For all its richness, the life of a woman is always strewn with negotiations and escapes. The current climate of today’s presidential election has all-too-clearly unleashed a rampant and open sexism unprecedented in recent years, the repercussions of which will likely continue well into the weeks and years after the election. It is in this climate, then, that seminarian Elle Dowd shares her thoughts (first published here) on a simple and effective way that the church can make sure that women’s lives and bodies (as well as the bodies of children, men, trans folk, people of color etc…) are respected and supported, and never degraded: consent. Read, comment, and share.
This is not another #decolonizeLutheranism post about food.
This is a #decolonizeLutheranism post about consent.
This is a post about the way that the patriarchy colonizes bodies as they colonize land, and the way the Church is complicit.
Sunday mornings are the mornings I love. I love coming together to sing, to pray, to eat, to learn. I love hearing scripture. I love hearing preaching or getting to preach.
But there are two parts of the morning that fill me with dread: the passing of the Peace and coffee hour. The times most ripe for socializing. The times when I know I’m going to be touched.
How truly, tragically ironic is it, that when it’s time to pass the peace I feel so much anxiety? This is a time when we have just been reminded that we are forgiven. We have been absolved. And so we are invited to pass the peace of God around to our neighbors. It should be a time of easing nerves, not a time of fear.
And yet every time I reach out my hand for a handshake and I am pulled in for a too long, too tight hug (or sometimes even a kiss), I am reminded that to the church, my body is not my own. Every time I put out my hand and I’m told, dismissively, “We hug here!” as I’m pulled in against my will, I’m reminded that to the Church, their own norms matter more than my bodily autonomy.
To some people, this might seem like a leap or exaggeration. But as a survivor of sexual abuse and sexual assault, I am very aware of the times that my body is not my own. Moments like these are microaggressions, actions that might not seem like a big deal on their own, but when they happen over and over and over and over and are happening in front of the backdrop of a society entrenched in patriarchy, these seemingly little instances have large implications and deeper impact. Because these incidents are not isolated but are instead part of a patriarchal system, they serve to reinforce that system.
The Church throughout the ages has benefited from and been complicit in patriarchy, of centering cis-men and their seemingly unquenchable need to dominate and control, to colonize. Colonization in the traditional sense involves land. In the broader sense, it involves taking over something that is not yours and declaring yourself in charge of it.
Colonization also involves bodies.
White men throughout history have stolen land through imperialism, and stolen bodies through slavery, and subjugated bodies still, today, through religiously based laws and theologies about sexuality and morality that disproportionately affect women and gender non conforming persons. And because colonization deals in the currency of conquered and commodified bodies, colonization has a real body count. In and out of our churches, women and gender nonconforming persons are being abused and the church is not only silent, we are complicit.
We are complicit in the ways that we perpetuate rape culture instead of a culture of consent even within our own spaces of worship. The way we do things sends a message:
Women’s bodies and bodies of GNC (gender non-conforming) persons are public property.
This shows up in our worship and it shows up in our theology. When we spend so much energy controlling women’s bodies and controlling LGBTQ+ involvement and yet ignore the lack of consent culture in our churches that runs rampant during the passing of the peace and coffee hour, it’s clear that this theology is really about control and domination and not actually about sexual ethics and respect and safety.
It happens to me, as a white woman. It happens even more to women or GNC people with other intersecting identities that we exoticize, infantilize, or put on display. It also happens in different ways. While men kiss my cheek to “thank me” for my sermon (something I assure you my husband does not endure), a white person might pet a Black woman’s Afro during coffee hour. Or, I’ve seen many many times where an adult will pinch a child’s cheek. And all without first seeking consent.
I’ve experienced too much sexual harassment within the Church, too much slut shaming, too much queer bashing. Unfortunately, I’m not alone in this. And outside of the Church when I’ve experienced these things in public or in the community, the Church has been largely silent.
So what can the Church do, to detangle itself from rape culture, to relinquish its claim on our bodies, to decolonize? The duty is two-fold: root out this evil that manifests inside the church and then also lead and be a voice for change in the world.
Within the Church, we can teach our congregations about consent.
This means talking about sex, yes, and making sure our churches are SAFE church compliant. It means accountability for that guy in leadership that is handsy with the female parishioners. It means preaching and teaching on rape culture and thinking critically about the language we use to talk about God. It means calling out microaggressions. It means deconstructing horrific stories of rape throughout scripture. It means all of those things.
It also means granting people in our pews bodily autonomy and modeling it on every level. It means talking about times like coffee hour or the passing of the peace where touching often happens, and teaching and preaching that people must consent to your touch, even down to the handshake.
It means during rituals where there is touching or a laying of hands, we ask participants “Is this ok with you?” and we make it ok to say “no.”
When I lead youth events, part of our time of rules and expectations centers around keeping the space safe. The youth lead this session and demonstration. They speak out against heteronormativity, misogyny, racism, ableism. They also give a short training on consent. They model, through role playing, how to ask for a hug and how to tell from peoples body language if someone is uncomfortable. They affirm over and over to everyone present that their bodies are their own, and that no one deserves to feel uncomfortable because of the way someone else is treating them. Especially in church.
No one is entitled to another persons body. Not even the Church. And when we act as if we are, we are taking something that doesn’t belong to us. We are being colonizers.
And while there is much work to be done within the Church around dismantling rape culture and cultivating a culture of consent, there is also a call for the Church to be a light in the world. The Church must be present and public and loud around devastating examples in the news like #BrockTurner. The Church must support legislature that promotes bodily autonomy. The Church must show up for women and GNC people who are not in our pews and who are out in the world, especially in light of things like the Pulse massacre, and say, “I’m sorry for the ways the Church has failed. How can we make this right?” and then listen.
If we want to #decolonizeLutheranism, we must #decolonizecoffeehour and the peace and laying of hands and youth group lock-ins and ANY space that is vulnerable to falling prey to a lack of consent culture. Decolonizing means giving up our ownership over each others bodies. And we must do so.
For the sake of liberation, and for the sake of the Christ who came in a body to redeem our bodies and who sets us free.
Elle Dowd is a candidate for ordained ministry in the ELCA and 1st year MDiv student at LSTC. She is a founding member of the movement to #decolonizelutheranism. She has background in youth ministry and global ministry, particularly in Sierra Leone, and has interests in queer and feminist/womanist theology and liberation theology.