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.

The Importance of the Body

Good Friday, the day we remember the unjust, horrific crucifixion of Jesus Christ, takes place this year in the midst of sexual assault awareness month.

During Lent, I’ve studied the stories of survivors of sexual violence and lamented on the evangelical church’s indifference. Like many of you, I’ve watched sacred buildings burn, from the steeple of Notre Dame, to the local churches in Louisiana. Lent this year holds a fair amount of grief, at least for me.

The incarnation is important. It’s not only the basis of the Christian faith, but it also confirms the significance of our material bodies, made in the image of God. These bodies, with all the aches and pains they often collect, are essential to our personhood. They are fallen, yes, disordered and sometimes misshapen but we still bear God’ image. This is why sexual violence may be one of the most horrific and invasive acts someone can experience, physically and spiritually.

And yet, survivors of sexual violence cannot always find refuge in the church. Many times, as #ChurchToo has shown, the church is the source of violence. We have hired and elected leaders who brag about sexual conquests or blamed victims for their own misfortune, despite the endless teaching on God’s grace or sexual purity. We’ve preached a gospel that disregards consent and women’s bodies. Our indifference has allowed abusive individuals and institutions to thrive, leaving victims without justice or healing.

Whatever your convictions are about the body, gender, or sexuality in the church, I believe the execution and resurrection of Jesus Christ is central to how we ought to think of our human bodies — all complexities included.

“God’s momentous “yes” to the body, in the incarnation, both judges and destroys the corrupt ways we have thought, produced, constructed, and even broken bodies in our culture. As inheritors of a long tradition on the resurrection of the body, we have promising resources to point us to theological faithfulness in the face of cultural and ecclesial ambivalence about the body,” — Beth Felker Jones, Marks of His Wounds

The incarnation gives us hope. It reminds us we are understood and known, even in our deepest pain and grief. Healing, restoration, justice, true shalom are made possible through this event.

“He was despised and rejected by mankind, a man of suffering, and familiar with pain. Like one from whom people hide their faces he was despised, and we held him in low esteem. Surely he took up our pain and bore our suffering, yet we considered him punished by God, stricken by him, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed.” — Isaiah 53:3-5

The resurrection replaces shame with dignity, hierarchy with equality, and power with humility. But it seems many churches haven’t truly captured this aspect of the empty tomb. When will the church be a refuge for bodies who are abused, shamed, and oppressed? What would a redeemed theology of the body look like in your context? How would that influence the way you cared for your soul and those around you?

Admittedly brief but I just wanted to share these thoughts in hope they spark something in you, too. What does the Incarnation mean to you?

Letters & Thoughts on Lent

I am a huge fan of handwritten letters. I like sticking the stamps on the envelope and sending them off to a friend, just as much as I like seeing them in my mailbox.

The art of letter writing has been somewhat lost, if you ask me. Social media and online spaces make it more convenient to text someone or browse their feed to find out what they’re up to. Who writes in cursive anymore? Do people still collect stamps or stationary?

This is embarrassing, but once I realized I was spending hours (hours!!) on my phone everyday, I cut back on my social media intake quite a bit this year. I’ve done lots of spring cleaning — “unliking” a bunch of those facebook pages from way back when, “unfollowing” accounts I don’t know personally or people I don’t know well, and being much picker about who gets to fill my feed.

Coming out of the black cloud that often is facebook and instagram, I feel so much better. My anxiety went down, I felt more relaxed, and my ability to concentrate skyrocketed. I started exercising and reading more.

With a few clicks or finger strokes we can instantly chat with our friends from kindergarten or that one friend we met at summer camp. And while I’m all for staying connected, I believe social media weirdly obligates us to constantly stay in touch with more people than is realistic. Suddenly, friendships appear valid only if there’s a mutual online relationship. This makes me sad. This false sense of obligation weighs heavy on my mind.

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Lent is a season where we’re invited to examine our lives and our hearts. It’s a chance to identify the unhealthy distractions and obligations around us and prayerfully let them go. Some things are harder to let go than others, that’s for sure. (FOMO is real!) But it’s not meant to be easy. As we anticipate the death and resurrection of Jesus we have the opportunity to actively (individually + corporately) reorient our passions and priorities to honor the eternal ramifications of the cross.

Maybe you missed the first few weeks of Lent. No worries then, wherever you find yourself, you’re invited to enter this space of reflection. Lent isn’t a six-week program that must be completed start to finish. There’s no trophy or point system. So please, pull up a chair and catch your breath. Let’s slow down and remember the Story together.

If you have an online presence, I encourage you to find time to apart from your feeds. You might like it. If you used the time you normally spend scrolling to write a letter, who would you write to?

Grateful

Thanksgiving can be a complicated holiday to celebrate. I’ll keep it simple. Here are 10 things I’m grateful for.

  1. My faith, which has more questions than answers these days.
  2. Aaron’s presence at home. Last year we weren’t as lucky.
  3. A family who embraces our polished & raw sides and still says, “I’m proud of you.”
  4. Books, books, books! Reading has been transformational for me this year. (Again.)
  5. Morning light.
  6. Meals shared with friends or family.
  7. A New England fall and the associated cozy, wool socks.
  8. Photo albums at Grandma’s house.
  9. Free laundry machines.
  10. My application to graduate has been submitted. The end is almost in sight!

What are you thankful for?

We spent our Thanksgiving holiday in California and Arizona. It was smokey from the fires, but we still explored Sacramento, Sequoia National Park and (somewhat) enjoyed the 10 hour drive to Phoenix. I’m happy Aaron was able to meet several of my cousins and almost all my aunts and uncles during this trip. For a fairly last minute decision, it worked out well.

As a wrap up this fall semester in the next couple weeks, I’m amazed at how fast these classes flew by. I’m working through one of my final projects, research on Dorothy Day’s spirituality, so please keep me in your prayers as I complete all the things on my metaphorical desk! I recently applied to graduate, which means spring graduation is right around the corner. I’m so grateful I’ve been able to work through these subjects and study in such a beautiful place.

Grace and peace,

Elizabeth