and evangelising, while the male disciples are off sorting out food for everyone.)

Whatever her circumstances, this anonymous woman ends the encounter as both a recipient and an agent of grace. Maybe we need to recognise the ambiguity of the meeting, to use it to place ourselves within the story. No matter how sordid or oppressed or abusive our past, healing and forgiveness and grace are freely available. And if that’s not true for society’s outcasts then it’s a cheap parody of ‘grace’ that’s really just legalism disguising itself with nice hymns.

This ambiguity should also force us to ask questions, to see these people individuals. It’s easy to stereotype people, or turn them into icons that obscure their humanity (look at how Mary of Nazareth and Mary Magdalene have come to represent the dichotomy between virginity and promiscuity when the reality is far more complicated and human). Jesus treated the woman at the well as a individual; the church should do no less when meeting with outcasts, when thinking about making proclamations.

“Be kinder than is necessary, for everyone you meet is fighting some kind of battle.” The woman at the well was in that situation, so are the people we meet, so are we. Our preconceptions and prejudices hinder rather than help; following Christ should challenge our assumptions and lead us into a bigger, richer, wilder and more complicated world than we ever imagined.

Praying for the Kidnapped Nigerian Schoolgirls

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Over 200 schoolgirls have been kidnapped in Nigeria, with the militant group Boko Haram claiming responsibility. Girls wanting an education is clearly wrong, they say, particularly if it’s western education, and so they will be sold, as wives, for $12 each.

I’m British, so that $12 comes out at £7. Which is nothing short of an obscenity. Life is cheap, the saying goes, but it’s still a crime – a sin – that young girls can be traded for less than a round at Starbucks, that they can be abandoned to their fate by governmental heel-dragging, by a media that seems only slightly more than indifferent.

Or by expressions of religion that promote dogma and politics over compassion and love for individuals. It hasn’t been long since the Evangelical Right withdrew sponsorship for 10,000 children because World Vision tried to change its policy towards gay employees. When religion is all about power, it’s the powerless that gets trampled on; kidnapped children become statistics, brief and fading news items (even today, BBC reports on the BBC website were viewed less than a preview of the Eurovision Song Contest). It’s fundamentally dehumanising.

But humanity finds ways to fight back. Social media is being used to raise awareness of the situation; protests have been mobilised across the world. I encourage everyone reading this to keep the story in the public eye and to follow @bringgirlsback on Twitter; it may not feel like much, but we don’t have the authority to deploy special forces and sometimes we win by keeping stories alive.

And for the pray-ers out there, the blog ‘A Church for Starving Artists’ is asking readers to commit to selecting and praying for one of the girls until they’re released – a list of names is at that link, and I’d encourage you to visit.

I chose Saratu Emmanuel; her surname means ‘God with us’ and I think that’s important, why prayer is important – the need to respond as God would truly have us respond, not with some diseased parody of holiness and conviction; to pray and talk and shout until lost children are safely home.