Sunday roundup

Day 6 of NaBloPoMo: Bringing the Sunday news roundup back! I haven’t done one of these in a long time, but I’m hoping to get back into the habit.

Here’s some of the interesting reading I’ve come across this week:

the righter you get it: Great post that addresses, among other things, the push to get things perfectly right in fundamentalist Christianity and the damage it does even after people have left fundamentalism. I also really identify with her frustration with other Christians who minimize the negative experiences of ex-fundamentalists by saying that we just weren’t taught the right kind of Christianity.

My then-husband had studied to be a minister so our home was bulging with Bible translations, commentaries, books on theology, and hermeneutic helps. My children remember me studying the Bible surrounded by more than a dozen open volumes. They also recall that I always first submitted my understanding to God in prayer. I genuinely wanted to know what God thought on any matter. If you could show me that God desired me to do, think or act a certain way I’d have crawled over broken glass to do it. On the other hand, if I couldn’t see a thing in Scripture, I wasn’t one to rush off following what Christian leaders or friends were doing even if they could make a strong case for it. When my best friend and her family became Amish and she and her girls all started wearing cape dresses and head coverings, I agonised over the Bible to see if I could agree with their new practice. I ended by saying that it would break my heart that my worship might not be pleasing to Christ because I was inappropriately attired, but that I just couldn’t see either uniformity of dress or the necessity of head coverings for contemporary women in Scripture. Had I been able to, I’d have frocked up in a flash.

Female boxers may be required to wear skirts (via Gender-Focus): A truly ridiculous illustration of the artificiality and resilience of gender norms.

A coach of the Poland team said: “By wearing skirts, in my opinion, it gives a good impression, a womanly impression.” This might be an example of officials assuming that (1) men are the main audience for boxing and that (2) men will watch women’s boxing more if they differentiate/sexualize women.

It might also, however, be an example of an attempt to retrench difference between men and women exactly when those differences start to dissolve.  Discomfort with the lack of actual differences between men and women sometimes leads individuals to encourage or enforce artificial ones.  I would say that this is one of the main functions of clothes today. Yeah, I said it. I think exaggerating what are actually rather weak and strongly overlapping differences between men and women is one of the primary functions of clothes.

Fathers, Sons, and Guns: A really interesting interview of Michael Messner, a sociologist who has studied and written extensively about masculinity, on the relationship between masculinity and guns.

[The interviewer, Jackson Katz]: There is very little thoughtful discussion of one crucial aspect of the role that guns play in our lives: the relationship between guns and manhood. It’s a stunning omission when you consider that men own the vast majority of guns, comprise the vast majority of hunters, and commit the overwhelming majority of gun violence….Alas, many people assume “gender” means women. The subject of women and guns does merit further inquiry and discussion. But men are every bit as gendered as women. It is long past time that the gun debate was infused with a sophisticated understanding of how gun use and abuse – from hunting to homicide – is tied inextricably to cultural constructs of masculinity across a range of class, racial and ethnic categories. Part of this understanding has to do with the emotional connection so many men feel to guns – and to the men they bond with around them….

Messner: It is fascinating to me how, in this day and age, national politicians still apparently have to establish their affinity with hunting. Obviously, this is motivated in part by a desire not to alienate a huge lobby and voting bloc–the NRA. But it’s also connected to a very American ideal of frontier masculinity, as though every national politician has to prove some affinity with the image of Teddy Roosevelt as frontiersman and big-game hunter. The male politician who fails to establish this image risks being seen as weak and feminized. What you don’t see as much these days is politicians posing with animals they have killed (well, maybe Sarah Palin does so, but conservative women politicians–think Margaret Thatcher’s muscular militarism–risk not being taken seriously unless they wield an even thicker stick of masculinity).

Getting some nuance up in your reproductive rights: This is a few months old, but it’s a great post on why reproductive rights are not just about abortion, and how they also matter to people who are not women. Truly comprehensive reproductive rights movements have to address the various ways in which reproductive rights are undermined.

Reproductive rights has tremendous intersections with race, class, sexuality, and disability. These are not ‘side issues’ that people should pay lip service to when they have a chance, or address at some point. They are key, critical issues that must be addressed in any and all discussions about reproductive rights. Whether or not you are allowed to have children can be determined by race, class, sexuality, and disability status. Minority communities have a fundamentally different relationship with the reproductive rights movement than the majority community. Our relationships include not just the fight for bodily autonomy in an oppressive world, but the fight for basic humanity within social justice movements, the need to constantly assert our own personhood in a movement that often rejects us or silences us….

Among many others, Cara Kulwicki has covered, extensively, the use of sterilisation to control poor communities, which often have considerable overlap with people of colour, nonwhite people, and people with disabilities. Drug addicts and alcoholics, many of whom are poor, are paid to be sterilised in the United States. In Chile, HIV-positive women were sterilised without consent. Many reproductive health access programs in the United States aimed at poor people contain incentives for sterilisation, and stop providing coverage like pap smears after participants are sterilised. Poverty very much determines access to reproductive health services, and the level of care received.

Aleksa Lundberg, Transgender Actress, Mourns Forced Sterilization (some problematic reporting, trigger warning): A concrete and heartbreaking example of how reproductive rights are more than just abortion rights. In Sweden and many other countries, trans people are required to be sterilized, with no allowance for them to freeze sperm or eggs, before they are permitted to legal transition to their actual gender. This forces trans people to choose between having children or being fully recognized as their actual gender.

“Compulsory sterilization” has been quietly practiced for decades in countries typically cast as progressive on LGBT rights: France, the Netherlands, Australia, and a number of U.S. states still require it. Italy and Germany have just recently overturned similar legislation.

Although Swedish leaders have been talking for months about repealing the sterilization law that Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt called a “dark chapter in Swedish history,” it remains on the books. The conservative Christian Democrats have doggedly opposed the repeal, arguing that sex reassignment surgery is a threat to traditional social roles. Transgender advocates like Lundburg say they are fed up with being the last of the LGBTs to win their rights….

The infertility requirement has meant that some patients chose to wait to have corrective surgery so they can have a family. “I know at least one man in Sweden who lives fully as a man but has kept his womb because he wanted children and it’s very problematic for him to still legally be defined as a woman,” says Ulrika Westerlund, president of the Swedish Federation for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Rights (RFSL).


Gender confusion as “reparative” therapy, cont.

Image: James Franco in drag, ht Sociological Images. Text:

girls can wear jeans and cut their hair short
wear shirts and boots
because it’s okay to be a boy
but for a boy to look like a girl is degrading
because you think being a girl is degrading

Continued from here. Trigger warning for cissexism.

The claim that reparative therapy enables gender variant people to lead “normal” lives or form “normal” bonds of love and friendship with “normal” people shows a similar sort of confusion. Rekers alludes to this when he defends his motives in treating Kirk Murphy as “positive”: “I only meant to help…the rationale was positive, to help the child, to help the parents who come to us in their distress.”

Here’s the thing – any distress a child or parent experiences over the child’s gender variance has nothing to do with the actual propriety of the child’s behavior and everything to do with the reactions of people and society around them. Gender variance poses no inherent obstacle to friendship or romance, speak less of basic tolerance or acceptance. No, parents worry that gender variant children can’t have a normal lives because our society treats any departure from gender norms as dysfunctional. Children experience distress because they are taught to see their natural inclinations as somehow perverted, and legitimately upsetting or infuriating to others.

Teaching children to suppress gender variance so that they will be accepted by society holds them to an arbitrary and demonstrably harmful standard of behavior, and sends the message that its their fault that they are not accepted as they are. It places the responsibility for the isolation, humiliation, and physical and psychological violence that gender variant people often endure on GV people themselves, instead of where it belongs – on people who respond to gender variance in bigoted and oppressive ways, and on the society that tolerates such responses.

This is classic victim blaming and abuse apologism. It’s justified as concern, and the concern is often sincerely felt, but that doesn’t make it less victim-blaming. From the same NPR report quoted above:

As Bradley grew older, his discomfort with things male also grew. He would shun other boys — he played exclusively with girls. Again, this concerned Carol, but she wasn’t frantic about it.

It was a single event that transformed her vague sense of worry into something more serious. One day, Bradley came home from an outing at the local playground with his baby sitter. He was covered in blood. A gash on his forehead ran deep into his hairline.

“What had happened was that two 10-year-old boys had thrown him off some playground equipment across the pavement because he’d been playing with a Barbie doll — and they called him a girl,” Carol says. “So that sort of struck me, that, you know, if he doesn’t learn to socialize with both males and females … he was going to get hurt.” [ht Transadvocate]

By placing the responsibility to “learn to socialize” on her son, this mom tacitly accepted violence as a reasonable response to gender variance. It would have made far more sense for her to expect the other two boys to learn that throwing someone to the ground is not an appropriate response to seeing them play with an unexpected toy. It would have been more sensible to expect them to learn to socialize with all different kinds of people without violence, more reasonable to expect their families to attempt to modify their behavior and outlook accordingly. Instead, her response to this incident was to try to modify her son’s behavior  – effectively blaming her son for being attacked.

The impulse to “fix” gender variant children instead of condemning violent responses to variant gender expression is another kind of gender confusion. It hurts kids, it poisons families, and it needs to end.

“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.

Baltimore anti-trans hate crime: Why “toemageddon” matters

Heavy trigger warning – detailed discussion of transphobic violence.

Last week, Chrissy Polis, a transgender woman, was viciously attacked and beaten by two cisgender (or cis, i.e., not transgender or trans) girls at a McDonald’s in Baltimore, Maryland. Several people, including employees, merely stood by and laughed as Polis was repeatedly stomped on, jumped, dragged by her hair (to the point where chunks of her hair were strewn on the floor), and punched. One onlooker repeatedly referred to her as an “it.” Only the manager and one customer attempted to intervene. One employee apparently saw the incident as entertainment to be captured on video, continuing to film even after Polis, who is epileptic, began to have a seizure. She was left on the floor while the man filming encouraged her attackers to leave before the police arrived. [Sign the petition to hold the employees who stood idly by responsible.]

Why was Polis so brutally attacked? Simply because she wanted to use the restroom.

TransGriot has the video of the attack here. It’s horrifying; I felt sick watching it. But I think any cisgender person who won’t be triggered by it should watch it. See what the costs and consequences of our gender fundamentalism are for a real human being just trying to live her life like anyone else.

The ability to do something as basic and essential as using the bathroom without harassment, without being spit on as Polis was, without risking our safety or our lives, is something most cis people take for granted. In most situations it’s something we do without even thinking. Trans people and especially trans women don’t have this privilege. Using gender specific bathrooms, especially in public, is often a fraught and far from mundane task.

Few cis women would feel safe being forced to use the men’s bathroom, even if they are consistently read by others as female, and as the Transgriot points out, not all cis women “pass” as female by our narrow, prejudiced measures of femininity. Any woman, cis or trans, in a situation where some people read her as an “effeminate” male would be in even more danger in a men’s bathroom. Polis couldn’t use the men’s bathroom safely. And she couldn’t count on using the women’s bathroom safely, either.

Just a few years ago another trans woman, Christine Sforza, was bashed over the head in a New York City McDonalds for being in the women’s bathroom. Her attacker went free and she was arrested, even though she was the one who called the police for help. There wasn’t any video evidence of the assault. There usually isn’t. Neither woman’s experience was an isolated incident. This happens literally every day to trans and gender nonconforming people. But it usually happens out of sight, whether it’s in communities that are invisible because we don’t care about them as a culture (because of class, or occupation – like sex work), or hidden in plain sight as bullying, domestic abuse, or intimate partner violence. Every day.

Polis’s case has gotten attention because it was caught on video, and because of the racial aspect: her attackers are black and she is white. Much of the sympathy she’s gotten, even at supposedly progressive sites, has invoked racial slurs and stereotypes, and has described her attackers with animalistic language and imagery that has long history of being used to support anti-black racism and white supremacy. Polis’s gender identity wasn’t initially reported; now that it’s been made public, some of the sympathy she got at first has given way to victim-blaming vitriol.

If the attack on Polis hadn’t been caught on tape…If her attackers had been white…if her gender identity had been reported from the beginning…would this be a news item? Would people care quite as much? Probably not.

Because the news media is informed by a racist culture that depicts blacks as naturally violent and sub-human, and as a threat to white people rather than dealing honestly with the realities of systemic white privilege and macro-level structural violence against individuals and communities of color.

Because the news media is informed by a transphobic culture that blames trans and gender non-comforming people for any violence and discrimination perpetrated against them, and depicts them as a threat to cis, gender conforming people, rather than dealing honestly with the realities of systemic cis privilege and the daily harassment, discrimination, and violence trans* people face as individuals and as a group, as Diamond Stylz notes:

(Posted at Diamond Stylz, ht Questioning Transphobia)

Until just a couple weeks ago, the Maryland legislature had been considering legislation that was supposed to protect people against discrimination based on gender identity. But Equality MD, the main group lobbying for the legislation, made a “compromise” with liberal state politicians to remove public accommodations (including bathrooms) from the bill, because they felt this would make the bill more likely to pass (it didn’t). In doing so they ignored the protests of the MD trans community even as they claimed to speak for them, and ignored the fact that stand-alone “bathroom bills” have failed repeatedly, due to opponents portraying trans women as predatory “men in dresses” who would use the law as a pretext to assault cis women in restrooms.

The attack on Chrissy Polis is just one example that the exact opposite is true: the real danger is posed by cis people, to trans people. As Transgriot puts it, cis people are the real bathroom predators. Polis now feels afraid to leave her home. Her past criminal record, completely irrelevant to the case, has been made public, almost certainly as a way to smear her as being responsible for the attack. She’s worried that the publicity over her gender identity and record will hurt her chances of getting a job in the future. As she says, no one should have to be afraid to go outside or face job discrimination just because of their gender identity.

This is why legislation that protects the rights of people of all gender identities to use public facilities is a non-negotiable necessity. Maryland also has no hate crime laws that protect gender identity (or sexual orientation). On the state level, this attack can only be prosecuted as a hate crime is race is shown to have been a factor.

The two attackers in this case are 14 and 18. At least one of them can still be called a child. That’s horrifying. People who call these young women “monsters” or “animals” are missing the real horror of the situation, perhaps deliberately. This is what we’re teaching kids to do. When we portray gender variant people as scary and threatening, as lurking in bathrooms to assault cis women. When we turn our heads or even nod approvingly when boys beat each other up for being “effeminate.” When we ignore sexual and physical violence, even fatal violence, against people because of their gender presentation. When we lose our collective shit over a boy with pink toenails.

We’re teaching them that it’s perfectly acceptable to lash out against fellow human beings, just because they don’t fit into neat little gender boxes.

Thoughts on J. Crew’s Toemaggedon

Trigger warning for discussion of gendered and anti-trans violence.

Apparently this ad, depicting a J. Crew designer playing and laughing with her five year old son, is causing quite a bit of sturm and drang – all because the little boy’s toenails are painted pink. This, of course, is the end of the world, at least according to Keith Ablow, a psychiatrist writing for Fox News online:

It may be fun and games now, Jenna, but at least put some money aside for psychotherapy for the kid—and maybe a little for others who’ll be affected by your “innocent” pleasure.

This is a dramatic example of the way that our culture is being encouraged to abandon all trappings of gender identity—homogenizing males and females when the outcome of such “psychological sterilization” [my word choice] is not known….

If you have no problem with the J. Crew ad, how about one in which a little boy models a sundress? What could possibly be the problem with that?….

The fallout is already being seen. Increasingly, girls show none of the reticence they once did to engage in early sexual relationships with boys. That may be a good thing from the standpoint of gender equality, but it could be a bad thing since there is no longer the same typically “feminine” brake on such behavior. Girls beat up other girls on YouTube. Young men primp and preen until their abdomens are washboards and their hair is perfect. And while that may seem like no big deal, it will be a very big deal if it turns out that neither gender is very comfortable anymore nurturing children above all else, and neither gender is motivated to rank creating a family above having great sex forever and neither gender is motivated to protect the nation by marching into combat against other men and risking their lives.

Ablow has said elsewhere that this ad is an “attack on masculinity.” Good grief. Please, be a little more melodramatic, Dr. Ablow. I don’t think you laid it on quite thick enough. Please explain more about how nail polish on little boys is a threat to homeland security. Also it’s not fucked up at all to equate femininity with reticence to have sex, or to place sole responsibility to put the “brakes” on sexual contact on girls (you know, because obviously men are completely incapable of controlling themselves sexually).

On one level it’s hard to think of something insightful to say about this. It’s nail polish. On a child. It seems like it ought to be perfectly obvious that seeing any sort of controversy in it is utterly ridiculous (as Jon Stewart illustrates in his hilarious skewering of the reaction to this ad). But it’s not obvious for many people in American culture, perhaps most people. As absurd as that is, it doesn’t change the fact that the reaction to this ad reflects false and dangerous ideas about gender that need to be seriously challenged.

A lot of the responses defending this mom focus on the fact that her son is just a kid having fun. That’s true, but I think these responses miss the real issue, which is that gender expression at any age shouldn’t be constrained by arbitrary gender norms. There’s increasing awareness of the diversity of gender expression in young children, particularly little boys. Many parents are learning to accept “princess boys” and other gender non-comforming children as they are, and reaching out to their communities and other parents to encourage acceptance of these children.

These are wonderful and very welcome developments, but lately I’ve been wondering what happens when these kids – especially the boys – become teens and still display so-called gender inappropriate interests or expression. What happens if they become princess men? If they become men who like wearing dresses? We’re still a very long way from learning to accept stereotypically feminine behavior, appearance, or interests in men, or people we assume to be male. To the contrary, our narrow-minded, irrational expectations of gender conformity pose a real and potentially fatal danger to men and people assumed to be male whose gender expression is deemed insufficiently masculine.

We have all been socialized to respond to gender nonconformity with intense anger, disgust, and fear. We’re taught that conventional binary gender distinctions are inflexible, essential, and natural – taught them as absolute, inviolable dogma. This kind of fundamentalism about gender is easily turned to violence against people of all genders (especially trans women, trans* people in general, and “effeminate” men) who don’t fit into the rigid scripts we have been taught as gospel. People are assaulted every day, some fatally, because of these beliefs. For example, the numbers we have suggest that a trans woman is murdered every 1-3 days – and the real numbers are almost certainly much higher than that. There’s a worldwide epidemic of gendered violence that is directly related to the myths we believe about gender.

These beliefs are ridiculous, just as any other prejudice is ridiculous. There’s no reasonable explanation for why it’s so horribly wrong or damaging for a boy, or a man, to wear nail polish, or a sundress, or makeup, or anything else deemed “feminine.” But the fact that gender normativity is irrational doesn’t make it any less powerful, or dangerous. This is yet another way that patriarchy hurts people of all genders, including men.

Practical theology vs. “biblical” theology

James Poling’s “The Cross and Male Violence,” (earlier referenced here and here), addresses the concept of “practical theology,” a branch of academic theology that looks at the real-life effects of doctrine in various contexts.  Poling argues that it’s not enough for theologians and pastors to determine whether a teaching is “right” or “wrong” in the abstract.  They must also look at how those teachings shape communities, families, and individuals, and evaluate whether a doctrine is right or wrong based on its practical implications and applications.

In a way this is a restatement of the idea that moral and ethical evaluation of beliefs and behavior needs to be focused on their effects and implications, rather than on the intentions behind them.  It’s not enough to say that a doctrine is “biblical” or “doctrinally sound” if it leads to harmful consequences for people and communities who try to live by it:

The ways that Christian doctrines and practices affect the everyday lives of ordinary people need to be considered alongside questions of ‘truth’ that is, whether the doctrines and practices conform to the revelation of God in Scripture, history, and rational thought.

Clarice Martin, black womanist New Testament scholar, describes the difference between hermeneutics of truth and hermeneutics of effects:  “‘Hermeneutics’ is not simply a cognitive process wherein one seeks to determine the ‘correct meaning’ of a passage or text.  Neither are questions of penultimate truth and universality solely determinative of meaning.  Also of essential importance in the interpretive task are such matters as the nature of the interpreter’s goals, the effects of a given interpretation on a community of people who have an interest in the text being interpreted, and questions of cultural value, social relevance, and ethics.  What is at stake in hermeneutics is not only the ‘truth’ of one’s interpretation, but also the effects interpretation and interpretive strategies have on the ways in which human beings shape their goals and their actions.”

This form of hermeneutics involves a rhythm or dynamic interplay between biblical texts from the canon and the lived faith and experience of communities of faith.  An interpreter cannot understand Jesus by studying the Bible in isolation, but must be immersed in a community of faith that practices the faith today.

. . . .We need to know how religion functions at the level of the conscious and unconscious formation of perceptions and behaviors; that is, how the symbols, ideas, and rituals about God oppress or liberate the human spirit using the criteria of theology itself.  If the ideas and practices of religious communities are damaging individual believers and their families according to Christian norms, then we have a responsibility to bring these realities to the attention of religious leaders for reexamination. For example, if certain forms of theology increase the suffering of woman and children by refusing to address issues of rape and sexual violence, then we must raise prophetic voices to protest such theologies. – Poling, “The Cross and Male Violence,” 475-6, emphasis mine.

This is both an eminently sensible approach to Christian theology and completely counter to how I was raised to understand “true” Christianity, which is how most traditionalist branches of Christianity approach issues of doctrine.   Doctrine is either right and must be followed at all costs, or wrong, and to be avoided no matter how sensible or compassionate it seems.  No in-betweens.  Right is right and wrong is wrong, and if that makes people feel awful or makes their lives more difficult, that’s just tough luck.  Following Jesus isn’t easy and sometimes involves enduring suffering, because of the effects of sin.  And so on.

I often wondered why this had to be.  If God really loved everyone just as we are – and created us to be just as we are, and if “he” was forgiving and slow to anger and all of that stuff we were taught, why there were all these rules that seemed so difficult for many people to follow, without any comprehensible reason behind it?  Why did following them seem to cause such needless pain and damage in so many lives?  My pastors always denied that persistent problems like domestic violence and abuse had anything to do with the doctrines related to marriage and family life.  If husbands abused their wives and used the bible or complementarianism to justify it, it was because their understanding of the doctrine was sinful, not because the doctrine itself was sinful.

I began to see after a while that “biblical” Christianity seemed to define living a “good” life as following arbitrary rules that seemed unconnected to present-day realities and weren’t necessarily good in their effects on people.  I began to see that the problems I observed with increasingly clarity all around me weren’t coincidental or random.  They were natural, regular, even predictable effects of the doctrines I was taught as “truth.”

Somaticstrength’s recent post on evangelical understandings of forgiveness and how they relate to recovery from incest is a heartbreaking example of this.  Survivors of abuse in fundamentalist or evangelical families and churches often have to deal with widespread enabling and excusing of their abuse, complete lack of support, and repeated attempts to dictate the terms of their recovery – for example, demanding that they must forgive their abusers both in order to be good Christians, and to “heal” from their abuse.  As I commented on her post, this culture of abuse (both enabling abuse and treating survivors in an abusive manner) is a direct product of evangelical teachings on sin and forgiveness:

Demanding that someone’s recovery from abuse look a certain way is completely odious. Unfortunately it’s also completely in-line with the version of Christianity we were raised with; a lot of the teachings contribute to these kind of responses to survivors, and make them seem legitimate and even righteous.

Like the teaching that by far the worst thing we could ever do is sin against God, and that every single little sin we commit is enough to put Jesus on the Cross. And if God could forgive us for making “him” have to kill his son, and no sin against us, no matter how evil, could ever be as bad as our sin against God, then we have no excuse to not forgive any sin against us.

It occurs to me now that one of the many problems with this argument (you know, besides it being totally evil in the way it completely dismisses the gravity of true evil and cruelty perpetrated by humans) is that no human is God, so why should we be expected to be capable of divine levels of forgiveness?

Then there’s the fact that it makes being unforgiving into a worse sin than being abusive. And it makes a virtue and an obligation out of giving forgiveness cheaply, and even for free – forgiving people who, like it seems with your brother, have never asked for your forgiveness and don’t believe they need it and don’t see anything wrong with what they’ve done. Requiring people to forgive someone who is unrepentant is evil, IMO.

And the corollary of this is the teaching that it’s impossible for there to be a situation between two people where only one person is sinning or is in the wrong, because we’re all sinners. At least, I was taught that – there was no such thing as one person being 100% wrong. The other person could be 99% wrong, but you still had your 1% of wrongness, and that’s what you were supposed to focus on – that and the times where you were 99% in the wrong against that person – not on their sin. It kind of boggles my mind now to think that this was taught to children – I mean, talk about a recipe for enabling and excusing abuse. So disgusting.

The Cross and Sexual Abuse

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.