After Purity: Faith and Sexuality Beyond the Boundaries featuring Emily Joy

On April 24, 2018 at Hiram College, we were finally able to pull off the event I’d been preparing for since December of 2017. I’ve written a little about why I wanted to do it here and here, so I’m going to spare you the monologue. I was, however, able to record a video of the presentation. It is available on YouTube and embedded below.

Scroll down to follow along with notes and references as you watch. Some of Emily’s quotes were particularly poignant, I thought, and I wanted to capture them here. Additionally, Emily alludes to a great number of resources–and I wanted to provide some direct links for those who wanted to do further research.

I hope you are as inspired by the presentation as I am, and I’m eternally grateful for all of you who have supported and continue to support this work.

One last thing: we are still raising funds to cover the costs of the event. If you are able to contribute, please do. Any amount helps: http://gofundme.com/AfterPurity

Annotated Notes and References

Faith and Sexuality Beyond the Boundaries

Featuring Emily Joy

Hiram College

Hiram, Ohio

April 24, 2018

Sponsored By: Mantua Center Christian Church and Hiram Christian Church

Watch the video here: bit.ly/AfterPurity2018.

General Introduction

00:00:00

Chris McCreight, pastor of Hiram Christian Church and chaplain of Hiram College, welcomes attendees to the event.

00:02:33

Doug Rice of Mantua Center Christian Church introduces the speaker, Emily Joy.

Main Presentation

00:05:46              

Emily begins her presentation.

00:07:10

Emily performs “Thank God I’m a Virgin,” from her album All Prodigal Daughters and Sons.

00:11:22

Emily performs “You Are Not a Princess,” from her album All Prodigal Daughters and Sons.

00:16:50              

Emily performs “How to Love the Sinner & Hate the Sin: 5 Easy Steps.”

00:20:35

Emily talks about her personal story and background, growing up the daughter of an itinerant southern Baptist preacher, being groomed for a romantic relationship by an older Evangelical preacher, living in a culture that lacked any form of sex education, entering into period of faith deconstruction in her early adult life, earning a certification in Christian Ministry from Moody Bible Institute, and using it as a basis for a different kind of ministry than they intended. “You can’t give me the tools and then be mad about what I build with them,” she says.

00:26:13              

Emily talks about how she and her friend Hannah Paasch started the “Purity Culture Rehab Project,” in which they engaged in various activities they’d been forbidden from as adolescents in an effort to reclaim their autonomy.

00:29:54              

Emily defines “purity culture.” She references a short video on YouTube titled, “What Is Purity Culture? #StillPurityCulture.” Basically, she defines it as the expectation of “mandatory abstinence until legal, heterosexual marriage,” usually accompanying some kind of threat and manifesting itself in a variety of ways across different church communities. She further describes purity culture as “the religious corollary of rape culture.”

00:34:09              

Emily discusses the tendency for people to want to keep the fundamental theology behind purity culture, while condemning some of its unfortunate fruit. She references the #StillPurityCulture hashtag containing stories that highlight exactly what this looks like.

00:35:46              

Emily discusses the story behind the #ChurchToo hashtag, originating in November 2017 as a subset of the recent explosion #MeToo movement (started by Tarana Burke in 2006). She references a sex abuse scandal from several years ago involving CJ Mahaney of Sovereign Grace Ministries. She also references the Twitter thread in which she shares her own story. She then references a few examples of high-profile sexual abuse cases in the church that have come to light in part as a direct response from the #ChurchToo movement: mega church pastor Andy Savage’s assault on Jules Woodson and the issues surrounding Bill Hybels of Willow Creek.

00:41:04              

Why does she focus exclusively focus on sexual assault in the church, when it’s coming to light in every sector of society? Emily says, “The culture around sexual abuse and assault is the way it is for a variety of reasons. I am not an expert in politics. Nor am I an expert in Hollywood social circles. I do not know the specifics of what makes it terrible there. But this is the water I’m swimming in—is faith communities.” Furthermore, sexual abuse in certain churches contains additional factors that aren’t as prevalent in other society institutions. “It’s one thing for somebody to abuse you, and it’s another thing for somebody to abuse you and say, ‘This is how God wants it.’”

00:45:28              

Emily discusses what church leaders can do to prevent sexual abuse from happening in their churches. She suggests that, while there are basic things that can be done such as background checks for staff and explicit policies stating that law enforcement will be notified should abuse occur. However, the fundamental problem is not church policy regarding sexual abuse, but church doctrine regarding sexuality. (See Emily’s article, “What’s Purity Culture Got to Do With It?” in which explains the connection between purity culture and the #ChurchToo movement).

00:51:25              

Emily discusses the process of unlearning, saying, “The ability to take in new information about the world and about ourselves, and adjust our beliefs and our behavior according, is what differentiates us from rocks.” She describes how letting go of old beliefs can be scary, but it’s also necessary. She adds, “We approach these conversations out of a base place of fear…the thing is there’s no avoiding that fear if you want to live a full, healthy, authentic life. There is only living alongside of it.”

00:53:50              

Emily performs “Everything Must Burn,” from her album All Prodigal Daughters and Sons.

Question and Answer Session

00:56:50

Where did purity theology come from? Emily references the religious right’s formation as a political movement, described briefly here.

00:59:12              

Can you speak more about how purity culture links to and/or enables sexual abuse in faith communities?

01:01:07             

I find the use of masculine pronouns for God, at least when used exclusively, to be one more artifact of patriarch/purity culture that has a deleterious impact on the entire community of faith. Thoughts? “It’s okay to emphasize one thing if it’s been de-emphasized for a really long time.”

01:03:05

How does purity culture harm men as well, or does it? Emily references examples of toxic masculinity she’s seen discussed on Twitter. She may have been alluding to this promo video for Christian men’s conference or this story about Liberty University opening a multi-million dollar competitive shooting range.

01:05:54

What was it like growing up as a member of the LGBTQIA+ community in the church?

01:09:58              

How much more purity is demanded of people of color, especially women of color, in an American church that is intent on marginalizing everyone who is not a straight, white, male of high socio-economic status? Emily references a writer named Fred Clarke and his blog Slacktivist. One piece, “This is what abortion politics is for,” specifically addresses abortion and its ties to racism.

01:13:23

I believe in challenging authority. The Bible and its teachings must be challenged in order to continue to live and breathe. If it is dead and inflexible, then how can it be vital and relevant?

01:16:41

My wife’s previous husband was a minister who had several affairs, preying often on parishioners until he’d get found out and move on. One of my wife’s children came through all of this shame and anger with her faith intact, but her brothers both rejected God and church along with this despicable pastor. You’ve alluded to your experience. With the pieces of your religious indoctrination chipped away, what was left? God? Faith? New insights and beliefs? Or nothing? In short, more like my step daughter or step sons? “The less things that I believe numerically, the more strongly I believe in the things that I have left.”

01:21:16

In what form of a phoenix has your faith been reborn?

01:23:58

What can the local church do to help with the one who has or is deconstructing his or her faith? Is there a way to keep the church as a safe and supportive place for the ones who are deconstructing their faith? “If you’re a safe space, you don’t have to say that you’re a safe space.”

01:27:23

Okay, #ChurchToo (the hashtag) is out there. But what can a local church do to address this? Has the church as a social institution been strained beyond repair? Why would one want to come to the church? Emily references this Newsweek article about the dwindling population of white Evangelicals under 30 years old. Emily also mentioned Emmy Kegler, who can be found on twitter @EmmyKegler (here is the specific tweet Emily references) and also operates the online resource for LGBTQIA+ Christians: Queer Grace.

01:34:09

Emily concludes the event by performing one last poem, “Shut Up & Sing,” from her album All Prodigal Daughters and Sons.

 

*Annotations completed by Doug Rice…so don’t get mad at Emily if something is messed up 😉

After Purity logo created by Jessy Rice.

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#ChurchToo Is Not an Apple Problem; It’s an Orchard Problem

On April 24th, my church will be hosting a lecture at Hiram College in northeast Ohio on the subject of purity culture. When I first introduced the idea to the small group of people willing to hear it out, I expected a little pushback.

After leaving fundamentalist Christianity, I migrated to a Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) congregation close to where I live. The congregation, like the broader denomination, skews “progressive” but, since the church doesn’t enforce mandatory creeds, dogmas, or statements of faith, there is actually a sizable amount of variation in how people feel about different moral issues. My particular congregation is located in rural northeast Ohio, which I perceive to skew conservative on many issues—including support for upholding “traditional family values.”

My concern was that I would be perceived as “telling parents what to teach their kids about sex.” I assumed a lot of people in the congregation believed in teaching their children the importance of “saving sex for marriage,” and that things like masturbation and pornography defiled them spiritually—rendering them unholy in the sight of God. I assumed that girls in the church were expected to dress modestly in order to avoid being temptations for boys. And I assumed that, even if this church didn’t explicitly teach these things, it wouldn’t want to rock the boat by opening pandora’s box of patriarchal wonders.

So, I went into the conversation with my defenses raised. The response I received, however, was not anything like I expected. First, they were all for doing the event—immediately, without objection. But more shocking to me was something else. They didn’t ask, “Aren’t girls who dress like that really asking for it, though?” They didn’t ask, “Won’t a woman have a hard time finding a good husband if she’s lost her virginity?” They didn’t even ask, “Well, we don’t want to encourage teenage sex, do we?” They didn’t ask anything at all of this nature. No, after offering the pitch, they just had one question: “What is ‘purity culture?’

Raising Awareness and Raising Objections

I spent my teen years in a Baptist church immersed in purity culture. I learned about sex from organizations like Focus on the Family, books like Every Young Man’s Battle, and experiences like the “Pure Hearts After Christ” youth retreat—where all the girls made promises to show less skin so they wouldn’t go to Hell and I made promises to stop masturbating so I wouldn’t go to Hell. But it wasn’t all that bad—we also played kick ball and ate s’mores.

Late in high school, I converted into the Church of Christ—which used different materials but held the same basic theology surrounding sexual ethics. Women were servants of God, but they served God best by serving men. They respected the authority of men, and along with this came a respect for the spiritual sanctity of men. They held modesty in dress as a virtue above all else. They did everything they could to keep men from stumbling, because that’s what being a godly woman meant.

In all of my religious experience up until two years ago, young women were taught that their primary purpose was to remain abstinent so that their godly future husbands could marry virgins. If they failed to do so, they were taught that they had lost a piece of themselves and that—if they did happen to find a husband—he was bestowing upon them a grand gesture of grace in agreeing to marriage. On the other hand, young men were taught to view women merely as temptresses, and to view themselves as sexually depraved beasts who lose control at the slightest sight of a female’s skin. Therefore, if they committed a forbidden sexual act–whether it was consensual or not–redemption was more readily available, because it was assumed to be the woman’s fault.

This is the world I grew up in. So, needless to say, it was quite jarring when I realized that there is a large portion of the Christian population that may simply be unaware of the purity subculture in Evangelical Christianity. I confess that I don’t know how universally true this is. I don’t know the extent to which various mainline Christian churches are responsible for, complicit in, or oblivious to the harm that has been done with purity culture. I don’t know if mainline churches have been burying their heads in the sand, or if they’ve just been wandering in different deserts. But I’ve decided to give them all the benefit of the doubt…

In the upcoming event, called “After Purity: Faith and Sexuality Beyond the Boundaries,” speaker and poet Emily Joy will be making her way to rural Ohio to talk about something that many people in my church have apparently never heard of. We’re giving her a colossal task: simultaneously raising awareness about the harm purity culture has caused and calling the church to construct a healthier narrative around sexual ethics that offers a better way forward.

The problem and the solution must be addressed at the same time. Because the fact of the matter is this: the church is just far too late on addressing this issue to be afforded the time to sit and wrestle with the problem. There is no time left to wait around in spiritual discernment. Something needs to be done now.

#SilenceIsNotSpiritual, and Purity Culture Is Not Ethical

In November 2017, Emily and her friend Hannah Paasch started sharing the hashtag #churchtoo on Twitter to highlight the stories of women (and some men) who have experienced sexual assault and/or harassment in Christian (mainly Protestant) churches. The hashtag spread like wildfire, and you can now look it up to find hundreds of stories on sexual abuse.

Besides ideas embodied in purity culture, a common theme in many of the tweets was the extent to which leaders, prominent members, and even parents of victims in churches would go to bury instances of sexual abuse in order to protect the church’s and/or abuser’s reputation. Shortly after the spread of the #churchtoo hashtag, a group of prominent Evangelical women banded together to issue a statement with a new hashtag addressing this concern specifically: #silenceisnotspiritual.

Obviously, this is an important issue to address as well. Churches should not be placing their own reputations over the safety and well-being of victims. That being said, I do take issue with condemning the abusers without considering the culture which creates them. Just like in any other context, abusers in churches don’t fall out of the sky and land haphazardly in random churches. They are the product of a culture within many churches that simultaneously lends power to abusers and deprives victims of the tools they need need to recognize abuse when it’s happening.

This is purity culture exactly. It gives men so much power over women that abuse of some form or another is almost inevitable. Sexual abuse in purity culture is not the icing on the cake; it’s baked into it from the start.

But here’s the thing. Sexual abuse scandals from within Christianity have been hitting the mainstream news circuit, including the response of Jules Woodson to Andy Savage’s “confession,” Rachael Denhollander’s criticism of her church’s response to her abuse, and the allegations against Bill Hybels. But, even when prominent Christian thought leaders get around to finally siding with the victims, the blame almost always shifts away from the church and exclusively toward the abuser.

It’s not the church’s fault. The abuser was clearly not acting “Christ-like” enough. There’s nothing wrong with our theology or sexual ethics. The abuse occurred in spite of them, not because of them. The abuser was an aberration, a bad apple. There is nothing wrong with the church.

Let me be clear: until rationalizations, justifications, and deflections such as this stop, the sexual abuse will continue in Christian churches. As people who claim to follow Jesus, we have to own up to it when we aren’t. By elevating the ideology of purity culture above the well-being of the most vulnerable, we are throwing the “least of these” under the bus—and then blaming the bus when they are run over. This has to stop.

Some people have become confused regarding what exactly our “After Purity” event is about. Is it about sexual abuse? Or, is it about sex education? Are we raising awareness about sexual assault? Or, are we talking about how the church should teach its congregants about sexual relationships and the gender norms associated with them?

Here’s what I’ve gathered: people have a hard time understanding the idea that sexual abuse occurs as anything other than a violation of the sexual ethics put forth by a church. I am arguing the opposite. I am arguing the sexual abuse is occurring in Christian churches largely because the sexual ethics in these churches provide fertile ground for the abuse.

We cannot talk about sexual abuse in Christian churches without talking about purity culture at the same time.

I am not the first one to make such a claim. Countless women coming out of fundamentalist Christian churches have been making this argument for years. Dianna Anderson has written about the relationship between purity culture and rape culture. Samantha Field has argued that it isn’t how we teach purity culture that’s the problem but, rather it’s purity culture itself. In a recent piece on her blog, Emily Joy said it very explicitly:

“Any appropriate response to #ChurchToo and the problem of sexual assault and abuse in religious communities necessitates the total dismantling and rejecting of purity culture.”

We need to stop trimming the branches and start laying the axe at the root. Purity culture—the theological framework that cultivates abuse—is the crux of the problem. Sure, hold the abusers accountable. But that isn’t going far enough. What we need to do is hold the system accountable.

We don’t have an apple problem; we have an orchard problem.

It’s time we burn the whole thing down and focus on growing something in its place that produces the kind of fruit worthy of the name of Christ.

“You will know them by their fruit,” Jesus said. It’s time we become known for something better.

It’s time to let purity culture die.

It’s time to discuss faith and sexuality beyond the boundaries.

It’s time for, “After Purity.”

Image note: Pictured at the beginning of the article is Emily Joy.

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Confession: I Grew Up in a Coffee Cult

[Content Warning: Purity culture, Victim blaming, Sexual shame, Spiritual abuse]

It’s taken me a long time, but I finally feel I’m ready to come clean with the truth: I was raised in a coffee cult.

I grew up as part of a religious community in which warm beverages were never discussed. Of course, we all knew about coffee. Our friends at school all bragged about the coffee they’d drunk, even though we knew most of them were lying. And, even if our parents closely monitored what we watched, we were sure to hear an occasional reference to coffee on TV. It was just unavoidable.

Besides, most of the adults in the church had coffee together in the privacy of their own kitchens. But that was okay. They had waited for it until they were old enough for the sacred coffee ceremony—in which they exchanged a vow with another person of the opposite gender that they’d have coffee exclusively with one another for the rest of their lives. After that, the wife could please her husband all she wanted by preparing coffee for him and the husband could get all the coffee he wanted out of his wife.

Occasionally, we’d hear about adults breaking their coffee covenants with one another. Typically, this occurred for one of two reasons: the wife had prepared coffee for someone else besides her husband, or another woman outside of the covenant had led the husband astray by allowing him to smell the aroma of the coffee she could prepare for him. In either case, it was rarely the husband’s fault, because—as we all know—men are by nature more driven to drink coffee than women.

So, we were always told that women need to be careful about the signals they’re sending when men are around. Coffee had to be kept in an airtight container. If women allowed men to smell the coffee they could prepare, then they were practically asking men to drink it.

As a boy, I grew up understanding this same dynamic in my relationship with girls. I tried to stay away from the girls whose coffee I could smell, because they would be a stumbling block to me in my relationship with God. There were a wide variety of sins, of course, but most boys struggled with coffee temptation more than anything else. It was part of our nature. But still, I did everything I could to resist. After all, I fully expected to marry a coffee virgin, so it was only fair that I would remain one too.

But don’t get me wrong—I stumbled quite a bit. While I never actually drank coffee with another girl, I couldn’t shake the idea of girls making coffee for me from my thoughts. So I compromised by looking at pictures of girls making coffee and fantasizing that the coffee was for me. It’s really difficult to talk about and shameful to admit but, most of the time when I was looking at these pictures, I would make my own coffee and drink it all by myself. It tasted good, but it left a bitter aftertaste, because I knew that it was wrong and that it was separating me from God.

It turns out that I wasn’t alone. As I got into my mid-teens, I realized that the church was churning out an entire genre for boys like me and the girls that tempted us. There was “Every Young Man’s Grind” for us boys, “Percolation and Purity” for the girls and, of course, “I Kissed Coffee Dating Goodbye” for both.

I learned so much from these books about God’s perspective on proper coffee consumption. I learned that it was the purpose of girls to grow up and make coffee for their husbands. And it was my purpose as a boy, in addition to the other things God had called me to do, to make sure I grew up to find a woman who could make coffee for me. One man and one woman for life—this was God’s singular plan for drinking coffee in human civilization.

In reading these books, I discovered all sorts of perversion in coffee drinking. Some men drank coffee with other men, and some women with other women. Some people mixed their coffee with milk and called it a cappuccino. Some people even added sugar! Some people didn’t even drink coffee, but drank tea instead. Others drank hot chocolate, hot apple cider, and a wide range of warm beverages I’d never even heard of. Some didn’t drink any warm beverage at all, not because they weren’t allowed, but rather because they had no desire to.

While I was taught that this great diversity in warm beverage consumption was a deviation from God’s expectations, it was nevertheless quite jarring. It blew my mind to realize all the many ways that people had been thinking about warm beverages outside of my bubble. And, although it took me years before I could summon the courage to publicly express my doubts, I began to question my conception of God. Perhaps my God was too small. If the concept of warm beverages was far broader than a simple cup of black coffee a wife prepared for her husband, perhaps the true nature of the divine was also much more expansive than I had grown to believe.

Fast forward over a decade, and I’ve escaped my coffee cult. I’ve come to see a whole range of things to focus on besides coffee. And it seems absurd to me that, growing up, that’s all that seemed to matter. Not only are there other warm beverages, but there are also cold beverages, foods, art, music, film, literature, philosophy, games, and all sorts of other things to consume within the human experience.

I’m still working through my understanding of the divine, but there’s one thing I’m certain of. If God is real, then God’s presence is found in all of above elements of human activity—and so many more. My God is big enough and expansive enough to render the entirety of the human experience as sacred, despite those who may wish to condone the simplest pleasures of being alive as profane. I am no longer interested in a God whose primary function is to monitor how people drink their coffee. To be sure, the world has problems to solve. But for my God, coffee etiquette simply isn’t one of them.

One last thing: I made this story up.

I didn’t grow up in a coffee cult. I’m fairly certain there is no such thing. Any resemblance to actual events or situations is purely coincidental. So, there’s no cause for concern; a religious upbringing like this is far too absurd to have possibly been real. The tale is 100% pure, unadulterated fiction.

Or, is it?

Posted in religion, Social Issues | 4 Comments

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.

CLICK HERE TO SHARE ON FACEBOOK

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: https://www.gofundme.com/purity-culture-and-the-church

Posted in blog, Mantua Center Christian Church, religion, Social Issues, Uncategorized | 5 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: https://everydayfeminism.com/2014/11/privilege-visual-look-like-this/

“White Fragility” image credit: https://www.diversitycouncil.org/single-post/2017/02/14/Adventures-in-White-Fragility

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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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