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The cross and radical activism

The idea that Jesus chose, out of his own free will, to go to the cross is a favorite among abusive church leaders. What better way to get people to submit to you than to compare the God they worship to a lamb led to slaughter? Over and over and over I’ve heard Jesus’ submissiveness unto death used as an excuse to abuse or to silence those who wish to call out abuse.

I want to propose a different perspective and I want to start with a woman named Alice Paul.

In 1917, women in the United States were not allowed to vote. Alice Paul and a group of other women wanted to change that. These women boldly picketed the White House with banners that called out the hypocrisy of the man in the White House–Woodrow Wilson–who was so quick to send troops overseas to Germany to fight for “liberty,” but who was ignoring the fact that women here were not even treated as real citizens (sound familiar?).

Though their peaceful protests broke no laws, these women were arrested and sent to prison under the false charge of “obstructing traffic.”

Incarcerated without reason in the “land of the free” (a land in which she–as a woman–already lacked the rights of a full citizen), Alice Paul asserted her autonomy and her humanity by fighting back the only way she could.

A photograph of Alice Paul (c1920 by Harris & Ewing)

A photograph of Alice Paul (c1920 by Harris & Ewing)

She stopped eating. 

Alice Paul went on a hunger strike as a way to protest the unjust conditions she was facing.

The 2004 movie, Iron Jawed Angels, depicts this true story (with some obvious dramatizations of course). During one scene, Alice Paul (played by Hillary Swank) is sent to a psychiatric ward because she refuses to eat. The doctor examining her asks about her hunger strike.

Alice: The hunger strike was a tradition in old Ireland. You starve yourself on someone’s doorstep until restitution is made and justice is done.

Doctor: Doesn’t sound like a very effective method.

Alice: A stinking corpse on your doorstep? What would the neighbors say?

We live in a world of violence, of poverty, of rape and war, of oppression and abuse.

We also live in a world of willful ignorance and pride.

People are starving and dying  at our doorsteps (metaphorically speaking), but we’re great at ignoring it. Sometimes it takes radical activism (like some literally dying on our doorstep) to change things.

Alice Paul offered up her life in order to fight injustice. Though she survived the hunger strikes (not every hunger striker does), she still willingly put her body at risk. She was willing to starve on the doorstep of injustice. In doing so, she put the United States to shame, uncovering its disturbing hypocrisy (a hypocrisy that continues today).

She gave herself up willingly.

Was this an act of passive submission?

What do you think?

Those who use the story of the cross to convince oppressed or abused people to stop fighting for justice are missing the point of radical activism. Sometimes, in the face of unrelenting oppression, brave, radical activists stand up and take control of their lives and bodies…

…by giving them up.

When Alice Paul, and Hana Shalabi, and other hunger-strikers stopped eating, it was not an act of submissive, obedient defeat.

 It was a powerful assertion of bodily autonomy in a world that tried to deny their humanity.

 It was a bold act of love by people who were willing to lay down their lives for their friends, their freedom, and their people.

It was a stance that forced oppressors to open their eyes, uncover their ears, and stare into emaciated face of the injustice they had caused. 

The cross of Jesus doesn’t mean that we suffer in silence while we are abused and oppressed. It does not mean that we “turn the other cheek” when we notice others being abused and oppressed. As I wrote earlier this week, we must start to see the cross is a middle finger to the world’s oppressive power structures.

God, as symbolized in the crucifixion, is with the victims who are oppressed. God is also with those who stand up and fight oppression.

The cross is a symbol of both the evils of oppression and of the radical activism that opposes oppression.

We should not have to live in a world where the only way people can gain power and assert their humanity is through hunger strikes. We should not have to live in a world where people are detained in prisons without charge. We should not have to live in a world where people are put to death by crucifixion or lethal injection.

Jesus’ radical activism points us to a new world.

Anyone who tells you that the cross means you have to stop fighting oppression is missing the point.

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Crucifixion and Liberation

[Trigger warnings for abuse, rape, and violence against oppressed groups]

Image by Aaron Douglas

Image by Aaron Douglas

I recently wrote a blog post for Rachel Held Evans in which I talked about how many popular images of God are abusive. Someone left this comment:

I read something once -and it has troubled me since – that God requiring Jesus to die on the cross ‘for our sins’ was the equivalent of child abuse. I would love to hear some opinions on this matter.

A few commenters jumped in to say that since Jesus IS God, it was a personal choice and therefore not abusive and, well you know the rest. I’m sure you’ve heard justifications for this theology many times. My opinion on the matter was that penal substitution is still a terrifying theology about an abusive God.

I’m guessing many people that I know (including some of my readers) would be shocked to hear that I do not believe that God had to die because humans were just so evil and God was just so wrathful and required a blood sacrifice. I even know many self-identified progressive Christians who would probably assume that I wasn’t really a Christian if I told them I didn’t believe that Jesus died in the place of wicked human beings in order to save us from our sins.

I take a more, shall we say, literalist viewpoint.

God didn’t kill Jesus. People in power killed Jesus. 

My friend David Henson recently said on Facebook:

If atonement is literally at-one-ment — being at one with — perhaps it is God that experiences atonement in the crucifixion by being with us and being at one with us in death.

I would take this even further. Christ didn’t experience just any death, but a death reserved for those who challenged the oppressive power structures of the time. Jesus’ teachings of liberation threatened Rome. But even more so, they threatened the religious leaders of the day: spiritually abusive leaders who had turned their backs on Judaism’s message of justice and mercy and had twisted the teachings to oppress others.

Jesus stood with the oppressed. He healed on the Sabbath. He advocated for the poor. He spoke out against the abuse of women.

And those in power killed him for it. They silenced his message (but it couldn’t quite stay dead, could it?).

Maybe this is the real message of the cross. That the God of all creation loved the oppressed enough to become one with them, even in death–the ultimate tool of oppressive forces. 

I think of an article about the book The Cross and the Lynching Tree, by liberation theologian James Cone. Cone makes a comparison between the crucifixion of Jesus and the lynching of black people throughout the 19th and 20th centuries.

The cross and the lynching tree interpret each other. Both were public spectacles, shameful events, instruments of punishment reserved for the most despised people in the society. Any genuine theology and any genuine preaching of the Christian gospel must be measured against the test of the scandal of the cross and the lynching tree. Hengel asserts: “Jesus did not die a gentle death like Socrates, with his cup of hemlock. . . . Rather, he died like a [lynched black victim] or a common [black] criminal in torment, on the tree of shame.

I don’t think many white people like this comparison (as a white person myself, it is challenging and sobering). So white theologians shy away from this comparison, as obvious as it seems. Instead, they embrace a spiritualized version of Christianity in which Jesus is nothing but a sacrifice, meant to save us from some abstract idea of inherited sin. Where Christ’s life of healing the sick, giving sight to the blind, raising the dead, touching the untouchables had nothing to do with his death. Where the promise of liberation and justice  given by the Old Testament prophets to the oppressed in Israel is not considered part of the gospel. Where the only real result of Christ’s death and resurrection is that we are free from our sins (though we still sin), and go to heaven when we die (maybe–if we ask nicely).

If we did embrace the similarities between the cross and the lynching tree, it would open the doors to comparing Christ’s unjust death with the many other injustices that go on in our society.

The wife who is raped and beaten by her husband, and then told by her church to stay with him.

One of the transgender people that are murdered every three days. 

The Muslim people who are bombed by the United States just because some people who looked like them happened to be terrorists.

The people in poverty who starve to death because they cannot afford food, or die slowly from illness because they cannot afford healthcare.

The woman on the street corner in Detroit who was forced into prostitution at age 11.

The young black man who is shot in the back of the head because he looked threatening.

The young woman from Steubenville who was gang-raped and then shamed for it.

The gay, black mayoral candidate who was beaten, set on fire, and killed in Mississippi.

Christ is crucified again and again as injustice goes on and on. 

But the cross means, to the oppressed, that God is on our side.

As James Cone says,

The cross is the most empowering symbol of God’s loving solidarity with the “least of these,” the unwanted in society who suffer daily from great injustices. Christians must face the cross as the terrible tragedy it was and discover in it, through faith and repentance, the liberating joy of eternal salvation.

The cross can empower those who are suffering. It can give us hope. But as James Cone continues,

But we cannot find liberating joy in the cross by spiritualizing it, by taking away its message of justice in the midst of powerlessness, suffering, and death. The cross, as a locus of divine revelation, is not good news for the powerful, for those who are comfortable with the way things are, or for anyone whose understanding of religion is aligned with power.

The cross cannot just mean that we are “saved from sin,” and “going to heaven.” Our speaking about the cross cannot just sound like those cliched platitudes that Christians often tell those who are hurting. The cross that Jesus reclaimed from the Roman Empire has fallen back into the hands of oppressors, becoming a tool of white supremacy, of patriarchy, of heterosexism and transphobia, of the military and prison industrial complex, of those who wage warfare on the poor. 

But I want to reclaim it, like Christ did.

If we are to find liberation in the crucifixion, then the cross must stand as a middle finger to oppressive power structures.

The cross of Jesus reveals the ugly truth behind oppressive power, and then the cross mocks that power through the resurrection.

The cross of Jesus calls those of us who are oppressors (most of us–myself included–are oppressed in some contexts and oppressors in others) to humility, repentance, and a new way of living.

The cross of Jesus tells the oppressed–in a world that tries to convince us that we are not even human–that we are not only made in God’s image, but that God came to earth to be made in ours.

The cross of Jesus tells the oppressed that we can take up our crosses and our protest signs and join together, armed with the power of love, to defeat the powers that rape, abuse, and murder us.

The cross of Jesus tells us that they can kill our bodies, but that doesn’t mean they win. 


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Creationism, Evolution, and Doing Justice to God

I’ve been reading Kenneth Miller’s book Finding Darwin’s God for a class I’m taking. Although I’ve been out of fundamentalism long enough (about two years) for most of this information to be old news to me, some parts have challenged me to think about how low of an opinion of God I had as a fundamentalist.  

In the chapter I just finished, “God the Charlatan,” Miller (who is himself both a scientist and a believer in God) takes on the fundamentalist idea that God created the earth with the appearance of age. And not just the appearance of age, apparently, but with a consistent appearance of 4.5 billion years of age.

According to Miller, “this sounds like a deception most cruel. Their Creator deliberately rigged a universe with a consistent–but fictitious–age in order to fool its inhabitants.

He continues (emphasis mine),

What saddens me is the view of the Creator that their intellectual contortions force them to hold. In order to defend God against the challenge they see from evolution, they have had to make Him into a schemer, a trickster, even a charlatan. Their version of God is one who intentionally plants misleading clues beneath our feet and in the heavens themselves. Their version of God is one who has filled the universe with so much bogus evidence that the tools of science can give us nothing more than a phony version of reality.

Art by Gerald Shepard (click for link)

Art by Gerald Shepard (click for link)

I am not a Biblical literalist. But even in a literalist perspective, is this really the God that the Bible puts forth?

Is this the God who “is not the author of confusion/disorder?”

Is this the God who “cannot lie?” 

Is this the God of whom “the heavens declare the glory?” 

According to Miller, to worship the God of young earth creationism, one must “reject science and worship deception itself.” As a former young earth creationist, I agree.

The fundamentalist God I once believed in was extremely fragile, in constant need of defense. And everything was a threat, even creation itself. The best way to worship God was to know as little about the world that God created as possible.

I don’t think that view does God justice.

I don’t think that view even does the book of Genesis justice.

In the words of Michael Gungor,

Genesis is a poem if I’ve ever seen one.

It’s full of refrain, metaphor, and rhythm.

And God said that it was good.

Over and over like the hook of a pop song, like a wave sculpting its shores…this is good, this is good.  The poetic refrain of Genesis hammers the wonder and beauty of a creator making a good creation into our hearts.

In a science book, you’d have to discredit a text like this for glaring logical errors like the creation of light before stars, or days before an earth and a sun.  In a poem, you don’t have to worry about such things.  You simply can enjoy it’s beauty and hear the voice of God as it speaks over and over.

By trying to force them into my tiny fundamentalist box, I missed the amazing complexities of nature. I missed the poetic beauty that some ancient writer used to describe that creator.

And I missed the Creator herself.

I missed the creative wisdom in the laws of nature and physics and I settled for a world that was haphazardly spoken into existence.

I’m still forming thoughts and words for what I actually believe about God. But I do know this, the god I worshipped as a fundamentalist was too small.

What if we can trust God not to lie to us? What if the heavens really do declare, and not deceptively lead us away from, God’s glory? What if God gave us brains that could at least in part understand the world around them and those brains really were good?

What if, by trusting that creation is what it seems to be saying it is–old, yet constantly evolving into fascinating newness–we are actually doing God justice? 

As Kenneth Miller says, “As we walk through the gates, aware of the dazzling richness of the genuine biological world, there might even be a smile on the Creator’s face–at long last [God’s] creatures have learned enough to understand [God’s] world as it truly is.”


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Spiritual Abuse Awareness Week: My Guest Post at Rachel Held Evans

IMAGE BY DANI KELLEY

IMAGE BY DANI KELLEY

Today I’m guest posting at Rachel Held Evans’ blog, talking about abuse and images of God.

God is love. I believe that with my whole heart.

But what is God? And what is love?

We need to ask ourselves these questions and think deeply about them before we can even begin to start solving the problem of abuse in the Christian church.

Read the rest at RachelHeldEvans.com!


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IMAGE BY DANI KELLEY

IMAGE BY DANI KELLEY

Back in February, Sen. Marco Rubio explained why he opposed the Violence Against Women Act:

I could not support the final, entire legislation that contains new provisions that could have potentially adverse consequences. Specifically, this bill would mandate the diversion of a portion of funding from domestic violence programs to sexual assault programs.

Rubio has this idea, apparently, that different types of abuse have nothing to do with one another. Not a surprising conclusion in a world that’s determined to paint all abuse as isolated incidences committed by monsters, but that’s not reality. Often, sexual abuse is present in violent relationships.

No one wants to talk about the fact that different types of abuse are connected because that means challenging the very society–ripe with hierarchies that enforce themselves with violence–that we live in.

Today, I’m discussing spiritual abuse as part of a Spiritual Abuse Awareness Week that some fellow bloggers are hosting. Also this week, Rachel Held Evans will be hosting a more general discussion of abuse (which I will be guest posting for) and Elora NIcole will be sharing the anonymous stories of survivors.

With all these thoughts of abuse in general going through my head, I think about how ridiculous statements like Rubio’s sound. As if we can end violence against women without ending sexual assault.

Truth is, the violences that women (and other oppressed groups) face often stem from the same root–a deeper violence that questions the legitimacy of their very humanity.

I don’t want us to miss this point while we talk about the different types of abuse that people face, inside and outside of the church. Abuse happens, and society either ignores or accepts it because there is an assault on humanity that says certain bodies are objects, or are public property. An assault that paints some bodies as worthless, gross, weird, animal-like, sinful, collateral, too sexual, needing to be taught a lesson, etc. 

Religion is far from the only institution that perpetuates this kind of abuse, but spiritual abuse can be a powerful tool for painting some groups as less important than others and therefore “deserving” of violence.

This happens in obvious cases such as the Southern Baptist Church supporting the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, or in the many church groups that advocate hitting children who misbehave.

It also happens more subtly in ways that I don’t think most leaders (though when you hear stories like Jack Schaap’s, you wonder…) or church members intend.

Here’s where my own story comes in. I grew up in church and grew up learning many things about myself and about my body and about the way the world is. I also ended up in an abusive relationship when I was 16.

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how I was physically, verbally, and sexually abused in that relationship, but little thinking about how I was spiritually abused. My ex-boyfriend used my own deeply-held religious beliefs to make me think that what he did to me was okay. It was easy for him to convince me, too, because I had been absorbing abusive ideas from the churches I’d attended my whole life.

I will be writing in more detail about how my idea of who God was affected what I accepted as love. But my churches growing up also fed me dangerous ideas about who was, what my body was, and what my place in the world was.

I was a woman, the church told me, so I had to be passive, meek, submissive, caring and nurturing, and endlessly patient and forgiving. A man, on the other hand, was just naturally aggressive, out-of-control, and sexual. These were God-given traits.

My abuser, knowing this, played on those, even sometimes calling my relationship with God into question when I didn’t live up to my role.

My church also taught me that I was worthless. From the sermons the pastors preached to the books that my youth pastors recommended. Because I was not a virgin I was what the Christian dating book, Dateable, would call “dollar store leftovers.” 

My abuser, knowing this, told me constantly that no one else would want me so I had better stay with him. That I was already impure and couldn’t be fixed so I might as well let him do whatever he wanted with my body.

My church taught me that I was responsible for men’s actions. That dressing immodestly could make men lust after me.

My abuser, knowing this, blamed me when he sexually assaulted me. He told me it was my fault for being too sexy, even in the Baptist school-approved outfit I was wearing.

All violence is connected.

I’m positive that the churches I grew up in did not want their teachings to be used by abusers to support abuse.

Too bad. That’s not how it works.

Those teachings were violence in and of themselves. They did violence to my humanity. And in doing that violence to my humanity, they sent the message to abusers that I did not have to be treated as human.

Churches don’t have to be as cult-like and controlling as Driscoll’s Mars Hill or First Baptist Church of Hammond to be abusive. By using language about groups–whether it’s women, children, LGBT people, or people of different colors, cultures, countries, or religions–that does violence to their humanity, they commit spiritual abuse. And spiritual abuse won’t confine itself to the pulpit. Those abusive words and teachings and ideas leave the church in the hearts and minds and Moleskine notebooks of every church member and are spread throughout society like an infectious disease. 

The church is not the only source of this disease, again, but it is a powerful one because battling it means battling ideas and perceptions about God (something I will discuss more in my guest post for Rachel Held Evans later this week).

A church that claims to worship a man whose purpose was “to set the oppressed free” should be horrified to learn that its teachings are being used by abusers to support abuse.

Is it though? Are our churches concerned about how their messages are received? Are our churches concerned about abuse survivors? Or are they more focused on so-called sound doctrine and on giving “grace” to abusers?


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Must reads!

Lots of posts that I want to share this week. I hope you’ll check them out, as they are all important! They discuss a wide variety of topics, from God, to rape culture, to The Wizard of Oz, to racism/homophobia, to the dangers of fraternizing with bears.

“For most of my Christian experience, I’ve only ever heard God described in verbs. Very busy verbs.”

“If you want to know why we need to educate men not to be sexually aggressive, look no further than what happened when Zerlina Maxwell went on television to say that we need to educate men how not to be sexually aggressive.”

“But one can’t help feeling that ‘Great and Powerful’ is two steps back from the feminist bent Baum proudly and freely lent his work, and in a day and age when there wasn’t even a label for it.”

To be a victim does not mean that you lack agency as part of your essence; it means that someone attempted to deny your agency in inflicting harm, in rendering you less powerful or even essentially powerless.”

“And right then I knew that I was tired of good people, that I had had all the good people I could take.”

“Though I grieve I cannot ever go back. The steak is a lie.”

“The combination of patriarchal gender roles, purity culture, and authoritarian clergy that characterizes Sovereign Grace’s teachings on parenting, marriage, and sexuality creates an environment where women and children—especially girls—are uniquely vulnerable to abuse.

A gay, black mayoral candidate killed last week in Mississippi was beaten, dragged and set on fire before his body was dumped near a river.”

“I was unmarried, pregnant and they took away my livelihood. San Diego Christian College did not show any mercy or grace towards me.

“A church in which a woman’s voice is not welcomed is a church with incredibly limited mobility in the kingdom of God. It can limp, at best, but it will never run.”

“This attempt to anthropomorphize and humanize bears strikes at the heart of everything the gospel teaches about bears.

Damsel’d women are being acted upon, most often being reduced to a prize to be won, a treasure to be found, or a goal to be achieved.

Here's a cat that rocks. (picture taken by my sister, Sam Moon)

Here’s a cat that rocks. (picture taken by my sister, Sam Moon)


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My body remembers

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[TRIGGER WARNINGS: Rape and Abuse]

As many of you know, in highschool I spent a year in an abusive relationship. Some of my memories of my abuse are vague and foggy. But then other memories I remember well. The ones I remember the most clearly are the ones I remember not only in my mind, but in the rest of my body as well.

As I think about my connection with my body, and I think about my commitment to reconnect with and love my body for Lent, I also have to think of the ways my body has been hurt.

And I have to take care of it.

Because my body remembers.

Somehow in my path to healing I got the idea (though I don’t remember where from) that the pain from the physical abuse I’d suffered had healed already. Therefore, it was the verbal abuse I had to worry about.

After all, one only hurt my body. The other hurt my soul, right?

So, until the past two years or so I’d avoided even thinking about it.

But no matter how well my physical abuse has healed, verbal abuse isn’t the only thing that sticks with me. Again, my body remembers.

There aren’t any scars except the ones I gave myself–and those are fading. But even those are part of the body that is me now.

The body that carries in it the experiences that are part of who I am.

My story.

My survival.

Most of what my body remembers can’t be seen. My face remembers the stinging pain of the one and only time he slapped me.

My arm remembers the time when I tried to walk away from him and he grabbed it so tightly that it left a hand-print-shaped bruise. The bruise is gone but sometimes I still feel that hand, gripping so tightly I wanted to cry.

Sometimes my brain tricks me into feeling his hands at my sides ready to tickle me until I couldn’t breathe and started to cry. And I think about it and start to laugh and my ribs start to scream out in pain.

My body remembers when he forced me to perform fellactio on him and how he held my head down. It remembers the taste and how it felt when I threw up afterward. And I still carry mints or cough drops everywhere because sometimes I’ll just be at school or at the store and I’ll remember and the taste will be so real and so awful that if I don’t have something to help me forget I’ll throw up again.

Sometimes I’ll just feel his body on my body, hurting me all over again. I’ll feel his hands and I’ll want to push them away so badly but they aren’t there, and so I end up looking like I just walked into a spider web.

Physical abuse, like verbal abuse, goes deeper than the scars and bruises. My body remembers tastes and smells and touches–some that my brain can no longer even attach to a specific event.

And in my attempt to separate Me from My Body, I’ve dismissed the pain I’ve felt as something in the past. I’ve let myself feel ashamed for still feeling pain that is not “real.”

But today, for Lent, I’m affirming that pain. It’s real and it’s legitimate, even if it’s just a phantom.

I can cry over it. I can hurt from it. I can carry my cough drops and use them when I need to. I can tell Abe to stop touching me if his hands are reminding my body of another set of hands.

I survived with my body and I remember with my body and somehow, I’m going to learn to heal with my body.

I can say to my body, “It’s okay to remember. It’s okay to hurt. You are a survivor too.”