I wrote this reflection a little over month ago. At the time, I was pretty amped up after reading Rachael Denhollander’s book “What is a Girl Worth?” and by engaging in conversations about women’s ordination at my church. I felt like I needed to give myself some emotional space before posting what I’d written. Now, I’ve had some time to de-escalate, and I still think it’s worth sharing…
Imagine you have been taught that men are not safe. If you are a woman, you probably don’t have to imagine. You probably heard this talk just as many times as I did—always park your car by a light pole when it’s after dark. Make sure to find your keys before you go back out to the parking lot so you’ll be alert and aware of what is happening around you as you get into your car. If you’re not alert, you are vulnerable.
My training in self-protection went way beyond stranger danger. I learned that no one gets a pass, not the guys at church, not even my own extended family. My sisters and I didn’t go to Sunday School when we visited churches. We didn’t sleep over at my cousins’ house. We never had a male babysitter. In our family, required reading included a book titled, “The Gift of Fear: Survival Signals that Protect Us from Violence.”
In my experience, all that caution has been validated. In a small way, it has been validated by #metoo and the stream of headlines featuring disgraced pastors, political figures, and others who succumbed to sexual temptation or participated in systems that protected abusers. But it was also validated by a friend at college who repeatedly left his secret camera in my small group leader’s bathroom and posted the video footage on porn sites. Do you wonder if you are being filmed every time you use a bathroom that isn’t your own? For years, I did.
You know the feeling of driving towards an intersection on an icy day, and suddenly losing control of your car? Your antilock breaks start pumping, and all you can think is—”I am not in control of this vehicle.” Sexual objectification feels a lot like that panic—it’s as if you’ve lost control of what is happening to your body. Anyone can think, or film, or do what they want to it without your consent, or even your knowledge. That story about the camera is the one I keep repeating here because it is already so public. Unfortunately, I can tell so many stories.
As I have watched the women I love most dearly wrestle with the ongoing trauma of sexual violation, I have chosen to mistrust men. I know it’s not fair, but, for me, it’s a form of self-defense.
I wasn’t always so mistrusting though. As a kid, I was trained in “Biblical Femininity.” I learned by observation and study that only a man can practice spiritual authority at an official church leadership level. Only a man can pass the communion plate as an usher. Only a man can lead the prayers during a worship service. Only a man can preach a sermon. As a kid, I surmised that my role as a woman would be defined by quiet submission to my father, my husband, my pastor, my elders, and—according to some hyper-conservative literature I read—to all men. And I embraced my role. As late as my senior year in high school, I wrote in my journal that—for biblical reasons—I felt uncomfortable with the idea of voting for a female presidential candidate.
As I aligned myself with this stifling version of femininity, I determined to submit myself to a myriad of male shepherds. And all the while, I dressed to protect myself from the lustful gaze of those very same men because they taught me that my body was dangerous to them. A stumbling block. A temptation. A commodity.
Submission to men will never make sense if you believe that men are fundamentally unsafe. Submission and danger can’t be compatible unless you decide to treat your body like a liability. That’s where I was at in college—and it led to spiraling questions about my value. As I realized I would never be able to protect myself, and as I returned to the Biblical passages that had always been interpreted as barring me from making certain kinds of vocational contributions to God’s kingdom, I started wonder—does God really care about me? Does he think that I have something to offer the church? Do I really count in God’s eyes? Does God listen to me? What if I’m not important to him?
If I get animated when discussing “Biblical femininity” or women’s ordination, it is because I feel like a value statement is being made about me even when I know it’s unintentional.
When I talk about women’s roles, I often have to walk away and remind myself that I am a full partaker in God’s grace. Jesus values me. I return over and over to the gospel stories of Jesus’ kindness to vulnerable women, and to his harsh judgments on those who violate them. I remember that he died for me. And, he didn’t die to save me from my body. He promises to resurrect it. That tells me that my body, not just my soul, is valuable to Jesus. He doesn’t look at my female body and see a liability or a threat. My female body comes with me into the kingdom because Jesus wants it there—and somehow, that is a great comfort to me.
What does all that mean for safety and submission? I still don’t know…