Why I Need to Leave Church for Awhile

I had two experiences last week that are great examples of why I’m once again on the side of “no ordination”. I do have to say though, these feel pretty definitive for me. Allow me to explain:

In the first instance, I was at church. A parishioner who is very conservative when it comes to women suddenly began to talk about how he does not believe in abortion but that “liberal women” need to have an abortion every time they get pregnant. He said this to me, knowing I am what he would call “liberal” and knowing that my three-year-old daughter was right there. He essentially told me that I should have aborted my daughter. The women around me were shocked and disgusted but he seemed not to notice their reactions and carried on. He said that if we all just had abortions, there would be no liberals (a huge failure in logic I, the daughter of hard-core, bunker-having, Glen Beck-loving conservatives, am not even going to address here). He then told us that none of “his house” would ever “be allowed” to have an abortion. That was the only point at which I opened my mouth to tell him that that his attitude was probably why “his house” would just come to someone like me. I told him that my ministry was helping women obtain care and that none of my patients had ever told their families because they knew they’d be ostracized. He told me that my work was emphatically not a religious calling and said it with all the confidence of a man who is used to sitting in for God.

I was a bit put out by this scene but put it out of my head and went ahead with church. But I made the mistake many women make – I spoke about it. I mentioned it to a select group friends online but word got around until I was approached by someone who was concerned that I was saying something that could reflect negatively on the church. I should mention that I had not said anything negative at all but simply narrated the experience and ended by imploring people not to say negative things about the person who attacked me but simply to use it to recognize how we often choose our politics before we choose our religion. However, the topic of abortion is often something that can be interpreted by some as negative in and of itself, without them realizing it. I also need to say that this person had very good private reasons for approaching me and I don’t fault them for it at all but rather the structure and culture of the church that makes it necessary.

All that aside, what really bothered me was that I felt that I was ultimately being tasked with the responsibility for the situation. The man who had verbally attacked and defamed me and my child was not, as far as I am aware, ever really confronted over his sin (and yup, that’s what that was). He certainly never apologized or acknowledged it. There are probably several reasons for this – one being that he has been at the church for quite some time and I am rather newish. The other I’ll demonstrate with a quote from pro-choice Christian ethicist Beverly Wildung Harrison who said that when it comes to abortion, “the demand to speak judiciously falls exclusively upon [women]” (from Our Right to Choose, 2011). In other words, we, knowingly or unknowingly, often excuse men from out-of-control speech regarding abortion while scrutinizing women’s speech.

Weirdly enough, I had another experience like this just five days later in, of all places, my knitting group. As I sat there cursing the fact that my hat was too big and I was going to have to frog it and start again, someone asked me what I do. I explained that I was an abortion doula and that I attempt to construct positive feminist theologies, especially surrounding abortion. Some of the women murmured their support as their fingers worked away at their shawls and sweaters. But others began to tell me that women who have abortions are irresponsible, that they just need birth control, etc. This is not shocking anymore as I get the same script, almost verbatim, from women who have clearly not had to struggle when it comes to their reproductive health. I took a few minutes to explain the realities behind the stereotypes (most women having abortions ARE using birth control, abortion IS a responsible act, the myth of the friend of a friend of a friend who had six million abortions in five seconds because it is “easier” than using birth control is not a thing, etc.) but soon gave up. It never actually matters because none of these people are interested in anything but condemnation, even if they are otherwise good people (patriarchy really instills this need to condemn so that we aren’t ourselves perceived as bad girls). So, I just went back to my knitting. But I was upset. Not for myself but because in a room of roughly 20 women, statistically speaking, at least three or four will have had an abortion and those women were probably listening to all this bullshit thinking, “And THIS is why I’ll never tell anyone.” It could have been left at that but the women with OPINIONS just went on and on and then I heard someone say to me, “Autumn, change the conversation.”

And that’s when I lost my shit a little. Because for the second time in a week I was asked to manage a conversation I wasn’t even really a part of. It seems that my very presence is all it takes to offend people and no one wants to stop and examine why they need to put me in charge of that or why I should be censured for my having the audacity to mention what I do and then stand up, in the politest way possible, for myself, my work, and the many women who I’ve been privileged to walk with. And if that isn’t enough, I am put into that quintessentially female role of assuaging the uncomfortable feelings of others.

But I UTTERLY FUCKING REFUSE to manage other people’s feelings. And therein lies the problem for my life trajectory at this point. As clergy, my job would be tied to that role of Emotion Manager and doubly so with an abortion doula ministry.  When I sat down to reflect on both of these experiences, I realized that I would be spending so goddamn much of my time and energy having to explain myself, defend myself, etc. that I’d have nothing left for those I minister to and that is hideously unfair to them. Being clergy would kill my ministry.

In the end decided two things – that I am not able to stand up for women and destigmatization in the way I feel called to within the ecclesiastical structure of the church,  even as a deacon whose job it is to “speak truth to the church”. And also, I need a break. I love church. I’m an absolute church nerd. But as long as men like that man I ran into are given implicit permission to determine who is heard and who is silenced, I cannot hear God in such a place. Her voice is drowned out by the loud, aggressive, and unfounded confidence of entitled white men.

So, in the meantime I’ll just go to another knitting group I’m fond of and I’ll participate in my women’s circle for religious and spiritual feminist community. Will I go back to church? Maybe, but it’s hard to imagine right now. After all, what was I thinking? A post-theist who is an abortion doula – I may as well have wrapped myself in tin foil and stood on the roof of the church in a storm.

The Bad Theology of Crisis Pregnancy Centers

Crisis pregnancy centers have been the bane of my existence as a woman for many years. In fact, when I do public speaking around abortion issues, crisis pregnancy centers receive my special wrath. That’s because CPCs are sneaky and deceptive while spreading terrible theology about women.

For those who are unaware, a crisis pregnancy center, or CPC, is an anti-abortion religious ministry often masquerading as a women’s health clinic. They’re usually behind any “Pregnant and Scared?” bus advertisement you’ve seen around town. They are often staffed by church volunteers, most of whom have no medical training and who peddle disinformation about STIs, pregnancy, adoption, and abortion.Many people are aware of CPCs and the bullshit they traffic in. However, most people haven’t stopped to consider the underlying theology upon which CPCs operate. For many people with little or no experience of Christianity, CPCs are just another intolerant arm of the Church. But I argue that it is much worse than that. The bad theology behind the religious anti-abortion movement is twice damaging  in that it does a disservice to Christianity while also specifically damaging women spiritually.

Religious anti-abortion culture and thus, CPCs, rest on the assumption that women are not capable moral agents, in other words, that women are unable to make their own decisions about pregnancy. This is what lies behind the idea that women will regret their abortion or that she needs to have a 24-72 hour legally mandated waiting period between her consultation and her procedure, or that it is a good idea to try to intercept women as they enter abortion clinics. Women can’t possibly understand what’s at stake unless someone else more informed tells them.

Religious anti-abortion theology also tends to equate womanhood with motherhood and reduces women to their biological ability to reproduce. Thus, the rejection of motherhood is considered unnatural and as taking something away from men that rightfully belongs to them. This is why we see signs in black neighborhoods accusing black women who abort of genocide. Or why the anti-abortion lobby had to invent “post-abortion syndrome”, a fake mental disorder that can supposedly result in guilt and suicide for a woman who rejects motherhood. Or why protesters at my old clinic used to tell men that they needed to take “their women” out of the clinic to save their “seed” which rightfully belonged to the man.”

So, where did this theology come from? Aristotle, whose philosophies influenced much early theology, believed that women did not have a rational spirit and Augustine concluded that there was absolutely no reason for woman to exist except as womb in which to grow children for men. Both Aristotle and Augustine may have existed long ago but their thought was hugely influential in the Church and I argue that much of our current attitudes toward women as rational beings who can be trusted to make decisions about their reproductive lives, is, in turn, consciously or unconsciously influenced by these biases still sanctioned and active in our churches.

I’m not saying that CPCs keep Aristotle close to hand or that they chat about Augustinian ideas in between potential converts. I’m simply saying that it pays to investigate where ideas come from, how they mutate over time, and continue to show up again and again unless interrogated and confronted. In our culture which, for good or ill, is culturally steeped in Christianity, ancient attitudes about women (which, by the way, Christianity did not invent but which were in turn inherited from classical civilization), still hold some sway. We see them reflected in supposedly secular anti-abortion laws and in religious institutions alike. The only alternative is to confront these ideas  head on and create new theological ways of understanding and honoring the rational spirit that lives in  women.

If you want a more in-depth look at the bad theology behind the the anti-abortion lobby, check out Theology Outside the Clinic or feel free to drop me a line.


Literally Anything Above Women

The time has come for us to push back against a patriarchal theology that has been quietly normalizing itself for thousands of years and poisoning our lives and legal systems.

If you’ve been paying attention to the news lately in reproductive health circles, you may have seen that two priests and their co-defendants avoided jail time after storming an abortion clinic in northern Virginia and refusing to leave. This news has, of course, dismayed those of us working for reproductive justice. It has highlighted the way women and people of color are treated by the justice system as well as shone a spotlight on the cozy relationship between patriarchal law and patriarchal theology.

So, here are the facts; police gave the group an incredibly generous two hour window of opportunity to leave before being dragged out. During that time, the group tried to dissuade the now captive women from having abortions. This tactic is what is known as a “red rose rescue” because they also hand out roses to the women they want to convert. When police finally arrested the invading group, they refused to go quietly and had to be carried out of the clinic. In court, the judge dismissed an obstruction charge because he felt that telling the police “no” politely when asked to get into the squad car did not constitute obstruction. We’ll come back to that later.

The prosecutor tried to argue for jail time for at least one of the priests who has a history of storming clinics but the judged decided instead to set suspended fines at $500 for each defendant. That means that defendants won’t have to pay their fines if they stay out of trouble for a year. Not that this matters, both priests have said that they refuse to pay the fine anyway.

So, what’s going on here? Why should this matter to spiritual and religious women?

This should matter for three reasons: the fact that the law prioritizes priests over women and people of color; the fact that patriarchal theology is being used to deny women their rights, and, the fact this theology is at least tacitly recognized by the law. So, let’s explore this.

The law prioritizes priests over women and people of color

Want to know what happens if a black man politely refuses to get into the back of a police car? No, trust me, you don’t. In fact, it is so interesting to me that the judge referenced the priests’ politeness as reason for dropping the charges. This reinforces the idea that your tone of voice is more important to police than whether you have broken the law or not.

I’m also fascinated by the fact that it took cops two hours to remove the group. Two hours. I haven’t yet heard back from anyone at the clinic who might be able to shed more light on this but so far it seems that the cops were in no hurry to disperse or arrest a group of people who invaded a health clinic with the sole purpose of harassing women. One has to wonder again if a group that didn’t contain priests or that contained people of color would get the same deference.

Patriarchal theology is being used to deny women their rights

When asked, the priests in the group said that that their arrest was illegal and that any detention or fines would be illegal too. Why? Because abortion rights laws are invalid because they are “intrinsically evil” and therefore the court has no jurisdiction in the matter.

Holy shit.

You guys, this is not simply the speech of the impassioned. This is a literal calling for secular courts to be made subject to patriarchal theology. And that, my friends, is the heart of what’s really going on here. Anti abortion groups believe that they are completely vindicated of harassment, assault, and yes, even murder, simply because their dogma is a higher law than that of the United States of America. By this logic, anything can be condoned that is done in the service of patriarchal dogma. Just let that sink in. And then, if you can stomach it, Google the Army of God or the Nuremberg Files. These priests may not have killed anyone but their theology opens a lot of scary doors that perhaps should stay locked. In effect, they are continuing to prop up an old and so far unsuccessful anti abortion defense strategy – that of justifiable homicide. And while you may be comforted by its lack of success, think again. The success is not necessarily in having someone acquitted of murder charges but in encouraging would-be assassins to act on their patriarchal faith.

This theology is at least tacitly recognized by the law

And finally, the courtroom. I don’t have transcripts of what went on so I have to rely on the reporting but according to one of the defendants, even though the judge ultimately rejected “saving the unborn” as a legitimate defense, he still seemed to be “somewhat open” to it. That could be posturing but in any case, it is terrifying. Also, we need to remember that what was once considered posturing is now being raised seriously in our courts. For instance, the idea that one man who heads a company can now deny women basic health coverage, simply for being women, was unthinkable twenty years ago. And think of this: so far, the theology overwhelmingly being normalized by the courts is patriarchal theology, theology obsessed with women’s agency or the love lives of same sex couples.

The Missing Factor

Women are what is missing in nearly all reporting of this story as well as others regarding abortion rights. It seems that we’re more interested in abstract debate about “choice” and “religious liberty” than we are the actual lives of women. We’ve been so focused on winning an ideological war that we’ve been careless with the casualties.

So far, patriarchal law and patriarchal theology, who seem so at odds with each other, actually have in common the lack of concern for women’s lives. That those women at the clinic, who were held captive for two hours, might have been afraid for their lives isn’t even considered, not to mention their right to access health care that is confidential and safe. And on “our side”, we have a problem too. Eager to score political points, we don’t want to stop and consider “the hard cases”, those women for whom abortion may have been the right choice but who still feel guilt, sadness, and grief.

This is why it is so important, now more than ever, that coherent feminist theologies continue to be constructed. The joy of feminist theology is that it is a lived theology with women’s lives at the center. It is built from the ground up, not handed down from an authority up above. What women experience every day is made sacred by our acknowledgement and care, without judgment. The time has come for us to push back against a patriarchal theology that has been quietly normalizing itself for thousands of years, poisoning our relationships and legal systems.