Relevant Magazine’s website launched a firestorm last week by reporting on a Sarah Bessey Twitter conversation about misogyny in the church using the hashtag #ThingsOnlyChristianWomenHear. Bessey is the author of Jesus Feminist: An Invitation to Revisit the Bible’s View of Women, an examination of biblical teaching and church practices regarding women and leadership.
Women across the country responded to Bessey’s Original Post of being told, “If you preach, I will (sic) get up and walk out.” Quickly the stories of other women were tweeted, including comments about how women should be satisfied serving potlucks, not communion, and other comments that rested in sexist attitudes and patriarchal viewpoints.
One could make a strong case from this Twitter conversation that the church is not always a safe place for women.
In anticipation of experiences such as this, including situations much more dramatic, the 2009 Churchwide Assembly authorized the development of a social statement on sexism and justice. The ELCA Task Force on Women and Justice has spent several years preparing materials for study by individuals, congregations, and other Lutheran institutions in preparation for discussion and debate at the 2019 Churchwide Assembly.
The result is “Faith, Sexism, and Justice: Conversations toward a Social Statement,” a study guide with seven modules on significant issues confronting the church and society. Topics include “How can we address violence against women and girls?” and “Why do words and images for God matter?” The Task Force hopes to receive comments in response to the study guide by August 31, 2017, to aid in the development of the social statement.
LOCAL LUTHERAN LEADERS, Rev. CJ Valenti, pastor at Salem Lutheran in Dalbo, and Mary Fiel, student pastor at Long Lake Lutheran in Isanti, both in Minnesota, decided it was important for women from their congregations to discuss the issues raised by the ELCA study guide. Together with North Dakota artist and Deaconess Michelle Walka, they developed a plan for a daylong retreat in January 2017.
“We wanted to dig into these topics deeply,” says Valenti. “This study was our opportunity to share [with each other] what we already know; we need to share our thirsting.” Looking to Scripture and listening carefully, participants quizzed each other about their experience of sexism.
“One could make a strong case from this Twitter conversation that
the church is not always a safe place for women.”
The study guide “touches on the theory that systemic sexism is something we all fall prey to – women and men alike,” says Fiel. “Once our eyes are open to that, we can work toward changes.”
Fiel believes all can share a richer experience of God the Creator, once imagery for God is expanded. “Granted, we have put labels on gender norms in general, but there are many times within scripture where God talks about being ‘like a mother’ or referring to a ‘woman’s womb,’” she explains. “This imagery spoken of by God gives us the opportunity to challenge our perception of who God is and what God can be in our lives.”
“While it may seem like women’s rights are a ‘social justice’ issue, they are also a theological issue,” concludes Fiel. “God sees women as equals [to men], and we should work as people of God to bring that to light in our world.”
“We didn’t really come in with an agenda,” Valenti continues, but those present did identify with each other’s experiences. In context, the retreat took place the day after the historic Women’s March in St. Paul where more than 90,000 Minnesotans gathered to express concerns about gender-related justice topics.
“While it may seem like women’s rights are a
‘social justice’ issue, they are also a theological issue.”
Twenty-three women participated in the retreat. “For all of us, this social statement helped us to see how the rubber hits the road,” explains Valenti. “The conversation is good and important, despite what the end result might be.” And, she adds, participants agreed to further conversation in order to engage the topic, and each other, more.
THE PUBLIC VOICE PROGRAM COMMITTEE of the Minneapolis Area Synod is planning a similar retreat for members of ELCA congregations on June 3 at Oak Knoll Lutheran Church, Minnetonka. The theme of the retreat is “Exploring Faith, Sexism, and Justice,” and leans heavily on the work of the ELCA study guide. Bishop Ann Svennungsen and Dr. Mary Lowe, both members of the Task Force on Women and Justice (the team working to develop the social statement), will lead study modules. Artist and musician Katherine Parent will offer creative responses to the content.
The event will close with a short Vigil of Pentecost worship at noon, with participants equipped to prepare their responses to the study guide and to help those in their congregations to broaden the conversation. For more information or to register, please visit the synod’s Events page.