Wednesday, September 5, 2012

The Day I Walked Out of Church: Are Feminism and Religion Incompatible?


I stood up and walked out of church.

It was against everything I had been taught about church, a sacred place where you are supposed to be respectful, reverent even. But I still did it. I stood up and walked—no, stormed, stomped, huffed—out of church.

It was the better choice. I would not have remained silent if I’d stayed in that seat. Boiling up within me was the rage that can only come from betrayal. 

It sounds dramatic, I know. And really, the catalyst wasn’t all that significant. I’m sure it happened in thousands of churches across the country on that very day, but it was enough for me. 

Newport, NS

See, I’ve had a quietly troubled past with churches. I attended a Baptist church sporadically as a child, but when I was young the energy seemed much more concentrated around the gossip I received on the front steps than the message I received in the pews. I wasn’t mature enough to process the real reasons for being there. Plus, the church was in a tiny town with dwindling attendance. Pastors came and went. Between their fluctuation and my own, church was never a particularly stable community. By the time I became old enough to actually feel intellectually engaged with theological questions and sought a spiritual community, I was jaded by the small-town nosiness and tired of overhearing people’s comments about my parents’ ugly divorce; that front-step gossip was much too risky now.


So, church was never really my thing, though I read the Bible, talked about God with my friends, and considered myself a Christian. These were facts that I became less and less vocal about as time moved on and being a Christian became more and more synonymous with being close-minded. In the media, Christians were portrayed as anti-science, anti-feminist, and anti-gay. The narratives focused so much on what Christians were against that I began to lose track of what we were supposed to be for. I still considered myself a Christian, but I didn’t talk about it much.

It wasn’t until I got married and moved to a new city where my husband and I began putting down roots that I felt the urge to find a church to call my own. I knew we’d want children soon and I yearned for a space where I could feel spiritually and culturally connected. I was a little afraid. It was very important to me that the congregation be diverse and that the church be open to people from all walks of life. I would not attend a church that preached against homosexuality or feminism.

So we found a church. It was a big church—huge, really. It had multiple services and rows of chairs instead of pews. It was modern and crisp with a young, charismatic preacher whose voice rose and fell with rhetorical flair. The music was contemporary and meaningful, and the people were friendly. We had been going several months.

It was the early fall of 2008. The entire country was heating up into a political frenzy, and I was as engrossed in the fray as anyone else, but I didn’t want that fray in my church. I’m a firm believer that there should be no politics from the pulpit. I do not want to be told how to vote or what God would do if he went into the polling booth. I believe omnipotence exempts God from such activities and that we've been blessed with the tools to figure out those questions for ourselves. I want to be left with my tools to figure it out.

So I was thrilled when that young, charismatic preacher spent much of one Sunday morning talking about his own stance on politics and the pulpit: he was against it. “It’s not my job,” he said, “to tell you how to vote.”

So imagine my surprise when, two weeks later, the service started with a handout from the Family Research Center: Value Voters Guide. (I found an archived version of it here). This guide contained all manner of biased, inflammatory language. It told me whether candidates would “protect the integrity” of abstinence-only programs and “protect marriage as the union of one man and one woman.” They also put the words “hate crime,” “gender identity,” and same sex “marriage” in scare quotes to de-legitimize these terms. This is clearly a biased document. How could the same pastor who just told me he would never tell me how to vote hand out these documents? Even worse, this document was accompanied by a local news outlet’s voter’s guide that literally told me how to vote. It had the boxes checked next to each of the upcoming local Propositions and told me to take it to polls with me so I wouldn’t get confused. 



I was furious. I sat there staring at the documents before me and I felt more and more betrayed. I waited to hear what the pastor would have to say. Maybe there was some explanation. As he took to his stage, I was all ears. I was starting to trust this place, and I was hopeful that there was some way to reconcile these pieces of paper with what he’d said before. The words that came out of his mouth pierced me. He repeated his pledge to never preach from the pulpit and to only provide us unbiased information so that we could make our own choices. He went on and on about the importance of being a fully informed voter. I had two choices. I could scream, or I could leave. So I left. I stood up and stormed out, scooting past the people seated around me who seemed unconcerned with this hypocrisy.

I wrote him a letter, and—to his credit—he called me and we had an hour-long talk. He used a lot of calming rhetoric and talked about how “other people” weren’t as “analytical” as me and needed help sorting through the "facts," but we came to no happy conclusions. I never went back.

I know now that my reaction was the first of several conflicts I would have to sort out on my road toward spiritual understanding. I know in my heart that my faith cannot be based on anything that cannot stand up to questioning. I question everything. I question the stability of the very ground I stand on. I analyze music videos and advertisements around me. I am a thinking being. I believe that there is a God, and—if I’m right—that God created me to be a thinking being. I cannot believe that salvation can only be found by denying that part of myself, a part that is rooted to my very soul.

As a thinking being, those voter’s guides insulted me. They cherry-picked a few narrow issues: gay rights, abortion, and sex education. My view on these issues was very different from the obviously biased view of the writers of this guide, and their cavalier manner of pretending to deliver “just the facts” denied the very existence of my carefully thought-out viewpoints. In addition, these were called “values” guides, but many of the issues that I consider core to my values were not even on the list. What about the treatment of the poor? What about equality and fairness? Are my values not valuable?

My values are key to who I am, and my values as a thinking being have led me to recognize the world around me as a place full of inequalities that I will continue to fight. If there’s no room for fighting against inequality in the organized religions around me, then there is no room for me in those spaces, either. While I do not believe that feminism and religion are inherently incompatible, I have found that compatibility to be something that works only in theory and I hold hope that I'll find a place where that theory takes hold, but I haven't seen it in practice.
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This post was inspired by the Feminist Odyssey Blog Carnival on "Faith and Feminism" hosted by from two to one. Submissions for the carnival are open until September 25, so if you're interested in submitting a post on the topic, check out this post for more information. 

13 comments:

  1. LOVE THIS! So thankful that you are sharing your story, and doing so as part of of the carnival this month. Looking forward to sharing with everyone at the end of the month!

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  2. "I’m a firm believer that there should be no politics from the pulpit. I do not want to be told how to vote or what God would do if he went into the polling booth. I believe omnipotence exempts God from such activities and that we've been blessed with the tools to figure out those questions for ourselves. I want to be left with my tools to figure it out."
    - Yes. Yes yes yes. and Amen. You said it perfectly.

    "As a thinking being, those voter’s guides insulted me. They cherry-picked a few narrow issues: gay rights, abortion, and sex education. My view on these issues was very different from the obviously biased view of the writers of this guide, and their cavalier manner of pretending to deliver “just the facts” denied the very existence of my carefully thought-out viewpoints. In addition, these were called “values” guides, but many of the issues that I consider core to my values were not even on the list. What about the treatment of the poor? What about equality and fairness? Are my values not valuable?"
    - I love the way you put this. Absolutely. The "Church" has decided to define for us what we care about. All sin is supposed to be equal in God's eyes, right? Yet the Church has remained clear that there are only a few things that Christians are supposed to believe and despite all reason and logic, we should fast to these beliefs.

    I understand your struggle. So many do. Thank you for sharing your story. I also hope one day to find a faith community that reflects the values I hold so dear.



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    1. Thank you! And yes, I just cannot understand the mentality that we can ignore whole sections of sinful behavior and then hone in on a few--always the few that marginalize and oppress. That's not a belief system that I can sustain.

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  3. it took me so long to walk out of church (metaphorically speaking). it wasn't until i had kids and was faced with Sunday school that I did it. I could go through the motions for my family, but I couldn't teach stuff I didn't believe in to my kids. Most organized religions are patriarchal, so finding a home where women are truly valued posed a significant challenge. I went adrift for a long time. I did eventually find a place where my ever-changing views/questions were welcome. You might check out your local Unitarian Universalist church. I hesitate to suggest a church to anyone, but you said some specific things that fit: feminist, homosexuals welcome and valued, and questions, questions, questions. The kids joke that we're the only church that only answers questions with questions. Local congregations vary, but at my UU church, there are no right answers. Every service draws from religious traditions, literature and philosophy to explore various spiritual questions. Everyone comes to their own conclusions. We're lucky to have an excellent minister - it all really depends on that.

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    1. I do not currently consider myself a Christian (given my family of origin's rather eccentric and eclectic take on spirituality this is not at all surprising) but I did attend churches with friends as a child and the only one I ever went back to regularly was a U.U. The one I went to had a fantastic curriculum for Sunday school, at least at the late elementary/middle school level. We studied the basics of just about every religion I've ever heard of, in a respectful manor, with the common threads that run through most of them emphasized, and asked and were asked questions I hear adults debating around me to do this day. I have not interest in church of any kind at this point in my life, but if you feel the need for a church and you are into questions and acceptance I'd definitely see if there's one near you and give it a try.

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    2. I looked into it, and we do have one in the area. I'm thinking about going and checking it out. Thanks!

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  4. I can really identify with this post. I am a Christian (raised as a missionary kid in Indonesia). I am an academic. And I am a feminist. I believe in God and Jesus and what Jesus taught but I can't for the life of me reconcile all those things with the church at the moment. I can reconcile my academics and my feminism with God, but the ideologies espoused by many (not all) people in the church at the moment go against so much of what I hold to be true and good. This conflict within myself has been turning me quite cynical and bitter. My faith is true, I know that. But so are the other parts of me. One woman who I see as a role model is Sarah Bessey, a Christian and feminist blogger. She gives me hope that I can reconcile all these parts of myself too. I highly recommend her blog. (Also she is writing a book called Jesus Feminist).

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    1. Bonnie, please do consider contributing to the Faith & Feminism blog carnival this month. Details are in the above post, or you can check out more here: http://www.fromtwotoone.com/2012/09/submit-to-feminist-odyssey-blog.html.

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  5. I love what you said about if God is real and Christianity is true, it can stand up to any analysis and questioning.

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  6. Good for you for refusing to accept that! I often think Jesus would speak pretty harshly to some of these "Christian" political groups whose priorities are so different from his.

    I belong to this church. There are others like it in many places. Don't give up on finding a church that welcomes you and your values!

    I was raised UU. If you believe God is real and Christianity is true, you'll feel uncomfortable in most UU congregations where it is not cool to believe that kind of thing. If you believe politics should be kept out of church, you'll be unhappy with most UU congregations which are extremely politically active in liberal causes. But individual congregations do vary quite a bit, so check out your local one; just be prepared for the possibility that they may be hypocritical in the opposite direction from conservative Christians.

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  7. I'm being such a creep and reading through all of your posts. I understand your frustration with this church; honestly I've felt the same way before in the place that I now ( and for the past two and a half years) belong to. I think what helped for me is realizing that the fact that we will never be perfect, no person, no place. Ever. What has to matter most is if what you are fighting for is worth it. I discovered that the best way for me to demand change wasn't leaving and looking for a new place ( which I wanted to do sometimes) but rather staying, fighting and becoming a family with the people. helping them to understand you better and growing to know their hearts as well. The truth is in your leaving, they were probably never challenged to change, who knows if they ever will be? But one of the things Jesus did here in His time was to stand up for what was right, even if it meant being uncomfortable, being ridiculed, even if it meant he was challenged. His walk, faith, and love for others far outweighed His disdain when things were wrong. Just a thought. It helped me to realize 1. There is no perfect place. Seriously. There isn't. There will ALWAYS be something you don't like. 2. You have to find a place within yourself and physically in the world that says this is all worth fighting for; Being a Christian requires more than a title, it requires commitment and investment. 3. you can maintain your faith by educating others rather than lose it in a myth of "perfection". It'll never be perfect, but think of how much better that place could see, understand and transform based on the things you advocate for.

    :)

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  8. I love this comment, and you are getting right at the heart of my problem (and the same problem from today's post, which I'm guessing is how you got linked here). I DO believe in standing up for what I believe in and fighting for it. Truly. But there are some points where I realize that putting that energy into one particular battlefront is making it impossible for me to put any energy into other places where it would be more productive. That was definitely the case with this church. I did talk to the preacher for over an hour when I decided to leave, but I could tell that there was nothing productive I could do in that space.


    I now attend a Unitarian Universalist church where dissent and questioning are welcomed and encouraged. You are absolutely right that no place is perfect, but I had to be in a space that recognizes that outright instead of pretending to be.


    That's not to say that I think everyone should walk out of church. I think that your approach of staying and challenging the assumptions from within is admirable and excellent. But, for me, doing so in that space would have kept me from the work that I do in so many other spaces, and I have to be conscious of where I allow my energies to be channeled.

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Comments are welcome and encouraged. I appreciate debate and have no problem hearing from people who disagree. This is a space where people can question and discuss. That said, I will delete comments that contain name-calling or bigotry. If it would get you kicked out of a dinner party, don't say it here. Use your manners.