“Too many of us interpret God’s word in ways that leave us victims. Here’s how to find a spirituality that will empower.”
I recently received phone calls from two friends who have chosen to remain in relationships that pummel away at their spirits. Both women say that God has told them to stay, that there is a reason for their suffering, and that their troubles are a test of their faith. After each I’ve taken to my bed because each one leaves me more devastated than the one before. One friend is a college professor and the other is an entrepreneur. Though they differ in age, background and personality, both are smart, attractive, talented, ambitious and otherwise no nonsense women. And they both profess to be churchgoing, saved, sanctified and Holy Ghost filled.
Gaye’s husband batters her the way his father before him battered his mother. When that is not enough, he threatens to kill her, their two sons and himself. She believes him. So do I. Gaye also believes that God does not put more on you than you can bear. We disagreed over the phone. I am not persuaded. “God doesn’t require you to stay in this mess!” I scream in frustration. “This is my cross, Renita, not yours,” she whispers and grows silent, signaling that the conversation is over. In the meantime, her husband disconnects the battery cable in her Lexus and hides it, forcing her to walk the three miles to the restaurant she owns and operates.
Joyce, the college professor, feels that God is calling her into the ministry. The problem is that her pastor, who has been her minister since she was a little girl, doesn’t believe women can be preachers. “God doesn’t call women,” he stated hundreds of times from the pulpit. For years Joyce agreed with her minister. Now she isn’t so sure. She wishes she could talk to her pastor about her vocational and spiritual crisis. But she can’t. “Go where your mind and heart can be nourished,” I advise. “I can’t,” she says. “I don’t feel that God has released me from this church yet.”
“No Cross, No Crown?”
Both in my role as a professor at a women’s college and as an ordained minister who counsels scores of women every year, I have heard virtually all the excuses women give themselves for staying in abusive relationships, for staying quiet and invisible for far too long in relationships, and for sacrificing large chunks of themselves to people, institutions and causes that devalue them as human beings. Every week I talk to women who view the suffering and self sacrifice they endure for love and for relationship as natural, virtuous, even glorious. How many times have I heard a Christian woman rationalize her pain and heartbreak with excuse.
“There must be something God is trying to teach me” or “God must really have something great in store for me to put me through all of this”? Who can blame women for this sort of reasoning? Sunday after Sunday, Gaye and Joyce and thousands of women like them crowd into churches to hear sermons, songs and scriptures that reinforce in their minds the inscrutable connection between suffering and redemption: “God doesn’t put more on you than can bear”; “We’ll understand it better by and by”; “What doesn’t kill you, strengthens you”; Weeping may endure for the night, but joy cometh in the morning. I grew up hearing my pastor repeating the same refrain: “The story of God’s people in the bible is the story of a people who were led from struggle, through a struggle, to a struggle.”
“No cross, no crown” was one of my aunt’s favorite sayings on those mornings after she would awaken to find that one of her sons had broken in during the night and stolen money from her purse to support his drug habit and in the Pentecostal church where I grew up, a popular song was sister Delores’s rendition of “when I see Jesus, Amen.” The rich contralto of the woman who had lost her only child in a house fire mistakenly set by her drunken husband sent excruciating shouts of empathy throughout our tiny storefront church when she sang: I’ve learned how to live holy. I’ve learned how to live right. Oh I’ve learned how to suffer, for if I suffer I’ll gain eternal life.
The High Price of Self Sacrifice
The reasons black church women cling to the notion of suffering as a way to please God and give them proximity to the divine may date back to Christian antiquity when church fathers vilified women as temptresses to evil, or at the least, “weak vessels.” It was a short step from there to suggesting that women might redeem themselves through suffering and self sacrifice. We are expected to be strong enough to keep everyone else going, but not so strong that you think you can speak up and say what’s yours and what’s not yours to bear any longer. Deeply embedded in the Christian teaching most of us grew up on is the idea that a good woman is self sacrificing women do not change history, nor do they stop hurting without any effort on their part.
For years I had to force myself not to bolt out of the church’s doors when I arrived to preach at Women’s Day service and found Proverb 31 as the centerpiece biblical passage on the Christian womanhood: “Who can find a virtuous woman?” The selfless, tireless, over nurturing wife and mother the scripture extols was one I couldn’t and didn’t want to emulate. Many of us grew up watching our mothers, aunts and grandmothers endure soul numbing disappointments and backbreaking work to keep their husbands, sons and lover men from losing face and losing their lives. Deep within our culture psyche runs a sentimental vein for that self sacrificing woman. Refusing to leave your abusive partner, mortgaging your house to pay your drug addicted son’s bail or putting off an exam of the lump in your breast is, for some women, a form of self punishment that is akin to Christ’s suffering. They experience a sense of power from feeling a greater proximity to God, but there’s a difference between being selfless and having no self at all.
Early biblical scholars, writing largely to male audiences, extolled self denial over egocentricity, humility over pride, poverty over wealth, sacrifice over self preservation but it was women who would take these teachings to heart and the church has benefited. The male hierarchy of the church, that is, as much as they bewail the relative absence of men in the church, male leaders enjoy having armies of humble, guilt ridden women at their disposal who feel it their Christian duty to deny themselves, take up their cross and sacrifice for family and the church but since when do we equate victimization with piety and suffering with virtue? And how do you get a woman to understand that putting others’ desires above your own doesn’t mean becoming a doormat?
It’s Okay to Have Boundaries
Carla is a member of a Christian book club I spoke to last year. When her friends in the club warned her not to invite her father who molested her as a child to visit for Father’s Day weekend, Carla protested that everyone was being harsh and unforgiving. She has forgiven him; she says inviting him up to her apartment for a Father’s Day visit is her way of proving it. The members of her club tried reasoning with Carla. The day I visited them, Carla failed to show up for the meeting. The topic of discussion was “Is it Unchristian to Have Boundaries?” It can be argued that the church has failed Carla. It has failed to balance its teaching on suffering and forgiveness with teaching women like Carla that allowing others to exploit you or harm you is a disservice to them as well as to you.
I resented my Christian mother for years because she wouldn’t play that role. She refused to remain in an abusive marriage and ignore my father’s promises to kill her. She left him when the abuse became unbearable and she left us, her five children, with him when he threatened to kill her if she took us with her. A good mother literally dies trying to keep her marriage and children together, I thought. My mother’s leaving was a sign that she wasn’t the praying woman she pretended to be, my self righteous great aunt instructed us children when she moved into take care of us. I know now that my mother made the right choice for her and for us. I was better off with a mother who was alive, living in a house across town, who saw me when she could, than with a dead mother who had lacked enough self worth to know when enough is enough.
Losing the Comfort of Victimhood
For centuries, the absence of women from the official circles of power within the church has resulted in beliefs that helped develop theologies about suffering that have not been tested against the reality of women’s needs but it’s the responsibility of thinking women of faith to repudiate old church dogma that has kept women perpetual victims. While cultivating silence and quietude has a place in meditation and prayer, there are plenty of examples in Christian scriptures of women who spoke up, found their voices, exposed wrong and denounced evil. Women in the pews need to hear that it’s important to know who you are and to establish boundaries. God does not demand that we give ourselves completely away in relationships. Save some self for yourself, you will need her one day.
I wrote a poem some years ago when refusing to play the victim cost too much and I felt myself crawling back to a dogma that absolved me of any responsibility to change my situation. One advantage to playing the role of the helpless, victimized female is that you can blame everyone else for your condition and never take responsibility for changing your life.
When I am tempted to doubt myself
And question my gifts and experience,
Remind me, God, of all that I know,
And those things that I don’t know that I know.
Remind me who I am, and whose I am.
Even when I hide behind my piety
To avoid doing what must be done,
And use you as an excuse for indecision,
For lack of action, for silencing myself.
Love me enough to lift the lid off my basket,
And order me to stop crouching in the dark,
Like a woman without a God.
Part of what it means to be a thinking Christian woman is to help women use their spirituality for self protection and discernment about when hurt becomes torment and when torment exceeds love. It may mean having to rethink some of our most fundamental and cherished religious beliefs.
We do not honor God by inventing ways to stay in situations that cause us suffering and pain. Church women, like my fiends Gaye and Joyce, have to see that wholeness, self worth, independence, respecting other people’s boundaries and teaching others to respect yours does not betray a woman’s faith in God. Self love honors all that is good, sacred, holy and powerful within you.
By Renita J. Weems, Essence 2004.