The Ain't I a Woman blog examines the many ways Christian culture lets women know exactly who they should be. We deconstruct those messages that we find troubling--and, in the process, construct a different message: one that allows Christian women to be all that God intended.

Running as a Feminist Expression

Today’s running of the Boston Marathon marks the 50th anniversary of Kathrine Switzer’s historic effort to defy expectations about what women could and could not do. In 1967, Switzer became the first woman to finish the Boston race with an official number, having been given entry because her registration under the name K.V. Switzer allowed her to pass as a man.

Those familiar with Switzer’s story know the iconic image of that race. A marathon official, Jock Semple, was riding on the press truck, saw Switzer in early miles on the course, jumped into the crowd of runners, and tried to push her from the field while also attempting to rip off her race bib. Switzer’s then-boyfriend, running alongside her, pushed back, and Switzer continued running, finishing the race in four hours, 20 minutes.

In other words, after being assaulted by a powerful man, after being yelled at by members of the press, after other runners on the course shouted obscenities at her because she had entered a male-only space: after all these things, she persisted. And in doing so, she opened the door for countless other women to experience the wonders of running.

Including me, of course. But when I started running in 1982, not even twenty years after a woman finished the Boston marathon for the first time, I knew nothing about Switzer’s amazing courage nor about the limitations placed on female athletes. (Nor did I know, in 1984, that Joan Benoit Samuelson’s Olympic marathon win was also ground-breaking, the first time women had run longer than 800 meters in an Olympics.)

On a run this weekend, I listened to an interview with Switzer on my favorite podcast, Another Mother Runner. There, Switzer talked about what running has given her over the last fifty years, how it has been a source of empowerment for her and for countless other women, who have discovered that the simple act of running can transform them completely.

I thought about the ways running has enriched my life: it has made me feel strong and capable; it has given me a sense of accomplishment; it has carried me through the loneliness of graduate school and the stress of being a new mother; it has sustained me as my kids have grown into teenagers, which has introduced all kinds of new stressors. But most significantly, my 35 years of running has given me my best friends and confidantes, a tribe of like-minded women whose strength, courage, humor, good-will, and downright bad-assness makes me want to be a better person, too.

In a lot of ways, running is a selfish endeavor. (Maybe in all ways.) I run for my own enjoyment, for the social time with friends, because I know it makes me healthy and strong. I have spent countless dollars on this hobby of mine, and countless hours. I am generally more tired, more grumpy, and also more gimpy because of running.

And, I have never run for a charity, and don’t plan to, because I don’t want to obfuscate the real reason I run: for me. Admitting this is hard, especially because Christian woman are so often told that self-sacrifice is the highest, best goal to which we should aspire. So much so, in fact, that we often sublimate our own needs for the good of everyone else.

Perhaps this is why I think running can be a feminist expression, an acknowledgment that women have agency over their bodies, their time, their resources—or should have agency, at any rate—and that running can be one way we push back against those expectations that say we don’t matter quite as much. That more women than men now finish races in the U.S. (9.7 million women to 7.3 million men in 2016) suggests that running, at least, is one place where women are finding power and strength.

While this kind of feminist expression might seem privileged, something only wealthy westerners can do, Switzer’s new endeavor, 261Fearless, is hoping to foster multi-cultural running communities for women of all abilities, across the globe, so that women can discover their own strength as well as their own tribes. Named after the number she wore at the 1967 Boston Marathon, 261Fearless seems like a promising next step to giving the women’s running boom even more traction.

Of course, when I’m out running with my best running friend, I’m not really thinking about time on the road as a feminist expression or about my own agency as a woman. Not all the time, at least. Much more often, I feel immense gratitude for how this amazing sport has connected me with so many amazing women. And today, I’m especially grateful for Kathrine Switzer, whose entry in the 1967 Boston Marathon defied the expectations of men, like Jock Semple, who said woman couldn’t do what men could. Her successful finish that year—as well as the 9.7 million women who raced in 2016—offers an important rejoinder: Hell yes, we can.

My favorite running picture ever, because it shows my strength and joy, even though I was running alone.

Mike Pence and His (Lack of) Dinner Dates

A social media eruption has recently occurred over Mike Pence’s dinner dates, specifically that his spouse, Karen, reportedly told The Washington Post that Mike never eats alone with another woman or attends a function without her where alcohol is served.

I imagine when Karen revealed this insight about Mike she saw it as an opportunity to demonstrate what an upstanding man her husband is. My guess is that she is surprised that many find this behavior misguided, bizarre, or even misogynistic. And here is where one of our religious fault lines in America raises its head, again.

When I went to seminary in the early 1990s, I entered the evangelical world that Pence in his female-avoidance represents. I remember sitting in a classroom listening to one of my professors (all of them were men) extol his virtuous character because he refused to meet with women behind closed doors. In great detail he explained how he had windows installed in his office so that someone could always corroborate his professional interactions with women. Too, since he could readily be observed, an important safeguard firmly in place, he had successfully eliminated any sexual temptation he might experience being alone with a woman.

While there certainly are important considerations involved in a professor-student relationship, it is the unexamined implications in such a male-centric perspective that deserve more sustained attention.

And so, Pence’s behavior provides us an opportunity to explore this cultural divide where most evangelicals are probably lauding Pence’s dining practice at the same time everyone else who isn’t part of the evangelical culture is wondering what 1950s Leave it to Beaver world has sudden been unleashed on the American public as a whole.

As some have pointed out, Pence’s practice echoes what has often been called the Billy Graham Rule. Originating during a conversation between Graham, the well-known evangelist, and three of his male ministerial friends, they decided the things that tempted them the most were money and sexual immorality. Because they wanted to avoid falling into temptation, they decided to avoid situations where they might succumb to the latter. Hence, don’t eat alone with women.

The reason evangelicals are surprised by the pushback over this revelation is that chivalry toward women is regularly confused with treating women with respect. Many evangelicals think that “protecting” women from the harsh realities of the world demonstrates how much they value women. Of course underlying this assumption is that this is entirely a male perspective. Much like the meeting between Graham and his friends, they extrapolate from their experience, a rule that in their minds applies to all people, regardless of the fact that women are not included except as people to be acted upon. In other words, women are objects, mostly sexual ones. Additionally, in such perspectives, men are sexual animals who cannot be trusted to act appropriately when their male gaze moves to action.

Nevertheless, some evangelicals never acknowledge this important challenge to the culture of chivalry in part because within this world, the comfort of gender roles has been promoted as God’s design for relationships. Such so-called design enables opening of doors and a gentle guiding hand on one’s back, to substitute for the more diligent and difficult work of true equality; equality where sexist structures are identified and addressed.

This is the reason Karen Pence can believe her husband to be a morally impeccable man in how he personally treats women while at the same time disregard that he is serving a president who daily parades his misogyny and who most likely has sexually violated scores of women. Mike is praised because he intentionally avoids the temptation of un-chaperoned mingling with women while at the very same time he is commended for maintaining sexist structures. It is—rightly—a man’s world.

Post-Election Ruminating

I am a distracted yogi.

Recently while I was sweating my way through a 60 minute hot yoga class appropriately called Fire I realized just un-centered I am. There we were too many of us crammed into the small room because the large room is out of order (they say this should only be a short term inconvenience, but I’m a habitual doubter these days so I imagine this to be more like a long-term tactic to get us acclimated to accepting inferior facilities). We were only a few poses into our standing sequence when I felt a drop of sweat land on my right foot. It was not mine. Now, how was I to maintain my focus on breathing when someone else had violated my space? It took me at least three subsequent poses to regain calm serenity when it happened again, this time on my arm despite my earnest efforts to stay squarely on my mat.

Well, that was the end of my positive attitude—and the beginning of my epiphany that I need to do a fair bit of mental recalibrating in order to overcome my selfish desire for unencumbered yoga.

Truthfully, though, yoga is hardly my biggest problem right now.

trump-with-bible

Like many, I am devastated by the election of Donald Trump as our president-elect and even a week removed from Terrible Tuesday, I am struggling to find even the smallest ray of hope. Heck, I’d even settle for a momentary glimpse of something good. Now, I have no intention of speaking on behalf of all followers of Jesus (of which I strive to be one). All I can do is try to examine and share why I feel like someone has ripped my heart out and hung it around my neck as an albatross.

If there is any recurring theme in the Bible it is that I am my neighbor’s keeper, that we are called to be in solidarity with others. Jesus showed us what this means in how he treated people, especially those on the margins of society. Too, when the early Jesus followers gathered together, they shared all they had, looking out most intentionally for those in their midst who had the least. You see, the Roman Empire at the time had gained its wealth through oppressive systems that fed the coffers of the rich while disregarding the lives of the poor. Those who aligned themselves with Jesus were willing to live differently, to stand against the ruling elite and in solidarity with each other. Sometimes this cost them a lot, even death.

When Donald Trump was elected as our next president—supported in large part by well-meaning Christians who take their faith seriously—it indicated that we have lost this plot.

We cannot explain away someone whose words and actions are racist, sexist, homophobic, Islamophobic, and downright cruel toward those with disabilities. The Bible says that we know the commitments of someone by the fruit they bear. What fruit has Donald Trump produced that is anything but self-serving and motivated by power and wealth?

The contrast between these worldviews could not be more stark.

I guess we just weren’t ready to share each other’s sweat yet. I can only hope it was just a momentary lack of focus.

Why We All Need Good Christian Sex (A Review)

good-christian-sex-coverI want to start this post by naming my bias I have against books in the Christian marketplace; I recognize the problematic nature of this bias, since I am a writer who has always worked with Christian publishers, and have read many excellent books by other authors who identify as Christian. But when Bromleigh McCleneghan’s agent wrote, asking if our blog would consider doing a review of her book, Good Christian Sex, my initial thought was “oh boy, this promises to be all kinds of horrible.”

Maybe it was mid-summer optimism that made me say yes to writing a review. Or maybe it was the book’s subtitle, Why Chastity Isn’t the Only Option—And Other Things the Bible Says about Sex. Whatever the case, I am grateful for the opportunity to read what is, in my mind, the best book I’ve encountered about Christianity and sex, and I’m hopeful that her ideas can begin to shift the ways Christians talk about sex and sexuality.

McCleneghan uses her own observations as a pastor, as well as her personal experiences, to develop a sexual ethic that especially resonates with me because it doesn’t turn immediately to the polar extremes with which too many Christians tend to view sex. Instead, she explores the nuances of sex and sexuality, hoping that, fundamentally and in all things, “we know love, joy, holiness, and pleasure in these lives God has given us.”

Good Christian Sex begins to dismantle some of the deeply entrenched views Christians tend to have about sex, including the contradictory notions that sex outside of marriage is deeply shameful, but sex within the bounds of marriage will always be amazing, pleasurable, mind-blowing. We tend to swim through a stew of mixed messages about sex, not even aware of how pervasive shame and confusion about sex and sexuality cloud our worldview.

Case in point: I realized that having a book titled Good Christian Sex seemed a bit embarrassing to me, especially given the cover image of two hands seemingly on the cusp of intimacy. I found myself obscuring the book’s title while I read, not really wanting others to know I was reading a book about S-E-X, even if it was the good Christian kind. (And oh, the mortification: here I am, writing a review about a sex book!)

Clearly, I need an author like McCleneghan to help me untangle my many complex and contradictory thoughts about good Christian sex, and gratefully, she delivers. McCleneghan wades into difficult territory, with chapters on masturbation, vulnerability, desire, intimacy, and fidelity, among other topics. But instead of providing quick prohibitions against such acts as self-pleasure and sex outside of marriage, the author takes time to consider what the Bible says, what church tradition has said, and how Christians can live rightly in a sexual ethic that recognizes and loves, rather than objectifies, the Other.

Indeed, the central claim around which she builds her case is compelling; McCleneghan suggests a theology of sexuality should focus on a “single norm”: “Love the Lord your God, and your neighbor as yourself.” She considers Martin Buber’s I and Thou, noting that the world is structured by two relational dynamics: I-It and I-Thou. When we relate as “I-It,” we are relating to something as an object, to be used; when we relate as “I-Thou,” we relate to the other as someone who we value and, she writes, we “understand them as we would ourselves: as subjects, as actors and agents; people, complicated, living people, just like us.” Because God is the “Eternal Thou,” both the Other and God can only be known through a moving, changing, dynamic relationship, unlike our connection to an object, to be used for our purposes.

Seen through this lens, good Christian sex is not about prohibition and limitation, and is not a list of rigid rules through which we see and relate to the other, because in that rigidity, the other ceases to be a complex person, but merely an object by which we measure our own righteousness. Instead, McCleneghan challenges readers to check their motives to assure that every encounter with another is based on justice: on doing what is fair and right for and desired by the Other. This is hard work, she reminds us, and sometimes a list of sexual do’s and don’ts is far easier to navigate.

Perhaps this is one of the many reasons I like McCleneghan’s book so much. Rather than resorting to the easy catalogue of what monogamous Christians should or should not do during intimacy (or even, whether only heterosexual people can have good Christian sex), McCleneghan does the important work of calling us to consider the value of sex, and also the significant ways we are created for relationship. She argues well that sex can be holy and sacramental, fun and pleasurable, capable of healing and of destroying.

Good Christian Sex challenges me to consider intimate relationships in different ways; perhaps more significantly, McCleneghan has helped me to consider how I will talk about sex and sexuality with my boys, now only minutes away from adulthood and from learning what it means to love another person, wholly, completely, intimately. McCleneghan says loving another in this way is “terribly simple; it’s harder than it sounds.”

“Everything Happens for a Reason” Sucks as Theology

One prominent adoption narrative I reject completely is that God always planned for me to parent my sons: that somehow, even though Benjamin and Samuel were born thousands of miles from Oregon, God pulled some strings, engineered some circumstances, and gave me two of the best kids in the world.

Here’s why I reject this ideology of “God’s Plan” for adoption: Because I refuse to believe that God caused suffering and loss just so that I could be a mother. God did not manufacture difficult life events for mothers in India and Vietnam, compelling them to relinquish their children to me. God also did not want my sons to lose familial relationships and cultural ties in their birth countries so I could raise them. If God’s plan is for women to suffer the loss of their babies, and children the loss of their birth mothers, then I’m not sure that God is someone, or something, I want to worship.

The idea of God’s plan in the midst of loss has been on mind a lot lately, because it seems like so many people in my life are suffering immense pain. People I know are struggling with the serious illnesses and deaths of parents, of spouses, of life-long friends, of children. Some are contending with the difficult work of raising teenagers. Others are facing the dissolution of marriages. Violence seems ubiquitous, both at the world-wide level, where a terrorist’s murder of children at a wedding no longer fazes us as it once did; and at the local level, as Kendra wrote about last week, mourning a friend, a victim of domestic violence.

Many people choose to believe God has a greater plan in mind for those who suffer, and Christian culture is good at providing ready-made clichés in the midst of loss: That Everything Happens For A Reason, and God is trying to teach us something when bad things happen. Or that God believes we have a lesson to learn, and is allowing us to suffer for our own moral education. Or that because God’s plan is greater than we understand, we should accept suffering, rejoicing in the mystery of God’s beautiful design.

I am grateful that people are beginning to call bullshit on this ideology of “God’s Plan” in the face of suffering. In the last few months especially, I’ve found several resources incredibly helpful in reshaping my own understanding of loss.

The first is Jessica Kelley’s book, Lord Willing? Wrestling with God’s Role in My Child’s Death, which has transformed both my understanding of God’s role in suffering and has given me new language to use in thinking about suffering. Kelley’s book is emotionally challenging, and I cried through much of it, especially in the detailed story of her son’s death at age four from aggressive cancer. Kelley deconstructs what she calls the Christian “blueprint worldview,” which says that her son’s death was part of God’s great plan, or that God allowed her son to die so that we might see God’s glory. She also challenges the idea that God used Henry’s death for educative purposes. Who needed a lesson, she asks: a four-year-old boy who underwent immense pain? Parents who were trying to live a righteous life? Kelley’s book offers a different understanding of God, one that posits a God whose very essence is love, and who cries alongside us when we suffer. (Last spring, I wrote a more complete review of the book here, for Mennonite World Review; you can find more of Kelley’s story here.)

Several recent posts by Benjamin Corey at his Patheos blog have echoed what Kelley posits in Lord Willing? Writing about his family’s heartbreaking adoption loss, Corey shares his deep grief and his acknowledgment that sometimes, shitty stuff happens, and not because God plans it to. In a subsequent post, titled “If God’s the Cause of Our Suffering, He’s Kinda a Jerk (Just Sayin’),” Corey outlines an understanding of God and suffering that is similar to Kelley’s: If God’s very essence is love and goodness, as the Bible tells us, then God will not cause us to suffer; if God allows suffering to happen so that we can learn something, God is perpetuating evil, and that is against God’s essence.

At the church I attend, Newberg Friends, our pastor Gregg Koskela has been doing a sermon series on suffering. You can read the transcripts here, on Gregg’s blog. Though we are only two sermons into the series, I already appreciate so much Gregg’s ability to acknowledge the problematic nature of a theology that says if we do everything good and right, God rewards us and we will live happily ever after; if we stumble, God will teach us a lesson and bad stuff will happen. I’ve lived under the weight of that theology for my entire adult life, certain that if I fail as a believer, God will smack me down. Gregg reminds us that God doesn’t operate that way, but that God promises to walk with us, even through darkness, especially through darkness. Often, God works through the love, comfort, and presence of others, holding space with us through suffering.

One important point these writers and thinkers make again and again is that, when we experience great loss, God is with us, mourning as we mourn. Because God’s essence is love and goodness, we are also called to bring love and goodness to the world. If we believe in a deity that allows suffering, or who hopes to teach us through suffering, we are stripped of our agency. In what Kelley calls a “warfare worldview,” though, God longs for us to fight for good alongside God.

Although it’s easy to be paralyzed by the suffering of others, or of ourselves, we are called to work with God to fight evil with love and goodness. One of my dearest friends is bearing witness to this idea as her father faces complications from ALS, a debilitating and terminal illness. Two years ago she couldn’t have imagined doing the “ice bucket challenge” to raise money for ALS research; this year, she is actively advocating to fund research that might someday lead to a cure. You can read more of her family’s story(and contribute to an ALS fundraising walk, if you are willing) here.

I am confident that God is walking alongside this beautiful family, and I have learned a lot from them about grace, mercy, patience, and love; but God did not cause their suffering, nor did God allow an ALS diagnosis to happen for God’s glorification or to teach anyone a lesson. That kind of theology sucks, as does that kind of God. Of this, at least, I am certain.

Kate Wiant and Violence Against Women

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Our community is devastated.

Sunday afternoon an act of family violence occurred leaving our beloved librarian, Kate Wiant, dead. It appears she was shot by her husband who later killed himself, all while their young daughter watched.

For those of us who knew Kate, this rage against her is hard to fathom for she was the kindest, most gentle and gracious spirit on campus. To interact with her was to brighten one’s day. She was just that kind of positive force, a smile always on her face. And so, because of who she was, we cannot reconcile that with what was done to her by her spouse. She was murdered by someone she loved in front of their child.

There are no words for the grief we feel, for the horror we imagine took place before she took her last breath.

And still, we will start classes this week. For many of us we will feel that life should stop, that we should have longer to resolve our tremendous loss with how we move forward.

For me, among other classes this semester, I will be teaching Introduction to the New Testament. As I think about this challenge in light of Kate’s death, I cannot but be reminded of how easily we have dismissed family violence as something we don’t need to address as long as it doesn’t directly affect us. We seldom talk about the reality that 85% of victims of family violence are women or that according to the American Psychological Association, 4,774,000 women each year experience physical violence by an intimate partner. These statistics should move us to action and yet, we hardly give them a passing thought.

You may be wondering how Kate’s murder is related to teaching the New Testament.

How often do we seriously examine the violence in the Bible, especially its violence against women? Because of the Bible’s pervasive place within our culture, we who look to it as a sacred text need to be more honest about its problems and our continuing silence about them. Until we look more critically at ourselves for being too silent for too long about how Christianity uses the Bible as a tool to promote patriarchal culture and therefore how inattentive we have been to the devastating effects of this culture on women and children, we as a society will perpetuate more horrific scenarios. One where even reports on such violent acts can conclude of Kate’s daughter, “she was not injured.” Of course she was; this little one’s life will never be the same.

For me, I will honor Kate when I walk into the classroom this week. I will witness to what a wonderful person she was and how sorry I am she is no longer with us.

And I will not be silent about our culture of violence, nor about our need to be real about the Bible.

 

A response to Dallas

Like you, the events of the last couple of weeks have left me feeling a host of emotions: anger, disappointment, fear, sadness. The anxiety I feel—and have experienced for several months—is exhausting. And I know I am not alone in this. You feel it, too.

Dallas

Sunday morning I opened my Dallas Morning News to the front page where a single eye filled with the Dallas skyline stared back at me shedding a tear. The editorial urged its readers to “learn to understand each other, to really hear one another, to learn from each other.” And then I looked at my facebook feed where some of my friends were posting their opposition to gun regulations, opposition to the Black Lives Matter movement, their uncritical support of police and policing policies.

And I wondered: do we have the capacity to learn, to really listen?

It was in the midst of this despair that I folded the paper and drove across Dallas to meet with a small group who gathers once a month in a classroom at Richland College called New Wineskins. There, we celebrate the Divine Feminine. There we help each other see that while it is easy to give up hope for this world so riddled with violence, Sophia points to a path that cultivates peace and justice.

Have you noticed the one constant that lies at the heart of the violence we continue to witness? This was the question that became our focus Sunday morning. It’s so obvious that it never is mentioned or considered. News pundits don’t talk about it. Pastors all over the country didn’t talk about it even as both rushed to offer their insights about the events in Dallas and around the nation.

Do you ever wonder why women are seldom the perpetrators of violence and instead are most often the ones who suffer from it?

Do you wonder what the world would be like if women were in equal partnership with men?

Do you wonder how our churches might respond to these tragedies if women were pastors?

Do you wonder how our laws and society would be structured if women had at least equal input?

Do you wonder how differently we would conduct international affairs or even policing in our streets if women were the architects of our system?

In our New Wineskins gathering Sunday we spoke of our vision of justice:

“We envision a land where the truth that all people are created equal will become a reality. Our vision is of a land where ‘liberty and justice’ for all is more than a pledge. Our vision is of a land where women and men of all colors, abilities, and sexual orientations will share equally in opportunities and blessings. We envision an end to war not only across the seas but in our own city streets, an end to abuse of all kinds on the job and in the home. Our vision includes faith communities in which all share equally in leadership and ministry, communities which give sacred value to female divinity as well as to male divinity. We envision a land free of discrimination and injustice in any form. We sound a call to freedom in our institutions and in our homes. We call for individual freedom from external definition, freedom to follow the voice within. We call for freedom to love, to create, to laugh, to learn, to grow, to become all we are meant to be.”—Jann Aldredge-Clanton

It’s a vision worth considering.

Twisting Faith: Evangelicals and Trump

We have had a full year to become numb to Donald Trump’s incessant lies. One after another they spew from his mouth with little push back from the media. And, who can blame them, really? It seems those who support Trump in his bid for the presidency care little about facts and instead are rallying behind a vapid promise of making America great.

This blind loyalty for Trump extends, apparently, to Christian conservatives who yesterday met with Trump to galvanize their relationship. According to The Dallas Morning News, the event included the likes of Franklin Graham, James Dobson, and Tony Perkins, essentially all of the old evangelical guard. And, that guard has been rewarded by Trump’s decision to have an evangelical advisory board composed of Jack Graham, Robert Jeffress, Kenneth Copeland, James Robison, and Robert Morris. Oh, and one woman: Michelle Bachmann.

All of this is good news to evangelicals because in his speech to them yesterday in New York, Trump admitted that religious liberty is the number one question and that he believes “we’ve got to spiritize this country.” Religious liberty and a Muslim ban? Spiritize, really?

In contrast to such blatant pandering (on both sides), and to correct Trump’s lie that Hillary Clinton’s faith is “not out there,” I suggest spending just a little bit of time digging into Secretary Clinton’s religious underpinnings. In 2014 she spoke at the United Methodist Women’s Assembly. She shared about her experiences in the church of her youth, of being confirmed, of what she learned through her youth group, of why she has spent her life working on behalf of the “least of these.”

If someone is looking to vote on a presidential candidate based upon a faith conviction, Hillary is the one who has not only read the Bible; she understands God’s call on our lives to be persons whose actions reflect our convictions. Check out what she says about Jesus’ instructions to feed the multitude, for example.

If evangelicals cannot see this clear distinction between someone pandering for support from a faith community and someone whose lifetime of faith is reflected in her work, then they are simply not paying attention.