I was going to write about the prominence of violence towards women in organized religions in general, but I am sticking with what I have studied and read and witnessed and experienced instead: evangelical Christianity (take heed: this is not a happy post. If you want happy, go watch this video).
There are numerous women in the Bible about whom I have never heard a sermon, Bible study or Sunday school lesson on, but four stand out to me the most.1) the concubine in Judges 19; 2) Dinah in Genesis 34; 3) Jephthah’s daughter in Judges 11, and 4) Tamar in 2 Samuel 13. Rachel Held Evan wrote a beautiful piece about these women, so I will try not to repeat what has already been said (indeed, if you only have time to read one blog post today, it should be hers). I grew up reading the Bible and reading these stories, but I don’t remember ever hearing anyone speak of the injustice done to these women. In fact, in the accounts of Dinah and Tamar, the prominence of the stories surround the wrongs that the avenging brothers do.
My contention with these stories is not that they happened; of course they happened; terrible, tragic things happen to people all the time, regardless of religion or era or sex. My contention is that they are just fact. Just there. Wedged in between story after story where men are the main characters; there are few times authors of the Bible took the time to even address the fact that there were women around, so it seems like when they actually do so, what happens to the women should be seen as a big deal. But they are instead glossed over, perhaps because they’re really hard passages to know what to do with, or perhaps because violence against women is so ingrained in our minds as normal that the stories don’t stop to make us think.
I remember reading the story of Tamar for the first time when I was going to church at a YMCA. I had just been raped by another church member, and was too afraid for my life to say anything to anyone about it. I had never read her story before, but I remember feeling my cheeks flush as my secret and her story collided, wondering whether she would tell, whether he would get caught, what God would do. (For those of you who don’t know: another of Tamar’s brothers finds out what happens and eventually kills the asshole [oops, did I say that?], but he is severely punished for it.) I didn’t know what to make of it. I couldn’t ask anyone about it, because they would automatically know my story, and now I found something in the Bible that told me people got in trouble when they hurt rapists (see also Dinah’s story). The best thing for me to do, then, was to remain silent.
I’m not saying that my church specifically was a place where all women felt trodden upon or silenced or less-than, but I am saying that I heard a lot more about women being submissive and respecting their husbands and not being leaders in the church (unless they’re singing or leading children’s church) than I heard anyone talk about abuse, harassment, or oppression. I didn’t know what to do with my abuse because I had never been told what to do. I didn’t know there was another option afforded to me, and I think that’s a terrible injustice done by the church. I certainly learned about all of the days of creation, and what the fear of God meant, and my life had already been inundated with men who needed a helping hand with their lives, but I can’t remember learning about how my body is MY body, or that bullying was a horrible thing, or what to do when someone does something terrible and threatens you.
When I reached my teens, I heard biblical lessons on modesty and teachings on how not to make our brothers in Christ stumble in their walk with God. I was told that my body was a weapon that was only evil until my wedding day, and that suddenly and miraculously on my wedding day S-E-X would turn from being an infectious disease that would make me half a person to a beautiful rainbow of glory and laud to the heavens, an intimate sumpin’-sumpin’ between my future husband and I. But until then, I would be a chewed up piece of bubble gum if I even so much as let a man glance my way. As one author puts it, I was taught to fear my body. So what was I, an already chewed up piece of gum, to do? There were no lessons on that.
I’m frustrated that the church has been completely unaccountable for the injustice it has done to millions of women over thousands of years. I’m frustrated for myself, and for the women stuck in abusive relationships because some church leaders believe that wives being submissive to their husbands means they might have deserved being beaten, or they just need to stick with their man. (There was a study released this summer that announced less than half of the pastors surveyed had ever given a sermon on domestic violence.) I’m frustrated that the only time women are spoken about in church, it is a call to keep covered, to keep quiet, to keep submitting, rather than a “we are here, we are listening, you are a person, your pain is valid and we are going to change things.” I’m frustrated that youth groups will openly speak to their teens about abstinence-only “sex education” but wouldn’t dare to give them accurate information about sex, consent, safety, and respect because heaven forbid we acknowledge what is already happening.
The church doesn’t know what to do with women. We are an enigma, perhaps, that men can’t quite figure out. Are we people? Are we valued? Are we valued as much as men? Are we valued on the same level as men? Do we have the same authority as men? (All of these are super redundant to me, but the differences between each question could have huge theological implications for some people.) It’s wearing me out that these are even questions. I am tired of being hushed and condescended to and told that my rights are less right than Man’s rights. I am tired of witnessing Dinahs and Tamars and daughters and concubines being ignored or looked over or left out. I am tired of physical, emotional and sexual abuse being glossed over as something that can be used for the glory of God (because yeah, sure it can, but we sure as hell don’t need Inspirational Quotes thrown at us to help us through).
I’m tired. But I know there are thousands of women who are being lied to or ignored by their churches and religion, who feel stuck and ignored and hopeless and feel that they just have to bear abuse lest they go against God. So where do we go from here? How do we fix this ancient problem? I’m beginning to notice a mantra in my posts: let’s change things. Let’s talk about it. Talk about abuse and gender roles and the perpetuation of stereotypes and assumptions, and let’s acknowledge that something is wrong. And then let’s change it.