Amateur Attempts at Feminism From A Former Complementarian Christian

    I’m pretty sure I’ve always been a feminist, just like I was always a critical thinker, and was always secretly okay with people being gay despite what I was told I should think by the tradition in which I was raised. Unfortunately, I’ve also always been a rule-follower. Not out of any sense of righteousness, really; just because I was (and am) deathly afraid of being in trouble with the law. Now, the law could be a cop, or it could be my dad, but it was definitely, always, God.

    According to “God”--at least the “God” under whose gaze I grew up--being gay was unnatural and wrong. According to “God”, my human mind was flawed and in need of saving. And according to “God”, women, while ‘spiritually equal’ to men, were meant to be led by and deferential to them in this earthly life.

    Figuring that the church knew better than I did, I decided at a fairly young age to acquiesce to the notion. It wasn’t that difficult, actually. One of the thing that makes Evangelicalism--or perhaps any kind of fundamentalism--attractive is the way in which it removes the responsibility of growing up from a person. Complementarianism (the belief that men and women have gender-specific, rigidly defined, and implicitly hierarchical roles in life and relationships) does this for women, in a way. A way that is totally patronizing and oppressive, but still--there isn’t a whole lot to worry about when someone else is making all the decisions and you agree to agree.

    I chose to have faith that bowing to the plans and decisions of whomever it was that wanted to marry me was the righteous and beneficial tack to take. Unfortunately, that didn’t work out so well. In a stunningly awkward and remarkably quick implosion, the courtship that I bought into at the age of twenty-five--the one I was absolutely sure God would wrap up in marriage--fell to pieces, partly because of (I think, in retrospect) our buying into the complementarian strategy. The whole thing was an unnatural pantomime. Yes, I was into him, but I was no housewife in the making. I am no conformer. I became a nothing in the relationship, really, always waiting for him to make a move, start a conversation, explain what was going to happen next…. I could not figure out how to be in that way.

    Because I had invested so wholeheartedly in the traditional gender roles despite my inherent inclination to the contrary, I was extra bitter when that relationship broke up. I was starting to be done with God, and I was most definitely done with assimilating to the patriarchal way of life. As such, you can imagine my disorientation when the next relationship in which I saw a long future--the one I came to as a non-believer and an adamant egalitarian eight years later--required that I quit my job in order to be with the man.

    Okay, that’s an incomplete and unfair description of the turn of events. Let me give you some context. I met this guy when I was living in the LA area and he was living in San Diego. In other words, it was a long-distance relationship. Not a terribly long “long distance”, but enough of a trek that we could only see each other on the weekends. We knew that if the relationship developed into something serious, this matter of geography would require some sort of compromise eventually. And it did, which was both exciting and confusing.

    Exciting for obvious reasons; confusing because, despite how happy and comfortable I was with this man, I feared I was slipping into that secondary role again. I was doing everything in my power to remember to see myself as an independent and equally valued member of the relationship, and yet here I was considering letting go of this chapter of my career in order to be with a guy, which felt like the most un-feminist thing ever. I was determined not to relive my past; at the same time, I was wary of sacrificing a beautiful future on the altar of that backward-facing commitment.

    For various reasons, it actually did make the most practical sense in our particular situation for me to be the one to move. Practicality, however, has never been my strong suit. I was not a woman who was happy to prioritize a man--not anymore. I was still uncomfortable and torn despite most signs pointing to “move”. I asked myself over and over again if it was worth it--if he was worth it--the giving up of a job I loved. On the other hand, I also had to ask myself: was clinging to what I was defining as my feminist independence worth losing this man if it turned out he wasn’t able to move to me (which he did offer to do, by the way)?

    The answers I came to were “yes” and “no”, respectively. Not that I wouldn’t have found another person to partner with eventually if I had decided that my highest priority was to stay at my job. It’s just, my highest priority wasn’t to stay at my job. My highest priority was my personal desire, and my personal desire was to continue to be with this person. “This person” happens to be male, so unfortunately the context surrounding the decision changes (thanks a lot, patriarchy) and one's independence and self-sufficiency as a woman must be considered with extra weight; but what I myself wanted was to do life with him, and so that is what I chose.

    There is no such thing as full independence in working relationships, I don’t think. People remain--or should remain--separate as persons, but there is give and take; there are risks, and yes moments of submission and sacrifice, that each person must bear at different points over the course of the partnership. Some choose full independence over committed relationships because they would prefer not to do those things, which I totally understand. However, I prefer being in a relationship to not, so I suppose I just have to live with the complicated nature of the combination of my complementarian upbringing, my attempts at feminism, and the undeniable fact that men happen to be the people to whom I’m attracted sexually and romantically.*

    Maybe the problem is not that I might be a bad feminist, but rather that I’m so worried about being a bad anything. I mean, if feminism is about equity across genders, in every context, for every woman, then isn’t the point, in the particular situation I described above, that I should be able to make whatever choice I want? And if the choice I ultimately wanted to make (despite the fact that it was heavily bittersweet) was to blaze a new trail in my life with the partner I love, then shouldn’t I maybe be celebrating the freedom I have (personally, politically, socially, and economically) to make that choice, instead of feeling worried and insecure because it looks like I moved “for a man”?

    If I chose not to move simply because I’m a woman and my partner is a man--for that reason and that reason alone--I would not be living in freedom. I would be living for other people, in fear of what other people would think. In desperation that I walk and talk and live like the feminist I say I am. And I’m pretty sure I decided I was done with that kind of life when I left the church. So what if I’m an imperfect feminist? Who, ultimately, is going to judge me for it in a way that will affect my life? Not God, certainly. What is the consequence if I screwed up? I learn a lesson, and move on. I do better. What more can we ask from ourselves than that?

*To be clear, being heterosexual is an ENTIRELY privileged & centered identity in this society; I hope my statement does not imply otherwise.

Is It Just Me?: Tips For Spotting Indoctrination From A Recovering Evangelical

    For four weeks this summer, I was car-less in middle America, surrounded by fireflies, wondering how to maintain my core self despite being separated from everything I call “home”.

    I was there for an extensive, intensive professional training. The training happened to be in a methodology in my field that is sometimes seen as a bit...cult-ish, for a variety of reasons. Personally, I’m on board with the methodology, and especially its underlying philosophies, but I also understand why people might see it as dogmatic and exclusive, because it can be when implemented poorly.

    At its best, though, the methodology works. So going into the training I set an intention of remaining as humble and open-minded as I could, despite what I was being asked to sacrifice. That said, I also went into it with the kind of stubborn skepticism that can, perhaps, only come from having clawed one’s way out of a brainwashing before. Something in me felt that I was going to be asked to check my critical thinking--and criticism--at the door. This feeling triggered a ‘protect your mind’ intellectual and emotional guardedness that my fellow ex-Evangelicals will surely understand.

    It was because of my inclination toward defensiveness that I was trying to be open; I didn’t want to miss out on the opportunity to learn good things (which I did) and become better at my job (which I hope to be). At the same time, I definitely felt occasional pressure toward wholesale acceptance of some ideas, so I am glad I didn’t suppress my suspicions entirely.

    All in all, those four weeks went well, and I think I maintained a balanced approach. What the experience has got me thinking on, though, in short retrospect, is what it was about the situation that triggered my aversion. What did the training--or the prospect of it--remind me of from my Evangelical days that made me wary? Why did I think I was about to get brainwashed?

    There are a few parallels I’ve been able to identify between the training and my own Christian indoctrination--strategies and styles I saw this group using that I also encountered from various church institutions and missionary organizations over the years. I share them because I think it’s interesting when any group, religious or secular, seeks to transfer what it believes to be capital-T “Truth” through the following means. Interesting, and sometimes scary.

1. Isolation of “Trainees” from the Larger World for an Extended Period of Time

When I signed up for missionary training through YWAM, I was signing up for six months outside of the country. Not only was I in a country other than the one in which I lived, I was staying on a farm in a remote area in said new country, and this without access to my own transportation. In this recent professional training, we were also basically in the middle of nowhere, though we were still in the U.S.A.--we were, again, on a farm, and many of us (including me) without our own transportation.

In both cases, my concern is that one is not in a position to compare what one is learning to the realities of the wider world. There is not a diversity of people off of which you can bounce the ideas that you’re being told about for many hours each day. You start to lose sight of the horizon, ideologically, which puts you in a mentally vulnerable position. Removing oneself from regular daily life stresses and responsibilities now and then for the sake of retreat is a great practice, but intense teaching in isolation from wider society is something of which I find myself wary.

2. Constant Reference to a Text Deemed Universally True

Obviously, in Evangelical Christian circles this is the Bible. You read it over, and over, and over again. Well--certain parts of it. Many Evangelicals have never read the whole Bible; but that’s beside my point. The implication, and belief, is that this text speaks a Truth that is all-encompassing, beyond human bias, and not at all affected by the time and place in which the words were written.

I’ve found that some believe this to be true of the foundational texts of the methodology in which I was being trained. They were/are constantly referenced, which is perhaps in and of itself not a problem. My problem, or concern, is that other points of view or criticisms/responses are not referenced. The core texts were written by a human, who lived in a particular time and place, and should be subject to thoughtful, study-based criticism as such. It is one of the many forms of self-discipline we must engage in if we are to be doing our best work, and if our goal is really to get to the truth.

3. Extremely Limited Access to the Message

This is not only a problem in Evangelicalism, actually. Many religious groups have and do seek to control their members by insisting they are in possession of “the secret” (to the universe, to salvation) and also limiting access to that information. I think of the long-time refusal of the Catholic church to have non-Latin masses, of paywalls like that in Scientology (which, for what it’s worth, I do not consider a religion), and so on. In Evangelicalism this often looks like pastors (virtually always men) who, you are told, always know more than you about God’s will because they have ‘the anointing’--or whatever terminology the church decides to use. In addition to all of that, there are so many things you do have to literally pay for in Evangelicalism in order to feel like  you’re being a “good Christian”--private education, special Bibles, retreats, just regular tithing…. But you’re told the gospel is only accessible through this one incredibly narrow door of participation, so you do it.

The organization(s) that teach and maintain the methodology in which I was being trained have historically--as I understand it--offered remarkably limited access to the foundational texts and materials. One message I’ve heard surrounding this phenomenon is that there is a concern that the methodology will be misused or watered down in the hands of those who aren’t properly trained. Okay, I can buy that--to a point. That’s also what priests have said to parishioners when refusing them access to a Bible they can read, though. And, of course, the training is prohibitively expensive, unless one has a professional sponsor. The warning bells get louder in my head. If this philosophy and its accompanying techniques are so helpful, don’t we want everyone to have access to it? Secreting away the group’s ‘gospel’ is always a decision that should be scrutinized openly.

    I'm sure I'll think of other parallels as times goes on and I reflect further, but that seems to be good for now. What other techniques/strategies of organizations, religious or secular, make you pause, or trigger your ‘they’re trying to indoctrinate me’ response system?

More Than None

    Amongst those who converse about religious trends in our society there is a term used to refer to folks like myself who do not claim any personal religious affiliation: we are the “nones”. Putting aside the quaint irony that the word sounds just like “nun” and thus could easily be confused with a thing that is basically its opposite, it is a friendly abbreviation that helps add some cohesion to a group of people who are otherwise seen as disconnected outsiders.

    Unfortunately, there is a downside to the label. It explains a person’s present state of spiritual affairs well enough, but it obscures the religious places from which they might have come. Many people who currently identify as “nones” did not always find themselves in that category. I myself was a Bible-studying, gospel-preaching, youth group-leading Evangelical Christian for the first twenty-seven years of my life. For those folks, as for me, there is sometimes a slight discomfort with adopting the “none” classification because it does not capture or communicate the whole story--a story that includes chapters featuring some serious ecclesiastical commitments.

    Given the nature of my upbringing and how sincerely devoted I was to the Christian cause, I cannot simply say that I have no religious affiliation. To do so feels--and is, I think--disingenuous. The church, no matter how much I wish to be free of it, is still in my head. It’s in my bones. I am still processing the ways I was indoctrinated (I might even say brainwashed) into illogical, often heinous, ideologies. I cannot just make the doctrine leave me. My stilted, nervous thoughts about sex exist because of the church. Guilt about having told numerous people they were going to hell swims in my heart. I have no idea when, or if, my fear of literal demons will subside.

    Scrolling right past “Christian” and checking the box next to “None of the Above” doesn’t cover all that; it doesn’t even allow room for it. Yes, these kinds of categorical demographics created for the sake of gleaning statistics are naturally oversimplifying, but all too often “none” is interpreted as “having no interest in religion” when, on the contrary, folks like myself consider religion to be integral to our daily being despite having renounced involvement in it. We are not disconnected from it; we have been entangled with it, were perhaps hurt by it, and are trying to navigate the ever-present but unseen reality of its continued influence on our lives.

    Every time I find myself in a situation in which I have no apparent choice but to identify myself as a “none”, I am reminded of how desperately we need a space in our society where ex-believers can assert and discuss their ongoing relationship with the traditional theologies and dogmas of their past. It might not fit as neatly onto a one-page survey as the typical short-list of religious options, but it is essential to our understanding of the spiritual state of our world that we acknowledge the number of lives being lived in the wake of indoctrination.

    It is no small thing to shift religious gears mid-existence. It is an especially tricky feat when one’s identity was rooted in one’s belief system of choice throughout one’s most formative years. The perspective of those who have decided to take this extraordinary leap of faith is invaluable, but it lies so often untapped because doctrinal affiliation is assumed to be static, or a discrete fact unrelated to the past. On the contrary, the truth is that we--much like the great spiritual figures in our varied histories--are all on special journeys of our own, journeys that might find us in wildly different camps over the course of our lives. If we are given the opportunity to share the details of our movements with each other--if I can see where you have been and not just where you are--perhaps a more helpful (certainly more accurate) understanding of the dynamic nature of belief will spread. Perhaps we will learn to give ourselves and those around us permission to grow out of old ways, to grow into new ones, to be true to the honest convictions of our hearts even if they seem to contradict where we’ve been, and even if they don’t fit neatly into one little box.