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.

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 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

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.

 

On Stanley Hauerwas and John Howard Yoder

The Mennonite Church is a “radical offshoot” of the Protestant reformation.  Originating in Holland, it grew out of Anabaptist theology and continues to hold pacifist values.  The most famous Mennonite theologian is a man called John Howard Yoder.  He was born in 1927, became a theologian in the North American Mennonite church and is world famous for his theology.  He died in 1997.  He wrote prolifically and his book “The Politics of Jesus” and other writings remain on theology reading lists for theology courses across the West.  John Howard Yoder was also a prolific abuser of women.

 

An eighty-page article by Rachel Waltner Goossen entitled “Defanging the Beast”:
Mennonite Responses to John Howard Yoder’s Sexual Abuse
was published in January 2015.  The article gives only sparse details of Yoder’s abuse of over 100 women, but covers in significant detail the North American Mennonite’s response to Yoder’s abuse, which went on for decades and was enabled by the academic establishments he was employed by.  Yoder framed the sexual abuse as “experiments” in “familial” touching.  He would approach female students (and some female colleagues) and ask for their help with these experiments which could be anything from sexually explicit communications, physical touch, partial or full nudity and genital penetration.  He described his sexual abuse of women as “helping them” to deal with their sexual issues, even going so far as to state that his actions were intended to show women “that intimate relations did not have to be coercive, that men don’t have to be rapists”.[1]  For the majority of the time when his behaviour was challenged, it was because he was seen to be committing adultery, and it was only in later years, when wider culture had begun to engage with men’s sexually harassment and abuse that the Mennonite Church began to engage with Yoder’s abuse of women as a power issue.

 

Yoder was an accomplished theologian, writer and speaker.  He was recognised as an expert in non-violence and his position as a world-renowned theologian enabled him to continue to abuse women for decades, with many aware (to some degree) of what he was doing.  Goosen’s article evidences that it was Yoder’s capacity as a wordsmith and his rhetorical skills which kept him from being held accountable for decades.  Years of interactions with Marlin Miller, President of the Goshen Biblical Seminary (where Yoder worked), proved Yoder’s ability to couch his abuse of women in theological terms and to use his theology on church discipline to avoid taking responsibility.  Later in Yoder’s life, as Mennonite discipline procedures were initiated, Yoder “appropriated the language of victimhood for himself.”[2]  There were seven different committees over 1980 – 1997 which sought to hold Yoder to account, and he was able to obfuscate his behaviour in all of them.  His oratory skills which confounded seminary presidents, ministers and theologians were also used to groom his female students so that he could abuse them.

 

On 18th October 2017 social media was in the midst of hearing from thousands of women who were sharing how men had subjected them to sexual abuse or harassment using the hashtag #metoo.  It was a brutal time to be on social media, and I wrote THIS sharing my thoughts on it.  This was also the day that an article was published by esteemed theologian, ethicist and long-term colleague of Yoder, Stanley Hauerwas.  It is entitled “In Defence of ‘Our Respectable Culture’: Trying to Make Sense of John Howard Yoder’s Sexual Abuse” and shares Hauerwas’ views on Yoder’s abuse.  As we shall see in dissecting the piece, it is hugely unfortunate that his piece was published whilst thousands of women disclosed the ways men harmed them.  Whether Hauerwas had control of the publication date or not, its timing magnifies the huge problems with the article.

 

I have had to read a small amount of Yoder for the MA I am doing with London School of Theology.  I communicated to my tutor about how inappropriate it is to have a sex offender as the primary voice on a unit about social justice and power.  I have also read a small amount of Hauerwas for my MA.  I say this to preface my critique of Hauerwas’ article.  My theology and Christian life has not been hugely influenced by either theologians (as far as I am aware), and I seem to have made it to this point in my life as a Christian without either of their Big Thoughts.  This perhaps gives me the freedom to be more highly critical than someone with a greater investment in Yoder’s or Hauerwas’ thinking.  It also means that my critique is not currently able to particularly bring in Yoder’s or Hauerwas’ own thoughts to interact with the way they view women’s lives and pain.

 

Now, without further ado, let us look at Hauerwas’ article…

 

Hauerwas starts by drawing our attention to Yoder’s framing of his abuse of women as a rejection of the consensus of “our respectable culture” which Yoder viewed himself to be a “victim” of.  Hauerwas states that Yoder’s “assumption that such a consensus exists was a profound and costly mistake [emphasis is mine].”  It is interesting that within an 80-page document about Yoder’s abuse, Hauerwas particularly chooses to focus on this one comment of Yoder’s, is it the metaphorical needle in the haystack?  Or could it be more focusing on one of the trees rather than the whole wood?  After reading an 80-page article which demonstrates the ways Yoder manipulated everyone (from the women he sexually abused, to the men who ran the accountability procedures) by utilizing theological arguments, it seems rather unwise to focus on one of Yoder’s theological arguments which he used to justify his behaviour.  Yoder is not longer alive, why is his rationale still a priority?

 

Goossen’s report explains that none of the women Yoder admitted to abusing ever received any financial support to aid their recovery, yet the Mennonite accountability process paid for Yoder to be assessed by a psychologist.  The psychologist’s report was so damaging that before he died, Yoder succeeded in having every copy of it destroyed.  The report explains that:

 

“While Prairie Street’s elders [Yoder’s church) focused on maintaining contact with the Yoders, members of the Accountability and Support Group realized that no such concentrated effort—by any board or committee—was similarly focused on the women’s welfare. Denominational and congregational resources were being channeled into the rehabilitation of John Howard Yoder, but no comparable endeavor addressed the spiritual and emotional needs of women who had been harmed.”

 

And yet, Hauerwas’ main interest after reading the report is citing Yoder’s rationale for his abuse.  And how does Hauerwas categorise Yoder’s rationale for abuse?  Not as a rationale for abuse, but rather as an assumption and as a profound and costly mistake.  Yoder has abused over 100 hundred women, and concocted an entirely baseless theological justification for doing it, and Hauerwas chooses to engage with this concoction in good faith?  What is that about?!  It was not a mistake of Yoder’s to condemn “respectable culture” in justifying his abuse of women.  It was a deliberate way of flimflamming seminary president Marlin Miller.  By making it about the respectable culture, Yoder forces Marlin Miller (to whom he put this argument) to be part of that respectable culture, if he continues to challenge Yoder.

 

He has created a theologically baseless “us and them” mentality which leaves Marlin Miller as one of them, particularly when placed within the wider context of Yoder’s non-violence theology.  Yoder is on the side of non-violence, a paragon of Mennonite theology, and he is creating a dichotomy with which to rationalise his abuse of women, because it is only respectable culture which thinks that abuse of women is wrong.  Yoder is the Naked Emperor (both literally and figuratively) and Marlin Miller is co-opted into Yoder’s narrative.

 

I’ll now quote paragraphs Hauerwas’ article and then offer some thoughts…

 

Before developing that argument, I need to make clear that for me to write about these matters fills me with sadness. I do not want to try to “explain” John’s behaviour. I find even thinking about that aspect of John’s life drains me of energy and depresses me. And I am not a person given to depression.

 

Stanley, can we just pause for a moment.  The women Yoder abused sadly don’t have any choice about being given to depression.  Unlike you, they don’t get the luxury of a life in academia unencumbered by their mentor and professor sexually abusing them.  They are left with the lifelong impact of sexual abuse, many of them were unable to pursue academic theology because of Yoder’s impact on them.  So although I know it’s helpful for you to express how it feels, maybe it would be worth considering that sadness is not enough.  Perhaps outrage and disgust might be good feelings to make space for?  Not only for Yoder’s behaviour, but also for your collusion with it.  You attempted to rush the accountability process for Yoder in order to get his Important Thoughts out there.  Or that you publicly commended Yoder for not publicizing his views on sexuality “that he consider[ed] to be prophetic”.[3]  What is there to commend an abuser in, for not publicly telling everyone about his abuse?

 

But Goossen’s article stunned me. I had no idea that John’s engagement in his “experimentation” was so extensive both in terms of time and the number of women he seems to have involved. I am not sure, moreover, if I ever recognized how troubling it is that John refused to acknowledge that his views about what is possible between brothers and sisters in Christ were just wrong.

 

Perhaps Stanley, we should explore how you, as a world-famous ethicist, are stunned by large scale sexual violence by a powerful man.  It is not that you were not aware that there were allegations made about Yoder, it is that you perhaps did not believe those allegations and minimised those allegations.  Perhaps because (along with the rest of the world) you are conditioned by patriarchal systems to trust powerful white men more than you trust anonymous women.  That doesn’t make you overly bad, it makes you normal.  It would be great if as you reflected on Yoder’s abuse, you (as a world-famous ethicist) might consider what standard of ethics were at work when you prioritised rushing through Yoder’s disciplinary process, rather than perhaps asking questions about who these women were that Yoder had abused and what he had done to them.  It might be worth asking why you think that the actions you had in mind for Yoder to have done were so minor as to be irrelevant.  You mention that you knew of Yoder’s “questionable relations with women”.  What ethics were at work as you deemed those questionable relations with women irrelevant to Yoder’s career?  What ethics were at work in you not noticing the power Yoder held and what that meant for how he related to women?  It would be great if these questions formed part of the article, but as we both know, they don’t.

 

I partly hesitate to write about John’s abusive behaviour because I know John’s family and I do not want to add to their pain. John was by all reports a loving father, though one that was often absent. Annie, his wife, is a wonderful person who was a bulwark for John in the last years of his life. I count a number of his children as friends and I know something of the complexity of what it means to be John Yoder’s child. The Mennonite world is just that – a world – and his children must find their way, as they have, through that world without anything I might say adding to that challenge.

 

Of course Yoder’s family require empathy and care Stanley, but it is interesting that the concern you raise here for Yoder’s family is not matched by concern for the over one hundred women who he abused.  Your concern seems to remain theoretical throughout your article, seen by your focus on the “respectable culture” of Yoder’s flimflamming.

 

 I also report in Hannah’s Child what and when I learned of John’s behaviour, as well as my own involvement in the process of John’s disciplinary proceedings. I see no reason to repeat what I said there, but what I must do is acknowledge that I did not appropriately acknowledge how destructive John’s behaviour was for the women involved.

 

Stanley, I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but even within this article, at no point do you actually acknowledge how destructive Yoder’s behaviour was.  You don’t detail any ways you can see the women were harmed, and your conclusions prioritise Yoder’s Big Thoughts over the wishes of the women he harmed.  Saying you didn’t acknowledge something is not in itself and acknowledgement.  The women harmed have lost parts of themselves that can never be brought back, not only by what Yoder did, but by how you and other (mainly powerful men) colluded with Yoder.

 

In 1992 Al Meyer, his brother-in-law, and Mary Ellen Meyer, his sister, told me about John’s behaviour. I was at Bethel College to give a lecture I seem to remember John was to deliver, but had been disinvited because of his behaviour. I realized I was getting the straight story from Al and Mary Ellen but for some reason I assumed the behaviour they were reporting had ceased and that we were not talking about that many women. I thought maybe three or four women might be involved. Of course, one woman would have been too many, but at the time I could not imagine what seems to have been the large number of women who had been abused by John. Nor did I appropriately appreciate at the time how traumatizing John’s actions were for the women involved. For that I can only say I am sorry and I have learned an essential lesson.

 

Stanley, here you are again, telling us about how you made assumptions about what Yoder’s behaviour was like.  That it wasn’t many women (perhaps three or four) and that you didn’t realise how traumatizing his actions were.  I already know you haven’t done this, but wouldn’t it be great if you (as a world-famous ethicist) might consider what ethics were at work in your assumptions?  Why did you think three or four women would be okay?  In 2010, over 18 years later, you still wrote favourably about Yoder. You colluded with him, and in an article discussing this, you in no way interrogate why you made the devastating assumptions you did.  That your immediate response to information about Yoder was to minimise his behaviour is surely an ethical conundrum that should be interrogated?

 

One of the aspects of this whole sad story that saddens me is that I have had to recognize how much energy John put into this aspect of his life. His attempt to maintain these multiple relationships would have exhausted any normal person. But John was not normal – intellectually or physically. When I think about the time he dedicated to developing justifications for his experimentation, I feel depressed. Of course, John gave us the great gift of the clarity of his mind, but that same analytic ability betrayed him just to the extent that he used it to make unjustified distinctions – such as those about the significance of different ways of touching that could only result in self-deception.

 

Depressed?  It makes you depressed?  Does it not anger and infuriate you?  Does the injustice (which you contributed to) not horrify you?  By describing his analytic ability as betraying him, you remove the agency of his choices.  It did not betray him.  He utilised it, along with his power and prestige (afforded to him by men like you) to abuse women.

 

Another reason I find it difficult to write about these matters is, like most of us, I do not want to acknowledge my mistakes. But I learned from Yoder that such an acknowledgement is necessary if we are to be people for whom speaking truth matters. I hope in some small way writing this article may be a small example of Matthew 18, because at least one of the reasons I am writing is that I have been told by many that I need to do so.

 

It is great, Stanley, that you are willing to acknowledgement your mistakes, but surely as a world-renowned ethicist, you are aware that acknowledgement is only the first in a number of steps towards change.  You admit your faults but at no point consider why you made such assumptions about Yoder’s behaviour, or why it didn’t occur to you that sexual abuse was harmful.  Sexual violence should not be a peripheral topic to ethics, in fact male violence is the root of so many ethical issues that it seems outrageous that you are not well acquainted with the issues related to male violence.

 

The paper gives me the opportunity to confess: I was too anxious to have John resume his place as one of the crucial theologians of our time. I thought I knew what was going on, but in fact I did not have a clue. In my defence – and it is not a very good defence – I think it is true that I simply did not understand what was going on. However, in truth, I probably did not want to know what was going on.

 

You have now acknowledged your minimisation and denial of Yoder’s behaviour.  Yet again, you do not ask any questions about why you would do that.  As I read this paragraph I was hopeful you would conclude this paper by asserting that Yoder’s status as a “one of the crucial theologians of our time” would be questioned.  And that, after years of prioritising Yoder over the women he harmed, that you would conclude that their voices and their needs take precedence.  That this paper would not just be a confession, but would instead be the metanoia of a changed mind, convicted that some things are more important than thoughts about ethics (you know, like living out ethics).

 

I also find it hard to write this because I do not know what to say. I do not know what to say to “explain” John’s behaviour. Like anyone grieved by John’s behaviour, I cannot resist trying to give some account of why John Howard Yoder of all people got into such a bizarre pattern of abuse. Of course he had a theory, but this is John Howard Yoder. Surely anyone as smart as Yoder should have known better. But what he did speaks for itself. Whether he may have had some form of Asperger’s may be true, but it tells us little. My general assumption that his behaviour betrayed a deficit of empathy may be closer to the mark, but I think even if that is true we learn little from such a judgment.

 

You are right to not try to explain his behaviour.  To say that Yoder had Asperger’s is offensive to anyone with Asperger’s.  Those who are on the Autistic Spectrum are perhaps more vulnerable to being subjected to abuse, they are not more likely to be abusive.  It is not an assumption that he had an empathy deficit, it is a fact.  Someone who can treat women (including his wife, Anne) the way Yoder did, has a deficit of empathy.

 

But he wasn’t the only one in the situation who had a deficit of empathy.  You have already acknowledged that you did not realise the impact of Yoder’s abuse on the women he harmed.  That is also a deficit of empathy.  One that is shared amongst the many men and some women who colluded with Yoder’s behaviour.  The deficit of empathy was collective and structural, not individual.  And those many women Yoder abused (and their families) continue to deal with the pain not only Yoder subjected them to, but also those in power who ignored them and the systems which prioritised Yoder’s (failed) rehabilitation over their pain.

 

It is perhaps also worth pointing out that Yoder’s bizarre pattern of abuse happened because everyone gave him space to develop that pattern.  If the systems he was part of had sacked him and removed all credibility from him he may have still abused women, but not on such a scale, and not legitimised by flimflam theology.  That is on all those who supported him, you included Stanley.

 

Finally, I have to revisit Yoder’s life and work because I do not want what he has taught us about how we should and can live as Christians and how we think theologically to be lost. Many of my friends who are former students, students who have written quite insightfully about Yoder, feel that they can no longer have their students read Yoder. They rightly worry that the very shape of Yoder’s arguments for nonviolence may also inform his view about sexual behaviour between men and women in the church. I think the question about the continued use of Yoder’s work for instruction is not quite the same among Mennonites as it is for non-Mennonites, but I have no stake in defending that view. What I do know, however, is that we cannot avoid the question of whether his justification for his sexual behaviour is structurally similar to his defence of Christian nonviolence.

 

That empathy deficit I was just talking about?  Here it is again!  It’s great that you as a world-renowned ethicist, will be listened to by many who look to you to guide them in how to deal with Yoder’s works.  However, none of the women who Yoder abused will be afforded the power you are given.  Their voices remain ignored.  Their feelings remain unimportant.  If every woman Yoder abused came to you and said that they needed for Yoder’s work to be lost, that whilst his work remains celebrated and lauded, their pain increases.  Would you support them?  Would you amplify their voices?  Would you defer to their expertise as those who Jesus told us to prioritise?  Or would you remain steadfast in your refusal to acknowledge that Yoder’s legacy is too tainted?  What if one of the women Yoder harmed came to you and said, “Please don’t do this.  Please don’t continue to endorse him.  It feels like I’m being abused all over again, like I’m being ignored all over again.”  Would you listen and prioritise her?  Or is it only Yoder’s work that matters?

 

It is not only the women that Yoder victimised who are damaged by your continued endorsement of him and his work.  Many women who have been abused by those in power, by church leaders and by those in churches feel ignored by you.  We feel that your endorsement of Yoder and his work reinforces the power of abusers.

 

What do you think the abusers who are reading your article think?  They read your condemnations of Yoder’s abuse, but they see you continuing to endorse his work and legacy.  What does that say to them?  Perhaps it says that world-renowned ethicists don’t think that men’s abuse of women matters that much?  It certainly doesn’t matter as much as their Important Theological Thoughts.  And that will only bolster those abuser’s justifications, just as the collusion with Yoder in his lifetime did.

 

So I do not want to write this article, but I think I have to write about this part of John’s life, because I owe it to him. John Yoder changed my life before I knew it needed changing. I am often credited with making John Howard Yoder better known among those identified as mainstream Protestants. True or not, it is nonetheless the case that I am rightly closely identified with Yoder.

 

You seem to be unaware, Stanley, that your endorsement of Yoder is not only something that ties you together with him, but also potentially gave him access to a wider range of victims.  Your endorsement of him gave him more credibility and therefore opened up the access he had to women.  Who knows how many women were approached by Yoder because of the increasing platform you gave him?  You don’t seem to acknowledge this within your article at all.  You hold so much power and you used that power to endorse Yoder, even after you were aware that he was harming women.  Even after the failed disciplinary process that you lauded as a success.  Because his Big Thoughts were more important than the risks he posed to women.

 

There only needs to be one such report to establish the violent character of Yoder’s behaviour. But there is clear evidence that many of the women Yoder invited to participate in his “experiment” experienced the same reaction that Heggen reports. Of course, Yoder maintained that he never forced any women to participate. That sense of non-coercion appears to have preserved his presumption that what he was about was nonviolent.

 

But it is hard to avoid the assessment that he was repressing the violence inherent in the structure of the event. For god’s sake, he surely should have recognized that he was John Howard Yoder, the most prominent Mennonite theologian in recent times, and that these women he tried first to seduce intellectually in the hope it would lead further – and I think seduction is the right word – wanted his approval.

 

Again, you choose to charitably trust Yoder’s assessment of his own behaviour.  Why do you do that?  Why do you trust him when he says he believed that women were consenting?  Every argument he gave was to justify his behaviour.  It’s what all abusers do.  They all minimise and deny the abuse.  Whatever age their victim is, they will say that the child was asking for it, the woman wanted it.  This is not unusual.  What is unusual is that a world-renowned ethicist is unaware of the tactics of abusive men.  Or that such an ethicist would take at face value an abuser’s justifications, without considering just how much such justifications benefit the abuser.

 

So I told him what I had learned and I made it clear I was not in the least persuaded by his “arguments.” I pointed out that everything depends on how you understand “mutual masturbation” as it can be understood as more intimate than intercourse. I told him, moreover, that I was extremely doubtful about his assumption that what he was about could be described as “nonsexual” behaviour. But clearly, I thought what he was doing could not be right because it could not be shared by the whole community. For it must surely be the case that, whatever it means to be a Mennonite, it must mean that you cannot keep your “experiments” secret. John did not respond other than to express concern about the effects his behaviour was having on others.

 

Isn’t it interesting that you (along with all the other theologians) focussed on his behaviour as a theoretical thing?  The feelings of the women involved hadn’t occurred to you (or Yoder).  His abuse of women becomes merely a theoretical discussion about the church community and sexual activity.  You were “extremely doubtful”, but not more concerned than that.

 

That Yoder’s abusive behaviour was inconsistent with his deepest commitments is not the most challenging aspect anyone concerned with his actions needs to consider. The most challenging question is raised by the authors: “What do we do with the places where Yoder’s actions were consistent with his theology?”

 

I know this may be overly radical Stanley, but could the most challenging question about Yoder’s behaviour actually be How Do We Make The Church A Safe Place For Women?  How do we stop world-renowned ethicists colluding with abusers?  How do we stop men abusing women?  How do we stop the systems prioritising men’s thoughts over women’s actual lives?  They all seem like more important questions than some theoretical stuff around Yoder’s theology, given that Yoder’s theology on abusing women was basically say-stuff-that-will-flimflam-people-into-not-challenging-me.

 

In a similar fashion, Cramer, Howell, Tran and Martens suggest that Yoder understood his exploration of “non-genital affective relationships” to be an expression of the “revolution” inaugurated by the new age. As I have already suggested, and the authors make the same point, given Yoder’s account of singleness, such touching could be seen as a way the church has found to meet the needs of the “whole person.”

 

Stanley, never engage an abuser on their own terms.  An abuser’s terms are always used to obfuscate.  They want to hide their culpability and responsibility.  Yoder may be more sophisticated than the man who says “Her dress said yes, even if her mouth didn’t.”  Or my ex-husband, who told the police, “I don’t remember raping her, but if she said I did, then I must have.”  Yoder’s entire theological justification is a sophisticated legitimisation for abusing women.  And to meet an abuser on his terms allows him to continue his abuse, just as all those committees did over the years.  They were so concerned with meeting Yoder’s Biblical standards, they failed to notice that the Biblical response should prioritise the powerless.

 

The point I am trying to make – a point not easily made – may entail a criticism of Yoder’s work that I am only beginning to understand. I worry that Yoder may have made too extreme the duality between church and world, particularly when it comes to dealing with our everyday relations with one another. I need to be very careful in making such a criticism because Yoder, contrary to many superficial criticisms of him, never restricted God’s redemption to the church. He was always ready to acknowledge that God was doing a new thing among those who were not church – thus my insistence that Yoder always assumed what is a duty for Christians is a possibility for those who are not.

 

Even in death you’re more interested in attending to Yoder’s words and work than the women he abused.  His entire career was characterised by his work being of a higher priority than the women he abused.  And you are going to continue that in his death.  For many women (and men) who have found your work to be so insightful and important to their theology and ethical frameworks it is deeply disturbing that you are so blinded to your own prejudices.

 

That reality makes possible reflections of practical reason that offer wisdom to guide our lives. Though I doubt that there needs to be any hard-and-fast distinction between the natural or moral virtues and the theological virtues, it is nonetheless the case that the distinction not only can be made but must be made. This is not the context to develop these issues, but I raise them to suggest that I have long suspected that I hold views about such matters that may put me in some tension with Yoder’s general perspective.

 

Well Stanley, I’m glad you’ve found some way to make this more about your work and perspective.  Nevermind the actual women whose lives have been devastated by Yoder, you’ve established tensions.

 

Another, rather tendentious, way to make the point Sider and I are trying to make is to observe that Yoder had no interest in novels. He seldom read novels, nor did he think novels to be morally important. It is not that he did not like to read. But he saw little reason to engage in the kind of literature represented by the novel. Yet the novel is all-important for me exactly because it forces one to imagine other lives. In short, novels are an exercise in the enrichment of the imagination through which we develop the empathy that is crucial for the acquisition of the virtues.

 

What one cannot help but wonder is, like his encounter with Carolyn Holderread Heggen, how Yoder failed to appreciate how his suggestion about her joining him in his hotel room could only be received as a form of violence. Something was missing in Yoder, and I think the name for what was missing is called the moral imagination.

 

Stanley, it’s all very nice that you’ve solved this.  Yoder was missing moral imagination.  Perhaps (and I know I’m not a world-renowned ethicist, so could be wrong) he was just missing the moral bit.  Why does it have to some sort of new title (in italics)?  If he’d raped a load of men, if he’d raped you, would you be so concerned to have an italicised title that he was missing?  Yoder used flimflam theology to justify himself and you too are engaging in it.  He was missing empathy for women, he was missing morals (when it came to women), he was missing effective accountability structures, he was missing a whole load of things.  But to give it a profound name only serves to continue to obfuscate Yoder’s abuse.

 

I do not have ready answers to either of these questions. Much depends, of course, on who the “us” or the “we” may be that asks the question. As I’ve mentioned, I have friends who have decided in deference to the offence against women by Yoder they will no longer have their students read Yoder. I respect that decision, but it is not one I can take. I need John’s clarity of thought if I am to try to think through what I think I have learned from him.

 

Oh Stanley, Yoder’s work means more to you than women’s suffering?  That is a heartbreaking thing to know.  You wrote this paper to confess to your failings, which were that Yoder’s work meant more to you than the women he harmed.  And still that is the case!  This paper is a confession, not a commitment to repentance or restitution, but rather an elaborate justification to explain why you will continue to use Yoder’s work.  No wonder thinking about Yoder makes you depressed.  For you are tied to a sexual abuser and unwilling to separate yourself from him.  Unlike your friends, you will not defer to the women Yoder harmed.  The only small mercy is that your continued support of Yoder’s work is no longer going to give him a platform to abuse women.  Yet, what about all the other men who are abusing women?  The other theologians who are harming women, the other church leaders and Christian men.  Make no mistake, Yoder is not the only Christian theologian who harms women.  And your continued endorsement of him says to those men, “Your work will be harmed much less than the women you abuse.”  That is not okay.

 

The women Yoder abused may have been brilliant theologians!  They may have changed the world with their thoughts.  But their potential was cut short by Yoder and the systems which enabled him.  Goossen’ report describes the impact on Elena:

 

“Her sojourn at the Mennonite seminary had been darkened by Yoder’s abuse, by Miller’s blaming, and by her own shattered sense of self. These experiences, she later recalled, set her up for further abuse by several other male predators who sensed her vulnerability. In the longer term— over the next several decades—this legacy, including debilitating anxiety and depression, foreshortened her vocation in Christian ministry.”

 

Elena might have contributed something extraordinary to Christian theology, but she wasn’t given the chance.  That’s not okay.  Why should Yoder’s legacy matter but Elena’s not?

 

I think Gerald Schlabach puts the matter well in his reflections on his relation to Yoder in his wonderfully titled essay, “Only Those We Need Can Betray Us.” He observes that “there is simply no way to tell the story of 20th century historic peace church theology – much less to appropriate it – without drawing on Yoder’s thought.” Schlabach acknowledges that he can understand how younger Mennonite scholars can try to do peace theology without relying on Yoder, but he confesses, “I just don’t see how they/we can do without him.” Nor do I see how we can do without him.

 

I haven’t had a chance to read Gerald’s essay, but I think there is a huge difference between acknowledging someone’s contribution (along with the abuse they perpetrated) and insisting people read their work.

 

In particular, I need his readings of Scripture which seem to me ever fresh and powerful. Yet I cannot deny that this cannot be the decision others can or should make. In particular, I think women would have trouble reading Yoder. But “trouble reading” is not the same thing as “not reading.” For it is surely the case that there are aspects of Yoder’s work that are of constructive use for the concerns of women.

 

Oh Stanley, why exactly would women find it more difficult to read Yoder than you?  Is it our VAGINAS?  Why does someone need to be a woman to have trouble reading Yoder?  What is wrong with men?  What is wrong with you?  That your empathy deficit for women would be so huge that a woman would struggle more than you to read Yoder?  What does that say about you?  Surely Yoder’s offence to humankind should cause all of humankind to feel disturbed.  The majority of those killed in the first World War were men, does that mean you expect men to find reading about it harder than women?

 

Also, how dare you say that Yoder’s work is constructive for the concerns of women?!  Yoder got himself on the board of the first feminist theology course at the Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary.  Women worked to develop a feminist theology course and Yoder used his position to gain power on the course, which was likely a tactic to gain access to women he could abuse.

 

I have a very ambiguous relation with feminist theology because I often agree with their criticisms of the male behaviour but disagree with the basis for those criticisms. That I have not been prepared to discuss feminist theology in principle does not mean, however, that I do not think it important to take into account what women have to say. I should like to think that I have done that, at least to the extent that women like Iris Murdoch, Elizabeth Anscombe, Philippa Foot, Martha Nussbaum, Marie Fortune, Catherine Pickstock and Ellen Davis, among others, have been crucial for how I have tried to think. But I engaged with them not because they were women, but because what they were doing was so interesting.

 

I have to say Stanley, your ambiguous relationship with feminist theology is quite obvious throughout this paper.  It’s great that you engage with women theologians because they are doing interesting things, not just because they are women.  That’s what Yoder did, pay women attention, because they were women.  However, why do you think so many of those you are interested in are men?  Do you think men just simply say more interesting things?  Or could there possibly be something that disadvantages women from having the opportunity to say interesting things?  Perhaps like a high-profile theologian trying to have sex with them as a so-called theological experiment?  Or maybe that theological establishments don’t think women’s pain matters very much?  Feminist activism is the reason that Yoder’s abuse of women became public and it’s all very well you not agreeing with feminism in principle, but without it, women wouldn’t even be theologians.

 

I certainly have deep sympathies with the feminist challenge to paternalism. Even more, I think feminist critiques of masculinity to be extremely insightful. Stan Goff’s book Borderline is a model of how feminist insights can illumine what any Christian should think. The work Goff does in his book makes clear that the feminist challenge to “maleness” is a gift to men.

 

I have to say Stanley, you’re not massively convincing me that you’ve spent much time reading any feminist stuff given that you’re recommending a book by a man to evidence your interest in paternalism.  I’m not against Stan’s book, but I would suggest that, if this paper is anything to go by, you really have a lot more reading to do on feminist analysis, masculinity and patriarchy.

 

I also think the feminist challenge to the assumption that marriage is necessary for the fulfilment of women to be right and important. Yoder’s account of singleness can be read as a feminist argument. I also think we owe feminists a debt of gratitude for their critique of romantic love. For years in the core course in Christian Ethics, I assigned the work of Marie Fortune because I thought her exposure of the violence present in romantic love to be a crucial insight. Fortune was not only important for exposing the violence occluded in romantic ideals of love, but she also helped make clear that nonviolence is not just about war. Yoder would and did think similar thoughts, but he did so because he thought they were commensurate with the Gospel.

 

Yoder’s account of singleness is not a feminist argument.  Yoder’s account of singleness was a way for him to create a justification for sexually abusing women.  Which is the antithesis of feminism.  Yoder cannot be used by feminists, because unlike world-renowned male ethicists, feminists cannot divorce someone’s Important Thoughts from their sexual abuse of women.  It is a political act to reject men’s violence as incompatible with human flourishing.  Plus, Yoder also thought sexually abusing women was commensurate with the Gospel, so I’m not sure how exactly we can trust Yoder’s analysis.

 

Yet the issue remains how to receive Yoder’s work without that reception seeming to imply that his behaviour does not matter. That surely would be an injustice to the women he harmed. He was the President of the Society of Christian Ethics. Should some notation be put next to his name when past presidents of the society are named? Pete Rose will not get into the Hall of Fame, but Yoder is already there. We cannot act as if he was not the president of the Society. Or what does it mean that Yoder was President of Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary? I obviously cannot speak as a Mennonite, for which I thank God since I have no idea what to say, but they surely must say something.

 

Well I think we could probably start by encouraging world-renowned ethicists to reconsider their position on this.  We could encourage the church to consider men’s sexual abuse of women to be important enough to merit women’s voices being listened to and their needs being met.  Yoder’s work is still widely used without people (either by professors or students) being aware of what he did to women.  Perhaps we could invest in ensuring that changes.  Maybe Yoder could always be referred to as a “discredited pacifist”?  It doesn’t have to be everything, but it could be something.  Maybe we could also challenge theological establishments to take seriously male violence against women, to no longer justify and deny it, as you describe yourself as having done.

 

Nor do I think it helpful to call attention to the misconduct toward women by Martin Luther King, Jr., Karl Barth or Paul Tillich. Each in their own way seem to have engaged in misconduct toward women or a woman, but I think it does little good to suggest that they help us understand Yoder’s behaviour. To call attention to these men invites the general claim that when all is said and done “we are all sinners.” That is a way to excuse each of us, with the result that Yoder is left off the hook. That is clearly a mistake, not only because Yoder should not be left off the hook, but, just as importantly, sin should never be used as an explanation.

 

Of course these other men should not be brought up to communicate the “we’re all sinners” trope.  But maybe we should be asking questions about why so many high-profile men abuse women.  Someone told me that her church leader husband had researched Christian leaders to find some who had treated their wives well.  He couldn’t find any. Maybe we should ask what it is about manhood that causes a significant number of men to abuse women.  In the UK 30% of women will be abused by a man, with Christian women being subjected to abuse at the same rate as the wider population.   On the day your article was published thousands of women publicly shared the ways they had been abused by men.  And yet nothing in your article acknowledges that Yoder’s behaviour is not an aberration, it is repeated in different forms and with different justifications everyday by men in every country in the world.

 

That is it. That is all I have to say about this troubling matter. It surely feels like I am ending with a whimper. That is the way it should feel, because I have ended with a whimper. I did not want to write this article, but I have done it. I am not happy that I have done it, but then nothing about this situation is happy.

 

Sadly, that is not it Stanley.  Women will continue to be abused by men in power.  Other men (and some women) will continue to collude with the abusers.  And nothing will change.  Not until we change.  All of us.  You included.

 

 

[1] Goossen, 10.

[2] Goossen, 61.

[3] Goossen, 61-62.

This Is My Body

I recently met up with some old college friends that I hadn’t seen for over eight years.  We all have children and partners and lives that have stretched out before us since the last time we saw one another.  I bumped into one of them when visiting my home-town a couple of months ago and we chatted about the eight years that had passed while her children made it clear that they didn’t want to stand around waiting for us to reminisce, so we agreed to meet next time I was visiting.

 

They say that time heals.  I’m not sure it does.  But time creates a distance from hurts that allows us to recalibrate ourselves.  We don’t have to be in denial about what was done to us in order to distance ourselves from it.  It’s been over eleven years since I left my ex-husband and I am far enough along the journey of healing that his impact on my life has become a distant memory and an occasional PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) episode rather than daily torture.  I’m no longer the person he moulded me into.

 

Bodies are often ignored in the healing process[1].  We focus on emotional turmoil or psychological affliction.  In therapy we talk about how we feel.  In understanding what has been done to us, we make cognitive shifts from one level of awareness to another.  Yet, all that is done to us is done while we exist within the same body we take forward throughout life.  Time and therapy can transform our minds and hearts, but our bodies remain the same.  We can’t download ourselves into another physical body.  We’re stuck with this one.

 

I met my ex-husband when I was 17 and at college.  The friends I met up with recently included the woman who introduced me to him.  She sat with us both when I found out I was pregnant.  After being released from hospital following a suicide attempt, it was her who I spent the evening with.  Another of the friends I met up with had seen razor cuts on my stomach when I stretched while wearing a short t-shirt at college.  The shame I felt when she confronted me.  Not being able to explain that he had done that to me.  Cut me with a razor.

 

While travelling to and from meeting with these friends, I was reading Getting Off by Robert Jensen, an excellent book about pornography and masculinity.  Throughout the book it describes in detail the forms of sexualised violence that exist within pornography.

 

I have been married to Mr GLW for nine years and free from my ex-husband for eleven years.  In that time, I have done a whole lot of healing and have discovered that sex can be awesome and life giving.  However, the same body that I inhabit now is the body I had when my ex-husband sexually violated me, and previous to that it is the same body I grew into whilst being sexually abused  by a neighbour.

 

Reading Robert Jensen’s book, I was reminded of the many ways my body was violated.  Of how my ex-husband used pornography to normalise that violation.  And how well that tactic worked.  I was convinced I should want all the degrading things that he forced upon me.

 

I read an article once where the author explained that the body takes seven years to completely renew all its cells.  She was counting down the years, months, days until that meant the man who raped her had never touched any of the cells in her body.

 

Christian culture loves the redemption narrative.  It loves the bad person who turns good, and the broken person who becomes healed.  Stories of women and girls “rescued” from human traffickers abound.  Stories about how many of those women and girls re-enter the sex industry, there’s not many of those being told.  We are sold the lie of full freedom this side of eternity.  Especially when there is no physical barrier to healing.  If someone has no legs, mostly (though not always) Christians will accept that there are challenges that person will face throughout their life.  With so called “emotional issues” rarely is this partiality of healing acknowledged.

 

Being raped happens to an actual physical body.  No amount of healing is going to undo what men did to me.  All abuse and trauma happens to us in an embodied way and Christian theology (with our Saviour who was born, lived, died and rose again in a physical body) should be much more aware of this than it is.

 

This body that I walk through life in has been raped.  It was degraded for a number of years and has survived my own attempts to kill and cut it.  I may be living in a place of great freedom, no longer constantly dragged down emotionally or psychologically by what was inflicted on me.  Yet, this body is the same body.  I type with the same hands.  I talk with the same mouth.  I walk with the same feet.  This is my body.

 

I don’t have some big revelation to conclude this with.  I felt compelled to write about this because I know that I am not the only one who is on this journey.  And if you’re reading this and are walking a similar path, please know that it is okay to never fully recover.  Living a wonderful life is not dependent on “getting over” the past.  Our bodies stay with us throughout all that we endure and (thankfully) all that we celebrate.  No matter how much physical distance or passing of time there is or renewal of cells our body goes through, we can’t leave it behind, for our body stays with us.  And though the pain and horror is difficult to overcome, it can be okay.  And we can be okay.

 

 

[1] This is changing within PTSD treatment, with practices like Somatic Experiencing.

Guest Blog: Five Years

I am hosting this guest post for a woman who was subjected to abuse by her boss when she was working in a church.  She has courageously chosen to share her story and I feel privileged to offer my blog as a place for her to do this. 

 

 

It’s been five years.

Five years since he was my boss.
Five years since he turned and became violent in front of my eyes.
Five years since the institutions and people I trusted to protect people like me, let me down.
Five years since I learned some of the hardest lessons I’ve ever had to learn.

He was my boss. I thought he was my mentor and my friend.

I was the intern and he was the youth-worker. A good communicator, well respected by his peers; the classic church employee, minus the checked shirt.

What you probably don’t know is what he’s really like. Underneath the façade of loving father, caring husband, wonderful boss and brilliant youth worker. But I do.

I was there whilst he yelled at his wife down the phone, telling her she’s a stupid b***h. On the night he assaulted a volunteer and realised that he probably wouldn’t have a job the next day, he told his wife that without his job, his life had no meaning. That she and their children were not enough.

He told me that his wife didn’t understand him. But that I did.
That one day I would be better than him and that it scared him. He told me as his boss, I needed to be accountable to him. He would ask me personal questions about my relationship with my fiancé. He would vet my church activities, telling me which groups I could and could not volunteer with. I needed protecting you see. He didn’t want me to be overworked or taken advantage of by a demanding church. Particularly if those activities had any degree of leadership, or would give me opportunities that he hadn’t been offered.

He would take credit for my work constantly. He told me that he had the respect of the leadership team and the credibility to take my ideas and make them into a reality. After all, we are a team, it’s not about ego. If I truly wanted what was best for the young people, I would let him pretend that they were his ideas.

One night, about 11pm he came to talk to me. He told me that he had tried to commit suicide the day before but that it was a secret; that I couldn’t tell anyone. He said that the church were conspiring against him; wanted him to leave, and that this would give them the ammunition they needed to fire him. I believed him. Felt sorry for him. Ignored his tantrums. Forgave his cruelty as he undermined and bullied those around him. Babysat his child so he could get help from a counsellor.

But all of the pressure was just too much for twenty year old me to handle. I couldn’t be the person to keep his secrets anymore and told my fiancé who informed the church leaders. The next day my fiancé received threatening texts from my boss, telling him that he had no right to do that. That he was ‘taking me away from him, and poisoning me against him.’ My fiancé tried to phone me, but I didn’t get his calls, went to work and that’s when he became violent to a volunteer.

He was fired. But he pleaded that he was suffering from a mental health problem, that the stress of work had made him ill. He begged for reconciliation and attended mediation meetings with the church. They allowed him to resign on the premise that he would never work with young people again. At the time that really hurt, but I recognise that in the leadership was a deep desire to do the right thing for everyone. It was naïve, but I respect the compassion they showed to him and his family, even if it broke my heart in the process.

Six months later he started working as a youth worker in a church in another part of the country. My church was never contacted for a reference.

Looking back, I know it sounds so ridiculous. Why didn’t I say anything sooner? Honestly, I didn’t know anything was wrong. I was 20 years old, this was my first job, my first line manager. I didn’t know that this wasn’t normal. I thought I was the bad Christian for being upset when he took the credit, that I was unsupportive for questioning his actions, that he was ill and that I was somehow at fault.

Five years have passed and I am still angry. Angry that he could be doing this to somebody else. Angry that I am the one who is told that I need to be more forgiving. Angry that the people I have told did not act.

I don’t want to be angry. But I don’t want to reconcile. Somehow that feels like it makes his actions ok. How do I balance my ‘responsibility’ as a Christian to forgive, with my fury that he is still out there, in a position in power, still working with children and young people.

The internet is a funny thing. I see Christians; men and women talk about misogyny and equality. But some of them know what he did and ignore it. It’s easy to shout about faceless men and nameless abusers, but what happens when we put a face or a name to that man?

He is the one who abuses and I am the one who needs to be less angry.

It’s been five years.
But I’m the one that still has nightmares.
I’m the one that is still on a high dose of anti-anxiety tablets.
I’m the one who hides in the toilets at conferences, churches, events, having spotted him from a distance because suddenly its five years ago and I’m back in that room as he screams and lashes out.
I’m the one who is fearful of receiving another letter, another email in which he simultaneously asks for forgiveness, without acknowledging any of his behaviours or actions.
I’m the one who is typing this, debating whether or not to keep going.
I’m the one who is fearful that he will read this, recognise himself in it and contact me.
I’m the one who is fearful that people will read this and not believe me.
I’m the one who is terrified that this will happen again.

 

 

If what the author of this post has said resonates with your current or previous experiences, please do seek help and advice…

Women, for information about your rights regarding workplace bullying and abuse: http://rightsofwomen.org.uk.

For anyone wanting information about workplace bullying and abuse: https://www.gov.uk/workplace-bullying-and-harassment or http://www.acas.org.uk/index.aspx?articleid=1864.

For issues around anxiety you can contact http://www.mind.org.uk or http://www.mindandsoul.info.

Do get in touch with me via befreeuk {at} gmail.com if you would like to chat further about the issues raised in this post.