Saturday, June 28, 2014

N. T. Wright's Complementarianism

[Cross-posted from Bible Literature Translation]

There has been a lot of talk in the blogosphere about the Interview with N. T. Wright on First Things on the subject of sexuality.  N. T. (Tom) Wright is, as this website puts it, "Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at the University of St Andrews, Scotland, and was formerly Bishop of Durham in England." I have read several of his books and lectures and have found him to be in general an articulate scholar and a convincing writer on Christianity and the Bible.

The interview linked above is a portion of a longer interview, and it focuses on Wright's (negative) views on gay marriage.  The puzzling thing about the interview is how it departs from Wright's usual reasoned discourse to compare those who believe marriage can and should be extended to same-sex couples, to Nazis and Stalinists.  This is not the kind of approach I'm used to reading from a man I highly respect.  Several other blogs, such as Sarah Over the Moon and Slacktivist, have taken issue with this approach.* Several posts at Bible Literature Translation, such as this one by Suzanne McCarthy and this one by J. K. Gayle, have focused on some of the implications of Wright's thinking, focusing in particular on this quote from the interview:
With Christian or Jewish presuppositions, or indeed Muslim, then if you believe in what it says in Genesis 1 about God making heaven and earth—and the binaries in Genesis are so important—that heaven and earth, and sea and dry land, and so on and so on, and you end up with male and female. It’s all about God making complementary pairs which are meant to work together. The last scene in the Bible is the new heaven and the new earth, and the symbol for that is the marriage of Christ and his church. It’s not just one or two verses here and there which say this or that. It’s an entire narrative which works with this complementarity so that a male-plus-female marriage is a signpost or a signal about the goodness of the original creation and God’s intention for the eventual new heavens and new earth.
This paragraph from Wright's book Surprised by Hope is also appropos:
Heaven and earth, it seems, are not after all poles apart, needing to be separated for ever when all the children of heaven have been rescued from this wicked earth. Nor are they simply different ways of looking at the same thing, as would be implied by some kinds of pantheism. No: they are different, radically different; but they are made for each other in the same way (Revelation is suggesting) as male and female. And, when they finally come together, that will be cause for rejoicing in the same way that a wedding is: a creational sign that God’s project is going forwards; that opposite poles within creation are made for union, not competition; that love and not hate have the last word in the universe; that fruitfulness and not sterility is God’s will for creation.
Wright's views against same-sex marriage, then, are rooted in his insistence that the very meaning of marriage is about male and female-- and that men and women, males and females, themselves are representative of something larger, some overarching pattern of complementary binaries in God's plan for creation and re-creation, and there can be no deviations from that pattern:
If you say that marriage now means something which would allow other such configurations, what you’re saying is actually that when we marry a man and a woman we’re not actually doing any of that stuff. This is just a convenient social arrangement and sexual arrangement and there it is . . . get on with it. . . If that’s what you thought marriage meant, then clearly we haven’t done a very good job in society as a whole and in the church in particular in teaching about just what a wonderful mystery marriage is supposed to be.** Simply at that level, I think it’s a nonsense. It’s like a government voting that black should be white.
It's not my purpose here to give a complete Scriptural and philosophical defense of gay marriage. Though I am no longer at all convinced that the passages of Scripture that are used to deny gay marriage address committed, faithful same-sex unions at all, I think I've got a lot more still to study and learn about that topic.*** But I do want to talk about the subject of binary thinking and exclusionary definitions such as Wright displays in the quotes above, and how they relate to the concept of "complementarity" in male-female relations, particularly in marriage.

Before he started blogging at Bible Literature Translation, J. K. Gayle blogged at Aristotle's Feminist Subject, where he said this in 2009::
We are suspicious of binaries. And we are suspicious not because binaries cannot or do not exist in nature. But we are suspicious of binaries because the binary is the fundamental structure of patriarchy. The would-be pure and precise division of the binary helps and has helped and will continue to help males to be dominant over females. In contrast, there's feminine discourse, which tends not to be reduced to the "either / or" but, rather, tends to be "both and" and "more."
And in 2011 he said:
[A]lthough we in the west tend to speak in terms of categories, that are binary, as if they are natural, our practices are ancient, going back to the man Aristotle, who profoundly believed that females naturally were inferior to males.
The idea of binaries as exclusionary, either A or Not A, shows more the influence of Aristotelian categories on Western thought than it reflects the mindsets of either the ancient Hebrew or New Testament Greek writers. This Aristotelian way of thinking is certainly not the only way to approach the texts. Even if not consciously intended by Wright, the Bible's concept of binaries brought into union definitely implies a "both-and" kind of relationship in many instances, rather than the exlusionary either-or. As Rabbi Rachel Barenblat says on her blog Velveteen Rabbi:
This is what it means to say that the Jews accepted the Torah for real at Purim: we accepted the deepest Torah, the highest Torah, the Torah in which there is no longer a distinction between the "good guys" and the "bad guys" because to God on high it's all one. At this level of spiritual elevation, there's nothing which the sitra achra, the "other side" -- in a word, evil -- can grasp. Once you get to this high place, evil has fallen away. This is the point at which we're connecting not with the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil (which presumes binaries) but rather the Tree of Life.
The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil was what kept Adam and Eve away from the Tree of Life.  God did order the world in Genesis 1 through binaries, but that doesn't mean there's only "either/or" and never "both/and" or "more."  The presence of a pattern does not exclude combinations or exceptions.  Also, the binaries of Scripture are generally principles or patterns, not laws or rules. There are very real, very human humans who have an extra X chromosome, or who present as one sex but have the hormones of the other. And God created them.

I must disagree with Wright that presence of an exception or combination somehow denigrates or damages the pattern or principle. Just as the existence of the platypus is not bad just because it doesn't fit the pattern of either a land creature or a water creature, the existence of humans and human relationships that don't fit the male-female pattern do not destroy the pattern. The Genesis binary patterns are beautiful, but they are not set forth as law, and not fitting into them is not disobedience.

God did divide the light from the darkness and call one "day" and the other "night," -- but His presence became manifest, walking in the Garden, in the "cool of the day": i.e., twilight.

It's outside my pay grade to speculate on or judge the motives of another person, so I will simply note that clinging to a patriarchal, exclusionary binary pattern when it comes to marriage seems to cause contradictions within Dr. Wright's own teachings.  Most of us egalitarians love to quote his teaching Women's Service in the Church: The Biblical Basis:
If those in Christ are the true family of Abraham, which is the point of the whole [Galatians 3] story, then the manner of this identity and unity takes a quantum leap beyond the way in which first-century Judaism construed them, bringing male and female together as surely and as equally as Jew and Gentile. What Paul seems to be doing in this passage, then, is ruling out any attempt to back up the continuing male privilege in the structuring and demarcating of Abraham’s family by an appeal to Genesis 1, as though someone were to say, ‘But of course the male line is what matters, and of course male circumcision is what counts, because God made male and female.’ No, says Paul, none of that counts when it comes to membership in the renewed people of Abraham.
 But sometimes we don't notice what Wright is not saying in that essay.  He's not saying he's an egalitarian.  He's only saying he doesn't think women should be restricted in church ministry.  He makes it clear, though, that he is not saying anything about his views on marriage, and that "ticking the box" of women in church ministry does not necessarily meaning "ticking a dozen other boxes down the same side of the page."  In fact, when it comes to marriage, this piece written by Andrew Wilson on the Confluence Blog defines Wright's view as follows:
Wives and husbands, along with everyone in the church, are called to submit to one another out of reverence for Christ, but not in identical ways. The church submits to Christ by recognizing him as head, and following his leadership. Christ submits to the church by loving her, taking on the form of a slave, giving himself up for her, and presenting her holy and blameless. So when Paul compares the wife to the church and the husband to Christ, he is saying that the ways in which their ‘mutual submission’ is expressed will be different: the woman will follow her husband’s lead, and the man will exercise his leadership by serving his wife, as Christ-like leaders always do. (This view is very simply expressed by Tom Wright in Paul For Everyone: The Prison Letters).
Wilson then directly quotes Wright:
Paul assumes, as do most cultures, that there are significant differences between men and women, differences that go far beyond mere biological and reproductive function. Their relations and roles must therefore be mutually complementary, rather than identical. Equality in voting rights, and in employment opportunities and remuneration (which is still not a reality in many places), should not be taken to imply such identity. And, within marriage, the guideline is clear. The husband is to take the lead – though he is to do so fully mindful of the self-sacrificial model which the Messiah has provided. As soon as ‘taking the lead’ becomes bullying or arrogant, the whole thing collapses.
This is a very "soft" complementarianism to be sure, but it is complementarianism all the same.  And Wright does insist in his "Women's Service in the Church" teaching that there must be no blurring of the male-female binary:
But once we have grasped this point we must take a step back and reflect on what Paul has not done as well as what he has done. In regard to the Jew/Gentile distinction, Paul’s fierce and uncompromising insistence on equality in Christ does not at all mean that we need pay no attention to the distinctives between those of different cultural backgrounds when it comes to living together in the church. . . the differences between them are not obliterated, and pastoral practice needs to take note of this; they are merely irrelevant when it comes to belonging to Abraham’s family. And this applies, I suggest, mutatis mutandis, to Paul’s treatment of men and women within the Christian family. The difference is irrelevant for membership status and membership badges. But it is still to be taken note of when it comes to pastoral practice. We do not become hermaphrodites or for that matter genderless, sexless beings when we are baptised.
And yet in the very same essay, Wright says this:
I notice that on one of your leaflets you adopt what is actually a mistranslation of this verse: neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female. That is precisely what Paul does not say; and as it’s what we expect he’s going to say, we should note quite carefully what he has said instead, since he presumably means to make a point by doing so, a point which is missed when the translation is flattened out as in that version. What he says is that there is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, no ‘male and female’. I think the reason he says ‘no male and female’ rather than ‘neither male nor female’ is that he is actually quoting Genesis 1, and that we should understand the phrase ‘male and female’ in scare-quotes.

So does Paul mean that in Christ the created order itself is undone? Is he saying, as some have suggested, that we go back to a kind of chaos in which no orders of creation apply any longer? Or is he saying that we go on, like the gnostics, from the first rather shabby creation in which silly things like gender-differentiation apply to a new world in which we can all live as hermaphrodites – which, again, some have suggested, and which has interesting possible ethical spin-offs? No. Paul is a theologian of new creation, and it is always the renewal and reaffirmation of the existing creation, never its denial, as not only Galatians 6.16 but also of course Romans 8 and 1 Corinthians 15 make so very clear. Indeed, Genesis 1—3 remains enormously important for Paul throughout his writings.

What then is he saying? Remember that he is controverting in particular those who wanted to enforce Jewish regulations, and indeed Jewish ethnicity, upon Gentile converts. Remember the synagogue prayer in which the man who prays thanks God that he has not made him a Gentile, a slave or a woman – at which point the women in the congregation that God ‘that you have made me according to your will’. I think Paul is deliberately marking out the family of Abraham reformed in the Messiah as a people who cannot pray that prayer, since within this family these distinctions are now irrelevant. . . 
Remember that the presenting issue in Galatians is circumcision, male circumcision of course. We sometimes think of circumcision as a painful obstacle for converts, as indeed in some ways it was; but of course for those who embraced it it was a matter of pride and privilege. It not only marked out Jews from Gentiles; it marked them out in a way which automatically privileged males. By contrast, imagine the thrill of equality brought about by baptism, the identical rite for Jew and Gentile, slave and free, male and female.
Wright is saying that men are still men and women are still women in Christianity, and that they should be fully who they are; that women should not try to be just like men in the way they minister. But he is also saying that the whole "there is not male and female" is a reversal of the text of Genesis 1, "male and female He created them."  He uses this as justification for Paul's support of women in all areas of ministry.  The distinctions that would make a man say, "I thank God I was not born a Gentile, a slave or a woman" are all distinctions of privilege, whether of race, economics or gender.  These privileges must now be laid down, for they are irrelevant.  Equality has been brought about by the substitution of baptism for circumcision.

And yet it is that very privilege, that very distinction, which Wright upholds in male headship in marriage.  If the husband, despite being "fully mindful of the self-sacrificial model which the Messiah has provided," still assumes that leadership belongs to him by right, he is acting according to a distinction of privilege which man assumed over woman as a consequence of the Fall in Genesis 3:16. We read in Philippians 2 that privilege (as the equal of God) was the very thing that Christ laid down, in order to take the form of a slave-- which constituted, at the Crucifixion, a complete emptying of privilege.  Galatians 3, as I have insisted elsewhere, cannot mean something different for women than it means for Gentiles and slaves.  If a free Jewish man could not say to a Gentile or slave, "Be happy with the level ground at the foot of the cross, but being free and Jewish means the privilege of leadership belongs to me alone," then a free Jewish man could not say it to a woman either.  Not even if she were his wife.

Like Wright, I see a pattern of binaries in Genesis 1, and I also see a pattern throughout the New Testament of things that have been separated brought back together.  What I don't see is exclusive binaries that deny the right to exist of anything outside them.  Nor do I see God endorsing the upholding of patterns of privilege and marginalization-- which must die if the promised union is ever to be complete.

I know I don't have Wright's credentials or education, but Paul did say God had chosen the foolish and the weak things of the world to confound those who are strong and wise.  Sometimes not having privileges also means we are free from being blinded by them.

I very much appreciate the opportunities I've had to learn good things from Dr. Wright.  There have been logs in my own eye that his teachings have definitely helped me to remove.  So I feel emboldened to point out this speck in his.  May God be gracious to us both.


*Sarah Over the Moon wrote a very good follow-up piece yesterday.  Suffice it to say that I agree with her whole-heartedly that no matter how much many of us may like and respect N. T. Wright, Christianity has no superstars other than Christ, and no Christian leader should ever be considered exempt from examination and critique of his or her views.

** Here, I think, Wright misquotes the passage, for Paul never says marriage is a mystery. He says the union of Christ and the church is a mystery.  Human marriage is supposed to look towards that union, but it is not that union.

***My basic approach to the gay marriage question is to rely on the litmus test once set forth by Augustine“Whoever, then, thinks that he understands the Holy Scriptures, or any part of them, but puts such an interpretation upon them as does not tend to build up this twofold love of God and our neighbor, does not yet understand them as he ought." Love of my LGBT neighbors means listening to them and trying my best to understand their perspective.  The question in my mind in regards to any practice must be, "Does it harm the self, the other, or the creation?"  And if not, is it not love of my neighbors to allow them to enjoy the same kind of committed union that gives me such comfort and support? 

Saturday, June 21, 2014

What I'd Like to See from Hollywood

This week I came across an interesting article, We're Losing All Our Strong Female Characters to Trinity Syndrome.  The author, Tasha Robinson, names this Hollywood phenomenon after the female character "Trinity" in The Matrix:

[T]he Strong Female Character With Nothing To Do [like Valka in DreamWorks’ How To Train Your Dragon 2is becoming more and more common. The Lego Movie is the year’s other most egregious and frustrating example. It introduces its female lead, Elizabeth Banks’ Wyldstyle, as a beautiful, super-powered, super-smart, ultra-confident heroine who’s appalled by how dumb and hapless protagonist Emmet is. Then the rest of the movie laughs at her and marginalizes her as she turns into a sullen, disapproving nag and a wet blanket. .  . Her only post-introduction story purpose is to be rescued, repeatedly, and to eventually confer the cool-girl approval that seals Emmet’s transformation from loser to winner. . . This is Trinity Syndrome à la The Matrix: the hugely capable woman who never once becomes as independent, significant, and exciting as she is in her introductory scene. 
From there, of course, I had to read the link to an August 2013 New Statesman Article called "I Hate Strong Female Characters" by Sophia McDougall, which defines "strong female characters" and identifies the real problem with their ubiquitous appearance in modern Hollywood films:
They're still love interests, still the one girl in a team of five boys, and they’re all kind of the same. They march on screen, punch someone to show how they don’t take no shit, throw around a couple of one-liners or forcibly kiss someone because getting consent is for wimps, and then with ladylike discretion they back out of the narrative’s way. . . What do I want instead of a Strong Female Character? I want a male:female character ratio of 1:1 instead of 3:1 on our screens. I want a wealth of complex female protagonists who can be either strong or weak or both or neither, because they are more than strength or weakness.
All of this got me to thinking.  There is a lot more of this kind of thing going on in Hollywood films than just strong female characters, with or without Trinity syndrome.  And by "this kind of thing" I mean unoriginal, uninventive, follow-what-everyone-else-is-doing plots, characterizations and inter-relationships that I'm getting a little tired of.  I would say it's all about the tyranny of "what will sell," but I think it's even worse than that. It's the tyranny of "what we have seen sell already, and we're afraid to risk trying anything different."

So here's my list of what I wish Hollywood would try.  Maybe they'd lose some money on some of these efforts, but the fact is that lots of films lose money anyway despite sticking with "what we have seen sell already."  Part of what sells really is inventiveness, and I know Hollywood knows that.  So maybe it would be more worthwhile to take bigger risks, than to keep churning out the same sort of thing over and over.

A few disclaimers before I start:

A.  I know there are exceptions.  I know there have been one or two examples of some of these kinds of movies that actually have been made, some of which have done very well with moviegoers. But they've been very rare.

B. I know I'm not a professional or an expert, and maybe it's a little presumptuous of me to tell Hollywood moguls how to do their jobs.  But I have been a member of the moviegoing public all my life, and thus one of their target audience in the various demographics I have belonged to over the years, right?  So maybe my opinion does count for something. . .

C.  I am a white, middle-class, heterosexual, cisgender, Christian married person with kids.  I understand that I'm privileged in many ways, and that a great many more Hollywood movies are made with people like me and my family as the target audience than many people could ever hope to expect.  But that's part of why I do want to see some of the things on this list-- because I don't think only the privileged should have movies made that aim to please them, and the very fact that so many of them are aimed at people like me seems to be contributing to their sameness.

So with all that said, here's my list.

I'd Like to See a Movie About:

1.  A smart, adventurous young man who is black, and his best friend and sidekick, who is white.

2.  A group of kids having an adventure, in which the leader and her best friend are girls and there's one, and only one, boy in the group who is pretty much just along for the ride.  Bonus points if the girls are black, Hispanic or Asian and the boy is white.

3.  A woman over 35 who is not portrayed as someone's mother, but who gets to be in love with a male character her own age.  Bonus points if she's got some extra pounds on her.  Extra bonus points if she's the main character.

4.  An "ugly" female character in a movie on the theme of beauty, who is not actually a gorgeous woman wearing thick glasses.  Bonus points if the film doesn't end with her taking off the glasses, letting down her hair and putting on some makeup to show the audience that she's a real woman after all.

5.  A senior woman who is not portraying someone's grandmother.  Or Miss Marple.

6.  A senior, man or woman, who is the main character in a movie that is not about being old.  Bonus points if he or she is a person of color in a movie that's not about prejudice.

7.  A superhero movie where the main super-protagonist is female, and of color.  Bonus points if she's the leader of a group of superheroes.

8. Any nerdy character who doesn't have to stop being nerdy by the end of the film, either by getting the "cool" makeover or by winning the "cool" date.

9.  An Asian character (in an American-made film) who is not super-smart and super-good at school, but has other traits that render him or her a fully developed character.  Bonus points if he or she is the main protagonist and leader.

10.  A female character who is not, and does not end up, in a relationship.

11. A retelling of a myth or fairy tale that does not come from the Western European tradition.

12.  Gay, lesbian and/or transgender character(s) in a movie that is not about being gay, lesbian or transgender.

13. Person(s) with disabilities in a movie that is not about overcoming disabilities.

14.  Last but definitely not least, an Elfquest movie.  That is, a movie based on a comic book series that isn't about superheroes and which is written and drawn by a woman.

So there's my list. Would anyone like to add anything of their own?

Saturday, June 14, 2014

About Rape: We Still Just Don't Get it

Over the past week I've had my attention caught a number of times about the whole issue of rape: what it is, what it isn't, what is the right way to address it-- and, most noticeably, a number of clearly wrong ways to address it.

The first thing that came to my attention was when well-known columnist George Will wrote an article about what he called "the supposed campus epidemic of rape, a.k.a. 'sexual assault.'"  In that article he decries the fact that
[n]ow the Obama administration is riding to the rescue of “sexual assault” victims. It vows to excavate equities from the ambiguities of the hookup culture, this cocktail of hormones, alcohol and the faux sophistication of today’s prolonged adolescence of especially privileged young adults.
Using scare quotes around the words "sexual assault" twice, Will questions any definition of those words that go beyond "forcible sexual penetration." Will says that the real problem on college campuses isn't rape at all, but interference by the federal government:
Academia is learning that its attempts to create victim-free campuses — by making everyone hypersensitive, even delusional, about victimizations — brings increasing supervision by the regulatory state that progressivism celebrates.
George Will believes that ideas about rape that go beyond his narrow definition are "delusional" and lead to a victim mentality.  But what Will actually demonstrates is that he has no real understanding of what rape and sexual assault actually are. As Samantha Field at "Defeating the Dragons" points out, what Will thinks about rape and sexual assault simply buys into a number of myths and misconceptions: that if you don't fight back, it's not rape; that if you're drunk, it's not rape; that if you've had consensual sex with the person in the past, it's not rape; that if you don't report it immediately, it's not rape.

But here's what the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network says about it:
[Unless] both people are old enough to consent, have the capacity to consent, and agreed to the sexual contact. . . [it] is a crime. It does not matter whether the other person is an ex-boyfriend or a complete stranger, and it doesn’t matter if you’ve had sex in the past. If it is nonconsensual this time, it is rape. . . If you were so drunk or drugged that you passed out and were unable to consent, it was rape. Both people must be conscious and willing participants.
This definition is not about insisting that sexual partners, no matter how committed and mutually trusting, must stop at each point of an encounter and ask permission to proceed.  But it is about being certain you are not forcing yourself on someone who really doesn't want it.  It's not that hard to ask, when encountering reluctance, "Are you into this? Is this what you want?" And of course words or actions indicating "no" should be respected!

What rape and sexual assault really are is actually fairly simple: deliberate sexual contact without consent. But as a society, we seem to still have a lot of trouble wrapping our minds around this, and it doesn't help when well-known leaders in the media confuse the issue in ways that blame the victims and excuse the perpetrators.

The second thing brought to my attention this week was one of the big misconceptions that doesn't often get talked about: the gender stereotyping that says men can't really be victims of rape. When a rape victim's story is disbelieved, marginalized or treated with skepticism, it revictimizes the rape survivor, and male survivors are no exception.  The men's stories on this AskReddit thread are heartbreaking to read and are not misogynist or inflammatory against women or feminism, as some male advocacy groups can be.  But boys who are under the age of consent can be groomed sexually by female authority figures such as teachers, just as easily as girls can.  And men in general may be stronger than women in general, but an individual woman can be strong enough to force herself on a smaller man-- and men, just like women, can be drugged, or assaulted when they've had too much to drink.  Male victims should not be shamed about their manhood or mocked for being "wimps."  They should not have the police refuse to take them seriously, and they should not be laughed at by society.  

Rape is rape, no matter who it happens to, and these false assumptions about men and rape are just as bad as false assumptions about women and rape.  A woman should not be told it couldn't have happened because she was dating the guy, or married to him.  And a man should not be told it couldn't have happened because he's a man.

Finally, and worst of all, was an incident that happened Friday, June 13th, where Christianity Today's Leadership Journal published the story of an ex-youth minister now serving jail time for sexually grooming and then having sex with one of the minor girls in his care.  Somehow Leadership Journal overlooked that this perpetrator was presenting the situation as a consensual, adulterous affair rather than the ongoing rape of a minor who was legally incapable of consent.  The writer said nothing about remorse for the irreparable harm done to this poor child, instead focusing on his own losses as a result of his behavior.  Leadership Journal treated him like a fully repentant confessor when he clearly was far from it. 

When readers responded with outrage and dismay and began a Twitter campaign called #TakeDownThatPost, Leadership Journal responded with a full apology that I believe is sincere.  But the fact remains that if our society doesn't get it about what rape is, many of our Christian leaders really haven't been getting it. 

As Tamara Rice at Hope Fully Known eloquently explains in her open letter to Leadership Journal:
You let a convicted statutory rapist tell his “side” of things in a pages-long post where the victim’s youth was relegated to a side note and the word “abuse” is never mentioned. You let him discuss it as if it were a mutual, consensual affair, as if you have forgotten the influence that a 30-something youth pastor would have over a vulnerable teenage girl. Maybe you don’t know. Maybe you don’t understand how these things work. If you don’t … if you’re really that naive, I beg you to start studying cases like this. Follow the life of a teenage girl in a scenario like this as she journeys into adulthood.
 “But he says it was ‘mutual,’ ” is probably your argument. And, sure, she might have thought it was “mutual” at the time too. Do you understand that’s what happens when a man with power and control sets his eyes on someone vulnerable who is NOT his for the taking? . . . 
Do you get that he is in jail FOR A REASON? Do you even understand what a horror it is that you let her abuser go on and on and on for pages and pages talking like this was an adult consensual affair, when she was obviously young enough that it LANDED HIM IN JAIL? Do you have any inkling of what he’s done to her and her life and her self-esteem and her sexuality and her emotional health and her spiritual health and everything about her not just for right now but most likely for years to come? . . .

Any supposed warnings to other pastors out there about a scenario like this should have simply read:
“If you find yourself attracted to one of your students, get out of youth ministry ASAP and get yourself into counseling, because you are contemplating doing something against the law. You are entertaining the idea of ruining another person’s life. You are toying with the notion of doing something that makes you a sex offender. YOU ARE CONTEMPLATING A SEXUAL CRIME. Wake up and get yourself out of ministry and get yourself some help before it’s too late.”
THAT’S a warning. And if this man were truly repentant AND UNDERSTOOD THE GRAVITY OF WHAT HE’S DONE, that’s what he would have said. 
We don’t need even one more sex offender preying on our kids under the guise of doing great ministry, and we certainly don’t need even one more evangelical ministry that doesn’t get it. . . [This] speaks volumes about why this is a problem in our churches. It speaks volumes about all the advocacy work still left to do in regard to sexual abuse. [Emphases in original]
I really don't think there's much, if anything, I could add to that.  Ms. Rice has told it exactly like it is, and I'm glad Leadership Journal responded as responsibly as they did.  They took down their post but didn't try to hide, understanding that this was an important learning experience that needed to be recorded for future conversation.

We need to learn, as individuals, as a society and as Christians and Christian churches, what "rape" and "sexual assault" and "consent" or "nonconsensual" really mean.  We need to stop blaming victims and excusing perpetrators.  We need to deliberately and with forethought set ourselves against the assumptions and gender stereotypes and misconceptions that make this about anything other than a heinous, criminal reversal of "do unto others as you would have them do unto you."

That's the only Bible verse I'm going to quote today, because I think it more than covers the subject. The concept of consent is simply an embodiment of Christ's Golden Rule.

It's high time we wrapped our minds around it. 

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Let's Talk About Sexual Entitlement

It started when I was only five years old. A neighbor boy, about a year older than me, with a couple of his friends, persuaded me to take off my clothes for them. My older sister was shocked and put a stop to it-- but it was the first lesson of many. The second lesson was on my first-grade playground, where I was caught by two third-grade boys and dragged to the notorious schoolyard kisser, where despite my struggles I endured being kissed by the boy while his friends laughed and jeered.

By second grade my female classmates and I had learned to consistently wear shorts under our skirts. Boys liked to run by and flip the skirts up, or crawl under the monkey bars and look up as we swung overhead. In fifth grade, the year I got plump before thinning down again in junior high, I became known as "fatso" and "bubble-butt."  My name seemed to have been forgotten, replaced by jokes about what I looked like.

It was the early 1970s, and all these things joined together to teach me that what mattered most about me, as a girl, was my body: how it looked, whether that was pleasing to boys or not, and how it could be turned into a source of fun and mockery. And when I started to develop breasts? Well, all I will say is that this didn't improve things.

In junior high, one day when I had to leave class before the bell rang (I don't remember why) a boy chased me through the empty halls, down the stairs of the school and across the parking lot, trying to touch my chest. But even worse, somehow, was the feeling of worthlessness because other boys wanted nothing to do with me, being too smart and not pretty or cute enough. A girl's worth was measured by whether a boy wanted to be her boyfriend, and I didn't measure up. I'm sure I'm not the only girl who invented a boyfriend who lived in another town, just to get a little respect as a girl whom a boy had claimed.

This continued throughout high school. Girls who were small and sweet, who acted childlike and not too smart so that boys could feel important and protective-- these were the valued ones. Not being one of these, I began to learn to find my value in other ways: through the speech team, through grades, and through my new-found faith.

One of the main draws of the spiritually abusive religious group I joined in college was that, whatever their faults, they required the guys and girls to treat one another as sisters and brothers. Girls were given opportunities to have a real voice in the church, too, though we couldn't aspire to anything greater than to someday be a pastor's wife. As sisters, though, we really were viewed as real people, not just as bodies that existed primarily for the enjoyment of men.

There was, in fact, actually a good reason at that time to be fearful of "the world" around me-- the university campus had developed a reputation for the ease and frequency with which rapes occurred. The campus was even referred to as "the candy store" because women were so vulnerable as they crossed the grounds and the surrounding streets. Those of us girls who lived outside the church's boarding house were requested to call the house for a brotherly escort any time we needed to walk after dusk.

The memory will always stay with me of the evening I hurried home just after sunset, having misjudged the hour, terrified of being noticed by anyone. At the sound of pounding footsteps approaching down the sidewalk behind me, I froze in panic. "It's all right! You're all right!" said the jogger as he passed me, leaving me weak with relief. Not all men were rapists. But we had no way of knowing who was and who wasn't.

I know I'm one of the lucky ones. Except for the occasional grab, I've never been physically assaulted by a man. But that doesn't mean I've escaped the pervasive sexual entitlement in our culture.

When I finished college I went to work at first for a woman boss, and that was lovely. But her company failed, and I found a job for a small technology-development company where all the bosses were male. I had to get used to comments being made about my legs, my figure, and my singleness. I was propositioned by the CEO, who was over 70 years old and apparently liked a little side action when his wife wasn't around.

But I was fortunate. None of them did anything more than talk, and the CEO didn't try to force the issue when I told him I was only interested in guys my own age. In fact, they were afraid I might report this to someone or get a lawyer. It was the mid 1980s, and "sexual harassment" was new terminology that had only recently been coined.

Not until I arrived at work with an engagement ring on my finger did the harassment stop. But this was not because they had decided to respect me. They only respected the fact that a man had now staked a claim to me.

I left that job for the paralegal position I have held ever since. The lawyers I have worked for have been men, with one brief exception-- but I have always been respected there as a person, not just as a female body that belongs to another male. As I have grown older, instances of disrespect and harassment elsewhere have also pretty much ceased. But the attitude that female bodies exist for the use and enjoyment of men has not died. Far from it.

When a young man in Isla Vista recently went on a killing spree because women refused to have sex with him, it touched a nerve on the Internet, resulting in the Twitter page #YesAllWomen.  Women everywhere added their voices to say that though not all men participate in this attitude, pretty much all women, young and old, have experienced it in one way or another in their lives.  It isn't just a problem from our society's more sexist past -- it's still going on now.

Today I was dismayed to learn that only a week after Isla Vista and #YesAllWomen, a new story of male entitlement is circulating, and in this case (presumably because he hasn't killed anyone or made an over-the-top video expressing terrible misogyny) this 17-year-old is being praised for dumping his girlfriend when she cheated on him-- apparently because he was clever in the way he did it, exclusively using Internet memes.  But if you really take an objective look at what happened, it isn't funny.  It's the same, "I own you, so I can punish you when you misbehave" attitude that women should not still be encountering.  A guy is certainly justified in breaking up with a girl who cheats on him, if they had promised each other an exclusive relationship.  But threatening to "do bad things to you" and to "murder your family," aren't funny even if meant in jest.  And the follow-up picture, which is supposed to be a joke, is nothing more than a gang-rape suggestion/threat.

I'm not laughing.

As blogger Sarah Over the Moon says:
Many people in our society respect women and, if asked, would tell you that women do not deserved to be threatened with violence. They don’t deserve to be shot down in the streets of Isla Vista, and they don’t deserve to receive a text from a young man threatening to murder their whole family. “Of course they don’t! Women are our mothers, our sisters, and our daughters! We would never want such a thing to happen to them,” a benevolent man might say. 
But that same exact benevolent man is likely to change his mind quickly as soon as a woman steps outside of a “proper” role for women to fill. As soon as a woman stops acting like an innocent, romanticized mother, sister, or daughter, and starts acting like a “bitch,”or a “slut,” or a cheater, the hostile sexism begins to fly. There is research backing this up. . .
This is why CNN and Buzzfeed can mourn a tragic shooting one week, and interview a “Twitter hero” who threatens women with violence the next. .  
I’d like to think society is improving in its views toward women. I’d like to think the success of #YesAllWomen shows that men are starting to learn and listen. But then Kane Zipperman goes viral, and I put my fists back up.  
We’ve still got a lot more fighting to do.
A May 29th ThinkProgress article examines several studies that show how the media, and male readers, still frequently categorize women as adjuncts for the benefit of men, rather than as full people in with their own goals, rights and needs.  It concludes:
There are serious consequences to this pervasive cultural attitude about women as objects of men’s desires. When men believe that they are entitled to sex, they often respond violently when women deny it from them. . . 
These attitudes have been so deeply embedded in our culture, young women believe that forfeiting their consent is a normal aspect of gender relations, according to a recent study. “Objectification, sexual harassment, and abuse appear to be part of the fabric of young women’s lives,” the study’s authors noted.
Unfortunately, Christian churches, including the one I fled to for refuge from male sexual entitlement, often also participate in the objectification of women and the commodification of their bodies through Purity Culture and its insistence on women dressing modestly for fear of "causing their brothers to stumble".  But if we can leave all that aside, the idea that unless a man and a woman have both consented to become romantically involved, they should treat one another as brothers and sisters, is a pretty good thing. There's a reason why Jesus and the apostles used "brothers and sisters" as their main terminology for referring to Christians in community.  As Michael Kruse of the Kruse Kronicle puts it:
Remember that in the obsessively status oriented Greco-Roman world, the sibling relationship was the most egalitarian of all relationships. Harmony and solidarity was expected among brothers. If folks followed Jesus instruction of sibling relatedness, then status questions would evaporate. In verses 8-12, Jesus rejects all status seeking preoccupations and reiterates his upside down paradigm where the way you get to the top is by going to the very bottom. This is just one way in which the fictive family metaphor regulates the life of the community.
Kids growing up in the same family do usually imbibe the idea that their siblings are fellow human beings and not objects or adjuncts.  Sharing, respect, and asking first before you take, are all part of being good sisters and brothers.  So can't we do better at teaching these basic principles not just in our churches, but in society as a whole?

We're all still in many ways imbibing the message that women's bodies exist for the use and possession of men.  We're still imparting it to our young people, in the church and out of it.  We're still unquestioning of it on TV and movies and magazine covers.  We're still proof-texting it from our Bibles-- but this is not what the Bible as a whole teaches.

We've got to break this cycle, for everyone's sake.  I would love someday to have my grandchildren struggle to grasp the concept of sexual entitlement in a unit of their high school history classes.  I would love to have respect and consent simply be an integral part of their world.

It's not impossible.  Let's see if, by the grace of God, we can make it true.