I have written a post on my other blog that fits with what I was trying to do with this space. I invite you to join me in my other online home.
I’ve been thinking a lot about consent lately. What it is. What it isn’t. And how this fits into my world view. I’m not just talking about consent in sexual relationships, though consent is a HUGE part of sexual relationships. From the one night stand to the committed monogamous relationship. Without consent, enthusiastic consent, sexual partnerings are not equal. Ever. Consent goes deeper than sex. It should be a part of the very fabric of our lives. Which is why I’ve been thinking about it so much these days.
I’m a Christian. I’m learning that I’m a very strange breed of Christian. I believe in love. And acceptance. And inclusion. I don’t believe I have all the answers. The Bible is not to be taken literally in all cases. God gave us free will and expects us to actually use it. I believe in ethics before theology. I think sin is overused as a focus for faith. And seriously, why should we be focusing on sin and hell when God is all about life? I’m not sure I even believe in hell. And I’m not 100% sure that Jesus died for my sin. Or of how the concept of the trinity really fits into the foundations of Christianity, which is first century Judaism. I disagree with the religious right. And I wish the United States would get back to separation of church and state because this entire policing morality shit is really messing us up.
I question things. A lot. And I’m okay with not having a definitive answer. I am not okay with doing harm. I don’t consider myself messed up, backslidden, or apostate. I consider myself a person trying to do the best she can in this world.
What has this got to do with consent? In one of my daily excavations of the internet I link clicked myself to a blog post by a wonderful woman who for reasons of her own has deconverted. Her post centers around consent and the fact that Western Christianity has a consent problem.
This makes me sad. Not because this woman experienced a lack of consent through her fundamentalist upbringing. That makes me angry, actually. That faith was used to beat submission into her. That it’s used to tear away a person’s right to belong to themselves. That is abusive and wrong on oh so many levels. And I know it happens in almost every denomination from the fundamentalist conservative right to the liberal left.
While her experience make me furious, what made me sad was that she’s so very right. And this is part of what’s so very wrong within Western Christianity.
Think about it. Do Christians ask permission before they evangelize or proselytize? Do we teach our women to submit to their husbands because for some strange reason men just know better than us women? Or are less emotional? Do we teach that emotions aren’t to be trusted? That we belong to God and therefore aren’t entitled to live our own lives? That we should be holding each other accountable whether or not we have been invited into each other’s lives? That boundaries don’t belong in a community of believers because we are one big happy family? That saying no to a request from a sister or brother in Christ is just…wrong?
Do we expect everyone around us to live life according to our rules? To never question authority? That women don’t really have dominion over our own bodies? That men are to be held to a different set of standards because there are apparently different rules? That there is no room for other religions, philosophies, points of view because whichever brand of Christianity we belong to is obviously the right one? Is there room in heaven for those who do not comply with our particular brand of faith?
In general, no. And this makes me sad. For us. For everyone else. Because aren’t we supposed to be different? Safe? Non-judging? Inclusive? Compassionate? Loving? When people start telling us we aren’t, there’s a problem. A huge problem. And some of it comes down to what we teach , or don’t teach, about consent.
I can’t speak for all Christians. I can only speak for myself. Consent wasn’t in any of the lesson plans in the curriculum of my faith. I was presented with a lot of mixed messages about a lot of things, which lead me to believe that no one denomination has it right. That no person has all the answers. That maybe there are many ways to interpret the bible. And many ways to live life.
In every church I have attended consent has rarely been a topic of sermons or conversation. Respect, sure. Honoring the autonomy of others, sometimes. But consent? Never. Submission, oh yes. Submission to parents, to authority figures, to husbands, to God – this has been preached and taught in spades. But consent? Not so much. Without consent, well, I’m not really an individual, am I? Without consent one doesn’t have to worry about things like rights. Or questioning authority. Or questioning at all.
I want to be different. I want to be a Christian who cares about consent, respect, and honoring the autonomy of others. I want to help build a community that is all about love and inclusion. I want to honor the individual for all that is unique and wondrous about her. I want to be a safe person and live in an environment that is safe for every person, every gender, every race, every faith system. I want to enter into your hopes and joys and fears. But only if you give me the consent to do so. It’s not my right to tell anyone how to live, how to love, or how to believe. It is not my right to judge.
I want to apologize to every person who has been hurt because someone didn’t honor your right to be yourself. Because someone took away your consent. Or imposed their world view upon you. I’m so sorry. What can I do to be different? To be safer for you? I can’t change the rest of Western Christianity, but I can change myself.
Photograph by David Penny
Days like today I’m glad I’m not a parent. My maternal lioness is pacing and roaring, wanting to slash at something. Someone. It’s a little disturbing just how much my inner lioness wants off her leash.
One of my dearest friends is feeling deep emotional pain. The kind of pain that is born from cutting betrayal. I want to curl myself around her and protect her from her husband’s cold rage and his gaslighting. I want to walk up to him and punch him in the balls, pack his bags, and kick his ass on his way to the curb. My lioness claws as me, begging me to let her out. She will protect to the death. She will deliver swift justice. Then she will lay down at my friend’s feet and purr, letting her know that things will be okay.
There are words for what she is going through. The words are dark and are spoken in hushed tones, if spoken of at all. Abuse. My friend is being abused by her husband. Why? From what I am aware, because he doesn’t like himself and he doesn’t like his life. He’s likely jealous of the relationship my friend has with her daughters. He’s tired of being asked to step up and be a good father, a good husband. He earns a very good living and is very good at his job. Brilliant, in fact. He’s been courted by companies who are willing to pay him extremely well to do what he does.
When he comes home, it’s like he regresses to a teenager. He plops down on the couch and wants to play with his iPad or play video games. Or sleep. He doesn’t help with the house. He doesn’t clean. He doesn’t take care of the house or the yard. He ignores his children at best and gaslights them at worst. My friend carries the heavy load of maintaining the house, raising and loving her children. If she doesn’t do it, things don’t get done. Does he help? Only when it is asked or demanded of him, and even then begrudgingly. I’ve seen this in action. If he is asked to step out of his comfort, he lashes out and punishes. It’s insidious. If you don’t know what you’re looking for, you just think something is off. I know what to look for. I worked with abuse victims for a few years. I was one.
There is a death occurring. My friend has lost her hopes in what her marriage could be. She’s lost who she thought her husband was and the potential of their partnership. She’s lost feeling safe in her own home. These deaths cut like knives into wounds that haven’t been allowed to heal. The emotional and psychological hits keep coming.
Abuse is never okay. NEVER. It doesn’t matter if a person has a deep well of self-loathing or if a person feels trapped in a life they didn’t sign up for. No matter how angry, how desparate, how hurt a person is, it’s never okay to lash out at others. It’s really not okay to play games, fuck with another person’s perception of reality. Crazy making is a special hell. A former boyfriend was a master at this. He lied with such sincerity everyone around him thought he was broken and vulnerable. When someone came too close to seeing his true self, he started in with comments designed to make a person doubt themselves. Doubt the truth. With emotional emotional manipulation meant to shut the person down.
I questioned my sanity for almost two years. I started to believe that I had a problem. I took responsibility for the sexual abuse he dished out and for the emotional manipulation. For making him so angry he wrestled me to the ground and used brute force to subdue me and degrade me. Most of the time he didn’t even need to touch me. A well placed comment sent me to my metaphorical knees begging him to love me, trying to convince him I was sorry for whatever imagined slight I had undertaken. I was putty in his hands.
It took therapy with a highly qualified therapist and a year in prayer demanding God show me what was real before I felt any sort of balance. By the time I met my husband, I had a firm grasp on what had occurred. And yet it wasn’t until I was working with victims of abuse that I was able to apply that word to my own experience. I had been abused. I didn’t deserve any of what he had dished out. I wasn’t broken or crazy. It took me longer to realize that the church generally has very naive views about abuse. Many men and women are encouraged to stay in an abusive marriage. The abuser is believed over the victim because most abusers are cunning and master manipulators. Wives are banged over the head with the call to submit. Where is the call to love? Abuse is not love. It never was. It never will be. So women, and men, stay, believing if they just love their spouse more purely, if they can fix themselves (lose themselves) to become better christians, better spouses, better at anticipating behavior and adapting their own, the abuse will stop. Spouting bible verses and higher standards to this type of situation does not work. It reinforces the abuse. It leaves a person not only abused by their partner but by the very faith community that should be holding people accountable and a safe haven for the vulnerable.
Love does not fix abuse. You cannot love the abusive behavior out of someone. Therapy, the willingness to see the self clearly, learning new skills such as anger management, and remorse can help an abusive person. It may not be enough to restore a relationship, however. You know what? That’s okay. There is no guarantee that any relationship that has been systematically destroyed can be restored. God doesn’t promise this.
Knowing what I know about spousal/partner abuse, knowing my friend, I have a hard time leashing my inner lioness. I need to. She doesn’t need me to slay her dragon. She needs my love and compassion and unwavering support. She needs me to speak the truth, but to also speak love and hope. When she is unable to see a future where she is free to be herself in all her beautiful glory, I can hold that future for her. And I demand that God take note and hold her husband to account. Abuse, no matter whether it is intentional, premeditated, or not, is never okay. NEVER. I believe God will step in and provide restitution for those who suffer at the hand of someone else. God is so much bigger, so much kinder, so much more than we can imagine. I’m not naive enough to believe that everyone in an abusive situation will be able to leave it. Or have the resources to heal on the most foundational of levels. But God sees all the suffering.
I pray that for my friend, God will recompense her for more than what her husband has taken away. That God will hold her husband to account for his beliefs and actions. And that she will be free. She is strong enough. She is resilient and resourceful. She is not afraid of the truth. Not afraid of entering into the often difficult work of healing and skill building. She is, quite honestly, amazing.
If you know someone who is being abused, please do more than pray. Educate yourself. Speak with compassion. Find resources so when your loved one/friend is ready s/he can take the steps to move forward. Love them. Always love them. Don’t judge the decisions they make out of self-preservation. Cry with them. Laugh with them. Walk beside them. Enter in. Hold a better future for them. Be patient. Be kind. Be honest and compassionate. Speaking as one who was abused and had no one who believed me while I was in it, believe them. Stand witness to their stories. Be willing to walk alongside them for as long as they need you to. Be a safe place. If you need to do your own work in order to be that safe place, do so. The world is a messy place. Relationships can be messy. Don’t be afraid to love someone in all their messy glory.