CW: descriptions of abuse and sexual assault
It was a beautiful valley surrounded by hills, stunning white in winter and bright green in summer. Tree branches formed arcs above the soft sandy paths, making them look almost magical. On one of the hills stood a graceful church, a landmark seen from every point of the valley.
I remember walking in the valley with my grandfather. Me, a cheerful girl with wide-open curious eyes, and him, a bearded man with a doctoral degree, passionate faith and Important Things to Tell. I had a hunger for these Important Things, and so I listened and learnt about the struggle between good and evil in our world and in the souls of people; about the laws that guide our spiritual lives; and the absolute higher power, the being that created us and watches over us, in whom lies the ultimate meaning, God.
There are many reasons one can come to faith, and many ways in which faith can sustain them. Some seek enlightening experiences, trying to get a glimpse of eternal wisdom and love. Some crave a sense of certainty, and live according to a set of rules and belong to a community that shares the same values. Others are in desperate need of grounding and guarding by some great principle against the terrible forces they don’t have power over.
But among all the beautiful and pure things, there are other purposes that religions too often serve. In saying this, I speak on behalf of my own experiences, and those of other faiths to whom I have spoken. Men, kings, presidents and all those standing on the upper levels of social hierarchies often use religion to gain power, and what is then left for women and all oppressed groups is glorified submission and losing of the self.
This is the other side to faith. Yes, religions are extremely powerful, but just as often happens with power, it can be wielded as a weapon. Some sacred texts contain passages that justify and even sanctify violence and oppression, and a lot of the rest is vague, metaphoric and contradictory enough to leave much space for various interpretations.
Christianity is one example of this. Its power has been wielded by men since it was created – again, by men. They laid layers upon layer of misogynistic teachings to shape culture and law. It starts with the biblical story of Adam and Eve, where Eve is presented as the one who initiated the Fall by succumbing to sin and who was, in Tertullian’s words, “the gateway of devil”. From here, the texts dictate that wives “submit [themselves] unto [their] own husbands, as it is fit in the Lord” (Colossians 3:19), and that “the woman does not possess the image of God in herself, but only when taken together with the man who is her head, so that the whole substance is one image … as far as man is concerned, he is by himself the image of God” (On the Trinity by Augustine of Hippo, who is still venerated as a saint by the modern church).
The subjugation of women according to these teachings is not a crime committed by mankind, but a divine plan – defying this order thus means defying nature and the Lord himself. (Of course, this is himself). Christianity has walked hand in hand with hierarchy for many centuries, demanding obedience to the authorities of this world who claim to be blessed by the higher, heavenly Authority. The punishment for rebelling is said to be eternal torment inflicted by the “merciful” and “loving” God. There is no need to prove that this (or any other problematic statement) is true according to the common rules of reason and justice; it is enough to say that this is God’s will, which is impeccable and unquestionable.
The suffering that has been inflicted by men upon women is immense, and Christianity played an important role in making this possible. The resulting pain is hard to describe, too terrible to imagine it in its full scale. Men literally possessed women, raped them on a regular basis and called it marriage, or raped them and labelled the woman a sinful seductress. Men have beaten women and called it discipline, and done many more things of horrendous cruelty, all the while declaring women evil and deprived of any creativity or intellectually capability so that male control over them would be seen as necessary and good. And this was presented as God’s plan.
It is important to be aware that these offences didn’t just occur in the past. Despite the many achievements of feminism, all these problems still persist in the modern world.
This oppression undermined my faith: how can such a kind, just, loving God be so cruel to women? Confronted with the troubling teachings of Christianity about the world and about women, I had a choice: to accept that God hates me and made me inferior, or to reject him. At that point in my life, after discovering feminism and feeling the joy and pain of reassembling my free, powerful, true womanhood that was shattered by the male-worshipping culture I grew up in, this choice was not that tough anymore.
More and more often, I have arguments with my grandfather. Men lead, women follow, he says. Men are strong, women are soft. Women cannot be priests, because Jesus was a man. Women cannot enter the altar, because if a woman menstruates in this sacred place, she will defile it. If a man sexually harasses or assaults a woman, she must have provoked him. All these hateful words hurt twice as much because they come from a person I love.
I disagree. He disagrees with me. He shouts at me, I shout at him. And then he says:
“That is the order established by God. Are you going to argue with him?”
Our debates always lead to this: the final argument. That is how God made us. No need to prove anything, just refer to the authority that no religious person will question. But today this is not going to work. The anger that boils within me is liberating.
I look back at my grandfather.
“Yes”, I say, “because this tyrant is not God, but a lie created by men in their image.”
Men robbed us not only of power and freedom, but of spirituality and even humanity itself. The connection of men to God is a crucial part of the Christian worldview. God created men in his image, so they say, and while attempts are sometimes made to convince us that this somehow includes women, in reality, it does not. In truth, we are not made in the image of this hopelessly male God, and if we don’t reject him, women will continue to be seen as but a distorted image of men.
In Christianity, the connection to the divine is presented as the defining trait of humanity, and thus, depriving women of it means depriving us of humanity. Women become secondary, women become the other. It is clear that we need to smash old patriarchal values to move towards women’s liberation. But simply destroying these oppressive principles is not sufficient. Just like many generations that were before us, we need great ideas, the ones that are carved in our collective consciousness and are to our everyday ideas like an ocean is to a pond: deeper and fuller. These ideas may have their origins in the past, or in a dramatic change in the present. Women seeking our own uncorrupted spirituality can tap into both past and present, so that our new emerging consciousness will be like a tree: with roots in ancient matriarchies, erased from history but not completely forgotten, and with fresh young leaves absorbing the light of the great social change of the modern time.
A different time, a different land. I am walking along a lake. Nature has always been one of my major gateways to those bigger-than-everyday-life experiences. The curious girl has grown into a woman, but she still wants to believe. I let my thoughts flow freely, unhindered by any rigid ideas. I feel the ancient life-giving earth under my feet; the crooked branches of trees look like fingers of a crone. There is something ancient and powerful about it … something that is hard to express, and I don’t even try to. I was uprooted, but now I finally get a glimpse of belonging, of being part of something great. I have tears in my eyes, tears of sorrow and joy: sorrow for what we lost and what I will never be able to experience, and the joy of being alive, being real and being free.
I am part of history that is being made right now – a young woman who has rejected old, male-defined values and is in search of a great meaning she can relate to. I don’t and can’t know where the ideas that are taking shape now will lead us, but I feel that the global sisterhood of women who think and seek outside of the patriarchal norms can create something new and powerful. For now, all I can do is believe.