I confess, I have struggled to figure out how to conclude this series. My hope was to provide a meaningful way forward for those of us who continue to wrestle with the question of “what we do” in response to sexism in the church. For those of us in positions of social power the question is complicated, for it is not only “What can I do?” but also, “How do I engage in ways that are helpful and not harmful?”
The unfortunate reality is that oftentimes when we ask the question of “what we do,” it is our subconscious attempt to escape the discomfort of the space in which we find ourselves. Sometimes it’s worth it to sit in the discomfort, to wade through murky waters without necessarily knowing the way out. Removing the discomfort sometimes has the inadvertent effect of masking the problem altogether, which is precisely what we are trying to avoid. Constantly seeing the ways in which we are falling short of our ideal is disheartening, to be sure, but I hope it spurs us onward in our struggle for freedom.
With this in mind, I do want to offer some reflections on how we might move forward. These certainly aren’t the only answers to the question, and I truly believe that ending oppressions in various forms requires the creativity and brainstorming of myriad voices. This is my small contribution, informed by the many voices that I have read and heard. These reflections are addressed mainly to those in positions of social power who are asking the question “What can I do?”–which includes myself as a white woman:
1. Know how and when to use your voice. The other day, I was participating in a discussion group that was predominately male, and I noticed some gender dynamics that bothered me. I brought it up, and immediately felt resistance from one of the men in the group. I said what I needed to say, knowing full well that there was a chance my words would never get through. As I concluded my thought and turned to talk to someone else, I overheard another male in the group talking to the man who had resisted my words, offering me support in what I had said. He didn’t just affirm my words, he also told the other person in the group why it was important to listen and take my words seriously. This, to me, is what solidarity looks like. The man who affirmed me didn’t silence me in his own attempt to solve the problem—when I started talking about my experience, he didn’t jump in and steal the mic. After I had finished and moved on and it was clear the conversation hadn’t had the impact I wanted, he stepped in and affirmed what I had said, and explained why it was important to listen. In this moment, he used his privilege for my sake and for the sake of other women in that room. The reality is that because of the social realities in which we live, his voice was able to get through in a way that mine could not. Ending oppressions requires partnership, and recognizing where you might have influence that others might not.
2. Start noticing places that need tending. When you look at the leadership team at your church, how many women hold those positions? What do the roles of women and men look like at your church? I had a friend who told me that he loves children and wanted to be on the leadership team of the children’s ministry at his church, but because the church espoused more traditional gender roles, it would have been perceived as weird, and even creepy, if he asked to do that. Remember that sexism doesn’t just negatively affect women—it negatively affects everyone. To figure out what to “do,” we first need to notice what’s happening around us.
3. Don’t just hire a marginalized person for the job because you want to fill a quota. This is a tough one. Let’s pretend that now you’ve noticed there are no women on the pastoral teaching team at your church, and you want to fill this gap. The answer isn’t simply to hire someone and call it good—without a culture change, this action serves only to make the church look more inclusive rather than the church experiencing real transformation. If you make the decision that you need to have more women fill those positions, understand why you need them other than for the sake of filling a chair with a “different” face. How do you want inclusive hiring practices to change the very fabric of your church community? What do you want to learn from this person because of her particular social location? What needed perspectives does she bring to your church leadership team and your congregation? Failing to answer these questions means that your new teaching pastor is simply coming under the same structures that were there before. Not only this, but the new hire will certainly not feel welcome in the community if the culture does not change. Creating real change means not just “diversifying” the church, but also recognizing why this is important, and changing the culture of the church to meet these needs.
4. Recognize that sexism affects people in different ways. I as a white woman am still in a position of privilege, for sexism doesn’t affect me in the same way that it affects women of color, LGBTQ women, and especially LGBTQ women of color (this goes back to the intersectionality conversation in my last post). One of the roles of people in positions of social power is to understand the ways in which different kinds of oppressions intersect to further marginalize a person. Imagine a circle in which the dominant group (white, male, heterosexual, cisgender) is the center. As a white heterosexual cisgender woman, I would fit just outside that circle because I’m not male—but a transgender person of color, for example, would be even further away from the center of the circle. As I’m fighting for the church to hear my voice on this topic, it is important for me to recognize my own privilege and be willing to fight alongside those who are even more marginalized than I am (and I am still figuring out what this looks like!)
5. Realize that it is not simply about doing something, it’s about being someone. This conversation is equal parts about justice and reconciliation, and this work requires a kind of presence that isn’t just about “doing” things—it requires a transformation of heart and spirit— it’s about who you choose to be in the conversation. For me, it was when my heart was transformed that opportunities to “do” opened up, and I didn’t have to go looking for them too hard.
6. Put yourself in intentional learning situations. For example, I’ve been thinking a lot about the intersection of race and gender lately, so I’ve been finding books that discuss these things, reading blogs by women of color and LGBTQ women, and finding spaces to engage with people in other kinds of marginalized social locations. By participating in these conversations and attending various community events and church forums, different kinds of opportunities have presented themselves to me as ways to get involved. This brings me to my last point—
7. I firmly believe that what we are passionate about and what we are gifted for align in particular ways for God’s glory. This work cannot be done without prayer, so my last encouragement is to be prayerful about how our passions in this area might align with our talents, and that God would open our imaginations to envision how we can participate in God’s work through our particular giftings. I think oftentimes people are so concerned with “doing” that they do things they aren’t gifted for—the clothes don’t quite fit, it’s uncomfortable, and it produces a feeling of helplessness and hopelessness. This person might say, “Well I tried, but I wasn’t effective, it didn’t work out, so I guess I’ll just support people who are truly good at this from the sidelines.” Our participation in this work will be different depending on what we’re gifted for—so think about the ways in which your passions and giftings might align.
This concludes my short little blog series. My hope is that even as we are inspired to fight for change, we will not allow a simple list to provide easy answers for us. My hope is that even as we engage in this struggle and seek to end oppression in all its forms, we will not limit ourselves to believing that these are the only answers to the questions. My hope is that we will constantly seek to have our eyes opened in new ways, to let the Holy Spirit convict and change and transform us, to reveal our unconscious biases and prejudices and have the humility to ask God to renew our minds.
Thanks for those who have followed this project to its conclusion, and if there are any topics that you think would be good to discuss in future posts, please comment!
Lastly, as I am constantly trying to learn more on the topic, I always have a list of books that I’m planning to read. Here are some book ideas that are on my reading list for this winter—these are titles that have been life-changing for some friends of mine. Will you join me in reading some of them?
Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay
Embracing the Other: The Transformative Spirit of Love by Grace Ji-Sun Kim
A Year of Biblical Womanhood by Rachel Held Evans
Our Lives Matter: A Womanist Queer Theology by Pamela R. Lightsey
Jesus Feminist by Sarah Bessey
Colonize This!: Young Women of Color on Today’s Feminism ed. by Daisy Hernandez and S. Bushra Rehman
The Intersectional Approach: Transforming the Academy Through Race, Class and Gender ed. by Michele Tracey Berger and Kathleen Guidroz
Liberating Tradition: Women’s Identity and Vocation in Christian Perspective by Kristina LaCelle-Peterson