Survivors Aren’t Censoring You. But You Might Be Censoring Them.

There is a sort of insidious sentiment that any woman who admits publicly to abuse does so for attention, or for sympathy, or to grab at power. Whether you call it “survivor privilege” or the “sacralization of victims,” the root of your discontent is the same: A woman is speaking, and somebody is listening to her.

Recently, I criticized Hemant Mehta’s latest book, God Is An Abusive Boyfriend (And You Should Break Up With Him). I explained that from my perspective as a survivor of abuse, the theme—intentionally or not–trivializes the subject. And let me note for the record that I am no stranger to religious abuse, either; I used to be a fundamentalist Christian. I can tell you just about anything you’d like to know about what happens when the subjugation of women, the marginalization of queer identities and other related prejudices are doctrine.

But my parents’ God isn’t necessarily your God.  Humans are vast and contain multitudes; we all contradict ourselves. So, by extension, are the belief systems we create. There’s no comparison, really, between abusive boyfriends and the idea of God or the broader phenomenon of religious belief.

These are obvious points. Yet after making them, I’ve been told (though not by Mehta, I’d like to point out) that my “personal experiences” are clouding my judgement, that I’m deliberately missing the point, and that I simply don’t understand why believing in God, whatever that means to a person, is exactly like refusing to leave an abusive partner. I’ve even been accused of promoting censorship.

Never mind that I didn’t call for Mehta to cancel the project (although he did, and I respect his willingness to listen to critique).

Never mind that I laid out a logical argument for my position.

Merely mentioning the fact that I have a personal connection to the topic of abuse put a target on my back.

And yet somehow I’m the censor.

This isn’t an isolated phenomenon and I’m hardly the first woman to write about the issue. The abuse I’ve received still isn’t comparable to the daily abuse hurled at women of color and queer and trans people when they publicly discuss their own experiences. For now, I simply want to join my voice with theirs and identify this phenomenon for what it really is.

And I’ll begin by saying this: People who accuse survivors of grabbing for power, you’re right. When we speak, it is indeed a play for power: Power over our own narrative, because that is the first casualty of abuse.

When you name your experience for what it is, whether it is racism or transphobia or domestic abuse, you definitively say to the world that no, this is not a misunderstanding, this is what it is like to lack certain privileges in our society. And that makes you a threat. This is, again, familiar ground for many. Womanists, for example, have been saying this for years about white supremacy and they haven’t received much but public ridicule for saying it.

Asking a person to acknowledge how pervasive an oppressive system is directly challenges their place within it, and that makes people uncomfortable. It makes people angry. And it’s easier to dismiss someone than admit you don’t have all the answers.

This is particularly true when the subject is male violence against women, whether that abuse is sexual, psychological, physical or some combination of all of the above.

In no other realm would anyone try to argue that a person’s experience with a subject actually disqualifies them from offering an opinion about it.

Imagine telling a veteran that they’re too emotionally connected to the subject of war to discuss it properly. Anyone making that argument in public would be dismissed as a crank—and they should be, because it’s an absurd argument. We otherwise readily acknowledge that a person’s direct experience with a subject makes them more qualified to discuss it. It doesn’t grant them infallibility, of course. Nobody can lay claim to that. We’re talking about some level of expertise that the average person doesn’t necessarily possess.

But we hold women to a different standard when the subject is abuse. And then we dismiss them as conspiracy theorists when they start to talk about the existence of a rape culture.

That, dear reader, is censorship.

If women can’t be experts about their own lives, how can they be experts about anything else? If you can’t trust a woman to analyze and report the consequences of an event that she lived through then you certainly can’t trust her opinion on politics, or religion, or…anything, really. And the same is true when applied to any other institutionalized prejudice. It serves no one but those already in power to deny the oppressed the ability to give that oppression a name.

I’d be lying if I insisted that acknowledging an abuse survivor’s perspective as valid won’t cost you very much. It will. It means you concede some of your power—yes, your privilege—and step back to allow someone else to step forward. And if that prospect upsets you, well, don’t look at the survivor. Look at yourself.

God Isn’t Abusive. People Are.

Hemant Mehta would like you to fund his new project. It’s a book, with pictures: God Is An Abusive Boyfriend (And You Should Break Up With Him).

I am going to tell you why this isn’t true. Allow me to present my credentials: I, unlike Hemant Mehta, had an abusive boyfriend.

That girl on the cover, with her eyes shifted, her body language stiff, is not an abstract concept to me. When I saw that image, I thought of myself. I thought of the night my alcoholic ex-boyfriend got trashed and embarked on a mostly incomprehensible rant about all the people he’d beat if they touched me. I sat next to him, very still, remembering the raccoon he’d let his dog rip to pieces in front of me.

He’d thrown ice and snow at it while it cowered and forced me to do the same. When it screamed, he laughed. When I begged him to pull the dog away, he refused.

And so I knew better than to try to run. All animals know when they’re trapped.

I defended him in public. I ignored my own screaming instincts. I didn’t even leave him when he assaulted me.

That’s what Mehta’s turned into pictures for his book. That’s what he’s comparing to religious belief.

This is, among many other things, quite an obvious logical fallacy. He’s asking us to compare apples and oranges.

As an atheist, I believe that God is an entirely fictional concept. Like any concept, it can be used to justify oppression. But because it’s merely a concept, and not a real entity, it can be interpreted any way a person likes. God, the idea, is not abusive, cannot possibly be abusive. God as Pat Robertson markets Him is another matter altogether, but even in this scenario it is Robertson, not God, that deserves the blame for inflicting trauma on his followers.

The concept of God isn’t a monolithic one; the concept my parents worship can’t reasonably be compared to the one my feminist Muslim friends worship, or the Light that dwells within my Quaker friend.

My abusive ex-boyfriend belongs to a separate category. He is real. He’s responsible for his own actions; no third party commits deeds on his behalf. There is nothing to be interpreted here.

Like all survivors of abuse I am familiar with blame, and how it is typically directed at survivors themselves and not the perpetrators of violence. I am familiar with all the usual questions.

Why didn’t you leave him? 

For a number of complicated reasons that include fear, blackmail, and an upbringing in a fundamentalist subculture that taught me to accept male dominance and female submission as norms.

Maybe you’re exaggerating.

If so I’ve wasted quite a bit of my life in therapy.

Why did you date him at all? 

Because he was very charming, and I wanted to believe he meant it when he said he’d be there for me.

Looking at my answers I can see there might some parallels between them and the answers I typically give when asked about my experiences with religion. But surviving an abusive romantic relationship and leaving organized religion are two fundamentally different processes, even if you’ve experienced religious trauma. The roots are different. The triggers are different. The recovery process is different. Things can overlap; that doesn’t mean they’re identical.

I am exceedingly weary of discussing my experiences with abuse. I have a BA in International Studies and an MA in Postcolonial Culture and Global Policy. I have presented papers on human rights and revolutions at institutions like the London School of Economics. As a writer, I’ve covered everything from Tea Party rallies in coal country to Hobby Lobby v. Burwell and in 2014 alone, I’ve been profiled in the New York Times and published in the Guardian.

But here I am, talking about something that happened four years ago.

We are all more than the professional faces we present to the world. And as long as the imagery of domestic violence is used in such a simplistic manner, I will speak out against it. I want you, if you care at all, to think of my face when you look at that book cover. I want you to imagine how frightened I was when I defended my abuser the way the girl in Mehta’s picture book defends God, when I cowered at the end of a couch the way she cowers in a corner.

And I want you to think very carefully about whether or not this is how you want to promote your belief tradition to the world.

I don’t.

I am an atheist. And God did not abuse me. My real boyfriend did.


Yes, I Have PTSD. And?

Hilariously, I’ve had my ‘credentials’ as a women’s rights activist called into question on Twitter for the dual crime of mentioning my own PTSD and criticizing Ayaan Hirsi Ali (see my previous blog post). These claims defy belief, but I’ve decided to delve into my experience with trauma in order to illustrate exactly how ridiculous they are.

Here, good people of the Internet, is what it’s like to live with PTSD. For me, at least.

First, allow me to explain to you why I have the diagnosis.

I’m a survivor of attempted rape. The night I was assaulted, I was too traumatized to speak. I remember my ex speaking to me. I remember him insulting me. I remember that he walked off and left me lying there.

I know I thought about walking back into town. But that would have been a walk of some miles, late at night in the middle of an Ohio winter. In any case, it would have been pointless. He had a car and I didn’t. I knew he’d track me down before I could get anywhere near town, or the police.

So I stayed, and I didn’t speak until the next morning.

There’s little I remember about that morning. I can tell you that he came over to my house, to ‘apologize.’ And while I don’t remember what I said in return, I can tell you that I didn’t break up with him. Instead, I tried to compartmentalize what had happened. I decided that I felt ashamed because I’d done something wrong, and that I couldn’t blame him for misunderstanding me.

It did not occur to me for a remarkable number of months that there’s not much room for misunderstanding when a woman tells you ‘no,’ and that he should have stopped the moment he heard it. When he didn’t, he committed a crime. It is a crime I can’t prove, and contrary to what men’s rights activists like to claim, a woman can’t put a man in jail simply on her word alone.

When I was a very young girl, I fell in love with fantasy novels. I still love them, honestly. In some of my favorites, people have the ability to tell truth from lies. I’ve thought of that repeatedly in the years since my assault because despite all my skepticism I wanted that to be real. I’ve wished that it were possible to somehow show a court emotional bruising, have it admitted as evidence of trauma.

But there is little use in wishing for impossible things.

And I discovered there’s also little use in trying to forget something happened. Sooner or later it comes back, even if it’s in your dreams, and when it does you have to reckon with it. It’s taken me years to reckon with it. My strategy has been, until fairly recently, to run. To leave town and move around, repeatedly. Eventually I flew across the ocean and stayed on the other side for as long as I could.

But flight is not an effective solution to trauma. Even there, the past returned to remind me that how utterly I’d failed to actually put it behind me. I still had to reckon with the situation. And when I did, the pieces of my self that I’d left scattered across thousands of miles of earth and water and air settled into place.

I returned to the US, and the town in which I’d been attacked–the town where I tried to forgive my assailant and blame myself instead–and nothing happened. I walked through it on my own and finally, I felt something like peace.

The first nightmare I had after the attack is one of the only dreams I’ve ever remembered on waking. In it, I ran through the tiny town I’d moved to after the assault, trying to escape my ex. When I realized I couldn’t outrun him I headed for the nearest car (which was mysteriously unlocked, because dreams), locked myself inside it and started screaming at him. But the weird thing is–and I remember this distinctly–there was no sound. Not for any of it. I knew I was screaming because I could feel myself doing it but there was not a sound to be heard. Even in my dreams, I was silent.

But I’m no longer silent, and I’m not afraid of very much any more. That means that I won’t tolerate having my experiences with post-traumatic stress mocked by trolls who apparently have nothing better to do with their time than abuse other people.

It seems that some of them believe I discussed this, once, on Twitter for some nefarious political purpose. I can promise you that I have not benefited in the least from having PTSD. I’ve spent several long years in recovery from this traumatic event. And I’m happy to say that my life is very good right now. This is the healthiest I’ve been since the assault; in fact, it’s the first time I’ve been able to say with any confidence that I believe I’ve turned the corner.

So it’s actually quite difficult for me to choose to discuss this. It’s not because I feel ashamed of my experiences. But of everything I’d like to be known for, having post-traumatic stress is not high on the list. It’s one cracked facet of my personhood.

I am not Sarah Jones, who has PTSD. I am Sarah Jones, who finally gets paid to write. I am Sarah Jones, who got to live in Europe for two years.

I am Sarah Jones, who lives.

That’s my experience with PTSD.

I’m sorry you think that’s a reason to harass me. But you’re wasting your time. If you have any reading comprehension skills at all, you’ll know that I’ve already endured worse than you can deal out, and I’ve come out the stronger for it.

Yes, You Can Criticize Religion, But

In the case of Ayaan Hirsi Ali v. Brandeis University (not a real legal case, at least not yet), I am on Team Brandeis. Though I’d never dispute that Hirsi Ali has the right to express her views on Islam, I don’t think those views should be legitimized with an honorary doctorate, and I also don’t think Brandeis violated the overarching principle of free speech by rescinding it. They extended an invitation for her to speak on campus, which strikes a fair balance.

Those of us who’ve expressed concern over Hirsi Ali’s views have been accused, frequently, of being afraid to criticize religion. I can obviously only speak for myself, but I think this is a facetious accusation. I opposed Hirsi Ali’s honorary degree because she repeats the same tired, Orientalist “clash of civilizations” myth that has so disastrously influenced Western relations with the East for centuries. I further opposed her degree because she blamed advocates of multiculturalism for driving white supremacist Anders Breivik to commit mass murder, and believes Christians should forcibly convert Muslims.

I have been told I should excuse those statements because of her personal experiences with Islam. There’s some evidence she fabricated much of her background, but I am not particularly concerned with the sanctity of national borders and therefore don’t care if she lied to receive asylum or not. At minimum, it seems clear she did undergo female genital mutilation, which is a deplorable violation of her human rights.

Like Hirsi Ali, I consider myself a women’s rights activist. You won’t find me apologizing for FGM, or indeed for any practice that restricts women’s rights, regardless of whether or not religious arguments are used to justify it. I am not a cultural relativist.

Still, I think Hirsi Ali’s statements about Islam cross a red line, and this forces me to consider another question: how do we criticize religion?

Be Accurate

This is so obvious that I’m depressed it even has to be mentioned, but make sure your criticisms are accurate. For example: there is absolutely nothing Islamic about FGM. Grab a Quran and look for it. You won’t find anything about FGM in it. You also won’t find anything justifying forced marriage, or mandating veils.

It’s certainly true that the above practices are common in some predominately Muslim countries. It’s also true that imams often participate in perpetuating these practices. But as I witnessed over and over again in Christianity, and for that matter in atheism, people have never hesitated to abuse a belief system to justify their own prejudices. The root of the problem is human nature, not Islam.

In the case of FGM specifically, the practice is not limited to Muslim communities. According to Forward, a British human rights organization, it’s also practiced by Christians, animists, and even non-believers. Contrary to what Hirsi Ali would like you to believe, it’s not in any reasonable sense an Islamic practice. And it happens to pre-date Islam.

It’s fair to criticize Muslim leaders in some communities for not doing enough to combat the practice. It’s inaccurate to claim that Islam, or even religion itself, is the source of the problem. Religion doesn’t enjoy an exclusive monopoly on misogyny.

Understand The Implications

As reported by Religion News Service today, atheists and agnostics experience the lowest percentage of hate crimes in the United States. This could be because of their low numbers; regardless, it seems obvious from the data that anti-atheist violence isn’t particularly prevalent in the US.

Muslims and Jews, however, experience much higher rates given their numbers, and Muslims and Sikhs are most likely to become victims of bias-motivated manslaughter and homicide. This is probably because these groups are most visibly religious–and non-white. Atheism in the United States is still overwhelmingly dominated by white men, and as a result, privilege is at play.

Much has been made of a 2012 Gallup poll that revealed 43% of Americans would choose not to vote for an atheist. The same poll showed that 40% of Americans would avoid voting for a Muslim candidate. That’s a statistical dead heat once you control for margin of error.

There’s certainly still discrimination against atheists; I don’t intend to erase that fact. Nevertheless, I think it’s false to claim that atheists are a persecuted minority in the US. The available data just doesn’t support it. That claim is much more applicable to the American Muslim community (and I’m focusing on this community, rather than another minority faith, due to the context of the Hirsi Ali controversy).

The consequences of repeating inaccuracies about a marginalized group can be severe. This contributes to prejudice and that in turn can lead to violence. At the very least, it gives the impression that atheists are unwilling to acknowledge the reality of anti-Muslim violence. How rational are we, really, if we can’t bring ourselves to admit the facts?

In a global context, repeating inaccuracies is similarly damaging. There seems to be a prevailing misconception that in Islamic states, Muslims are privileged over everyone else, and this is only partially true. In Bahrain, for example, the Sunni minority is privileged over a Shiite majority. In Pakistan, Ahmadi Muslims are accused of blasphemy right alongside Christians and atheists.

The reality is that in Islamic states, as in all states, the ruling class is privileged over all others and ultimately, this has nothing to do with religion and everything to do with the construction and maintenance of power. To cosign Hirsi Ali’s sentiments is to endorse a dangerously simplistic perspective on the world. This does not assist the project of advancing human rights. Rather, it restricts it.

Where Do We Go From Here?

Proceed with caution. If you’re truly invested in advancing human rights, including women’s rights, make sure your critiques are accurate. Do your research. Know your history. Take the time to talk to people who practice the faith you’re about to criticize; you lose nothing by hearing another perspective.

Your enemy is not faith. Your enemy is fundamentalism, in all of its forms. As a general rule, I’ve found that it’s better to criticize specific practices and the individuals directly responsible for perpetuating them rather than an entire faith. It’s more accurate, and when we’re discussing issues this sensitive and this important, accuracy is to be preferred.

And finally: if you’re willing to cosign a sweeping attack, especially one put forward by Ayaan Hirsi Ali, on an entire belief system you have some immediate soul-searching to do. The facts are simply not in your favor.


Apocalypse When?

Lately I’ve been thinking about the end of the world.

I used to wait for it, in a confused anticipation born of a youthful interest in the utter chaos it promised and the fear that I would be subjected to it, as one of Christ’s more inferior subjects. Years later, I still can’t quite banish the idea.

Certainly, this fascination about the end of all things isn’t limited to the fundamentalist Christianity of my childhood. An entire subgenre of science fiction plays with the idea that either by accident or human malfeasance, life as we know it ends. But in these stories, life itself doesn’t altogether cease; it mutates, or struggles forward into the future. Humanity rebuilds, after a fashion. Sometimes things are better, sometimes they’re worse.

But what I find really fascinating about the Christian apocalypse is that even though life endures, humanity doesn’t. We get this gauzy vision of an eternal future in faultless bodies. There aren’t many details. Is there love after Armageddon? Hate? Any emotion at all?

And yet we’re still supposed to long for it, in the absence of any real detail. We’re supposed to take joy in the prospect of losing our humanity.

I found the Revelation account of the Tribulation to be far more compelling than anything that came after it. It’s bloody but it’s real. There’s something tangible about it, despite all the metaphor. On some level, I understood the rage. It’s palpably human. Were I God, the creator of all life and the earth upon which it scrabbles, I would be furious.

Can you imagine? You create a race of creatures in your own image and what’s reflected back at you but constant war and petty evil broken only by the occasional glimmers of kindness and hope and courage. I’d annihilate the world too. I’d just take myself out along with it.

But I am not God, obviously, and I don’t believe that anyone else is either.

And that brings me back to the apocalypse.

The apocalypse is catharsis. It’s the logical conclusion of the way things are, the ultimate self-fulfilling prophecy. I think that’s why it still captures my imagination as much as it does. Every day on earth is somebody’s end of all things.

Maybe the apocalypse is really a process. Maybe it trickles in, one blow after another after another until finally, the end breathes into silence.

That requires no deus ex machina and is therefore more likely, I think. But a fundamentalist would disagree, and there’s a mutant hope in their point of view. For fundamentalists, the end has to be a bang, not a whimper; it’s a great ripping of the cosmic bandaid. Sure, there’s seven years of tribulation but after millennia upon millennia of horrors great and small, that’s just a sneeze. And perhaps that’s why people can commit themselves to such a restrictive way of life. You look at a broken, groaning world and pick the dogma that promises to put it out of its misery. It’s the ultimate justification, not only for the pain you’ve witnessed in the world, but for your reaction to it.

Even so come, Lord Jesus.

In leaving fundamentalism, I sacrificed that for a life free of restrictions. Or so I thought: I haven’t completely moved on from that indefinite wait for the end. Too often, the mere fact of being human still feels dangerous. Every sleepless night, every ache, every kiss is one step closer to the edge of an abyss that’s pressed on my mind for as long as I’ve been aware.

We leave so little behind, if you really think about it. That’s the great paradox of abandoning fundamentalism. You are still the same person you are when you left, with the same dents in your brain.

But I don’t think that’s a permanent state any longer, and maybe that’s evidence I’m finally letting go of Armageddon. If I can believe that people change–that I change–then the world’s problems don’t need to be solved by annihilation but by the act of living deliberately well.

The apocalypse might be catharsis, but it’s also a cop-out, and it’s not worth the cost of my humanity.

Why On Earth Did I Go To Cedarville, Anyway?

Or: What’s A Clever Girl Like You Doing In A Place Like This? 

Here, people of Earth, is why I attended Cedarville University.

When I was fourteen years old, I sat in class at my fundamentalist Christian high school and watched a recruitment video that showed Cedarville students having fun. They were laughing. They dressed kind of like normal people. They seemed happy.

And I was not happy. Most of my teachers had attended Pensacola Christian, Bob Jones or Tennessee Temple. Perhaps you can imagine the resulting school environment. And even so, I still preferred it to being homeschooled.

But shortly after I watched that recruitment video, the school expelled me. The letter they sent my parents characterized me as a ‘disturbing influence.’ They didn’t explain why, but an explanation would have been helpful. At the time of my expulsion, I had a spotless disciplinary record, belonged to the National Honor Society, and had won award after award in academic and fine arts competitions.

I’ve identified two possible reasons for my expulsion.

First, the onset of adolescent depression. The schools my teachers attended treat psychiatric disorders as manifestations of sin, not illnesses to be treated. Consequently, my depression was considered evidence that I was out of fellowship with God, or worse, that I wasn’t even saved at all. Remarkably, my family’s pastor–a Bob Jones grad himself–defended me, and tried to convince the school to rescind the decision. They refused.

Which leaves the second option. The school had encountered major financial difficulties. And I was a scholarship student. So was my brother, who was also expelled. In his case, they claimed it was due to academic failure; however, he wasn’t failing his classes and the only mark on his record was an after-school detention for playing paper football in class. Such a rebel. Later, an alumni told me that the school had a habit of expelling scholarship students whenever it started to lose money.

So my school expelled me for being depressed, or they expelled me for being poor, or both. Whatever the truth might be, their actions weren’t exactly Christlike. My depression deepened, and I began to struggle with my faith.

Enter Cedarville, again. The university has touring ministry teams that it sends to churches and Christian schools. These teams specialize in music and drama, and they’re considered a recruitment tool for the school–an effective tool, in my case. My church hosted one of these teams, so I finally met these fabled semi-normal students in person.

And they were nice to me. They talked to me. They sat next to me when the kids in my youth group ignored me. They remembered my name. They didn’t seem bothered by my sad attempts to dress like a punk rocker.

I devoured their kindness like a starving child who’d been tossed a scrap of bread.

So I added Cedarville to my list of college options. Keep in mind, too, that although my parents supported my desire to go to college, they’d made it clear they couldn’t afford to pay for it. I knew before my first day of high school that I’d have to get scholarships. And I worked devastatingly hard. I worked so hard my parents actually told me to stop doing so much homework because they were afraid I’d make myself sick.

After my expulsion from Christian school, I entered public high school and hit the ground running. I took all the honors classes I thought I could ace. During my senior year, I decided to take a Governor’s School class. That meant getting up at 5:30 am, every day, to take an extra college-level class before the school day even started. I went from my Governor’s School class to AP Government to music to law class to college. That’s right. I spent half my day taking upper level English courses at a local private college.

Cedarville gave me a full ride. I earned its Leadership Scholarship, its Presidential Scholarship, and a tuition waiver in addition to federal grants. Clearly, I thought, this is God’s will. I’d finally have a chance to talk about my faith in a rigorous academic environment, with truly Christlike people.

So I went to Cedarville University. If you read my blog regularly, you know what happened next.

Why Does Any Of That Matter?

I’m telling you all this because I’m tired of hearing that truly intelligent students don’t seek to attend places like Cedarville. I’m tired of hearing that employers shouldn’t consider graduates like me. That mindset effectively penalizes a person for being raised in Christian fundamentalism.

Although my story certainly isn’t definitive of all Christian college graduates, it’s not exactly unique, either. Don’t reduce us to caricatures for decisions we made as teenagers. You have to understand even though I’d spent some time in public high school, I’d attended a high school in the Appalachian foothills. I still knew nothing but a dogmatically conservative approach to Christianity.

If I’d chosen a different Christian college, my story might be different. It’s unfair to judge all religiously-affiliated schools by Cedarville, or by unaccredited institutions like Bob Jones and Pensacola Christian. Many feature more diverse campus environments with stellar academic programs. It’s not all young earth creationism and fundamentalist gender roles. If the only reason you object to a Christian college grad’s employment is the fact they attended a religious school, then you are a deeply and unfairly biased individual.

Even those of us who did attend more conservative institutions should be judged on our own merits. It’s true that I learned young earth creationism. It’s also true that I majored in international studies, not science, and that my major courses were taught by a qualified academic who also possessed twenty-five years experience in the foreign service. My philosophy course was taught by a serious scholar who exposed me to the work of Bertrand Russell and fostered class discussions that proved incredibly vital to my intellectual development.

Even my Bible courses were, for the most part, also taught by scholars with degrees from institutions like the University of St. Andrews. My religion and culture professor required us to attend at least one service at a non-Christian house of worship–to learn about another culture, not to proselytize. My sociology professor taught me about white privilege, encouraged my feminism, and remains a friend to this day. I even had the opportunity to study abroad in the UK, which would later inspire me to return there for my graduate studies.

I had a complex and emotionally trying time at Cedarville. Many of my classes were indeed terrible; while some of my Bible classes were thorough, one of them consisted of filling in charts related to the End Times. Most of my classmates were either actively hateful or so apathetic they couldn’t be convinced to care about social justice or critical inquiry. But there were exceptions. Beautiful, brilliant exceptions. And you need to understand that.

Stories are always more complicated than they seem on the surface.

I Will Not Suffer A Woman

Today, I learned that my alma mater, Cedarville University, has decided to restrict classes taught by its solitary female Bible professor to women only. This marks a notable change for the university.

I attended Cedarville from 2006 to 2011. During my years as a student, I took Scriptural Interpretations of Gender Issues, one of the classes that’s now been restricted to women. When I took it, the class was co-ed. And it was taught by a tenured female PhD: Dr. Joy Fagan, who taught the school’s courses on women’s ministry.

Dr. Joy Fagan, of course, no longer teaches at Cedarville. As reported by Sarah Pulliam Bailey of Religion News Service, Fagan cited ideological differences in her resignation from the school. “I do not feel I am a good fit for the university going forward,” she wrote in a statement.

It’s worth noting here that Fagan, like other faculty members who have been fired or, in the opinion of alumni, strongly encouraged to resign by the school’s new administration, signed a non-disclosure agreement. That means we’ll likely never know the true nature of her departure. At the time of her resignation, alumni heard that she left due to her refusal to restrict class attendance to women only.

Dr. Fagan is hardly a liberal on the subject of gender. I knew her to be open about her complementarian views. By the time I took her class, I’d diverged from complementarianism and identified as an egalitarian–a Christian feminist. I found Fagan to be unfailingly respectful of our intellectual differences. We studied both arguments in her class, and I was allowed to write papers in defense of a feminist interpretation of Scripture.

In other words, I was allowed to think. And I was allowed to debate my conservative classmates–including men, who seemed unharmed by their contact with my female opinions.

It’s almost as if Christian men can benefit from hearing women’s perspectives on Christianity and gender.

After Fagan’s resignation, Cedarville University hired Erin Shaw to take her place. Erin Shaw does not have a doctorate. She has no university teaching experience at all, in fact. She does have experience leading Bible studies and mission trips–including one to Uganda. Given the role American missionaries have played in encouraging anti-gay sentiment in Uganda, I’d love to have some more details about the nature of Ms. Shaw’s trip to the country. Unfortunately, those details aren’t available on the bio provided on Cedarville’s faculty webpage.

Dr. Thomas White, Cedarville’s new president, regularly insists that Cedarville isn’t really taking a new direction. Pulliam Bailey quotes him as saying, “…nothing has changed in the school’s official policy and Cedarville has women in every department.”

It seems that statement is only partially true. Cedarville might have women in every department, but official policy has certainly changed if classes taught by Ms. Shaw are to be restricted to women.

Since my days in Dr. Fagan’s class, I’ve come to identify as an atheist. That’s not her fault. It’s nobody’s fault, really; it’s an intellectual decision I made for myself. And I’m sure that because of this, Cedarville would love to ignore my opinion on its policies. I’m sure they’d like to pretend that I’m critical because I hate God, and Christianity, and men.

I don’t hate God (because I don’t believe He exists) and I certainly don’t hate men. I don’t hate Christianity, either. I know that Christianity is better than this. I know that the Christian faith can support women and celebrate their intellectual contributions. I know that it can be a powerful weapon in the fight for equality.

Given that: who really hates Christianity here? Who really seems terrified of its potential to elevate women?

Let’s remember we’re talking about a school that’s currently under a federal investigation for Title IX violations. And Michael Loftis, removed from his position at ABWE for his failure to properly investigate abuse allegations against a missionary doctor, is still on the Board of Trustees.

That is the climate on campus right now. And yet the administration of Cedarville University doesn’t seem to think women have anything to teach men about their lived experiences in the church.

This isn’t higher education. This does nothing to foster critical thought and free inquiry among students. It doesn’t even prepare them to counter opposing viewpoints. If this is the path Cedarville chooses to take, it won’t be a college any longer, it’ll be a glorified Sunday School. That’s fine if you want to produce graduates who can only function in fundamentalist echo chambers, but it certainly doesn’t prepare them for the real world. It doesn’t even encourage them to empathize with their fellow Christians.

Here’s what it does do: train half the student body to disregard the other half and treat them as if they’re incapable of holding worthwhile opinions on the religious tradition that defines their entire lives.

To quote the school’s infamous marketing slogan: That’s so Cedarville.

I just wish it weren’t.

When Shaping Culture Means Shaping Hate

In a recent speech to Ugandan policy makers, Patrick Henry College’s Dr. Graham Walker roundly condemned the ‘postmodernism’ of American universities, delivering sentiments with the potential to inflame anti-gay sentiments in the country.

Walker, who taught at the University of Pennsylvania before joining Patrick Henry’s faculty, mined his time at the Ivy League school for outrage fodder. A former mentor for incoming freshmen, Walker described a case study handed out to students to acquaint them with the school’s diversity. To the University of Pennsylvania, the study was designed to encourage respect for sexual minorities; to Walker, it encouraged nothing but sin.

He paraphrased the study for his audience.  “Imagine you are a young woman who is arriving as a new student on the urban Ivy League campus of the University of Pennsylvania,” he said. “You were raised in an uncomplicated rural farming region far away from the city. When you were growing up, the people in your rural community, in your family and in your country church, taught you to believe that gay and lesbian people were perverted and depraved.”

The case study later gives this hypothetical farm girl a hypothetical lesbian roommate, painstakingly identified as courteous and intelligent. It sets up an obvious dilemma: how to resolve this clash of inherited belief with reality?

“The answer was obvious: they were supposed to abandon the outmoded ‘rural’ beliefs about homosexuality and adopt the supposedly superior beliefs of the urban sophisticates,” he told his audience.

Of course, Walker’s own bias is equally apparent throughout his remarks. He made it clear that his objection had less to do with the simplicity of the case study, and everything to do with its conclusion.

Walker slammed the social psychologist who wrote the study: “…he had written the narrative in such a way as to assume the legitimacy of the claim that some people simply ‘are;’ ‘lesbian,’ as if it were a category of identity given by the natural order of things.”

Quotation marks are Walker’s own.

It’s clear to me that he doesn’t believe anyone is essentially queer; he can’t even acknowledge ‘lesbian’ as a viable identity. Instead, he implies it’s unnatural. That would be troubling enough if his remarks had been given at his fundamentalist home institution, but of course they weren’t. They were delivered to Ugandan policy makers, right before the Ugandan parliament voted to pass a draconian law targeted at the country’s sexual minorities.

That bill assigns life imprisonment to anyone found guilty of ‘aggravated homosexuality;’ homosexuality itself has already been criminalized in the country. A previous draft of the bill assigned the death penalty for the same offense. President Yoweri Museveni, no supporter of gay rights, blocked it based on a technicality, as the parliament passed the bill without a full quorum.

And there’s further context to Walker’s speech. He’d been invited to Uganda by Uganda Christian University (UCU). UCU is affiliated with the deeply conservative Church of Uganda, an entity that has long been reluctant to condemn the country’s infamous anti-homosexuality bill. The church even defrocked a retired bishop, Christopher Senyonjo, for his advocacy for Uganda’s beleaguered sexual minorities.

Walker’s home church is also affiliated with the Church of Uganda, further deepening his ties to the conservative body. He attends Waterford Anglican Fellowship, a plant of the Church of the Holy Spirit, located in Leesburg, Virginia. A Loudoun Times-Mirror article described Holy Spirit’s consecration by Bishop John Guernsey; Guernsey himself was consecrated by the Church of Uganda.

In 2009, Rev. Dr. Christopher Byaruhanga, a professor of theology at UCU, condemned Western Christians for their antipathy toward the legislation. “You see there’s a kind of imperialism and a kind of relativism from the West,” he said. “They don’t understand our ethics in the country of Uganda and they are trying to impose what they believe.”

UCU’s Vice-Chancellor, John Senyonyi, attended last year’s Global Anglican Future Conference (GAFCON), a meeting of conservative Anglican clergy. GAFCON originally convened out of opposition to a perceived shift toward liberalism, engineered by the church’s leadership; observers believe the liberal-conservative rift has been at least partially inspired by the church’s consecration of Gene Robinson, an openly gay man.

Last year, GAFCON adopted the Nairobi Commitment. It reads: “In 2008, the first GAFCON was convened in order to counter a false gospel which was spreading throughout the Communion,” and adds, “It sought to mask sinful behaviour with the language of human rights. It promoted homosexual practice as consistent with holiness, despite the fact that the Bible clearly identifies it as sinful.”

Senyonyi read the statement aloud on the final day of the conference.

Senyonyi and his colleagues might not explicitly advocate for the murder of sexual minorities, nor might Dr. Walker. But there is no doubt they are anti-gay. The ‘human rights language’ the Nairobi Commitment condemns is designed to protect sexual minorities from persecution. But these so-called men of God haven’t concerned themselves with the prevention of persecution. Instead, they contribute directly to it.

Walker isn’t unique. He’s merely the latest Western anti-gay activist to travel to Uganda to peddle hate disguised as faith. It’s a crusade that has already resulted in bloodshed. That context is absent from Walker’s anti-gay speech, though I’d argue it’s impossible he’s unaware that it exists. In fact, I’d argue the opposite. He is aware. He simply doesn’t see anything wrong with it. Why else deliver anti-gay remarks to policy-makers overwhelmingly devoted to the persecution and destruction of their LGBT constituents? Why travel to Uganda at the invitation of a clergyman so devoted to anti-gay prejudice he’d risk a split from the global Anglican church? Walker, who teaches government at Patrick Henry, surely understood the political implications of his speech.

On its website, Patrick Henry College boasts that it ‘shapes culture,’ and that’s certainly true. They are shaping culture: a culture of hate. And thanks to Dr. Graham Walker, that project knows no borders.

Hat tip for this story to a PHC alum who alerted me to Walker’s speech. 

It’s Time To Rethink Virginia’s Homeschool Laws

Virginia Delegate Tom Rust (R-Herndon) has proposed a study of the state’s religious exemption statute for homeschoolers. To the Homeschool Legal Defense Association (HSLDA), the proposal, HJ 92, is a malicious attack on Christian homeschoolers. The reality, however, is quite different. Rust’s proposal is a reasonable response to a long-standing problem.

First, a brief explanation. In Virginia, families are entitled to homeschool under either an academic or religious exemption. My parents homeschooled under an academic exemption, which means that they were required to administer standardized tests to measure my academic progress. Families that homeschool under a religious exemption, however, face no such requirement. After the local school district confirms that their religious convictions are legitimate (and there is no uniform standard for this process), a homeschool family can effectively remove itself from the state’s radar.

In the state of Virginia, a religious family can pull a child out of school at any point in the term and provide no evidence of a curriculum or of the child’s subsequent educational attainment. The children are, in effect, rendered invisible.

My friend Josh Powell used to be one of those invisible children. Last summer, he told his story to the Washington Post in a bid to publicize the consequences of Virginia’s overly generous statute. At 16, Josh didn’t know that South Africa is a country and hadn’t been taught basic algebra. After years of remedial classes, Josh made his way to community college and later, Georgetown University.

Some of his younger siblings would like to attend public school. But because the state privileges the convictions of their parents over their personal goals, they remain at home. And there’s no way to ensure they receive the education Josh was denied.

That is an intolerable situation in a country that claims to value education as a human right.

It is unclear to me how anyone’s religious exercise is threatened by their child’s ability to read and write. Fringe homeschool advocates are fond of insisting that they are the best possible educators for their children and in some cases, that might be true. But this is clearly not going to be true of all parents, and common sense regulation is necessary to make sure their children are receiving an adequate education.

But try telling that to HSLDA. Its latest e-lert warns, “We must accept the possibility that Rust’s call for a study is a mere pretext, and that his true intention is to try to take away some of your freedom once the study gives him some “cover.” At the very least, it’s fair to conclude that he thinks you may have too much freedom right now!”

Now, let’s be clear about what Rust has actually proposed: a study. This means he wants to review the law. If his measure passes, the Department of Education would survey the state’s school districts to examine how they apply the religious exemption statute. It would also examine how districts review their initial decision to grant a family an exemption (if they review at all). The proposal’s final clause also calls for the DOE to determine whether or not districts monitor the educational progress of children in religiously exempt families.

I believe it’s this last clause that so concerns HSLDA. Josh Powell’s family isn’t exactly unique. Although my parents homeschooled under an academic exemption, we knew quite a few families who’d received religious exemptions instead, and to describe their educational attainment as uneven would be somewhat generous. It is certainly true that most families who homeschool do so with the best of intentions. But intentions are not magic. Sometimes parents simply aren’t qualified to be educators. Sometimes they’re even abusive. And right now, there’s no external oversight to make sure this isn’t happening in religiously exempt homeschool families.

That’s a problem.

Though not, of course, to HSLDA. And why? It’s important to note that HSLDA opposes HJ 92 due to extremist religious beliefs. A white paper they’ve produced on the proposal reveals the real motivation for their opposition. “The rights of minors are held in trust and exercised by their parents,” it asserts, and later adds, “A child’s right to an education–just like his right to worship, his right to assemble, etc., is held by his parents as custodian until he attains majority.”

But what happens when parents hold that right hostage?

To HSLDA, children have no rights of their own. Parental rights are paramount. And that explains why they’re so adamantly opposed to government oversight. It’s not necessary to make sure the rights of children are protected if you believe that they don’t really have any. Their white paper cites one study produced in 1994 that claims children in religiously exempt homeschool families score an average of 33 percentile points higher on standardized tests, as compared to peers in more traditional school environments. But it’s worth noting that the study’s author, Dr. Brian Ray, works for a partisan group, the National Home Education Research Institute. And it’s impossible to determine the real academic standards reached by religiously exempt homeschoolers when they aren’t even required to take standardized tests. Ray’s sample is self-selected, and therefore, it’s likely deeply skewed.

But here’s what we do know.

For three homeschooled children, Virginia’s lack of oversight proved deadly. Dominick Diehl, Valerie Smelser, and the unnamed adopted child of Matthew and Amy Sweeney all died of abuse in homeschool households. Abuse is not unique to the homeschool movement, but when laws like Virginia’s religious exemption statute allow families to go completely underground, it becomes much easier to hide abuse until it’s too late.

You won’t find those stories in HSLDA’s e-lerts. Just dogma, and questionable data gleaned from out-of-date studies. Even Josh’s story receives short shrift, dismissed because his hard work and determination earned him a place at an elite university.

Virginia’s children deserve better. That’s why I support HJ 92. I hope you’ll do the same.

How Exactly Do You Think This Works?

Justice: everyone says they want it. For themselves, for their neighbors, for the world at large. Yet when those who need it most demand it, on their terms, the response is inevitably the same.

Disdain: “You’re just so critical.”
Dismissive: “You’re just looking to be offended.”
Damning: “You’re an abusive bully.”
Demanding: “You should be asking for unity!”

Over the past few weeks I’ve seen these responses played out in exactly the same patterns in two communities that are, while there’s certainly overlap, are often sometimes at odds with each other: feminism and people of faith. Lately it seems that the one cause that unites them both isn’t the pursuit of justice but rather the silencing of those who fight for it.

Be more polite. Ask nicely for your rights and maybe, just maybe, if we feel like we’ll let you have a turn with the mike. Don’t make a stir. Don’t criticize–you don’t want to look bitter, do you?

But maybe I’d rather look bitter than sit on my hands and wait for somebody else to serve liberation to me on a shiny silver platter. I’ll die of old age waiting for that. I’d rather fight for my rights, and actively work in solidarity for others resisting forms of oppression to which I am not subject, because change is not a passive thing. You have to force the subject and if you want to be heard then you’re going to have to shout. Liberation was never achieved by popular vote.

All of you demanding we refocus on unity: that helps you and no one else. Look at who’s joining you in this demand, do they look like you, think like you? Do they attend the same meetings and the same churches? Then you’re operating from an echo chamber and I don’t know why you expect anyone to take you seriously. You’re not offering anyone change. You’re incapable of helping anyone achieve justice until you step out of that echo chamber and weld the door shut.

If you’re made uncomfortable by people who speak of liberation in public, you are part of the problem. If you spend more time protecting abusers than you do looking out for their victims, you are part of the problem. If your response to criticism is to mock the critic, to ask your friends to mock the critic, and otherwise pretend the critic has nothing valid whatsoever to contribute you are part of the problem.

I will defend anger and those who are angry, I will indulge my own anger, because that anger is valid. It is deserved. It is the catalyst for change and I will not be told that my anger makes me a lesser human being. And I will listen to the anger of those whose lives were not like mine, those who are oppressed in ways that I am not, because their anger is valid too. Oppression makes people angry. 

And if all you’ve got to say to that is that we sound mean: you are not worth the time it takes me to read your tweet, blog, or article.

All of your heroes–the suffragettes, the martyrs, the Nelson Mandelas and the Martin Luther King Jrs–acted on and vocalized strong conviction. And they were called divisive for it. They were called bitter. Their anger was invalidated by a ruling class with a vested interest in keeping them silent. And even now, the ruling class recycles these stories as spectacle, entertainment spun as profundity, cut down into consumable bite-sized bits and disseminated so that they can reassure themselves they’re really progressive.

But the truth is that the struggle for liberation, real liberation, is painful and dirty and raw. It is emotional. It is demanding and loud and it doesn’t fit on a bank note or in a TV special. It makes people uncomfortable by design. Shifting people out of their privileged positions to make space for those who have been denied it is supposed to be an uncomfortable process.

And pointing out that you have privilege isn’t abusing you. It’s a statement of fact. It doesn’t dehumanize you or belittle you. It’s merely the recognition of a reality to which you stubbornly remain oblivious.

So yes, I’m angry. And I’d rather be around other angry people because they’re the ones that get how this really works.