FUNDRAISER: Making the Church Safer for Women

Hey y’all, I’ve never done this before, but I’m afraid I’m going to have to ask you for money…

2017 has been an eye-opening year for me in a number of different ways, both personally and in terms of broader social issues. In some cases, these two forms of revelation have coalesced as I’ve became aware of the way larger social problems have intersected with my personal experience. As a man who has spent over half his life participating in the leadership of highly patriarchal Christian churches, one of the things that shook my conscience most jarringly was the issue surrounding the explosion of the #ChurchToo hashtag just a few months ago.

I had started unpacking the misogyny and patriarchy of my experience in the Christian church earlier in the year. In March, I listened to Hannah Paasch and Emily Joy (the founders of the #churchtoo hashtag) discussing their experience with purity culture on the Exvangelical podcast. In July, I read Rescuing Jesus by Deborah Jian Lee–forcing me to come to terms with how deeply the inequitable treatment of women runs in Evangelical churches. Shortly after that, I joined an online community of ex-Evangelical Christians and heard story after story about the soul-crushing effects of patriarchy in the church.

When Emily Joy first reached out to me about the possibility of her speaking on purity culture at my new church, I was hesitant. I had only been at the church a little over a year, and I wasn’t sure if I was the right person to initiate an event like this. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that it was time for me to start doing something to fix the problems besides tweeting about them. So, I’m going to do it: I’m going to start a conversation of purity culture in my community.

I am working with a group of people at my church right now to iron out the details of the event and how we can use it as a springboard for further conversation around these issues in our community. In the meantime, though, we’ve got to get the funds together to do this thing. So, that’s where you come in.

I have started a GoFundMe campaign to raise money for this event.

Please, if you can,DONATE TO THE EVENT.

If you can’t do that, please share it with anyone you think may be interested in doing so.


I need to have all of the funds together for the event by February 10, 2018.

If you need to see more of my pitch, below is the “story” copied from my GoFundMe page. If you’ve decided to donate or share this campaign, I want you to know how appreciative I am of your generosity. Your money will not go to waste. I really do believe that doing this kind of work can help us make the church safer for women…and better for everyone.

GoFundMe: Purity Culture Talk with Emily Joy

The #MeToo movement, coming to a head in late 2017, has brought issues of sexual harassment and assault to a new level of public awareness. Women (and sometimes men) from all corners of society have come forward to tell their stories about being exploited by powerful men. However, if there is a place in society where women can feel safe, loved, and respected, it should be the church. Unfortunately, that has not always been the case.

In November 2017, a follow-up campaign arose on Twitter with hundreds of women (and some men) sharing their stories of being exploited by powerful men in the church—via the hashtag #ChurchToo.

One woman wrote: “I was raped when I was 9 by a member of my church. The pastor, and my parents, told me I needed to forgive him, as that is what Jesus would do. They made me hug my rapist and tell him I forgave him.”

Another woman revealed: “I was 12 but it was viewed as cheating. I had to pray with my abusers wife for forgiveness. She was so disappointed that I broke her trust.”

Still another woman explained: “Seven years ago, during a church service, I was on the receiving end of a public confession from a close male friend who admitted to having fantasies about molesting and raping me. He was immediately praised for his bravery and holiness. I was still in the room.”

Just like in every other area of society, we in the church must be willing to ask ourselves the question, “Are these just ‘a few bad apples,’ or is there something inherently wrong with the culture we have created that fosters an environment in which sexual harassment and assault can easily occur?”

After two thousand years of existence, the Christian church is a diverse institution. We are not a homogeneous group. We recognize that not every woman in every sect and denomination of the faith has experienced sexual abuse or harassment, and certainly not to the same extent.

Our goal is not to demonize every aspect of Christianity, irrespective of its culpability, but rather to listen and respond to those within our faith who have been harmed. If we in our church were not the cause of the harm, could we have at least done something that could have prevented it or made it less likely to occur?

As followers of Jesus, we should be willing to take a good, hard look at ourselves to understand whether or not our theology, doctrine, and interpretation of scripture are creating a safe space for the most vulnerable among us.

“Growing up in purity culture,” one woman wrote via the #ChurchToo hashtag, “I was taught that men were ‘visual creatures’ that couldn’t help feeling aroused at the sight of slightly revealed ankles or knees, and that all men were imagining me naked 24/7. The entire system shamed women for even existing.”

For those who are unaware, “purity culture” is a phrase describing an array of teachings which rose to popularity in the early 1990s, emphasizing ideas such as boys and girls refraining from all forms of sexual activity until marriage, girls dressing modestly to avoid being a sexual temptation for boys, and women focusing primarily on preparing themselves to be good wives and mothers for their future husbands and children.

What is it about the church’s popular teachings on compulsory abstinence, modesty, gender roles, and sexual purity that have caused so much harm to women? Can we as followers of Jesus listen with open hearts and minds to the victims of these ideas? Are we willing to do what it takes to create a safer space for women, as well as a space in which men can grow to be more responsible and respectful? As the Church of Jesus Christ, we have a moral obligation to ask these tough questions.

Emily Joy, one of the founders of #ChurchToo, has been writing and speaking for years on the harmful effects of purity culture in the church. In addition to creating and performing spoken word poetry encompassing themes of spiritual trauma, she has spoken at churches, college campuses, festivals, bars, and book stores on a variety of topics at the intersection of faith and sexuality.

In order to raise awareness of these issues in our community, we are trying to raise $1,400 by February 10, 2018 to bring Emily in for an event in Portage County, Ohio.

Emily will be speaking and answering questions about the legacy of purity culture in the church and how churches in the area can lead the charge in creating a healthier sexual ethic going forward. In the months following, we plan on extending the conversation with a weekly study and support group focused on faith and sexuality.

Your contribution is not only for this event; it’s also an investment in the health of our religious communities going forward. Ideally, we want this event to be a conversation starter in Portage County. We are hoping to get people talking about how the church can do better.

Let’s set aside our pride. Let’s not be defensive about this. Let’s stop thinking about how we can defend our existing reputation and instead start thinking about how we might build a new one. How might we go about righting our ministry efforts to be truly be Christ for the world today? This is one step in that direction.

Women in our congregations are telling us their stories. It’s time we started listening.

One last time, here’s the link if you want to donate to or share the campaign:

Posted in blog, Mantua Center Christian Church, religion, Social Issues, Uncategorized | 4 Comments

Of Eggshells and Snowflakes, or How Cishet White Male Allies Can Deal with the Challenges of Identity Politics

I think I’ll start this with an illustration on how I messed up.

For a long time, I’ve been trying trying to deconstruct my conception of God. I was raised in Evangelical Christianity with the very literal image of God as an old bearded white man a la Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel.

Of course, when pressed, I would concede that God is a spiritual being and doesn’t have a skin color or genitalia. But when I envisioned the arm that was not too short to save and the ear that was not too dull to hear (Isaiah 59:1), that arm and that ear were decidedly white. And when I listened in my mind for the voice that spoke audibly the words “let there be light” (Genesis 1:3) and “this is my beloved son, with whom I am well pleased” (Luke 3:22), that voice was decidedly male.

However we as people from the Christian tradition might recognize, after further reflection, that God defies human categories, we do believe in a personal God who has agency and does things. (Personally, I’m deconstructing this idea as well, but that’s another subject). So, it follows that we will have some kind of image in our head of the God who is carrying out those actions…and we have to come terms with what we want that God to look like.

Over the last year or so, I’ve been making a deliberate effort to get more of my theology from people who aren’t cisgender heterosexual white men. I still have not listened enough to the perspectives of people from these communities, but I’ve increasingly made them the center of my attention. They are my teachers. They are my theologians. They are my prophets.

I believe in a God who is on the side of the oppressed. So, as the sources of my theology have shifted away from white men, so has my conception of what God looks like. I don’t want a God who looks like power and privilege. I want a God who looks like the marginalized. I don’t want a god that looks like a white man. I want a God that looks like a black woman.

And so that’s why, when I shared this picture on Facebook, I was expecting a much different response than the one I received.

The pushback against my “amen” of this tweet was swift and unrelenting. I quickly realized that this sort of elevation of black women to a godlike status is largely offensive to black people. There are several reasons for this…

  • Specific to the occasion, it reinforces the notion that black women only voted for Doug Jones because they were concerned about white people’s problems and weren’t instead motivated by Roy Moore’s blatant racism.
  • It paints black women as the saviors of white people–centering whiteness in another conversation that white people having nothing to do with.
  • It fetishizes black women, harkening back to the highly racist “mammy” caricature of black women serving as nannies and housekeepers in the Jim Crow south.

There are other reasons, I’m sure. But it’s become fairly clear to me that this is not okay. There have been several Twitter threads and think pieces like this from Vox, this from Dame, and this piece of satire from The Root–all by black women–pointing out the blatant faux pas. And, wow, I wish I had listened to this podcast episode before sharing commentary on black America from a British white lady. So, given how black people have largely responded to this issue, I’m inclined to adjust my perspective. And yet…

What do I do with my conception of God? I feel like it’s wrong to see God as a white men and now equally wrong to see God as a black woman. How should I go about resolving this theological conundrum???

What’s a Decent Straight White Guy to Do?

This isn’t the only time I’ve run into this issue. It frequently happens that I find myself in an “I just can’t win” situation as I try to be a better advocate for marginalized people.

I just wrote a novel in which my main characters are LGBT+ characters. I did this, because I wanted to represent them and center them in the story–rather than writing another story about heteronormative people. But it has also come to my attention that doing so may have come across as appropriation–me speaking for them and telling a story that isn’t mine to tell.

I have also been inclined to speak out against the porn industry as being exploitative of women. It has come to my attention, though, that porn can also be liberating and empowering for women. So, I’m not really sure where to come down on that issue either.

I hear this same kind of frustration echoed by other cisgender, heterosexual, white men that I know. They want to be good allies and advocates but, no matter what they do, they feel like they can’t please everyone.

We feel like we’re walking on eggshells. We have to tip toe around every issue, straining ourselves to ensure we aren’t offending anyone with triggers, micro-aggressions, and various forms of appropriation. It can be exhausting. We have it so, so hard…don’t we?

Walking On Eggshells is the Price We Pay for Being the Ones Who Broke the Eggs

Okay, gather around my straight white guy friends. It’s time for us to face the facts.

We’re all a bunch of snowflakes.

The term “snowflake” is, of course, a pejorative term that has been typically used by right-leaning straight white guys to mock people who are sensitive to triggering language or demeaning social behavior. Somewhat ironically, the term is applied most frequently to groups of people who have the most valid reasons to be offended–people of color, women, LGBT+ people, disabled people, poor people, and so on. So, in my view, the term is kind of the butt of its own joke.

That being said, I think that those of us who are more progressive-leaning straight white guys are totally being “snowflakes” when we complain about having to manage the discomfort and ambiguity involved with being “allies.”

I mean, sure, it’s tricky and anxiety-inducing for me not know if I should support initiatives like White Nonsense Roundup because they defend people of color in situations where they don’t feel safe to be in the conversation, or if I should steer clear of them because they are speaking for people of color instead of letting people of color speak for themselves.

Oh, poor me. What a burden I must bear!

How about some perspective, though? What I have to do as a well-meaning white person is risk being embarrassed and making a fool of myself as I try to learn the ropes. What I haven’t had to do is endure centuries of slavery, Jim Crow laws, severe housing, education, and employment discrimination, gentrification, excessive police violence, cultural appropriation, and all sorts of other inequities–many of which I am still blissfully unaware. Hmm… suddenly, it seems like I’m getting the better end of the deal.

Here’s the bottom line. It is our job as cisgender, heterosexual, able-bodied white men (or whichever identifiers are applicable) to navigate those uncomfortable spaces and wrestle with those issues that don’t always have easy answers. We–whether through direct action, complicit inaction, or mere inheritance of our power and privilege–are morally responsible for figuring this stuff out.

Walking on eggshells is the price we pay for being the ones who broke the eggs.

We aren’t heroes, friends. We don’t deserve thanks or consideration for our feelings. This isn’t grace that we’re bestowing; it’s penance. This isn’t charity; it’s reparations. So, at the end of the day, I have no easy answers for how we work our way through the complexities of identity politics. Instead, from one straight white guy to another, I’ve got a simple word of encouragement.

Deal with it.

Cartoon image credit:

“White Fragility” image credit:

Posted in blog, politics, religion, Social Issues, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

How Patriarchy Facilitates Spousal Abuse: A Reflection on Fractured Covenants by Marie O’Toole

My last post was about purity culture and the harmful effects it has had on the way boys and girls in the church are raised to see themselves and each other. It is a really big deal and needs to be addressed. Nevertheless, I do think that it is actually a subset of a bigger, more deep-set problem in the church.

This problem, I think, is actually the biggest problem the church has ever had. It’s the church’s great sin. While my personal experience with this issue has been in the contemporary Evangelical church, it is a problem the church has had from the very beginning: Patriarchy.

I really like Wikipedia’s definition: “Patriarchy is a social system in which males hold primary power and predominate in roles of political leadership, moral authority, social privilege and control of property. In the domain of the family, fathers or father-figures hold authority over women and children.”

The church taking on patriarchy as a structural framework has caused all sorts of problems. Purity culture only exists because of the system of patriarchy that demands it. Boys need to be trained to someday rule over their domains as men, and girls need to be trained to someday become servants of their husbands. So, boys are taught that they are by nature ravenous and power-hungry. Girls are taught that they are by nature subservient and relenting. Raising children in this way prepares them for the ultimate goal of Christian boys and girls: marriage.

Save Yourself FOR Marriage or FROM Marriage?

Marriage can without a doubt be a beautiful, sacred thing. The joining of two people in a partnership to face life’s challenges and experience life’s joys can be rewarding. However, there is something about the way marriage in Evangelical Christianity is systemically pitched that almost sets it up for failure. In Evangelical Christian marriage, the man is not becoming a partner to the woman; he’s becoming a parent.

The father gives his daughter to another man. It’s transactional–an exchange of property. The daughter is no longer owned by her father; instead, the wife is owned by her husband. The woman in an Evangelical Christian marriage is not an equal partner by any stretch of the imagination; she is an underling, and a tool to be used for the man’s pleasure and progeny. Now, I’m not saying that every man in Evangelical Christianity treats his wife this way. Of course not. But what I am saying is that the system is set up in such a way that he is encouraged to do so.

The abusive systemic structure of marriage in Evangelical Christianity isn’t just theoretical. It actually happens consistently in real marriages. I just had the pleasure of reading a book that documents this very real problem rather extensively. In Fractured Covenants: The Hidden Problem of Marital Abuse in the Church, researcher and Biblical counselor Marie O’Toole delves into the many ways in which the church has been complicit in spousal abuse, what they abuse looks like, how individuals who have experienced abuse can break free, and what the church can do to undo the problems that it has facilitated.

The most poignant revelation to me in Marie’s book was the idea that abuse doesn’t have to include physical violence for it to qualify as abuse. Many people assume that if the man doesn’t leave bruises, then he can’t be said to be abusing his wife. According to Marie, though, “Domestic violence isn’t just about punching/hitting. It’s about power and control.”

She then goes on to explain a myriad of non-traditional ways in which a partner can be abusive:

  • Getting defensive and passive-aggressive when you criticize him
  • Brushing off your concerns as you being “too sensitive”
  • Offering apologies begrudgingly or defensively (“Geez, I’m sorry! What do you want from me?”)
  • Controlling your finances and using money as a means to manipulate you
  • Blaming you for making him angry or forcing him to behave in certain ways
  • Denying that he said or did something, and possibly making you think you invented it (gaslighting)

The list goes on and on. The bottom line: a relationship can be abusive even if physical contact is never even made. The psychological impact is real and should not be discounted. “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me” was a song made up by someone trying to cover up for the fact that they were hurt by words. The mind and body do not operate in separate spheres. Psychological trauma matters. Words can hurt.

Is a Patriarchal Marriage What God Wants for You?

Marie refers to an interview with Evangelical thought leader John Piper, in which he is asked what a woman should do if she is experiencing abuse in her marriage. “If it’s not requiring her to sin,” Piper replied, “but simply hurting her, then I think she endures verbal abuse for a season, she endures perhaps being smacked one night, and then she seeks help from the church.”

I cannot begin to explain how wrong this is. While Piper later added caveats to the comments above, everything he teaches has supported the fact that he still believes it. Yesterday, his website Desiring God published an article in which men were encouraged to be more proactive in correcting their wives–a mandate that almost certainly lends itself to abusive behavior.

Men need to put their wives in their place. Sure, sometimes men can go overboard. But a woman in abusive marriage is simply bearing her cross. It’s probably her fault anyway. She’s not being a godly enough woman. She needs to honor her husband better. These are the kind of platitudes that are offered when she “seeks help from the church.” It just doesn’t work.

According to Marie, though, it’s also unnecessary–Biblically speaking. Now, let me be clear, I don’t care whether or not the Bible is supportive of women leaving abusive relationships; I am. I don’t need Biblical justification to say that encouraging women to stay in unhealthy relationships is wrong. It just is, regardless of the Bible’s take. In my view, any god worthy of worship would want her children to be free from situations that are causing them suffering.

But for those who need some kind of Biblical affirmation, Marie provides it. She breaks down everything from the “God hates divorce” passage to the “headship” passages to Jesus’s teaching on divorce, explaining how the Bible can indeed be read in such a way that liberates people from abusive marriages.

I would highly recommend this book to anyone in the church who is in an abusive marriage or struggling to help someone through one. I guarantee you that it will help you see everything in a new light…and give you the permission you need to break free and live the fuller life that you deserve.

In case you missed it, here’s the link again. Fractured Covenants: The Hidden Problem of Marital Abuse in the Church.

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#ChurchToo, and Church Especially: Purity Culture Doesn’t Protect Women from Abuse; It Prepares Them for It

A few days ago, some amazing women I know–Emily Joy and Hannah Paasch–started the #ChurchToo hashtag on Twitter. It’s picking up steam fairly quickly and has already been featured on Time, Vox, and Bustle–to name just a few places. The campaign is, obviously, a riff off the #MeToo movement with the intent of showing that sexual harassment and assault are as prevalent in religious communities as they are in entertainment, media, and politics–and precisely for the same reason: men are in positions of power over women who are dependent on them.

The difference, however, is that in these fundamentalist patriarchal religious communities, women being in subjection to men isn’t just a matter of the way things have played out culturally; it’s explicitly built into the very doctrine of these churches. Imagine it being a matter of official policy in these production companies, news rooms, and state houses that women have to submit to the authority of men–how much easier it would be than it already is for these women to be taken advantage of. Well, that is precisely the way it is in these fundamentalist Evangelical Churches.

Read through the hashtag and you’ll find some truly heartbreaking stories and startling remarks. Many of us have been taught to see the church as a warm and welcoming place. For many girls growing up in Evangelical Christianity, though, it is a prison for shame and abuse. Here are just a few that I think are worthy of calling out…

The irony in all of this is that leaders in these conservative churches often push back against these stories by insisting that women could protect themselves from from abuse by becoming more like they are raised to be in these Evangelical churches, not less. In case you are unfamiliar with purity culture, let me try to define it for you: purity culture is a set of expectations within Evangelical Christianity that males and females refrain from sexual activity of any kind until marriage, with emphasis placed on males avoiding temptation toward sexual activity and emphasis placed on females avoiding being temptations for males toward sexual activity.

Setting aside the heterosexist implications of this ideology, this culture has disastrous effects on how boys and girls come to see each other (and themselves). Girls grow up seeing themselves as objects of desire for boys, and that they are responsible for not tempting those boys to give into those desires–thereby managing to save themselves for their future husbands who will come along to provide for and take care of them after marriage. Boys grow up seeing themselves as lustful beasts who can only restrain themselves by controlling the appearance and behavior of females–who they see as beings put in their charge by God to rule over.

It isn’t very difficult to see how this culture can lead to the systematic exploitation of women in these circles–attracting men in particular who are prone to predatory behavior. The culture is structured in such a way that, if a woman is sexually abused in any way, it is almost always her fault. She caused the man to stumble and, while the man may have transgressed as well, she is fundamentally responsible and still needs to seek forgiveness from her abuser.

This kind of thinking lies behind the argument that following the “Mike Pence rule” (aka “Billy Graham rule”) can reduce the likelihood that men and women would end up in compromising situations that lead to sexual abuse. If men just determine not to meet alone with women, unless their wives are present, then they will never be tempted to take advantage of women, right?

Well, there are a few problems with this. First and foremost is a fundamental misconception about why men sexually abuse women. Rape, assault, harassment, and sexual exploitation of any kind are not about sexual desire; they’re about sexual dominance. Men in positions of power don’t take advantage of women because they’re seductive; they take advantage of them because they’re vulnerable. It has nothing to do with what women are wearing; it has everything to do with how dependent they are on these men for the success of their careers, their validity as human beings, or the salvation of their souls. Predatory men don’t lust after women’s bodies; they lust after the power they can have over women’s bodies. As a great leader once said, “I don’t even wait. And when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything…”

Another problem with relying on the “Mike Pence rule,” is that it completely disregards the possibility of sexual abuse occurring within marriage. Many fundamentalist Christian leaders either discourage or downright forbid wives from refusing the sexual advances of their husbands. Add that to the fact that, since divorce is typically forbidden, Evangelical women in abusive marriages have no way of getting out of those harmful relationships.

At the end of the day, it all boils down to this: there is simply no discussion on consent in sexuality within conservative Evangelical culture. A friend of mine recently called my attention to this post (including the image above) that makes a profound distinction in the sexual ethics of Evangelical Christians as compared to broader society. For fundamentalist Christians, there are no limits to sex as long as they are within the confines of heterosexual marriage. This means that, as long as a man is married, he technically owns the body of his wife. To the rest of humanity, sexual activity is wrong to the extent that it is non-consensual–whether the people engaging in it are married or not.

Here’s the bottom line: purity culture does not protect women from abuse; it prepares them for it. It sets them up to become objects for men to possess. Yes, sexual abuse happens in Evangelical churches. Of course it happens in Evangelical churches. The system is structured in such a way that it is almost guaranteed to happen. So, if we want to save the girls from abuse in the churches, we can’t reinforce the system that set them up for abuse in the first place.

The system has got to change.

The theology has got to change.

We have got to change.

Who we truly are as a church will depend upon how we answer these charges going forward. This is our defining moment, church. If only for once in our entire history of existence, let’s own our crap. Let’s own the sin of patriarchy…so we can finally set about on the hard work of repentance.

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There Are Prophets in Our Midst…

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about prophets.

Not the kind that predict the future; the kind that critique the present

Not the kind that tell of fortune; the kind that tell of lament

Not the kind that appease those in power; the kind who enter boldly into a corrupt society to bring a fiery, divinely inspired message that upsets the comfort of the complacent.

These are the prophets of the Scriptures. In the canonical Hebrew Scriptures, there are 15 of these divinely sanctioned truth tellers. These prophets of old did not mince words. In a nation that was perfectly content saying, “this is fine,” these prophets stood up and spoke out against the injustices that others chose to ignore.

This is what the Lord says: Do what is just and right. Rescue from the hand of the oppressor the one who has been robbed. Do no wrong or violence to the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow, and do not shed innocent blood in this place. (Jeremiah 22:3)

Jesus was a prophet too. Christians have come to see him as much more but, fundamentally, that’s exactly what he was. He brought a message of repentance in preparation for a new kingdom he claimed was coming. He wowed people with his words and confirmed the validity of them with his deeds. And ultimately, like so many prophets before him, he was executed for bringing a subversive message that the powerful did not want people to hear.

In the famous “Road to Emmaus” story recorded in Luke 24, Jesus appears to two of his disciples post-resurrection, disguised as a stranger. He asks them what they’re talking about, and they proceed to tell him about himself: 

“He was a prophet, powerful in word and deed before God and all the people. The chief priests and our rulers handed him over to be sentenced to death, and they crucified him; but we had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel. And what is more, it is the third day since all this took place.”

If you read between the lines, you can sense a great deal of disillusionment in these disciples. They had believed deeply in Jesus, not just in the man but also in the message. They believed that a new kingdom was coming, that a better world was being ushered in. They had staked their lives on this belief, and then they watched as it crumbled before their eyes.

Their hero was killed, executed by the very empire from which he was to liberate them. But even though they knew of his crucifixion, they simply could not believe it was over. It just couldn’t be. Even death could not contain that prophetic message of Jesus, could it?

Three days later, though, they were starting to worry. Was their prophet really gone forever? Was the mission a complete failure after all? Was the new kingdom nothing but an empty dream?

Little did they know, as they despaired over these doubts and feared for their future, their prophet was standing there in their midst–just waiting for them to recognize him.

Where Have All the Prophets Gone?

I’m one of the many people in America who have become disillusioned with the state of humanity in the 21st Century. As an able-bodied, heterosexual, white male, I’ve become increasingly aware of my privilege and the ways in which our political, social, religious, and economic systems work against people in these marginalized, oppressed groups. 

The rise of Donald Trump is just a symptom. The disease has been with us a long time, and it really feels like the cure is beyond our grasp.

For me, the awakening to these systems of oppression started with Pulse. Following the unspeakable tragedy, I started listening to the heartbreaking stories of shame and abuse from within the LGBT+ community. 

Then, shortly after, I followed the back-to-back shootings of Anton Sterling and Philando Castile. I began listening to the outcry from people in communities of color fighting for their right to exist. 

Then, somewhere along the lines, I stumbled into stories of women who have been caught up in systems of patriarchy manifesting itself in rape culture and discrimination of all kinds.

I heard so many stories, and they completely broke me.

My heart began crying out with that ancient plea of desperation, “How long, oh Lord, how long?”

Are there any prophets for our time? Is there anyone bringing a message of liberation for the oppressed? Is there still hope for a better world?

As soon as began asking these questions, I quickly discovered the answer was an emphatic, “Yes!” 

There were prophets all around me, but I didn’t recognize them because they had appeared to me as strangers on the road. It wasn’t until I had sat down and broken bread with them that my eyes were opened and I realized that there were prophets in my midst…

Cindy Brandt is a prophet. She operates a powerful blog teaching parents how to raise children in the faith without incorporating the toxic elements of fundamentalism that often end up traumatizing their kids. Follow her prophecies @cindy_w_brandt.

Dorothy Charles is a prophet. She actively promotes black voices on Twitter, speaks out against white supremacy, and works within the medical community to advocate for black lives in her work. Follow her prophecies @dn_charles.

Crystal Cheatham is a prophet. She is spearheading the development of Our Bible App, an open-source Bible commentary and devotional serving queer people and others whose voices have been historically excluded from readings of scripture. Follow her prophecies @crystalcheatham.

Tori Douglass is a prophet. She is outspoken proponent of the Black Lives Matter Movement and critic of white privilege. Her sermon for the white church is something every white Christian in America needs to read. Follow her prophecies @toriglass.

Samantha Field is a prophet. She has been outspoken against sexual abuse and misogyny in the church, coming out of an extremely fundamentalist environment to work on developing more liberating theologies. Follow her prophecies @samanthapfield.

Kevin Garcia is a prophet. He uses his blog, podcast, and YouTube channel not only to provide a safe space of spiritual development for gay Christians but also to help cisgender, heterosexual Christians understand how to be better allies. Follow his prophecies @thekevingarcia_.

Karen Gonzalez is a prophet. She works tirelessly with communities of immigrants and refugees, embodying the imperative to “welcome the stranger.” Follow her prophecies @_karengonzalez.

Megan Hamlin is a prophet. She pushes back fiercely against transphobia and advocates for the full acceptance of transgender people in the Christian community. Follow her prophecies @stormsmaycome.

Emily Joy is a prophet. She uses her poetry and her powerful way with words to educate churches, colleges, and other organizations on the dangers of purity culture and its threat against advancement of women in broader society. Follow her prophecies @emilyjoypoetry.

Emmy Kegler is a prophet. She started Queer Grace, an online resource for Queer Christians, and continues to advocate for Queer people of faith by serving as a pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America. Follow her prophecies @emmykegler.

Kenji Keone is a prophet. He is a student of theology and an activist who advocates for the queer community as well as for people of color. His first book, A Book of Uncommon Prayer consists of a collection of prayers to orient Christians toward action, particularly within the Black Lives Matter movement. Follow his prophecies @afreshmind.

Deborah Jian Lee is a prophet. In her amazing book Rescuing Jesus, she chronicles how people of color, women, and LGBT Christians are reclaiming Jesus in the American church despite the generations of abuse they’ve encountered. Follow her prophecies @deborahjianlee.

Matthias Roberts is a prophet. He hosts an amazing podcast called Queerology, inviting queer people of faith into fascinating and important conversations on “belief and being.” Follow his prophecies @matthiasroberts.

Caitlin Stout is a prophet. She uses her amazing blog, her Twitter feed, and her wonderful sense of humor to lobby for gay Christians, especially those stuck in hostile environments such as conservative college campuses. Follow her prophecies @caitlinjstout.

Laura Jean Truman is a prophet. She uses her powerful writing to encourage Christians of all stripes to find strength in ambiguity and to reclaim Jesus from the clutches of fundamentalism. Her words are like fire; no one can make me excited about Jesus again quite as much as she can. Follow her prophecies @laurajeantruman.

The Future of the Church

As I listened to these voices and countless others like them, a single question kept coming to the surface: why did it take me so long to discover these revolutionary leaders of the Christian faith? 

Reflecting on the ways in which these amazing people resemble the prophetic voices of the scriptures, I soon received a sobering answer. It’s because I wasn’t on their side.

I wasn’t part of the divinely sanctioned group of prophetic people sent out to call a wayward faith to repentance. I was part of the group that needed to repent

I was the oppressor, the cultivator of systems of injustice. I was guilty, both individually and communally and through both direct involvement and passive complicity, of some of the most egregious sins imaginable: white supremacy, racism, Islamophobia, sexism, heterosexism, ableism, classicism, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, and xenophobia, to name a few.

I’m still repenting of those sins today.

But this isn’t about my guilt. This is about a shift in the balance of power. I and those like me, who have been the norm in Christianity for so long, are no longer where the kingdom of God is found. The Kingdom of God is not being ushered by those in power; as it as always been, it’s being ushered in by the subversive, the rebellious, and the prophetic. 

God is always on the side of the oppressed.

God’s prophets are, therefore, not the agents of the empire or the citizens living in the comfort of the empires spoils. God’s prophets are those speaking out against the empire and seeking to liberate the oppressed from its clutches.

The future of the church is non-white.

The future of the church is female.

The future of the church is queer

And this is a beautiful thing, not just for marginalized communities but for the church as a whole. God is not simple, bland,  or conventional. God is complex. God is diverse. God is the ultimate “other.” It only stands to reason that the people of God should follow suit.

As my favorite prophet Laura Jean Truman has written:

The gift of queerness for the Body of Christ is a constant invitation to see the world, the Other, and our God, as bigger, stranger, more beautiful, more diverse.

So where, then, does that leave people like me? Is there room for straight white guys to play a role in what God is doing? 

Sure, there is.

But only if we heed the voice of the prophets.

These communities that have been shut out of the church for so long aren’t just getting a seat at the table; they’re getting seats at the head of the table, and we’re only allowed to join if they’re gracious enough to invite us.

Lucky for us, these prophets don’t want to shut us out of the kingdom. They want us to return to the ways of justice. They want us to right our wrongs. They want us to give back all that we’ve stolen. And so they have the same message for us that Jesus has had for the powerful all along:

Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is near.

So, let’s do it. Let’s repent. 

Because a better world is coming, and we want to be a part of it too.

NOTE: Pictured in this post are, in sequence, Laura Jean Truman, Tori Douglass, and Kenji Keone.

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We Need to Talk About Sin…

I internalized the concept of sin at a very young age. When I first started attending Sunday school at 7 or 8 years old, right and wrong took on a whole new meaning for me. Of course, I had already known that there were “bad” things, things I shouldn’t do. I wasn’t supposed to take what wasn’t mine. I wasn’t supposed to hit my sister. I wasn’t supposed to talk back to my parents. I knew the basics, but “sin” was something else entirely.

“Sin” taught me that the bad wasn’t just something I did; it’s something I was. It was a destructive force festering inside me. It wasn’t so much about my public behavior so much as it was about my private thoughts and internal worth. Actually, I was taught, it really didn’t matter if I never stole, never hit my sister, and never talked back to my parents. I was still a sinner. I was still rotten to the core.

When I became a teenager and really began to formulate my theology, I received a particular definition of sin that was reinforced to me over and over again: “Sin is anything that separates you from God.” It was just like when I was younger, an internal sense of dissonance that made me feel shame for my thoughts and feelings. Only, as a teenager, I was “saved.” So, when I gave in to impure thoughts, I was also responsible for ruining my relationship with God.

I must have been 13 or so when I read the book Every Young Man’s Battle, learning about how evil pornography was and how I needed to not think sexual thoughts about girls if I wanted my relationship with God to remain intact. At the same time, I was attending youth retreats with themes on “fleeing the evil desires of your youth,” “guarding your heart,” and “saving sex for marriage.” Most of it, yes, was about sexual purity. But there was also stuff about not listening to secular music, making sure I spent enough “quiet time” with God in Bible study, not drinking or doing drugs, and so on and so forth.

This is what sin was to me: anything that made me look disgusting to God on the inside. That’s it. And it never occurred to me that it could be anything else…

I got off easy.

Many of the kids that grew up in the same culture I did were introduced to the same concept of sin. Their internal sense of worth and value before God was continually called into question, just like mine. Only, I’m a cisgender heterosexual male, so there are all kinds of things that I did not have to deal with. I did not have to conform to the social norms of a body I didn’t belong in. I did not have to go through conversion therapy. I did not have to apologize to my rapist. I was a sinner because of my thoughts and feelings. There are many I know who were sinners because of their biology.

They told us “sin was anything that separates you from God,” but what it really translated to was, “sin is anything that unites you with pleasure.” Sin was anything that made you feel good. And feeling good was a bad thing. We were made for God’s pleasure, not for our own. If we did something we liked because it felt good, even if it didn’t hurt anyone, it was a sin. Because it was selfish. And we weren’t supposed to live for ourselves; we were supposed to live for God.

Needless to say, this conception of sin led myself and many others to develop a poor self image. We could not do anything that made us happy without experiencing feelings of guilt and shame. God could only be honored through our self-deprivation. If there was something that we really wanted, if there was something we desperately needed, we sacrificed it for the sake of our holiness. It made us miserable. It crushed our spirits. It drove some of us to depression and even to the brink of suicide. But it was our cross to bear, so we made the sacrifices. After all, if we could just stick it out, we had heaven to look forward to, didn’t we?

Redeeming Sin

It’s not surprising to me that many who come out of the Evangelical Christian culture in which I was raised want to get rid of the idea of sin entirely. They associate it with “purity culture,” with ideas of shame and self-hatred. They associate it with personal piety and private salvation. It’s because of this idea of sin that many of the people I know have spent years in therapy, trying desperately to construct a workable self-image and get on with their lives. I understand the desire to do away with sin.

But I don’t think we should get rid of sin; I think we should reinvent it.

Actually, it’s not really a reinvention. It’s more of a reclamation. Because, you see, sin in the Bible isn’t merely about personal piety; it’s also about social justice. Sin is failing to “do justice and love mercy” (Micah 6:8). Sin is “cheating widows out of their property” (Luke 20:47). Sin is “doing violence to the stranger” (Jeremiah 22:3). Sin is neglecting the people with whom Jesus identified himself in Matthew 25.

In other words, sin isn’t merely personal; sin is relational. Sin is what we call the harm we bring to other people.

We were taught that “sin is anything that separates us from God.” We could say instead that “sin is anything that separates us from our neighbors,” but I don’t even think that’s quite right. It’s not about us being united with our neighbors; it’s about us seeking good for our neighbors, regardless of what we get out of it. So, if I may offer a revised definition of sin that I hope we can all get behind: “Sin is anything that separates our neighbors from themselves.”

Again, I understand the desire to throw out sin altogether. It has been used in such destructive ways, that I completely understand the revulsion. But, if you can think of sin in terms of the harm we do to others instead of in terms of some arbitrary form of personal piety, it can be quite liberating. For those who grew up like I did, internalizing sin as something that was inherently wrong with us, think of it this way: the sadistic theology of raising kids to believe they’re inherently evil is itself sinful. We weren’t the ones who were sinning; it is they who were sinning against us.

If we are broken, it is only because they broke us.

Sin isn’t something we did; it’s something that was done to us. And we don’t need to be saved from our sins; we need to be saved from theirs.

I need the word “sin.” I need it as a label to convey the intensity of cruelty I see in the world. I need it as a label for white supremacy. I need it as a label for misogyny. I need it as a label for the contempt shown against those in the LGBTQ+ community. And I need it as a label for the shame that was induced in me throughout my childhood.

“Bad” isn’t good enough. It’s just not sufficient to say that some behavior is bad. I need the religious language, because it packs a punch. Cruelty toward human beings isn’t just impolite or untoward. It’s blasphemous. It’s profane. It’s evil. It’s sin.

If you’re reading this and you grew up like I did, seeing yourself as a sinner just for being you, I want to be clear: you are not a sinner. You have nothing to repent of. You are already pure. You are already perfect. You are already whole.

Sin is a word for the agents of Empire. It’s a word for the oppressors, not for the oppressed. So, yes, we could just get rid of the idea of sin entirely. Or, we could reclaim it as a means to fight back against those who have destroyed us. 

We need sin. Not because we’re sinners, but because we were sinned against. What they did to us is not okay, and we need a name for it. We could call it bad. We could call it wrong. We could call it evil. Or, we could call it precisely what I believe it is:

It. Is. Sin.

Image licensed via Creative Commons.

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Born Again: An Ode to Conversion

I have a confession to make.

Just short of two months ago, I got saved.

On July 12, 2017, I was born again. Would you like to hear my testimony?

I’d been hanging around these people for a while. They seemed strange to me at first, so I kept them at an arm’s length. Eventually though, after months of tottering on the fence, I finally opened myself up to hearing their Gospel–and it changed my life forever.

When I heard the message, it broke me. I realized that I was a sinner, and I was humbled by the grace extended to me. I asked for forgiveness, yes. But I also made up my mind to repent. I turned away from my former way of being and oriented myself toward walking in newness of life.

I also sought out community, a good church home where I could hear this beautiful, life-giving Gospel preached again and again and again. About a month ago, I found one.

We aren’t perfect, but we know one another’s struggles. We hold each other when we’re hurting and push each other when we need challenged. I’m just glad that they’ve been gracious enough to welcome me, the chief of sinners, with opens arms.

So that’s it, really. It’s official. I’ve been converted. I’ve been baptized. I’ve been born again. And now, I want everyone I know to hear the good news that I’ve been blessed enough to receive.

Let Me Explain…

If you don’t know me, you’re probably thinking one of two things right now:

  1. If you’re an Evangelical Christian (or familiar with the mindset), you’re probably thinking that I’m talking about asking Jesus into my heart and becoming a Christian.
  2. If you’re unfamiliar with Evangelical Christianity, you’re probably thinking that I’ve just joined some weird cult.

Let me assure you: I am speaking of neither of these things.

It’s a long story, but I did the Evangelical Christian thing a long time ago, got away from it after high school, sort of started circling back to it a few years ago, and then officially made my break from it when this atrocity was released.

I also haven’t joined a cult. Not living in a bunker. Still married. Still have a job and a mortgage. Still go grocery shopping. Still watch Netflix. Still “normal.”

I started going to a new church a year and a half ago, that’s true. This Disciples of Christ church has transformed me in a number of ways and I love being part of the community, but that’s not the conversion I’m talking about. And this real, actual church is not the “church” to which I’m referring.

Nope, it was something else that happened just a few months ago…

Rescuing Jesus

If you know me at all, you won’t be surprised to discover that the conversion experience to which I’m referring centers around a book. But first, the “weird people.”

When I said that I had been hanging around “strange” people for a while, watching from a distance, I wasn’t referring to Evangelical Christians. Well, many of them were Christians, but they weren’t Evangelicals. Basically, the people I’m referring to are people who aren’t like me–people who aren’t able-bodied, neurotypical, cisgender, heterosexual, white males.

I started lingering outside communities of color who were speaking out against racial injustices in the church and in the country, absorbing the teachings of people like Wil Gafney, Broderick Greer, Tori Douglass, Solomon Missouri, and Delores Charles.

I started listening to stories of women who wanted to do crazy things like preach sermons in church and wear shorts without getting raped, absorbing the teachings of people like Jory Micah, Rachel Held Evans, Samantha Field, and Jordan and Luci from Two FAB.

I started slowly approaching people from the LGBTQ community who were arguing that they could keep their faith while still remaining true to their identities, absorbing teachings of people like Dianna Anderson, Kevin Garcia, Austen Hartke, Emmy Kegler, and Matthias Roberts.

There were many others from these communities, people who crossed between these communities, and people from other marginalized communities. But it was the “big three,” people of color, women, and queer people, who eventually led me to my encounter with the Gospel. And the Gospel in this metaphor was a book called Rescuing Jesus by Deborah Jian Lee.

I started reading this book on July 9th and finished it three days later. Basically, as the subtitle suggests, the book is about how people of color from predominantly white communities, women growing up in purity culture, and LGBTQ people persecuted by the church for their sexuality all find ways to break free from their fundamentalist roots and reclaim the message of Jesus as something bigger, broader, and more beautiful.

The book opened my eyes in a profound way. It helped me see how I had been complicit in systems of oppression and abuse. It helped me see that Jesus was bigger than the box I had been raised to put him in. It helped me see that I had had it all backwards. I wasn’t standing at the gates of Heaven deliberating about whether I should let them into the kingdom of God. They WERE the kingdom of God, and the only question was whether or not I wanted to participate in it.

This Gospel gave me a new “Great Commission.” My goal is no longer to convert those different from me to my way of thinking but, rather, to allow myself to be converted to theirs.

I don’t wish to create an environment within the faith in which there is “space at the table” for women, LGBTQ people, and people of color. My mission is to create an environment within the faith in which women, LGBTQ people, and people of color are sitting at the head of the table and are in the position of offering a “seat at the table” as a grace to me.

So, that’s how I was converted. I was transformed by the renewing of my mind. I was baptized into the wisdom of those whose voices have long been ignored by white, heteronormative patriarchy. I was saved from my ignorance and sense of entitlement. I once was blind, but now I see.

But what about my church? What’s the community I’m referring to? About a month ago, I was invited into a private Facebook group called “Exvangelical,” launched by Blake Chastain and recently built up by Chris Stroop. It may be a digital space of relative strangers, but it’s nevertheless a community of agape love like I’ve never known. It’s a church in the truest, most meaningful sense of the word–and I’m proud to be a part of it.

We share our songs and discuss our many sacred texts. We worship the Holy Trinity of freedom, tolerance, and healing. We “mourn with those mourn and rejoice with those who rejoice.” This is my church away from church, and I have no trouble thinking of it in that way.

Because I don’t believe that the Holy can only be found in the church. I think it’s actually the other way around; the church can only be found in the Holy, the sacred, the magical, the meaningful, and the life affirming.

Many Conversions

Right now in Sunday School at my real world my mainline Protestant church, we’re going through a podcast interview with Diana Butler Bass. At one point in the conversation, Diana talks about her “many conversions.” She went from being an Evangelical Christian to an Episcopalian to a Quaker, taking something from each phase and building on it to move toward a more constructive vision for her spiritual life. I think she’s got the right idea.

I’ve spent a lot of time in this post talking about my recent conversion experience, but this post isn’t really about that experience in particular. Yeah, it’s true. I wanted an excuse to talk about some thinkers, a book, and a community that have all recently been highly influential in my life. But my purpose here is not to tout the virtues of my recent conversion; my purpose is to tout the virtues of conversion as a concept in and of itself.

Many of the people in my new Exvangelical community are extremely turned off, even traumatized, by the idea of conversion. This is understandable. We’re people who have been proselytized, manipulated, and coerced into believing things that are intellectually indefensible and morally repugnant. And I just want to be clear that I’m perfectly fine if anyone is uncomfortable appropriating this kind of language.

But here’s the thing: I don’t think the problem lies with the expectation of conversion. Rather, the problem lies with the expectation of a single conversion. It’s the finality of being born again just once that truly imprisons us.

We’re taught to open our minds once and then lock them up and throw away the key. We’re taught to open our hearts once and then force them into stone. We’re taught that we can be baptized once and somehow remain clean forever.

We’re doing conversion wrong.

Once is not enough.

I’m reminded of the Apostle Peter in the Gospels, and his journey of faith that we see woven throughout. He had many conversions. First, he dropped what he was doing to follow Jesus. Then, he got to the point where he could make his great confession. Then, he denied Jesus and had to be reinstated. And then, even after Jesus was gone, he changed his mind about allowing gentiles to participate in the community. Guess what, y’all? “Many conversions” is Biblical.

Conversion is a beautiful human experience. It happens when we fall in love, when we discover an illuminating idea, and when we develop a new passion. Why do we limit ourselves to being converted just once? We’ve got to allow ourselves the freedom of multiple conversions. We’ve got to permit ourselves to embrace those moments in which we come alive again as we’re swept into new ways of being.

I loved this recent conversion experience, but I sincerely hope it isn’t the last. I want to be born again. And again. And again. And again.

Don’t you?

Think about your life. Do you feel yourself being pulled into something new? Are you experiencing resistance, a staunch immovable force within you chaining you to your current state of being. Here’s my advice: break the chains and embrace the beckoning. That’s your Jesus standing at the door and knocking. Let him in and watch your life transform. Again. And again. And again.

Never stop converting.

Never stop being born again.

Never stop rising from the dead.

Stay curious.

Photo courtesy of Dave Skinner Photography, licensed via Creative Commons.

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