The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

We’re in the midst of an apocalypse. And that’s a good thing.

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As a clergyperson, I’d like to welcome you all to the apocalypse. Pull up a chair and make yourself uncomfortable.

If, when you think of an apocalypse, you picture a scary, doom-filled, punishment-from-above type of thing, you are not alone. Originally, though, apocalyptic literature — the kind that was popular around the time of Jesus — existed not to scare the bejeezus out of children so they would be good boys and girls, but to proclaim a big, hope-filled idea: that dominant powers are not ultimate powers. Empires fall. Tyrants fade. Systems die. God is still around.

An apocalypse is a good thing, and I’m delighted to welcome you to this one.

In Greek, the word apocalypse means to uncover, to peel away, to show what’s underneath. That’s what this country has been experiencing in the past six months. There has not been a sudden uptick in sexual misconduct and assault in our country, the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements are simply exposing what was already there. The reality that some men comment on, threaten, masturbate in front of, intimidate and assault female bodies is finally being brought out of the dark ubiquity of women’s personal experience and into the light of public discourse. The male domination at the center of the sexual harassment issue — how those in positions of power (usually, but not always, men) have used that power to sexually gratify themselves at the expense of those who are subordinate to them (usually, but not always, women) — is being revealed apocalyptically in prime time.

The corner has peeled up, and now there is a little cat fur and dust on it, and we can’t get it to stick back down.

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Some people may think policy change and sensitivity training will take care of everything eventually, and that the #MeToo movement is already showing the success some women are having holding abusers accountable. But real, lasting change requires an understanding of why gender inequality is a reality in the first place. To do that, we must take that peeled-up corner and pull, even if it hurts.

If we look as deep as we can stomach, we will find heresy at the center. Nineteenth-century theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher defined heresy as “that which preserves the appearance of Christianity, and yet contradicts its essence.”

The heresy is this: With all the trappings of Christianity behind us, those who seek to justify or maintain dominance over another group of people have historically used the Bible to prove that that domination was not actually an abuse of power at the expense of others, but indeed was part of “God’s plan.” And there you have the appearance of Christianity (Bible verses and God-talk) contradicting its essence (love God, and love your neighbor as yourself).

Sexual harassment and misconduct persist in the United States for a reason.

The venom of domination runs deeply in us as a country and a people. And it does so because the fangs that delivered it were given not the devil’s name, but God’s. When the subordination of women is established as God’s will, when slavery is established as God’s will, when discrimination against queer folks is established as God’s will, when the CEO of the National Rifle Association claims the right to buy a semiautomatic assault rifle is “not bestowed by man, but granted by God,” it delivers a poison that can infect the deepest parts of us. Because messages that are transmitted to us in God’s name embed far beneath the surface, all the way down to our original place, our createdness, our source code.

In polite company, and even in our conscious thoughts, we may not “agree” with the subjugation of women, but the toxic heresy of God-ordained domination is a spiritual malady, not a cosmetic one. Wokeness and policy change are a start, but not enough to dig out the full infection.

I know this, because I, too, am infected.

The messages I received from my highly religious upbringing — one shared by millions in this country — was that it is God’s will that women be subordinate to men. Every Tuesday night in 1981, I joined the other 12- to 13-year-old girls at church for Christian Charm Class. “Femininity,” my workbook explained, was my “crowning glory: purity, sweetness, a quiet spirit, modesty, chastity, a demure manner.” We were patiently directed on the skills needed to get ahead: prettiness, humility and a modest amount of lip gloss. The boys in the Sunday school classroom next to us received instruction on how to become confident leaders.

I never heard a woman speak in church or pray aloud until I was in my late 20s.

I now have a graduate degree in theology, a decade of ordained ministry and am unapologetic about being a woman who is also a Lutheran clergyperson. I have embraced my calling to be a preacher. I have written books about it. I have rebutted the criticism from conservative Christians that women have no spiritual authority. Every Sunday, I wear a black clergy shirt and stand before my congregation. And yet, on occasion, when I catch a glimpse of a female pastor, for a fraction of a second, before I can stop it, I recoil.

Who does she think she is?”

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The toxic “it is God’s will that women remain silent” message I received from well-meaning church-folk runs too deeply in me to dig it out with my own hand.

This is why I welcome our moment of uncovering; we need to see how deep the heresy of domination runs, and then remind one another that dominant powers are not ultimate powers. We Christians need to repent of our original sins, and see where we have embraced the appearance of Christianity only to reject its essence. This is not a new idea. Black Bible scholars, feminist and liberation theologians have done this work well and for decades now. So if those who came before looked to the Bible to justify their dominance then let us look to it to justify our dignity. It’s in there. Hebrew midwives who defy Pharaoh. Ethnic outsider women who insisted on their dignity. African eunuchs who knew where water was in a desert.

We must do this. The Bible, Christian theology and liturgy are too potent to be left to those who would use them, even unwittingly, to justify and protect their own dominance. And sometimes the origin of the harm can be the most powerful source of healing.

That’s how anti-venom works.