toxic concepts

Toxic Concepts I (Un)Learned from Church – The Devil is in the Unknown

This post is a part of a larger series, which can be viewed here.

Let me tell you about one of my favorite people on this side of the sphere: Ebony Janice of the Free People project. In addition to her vlogsjustice work, and philanthropy, Ebony Janice is the author of a few books. #PutyourfriendsonFriday

The point is that in one of these books she coins the term #ChristianDemonicFilter. This is the notion that everything that is not EXPLICITLY in the Bible with EXPLICIT EXPLICITNESS in all EXPLICITRY… is not just unknown… it’s demonic.

And anyone who grow up under the influence of folks who interpreted the Bible literally knows exactly what I’m talking about:

Under this type of teaching, you begin to (either ignorantly or arrogantly) think that the only acceptable spiritual practices happen within the confines of Evangelical Christianity.
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This post is not intended to debate on whether malevolent forces are real. It’s to share a personal understanding: the devil, demons, and / or malevolent forces are not involved in every thing we do not OR willingly refuse to… understand.

When I was in high school, there was a “minister” who came to prominence by the name of G. Craig Lewis and Ex Ministries. In high school Bible study, we watched one of Lewis’ dvds (lol) in which he posited that hip hop music & artists were demonic. As in… literally transferring demons through our “ear gate”.

Ya’ll think I’m kidding. I can feel it through the computer screen. Yes, this is a real dude. Yes, he really taught such drivel. And yes… this was the topic of an entire high school Bible study. #IdontlooklikewhatIbeenthrough (LOL).

It seems far-fetched now, but I can see how this type of teaching came to prominence at the time. It was the time where everything, anything could be cause to cry out “Demonic”! And unfortunately, some of this rhetoric still persists. It often confounds me.

For more on this, consult Bartlett’s 2006 work, Rachel Pollack’s 1998 work, and Katz & Goodwin’s 2015 works (to name a few).

As a note, if it was not clear, these same spaces are where some of our chakra centers are!

Given this logic, we could also have an entire conversation here on the ideas of cultural arrogance / dominance that comes from Christian religious privilege. Because these are practices that have also been in place for thousands of years. For now, I will say that this is a thing… and folks have to do better about acknowledging it – and fixing it.

According to this logic, there are thousands of trap doors – thousands of levers that the enemy can pull. So, as you can imagine, this gives way to a dominating fear… a fear that renders people incapable of exploring anything outside of their own understandings of the Bible (oooorrr their pastor’s understanding).

This simply wasn’t a sustainable way to live for me. The concept was toxic because it bred fear, constant penance, and even a bit of arrogance. And this is not the type of person, I believe, we are actualized in the earth to be.

I’ve benefited from a variety of spiritual practices through the years but in the past 3 years I have been increasingly vocal about it. My friends will tell you, if you come into my home with low vibes… we’re doing an aura cleansing at the door. Saging or burning palo santo happens at least once a week in my home and as we speak, my crystal is charged to assist me in the work I’m doing on my crown chakra.

I’ve learned to sit in meditation and it’s absolutely necessary and non-negotiable for me to do this. It calms me, grounds me, helps me remember why I’m here. And I do all of this in addition to prayer and other forms of charismatic spiritual practice I grew up with in the nondenominational (but Pentecostal-leaning) Black church (the irony is that those things aren’t spelled out literally in the Bible either… they are a product of cultural / ancestral lineage i.e. shouting, “catching” the Holy Ghost, etc). These aren’t necessarily “new” practices for me – it’s simply that for a while, I had to go through the process of being unbothered. It is through pursuing these practices that I have found no slippery slope – simply more expressions of & languages for the Divine / G-d in my life!

This year, I decided to fully embrace the things that once caused me inordinate (and unnecessary) amounts of fear. I decided to trust that God was within me; that God would guide to me the things that served me… and away from the things that would harm me. This year, I decided to pursue the “spiritual technologies” that called out to me the most (Lomax, 2016).

Through reading & speaking with various ministers & healers, I also began to understand a bit more about my social location as a Black American Christian. Perhaps you can imagine my *mind-blown* moment, when I realized that in a not-so-distant-past, Black ministers were often diviners as well. There was room for spiritual syncretism (and there still is, in many traditions). For example, in the 1997 text Conjure and Christianity in the Nineteenth Century: Religious Elements in African American Magic, Chireau unpacks:

“For generations, magic has persisted in black culture, often obscured but deemed compatible with other spiritual traditions. Its widespread appeal is attested to by numerous accounts describing conjuring relics, supernatural rituals…among African American churchgoers. From slavery days to the present, practitioners and clients of the magical arts have moved freely across ecclesial boundaries, drawing copiously from the symbols and language of Christianity”. (p. 226)

Yet, given all this, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I’ve been asked “But are you still ‘saved’ (in the Evangelical sense)”  more than enough this year. I’ve realized that this question is not necessarily about me and that it is, to some level, socialized into people. On an individual level, there will be (and are) practices that we may be uncomfortable with. However, I think it’s time to (at least) consider that there’s toxicity in believing that everything unknown, unexplored through evangelical Christian lenses or fundamental Christian lenses = demonic.

Read the rest of the ‘toxic concepts’ series here.

Additional Resources:

Yvonne Patricia Chireau. (1997). “Conjure And Christianity In The 19th Century: Religious Elements In African American Magic”. Religion And American Culture. Volume 7, Issue 2. 225-246. http://works.swarthmore.edu/fac-religion/38

Lomax, T. A. (2016). “Technology of Living” Toward a Black Feminist Religious Thought. The Black Scholar, 46(2), 19-32.

Toxic Concepts I (Un)Learned from Church – On Sex & Throwin’ It In a (Prayer) Circle

“Once you know the truth, you can’t ever go back and pick up your suitcase of lies. Heavier or not, the truth is yours now”. – Sue Monk Kidd

“What are the heavy truths that are yours now”? – Journaling exercise

In the past, I’ve chronicled the toxic concepts that I have unlearned from church and / or church adjacent spaces (campus ministries, study groups, etc.).

Today, I’m picking up the series with three more posts on toxic concepts I unlearned (because…word count).

Toxic Concept: Women’s sexuality can be and SHOULD be treated as a commodity, define her level of “purity”, and only be used in the service of gaining & keeping a husband.

Lena, a youth group minister*, sat us all down for one of her infamous ‘talks’. You never really knew what to expect from Lena, so the best course of action was to brace yourself for whatever was coming. In this talk, she took out a box of tissues:

“If I need to wipe my nose, then I use one of these tissues”. She feigned wiping and dramatically dropped one to the ground. “Now that I’ve done that… who wants to use this tissue”.

Of course, the room was enveloped in silence and stares.

“Some of you want to be hoes in the hallway and sluts in the stairwell. But once it’s gone, it’s gone. Once it’s used, it’s used. Have some more pride and dignity in yourself. You ought to carry yourself in the manner with which you want to be treated!”

Humming under the surface of my consciousness, I learned that having sex (and moreover, having it freely) would bring my worth down to the size of a snotty, used tissue – fit only to be discarded.

If you’re not familiar with this type of rhetoric, then this example can seem pretty extreme. To be clear, there are many spaces where similar analogies are made: “Your virginity is a gift – you don’t want to give your husband an opened gift”. Joshua Harris, author of I Kissed Dating Goodbye (and icon of the Evangelical Christian movement in the early 2000s), likened virginity to a rose. “Losing it” or giving it away would result in all of the petals being plucked off – there would be nothing left to give for your someday-husband.

So, I learned to be afraid. Afraid of my own body and its desires.
I learned that good Christian women “keep their legs closed” (as if that’s the only way to… you know what, let me not get ahead of myself) until marriage and that THIS would result in procuring a wonderful husband – and at that point, he would be provided with access to your body as a gift, an unused tissue, a fully blooming rose.

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I know it sounds like… a lot. But it is this rhetoric that reinforced what we now refer to as ‘purity culture’.

So, why am I writing about this again and why am I writing about this now? First, because this culture still exists and is now being further distilled down / spread abroad via memes. (Help us, Jesus). Second, because many Black churches have adopted, repackaged, preached, and profited off of these ideals. (Help us, Jesus).

It suggests that women who do NOT make the choice to abstain until marriage are unclear about their body’s worth. Not even THEIR INTRINSIC worth. The worth. Of their body. Yikes.

But perhaps most importantly, I bring it up now because these beliefs have such harmful ramifications in day-to-day life. These ramifications are things that some of the people I love are STILL living with & through. The No Shame Movement chronicled an entire chat  regarding some of these lasting impacts.

I want to tell you about the countless moments of attempting to comfort friends who really & truly felt like / feel like “losing” their virginity means losing their greatest “commodity” and “asset”. (Shudder). I want to tell you about the private spaces I’ve curated with the help of some good friends – in order to address the feelings & even questions that come up when you’ve grown up with this type of toxic belief. I could tell you about the women I’ve known who married hastily – simply because they had sex with their partners and felt that penance meant marrying that person.

I could tell you about the panic attacks that came over me in waves – even after I knew that my sexuality wasn’t a bargaining chip. Even after I knew I could make my own decisions about my sexuality AND have a secure relationship with the Divine. Even after I knew that my virginity wasn’t just some commodity for a husband to enjoy. And I want to tell you that I’m not the only one who experiences this – that after healing from this, I went on to curate private spaces for other women to process unlearning this shame & to ask basic questions about sex & sexual health after the gaps that abstinence-only education left in their path. I could tell you, from first-hand conversations I’ve had, that sometimes your body has to unlearn the trauma of this toxic concept… has to learn how to experience pleasure without guilt. But the word count it would take would be too great for just one post…

So, I’ll end by sharing a story about its ramifications in my own life.

A friend of mine is doing research on this very topic (and it’s going to be amazing when it comes out). I’d agreed to help out with a research query she had – and responding opened up my own experience to me in a way I’d never considered before. I told her:

I saw the toxicity of this belief first-hand when I ended up in a pretty bad relationship with an aspiring minister. I was beginning to do more formal study into this topics at the time, which really wasn’t agreeing with this partner. So, asking for what I wanted resulted in being seen as “domineering” and / or a temptation to deviate from the Gospel. I listened to their stories about they repressed their own sexuality and was told that even passionate kissing paved a way to the slippery slope of eternal damnation. (This is not hyperbole). It was clear that the only circle I was going to be throwing it in… was a prayer circle.

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The hilariously awkward Netflix show, Chewing Gum, does a great job of showing this type of dynamic

Who knows whether that choice was actually mine – I was too busy worried that my “feminine wiles” would steer us “off the path”. Hashtag the patriarchy is a mind-fuck.

Of course, over time, I had to re-imagine my role in that relationship (read: chile, we broke up – Mama didn’t raise no fool). But after debriefing this period of time, I realized two major things:

1) My partner got this from somewhere. They got these notions from the pulpit, from their Bible college, and from their socialization into male privilege.

2) This didn’t just happen to me. 

There is an unbalanced pressure on women in religious spaces to view their sexuality as nothing more than a commodity – something to preserve and give away in service of a husband. Given the huge industry that purity culture makes through selling rings, books, and multimedia efforts – sex is selling – even the lack of it.

So, what I’m saying is this… and this alone… WHENEVER we feel we have the right to be prescriptive about every woman’s body & sexuality… we’re already in the wrong. And although not under the same circumstances, it’s still helpful to ask the question that James Baldwin posited (one that gets me free every. single. time): Who benefits?

Who benefits from the mass sexual repression of women? And how does it point to making money off of our bodies?

Ending Notes:
In the pursuit of answering this question, do feel free to check out Dr. Tamura Lomax’s work on religion & the erotic, NoShameMovement.com, and the #Blackchurchsex thread on Twitter.

*The title “throwin it in a prayer circle” stems from a popular meme which made its rounds on Twitter & Instagram

This post is a part of a larger series. You can read the other posts in the series here.

Toxic Concepts I (Un)Learned from Church – White Jesus, Colorblind Savior

This post is a part of a larger series, which can be viewed here.

Toxic Concept: Jesus’ cultural context doesn’t matter.
(read: Jesus didn’t have a color)
(read most often as: Jesus was White)

“The Christian Church has tended to overlook its Judaic origins, but the fact is that Jesus of Nazareth was a Jew of Palestine when he went about his Father’s business, announcing the acceptable year of the Lord.”
Howard Thurman, Jesus and the Disinherited

Last week, I saw the Fences movie for the second time. It was my favorite play when I studied Theater and I cannot overstate how amazing Denzel Washington & Viola Davis were in that film. However, one thing that I could not miss came through the set design. Just above the sink where Rose (played by Davis) would peel potatoes and wash dishes was a rendering of White Jesus.

Yo…

This was such an interesting set choice because in my lived experience (and you might be able to argue that in the experience of many Black Americans), White Jesus is a part of the walls of many of our elders’ homes. Not all. But enough to have been chosen as a part of the set design for Fences.

In my own upbringing, White renderings of Jesus moved like a ghost in the subtext of my religious heritage.

Now, to be clear, my parents are committed to our cultural heritage. In other words…

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They told me about where Jesus was born, pointed to it on a map. They made it clear that given his sociocultural context… Jesus was not White. My parents aren’t theologians.

Neither am I.

However, most of my friends are theologians. They say the most brilliant things I’ve heard and that is not debatable. 🙂 On one such occasion, I reposted a thought from Dr. Ashon Crawley which directly discussed the social impacts of imagining Jesus as White.

In a manner of min…seconds, someone piped in with a case for White Jesus, Colorblind Savior. My first (internal) response? “Chile… my ancestors did not die for this”. *Rolls eyes and rubs temples

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I’ve known, deeply and intimately, the ramifications that primarily White Jesus, Colorblind Savior has. When I got to college, I attempted involvement with campus ministries. Campus ministry at a predominantly White institution often means… welll… predominantly White theological understandings. I don’t want to mince words here: it was, overall, a demoralizing experience.

When Jesus wasn’t being rendered as White, He was off – busy telling me… through them… that my own culture & ethnicity did not matter – under a gross misinterpretation of the Galatians 3:38 text. 

It wasn’t until years later, when I read Howard Thurman’s 1948 text “Jesus and the Disinherited”, that I realized just how much Jesus’ own sociohistorical and cultural contexts made a difference. Or that I realized just how harmful and dishonest rendering Jesus as primarily White is.

To render Jesus as White is to say that the various times He was referred to as Jesus “of Nazareth” can be erased right out of the text… right out of what his lived experience was… It means missing out on how hard they TRRIIIIIEEED ITTTTT in the book of John 1 (verses 45 & 46):

45 Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.” 46 Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (NSRV)

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And you don’t get the “try” if you don’t get that Nazareth held its own social location. As did Jesus.

The toxicity of the White Jesus concept is that it allows Jesus’ personhood to be invoked right along efforts of American conquest & the subjugation of people of color – the purposes for which the social construct of Whiteness was built upon in the first place. Putting a construct of Whiteness onto Jesus is certainly convenient when you’re trying to justify a notion that the Divine affirms the genocide, stolen land / resources, and enslavement of people of color. Pft.

Put in other terms by Dr. Crawley:

“i sometimes forget and ask myself what would white evangelicals do if they finally realized, in earnest, that jesus was not a white man. but then i remember: white evangelical christianity has already rejected the biblical jesus. they do not believe he was a palestinian jewish man, they believe he was white with sometimes blond hair. and such a rejection of his personhood – he certainly would be a POC in modern parlance, though it’s an anachronism of sorts – but such a rejection, the continued need for him to be white, goes hand in hand with the continued need for him to be capitalist, sexist, homo- and transphobic. white evangelical christianity remade jesus into an image that would allow for conspicuous consumption, for manifest destiny, for the genocide of indigenous peoples, for the enslavement of black peoples.
what we’re noticing now with folks like paula white and vicki yohe are simply the extension of a quiet displeasure, a sorta disdain and contempt with difference itself. it ain’t new. but folks are gonna have to choose if they’re gonna sing with them still (like travis) or make a different kind of stand”

In my own life, I’ve found the concept to be toxic because in addition to all of this… the notion of primarily White Jesus, Colorblind Savior is demoralizing. It denotes a ghastly racialized lack of imagination: that the imago Dei – the image of God – can be found in people of color. It denies that the Divine exists, yes, even outside of the construction of Whiteness. When it is suggested that Jesus had no color at all, it is a gross erasure of his humanity AND the humanity of those who come from his sociocultural context.

I’ve seen how conceiving Jesus as primarily White allows us to continue building up  and excusing away Christian conferences that are the antithetical to intersectionality (Crenshaw, 1995). It allows us to ignore how our current political landscape has employed White Evangelical Jesus & White Evangelical Christianity towards further subjugation: the stripping of reproductive rights for women, the taking of sacred lands via pipelines, and as Kieryn Darkwater so eloquently describes… all under the guise of  “Taking Back The Country For Christ” .

So let’s all be clear:

“Jesus was an actual person.
That means he had an ethnicity, nationality, and cultural background. Because all people who walk the earth do”

And this sociocultural location was as a Palestinian Jew.

The quoted text above were words I literally had to say to someone. Just a few days ago. In 2017. And so, this notion bears repeating.

For more on this topic, see John Pavlovitz’s post, “Dear Jesus, You’re Fired From American Evangelical Christianity” (2017) and read you some Howard Thurman (like literally everything… anything).

This post is a part of a larger series, which can be viewed here.

Toxic Concepts I (Un)learned from Church (and How Rituals Helped Me) – Pt. II

In a previous blog post, I unpacked “3 toxic concepts that I (un)learned from church, and why they were important to name”. I intimated that I would pick up with these concepts at the end of the initial post, so  I’ll do that in this post!

My religious context began with a church-of-origin situated as a nondenominational Black church (with Pentecostal leanings). Its doctrine was fundamentalist and there was the perception that we were Biblical literalists. This sentiment was offered every time a new member stood for our welcome. Leadership told them, “We believe the Bible from Genesis to Maps & References” (which were often offered in the back pages of the King James Version Bible). It was a space that was often given to charismatic movements of the Spirit, which taught me a great deal. Yet, when I became a teenager, I longed for a practice of Christian faith that I THOUGHT was more intellectual.

So, I started rockin’ with Reformed Calvinists on a quest for urban missions.

One of the tenets of Reformed Calvinism is total depravity. When I arrived to this place of worship, much of the framework was centered around the notion that humans came into this world ‘totally and morally depraved’. Thus, now that Christ had saved us from moral depravity, we were now to sift all of our thoughts, intentions, hopes, dreams, relationships, friendships, etc. through a rigorous process of self denial and spiritual questioning.

To that end, I learned how to distrust myself.

I offer commentary from John Piper (deep sigh… Lawd) to help illustrate my point of this particularly type of teaching:

Not relying on God in any action or thought takes power and glory to ourselves (1 Peter 4:11; 1 Corinthians 15:10; Galatians 2:20). That is sin, even if the external deed itself accords with God’s will.

An example might make this radical indictment of much human “goodness” clearer..

So, in this post, I will unpack just one more toxic concept that I (un)learned from church and that is, “My thoughts, my body (my Self) is inherently flawed and not to be trusted”.

I. My Thoughts

Years after I’d left formal fellowship with a house of worship, I sat in a meditation group with other women and femmes of color. Our facilitator, Sojourner Zenobia, guided us with care throughout the process. In the beginning, my thoughts were all over the place. I would try to concentrate very hard on ‘meditating’, my thoughts would wander, and I noticed that it was almost a reflex for me to think badly… about my own thoughts.

After quite a bit of fidgeting, I’d gotten to the place where I could be STILL, in every sense of the word. In the space, I heard our guide tell us, “Develop a ‘thank you’ relationship with your thoughts”. In this moment, I realized I needed to unlearn what I will name here as ‘thought penance’. A quick Google search of the word penance brings up the definition that it is “voluntary self-punishment inflicted as an outward expression of repentance for having done wrong”. Thought penance, for me, was a reflex learned over many years and many times of hearing that even my good thoughts were not necessarily good. Even after YEARS of abandoning (and critiquing) a Reformed Calvinism faith practice, I found myself at meditation group still distrusting all the things that came into my mind.

“I shouldn’t be thinking about that! I should be meditating! Oh forgive me!”

In that moment, I heard (literally like… from our meditation guide lol), “Develop a ‘thank you’ relationship with your thoughts”. While I had intellectualized that my thoughts were good, this called me deeper – to embody this knowledge.Each time my mind drifted from meditation, I began to say, “Thank you”. Even when my thoughts got a bit… interesting… I showed gratitude to the mind that created the thoughts. I started off awkwardly. There’s no immediate switch from thought penance to thought gratitude. But by participating in this ritual, I decided that my days of reflexive thought penance were over. I decided to be mindful and learn to hold positive emotions around my thoughts.

II. My Body

I also learned that my body was not to be trusted as a girl in these worship settings. Countless sermons rolled down from the pulpit (and were further enforced in the mouths and sentiments of church parishioners) that my body – my curves, my legs, my lips, my thighs, and ESPECIALLY my vagina – were inherently dangerous and filled with lust. In these settings, a woman’s body could cause men to “fall from grace”, to become irredeemable. So, I learned to cover myself. I learned to overthink my wardrobe choices in sacred spaces (to read more about that, click here). I’d heard that sexuality was only appropriate in a marriage context, but also that my body could not even be trusted to “make it” to that social institution. So, I shied away from all things sensual.
Needless to say, for those who’ve followed my work here, I am NOT about that life anymore. LOL! I am clear that human sexuality is good and is a gift. Yet, I am ever-embodying that knowledge #bodyroll.
In a guided meditation practice, we were led to practice loving touches. We began with the third eye (the space a bit above your eyebrows, middle of your forehead) with gentle, loving, light touches. Then, we went down our body, exploring our neck, limbs, thighs, hands, feet and learning to extend kindness to our bodies.
I thought about how my past context taught me shame through pulpit preaching and through touch as well: the pulling down of my skirt, the covering of my shoulders, thighs, breasts with a scarf, the pulling of my shirt closer over my cleavage. Yet, until that moment, I had not noticed it. Unlearning the distrust of my body began as an intellectual journey (resources for that are below). However, it was essential to continue the unlearning process by being open to and receiving loving (platonic and sexual) touches from my self and from others. These rituals have been helpful and effective.

(For more notes on church, women, & sexuality, please read Ebony Janice’s ‘A Love Letter from an Erotica Goddess: Because the Body is Not an Apology, and Candice Benbow’s A Church Girl Confession: How Embracing My Own Sexuality Made Me an Ally)

Closing Notes

One day, I was sharing all that I’d learned with an old friend who was at a different stage of their journey. Their face projected a look of concern:“Well… are you angry? Angry with the church? Angry with God?”

My instant and most authentic answer was:

“No, I’m just clear”.

I’m clear that the church can be so valuable and helpful when we acknowledge people in holistic ways. I’m clear that the feelings that I get in ‘my gut’, those truths that I ‘know in my Knower’ are valuable and effective for my everyday life! I’m clear that the God that made me, made me good and desires my wholeness. I’ve also learned that it is important to name that which I’ve learned and that which I’ve unlearned on this journey.  That means, these types of posts will be flexibly-ongoing! In the mean time, check out my first blog post on this subject. If you’re in the Chicagoland area, you can check out the formal panel called #DetoxifyChristianity which will be taking place tomorrow evening. (Shout out to Alicia Crosby & Pierre Keys for letting me know about it!)


This post marked the beginning of a larger series, which can be read here.
Image Credit: Creatherstock Photos, Isha Gaines’ “Black Women in Formation”

3 Toxic Concepts I (Un)Learned from Church… (and Why They’re Important to Name)

Let me give some context straight-from-the-gate:

I was raised in an Evangelical church setting. The doctrine taught there was very theologically eclectic and there was heavy emphasis on the charismatic, on the supernatural, and on an assurance of faith / church doctrinal statements. As I grew older, I began a very intense and intentional process of rethinking my faith, spirituality, and what being a (progressive) Christian looked like for me. Although the process was initially terrifying, the way faith looks now for me has both expanded and deepened.

This means that I’ve given a lot of thought to both the positive things I learned from my faith background (care for others, belief and ease with the Unknown, attention to / care for those who are systemically marginalized, the concept of beloved community). Yet I’ve also given a lot of thought to some of the more toxic things I’ve learned along the way. I’ve given space for unlearning some things. SO, if you aren’t comfortable with the dissonance that comes from learning, unlearning, and critique (even of the things we hold dear to our hearts or that are a part of our spiritual / cultural DNA)… then this post isn’t for you. I promise this post isn’t as troll-y as the title may suggest. These things are named to foster inquiry and perhaps, in some cases, further contemplation and freedom. So, before you are tempted to tell me HOW and WHY this post isn’t for you, take a moment of self assessment and reflection. Always remember that you can read another post if this feels deeply uncomfortable for you.

With that context, we press forward. Here are 3 toxic concepts I learned from church:

  1.  Always… in every case… wait for supernatural signs that God has spiritually released you from something… before you leave it.
    There’s been a few posts making the social media rounds that talk about God not releasing you from absolutely problematic situations… toxic relationships of all kinds, toxic environments, problematic churches, etc. I can remember the days of waiting for signs, signals, wonders, etc. that God had released me from a certain situation… and then I realized… this is what wisdom is for. I’m not Bible scholar but if there is an entire Biblical book in praise of wisdom then… I have questions about why we don’t feel free to use it when the situation calls for it. Especially for and in situations that suggest that leaving is our best course of action, health, and well being.I unlearned this particular messaging a) as I grew older and learned the story of my mother, and b) as I got in tune with my own heart, wants, desires, and needs.Anyone who knows my mother, knows that she is absolutely pragmatic. One of my favorite stories from her is about her first time doing a surgical procedure in PA school. In that moment, she remembers being very hesitant… but in the medical profession, time is precious and essential. Her supervising doctor leaned over to her and said, ‘Make a decision. If it goes well, you may have saved a life. If it doesn’t, we can triage and fix it. But if you do nothing, then we really can’t help you’.When she told me this story, I immediately thought about my spiritual development. There were SO. MANY. DECISIONS I’d put off because I didn’t see the writing in the sky that God was ‘releasing’ me. When I began talking to mentors and working with my therapist, I realized that we have been equipped with wisdom, emotion, and intuition to discern when we need to leave a situation. For too long, I ignored the signs of my own body including a tight stomach, a rapid heartbeat, constant anxiety or sadness, waiting to be ‘released’. I suppressed thought processes about why a church was problematic, ignored stagnant spirituality, waiting to be ‘released’. Now, I know better. When my body tells me it’s time to leave a situation… I leave it. When wisdom tells me it’s time to leave a situation… I leave it. I trust that I’ve been equipped with all I need to live an authentic and purposeful life, and that I know when it’s time to move on. I trust that in you, too.
  2. “God told me…” trumps all.
    The work of spiritual development and formation is important for many reasons. However, one of the reasons I’ve found to be most salient in my life is because without doing that work (and finding mentors to guide and encourage you in that work), you are susceptible to believe all the things that folk say… God said. I didn’t learn this lesson until I was involved in a very toxic dating situation. At the time, my partner was taking steps to pursue full time ministry and trying to make sense of all of the things involved in his own spiritual formation process. However, the way this was expressed was through directives in our relationship that began with, “God told me…”. Once I realized that the ‘God told me’s’ did not line up with my personal truth of God… nor what I’d been learning in my faith development process (which, in all transparency, included sitting with / contemplating womanist / liberationist theology) I realized that far too many times ‘God told me’ is used as a tool of silencing and / or perpetuating faulty theology under the guise of supernaturalism.
  3.  Hegemonic masculinity is God’s design. First, I will preface this concept with a few connections to other pieces. #Bearwithme 🙂 Scholars R.W. Connell & Messerschmidt defined and re-defined hegemonic masculinity as “the pattern of practice (i.e., things done, not just a set of role expectations or an identity) that allowed men’s dominance over women” (2005, p. 832). Hegemonic masculinity happens in cycles and it represents societal and cultural practices men’s dominance and subsequently, women’s subordination, is normalized. In an article that rethinks this term, they explain:

    “Consider how an idealized definition of masculinity is constituted in social process. At a society-wide level… there is a circulation of models of admired masculine conduct, which may be exalted by churches, narrated by mass media, or celebrated by the state. Such models refer to, but also in various ways distort, the everyday realities of social practice….Hegemonic masculinities can be constructed that do not correspond closely to the lives of any actual men. Yet these models do, in various ways, express widespread ideals, fantasies, and desires. They provide models of relations with women and solutions to problems of gender relations. Furthermore, they articulate loosely with the practical constitution of masculinities as ways of living in everyday local circumstances. To the extent they do this, they contribute to hegemony in the society-wide gender order as a whole”. (Connell & Messerschmidt, 2005, p. 838, emphasis mine for the interpretation of text)

    Earlier this month, writer Libby Anne, wrote about The ‘Real Men’ of Evangelical Christianity for Patheos.com (this article was so well crafted and interesting to read). Libby Anne broke down the ways in which memes, such as the one below, further codify and normalize hegemonic masculinity. I’ll add here that not only do they normalize men’s dominance and women’s subordination but they do it under the guise of true spirituality, faith, and Christian faithfulness. Here is an example of one of the memes she referred to in the text:


    To be clear, what happens on the Internet in this regard mirrors what can and what has happened in various churches as well. However, since I count it bad practice to speak for every church space, I will illustrate the concepts already fleshed out by Connell, Messerschmidt, & Libby Anne with my previous lived experiences.

    When I think about my years spent in 2 nondenominational Evangelical churches and one urban-focused Reformed Theological church, I also think about the ways that I dated and the functions I did while there. I was taught, from these perspectives, that women could only have certain roles within the church (recall R.W. Connell’s words: “models of relations with women”, p. 838)I was taught that the answer to issues related to gender / gender expression lay in a) conforming to a certain Biblical interpretation of gender being man or woman, b) submitting to a male partner in dating, courting, and marriage, and c) submitting to male leadership and pastoral care. This type of hegemonic masculinity was also seen as God-designed. So, the “widespread ideal or fantasy” included waiting for a man of faith to choose you, remaining abstinent, marrying, submitting to that man, and teaching your children to do the same… (thus perpetuating hegemonic masculinity but no one explicitly says this. In a lot of scenarios, this connection is denied or spiritualized).

    So, it was a game-changing moment when I began to integrate knowledge of Biblical text with historical context, gender studies classes, and the scholarship and Biblical interpretations of folk who were NOT White, Evangelical, male pastors (refer to Mujerista Theology, Womanist Theology, etc). I found that there were many people and many sacred spaces who were / are challenging these notions. I was able to find mentors, women of color in ministry, and other Christians that were along the journey of deconstructing and decolonializing our minds, hearts, and spirits. These things encouraged me, empowered me, and emboldened me (…. #churchyalliteration… some things you just keep) on my own journey.

    I don’t name this toxic concept to call forth debate on what others beliefs are. I name it to say that what I’m clear on is that hegemonic masculinity does not equate to God’s design. I’m clear that it speaks more to codifying women’s subordination. Since I’ve moved from that place… since I’ve allowed myself the space to believe that God. is. for. women in ways that don’t feel like spiritual reduction or through patronizing methods… my own spiritual life has deepened. I clearly see the Image of God in relationships and gender dynamics across the spectrum and no longer feel constricted or confined in what ‘ministry’ can look like for me as a woman of color and as a woman of faith.

There were quite a few more that I may introduce in a Pt. 2 or Addendum post, but I’ll stop here for now because I want to make my parting thought clear. Naming these concepts is important. It is important because these toxic concepts can be quite insidious and can seem very benign. But (pardon my colloquialism), these jawns can have you bound. They can foster deep doubt about your own thought processes, your faith development in light of your sociocultural identities, and the ways in which you experience God.

Questioning these concepts can feel risky when you’re working through your own spiritual identity development processes and if you’re being taught that faith always looks like being ‘right’. So naming these concepts is something I find value in, because I know there are folks who may be processing through these concepts as well and because I know that questioning, critiquing, reformulating your theology is an absolutely important and life-changing practice.

This post marked the beginning of a larger series, which can be read here.

RESOURCES For Further Reading & Inquiry!

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