Esther Emery used to direct stage plays in Southern California. But that was a long time ago. Now she is pretty much a runaway, living off the grid in a yurt and tending to three acres in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. She writes about faith and rebellion and trying to live a totally free life at estheremery.com.
I read her question to me in an email. I could hear right through the tiny screen that there was urgency behind her words. She was half disapproving and half pleading. She was taking a risk, exposing herself, just by asking.
“Don’t you feel,” she said, “a lot of guilt? I do think it’s inspiring that you follow your convictions. You’re so brave. But don’t you feel like following your own call all the time, like that, is also selfish? What do you do about the guilt?”
I wanted to leap right through my phone then and there to take her by the hands. I wanted a big group hug right that minute with every woman who has ever followed her call against resistance. I wanted to shout, “YES, I have felt the guilt. Yes. And I will name it for what it is, which is resistance.”
I have been trained by society to raise the work of making room for men above the work of speaking up for women. And I have learned my lessons well. Whenever I have the audacity to speak with my full voice, lifting up the feminine voice in Christian culture, I hear these voices in my head, the resistance:
You are selfish. You are following ego and seeking fame. You are carrying disruption into spaces that would otherwise enjoy a peaceful silence, and you’re doing all this for yourself.
Except I’m not.
Women of the church, it is not value-neutral to stand in silence. It is not value-neutral to passively accept a power differential that allows harm to come to women and girls across the world. It is not value-neutral to allow ideologies that impair half the hands of the body of Christ.
It is not value-neutral to do nothing.
I know that it seems innocuous–okay, at least, or even good–to sit always in the second row. It seems right to hush our own voices, maybe even in hopes of making room for one another. And please understand, I am not advocating narcissism or the refusal to hear and respond to leadership.
What I am talking about is something else.
There is a church culture of self-suppression that goes beyond respect for work that is being done! There is a church culture of saying, I will take my own fierce energy, my inspiration, and my capacities and I will shove them down. I will swallow them. I will suppress them. And I will even believe that this is what my Jesus asks of me. I’m just not sure we’re doing that math right.
Trust me, I know the urge, first hand, to get as deep as possible with Jesus. I know about how that makes you want to give up everything and never speak out, even in your own defense.
But I’m afraid that this part of Christian culture is the harshest thing we hand down to our daughters and sons. This example, of putting ourselves second, our hands behind other hands, is a sure-fire method to teach reduced self-worth.
It is countercultural to believe that freedom of a certain kind–freedom to preach, freedom to prophesy, freedom to gather many hands and set them to a task in the name of Jesus Christ–is infinite. According to the zero sum game, there are only a certain number of spots for success, and taking one removes the chance for someone else.
This is accurate, I think, in the business world of cutthroat competition. But let us not confuse kingdom laws with the laws of competition.
Conversely, when you choose not to take that risk, because you embrace a value of standing intentionally in second place, you also suggest that I am good only for second place as well.
It is a hard pill to swallow, to think that what we do in our own individual lives has such an effect on others. But it does. When we choose to passively accept a power imbalance, we become simultaneously oppressor and oppressed. We may think that we are accepting the short straw only for ourselves. But in fact, we are reinforcing it for the whole.
It is true and right that selflessness is a value of Christ followers. We die to ourselves to live and we become the least in order to gain the most. But let’s be savvy about how we embody this value.
Let us imagine, as astonishing as it might be, that we are called to die to our limitations as well as our egotism. Let us imagine that we become the least by this extraordinary method, by offering to the glory of God our full selves, our greatest skills, our most glorious talents, and our personal agency.
Women of the church, please don’t stand in silence or shrink yourself down to quiet the guilt or keep the peace. I beg of you, please, grow tall. Grow tall and take up space. Show me the kingdom value of multiplying loaves and never ending fishes. Show me and others that there is room.