Depiction of Jesus with the Woman at the Well. Photo Credit: http://www.heqigallery.com/gallery/gallery3/pages/6-SamaritanWomanAtTheWell.html

Gospel of Dignity: Lenten Reflection (33)

Scripture for Today: Matthew 15:21-28, Mark 5: 21- 34. John 8: 2-11 and John 12:1- 8

This post, originally written in 2014, still captures my feelings about what the Church could learn from Jesus and Planned Parenthood about honoring women. In ways it feels even more relevant given the #metoo movement. I made a few changes to the revised version; you can find the original here. 

In November of 2014 I traveled to East Africa with Planned Parenthood Global, the international division of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, to launch a program that will support local communities of advocates for sexual and reproductive health and rights in several countries in Africa.

The training team celebrates our hard work by having dinner together.
The East Africa training team celebrates a hard day of work by having dinner together.

While preparing for the training Jacob Okumo, my colleague from Tatua Kenya, asked me about my connection to Planned Parenthood. My eyes welled up as I told Jacob about how Planned Parenthood had been my primary healthcare provider when I was young. I grew up hearing sex had one place, in a heterosexual marriage. As a sexually active teen, trying to be responsible, I went to Planned Parenthood for birth control, STD tests, and annual exams. Planned Parenthood continued to support me through adulthood, providing me with exams when I was uninsured, even inserting my IUD.

At the opening of the initial training for the small group facilitators who would lead the training in Uganda, we answered the question, “Why do I care about sexual and reproductive health?” As we went around the table I heard stories of women who were fired for being pregnant, shamed for needing birth control, discarded for being sexually active. Many of the stories carried the same disturbing theme: as a woman in East Africa your worth was undeniably tied to your body.

This theme was incredibly disturbing but even more so was the realization that although I was raised in a very different context, this was my story too.

My first formal conversations about sexuality happened in the conservative Christian Church through a program called Sex, God, and Me (similar to True Love Waits, Love Matters, or Asitia). These programs teach that sex was intended for heterosexual marriage alone and any other sexual activity was sinful, shameful, and made us undesirable to partners in the future. One particular demonstration in the program has the facilitator glue two pieces of paper together and then make students rip it apart, showing that once you join yourself to someone you become forever marked by them and torn/dirtied for the rest of your life. I am sad to say that I not only listened to the message but passed it on to younger women.

Despite the fact that I intended to wait until marriage, I first had sex at 17. The combination of wanting to be liked, raging hormones, and attention from a popular older guy was too much; we ended up having sex one stormy afternoon in a car. Today I remember that day fondly, but at the time I thought the “loss” was pretty much the end of my life. I began having sex frenetically, with little concern to my partner or my own desire. Looking back I can see that the first five years of my indiscriminate sexual activity was a reaction to this idea that I had “lost it all.” It wasn’t until I was 24 that I began to think about sex in a positive light. Even now, at 30, I still struggle to be fully present to sexuality because I’m afraid that I will be seen as dirty and undesirable. I know that is a lie but the voices from our past are hard to release.

These voices rage in our U.S. culture. Mainstream culture may not demand abstinence but it encourages women to maintain rigid body standards in order to be valued: all the while being careful to maintain the impossible balance between being flirtatious but not “too promiscuous.” Salary scales enforce the belief that once you reach a certain age you should be at home with children, not competing for managerial positions with the men. Pop culture reinforces this by portraying single women as incomplete and unfulfilled. As a whole, these cultural rules prevent us from connecting with our true selves and celebrating whatever sexuality we feel we possess and instead shame us into silence and estrangement both within ourselves and the world at large.

What I saw in East Africa last week was that Planned Parenthood is healing this divide through the way they treat women. As a patient at Planned Parenthood I was often asked about my sexual past or history and never felt judged for the honest answers I provided. This platform encourages us to engage with our sexual partners, friends, and family members in a way that promotes open discussion and MUTUAL choice about the way we have sex. Finally, Planned Parenthood fights to extend this type of care to ALL women, regardless of race, economic status, sexual orientation, or gender identification. It is stated in their tagline: “Care. No matter what.” Planned Parenthood honors our wisdom, worth, and value as women by operating under the radical belief that we can be trusted to make good choices for our bodies: elevating us from a place of shame to value.

This elevation of women mirrors what we know of Jesus Christ’s interactions with women; rather than treat women as the “lesser” sex he spent time conversing with them and invited them to join him as leaders. His conversations with Mary and Martha appear innocuous today but in Christ’s time they were countercultural and a threat to the way men in power understood the role of women.

Even racier were his interactions with ‘scandalous women,’ such as his conversation with the woman at the well who is infamous for her many lovers. Here he offers us insight into his ability to see women as much more than their sexual past. Rather than focus his interaction with her on her sexual choices he instead engages with her on the topic of authentic worship and eternal life. He treats this woman’s sexual past in a similar way to the team at Planned Parenthood, a simple fact. Because of this he is able to move on to a more meaningful level of interaction with her and truly connect with her soul.

When it comes to treating a woman with dignity, the church can learn a great deal from Planned Parenthood. Conservative Christian communities continue to devalue women through the glorification of purity, lack of leadership opportunities, use of degrading language, and emphasis on the need to assume the role as mother if they are to be considered “of worth” to society. While progressive Christian communities have moved away from such practices, they fail to create a space in which people of faith can discuss sexuality in a healthy way. The silence cannot continue. It is time the church joins Planned Parenthood in promoting a culture of worth for women.

Imagine a church that brings God back into the bedroom by creating a space in which teens can talk about how to integrate sexuality and spirituality, a church that celebrates our bodies for their many facets, a church that offers women the tools to make decisions about their sex and sexuality without judgment. Imagine a church that elevates women as Christ did by paying women and men equally, by encouraging women leadership, and offering generous maternity leave. Imagine a church that leads us to a world in which women are honored for more than our bodies.

Prayer:  Open our eyes to the ways we participate in oppression.

Reflection: What values or opinions do I have about sexuality? How do they promote or deny the dignity of others?

Art: Depiction of Jesus with the Woman at the Well by He Qi  

Resources: Organize a conversation in your local community that creates a space for men and women to share their stories, struggles and hopes for how the church approaches sexuality. Click here to download a one-page guide to having these conversations in your community.

Utilize resources like the Universalist Unitarian Church’s “Our Whole Lives” or Planned Parenthood’s resources for educators to design a curriculum for sex education that works for your church.

Join the Praxis Community,  a community of faith-rooted leaders who believe God calls us all to build liberating and joyful communities. To this end we have dedicated ourselves to ending oppressive cultures and systems of economic and racial injustice by challenging dominant systems of power. Through participating in a shared rule of life centered around prayer, right-relationship, and prophetic action we hope to join in God’s movement of liberation. For more information email Natalie@EpiscopalCityMission.Org.

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