Recently, we learned about Elliot Rodger and his nightmarish shooting spree, as well as his terrifying manifesto. His thoughts were mostly composed of hatred towards the women who rejected him, whom he felt hated him, or were repulsed by him. He was a young man who believed the world, and the women of the world, owed him something. Importantly, he noted that he planned to “punish you all for it”, ‘all’ referring to all women.
Soon after, the hashtag #YesAllWomen was created on Twitter, with women all over the globe using it to share their stories of abuse, harm, insecurity, frustration, anger, and disappointment towards a culture(s) that created Rodgers. His mind was molded and twisted with a wide range of incorrect assumptions on what women supposedly owed him. Those thoughts weren’t spontaneously generated. They originated from a culture that fed Rodgers the ideas that he detailed in his manifesto.
Did our society and culture at large tell him to do harm to women and take the lives of so many individuals? No. But did our culture teach him that women are objects? That they exist for the pleasure and enjoyment of others? That they’re not autonomous beings with their own individual preferences and desires? It certainly did, that much is clear.
As I learned from following the hashtag for the better part of the day, there is literally no shortage of women who have stories of violence. Of sexual assault. Of being told that their bodies are shameful, or gross, or imperfect, or broken. Stories of women who were informed by the culture that their worth was in being partnered with a man. Stories of those who were forced to leave school to change into something “less distracting”.
In all honestly, up until this point I considered myself a somewhat aware person. I was under the mistaken impression that I had some handle of the idea that life was difficult for women in a myriad of ways. #YesAllWomen taught me that I hadn’t the slightest idea what so many women have to face on a daily, sometimes hourly basis. I came to the understanding that my daily reality looks so unlike a woman’s reality.
I have never been harassed on the sidewalk.
I have never been shouted at or catcalled by someone driving past me.
I have never felt the need to hold my keys in between my fingers for protection.
I have never had to worry about going for a run late at night by myself.
I have never been told to cover any part of my body for any reason, ever.
I’ve never worried if my date was going to assault me. Or slip something in my drink.
I’ve never been called something derogatory because I declined to converse with a stranger.
I have never worried about being alone with a stranger of the opposite sex, for fear that I may be assaulted.
I have never been afraid of being called a slut based on the amount of my sexual partners.
I have never been told that my worth is directly tied to how physically attractive I am.
I have never been afraid that my partner won’t respect my “no”.
I have never worried about being raped. Ever.
Simply because of my gender.
This should seem so obvious, but its not. Simply because I’m a man, I have never been concerned about any of the above. This is a deeply, wholly, profoundly unjust culture that we live in. Worldwide, 1 in 3 women have experienced physical or sexual violence. Often these forms are intertwined. The women know this. They live this nightmare. But there is more that needs to be done.
Brothers, if we weren’t already awake, we need to rouse ourselves and pay attention. There is a world full of women who experience these traumas. Their value to us should not lie in the fact that they are our mothers, our sisters, our aunts, our wives. They are immensely valuable in their personhood in and of itself. They are not merely valuable in relation to a man. What must it be like to always have this fear hanging over you? To feel powerless? Scared? And worst of all, alone? We cannot tolerate this anymore. We cannot allow these injustices to continue.
But men, it starts with us. We must respect all “no”s. We must always, always, always honor consent. We must hold ourselves to a higher level of conduct. We must listen when women share their concerns. We must be silent when there is a topic that we know nothing about, so that we may internalize the message, learn from it, and help to solve the problem.
This culture helps to shape men such as Elliot Rodger. We can change that culture, together. We have to.
“Be a lamp, or a lifeboat, or a ladder. Help someone’s soul heal”- Rumi, 13th century Persian poet.
The Hebrew language is a beautiful one. It’s not considered one of the Romantic languages, but I think it can certainly hold its own with the eloquence and majesty of Italian, or even French. There’s an expression in Hebrew that’s been tumbling around in my head for a while: “Jehovah-Raphe”. The God who Heals. The Hebrew language has a staggering amount of names for God that describes his nature, but this one might be the most applicable to our daily experience. The God who Heals. The one who for whom love has no end, and his care for us is unparalleled.
God is with us when we suffer. He is with us when we cry out in pain. He is with us when we hurt so mightily that we feel like our hearts might explode from with crushing weight of our grief. He is with us in the loss. Sometimes all we can to is weep, and let him hold us because nothing in our lives seems to make sense anymore. He is in the difficulties. He is in the silence. God is with us.
We must take time to remind ourselves of this reality, for speaking this truth to ourselves and to others has meaning and significance beyond what we can imagine. For those of us who are in safe spaces, both physically and mentally, we must embody this safety to those who are not in a similar place of safety. There is no loss in this; there is only loss when we fail to extend this grace and this comfort to our brothers and sisters. In his book “Velvet Elvis”, Rob Bell reminds us that love, true love, has no hidden agenda. If it did, it wouldn’t really be true love after all. The idea that we offer encouragement or love with strings attached is unconscionable, from my perspective. Mostly because Jesus only gave love because he actually loved people. He was love. We should be compelled to do the same.
When we speak truth to power, as many philosophers, activists, and troublemakers have reminded us, we certainly assume a certain amount of risk, but simultaneously allow ourselves to be freed from convention, from a lack of critique, from mindless obedience. We pull ourselves out of the pit of mass acceptance, and begin to see with fresh eyes. This is a lesson I’ve learned extremely well over the past few months in regards to the issue of providing fully equality and essential human rights to members of the LGBTQ community. Unbeknownst to me at the time, the Church (certain denominations, that is) have drawn a line in the metaphorical sand over the issue. “You’re either for us, or against us”. You can be a Christian, or you can love gay and lesbian individuals. Apparently, there is no acceptable middle ground, no room for people who feel that it is in fact very Christlike indeed to extend basic acceptance and equality to a marginalized, oppressed minority. In part because that’s exactly what Christ himself modeled for his during his time on earth.
As a church body, we often fall into the trap of presenting a single, semi-unified position as the ultimate standard of expression, particularly when it comes to human sexuality. The status quo remains dominant as we hear from the pulpits week after week, month after month, year after year that there is only one way to go about loving one another in a committed, monogamous relationship. This single story narrative might perhaps work for some individuals, maybe even most, but if this narrative forces many of our brothers and sisters in Christ to the margins of our communities; it creates a severe sense of exclusion, and that is a genuine miscarriage of justice, I feel. Recently, I’ve had several believers make their case to me: “We all must die to the flesh”; “We’re all sinners, of course”; “Everyone needs grace”; “God’s standards are just really high!”. There’s nothing inherently wrong with these statements. They’re not explicitly violent, nor are they particularly hateful. But when we use these statement to create a sense of exclusion between us and those who may be different, we are once again missing the very crux of the Gospel. Above all else, we must embody love.
One of my friends recently summed up the issue rather eloquently, and their words capture the essence of this disagreement. They noted that when a straight individual disagrees with a gay individual on this issue, their words are inescapably hurtful since the gay individual simply wishes to be in possession of the exact same rights, privileges, and protection as any other citizen. This issue can no longer be a matter theological wrangling. This is an issue of justice, pure and simple. As a church, its high time that we come to see it as such, and begin working to create a more just, inclusive, and above all, loving society.
Seminary students aren’t supposed to say this. Pastors kids aren’t supposed to say it. Missionary kids aren’t supposed to say it. And if someone just so happens to be a combination of all three? Well. May the Lord have mercy on your soul, I suppose. The following, if you’re all or any of those above categories, is what you’re not supposed to say: Last night was the first time I had read the Bible in months. Actually opened a bible made from trees and glue and binding and read it. I read the entire chapter of Colossians 3. I didn’t make that selection for any particular reason, to be honest. It was fairly close to where I had left off several months ago. The chapter spoke highly of being the love of Christ to all who cross our paths, and how we are to worship him with our instruments of praise, and how all of his children are of one body, united through his spirit. Encouraging. Uplifting. Engaging. I felt safe while reading that.
Depending on who you ask, I’ve been in the wilderness for some time, or I’ve been on a “spiritual walkabout”, or I’m taking some time to go deeper into determining who God is, or (this is my favorite) I’m very “far from the Lord” and trying to find my way (its a very polite, church lady form of saying I’m probably not saved, unless I stop these theological meanderings). Again, it all depends on whom you ask. I’ve learned a very important lesson over these past few months: if you’ve decided to explore your faith on a more fundamental and spiritual level (or, for that matter, your lack of faith), you need to be ready for the fallout. Changing course mid-journey is seen as a bit blasphemous in certain religious circles, and becoming a professional Doubting Thomas is a bit frowned upon. If you ask the Evangelical gatekeepers, I’m a bit of a heretic. If you would ask a seminary professor, perhaps I’m a bit of a troublemaker. But if you ask a fellow sojourner? They’d smile knowingly, and tell you that I was just beginning my journey of searching for God. I’ve come to learn that the wilderness is eerie, but its freeing. Its terrifying, but its joyful. Nerve-wracking, but thrilling. The theological/spiritual wilderness I’ve been journeying through has taken me to some strange and wonderful places, but there is something that it has yet to do. It hasn’t taken me far from Jesus. I think its actually taken me closer. And that in and of itself is terrifying. But its worth it.
In the first book that he ever wrote, Rob Bell made a profound statement about how we search for, and (try to) understanding God. Who he was. Who he is. Who he will be: “Central to the Christian experience is the art of questioning God. Not belligerent, arrogant questions that have no respect for our maker, but naked, honest, vulnerable, raw questions, arising out of the awe that comes from engaging the living God. This type of questioning frees us”. Institutions, religious ones, never begin as mechanized organizations with the goal of self-preservation. They begin with leaders who inspire the people, inspire them to create a better system than the one they’ve got. I find nothing wrong with this, truly. But we need to ask ourselves some painful, achingly painful questions: if we can’t ask honest questions, and have our doubts, how authentic are we being? How transformational are we allowing ourselves to be? How revolutionary? How Christlike?
The wilderness is a wild place, and for good reason. It forces us to go far beyond what we’re comfortable with. It asks us to push ourselves harder than we’re accustomed to doing. The wilderness is where Jesus himself spent time, alone with the Father, meditating, praying, waiting. He knew that the wandering was important. From my experiences, I’ve come to the understanding that the Church pays lip services to the idea of critical thinking, to the questioning, to the wandering. If you start to ask certain questions, the tough ones, you’re permitted to inquire for a time. But after a while, you’re certainly expected to arrive at a pre-determined conclusion, a conclusion that was determined long before you even began to question anything. And therein lies the frustration. My frustration. For someone who strains against the boundaries, this is excruciatingly frustrating at times. But change will not happen externally. Change must come from within. It must come from those who love the church and the brothers and sisters within so much that they decide to stick around. To chafe against the outdated, outmoded, legalistic norms that have quite frankly choked the life out of so many churches for so many years. If you wish to create the change, to be the change, you must struggle. This is encouraging to me for one reason: those who hang in there and ride out the storm will most certainly be the men and women you want fighting alongside you. The battle scarred. The wounded. The survivors. They never stop fighting. I won’t either.
They say that the wilderness takes a toll on those who enter. Sometimes, people never leave. Or at least, they don’t return to the old way of being. They carve out a new sense of self, of serving, of being who Christ has asked them to be. Over the ages, the Church has fought to create a system of existence that is safe, predictable, and structured around a system that is self-sustaining. If you create “Jesus, Inc.”, there’s a measure of safety there. But there’s no real heart left. No burning passion to examine, to question, to embrace the unknowns and the mystery. Who God is, and was, and will be, cannot be placed into a box and neatly labeled. That’s not how God works.
The uncertainty is thrilling, ultimately. In our culture, it’s paradoxical to think about uncertainty being a healthy element in our lives. But Christ has called us to throw ourselves into the unknown, and to trust Him. To follow Him. Its a leap of faith, not having any answers to the burning questions of our time. But the grandest adventures are always built on a foundation of uncertainty.
Here’s to the explorers.
And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
and to walk humbly with your God.”
We are truly wonderful creatures. Spanning the millennia, our biblical tale tells of a creation from the dust of the earth. Being God-Breathed. Beings created from the mind of a God larger than what we can imagine. God created us in His imagine; our very selves becoming imbued, imprinted with a sense of the divine spirit, wonder, and passion. What a magnificent legacy we have been given. What a treasure.
As such creatures, we were given the capacity to feel a tremendous sense of affection, of beauty, of love. The heights of pleasure were within our grasp, and we were allowed to revel in the messy, wonderful, glorious, divine act of loving another human being so deeply with every fiber of our being that we ache with joy at the thought of it. To be fully open with our lovers, to be vulnerable in their gaze, and to be accepted into their embrace. There’s a majesty in this. There’s grace here. We are indescribably, incorrigibly connected to a sense of higher consciousness when we share in the act of connection with someone whom we love, whom we care for, and who returns the favor in spite of our flaws.
Oh, what an immeasurable treasure we have set before us. And yet, to know of love, to feel this sense of wonder, it’s never as easy as it may seem at first glance; sometimes, its not as straightforward as it should be. Even as these words are coming forth, its a comprehensive struggle to articulate both the majesty and the mess when we speak of love, and of creating spaces where loved is given, and received, and shared. There’s a film I love deeply, in which a young woman does an admirable job of summing up the difficulties in which we experience and struggle with this goal of understanding “togetherness”:
“I thought I understood it, that I could grasp it, but I didn’t, not really. Only the smudgeness of it; the pink-slippered, all-containered, semi-precious eagerness of it. I didn’t realize it would sometimes be more than whole, that the wholeness was a rather luxurious idea. Because it’s the halves that halve you in half. I didn’t know, don’t know, about the in-between bits; the gory bits of you, and the gory bits of me.”
It’s true, isn’t it? We work so hard to wrangle this sense of love to where we can get it under control, so we may study it and perhaps understand it fully. If we know something comprehensively, we no longer fear it. We’re no longer controlled by it. The tables are turned. If we can truly, absolutely grasp an idea, it no longer holds us captive. And yet, love is a temperamental beast, refusing to be tamed under any circumstances. Sometimes we can’t help but wonder: Has the Creator been playing a trick on us from the very beginning? We’ve been given a game to play, as we somehow stumble our way through seemingly made up rules that seem to create more problems than they solve.
This sense of the unknowable, the unexplained, is incredibly pervasive. As an institution, the Church cannot be faulted for wishing to control and tame the largely mercurial sense of “Love”. It cannot be blamed for wishing to create a sense of order within the vast, incredible spectrum that is human sexuality and sexual expression. When we look at Church efforts from an objective standpoint, we find a rather checkered history of our faith traditions performing the theological equivalent of holding water in a sieve. Even a cursory glance at expressions of love across time, cultures, and communities paint us a picture of human affection that can only truly be seen as a magnificent tapestry that grows more varied and beautiful by the day.
It behooves us to see the world through an objective lense. To have faith is a gift, one that believers are certainly blessed with, to be sure. Yet, when we look out into the world and see a wide array of experiences, we do others and ourselves a severe disservice when we attempt to pigeonhole individuals into a select number of predetermined categories based on harmful interpretations of scriptural dictates. This practice is what I’ve come to think of as “The Danger of a Single Narrative”, and I’ve had the displeasure of seeing many lives, lives belonging to people I know and love, harmed or ruined in many damaging ways because the sexual expression or sexual identity of these people didn’t fit the pre-determined theological mould. Even though we know the tapestry of human sexuality is woven with a wide variety of fibers, most of our religious institutions seem quite fixed on maintaining a single narrative, one which many of us know by heart (“Boy meets girl. Courts girl. Proposes to girl. Girl accepts, and they begin a live of sexual and emotional monogamy for the rest of their lives”).
Does the above “fairy tale” work for some people? Sure, perhaps a moderate number. But what about the teenagers who struggle with determining where they fall on the gender spectrum? What about the girls who were sexually assaulted and told they were no longer “pure”? What about the men and women who feel miserable in their marriages but think that there’s no solution to their marital dilemmas? A huge number of people simply do not fit neatly, or fit at all, into the single story narrative. These people feel as if, based on their past experiences, the Church holds no place for them, and I can’t really blame them for thinking that.
We need to write a new story. As a faith community, we need to create safer spaces to discuss issues pertaining to sexuality in a non-judgmental and open manner. We need to instill a norm so that women who are assaulted recognize that they did nothing wrong and there’s nothing that can ever make them “impure” because of what was done to them. Better yet, we need to create a culture of consent, and teach this to all young people in the Church. We need the church to be a welcoming space for those who don’t adhere to a gender binary. We need our community to be an encouraging place for those with a different variety of sexual orientation, so that they can understand the truth that God created them as beautiful creatures in His image, and that their desires are not deviant inclinations. We certainly need to stop proclaiming such damaging falsehoods from our pulpits.
If there was any impression given that the author has the solutions, allow me to disabuse you of that notion. I might have a few ideas of where we can start to fix the mess we’re in, but it truly takes a village to continue working on the process of reconciliation. In regards to sexuality as a whole, the Church has horribly failed some of its members, many of whom will never return, and those who do, do so with a guarded heart, unsure of how honest they can be. Above all, we need to ask for forgiveness. Oh, we must do that first and foremost. And this is the true message of the Gospel that covers this issue so neatly: we fail. Stumble. Commit error. Christ forgives. We are humbled. We move on. We grow.
For those who are reading this and have been irreparably hurt by someone in the church family, I am so very sorry. You have every right to be angry. If you want nothing to do with faith, I understand, and I do not fault you. I’m sorry.
For those who are reading this and have not been hurt in such a way, and are committed to a gospel of compassion and reconciliation, join me in doing everything we can to create a church so that the person mentioned above feels safe, cared for, and unconditionally loved by the Church.
Is this going to be really hard? Yes. Is it radical, this notion of unconditional acceptance and love? Absolutely. But may we always remember that every radical action we take in the name of love, kindness, and mercy is a direct manifestation of Christ our Lord. What a gift. What a magnificent, healing, restorative gift.