On Being an Activist and a Churchgoer

Trigger Warning:
This article contains mention of violence and abuse

In this post, I will be diverging from my usual separation of personal and professional life. My recent experiences in those two circles have overlapped, and I’d like to address the consequences here. Some of my friends at church might be startled by the following discussion. I don’t intend to alienate anyone, and hope that I stimulate a conversation rather than animosity.

The first ingredient is a series of topics that I’ve been reading for my courses in gender history and twentieth century American history. Although I’ve always been rather liberally-minded, my involvement in social justice began in earnest during the second year of my undergraduate degree. When I befriended a teaching assistant in history who was completing his MA in social justice, I found my eyes opened to the ugly nature of our world, where discrimination and oppression are rampant. I’m not as active in my pursuit of social justice as my friends, all of whom I admire greatly, but I’ve found ways to turn my professional career toward questions that seek to identify and address issues of justice. Lately, I’ve been reading about discrimination based on gender, race, and class, and with each book I become more attentive to discrimination and oppression in my daily interactions.

The second ingredient is a series of sermons delivered from the pulpit of my church. Like many believers, I sought out a community in which to find support and friendship when I moved to a new city. In general, my experiences at the church have been positive, and I am very involved in their production of morning services. Some of the messages being delivered, however, have run up against my activist ethic.

I have observed that these teachings are concerned only with a very specific moral framework, and ignore completely the ethical, humanistic perspective. If followed as directed, these instructions not only reinforce oppressive, discriminatory systems, but can endanger human life.

I have refrained from shouting questions during the sermons, but I will use the space below to explain some of the issues one must negotiate to be an activist who attends church.

On the topic of marriage, church leaders were asked, “Is divorce ever alright?” Their answer, in short, was “No.”

– Regardless of any justification based in doctrine or biblical passages, that’s a dangerous statement to deliver to a crowd of 400+ listeners. At very least, divorcees are set aside as shamed and second-class members. At worse, an abused partner refuses to flee because shame and guilt will follow.
– In further discussion, the panel of speakers suggested that any dangerous situation in a marriage could be avoided, and that each partner shares responsibility for preventing such incidents. I don’t need to explain the injustice of victim blaming.

On the topic of moral purity, a speaker chastised hypothetical parents for providing their daughter with birth control.

– There are many implications in such a statement about use of “the pill.” First, it argues that having control over reproductive function will ensure that girls or women engage in sexual activity. In that framework, women have no theoretical agency to determine their own sexuality, and in practical terms, are forced to choose between a rigid moral code or unwanted pregnancy.
– Further statements from the pulpit suggested that giving a daughter birth control would put too much focus on her career, earnings, and education. In that framework, a woman’s value is only her ability to reproduce (and only in the prescribed manner of marriage); any other accomplishments or goals are to be avoided.
– Finally, the moral framework described above has no mechanism for dealing with the serious crime of rape. Without listing them here, “the US still has a relatively high rate of rape when compared to other developed countries.” In the traumatic event of rape when birth control has been denied to a woman, she is forced into a situation not of her own choosing, from which there are few avenues of escape, especially in a conservative Christian environment. Any circumstance that forces a human being to submit their body to unwanted effects is considered oppression.

Finally, on the topic of sexual morality, a speaker encouraged the audience to prevent moral temptation by refusing to engage in social interaction with members of the opposite sex without the presence of a partner or chaperone.

– At very least, insisting on separation of the genders suggests that individuals are always tempted and susceptible by the opposite sex. By that reasoning, every time a man and woman meet for coffee, they are undermining their other relationships. That framework says that the only way to avoid temptation, which is always present, is to reject social interaction.- At worst, the argument above would make impossible any equality for women in the workplace. Simply put, women need to interact with the men who still control the majority of the workforce and economic distribution. If you doubt that, just look at remarks made yesterday by President Obama: “On average, a woman still earns just 77 cents for every dollar a man does.” There is serious, crippling disparity between the genders in the workplace, especially in terms of wages. Recommending that the two genders never meet can only perpetuate discrimination.

I’m certain that some of my readers will protest that the messages being delivered from a pulpit are designed to reinforce a particular moral code drawn from religious texts. I agree. Moral codes, however, are subject to change. Each organized religion teaches its own moral conduct, and each human chooses from the many options.

The influence wielded by community leaders who stand behind those pulpits should not encourage behaviour that also reinforces prejudice, discrimination, and oppression. The basic human right to be free from oppression and free from discrimination should never be put aside in favour of a subjective morality. I argue that it is possible to believe in the fundamental elements of religion without oppressing others. I believe it is possible to have faith that puts human value ahead of subjective perspectives on right and wrong. Most importantly, these are not simple theoretical thoughts; these messages shape human experience.