In search of a bigger table: feminist reflections on sexism in the church (and in me)

080816 journal

I’m a little salty today. I keep drafting and scribbling in my journal. Paragraph here. Sentence there. The topics popcorn all over the place.

Underlying all of the verbal confetti is a grumbling sense of injustice. An awareness of brokenness like a blister continually rubbing against my shoe. Twinge. Ping. Ouch.

The Problem Out There

As I job hunt and work on writing, I’m wrestling with sexism in the Church. It is exhausting reading church job descriptions. Why? Because a bunch disqualify me right out of the gate on the basis of my sex. Things would be simpler if I felt God calling me to children’s ministry, but that’s not the case.

Yes, some would say it’s theological difference. And technically, that is true. But, it’s also sexism. Own it if you’re going to buy it. I can deal with that better than the theological gaslighting semantics that are crazy-making; “equal in value but not in authority” is not a balanced equation. (I’m still not going to like the stance, mind you. But, I can muster up grace with folks if they’re honest rather than making me out to be silly for naming the power imbalance as inherently unequal.)

Adding insult to injury, a few weeks ago I stupidly clicked a link on Facebook to an article by a white guy about church trends. The article quoted white male pastor after white male theologian after white male expert. And I just couldn’t keep reading. My eyes started to roll before I was even conscious of the behavior, and the blood started pounding behind my ears. Admittedly this is not a proud moment for me; I’m not a fan of the cynicism welling up, and the bitter taste that comes with it.

Are white men the only experts on church? Is their perspective the only one worth listening to? (In case you’re wondering, the answer is emphatically NO!)

Reading Rachel Held Evans’ Searching for Sunday and seeing the natural way she cited women authors was a balm for my heart. I’d been starving to hear a woman’s voice cited as an authority figure in church circles. I’d been hungry to know that women’s voices are valued by someone other than just me (and for conversations outside of gender roles).

To be clear, I don’t want to silence white men or devalue their voices.

What I want is a bigger table. A table where women and people of color and varying economics are valued contributors, too.

This is part of the racism and sexism hidden within church. We don’t often ask critical questions about why we’re drawn toward reading or listening to certain “experts.” Why do we read what we read? Why do we like what we like? We read what we like, what we’ve been conditioned to like. It takes work and discipline to do differently.

080816 milkjam thai teaWe can comfort ourselves saying we read (or listen to) what interests us or appeals to us, but that’s kind of like only eating mac-n-cheese, fried chicken and ice cream because they’re my favorite things from my childhood.

Those are cool in moderation, but a diet needs to include fruits and veggies too. We need to eat a diversity of things to be healthy, even if broccoli or spinach isn’t our first choice for what we want for dinner.

Listening to diverse perspectives on faith is good for us, even if it makes us uncomfortable. Maybe it’s good for us because it makes us unsettled instead of reinforcing what we already thought.

I get unsettled because other voices help me see how I combine white middle class values and following Jesus in unhelpful ways. This doesn’t feel good to discover as I don’t like being wrong about stuff. But, I need this to mature. I need to hear how my theology might sound to the single mom wrestling with poverty in Haiti. Because as Jen Hatmaker says in For The Love, if my theology doesn’t ring true for her too, then that theology does not work.

The Problem In Here

The systemic sexism is only part of the drama for me right now.

How I wish the problem was just out there! The other problem is me. The evil is in here, not just out there. I am not innocent.

Lord, have mercy.

What makes me angrier these days is dawning awareness of the sexism lurking in me. I see the way I’ve internalized messages that being female makes me (and others) less competent. And I’m seeing it in the fear welling up in me.

A few weeks ago, I had a panic attack about posting a Nadia Bolz-Weber quote that I loved on Facebook. Why? Because I was afraid someone was going to take issue with something she said in her book, and it would come back to bite me. It took every tiny little bit of gumption I possess to just leave it out there and not take it down. I’m so busy wearing image management masks for job hunting that I was afraid of standing by someone whose words were life-giving for me. I hate that right now. I am in need of so much grace these days.

When I write, I have this filter of imaginary white men that I’m trying to appease and please as though that is where my work’s value originates or that their approval means that I’ve somehow “arrived.”

It. Is. Bogus. Absolutely crazy town.

Why am I trying to prove myself to this imaginary audience? Why is it so hard for me to be self-aware on this front? And even when I can see it, why is it so difficult to stop?

Why do I give highest authority to the white male authors that I read? Why is it that it’s so much easier for me to find books by white men that I want to read than books by women and/or people of color? Why do I privilege their experience over mine and others? Why am I less critical of the white male establishment when I read? Why am I so quick to note my theological difference from female authors that I cite for fear that some may disapprove?

How do I stop all this craziness? How do I change this now that I know about it?

I find myself squirming with these unsettling questions, and a nagging sense that I’ve got loads to figure out in the coming weeks.

So, dear readers, if you’re struggling with your own brokenness this week, whether it’s racism or sexism or whatever it is, know you’re not in this alone.

Jesus, have mercy on us. Like you healed Bartimaeus, restore our sight. May we learn to see and value ourselves and others as You do. Amen.

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