I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.
This famous speech of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. still stirs me to tears today. I think one reason for it is because for most of my life, even as a white person, I did not feel that I lived in a world that really believed that. No, I was a lesser human being. And why? Oh, for nothing more than my gender identification as a woman.
One day a youth minister at the Pentecostal church sighed as he looked at me after yet another “interesting” class where I’d raised questions and presented researched information. He told me, “If you’d been a man, I’d say God obviously meant for you to go into evangelism.” But I was a woman, he told me, and my role in life was going to be to learn how to live under my future husband in proper godly submission. Hey, maybe I’d get a “burden” from God (that’s Christianese for “thinking God wants me to do something”) to teach other women how to live that way, like Debi Pearl’s sickening and poisonous “ministry” does today (if you needed a good mad today, her series deconstructing Pearl’s book is a great way to get one).
Preaching was right out, of course. It doesn’t do to have a woman in authority over men. That makes baby Jesus cry. I might give testimonies, but that was as far as it could go if I wanted to stay in submission. Or perhaps I might write books one day. The church’s bookstore was filled with books written by women, but they were uniformly autobiographies, guides to being a godly wife, or hairstyling and sewing tips. Women weren’t even allowed to attend our denomination’s Bible College’s theology courses and were instead restricted to those classes suitable for a minister’s wife like how to type business letters and host dinners (though Angela had become the first woman to get into the men’s theology curriculum with a personally-written letter of recommendation from our pastor, who was one of the high muckety-mucks of the denomination, and let me tell you: it was clear she was there on sufferance and only because nobody thought that sweet, mild, gentle Angela would ever use the information she got in any way to put herself in authority over those precious, timid, shivering fawns of man-children).
While all of this stuff was going on around me that fateful summer of the Koresh encampment’s encounter with the government, I was bristling under a yoke I didn’t fully understand or want, and trying my best to deny myself and die to myself so I could live in Christ.
The problem was that I’d been raised in an environment where I was told one thing–that the content of my character was all that mattered and was all that should be guiding my destiny–and lived another thing entirely–that because I identified as a woman, I was automatically lesser and inferior to all men and that my choices in life were concomitantly “different” (in other words, not as fun, fulfilling, or meaningful as what I saw men doing). I was a Pentecostal before the trendy word for this gender division, “complementarianism,” came about, but that was their message long before that toxic word and mindset got popularized.
Even the word itself denotes inferiority for women, though the people pushing the idea don’t see it that way. The very word–complement–makes me think of one thing being molded to another. I am meant to be complementary to a husband–I am meant to change and mold myself to be his “helpmeet” (another perversion of language; rather than “a help meet for Adam,” meaning “a helper that was suitable for Adam,” they take it to be a word in and of itself–and a handy one for us outsiders as an aid to speedy evaluation). I existed only in relation to a man, and my self-worth came from how well-suited I was for a man’s use.
The doublespeak astounds me today, amazing me that I ever fell for it. The whining these evangelical leaders give about how it’s sooooooo harrrrrrd to be the leaders and to “love” their wives and serve them as proper godly men sounds ridiculous to me now. I wonder who they think they’re kidding. If one person is the leader, then the other must by default be the follower. If one person gets to make the orders and the other must follow them, then it seems pretty clear to me who is superior and who is inferior. If one gender is forbidden to hold authority or to exercise dominance or even self-sovereignty in any way, then that gender becomes by definition disenfranchised and from there a target for predation and abuse. By trying to mask their misogyny in language that makes inferiority sound like the bonus plan, by using language that tries to make women look crazy to question such a plum life, by pretending that it’s all bonbons and puppies for women who don’t have to do all that tedious heavy lifting involved in being a full partner in adulthood, all evangelical leaders do is fail harder. I’d respect them a lot more if they just named the elephant in the room and said “Look, girls, we think you’re all basically children and walking sex toys/wombs and are terrified that you’re slipping out of our grasp so we’re going to clamp down on you harder now” instead of trying to make women believe they’re actually quite equal and have incredible freedom in slavery. There was only so long I could reconcile that kind of cognitive dissonance, and I think I’ve demonstrated by now that I’m really, really good at reconciling cognitive dissonance.
Of course, such misogyny comes at a price. Not only do women suffer under a system that encourages abuse and victimization, but men themselves suffer. It’s not easy to be a man who values fairness and justice and have to control another human being and subscribe to rigid gender roles like it or not. The caste system of gender hurts men too. Most reasonable people would bristle at being volun-told to be the Designated Adult all the time in a relationship. Worse yet, a man who is constitutionally unsuited for such control over another person–like Biff, who needed not a wife but a CPA and a handler–is pushed into a position where he is all but guaranteed to ruin lives. But these realities are ignored in the rush to control women. If I just obeyed, I was explicitly told, God would make Biff into a good husband. Sooner or later. I could see at church that some of these DIY projects had lasted decades.
All that said, as much as I hated being shoehorned into a role I totally hated, God meant it that way, and for nothing I could help, for no reason that I could change or alter by my behavior, learned skills, accomplishments, or even temperament. I was stuck. I was born a woman, and that’s just how it was. God meant me to be the inferior, and nobody has ever, ever been born an inferior and then risen to the top through his or her own effort and God’s grace. Oh wait… No, actually, several times in the Bible someone was brought very low or born in very low circumstances and bettered him or herself, from Moses to Joseph to Esther to Jesus himself. Shh. We don’t talk about those examples. Keep your head down and your hair uncut, Missy, and don’t contradict.
But the injustice went even deeper than I saw. God had promised I’d never be punished for the sins of my ancestors. Well, sort of. Four verses (Deut 24:16, 1 Kings 14:6, Jer 31:29-30, and Ezekiel 18:20) said that. But four times as many said that yes, indeed, God held children accountable for their forebears’ misdeeds, not to mention the Plagues which killed innocent children and animals belonging only indirectly to the Pharaoh who’d actually offended God, as well as that original curse in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3:16). Really, one could say that thanks to that single ignorant mistake on the part of one woman who literally lacked the capacity to understand what she was doing and who acted who knows how long ago, I was stuck being the inferior forever. Oh, and cursed with super-lethal risky childbirth (thanks for murdering millions of women and babies over the eons with that fit of pique, God). Given the examples above, it seemed like this question (if not the contradiction itself, alas) was easily resolved: of course God held people accountable for others’ misdeeds.
I hadn’t made the original mistake. I hadn’t had a thing to do with the Garden of Eden. I hadn’t committed the crime. But I sure was paying for it.
I couldn’t help how I was born. I had no say whatsoever even in being born. I couldn’t change being a woman. I was temperamentally unsuited for life as a cross between a housepet, brood mare, and sex slave. But that’s how it was, God had made me this way, and I was stuck. My body belonged to my future husband, not to me, my fate was sealed, and my consent or lack thereof didn’t really matter much one way or the other. All that mattered was my submission to God’s will. And I knew what God’s will was.. how exactly? By what my leaders thought it was, obviously. I couldn’t trust my feminine inner voice or my discernment. That’s why God had given me pastors and a godly husband to lead me.
It just didn’t make sense that God would give me the gifts of speaking and writing and then demand I hobble myself. It made no sense that someone as good at talking to people, as good at evangelizing, as good at giving Bible studies, as good at assembling and analyzing information as I was, was getting told nope, my role was to be a good wife and mother even though I hated the idea of children and motherhood and struggled with the idea of inferiority. My sense of morality–my sense of justice–recoiled from the ideas that my gender made me categorically unfit for things I was temperamentally suited and even desperately wanted to do and that I was responsible for someone else’s offenses.
I already knew what the results of such hobbling were: women who were stifled and suppressed, if not outright abused. We women joked about it with strained little laughs whenever we gathered together, but we didn’t question the way our leaders and Bibles told us God had wanted things to work. And to the men and women of today reading this, I’m sorry my generation didn’t fight harder. Every single day nowadays we read about pastors in sex scandals–the fall of ROC’s pastor is just the latest and not even the most egregious story I’ve ever heard– scandals I lay at the doorstep of sexual inequality. And the idea of taking away women’s right and ability to escape abusive marriages by the use of covenant marriage, though a fairly recent phenomenon, would have been applauded by my church. These are developments that began in my day, though they would see fruition only recently. I should have shouted from the rooftops the abuse I witnessed. I should have cried aloud with an unceasing and clarion voice that this system was unjust, unfair, and immoral. I should have, I should have, oh I should have… but I didn’t. Instead I hunkered down and tried my best to do what I thought God wanted me to do. I denied my heart, spirit, and mind and instead bought into the lie that my gender identity mattered more to God than anything else about me.
If nobody but me sees the inherent flaws and potential for abuse in a system that tells women they don’t have the same personhood and rights that men have, that their very bodies don’t belong to themselves, and that it’s okay to force roles on both genders regardless of their suitability for those roles, then I’ll just go make myself a Watermelon Pucker, go outside and enjoy the freshly-mowed lawn, and figure out how to make a spaceship so I can get off this rock of a planet.
Many years later as I was learning the Star Wars RPG system, I frowned at the friend trying to explain the groups that used the Force. I said, “So wait. Jedi can’t ever love or use their emotions too much and live regular lives. The Sith are stuck tearing each other to pieces and giving in to rage and revengelust. If you ask me, they both suck. And the ‘grey Jedi’ seem like cop-outs. Isn’t there some other option?”
“No, that’s the gameworld; that’s it, that’s all the choices you get,” I got told, and I would remember long ago how I’d once felt being told that about being a woman. And just like I had many years ago, my eventual solution was to consider why I was buying into that canonical view. If I’d learned I had the Force, you can bet I’d be doing the same thing in that case! Why was Christianity like that? Because of the Bible? So was the Bible trustworthy? Was it really the accurate word of a living god who wanted to communicate his desires, threats, and demands to humanity? But even more than that, whatever had happened to that light yoke Jesus had promised? What had happened to turn a confident and lighthearted teenager into a timid, questioning, fearful little thing who suffered panic attacks all the time?
I’d already seen, thanks to the tragic abuse of Big and Little Dave and the miserable example of the Seekers, that living in God’s will didn’t mean getting more and more extreme and fundie. I’d also noticed that the fruits of such sexism were hardly loving and grace-filled. And I’d already realized that Christian leaders were quite, quite fallible if not outright deceptive and predatory at times. And I was finally starting to see the inherent injustice and unfairness of my deity’s insistence on punishing someone for another person’s crime, albeit as though through my fingers as I covered my eyes.
I somehow had a couple legs left in the table that was my faith in Jesus, but I still had one or two more shocking developments to witness and experience before I’d finally be free. I made another roll, and lost. I came out of these thoughts convinced that I was just doing something wrong, and if I could just figure out what it was, I’d be fine.
By the way: if you’re reading this and hearing an internal voice going, Her problem is that she didn’t associate with the right Christians, stay tuned. I’m going to talk about that soon.