Sunday, March 28, 2010

My Mother's Fundamentalism

A girl may learn femininity from her father but she learns what it means to be a woman from her mother.  My mother taught me that a woman’s sacred responsibility is to sacrifice herself in service to family.

Among other things, my mother firmly believed in the evangelical/fundamentalist concept of headship: that women are to be wives and mothers and as such are to be subject to their husbands in all things.  The husband has the authority before God to command his family and the wife has the responsibility of making sure his commands are followed.  I used to think that her belief in this concept was a more or less a result of her generation (by the time of Woodstock and the height of the Hippie Movement, she was already a minister’s wife and mother of two children).  Later I realized that she came from a long line of practical if not politically active feminists—career women, single mothers, and none of them particularly subservient when I knew them.  They were all strong church-going women so I suppose she could simply have taken her religious education more to heart than her forebears.  I knew my mother’s mother, aunt and grandmother as devout women but none of them had much respect for preachers and religious teachers.

My mother, however, rarely expressed an opinion in contradiction of my father’s. She insisted that I be a “little mother” to my siblings.  She “wrung dimes dry” according to her mother-in-law in order to sustain the lifestyle expected but not supported by my father’s ministry jobs. She only worked for pay when she couldn’t stretch the family budget any further and was quick to quit the minute my father was fired from yet another ministry position.  She did all of the household’s cooking, cleaning, laundering, and childcare until I was old enough to help but I shirked constantly and she was usually too tired to fight with me.  I don’t remember my father ever changing a diaper although he was the one to insist on child-rearing practices that included “crying it out” for infants even if that meant he had to hold her down while I cried in my crib.  By the time my sister came along ten years later, I was the often the one who got up in the middle of the night to fix bottles.  As a minister’s family, we were quite explicitly expected to behave like model children—no running, no fidgeting in church, no talking if there were adults present.  Our job was to stand quietly beside my father and smile through parishioners’ gushing praises for our lovely family, our wise and godly father.

When I reached adolescence, Mom was quick to point out every man who noticed my precocious development.  She suggested loose shirts, lots of sweaters, and slouching.  When I garnered the inevitable notice, it was my fault for what I wore or for flaunting myself (for example, wearing a bathing suit at a hotel swimming pool without covering myself). I was terrified to accept rides home from youth group meetings at church with a boy in case he “got ideas” from being alone in the vehicle with me.  It is telling that my first date was to a church function that I accepted and attended on the sly while my parents were both out of town at a deathbed.

How did my mother teach me that a freethinking woman was anathema to God?  Or that a woman’s only role is quiet subservience? From her example, of course, the same way I learned that there’s always a holier, more natural way to cook: from buying grain at the mill, to koshering her own meat before grinding hamburger and sausage, to the whole wheat/carob/honey “chocolate chip cookies” she made for our snacks.  She wanted to raise our own produce and hated anything Big City—I don’t know that she thought of those things in religious terms but it seems all of a piece as I look back.  American Christianity took a sharp turn to the Right in the years since I was in high school and everything that I’ve found to have developed in extreme Christianity was something my mother espoused:  agrarianism, patriarchy, the “biblical family”, the holiness of making one’s own bread and sewing one’s own clothes. 

While I spent my early adulthood in pursuit of the feminist dream—a career with good promotion prospects and an excellent compensation package, and a guy who respects women—it is interesting that within eighteen months of my mother’s untimely death, I was married, had moved across the country for my husband’s job and had found employment in daycare.  Within five years, I was preparing to move again for his job, had one baby and expected another, and made all my own food and cleaning products, including baby food and formula. I haven’t had a professional status since her death but I’ve made myself very ill trying to live up to all the highest standards of attachment parenting; fresh, whole, local homemade foods; alternative medicine and homeschooling.  I failed miserably at growing food, pinching pennies, or keeping a clean house.  I disagree frequently with my husband.  I am consumed with guilt over all those things. 

Walking away from organized religion and losing faith in the evangelical God (soul wrenching as those steps were) were a nothing compared to admitting that my mother’s ideals are a death sentence.  Mom never approved of my life, my value system, or my goals, before her death.  I’ve spent the 18 years since then trying to win her approval post-mortem.  Can I finally admit that neither is her approval possible nor are her ideals admirable?  My mother worked herself into an early grave and I’ve been so close to it as to have fervently prayed for death.  It is inconceivable that the founder of my mother’s religion had such conditions in mind when he claimed to “have come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly”.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Breaking Faith: When I Left the Church

My mom’s birthday is coming up this weekend.  She hasn’t celebrated her birthday in 18 years and it hasn’t been a happy day for the rest of us since then, either. Three months after her 49th birthday, she died of cancer.

During the months preceding her death, her church prayed mightily for God’s healing, for her recovery from the illness.  But then she died.  It was a watershed moment in my life, both practically and spiritually.  I lost my job for taking a few extra days after the funeral to help out my dad.  Without a job, I couldn’t afford my apartment either so I moved across the country to live with my dad and my sister who was still at home.  In such a big move, I also lost my friends, my own church, my community, and my independence.  Not only did I lose my mother, my best friend, but everything else that gave structure and meaning to my life was gone as well.

I expected my parents’ church to step into the breach. After all, my father was on staff; my mother had worked for a member of the church, and there was an active singles’ ministry.  Instead, I found that the church, which had helped out admirably during Mom’s illness with meals, companionship, and assistance of all kinds, defaulted to the assumption that I would now take care of everything for my father and sister.  The not-so-unspoken thought was that I would step into my mother’s place as caretaker of the home, mother to my sister, and helpmeet to my father.  When I was looking for a job, more than one person mentioned the opening at my mother’s old job.  I can’t count how often I heard “it is so good that your father has you to help him out in this time of grief”, but I know exactly how often someone asked how I was doing in my own grief—one person, one time.

Where was God then? That year was really the end of my Christian era.  I had lost my faith in fundamental dogma years before but I had kept up my church attendance, partly out of fear of admitting that I no longer believed in the God I’d been taught, mostly because I craved the community of spiritual thinkers.  I never had found that community and my year in Dad’s church made me realize that I wasn’t even getting a practical community of friends and social support, either. 

So, really, where was God? Not manifest in His People. In all the years I’d grown up in churches, I maintained a denial that my experience with the Christian community was neither very Christian nor very communal.  I thought there was something wrong with me, or perhaps my family, that had always held the church family at bay.  The year after my mom’s death broke through my denial.  It wasn’t me, or at least not entirely, it was the nature of the church that expected the sweet smiling stiff upper lip.  No one wanted to know if something was less than great for me, even in the midst of the quite obviously worst tragedy of my life. 

If that was the community of God’s People, there was definitely not a place for me in the community.  I gave myself up to the lost faith in God, in fundamental theology, in Christian community.  If spiritual and practical community was not to be found in Christianity, I would look elsewhere. I became a heathen.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Love in Fundamentalism VI: Can Love Equal Submission If Submission Is Owed to Authority?

[commenter] One of the critical pieces that has been missing in this discussion is the issue of authority. To whom does one submit? When is it appropriate to submit and when must one subvert? Jesus came not to be served but to serve, and yet what is he doing driving people out of the temple with whips ... serving them? Submitting to them? We explain this by saying he was the Son of God and so had the authority to do this. While there's truth in that, if we're to be serious about following his example then we need to seriously ask what he was doing.
We should "submit" to appropriate authority (I think we all agree on that). But what about when that authority is wrong? What about when we disagree? What about when what the authority teaches is harmful? When should we simply swallow our pride and carry out our "orders" even if we think doing so is going to be counter-productive and when do we refuse to follow? These are not simply abstract questions. Anyone who's ever held a job has had to deal with this at some level. The boss, whether or not he's a selfish jerk, has the authority to tell the employee what to do. The employee has three options: submit to the boss, try to change the boss (good luck), or quit.
In the church, however, authority is given in the context of community and the community is responsible for helping to ensure that authority is not abused. When an authority figure (whether a pastor, husband, parent, whatever) acts inappropriately the one without the authority has (or should have) access to the larger community to find protection and justice. If that community protection isn’t working, what do we do?

I think you are again making my point.  You are conflating "love=working for the highest good of the other" with "love=submission".  You are working from the definition of "submission=coming under the authority of, owing obedience to", which I think only makes perfect sense.  It is when we try to say that "love=obedience" (in the if a=b and b=c, then a=c logical progression), that the problems start. Working from the idea that love and obedience are not always, or even often, or maybe never, the same thing and the Temple story makes much more sense.

I do think Jesus in the Temple was a perfect example of service to the highest good of the other.  To my thinking, the event has nothing to do with Jesus=Deity=Authority to be harsh, aggressive, non-submissive.  Think about it, what was the point of clearing the temple? To declare in no uncertain terms to every single participant, observer and hearer of the story that exploiting a business deal is bad karma.  

The moneychangers were providing a useful service to the worshippers but in a condition that had nothing to do with "working for the highest good" of either the moneychangers (yeah, made them a lot of profit but good for their souls?) or the worshippers.  Would anyone have paid attention if Jesus had simply stood in the corner of the Temple yard and TALKED about the problem? No.  Most certainly the problem had been talked about before.  But the malignant practice was too entrenched in the establishment--it's even possible that Temple authorities were being paid off (such is the scholarly historical opinion).  Obviously nothing was being done to stop things.  

Who would be the Voice of Moral Reason?  Jesus, who really had nothing to lose: he was already a homeless nutjob preaching on street corners.  He was the perfect person to stand up and call the spade a spade in the only way to assure that everyone paid attention and that action would have to be taken.  By disrupting the exploitive practice, Jesus was "working for the highest good" of everyone involved: the worshippers, the moneychangers themselves, the Temple administrators who hadn't stopped the practices, and everyone who heard the story who could then say "if that nutter can stand up for justice and my fellow-man, so can I".  

Everyone connected to the event was empowered by the actions of Jesus to become better people.  How is that not service?  How is that not love? And it completely agrees with the point that I keep yammering about that love does not equal submission.

On the separate issue of authority, by conflating "love=submit" with "submit=coming under authority", the Church is setting up a relationship among believers that has nothing to do with "love=working for the highest good of the other". My thesis is that when we are called to "love one another", there is nothing inherent in that about authority of one person or class of people over another.  Therefore, let's quit adding that bit into the equation. 

The foundation of all Protestantism is that every person can directly interact with God, no priest necessary.  Our big break with the established church, just like Christianity itself was a break from Judaism, was that there is no longer a need for mediation between God and Man--no sacrifices, no Jewish Law, no Catholic priest--why have we added evangelical, fundamentalist hierarchy? Why do we now say that between a woman and the Still Small Voice must come her husband, her pastor, and however many other teachers crawl into that line-up?  Why do we insist that if a woman loves God, she must therefore ignore her own capacity to think, to hear God directly, to be responsible for her own actions, and be obedient to the whims of her father/husband/pastor.  

Yeah, yeah, there's supposed to be "mutual submission" which I have already suggested is a complete oxymoron.  But even if we suppose that in the best of all possible relationships, the husband/father/teacher will humbly only make pronouncements that are truly in the highest good of the woman, why set it up that way to begin with? Why is every husband supposed to have a more direct line to God's wisdom than any wife?  It just doesn't make any sense.  It's a setup that all too easily leads to the excesses obvious in the more extreme fundies--wherein a woman is reduced to a holy fertility agent and household drudge.  How can you really say that the excess is wrong but still agree with the premise that allows that absurdity?

According to you, the checks on the system are supposed to come from within the community itself but I propose that such a setup looks a lot like the moneychangers and Temple administrators.  If the power-mongers in the community collude, how do the disenfranchised have recourse?  I do agree that people should submit to proper authority.  I take exception to who is a proper authority.  As an American and a Protestant, I vehemently oppose that I as an individual am under any spiritual authority except God, whether I am a woman, child, or man. This is 21st Century America--women have no civil obligation to submit to the authority of husband or church!  Why would God want us to reinstitute a chain of spiritual authority so prone to abuse and exploitation that worldwide, people struggle long and hard to liberate themselves from it?

I propose that "love God and love your neighbor", wherein "Love=work for the highest good of the other", is the Be All and End All of Christian Doctrine and everything else is an add-on.  If we all took "love God and neighbor" seriously, all those other rules that cause hate and discontent in all directions would be moot because if something creates hate and discontent, it is a priori not in the highest good.  It is not always sin nature that keeps people from submitting to authority but it is always sin nature that keeps pushing people "in their place".  

When do we submit and when do we subvert? We submit to human policy when all the people are being respected: every individual is honored as an equal Child of God, every man, woman, child, black, gay, Muslim, or patriocentrist is respected as fully loved by God as everyone else (regardless of whether you agree with their beliefs, lifestyles, behaviors, are you respecting their full equality in God?).  You subvert when policy holds that some people (women, children, blacks, gays) are less equal in God than others: when some people are deemed in need of extra mediation or extra justification or just plain not at all worthy of belonging in the community of believers.

Protection from abuse and justice in community will only be possible if we step away from this hierarchical authority thinking and start preaching again about love without confusing the issue with submission and obedience.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Love in Fundamentalism V: Changing Terms Changes the Terms

[author] Words that come to mind are "love" or "honor", perhaps “service”, I'm sure there are more. 
[commenter] The problem is that it seems you can't really get away from the concept just by using different words.  It seems to me that both “love” and “honor” have just as much opportunity for exploitation and abuse as "submit" does.  It all depends on how you live them out.  The Christian definitions of "love", "honor", "service", and "submission" have been around for centuries, and the concepts are by no means new, though some of the ways they have been used may be.  I have to wonder, though, if back in the day what we've been talking about was the original meaning or definition of these words, and if it isn't the "common understanding" or dictionary definitions that have diverged somewhat.

The difference in the connotations would be that it is possible to mutually honor, respect, or serve one another, no matter which of the many common definitions you use.  It is, however, impossible to mutually submit to one another in any of the standard usages of the word.

I am not trying to get away from the concept of working for the benefit of others in preference to oneself.  I'm trying to get away from the apparent need (based on the number of books, sermons, lectures on the subject) to hammer home to women that they must submit to husbands with the corollary being men taking control of their households (rather than men submit, or men and women honor, or men and women act in service to).

My original point was that if church teachers (those who turn theology into practical application for the rest of us) focused their attention on the real truth of mutuality, using terminology that easily supported the concept, then there would be 1. less confusion about submission being a degradation of one party and promotion of the other and 2. less institutionally sanctioned exploitation of the concept.

What I want is a return to what I am presuming was meant "back in the day" and I think the language is creating a major obstacle to today's people being able to get to that meaning.  If the godly concept is "mutually working for the highest good of the other", then let's say that and not dogmatically hold on to outdated vocabulary simply because of tradition, especially when the use of the outdated words leads to so much abuse that could potentially be avoided simply by using words that speak to modern people.

Love in Fundamentalism IV: Defining Terms of Submission

[commenter] Maybe it's just a matter of semantics - I feel like we're kind of saying the same thing (for the most part) but we're defining "submission" differently. To me, "submission" means putting the other person first or making them more important than you.  By which I do NOT BY ANY MEANS mean "choosing the other person's desires over your own".  A fine distinction but an important one.  I DO mean “making what is best for the other person your priority”.  Ideally, in a mutually submissive relationship, the other person is working for your best just as much as you are working for theirs.  
You ask, "And where does it leave the one who is doing all the submitting?" and say, "Seems to me that God is more about setting up paradigms that are more likely to succeed than fail."  It seems to me he has and it's called MUTUAL submission, that first word being the key.  In God's economy it's not about one person, or many people, giving in to all the desires and proclamations of one or a few people.  When you are truly seeking what is best for others, and they are seeking your best, then there is no room for the kind of despotism and abuse we've been talking about.  The problem is not with the "paradigm" as you call it, but with the way sinful and imperfect people live it out - or don't as the case may be.

I think you've made the very point I was trying to describe about semantics and vocabulary.  If you can't even tell whether we're talking about the same thing or not when we say "submission" when we've been defining it for several emails, then how can the average congregant possibly have a clear understanding of the word?

In the common parlance of the everyday world "submission" means "to seek approval, i.e. to submit a proposal or submit an essay or submit a doctoral thesis" or "to deny one's own desires in favor of another's".  The idea of "mutually submitting" is a logical impossibility in our regular usage of the word.

sub·mit  (sb-mt)
v. sub·mit·ted, sub·mit·ting, sub·mits
1. To yield or surrender (oneself) to the will or authority of another.
2. To subject to a condition or process.
3. To commit (something) to the consideration or judgment of another. See Synonyms at propose.
4. To offer as a proposition or contention: I submit that the terms are entirely unreasonable.
1. To give in to the authority, power, or desires of another. See Synonyms at yield.
2. To allow oneself to be subjected to something.

In church, "submission" is, if I understand you correctly, supposed to mean "taking action for the benefit of the other".  On the whole page of the above link, including three dictionaries of English, two thesauri and the etymology of the word "submit", there is absolutely nothing that would even hint at your definition of "submit" and a whole lot about things like "knuckling under", "obedience" and "to render up will or authority".

If you want to describe the process of being in a godly relationship as each person "taking action for the benefit of the other", a description I heartily agree with, then we should use a term that everyday English speakers will readily understand to mean that.  Words that come to mind are "love" or "honor", perhaps “service”, I'm sure there are more.

There are way too many sermons preached and Christian marriage books written, though, whose premise and practical advice sound way more like my definition of submission than yours.  That's why I said I don't think even the generally recognized experts in theology are at all clear on this word.  There's lots of advice out there promoting that women submit to husbands, REGARDLESS of the husband's actions.  In the face of outright life-threatening violence, and certainly lesser disrespect, the women are told to "submit" and "keep silent" and “God will honor her in heaven”.  Admittedly, this is an extreme example, but I think if something is True, it will remain True even when taken to its logical extreme.

That's where I say that if we talked more in church about "love" and "honor" and "service", all of which more readily denote "actions benefiting others", and less about "submit", there wouldn't be these kinds of human errors in practical theology.  And there would be less opportunity for the power-mongering among us to exploit those who are trying to apply "submit" to the best of their (dubious) understanding.

I think you and I mean exactly the same thing about God's economy being about the many, with each acting for the good of the others over oneself.  But that is completely not the economy that develops in communities concerned with "submitting" rather than "honoring" or some better-fitting term.  I say that the church has got so hung up over pounding the square pegs of its jargon into the round holes of our common understanding, that it has long ago lost sight of the underlying great Truth.

Love in Fundamentalism III: It's Not Just Semantics. Vocabulary Matters

[commenter] Let's not throw out the truth because it's been corrupted, but rather eschew the lie, reclaim the truth for what it is and live it out as best we can.
I think this comment actually hit the nail on the head, but I take issue with the terminology we use to describe the Truth.  The Truth is that Love wants what is best for the other person in the relationship; in fact the best action Love can take will ultimately be the best for both partners.  In fact, quite often, I think submission might actually be the best term to describe the action that Love takes.  But I refuse to limit Love's actions to submission when there are so many examples of when submission will not result in personal growth for one or the other partner in the relationship.

I think a lot of what I so viscerally oppose in evangelical, fundamentalist theology is that there is such a strong Truth buried in the dogma but it gets lost in the wrong-way-round version we are so used to hearing.  The words we say are so emotionally loaded.  We say "submission" in church and we are supposed to think "love in action" but we say "submission" in any other context and we think needing another's approval, always following another's lead, no will of one's one, at the whim of another. How can we not get the issue confused when we are essentially redefining a common English word?

And how often such vocabulary issues happen:  redeem, atone, save, justify. These are the words that come most easily to mind although I remember thinking when I attended church regularly that I really had no idea what most of the hymns were actually saying, or what most preachers meant when they used the church jargon with all its alternate-meaning English.  Frankly, I'm not too sure many preachers are all that clear on what they are talking about because too often use of a word like "submit" ends up supporting ideas like a woman in an abusive relationship must submit to bring her husband around to Christ, or "bringing children up in the Lord" means never letting them be exposed to any ideas except the approved dogma. 

When a Truth gets so distorted through semantics and the sin nature that looks to exploit every power inequity, how are the average churchgoers ever likely to encounter the Truth in the lie?

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Love in Fundamentalism II: Love Isn't Submission

So if Love=submission and the ones on the bottom of the heap are the ones who HAVE to submit the most.  Well, who the hell would really want to love any body else? [author]  
The emotionally disturbed, the chronically codependent. [commenter]
Love IS best demonstrated by submitting.  I'm talking about Christ submitting and emptying himself of glory and power in order to die for our sins.  About the injunction for husbands and wives to submit to each other, and to love each other as Christ loves us.  This is what love does, and …  it is a beautiful and satisfying thing for both parties.  The problem comes when you have one side doing all the submitting, and the other side trying to keep control and power.  THAT is codependency and should not be tolerated. That is evil.  Let's not throw out the truth because it's been corrupted, but rather eschew the lie, and reclaim the truth for what it is. [commenter]

Love ISN'T submission; it's action that spiritually benefits the receiver.  Which sometimes is submission, sometimes not.  Real love can't be exploited the way submission is because it's not always about submitting.  Sometimes it's about holding firm boundaries or about walking away.  

Christ's crucifixion isn't about submission the way we understand submission today.  The real redemptive power of the crucifixion story is his willingness to take action that would bring humanity a path back to right relationship with God. Jesus took any number of actions in the Gospels that provided a means for people to redeem themselves--the most dramatic example is clearing out the temple.  There certainly was no submission involved in that action, but it definitely provided a way for the wrongdoers to become aware of their misdeeds and start living rightly--to be redeemed.

Love is the action of spiritual renewal.  In any given circumstance, what is the action that will provide the best opportunity for spiritual growth in both participants in the relationship?  Sometimes the action will be choosing the other person's desires over your own.  Sometimes the best action will be drawing attention to the fact that they are behaving badly.  Sometimes the best action is leaving the relationship to relieve them of the chance to continue behaving badly, at least with you.

Merely because the action of spiritual growth is sometimes submission, let's not generalize that it is always submission.  Such a generalization sets up a dynamic that is rife with opportunity for inequity and iniquity.  And where does it leave the one who is doing all the submitting?  What options does she (or he) have in the face of exploitation?  Turn the other cheek? Be ever more humble? Given the sinful nature of man, how can we ever expect that the love=submission paradigm will not be exploited?