Today’s dispatch comes from my friend Shana Nielsen, who like me grew up in the Evangelical Church and is now walking a path in which she is processing her experiences within it and coming to recognize its theology and practices as emotional and spiritual abuse that we carry with us long after leaving. She has had the courage to process and speak out about her experiences out in the open and has become an important voice in my comments sections, providing invaluable perspective as a woman that I, as a cisgender white man, may be able to observe and articulate but never fully comprehend and describe. I’ve been so thankful for her contributions.
Yesterday, Shana responded to my post about how our understanding of God’s love will always be reflected in the ways that we love each other. I wrote this from my own perspective, observations, and experiences — all from the advantage of being a white male, which is the demographic that white Evangelical Christianity was designed to keep in power. Shana read that post and was stirred to write a powerful, beautiful, and sobering response — one that needs to be shared not as merely an extension of my post, but as its own.
I am reminded of a conversation I once had with an old youth pastor, when he told us what would have happened if only Eve had eaten the forbidden fruit and not Adam. “God would have just eradicated Eve and started over,” he explained to us. “Women are made to be subservient to men.” I’m seeing this attitude today, in evangelical women I talk to who aren’t getting the COVID vaccination because their husbands have forbidden it. Keep in mind while you read Shana’s testimony that this theology is considered neither offensive nor radical in most evangelical settings. It’s just “Biblical.” I simply point to what is now happening in Texas — where Shana lives.
Thank you for the courage to speak out, Shana. Thank you for being a voice in the wilderness on behalf of our own empowerment and for the empowerment for all those brave girls and women still in a church system that makes it unsafe to get this honest. I am humbled and grateful for the opportunity to use my platform to share yours. Because this isn’t just MY exvangelical journey — it is ALL of our journeys.
I love you all. Remember to be kind to yourself and to others today. The rest of this post will be Shana’s powerful testimony, without any editorial input from me:
I am obviously in a different demographic than you. And I’m also still digesting a large part of your post so I’m going to focus specifically on your comments about the female and LGBTQIA demographic being indoctrinated to surrender. I’m focusing on those because those are the two demographics I’m a part of.
Being a woman in fundamental evangelical religion is hard. You learn early that most suffering is your fault. Because Eve ate the apple, brought suffering on the world, and all women are just like Eve, forever tainted by her disobedience. So if someone else is sad, mad, upset, or anything other than happy in your presence, it’s your job to fix it. No woman can escape the Eve correlation. It starts when you are very young. When you first start learning about Genesis and creation in Sunday school. It is modeled by the women you grow up around. So many of them are fixers and soothers you don’t see anything else. You don’t see the brash, bold, assertive women. In your small world as a child they don’t exist. And so you learn things like “I should give up things I want or need to make another person happy”. Or the codependent classic “I am responsible for other people’s emotional states”. You learn them before you have words to describe it. And it is reinforced by the congregation that surrounds you. And it will affect every work, social, and romantic relationship for the rest of your life. Imagine being responsible for the emotional well being of any person who winds up in the same space as you from elementary school on. No. Really imagine it. The stranger in the elevator. The teacher. The kid you had a crush on in 8th grade. The valet that parked your car. The person standing next to you on public transport. Your boss, family, partner, children, coworkers. And people wonder why women feel unsafe, have trouble advocating for themselves in business relationships, try to appease their rapist.
For me, it wasn’t that sacrifice and service was the model of Jesus love, which it was but was not the main message that I picked up. What I picked up first, was that all women were the root of suffering and to justify taking up space we needed to prove over and over again, that we were redeemed. The proof of which is that we didn’t inflict “suffering ” on the people around us.
Later you learn that specifically your own physical suffering is especially your fault, and deserved. You should not seek relief for it. Cramps so bad you vomit and pass out? It’s in your head. Knees that dislocate multiple times per week with no “reason” (i.e. you were not hit by something), well you’ll grow out of it. Today in the medical field women’s pain and women’s reproductive problems, including cancer and endometriosis, chronic conditions like lupus and Fibromyalgia (which disproportionately affect women) go misdiagnosed, underdiagnosed, or untreated for decades. I lived the specific examples above. Both of them. As a fact, it is harder for women in the US to get an actual diagnosis and treatment in for real conditions from which they suffer. It can take decades, or a lifetime. Most especially if the prevalent symptoms include pain or the area of the body affected has anything to do with breasts or the reproductive system. It’s a coin toss whether or not a cyst in your ovary that has burst will get diagnosed in time to save your life, but it’s guaranteed that you will be in pain from that cyst for days or weeks or months before someone will deign to look at you. And should you be under 45 or so and desire a procedure like a hysterectomy that could bring an end to all this suffering? Well, in my state many doctors will not perform, that procedure without permission from you male significant other – whether or not you even have one. Because “you might change your mind and decide to have a child later”. And if you are single and don’t have a man to consent for you? High chances your request will be rejected. Because of Eve. Because women were literally born to suffer. Because God said so.
The inherent biases against women, and the expectations that we will surrender, support, and sacrifice without question are rooted and perpetuated in fundamental evangelicalism and they affect every single aspect of a woman’s life. The gender pay gap. The healthcare gap. The employment gap (did you read all of those articles about how many women were forced out of the workforce because Covid closures meant they had to quit their job to take care of their family? I sure did) The household chores/ mental workload gap. Do you know where those expectations were most stringently enforced while I was growing up? It started with my church. And unfortunately, they affect most women even now. Even as we have Kamala Harris as our V.P. But the degree of that affect is determined by where you live. If you live in a place where fundamental evangelical religion is very prevalent, like the South, you are not likely to encounter any messaging that challenges the original ones of sacrifice and suffering until much later in life, after the behavioral patterns are already deeply ingrained.
I don’t know about you, but I don’t want a father, Heavenly or not, that would even run the risk of teaching people a specific portion of their tribe was born to suffer for them. If he is so omniscient couldn’t he see that males would use this not as a reason to be compassionate, but as a bludgeon with which to oppress? Why. Even. Risk. Letting. Someone. Write. That. Down.
For girls and women it is not that evangelical religion chips away at our inherent self worth and leaves a hole which only God can fill. It is that from a very early age you have no self worth. You are the thing that let evil and pain and suffering into paradise. The blood sacrifice isn’t enough to redeem you on its own. You will also have to suffer personally, every day and every month, as punishment for what a fictional woman in a fictional place did somewhere outside the time space continuum. And the more you suffer, the more you sacrifice, the closer you might get to being worthy of salvation, or at least love. Maybe. But probably not, because all love is conditional and dependent upon what you’re willing to sacrifice next.
I don’t feel like I have responded well to your post above. But I do feel that gender has an outsize affect on how RTS is experienced and the baggage we carry with us out of our faith. I don’t think I am outlining those differences well. And I sure don’t have any advice on how to heal from experiencing any of the things above. I hope that I am adding to this conversation and it’s not just us whistling past each other. I hope that other girls raised in similar circumstances as me will be able to cut and run a little sooner, before the patterns are so ingrained you worry about not being able to change them. That they can firmly and assertively challenge the expectations of subservience and “earning love”. You get to be loved just because you exist.
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