Impure: Harmful or Healing Liturgy?

(This post is not explicit but does discuss elements of abuse and the normalization of sexual violence in the church through liturgy. It may make some uncomfortable, especially those with histories of trauma. If you feel this applies to you, there’s no pressure to read it.)

Not all churches or religious spaces are “liturgical” like the Catholic or Anglican communions might be. Yet, all churches have particular spiritual languages and practices that order their worship and shape the way their audiences view their relationship with God and others. Whether premeditated or spontaneous, songs, prayers, gestures, as well as scripture readings, creeds, and rituals give form to one’s faith and directs worship. In this post I’ll be using the term liturgy to refer to these general elements.

Liturgy can edify but it can also silence and re-traumatize. It’s role in perpetuating cycles of sexual violence in the church and associated households cannot be underestimated. At the same time, liturgy has creative and theological power to address and interrupt spiritual, physical, emotional, and sexual violence.

Further reading to consider as you read through the following two major areas of concern:

Is God male?

The Bible, as well as religious language often in used in Christian contexts, frequently refers to the divine imagery of God as a King, Lord, and Father with exclusive male pronouns. Submission and surrender to God may also be included alongside this imagery. Combined with the authority of predominantly male clergy, this can be harmful for survivors of trauma.

Although female clergy may be increasing, men are often elected/hired/called as leaders in evangelical congregations. Yet there is a significant gender gap in the pews. Research finds that women may pray more and attend services more regularly where they make up the majority of many Christian communities.

In a country where 80-90% of reported rape victims are either young or adult women, what messages does male-centric liturgy communicate to survivors of sexual assault and rape in the pews?

photo: joshua eckstein

“Not only is scripture interpreted by a long line of men and proclaimed in patriarchal churches, it is also authored by men, written in androcentric language, reflective of religious male experience, selected and transmitted by male religious leadership. Without question, the Bible is a male book.”

Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza

Perpetuating the exclusive patriarchal nature of these images, terms, and environments fosters potential justification of abuse of power and resulting violence. Even though they may believe the Bible to be inspired and authoritative, these factors can make it difficult to participate in worship and connect with God as not only as survivor but also as a female. Trauma can feel alienating and isolating, perhaps even more so within one’s faith if it feels as if God has abandoned or betrayed them.

To echo the concern of Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, in the words of Mary Daley, “If God is male, male is God.” If we believe the idea God is a sovereign male ruler of “his” children, then the hierarchy of male leadership over women may also exist. This is fertile soil for abuse of power. Women and survivors alike may ask, is there a place for me? Will I find relief or protection from my suffering?

So, is God male? We use male pronouns in sermons, songs, and in our prayers. The Hebrew Bible also uses the third person singular pronoun in reference to God, which we’ve translated as male. And of course, the person of Jesus Christ is male but does this mean the Holy Spirit and God “the Father” are also male?

  • God is not a created, gendered being like humans are and cannot be accurately reflected in an image or seen outside Jesus Christ. Language about God always requires an analogy since God is beyond being.
  • God “the Father” is a metaphor used by Jesus Christ in Matthew 6 and 28 is not a literal relationship. God did not contribute any biological matter to create the Son. The Son is a person of the Trinity, which has no beginning. Father-language is used to reflect a personal relationship and can be appropriate to use, although not exclusively.
  • Deuteronomy 4:15-19 prohibits images of God and idols, both male and female. Creating either a male image or female image for God is idolatrous.

It might be grammatically awkward to withhold gendered pronouns while talking about God but it offers a more precise foundation from which to worship, communicate, and cultivate healing. Other gender-neutral names for God include I Am, Creator, Divine, Light, Vine, Redeemer, Potter, Sustainer, and Word.

(This brief video covers the Swedish church in their exploration of gender-neutral language for God and the diverse perspectives.)

The Eucharist

The Eucharist is one of the most fundamental practices of the Christian faith. It can be spiritually nourishing for both the individual and the community. Yet just as something has power to inspire and provide sustenance for the soul, there is the potential for this power to be damaging.

Sitting, standing or kneeling, bread or wafers or crackers, grape juice or wine, small plastic cups or drinking straight from the silver chalice — the combinations for communion abound. The prayers associated with each element may differ but often reflect the story of the Last Supper.

photo: nicole honeywill

Researcher, Hilary Jerome Scarsella sees the eucharist and other ritual acts as “a negotiation of power relations.” From the language to the posture, communion can be interpreted as harmful for those who have experienced sexual violence. Trauma can be relived, unfortunately. Hearing the words and prayers of the eucharist, kneeling to receive the bread and cup from male clergy, or simply kneeling at the rail to drink from a cup, may produce a strong, if not visceral reaction from those who have been abused.

“The survivor who shared the second glimpse described taking the bread and wine as practice for the next time the person abusing her would force his body on her. Her communion participation, then, seems to have functioned as practicing the role of abuse victim quite literally. In communion, she took on and embodied the role of one who does not have the power to decide what will and won’t be allowed into her body.”

Hilary Jerome Scarsella, Victimization via Ritualization: Christian Communion

Scarsella was also included in a Menonite group who adjusted the language in their communion prayers in an effort to frame the unjust, bodily sacrifice of Jesus Christ in a light unique to him. Their work resulted in two alternative texts for prayers included in their eucharist. The first removed the words “body” and “blood.” The second left these words but added more contextual information (or “framing words”) to better communicate the message of freedom and salvation from sin and suffering.

“In other words, does our worship release captives? Or recover sight for the blind? This process felt like participating in what Jesus announced his whole mission to be about.”

A group member from #WeAreMenno: A new Mennonite communion liturgy addresses concerns of sexual abuse survivors

The fact that scripture and faith practices of the Christian tradition have been used to oppress and re-traumatize others does not invalidate their ability to provide restoration and healing. Often this requires stepping outside of “the way things have always been” and humbly listening. We read scripture and participate in our faith with lenses unique to our personal biases and experiences. Recognizing this and allowing others the space to speak and be heard could be transformative.

Here are some examples of liturgies for survivors of trauma and sexual violence. While researching on purity culture and the damage done at the hands of the church, these prayers and songs inspired me to continue, especially this song.

Read more in this series:

Impure: A Reading List on Purity Culture

For my final masters project, I wrote on the implications of evangelical purity culture. And let me tell you, what a wild ride. Normalized sexual violence, gender roles, politics, #ChurchToo, liturgy — there is a little bit of everything packed into this paper.

This paper has gained quite a bit of interest since mentioning it on my Instagram last month. My hope is to break down my research into digestible, accessible pieces for others to benefit from. (What use is all this if I hoard it all in my brain?)

Purity culture, or the evangelical sexual purity movement of the 1980s-2010s, establishes sexual “purity” as the ultimate standard for those waiting to be married. (Marriage is assumed.) In this subculture, to be sexually “impure” would be disastrous in all other areas of life and would doom any relationship with a future spouse. In both political and pastoral spaces, methods of control and fear seek to maintain patriarchal power over the hearts and bodies of young people, though primarily girls and women.

Stories and testimonies reveal the abusive nature of “purity” teachings and practices. Girls and women are often dehumanized and denied vibrant sexualities of their own. If feelings of discomfort or reports of sexual violence are made known, they can be frequently silenced and ignored. Sadly, there are real convictions buried in these teachings – blinded by ignorance and the fight for power. There seems to be no intention to inflict harm on to others. Rather many of those who participate are held to a conviction which values hierarchy between men and women, emphasizing a woman’s submission to men’s needs. “Purity” is interpreted as protection. More on this later.

Before I jump into the research itself, I wanted to share some materials on the impact of the evangelical sexual purity movement or abstinence-only education.

This reading list is fairly brief and does not include academic articles. Even so, these examples are moving and incredibly revealing. Please note, many portions of these texts discuss sexual trauma, which can be triggering or overwhelming for some.

Books or Essays

Blogs

I would also encourage you to read through the #ChurchToo on Twitter or sign the #SilenceIsNotSpiritual Statement.

If there are other articles, books, podcasts, etc. that have been helpful to you, I would love to read them and include them here. If your experience in purity culture has been positive, I would also love to understand more about your story.