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What Evangelicals Can Learn from Secular Feminists

I am a Christian. And I am a feminist. I am usually identified by one or the other, depending on what makes me the outlier; when I was in high school I was recognized more strongly by my Christian identity, but at Wheaton I am predominantly recognized by my feminism. And yet all along I have been, and still am, a Christian feminist; together and at once. Standing in the gap between the two is one of the hardest things I do, but I think it is also one of the most important.

The feminist and Christian communities are often placed at odds with one another, as organized religion tends not to be too friendly toward women. In a country with such a strong Christian history and presence, religion is in many ways just another name for political ideology that no one is allowed to attack. Views that may be advantageous to groups in power – for example, white people benefitting from a system that privileges themselves over other races or ethnicities, or men benefitting from the disenfranchisement of women – are justified by the manipulation of religious doctrine. When our political response to gender issues revolves around some variation of “for the Bible tells me so,” it’s easy to see why Christianity gets a political reputation – and in the circles I travel in, a negative one at that.

The Christian Church has a bad reputation for a real reason, and it’s one that I deeply understand; but I wouldn’t understand it if I didn’t actively participate in secular feminist culture. Before coming to Wheaton, I spent nine years at a secular all-girls school that was devoted to social justice. I learned to be a feminist there, and an activist in general. Surrounded by non-religious peers, I heard a great deal of frustration with religious communities, and I listened. Now, in a deeply religious community, I continue to participate in those conversations by reading books by atheist (or at the very least non-Christian) feminists. It’s one of the ways I get out of the Wheaton bubble and learn what others are thinking and doing and saying. We forget a lot living here. We forget how to explain the gospel to someone who doesn’t already believe. We forget that not everyone uses words like “substitutionary atonement” or “kenotic Christology” (gets awkward really fast, let me tell you).

Sometimes my instinct is to shout “No! You don’t get it!” when I read something like Jessica Valenti’s scathing review of the Christian church in her book Full Frontal Feminism, in which she nicknames religious conservatives “anti-sexers.” She accuses us of not really caring about what we would call sexual morality, but actually just about controlling women. For example, she writes:

This kind of faux concern about teenage girls and sexual activity has nothing to do with keeping girls safe. It’s about legislating morality and ensuring that someone—whether it be a parent, husband, or the state—is making decisions for young women. (pg. 30)

I get angry when I realize she’s talking to me, to my church, to #MyWheaton. Because I don’t take the violation of women’s rights lightly, and because I don’t think my God does either. But she’s calling it like she sees it. Me hitting her over the head with a Bible and telling her she’s got it wrong isn’t going to make her, or others angry with the Church, understand the Gospel any better.

But I want her to understand that her problem isn’t with Christianity; it’s with Christians. And I think her problem with many of us is extremely valid. Despite how my brothers and sisters may act, I have to believe that Jesus was ultimately as pro-women as you can get; because He’s God, and God loves us, and because God made us in His image and sent His Son to die for us. Jesus is the ultimate lover and supporter of black lives, trans lives, disabled lives, poor lives, gay lives. And women’s lives. I want to shout to Jessica Valenti that this is the Truth proclaimed by Christ. But when the Church has a reputation for hating women, for seeking to control their bodies and limit their autonomy, telling people they’ve got it wrong isn’t enough. Reading books like Jessica Valenti’s, despite how frustrating it may get, helps me to understand the message Christians are sending. It helps me realize what we are (and what I am) doing wrong. We’re the ones misrepresenting the gospel when we twist it in support of things the Gospel was never meant to sanction. Wasn’t the same Bible used to justify the colonization of Africa, or our own country’s system of slavery? It is our responsibility as Christians, as missionaries in the everyday, to tell a different story. Our loving actions will speak louder than our defensive words. Because it’s ultimately not an argument of semantics, but of action: the issue is with me – and it’s with you – and the ways we fail to live out the gospel. There are times when pulling out a Bible and reading from it is the right thing to do (I love showing people some of the amazing ways Jesus empowered women); there are times when discussing theology and doctrine are a good response. But I think what comes first is living out our values, which has to start with love.

We must ask ourselves what our priorities are: to share the love of Jesus, or to condemn sinners? One we were commissioned to do, the other not. And I get that loving people doesn’t mean compromising our values to make everyone comfortable: that’s not what I’m advocating for. At the end of the day, salvation isn’t much about theological particulars. Do you accept Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior? Great! It’s not a thousand-question multiple choice test that weeds out the people who believe in a post-tribulation rapture from believers in a pre-tribulation rapture. And I don’t think it weeds out people based on their views of sexuality either. Note that the Apostles’ Creed says nothing about our affirmation of heterosexual only marriage. I’m not saying these questions aren’t important ones, just that they aren’t the most important.

We ought to be much more preoccupied with sharing the love and Truth of Jesus than spending our time shaming people who have no ability to understand the worldview our attacks even come from. When we make our entire religion about these divisive and often times hurtful arguments, we belie the Truth we base our beliefs off of. My desire is that someone might say, “You’re a Christian? I thought so,” because of the way we stand for women, for the poor, for the otherwise disempowered groups of people (like racial minorities and LGBTQ individuals). Instead, I get a lot of, “You’re a Christian? But you’re so…progressive!”

I’m not saying you have to be a Democrat. I’m not going to have the “which party would Jesus vote for” conversation with you. But Jesus wasn’t anything if not radical and progressive. Why is it that most of the voices condemning violence against women are from the secular community? Why is it that the Church’s voice is most often the one making excuses for the perpetrator? We need to realign ourselves with Gospel truth and start living and preaching it more faithfully.

We’re not going to “win this” by arguing – we’re going to win this by loving, and by listening, and by learning. Which takes a great deal of patience, and perhaps an even greater deal of humility, because we must be willing to listen to hurt and angry people tell us what we’re doing wrong; and when they do, we need to hold our tongues and trust them to know their own hurt. Let them hold up a mirror, Church, so we can see ourselves for who we truly are, and so we can work toward looking more like the Body of Christ we are called to be.

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About the Author

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Ellie is a junior at Wheaton College pursuing a double major in English Writing and Sociology, as well as a minor in Psychology and a Gender Studies certificate. She currently serves as the Editor in Chief of the Wheaton Tide and as President of the Christian Feminists Club. Her writing has appeared on Religion Dispatches and she contributes weekly for the Odyssey Online.

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