My Sister’s Keeper: A Response to Sarah Bessey’s “Jesus Feminist”

 There’s something redemptive about a man affirming the worth of a woman.

I love the way Greg Laswell reinterpreted Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Want to Have Fun.” He stripped away the pop song to reveal the pain hidden within the lyrics. And as he says in the video, it’s a sad song. It’s the pain of a broken woman.

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Sarah Bessey’s Jesus Feminist is like having a conversation with a bosom friend as Anne Shirley would say. I love deep discussions that tackle how theology impacts our daily lives. And that’s what I love about Jesus Feminist. Sarah provides a safe and friendly space to discuss a heated topic. It’s a work of bridge building, and I enthusiastically support those kinds of efforts. We need to be respectfully challenged. Christians may disagree on a woman’s role in the church, but we all can learn from Sarah’s fantastic insights.

 

jesus feminist by sarah bessey

 

When I look at scripture, I see some amazing, countercultural women (Bessey does a great job at examining these mighty ladies of God). Just look at the very first woman, Eve. Made from man, but not designed to be less than Adam. She wasn’t property or a slave. Eve was uniquely designed as a helper. All the rest of creation was unfit to work alongside Adam, but Eve was the perfect pairing—and made community possible.

 

This beautiful community we find in Eden makes me question patriarchy. The curse of the fall required women to be ruled by men. And women in God’s kingdom were given a domestic role in a physical kingdom to ensure Israel survived. But Christianity is no longer a physical empire. It does not grow through sexual reproduction, but through spiritual conversion. The New Testament esteems women as women. They were given amazing rights and privileges that were unheard of during the Roman Empire. Scripture declares that men and women are equal and co-heirs in Christ, echoing back to our status in Eden. Women regain their pre-fallen role of helpers in God’s kingdom and Christianity is far stronger and more effective when both voices work together to bring about shalom—the prospering and redemption of creation.

 

How this works out in the church remains controversial. For minorities, we sometimes feel left with scraps and crumbs–with no voice and no role in the church. Straight men largely determine scriptural interpretation. I don’t want to jump into the other ditch and hate on men, but I am saying straight men have a lot of privileges. As depraved human beings, we don’t handle privileges very well. We’re selfish, greedy, power-hungry, and forgetful. It makes some Christians into jerks. And there’s nothing worse than a jerk who thinks he’s doing God a service.

 

Back when I was a preteen, my denomination was falling apart over the issue of evangelism. Hyper-Calvinists in our churches didn’t believe we should send missionaries to foreign countries. They said it wasn’t scriptural or in keeping with our denomination’s traditions (more of the latter). My church was undecided. But that changed when a woman wrote the pastor. Her letter was reasonable and outlined her beliefs why she believed scripture supported evangelism. It outraged the pastor. He brought the letter to church and showed everyone. Evangelism wasn’t one of our traditions, and neither were women who wrote to their pastors. One woman’s courage was partly responsible for the formation of a new church that enthusiastically supported missionaries.

 

As I’ve grown up in the church, I’ve come across other things that bothered me. I’ve heard a decent amount of crap about women in the pulpit. One time a pastor exhorted women to keep their husbands from stumbling into lust or adultery by giving their men more sex. I walked out. Women often take the blame for a man’s lack of self-control. There’s the sermons on gender roles, “biblical womanhood” and biblical manhood” which supposedly free us, but often enslave men and women in shackles of shame for not meeting up to their pastor’s standards. And as a gay man, I’ve found a lot of sermons on homosexuality to be utterly unhelpful and offensive. I don’t envy pastors. They have a tough job studying scripture to discern what God is telling us today. But sometimes pastors can be presumptuous and arrogant. They take scripture and form their own theories in a void separate of real people and real life. In my experience, most conservatives stick with their own kind and create their own assumptions about those outside the fold.

 

But sometimes the outsiders you fear are right here; in your pew. That intelligent, free-spirited girl that struggles to keep her mouth shut to make you happy. That kind but distant gay guy who doesn’t know how to participate outside the straight paradigm. You think you know them. But they aren’t free to be known in your congregation.

 

woman in church

photo courtesy of flickr creative commons, user nealebc3

 

Being one of those inside-outsiders, I can say some of those pastoral assumptions wound the soul and take a long time to heal. I’ve become defensive around pastors. Walls fortify my heart; mental filters protect me from anything that might potentially hurt. But a Christian can’t really grow in that kind of environment—LGBT or straight woman. We can’t learn, we just stagnate in bitterness and hide wounds that fester. We need a safe place of vulnerability to God’s Spirit of conviction, because as the old hymn says, we are prone to wander from the God we love. And it’s far easier to wander when you’re alone.

 

Reading Jesus Feminist was a reminder that, yes, I am my brother’s keeper. But I’m also my sister’s keeper. And my sisters, we your brothers have failed you over and over. Men have patronized you, assuming you weren’t smart enough to sit at the table. Or they were so intimidated by your intelligence that they pushed you out. Men have reduced your worth to your beauty and objectified you. Or they made you feel worthless because they didn’t deem you worth a second look. They built a standard no woman could keep up. Men come up with silly ideas that they want respect and women want love. Why can’t you have both? They want to feel powerful, and they don’t like it when you show strength. Your strength is beautiful, because your strength is from the Lord. Not from an immature muscle-man.

 

No, girls. You haven’t been the fortunate ones. Men will take a beautiful girl and hide her, silence her, from the rest of the world. All you wanted was the freedom to feel the warmth of the sun. The freedom to know you matter without a man. The freedom to know you equally reflect God’s image to the world. The freedom to laugh, run, feel, speak in all the beauty of God’s kingdom. To know you belong.

 

I may be one man, but this man is reminding you this: You aren’t alone. I’m taking this journey with you. And you belong, my sisters.

 

If you’re interested in learning more about Jesus Feminist, Sarah Bessey also blogs here.

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Discovering Shame

Photo by Reggie Tiongco at Creationswap

Shame is an ugly emotion. It runs deep in the soul, whispering words of self-hatred, a script continuously running through our minds. It tells us we are not enough—not attractive enough, not smart enough, not witty enough, not funny enough. While we feel guilty for what we do, shame afflicts us for who we are—personality and appearance. We’re all a little ashamed, trying to cover up the parts of our being that we think others don’t like. We hide ourselves–afraid to be naked emotionally and found lacking like Adam and Eve in the garden.

 

There was a time I didn’t feel quite as self-aware. I fit the description of an oldest child. Bossy, always with something to say. I played with both my brothers and my sisters without feeling out of place. My parents thought my gender atypical behavior was just a phase. They didn’t shame me and I didn’t feel weird. I lived in a bubble separate from the real world.

 

My first experience outside my sheltered life came through Boy Scouts. I enjoyed it, finally around other boys my age. I made my first best friend, Charles–a boy with glasses, an inferiority complex, and an obnoxious sense of humor. I didn’t care. I had a best friend and we hung out all the time. I felt so cool finally having a friend. I told him everything, and by everything. I mean everything. I didn’t realize some things in my life needed to be kept secret. I knew I was different from other boys, but I was a happy kid who believed in a world filled with nice people who wouldn’t care. And while Charles knew about my effeminate interests, he never said anything as long as I did boy stuff with him.

 

The friendship lasted a couple of years. I didn’t analyze relationships back then, but I thought we had a good friendship. Charles didn’t have friends at his school, so I guess he didn’t have many options. We went to a Boy Scout camp alone with our troop one year. My childhood experience in the real world teetered near its conclusion.

 

I didn’t realize all the boys were pressured to be seen as straight. We still had a few years until puberty. I was still clueless about homosexuality. I’m sure I heard the word gay that week, but it didn’t click with my sheltered comprehension. The boys talked about girls. They made jokes about breasts. I felt disgusted—what a bunch of perverts. I didn’t get it. My parents hadn’t seen the need to tell me about the birds and the bees yet. I wouldn’t figure out where babies came from until I saw a news snippet about a birth control pill a few years later—and that was a scary realization. Lying on one of the bunks, all the jokes and shadow puppets of large breasts were lost on this confused boy.

 

My innocent childhood ended on a Thursday. The air was stifling, the food sucked, and all the boys were tired. Charles snapped at me when I tried to talk to him. Or he ignored me. The week had bonded him with the other boys. Being a good natured kid, I shrugged it off. We finished up a game of basketball in the afternoon. It was time for the next activity and we started down a path to its location. Charles ran ahead to the other boys while I fell behind lost in my imagination. The boys were looking back at me and laughing. I smiled back not knowing what was going on.

“He really plays with Barbies?”

“Oh yeah! And his favorite color is pink. He’s so girly.”

They looked at me like ravenous wolves. I felt exposed. An emotion burned in me that I had never felt before. I felt sick. I felt betrayed. I clenched my fists and ran up to Charles, shoving him.

“SHUT UP!!!!”

The boys laughed.

“Girly-girl! Girly girl!”

They wouldn’t shut up. Charles taunted me, tearing me down to build himself up, my own Brutus or Judas Iscariot. Tears were streaming down my face. They loved that. I turned to the Eagle Scout who was supervising us. He looked utterly lost.

“Make them shut up!” I yelled at him, begged him. But he said nothing.

 

I turned back to the cruel, gleeful faces in front of me, and then I saw a path that went back to our camp. I ran. I ran with tears stinging my eyes as trees and shrubs blurred by. The taunts and laughing faded to the sound of my breath entering and exiting my lungs. My heart thumped loudly threating to burst. I didn’t see the stump in the middle of the path. I fell among the roots and rocks, scraping the skin off my knee. I didn’t get up. I just lay there sobbing in the dirt while blood ran down my shin. Alone. I was alone out in the middle of nowhere. Wanting someone to tell me I was ok. The woods remained silent to my tears and screams. I had seen the real world. I didn’t belong in it. And I wanted to die. I had never felt that feeling before either. It would stay with me throughout the rest of my youth.

 

The Scout leader called my parents and they took me home early. I never went back. I didn’t tell my parents what happened and they didn’t understand why I wanted to give it up, but they didn’t argue. And that was that. No more Boy Scouts, no more Charles. But hello self-hatred, secrets, and isolation.

 

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That silly, bossy boy had transformed into a quiet, depressed, and insecure young man. I didn’t speak back. I mostly smiled back in response because I usually didn’t know what to say. I had become the meek and weak nice guy. And a co-worker discovered he could bully me and I wouldn’t fight back. I had taught myself that I couldn’t take care of myself.

 

I don’t remember how or why it began, but he began to joke about my skinniness. And one night he grabbed my butt. The act wasn’t sexual. It was threatening—a cruel joke.

 

“You got a flat ass. Women don’t want that.”

 

I couldn’t believe what he had done. But I didn’t think anyone would believe me if I told them. I worried what people would think, so I didn’t stand up to him. And he continued grabbing me, laughing every time I would frown and do nothing.

 

I told myself it wasn’t a big deal. He was just being immature. I justified what he did, even though it made me uncomfortable and physically sick. I became more depressed. I didn’t feel like a man, just a coward. And I hated myself every time he touched me. It reinforced every insecurity I had about my body.

 

He didn’t stop until my younger brother (who worked with me) caught him grabbing me. Later when he irritated one of our female co-workers, my brother blew up. He knocked the guy to the ground. The co-worker stopped grabbing my butt after that. Hurray for brothers who know karate.

 

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It’s very hard to share these two stories. They embarrass me. So much in fact, that I’ve never really verbalized them to anyone, at least not in as much detail. These experiences both shaped and reinforced how I perceive myself. They influenced how I relate to others, the clinginess and the walls that separate me from others. I’m still paranoid about other people. I don’t trust anyone. I expect to be hurt and disappointed. And I create many, many self-fulfilling prophecies. But I also pursue people hoping they will prove me wrong.

 

I realize these two incidents could never compare to the constant bullying and abuse that many LGBTQ youth experience on a regular basis. As damaging as these moments of bullying and sexual abuse were to my spirit, I have been blessed with a loving family and friends who have patiently walked with me through my flaws and brokenness. I grieve for those who have been traumatized and have not yet found the support system that has formed around me as I’ve grown up. I believe there’s one out there for each of us if we’ll fight for one and have faith that God will provide it. It’s so sad when many are damaged by the very churches that should be their refuge.

 

It’s been nearly 20 years since I was that hurting boy lying on the forest path. I’ve tried to bury him, to kill him, to forget he ever existed. He represents everything I dislike about myself. But it’s ridiculous to hate myself for incidents that were not my fault. My spirit broke that day, but God is redeeming my story. As Christ sanctifies me, molding me in His likeness, I’m actually finding more of myself under the clutter of my baggage. I’m finding my courage, and I’m finding room to thrive in God’s kingdom. I’m building self-efficacy in a community of people who confront the negative script in my head. There is love here, the love I’ve always craved but didn’t feel worthy to own. No, I’m not like the other boys, but I belong here. No matter what they say or what they do, I belong in this world as long God wants me to participate.

 

And if you tell me I have a flat butt, watch yourself, man.