When the Pepper Hamilton summary report was released revealing major failures by Baylor University to comply with Title IX requirements, I read the entire document and was not at all surprised with its findings. It’s not that I thought Baylor was a terrible place. I love Baylor. I enjoyed seminary at Baylor. I continue to befriend faculty members whom I respect and admire.
I was not surprised to learn the extent of Baylor’s mishandling of sexual assault cases, however, because I have been a Christian feminist among Baptists in Texas for some time, and I am well aware of the culture that makes such egregious offenses (both the assaults themselves and the lack of appropriate response) not only possible but also prevalent and systemic. This is by no means a “Baylor” confined issue or a distinctly Baptist problem. One in four women across the nation experience sexual assault during college. (While it is important to remember that men experience assault too, women undeniably make up a majority of the victims.) We have a national epidemic on our hands.
But now that violence against women is hitting so close to home in undeniable ways, I want to make this comment on behalf of my fellow Baptist feminists: We weren’t crying wolf.
We have been trying to make it clear for ages that sexism is alive and well in our society and in our churches, and that sexism is not a mere annoyance to especially ambitious women or a false accusation women throw around because we are hormonal. Sexism is a serious danger to women, as well as to men (who end up with distorted ideas and standards of masculinity, which is harmful in a number of ways and in some cases fosters irrational violence). The findings of fact reported by the board of regents states, “Baylor failed to consider patterns, trends or climate-related concerns that would enable the University to take prompt and responsive action to individual and community concerns,” which included “insufficient training and attention to sexual and gender-based harassment and violence …” (pages 8-9).
I know that no one likes to hear the phrase, “We told you so,” and believe me, I derive no pleasure from the way these recent and horrifying events at Baylor confirm what we feminists have been saying for years. I speak up, however, because I fear that if we don’t draw the connections between what has happened at Baylor and the unrelenting persistence of sexism in Baptist life, then most of us outside of Briles and Starr will be let off the hook. We won’t have to face our own culpability in creating, sustaining and preserving a culture that relegates women to a second-class status, thus making it possible to view women as property for the taking. We have made it easy to prioritize athletic success over justice and safety. We have made it commonplace in Baptist life to dismiss women’s voices — whether they say, “I am called to preach,” or “Help, I’m being violated,” or “No, I don’t want to have sex with you.”
Women still make up less than 1 percent of Baptist pastors in Texas. Less than 1 percent! In 2010, women as senior pastors or co-pastors made up a mere 0.199 percent of Baptist pastors in the Baptist General Convention of Texas, and the numbers have barely budged since then. By contrast, women make up about 30 percent of pastors in mainline denominations, and in the Alliance of Baptists, 31 percent. American Baptists have 9.4 percent female pastors, and in the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, a denominational convention that cited “support of women in ministry” as one of its founding platforms, has 5 percent female pastors.
I have been saying for a long time that the lack of women in leadership and violence against women are intrinsically connected. In my sermon at the Texas Baptist Women in Ministry Conference in February 2015, I said to the many women in the room called by God to be ministers:
Sexism is toxic, not only because it pushes you and me out of the pulpit, but because it twists the beauty of the gospel ministry into a power clash between genders rather than allowing it to be an open-armed, no holds barred proclamation of the love of Christ that is for everyone.
The same thread of sexism runs through all forms of oppression. The same evil that trafficks girls for sex is the same evil that keeps you silent. It is the same pernicious lie of inequality keeping you small that is keeping some men addicted to aggression and power.
Which means that when you stand in the pulpit, you are defying the degradation of women’s bodies in the bedroom. When you stand up and speak, you are opposing the lie that a woman who does not obey deserves to be beaten. When you use your voice, you are giving a vulnerable girl a real-life example of how to stand up for herself. When you choose to be a full person in the world, rather than a subservient people-pleaser, you are confronting the powers that would sell your sister into slavery without a second thought as to her humanity. It is all connected.
It is not only right to use our voices; it is our duty. It is not just our prerogative; it is our calling.
Baylor’s George W. Truett Theological Seminary, my alma mater, the place that loved me and supported me in my calling to become a minister, has only two female faculty out of 21 faculty members (and only two non-white faculty). Interestingly, recent attempts at Baylor to hire a chief diversity officer were opposed by a group of faculty. One professor was dismissive of the need for more diversity at Baylor, claiming that it was a “movement that aims to root out ‘unconscious,’ ‘implicit,’ or ‘similarity’ bias and other such under-the-radar offenses. Only in the contemporary world can we at once be unconscious of our actions and yet morally culpable for them,” as if in days gone by ignorance and lack of awareness somehow preserved our morality. You’re not guilty as long as you don’t know, right?
Meanwhile, the Pepper Hamilton findings report that the approach of Baylor’s judicial affairs “was not trauma-informed. … The investigations reviewed were wholly inadequate to fairly and reliably evaluate whether sexual violence had occurred. While individual administrators sought professional training opportunities, they were not adequately trained in the dynamics of sexual and gender-based harassment and violence, dating violence, domestic violence, stalking, the neurobiological impacts of trauma, the evaluation of credibility, consent and the role of alcohol as it relates to consent and alcohol-facilitated sexual assault. In addition, the investigations were conducted in the context of a broader culture and belief by many administrators that sexual violence ‘doesn’t happen here.’ Administrators engaged in conduct that could be perceived as victim-blaming, focusing on the complainant’s choices and actions, rather than robustly investigating the allegations, including the actions of the respondent” (pages 7-8).
I am not suggesting that more women in leadership will single-handedly solve the problem. In fact, sometimes women in leadership perpetuate the sexist environments in which they work. A female professor wrote the quote I cited above questioning the reality of “unconscious bias.”
What I am saying is that when we do not advocate for women in leadership in all areas of life, we are sending the message loud and clear that women’s voices are of secondary value at best, unwanted and justifiably dismissed at worst. When we’ve barred women from the pulpit regardless of how passionately they tell us they are called, we should not be shocked when some of our sons do not regard a woman’s sexual consent as necessary either. We have taught our sons and our daughters that women do not really know what they want, that their opinions are invalid, and that their voices are not worth hearing. It should not surprise us that administrators reportedly engaged in victim blaming. We’ve been blaming Eve since the beginning of time, and we have not yet repented of our slander. We have taught ourselves to ignore the voices, stories, and desires of women, and such rejection of any woman’s inherent worth and equality leads to devastating results. Baylor’s own scandal is no exception. Women have been burned at the stake, ravaged by men and used as property for centuries.
It’s time we stop calling feminism a dirty word. Feminism is the reason women now have the right to vote and the right to own property, but in an illogical sort of betrayal, there are women who benefit from the accomplishments of feminism while disparaging its ongoing work. When feminism attempts to point out the inequalities and injustices that still exist, it is accused of crying wolf. How much devastation will it take before we are willing to listen, to consider that perhaps we have not done enough to take seriously the concerns of those who have been telling us for years there is a serious problem?
Christian feminism was and still is a prophetic voice crying out in the wilderness, challenging the status quo, naming legitimate sins, and warning of impending doom if we do not instigate widespread societal change. Feminism is not an irrelevant voice in modern society — violence against women is startling proof that sexism is alive and well. Feminism is not a cultural accommodation; it is the call for equality, fair treatment and respect for all persons. Feminism is, at its core, a Christ-like approach to all humanity.
One of the oldest Christian practices is that of repentance. Before the word “Christian” was even coined, John the Baptist was out in the wilderness, calling God’s people to repentance. He was out on the fringe of society, away from the power structures, and many people thought he was crazy, but the ones who listened to his uncomfortable message were changed. That is what repentance is — change. In Greek, the word “repent,” or metanoia, means to “turn around.” It’s not about feeling sorry or wallowing in guilt. It is about being transformed. Repentance, therefore, is incredibly hopeful — it means new life is rising up from the turbulent waters.
It is past time for Baptists to repent and change the tide of sexism. Fortunately for Baptists, God always accepts latecomers. But let’s not keep God waiting any longer, shall we? Why should we tarry when Jesus is pleading? Sinner, O sinner, come home.
2 Chronicles 7:14: “If my people, who are called by my name will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land.”