#SheRises7

To celebrate the 10th anniversary of Rev Dr Kate Coleman’s book 7 Deadly Sins of Women in Leadership, I’m organising a Twitter book group to read through the book, one chapter per week.  Kate’s organisation Next Leadership are encouraging people to run She Rises book groups and so I thought a Twitter Book Group would be a great idea!  

Rather than having to all be online at the same time or anything like that, we’ll have the hashtag #SheRises7.  As we read the book, we can tweet with the hashtag to share any thoughts or ideas.  We can also read through the hashtag and comment on other people’s thoughts.  And we’ll have a chapter hashtag to make clear which chapter we’re discussing (e.g. #int for introduction, #ch1 for chapter 1, #ch2 for chapter 2 and so on).  

About ten women have told me they’re interesting in joining.  Within the next couple of week’s the audiobook will be launched, so anyone who can’t manage reading it can participate using the audio book. 

We’ll start with the Introduction on Monday 14th October, which gives women time to sign up, and also for those on limited budgets to have a bit of time to get the money together to buy it.  If you would like to participate and can’t afford the book, let me know.  If you would like to support women in participating by buying a book for a woman, let me know (especially men who are committed to supporting women’s leadership).  My contact details are at the end of the blog.

This is the #sherises7 book group plan:

WEEK BEGINNING CHAPTER HASHTAG
14th October Introduction #int
21st October Chapter 1 #ch1
28th October Chapter 2 #ch2
4th November Chapter 3 #ch3
11th November Chapter 4 #ch4
18th November Chapter 5 #ch5
25th November Chapter 6 #ch6
2nd December Chapter 7 #ch7
9th December Overall reflections #sherises7

If you’d like to join the book group, feel free to just start tweeting with #SheRises7, and join in with reading the book and tweeting from 14th October.  However, if you’d like to be copied into tweets about the book group, to let you know where we’re up to and stuff, please can you tweet or dm me and I’ll add you to my list. 

To contact me about needing a free book or to offer to buy a book for a woman, you can email on befreeuk (at) gmail (dot) com or direct message me on Twitter @God_loves_women.

No Stand. Just My Story.

Last week Alabama became the seventh US state to enact a ban on most or all abortion.  There are only four women in the 35-seat senate, with 25 white, male senators voting for the law, which will be the strictest in the US. It will outlaw abortion in all circumstances, except “to avoid a serious health risk to the unborn child’s mother,” for ectopic pregnancy and if the “unborn child has a lethal anomaly” (this makes it slightly less strict than the Northern Irish law, which does not allow abortion due to foetal abnormality).  A motion to ensure that exceptions be made for rape or incest failed on a vote of 11 – 21. Under this new law, any doctor who performs an abortion will face a prison sentence of up to 99 years. During the debate about passing this law, Democrat Bobby Singleton pointed out that this would mean a doctor performing an abortion on a woman impregnated by a rapist would face a longer prison sentence than the rapist.  The law has not yet come into effect, but the fact it has passed at all reflects a huge shift in how abortion is treated in the US.

 

White evangelical Christians have been at the heart of the pro-life movement.  Donald Trump capitalised on this in his election campaign, and it worked!  Eighty percent of white, self-identified evangelicals voted for him.  Within the UK, evangelical views on abortion are less clear; the Evangelical Alliance’s 21stCentury Evangelicalsreport found that while 49% of evangelicals believed (a lot or a little) that abortion can never be justified; 18% were unsure and 33% believed that there were situations in which abortion could be justified.  Outside of evangelicalism, Christian views on abortion vary widely; with some Christians actively involved in pro-choice activism.

 

As a Christian feminist, and as someone who currently still identifies as an evangelical; I have avoided speaking publicly or writing about abortion. There will be secular feminists and evangelical Christians who would be disappointed about this.  Both would say that my making a stand on my views about abortion are an imperative of both my feminism and my faith.  I remain reluctant to make that stand, mainly because my views are nuanced and conflicted.  Not something that works well within our highly polarised society on an issue where pro-choice and pro-life are such clearly delineated camps. But here I am, not so much making a stand, but rather reluctantly telling my story.

 

Growing up, we had a jar of dead babies in a kitchen cupboard.

 

Yes, you read that right.  Let me explain…

 

After becoming Christians, my parents discovered pro-life activism. They had leaflets filled with photographs of aborted foetuses.  They were instrumental in the opening of a pregnancy crisis centre in our local town; offering pregnancy tests, counselling, baby equipment and more.  Growing up, abortion was a familiar word, though I didn’t know what it meant.  When I was about six, I was playing with a friend (whose mum was also involved in the pro-life movement).  I remember cradling a plastic doll and declaring that “I’m going to have an abortion of this baby.”  My seven-year-old friend look horrified, “You can’t!” she exclaimed.  “That’s putting a baby in a plastic bag and throwing it on a fire.”

 

One time, my parents attended a rally to mourn the passing of the 1967 Abortion Act.  As part of the rally, a paper canon shot out thousands and thousands of small paper circles (like floaty paper communion wafers).  My parents collected a load of them in a jam-jar.  On returning from the rally, they placed the jar in a kitchen cupboard, explaining to us that each paper circle represented a dead baby. And for years, every time we reached into the cupboard to get a tin of beans or tinned tomatoes; there would be the jar of dead babies.  Sitting there.  Getting dusty.

 

Fast forward to my teenage years, where evangelical sex education taught me “don’t do sex until you get married to an opposite sex Christian”.  I loved Jesus and understood that as a teenage girl in the late nineties and early noughties, no naughtiness should ensue. My virginity was proof that I was countercultural.  I would evangelise the nation, or at least my fellow students at my college, with my intact hymen.  Which was all going really well, until I met a dashing young man.  I told him I didn’t believe in sex before marriage, he said that was fine and then proceeded to coerce and manipulate me into sex.  Christian sex education hadn’t prepared me for this; it’s only really in recent years and since the advent of the #metoo movement that evangelical Christian culture has begun to have conversations about consent.  A catholic education devoid of lessons on contraception, a mother who believed what the Daily Mailsaid about the contraceptive pill causing cancer, and an abusive boyfriend who told me that “sex isn’t real unless there’s a risk of pregnancy” led to me becoming pregnant at 17.

 

Reproductive coercion is not a term many people are familiar with, however recent research has found that 1 in 7 UK womenhave been forced into pregnancy or abortion by a man.  The methods of forcing someone into pregnancy range from subtle to brutal; pricking holes in condoms, lying about having had a vasectomy or a low sperm count, interfering with contraception, surreptitiously removing the condom before ejaculating in a woman (some men see this as a challenge and call it “stealthing”), rape (including sex with someone while they are intoxicated or asleep). There’s been this long-term myth that women and girls “get themselves pregnant” to trap a man.  Do you know who is trapped by pregnancy?  The pregnant girl or woman.  That’s who.

 

In 2018, Mormon blogger Gabrielle Blair wrotethat, “all unwanted pregnancies are caused by the irresponsible ejaculations of men. All of them.”  She went on to challenge men’s reluctance to use condoms, “Why would men want to have sex without a condom? Because, for the precious minutes when they’re penetrating their partner, not wearing a condom gives them more pleasure. So… that would mean some men are willing to risk getting a woman pregnant — which means literally risking her life, her health, her social status, her relationships, and her career — so they can experience a few minutes of slightly increased pleasure.”

 

My parents had tried to prevent me having sex, but when I told them I was pregnant they were positive, “We tried to stop it getting here, but now there’s a baby involved that’s something we should be positive about.” The irresponsible ejaculator (my abusive boyfriend) and his family tried to force me to have an abortion.  I refused.  I had my daughter in 2003, when I was eighteen.

 

In 2014, the Guardian featured Young Motherhoodby Jendella.  I was part of the project, and my photograph and some of my story was shown under the headline “We’re glad we chose to be mothers in our teens”.  I was really disturbed by the headline.  I hadn’t chosen to be a mother in my teen.  I had it inflicted on me.  I was ready to ring the Guardian and insist on them changing the headline.  Then it dawned on me.  I had chosen to be a mother in my teens because I had chosen not to have an abortion.  In that moment, something shifted in me.  I hadn’t solely been a victim of reproductive coercion. I had made a choice, I had chosen motherhood!  But I was only able to choose motherhood because I live in a place where abortion is not illegal.

 

When people talk about rape and abortion it often fills me with either rage or dis-ease.  The men who ignore the horror of rape, the trauma of reproductive coercion and the complexity of raising a child in such circumstances will never have to deal with that reality.  Yet, those who exclaim that of course a woman who has been raped should have an abortion do not know how hurtful that can be for those of us who have made different choices.  However, this has to be about choices, not forcing women to have children.  When people suggest that having a child in less-than-ideal-circumstances will destroy a woman’s life, I am proof that does not have to be the case.  Yet, when someone offers blanket statements that abortion is always wrong, I want them to be kept awake at night by the names of women who have died after desperately trying to salvage their life through an illegal abortion.

 

Abortion is a moral minefield because human beings were created interconnected.  No person is an island; a new human is created through a woman and man joining together, with the potential new human sustained in the body of the woman.  And in a sinless, perfect world; new life creation would never be tainted by violence, poverty, inequality, fathers raping their daughters, teenage girls not taught about consent, irresponsible ejaculation or other harmful and damaging realities.  But we do not live in a sinless world, and so many women and girls are scarred inside and out because of that.

 

I remain conflicted.  It is because of my ragingly pro-life parents that I was able to resist an abuser and refuse to have an abortion.  It is because I live in a country where abortion is legal that I was able to choose to be a mother, and that I can tell my children that they were wanted and chosen.  My life shows that being pregnant as a teenager after a male had sexually abused me and subjected me to reproductive coercion, in a context of poverty, did not mean that I should have had an abortion.  That after everything, life can be beautiful and I am achieving my potential.  However, other women’s lives show that having no access to abortion was a death sentence for them and a horrifying reality when they were forced to have children.  I don’t know what the answers are, but I do know that many pro-life people (particularly men) do little more than make uninformed, uncompassionate pronouncements and many pro-choice people view crisis pregnancy in ways that are both hurtful and not representative of mine and some other women’s experiences.  I don’t have any answers.  I’m not here to make a stand. I’m just here to tell my story.

Sermon Notes…

I preached at my local Churches Together unity service tonight and thought I’d post my notes in case anyone would like to read them…  The theme of the service was justice and I preached from Amos 5:4 – 24

  • Each of us here is a beloved child of God. For those of us who have chosen Jesus, we are redeemed and set free by Jesus’ sacrifice and God’s grace. Yet, what are we dedicating our lives to?  What are our priorities.
  • Slavery
    • The slave Bible
    • The EA in the UK
  • Colonialism
    • Christianity spread across the world because the church partnered with the king/emperor
  • Women
    • Anti-suffrage
    • Anti-women’s rights of all kinds
    • Still people who they personally, or their denomination, who don’t believe I should preach
  • Yet still the Spirit moves
  • Those who fought for justice were the outliers of their time:
    • Martin Luther – removing hierarchy)
    • William Wilberforce – RSPCA, criminalising slavery
    • Lord Shaftesbury (Anthony Ashley Cooper) – child labour, worker’s rights
    • Mary Wollstonecraft – women’s rights
    • Josephine Butler – helped women exploited in prostitution
    • Sarah and Angelina Grimke – fought against slavery and women’s oppression
    • Sojourner Truth – fought against slavery and for women’s rights
    • Martin Luther King – civil rights movement
  • Do we want to be part of the dominant group who remain steadfastly against moving towards a more just society? Are we going to be the people who say:
    • Our job is just to keep the order as it is until Jesus returns. Nothing needs to change in the order of the world, just in my heart, in my personal relationship with Jesus.
    • Napoleon: “What is it that makes the poor man take it for granted that ten chimneys smoke in my palace while he dies of the cold – that I have ten changes of raiment in my wardrobe while he is naked – that on my table at each meal there is enough to sustain a family for a week? It is religion, which says to him that in another life I shall be his equal, indeed that he has a better chance of being happy there than I have.”

 

  • Or do we want to be one of the outliers, one of those who works for more justice, for all people to flourish. As Christian Aid’s slogan goes, do we believe in life before death?
    • Or are we propping the injustice of the Napoleons of this world by only advocating for justice after Jesus returns. A justice which colludes with oppression, abuse and violence?

 

  • Amos vs. 4 and 6: Seek me and live.
    • But what does that mean?
    • Orthodoxy and/or orthopraxy
    • Rohr: “The ego diverts your attention from anything that would ask youto change to righteous causes that invariably ask othersto change.”
      • When you look at what your faith requires, does it require more of you changing now? Not previously, when you first became a Christian? But now?  Or is your faith one which is more focussed on what others need to change?  Are you more interested in debates about a sexuality that you personally don’t have, or in examining your own personal sinfulness?
    • Bonhoeffer: “Only he who believes is obedient and only he who is obedient believes.” (page 63)
      • Bonhoeffer existed at a time where the majority of Christians in Germany had aligned themselves with the Nazis. At first Hitler and his regime supported the Church, advocated for Jesus and the church. And Christians at that time were delighted!  At last, we get to be taken seriously again, after a time when secularism had been growing thanks to the enlightenment which had, in many places, challenged the idea that God even existed.
      • Hitler declared his mission to be from God and in relationship with Jesus. And Christians generally accepted this.
      • Martin Luther, who we celebrate as the founder of the Reformation, in 1543 wrote a 65,000-word treatise on “The Jews and their lies”, referring to Jews as “poisonous envenomed worms”. Though it is a complex path to trace through history, it is simply not incidental that the Holocaust happened in Germany, the same country Martin Luther had 400 years previously published this terrible and horrifying anti-Semitism.
      • With hindsight, we can see that Martin Luther was atrociously wrong, and that the Christians who supported Hitler were horrifically wrong.
      • But where will future generations see us? Will we be on the side of justice or injustice?  It might be that you say, “I want to be on the side of Jesus”.  But all of these people thought they were on the side of Jesus; Martin Luther with his anti-Semitism, the crusaders who slaughtered anyone who wouldn’t forcibly convert to Christianity, slave owners, the Christians who accompanied colonial forces across the world – enslaving and oppressing entire nations in the name of power and progress, Nazi supporters, opponents of women’s suffrage.  What does it mean to work for justice?

 

  • This is a service for Christian unity. What does unity mean?  Bonhoeffer wrote eloquently about the ways the German church were offering cheap grace and denying the full power of the Gospel.  Was he dividing the church?  Or seeking to reunify it around the truth of the Gospel?  What are we united by?  Believing the same thing or working together for a more just society?

 

  • Unity is a complicated word at the moment isn’t it? We have a country completely divided by that dread word, du-du-duuuuuuuu: Brexit!
    • Me and husband voted different ways, so we are living proof that brexiteers and remainers can stay friends.
    • Yet, with the existing fragmentation in the church, Brexit has become yet another fragmentation. And people have very strong feelings on it, not least because for people of colour and immigrants, Brexit has led to huge increases in the amount of racism and xenophobia they are subjected to.
    • There are some Christians who would say that politics isn’t something we should be involved in, and when it comes to party politics there is an argument for that.
    • However, more generally politics is just a fancy way of saying “how do we organise our society?”And democracy in the West is itself the fruit of Christians working for justice.
    • So while party politics is a different animal, when it comes to Christians engaging politically, we have a responsibility to act for justice, as the passage from Amos reminds us.
      • 11 Therefore because you trample on the poor
        and take from them levies of grain,
        you have built houses of hewn stone,
        but you shall not live in them;
        you have planted pleasant vineyards,
        but you shall not drink their wine.
        12 For I know how many are your transgressions,
        and how great are your sins—
        you who afflict the righteous, who take a bribe,
        and push aside the needy in the gate.

        • It’s easy to read this and see ourselves as innocent; we haven’t taken a bribe!
        • But have we pushed aside the needy?
        • When we vote, do we vote for whichever party is going to centre the needy? It’s amazing that churches together are running these ministries that help homeless and vulnerable people, but what are we doing to prevent these sorts of services being needed?  In recent years, homelessness has risen by 165%, that is not okay.  Families in one of the richest nations in the world cannot afford to feed their children. How is that okay?  Are we committed to eradicating homelessness?  To ensuring every family can feed themselves? To ensuring that every person is valued and treated with dignity and respect?
        • As Archbishop Helder Pessoa Camara said, “When I give food to the poor they call me a Saint.When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist.”
      • Verse 14: 11 Therefore because you trample on the poor
        • When we go shopping to we consider which brands to buy based on whether they trample on the poor? Nestle have tried to argue that water is not a human right.  Lynx used highly sexualised women to advertise their products.  Some high street clothing brands use child labour and slave labour.  When we buy something we vote for its values and support its ethics (or lack of them). Do we seek to ensure that our purchases don’t trample the poor?  The climate crisis worldwide is affecting the poorest.  What are we doing to limit our consumption?  To change the climate crisis?  Because inevitably the poorest will be worst affected by climate changes.
        • How are we bringing justice?

 

  • 18 Alas for you who desire the day of the Lord!
    Why do you want the day of the Lord?
    It is darkness, not light;
    19     as if someone fled from a lion,
    and was met by a bear;
    or went into the house and rested a hand against the wall,
    and was bitten by a snake.
    20 Is not the day of the Lord darkness, not light,
    and gloom with no brightness in it?

21 I hate, I despise your festivals,
and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
22 Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings,
I will not accept them;
and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals
I will not look upon.
23 Take away from me the noise of your songs;
I will not listen to the melody of your harps.
24 But let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

  • This is a prophetic word for our time. How many Christians are awaiting Jesus’ return, so that all can be well, but are not acting to make things better right now?
  • If justice is not rolling down like water, if righteousness is not an ever-flowing stream, then God will despise our festivals, He will take no delight in our solemn assemblies.

 

  • The legacy of many of our church mothers and fathers has been a more just society; free education, free healthcare, care of children, worker’s rights, women’s rights, the criminalisation of slavery, the civil rights movements, liberation theology and more.
    • When Jesus’ mother praises God for her pregnancy she sings this:
      • God’s mercy is from generation to generation
        on those who fear Him.
        He has shown might with His arm,
        He has scattered the proud in the conceit of their heart.
        He has put down the mighty from their thrones,
        and has exalted the lowly.
        He has filled the hungry with good things,
        and the rich He has sent away empty.

        • She sings of justice.
      • When Jesus announces His ministry in temple He says:
        • “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
          because he has anointed me
          to bring good news to the poor.
          He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
          and recovery of sight to the blind,
          to let the oppressed go free,
          19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

          • He announces justice.
        • Are we the mighty who will be put down from our thrones and the rich that will be sent away empty? How can we be in solidarity with the most vulnerable?  How can we become a people known for our work towards justice?  How can that become one of the things that we are united around?  I’m not sure I have many answers, but often it starts with acknowledging our failures, or as the Bible calls it And then seeking God’s wisdom in how He is calling us to do justice.

 

  • Jesus transforms us and calls us to obedience, but now we are saved, what are we going to do with our freedom?
    • Let us pray.

Guest Blog – Dear Discomforted

Recently I connected with a Christian woman (let’s call her Jane) who recently realised her husband was abusive.  She was able to leave him and get herself and her children to safety with the support of her family.  As she has learned more about abuse, Jane began realising one of her church leaders’ behaviour towards his wife seemed to be abusive.  She wrote the following letter (that has been anonymised) to this woman.  She is not yet sure whether she is going to send it, but I suggested it would be a really helpful blogpost to help people learn about abuse and particularly how an abuser operates in Christian communities.  She was happy for it to be published on my blog.  I hope it helps you learn more…

 

Dear Discomforted,

 

I’m writing this because I care about what you’ve gone through and are going through.  It’s been hard to know how or whether to contact you. If you’re reading this it’s because I have decided that I simply can’t say or do nothing, and because you’ve recognised that something isn’t quite right, and it might not be your fault. I’m sure there’s a part of you that is confused about what I’m going to say and what this is all about.  I also think that there’s another part of you that knows exactly what this is about, exactly what I’ve seen and exactly what I’m going to say.  It is a strange truth, that you can, in the same moment, be certain of your own pain and grief, but also deny its existence and source.  That was my reality for 8 difficult years.

 

There is of course the chance that I’m wrong about what I think I’ve seen and what I think is happening. You are the only one who really knows and all I can do is share my own personal experience and pray that if anything resonates with you, that you would feel able to pursue a greater understanding for yourself, with an offer from me of support and love in any form you need.  Absolutely anything.  I have come to understand the many resources available to women and how right it is to respond with all the practical and emotional support it is humanly possible to give.  There are also a great number of agencies and professionals who understand and want to help, even ones specifically for women who are married to church leaders and pastors.

 

In my marriage I prayed for, supported, loved and cherished my husband.  I adored him and genuinely found great delight in the good times. In the beginning he was particularly attentive and loving.  Everything I did was impressive and wonderful in his eyes, it felt like I could do nothing wrong and I was completely swept off my feet by a man who I thought was amazing – a Christian, musical, talented, funny, successful, charming…

 

I have since learnt that the cycle of good times and bad times is one of the many strategies of the abuser.  It engenders a deep love and longing for your partner, a belief in their ‘good heart’ even with the sharp edges, a belief that compels you to work harder, be better, try more.  But the more you try, the less you are appreciated, respected, listened to and truly loved.  The more secure he feels in his possession and control of you, the more tactics of abuse and control he uses to keep you there, living under fear and threat.  In the last few years I lived every day not knowing what mood my husband would be in, but being certain that the next assault was never far away – and I’m not talking about physical violence.  Walking on eggshells in your own home is exhausting. It is also the strongest indicator that your partner is an abuser.

 

For some time I knew that I was unhappy in my life, I knew things weren’t great, but I didn’t fully understand that my marriage was the source of that unhappiness.  I kept up a pretence of happiness, love and unity because I wanted that to be my truth.  It was also a way of managing the stress of not being able to talk to anyone about anything I was feeling.  He had convinced me that any outside involvement in our personal stresses and strains was disloyal and showed a lack of integrity and commitment to each other. I could not see the truth that such secrecy and isolation is in fact damaging and not God’s design for human relationship.  It is merely another tool for the abuser to control and manipulate, but my mind, my emotions, my deepest self was so afflicted by the psychological and emotional abuse that I didn’t know what was real or true anymore.

 

He made me believe that my own mental issues were to blame for any dissatisfaction I experienced. My unhappiness was my fault.  Our arguments were due to my inability to communicate well.  Any tears I cried were a demonstration of how manipulative and controlling I was.  My attempts to discipline our children were my anger issues making them cry.  He minimised and deflected any suggestion that there might be something wrong with him or with our marriage.  There were times that I thought I was going mad, such was the heartfelt denial and convincing rhetoric from him over things that I just felt weren’t right.  Somehow I always ended up apologising for hurting him, for not listening to him or not trusting him and never the other way round.

 

Ironically, admitting to my ‘anger issues’ (genuinely believing this was a problem for me) gave me a reason to pursue counselling.  He reluctantly let me attend these sessions, but I was compelled to share everything I had discussed in them, which he often criticised and belittled.  However, my counsellor saw more than I could see and our conversations explored the deeper truths of the anger I was experiencing.  I started to regain clarity in a mind that had long since lost the ability to find it.  Even now I know I am only beginning the journey of healing in terms of the damage to my mind, but these counselling sessions were a vital start.  I honestly don’t know how long I would have been imprisoned and trapped otherwise.

 

When I got married I made my vows for life; I knew how much God hated divorce and how much I hated being the child of divorced parents.  Divorce was not going to be in my future, nor did I think I would even have to consider it.  I was happy and excited to embark on this new adventure with the love of my life.  I trusted him in every way.  I have since learnt that abusers target the most trusting, empathetic of people; we are the easiest to manipulate and control and to accept abuse as our fault.  I fit the bill.  I had always been very empathetic, wanting to help, support and understand the suffering of others, but I was also very naïve and trusting too.  No-one had ever taught me about healthy boundaries in relationships or warning signs of abuse.  I had no idea to even look for them or that such people in this world even existed.

 

After getting married the change in our relationship was gradual and insidious.  Over time, criticisms about my clothes, appearance, friends, family and interests prompted me to give up more and more of the things that made me me.  I became the wife that he wanted me to be because if I tried to exert my independence then I was attacked for being disloyal, for not understanding his needs, for disrespecting him.  I desperately wanted to be a good wife, to make my husband happy and to love him as a good Christian woman should, so I began to bend and compromise and serve. What I didn’t realise was that he did not return that love and respect for me.  He never bent or compromised or served, unless it met his needs, his interests, his desires.  Still somehow I was the one who ended up feeling bad when I challenged him on this.

 

His treatment of me became more obviously abusive as the years went by, but you don’t see it that way when you’re in it.  He convinced me every time that it was just more evidence of how much I antagonised him and didn’t understand him, of how I needed to change, be different, be better, try harder.  When I was pregnant with our first child, we had an argument about going to the cinema; he threw a vase, smashing it on the floor.  He had chased me into the corner of our spare bedroom and I raised my arms in fear of where he was going to throw this vase, but I was the one who ended up apologising for being selfish and causing him to get so angry.  I became accustomed to his anger.  I remember watching how he talked to the girls so nicely sometimes, wishing he would be that nice to me, then I’d tell myself I was being stupid and dismiss the familiar feeling that something wasn’t right.  It was somehow easier to accept his assertions that I was to blame for him being late for work, for the children not liking their dinner, for buying the ‘wrong’ toothpaste or toilet roll.  He never took responsibility for anything himself, which is another sure sign of abuse.

 

In the back of my mind I excused it all because he seemed such a great Daddy and I couldn’t deny his relationship with his children.  However, having some distance and professional support, I’ve been able to see the abuse they suffered too, not least in witnessing the abuse I was subjected to, where my oldest would often try to defend me.  My youngest once commented “Daddy doesn’t like Mummy very much.” A mother is not protecting her children by accepting abusive behaviour from their father.  In many ways the opposite is true.

 

If any of this feels familiar, then another aspect for you would be the ministry of your husband. How can you be responsible for the demise of his ministry, where he is doing so much good for so many people? Such responsibility is not in fact yours, it’s his, but this must be so hard for pastors’ wives who go through this. I have read the testimonies of a few and it seems that this is the very argument their husbands use in order to heap guilt on them for even contemplating that there’s something wrong in their marriage.  However, the thing these women seem to say is that they knew deep down that their husband’s ministry was not the fruitful, Godly ministry that many professed it to be. In fact, these wives had repeatedly seen hurt and discord as a result of their husband’s behaviour.

 

I’m sorry to say that your husband has been directly responsible for a great deal of my own personal hurt – suggesting I might be pursuing a new relationship in the immediate aftermath of my decision to divorce, and that I would lie to the girls about their father and countless other insensitive and inappropriate comments and actions.  I felt like I was being treated with suspicion, not love, judgement, not grace. My last communication was an email I wrote to your husband, my pastor, that was challenging, but respectful and honest.  I wrote it with great care, out of a desperate concern for three things – 1) my own healing; 2) providing every opportunity for my husband to come to true repentance and change and 3) ensuring that the church I loved was a safe place for abused women to come forward.  To date I have had no reply from a man who was employed to be my pastor. I am living outside of any church fellowship at the moment because I don’t know who to trust and what to tell people.  This is surely the time I needed the pastoral support and resources of the church I’ve called home all these years. Instead I feel abandoned by the church at large and supported only by a handful of friends from my fellowship who have chosen to remain in touch.

 

You are very dear to me, and I can only imagine how hard it may be to read this and how difficult it may be to process even a fraction of what I’ve said.  I suppose I decided that this was still the right course of action because I wish that someone had done this for me.  I wish that someone had said “Hey, I’ve seen how your husband treats you and it’s wrong.  You don’t have to put up with it.  He has broken your wedding vows by choosing to abuse you instead of loving, cherishing and respecting you.  That is not your fault.  God doesn’t like divorce, but he hates abuse even more.”

 

You are beautiful, loved and cherished, made by God to fulfil His purposes for your life, not the purposes of your husband.  I have not liked how I’ve seen him treat you, I recognised so much of the subtle behaviours and dynamics that were true in my marriage.  I saw him ignore and belittle your health concerns over drinking wine that night, I saw him disrespect you by giving you barely any acknowledgement or attention when you explained how he likes to be on time for things, with no mention at all of your preferences and needs; I saw a complete lack of interest in praising and acknowledging you when you heaped praise on him.  You do not deserve to be treated like that.  If you are being abused, you have a right to divorce and a right to know true freedom.

 

I am currently reading scriptures that explore our identity in Christ.  It is so affirming and life-changing after allowing even my relationship with God to be weakened and diminished by my marriage.  There is so much more I could say and so much more I am happy to tell you if you want to speak, but in the meantime, seek after God and His truth, trust Him, follow Him.  He is our only constant, a bright light in the darkness.  If you want an informal, anonymous chat with people who know what abuse is and how to recognise the red flags, then there is also the national domestic abuse helpline – 0808 2000 247

 

I will continue to pray. Get in touch any time, when you feel it is safe to do so.  I am very familiar with the fear instilled by an abusive partner.  I know how they promote that fear in you so that you offer complete submission to them, always telling them everything to show that you’re loyal and supportive, constantly reiterating your love for and commitment to them, as I saw you do that time when you patted his leg and praised what a great husband you had. He was so tellingly cold and unresponsive to this, I couldn’t help but feel desperately sad. I know that if I had received a letter like this during my marriage I would have felt both relief and intense fear.  Relief that my experience finally had a name – abuse – and that it was not my fault, but fear over what would happen next if I began to try and regain the control and independence that was rightfully mine.

 

I would not advise that you speak to your husband about this, unless you are absolutely certain that this is not at all your experience.  I do not care about my reputation here.  If I’m wrong, that’s wonderful!  However, if there is any part of you that has read this and is feeling even a little disturbed or disrupted then get help and advice.  You are not alone and you are worth fighting for. Living under someone else’s control is not living – it’s imprisonment and you need to get out, but it is your decision and such a choice is risky, scary and dangerous without the right support and help.

 

Of course, if I have misread things please forgive me and know that you always have my utmost respect. Either way, feel free to get in touch any time.

 

Yours,

A loving friend who has been there

 

If any of this seems relevant to your life or the life of someone you care about, you can find your local domestic abuse service here: https://www.womensaid.org.uk/domestic-abuse-directory/.

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.

 

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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.

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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.

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

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

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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.

 

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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

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.