The Modest Feminist

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This past week I’ve been following an intense discussion about Harvey Weinstein, sexual assault and victim blaming. 

Mayim Bialik – an “aspiring modern Orthodox Jewish Woman” – wrote a controversial and highly maligned piece for The NY Times in which she seemed to connect her own beliefs about modesty with assault. I’m not going to spend a ton of time going over that piece, but briefly she made some very problematic correlations between her own escape from sexual assault and the fact that she is what she refers to as not a perfect 10, someone who focuses on developing her brain not her body, and someone who dresses and behaves modestly. I think people very rightfully called this piece out for all the problematic ways it tied victimization to dress and behavior, and how it very erroneously labeled itself as a feminist view.

But the entire debacle got me thinking about the topic of modesty in general. One comment I saw in response to Mayim’s piece was that one cannot hold an ethos of modesty and also be a feminist: that the two views are fundamentally incompatible. And I suppose, based on the most common notion of modesty, that statement is true.

In general, most public discussions of modesty are focused on women more heavily than men. Dress codes are predominately concerned with ensuring that women don’t show too much of their bodies so as to become a distraction. Whether that’s spaghetti straps, low cut tops, high cut bottoms, things that are considered too tight… the message is always that women’s bodies are both inherently sexual and inherently problematic, and that men need women to cover themselves up in order to be able to control themselves. We see this all over our culture, from school and workplace dress codes, to public campaigns aimed at protecting yourself from unwanted attention, to television series like “Counting On” – a continuation of “19 Kids and Counting” highlighting the growing Duggar clan and their Uber patriarchal worldview embedded in their conservative Christian beliefs. This representation of modesty is absolutely counter to any sort of feminist worldview, and in my opinion absolutely harmful in the ideas it continues to perpetuate both about women’s bodies and about men’s apparently animalistic sexual instincts. It contributes to rape culture. It sets up women to be responsible for the actions of men. It’s not ok.

Before I continue, I need to admit something. I believe in modesty. 

I grew up in a church that taught me about the type of modesty discussed above. It was almost always presented to me as about honouring the holiness of my body, but with the added need to protect myself and to not “tempt your brothers or sisters” (the brothers and sisters are in Christ – not biological, for those of you not familiar with church speak). You can imagine that this concept of modesty did not sit well with me long before I considered myself a feminist, and certainly after. In my late teens I had pretty much stopped going to church, and while I held on to some fundamental belief in God, I disposed of everything else. I was certainly anything but modest. For me personally, my times of greatest immodesty coincided directly with my times of least self respect. THIS DOES NOT MEAN ANYTHING ABOUT WHY OTHER WOMEN CHOOSE OR REJECT MODESTY – I can’t speak to their realities. I am only telling my own story here. 

As I started to return back to my faith, but this time cautiously trying to think through it all, I kept coming back to modesty. Because it had always been tied to harmful patriarchal ideas, I really had no idea how to navigate my feelings. On the one hand I felt it was a fundamental part of embodying my faith. Not in a turtleneck and long skirts kind of way, but more a maybe I don’t want my boobs to be covered by a 1/4 inch of fabric because it makes me feel like I’m disrespecting myself kind of way. And even in that, I felt uneasy, wondering if feeling like I was disrespecting myself was somehow the product of being told I needed to hide my body FROM MEN. 

I wasn’t sure what to think about modesty. I spent nearly a decade trying to figure it out. Why did I still feel compelled by the idea of modesty, and how could I reconcile that with my understanding of how harmful traditional conceptions of modesty were? Was it even possible to believe in modesty and feminism?

Modesty isn’t anti-feminist. Modesty, at least the kind focused on sacredness instead of sexuality, has nothing to do with controlling someone else’s behavior, or with making you more worthy. 

Modesty as it was intended is about honoring that which is sacred. That being the human body. Each human body, male and female. It’s about recognizing that the same sacred nature of God that required men to hide their faces and cover their heads, to stay behind the curtain because the sacred was so overwhelming – that same sacred nature is embedded in our very flesh. Many of the rules imposed over centuries are most assuredly patriarchal. But holy modesty is not about the rules – it’s about recognizing and honoring the sacred God who lives in us, not just spiritually but physically. 

The relationship between God and our physical bodies has largely been lost in modern Christianity. It’s one of the many things I so appreciate about my Orthodox Christian faith: the recognition that my flesh is as much a part of my story of redemption as my spirit is. And modesty as I now understand it is about accounting for this reality and honouring that which is sacred. Because encountering that which is sacred should not be something casual. It requires attentiveness, thoughtfulness, trust, respect, and holiness. 

There is nothing shameful about my body, and my worth is not increased or decreased based on my modesty. It’s my recognition of the sacredness of my body that increases (or decreases), and my requirement that I honour that which is sacred as a response of thanks, humility, awe and respect to the God who lives within me. 

Glory to God. 

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So, About that Being Gay…

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Being gay. It’s the ultimate discussion of our time. Our churches are publishing statements, holding conferences, amending or reaffirming their creeds.

The truth is we have become pretty obsessed with the sexuality of our congregants.

This shouldn’t really come as a surprise. In a North American culture so dysfunctionally obsessed with and simultaneously repulsed by human sexuality, it makes sense that at some point our churches would need to figure out where they stand in the mess. And as our culture marches towards removing all labels and leveling the legal playing field, the church with all its sticky fingers in politics and law is forced to respond.

I’m not someone who thinks these discussions are a waste of time. I’ve heard people on both sides of the coin lamenting the ongoing focus on the “issue” of homosexual attraction, and declaring the seemingly endless discussions a waste of time. “Stand firm in your conviction!” they both  cry. “It’s betrayal to entertain the disgusting rhetoric of the other side” they proclaim.

Not to get off topic but this knee jerk unwillingness to hear things we find offensive may be the root of so many of the issues we see in our culture today. But moving on…

I’ve struggled a lot in the past with where I stand on this one. I think if you profess to be a Christian who believes the Bible is the word of God and that Jesus is the Son of God, you don’t have a choice but to struggle. What I mean is that there is no getting around the fact that the Bible does talk about homosexual activities and attractions, and that the things it does say (though not a ton is said) are not positive. Unless you’re willing to simply dismiss it outright no questions asked, you will inevitably find yourself needing to figure out what to do with both who God is and what his word says. And so I have.
In all my years of searching – which to be clear are ongoing and will be never ending – I’ve read so many different defenses on both sides. Some make more sense than others logically speaking. Some are more developed, others more emotional. But I’ve never really found one that quite encapsulated where I find myself. So, in an effort not to change anyone’s mind but more to add to a rich and difficult discussion, I’m going to attempt to lay out at least in part my thoughts.

I should note: my position is personal. It doesn’t align with my churches position, nor do I view myself as some infallible authority. But for reasons I will explain, it’s not certainty I’m looking for.
1. The Bible does talk about homosexuality and it’s not good.
I’ve seen a lot of arguments that do one of two things in trying to refute this point. First, they argue the Bible isn’t talking about homosexuality at all. This one falls apart pretty quickly if you do any sort of digging. It’s so easy to find interpretations to back up what we want to believe. It’s more difficult to recognize and admit when things are being manipulated beyond reason just to tell us what we want to hear. The Bible definitely refers to homosexual behaviour, and the discussion of it is definitely not good.

The more common and more compelling argument is that while the Bible does talks about homosexuality, it isn’t talking about the kind of consensual, loving, committed relationships we see today. There are many great discussions on this – both in books and online – so I won’t regurgitate them here. This argument doesn’t really hold up if the claim is that there were no committed, adult, homosexual relationships known to the Biblical authors during their lifetimes. Particularly Paul. There are examples of these kinds of relationships throughout history, even though it is true that many of the homosexual relationships during the writing of the Bible, both old and New Testament, were more predatory in nature. What does hold up: there were no examples of Christ centred, monogamous, committed homosexual relationships. And despite one argument I have read that if Paul wanted to single out specific types of homosexual relationships and not universally condemn them he would have, you can’t differentiate between things that did not exist.

 

2. The Bible barely talks about it so it’s not a real issue.

This argument is also pretty popular. The idea is that if God thought it was important he would have talked about it directly (Jesus doesn’t speak directly to homosexuality though he does speak more broadly on sexual immorality which throughout the Bible is treated as encompassing homosexual behaviour) and he would have talked about it more.

This doesn’t really hold up either, though. There are lots of things that aren’t talked about a lot (child rape, human trafficking, bestiality, racism, to name a few) but no one would claim they aren’t an issue or that they are just small things to be brushed aside. In Christ and through the Bible we get to see and know God – a God who infiltrates every aspect of our lives. The point of the Bible isn’t to lay out piece by piece every single answer to every single question. This would be impossible for us to comprehend anyway as God will always ultimately remain the greatest mystery beyond all human comprehension. Rather, the Bible and the man who was the word made flesh exist to reveal to us the true NATURE of God, and bring us into relationship within which we can come to know and live the will of a God we cannot fully comprehend. In other words, we need to shift our focus away from picking apart what was and was not mentioned, and focus on the nature of God that is being revealed, because only through communion with Him, and truly having our own nature replaced with His will we be able to see His plan for us and all creation.

 

3. Being gay is not a choice.

I think this part of the debate is what really separates for me a position which I think can logically be supported and one that cannot. Let me explain.

Whether or not being gay is a choice only really matters if you are arguing that BEING gay is a sin. And if someone is arguing that BEING gay is a sin, they have already revealed a fatal flaw in their understanding of God, of scripture and of human nature.

There is nothing in the Bible that says being gay is a sin. As I mentioned above, there is absolutely and irrefutably condemnation of homosexual sex in the Bible in some places. But at no point anywhere does it say that being attracted to someone of the same sex is sinful.

If all it took was for us to be tempted to do something we shouldn’t to be condemned for it, we would all be screwed. It also makes no sense that the temptation itself is sinful: Jesus himself was tempted many times. His perfection wasn’t erased because He was tempted. He remained perfect because He didn’t give in to the temptation. So if you are going to argue that experiencing same sex attraction is in itself a sin, you’ve already lost the argument.

Another element of this part of the debate is whether being gay is a choice or not, or how much of it is nature and how much is nurture.

Contrary to popular opinion, there is no proof yet that sexual orientation is entirely genetically predetermined. I think the thing many people skip over is that even where something is genetically encoded, almost universally our environment still interacts with that in order to produce the final result. Spending a ton of time debating this point doesn’t really make sense either because if you believe being gay is sinful, your answer to biological predetermination will be “nature is inherently broken”. If you believe acting on homosexual feelings is sinful, how those feelings came to be is irrelevant (the argument in that case being that you can be born with an addictive personality and while not fair, we all have sinful urges we struggle with that we did not choose, but that we still have a choice in responding to).

 

4. Being gay is not God’s original design for nature, so we must reject it.

I believe that this belief underpins any position opposed to homosexual behaviour. A close examination of scripture, especially of the creation story, reveals a compelling narrative of a perfect creation that is gendered and complimentary. The recognition of God’s original plan for creation as being both monogamous and male and female is probably the most compelling in my opinion. I have a hard time buying the arguments that try to claim the gender of Adam and Eve are irrelevant, or that our notion of marriage doesn’t come from this understanding of creation. Whether or not you take the creation story literally, it’s a pretty universal Christian belief that God did, in fact, actively create “male and female” in some way and at some point in time. A universe that doesn’t account for God as creator is simply not a Christian one.

So if I find this so compelling, where do I stand?

 

This is going to ruffle some feathers on both sides, but I think it’s important to be clear for the sake of others who may struggle the same way I did.

 

I believe God made us male and female, as companions and help mates. I believe a perfectly balanced and complimentary pair of humans was his original creation, reflections of different parts of His whole, split into parts.

I believe gender is real (though I think the social constructs we have piled onto it are total BS).

I believe God is not male or female, but that both male and female genders are reflections of him.

I believe creation was broken. I believe creation is still broken. Sin pierced the garden of Eden and infiltrated every single part of our world. There is nothing in this world untouched by this brokenness.

I believe that homosexuality is a product of a broken world. I believe it is one product of the fracturing of all of creation. I believe with this fracturing came a fracturing of gender from biological sex, and the role of gender in creation became muddled.

I believe shame is in itself a product of brokenness, and is not something we are intended to feel simply for being part of a broken creation.

I believe that in Christ, all of creation was opened up to the possibility of redemption, and transformation.

I believe that being gay is not something that requires repentance. I believe that acting on your homosexual feelings is not something that requires repentance. I believe that as with all things, giving ourselves to Christ means allowing him to take what we are – in all our brokenness (and we are ALL broken – gay or not) – and to work in us and through us for our edification and sanctification. And to His glory.

I believe God can infuse Christ-centred gay relationships in the same way He can infuse Christ-centred straight relationships, and use those relationships to reveal Hinmself more fully to the people involved.

I believe most importantly that I AM NOT GOD, that the more I come to know Him and his nature, the more I am humbled in my lack of knowing.

I believe that the Bible speaks clearly on homosexual acts being wrong before Christ’s redemption entered the world, that Paul couldn’t speak to a Christ centred reality that did not exist, and that God didn’t stop revealing Himself and his plans for creation 2000 years ago.

I believe God‘s nature is unchanging but that His relationship with humanity is dynamic and as with any relationship, the dynamics of our relationship with Him change in conjunction with our own change and growth. Just like our relationships with our children look different when they are toddlers than they do when they are adults, so too our relationship with an unchanging God looks different based on where we are at in our own growth. Things that are not permissible in infancy become permissible in adulthood. An unchanging nature of God does not preclude a changing relationship WITH God.

 

I don’t know if I’m “right”. But I don’t need to be right. I don’t need to be certain. I need to be a reflection of Love, a messenger for grace, a conduit for mercy. I need to strive always to know God more. I don’t believe it’s ok to just say “do whatever, God will judge”. I do believe we need to struggle with what God has shown us in Christ and in scriptures, because those are two of the most profound ways God has revealed Himself. We don’t get to just dismiss it and say “whatever works for you”. But wrestling with these questions also should not distract us from living out the incomparable, unending, unconditional Love God has showered on us all and has called us to pour out onto one another. Without condition.

 

We don’t need to condone something to love someone. They are not mutually exclusive. And we don’t need to find certainty on a subject to know that grace and compassion are indisputable.

 

If you don’t agree that acting on homosexual feelings is not a sin, then focus on showing love to the people you disagree with, because you believe that God will reveal Himself and his plans to them if they know Him. If you’re so certain you are right, then your number one desire should be to facilitate in any way you can their getting to know the God who is driving that certainty, so that they can come to understand too.

 

And they can’t very well come to know a God whose house they’ve been locked out of, now can they?

A Right is not a Must

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We are a culture here in the Western world absolutely obsessed with our rights. The right to bear arms, the right to free speech, the right to equal pay, the right to toboggan wherever we please. We cannot shut up about our rights.

We are a heavily entitled, easily offended bunch of folks, it seems. Our claims to our personal interpretation of rights is absolute and will be vehemently defended at every turn. God have mercy on the soul who dares to infringe upon our God-given rights to do whatever we damn well please.

I’m not innocent in this either.

In a culture so utterly self focused, it’s no wonder this is the state we find ourselves in. I’d describe our culture as one promoting the perpetuation of teenagehood well into adult life. Teenagers need to have a healthy amount of self focus to figure out who they are and how they fit into the bigger picture of things. But it’s meant to be moderated and limited in length. Instead, we encourage everyone to maintain their inward orientation – new age spirituality tells us we are the gods, we must come first, our needs are the most important needs, our wants are there to be indulged. It’s a brilliant marketing technique that has us all endlessly seeking to buy our identities and further our happiness by indulging ourselves. Really, all we accomplish is to be so distracted by our own “self-improvement” that we don’t notice the degradation of our society and our planet and we have no time to contribute to the rest of the world in a meaningful way. Think of the gelatinous fat balls in Wall-E, sitting in their moving chairs endlessly consuming media and junk food, moving on a pre-determined track and so completely unaware of their surroundings. That’s us. Well, most of us.

There is a certain brilliance in it all. Disguising self indulgence as political and social activism. We get so riled up about our rights that we forget about connecting with the rest of humanity. Our passion for defending our rights leads to further disconnection not only with the rest of humanity, but with the humanity within ourselves. Fighting for our rights means condemning anyone who does not utilize those rights in the way we see fit.

A woman’s right to work means she better take a job outside the home, otherwise she’s weak and condoning patriarchy.

The right to bear arms means anyone should be able to buy an assault rifle, and if you try to regulate gun ownership or say that guns are dangerous, you’re anti-American and a traitor to the state.

And the right to free speech means that any person should be able to say anything, to any one, at any time, and no one else must ever react or take offense.

A right is not an entitlement. A right is a responsibility. A responsibility to not rely on a police state to regulate our moral behaviour but to engage in our own critical thinking, in respectful interaction with our fellow man. A responsibility to ensure that we do not abuse our hard-won freedoms. A responsibility to be kind and loving, even though we don’t have to be.

Freedom allows choice, and within that freedom our choices need to be respected and respectful. My ability to work should be celebrated, and your decision to stay home with your children should be respected and celebrated for what it is: your choice.

The right to bear arms means we have access to any number of weapons. All the more reason to be cautious and responsible in how and why we use them, not just as individuals but as a society. To respect the power of the weapons, and the damage they can so easily do.

The right to free speech allows me to say anything I want, and so I must think critically and carefully about what kind of words I want to put out in the world. My right to speak does not preclude others from being hurt or offended, and if I choose to say hateful things it is irresponsible of me to not expect and prepare for hateful responses. It also speaks volumes of me should I choose to exercise the great power of free speech in a way as to hurt those I share this world with.

With great power comes great responsibility. The freedoms we have are some of the greatest power. And yet we exercise that power so carelessly, so selfishly, so absentmindedly. We need to wake up to the power available to us. Then we need to turn outside of ourselves and start thinking critically about the ways in which we should use it.