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New blog series on Patheos!

In case you missed yesterday’s announcement, this blog has moved to the Patheos blogging network! I’ll be posting updates here for awhile to redirect people over there, but you may want to head over to http://www.patheos.com/blogs/sarahoverthemoon/ and sign up for email updates if you want to keep in touch in the long run! 

I hope to see you over there, because I’m starting a new series called “You Are Not Your Own” in which I’ll be sharing the results of some research that I’ve done on rape and sexual assault in Christian dating books. I’ll be talking about Mark and Grace Driscoll’s Real Marriage (and yes, there will be bunnies), Joshua Harris’ I Kissed Dating Goodbye, and others. 

Read more about it here! 

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I’ve been thinking a lot about my deepest held images of God: why do I hold them? Where do they come from? What do they say about the Christian faith I was raised in? What do they say about me? How do they hold me back? Or how could they possibly be liberating?

I used to be afraid to think about images of God. I used to think that if there were no more images of God, God would disappear for me.

Yet, personal religious experiences that I’ve had recently have changed my mind.

I believe there’s Something there, something bigger and more amazing than I can comprehend. Something that feels like love and sings wisdom into my heart. I call that something God.

It’s hard to talk tangibly about something, though, ya know?

So, here we are, humans with limited (as amazing as they are) mental capacities, which are reigned in even further by the confines of language. And we need to talk about. . .

Something. 

I imagine the writers of the Bible had this problem. How to write about something?

And like good writers, the Biblical authors explained this unfamiliar something by comparing it to something their audience would find familiar.

We need images of God. They help us talk about God. They help us pray. They help us understand. They help us fight injustice.

But sometimes these images take hold. Sometimes they become idols.

God is also not a white dude...

God is also not a white dude…

Instead of worshipping God, it seems like often we worship a father.

We worship a king.

We worship a lord.

But we don’t worship I AM WHAT I SHALL BE. We don’t worship God.

We worship men.

As Elizabeth A. Johnson says in her book She Who Is, “The theistic God is modeled on the pattern of an earthly absolute monarch, a metaphor so prevalent it is often taken for granted.” She reminds us the hard truth that, “even when [this monarch] is presented as kindly, merciful, and forgiving, the fundamental problem remains. Benevolent patriarchy is still patriarchy.”

I think sometimes we let our patriarchal, imperialist, domination-based society dictate our faith.

We lose sight of Jesus as God with us, and focus on God over us. 

I think even masculine images of God can be extremely useful in confronting patriarchy, and other systems of injustice. If God is king, then I am not subject to earthly rulers. If God is father, then I am not subject to men.

Yet these images are so easily appropriated by those in power. If God is king, then king is God. If God is father, then father is God.

I don’t suggest we leave images behind. But I suggest we stop, and we think. And we remember.

We must remember God is not really a king. 

If Jesus is any indication as Christian doctrine says, God looks nothing like earthly kings. God died a mockery of their robes and crowns. God rose in victory over death–the strongest threat that powerful men have in their arsenal–and in all God’s victorious glory God . . . went and fried up some fish and chilled with some friends.

The heavens are not literally God’s throne and the earth is not literally God’s footstool.

God is not really a king, and we need to be extremely careful when images of ruling men in a patriarchal society begin to inform our faith. That is when religion’s power of liberation gets wrestled away by the very oppressors it once challenged.

God is not a man.

God is what God shall be.


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Guest Post for Alise Write

Hi friends!

My research project is done, my exams are finished, and (though I still have a few summer classes to take) I’ll be walking in the Oakland University graduation ceremony at 4 pm today. I think it’s time I start blogging again.

So, let’s mark my triumphant return with a guest post for the wonderful Alise Write! I’ve written for Alise about how I’ve navigated my relationship with my fiance, Abe, as we both travel along in our individual faith journeys.

When I first met my fiancé, Abraham, I was a fundamentalist who had recently realized (with trepidation) that I believed in evolution, had just become a feminist, and was considering leaving the Baptist church that I grew up in.

When my fiancé, Abraham, first met me, he was a Southern Baptist Missions drop-out who had recently left the church and was considering atheism.

I remember our second date clearly—Abe had taken me to a seafood restaurant that he really couldn’t afford because he wanted to impress me. In between mouthfuls of flounder and scallops, we discussed religion.

I listened, nervously, as he explained why he had stopped pursuing a career as a Southern Baptist missionary.: “They wanted me to teach ‘once-saved-always-saved,’ and I just don’t see salvation as a one-time event.”

And he listened (with I’m sure just as much nervousness), as I explained that I thought maybe a Creator God could use evolution to form the heavens and the earth.

We disagreed on these points that seem almost laughably insignificant, looking back. But to a couple of people not-quite-yet grown out of the bible-clearly-says mindsets we’d both been raised in, those insignificant points seemed like a big deal.

Read the rest at Alise Write!


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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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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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On equality, humility, and privilege: A response to Matt Appling

When I first began blogging, one blogger that I both read and respected was Matt Appling of “The Church of No People.” He was even on my blogroll for quite awhile. I start with this because I want you to know that I once thought like he did. I was raised to think like he did, and I’m sure he was raised in a similar way.

I want you to understand, before I write this response, that I do so with as much understanding and empathy as I can sum up, because I’ve “been there.”

But I want to write this response because all the understanding and empathy in the world cannot neutralize the harmful effects of the teachings that it seems both Appling and I have received our whole lives. I want to write this response because I’ve been hurt badly by these teachings. I’ve probably hurt others with these teachings.

What teachings am I talking about here?

The idea that Christ-like humility means that it is wrong to stand up for our rights.

Matt Appling, in particular, takes up issue with bloggers who fight for equality. In his first post on the subject, he describes those who blog about equality as a “nearly deafening cacophony of noise and disparate voices.”

He continues (emphasis mine):

Every day, someone is marching on, demanding equality where some perceived inequality exists: between the sexes, the races, the classes, whomever.  And the people who feel slighted or abused cheer them on, anxious to finally feel that their injustice has been righted.

He then explains why he does not stand with their struggle for equality. He doesn’t believe in it. Why? He quotes six “reasons,” which are really just out-of-context Bible verses having to do with humility, putting others first, and taking up a cross to follow Christ.

In a follow-up post, he claims that he was talking about himself–as a privileged white male–yet his calling out other bloggers and his statements about “perceived inequality” and those who “feel slighted or abused” are never mentioned. He continues to assume that legitimate struggles like classism (he mentions the “1%”) are just silly complaints, comparable to those complaining about “soda sizes in New York.” He also goes on to pull the whole “people over THERE have it so much worse” line, saying (emphasis his):

But complaining about your own rights being infringed on while millions of people survive in slums under tyrannical dictators, that is what strikes me as coming from an egregiously oblivious position of “privilege.”

I want to take a moment to talk about where Matt Appling gets the concepts of equality, humility, and privilege wrong.

Matt Appling, by admission, is a “middle-class, white, American male.” He believes that no one is oppressing him or abusing him. That’s good for him!

So when he says he doesn’t believe in equality? He says it as someone who apparently has no understanding of what it’s like to not feel fully human, not feel fully a part of society. 

Perhaps his angle was meant to mean “I don’t need to fight for equality for myself because I am already treated as human,” which would be fine. However, he makes claims about groups that he doesn’t understand when he talks about those who complain about the 1%, about those who “perceive” racism/sexism/classism or “feel” abused.

That’s the problem with privilege. When one is privileged, one assumes that he/she is the norm. One assumes that everyone else has the same experiences as him/her. 

One assumes, as Matt does in an older post, that There is no war on…blacks…or women…at least in Americajust a lot of stupidity.”

In this post and in his two more recent posts, he not only dismisses the idea of equality for himself, but appears to do the same for black people and women. For those involved in class struggle. For those who “feel” hurt and abused. He chooses to ignore the readily available statistics and stories of the rapes, beatings, murders, and abuses that happen to oppressed groups on a daily basis…yes, in America. Because there is no war on him, because he does not see, understand, or experience war, he claims that there is no war.

He claims being Christ-like. He calls this humility.

But this is not humility. It is the epitome of pride. 

I’ve written on humility before.

I’ve written about how this idea that humility means we stop fighting for our rights turns the concept of humility into a “twisted tool of oppression.” I don’t believe Matt Appling means to be an oppressive person. I don’t believe he really wants to bring women down or hurt people of color. But he is buying into ideas about humility that are being fed to him and to the rest of the church by a culture of domination and oppression. 

Ideas that are used to neutralize struggles for liberation. To silence victims and survivors. To protect the powerful who already have all the rights they could ever need.

Regardless of Matt Appling’s intentions, his words have consequences. His vision for humility dismisses the very real, often life threatening oppression that people face as “just a lot of stupidity.”

I propose a different kind of humility.

One that means listening to the experiences of those who say they have been hurt by racism, sexism, and classism, instead of assuming that their oppression is only “perceived.”

One that means believing abuse survivors instead of assuming that they only “feel” abused or want to “put themselves in the role of the victim.”

One that means considering the fact that just because I have not been oppressed in ____ way doesn’t mean that this oppression is not happening.

I want a humility that affirms the struggles of those who fight for justice rather than trying to shut them down with Bible verses.

I want a humility that inspires privileged people to join those who are less privileged in their fight for justice, instead of one that inspires privileged people to say “I don’t believe in equality.”

We need to stop eating this harmful, oppressive version of “humble pie.” We can do better.