50 Pastors, Roy Moore and Matthew 5:29

 

I have never in my life so far, or even once since becoming a Christian, advocated, believed in or approved of anything that looks like the authoritarian practice of ‘shunning’ or disfellowshipping, as it is practiced in various Christian traditions. It’s not an Anglican practice, and my understanding of it is very much in the context of it being practiced abusively by those who have more power, over those who have less. I have witnessed it toxic effects up close, and I do not believe it is healthy practice.

And then I saw that more than 50 Christian pastors had publicly given their support to Roy Moore.

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Christians have never been the most cohesive group of people. Even in the very earliest days of the church, Apostle’s quarrelled amongst themselves, and barely had Jesus ascended from Bethany before the church started writing women out of its formation, leadership and history. Arguably, you cannot trace the evolution of Christian tradition without acknowledging the fundamental role that it’s many splits played, not only in its differing theologies, but in the way that it sees itself, and how it portrays itself to ‘the World’.

Many of those splits could be considered a moral necessity, yet we must also remember the fullness of context: for example whilst Martin Luther was anti-semite,  a legacy that the Protestant church has yet to truly and properly acknowledge, Bonhoeffer’s split with the German Lutheran church helped grow a legacy of theology as resistance, as well as liberation.

Neither is the Anglican and Anglo-Catholic wing of the church without considerable failing – the role the Anglican Church played the treatment of Native peoples at the hands of her missionaries, for example, rightly remains an issue of contention with Indigenous people today .

But the Church is not without a model for corporate repentance, for there are moments in history when the body of Christ must reflect on its corporate sins and repent – as the Church of England did 10 years ago, when reflected on how it backed the slave trade, something which it acknowledged and apologised for. Dr Rowan Williams, the then Archbishop of Canterbury, said this:

“The body of Christ is not just a body that exists at any one time, it exists across history and we therefore share the shame and the sinfulness of our predecessors and part of what we can do, with them and for them in the body of Christ, is prayer for acknowledgement of the failure that is part of us not just of some distant ‘them’.”

The corporate Church across all of its traditions, however, is yet to truly repent for its systemic failure to address its sexual sins: long before those 50 pastors decided to support a man whose personal morality is at the very (very) least questionable, the Catholic Church and Protestants both have come under scrutiny with regard to the abuse of children by its priests and pastors. So the response from  some wings of the Church to the accusations against Roy Moore, whilst immensely disheartening, was sadly unsurprising. Only a day or so before the open letter of support was published by the Alabama Pastors, Franklin Graham Jnr, had tweeted his own support for Roy Moore.

Those 50 pastors represent a small-ish but hardcore group of Christians who assume that a powerful, influential man is more likely to be the victim in the situation than a child; who are so in thrall to a phoney gospel that they will leave the widow and the orphan, and the violated child, out in the cold. It does not matter that I am from a different Christian tradition – it matters only that the body of Christ “..exists across history and we therefore share the shame and the sinfulness of our predecessors..” – and, indeed, our peers.

Children, in this instance young girls, were used and abused yet these 50 pastors hear those cries and they react first with paranoia, and suspicion. If we will know them by their fruits, and their fruits are as rank, as bitter and as spiritless as this – what place exactly do they have in the Body of Christ?  If abusers are welcome at the table but victims are not, when is it time to cut out the eye that causes us to stumble? Had we already gone past that point when the Church gave slave traders a theology to justify their trade?

I don’t have answers: I do have anger, and hurt and frustration both as a victim, a woman, a survivor and a Christian.Was Jesus not explicit enough when he warned us not to make these little ones stumble? Was he not severe enough we he said it would be better to drown, than to cause such stumbling to a child?

Or will centuries have to pass before we take responsibility, before we humble ourselves again before God, before we say sorry and repent, before the victims receive the justice, and the peace, to which we were called to live out in the first place? And is it time to gouge out the eye, if it means we will see more clearly?

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Blind to Poverty: The Stoney Heart of #TheGospelAccordingToIDS

“When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist.”  

Hélder Câmara”

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Steve Bell on IDS 12/11/2010

It came across my tweeter feed this evening, and suffice it to say, my reaction was not a calm one. “Priti Patel MP: The bishops are blind to the moral message of IDS’s gospel of work.” Gospel of work?  GOSPEL?

Oh what fresh hell was this? After all, we are talking about the man of the Easterhouse Epiphany, who successfully fooled many with his new found desire to pursue ‘compassionate Conservatism’. This was a man who – perhaps because under his leadership the Conservative party were suffering mightily in the opinion polls – was already exploiting his religion in order to appeal to the conservative (small c) heartland, crying in public about ‘the poor’ and proclaiming his concern about how the secularisation of Great Britain might be one of Britain’s ‘biggest problems‘.

So well did he play the part of the caring and compassionate Conservative Christian leader that he was invited to speak at the Labour Party conference in 2005 by Bob Holman, founder of the Easterhouse based charity FARE, and it was where IDS proclaimed: “Everyone should have enough money to live properly in their community.”  And whilst his appeal to the conservative heartland did not save his leadership of the Tory party, it paved the way to a successful re-invention which allowed him to pursue his calling as Secretary of State for Work and Pensions.

So let us return to this ‘moral’ message, this ‘gospel of work’ – the Christian inference  is clear, and I would suggest, deliberate. The word ‘gospel’ is of course a rendering of the Greek word meaning ‘good news’ evangelion and is most often associated with Christianity. The premise then of this post is simple: that the bishops (and by extension any one who agrees with them about benefit cuts and caps which have been metered out under Duncan Smith) are failing to accept the ‘morality’ which drives this, and haven’t accepted the ‘gospel’ that this is The Way in which the poor should be dealt with.

Or to put it another way, this is the gospel according to Ian Duncan Smith, and there is something wrong with us if we don’t see it his way.

When you build a society in which people are only valued for their economic output, is is those least able to produce economically who suffer. And when your ‘morality’ is built on the premise that those who cannot produce economically should be forced to do so, inevitably you will find the belief that their poverty is their own fault, that it is a weakness of which they must be cured. And that is what is at the heart of this ‘gospel’ – the poor are poor because they have chosen to be so, and these cuts whom so many others can see as wrong, are in fact for their own good.

Under the last Labour Government, the concept of welfare went wrong. We saw an extreme culture of dependency on welfare developing where families became trapped – sometimes by deliberate choice and sometimes by accident – in a cycle of dependency in which they were rewarded for not working. This cycle also affected generations of households, which led to the erosion of the basic value of hard work, aspiration and the general desire to want to get on in life. (Emphasis mine)

People, so the narrative goes, have found a ‘lifestyle’ from which they need to be saved. In this narrative, the disabled aren’t doing enough for themselves, and those struggling with mental health issues could certainly make more of an effort. The LGBTIQ+ community might struggle with stigma and poverty, but if they could only stop being so ‘dependent’..  With this sort of view of humanity, it must make sense to take away social housing and take money away from domestic violence refuges, because naturally the last thing those escaping from domestic violence need after running away with their kids from life threatening violence is to develop ‘dependency issues’. And god help you if you are black or of colour.

Duncan Smith’s gospel is nothing at all like the gospel as proclaimed by Christ. It is, however, quite a lot like the ‘prosperity gospel‘, as proclaimed by a number of (very wealthy) preachers. But it isn’t good news for the poor, it wont set any captives free and it certainly isn’t life.

It’s a fake and phoney gospel, and if you don’t conform to it, it will kill you.

Between a Rock and a Hard Place Pt 1: The Gendered Language of God and Praying to My Divine Parent For A Church That Puts Victims First

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But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong;  God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are,  so that no one might boast in the presence of God. 1 Corinthians 27-29 (NRSV)

If your understanding of the discussion around the gendered language Christians use about God was based only on what you have read recently in the national media, you would be forgiven for thinking that the use of feminised worship and liturgical language was the concern of a few white middle class cis women. And indeed in the UK, WATCH (Women And The Church) who led the successful campaign for women bishops, is driving much of the current  national conversation. I agree with them: I am, however, frustrated with much of the mainstream church discussion** and media coverage. Whilst the Rev Jody Stowell has at least acknowledged that this is also about race, and has written and spoken about the need for more inclusive church for the LGBTIQ community, there is little acknowledgement about how this conversation matters for women who are black, of colour, transgender, bisexual, lesbian, or intersex people – and no acknowledgement at all about what this would mean for victims of abuse, and the intersections of all these.

This conversation of course did not start when Rachel Held Evans was called ‘heretic’ for referring to God as ‘She’, or with the recent discussion at the Westminster Faith Debates. But this conversation matters, because this is not just about sexism and misogyny in the Church. Its also about homophobia, transphobia, and the systemic sexual, physical, emotional and spiritual abuse and victim blaming which so plagues, the world – and the Church.

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The medium is the message.

When we [Christians] speak about our faith, our message of the liberation, transformation, reconciliation, forgiveness and – above all – the eternal and encompassing love of Christ, we too often fail to think about who and what we are when we speak it.  Christians most normally fall to the arrogance of assuming that our faith provides us with a mantle that erases whiteness, maleness, heterosexuality and gender identity, magically giving us the insight to assume that know and understand what, in fact, we do not. Instead we take passages of scripture (all too often without recognising it’s cultural, historical context) and apply it like a sledgehammer against people and situations.

The overt use of masculine, white, language and imagery when speaking of God to people who find themselves excluded, rejected, oppressed, unloved, and silenced by white masculine cultural, political (and yes, religious) dogma’s of society distorts the message: and it is not Christ that people hear, but the white masculinity that abuses and oppresses them.

So often I see cis, white hetrosexual men claiming a mantle of ‘counter cultural’ and I wonder at the cognitive dissonance which allows them to believe this. There is nothing ‘counter cultural’ about people who embody the dominant power structures, and speak its language, albeit wrapped up in scripture, God and Jesus. It makes the very liberation promised in the Gospel a tool through which the oppressor maintains its dominance. The Gospel stops being hope, love, faith and restoration – it stops being a language of repentance and reconciliation. Instead it becomes a rigid and unbending ideology, the cage within which people are imprisoned, rather than the key which sets them free.

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Regardless of denomination, the Church is not very good at dealing with the abuse: it is too quick to excuse the abuser, and does not listen to and believe the abused. Instead of being people who ‘come out from among them’ to be separate and truly ‘counter cultural’ – instead of going against what the world does when it excuses the abuser and does not believe the abused – it acts with the world. It replaces the excuses the world gives to the abuser (‘he was jealous’, ‘he was stressed’, ‘he was depressed’) with ‘we are all sinners’: the words are different, but for the victim the impact is the same – the abuser had no control, no responsibility. It couldn’t be helped. Forgive them – everyone deserves a second chance.

For the victim, this attitude is tantamount to the trauma and damage being brushed aside, swept away as though it were just dirt on the floor that simply requires a decent broom for everything to be made clean again, potentially deepening the wounds the inflicted. Instead of offering the love and justice of Christ – who would not break a bruised reed or snuff out a smouldering wick – the church offers instead exactly the same as the world does. Thoughtless indifference at best – cruel disregard at worst.

It is an approach that fails the abused – and an approach that makes the possibility of genuine, radical and effective ministry to the abuser impossible.

In the moment that the abused comes forward, instead of finding the mother bear who will love them and fight ferociously to protect and care for them, they are met instead with the embodiment of the very cause of their trauma – powerful people, protecting the person who had the power to harm them in the first place. Instead of the mother crying with and for her child, the abused are met instead with disbelief, or even shame.

This is what the world does – it excuses the abused and shames the victim. Language alone is not responsible for that – but language matters when the weakest, the most vulnerable, those ‘made low and despised by the world’ are found amongst us, or come to us.  The abused should not hear from us the language of the world which despises them, but the God – the parent who is Mother as well as Father – who will take care of them and make them safe.  And they should hear that because that is what the Spirit of God is: both (and neither) feminine and masculine, not one predominant over the other but the Divine parent, taking the best possible care of the children that are so loved that it would, and did, sacrifice anything for them

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**In various corners of the internet, a deeper conversation can be found about feminine images for God, and the use of feminised language.  Here are two posts by Sarah Moon over at Patheos Blogs, which I really love.

 

On The Violence and Transmisogyny of Christian Men and White Feminsim: Putting Ideology Before Love (TW/CN)

This article will discuss the violent, transphobic and transmisogynistic responses to the transgender community by – specifically – Meghan Murphy, Owen Strachan and Matt Walsh. The articles they produced, and which have rightly been received with revulsion by many, are linked using ‘do not link’: but given their content, I urge care and caution. 

Some time ago I was struggling to find the words to express what I saw as the parallels between anti-trans radical feminism and conservative (evangelical) Christianity: I recognised in both the desire to maintain the gender binary, the dismissal (in words, and in silence) of our black and of colour trans sisters, and the rigid ideology that grips tightly to a biological binary view of human beings. But my thoughts struggled to translate to words.

Dianna E Anderson, writer of Damaged Goods, whose experience living within, and studying, Christian Purity Culture adds a vibrant and vital perspective to the faith and feminist conversation, put it into words in a recent post on her blog, noting the similarity between the fundamentalist Christian thought process she had internalized during her years within that, and Radical Feminism, describing one as the ‘Church of Biblical Womanhood’ and the other the ‘Good Church of Radical Womanhood’.

In the last of couple of weeks, attacks have been made against the transgender community, one under the guise of feminism and others in the name of Christianity (and I would again urge caution before reading those articles by Meghan Murphy, Matt Walsh and Owen Strachan).

Murphy, like Sarah Ditum before her, targeted Laverne Cox: Walsh and Strachan targeted Caitlyn Jenner* following Jenner’s public revelation that they identify as a woman. There are notable parallels between their arguments; the premise from which both camps start is a conviction of the rightness of their own rigid ideologies; both camps understand patriarchy in the same black and white, binary manner (even if they come to that from different sides); both hold to an understanding of unity which is restrictive and prescriptive of womanhood (one through the idea of ‘shared womanhood’ and the other through their own understanding of Christ); both are rooted in a structural racism and colonialism from which they make no effort to divest, and both end up in a place where trans women – particularly black and of colour trans women – are met with brutal and violent resistance in word and thought, which is so often the pre-curser to violent deeds.

I want to refrain from analysing the reasons for these parallels too deeply right now, partly because there are writers out there who are doing a far better job of this that I would be able to, and because it is the distressing impact on women that is my own first concern: trans women are dying (TW) facing abuse and brutality (TW) and when both Christians and feminists – both of whom believe in the need for human liberation – express that same violence against human beings, and exclude, marginalise and de-humanise trans women in their praxis they do so because they have placed rigid ideology above the very liberation they claim to stand for.

The impact of this is real, and costs lives. The pain it inflicts is incalculable – and the message received constantly is that this is the price expected to be paid for the ‘freedom’ and ‘liberation’ of straight, white, cis gender men and women.  It makes gods of those who fit the binary – and expendable pawns of everyone else.

When Christian men and the feminists they supposedly oppose demand adherence to ideologies which require the same blood sacrifice from the same group of human beings – then the question is not ‘is the price worth paying’?

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Some suggested reading for you:

Black Girl Dangerous

No Shame Movement

Sarah Moon

Joan’s Pants

Dianna E Anderson

*This article was written prior to Caitlyn Jenner revealing her new chosen name, and so has since been updated accordingly.  My apologies for any offence that may have been given for not updating this post sooner.