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.

 

We Know What Girls Like: Feminist Theology and Sex

*Heads up, friends. This post contains a lot more graphic sexual shit than I usually get into.

 

There is perhaps nothing more illustrative of the male sense of entitlement than its expression of what it believes women desire. This was brought home to me by the following completely unsolicited Facebook message I got today.

Gross Frances
If you’re going to pose as a man of the world, at least understand the difference between Frances and Francis.

 

So, let’s break down the complex psyche that is Frances and what it says about his view of women’s desire:

First of all, Frances knows that I need to be complimented in an extravagantly and overblown way. He knows that all I need is for someone to tell me that I’m a goddess (no, wait, a step ABOVE goddess!) in order to see that he is perceptive and sensitive to my needs. Automatic panty dropper. He’s clearly expecting the underwear (can we stop infantalizing women by calling them “panties”?) to drop because he has illustrated his expectations with the digital equivalent of the dirty old man wink.

Now, just in case I’m thinking that this is all too good to be true, he tells me his physical stats and expresses his astonishment (and what he presumes to be mine) that he is Sill Single by capitalizing the first letter of both words. Great! So, so far, a total old man stranger thinks I am a goddess and that I, of course, want to bone his 6’1″ frame. But wait! Lest I think he is too creepy (something lots of bitches do because they can’t take a joke/compliment/straight talk) he wants to humanize himself. He wants to hide the creep factor behind a curtain of his HOBBIES and INTERESTS which include such man-about-town divertissments as scuba diving, rollerblading, SEX (it’s like he has creep Tourette’s), and travel. I am also meant to be impressed that he smokes cigars because chicks dig men who do things that poor people think rich people do. He is truly a well-rounded gentleman and he accentuates this by asking (with the obvious assurance that it is totally okay to do this) that I send him photos by email or text. He ends with a rather disingenuous request to know all about my “Hobbies and Interests” because he needs to pretend that I am a human for my sake.

In case you’re wondering, his assumptions and general technique are not unique. This isn’t the first time I’ve encountered these kinds of messages and it certainly won’t be the last. The words may differ but they all contain the same basic assumptions: that women are thirsty for outrageous compliments they are too blind to see through from old men masquerading as international playboys. We want a little naughtiness (such as a leering text wink) but we also want to be on a pedestal. It hardly needs to be said that we also need the guy to cajole us out of sexually explicit photos but secretly, we love it. We just can’t say that because we’re ladies.

Sadly, all Frances got for his effort was a series of dick picks.

So, what do women actually want? As much as we are stereotyped as being inscrutable in this regard, it is actually quite simple. Ask a fucking woman.  I mean, we spent our high school years being dry humped by guys who think sex is done when they are. Some of us still endure the relentless poundings men assume we enjoy because some actor in a porn he once saw screamed with pleasure while having absolutely none of her needs attended to. We are absolutely down for a little change up but, sadly, many women don’t even realize this is an option until they are asked. Many men have never even considered it because, whether they are good men or not, the sexual world has always revolved around them. Check out any “women’s” section of a porn site (I know you look at porn, so let’s move on). Here you can watch “lesbians” in implausible lingerie fellate dildos while staring smolderingly at the camera, or you can watch “daddy” clips (fucking eww). The women’s sections don’t reflect what (most) women want. They are androcentric fantasy projections. All this, we’re told, is curated for us. Not that they’ve sought advice or input from actual women or the woman-run companies that produce actual porn for women. They just know chicks love it. Why would you ask an actual woman? Guys totally know about sex!

Funny thing is, this concept doesn’t play both ways. As I said earlier, I sent Frances some dick pics in response to his request for photos (after all, he didn’t specify they were to be photos of me) and I know how this will end. It will be just like every other incident in which I’ve sent dick picks to a dudebro. He’ll be incredibly offended that I assumed what he’d like and no, he won’t see the irony in that.

Frances, let me tell you what I want. I’m a big fan of feminist theology in relationships and in the bedroom. And, in case you don’t know how that squares up, let me tell you that it is the exact opposite of your worldview. A feminist theological view of sexuality prizes the following things: mutuality and consent, female pleasure and, wait for it…the full personhood of women. That means that sex and relationships become a truly holy thing in which both people are aware of each other’s needs, boundaries, and, you know, status as a human. Part of this includes talking about what we like in bed, not assuming that your girl has a clitoris in her mouth. It means understanding how vital our sexuality is to our basic sense of humanity.

***

I am sometimes overwhelmed by the Franceses of the world. I have my ideals, I’m passionate about what I speak and write about but what do we really need to do to incorporate our feminist theology into our institutional theologies of sexuality? How do we address this when so many institutionalized churches reject the very idea of women as human? Honestly, I don’t know. I have literally no idea how to counter the Franceses of the world except with a steady barrage of dick pics. But maybe there’s something to that. Although it can feel tiresome and fruitless, perhaps all we can do is hold up a mirror to our churches and our society while in our own lives mirroring what a healthy sexuality can look like.