Both my parents were preachers, but only one was ordained. I grew up in a small town in Louisiana in the 1950s and 60s. It was in a time in the South when water fountains were labeled “colored” and “white,” and we didn’t know gays and lesbians existed. My father almost lost his job as pastor of First Baptist Church, Minden, La., because of his stand for integration during the Civil Rights movement, and he did lose his position on the board of Midwestern Baptist Seminary because of his stand for the academic freedom of a professor who wrote a book on the symbolic interpretation of Genesis. My mother always served as a minister, but she was never ordained or paid. Her dynamic speaking ability and exceptional leadership skills made her every bit as qualified as Daddy to pastor a church. She was always taking care of the underdog, never realizing that she was one. Growing up, I never saw a woman in the pulpit, except a missionary to Nigeria. And what she did was called “speak,” not “preach.”
It was not until September 18, 1977, that I discovered that anything could or should be any different. That Sunday evening my friend Raynal Barber and I went to a service at Cliff Temple Baptist Church, here in Oak Cliff. At the time Raynal and I were teaching in the English department at Dallas Baptist University. That evening at Cliff Temple Martha Gilmore was being ordained, the first woman in the South to be ordained by a Baptist church. With awe, I watched a woman kneeling before the congregation as a long line of people—women as well as men—passed by to lay hands of blessing upon her. Before then, I had seen only men ordain only men. Now something new was happening! After the service Raynal said to me: “Jann, one day we’ll be going to your ordination!” I gave her a shocked look and replied, “Oh no! I’ll research, write, persuade, give chapter and verse to support the ordination of women. But I wouldn’t want all the criticism and struggle Martha’s gone through.”
Eight years later Raynal stood at my ordination service at Seventh and James Baptist Church in Waco to read these words of the prophet Habakkuk: “Write the vision; make it plain on tablets, so that a runner may read it. For there is still a vision for the appointed time. If it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come.” Martha Gilmore preached the ordination sermon, proclaiming that I was “the vision made flesh, the vision that God indeed calls women to ordained ministry.” Martha declared that I had also become “a statement, a promise for many women and men and a hope for many women who may be frightened to hear the divine call.” It helped to hear Martha bless me as a “statement,” because that word had been used negatively in reference to me and other women who had followed nontraditional paths. People had tried to dismiss me by saying, “Oh, you’re just trying to make a statement.” I realized that we were in a time in history when statements about the worth of women needed to be made. And these statements need to be made today as much as ever.
In the years since, I’ve discovered that it’s easier to see the vision than to live it. Time and time again I’ve faced the challenge of breaking free from cultural traditions that limit women and men. Breaking free to become all we’re created to be in the divine image is a continual challenge. Religious and cultural traditions are constantly trying to stifle our gifts and our voices, to put us back into boxes we’ve broken free from. External and internal forces are formidable.
The more I tried to live my call to pastoral ministry in various roles, as a chaplain, on a church staff, as a pastoral counselor, and as a writer in support of women in ministry, the more I realized that the resistance to ordination of women is only a part of a larger patriarchal culture that gives greatest value to white, straight, able-bodied, financially privileged males. Other people are considered “other” and marginalized and oppressed. One of the arguments I heard against ordination of women was, “If we start ordaining women, the next thing you know we’ll be ordaining gays!” I must confess that at that time I tried to argue that the two issues were separate. But Sophia Wisdom kept expanding my vision so that I could respond, “Yes, that’s the point! The ordained ministry should be open to all.” I was realizing that the ordination issue is just the tip of the patriarchal iceberg. At the foundation of our patriarchal culture is an image of a male God, sanctioning patterns of dominance and submission. More and more I was understanding that the strongest support imaginable for the dominance of men is this worship of an exclusively masculine Supreme Being. So my call expanded to writing, preaching, and teaching on the inclusion of the Divine Feminine.
Isabel Docampo tells me that some of the young women in her classes at Perkins say, “We don’t need to do inclusive language any more. That was important when you were going through seminary because there were all men. Inclusive language isn’t important anymore because now women can be leaders in church and are in the workplace big time.” Isabel says that when these young women go out into churches, they discover that gender discrimination, although more subtle now than in the past, is still all too prevalent.
People have tried to discount my advocacy for inclusive language by saying, “You’re making such a big deal over a few words. The Creator of the universe can’t be limited; He’s above male or female.” When I agree and say that there should then be no more problem referring to God as “She” than as “He,” I get strong negative reactions, like I’d suggested that we bring pornography into worship. No better proof can be found for the bias against the feminine and the need to overcome it by calling God “She.”
My passion for changing worship language is not just about personal preference or about making women feel better about ourselves, although that’s a worthy goal, and it’s not about political correctness, but about faithfulness to our Gospel calling. Gender-balanced language in worship is a justice issue on a wide scale.
Naming the Divine as “Sophia” (Greek“Wisdom”) “Hokmah,” (Hebrew “Wisdom”) “Mother,” “Sister,” “Ruah,” (Hebrew “Spirit”) “Midwife,” “She,” and other biblical female designations gives sacred value to women and girls who have for centuries been excluded, denigrated, discounted, even abused and murdered. Including the Divine Feminine in worship comes from our call to do justice, to alleviate suffering. I’ve come to understand how worship of an exclusively male Deity forms a foundation for demeaning, devaluing, and abuse of women. Language and symbols shape our thinking which drive our actions. Many people don’t realize how worship with exclusive language oppresses people; it oppresses by devaluing those excluded. This devaluation lays the foundation for worldwide violence against women and girls. In the U.S. alone, every fifteen seconds a woman is battered. One in four American girls will have been sexually assaulted by the age of 18. One in three women in the world experiences some kind of abuse in her lifetime. Worldwide, an estimated four million women and girls each year are bought and sold into prostitution, slavery, or marriage. Two-thirds of the world’s poor are women. Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, in their book Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide, state: “More girls have been killed in the last fifty years, precisely because they were girls, than people were killed in all the battles of the twentieth century. More girls are killed in this routine ‘gendercide’ in any one decade than people were slaughtered in all the genocides of the twentieth century.” There are many more alarming statistics on worldwide violence and discrimination against women and girls. A theology that truly includes females and males and bisexual and transgender people, all genders, can make a powerful contribution to a more just world.
Perkins professor Marjorie Procter-Smith in her book The Church in Her House: A Feminist Emancipatory Prayer Book for Christian Communities, writes about the need for faith communities to recognize overlapping and interlocking structures of oppression, which theologian Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza calls “kyriarchy,” meaning literally “rule of the masters or lords.” The more familiar term “patriarchy” suggests that all men (literally “fathers”) are rulers. But men of color, gay men, disabled men, poor men are usually excluded from power.
Theology and worship practice make a difference. That’s why CityChurch, now Church in the Cliff, was founded, to be a truly inclusive community that preaches inclusive theology, and practices and models inclusive worship that shapes actions of justice and peace. Our theology and worship practice matter. Not just personal preference, but can often be a life and death matter. Read Unfinished Lives: Reviving the Memories of LGBTQ Hate Crimes Victims, by Brite Divinity School professor Steve Sprinkle, and you’ll see how religion can be the cause of or the solution to hate crimes. Complicit in these crimes are not only churches preaching anti-LGBTQ theology but also those remaining silent in the face of this hate-inducing rhetoric.
What can be do to end sexism, heterosexism, gender oppression and violence? As a faith community, we can continue to grow toward greater inclusivity in our theology, worship language and symbolism. We can give equal value to women and men through worship that equally balances Mother and Father, Brother and Sister, She and He, Christ and Sophia, and other female and male divine names. In addition to this inclusive language, we can find ways to include all genders in our symbolism, our theology, and our practice. Worshipping a Deity who includes more than one gender lays a strong foundation for justice and peace in our world. As individuals and as a community, we can find other specific actions to take. I recommend these two books, Unfinished Lives and Half the Sky, hard to read because of the alarming stories, but also hopeful in listing actions we can take to bring change. Steve Sprinkle also has a blog and FB page that give specific things we can do. Half the Sky has a whole chapter entitled “What You Can Do,” and an Appendix listing many international organizations that support women and girls. And closer to home: National Organization for Women; Evangelical and Ecumenical Women’s Caucus-Christian Feminism Today; ecumenical, multicultural Equity for Women in the Church Community; Dallas Foundation for Women; Planned Parenthood. Individually and together as a faith community we can continue to grow in becoming the Good News of liberation and abundant life for everyone.
It has been an interesting few months in the culture wars. And first, let’s be clear that it is a war. Over the last couple of weeks, I have been told by people who oppose change, by people who gleefully patronize businesses that oppose change, that it’s not helpful for me to characterize it as such. These words denoting conflict show my own intolerance and bigotry. Bullshit. This is not a fight that women and LGBTQ folk and their allies would like to be having. But those in power do what they always do: they take their active response to change, their clutching at the power they have, as normal and neutral. They view their action as inaction. So they frame things as if they are passively minding their own business while this unexpected turmoil erupts around them. When Martin Luther King was in jail in Birmingham, he did not have kind words for those who sat on the sidelines, quietly enjoying their freedoms, and pretending that segregation was none of their business.
So let’s look at a few dispatches from the front lines. The Vatican came down on American nuns in April. Ostensibly, it was for doctrinal problems, but at the core of those doctrinal problems is the nuns’ refusal to be conscripted into fighting against the interests of women and children, of the poor and the forgotten. In May, President Obama came out for marriage equality. In the last week or so, we have the Chick-fil-A boycott after the CEO, Dan Cathy, said clearly what everyone should have known before: he opposes same-sex marriage and uses company profits to support anti-gay organizations. And, finally, this week no one was surprised when another anti-gay evangelical cultural critic, Jonathon Merritt, was outed by a gay blogger with whom he had put himself “in an unwise situation” and “had physical contact that went beyond the bounds of friendship.” And then there was one more that, strangely, seemed to pass without much fanfare.
Around the end of June, Alan Chambers, the president of Exodus International made a startling announcement. If you don’t know, Exodus is an umbrella organization for ex-gay ministries and reparative therapists, who believe that through prayer and psychotherapy, homosexuals can be made straight. Mr. Chambers’ announcement was, essentially, that none of that is true. He admitted that people could not decide not to be gay, that reparative therapy does not work, that all the prayer in the world won’t change one’s attractions, and that trying to do so might, in fact, be harmful to those who try. This is not startling news because we did not already know this. It is startling because it erases every claim they have ever made about homosexuality. It reveals the truth that their starting point was never science, but their belief that homosexuality is simply wrong. I’d be happy to talk about why I think they have always been wrong about that, but right now I’d like to talk about the ideology behind the ex-gay movement, which appears to be continuing with vigor in spite of Mr. Chambers’ change of heart.
I’ve been reading a book called Straight to Jesus, which is the story of an ethnographer, Tanya Erzen, who spent a year working in an ex-gay ministry to study them, like Jane Goodall living among the chimpanzees. She became quite close with the men in the program, so it was not at all an unsympathetic portrait, though she clearly disagreed with both the premise and the method of the ministry. Briefly, ex-gay ministries and reparative therapies are predicated on the idea that people are made gay by some kind of break in the development of gender identity. It could be abuse or an absent or critical parent. The net is cast so wide that almost anything can be said to be the cause. And when those things that are supposed to be causes don’t, in fact, cause someone to be homosexual, there is some countervailing cause that kept the person’s gender identity on track, say an uncle or minister who was always present or a mother who raised the child to believe in the Bible and God as the ultimate father.
So the task set before a person who wants to stop being gay is to reconstruct proper gender identity and reestablish non-sexual, same-sex friendships. People in this program spent their time doing manly things like playing team sports and hiking, because nothing gay ever happens in sports or on long camping trips. Participants are prohibited from doing anything the program categorizes as gay, such as shopping or being sarcastic. Apparently, snark is totally gay. If the men in the program stick with this regimen, they are told they will eventually learn to be attracted to women. They will get married. They will be the head of the household, as a proper man should be.
The interesting thing is that no one believes this. The men in the program never really think that will happen. Some try to never leave the program by moving into leadership positions. Some quit trying. Most simply live out a pattern of fall and redemption. It’s so common that it is built into the program. In a strange amalgam of Pentecostal testimony and twelve-step program, they confess their failures publicly, whether it’s thinking about another man in the program, buying gay porn, or hooking up with someone at a rest stop. Because few of them have ever lived in an openly gay community, they are told that those things are what being gay is. According to everything they have ever been told, there are no healthy gay relationships. And so their desire can only be suppressed or lived out in fantasies or momentary trysts. And all of it is viewed as the worst kind of sin.
For the longest time, the religious right ignored the ex-gay movement. But as the battle for gay rights heated up, the politicos found they needed a counter-narrative to that supplied by gay activists. If you could change your sexuality, if it was merely a matter of lifestyle choice, it need not be protected. When Exodus International got involved in politics in 2001, many in the ex-gay movement felt betrayed. Exodus ran a series of ads telling the stories of ex-gays and leveraging them to argue against same-sex marriage. Those whose stories they told, for the most part, did not agree to be used that way. In fact, many favor same-sex marriage and other civil rights for LGBTQ folk, seeing their own choices and struggles as their own. So if you ask ex-gays, they would say that the culture warriors aren’t really on their side. What, then, do they want?
In short, they oppose homosexuality and all other manner of queerness because it upsets their apple cart. Their apple cart holds all the power. They control access to God. They control access to money. To justice. To love. What the culture warriors are really after is to maintain the status quo. Paul speaks in 1 Corinthians of the wisdom of the world and its failure to reveal God. God’s wisdom, God’s power, is Sophia standing on the busiest street corner, yelling at all the idiots who will believe anything they are told, the ones who buy into the fear, who build a bunker out of tradition. God’s wisdom, Sophia, the message of the cross, is a scandal. Imagine, a woman speaking with the power of God! Imagine, two men married to one another! Imagine, a man raising children or a woman leading a church! Imagine relationships of equals where no one possesses or controls anyone else! It’s all scandalous! Indecent, even. If you want to find God, look for the scandal. Make no mistake, the battle for same-sex marriage and the battle for ordination of women is the same battle. And the culture warriors are right: the family and our society are at stake. Do we want a society of equals working in partnership toward a common good? A world in which we discover together who we are? Or do we want hierarchies of power, learned from childhood, and maintained with brute force? A world in which everyone’s role is predetermined and merely acted out? Where does a God of liberation and hope stand in that battle?
I had an art teacher in high school, Ms. Griffin, that loved to say, “There are two types of people in the world…” She would then provide an obviously simplistic and meaningless division of all people. “There are two types of people in the world: those who like ice cream and those who don’t.” When we pointed out that there exists a far greater range of people in the world according to their feelings about ice cream – some are indifferent, some like some kinds and not others, some like it on hot days, but not cold – she responded, “There are two types of people in the world: those who think there are two types of people in the world and those who don’t.” One way that systems of power work is by giving the illusion of clarity in false binaries like this. There are two types of people in the world: whites and non-whites; men and women; gays and straights. But we are all really of Ms. Griffin’s second type. No one really sees the world as being so simple, so easily divided.
Over the last few weeks, we have seen the foolishness of division. We divide ourselves, creatures, from the earth, creation. We divide the local from the alien. We divide white from non-white and rich from poor. We divide male from female and gay from straight. This last is particularly disturbing because it shows how we “otherize” those to whom we are closest. We turn our families and friendships into systems of power, everyone in his or her proper place.
In the second creation narrative, the one where the earthling is split in two, the other is supposed to be our counterpart, the one that stands across from us, beholds us and confronts us. We have commonality that can bring us together in love, “bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh.” And we have difference to reveal new possibilities to one another. If we see only sameness, we see only our own reflection. If we see only difference, we have a tendency to hate it. We no longer recognize the dignity of the divine humanity in which we all share. The divine, in whose image all of humankind is created, includes unity and difference. Each of us is this subtle concoction of sameness and difference. We have to see the whole person, that which we recognize and that which we don’t. Because the binaries just don’t work. They obscure a much richer and more nuanced reality that requires a richer and more nuanced ethical posture.
God calls us to live in a rich and complicated world. That is its beauty and its challenge and its hope. It is often confusing, often unclear, often surprising. Thank God for that.
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