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

Gheorghe_Tattarescu_-_Magdalena

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.

 

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Yes Mean Yes – Why Cis Is Not a Slur

Very often I talk about feminism in terms that are critical of other feminists, most particularly of feminism that does not recognise it’s own colonial, transphobic structural flaws.  There are good reasons for that – feminism (at least for me) is about addressing complex systems of hierarchy within a patriarchal society, and is at it’s best when it can celebrate the victories of other women over some part of that system without fear or favour, cherishing women who value their hard won autonomy over their bodies and lives.

So when that doesn’t happen it is important to speak up and say – no, wait, hang on a minute.  Of course the reasons why that encouragement and support hasn’t been offered might vary: in the case of Sarah Ditum, who did not celebrate Laverne Cox on the cover of Time  because she wore sexy clothes, I suspect that it was very simple. (And I have a huge problem with this, but more on that in another post because the thoughts I have on this whole gatekeeping thing will need it!).

Having been brought up in the gender binary world – that the patriarchy requires us to live in because it supports the power structures – and having been so conditioned by that gender binary, I suppose the idea that gender is fluid, that gender exists on a spectrum, should have been anathema to me.  But once I had reconnected with my feminism, and begun to develop a broader and more nuanced faith and political language for it, one thing seemed so strikingly obvious that I wondered how I had not seen it before: the political, social, economic and physical dominance that the patriarchy has would lose at the very least a good deal of it’s power if the binary ‘male’ and ‘female’ were not pre-eminent – i.e., if the binary poles of gender were simply part of the rich tapestry of the gender spectrum.

I cannot (nor should not) try and speak about the experiences of those who are transgender, or gender fluid: there are some excellent blogs, articles and books by writers who live this reality and experience. Some of them, like Roz Kaveny or Janet Mock might be names you know: others like this list of transgender writers might be less well known to you, but you should acquaint yourself with them if the idea of fluidity of gender is new or strange to you.

What I can talk about however are some of the words or ideas which feminists might resist or find offensive,  which brings me to ‘Cis’ gender, why I use it to describe myself and why I disagree utterly with feminists who insist it’s a slur. Because it isn’t.

Having just spoken about gender fluidity and how that would affect the power balance of the patriarchy, you might wonder why I am happy to claim a term that is applied to the very binary I increasingly reject. I think it’s important in the first instance to say that I am a cisgender woman because other women are trans* gender. Or as it states here:

Because, referring to cisgender people as ‘non trans’ implies that cisgender people are the default and that being trans is abnormal.  Many people have said ‘transgender people’ and ‘normal people’, but when we say ‘cisgender’ and ‘transgender’ neither is implied as more normal than the other.

In other words, not all women are simply called women. Until all of my sisters are simply my sisters, one way (but not the only way) that I can support them and value them for who they are is by using such a simple descriptive.

Because that’s all it is – a descriptive word. On the rich tapestry that is gender, it is one thread within a multiplicity of threads; one colour amongst many within that tapestry.

But also this: I say that I believe transgender women to be women and my faith reminds me that my ‘yes has to mean yes’ – that my actions must support my words or my words would not be truthful.  So I would ask my fellow feminists  who say that they accept transgender women as women but who reject the descriptive term ‘cis’ as a slur – step back. Think again.  Are your words of acceptance for transgender women entirely truthful?

I am not suggesting that you have to use the term cis to recognise your transgender sisters as full sisters – it is only one way of showing that you do. But if you cannot celebrate Laverne Cox’s victories without accusing her of being a tool of the patriarchy (which was shockingly disrespectful!) then do not be surprised if the truth of your words are questioned.