Sexual Assault and a Male God

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April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month, and once again this evening I will lead a meditation and candle service for students. Many of these students are living in the aftermath of sexual abuse and assault. Others will be present because this issue has affected people they love. Working with women who have been impacted by this pervasive problem is one of the most important parts of my ministry – and also one of the most challenging. I have lost sleep, filled with concern and pain for young women who have endured experiences no one should have to endure. I have found myself at a complete loss for words, when students have hoped I would know the right thing to say. I have learned over the years that the most important thing I can do is to be present – to show compassion. And as I am present, I also know I can offer a word of grace.

The church has so often failed women when it comes to sexual assault and abuse. How many sermons have we heard about King David being tempted by the lovely Bathsheba? This biblical story is truly about a king, taking a young married woman who had no power to reject his advances. And how many sermons have we heard about Esther, wrapping King Ahasuerus around her finger, when in fact she was a political prisoner who was kept with numerous other women in a harem?

As do so many of us clergy nowadays, I decided to do a quick Google search about prayers for sexual assault survivors, seeing if some words of grace might appear on my computer screen. A few helpful things popped up, but most were simple prayers that begin with the phrase “Father God.” I know from my many years of working with women that praying to a male deity is one of the last things most of them want.

Even in the shadow of #Metoo, the church still believes a male head can take care of everything.

The biblical understanding of God is that God is above and beyond gender, above and beyond human constraints and understanding. Yet, the church remains comfortable with allowing a patriarchal world to dictate how we understand the Divine, no matter who it might harm. When will the church get out of its own way and encourage a connection with the Divine that is truly life-giving, compassionate, and helpful? And for the people who reply that perhaps a loving heavenly Father can bring healing – I do agree – but that should be at the individual’s instigation. It should not be the primary way she is forced to engage with the deity.

A significant number of women sitting in churches understand sexual assault and abuse all too well. They keep their stories buttoned up, tucked away deep inside, and listen to the images of a male figure taking care of it all. Let’s open up these stories, these images, and allow the Spirit of the Divine to flow as She will.

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Who Can Claim Community?

Community

Several weeks ago I was seated in a very familiar auditorium with hundreds of other United Methodist clergy. This is not an unfamiliar setting – I’ve spent much of my life in similar circumstances. As part of our meetings, various invited and scheduled individuals – leaders of our conference or denomination – stand and share information with us. I have forgotten much of what I heard during those few days, but one message still leaves me in shock.

One of the leaders of our seminaries stood up and began to share a story from a few years ago about an “athiest church.” For any of us who are aware of the great diversity of spiritual movements not just in our country, but around the world, this is an old story. Secular humanists have gathered for many years to provide insights for life, communal support, and values as to how to live in the world. Yet, it seemed to be news to this man. He continued this story, relating that when he heard it, there was one thing that came to mind – He thought it was “pathetic.”

My mouth hung open, stunned. My friends sitting near me shifted in their seats, obviously uncomfortable with such strong and judgmental language. This man continued his talk, stating that the Bible tells us that only followers of God can gather in true koinonia. Koinonia is a Greek word (and the New Testament was written in Hellenistic Greek) which essentially means fellowship. He stated that only people who gather in God’s name can have God’s presence in that community, and for others to copy this is pathetic.

Jesus was Jewish, but he never limited his contacts to people who were Jewish. In fact, it was often the non-Jewish people who became some of his closest associates, who carried forth his message, who even changed his mind about the nature of God (as in the Canaanite woman). If Jesus himself did not believe God’s presence could only be limited to his particular brand of religion, how can we make such statements today?

The past couple years of my life have been some of the most difficult I have encountered. And some people I know who claim to be Christian have been the most hurtful. And some of my most powerful encounters with the spirit of Christ have been through people who are athiests. Who are we to limit where God is in this world, how the Divine works, where true community and love and support can be found?

Our society and world are so incredibly divided, filled with hate and mistrust of “the other,” and lacking in the ability to engage in respectful dialogue. For those who claim to follow the spirit of Christ, we should be the last ones to pass judgment where the Divine is present or is not present. I give thanks that the Divine is present throughout all of creation and in each person I encounter.

Raising a Feminist – #HeForShe

with my son atop Beech Mountain

with my son atop Beech Mountain

Every parent has goals for her child. We plan, we dream, we hope. We all know that each child is unique, and there are so many things that parents can’t control. Yet, we know that we provide the core environment. The earliest messages our child receives will stay with her in some form or another, for better, for worse.

I have two fantastic kids. One of my goals has been for them to treat each and every person in a respectful and egalitarian manner. I definitely want my kids to be feminists, and one child in particular received this message on a continual basis. And that child is my son – not my daughter. I always knew that my little white male child could do so very much to change the world for the better. Female feminists can only do so much unless male allies join with them to create systems, societies, and cultural values which treat women and men equally. I have always been thrilled when my son railed against injustice and inequality. As a young boy, he not only began to realize that not all moms were ministers, but his eyes were also opened to the fact that many faith communities would not allow women to be religious leaders at all. During summer employment, he has often had a female contemporary as his supervisor, yet has continually had to steer people to speak to his female supervisor when they assumed he was in charge due to his gender. I am so proud of the young male feminist in my household.

Intelligent young British actor, Emma Watson, was named a United Nations Women Goodwill Ambassador a few months ago, and addressed the UN a week ago concerning gender politics. She strongly claimed the word feminist, and initiated the #HeForShe campaign. She spoke eloquently about the need for men to claim feminism and to take action combatting inequality.

Since the speech, Watson has since joined a long-line of self-proclaimed feminists who have dealt with backlash. Nasty twitter comments, a threat of leaked personal photos, and even comments about her attire while addressing the UN (which was both professional and stylish) have emerged.

Cultural misogyny is rampant today. The media has finally begun to highlight the NFL’s lackadaisical treatment of its stars who assault and abuse women. Sexual assault on college campuses is finally receiving the attention it deserves. In areas of professional sports and frat boy culture which suggests women are only important as decorative ornaments or means for a man’s pleasure, it’s vital that real men stand up and speak out strongly against these assumptions. Women are created in the image of God. They should be treated with respect, dignity, and an open mind which never limits who they are called to be.

My teenage daughter asked me if I had seen Emma Watson’s speech. I responded in the affirmative, and we talked about the content for a while. I asked her, “Do you call yourself a feminist?” She gave me the look of incredulity that teenage girls own, and responded, “What else would I be?” I’m thrilled that both my kids – a young woman and a young man – would respond to that question in the same way.

Woman: A Child of God

The recent news of another mass shooting – this time at the University of California at Santa Barbara over the weekend – has filled the thoughts and hearts of many in recent days. Yet, the reasoning behind this event is a bit different than others in recent years. While it seems to be the norm for someone who resorts to such violence to feel bullied, isolated, and rejected by others, this individual focused his anger towards women. In various ways, he maintained that women wronged him because they refused to date him.

The vast majority of people in our society certainly realize this is an extreme situation. However, far too often, girls are told they are “lucky” if a boy likes them. They are told they should be grateful to be asked out on a date. If a girl refuses a date, she is labeled stuck-up or a bitch. A recent article by celebrity Rabbi Shmuley Boteach states that what women want more than anything to be is desired.

Seriously? Desired? He and I read the same scriptures, and apart from the Song of Solomon, that doesn’t seem to be a major defining characteristic of a woman being important in God’s kingdom. Miriam wanted to save her little brother Moses, and then help lead her people to freedom. Deborah wanted justice in the land, and used her brains to make it happen. In the New Testament (which as a Christian, I add to the Hebrew Scriptures for my tradition’s sacred writings), Mary wanted to praise God and rear and love her son Jesus. Mary Magdalene wanted to share Jesus’ message. Lydia wanted to build a strong church.

Former President Jimmy Carter published a new book this spring, A Call to Action: Women, Religion, Violence and Power. Though not a religious scholar, he does a solid job of exploring how religion has been used to perpetuate violence against women. The idea that women simply exist as a help-meet to the superior male, and that women only want to be desired by men, has led to untold actions of violence and oppression against women throughout the centuries. No matter our faith tradition, religion has been used to perpetuate these ideas.

It is time for both women and men in our society to proclaim that women are not simply objects revolving around the male sun of the universe. Both are made in the image of God, and God has great plans for each person – no matter their gender. I would hate to think my son expected that any girl he liked should be honored to date him. I would also hate to think my daughter felt her highest goal in life was to be desired by a man. Both of my wonderful children are so much more than their gender – they are so much more than who they might become with a good life partner one day. I pray that our society will expand its concepts of how men and women interact, and help create a culture where patriarchal ideology and violence are not tolerated.

My prayers go out to everyone connected with the shooting at UCSB. My prayers continue for women everywhere.

#YESALLWOMEN