Hope, Justified

The first week of Advent, the candle is called the Prophet’s candle, and the theme for the week is Hope.

The old testament reading on Sunday spoke to the hope of the people of Israel:

The days are coming, says the LORD, 
    when I will fulfill the promise 
    I made to the house of Israel and Judah
(Jer 33:14)

My heart thrills to these words because I know they will be echoed on Easter Sunday in Matthew 28:6, when the angel tells the Marys “He is not here! He has risen, just as he said!”

Just as he said.

I didn’t understand how important this was to me until a bit ago, when one of my children asked me why I believe in God. “Because he keeps his promises” I told them without hesitation, and realized the truth of the words as they left my mouth. I am a Martha—practical and proficient. I am also a Thomas, in a way. I don’t need to see with my eyes to believe, but I need to feel presence. I need to be in relationship.

It takes a lot of hope and trust to be in relationship with God. I didn’t know that as a child. I thought the adults in my life could see God himself; I figured that at some point, I would have enough faith and poof! be able to see God too. When that didn’t happen by the time I was in high school, I kind of thought I wasn’t good enough. But who wants to internalize that? So I built a God wall around myself and dared God to climb it. If he loved me, he would. 

God could have blown my wall down in a hot second, roared at me in all his glory and humbled me into submission. But he loves me, so he didn’t.

He could have met my demand that he prove himself in my life by climbing that wall. But he loves me, so he didn’t.

Instead, he moved in someone else’s life, and I was lucky enough to be a witness.

When I was a junior in high school, my religion teacher Mrs. D was a sweet, young and faithful woman who was newly married. Early in the year, she announced she was pregnant. This is not an announcement that a teacher undertakes lightly. Pregnancy is a private matter, but in a way, your students are part of your privacy circle. You can’t hide it, and you know that they will become invested. So you think carefully about when you will tell them. In all three of my pregnancies, my students were the last to know, well into the second trimester.

I don’t know how pregnant Mrs. D was when she announced her first pregnancy. But she lost the baby soon after. When she announced in the Spring that she was pregnant again, she waited long enough that she had a bump. But again, soon after announcing, she lost the baby.

We were so sad for her. Sometimes in teenagers, that looks like anger. I was critical of her continued prayers in class that God would send her a child. It made me uncomfortable, like she was begging for something for which she had already been told no, twice. Her hope felt too vulnerable to me, too trusting, like her heart was laid outside her body and unprotected. How many time would she allow God to break her heart?

But she persisted, in hope and faith.

When we returned in the Fall, she was clearly pregnant again. She didn’t say anything. She walked around class every day, in maternity clothes, acting like there was no growing belly, nothing to see. We figured she was scared and who could blame her?

But she wasn’t scared. And she was not as pregnant as she looked.

She was carrying twins.

When she told us, with a clap of thunder, I could see God.

Not because of my faith. Because of hers. Not because God kept a promise to me. Because he kept a promise to her. Not because his plan for good won out in my life. Because it won out in hers.

I do not mean to suggest in any way that her struggle with becoming a mom was for my benefit. It’s gross to even type those words. It was her journey, and I don’t know the intimate truths behind it.

And at the time, I still thought her relationship with God—and therefore mine—was transactional. God had taken two babies away and then when she was ready?…deserving?…obedient?…enough, he gave her two babies at once. It would take me years to shake off this misunderstanding, that our God is a God of whims and manipulations. Not until my own spiritual battle around a serious illness did I understand the folly of that thinking: God does not create pain in our lives for his own glory later. He loves us and will work his plans for our good, for our welfare and hope (Jer 29), and work all things—even the bad and evil things—for the good of those who love him (Rom 8). It’s not transactional. We don’t have to deserve it. It is ours from love. Our hope is justified.

So as we wait in the quiet winters of our lives—not only this season of Advent, but also this time of COVID, or whatever winters we are currently experiencing—we have to keep the light of hope burning in our hearts. God will keep his promises to us.

Just as he said.

How the Household Codes Justify Racism

(#10 in a series)

There is a group of white moms in this nation who call themselves “Moms For Liberty”. In Tennessee, one of the most vocal leaders is a nasty woman whose only school-age child attends a private school. Nevertheless, she has made a name for herself attacking public school curriculum that tells the truth about race relations in the founding and building of this nation. I’m not talking about #CRT. This is not about teaching the naked, murderous triangle trade to second graders. This is about “The Story of Ruby Bridges”.

Six year old Ruby Bridges.

If you just dismiss this as more privileged white supremacy in the South, you are making a mistake. It is not just in the South. It’s more pernicious, with implications nation wide.

One of the main criticisms of The Making of Biblical Womanhood is that it exposes the oppression of white women within what is a predominantly white and privileged faith movement. Barr speaks to African American Protestantism briefly in chapter 7, and to the Iglesia movement in the US not at all. To her credit, she now realizes this and has acknowledged her narrow focus. I think her work is so important that we should give her grace—her focus was narrowed by her upbringing in the Southern Baptist church, and on purpose. She is waking up to many realities of the world outside that experience. The good news is that she is growing, as all white feminists—including myself—must grow.

I wrote to the book as she presented it—sans race—because I believe that more white women need to understand what they have to gain from clinging to their own oppression, so that we can stop being a roadblock to ending the oppression of others.

I’ll say that again—white women have something to gain from their oppression. And we know it.

If you read the Household Codes in Paul’s letters, you may have noticed something besides the call for women to submit to their husbands. In Ephesians 6, Colossians 3, Titus 2 and 1 Peter 2, the exhortation for wives is followed by one for slaves: Slaves, be subject to your masters with all reverence, not only to those who are good and equitable but also to those who are perverse (1 Peter 2: 18). These very verses were used to justify the ownership of slaves in the Southern US through the Civil War. For example, the Presbyterian Church of America (formerly  the Presbyterian Church of the Confederate States of America):

At the start of the Civil War, southern Presbyterian churches split from northern presbyters and formed the Presbyterian Church in the Confederate States of America. This southern wing of Presbyterianism explained their defense of slavery in a theology that emphasized a literal reading of the Bible. This reading saw a support for slavery (where does the Bible say slavery is a sin?) and for racial differences (often in the story of Babel).

Presbyterians who opposed slavery were cast as deviating from a literal, faithful reading of the Bible. These were viewed as deviations from true Christianity; abolitionists were using theological arguments, not Biblical texts, to make their case. (www.religionnews.com, 6/10/2016).

In fact, the PCCSA released a letter to all Christian churches in 1861 exposing their embrace of Original Sin (hierarchy):

“Human rights are not a fixed, but a fluctuating quantity… As you go up, the

number of rights increases, but the number who possess them diminishes. As you

go down the line, the rights are diminished, but the individuals are

multiplied….Before slavery can be charged with doing him injustice, it must be

shown that the minimum which falls to his lot at the bottom of the line is out of

proportion to his capacity and culture.” (Richards, John Edward, The Historical Birth of the Presbyterian Church in America)

I use the PCA as an example, but I could have used the Southern Baptists, whose Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, founded by slave owners, “backed a white supremacist ideology” (Oldest Institution of Southern Baptist Convention Reveals Past Ties to Slavery, 2018). Or even my own Catholic church, the dominant faith in Spain and Portugal, whose ships initiated and perpetuated the Triangle Trade, and whose Jesuits priests sold 272 slaves from that trade to save the University of Georgetown from bankruptcy. All of them used a strict reading of scripture to justify their participation in one of the greatest sins of humanity, reading justification for enslavement into the bible, just as they did patriarchy, in service to themselves and at complete disregard for the Gospels.

It was—is—a triumph of Original Sin, seeded in our houses of worship.

So here is my confession: as a white Catholic woman, I knew my church had a patriarchy problem. But I didn’t see the racism problem until it sat up next to me in Mass and shouted out during the elections in 2008, 2012, 2016 and 2020. And the reason is not that it didn’t exist, but that I didn’t have to see it. As a white woman, I had that choice.

And that’s what made me realize that white women have something to gain from their oppression: status.

After all,  if the Bible is inerrant in Colossians 3:18, then it must be inerrant in Colossians 3:22. White Christian women  who follow biblical womanhood are expected to submit to their husbands, but the trade off is that they will be held higher than those “down the line” whose “rights are diminished”.  History has borne this out—plenty of violence has been inflicted on people of color in the name of “protecting” white women.

And while Barr is right that the sin of hierarchy has made some white Christian women victims, the trade off has made many more willingly complicit in the sin of inflicting oppression on others. Like the “Moms of Liberty” demanding that the world can only been seen through their eyes and experience, we exchange nominal freedoms for the right to feel better than everyone except the white men in our lives.

And then we call ourselves “oppressed”.

Realizing that my feminism is privileged and part of the problem has been hard for me. But our favorite guy Paul makes the way forward pretty clear:

“Our desire is not that others might be relieved while you are hard pressed, but that there might be equality. At the present time your plenty will supply what they need, so that in turn their plenty will supply what you need. The goal is equality, as it is written: “The one who gathered much did not have too much, and the one who gathered little did not have too little” (2 Cor 8:13-15).

Original Sin

(This is #9 in a series)

Barr helped us understand how hierarchical patriarchy was self-serving for the Greeks and Romans and perpetuated a culture of war where those who control the resources—money, power, violence, property—make rules that have historically served themselves. She showed us how the Catholic church and then the Protestant churches used—profited from?—supported?—patriarchy as a social structure to elevate their own power and interests, even to the point that these social structures were then read into the Bible, turned around and presented as God’s Truth. 

This is a product of dualistic thinking, where the world is black and white, win or lose, best or worst, rich or poor, healthy or sick, fed or hungry, etc. Franciscan Richard Rohr believes that the human propensity for dualistic thinking is driven by our ego, which he defines as “that part of the self that wants to be significant, central, and important by itself, apart from anybody else. It wants to be both separate and superior” (www.cac.org 7/12/16). It is  base human nature to assert our self over others. The Catholic Church calls this base nature “fallen”.

In fact, here is how the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) describes Original Sin:

Man, tempted by the devil, let his trust in his Creator die in his heart, and abusing his freedom, disobeyed God’s command…in that sin, he preferred himself to God and by that very act, scorned him. He chose himself over and against God…Created in a state of holiness, man was destined to be fully “divinized” by God in glory. Seduced by the devil, he wanted to “be like God” but “without God, before God, and not in accordance with God” (CCC 397-398).

Unhappy with being “less than” God, humankind reduced God to his possession of power, then lusted for that power, in violation of the three sins of which John warns us in 1 John 2:15-16:  If anyone loves the world, love for the Father is not in them. For everything in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—comes not from the Father but from the world.

The disobedience in the Adam and Eve story is also sin, but it is not the Original Sin. It is the effect of the desire to be greater than God. Hierarchy IS THE ORIGINAL SIN. It has manifested itself throughout history as war, genocide, racism, colonization, fascism, communism, totalitarianism, nationalism, and patriarchy. 

Since sometimes the concept of hierarchical patriarchy seems too liberal arts college for most Christians—and no surprise there is a strong anti-academic vein in evangelical congregations—it’s important to have personal examples. Barr shares hers in Chapter 8.

It begins with a name familiar to the secular world through a scandal related to the Duggar family. You may remember that when news of Josh Duggar’s sexual molestation of 5 young women (including his sisters) broke, the Duggars claimed that at the time they had sent Josh to the head of their evangelical congregation for “counseling”. That man’s name was Bill Gothard.

Barr tells us that she attended a sermon by Gothard with her then-boyfriend. She makes the point that they were not dating, but “courting”—which meant that “marriage was in (their) future”. She speak of her understanding of marriage which came from her Southern Baptist upbringing: “that women are weak while men are strong”. As their relationship progressed, her boyfriend became abusive, and Barr felt helpless to escape what within her community was considered a de facto engagement. It was her job to stand by him “hoping that what I experienced as anger would mature into strength and that all would become right with my world” (202).

It took the movie Sleeping With the Enemy—a Julia Roberts movie about a woman who goes to great lengths to escape her abusive husband—before Barr realized she was in significant danger.

No wonder—she was raised in a church where men like Paige Patterson were powerful and prominent leaders. In 2000, Patterson said this, as reported in The Denver Post (5/4/2018):

Last week, an audio recording surfaced on which Paige Patterson, a high-profile Southern Baptist leader, says abused wives should avoid divorce, pray for their violent husbands, and “be submissive in every way that you can.” Patterson is an ordained pastor, a former SBC president and the current president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth.

“It depends on the level of abuse to some degree,” Patterson is heard saying on the 2000 tape. “I have never in my ministry counseled anybody to seek a divorce, and I do think that is always wrong counsel.” He adds, “On an occasion or two when the level of abuse was serious enough,” he has suggested a temporary separation.

This man was the president of a Baptist seminary. In 2018, when under fire for mishandling a rape allegation on SWBTS campus which would eventually lead to his downfall, when questioned by the victim’s mother about his decision making, “Patterson ‘lunged across the table, firmly pointed his finger in her face and threatened to ‘unleash’ lawyers on her if she dared question his leadership’” (baptistnews.com, 6/24/2019).

Barr knows now that there is a link between patriarchal complementarianism and abuse in evangelical churches. The data bears it out as do the myriad of sexual misconduct scandals of the last decades. Barr sums it up here: “Hierarchy gives birth to patriarchy and patriarchy gives birth to the abuse of sex and power” (207). I see this reflected in my own Catholic Church and the sex abuse scandals that continue to plague us. They are a result of the clericalism of a hierarchical church, the elevating and isolating of a group of men, empowered with almost unquestionable authority, backed by wealth and prestige.

Both examples have one glaring fault in common—the absence of women in positions of equal power, resulting in a unnatural imbalance where men and the institutions they lead become extremely disordered.

We all—but women in particular—have an obligation to look at our churches through a new lens. How does our faith institution promote hierarchical thinking? How does it support patriarchy? How does it shield its male leaders when they become embroiled in scandals of sex and power? How does it make room for women and in what kind of roles?

How does it participate in politics and which candidates does it support? How successful has it been really in growing past Original Sin?

My Church doesn’t score well. Does yours?

I have one more topic next week, an extension of Barr’s conversation into our current social climate. Until then, I’ll leave you some of Barr’s final words:

Complementarianism is patriarchy, and patriarchy is about power. Neither have ever been about Jesus.

Jesus set women free a long time ago.

Go, be free!

(218)

Sacred Oppression

(This is #8 in a series).

After everywhere we’ve been in this book, Chapter 7 starts with some surprising facts: Women preached in evangelical churches for a century prior to WWII. Barr cites Timothy Larson’s “Evangelicalism” Strong History of Women in Ministry” (2017), in which he characterizes “women’s involvement in public ministry ‘a historic distinctive of evangelism’” (175). From Methodists to Calvinists to—yes—Southern Baptists, women have been allowed to preach. The SBC even ordained a woman, Addie Davis, in 1964 and sponsored a conference on women’s role in ministry in 1974 (175). Barr spends pages laying out the history.

So what changed?

Barr lays it at the feet of two events. The fundamental-modernist controversy in the early 20th century churches “split evangelicals into liberal and conservative camps, laying the groundwork for the modern culture wars. Liberals wanted a more ecumenical approach to missions and the freedom to modernize traditional beliefs; conservatives wanted to protect traditional beliefs against encroaching cultural pressures” (188). The “central drama” was over biblical inerrancy, with the fundamentalists firmly in the camp that believed “not only that the Bible was without error, but that it had to be without error to be true at all” (188). Barr says “the…emphasis on inerrancy went hand in hand with a wide-ranging attempt to build up the authority of male preachers at the expense of women” (189). A side benefit of inerrancy was “an atmosphere of fear. Any question raised about biblical accuracy must be completely answered or completely rejected to prevent the fragile fabric of faith from unraveling” (190).

The second event was the rise of the Arian heresy in evangelical churches. This heresy, discarded by the church in 325 CE at the Council of Nicaea, stated that within the Trinity, the Son and Holy Spirit are subject to the Father, making the power structure between the three uneven. The council rejected this idea and confirmed that the Trinity is one God in three persons, light from light, true God from true God. To suggest that the Son submits to the Father is to deny the heart of Christianity.

Barr shares the opinion of Kevin Giles that the resurgence of Arianism in the American evangelical church is a failure of education: “’In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, conservative evangelicals were among those with a very weak and sometimes erroneous grasp of the historically developed doctrine of the Trinity’” (195). Without a strong grounding in theology that would have helped them understand that we should be more like God, these preachers “fought to make God look more like us” (195). If the Son submits to the Father, then too the congregation to the preacher, the wife to the husband, the child to the parent, the slave to the master, the poor to the rich, and so on.

Barr presents this information objectively, but it is impossible to read it that way.

And honestly, I don’t know where to begin.

Catholics do not read the bible literally, because there are textual errors in the Bible. For example, the earth is not flat; the sun does not revolve around the earth; dinosaurs were real and the earth is older than 7000 years. The folks who wrote the Bible did the best they could with the information they had. However, we do believe that the truth of the message of salvation is inerrant. For example, when Jesus said “Amen, amen, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you” (John 6:53), this was not open to interpretation. For 2000 years, we have proven that it is possible to hold these two ideas—that the Bible has errors in it AND the Bible is the Word of God—without our faith wavering or God being diminished.

Also, the idea that the Word is frail is ridiculous. The Word is God. God is not frail. That’s the kind of thing Satan would have us believe.

However, these two events in the evangelical church underscore the point from two weeks ago—the Word is vulnerable. It can be manipulated by those with human and sinful intentions. The truth will out because God can’t be contained, but in the meantime, the Word can be used by those who would make themselves into gods. Barr doesn’t go this far, but I will–to suggest that the Bible in its entirety is inerrant and must be accepted literally is to ask people to accept that the world is flat, the sun orbits the earth, dinosaurs never lived, science is fake—

Do you see? It is a direct line from these two events to where we are today. Evangelicals have been trained to not believe what their eyes see, their ears hear, and their minds know.

None of this—not biblical womanhood, or biblical inerrancy or the emphasis on Greek and Roman hierarchical structures—is about God’s kingdom on earth. It has nothing to do with Gospel.

Last week, I taught my 4th and 5th graders to judge a tree by its fruit. We talked about the fruit that shrivels on the branch and the kind that falls to the ground. We talked about how a healthy tree produces healthy, life-giving fruit and we talked about what that fruit—the fruit of the Spirit—looks like in people: Kindness. Love. Goodness. Gratefulness. Patience. Joy. Peace. Self-control. Gentleness.

It’s time to apply these same ideas to our churches.

The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing Christians that oppression is godly. That God ordained some people, simply because of their sex or skin color (or both), as belonging under the power of other people (173).

The Good Girls

Barr opens this chapter with a gnarly cautionary tale from a medieval sermon:

The story goes like this: Sex was considered impure, so medieval Christians were encouraged to abstain from sex during holy times (which was a lot of time on the medieval calendar). A woman wanted to have sex with her husband on Easter morning. He said no. She was so overcome by desire that she tried to seduce her brother-in-law, who also denied her. Mad with lust, she grabbed a sword and cut off his head. When her husband found her, standing with the sword dripping blood, she declared “Lo, all this I have done, you have made me do!”(151)

The point of the sermon was that while we should abstain from sex during holy times, the “marriage debt” is real and should not have been denied. Barr writes “because of the natural weakness of the female body, medieval women were considered more prone to sin, especially sexual sin” (151). In other words, by denying his wife sex, the man caused her to commit the sin of murder, driven mad by her unfulfilled desire.

As a Catholic, this is the sexual trope with which I am most familiar: the Temptress. The more sexual a woman is, the more sinful. After the safety of our children, it’s hard to find a more indelible failure in the Catholic Church than the enduring belief that women are sexually fallen.

But Barr states that this is not the same way evangelical churches view women. Pre-Reformation, women’s sexuality was a sinful temptation, but a woman could eschew marriage and family, enter a convent and be heard as a doctor of the Church. Post-Reformation, women’s sexuality was a fragile, sacred calling to be protected at all costs; voluntary virginity was devalued as “spinsterhood” and a good woman moved demurely from her father’s authority to a husband’s. Barr says that “patriarchy shapeshifted” between the pre-and post-Reformation and “Instead of women finding holiness through virginity, they now found it in the marriage bed. The most sacred vessels were no longer the men and women who rose about their sex to serve God; the most holy institution was now the holy household”(152-53).

Again, as a Catholic, we do not carry these attitudes about the “holy household” in general, at least not in any way that places the father and husband in such a locus of control; marriage is a sacrament and vocation for both men and woman, and children are a result of that sacramental union. In the last 20 years, the traditional conservative side of our church, overly influenced by evangelical politics, has embraced more of the Anglo-Saxon Protestant ethics. Mistakenly, as Pope Francis continues to admonish them.

Regardless—both of these attitudes resulted in a social norming of female modesty as evidence of holiness. In this context, I mean the word “modesty” to apply not just to clothing, but an entire way of being female.

Barr tells the story of taking a group of girls to a church camp in the sticky heat of summer. Some of them wore tank tops. They were asked to change by camp directors: “’The straps on their tank tops are too thin. Their bra straps will show. We need them to cover up’”(154). They provided the girls with giant, shapeless men’s tshirts as an alternative.

Barr says that her girls had followed the dress code which allowed sleeveless tops. While the camp directors acknowledged this, they still wanted the girls to cover up. Barr refused, multiple times. But then she was confronted with this: “Modesty honors God, and didn’t the girls want to honor God?” (155). They covered up.

This concept of modesty as a reflection of “good girl” status stems from the cult of domesticity of the 19th century. Familiar to us through books and movies, this social norm “elevat(ed) the home as the safest space for respectable women” (156). Young girls were taught by governesses and finishing schools the necessary skills to provide a peaceful, well-functioning home for their future husbands.

This reminded me of a scene in Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen.  Austen was famously critical of social mores in 1810s England. Haughty Caroline Bingley, trying to highlight Lizzie’s lack of “training”, describes an “accomplished woman” thusly:  A woman must have a thorough knowledge of music, singing, drawing, dancing, all the modern languages, to deserve the word; and besides all this, she must possess a certain something in her air and manner of walking, the tone of her voice, her address and expressions, or the word will be but half deserved.” Darcy’s reply: “And to all this she must yet add something more substantial, in the improvement of her mind by extensive reading.” The sarcasm is lost on Caroline but would not have been missed by Austen’s female readers of the early 19th century. Nor the fact that Austen’s most accomplished characters are always the most flawed.

Barr argues that the modern (post-1990s) emphasis on biblical womanhood in evangelical churches is really a return to the cult of domesticity, another example where evangelicals read culture into the Bible. As I pointed out in my first post, the evangelical definition of biblical womanhood emphasizes behavior over spirit. A home-schooling mom with a clean house and the soul of a harpy is of less concern than a working mom with a heart of gold. To this point, prominent female evangelical writers and speakers (aka working moms) tie themselves into knots to present primarily as wives and mothers, obscuring their work behind their “holy modesty”. Barr writes that “being a wife and mother gives evangelical women credibility” and that most of them built fame from “the poured foundation of marriage and family” (168). This speaks to Barr’s point that “women adapt to the ever-changing rules of patriarchy” (169).

I believe this particular adaptation comes with a high cost. Many evangelical women are working within a framework they did not invent, but it often feels disingenuous to me, a pernicious type of virtue-signaling by a certain social class of Christian women. The primacy of their wife- and motherhood is a lie—they are moguls—but it makes their voices palatable to evangelical men. Who it hurts is other Christian women without their opportunities and/or resources, or who are struggling just to do the wife and mom part.  It is an impossible benchmark for most women to hit. We have only begun to understand the impact this constant comparison has on the mental and emotional health of women, but it feels like another type of oppression.

I want to recognize that this is a privileged conversation from start to finish, largely devoid of any consideration of race or class. Barr quotes an infamous 2018 blog post from The Transformed Wife (www.thetransformedwife.com, visit at your own risk), written by Lori Alexander:  “The chart, titled ‘Should Women Have Careers?’ went viral in 2018. Her answer, clearly, was no. In Alexander’s opinion, a stay-at-home mom has a ‘fulfilling life’ and ‘her husband and children rise up and call her blessed’, whereas a working mom has a life that is ‘falling apart’” (172). It’s hard to imagine a more privileged point of view which simultaneously shames mothers everywhere and ignores the very real struggles of class and race.

It is no surprise that the women who espouse their own imprisonment work tirelessly to justify it. Human nature requires us to be better than someone.

More on that later.