The freedom of the body

(For Kandyce, who asked.)

Visiting baby Auden
Meeting baby A., April 2013.

If you can control a woman’s body, you can control the entire trajectory of her life.

You can keep her at home, endlessly pregnant, and caring for numerous children. You can prevent her from getting an education and a fulfilling career and achieving even the basest level of respect in society. Don’t give her unfettered access to contraception or abortion. Don’t let her make any choices about her body and thus her life until you have given her explicit permission. Don’t let her assume for a second that she is a free agent. Keep her in her place, preferably with violence or harassment, both in public and in private. Constantly remind her that even her body is not her own. And finally, preferably, express all of these limitations with the backing power of your religion.

I have been thinking about physical autonomy lately — specifically, a woman’s body from the perspective of religion.

Far and away, religious institutions are the groups most concerned with controlling and restricting women’s rights, specifically, her body and her ability to make decisions about it.

This troubles me, as a person, and specifically, as a person who identifies as a Christian.

A hallmark of the most conservative branch of every major religion — Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism — is the urgent need to control women’s bodies. This is a natural belief, because women have traditionally been seen simply as the property of men. From the beginning of recorded history, women have not been human; women are objects, to be used, bought, sold, and controlled. Drawing from its patriarchal roots, fundamentalist religion is therefore obsessed with sex and ownership of a woman’s body. When she is young, her virginity is her most important quality. Centuries ago, brides were subjected to bloody-sheet tests; today, an American girl is bedecked with “True Love Waits” rings or publicly shamed for being a “slut,” both practices reminding her that a preserved mythical hymen and a virginal reputation is her highest calling. Keeping her veiled, literally, from male attention is crucial. She ought not be trusted to take care of herself; the male authority figures in her life will take care of that. Mutilate her genitals so that she cannot experience sexual pleasure. Keep her perpetually cognizant that her body’s sole purpose is for man’s use and for the production of offspring. When she gets a bit older, get her and keep her pregnant. Don’t let her make any choices about when to get pregnant and if to stay pregnant. Marry her to an eligible man, who will then assume responsibility for her body. She will still not be trusted to take care of herself. A man will do that for her until she dies.

I am a Christian, but I confess that it is sometimes hard to be one when I think about these historical remnants. I am even more troubled by the still-prevalent Christian attitude toward women’s bodies and autonomy. Today, Catholics and most conservative Protestants are very concerned about controlling a woman’s body and decreeing its proper uses, all with the purported backing of God Almighty.

Because I am only qualified to write about Christianity, as it is the religion I know well, I am thus limiting this discussion to Christian women. (But I’d still love to hear from you on this topic if you are familiar with other religions. Please chime in.)

As I have written before, Jesus valued women as human beings, which is really saying something, considering the time in which he lived. The early church also valued women as human beings, and we know that women were called apostles and priests and served as deacons and as leaders in the church.

But not too long after its founding, Christianity fell back to its strongly patriarchal roots. The revered church fathers — Tertullian, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, among others — and later early reformers — Martin Luther, John Calvin, John Wesley — have all said appallingly hateful things about women, along with hundreds of their fellow male theologians.

Church leaders today are a bit quieter about their hatred of women, but misogyny is still palpable in many of the conservative church’s teachings. For me, denominations obsessed with controlling women’s bodies and sexuality are the most vivid signifier of this entrenched Christian belief that women are evil, untrustworthy, and lesser creatures.

In the United States, there is a frightening trend of anti-reproductive rights, inspired by conservative religion. As the gay rights movement in the United States is increasingly achieving success with marriage equality, the women’s reproductive rights movement seems to be losing ground.* (*A point that Jill Lepore made in her recent New Yorker piece on the legal history surrounding reproductive rights and the choice justices made between privacy and equality.) Because we, as a culture often politically motivated by Christian thought, don’t care about women’s equality, corporations get to decide whether women can have access to affordable contraception and the right to a safe, legal abortion is being curtailed wherever possible. If you can control a woman’s body, you can control her entire life.

So, why is conservative Christianity fixated on women’s bodies and how can I still call myself a Christian and a feminist?

The first question merits a simple answer. There is power in tradition, and power begets the desire for more power. Conservative Christian denominations (Catholics, evangelicals, many of the so-called reformed church movements) care about controlling women’s bodies because (a) they always have done so and (b) they don’t want to be usurped. Subjugating women is an excellent way to maintain the power of the patriarchy in the church. Keep women “in their place” by denying them the power to regulate their own bodies. Don’t ordain them. Don’t let them hold any positions of leadership in any sphere, whether at home or in the church — and in this way, keep sinking your denomination further into oblivion and cultural irrelevance.

This, therefore, is my sincere hope: that denominations that refuse to accept women as people will die out. Hold to your precious patriarchal ideals for as long as you can, but I believe (and I think I have to believe, for my sanity) that such a misogynistic theology (and, indeed, many of the men who hold fast to it) are slowly and actually dying.

This hope is how I can still be a Christian and a feminist. I belong to a famously progressive denomination that ordains women and gay people, and this branch of the church gives me hope. I am blessed to know women priests who are changing the way that the church interprets gender. I am inspired by their faith and their hope for transformation. I believe that I belong to a religion that was intended to be FOR half of its most faithful adherents — women. We certainly got off to a rocky start, and we are still stumbling, but I don’t think we’ve seen the endgame of Christianity in relation to women.

Home and garden, May 2015
Forbidden fruit. (Baby apples in our backyard). May 2015.

In the meantime, what can be done for the majority of American Christian women suffocating under the weight of patriarchal tradition?

Campaign for churches to ordain women. Until women can be accepted at the highest levels of church leadership, major Christian denominations will never truly respect women as human beings and equal children of God. Elect women as leaders in a public, congregation-facing way. Start conversations about women in church history. Educate the clergy and laypeople; help men see women — and women see themselves — as equally valid partners in the kingdom of God. Preach equality. Don’t stop talking about this. And in this way, perhaps, women’s bodies — and hearts and minds — can be freed from the shackles of conservative religion.

The endearing Jesus

Click for source.

I’ve more or less passed that point in my young life where I feel like I have to be ready to give a defense of my faith. When I was in high school, I went to evangelical apologetics camps that made you believe that everyone was out to get you for being a Christian. When I was in college, I learned this wasn’t true but that people still wanted to know why you identified as a Jesus follower. You spent time brushing up on your coming-to-Jesus story, on theological debates, on political or popular intersections or conflicts with your faith.

Now, in post-university life, I realize that adults tend to be more or less uninterested in other adults’ religious convictions. You go to church, sit in a pew with like-minded people, but if you don’t, no one particularly cares. Everyone minds his or her own business. This is all well and good, I suppose, but you get unused to having to actually talk to anyone about why you are a Christian.

I was reminded about all of this a few weeks ago. I was confronted by someone who seemed somewhat aghast and maybe even upset that I was a Christian. The person was relieved to learn I wasn’t Catholic (the Catholic church being the primary source of this person’s anger toward Christianity) but suspicious and perhaps pitying that I went to church and was an “active Christian.”

Then the question came: “Do you think you’re a Christian just because your parents are?”

I fumbled around for an answer. I said that yes, maybe, I was, but that I also went through my own phase of doubt and rediscovery in college. At 20, I finally felt like I wanted Jesus for myself–not for my parents’ approval or my community’s reassurance. It wasn’t a very coherent answer. The person nodded, perhaps appeased, perhaps even more wary.

But this is what I really wanted to say:

In the past few years, I feel more and more that Jesus has endeared himself to me. He is more real to me now than he ever was and yet I understand him very differently than I did when I first started becoming acquainted with him. Grace can be a palpable thing. I am surprised by grace on a daily basis, because I so often forget how real it is. Yes, I get irked with a lot of modern Christianity, too. We can talk about the veracity of scripture, the atrocities of the church, the hypocritical Christians you know, the apparent misogyny of the Catholic church, but I don’t really want to talk about those things. Let’s talk about Jesus. Because Jesus is what counts.

Monday Snax

Long weekends are such a gift! Yesterday, we had the pleasure of joining Andrew and Tara at her family’s farm in Rapidan, Virginia. We played with the beautiful Leah, swam in the pool, and planned our future farm commune. A lovely afternoon, and some more photos on Flickr.

Sweet baby Leah and her mama.
Andrew in the perfect pool.
One of the dozens of breathtaking farms in Keswick. We live in the prettiest countryside.

Oh, and happy Independence Day and a BIG welcome home to Grace, who has finally returned from her world travels! Hallelujah! We get to go see her this weekend and I CANNOT WAIT.

A lot of Snax with a lot of juicy watermelon wedges:

Miss USA: Should Evolution Be Taught in Schools? THIS is the greatest thing I have seen on the Interwebs in months. Tears fell from my eyes. You can’t write this stuff. After you watch that, please also enjoy Mackenzie Fegan & Co.’s hilarious response. (The Daily What and Got a Girl Crush)

When You’re the Breadwinner in the Family. The dynamics of the American family are shifting. Many newly married women I know are out-earning their husbands and yet it’s still a touchy subject. One of my all-time favorite bloggers has a beautiful and honest post about her own experience as her family’s primary source of income. (Sweet Fine Day)

The High Line. A mile-long urban park in New York. What a cool idea; looks like a great place to bike, run, or walk a few dogs. Jenna, from the Sweet Fine Day post above, has some pictures of her visit there with her family at the end of post. (Wolf Eyebrows)

From When Grandma and Grandpa Davis Came to Visit. If you’ve talked to me lately, you know that I’m not into childbearing ANY time soon. And yet I can’t help but melt when I see pictures of grandparents and their fresh grandbabies. Something about that interaction always gets me. (Rockstar Diaries)

America’s Progressive Catholics: Another Side of the Church. It’s not all anti-abortion rallies here. An interesting perspective on the small but growing group of Catholic Democrats. (The Atlantic: Politics)

Top Metros for Same-Sex Couples with Children. Do the results surprise you? They surprise me. Way to go, RTP! (The Atlantic: National)

Palin vs. Bachmann: A Poem-off. The stirring words of the Tea Party’s leading ladies, converted to poesy. (The Book Bench)

What America Looks Like: Variations on the Swimming Pool. A collection of photographs of the various forms of the pool around the country. Some are weird and jovial, others decrepit and haunting. (The Atlantic: National)

The Five Food Groups. Amen. (Little Brown Pen)

Lobsters Don’t Age. Um, hey, God? That’s weird. Why? (Broken Secrets)

Kari Herer. Dark, lush photos of beautiful bouquets. Can never get enough. (Design Sponge)

Better Book Title for Wuthering Heights. Truth! I’ve always thought that about this book, too. (Better Book Titles)

The 20 Most-Watched TED Talks. Will be adding these to my list of things to watch when I feel like killing time productively on the Interwebs. (TED blog)