Quiverfull and reproductive choice: it’s complicated

Just a warning that this post is on the rambling side. It’s unedited and, well, I’m kind of upset.

Michelle and Jim Bob Duggar announced today that they are expecting their 20th child. Naturally this has sparked all sorts of reactions from the internets, some of which are really problematic.

I’ll just get it out of the way that calling Michelle Duggar’s uterus a clown car is pretty misogynistic, calling her and her husband crazy is ableist, and saying they’re stupid is narrow-minded. There’s no need to denigrate Michelle Duggar’s body or reproductive capacity to critique Quiverfull teaching, people live with mental illness and don’t have 10 or 20 children, and plenty of intelligent people end up in high control communities like Quiverfull and Christian Patriarchy.

With that said: another response that comes up every time the Duggars announce they’re expecting another child, one that’s been bothering me all day, is the response from many that believing in reproductive choice means that we can’t possibly critique the Duggars’ continual expansion of their family.

I have a lot of reactions to this. Mostly it makes me feel like ranting. A lot.

Yes, people have a right to choose to have more children, regardless of the opinions of others on whether or not they’ve reproduced enough, regardless of how distasteful or wrong-headed others might find their personal beliefs or lifestyles. This is true.

But here’s the thing. The Duggars don’t believe in choice. I don’t mean only reproductive choice. Any kind of personal choice at all. There’s finding and following God’s will, or rejecting it. That’s it. This is true in terms of how they worship, how they court and marry, how they choose vocations, how they educate their children, in every aspect of their lives. And it’s true in how they approach reproduction, too.

As my friend Sae put it, “autonomy is not a factor in why [Michelle Duggar] is giving birth again.” This is rather clear in what Michelle Duggar herself has said about having more children, e.g.:

  • “Many years ago, Jim Bob & I gave this area of our lives to God, allowing Him to grant life as He saw fit.” (their announcement today, via NLQ.)
  • “God is the one who gives life…We would welcome another [child] if He saw fit, but we’ll wait and see.” (Last year.)

So when people talk about the need to respect Michelle Duggar’s reproductive choices I can’t help but feel they either don’t know much about what the Duggars believe, or they’ve decided to ignore it. Because what they’re doing is describing Michelle Duggar’s pregnancy in terms she would find morally abhorrent. She hasn’t made a choice to have a child, in her view. She’s been given a child by God. The only choice she claims is the choice to be happy with whatever God gives her and when. Reproductive choice is an utterly meaningless concept in this worldview.

Another problem: even if Michelle Duggar did understand her pregnancies in terms of choice, that wouldn’t necessarily mean she’s exercising it.

Here’s a parallel: Many believers in Christian patriarchy hold to teachings that married women are not permitted to ever refuse their husbands sex. There’s even a segment of the movement that considers it a sin for a couple to not have sex when the wife is ovulating – i.e., sex during ovulation is religiously mandated. I doubt many feminists would claim that sex that a woman literally can’t turn down without sinning is fully consensual. So why would we claim that a pregnancy conceived in a context where women are outside of God’s will if they take any sort of action (including avoiding potentially procreative sex) to prevent or manage reproduction? If the sex that produces the pregnancy isn’t quite consensual, how can the pregnancy that results be entirely a choice? I’m puzzled by this.

It seems to me that part of the problem is that choice feminism is often too simplistic in its assumptions about people’s actions and the possibilities available to them. There’s often no recognition of the fact that people’s choices can be severely constrained by the circumstances around them. When people say they respect Michele Duggar’s choice they either don’t see or don’t recognize the ways in which her hands are tied by the culture she’s part of.

‘Cause here’s the other thing. Christian patriarchy is a high control culture. It’s a cult. And people in cults often claim, often quite sincerely, that they’re making free choices even as they repeatedly “choose” the same things everyone else in the group does. They often honestly believe that they really truly want and independently choose things that they really have no choice but to accept as members of a high control group.

Cults are real. Brainwashing is real. Mind control is real. People can be manipulated and controlled. People can think they’re making “free” choices and not really be doing so. I know. It happened to me. It’s happened to many, many people who ultimately leave high control groups and realize, in retrospect, that they were had.

I don’t know if this idea scares people, and that’s why they resist it, or if people just don’t believe it because they haven’t experienced it. But these things are real. It doesn’t mean people are stupid. It doesn’t mean people are incapable of making decisions. It just means that free will and personal autonomy get really complicated when you mix them up with bullying, manipulation, and spiritual abuse.

More thoughts on this coming.

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Re-centering

Are Women Human? is now on Facebook – you can “like” AWH using the button in the right sidebar, or on the AWH Facebook page, also linked in the sidebar.

Sorry for the long and unexplained absence from the blog! I had a number of obligations and was also on the road a bit; I thought I’d still be able to get some writing done despite all that, but clearly that wasn’t the case.

To be honest, another part of the delay in writing has also been a bit of burnout over the SGM situation, or perhaps more over the way I’d been writing about it. Put simply, I’m a bit tired of writing about privileged white men all the time. That’s not what, or who, this blog is about. There’s no shortage of writing that centers privileged white dudes, way more than there ought to be, and not nearly enough that deals with the concerns of people who are not privileged white men (which is most people, after all). I’m not sure that the way I’ve been writing about the current drama in SGM does much to balance the disproportionate focus on people with privilege and power.

On the one hand, there’s no way to write about the issues I care about without spending a significant amount of time writing about privilege and power. The abuses that this blog focuses on are a direct product of inequitable distribution of power in the church, and abuse of religious authority and influence to promote teachings that oppress and harm people. So I need to talk about power, and powerful people – and when it comes to talking about Christianity in the U.S. or American society in general, that means spending a good amount of time talking about privileged white men.

Still, spending an extended period of time writing only or primarily about powerful white dudes in the church doesn’t jibe with my vision for this blog, and what I hope it will grow into in the future. If I believe that the extremely narrow range of voices and experiences represented in most church leadership is a direct contributor to oppression in the church, then part of fighting that oppression has to be devoting more time, attention, and space to neglected voices, and pointing to alternative models of church leadership and community. It has to include making visible the diversity of people and perspectives that the evangelical church in particularly so often marginalizes and renders invisible. In general I haven’t done as much of that kind of writing on this blog as I would like, but that’s especially been the case since all the drama between SGM’s leadership become public. My blogging became all about SGM pastors.

First and foremost I want this to be a space that centers the voices and experiences of people who are survivors of abusive church cultures. Part of that will definitely be continuing to call out men who foster toxic church environments. There’s a lot of therapeutic value in talking about these men and their warped and cramped worldview. When you grow up in this kind of system, you’re taught to self-censor any kind of dissenting speech, or even thought. You’re taught to ignore any doubts or feelings that things aren’t quite right. That any feeling that something is wrong is just you – being judgmental, being angry, being unforgiving, rebelling against God. The church and the pastors can never be wrong.

So when you finally find someone who is willing to name the system for what it is – abusive, oppressive, perverse – it’s a tremendous relief. I remember when I found the SGM Survivors blog for the first time. I wept. A lot. I didn’t even know I had that kind of emotion bottled up inside of me until I found people who were at last confirming what I’d thought for so long, that there was something deeply, horribly wrong in SGM. I didn’t realize until that moment that I thought I was all alone in feeling that way. And in one unexpected moment, I knew I wasn’t alone. I knew it wasn’t just me being paranoid or oversensitive. What I saw and felt were real.

I don’t agree with much of what the folks who run SGM Survivors and Refuge believe, but I’ll always be thankful that they made it possible for me to see that I wasn’t alone. I want my blog to do the same, but to be more inclusive and welcoming of people of color, queer people, trans people, people who are no longer Christian or no longer religious, and anyone who has been harmed or marginalized by authoritarian church leadership. And I want to make more space to talk about religious and secular communities that are working towards being more inclusive and less hierarchical. I don’t want to unthinkingly accept the disparities that exist in the church and the culture at large by spending all my time talking about demographics that are already overrepresented in public discourse.

So what does that mean, in a concrete sense? There’ll still be posts about Mark Driscoll’s toxic notions of masculinity, but I’ll also write more about alternatives to patriarchal masculinity. I’ll still pay attention to the current crisis among SGM leaders, but I’ll be spending more time talking about various experiences of marginalization in the church – e.g., what it’s like growing up as a girl/woman of color in a predominantly white, patriarchal church culture, about the racist and classist assumptions that underlie white evangelical definitions of “biblical” masculinity and femininity, about abuse and recovery in Christian families and communities, about queer sexuality and non-conforming gender, etc. I’ll still write about so-called traditional Christianity, but I’ll be spending more time talking about churches committed to practical theologies of social justice and equality, about deconversion and processing one’s own beliefs and spirituality after leaving an authoritarian religious group, about negotiating relationships with loved ones who believe differently, and other issues.

This blog isn’t ultimately about C.J. Mahaney or Mark Driscoll or any other blowhard complementarian. It’s about those of us who have been and are still being affected by their teachings, and I need to re-center my writing to reflect that better. I’d love hear any ideas or thoughts you all might have about how I can do that, or suggestions about topics that would be good to discuss.


One year blogaversary

Trigger warning – sexual abuse, spousal abuse.

Today is, more or less, my first blogoversary. I published my first real post on Are Women Human? one year ago today. That post was about John Piper’s advice on how women who are being abused by their husbands can still “submit” and affirm their husband’s leadership and should “endure” abuse “for a season.”

Comparing that post to my most recent post on child sexual abuse in Sovereign Grace Ministries, there’s an obvious common denominator of Christianized patriarchy. Piper’s response to abused wives and CLC and FCC’s responses to abused children and their families share in common an assumption that the world should be ordered around the belief that  the authority of straight, gender conforming men over all other human beings should be universal and unquestioned.

Women should “endure being smacked around for a night” so as not to “disrespect” or be “unsubmissive” to to their husband – their leader. Children who have been abused should be sent away from home so that their molester fathers can “stay in the house as the head of the household.” Survivors and their families should shut up and tell no one about the abuse or the identity of the abusers so as to preserve the reputations of the men “leading” the church. Everything is set up so that men who abuse (not that only men abuse) are coddled, protected, enabled.

This is all about Christian patriarchy. It’s all about defending a worldview that God cares about straight cisgender (white) men more than anyone else, that they are worth more than everyone else no matter how disgusting or evil their behavior.

The devastating effects of these teachings on queer people, trans and gender variant people, women, gender people of color, and children are many. And As I’ve written over the past year, this kind of Christian patriarchy is incredibly toxic to men as well. It imposes a standard of perfect leadership and providing that no man can ever live up to. It teaches men that they aren’t “real” men if they don’t live up to this standard, if they are not able to dominate everyone around them (including other men) and thus turns everyone into challenges to be subdued. It primes men to lash out at any threat to their complete control over others with anger and abuse.

As I’ve blogged about these issues over the past year I’ve become even more convinced that they are entrenched, pressing issues that desperately need addressing. To a lot of people, the effects of Christian patriarchy might seem far removed from their lives. But the reality is that Christian patriarchy is just a more explicitly articulated, more extreme, spiritualized form of plain old patriarchy. Its response to rape is a theology that enshrines and sanctifies rape culture. Its response to female, queer, and trans sexuality and bodily autonomy is bigoted, paternalist, and based a belief in the supremacy of straight gender normative white men – just like our culture at large. The only difference is that in Christian patriarchy straight  cis white men are held up as spokesmen and stand-ins for God, who is presented as the ultimate possessive, angry, abusive patriarch.

As I wrote in my introduction to the blog a year ago, many feminists and progressives who haven’t had much contact with evangelical communities don’t fully understand the context for evangelical teachings on gender on sexuality:

I decided to start this blog because I noticed that, while there are a number of blogs and books out there that bring attention to issues of gender and sexuality in traditionalist Christian communities, most are written either by people who are still in these communities or very similar ones, or by people who have never been part of these communities.  Many of the blogs by evangelical Christians speaking out against patriarchy in the church still support homophobia, transphobia, and heteronormativity.  Meanwhile, non-evangelical feminist and progressive critics of religious patriarchy are often puzzled by evangelical beliefs, or don’t take them seriously.

As I read more about Christian patriarchy, I was frustrated by the lack of resources that balanced a feminist and progressive perspective on Christian patriarchy with understanding and empathy for people who grew up in patriarchal communities.  I wanted resources that situated Christian patriarchy in the broader context of gender and sexual discrimination, but also addressed why these beliefs can be appealing, and recognized that it’s a long and often arduous process to work to root out these beliefs from one’s life, and to learn to think about gender and sexuality in more humane and loving ways.

I hope and think what I’ve written over the past year has contributed in some small way to illuminating these issues from a feminist and theologically informed perspective, but I’m also very aware that there’s so much I haven’t touched on yet, much more to be said, much more work to be done. I’ve found writing here to be incredibly fulfilling work and am looking forward to another year of doing it.


“Masculinity, a delicate flower”

I laughed when I read the above phrase, the title of a kind of absurd TIME article by Meredith Melnick on masculinity and male gender identity. It so perfectly captures the contradiction at the heart of patriarchal claims about masculinity. According to complementarians, masculinity is all about being strong, aggressive, independent, attracted to women (and only women), leading and protecting the “weak” (because proper men can’t possibly be weak and anyone who isn’t a man is by definition weak), rational, etc. All of these characteristics are supposed to be inclinations that come “naturally” to men – recall Mark Driscoll’s statement that “Men want to be men.”

At the same time, complementarians constantly obsess over whether men are behaving in a sufficiently “manly” fashion; no detail of appearance of behavior is too trivial for them to assign a proper gender to it (true story: I once heard a pastor say that canaries are not an appropriate pet for a real man). Any departure from conventional masculine gender expression is an “assault” on masculinity, and a disqualification from it. They’re constantly wringing their hands over the inadequacies of modern men, supposedly emasculated by feminism. Driscoll’s derisive claim that “Sixty percent of Christians are chicks, and the forty percent that are dudes are still sort of chicks” perfectly captures both complementarian anxieties about emasculation and complementarian contempt for women and “inadequate” men.

How resilient can such masculinity really be if it’s so easily disrupted? How confident can these men be  in their “natural” masculinity if they’re so easily emasculated? How rational is a masculinity that perceives pink nail polish as a threat to its integrity?

This kind of masculinity is the complete opposite of “natural.”  It’s a carefully orchestrated performance, a facade that must be constantly maintained (“gender role” is an apt phrase for it, come to think of it). The moment the act of manliness is dropped – or simply fails to be convincing – one ceases to be a “real” man. This explains complementarians’ ever-present anxiety over male gender expression and sexuality, and their constant need to vigorously demonstrate their “manliness” in these respects.

To wit, Mark Driscoll’s latest bizarre, exhibitionist assertion of his heterosexuality:

Mark Driscoll isn’t satisfied with condemning actual gay sex; he must also distance himself from anything that could be remotely construed as implying it, even harmless, meaningless Facebook memes. Mark Driscoll, despite being a 40 year old grown ass man, seems to think “poking” is a serious synonym for sex. And Mark Driscoll really needs you to know that he would never think the idea of “poking” another dude is anything other than gross. This and other public comments by Driscoll betray a terror of being perceived as anything other than 100% straight, a need to be ever vigilant against any and all associations with anything even kinda sorta maybe queer-ish. Even poking other men on Facebook. That’s mature, manly leadership for you.

Of course, this anxiety over gender and sexuality is hardly unique to complementarianism. This is another lie of patriarchal Christianity, i.e., the claim that its definition of real masculinity is “countercultural.” Nothing could be further from the truth. It’s merely one manifestation of the constant societal pressure that men and people perceived as male are under to “act like a man”:

Manhood is a social status, something a guy earned historically, through brutal tests of physical endurance or other risky demonstrations of toughness that mark the transition from boyhood to manhood. But while that masculinity is hard-won, it can be easily lost.

Once earned, men have to continue proving their worth through manly action. In modern society, that may no longer mean, say, killing the meatiest wooly mammoth, but there are equivalent displays of masculinity: earning a decent living or protecting one’s family. One misstep — losing a job, for instance, or letting someone down — and that gender identity slips away. (from the article linked above; Melnick makes some seriously problematic assumptions about gender identity and expression, but on this point she’s spot on).

Patriarchal fantasies like Driscoll’s Ultimate Fighting Jesus are merely less subtle, more overtly violent and misogynistic expressions of pervasive cultural associations of masculinity with aggression and dominance. Likewise, the perpetual vigilance with which complementarians police masculinity and indeed all gender identities mirrors broader cultural anxieties over and limitations on sexuality and gender expression. The phrase “no homo” is a secular example of this:

The sad and awful irony is that all this angst over acting real makes it remarkably difficult for men and people perceived as male to actually be real, i.e., authentic and true to themselves in their gender expression (and sexual expression as well, not only by making heterosexuality compulsory, but also by insisting that specific gender roles be observed in sexual encounters between men and women).

Far from encouraging realness in masculinity or any other gender identity, our society actually punishes people for being real. Even men who buy into the act are harmed by the severe limitations it places on their emotional expression and behavior, the impossible standards of godlike dominance and control it imposes on them, and the damage it wreaks on personal relationships. Such masculinity is by nature fragile and constantly under threat.


“It’ll be a cold day in hell before I get my theology from a woman”

Trigger warning: sexual abuse, ableism.

ABC’s 20/20 aired an exposé on sexual abuse and abuse coverups in Independent Fundamentalist Baptist churches (IFB) last week. Much of it dealt with Tina Anderson’s story, which I wrote about some months ago (link). The first part is posted below, and you can watch the full episode here.

It was pretty well done, and very difficult to watch, especially knowing that these stories are only the tip of the iceberg – not just in the IFB, but in the much larger church culture that the IFB is part of. I kept thinking as I was watching this that the only difference between the IFB and SGM is that the former is somewhat more conservative (e.g., in terms of women’s clothing, and I’m guessing in terms of music, movies, etc.) and more overtly misogynistic. Other than that, the same story could easily have been told about SGM churches. Their teaching on gender roles and the marginalization of women is more or less the same, as are their toxic church cultures, where all kinds of abuse flourish but are kept secret, buried under a thin veneer of “family values.”

It makes me sick to think about how many people have endured this kind of abuse while churches and their members keep themselves willfully ignorant (when they’re not actively enabling it or perpetrating it themselves). Given how few survivors of abuse come forward with their stories, there’s no question that abuse is a much more widespread problem in the church than evangelicals generally acknowledge. I’m convinced that perverted theologies – not just on gender, sexuality, and family life, but also about the nature of God, and of divine and human authority – make patriarchal churches an environment where abusers of all kinds thrive and are protected, while others are forced to endure abuse in silence, and even punished for being survivors of abuse. The whole culture of patriarchal evangelicalism is set up so it’s virtually impossible to acknowledge the existence of abuse in the church, much less to actually name members of the church as abusive. It’s set up so the victim is always partially or wholly to blame for their abuse.

The response of Jack Schaap, a well-known IFB pastor, to the 20/20 exposé illustrates this. He completely ignores the the main focus of the story – that several women were abused, many by more than one person, in IFB churches, and that the IFB has a pattern of responding to survivors seeking help by covering up their abuse and punishing the victim. In one especially awful case, a teenage girl confided in her youth pastor that her stepfather was molesting her, only to have the pastor respond by also molesting her – more than once.

Schaap mentions none of this. The existence of abusers in the church – in IFB families – is completely unacknowledged. The survivors who spoke their truth are treated as nonentities. Instead Schaap makes a story about sexual and spiritual abuse all about him. Worse, he seizes on the story as an opportunity to spew more misogynistic bile (ht Jesus Needs New PR).

[Schaap’s church had the video of his comments taken down from Youtube. Almost as if they were afraid of something. Hmmmm. ETA: Darrell of Stuff Fundies Like has reposted the video with commentary.]

A partial transcript:

Somebody the other day asked me, this reporter, he said, um, “I heard that…it’d be a cold day in hell before you get your theology from a woman. Don’t you think that’s kind of demeaning to the genders?”

I said, “Ask Adam what he thinks about getting his theology from a woman. I said it damned the whole world. I said the reason your soul, sorry soul’s going to hell is because a woman told Adam what God thinks about things.

…I wouldnt get my theology from a woman. I don’t mind if mama teaches the kids. I don’t mind if a strong lady, and a wise woman, and a gracious godly woman follows the, uh, takes the lesson from the pastor – Hey y’all, you listen to me right now, I still believe, it’ll be a cold day in hell before I get my theology from a woman. I’m a preacher. I wasn’t mama-called, papa-sent. No woman ever got me involved in ministry, I didn’t follow a woman into ministry. A woman didn’t write this book, not one woman wrote the scriptures right here. [banging his bible on the lectern] A man wrote the Bible, got it from God, a man hung on the cross, his name is Jesus Christ, and God called a man to lead the church here – [shouting] Hey! I’m glad I’m a man!

…I’m the messenger of the church and what I say is more important than what the news reporter thinks I oughta say. God didn’t call him to tell me what to do, and God didn’t call anybody else, either. You know, if that’s arrogant, so be it.

Can anyone honestly claim that this is anything other than a belief that women are subhuman? Or deny that this kind of theology is a natural and powerful fuel for all kinds of violence against women?* The contempt and hatred Schaap has for women is obvious. My jaw literally dropped open at the point when Schaap starts talking about how the Bible belongs to men. It’s pure, unashamed bigotry, a loud and proud statement of the inferiority of women. I’ve never seen anything like it, at least not in the churches I grew up in. It’s horrifying in its shamelessness.

At the same time, I found it oddly relieving to hear such honesty about the real implications of patriarchal theology. There’s no complementarian bullshitting about how women are of “equal worth” to men, but just have “distinct roles.” There’s no pretense of equality here. There’s no pretense that women have equally valuable contributions to make to the church. Christianity belongs to men. God is a man. The scriptures belong to men. Power and authority belong to men. Truth belongs to men. The right to speak belongs to men. Women have no voice, no part in creating or shaping their own faith, nothing. Women are inferior.

This is what complementarian theology really means, no matter what ridiculous contortions complementarians go through to try to deny it. Teaching that God is male is teaching that other genders are inferior. Believing that women shouldn’t teach or have authority over men necessarily means that women are inferior. Believing that all decision making power in a heterosexual marriage belongs to the husband means that women are inferior. Believing that it’s literally a sin for a woman to have an opinion about the Bible that contradicts male teaching means that women are inferior. At least Jack Schaap is being honest that in his theology it’s better to be a man, instead of lying and trying to have things both ways.

Women matter less than men in patriarchal theology. We are worth less (worthless?). It isn’t a coincidence that there’s an epidemic of abuse of women in the church, and that most churches can’t be bothered to do anything about it – that most blame women for their abuse. It’s the natural product of a theology that teaches that women are less than human.


*Sexual abuse of males and people of nonbinary gender is also a problem in the church, especially of children, which I would argue is also related to theologies that treat children as less than human.


Shut up and smile

Via Jesus Needs New PR, a video from a Baptist marriage retreat originally posted at Christian Nightmares:

Notice how only the husbands are interviewed about the retreat, while the wives say not a word? And that none of the women even have microphones on, kind of like it never even occurred to the powers that be that wives might have opinions on a marriage retreat, and/or that they might be interesting or relevant? And that every single married woman just stands by as smiling support? It’s a little creepy.

Of course, we can’t know what these couples’ marriages are like just from a few seconds of video. But I think this clip – with the each husband speaking exclusively for each couple, each wife standing in silent agreement with and adoration of her husband – illustrates attitudes and expectations about gender roles in marriage that I’ve seen so often in evangelical complementarian marriages.

When Mr. G and I were engaged, we had premarital counseling with a couple from my family’s SGM church. And by “counseling with a couple,” I mean counseling with a guy whose wife would say nothing until the very end of our meetings, when the husband would turn to her and ask if she had anything to add. She never did. Her husband had said it all, apparently. At our first meeting, she deliberately avoided shaking Mr. G’s hand until he had shaken her husband’s hand first.

At the time I was totally oblivious to what was going on – her husband was closest to me, so I naturally I shook his hand first, unaware of the maneuverings going on behind me. This was one of her ways, I guess, of respecting her husband’s authority over her; the chain of command had to be upheld by having our male leaders acknowledge each other first, before the ladies could be involved or acknowledged. I realized later that she probably considered me to be wildly insubordinate, or some such nonsense, because I had the audacity to shake her husband’s hand without waiting for my fiancé’s go-ahead, without acknowledging him as my “head” and above me.

And then there’s the fact that I’m much more talkative than my husband in unfamiliar company, which meant that I did the vast majority of the talking during our counseling meetings. We both noticed that counselor dude was irritated and offended by the fact that Mr. G wasn’t more forthcoming. I eventually pieced together that our counselor’s problem wasn’t simply that Mr. G didn’t say very much, it was also that I said so much more than he did. I wasn’t being properly submissive and letting my future husband take the lead that was rightfully his.

It perhaps doesn’t need to be said that our counseling meetings weren’t terribly useful or pleasant for anyone involved.

Bizarre as her behavior was, our counselor’s wife was just trying to show respect to her husband (whose behavior, it must be added, was no less strange – a story for another day). And of course, respect between partners is a vital part of a healthy relationship. But in complementarianism, respect is understood as being primarily the wife’s responsibility. This is based on gender essentialist assumptions that men need respect while women need love, and that women find it easy to love but difficult to show respect, especially to men, while men have an easy time treating people with respect but a hard time showing love, especially in the way women need (this is code for “men should treat women as delicate, hyper-emotional creatures incapable of logic and reason”). The complementarian notion of respect is perverted at its root by an insistence that only one gender needs respect in a relationship.

What respect is supposed to look like for a married woman is also quite strange. As our counselor told us, being a respectful, properly submissive wife means “affirming” the husband’s leadership in every. single. aspect. of the marriage. Naturally that includes conversations in public. For a lot of married women I knew at church, that meant they were expected to never contradict their husbands in public, much less argue with them; to never interrupt; to let them “take the lead” in mixed conversation, which meant speaking a good deal less than their husbands, often not until their husbands spoke to them first.

It also meant that women were expected to never complain about their husbands – and more than that, to constantly talk up their husbands as the best and most considerate spouses ever, no matter what. I can begin to count how many times I’ve heard women from church effusively praising their husbands for doing things that should have just been routine. For “releasing” them to go on a trip with friends. For maybe making one measly meal every few months, when their wives are expected to have homemade food on the table for their husbands and many children every night. For “letting” them sleep in or giving them the “morning off” from domestic and childcare duties (even when the reason for this is that the wife is laid up with an illness, or dealing with pregnancy nausea, or has a small infant).

I’ve seen women berate themselves for being justifiably angry with their husbands – for example, for putting their family in danger by repeatedly delaying getting a failing car checked out  – because well, nothing serious happened and a wife should focus on their husbands’ strengths and her own sin, not his failings. And if there are few or no good things they can think of, it’s because they, the wives, have a sinful attitude, never because the husband might have any real failings. They are the ones who need adjustment; it could never be that a husband is neglecting or mistreating his wife so much that little positive can be said about his behavior or attributes.

Watching the clip above gave me same tight, sinking feeling I always get when I think about the girls I grew up with in church who are now married. It’s so emblematic of how so many complementarian women experience marriage: as cheerleaders expected to hang on their husband’s arms and words, silencing themselves and suppressing all authentic expression of emotions. When I think of people I used to be friends with living a life like that, so completely muzzled, I feel sick with worry and despair for them.


Substitutionary atonement is not forgiveness

Unreasonable Faith has a good post by Sola Ratione on how little sense it makes to claim Jesus’s crucifixion is some kind of “forgiveness” for sins. It reminded me of this video by NonStampCollector:

It also reminded me of a realization I had the Easter before I finally accepted that I was agnostic. I still felt a bit of an obligation to observe it in some way. I think I was also still holding out hope that I could be a Christmas and Easter Christian, if nothing else. So I tried to come up with reasons to attend Easter services, tried to dredge up some tiny remnant of personal meaning or positive feeling for what used to be my favorite season in the church calendar. I tried to find some meaning in the Resurrection. Something about hope or renewal? But you can’t have the Resurrection without the crucifixion, which, I soon realized, was a big problem for me.

I couldn’t find anything to celebrate about Easter because I found the event at the heart of it senseless and barbaric. If God wanted to forgive everyone, why not just do it? Why require  violence, death, and a blood sacrifice for forgiveness? How could deliberately slaughtering an innocent human being (divine or not) ever be a good thing for God to do, much less a necessary one? I couldn’t stomach the thought of standing in church and singing hymns thanking God for killing someone “for” me.

There are a lot of theologies of the cross out there. One that makes some sort of sense to me (as someone who, to be clear, does not at all believe Jesus is/was God) is that the crucifixion is God identifying with the poor and outcast and suffering, and being in solidarity with them. Which, you know, still seems a strange and futile gesture to me, but at least it’s not one that claims that the violent death of another human being was (part of) God’s gift to me or anyone else.

Substitutionary atonement – the doctrine that Jesus literally took the sins of every human dead, living, or not yet in existence on himself, and that he literally took on the infinite punishment that every human being deserves for their sins – is not forgiveness. True forgiveness is freely given, it doesn’t come with strings attached. It doesn’t demand retribution, not on the person who did wrong, and certainly not on someone who had nothing to do with the wrong. Substitutionary atonement is both an irrational and abusive theology. A couple comments at Unreasonable Faith encapsulate why that is.

Kodle [after pointing out that it would make no sense for a regular person to withhold forgiveness until someone other than the offender is punished for the offense]:

And notice the unequal relationship. God never asks forgiveness for abandoning you in times of need, or killing your mom with cancer, or taking up all the parking spots so you have to drive to the far end of the lot, or making your presentation at work a disaster so you don’t win the account, or your child getting bullied at school, or your boyfriend moving out. He had a very good and secret reason for doing all this and the only way you can move on, rather than forgiveness, is excuses for god’s very good and secret reasons for making terrible things happen.

Michael, responding to that comment:

This point you are making about the unequal relationship is exactly what pissed off Job. In the end of the book, God came down to answer him–not to apologize, but to be a jackass and ask pompous rhetorical questions. On a larger scale, this relationship is what the entire OT is about, or perhaps the entire Bible. It establishes God as a patriarch who is above question and even above his own law.

Substitutionary atonement requires us to accept that it’s alright for God to behave in ways that would be considered cruel and capricious from anyone else. It requires that we claim God is “good” in a way that doesn’t resemble what we would call “good” in any other context. It preaches a patriarchal God who brooks no defiance and demands perfection from others that “he” doesn’t live up to, and doesn’t have to live up to. In so doing it provides a script and model for authoritarian, hierarchical, abusive relationships between human beings that mirror the authoritarian, hierarchical, abusive relationship between God and humans.

Let’s be real. This is a god who simultaneously expects absolutely perfection from humans (and “graciously” provides it in the form of Jesus) and rationalization of his considerable flaws. He takes his anger out on undeserving people, becomes angry at the drop of a hat, requires that everything be done just so, demands constant praise and attention, thinks the entire world has has wronged him and holds eternal grudges, and thinks everyone should be grateful just to be around him, grateful for whatever they get from him, no matter how meager. In any other context, we’d call that narcissistic, and we’d certainly call it abusive.