A Sermon for Remembrance Day; The Myth of Redemptive Violence

Hebrews 9:24 – end

 For Christ did not enter a sanctuary made by human hands, a mere copy of the true one, but he entered into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf. 25 Nor was it to offer himself again and again, as the high priest enters the Holy Place year after year with blood that is not his own; for then he would have had to suffer again and again since the foundation of the world. But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the age to remove sin by the sacrifice of himself. And just as it is appointed for mortals to die once, and after that the judgment, so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin, but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.

 

Screen Shot 2018-11-11 at 13.32.41.png

There is a Babylonian creation myth where the cosmos is created by the god Marduk, from the corpse of his mother that he has slaughtered.  In this story, human beings are created from the blood of another executed god.

 

The Babylonian creation story is the myth of redemptive violence, in which violence can be redeeming. Its themes are retold throughout history and into the present day.  In the final scenes of a Spiderman film, he is beaten to a pulp and is about to die but somehow, he manages to survive and his opponent is killed.  In the 2012 Tomb Raider series, Lara Croft is beaten but survives and then is a warrior that kills others.  John McClane, Bruce Willis’ character in Die Hard, is beaten and then goes on a rampage to resolve the situation (though perhaps the most contentious thing about Die Hard is whether or not it is a Christmas film).  In the cartoon, Bluto beats Popeye and essential sexually assaults Olive Oyl, but at the last minute Popeye finds some spinach, is revived and beats Bluto.  In eight seasons and 2 films, Kiefer Sutherland plays Jack Bauer, an American agent who endures horrific trauma and beatings, always escaping and then torturing the enemy to save America from terrorism.  The myth of redemptive violence is very much alive.

 

However, that is not a myth that underpins the Christian tradition.  It was during the Jewish captivity in Babylon that Genesis 1 was developed as a direct rebuttal to the Babylonian myth.[1]  In the Jewish (and Christian) tradition, creation is not an act of violence, but a good God creating a good world that is ordered and not chaotic.  It is only later that evil slithers in.

 

One of the other readings for today was from Jonah 3.  In verse 5 we hear that “The people of Nineveh believed God’s message, and from the greatest to the least, they declared a fast and put on burlap to show their sorrow.”  What we don’t hear in today’s reading is Jonah’s response to this.  In Chapter 4:1-3, Jonah says to God, This change of plans greatly upset Jonah, and he became very angry. So he complained to the Lord about it: “Didn’t I say before I left home that you would do this, Lord? That is why I ran away to Tarshish! I knew that you are a merciful and compassionate God, slow to get angry and filled with unfailing love. You are eager to turn back from destroying people.  Just kill me now, Lord! I’d rather be dead than alive if what I predicted will not happen.”  We often presume that Jonah ran away from God’s calling because he was scared, but that is not the case.  Jonah was committed to the myth of redemptive violence, he wanted  the Ninevites to be destroyed, he wanted to see redemptive violence enacted on them.  But God did not choose to do that.

 

Then there is today’s text from Hebrews, which is about the role of Jesus’ death in the redemption of humanity.  Last week at our vicar explained how Jesus’ death made a way for us to access the fullness of God.  The fancy name for this is “atonement”, which Google tells me is defined as, “The reconciliation of God and humankind through Jesus Christ.”

 

Now, you might be under the impression that everyone has the same idea about Atonement or that generally Christians understand Jesus’ death the same way, but actually there are seven different theories for how Atonement works.  Some theories complement or build on one another, some are completely opposing. And although it might be a bit tricky, I’m going to try and talk you through these theories.

Screen Shot 2018-11-06 at 16.10.41.png

Screen Shot 2018-11-06 at 16.11.58

Screen Shot 2018-11-06 at 16.12.22.png

Screen Shot 2018-11-06 at 16.12.46.png

Screen Shot 2018-11-06 at 16.13.19.png

Screen Shot 2018-11-06 at 16.13.41.png

Screen Shot 2018-11-06 at 16.14.08.png

Most of us are probably familiar with Penal Substitution.  And so, I have three questions to ask you about this:

  1. Which one came first?
  2. Which one has been most consistently held by the church?
  3. Which ones assume God demands redemptive violence:

 

The first theory of Atonement was Moral Atonement.

Screen Shot 2018-11-11 at 13.37.29.png

 

The one that has been most consistently held by the church is Christus Victor:

Screen Shot 2018-11-11 at 13.39.33.png

 

And the ones that assume that God demands violence are the Satisfaction theory, Penal Substitution and the Governmental theory.

Screen Shot 2018-11-11 at 13.47.43.png

 

Isn’t it interesting that the ones we’re most familiar with are the ones that involve God demanding violence?

 

I know you’re wondering, what does all this have to do with Remembrance?  Well, for those of us here who hold to a view of Atonement in which God demands violence be done to Jesus in order for justice to be enacted, how do we work for peace?  How do we condemn the violence of war if we believe in a God who NEEDS violence in order for peace to be enacted?  If our creation story is utterly at odds with the myth of redemptive violence, how is it that three of our theories about Jesus’ work of atonement involve redemptive violence?  I know this is a big deal, to suggest there may be problems.  But ignoring the problems isn’t going to make them go away and we need to think about that.

 

As we seek to remember those who have died in war and the many who have survived but remain traumatised, do we as Christians have anything better to offer than more redemptive violence?

 

Let us look at the sheer scale of war.

 

Screen Shot 2018-11-11 at 13.48.56

 

With numbers like this, we have no way of comprehending the enormity of it.  Each individual who was killed had family members whose hearts were broken by their loss.  And for all the people killed, there are many more who survived, but were or are irrevocably broken; their partners, children, other relatives and friends who have had to live with the impact of their beloved person now a shell of what they were.  Generational trauma.  People here whose parents or grandparents were damaged war, who still live with the scars of being raised in traumatised families.  War ruins lives, even as it enables freedom (in some, but not all cases), but how high a price that freedom is.

 

It is 100 years since the end of World War 1, where there were 20 million deaths and 21 million wounded. This included 9.7 million military personnel and about 10 million civilians.  HG Wells famously said that this was the war to end all wars, but with the wisdom of hindsight we know this was a ludicrous statement.  Perhaps he too was caught up believing the myth of redemptive violence; that war can be ended through war.  George Orwell described such sentiments as “doublethink” in his novel 1984; war is peace, freedom is slavery, ignorance is strength.

 

Even though the cost of war is so high, we find that historians are suggesting that our current global politics suggests we are only years away from a repeat of World War II, with increasing nationalism across the globe, the breakdown of relations in Europe, and the rise of fascism in America, Brazil, Hungary, Ukraine, India, Poland and elsewhere.[2]  In Yemen, the civil war has causing a brutal famine, and the UK continues to sell weapons to Saudi Arabia, who are one of the main drivers of the war.  Even the church of England is not immune from accusations of contributing to war; in recent years Church House in London has hosted the RUSI land warfare conference.[3]

 

Are we as Christians interested in these political developments?  Or do we think they are irrelevant to us?  You may be thinking that I should be focussed on those who died and not on things like politics.  However, does remembrance simply mean that we pause for a few moments in November to remember death, or does it also mean actively working to prevent war? Protesting unjust systems, voting in ways that will increase peace and not sow discord and division.  How do we work to support those impacted by war? Both the soldiers, and civilians, whose lives are destroyed and whose families live for generations with the impact. It is a huge issue, and we can feel utterly discouraged and disabled by the enormity of it.  But thankfully, regardless of how we understand atonement, as Christians we do not do this alone.  Jesus’ death and resurrection transformed our relationship to God, and through the Holy Spirit, we can not only be transformed, but also work to transform the world.  We can ask for God’s wisdom and discernment to know how to be part of healing the world. And often that will be as much about how we bring peace to our friends, neighbours, families, and communities, as it is about bringing peace to the world.  And no matter how often we despair at the world, we must remember Jesus’ words:

 

“I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33

 

 

[1]https://www2.goshen.edu/~joannab/women/wink99.pdf

[2]https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-45902454

[3]https://www.caat.org.uk/campaigns/arms-trade-out/church-of-england

Advertisements

A Better Story?

Glynn Harrison’s book “A Better Story; God, Sex and Human Flourishing” seems to have become the “go to” book on sexuality for conservative Christians interested in a conversation that is broader than the debates on same sex relationships. You can read my live-tweets of reading the book HERE.  Glynn Harrison is a former Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Bristol, where he was also a consultant psychiatrist.  He is a conservative Christian and speaks widely on issues of faith and psychology, mental health and neuroscience.  This professional background seems to have increased his credibility amongst Christians, however it is interesting that this book is not primarily focussed on his specialism of psychiatry.

 

In the book, Harrison explains that his audience is conservative Christians (he defines them as “Orthodox Christians”).  Rather than seeking to convert others to his position, he is equipping conservative Christians to respond to the current UK situation around sexuality, which he sees as rooted in the sexual revolution of the 1960s.  The book aims to give conservative Christians a better understanding of the sexual revolution (its ideology, moral vision, narrative and “casualties”), offer a better critique of the sexual revolution than the one conservative Christians are currently able to give, and give them a better story about sexuality that will help them articulate their convictions.

 

Though Harrison states that his focus is on sexuality holistically, within the book his focus is almost solely on same-sex relationships and the erosion of marriage and the nuclear family.  I think what makes this book successful amongst conservative Christians is that Harrison acknowledges that Christians should be thankful for the sexual revolution, primarily focussing on the benefits for women and in enabling the discriminated against to stand up for their rights.  Many would not see that as particularly radical, but for a group of people with a very rigid view of the sexual revolution as evil, this could be Huge News.

 

There are some points that I agree with Harrison on (though not wholly):

 

1. Critiquing liberalism and individualism

Much of Harrison’s critique of liberalism and its development into radical individualism is something that I’m fully onboard with. Whilst many view liberalism positively, I do not.  Liberalism is fundamentally selfish; we do not care for others because they are inherently worthy of care, but rather because we ourselves would like to be cared for.  It’s transactional.  And that impacts everything, including how liberal societies engage with sexuality.

 

However, I don’t think Harrison’s argument that the sexual revolution was rooted in liberalism is accurate.  There were many socialist and Marxist lesbian and gay activists and the movement was generally organised collectively, and not primarily for individual benefit. This was also the case for much of second wave feminism (however, Harrison does not engage with feminism, collapsing the work of feminists into the sexual revolution).  It’s been interesting reading the objections of some older gay and lesbian people about how Pride has become a parade where corporate logos abound. Originally gay and lesbian liberation was caught up with a class-analysis and Pride was an anti-capitalist political statement.  The array of corporate banners seem representative of a Pride which seems to have de-politicised and de-toothed.

 

In positing “Orthodox Christians” in opposition to liberals Harrison fails to account for socialist and Marxist organising, and totally ignores the emergence of neoliberalism within UK political Conservativism (and in the US).  We find that the biggest actor in moving the UK to individualism was Margaret Thatcher, not the sexual revolution.  Whilst I understand that Harrison’s views would be considered “small c” conservative, it’s problematic to see individualism as solely the fault of the sexual revolution.

 

Alongside this, I find it interesting that whenever Harrison mentions Christian engagement with social justice, he always refers to churches “helping the poor”, not being the poor or being with the poor. Whilst slightly tangential, I think it evidences that Harrison does not envisaging an incarnational Christian community, but one who does for and to the Other that is the poor.  I think it is only in moving to incarnational living that we a) live out the Gospel of Jesus and b) eradicate individualism.  I am not sure whether conservative Christianity has the capacity for this.

 

2. Polarisation on social media and the diminishing of intermediate-sized communities

I agree with Harrison that social media has contributed to huge polarisation, and the distance through screens allows for some to behave with great unkindness, on all sides. However, I do think Harrison should try being a woman with an opinion online, it definitely surpasses any abuse that a white conservative man expressing an opinion about same-sex relationships will be subjected to.

 

Alongside this, I think Harrison’s comments about the diminishing of intermediate-sized communities is accurate.  In the micro of close personal relationships, we can often choose to associate with people like us (except within our family of origin of course!), and then in the macro, we can remain distant from those who do not think the same as us.  The church functions as an intermediate-sized community and provides opportunities for learning to love people who are different to us.  Interestingly though, I’m not sure how many conservative Christian communities function like this.  My experience has been that such churches have an expectation of ideological purity. As Harrison states, on Twitter (a liberal and lefty platform) a conservative may be challenged for not affirming same-sex relationships.  However, within a conservative church, someone who has less conservative views on sexuality would find themselves marginalised and possibly shunned.  A recent conversation with a member of a conservative church was told that as they were having pre-marital sex, they would not be allowed communion.  They left the church.  I think we could probably argue that being denied communion is of greater significance than a stranger on Twitter telling us we’re homophobic.

 

3. The Zeitgeist of “I identify as”

To some degree, I agree with Harrison that the zeitgeist of our age is “I identify as”, and I’m not entirely sure how this fits with the self-emptying call of kenosis within the Gospel. What Harrison does acknowledge though is that it is impossible to give up our life unless we ownour life in the first place. Whether our life has been owned by others because of their abuse, violence, prejudice or discrimination, the process towards healing and freedom definitely involves a period of regaining ownership of our lives.  My experience (as a woman who has been abused by men), is that there is a freedom that can only be found in death to self.  I’m not sure how that works out, particularly in contexts of ongoing oppression (especially when that oppression is structural, institutional and/or systemic), but I do think this is something we need to be talking about and grappling with.

 

4. Christians have caused great harm

Harrison does acknowledge that churches and Christianity have caused great harm. I think this might be news to many conservative Christians, and I’m grateful to Joshua Heyesfor pointing this out (I didn’t think it could be anything other than Very Obvious).  Harrison does have one chapter about the harm conservative Christianity has done around sexuality, and he does acknowledge that “Christendom’s dysfunctional attitudes to sex helped create the discontent that triggered the [sexual] revolution and propelled it forward”.[1]

 

The chapter is nine pages in a two-hundred-page book and offers only intangible, amorphous suggestions of shame, alongside the issue of Christians judging gay and lesbian people without admitting to our own sexual sins.  That’s it.  To put it in context, he spends seven chapters unpicking the issues with the sexual revolution and five chapters talking about how the Better Story. Some of the things he chooses to ignore about the harm done by Christianity:

  1. Suicide and suicide attempts by gay and lesbian Christians.
  2. Preaching and perpetuating the view that men are hypersexual and women are not interested in sex.
  3. Causing some women to develop vaginismus due to the way they were taught to think about sex.
  4. Justifying men’s pornography use because “God made men to be visual”.
  5. Catholic priests raping children and women.
  6. The harm caused by Christian communities disbelieving and blaming women and children who have been sexually abused by male church leaders and members.Research has found that many of those subjected to abuse found their church’s response more harmful than the original abuse.
  7. The covering up of men’s sexual abuse of women and children by church establishments.
  8. Providing young people with a narrative in which all pre-marital sex is bad and all post-marital sex is good, thereby disabling them from differentiating between sexual violence and consensual sexual activity.
  9. Teaching young women particularly that engaging in sexual activity makes them the same as a jar that numerous people have spat in.
  10. Young people generally being invited up at Christian events to confess sexual sin, without creating a space for young people who have been sexually sinned against.
  11. The legitimising of colonialism and slavery which led to the rape and impregnation of countless numbers of black women, and the intentional destruction of black families.
  12. The ability of white evangelicals to vote in Donald Trump as a self-confessed sexual offender, over a woman.
  13. Guilting women whose husbands are masturbating to images of women being degraded and abused into prioritising their husband’s feelings.
  14. Placing young women in Magdalene laundries, forcibly separating them from their children, torturing them and making them do forced labour.
  15. Inflicting electric shock therapy on gay men and lesbian women and making them drink substances to induce nausea in order to supposedly stop them being gay.
  16. Judging women for being single, or without children, for working, or for having a career.
  17. Infantilising men and perpetuating masculinity, male headship and male dominance.
  18. The Catholic church’s approach to contraception contributing to great harm to women, children, and communities.
  19. I could go on, but we’d never get to the end of this blog!

 

Although we Christians have a faith rooted in crucifixion, we are generally uncomfortable with facing pain.  Glynn barely pays lip service to the harm Christianity has caused (which admittedly might be more than most of his audience have previously ever considered), and then moves swiftly onto the Better Story.  Even in his “resources and further reading”, Harrison limits his suggestions to the titles on “sex and marriage”, “bisexuality and same-sex attraction”, and “identity and transgender”.  That’s what he thinks his audience needs to know more about, rather than learning more about the harm done.

 

5. The existence of positive same-sex relationships and marriages

Throughout the book, Harrison does acknowledge the existence of positive same sex relationships; gay and lesbian couples going through their normal everyday lives, raising kids and having loving, positive relationships. However, that is not the end of the matter, he writes:

 

“…we find ourselves asking how it can possibly be wrong to support a same-sex sexual relationship that seems to happy and life-giving.  These are valid and potent objections.  We can point in response to the destruction wreaked on God’s creation by human disobedience and pride; we can point out the we see only part of the picture whereas God see the whole.  These are valid and good arguments.  But in the end there is a mystery in suffering: our creaturely minds are finite, and there are some things that only God knows and sees.”

 

Which I don’t think really explains anything much.

 

6. The pornographication of childhood

Harrison raises concerns about the pornographication of childhood. Whilst this is good, his content is not adequate.  Focussing solely on pornography itself (and not the pornographication; the influence of pornography on wider media like music videos, adverts, films, songs and children’s clothing and toys).[2]  It also doesn’t explicitly lay out what exactly young people are watching (brutality and sexual violence).  Harrison states that the ideology of the sexual revolution, “offers little that is capable of resisting [the pornographication of childhood].”[3] I would agree with him.  If we see any moral reflection on sexuality as Judgemental and Wrong, how do we help children make good sexual choices, if sex is not part of morality.

 

At no point within the book does Harrison engage with work done by women.  He cites no women at all.  This is quite staggering.  It is impossible to engage effectively with issues of pornographication or the harm done around sexuality, without engaging with feminism and feminist theory.  I think this is a significant element of why Harrison’s project is fatally flawed.

 

7. God’s love can be erotic

Harrison advocates for seeing God’s love as erotic, explaining “When we [Christians] think about God, we are happy with the idea of platonic (spiritual, emotional) love, or agape (charitable, self-giving, compassionate) love. But erotic love?  No thanks.”[4]  He points out that the shame attached to sex is a huge aspect of why Christians are so avoidant of the erotic love of God. I am onboard with this bit.

 

To evidence this, Harrison points to Ezekiel 16 and describes the passage as all about the “tender generosity” of God and the “imagery of faithfulness yoked with passion”.  The passage likens God to a man who rescues an abandoned new-born baby girl and cares for her.  When the girl reaches puberty, the man finds her sexually attractive and takes her as a wife.  She rejects his love, prostitutes herself and kills her children, so the man (who was her foster father and then her husband) beats her.  Whilst there’s various passages in the Bible to evidence God’s erotic love, this is a not good example of that.

 

Within the same vein as this, a couple of chapters later Harrison critiques his previously held view (that he tells us was shared in men’s ministry seminars) about  Jesus-is-my-boyfriend songs by quoting James K.A. Smith, “While [these songs] can slide into an emotionalism and a certain kind of domestication of God’s transcendence, there remains a kernel of ‘fittingness’ about such worship.”[5]Male issues with Jesus-is-my-boyfriend songs have littleto do with eroticism and a lot to do with misogyny.

 

Eroticism is something that heterosexual men do with women.  The idea that God could be a woman is completely anathema to men.  How could they see a woman as All Powerful?  How do they submit to a woman?  In the same way, much male homophobia is also rooted in misogyny.  Gay men become associated with the Other that is women. The homophobic heterosexual male fear that every gay men is going to try to have sex with them (really, they are not THAT desirable), is based on their view that all male sexuality rapes and takes, and that women are there for their penetration (therefore gay men must view them as for penetration).  And so, God must be a man and must not have anything to do with eroticism, for God is power and man is power and sex is something men do to women.

 

Having established where I partially agree with Harrison, let’s look at what I unambiguously disagree with him on:

 

1. The foundations of moral reasoning dichotomy

Harrison uses Jonathon Haidt’s work of six intuitive foundations of moral reasoning; care, fairness, oppression, loyalty, authority and sanctity. According to Harrison, liberal Christians lean towards the first three and are focused on the individual.  Conservative Christians are more focussed on loyalty, authority and sanctity (which are about big sacred principles).[6]  While he’s right that conservative Christians need to make more space for care, fairness and oppression, I’m not convinced that’s possible in the framework that Harrison offers.  He believes that only heterosexual marital relationships allow for sexual activity; how does that enable fairness for people in same-sex relationships?  In barely scratching the surface on the harm the church has done, how does he enable them to offer valid care?  He can’t even include women’s work and scholarship in his writing, how does that engage with oppression? I’d also argue that oppression fits more into the “big sacred principle” of right use of power, rather than the individual framework.

 

Harrison also doesn’t engage with Sara Ahmed’s seminal work on the cultural politics of emotion (published in 2004, thirteen years before Harrison’s book). Within Ahmed’s analysis, emotions are cultural practices rather than solely psychological states, that lead to the othering of people who do not align with the dominant culture.  Particularly as Harrison engages with disgust in his articulation of Christian approaches to same-sex relationships, his lack of engagement with her work on the “performativity of disgust” (even if only to dispute it) seems rather problematic.

 

2. The destruction of the whole hive

Harrison tells his readers that, “we must try to communicate our conviction that it is no use catering for the needs of a minority of bees if in doing so we destroy the whole hive.”[7] This serious concern about the destruction of the hive is not borne out in the examples he gives of what the sexual revolution has actually done to society. His main evidence of harm to society is that: a) people are having less sex, b) more people are living alone, c) his concern for the “fatherless wastelands of social deprivation.”[8]

 

I’m not sure people having less sexcould destroy the whole hive unless everyone stopped having sex altogether. I do think he is right that lifegiving sex is in short supply in a white supremacist capitalist patriarchy,[9]but I don’t think that can all be laid at the door of the sexual revolution.  What conservative Christians often miss is that the women’s liberation movement, the black liberation movement, the development of the New Left, technological and scientific developments, and the sexual revolution all happened at the same time.  They are of course interconnected, interwoven, and in conflict at many and various points, but to simplify what is actually a very complex picture does not help.  When Harrison states that the sexual revolution improved women’s lives, he’s collapsing second wave feminism and womanism into the sexual revolution.  When he attributes higher rates of either abysmal sex or no sex to the sexual revolution he is collapsing technological developments, capitalism, consumerism, globalisation, Thatcherism, and various other isms and issues into the sexual revolution.

 

And let’s not pretend that Christians are having better sex.  I arrived to speak at a Christian event to be told that a male speaker at a previous seminar in the week had told attendees that “when women are having sex, they’re usually thinking about their shopping lists”.  Most Christian teaching on sex (including Harrison’s book) don’t even mention the clitoris.  This is crazy. God gave women an organ purely for sexual pleasure and nobody even points that out.  I digress.

 

If we look at Harrison’s evidence that more people are living alone, we find it is based on US research, and perhaps doesn’t account for what we’ve seen in the recession where many fewer adults can actually afford to live alone (he uses research from 2000 in evidence this).  But even if more people are living alone, is this the fault of the sexual revolution? I’m not convinced.  Isn’t this just as much about people no longer remaining in their town of birth?  We can move away, afford cars to travel home, and seek more aspirational careers through the opening of higher education to working class people.  Doesn’t it also include developments in healthcare which mean people are living longer, and a culture which venerates youth and demeans its older and infirm citizens?

 

As for the “fatherless wastelands”, Harrison views co-habitation and easy divorce as the cause of children being raised without fathers.  It’s odd because Harrison doesn’t point out that mothers are not leaving their children.  It’s men who abandon their children after a relationship fails.  Why is that?  It’s not primarily about relationship breakdown, but about masculinity and men failing to take responsibility for children.  With 30% of women being subjected to abuse by a partner in the UK,[10]a significant proportion of those children raised by single mothers will be much better off without the abusive father’s involvement.  It’s also interesting that Harrison’s focus is on separation and divorce, rather than considering that maybe the issue is that the skills to form strong and positive relationships is the issue.  Perhaps it’s not that people are divorcing quickly (I don’t know anyone, either Christian or not, who hasn’t agonised over whether to divorce, myself included), but maybe they are conducting relationships without the skills or support to form strong relationships?

 

3. Victimhood identities and cognitive minorities

Harrison has an issue with the “victimhood identity” of trigger warnings and the like.Whilst I am not a fan of trigger warnings myself, there is an irony in Harrison bemoaning safe spaces on university campuses as projecting an “inherently fragile” self,[11]when earlier in the book he insists that conservative Christians should begin to view themselves as a “cognitive minority”.[12]

 

“Christians have occupied the cultural mainstream for so long that we find the idea of being a minority difficult to stomach, never mind the thought of acting like one.”[13]

 

On the one hand, when actual minorities and those who have been subjected to violence or discrimination request spaces to be safe for them, this is a problem.  But when conservative Christians (who still dominate Christian discourse, and are the majority within Christianity overall, as those seeking inclusive churches can attest to) feel threatened, they should view themselves as minorities?  Minority status is not something to be claimed, however reluctantly.  It is conferred as a result of historical, political, and social powerlessness and oppression.  People of colour are the majority of humans globally, but they are minorities because of how power, privilege, and colonialism have harmed them and benefitted white people.

 

4. That no experience should shift theological positions on same-sex sexual relationships

Where Christians have become affirming of same-sex relationships as a result of their relationships with gay and lesbian Christians, Harrison views this as evidence that their theology was clearly flawed. According to him, if their love for their son, daughter, friend, or other person leads them to change their theology, then it wasn’t good theology in the first place.  Not only that, but if gay and lesbian people’s relationships begin to convince Christians that same-sex relationships are not wrong, this also is a result of flawed theology.  Accordingly, no experience should result in a shift in the conservative position on same-sex relationships.  One of the theological arguments I’ve seen to counter this is that when Peter was given the prophetic message of including Gentiles through the vision of the blanket,[14]this was confirmed in him seeing the Holy Spirit fall on Cornelius and the others who were present, “Surely no one can stand in the way of their being baptized with water. They have received the Holy Spirit just as we have.”[15]

 

5. The need to give conservative Christians a compelling case for marriage and families

Harrison explains that “Church leaders in the UK rightly call upon governments to do more for children by alleviating child poverty or improving educational opportunities.But in a culture where fully one-half of children reach maturity with only one parent in the home, the most important intervention they could make would be to set out more clearly a compelling case for the social goods of marriage and family.”[16]  Apart from Harrison’s statistic being wrong (25% of UK families are single parent),[17]I have yet to find a church which doesn’t think that marriage and family are a social good.

 

The issue I have encountered in conservative churches is not the devaluing of families and marriage, but the idolising of them.  If ever a statement were preaching to the choir, this is it. Conservative Christians do not have an issue being compelling on family and marriage.  They have a huge problem making single parents and single people feel welcome and included.  Mother’s Day services which insensitively ignore miscarriage, infertility. Father’s Day services which ignore abandonment and abuse.  Women pushed to stay with abusive husbands.  Single mothers left to feel like second class citizens (I speak from personal experience). These are the pressing issues for Conservative churches, not a doubling down into some compelling vision of what they already advocate for.

 

6. The threat of liberal elites

Harrison insists that, “Even as they undermine its importance for everybody else today’s liberal elites seem to know something about marriage that they are keeping for themselves.”[18] He doesn’t explain exactly how the liberal elites are stopping poor people getting married or how liberal elites are in charge of the sexual revolution.  Looking at the history of marriage (Harrison doesn’t), we find that marriage was all about keeping property safe once people began accumulating it.[19]  It was always about liberal elites!

 

7. A lack of practical suggestions

Harrison uses a lot of flowery language to offer the Better Story, but his practical suggestions are pretty sparse. They include:

  1. Celebrate singleness.
  2. View singleness as a vocation.
  3. Have community homes where married people, families and single people live together.
  4. Honour and celebrate marital commitments more publicly.
  5. Employ matchmakers like Orthodox Jews to facilitate voluntary introductions (yes really).
  6. Make weddings more profound celebrations of commitment.
  7. Make marriage preparation one of the first and most important pastoral skills acquired during ministerial training.
  8. Churches should provide marriage and parenting courses, if they’re a small church, they should partner with other local churches. This suggestion alone seems rather unrealistic!  Churches, working together?!

 

Harrison doesn’t tell us how he squares the circle that is the ratio of Christian men to Christian women in Christian culture.  Where do all the women find husbands?  How do the men learn how to be good husbands, when they’re bred in contexts of huge male entitlement?  He doesn’t mention the issue with patriarchal understandings of men and women that are rife in conservative Christian culture.  Or how we heal from the damage that has wrecked lives, marriages, sexuality.

 

 

Having looking at Harrison’s views, what do I think should be our approach to sexuality?  These are some of my primary principles (and are a work in progress!):

 

  • Sex is the most beautiful and most harmful element of human interaction.
  • Patriarchy is a spiritual principality and power, and sex is one of the places it operates most clearly. The specific impact on women and men of this must be articulated in any conversations about sexuality.
  • In heterosexual relationships, most sexual encounters have the possibility for a new human to be created. The sexually dimorphic nature of humans means that in heterosexual sexual activity, females risk (or hope for) becoming pregnant.  Whilst contraception and access to abortion has diminished the risk of this, it has not eradicated it.  This impacts hugely impacts heterosexual power dynamics.  The risks of sex for females are biologically significantly greater than for males.  One of the biggest issues with the sexual revolution is how, in ignoring this power differential, much harm has been done to women and girls.  I know this point will be very controversial to some.
  • The ideal context for a new human to exist is one in which their parents are committed to each other, have a shared value system, are on the same trajectory in terms of life goals, and where both parents contribute to the other’s greatest flourishing. Marriage can provide such a context (it mostly doesn’t).
  • Very few humans historically, currently and globally (including most of those mentioned in the Bible) are born into such a context. Yet as humans we seem to muddle through.
  • UK societal approaches to sex are hugely flawed and greatly harm many, perpetuating the myth that sex only has whatever meaning you choose to give it. Which is odd, given that these same people view sexual harassment and abuse as deeply harmful.
  • Christian constructs of sex are just as flawed as the wider UK societal approaches. The desire to double down on these constructs as a response to wider society is just going to more deeply harm everyone.
  • The UK church needs a season of lament and repentance, where we individually and corporately speak our pain, sorrow and guilt for harming so many and for the harm that has been done to us. This should not be only one service or sermon, but an ongoing posture of repentance. We must put to death our idolatry of the nuclear family and marriage.  As that seed dies, we must await what emerges from a posture of sorrow and repentance. The MeToo movement is a prophetic foreshadowing of what we need to be doing within the church; listening to the voices of those who have been hurt and broken by our messed up-ness.  We must be careful not to rush onto the next stage, instead awaiting God’s work in our hearts and minds.
  • It is tempting to offer what the next stage could involve, but I don’t think we’re there yet. I know that’s not satisfactory, but until we become comfortable with the pain of crucifixion, we cannot expect to discover what the other side of resurrection looks like, even though we can be sure that it is indeed a Better Story.

 

Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. 21 They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. Jesus answered them, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.  Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor. (John 12:20-26)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1]Page 81

[2]Gail Dines’ book “Pornland” discusses this.

[3]Page 111

[4]Page 149

[5]Page 151

[6]Page 28

[7]Page 180

[8]Page 121

[9]bell hooks

[10]http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/dcp171776_352362.pdf

[11]Page 119

[12]Page 68

[13]Page 69

[14]Acts 10

[15]Acts 10:47

[16]Page 169

[17]https://www.gingerbread.org.uk/policy-campaigns/publications-index/statistics/

[18]Page 102

[19]https://www.enotes.com/topics/marriage-history

Guest Blog – When the Youth Bible Hurts

I’ve got a guest post today from Judi Gardener who is a Christian feminist and also a survivor of multiple abuse including spiritual abuse that contributed to staying far too long with the perpetrator. She eventually ended up with PTSD and as a result lost her children through the family court. She is passionate about outreach to the unchurched, support around domestic violence and understanding of mental health issues. Somehow she ended up in an Anglo-Catholic (ish) Church and now has a Morning Prayer habit. She sometimes wishes God had not given her such broad shoulders.

 

It’s unacceptable. Whatever way I looked it was still unacceptable. I had opened a Youth Bible at random, it was a New Century Version but what I was reading actually seemed more fitting for the 19th century. It was not the Bible verse itself (Psalm 51), but the devotion that accompanied the text which got me so steamed up. The back cover informs me that the devotions are real life stories.  For the sake of the young woman who was the main character in this story, I sincerely hope there was more to it. If not, yet another young woman has been drastically failed by the ignorance of church leaders and will, years later, likely still be struggling through life.

 

IMG_0591 (1)

The box was headed “sexuality”, with a subheading of “whiter than snow”. It contained a not unfamiliar story of a young girl called Barbara who at nine-years-old was physically and sexually abused by her uncle. Apparently by thirteen she was sexually active with numerous guys and often dated guys four or five years older than herself.

What the devotion then focuses on is not that Barbara had obviously been abused by a number of men, but that Barbara was a sinner. In other words, the Youth Bible victim blames Barbara, in a rather big plot twist.  At no point in the text are the sins of the men who had sex with an underaged vulnerable girl mentioned. Apparently, Barbara needed to turn to God and have her sexual sin forgiven.  Excuse me.  Barbara, whilst no doubt a sinner just like all of us, had been more sinned against than she had been a sinner in her short life.

One of my go to Bible stories is that of the Samaritan Woman.  Jesus did not condemn her, but instead stayed in her company despite the cultural taboos.  He would have known why she had multiple husbands and was now living with another man outside of marriage. Had she been sexually abused?  We cannot know.

God certainly does not condemn all promiscuous women, Rahab the harlot is also described as a woman of faith. In John 8 1-11 Jesus deals with the adulterous woman, a familiar but for some quarters of the church a difficult story to stomach.

The truth is, a child who has been sexually abused such as Barbara, will feel filthy. The Youth Bible reflection explains, ‘“I came to church feeling like a tramp” she told Jan after they prayed. “But now I feel God has made me clean again.”’

This was supposedly after Barbara had asked to receive forgiveness for her sins. Now I am not doubting her experience and the peace that comes on giving your life to Christ, but for me, as an adult survivor of child sexual abuse, that dirty feeling did not instantly disappear. I was raped, for the first time at no older than seven and in hindsight I am grateful that I was not aware of what was happening to me. The experience left deep scars that lasted well into my adult life, way beyond my conversion.  It was being led into inner child healing and meeting up with my abuser years later that finally freed me. The former because it gave me some control over what I had suffered and the latter because I managed to see what a wounded man he had become and forgave him. The rape, like Barbara’s, was incestuous and was completely mishandled by my family when I choose to reveal it out of fear for another relative. I know now why.  Put simply, it was about shame. That sort of thing doesn’t happen in our family. It is the same in church. I think we can all recall situations where the reputation of the church was more highly valued than the welfare of the victim.

You may say this is an old version of the Bible and today’s teenagers get a different message, yet many of today’s church leaders would have been brought up on such Youth Bibles at the turn of the century and just as your music taste reflects your youth so do your values. It’s scary, and no wonder misogyny still rears its ugly head in our churches.

It needs to stop. Churches (if they have not already done so) need understandable child protection policies which include being able to deal with spiritual abuse and sexual abuse. Victim blaming is spiritually abusive and psychologically damaging. Victims need high quality pastoral care alongside support for reporting crimes. No further Barbaras, please, in Jesus name.

When It’s Not A Happy Ending

Many of you will know that Smallest GLW came to live with us almost three years ago when he was three. He and his mum moved in with our family after she wasn’t coping.  It was a tough time.  Smaller GLW who has some behavioural challenges had to share a room with Smallest GLW and we split our living room in two with a false wall to make a bedroom for his mum.

 

(This got me thinking about how the erecting of walls has become attached to Donald Trump’s racist agenda.  Yet for us, that wall in our living room represented a way of loving and making space for people.  Not all walls are bad, it seems.)

 

Six months into Smallest GLW being with us his mum felt ready to move on.  She got a job and moved out and asked us to adopt him. After much reflection and prayer, we said yes.

 

Every month I have a day with God.  I go to our local seaside town and walk along the shore, reviewing the past month, praying for those God brings to mind and seeking God’s will for my family and me. Soon after we had agreed to adopt Smallest GLW, I was on a God Day.  I realised that I wasn’t truly choosing to take Smallest GLW on as my own.  And when I tried to work out why, at the root of it I realised that it gave his mum a lot of power in my life.  What if she wanted him back?  How could I risk loving a child and taking him on as my own, knowing there was a risk I would lose him? I told God I couldn’t, that it was too hard.  And God told me that I must.  So I did. I trusted that God had told me this because He knew that Smallest GLW would be ours and that we could have faith that it would all be okay.

 

And so, our family embarked on being five and not four.  It was difficult.  Smallest GLW came with a whole load of baggage; it turns out there’s a lot of hurt that can be fitted into the short life of a three-year-old.  We loved him as hard as we could, and we put everything we could in place to help him flourish.  Strong boundaries and clear consequences, constantly telling him we loved him and how precious he was to us.  In response to questions about how many children we had, Mr GLW and I got used to saying we had three, with no qualifiers or differentials.  They were all our babies.  We went from having two older children (nine and twelve), to having a three-year-old and adapting to the limitations and joys of having a small, adorable, hurt little person.

 

Smallest GLW did flourish! In the past three years he caught up from six months social and emotional delay, his health stabilised, he is top of his class in every subject.  His teacher told us recently that out of all the children in her class, he is the one child you would never guess had experienced a difficult start in life. He is kind, caring and wonderful. The moments of helping him hold his hurt gradually diminish.  We all adjusted, and despite the difficult days, it was lovely.

 

But things changed. Smallest GLW’s mum moved over 200 miles away, had another baby, and wanted him returned to her.  We held onto the word from God telling us that Smallest GLW had become ours and we fought to keep him.  As much as we would have loved to help him be returned, the circumstances left us convinced this would not be good for anyone.  The family court system remains highly confidential and so I can’t go into the details, but a year on from his mum seeking for him to be returned and much to our shock (and the shock of everyone else we know), Smallest GLW is going to be leaving us and moving over 200 miles away, returning permanently to his mum.

 

Whilst everyone else was getting super excited about Michael Curry’s wedding sermon, I wept hysterically as I listened to him.  He said,

 

“That’s what love is. Love is not selfish and self-centered. Love can be sacrificial, and in so doing, becomes redemptive. And that way of unselfish, sacrificial, redemptive love changes lives, and it can change this world…Imagine this tired old world where love is the way. When love is the way – unselfish, sacrificial, redemptive.”

 

And Christian Twitter LOVED it (well mostly).  It’s inspiring to hear about sacrificial love, but it’s brutal to live it.  All these people cheering on sacrificial love, and I was losing a baby in a system that is messed up; when God had specifically told me to take that baby as my own.  How could God do that to me?  How could anyone preach that this was a good idea?  Why were people not struck with fear by the absolute horror of sacrificial love?  Of what it can do to us?  Of how it can break us?

 

It’s been an unbearable few months as we’ve gone through a system where legal aid is non-existent.  Today I sat in a court waiting room and a volunteer brought around a therapy dog.  She was lovely and sat with people whilst they stroked her (the dog, not the volunteer).  Weeks earlier, sat in the same waiting room I had seen a woman broken by an abusive ex-partner dragging her through the court.  She was representing herself.  She was all alone.  Every day women are being dragged through the family court by abusive men and they are alone.  For a moment I stroked the lovely dog and felt relieved that some women would have a dog to stroke while they waited to be re-broken by the man who had destroyed their life, in a system that colludes with him.  I shared my relief with the volunteer that women would have this dog to comfort them.  And she nodded and told me there have been many women who have sat on the floor with her dog and wept as they told the dog the ways they have been wrecked, by men and by the system.

 

Then I became slightly hysterical.  What on earth was I thinking?  Why am I pleased that women have a dog to comfort them in the family court, when what they need is a functioning justice system that gives them a fair hearing and does not collude with abusive men?  WHAT THEY NEED IS A FRICKING LAWYER, NOT A DOG TO WEEP ON.  The state of our society is captured right there, in that court waiting room.  A woman weeping on the floor comforted by a dog whilst the system completely fails her.

 

When things began to get fraught for us, before we knew what the terrible outcome would be, inspired by the Eat Pray Love mantra, I took on my own mantra of Run Pray Sleep.  I found that as long as each day included a run, a dedicated prayer time, and at least eight hours sleep, I would be okay.  But then that fell apart.  The stress resulted in me getting severe tonsillitis, then I twisted my ankle.  I couldn’t run.  Nightmares, constantly going over statements and strategies in my head and the clocks changing meant my sleep was terrible.  And I stopped being able to pray, there was nothing to say.  I couldn’t face the possibility of losing Smallest GLW, but neither could I rest in the confidence he was staying, because then if he did leave it would be all the more devastating.

 

The debilitating effect of this situation confounded me partly because I have been through worse (and I don’t say that lightly).  At 21, I divorced my abusive ex-husband, while living in a hospital with a premature baby and a traumatised toddler and was a witness against my ex-husband for raping me and causing the three-month premature birth of my baby.

 

Yet this situation hurt in a different way.  With my sick baby, there was little I could do fight.  I was totally out of control.  Whereas in this situation we had to choose to keep fighting, to believe that we could “win”.  The energy required to fight a broken system was different.  And I was different.  I wasn’t a young parent with no confidence who had been decimated by an abusive man. I had been a competent professional for a decade, I had become a warrior fighting for women and speaking truth. And yet, this whole situation drained me of strength, disempowered me, left me broken.

 

A couple of realisations helped:

 

  1. Every year in June or July I have a God Weekend (me and God for two nights, usually in a cheap hotel in Folkestone, waiting on God, reflecting on the year, working out what’s next), and there’s usually some words that become clear about the year ahead. Last June, two of the words God gave me were Fortitude and Presence.  (I didn’t know what Fortitude even meant, but on discovering that it meant “courage in pain or adversity” I panicked.  Courage isn’t too bad, but a word that promised pain and adversity suggested the year was going to be awful, and in a lot of ways it has been.)  Over the year I had felt guilty about the whole Presence word.  I hadn’t sought God’s presence, particularly when things had got bad.  I hadn’t even been able to pray anymore.  Then a few weeks ago, as I wallowed in the misery of being a failed Christian and not seeking God’s presence, God pointed out to me that I was wrong.  That word “Presence” was about God always being present.  I wasn’t a failure for not being able to pray.  God was present.  I didn’t need to do anything, God was there all along.  God is always there.

 

  1. I’ve been having counselling for almost a year. On my God Weekend some stuff came up that I tried to pray about and God was all, “YOU COULD SIT HERE FOR THREE DAYS AND PRAY, BUT LET’S BE HONEST, YOU NEED TO GET YOURSELF IN THERAPY.”  So I did.  Which turns out to have been very good advice given that this year has involved being utterly wrecked.

 

In one session recently, just before a court hearing, my therapist did this visualisation exercise with me (it took months for me not to be all ARGHHHHH about such things) and she told me to imagine being a boat on a stormy sea and that I was putting down an anchor.  My imagination conjured up a wooden rowing boat and I knew that an anchor wasn’t going to help. I was going to be SMASHED TO PIECES and an urgent solution was needed.  Suddenly my rowing boat became a massive metal warship.  As I drove home I pondered this and realised that I wasn’t a rowing boat, I was a MASSIVE METAL WARSHIP and I knew that I would not be overcome.  I walked into the court room all empowered and confident that I could fight everyone.  And we lost.  We lost our baby.

 

Church has been tough, illness and circumstances meant I didn’t attend for almost two months.  Every song makes me cry.  And I am certainly not a public cryer (no judgement to those who are, I wish I could be).

 

This week when we announced to our church that Smallest GLW was leaving, people were so sad. One woman came over to tell Smallest GLW, who was snuggled up to me, that no matter what he would never be alone, and I squashed all the tears down as my insides screamed “BUT HE WILL BE ALL ALONE AND I WON’T BE THERE TO KEEP HIM SAFE AND LOVE HIM AND TELL HIM HE IS PRECIOUS AND AMAZING AND CUDDLE HIM AND MAKE SURE HE BRUSHES HIS TEETH AND EATS HIS DINNER AND IS KIND TO HIS FRIENDS”.  Someone else assured me that she thought he would be back, even though he won’t be. But this person just wants there to be a happy ending, because that’s what we all want isn’t it?  Happy endings.  And that’s what we’ve been told the Gospel is, a happy ending.  But for most people in the world, Christian or not, it’s not a happy ending.  The woman weeping into a dog on the floor of a court waiting room.  The Palestinian nurse Razan al-Najjar shot by Israeli soldiers. The American citizens fearful of being arrested and shot or hearing of their sons or daughters being shot, because they are black.  The Syrian people living in a warzone.  The increasing numbers of homeless people in our cities.  Happy ever afters are for fairy tales, not for real life and certainly not for Christians.

 

The sermon at church last week was about brokenness and how Jesus’ light shines through our brokenness.  Inside I was yelling, “BUT NOT THIS BROKEN, BECAUSE THERE’S NOTHING LEFT.”  Then we sang Becky and Nick Drake’s song “City On A Hill” and there’s a line in it, “If God is for me, who can stand against me.”  And the yelling started up again inside me, “BUT CLEARLY THAT’S NOT TRUE BECAUSE WE’RE LOSING OUR BABY.”

 

I have no answers.  I don’t understand why God has put us through this.  I should have had an inkling it was going to be hard when I won a sermon competition two years ago decrying the complacency and comfortableness of Christians (you can read the sermon HERE).  So maybe, now I get to like on of those long ago prophets who lives out some sort of lesson to the people of God.  Or maybe that’s me trying to make meaning out of the unbearable.  Who knows?

 

I do know that for the last three years Smallest GLW has belonged somewhere.  He has not felt like he was a temporary family member.  He has been ours.  And if God had told us he was only ours for a little while, I’m not sure we could have given him what he needed.  To know he belonged.

 

I got thinking about the Prodigal Child (I wrote a story once reimagining this story as a mother and two daughters).  How our model for God as parent is that we mess up and walk away from God and then God waits for us to come back and welcomes us with open arms.  But what about the children who don’t walk away? What about the ones who are taken away, or who find that religious systems abuse them and for their sanity and safety they have to leave?  And I wondered if I’m getting to feel a tiny bit of what God feels when the systems take God’s children away, and how deeply God grieves for those children and how hard God fought but that didn’t change the outcome.

 

There may be people reading this who aren’t Christian (if you’ve got this far, I applaud you!), and you may be thinking that I’m a masochist.  Why continue to love a God who only causes pain?  If God asks that much of me, why do I keep going? How can I call myself a feminist and worship this patriarchal God who demands everything and leaves men to continue wrecking the world?  (I remain forever grateful to the feminists who continue to welcome me, even though they are confident I am utterly deluded about this God business).  I wish I had a snappy answer to give you, but I don’t.

 

Awhile ago, I read THIS interview with Rachael Denhollander who is an absolute Shero for all of her work seeking justice for the many victims of Larry Nassar, and in her continued work to shine a light on male violence in Christian communities.  Rachael was asked if a Bible verse has particularly helped her and she answered,

 

“One was from John 6, where Jesus asks Peter, “Do you want to leave too?” Peter says, “Where else would I go, Lord? You have the words of life.” There was a point in my faith where I had to simply cling to the fact that although I didn’t understand or have the answers, I knew that God was good and that he was love. Whatever else I didn’t understand couldn’t be a contradiction to that.”

 

In all of this I know that to be true.  It makes no sense.  But it is true.  There is nowhere else I could go to find Life like that which I have found in following Jesus.

 

Michael Curry’s sermon, whilst leaving me hysterical, is true. He is not someone speaking nice ideas. He is a 65-year-old black American man. He knows what sacrificial love costs and yet he still advocates it, and even in the midst of all this awfulness for us, I remain convinced it is the only way.

 

I don’t have any answers.  And the pain is going to get worse before it becomes bearable.  Smallest GLW leaves us on 23rd June.  As a family we have to work out a new normal and find a way through.  Both in spite of and because of all we are dealing with, I remain convinced that though we are hard pressed on every side, we are not crushed; though we are deeply perplexed in trying to make sense of it all, we are not totally despairing or abandoned, though we have been struck down, we will not be destroyed.

Are You Sitting Comfortably?

In 2016, I entered the first Sermon of the Year competition run by Preach Magazine.  I only submitted an entry due to knowing how few women put themselves forward and feeling that I had a responsibility to represent womankind by putting a sermon entry in.  And I won it!  Which was amazing!  The prize was free study at London School of Theology and I convinced them to let me enter one of their Masters programmes without a first degree (I left education at 18 having done a two year course to gain a childcare qualification).  Fast forward two years and the competition is in its third year, the final will be on 21st June at LST and I’m now a regular columnist with Preach Magazine!

 

Anyway, I thought it was about time I put my sermon online.  It turns out that the sermon I wrote and preached has involved our family living out the message in some sort of old skool prophet way (which I can tell you is not that fun).  There’s been a lot going on in GLW family life over the last few months and I’m hoping to write something to share with you about it, but I felt to firstly share this sermon as I kind of feel it is part of what needs to be told.  So here goes…

 

“Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin.”

 

I am much too young to have “listened with mother” but this question has followed us through the generations. I shall ask you again, “Are you sitting comfortably?”

 

This sermon is entitled “Reason For Hope”. Hope involves balancing on the line between despair and complacency. It is the narrow road we are called to as Christians. For if life is too comfortable, what have we to hope for? Hope can only exist until it is realised. We can celebrate the realisation of our hope, but the hope itself is replaced by the delight of hope fulfilled.

 

Paul tells us in Romans 8 that “the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to daughter and son-ship, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have?”

 

What have we to hope for if we are sitting comfortably?

 

Hope requires a deficit; something not yet received. However most of us want a reason to hope without the need for hope in our lives, without the discomfort of any deficit. There’s a reason why the fastest growing churches are in geographical areas of persecution and oppression; when people are in need of hope, Jesus offers Life, whereas there are conversations aplenty in the UK about whether the church is dying and how to revive it.

 

Maya Angelou, in her book “I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings” says, “I find it interesting that the meanest life, the poorest existence is attributed to God’s will, but as human beings become more affluent, as their living standard and style begin to ascend in material scale, God descends the scale of responsibility at commensurate speed.”

 

We hear Richard Dawkins and Stephen Fry mocking the existence of God, as they enjoy the privileges of financial and social security; as white men with enormous power and control over their own lives. Last year Stephen Fry used the example of a fly that burrows into a child’s eye as justification that God can’t be real. Yet often we will find that the children and families who have actually dealt with the burrowing eye fly are more likely to believe in a loving God than Stephen Fry is. Because when you have nothing, God can become real very quickly.

 

As Christians we are called to a life of discomfort. The artist Banksy famously said, “Art should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable.” Although he is talking about art, this is also the truth of the Gospel. In a world that sings along with Pharrell Williams that “Happiness is the truth” Jesus’ call to “pick up our cross daily” leaves the gospel of happiness echoing hollow and empty. For as much as Jesus comforts the disturbed, the lonely, the wounded, the abused, He does not call us to be comfortable.

 

Those familiar with nineties and noughties Christian music will know the band Delirious. One of their songs is called Find Me In The River. Within it are the lines, “We’ve longed to see the roses, but never felt the thorns. And bought our pretty crowns, but never paid the price.”

 

In our comfortable existence we want the goodness of God’s gifts and blessing, but the fullness of life Jesus talked about is accessed by dying to ourselves every single day. This is not to say that we should engage in self-hatred. Selflessness is not thinking less of ourselves, it’s thinking of ourselves less. The paradox of Christian faith is that in giving ourselves to God, we find ourselves.

 

Are you sitting comfortably?

 

God loves us so much. If like Cain, we come to God in our plenty and choose to give Him less than the best of what we have, He will still love us. He will still meet with us. Yet, it was Abel who was “looked upon with favour”. God will not demand our all, but if we give it we will find Him and know Him in that.

 

Having grown up in a Christian family, I knew cognitively about the hope Jesus offers, yet it was only after 4 years of being prevented from loving God by an abusive man that I discovered in my heart what it really means to have a reason to hope. I found myself living in a hospital, with a three-month premature baby and a traumatised toddler. I hoped my baby would recover and that my life would improve. Yet God didn’t pat me on the head and grant my wishes. God asked me to give up even the hope that my baby would get better. He told me to stop praying for my baby to recover and start praying for His will to be done. He told me I needed to be confident of my love for Him, whether my baby lived or died.

 

We are so often taught the Gospel of Sitting Comfortably. The catchall verse of Jeremiah 29:11 is trundled out to tell us that God has good plans for us, to bring us hope and a good future. Yet what about all the people who haven’t known a good future? The ones who struggle with depression? The ones who die of starvation? The ones who are abused and raped? The ones with children who are blind because a fly has burrowed into their eye?

 

The Gospel of Sitting Comfortably owes a lot more to capitalist culture than to Jesus. We are sold the lie of consumer based self-actualisation. That we can access total fulfilment through consuming, spending, owning; that the abundance of our possessions leads to the overflow of happiness in our lives. That sitting comfortably or even better, drowning in a sea of excess, is what life is all about.

 

But that is not the Gospel. That is not our Hope. For we are blessed when we are poor, blessed when we are mourning, blessed when we are humble and blessed when we are merciful. Blessed when we are pure in heart and blessed when we make peace. We are blessed when we are persecuted because of righteousness, when we are mocked and when people lie about us. Because ours in the Kingdom of Heaven.

 

Are you sitting comfortably?

 

How much are you willing to give God? Will you be obedient if He asks you to move house? To give up your job? Do you need a reason to hope or do you just like having one.

 

In one of the Hunger Games film there is a scene where the not-so-benevolent dictator is explaining his theory for maintaining order amongst oppressed people, “Hope. It is the only thing stronger than fear. A little hope is effective. A lot of hope is dangerous. A spark is fine, as long as it’s contained.”  Sisters and brothers, we have access to a hope that can set the world alight. Yet because of God’s grace, He allows us to contain it. He allows us to hold just enough hope to know we are saved, without forcing it to change us, to make us people of the deficit.  We have a hope that could set our lives and our communities ablaze, yet we are sitting too comfortably.

 

Until we are willing for God to disturb us, to take us outside of comfortable, then He won’t. And though we have a reason to hope, we have no need of it. No need of it at all.

 

We are called to be a people of deficit. Our Saviour was tortured and died. We cannot shy away from pain and wounded-ness, for our hope is in the resurrection of a tortured God.  The title of this sermon is from 1 Peter 3: “But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect.”

 

Does anyone ask you for your reason to hope? Or does your life look the same as those who don’t know Jesus? Maybe people know you’re a Christian; not because of your “reason to hope” but because of your lack of gentleness and respect. Maybe they know your opinions on different issues. But discussing our opinions has little to do with our reason to hope. In fact, the certainty of our rightness can sometimes stand at odds with a life of faith; it is certainty and not doubt that is the opposite of faith.

 

Maybe you’re sat here, and you’re wondering what I’m going on about. What is this “reason to hope” that I’m talking about?  God came to earth over 2000 years ago, He was birthed out of a woman as a human baby and grew up to live and teach a way of life that almost every religious and ethical group would agree has never been surpassed. He willingly died to once and for all transform humanity’s relationship with God. And then He rose again, conquering death and making a way from death into eternal life for all of us, regardless of the way we mess up or are messed up by others. After Jesus had risen from the dead He supernaturally floated back up to heaven and in His place came the Holy Spirit, another aspect of God, who would guide and gift us to live radical lives, according to The Way that Jesus taught and modelled in His life.

 

My children and I lived in a hospital for five months. In that time I separated from my ex-husband, and went through a court case against him for raping me and I moved to a new area. Since I chose to give my whole life to God I have not been comfortable, my ex-husband was found not guilty; I still have post traumatic stress disorder; my premature baby became well but has been left with behavioural issues; my traumatised toddler has become a gloriously self-assured 12 year old; I have remarried and moved when and where God has told me to. Recently my mum died and the shockwaves of that have been very painful for me. My 22-year-old niece and her 3-year-old son have come to live with us and we have had to trust God for the money to provide for them. We have carved up our living room to make her a bedroom and my 9-year-old son has had to learn to share a room with a 3-year-old. Our house is filled to bursting. We face pain, disappointment and frustration on a regular basis.

 

And yet, I do all this in the full assurance that I am loved and called and precious. Because Jesus became human, I have a God who can walk beside me and knows what it is to suffer. Through the Holy Spirit, I am held in the painful times. I am comforted, though I am not comfortable. And I live a life of freedom and in the hope that this life is not the end. Jesus’s death and resurrection made a way for each of us to have hope for this life and for the next. This is my reason to hope.

 

As you leave this place, may you know the God who disturbs, may you embrace a life with deficit, where the cost is great and the blessings many. And may you be willing to live a life with a need for hope. For those here that don’t know Jesus, may you know that He is the reason to hope.

 

Are you sitting comfortably? I hope not.

Paige Patterson; Abuse of the less serious variety

Paige Patterson is the President of the US Southern Baptist Convention.  His response to a question about domestic abuse at a conference in 2000 re-emerged this week.  You can listen to a transcript of his comments HERE.  The questioner asks about the media discussion around submission “jumping” on the issue of women being abused by their husbands.  He asks Paige Patterson

“What do you recommend for women undergoing genuine physical abuse from their husbands and the husbands say they should be submitting?”

Patterson responds with,

“It depends on the level of abuse to some degree. I have never in my ministry counselled that anybody seek a divorce, and I do think that’s always wrong counsel. There have been, however an occasion or two when the level of the abuse was serious enough, dangerous enough, immoral enough that I have counselled temporary separation and the seeking of help.  I would urge you to understand that that should happen only in the most serious of cases…  More often, when you face abuse it is of a less serious variety.”

He explains that he won’t describe the type of abuse that was severe enough to lead him to counsel temporary separation because it was so horrifying that it couldn’t be spoken about in public.

He went on to give an example where a woman was being “subject to some abuse” and he told her to pray about it based on his understanding of Jesus’ words in Matthew 7:7-12.  He said that she came to church with two black eyes, but that it was all okay, because her husband came to church for the first time that Sunday and “his heart was broken”.  Patterson explains,

“…when nobody else can help, God can.  And in the meantime, you have to do whatever you can at home to be submissive in every way that you can and to elevate him.  Obviously, if he’s doing that kind of thing he’s got some very deep spiritual problems in his life and you have to pray that God brings into the intersection of his life those people and those events that need to come into life and arrest him and bring him to his knees.”

Let’s take a little look at some of the language used within this.  Patterson clearly reinforces all concerns that submission leaves abusive men supported in their behaviour.  To some degree I wonder if this is preferable to the weasel words of those who try to justify complementarian theology as absolutely fine. At least he’s honest about it.

From the outset, the questioner uses passive language and a qualifier to abuse, “undergoing genuine physical abuse from their husbands”.  I use this clip from Jackson Katz A LOT in training to explain how language is used to erase the agent of the abuse (who is generally a man).

By asking about “genuine physical abuse”, the questioner is inferring that non-genuine abuse exists.  What would that be?  Does the husband’s violence have to leave bruises to be genuine? What about if there isn’t physical violence?  Is that what he means?  If a man is berating his wife, belittling her, humiliating her, manipulating her into degrading sexual acts, giving her no money to buy sanitary products, timing how long she takes shopping, screams in her face, torments the children to punish her, deliberately gets her into debt, keeps her up all night, makes her watch him wash after sex because she’s so dirty?  Are all these things not genuine because he hasn’t physically hurt her?

I should say at this point, even responses to Patterson still echo the language of only an abuser’s physical violence warranting separation, for example:

Screen Shot 2018-04-29 at 08.31.23

Patterson’s response starts again with qualifying the type of abuse a man has to perpetrate in order for a woman to legitimately separate from him.  But apparently it has to be SO bad that you can’t actually publicly tell people about it.  Patterson also doesn’t make any mention of how a church leader would actually be privy to the full scale of abuse being perpetrated.

Disclosure is usually accidental and is always gradual.  Nobody starts by disclosing the worst things that their husband has done to them.  We start small and see if a) we are believed and b) we are looked at with disgust or care. The risk of speaking out leaves most women unwilling to do so, which means that often it will be accidental. Someone sees us at the school gate on the day he has bruised us, or one of our children mentions something to their teacher, or we mention something benign like, “Oh my husband doesn’t let me go shopping for more than half an hour.”  Because we hadn’t realised that isn’t normal.

Nobody is going to start off by telling their church leader, “he urinates on me and chokes me and one day he took me to a derelict building and told me if I tried to leave him, he would bury me there”.  And so, how exactly is Patterson able to assess how serious the abuse is in order to decide whether it meets his criteria, when he will likely never be provided with enough information to do so.  But besides that, what abuse is not serious?  Why does he get to make an arbitrary line between run of the mill abuse which should simply be ignored and that which is “serious enough, dangerous enough, immoral enough” to warrant temporary separation (nothing warrants divorce, so the only women able to escape are those whose husbands kill them, or who kill their husbands)?  Sin is sin. Abuse is abuse.  There is no sliding scale.  And abusers inevitably escalate their behaviour, so whichever abuser fits within Patterson’s “acceptable abuse” category today may kill their partner or children tomorrow.

It takes years for most of us to recognise that our partner’s behaviour is wrong.  He works very hard to ensure that we blame ourselves for his behaviour, and his constant minimisation and denial leaves us sure it can’t be that bad.  By the time a woman says, “I need to get out”, you need to be listening to her and doing all you can to help.  Particularly women in Christian communities, who have been indoctrinated to believe men have to be in charge, that submission is the solution and that denial-based-forgiveness is the way to move forward.  But from this interview, there seems to be an inference that women are accusing their husbands of abuse willy nilly, just waking up in the morning and thinking, “Today I’ll go to my pastor and say that George is abusive because he won’t let me buy 73 pairs of shoes.”  Just no.

It’s always convenient isn’t it, that people like Patterson have that story of the violent husband whose wife prays and he becomes a model Christian man.  But it is hugely irresponsible to tell that story (whether it’s actually true is always something we must ask too).  Abusive men do not change out of nowhere.  There are too many benefits for them in remaining abusive. They get whatever they want whenever they want it; sex on demand, a servant, the status of being a good husband and father without actually being one, they get to always be right.  And Patterson wants to uphold all those benefits, in fact he wants to increase them.  Why on earth would an abuser change when Patterson is saying that an abuser should be rewarded with increasing levels of submission and adoration from his wife?

Patterson says that “when nobody else can help, God can”.

YOU CAN HELP, PAIGE PATTERSON!  WE CAN ALL HELP.  THIS IS NOT SOME INCURABLE DISEASE THAT WE ALL HAVE TO HOPE GOD WILL INTERVENE IN. THIS IS AN ABUSIVE MAN MAKING CHOICES THAT ARE ILLEGAL.  WE CAN REPORT HIM TO THE POLICE.  WE CAN FIND HER AND HER CHILDREN A SAFE PLACE.  WE CAN STAB HIM IN THE HEAD.  OKAY I KNOW WE SHOULDN’T DO THAT, BUT AT LEAST WE COULD THINK AND ACT WITH A VIEW THAT HE NEEDS TO BE STOPPED.

The only mention to “arrest” that Patterson makes is that God might arrest the abuser’s heart.  PATTERSON SEEMS TO LIVE ON ANOTHER PLANET WHERE THERE AREN’T ACTUAL POLICE OFFICERS WHO CAN ARREST ABUSIVE MEN.  The US and UK have both had laws in place for decades which can be used to arrest, charge and convict those who harm a partner.  The police could actually arrest the abusive husband, but no, Patterson wants to leave that up to God.  We should just pray that God brings situations and people into the man’s life that cause the man to be changed.  Let us not consider that maybe WE are the people that God has brought into the man’s life!  Let us not consider that WE could be the ones God is asking to partner with women and their children in finding a way out.  Instead, Patterson would prefer that like the Pharisees we tithe our herbs and neglect the weightier matters of justice, mercy and faithfulness.

It is easy for us all to be horrified and outraged about Patterson’s comments.  And they are deeply concerning, particularly for all the women and children who have been brutalised first by an abusive man, and then had that compounded by church leaders and communities who have been more interested in the letter of the law rather than the spirit of justice and mercy. However, it is much harder to accept that we are likely to believe some of the things that Patterson says, albeit in much more implicit and hidden ways.

Years ago, I was contacted by a church leader.  She wanted to know what to do about a family in her congregation.  The man had been violent towards his wife on a number of occasions.  I started by asking the church leader if she felt able to advise the woman to leave, “Oh yes of course,” she said, “nobody should be abused.”  After we had been talking for about 20 minutes, she said to me, “The thing is, he was going to leave, and we felt that we could support her, because he was going to instigate leaving.”  My response, “It sounds like you’re saying that if she had instigated leaving, you wouldn’t feel you could support her?”  This church leader thought for a moment and responded, “No, I don’t think we would, because of what the Bible says about divorce and forgiveness and…”

We all like to believe that we think abuse is wrong.  And that we don’t have such horrendous views as Paige Patterson.  But in reality, we are theologically and psychologically predisposed to deny abuse.  If she’s a strong woman, or he’s a lovely man.  If she hasn’t mentioned physical violence or it seems like it’s a one off.  We don’t want to believe that it’s abuse and so we minimise it, make it into something palatable.  It’s his mental health issues.  She’s quite overbearing.  They just need couple counselling or to attend the Marriage Course. (Relationship counselling is NEVER appropriate where there is an abuser).

I spoke to a woman who asked for prayer because her husband was abusive.  The pray-er advised her to put little love notes in his pocket each morning.  Apparently that would solve it.

We don’t want to live in a world where the men that we think are good and nice could be abusers.  We don’t want to believe that the women we know who are competent and strong could also be subjected to abuse by their husbands.  We don’t want to believe that our church, family, neighbourhood could be tainted by abusers.  And so we minimise, avoid, reshape the narrative and all without ever believing that WE, the woke people that we are, could EVER be anything like Paige Patterson.

But maybe we are.

 

 

If you’ve found this blog helpful, my WHOLE book about Christians and domestic abuse is being published by SPCK in March 2019.  If you’d like to get updates about the book, you can sign up HERE.

 

GUEST BLOG: Reproductive Loss

I was recently contacted by someone saying that their experience of Christian culture and Scripture suggested that women were only valuable if they had children.  She asked me if I knew of any resources about this.  And the first person that came to mind was Karen O’Donnell, who is an extremely wonderful woman!  I asked her if she’d be up for writing a guest blog for me and she agreed.  Karen blogs at Verum Corpus and is on Twitter @kmrodonell.

 

“You give and take away. My heart will choose to say, Lord blessed be your name.”

 

I remember hearing Matt Redman sing this song at a Christian festival, surrounded by the youth group I led. They were loving it and I was too. It was months later that I discovered this song had been written by Redman and his wife in response to reproductive loss. I remember thinking that it was incredible that they could say this after such an experience. Little did I know that their experience was about to become mine.

 

In my twenties, I experienced repeated reproductive loss whilst trying to have a baby. I was a worship leader and youth leader in a lively, evangelical church. After the first miscarriage, so many women comforted me and told me stories of their own loss. These stories were, unanimously, stories that led eventually to them giving birth to living, healthy children. No one blamed God for my loss. But children were clearly a blessing from God and having a family was taken for granted.

 

But that first loss led to more. A four-year period of my life was constant peeing on sticks, appointments with doctors, and regular heart-breaking loss. And this church, that I had been part of for fourteen years, didn’t know what to do with me. People avoided me because they just didn’t know what to say. The leadership team (all male, all fathers, of course) barely spoke to me. Sometimes, well-meaning women prophesied that I would have a baby by this date or that year. Those dates and years came and went. No baby. I couldn’t worship because I couldn’t sing about God’s love and faithfulness without bursting into tears. Over time I started arriving at church late to avoid the worship time (and the dreaded risk of the “you give and take away” song). Then I started avoiding church all together – I couldn’t handle seeing more pregnant women. Eventually, I just never went back to the church.

 

Lots of good has come from this. I don’t have any children. But I do now have a PhD, and academic career, a new life and some objective distance from these events of my twenties. There are two issues to highlight in this experience of mine. First, it’s really hard to know what to do with reproductive loss theologically. Lots of the things that are written are sentimental and don’t take the horrific experience of such loss seriously. Lots of the literature around this issue from a Christian perspective, assumes that eventually you will have a living, healthy baby. And that’s just not true. Culturally, we are not good at handling reproductive loss. It’s caught up in taboos around acknowledging early pregnancy, taboos around bleeding, and sex. So, we don’t talk about it.

 

The second issue is that having children is taken for granted for Christian couples in many churches. We have few narratives of the Christian life that do not include children for married couples. There is an expectation that, once married, children will follow in reasonably quick measure. Again, this just isn’t the case! Infertility is common in both men and women. Tommy’s charity estimates that anything between 20-50% of all pregnancies end in reproductive loss. Not all of those who are infertile will want to go through the intrusive and fraught adoption process. And, let’s be honest, not all people want children. This can be difficult to admit in churches that are orientated around the family, where children are seen as a blessing from God, and the ‘be fruitful and multiply’ command is taken literally.

 

No two situations of reproductive loss and childlessness are the same and people feel very differently about their experiences. So, what helped me might not help you. But these are things that I found healing and restorative.

 

  1. If your church can’t (or won’t) support you through the experience of reproductive loss and/or childlessness, then find some support elsewhere. For me, that meant leaving not just the church I had been part of all my Christian life but leaving the whole evangelical tradition. I worship in a liberal Anglican church now which isn’t perfect but has a broader understanding of the varieties of Christian life. Whilst it is welcoming for families, it also has many activities and experiences that are not shaped around the family. And no one has ever asked me when I plan to have children.

 

  1. Seek out places where you can tell your story. This is especially true if you have found your experiences to be traumatic. It is vital that you can tell your story to witnesses who can hear it and love you. This might be an online forum like Saltwater and Honey, a support group, or a group of friends who love you and have experienced similar things themselves. If you can’t find one, start one.

 

  1. Don’t go to church on Mother’s Day.

 

  1. Read theology that gives you life. For me, it was Serene Jones’ “Rupture” in Hope Deferred: Heart Healing Reflections on Reproductive Loss that helped me reflect on my experiences and come to terms with them. It helped me be whole again. It helped me pray. And eventually, it led me back to Church. You might also like to read the brilliant Dawn Llewellyn’s work on voluntary and involuntary childlessness. Or Nicole Johnsons reflection on Invisible Grief in reproductive loss.

 

Over the last few months I have been working on a theology of reproductive loss. My research revealed that very little has been written on this topic, and very little research has been done with people who experience such loss. So, I’m seeking to rectify this. This is the outworking of my own recovery – engaging with the world and offering something out of my experience. I’m working towards a theology of reproductive loss that begins with the miscarrying body and offers hope, not in the form of a future baby, but in the form of a future life in all its fullness.

 

Karen has created Reproductive Loss Reading List that you might find helpful.