Original post here.
The husband sent me this video for Guster’s “Stay with me Jesus.” It’s hilarious and really captures so much of what bothers me about prayer and divine providence as I was raised to understand them – so self-focused, grounded in the absolute conviction that everything that happens is God doing something just for me, as part of a divine plan, that it can make people insensitive and even callous to other people’s suffering.
Appropriate for April Fool’s Day, given some of the comments on Youtube from Christians who don’t seem to understand that the song is satirical…
Trigger warnings for sexual abuse/incest.
In “The Cross and Male Violence,” James Poling argues that patriarchal narratives of the crucifixion provide a kind of script for abusive relationships between men and women in Christian contexts, in which male abusers can take on a godlike role (all-powerful, all-knowing, to be obeyed), and female victims of abuse can play a Christlike role (obedient, subservient, suffering without complaint). He cites Christianity and Incest, Annie Imbens and Ineke Jonker’s study of incest in Christian homes, in which female survivors of incest recounted how their religious upbringing led them to believe that being a good Christian meant they had to be resigned to their abuse and not speak out about it:
You must love your neighbor. Not much attention was paid to standing up for yourself (Ellen). You must always be the first to forgive and you must do so seventy times seventy times (Judith). You must always serve, serve God. Sexuality before and outside of marriage is bad (Margaret). faith and standing up for yourself are conflicting concepts (Theresa). You must sacrifice your own needs and wants, you mustn’t resist, musn’t stand up for yourself, must serve God, musn’t be your own person with your own ego (Amy). (Imbens and Jonker, 271)
Escaping the cycle of abuse is difficult in general, not just under Christian patriarchy. However, Christian patriarchy explicitly labels suffering in silence as a virtuous emulation of Christ. Further, it teaches that Christians must forgive anyone who sins against them – even that survivors of abuse must forgive their abusers. Covering up or keeping silent about abuse is cast becomes righteous behavior, even a spiritual obligation. Victims of abuse are taught to be more concerned about their abusers and how they respond to them than about their own welfare. They learn that they are obligated to treat their abusers with love, kindness, and forgiveness, no matter what, without expecting or demanding any change in behavior, much less love or kindness in return. This adds an additional spiritual and psychological impediment to speaking out about one’s abuse, and creates an environment that fosters enabling or dismissive responses to abuse. Add in patriarchal teachings about men’s right to lead and women’s obligation to submit, and you have a culture that creates situations in which male violence against women is more likely to occur, more likely to be overlooked, enabled, or justified, and thus more likely to become an entrenched feature of church and family life.
The quotes below from Christianity and Incest (which I found here) explain further how theologies of male dominance and female submission in church, marriage, and family structures are intimately linked with male abuse of female partners and children in patriarchal Christian contexts:
Their Christian upbringing made these girls easy prey. Offenders used Bible passages or church-authorized texts in order to be able to abuse girls and to keep them quiet about it. Mothers were powerless to do anything about it. They were subservient to their husbands in everything, as was and still is requested of women marrying in Christian churches. (page xvi)
“In all of the interviews, the Mother is psychologically or physically abused by the father.” (page 121)
About the offender: “Father thinks boys are more important. He says so: “Good men father sons,” or he shows it in his attitude.” (page 123)
The girls try to keep their rapists away from them in every way possible. Screaming, yelling, or crying make little impression or are labeled “rebelling against Father,” for which forgiveness from God are required (Nell). ” (pages 127 – 128)
“Religion forces women to forgive their rapists, although those rapists have not asked for forgiveness. They are commanded to love their enemies. Moreover, Christian churches stress the love on one’s fellow human being so heavily that the words “as thyself” following “love thy neighbor” have very little meaning for these women.” (page 141)
“God the Father wants only the best for her. He is Almighty and merciful. When something happens to her and she wants it to stop, she must pray hard.” (page 141)
This to me is perhaps the most telling and tragic point, because it drives at the fundamental issue underlying all of these teachings that enable abuse in Christian homes: “Not one incest survivor had learned that it was important to love yourself as well.” (page 238) In other words, these women had not been taught that they were worthy of love – not from themselves, nor from any one else. Christian patriarchy teaches the exactly opposite – that we’re all completely unworthy of love, and that God loves us despite this. And if their churches are anything like the ones I grew up in, they were probably taught that it was sinful to believe they deserved to be treated with basic human dignity.
I’m doing some reading for a discussion on different ways in which the masculinity of Jesus is or has been constructed and presented in various Christian contexts. A couple of the articles I’m reading are about how depictions of Jesus in popular art and other media have been read as gendered, and how Christians have read such depictions as being either in line or in opposition to their understandings of Jesus’s gender, and particularly his masculinity. It’s really fascinating stuff, and I hope to say more about it in future posts.
The other article I’m reading is James Poling’s “The Cross and Male Violence,”* which is about how interpretations of the crucifixion of Jesus can either support authoritarian patriarchy and male violence against women, or oppose them. I’m loving this article – it neatly encapsulates how abuse in patriarchal churches and families is, in general, is a product of a patriarchal theology which is inherently and fundamentally problematic:
The cross of Jesus Christ was a violent event and its interpretation over the centuries has been ambiguous. For men who live in patriarchal societies, the cross gives mixed messages. On the one hand, the cross is a symbol that legitimizes male dominance in human community. For many centuries, the cross has been symbolic of the church’s authority as a patriarchal institution. Jesus died as a man of the cross and brought salvation for humankind. Therefore, most churches have argued, only men can serve as governors and ritual leaders in the church, modeling a form of governance for all society, including the family. Theologians have taught that male headship over women is established by God the Father and his only Son, Jesus, and any challenge to male dominance is a challenge to God himself. One can see the cross as a symbol of a natural patriarchal order that must be supported by the interactions of men and women. – Poling, p. 474, my emphases
Poling shows how cultures of abuse in patriarchal churches develop out of theologies that:
– understand the nature of God the Father and God the Son (Jesus) to be essentially masculine
– understand God’s the Father’s nature to be essentially authoritarian, defined by the exercise of total power and the use of violent acts as punishment for human disobedience.
– understand Jesus’s crucifixion as a moment in which God the Father – the angry Father God – inflicted the violence rightfully due to humanity on his obedient, submissive Son.
If God is male, and God the “Father” is defined by possessing and exercising authority, then human males must share in his masculine nature, and men, especially in marriage and parenthood, must also be defined by the exercise of power, dominance, and violence. Given the patriarchal assumption of binary gender, the corollary of this must be that females are defined by lacking power, submitting to male dominance, and being the targets of male violence.
Under these theologies the cross becomes “a symbol that legitimizes male violence against women” by casting such violence as
“[replicating] the drama between a patriarchal God and an obedient, self-sacrificing Jesus standing in for a sinful humanity . . . the [man] has taken the place of God who is all-knowing, all-powerful, and all-loving, and the [woman] has taken the place of Jesus who take on the sins of humanity and submits her will to God’s, and sacrifices her life unto death on the cross for the sake of the relationship.
In family violence, a similar drama is enacted. Given the negative and conflicting images of women in many churches and their responsibility to be obedient to an all-loving Father God and his Son Jesus, Christian faith means that men are closer to God than women, that the proper relationship of women to men is subservience, and that the traditional values of submission and obedience are the essence of Christian faith. – Poling, p. 476-477, my emphases.
Just a few days before reading Poling’s article I jotted down some notes for the blog: Not every marriage where submission is supposedly followed is an abusive one. But submission theology is an abusive theology. It’s an abusive framework. When I read the article I found that my notes were echoing a point Poling also makes:
Certain interpretations of the cross clearly create the occasion for sexual and physical abuse of women and children because of their images of the Trinitarian God in relation to families. Survivors of abuse** are saying that an abusive God and abusive clergymen do not contradict the church’s theology. The images of abuse are inherent in the symbols themselves. A church that preaches God’s love but projects the evil of the world onto women and other marginalized groups is preaching an abusive God. – Poling, 47, my emphases.
A culture of male violence against women is therefore not incidental to patriarchal theological assumptions, but is rather a natural product of them. The abusive husband and father, the abusive male pastor or priest, thus becomes a reflection of an abusive and angry God, and the victim of abuse becomes a reflection of Christ – if they endure their suffering obediently, and submissively. This might seem like a very unfair description of complementarian and other patriarchal theologies, but as we’ll see in coming posts on Joshua Harris’s sermons on submission, this is precisely what he tells married women – that suffering silently makes them more like Christ.
*James Newton Poling, “The Cross and Male Violence” in ed. Bjorn Krondorfer Men and Masculinities in Christianity and Judaism: A Critical Reader (2009)
**Poling quotes female survivors of incest in Christian homes recounting what they took form their Christian upbringing – I’ll post these in a separate post tomorrow.