In this episode of the RavenCast, I talk with Erin Wathen about her latest book Resist and Persist: Faith and the Fight for Equality. Watch the video or read the transcript below. Never miss an episode by subscribing to the RavenCast on iTunes, Stitcher Radio, or Podbean.
Erin Wathen is the Senior Pastor at Saint Andrew Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in the Kansas City Suburbs. She is the 2010 recipient of the Fred Craddock Award for Excellence in Preaching. She writes at the Patheos website, under a blog appropriately titled “Irreverin.” She is the author of multiple books, including More than Words: 10 Values for the Modern Family, Partners in Prayer, and the book we are talking about today, Resist and Persist: Faith and the Fight for Equality.
Adam: Erin, how did this book come about?
Erin: The short story is that the publishers approached me shortly after the 2016 election and asked me to write a book they were calling at the time, “The Nasty Woman’s Guide to the Resistance.” My first thought was, “Fun! I’m so in for that!” But then I got to thinking about the title, and that it might have a short shelf life because “nasty women” was already a past trending topic at that point. And we were looking at a year of writing and production time. So I thought there’d be a way to create a message and a voice to create a feminist-faith based response to the current political climate. But we needed to shift the title a bit so it had more staying power and so it’s going to engage a broader audience and not be a party line, ideological situation. So we nuanced the title a bit and that’s how we got to Resist and Persist. It’s a faith based feminist response to what felt like felt toxic rhetoric at the time, and still feels like unfolding daily horror of toxic climate towards women, women’s bodies, and a women’s place in the world. The point of the book is to start a conversation, not to answer every question, but to get people in multiple circles thinking deeply about these issues from a faith perspective. And hopefully talking about the way churches have avoided talking about these things because they are so divisive in a lot of ways. So, I tried to open that up a little bit.
Adam: Yes. And you do a great job talking about the Christian faith, and how it’s played into patriarchy and maybe one of the first things we should do is define patriarchy.
Erin: In the most basic terms, I’d say patriarchy is the white masculine worldview that assumes it’s own privilege is the authoritative and defining element of every part of culture. And everything else in culture gets its value from its relationship from that white masculine perspective.
Adam: Yes, and how has Christianity fostered that? Because when you were talking about Christianity in the book, I thought, “Maybe we should just get rid of Christianity because patriarchy is baked into it.” But in the book you suggest that Christianity might also hold the ability to lead us into a more equal way of being in the world.
Erin: It absolutely does. And you are not wrong that patriarchy is baked into the culture and the message, but it also holds the key if we are ever willing to dig deeply enough to get to it and get past the ideological hard left and hard right divides that keep us from getting here. Because Christianity in essence is a following of the way of Christ. And the way of Jesus was always the way of reaching out to the marginalized, seeing people who hadn’t been seen before, empower people who hadn’t been empowered before. And he engaged women. He included women at a completely different level than other people around him in that same time, especially women who were poor or in some marginalized ethnic group. And somehow, as the Christian movement gained traction in popular culture and became wrapped up in empire in its early ddays, that tone of patriarchy began to override everything. But if you are about following Jesus and not about chapter and verse proof texting a few little things here and there, there is a lot of empowerment in scripture for women.
Adam: One of the stories that you highlight about Jesus that really reframed what we are dealing with today, was the story in the Gospel of Mathew about Jesus and the Canaanite woman. Could you talk about the importance of this story for you?
Erin: Yes. It’s one of those instances where a woman approaches Jesus and his initial reaction is maybe about what you’d expect it to be. It’s kind of, “Get out of here. I don’t have time for this. You are not one of my people. I’m here for this particular community in this particular time.” And rather than slinking away, she pushes back and she says, “Even dogs get crumbs from the table.” And she turns around this kind of ugly slang word that he used against her and she flips the script on him. Which is what we know Jesus does frequently. He flips the script. So it’s almost like she is modeling that here for him. She flips the script on him and demands to be seen and heard. And he does a turn around. And so you see that even Jesus has some space to grow and learn. From that pont on in the story he treats her differently, in a much more fully human kind of way. And I think we see that happen frequently. I call those stories the “Jesus, where is your mother?” moments, when he’s just an ass for a second. And then he says, “OK, OK, I get it.” So you almost wonder if he has that mother’s voice in his head that so many of us do if something happens to flip that switch. He thinks, “Oh yes. My mom would want me to be nice to this girl.” You see this happen a lot more than you think. I think it’s a really meaningful story.
And the connection I make in the book is that in social justice work, there’s “calling in” and there’s “calling out.” And there’s a time and a place for both and they are both important practices, but what we see this woman doing is calling Jesus in. She doesn’t call him a sexist asshole, she says, “Let’s try that again, Jesus. I’m going to make you see me in another way.” And that’s what she does. And so he’s been called into a relationship and into a place where he has another chance at a more gracious response. And that’s the work and that’s what we’re here for.
Adam: That frame of “calling in” versus “calling out” was so new to me. I hadn’t heard it that way before. But I feel like we’re in this cultural moment where everyone is calling people out. For example, last week at the Red Hen restaurant, the owner called out Sarah Huckabee Sanders. The owner listened to her LGBTQ workers who said they were uncomfortable with Sanders being in the restaurant and so the owner asked her to leave. On one level, I think, “Good! You listened to your workers and you called Sanders out.” But on another level, this just allows Sanders to play the victim and the Trump administration is so good at playing the victim. And so they call you out in return and…
Erin: … And you are feeding it.
Adam: Yes! And I don’t know what to do about it. Like, I was just having a Facebook conversation with a friend, who stated she went to protest ICE, but it just seemed to embolden them all the more…
Adam: So what do we do? We don’t want to be silent about it. But we want to voice something. We want to find this “third way” of doing it, but what is that?
Erin: I think you just keep calling people in. You keep extending that space for a more gracious response and assume the best of that person, even if they are being just ridiculous in the moment. And you know, I’m saying that like it’s something easy. It’s not. But I think there are people out there modeling it really well right now. So that’s the critical thing, is to find people who are modeling it well – whether that’s folks like you who are engaging in podcasts and conversations. Religious leaders, faith leaders, some political leaders. Find those people who are doing that well and go where they are going, talk to the people they are talking to and model it.
Adam: That’s really great. Thank you. A lot of people, when they hear the term feminism and equality, one of the stumbling blocks is that, for men maybe especially, is that they feel if we work for feminism it’s working against men. This is taking something away from men.
Erin: Right. And that’s classic male privilege talking. It says what’s good for women must be bad for me. Where does that come from? Where do we get that narrative? It’s pretty deeply engrained, but it’s also garbage. That’s something that needs to be unwound.
Adam: Yes, and you do a great job unwinding it in your book. You make the statement that feminism and equality are good for everyone, including men and boys. Could you talk about that a bit?
Erin: Sure. Obviously it’s multi-layered and there are a lot of different angles to that, but one of the ways that I draw that out is that equality for women is an economic issue. There’s still a deep pay divide between what men and women make in their lifetime. And yet, as there are more and more women in the workforce, women are still making a much lower percentage of what there is to make. When women have less capital, you wind up with more women in poverty. This creates all kinds of economic issue that hinder our economic growth. Working for equality is to work to end poverty. Everything from childcare costs to family leave policies to women being dramatically underrepresented in higher leadership roles in big companies. The company might be composed of 50% women, but the chances of the CEO or the CFO being female is dramatically lower the higher up you get. It’s the same in church. About half of the clergy coming out of seminaries these days are women, but when you get up into larger churches, your percentage of women pastors falls down to below 10%. And that’s very problematic. From the economy to the family system, life is going to be better for men and women if there is equality across the board and you cannot overemphasize that point.
Adam: Yes, I remember reading in your book two points related to this. First, churches will often hire women thinking they can pay women less..
Erin: And they do pay them less!
Adam: Yes! And the other point is that many people who argue against this say that women aren’t in high level business positions because women don’t want to be in those positions. And the same argument is made about politics. Women don’t want to be in politics. But you write in the book that the United States ranks something like 75th in the world when it comes to women in leadership.
Erin: It is insane.
Adam: So, you are just bringing all of these things to light for me and I’m learning so much. So thank you. One of the other phrases that I learned was, “internalized misogyny.” I hadn’t heard that before. What is that?
Erin: Oh man, I just learned the phrase too, when I was working on this book. And it just blew my mind because I could see so many places in culture to point to examples of it. But basically internalized misogyny is when women have so thoroughly bought into the lie of patriarchy and the assumption of male power and superiority that they work against their own interests in order to uphold that system. And a lot of times it’s because it’s what is comfortable. Often times buying into what is is more comfortable than recognizing the deep brokeneness and the pain of how it has affected women’s lives for generations, and how it continues to harm women. And you just have internalized that message so deeply that you are just as complicit in sustaining the system as men are. And I think we saw that play out significantly in our last election cycle where 50% of white women voted for Trump, who is a known and blatant misogynist. But there was all that narrative of like, “He knows how to run a business. So I’m going to let him make me feel safe and comfortable.” Or, “That’s just locker room talk. All men talk like that.” Garbage. No they don’t. And if you think that, then you need better quality men in your life. And that idea is insulting to men. That’s a deeply harmful narrative for men. And so unwinding that assumption is good for men. Unwinding that is good for men, to be seen as more than the baser instinct kind of cave man.
Adam: I’ve been to plenty of locker rooms during my childhood and adult life. I can tell you the last time I heard anything like that was in middle school. I mean, why do people give a pass on this? Internalized misogyny helps me make sense of it. And that’s the narrative of patriarchy, and another narrative or method of patriarchy is to divide women on hot button issues. You explain this really well, especially when it comes to the issue of abortion. And we’ve just had Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy retire. Now there’s a lot of anxiety about who Trump will nominate to take his place. And it’s probably going to be someone who’s not good for women. Your conversation about abortion was really helpful to me.
Erin: Yeah. I was out in my own neighborhood today and I saw a big tour bus parked at the high school in my neighborhood. It was for a candidate for governor. But as I drove by, the bus has the words, “Christian Pastor, Pro-Life, Pro-Gun, Pro-America.” And I thought something about that math just doesn’t add up. I think the term “Pro-Life” is a complete shade for everything that a word like that should contain. One of the things I talk about in the book is an ethic of life that isn’t just focused on birth, but a whole life. A sacredness of life and care and nurture and what patriarchy has done so effectively is take all that nuance out. It’s become a completely binary thing. You are either pro-life or you’re an evil feminist baby killer. And there’s no space for anything to happen in between. And above all, I think that is a product of not having women in those higher levels of government. Because if we had more women in power that conversation would be a completely different conversation. But what we have instead is men making decisions about women’s bodies and then they drive this wedge to divide women into far left and far right corners so that women never get together for their own interest and empowerment. I think that the most powerful and important work that the women of our generation can do is to call bs on that whole narrative and have a more compassionate and nuances conversation about life and pro-creation and the whole maternal experience and how we want to collectively care for our children as a nation after they are born. And I think women have the power to do that, but when you get into the internalized misogyny we allow men to take that away from us and we never get into that dialogue.
Adam: Your book was a reminder of how far we have to go. It wasn’t too long ago when we had a politician who said, “Women have a way of shutting that thing down when they get raped.”
Erin: “Shutting that whole thing down.” Oh my gosh. That was just a couple of years ago. The woman’s body has a way of shutting that whole thing down. Man, I’d forgotten about that.
Adam: Your reminded me of that in your book, and it was just a few years ago. And so we are not removed from it.
Erin: No, we are not. And there are people running right now for the mid-terms that have that same mentality or who have said equally appalling or ignorant things about rape, reproductive right, and any number of things about women’s bodies. And I keep going back to that picture, soon after Trump was elected, where there were about 20 white men in the room signing a piece of legislation that was going to significantly affect women’s health care, not just nationally, but globally. And they all had this smug smile, like they had just done something really terrific for those who put them in office. Half of whom were women. And it was like, here is our gift to you, and there wasn’t a single woman in that room making a decision about women’s bodies. It was deeply troubling and I think also really telling about where we are right now and what we’ve allowed to take shape for out time.
Erin: If you want more on that, let me refer you to the place I got that language. It was an episode of On Being called “Where Does it Hurt,” and Ruby Sales was the guest. It is a terrific interview and Krista Tippet and Ruby Sales have a great conversation about this.
Adam: I’m so glad you brought that up because it jarred my memory with something I wanted to ask you. Ruby makes this really intriguing comment about race in America. And I wanted to ask you about white women and the fight for equality, and racism that we need to continue to get past first, and then I have a related question.
Erin: I don’t know if that’s so much a question as opening up a huge chasm. What I found out when I was writing this book, is that I thought I needed to acknowledge that patriarchy isn’t just about women, it’s also about people of color. It’s about upholding the status and privilege of not just the male point of view, but the white male point of view. I needed to hold space for that in this conversation. Well, I cracked open a couple of books to come up with smart things to say about it and it sent me down so many rabbit holes. It blew my mind how big a part of the feminist conversation has to be about racism. I went into writing the book thinking that would be a footnote, and it ended up being a whole chapter. Every previous way of feminism has harmed people of color. And white women have worked hard for their own privilege at the expense of women of color. And I don’t want to give us a pass or make excuses, but it’s the work of patriarchy to divide. And what patriarchy has effectively done is tell women that they have to chose your own interest or some other marginalized group. The women’s suffrage movement, or even in the abolitionist movement, there were women working to end slavery, but who would never have been able to envision a world where women were equal to them in society. In the suffrage movement, white women working for the vote ultimately sacrificed their sisters of color to get the vote for white women. And we see this again and again. Once you know that history, you can’t unsee it. That’s why intersectionality is important right now. Because if any of us aren’t free then none of us are free. So if we’re working for women’s equality we also have to be working for women of color and for racial justice and equality as well. There are so many books out there and many are footnoted in the book, but read anything by Ruby Sales. Anything by bell hooks, who does not capitalize her own name.
Adam: I mean, that’s just badass.
Erin: It is badass. I mean, if you can’t be Madonna or Cher or Beyoncé, with just the first name, say, “I don’t even need capital letters. But bell hooks is the authoritative voice on the black woman of color struggle, and how white women have played a role there. She is from Berea, Kentucky, which is about 30 miles from where I live. So I have a special fondness for her work because she brings a uniquely Kentuckian voice to the conversation about racism and misogyny, which I lived in some ways, but realized I didn’t live at all after reading her work. So it’s definitely worth checking out her work.
Adam: The other thing that really got to me about Ruby’s comments in On Being was that she says something like, “One of the big problems with white men in America is a lack of meaning.” And I have always thought of the term “white theology” in negative terms. But she placed it in, something like, white people need to come up with a meaningful theology, that isn’t “white theology” but we need to come up with a different way of doing white theology. That freed me up to think about this in a different way, especially as a white male.
Erin: Yes. And she’s talking about identity. White identity is so flat, it’s so based in comfort and privilege, and we don’t have the depth of faith or community that people of color have had to develop through necessity. We haven’t had to develop that identity because we have a lot of things handed down. And I felt she was deeply compassionate in that interview. Her exact words were, “Where does it hurt?” In any broken system like this, you will look at the element that’s the problem, which in this case is the white male. And that’s where she gets to the “calling in” versus “calling out.” Instead of calling names, she says, “Where does it hurt? Can we locate the pain that is present in keeping this narrative alive?” And for her, that pain is lack of identity and meaning. So in the white church, we have to work to cultivate some other narrative that gives people that kind of meaning if we want to start taking away some things that are so problematic.
Adam: On thing that’s going through my mind right now is that I try to own my own interior racism. Like, this infects me. It’s shameful for me, but I’ve come to the point where I need to admit that this is part of American culture, but it infects me, too. And so I need to name it in myself so I can manage it. But in my writings, I used to say things like, well, to be white in America is to be racist. But that wasn’t always helpful, because it’s a calling out and not a calling in.
Erin: Yes. And there is a place for calling out. And I think we can have the ability to call ourelves out. And maybe even call out people we love if there’s a “yes, and…” But you are right. There’s not a lot of charity in just that name calling. And people aren’t going to hear it well, and there’s no room for people to grow. So it’s about creating space for people to move beyond.
Adam: Yes, it’s one of the most important things about the Hebrew prophetic tradition. They are always critiquing their own people, their own group. That’s the big critique first. And I don’t do this all that often, but maybe the most important thing for us to do is to critique ourselves, our own groups, as opposed to always pointing the finger at “them.”
You tell a lot of really great, engaging personal stories. It helped make your book a page turner for me. You tell a story in the beginning about your childhood church and then a more recent story about being at a hospital. Can you tell those stories…
Erin: Yes, well the first one is long. So I’ll give the cliff notes version. I grew up in a small rural town of Kentucky. It’s grown now, but was pretty small when I was growing up. I grew up in a mainline, main street Disciples of Christ church that was progressive for its context. I grew up seeing women serve communion and lead in ways that I never thought twice about. And then when I was a teenager and brought some friends to church, they would say, “Your mom is a deacon? You have women elders?” It just blew their mind. And I’m like, What? It was second nature to me. So in that moment I had this profound gratitude for having been shielded from the misogyny of the other parts of the community. But the sad part of that story is that I’ve gotten older and farther from home, that church is the story we’ve heard a thousand times from other mainline churches in the country that deeply divide over LGBT issues. They ended up splitting from the denomination and it’s just very painful end to the church as I knew it growing up. It was a brave expression of a gospel of inclusion and equality and responded to this shifting social seen with a sense of fear and scarcity. You can tell the story a thousand times, but when it happens to your own people, it’s heartbreaking. And so I feel like in a lot of ways that church raised me to be a feminist, even if they aren’t owning that part of their identity anymore. I’ll still be grateful for the space it gave me, because that’s the church that raised me in faith and taught me to think critically and deeply about scripture and the world I live in. So I can always hold that and hold space for it, with sadness for what they could have been. There’s no other progressive voice in that area, so they could be doing powerful and prophetic ministry right now. Instead they look like every other church in town.
And the second story at the end was more recent. The day I wrote that part of the book was the day that this story happened. I was trying to tie up the book, and I needed something. This happened and I knew I had the end of my book. So, I’d gone to the hospital. It was a weekday afternoon. And I got a call that one of our youth had left school early and was rushed to the emergency room. It was an urgent situation. Parents were worried. I dropped what I was doing and went to the hospital. So I got there and was wearing a yoga tank top and and a backless shirt, and a Patagonia skirt, which is what I live in during the summer. And this little hospital has an abundance of clergy parking! They have like six spots, and always two or three are available. So I rush into this spot to see this family who I know is freaking out. And there’s this other pastor who’s walking towards his car. And I don’t want to be catty and judge, but it’s 90 degrees outside and he’s wearing a suit. So I know right away that he takes himself way too seriously and his life is just …. Much. You know. So, he’s got his Bible and he’s got his jacket. And he’s walking past me to his car. And it would not be the first person to look at me as if I don’t belong in that clergy parking spot. It happens all the time. And if he’d just given me a little bit of a side eye, I would’ve let it go. But he made a point of stopping, circling back, and giving me a look. And he looked from me to the clergy parking sign, and back and forth, and he shook his head and walked away. And I was like, “Not today man. Not today. I just dropped everything I was doing to come be here with my people and you don’t get to decide based on how I look or what sort of anatomy I have that I don’t get to do this work.” I walked up to him and said, “Do you need to see some ID?” And he was super startled that I addressed him. And he was like, “What?” So I said again, “Do you need to see my identification to show you that I’m clergy?” And he just muttered that he was just curious and he got in his car and left. I was like, “I don’t have time for this, because I have a sick kid in there.” The kid is fine, by the way, but I said that over my shoulder. I wasn’t going to waste a minute of my time talking to this guy who probably wasn’t going to be able to listen. Maybe that wasn’t a charitable “calling in” moment. That was definitely a “calling out.” And was probably me speaking out of the stress of being worried about this family I was getting to. But that sort of things happens all the time and every time we let it pass and don’t engage, that narrative goes unchallenged. And that man’s space is protected, and mine is always questioned and challenged. So I challenge back. I’ve got ID if you want to see it, or its’ none of your business. But I make the point of naming it and acknowledging it.
Adam: That story was so powerful for me because it’s a calling out, but it’s an informational calling out. It’s not a hostile calling out. It’s a “I belong here and you aren’t going to tell me that I don’t.” And that to me is the third way.
Erin: And it also says that the next woman you see here belongs here too. Because there are other clergy women in this area. It’s time we stop giving a pass to men who question why women are where they are.
Adam: Another area where we have to call out and call in all the time is on social media. Social media has given everyone, including women, a stronger and louder voice. But as you say in the book, it has also given “trolls” a stronger and louder voice.
Erin: In a lot of ways social media creates space for women’s voices that has never been there before. And we’re hearing from women who might never have been able to find a platform. And it’s creating space for all kinds of great engagement across different frames of public life. And you have people who don’t want to engage. You have people who just want to sling some toxic nonsense into the air and vent rage. If you are woman out in the world cultivating a voice, you are going to get pushback. But if you are online doing it, there’s this sense of carte blanche that men have to say some really awful things. I think men feel emboldened from behind the screen to say appalling things. I’ve been called a slut and a crazy bitch. Also a silly little girl. It’s all deeply condescending, which goes to show how complex misogyny is because there are lots of ways to be a woman you don’t want to be. You can be a bitch, a whore, a stupid little girl. These are all ways to minimize and silence. But for men, there are only so many things we can call you. And most of them boil down to calling you a woman. Or suggesting in some way that you have feminine qualities, which is the worst, because, the idea is, who would want to be a woman when you could be a man?
Adam: Stephanie has a few comments in the chat box. She says it is so important for our girls to see women who are not afraid to assert their right to be.
Adam: Stephanie also says that social media has given everyone a stronger voice, including trolls, but it can be a place for women to assert our value without fear of physical violence, though. We can fight misogyny and men can support us in relative safety. This leads me directly into my next question. One of the things I found helpful about your book was the role men can play in supporting women in this struggle for equality.
Erin: First and foremost is being secure enough in your masculinity, whatever that means to you, because it’s something different to everybody. Owning that is thing one. Be secure enough to know that working for women’s equality doesn’t do anything to diminish your own rights. It sacrifices some of your privilege, but that’s not a bad thing and it’s not going to hurt you. It’s being able to have humility, and say there are times and places that maybe the world has heard enough voices like mine, and I’m going to step aside and let a women talk now. Even if she’s going to say the same thing that I would say in this meeting or this sermon or this election or whatever it is. Maybe she’ll say the same things I would say, but maybe the world needs to hear it from her instead of me. Another one is just reading this book. Or any book by a woman. I heard a statistic recently. Women who read books, read male and female authors in pretty equal measure. Men read books almost entirely by men. Why do you think that is? And that’s not entirely a rhetorical question…
Adam: No. It’s not rhetorical at all. If we were to randomly choose 10 books from my shelves all 10 would most likely be written by men.
Erin: Yeah, it’s a problem. And I think naming that and saying, “You know what? I’m going to make an effort to read books by women and hear about their experiences.”
Adam: I’m glad you said that. It’s about calling out progressive men, I include myself in that, but I read books by progressive men and look in the back in their references and it tends to be male authors.
Erin: Yep. I’ve had male friends who have written books and asked me to write a blurb on the back of their books because they realized they didn’t have any women! But I’m happy to do that kind of thing.
Adam: Well, Erin, we’ve finished my list of questions. Thank you so much for your time. I really enjoyed our conversation. You continue to inspire me, so thank you.
Erin: Thanks! I had fun!
Adam: If people want to keep up with you, how can they do that?
Erin: People can follow me on the blog. If you are in the Kansas City metro area, we’d love to see you at St. Andrews. Those are probably the best ways. You can follow me on Facebook and Twitter at Irreverin.
Adam: Thank you so much Erin.
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