Cultivation vs. Coercion

Third of four pieces reflecting on some of the cultural threads at work in the mistreatment of women, particularly within the church. Part 1. Part 2.

Even if the unjust treatment of women by men is not a result of our faith (rightly considered), Scripture certainly still has much to say about it. Right there in the Garden, at the moment of our descent into sin and shame, God pronounced a curse on the very works of cultivation for which He created us. Because we trusted the word of the serpent over the design of the Lord, the ground would no longer respond well to the man’s tending, and the man would no longer respond with love to the work of the woman in his life.

A key component of this curse toward the woman is that the man will not only resist, but that he will “rule over” her (Gen. 3:16). Relationships crafted to demonstrate God’s goodness and creative spirit are instead handicapped by a visceral power dynamic—one more expression of our central sin of pride. Our confidence is no longer in our submission to God, but in the strength and wisdom we think we possess.

As Andy Crouch has pointed out in his excellent work, Playing God, our call to cultivate and care for all God had made was enabled by His gift of power; power meant for stewardship and the extension of His wondrous creative spirit through the whole earth. Since the Fall, our God-given power is often twisted toward unjust ends, transforming cultivation into coercion and turning our fellow image-bearers into objects to be used and abused.

Unjust power is an audacious grift, an attempt to usurp God’s authority without the foundation of His omniscience and lovingkindness—in other words, an idol. And we are so, so slow to give up this false god of coercive power over others. Its tentacles weave through our works, allowing mankind to create unspeakable evils and corrupting even our best efforts. Such is the root of our mistreatment of women and the church’s ignorance or toleration of a broken status quo. The same can be said of racism, abortion, marginalization of the weak, disabled, and elderly, perpetuation of poverty, proliferation of war, and every other systemic sin.

In this light, pornography is revealed as an extension of sexual abuse, warping desires and feeding the beast of consumption for those who lack the social power to do such unspeakable things in the real world and get away with it. Women appearing in that footage are often paid next to nothing or, in many cases, actually held in some form of slavery, making the visual delivery of their bodies as a “product” a direct result of their actual abuse at the hands of others. As the Avett Brothers sing in “True Sadness”: “Angela became a target / As soon as her beauty was seen / By young men who tried to reduce her down / To a scene on a x-rated screen / Is she not more than the curve of her hips? / Is she not more than the shine on her lips? / Does she not dream to sing and to live and to dance down her own path / Without being torn apart? / Does she not have a heart?

Perhaps the epidemic of pornography in our churches (that now swallows up women, in addition to men) both contributes to and flows from the softer dehumanization we’ve grown accustomed to. Brokenness is always cyclical.

A healthy feminism is the staunch opponent of all such coercion, but much of what passes under that name has instead been a cheerleader for the same sorts of acts, provided that they are perpetrated by women instead of against them. If gender is merely a social construct, then difference itself is the only injustice. A feminism aimed there, that encourages women to seek equality by acting in the same sinful consumption that men have gotten away with—striving for social, cultural, and sexual dominance—misses so many of the deeper evils.

I’d argue, in fact, that our present moment is a much the death of that movement as it is the death of silent suffering at the hands of pigs and patriarchs. The emergence of a what has been described as “rape culture” on university campuses suggests that men still hold the balance of power in any pitched battle for sexual freedom.

What of Marriage?
In such a cycle of coercion and abuse, what value can there be to marriage? Is it not just one more social structure in which women are forced to subsume their person and will to the desires of men?

Going back to Genesis, we see marriage described not as a display of power, but an act of mutual care and cultivation: “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh. And the man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed” (Gen. 2:24-25). When Paul takes up this matter in Ephesians 5, he calls it a “profound mystery” that does not merely reflect God’s good design of Creation, but portrays God’s mercy in repairing what has been broken through Christ’s “marriage” to His church.

For most that object to this reading, though, it is Paul’s words a few verses before that cause them to stumble: “Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior” (Eph. 5:22-23). Some see this as proof positive of the evil of marriage, and others tie themselves in hermeneutical knots trying to explain how Paul unfairly introduces a hierarchical structure to a beautifully egalitarian institution. It seems clear, though that we have to interpret this instruction in light of the “profound mystery,” and not the other way around.

Submission is only submission if it is an act of will cutting against the grain, just like the counterpart command for men to “love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (v. 25). We are to emulate Christ, not Pharaoh, who used the people to make him wealthy and comfortable; Christ, not Solomon, who multiplied pleasures to himself; Christ, not even Elijah, who abandoned his calling when he was discouraged. Any other model of marriage is not only dysfunctional, but diabolical, in that it mars a God-ordained portrait and sends a false message about Christ.

Loving my wife as Christ loved the church is not a “natural” act, and certainly not a “masculine” one (at least in the cultural sense). It is something that I would never conceive of, let alone attempt, without the transforming power of Christ. Likewise, submission is not the normative state of “femaleness”, but the conscious entering in to a Christ-like act of sacrifice by a strong, free, individual. It is a call to mutual obedience (within the marriage covenant) not a ratification of the world’s status quo. What spiritual value is there in submitting to your husband if you live in constant dread of all men everywhere? Only a strong woman can submit well. What spiritual value is there in leading your wife if you are called to lord your privilege and power over all women? Only a weak man needs to be so propped up.

Of course, marriage is meant to mirror Christ redeeming the church, but not to the exclusion of his redeeming love toward His daughters themselves. In this picture, a groom is a reflection, not a replacement, of Christ. Our brothers and sisters who pursue full lives of godly service in singleness are no less powerful images of God than those called to participate in that particular re-enactment of redemption. I’ve seen so many single women among my friends and family* offer brilliantly faithful service to the church, in the face of immense cultural pressure to marry, serve outside of their gifting, or abandon the way of Christ to seek their pleasure in the world. Such a life is not second-class, but boldly sacrificial and worthy of praise.

Part 1: Tasteless, but Excusable? Dehumanization, Women, and the Church
Part 2: Men and Women, Image-Bearing, and Scripture
Part 4: A True and Better Way to Be

*Why I’m not similarly acquainted with very many young single men is a sociological conversation for another time.

Image: Samaritan Woman Meets Jesus, Byzantine Icon

Tasteless, but Excusable?: Dehumanization, Women, and the Church

The first of four pieces reflecting on some of the cultural threads at work in the mistreatment of women, particularly within the church.

“Because I’ve been catcalled and leered at twice just while walking to work this week, #MeToo. The worst part is that the safest option in those moments—on foot, on the street—is passivity as people consume me and treat me as property. And the past year…shows that far too many people—even in the church—think [sexual abuse & harassment] is tasteless, but excusable sin.”

Seeing these words last fall in a series of Tweets from a good friend called my attention to what the #MeToo moment was dredging up—a breadth of pain, fear, filth, violence, and injustice endured by women on a daily basis. Many had been reluctant to speak out, cowed by threats or simply exhausted from responses of disbelief, but the growing groundswell of shared stories has helped them bring all manner of individual and institutional offenses to light. More troubling, such attitudes show up and seem to hold sway in far too many corners of the #ChurchToo.

As multitudes of women have broken the silence of shame, the rest of us (i.e. men) have been given an opportunity to reflect on all the implications of a side of life and culture that far too many of us had previously had the privilege and position to ignore. Their stories have shaken the foundations of companies and institutions that covered up such things and protected the powerful men who perpetrated them.

I want to respond to the courage of my friend and so many others both by digging into the higher-level cultural phenomena they’ve uncovered and in trying to help plot a path for a different future.

Dignity vs. Consumption
Blatant evils like sexual harassment and assault can only become, as my friend said, “Tasteless, but excusable,” when we deem victims as somehow less than human. Her choice of words there is telling: dehumanizing people always leads to their consumption or disposal, replacing inherent dignity and worth with cold value-assessment or “taste”.

As was often the case, novelist and essayist Walker Percy sniffed out this tendency well in advance of the cultural mainstream. In his 1966 novel The Last Gentleman, Percy crafts a revealing exchange between his protagonist, Will Barrett, and Kitty, the suburban Southern girl he thinks he loves, who he thinks might finally help him find a “normal” life. Will is concerned with the on-again-off-again nature of their relationship and can’t seem to figure out how to relate to her as person. He nervously recounts a story of how his grandfather took his father to a brothel on his 16th birthday to avoid having him “worrying about certain things.” Kitty responds to that grotesque thought by trying on different personae to get Will’s attention and affection. She first offers, “I’ll be your whore,” which he ruefully accepts (to her dismay), leading her to say instead, “Very well. I’ll be a lady.”

Later, Will is lost in thoughts of existential angst, musing: “But what am I, he wondered: neither Christian nor pagan nor proper lusty gentleman, for I’ve never really got the straight of this lady-and-whore business. And that is all I want and it does not seem too much to ask: for once and all to get the straight of it.”

Percy’s jarring either/or reveals more than we may be comfortable with about our culture’s understanding female personhood. What Will couldn’t “get the straight of” while lying awake that night, it seems, is that we (in the rich, comfortable, “liberated” echelons of the Western world) still don’t know how to appreciate women as humans qua humans. We perpetually want to classify them in relation to men. In this telling, women exist for men as a sort of “consumer product”—either in marriage and polite society (as “ladies”) or in sin and secrecy (as “whores”), and various shades between the two extremes—rather than as fully formed persons and citizens of God’s kingdom in their own right. Both categories demean, measuring every woman’s worth not by the content of her character, but by the man that chooses her, or doesn’t.

As a result, we don’t know how to understand men as humans either. We can never dehumanize others without also losing a proportional part of our own humanity. This is also a part of Will’s question above. Is there a path to fully formed manhood aside from becoming the “proper, lusty gentleman” his family and culture expected him to be?

Church: Part of the Solution, or Part of the Problem?
That this pattern of dehumanization shows up in the wider culture seems like a given. And if we are struggling, in the midst of an open, liberal culture, to welcome women as full participants in humanity, how much more in other parts of the world. Under Islam? Under Hinduism? In poverty? In slavery?

When it shows up just as vividly in the church, we’re left with two ways to interpret this tendency (and I should emphasize that it is a tendency, a general bent from which many, many men faithfully dissent and diverge). Is it a holdover from a fallen, unconverted world? A brokenness and sorrow from which we should flee, repent, and repair? Or is it, like in so many other religions, just the logical outworking of an understanding of the world shaped by its ancient text (with a simple caveat that the lustful side of the consumer coin should be avoided)?

I’m tipping my hand in the way this question is phrased, for I do believe repentance is called for as the only biblical response—even from those whose ministries and churches have not willfully engaged in these patterns. If #MeToo, #ChurchToo (and #YesAllWomen before that) have shown nothing else, they’ve shown that half the image-bearers in the world have routinely been given a lesser status than the other half. This is a systemic sin, often as invisible to its perpetrators as it is pervasive. Time does not heal sin. Injustice may fade in its visibility, but when the Spirit brings conviction, we have no choice but to see, grieve, repent, and restore, and then call others’ attention to the sin so that they may do likewise.

Lastly, lest we think that the church—the embodied family of Christ on earth—has better things to worry about than what gets hashed out on the Internet, my friend adds: “There is a reason the corporate lament and community of [this moment] happened on social media, even for your sisters in Christ. It’s because, as a general trend, that corporate lament isn’t happening in our churches.” With that in mind, what follows in these next few pieces is, to be sure, a theological and social reflection, but with a firmly pastoral focus. How we think through these things should inform how we weep with those who weep.

Part 2: Men, Women, Image-Bearing and Scripture
Part 3: Cultivation v. Coercion
Part 4: A True and Better Way to Be

Image: Madonna di Campagna, 15th-Century Italian painting

The Example of Jonah

Originally published in Disciple Magazine, April 2014. Part 5 of 5

At last we come to the great “showdown” of this story—when Jonah finally speaks honestly with God and, in spite of his rage and despair, the Lord teaches him graciously yet again who is sovereign and just.

Jonah (after taking a rather, shall we say, circuitous route) obeyed God, delivering a fiery warning of coming judgment to the people of Nineveh. To his surprise, they listened and repented, and, “When God saw their deeds, that they turned from their wicked way, then God relented concerning the calamity which He had declared He would bring upon them. And He did not do it” (3:10).

Far from the reaction you might expect after what looks like a “successful” delivery of his prophetic message, Jonah reflected bitterly on Nineveh’s repentance: “But it greatly displeased Jonah and he became angry” (4:1). In his grief and anger, Jonah cried out to the Lord: “He prayed to the Lord and said, ‘Please Lord, was not this what I said while I was still in my own country? Therefore in order to forestall this I fled to Tarshish, for I knew that You are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness, and one who relents concerning calamity. Therefore now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for death is better to me than life’” (4:2-3). Continue reading

Election Reflection: Burned out, but Building up

Much as this election felt like a long national nightmare—and the wreckage in the rearview mirror leaves me nearly in despair—the outcome and its potential future makes the campaign itself seem merely like the end of the beginning.

I’ve generally refrained from talking partisan politics in this space, and I’ve waited until the end of this cycle to avoid any perception of endorsement or campaigning. This year, though, has so squeezed my principles that they’ve nearly collapsed in on themselves. Whatever spark remained of my younger self’s zest for the intrigues of the political process has been thoroughly snuffed. I’ve watched men & women I respect make apologies for the most reprehensible behavior and diabolical ideas (from both ends of the spectrum). I’ve watched the notion that character matters a whit in any area of life go up in smoke. In an eerily sacramental finale, those of us in the Southeast have had to process these events in a haze of literal smoke.

Though neither party nor their “chosen” candidates (the election was not between two candidates so much as between their anti-matter counterparts—#nevertrump vs. #neverhillary) had anything of substance to offer to most Americans, many projected their desires and fears onto them. Of course this is nothing new, but the level to which fear was the only note played by this year’s band astonished even my inner pessimist.

In the weeks leading up to November, my wife & I both read two recent books that effectively capture two prominent perspectives in the present America. Though undertaken for general interest and learning, reading Hillbilly Elegy by J. D. Vance and Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me quickly came to reverberate the two basic fears driving opposition to the two parties. In these two books, two very different cultures with problems and responsibilities that are both similar and wholly different cry out to be heard and reckoned with. Both are being spoken to by certain constituencies. Both are being sold a mess of pottage by the governing elite and ignored by the broader upper middle class (Charles Murray’s “broad elite“).

Both Vance & Coates speak as “insider-outsiders” with unashamed fondness for their cultural background (and baggage) even as they have risen into the same elite class so blindsided this year. True to his chosen title of “Elegy”, Vance raises more questions than he attempts to answer; Coates’ refrain is more of a damning, poetic indictment of the destruction of black men, women, & children by the dominant culture. Both, though, lean hard into the conversations that our culture doesn’t want to  have but soon may not be able to live without. Both name the unspeakable loss that comes from watching what you love being stripped away by forces often completely out of your control.

These books also reflected for us an exercise in empathy. We are given a glimpse into a culture that, for many of us, is simply “other”: former coal miners or factory workers wade through unemployment, drug addiction, and family breakdown; young black men navigate recognition of their fraught history and witness friends and brothers being killed by police. Walking in such shoes is not something that comes easily to a modestly well-off, educated suburbanite like me. In this respect, readings like this are another step in my own journey to making peace with the privilege and responsibility inherent (to some level or another) in each of our lives.

Empathy goes a long way toward explaining how hard it’s been to watch this political year unfold. The level of my emotional reaction to Trump’s win surprised me. As I’ve tried to tease that out, I’ve joked with friends that “I didn’t know I had an inner liberal before this year, but I do, and he’s angry.” More truthfully, what’s changed for me is having forged real friendships over the past few years with people with very different stories from mine. Blessed with a life full of ladies (I have two sisters and three daughters; no brothers and no sons), I already had a built in revulsion to the way Trump treats and talks about women and the way Mrs. Clinton has thwarted her husband’s accusers, and no desire to see that kind of behavior rewarded and empowered. Watching Trump’s bumbling bring out some of the worst elements of our culture helped me see that the racism (both tacit and virulent) I thought was dead and gone is a part of daily life for my African American brothers and sisters.

Added to that, I’ve been working since March for a ministry focused on equipping churches to alleviate poverty. You can’t spend your time & energy teaching others to recognize and respect the God-given dignity of all people and then sit idly by when the platforms of those who would strip it from so many of them get mainstreamed into American political life.

What I have in common with all of the rest of my compatriots this year is fear. It is written on so many faces; scribbled as the subtext of every commentary on our fractured politics. Fear, powerful motivator though it may be, is most dangerous when we allow it to define our hope. They are natural opposites, these two, but they always tag together. As Paul wrote to the Corinthian church: “Since we have these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit, bringing holiness to completion in the fear of God.” When our fear is properly placed in the Lord (who holds our destinies), our hope is found in him as well. Letting fear reside elsewhere (say, in a Hillary Clinton Presidency) allows hope to attach to utterly untrustworthy objects (such as Donald Trump). All of us struggle to keep this divine perspective, living in quiet terror of losing our spot in life’s queue.

As frustrated as many are with the situation we find ourselves in, I’m forced to wrestle with what a luxury political angst is. Apocalyptic rhetoric has always been a feature of politics in a free society, but (however much it may be justified) it always distracts from the worthwhile endeavors of actually building the communities that build a country. What is worth our time? What will last? What are we willing to give up to gain what is not so easily lost? If each of us (pointing the finger at myself first) spent half the time getting to know and serve our neighbors that we spend digesting national news and wringing our hands, what could be built? The day after the election, a group of us (black and white) sat across the breakfast table from a South Sudanese pastor (whose church is in a refugee camp) talking about the future of his ministry, and our “justifiable” despair at the state of our nation began to look a lot more like petulant self-absorption in the grand view of God’s kingdom.

As 2016 comes to a close and the sorrows of national life mingle with the joys our family and friends have experienced this year, the memory of this apparent annus horribilis may be sweeter than I have capacity to see. Taking time to think and feel and process all that has passed will, I hope allow me to someday tell my children how God is faithful in things big and small, working out His plan despite our penchant to accuse Him of unconcern.

May we all see that, despite the apparent priority of political life, “your life doesn’t change by the man that’s elected” nearly as much as we might think. God is on His throne, and our daily marching orders are still posted as ever.

Photo: Remains of a Forest Fire, Kaibab National Forest, Arizona, October 2016.