Confessing Our Cultural Sins
“Every man wanna act like he exempt. Need to get down on his knees and repent” Lauryn Hill
Admitting our failures is a difficult but necessary practice in Christian life. We know this. We also know the temptation to cover up when we sin. One of the ways we do this is to blame someone else for our mistakes. Of course, shame and blame were Adam’s first reactions to his sin in the garden. In contemporary issues of continuing sin - like the tragic case involving Roy Moore’s child molestation accusations - many reactions are nothing more than an extension of Adam’s infamous words, “it was this woman you gave me.”
Sin is a “Them” problem || It has become obvious to the watching world that the American Evangelical Church sees sin as a “them” problem. It is striking that in a group predicated on its ability to claim they are sinners that we are always strategizing ways to make sin a problem of “the world” we are not part of. This rationale is perhaps one of the main causes for the so-called “culture wars.” There is an American culture we helped create, and now we must fight them in order to win them back to our side. The irony is terrible. We have started this war, in part, because we don’t want to feel shame over our sins. While shame should be scorned, we must be aware that sin, left without recognition or repentance, leads to blaming. We see in the case of Roy Moore an utter inability to show public remorse for sin and the sadistic yet natural implication is to blame a then 14 year old victim, and anyone else who claims abuse and child molestation. We are in no position to claim Roy Moore is - or is not - a Christian or that the Church caused his sin, but if both are true this is not surprising. The American Evangelical Church in particular doesn’t want to admit its sins. It would rather point out sins in “the culture.”
This attempt to shift the blame is a not so veiled attempt at making sin a “them” problem that sometimes influences “us.” So often we think of the Church as acultural, only selectively responding to current, immediate surroundings. But the Church has forgotten that it is also a culture creator. It is, by nature, a creative force. The Church is perhaps the primary culture creator in American history. Since the Church is full of sinners it should not be surprising then that the culture we create is also sometimes riddled with sin. At Faith for Justice we understand that the Church is the primary institution which created and continued the notions of “God-ordained” American slavery and massacre of the nations native to this land. We must lament this fact and strive towards the justice that will bring true equity. We also confess that the Church in America is a causal force in the culture of misogyny in this country.
“Cultural” sin = Sexual Sin || When the Evangelical Church speaks of cultural sins it is normally speaking of sexuality. When it speaks out against cultural or sexual sins, Christians often forget that the Church perpetuates and increases many of the sexual sins it speaks out against. We do this sometimes by teaching that our bodies are not important. I was reminded of this recently in a conversation with a friend who said, “The reason why I don’t understand you is that you are clergy, yet you care so deeply for people’s bodies. This does not match up to what I know about Christians.”
So, to say the church doesn’t teach people anything about their bodies is not completely true. Saying nothing about bodies is itself a statement about our lack of care for them. Conditioning people to conflate “covering up” with holiness is itself a theology of the body - and it is twisted. We teach about bodies all the time: we teach that human bodies are disposable so long as souls are cared for. The church sinks millions of dollars into books and resources to teach boys and girls how to confront sexual sin promoted by “racy” advertisements. In doing so, we help create a culture of sexual sin and then judge “the worldliness” of outsiders as if we didn’t promote it. We should not be surprised that villainizing the victim is an ongoing problem in the Church. In American evangelicalism, the defense for men’s inability to control their own bodies seems to be a modern repetition of Adam’s words, “this woman you gave me.’ Since the beginning it has been clear that women are most negatively affected by the blaming of sexual sin, even if the blame is towards the culture.
Sexual Sin = Sins of Women || It seems that when the Church speaks of “cultural sins” it is often speaking of sexual sins, and that the true meaning of “sexual sins” is the sexual sins of women. We therefore determine that sexual sins come from the outside world and if it is anyone’s responsibility to fight this sin it is the role of the women in our church. Specifically, when the Church creates purity culture it is normally seeking to control the clothes women are wearing. We say men who are flirtatious are “smooth”, while women who behave similarly are “promiscuous”. Men are allowed to show the muscles they worked for but women are admonished to cover their curves. Godly men may may flaunt their bodies with tight fitting clothing while Godly women hide the beauty they were born with. Yet, the answer to this hypocrisy is not the expansion of Pharisaical unsaid dress-codes but the re-imagination of our bodies and the responsibility to “guard your own heart.”
We act this way because misogyny is just as normative as racism in the American church. It demands we maintain a deception that sexual sin is the responsibility of women. This feminizing of sexual sin bleeds into many conversations. In the paradigm we’ve created, the “sins” of the LGBTQ community are sometimes feminized in order to fit into our sexual understanding. We feminize anyone on the gender identity spectrum who is not a cis-gendered, straight man in order to understand their sexuality. Yet, this too seems to be done without admitting the dehumanization of women throughout American history as a leading contributor to an over-sexualized America and under-theolizing of the human body.
Men Must Become Learners || We all have much to learn from the cultures we judge as sinful. It is rare that American evangelicals are quick to hear and believe the stories of the oppressed. But God sends his truth into the world by any means necessary. If the Church will not hear wisdom crying out to us, then the disruption of God’s common grace reveals truth another way. There are some evangelicals who are now speaking out against Roy Moore and others - and the presuppositions we helped create that make white Christians trust his story over many accusers. However, the Evangelical church in the United States has already lost the moral ground to speak authoritatively in these matters.
When I was growing up, my mom made me read the Black women's studies anthology But Some of Us Are Brave. I was surprised to discover a contribution from scholar and activist Ellen Pence - a white woman renowned for her work on ending domestic violence against women. She says she struggled to write the piece, realizing Black women are often made to explain the circumstances of their own abuse. "Why do we call upon people who have suffered histories of injustice to explain it to us now?" How this rings true even now.
The "brave Christian" men taking a stand now are merely following the lead of "loud", "nasty" women who have been speaking about this problem for decades. Christian, Muslim, Jewish...Immigrant, Queer, Trans, Black and brown; marginalized women have long been the catalysts for cultural change. We were the first witnesses of God's most victorious good news. That we are so boldly and so often despised by the church - despite the fact that we make up the majority of people who call on Jesus' name - is itself a testament to the critical need for men to listen, learn, repent and repeat.
Lament from a Son of the White Evangelical Church
I can only speak to my experience and that of the men in my own life.
We are not told about the irreducible glory of a human and the beauty of the body, much less what to do with them. Men that kiss their children are weird, I’m told. My sisters were always corrected when their shorts were short but never was I rebuked for crude jokes about women nagging. I was 22 the first time I heard a pastor say God cares about human bodies. I am called a feminist or womanist for my beliefs rather than a Christian. In my life, a man’s inability to value a woman without sexualizing her were accommodated, not confronted.
Why do we do this, oh Lord? Why do we resist Your Spirit?
Can a man lower his head to repent before the women he has abused? Can we be broken in front of You without forcing women to assume our confession has earned their trust? May we have the courage to run into Your arms for healing instead of covering ourselves? May we plead the blood of Jesus over our abusive behavior and turn the other way?
Oh God, if we cannot accept our need for repentance, if the word abuse makes us defensive, how will we not continue to raise abusers?
A man who is not confronting his own misogyny is not safe. We must ask ourselves what chains we have put on women that God is working to break. Who do we need to apologize to because we have belittled them? In a room full of men do we look to the woman for guidance who sees the foolishness of men who have grown too comfortable in their seats of power?
Brothers, the momentum of change is here, praise God. We have been freed to confess our sins and learn from those we have oppressed.
We may feel we are working against the grain of the Evangelical Church in which we are a part, and perhaps we are. But we are not working against God. Right now Jesus is at the throne of heaven in a human body. This stands as a promise: that God is committed not just to humans but to human bodies. God will restore our bodies and our views of them. The winds of glory are at our backs. Keep going.
Preston Grissom serves on the Faith for Justice Leadership Team
Michelle Higgins is Director of Faith for Justice