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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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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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Must Reads!

It’s been awhile since I’ve had the time to sit down and post links to my favorite blog posts. So I’m going to catch up today, and share some of my favorite posts from the past 2 or 3 weeks. Enjoy these smart people and their smart words!

“If there is one thing that Western Christians and atheists have in common it is a shared legacy of colonizing bodies of color.

“You can get a lot of people to do what you want them to do or believe what you want them to believe by saying God will be disappointed in them if they do otherwise.”

The word “forgiveness” gets thrown around a lot in Christian circlesParticularly at women. Particularly at women when they notice injustice and dare to speak up about it.”

“A history where people of color are the innocent victims of white violence is an offense to white supremacy.”

“I don’t describe God has being on the side of the oppressed, but rather on the side against oppression – wherever it is found – and advocating justice – wherever it can be found.”

 “One thing in your song should always be on fire, be it our heart, our souls, this generation . . . Something needs to be in flames.
“And even if every sex act you perform on this earth is Yes Means Yes consensual, if you think like a rapist there is a very good chance you will attract rapists who want you to confirm that the next person they rape has it coming/will enjoy it/does not matter.”
“Conservative Christianity can’t exist without their conservative Christian God. And their conservative Christian God is anti-consent.
Also, this, from my Twitter friend @somaticstrength:
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A quote for today…

I’m having trouble today, writing words. When I try to set the words free through my fingers, fear reigns them back in. So, today, I’ll share the words of Audre Lorde until I can gather my own.

Your silences will not protect you…What are the words you do not yet have? What are the tyrannies you swallow day by day and attempt to make your own, until you will sicken and die of them, still in silence? We have been socialized to respect fear more than our own need for language.

Next time, ask: What’s the worst that will happen? Then push yourself a little further than you dare. Once you start to speak, people will yell at you. They will interrupt you, put you down and suggest it’s personal. And the world won’t end.

And the speaking will get easier and easier. And you will find you have discovered your own vision, which you may never have realized you had. And at last you’ll know with surpassing certainty that only one thing is more frightening than speaking your truth. And that is not speaking.

 

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Photograph: Robert Alexander/Getty Images/via The Guardian

 


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The founding fathers get a free pass. The feminists? Not so much.

Painting by Junius Brutus Stearns

It is more than acceptable in our society to quote one of the founding fathers to prove a point. I see liberals and conservatives do this alike, and, even though I rarely quote these men, I am not necessarily going to criticize those who do (so if you’re going to skip straight to the comments and argue with me about why it’s okay to quote the founding fathers, save it).

But many of our founding fathers were racists and slave-owners. This is undeniable. We know this, yet we quote their words anyway. Why?

Well, those quoting ol’ George and Thomas and the rest might  say, “Well, not ALL of our founding fathers owned slaves. In fact, some were abolitionists.” A great point here.

Others might say, “Even those who did own slaves had some good, revolutionary ideas. We shouldn’t throw out the good.” This I would agree with as well, although, I believe any good George Washington said must be interpreted in light of the fact that he owned over three hundred slaves, etc. We cannot ignore the horrible aspects of the lives of these men, but we can acknowledge intelligent things they may have said.

The general public okay with quoting the founding fathers. Most see them as having some degree of authority over how we currently run our country–whether you’re using them to oppose gun control or asserting that “all men are created equal.”

Yet, I’ve been into more arguments than I count in which someone has said to me, concerning feminism, “Well, feminists hate men.”

When I object to this, they provide examples: “Andrea Dworkin says all sex is rape!” “Mary Daly was a female supremacist!” etc., etc.

I often respond the way many do when confronted about the founding fathers. First, not all feminists are Andrea Dworkin or Mary Daly. In fact, radical feminists who actually believe in female supremacy are a fringe group who are widely criticized by the wider feminist movement. Many, if not most, feminists love the men in their lives–their brothers, their fathers, their partners, or their friends–and want to see them freed from the oppressive standards and from the hatred and fear that patriarchy tries to impose on them. Many, if not most, feminists would say that reversing the system of domination so that women are in charge would not solve anything. Domination is domination. The goal is not matriarchy, but equality or justice.

Even feminists who do seem to believe that men are inferior, like Dworkin or Daly, have good things to say, just like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson did. Dworkin criticized the objectification of women and relentlessly fought against sexual harassment and rape. Daly was a highly influential feminist theologian. We can recognize their contributions to the feminist movement, but filter those contributions through their flaws (man-hating not being the only flaw. Mary Daly was extremely transphobic, for example. Many feminists were and are racists and classist. Some second-wave feminists, in order to prove they didn’t hate men, blatantly discriminated against lesbians, etc.). It’s part of critical thinking.

But these arguments never seem to be enough, even for the very people who quote our founding fathers with authority.

I could even go further and remind them that, unlike some of the founding fathers, no feminist ever started a movement that led to the genocide or enslavement of men. That many of the “man-haters” spoke from a place of oppression or had a experienced marginalization or abuse. That many examples of feminist “man-hating” were meant to be hyperbolic or metaphorical–for example, when modern feminists joke that viagra shouldn’t be covered by health insurance. They are not literally arguing for this, but are making a point.

Still, this doesn’t matter. I am demanded to account for every man-hating feminist that a Google-search can come up with. My points are dismissed. My decision to self-identify as an advocate of feminism is criticized. I encounter this from conservatives, from liberals, from complementarians, and from egalitarians. 

I believe this says volumes about the power structure in our society. Why is it so widely acceptable to quote the founding fathers but not the feminists?

The founding fathers can only be accused of hating black people (and women, and Native Americans…).

The feminists can be accused of hating all men (especially white men).

One form of hate is obviously more socially acceptable than the other. The group that it is less socially acceptable to hate (and please note: I am not advocating hate at all, but pointing out an inconsistency) is the group that is in power: white men.

 


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All of who we are

When I first started dating my now-fiance, I had just recently begun calling myself a feminist. I had just recently begun to look at the way the world around me privileged men and say, “Hey! This isn’t right.”

Thanks to my new found worldview, I saw Abe as having privilege over me. I expected him to be aware of that privilege, and I expected him to be extremely careful not to use that privilege in ways that might hurt me. I thought that he, as a man, was more privileged than me, as a woman.

I was right.

But I was also wrong.

There came a point in our relationship where I had to realize that I had, without even realizing it, been racist toward Abe many times. I had believed stereotypes about Asian people. I had both told and laughed at jokes directed toward Asian people. I had made ignorant, generalizing statements about them.

I was using my privilege to hurt him. I was contributing to his oppression.

Just because Abe had privilege over me, didn’t mean that I didn’t have privilege over him. And while Abe was working hard to recognize his own privilege and to make sure he did not contribute to my (or any other woman’s) oppression, I was sitting back, assuming that my status as “woman” somehow excused me from looking at my own privilege.

Abe does not fear, even in the back of his mind, being raped any time he walks alone at night. That is something I fear nearly every time I head to the parking lot after my night class.

Abe has that privilege over me.

But I never have to fear being suspected of terrorism at the airport. Because of Abe’s skin color and facial hair, that is a legitimate concern for him.

I have privilege over Abe.

Once, during a discussion about a bill being passed in Arizona that limited reproductive rights for uterus-owners, I joked that I was glad I didn’t live there (not that things are all that much better here in Michigan–our representatives can’t even say “vagina,” apparently). This was a concern that non-uterus-owning Abe did not have to share because of his privilege.

But, the discussion continued, and eventually moved in the direction of Arizona’s immigration laws. Abe stated that he wouldn’t want to live there either. “I’d probably get pulled over all the time because people can’t tell what race I am.” I didn’t have to share this concern with him and I never will.

We live in a world of binary thinking where you are a man or a woman. You are black or white. You are oppressed or you are an oppressor.

But the line isn’t as usually clear as we like to pretend it is.

I can be oppressed and I can be an oppressor. I can be both at the same time because I am white and I am a woman. Neither of those two parts of my identity are more important than the other. If I ignore my whiteness and only claim my woman-ness, I ignore the ways in which I perpetuate white supremacy.

Fellow women, just because we are oppressed does not mean we cannot also be oppressors because of our age, our race, our sexual orientation, our health, our class, or our weight.

Recognizing ourselves as potential oppressors does not belittle the hurt we may have endured because of our status as Oppressed. Yet, the hurt we’ve endured because of our status as Oppressed does not excuse the hurt we may have caused others because of our own potential to oppress.

We can embody both identities fully.

But none of us are free while any of us are oppressed, so let’s look at who we are for a moment. ALL of who we are.

Picture by my mother, Carolyn Moon


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Whose knowledge? Whose power?

Here’s an interesting quote I found while reading the book Feminist Research Practice, by Sharlene Nagy Hesse-Biber and Patricia Lina Leavy (emphasis mine):

In many societies…knowledge is produced and controlled by the ruling class. The prevailing interpretation of reality will reflect the interests and values of the ruling class. Because of its commitment to maintaining power, the ruling class seeks to conceal the ways in which it dominates and exploits the rest of the population. The interpretation of reality the ruling class presents will be distorted such that the “suffering of the subordinate classes will be ignored, redescribed as enjoyment or justified as freely chosen, deserved, or inevitable (quote from Alison Jaggar).” The positions of power and privilege that members of the ruling class inhabit allow them to separate and insulate themselves from the suffering of the oppressed, and to be more convinced of their own (distorted) ideology.

We see this all the time–this idea of the “suffering of the subordinate class” being ignored or redescribed.

Ignored? How many times have you heard someone say that we live in a post-racial society, so we don’t have to bring up racism anymore?

Redescribed as enjoyment? I’ve often been told that a woman being ruled over by her husband is chivalry, a system under which women can flourish without having to worry about bearing the burdens of decision making and “real” work.

Justified as freely chosen? Calling homosexuality a sin or a rebellion against the natural order, or telling women with unwanted pregnancies that they made a choice to carry a fetus to term when they “chose” to have sex.

As deserved? Telling a rape victim she had it coming, or calling a homeless man a lazy drug addict…

As inevitable?  Ever hear a preacher say “the poor will always be with us,” or someone say, concerning sexual harassment, “boys will be boys?”

Often, something as basic as knowledge–how we know things, who decides which knowledge is logical/objective/legitimate, how we’re told the world is–can be used to oppress people. You’ve heard the saying, “knowledge is power.” That saying is true. But that power can be used for good or evil., depending on who is controlling knowledge.

"Knowledge is Power" Mosaic at the L...

“Knowledge is Power” Mosaic at the Library of Congress (Washington, DC) (Photo credit: takomabibelot)

Often, those in dominant positions claim objectivity, something that Sandra Harding calls “the ultimate in bias.” They claim that, since they have no personal connection to an issue that affects those in the subordinate classes (issues like racism, rape, domestic abuse, marriage equality, etc.), they are able to see those issues through a clearer lens.

Yet their “lens” is actually the foggiest of all. As the people who benefit the most from the way society is, people in the dominant classes of society have the most motivation to keep society the way it is. Because they “encounter little in their daily lives that conflict with” (Alison Jagger) their already established view of how the world is, nothing challenges that view. It remains sheltered, never challenged by peer review or tested by repeated experiments.

Their values, combined with the detachment from actual issues that prevents them from sensing and experiences those issues (something considered necessary for empirical knowledge) makes their knowledge subjective, biased, and unfounded. Yet we often unquestioningly accept it as fact.

Subordinate groups, on the other hand, have the benefit of what Patricia Hill Collins calls the “outsider within” phenomena. While dominant groups rarely experience and sense the lives of subordinate groups, subordinate groups must frequently experience the lives of the dominant groups in order succeed or  even survive in everyday life.

The black housemaids (who form the basis of Collins “outsider within” theory) who spent the majority of their days in white households…

The lesbian woman who has had to pretend to be straight in order to be accepted by society…

The atheist teenage whose parents give him the choice between attending church or leaving home…

The minimum wage employee who cleans the bathrooms of a wealthy CEO…

The women in abusive relationships who must get to know the moods and shifting personalities of their abusive partners in order to avoid saying the “wrong thing” at the “wrong time”…

Far from their positions in society clouding their ability to produce knowledge, subordinate groups are able to experience and analyze the world from multiple angles. They are able to sense both their position and the position of their oppressors. They know how racism, sexism, homophobia, classism, etc. affect their own lives and they see better than dominant groups can how dominant groups subconsciously avoid looking at the reality subordinate groups face.

So, who is defining our reality? What gives them the right to do so? And more importantly, is the reality that they produce even real? Whenever someone claims to know something, these are the questions we need to ask ourselves.