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Turn around and walk against the system of sexism in the Church

Unfortunately, and tragically, the news released earlier this month about sexual violence in Baptist life was not surprising. My mentor and our social work school’s namesake, Diana Garland, was telling these stories at least a decade ago. Yet, the news was still heartbreaking. It provoked anger – in my house, in my church and in my school. It re-surfaced trauma and reminded us of so much pain lived and experienced, still, by far too many in our immediate circle of friends and family.

This story is not just close to home, it is a part of our home. This pain and anguish wreaks havoc on the safety and security of what home is supposed to be. This story hits home because it is in the walls of almost every church of which my wife and I have been a part. In fact, I can only think of a couple of churches where sexual abuse and its tragic and traumatic aftermath has not been a part (at least not that I know of, which in itself is part of the problem). But, to be clear, the violence of sexual abuse and assault is not merely in the church’s walls or the steeple, but, as the children’s rhyme goes, it lives inside the doors among all the people.

All of God’s people are affected by this problem because the problem of sexual violence is grounded in a pervasive system of sexist Christian culture and theology. We see its violence impact the lives of boys and girls. It impacts women and also men. We have seen its effects described as an “affair.”  We soften it with references to “misconduct.” We know the abuse and violence is so much more than that.

“When we perpetuate an ideology of a theology, a hierarchy where God is over men and men are over women, then the power men assume is problematic at best.”

The violence of sexual abuse takes root in a far too common, but outdated and misinterpreted “biblical” theology with flawed, often implicit, assumptions about power, privilege and position. God may be omnipotent, and the sacred texts may primarily describe God as male, but there is no good reason, biblically, theologically or socially, to ascribe or assign any semblance of power to men more than women. When we perpetuate an ideology of a theology, a hierarchy where God is over men and men are over women, then the power men assume is problematic at best. The privilege granted to, or assumed by men bears unearned and undeserved advantages, and the positions where men “serve as pastor” in more than 90 percent of Baptist churches allows and perpetuates not only misguided beliefs about the power of men and boys, but the powerlessness of women and girls.

To assume any references to “humble service” stating that men, claiming to be like Christ, submit to the church in humility is part of the problem. In far too many churches, we hear the language of humility and service, and then see and experience control, manipulation, violence and oppression of women by men. And the larger denominational bodies have not done enough to overcome the power wielded by men and our sexist theologies where toxic masculinity is exacerbated.

Beverly Daniel Tatum, in Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria, teaches that we are living on a moving walkway of institutional racism where most of us aspiring non-racists are still benefiting from a racist culture moving us through racist systems. We may at times turn around, and look back, but we are still moving in the wrong direction. In order to participate in working for change, we must turn around and walk the other way, against the crowd, and against the flow of culture.

Without denying the power, privilege and positionality I experience by my whiteness, I know I experience as much in my maleness. And without minimizing the power of Tatum’s metaphor for understanding race and racism, I wonder about its truth in regard to sex, gender, and sexism.

We live and worship in religious systems that function like a moving walkway of institutional sexism. Most of us nonsexist people are still benefitting from a sexist culture moving us through sexist systems. Men and women alike are moving down these walkways in churches that sustain teachings where men only teach men, where only men serve as elders, deacons and ministers, and where our women and girls are not only denied opportunities, but rights, as fully equal and empowered children of God.

“If you do not see the ways you are moving on the walkways of racism and sexism, then you are either benefitting from this system or denying the power it has and the violence it perpetuates.”

We may at times turn around, but are still moving in the wrong direction. In order to participate in anything less than a sexist Christianity, in order to work for change, we must turn around and walk the other way, against the crowd and against the flow of culture.

Our churches, with their violence rooted in sexism and sexual abuse, are firmly rooted in these moving walkways. The dominant culture of Christianity reinforces and is reinforced by this system. We will not see change with anything less than a radical departure and grounding in a genuine alternative Christian theology. And just such a theology is available – and is just as biblical – despite the ways the powers that be deny it.

Forty years ago, Virgina Ramey Mollenkott; 30 years ago, Letty Russell; 20 years ago, Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza; 10 years ago, Anne Clifford – each authored profound writing in feminist theology (we must move past our fear of this word).  In addition, womanist (African American) perspectives provide moving authors such as Stephanie Mitchem, Emilie Townes, Renita Weems, Kelly Brown Douglas and Delores Williams. Mujerista (Latina) voices include Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz, Maria Pilar Aquino, Daisy Machado and Jeanette Rodriguez.

These female voices present a wide range of views of who God is, how God loves and what God offers and calls us to be. They support elements of tradition and history while offering interpretations of scripture and experience that move us forward.  We can no longer decry or denounce these voices as being only liberal, angry or hurt. While those experiences exist, and are justified, there are also voices of hope, healing and grace.

Any Christian system that denies these voices, any seminary that refuses them, any pastor not reading them, any church unfamiliar with them continues to move forward on the system of sexism that at best disempowers women and girls and at worst perpetuates the violence that results in lasting effects of trauma and pain.

“We can no longer decry or denounce these voices as being only liberal, angry or hurt.”

It is not enough to believe you or your church are different. If you do not see the ways you are moving on the walkways of racism and sexism, then you are either benefitting from this system or denying the power it has and the violence it perpetuates. If your church leaders are not honest about it, able to describe it and moving against it, then they are moving with it, benefitting from it and furthering its painful effects.

With the reality of the traumatic experiences reported in recent weeks, months and years, there is no denying these things. Baptists are entrenched in this system, contributing to its effects in the most harmful of ways. The extent of the problem has been exposed in the recent Abuse of Faith series published by the Houston Chronicle.

Encouragingly, there are Baptists working tirelessly to change the system, including a Cooperative Baptist Fellowship Task Force.  Visit cbf.net/safechurches to obtain Taskforce resources to help your church. David Pooler has continued and expanded the research of Diana Garland, with support from the Grant Me the Wisdom Foundation. The research and additional resources are available on the Garland School website.

We can no longer deny the pervasiveness, the insidiousness and the urgency of this problem. Neither can we ignore the resources available to us as followers of Jesus. It is time that we join the voices and actions of others to make a difference. It is time to turn around.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is one of several opinion articles to be published by Baptist News Global in response to the Houston Chronicle’s investigative series.

Previously published commentary:

Peggy Haymes | The national conversation about sexual abuse by Baptist clergy is important. But it doesn’t go far enough

Alan Bean | Clergy sex scandal proves Dale Moody was right about ‘once-saved-always-saved’ as a dangerous heresy