Coming to the City of Sisterly Love

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4word: Philadelphia September Gathering

with Carolyn Custis James

“Minding Your Own Business as a Jesus Follower”

Anyone seeking biblical guidance for how to follow Jesus into the workplace would probably never consider the Old Testament book of Ruth as a crucial place to start. Traditional interpretations of Ruth as a beautiful romance obscure its profound relevance to multiple dimensions of twenty-first century life, including the workplace.

Women who follow Jesus into the workplace will find much to ponder in this powerful resource.

Thursday, September 27,
8:00-9:00AM

American Bible Society
101 N Independence Mall East FL8
Philadelphia, PA 19106-2155

The Philly 4word chapter invites Christian women in the workplace into a local and national network of likeminded women. Over a hundred women showed up for the inaugural event in August to hear 4word president and founder Diane Paddison explain the vision that is driving this organization/network!

Coffee and tea will be served. We hope to see you there! Bring a friend or two!

Registration ends September 25th at noon!
4Word

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Something to Ponder on Labor Day . . .

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“At the beginning God didn’t deliver a finished product; rather, God provided a setting in which human beings, working with and enabled by God, could cause the created order to flourish. . . . As Martin Luther once said, as we do the work to which we have been called we become the hands of God.”

—Jeff Van Duzer, from Why Business Matters to God

 

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Trauma, Resilience, and the Church

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Note: This article was originally published in the Spring 2018 issue of Cultural Encounters: A Journal for the Theology of Culture, Vol. 13, edited by Paul Louis Metzger and is reprinted here with permission. 


As a young girl blessed with vigilant parents, I got early signals that somewhere “out there” lurked some mysterious danger. I needed to be alert and take precautions.

As a child, when a kind man in a bookstore gave me candy, my parents taught me never to trust a stranger—even nice ones. To make sure I got the message, they confiscated the candy. When they refused to let me go on an errand in a car with a male relative, I learned that not even everyone I knew and loved was safe. As a young teenager, when I was walking home in the dark after spending the afternoon at a friend’s house, my father tracked me down, picked me up, and drove me home as he warned me that it was dangerous to be out in the night by myself.

As a teenager, I never heard warnings from school officials or youth group leaders about the ever-present risks of sexual abuse or violence against women and girls. I never heard boys warned to respect girls. I never heard anyone say that a real man or true masculinity, understands that “no” means “no.” School officials warned us about STDs. Youth leaders mainly talked about sexual purity. I’ve since learned that already some of my friends and classmates had been sexually assaulted or were currently being abused.

As an adult, I’ve learned that even the best parents can’t be sure their child will skate through life without suffering trauma at the hands of another human being. For years now, through my friendships and teaching, writing, and speaking ministries, women have been (still are) telling me their stories. They’ve put faces and accounts of deep and relentless suffering on the subject of trauma inflicted through the abuse and sexual violations they’ve suffered at the hands of an abusive parent, a twisted neighbor or family “friend,” a controlling boyfriend or husband, or a self-indulgent boss.

One by one the stories came—opening my eyes to a social problem that simmers beneath the surface but often goes ignored. Evidence of trauma surfaces here and there—proving the lasting scars a woman carries after someone violates her person, her body, and her sacred sense of self, sometimes when she was just a child. Apart from a few lone voices and professionals who have devoted their careers to trauma counseling and advocacy for victims of abuse and violence, I was not aware of any concentrated effort to address these issues, not even in the church.

Three factors proved pivotal and compelled me to become an outspoken advocate for women and girls. First were the stories of abuse and assault I was hearing first-hand. Second was my research into the Bible’s empowering message for women and the platform to communicate that message that I must steward. Third was my growing awareness that the problem is far greater and more systemic and global than I ever imagined, thanks in particular to Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn’s Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide—a bracing exposé of the human rights violations of women and girls globally that the authors call the “paramount moral challenge” of the twenty-first century.[1]

These three forces converged in my book, Half the Church: Recapturing God’s Global Call for Women—a call to action for Christian women to engage this crisis as God’s image bearers and ezer-warriors for his kingdom.

Recent events have drawn national attention to this issue and intensify the urgency of addressing this crisis.

Breaking Silence

2016 may well be remembered as the year the topic of sexual harassment and assault stormed the headlines and the dam of silence burst. In October of that year, the Washington Post released a 2005 Access Hollywood video that captured presidential candidate Donald Trump boasting lewdly about sexually assaulting women and getting away with it. Over a dozen women stepped forward with allegations that Trump had done exactly that to them. Denials notwithstanding, the issue was firmly on the table, and American women were fiercely determined to keep it there.

On January 21, 2017—the day after Trump’s inauguration—thousands of pink-hatted female protesters flooded American city streets in protest of violence against women and to advocate for women’s rights.

A tsunami of sexual harassment and abuse allegations followed, sequentially toppling a line-up of powerful and once-thought invincible men in media, Hollywood, politics, and technology for exploiting women sexually. Those first few courageous women paved the way for other women to speak their truth. A flurry of #MeToo tweets flooded the Internet, signaling a problem of epidemic proportions. To our shame, a second major wave of #ChurchToo tweets followed. Time magazine acknowledged the global significance of what was happening by naming The Silence Breakers their 2017 “Person of the Year.”

2018 opened with another horrific spate of stories that continued to rock the country. Over 150 courageous young women (former US gymnasts), testified in court of sexual abuse repeatedly inflicted on them by Larry Nassar—the once trusted US Gymnastics team doctor—in the name of “medical procedures.” Attorney Rachael Denhollander[2] was the first former gymnast to make public allegations against the doctor for molesting her.  She was the last of 156 survivors to testify in a sentencing hearing that resulted in a 175-year sentence.

The Power of Trauma

Trauma resulting from abuse of a sexual nature involves irrevocable psycho-spiritual damage that reshapes a person’s story and may well become the dominant controlling force for the duration of her life. The severity of the trauma and the criminal nature of the abuse demands involvement of professional counselors and law enforcement. Allegations that implicate someone within a church or ministry organization make it “essential to have sexual abuse allegations investigated by an independent party that does not have a vested interest in the church.”[3]

The scars are deep and lasting. Recurring nightmares and unexpected triggers keep traumatic memories ever capable of reawakening. The legal notion of a statute of limitations on sexual abuse and violence may give perpetrators a pass on vicious crimes. It is a total fiction for survivors and an outright denial of reality. In some cases, trauma can establish such a debilitating hold on a person that their lives are shattered, driving some to the point of suicide. Trauma’s wounds may be invisible to the naked eye, but the scars are deep and lasting.

There is no silver lining to this hideous cloud. But survivors have demonstrated again and again that trauma can have unexpected outcomes. Today, we have vivid memories of the remarkable moral strength and courage survivors heroically display by standing up, telling their stories, and fighting for justice. That feat is all the more remarkable because they’ve had to fight against overwhelming odds and overcome the trauma of reliving their ordeal in public. Can anyone truly fathom how hard that must have been or what powerful emotions those former gymnasts suppressed to voice their suffering before a battery of media cameras all while facing their abuser?

Some of the most intensely traumatized women display unearthly levels of compassion and tenderness for others. Their antennae—sensitized by their own suffering—are always on red alert. They are quick to spot someone else who is hurting and possess an exquisite ability to come alongside. As Henry Nouwen astutely observed, “The great illusion of leadership is to think that [a person] can be led out of the desert by someone who has never been there.”[4] The byline on the jacket of Nouwen’s book refutes the notion that wounded people in the church are liabilities and speaks instead to the rich potential of survivors. “In our own woundedness, we can become a source of life for others.”

It is also true—and we have biblical support for this—that survivors of trauma of every kind have given us some of the deepest theology we possess. Job stories are borne of trauma. Hagar, Naomi, Hannah, and Esther are a few examples. These sufferers give us permission to wrestle with the deepest questions human beings ever ask. They take us to the edge of human existence, to the perilous precipice of faith. They remind us that even in our darkest most desperate moments when we feel ourselves going over the ledge—God grips us by our ankles (1 Samuel 2:9a).

In the words of Rachael Denhollander:

There was a point in my faith where I had to simply cling to the fact that although I didn’t understand or have the answers, I knew that God was good and that he was love. Whatever else I didn’t understand couldn’t be a contradiction to that.[5] 

Superficial, pie-in-the-sky, prosperity theology is not only misleading, but foreign to these anguished realms of human existence. And sooner or later all of us will need the insights trauma survivors gleaned in the darkness.

The Resilience Journey

From what I’ve gathered from the women who’ve trusted me with their stories, resilience isn’t so much a destination as a journey. I could be wrong, but I’m not sure that this side of eternity anyone burdened by trauma ever fully sheds that load. Instead, they spend their days traveling somewhere between trauma and resilience—putting one foot in front of the other and pressing on with life, each deliberate step rendering a new defeat of trauma’s powers. Some days are no doubt easier than others. But nightmares and unexpected triggers always retain the power to bring trauma back into the present with devastating force.

I’ve also learned there are forces that can give a sufferer fresh strength on this journey. Trauma survivors have discovered the power of speaking their truth. In Gretchen Carlson’s Be Fierce: Stop Harassment and Take Your Power Back (the book she wrote in the aftermath of her successful take-down of Fox News mogul, Roger Ailes for sexual harassment) she lets Lady Gaga (raped by a man twenty years her senior) do the talking:

I see a lot of people who have secrets that are killing them . . . We don’t want you to keep your pain inside and let it rot like an old apple on your counter you know? It’s like, just get rid of all that trash. Let’s get rid of it together.[6]

They’re also proving that resilience requires community. #MeToo and #ChurchToo tweets are providing at least a virtual community for a lot of women. The solidarity they are finding with one another obviously raises the question of how the ultimate community—the church—will respond.

So far the record is pretty grim. Although there are healthy exceptions, all too often when sexual assault allegations surface within a church or ministry organization, the response is inept at best and complicit and harmful at worst. When major evangelical figures have been caught up in sexual scandal, protecting their reputations, ministries, and organizations often becomes the priority. Cover-ups result. Victims aren’t believed or are pressured to forgive their abusers. This ultimately re-traumatizes those the church should be first in line to protect and defend.

That was Rachael Denhollendar’s experience.

“Church is one of the least safe places to acknowledge abuse because the way it is counseled is, more often than not, damaging to the victim. There is an abhorrent lack of knowledge for the damage and devastation that sexual assault brings. It is with deep regret that I say the church is one of the worst places to go for help. That’s a hard thing to say, because I am a very conservative evangelical, but that is the truth. There are very, very few who have ever found true help in the church.”[7]

#MeToo Stories in the Bible

This escalating crisis has had a two-way impact on my work. These disturbing current events have shed new light on biblical stories I’ve heard all my life. #MeToo stories have been in our Bible, right in front of us, all along. But we tend to skip over them or sanitize what’s actually happening and ignore the frightening realities presented on the pages of our Bibles. We’ve all done this.

These stories convinced me that the #MeToo crisis has come to us, to me—as Christians. The Bible doesn’t avoid this topic. Jesus doesn’t want his church to avoid it either.

#MeToo stories in the Bible have also pressed me with responsibility and given me biblical warrant to address this crisis and call other Christians to engage.

Consider, for example, the trauma Lot’s daughters suffered at the prospect that their own father was preparing to turn them over to a mob of sexual predators. Most likely both the Egyptian slave girl Hagar and Queen Esther were young teenagers and both were trafficked ultimately for sex. What do we associate with the name “Bathsheba”? A growing consensus among Old Testament scholars is that David raped Bathsheba. Yet we often regard her as a temptress and co-adulterer while minimizing David’s violent abuse of power, focusing instead on his heartfelt repentance. What kind of pattern does that reflect?

These stories and others present significant biblical opportunities to raise awareness of the evils of violence against women and of God’s heart for his daughters. They oblige us to join our voices with the prophets in speaking truth to power and to create safe space for survivors to seek and find help and healing within the church.

#MeToo is a Male Problem Too

One final matter.

Many are now acknowledging that this #MeToo crisis isn’t just a women’s issue and that women alone aren’t going to solve it. Although women can ignite the movement, any lasting change will require the significant participation of our brothers.

Once again, the Bible already makes this point. The story of Ruth and Boaz is the #MeToo story that didn’t happen. Boaz, a powerful imposing figure, faced the kind of situation that had the makings of another abusive #MeToo story.

Ruth—a powerless immigrant who is utterly dependent on Boaz’s good graces for her survival—presents herself to him in the dead of night. If Boaz took advantage of her and this came down to a he said/she said situation, no one in all Bethlehem would take Ruth’s word over his. Yet in a radical turn of events, no #MeToo story happens. Instead, Boaz gives us a dramatic gospel vision of male power and privilege employed sacrificially to empower others and promote their good.

Today’s world is hungry for more men like Boaz. He’s an Old Testament example of the brand of masculinity Jesus himself embodied as he honored and empowered women.

The Bible gives us multiple stories of countercultural men who follow Jesus, and we have growing numbers of men like that today. This is the kind of man Jesus’ gospel intends to produce. If I’m right about Boaz—then the church is positioned to make an enormous difference in this battle. This is the kind of man who, allied with his sisters, can turn the tide in this social crisis.


[1]Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide (New York: Knopf, 2009), xvii

[2]“Read Rachael Denhollander’s Full Victim Impact Statement about Larry Nassar,” CNN, updated January 30, 2018, http://www.cnn.com/2018/01/24/us/rachael- denhollander-full-statement/index.html.

[3]Jen Zamzow, “Should Churches Handle Sexual Abuse Allegations Internally?” in Christianity Today, February 2, 2018, http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2018/february-web-only/should-churches-handle-sexual-abuse-investigations-internal.html

[4]Henry Nouwen, The Wounded Healer, (New York, Doubleday, 1972), 72.

[5]Rachael Denhollander, “My Larry Nassar Testimony Went Viral. But There’s More to the Gospel Than Forgiveness,” interview by Morgan Lee, Christianity Today, January 31, 2018, http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2018/january-web-only/rachael-denhollander-larry-nassar-forgiveness-gospel.html

[6]Gretchen Carlson, Be Fierce: Stop Harassment and Take Your Power Back, (New York: Hatchette Book Group, Inc., 2017), 197-198.

[7]Denhollander interview by Morgan Lee, Christianity Today, January 31, 2018.


For further reading:

Carolyn Custis James, Finding God in the Margins: The Book of Ruth (Bellingham, WA: Lexham, 2018).
     ”          ”        ”          Malestrom: Manhood Swept into the Currents of a Changing World (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2015).
     ”          ”        ”         Half the Church: Recapturing God’s Global Vision for Women (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010).

Sandra Glahn, ed., Vindicating the Vixens: Revisiting Sexualized, Vilified, and Marginalized Women in the Bible,  (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2017).

Gretchen Carlson, Be Fierce: Stop Harassment and Take Your Power Back, (New York: Hatchette Book Group, Inc., 2017)

Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide (New York: Knopf, 2009)

Rachael Denhollander, “My Larry Nassar Testimony Went Viral. But There’s More to the Gospel Than Forgiveness,” interview by Morgan Lee, Christianity Today, January 31, 2018, http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2018/january-web-only/rachael-denhollander-larry-nassar-forgiveness-gospel.html

Jen Zamzow, “Should Churches Handle Sexual Abuse Allegations Internally?” Christianity Today, February 2, 2018, http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2018/february-web-only/should-churches-handle-sexual-abuse-investigations-internal.html

Join the #SilenceIsNotSpiritual movement of Christians committed to speak out and become part of the solution.

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Take a Knee for the Children

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When Dr. Colleen Kraft, president of the American Academy of Pediatrics, visited a U.S. government shelter for immigrant children in Combes, Texas, what she saw undid her.

A distraught toddler was crying inconsolably and pounding her small fists against the play mat. A shaken Kraft later told CNN, “We all knew why she was crying. She wanted her mother, and there was nothing we could do. I’ve never been in this situation where I’ve felt so needlessly helpless.” According to Craft, workers inside the shelter were prohibited from picking up or touching the children to comfort them. Imagine not being able to pick up or console a distraught child!

Craft described the separation of children as “government-sanctioned child abuse.” The United Nations condemned the Trump administration’s zero-tolerance policy as “a serious violation of the rights of the child” and “arbitrary and unlawful interference in family life,” calling the U.S. to “immediately halt this practice of separating families.”

Under duress, the president signed an executive order on June 20 to end the separation of children from their families. So far, government efforts to reunite children and parents has been riddled with incompetence, chaos, and little success. Identification records have gone missing, been destroyed, or never existed in the first place. The government has already deported some immigrant parents. I am grateful for every parent/child reunion, but I am deeply troubled that this happened in the first place—and that it happened in America.

Cages and Caves

Compare the muddled recovery effort for the crisis on our southern border with the response in Thailand when twelve young soccer players (ages 11-16) and their soccer coach became trapped inside a watery cave.

On learning that the boys were in trouble, Thailand officials feverishly mobilized an all-out rescue effort that didn’t stop until all were safely out of the cave. Rescue workers and experts poured in from around the world (including the U.S.) with strategies, resources, divers, and drillers to explore every conceivable option for getting the boys out alive. The risks were enormous, costing the life of one Thai navy seal working to save the boys. Midway through the rescue, a determined Thailand prime minister resolved that “this kind of event should never happen again on Thai soil. . . . We should learn from this experience to prevent it from happening again.”

In contrast, no all-out rescue effort is yet underway here to reunite immigrant children with their families. The president has yet to appoint a “Family Reunification Czar” to oversee the process, coordinate government agencies, and resolve legal, logistical, and bureaucratic logjams. Instead, prolonged separations persist. Each day the harm to innocent children deepens. Meanwhile the media cycle charges forward as the next big story threatens to eclipse or distract us from this unresolved human rights crisis.

Repent or Repeat?

What heightens the heinous nature of this ongoing immigrant tragedy is that this is not the first time the U.S. government has been guilty of this kind of human rights violation. Nor is it the only time Bible waving national and religious leaders have claimed divine support to justify their abusive actions. Consider the removal of Native American children from their families and communities into boarding schools. Recall the breakups of African slave families when slaveholders callously sold off a husband, a wife, or a child. Then there was the internment of Japanese American citizens during WWII and our government’s refusal of safe haven to thousands of Jewish refugees, and now to refugees from Syria and other war-torn regions.

To our shame, the United States has never come to terms with its history, nor expressed remorse and repentance for the sins of our past. The dark stains of America’s past have been expunged from history texts and swept under the rug. We never learned from those past abuses to prevent them from ever happening again.

So here we are—in a classic fulfillment of Spanish-American philosopher George Santayana’s warning that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

Praying and Persisting

I thank God for the heroic rescue of the Thai boys from the cave and that their 18-day ordeal is over. But the separation of immigrant children from their families has been going on much longer than 18 days. That poses a very serious problem: the very real prospect of losing interest, of being worn down by emotional exhaustion from being undone over suffering children, of being distracted by other headlines and scandals, of losing sight of the suffering of immigrant children and families.

As followers of Jesus and God’s image bearers, we are not spectators to what happens in God’s world. We have a mandate to stay the battle for these children and their parents. As believers, we have responsibility to engage.

So take a knee for the children. While you’re at it, drop on both knees and plead that God who hears the cries of the oppressed will give us strength and determination to stay in this battle. I’m right there with you.

Let us keep making noise online and badgering our senators and congressional representatives—church leaders too—to do all they can to bring this terrible crisis to a speedy and successful end. And let us resolve to learn the lessons of history to insure that this never happens again on American soil.


This article was first published at Missio Alliance.

Republished by Evangelicals for Social Action and Outreach Magazine

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Whole lotta shakin’ goin’ on!

Jerry-Lee-Lewis

It always does my heart good when the book of Ruth makes the ground shake underneath someone else’s story too—especially when the quake hits while they’re reading Finding God in the Margins or  The Gospel of Ruth.

Which, of course, makes it worth repeating that the popular interpretation of the book of Ruth as a beautiful rags-to-riches Cinderella love story between Ruth and Boaz won’t produce that kind of life-changing seismic disturbance in anyone’s life. Asserting (as one scholar did recently) that the story concludes with Ruth “happily ensconced as a wife and mother, no longer having to work for a living but fully supported by her husband” not only excludes most readers from connecting this story to their own, it defuses the book of Ruth’s explosive impact on our lives.

All that changes when we view the book of Ruth within its ancient patriarchal context where women—stranded without husbands or sons—have no meaning, value, or security. Suddenly the book of Ruth becomes one of the Bible’s most brilliant undercover operations for the Kingdom of God and its potency returns to rock our stories in a wide variety of ways.

Here’s just one example:

The story centers on two marginalized widows: Naomi and her pagan daughter-in-law Ruth. When all the men in their family die, and Naomi is post-menopausal and Ruth is certifiably barren, it’s a foregone conclusion that the story is over.

Culturally speaking, these women don’t count.

Their plight becomes even more pitiable when the label “foreigner” gets attached to them. Naomi becomes a famine refugee, and Ruth an undocumented immigrant. But, when God says he “loves the foreigner,” he means exactly what he says.

Instead of allowing tragedy to bring down the curtain on the lives of these two marginalized women (as they and their cultures would automatically assume), God reaches into the margins and recruits both women as Kingdom agents—not just for local issues that threaten their family’s extinction, but for the whole world.

Hard to imagine a more subversive operation than that! It was so subversive, that these Kingdom operatives themselves never realized the cosmic impact of their sacrificial actions.

Battles Ruth fights to rescue Naomi’s family from annihilation just happen also to rescue the royal line of King David and ultimately of King Jesus. Who knew so much was at stake?! Nor was it any accident that the hesed[1] theology Naomi taught her son Obed—who passed it on through his son Jesse to David and ultimately to us[2]—was forged in the crucible of her own dark night of the soul.

Naomi’s spiritual crisis centered on her belief that God not only had withdrawn his Finding-God-in-the-Margins-V4hesed-love from her, he had turned against her. In studying the book of Ruth, we learn along with Naomi that God’s hesed is unstoppable and that we should think twice before we count anyone out for Kingdom purposes—including ourselves.

But also this: that when refugees and immigrants approach our borders, the book of Ruth gives reason for us to be asking: What is God up to? What extraordinary gifts, what world-changing potential is he covertly sending us? How might welcoming foreigners into our communities (as Bethlehemites ultimately welcomed Ruth) make us and our country better than we can ever be without them?

God is more subversive than we imagine!

Like I said, the book of Ruth can make the ground shake. It shook underneath one reader when she read Finding God in the Margins: The Book of Ruth. Here’s her review.

My breath was taken away by the truths revealed in this book.

As a trauma survivor, where for all intents and purposes, it looked like my story was over, too, these words have been a balm to my decimated heart. They have caused me to hope that I might know the love of God despite the strewn wreckage.

As a female who has long struggled with (and because of) the distorted understandings of what the Bible teaches about the value of both women AND men, the lessons in this book have been freedom-granting.

And as a committed follower of Jesus Christ, the glory of God worked out in and through his people that is explained in this book has lifted my wounded soul to praise and magnify our scandalously loving God in a way that has been absent for far too long.

Thank you Carolyn Custis James for showing me that God loves at all, but even (especially?) the shattered lives of the deeply suffering in ways that are often obscured because of broken hearts. I desperately needed the message of the book of Ruth to be torn open wide so I could look inside! I will never read Ruth, or think about hesed the same.

Read Finding God in the Margins: The Book of Ruth and see if you don’t feel the ground shake underneath you too!


[1]“Hesed is a power word in the Bible and the most important word in the book of Ruth. . . . .It is a costly brand of love that involves going above and beyond what anyone has a right to ask or expect. It is the brand of love at work in the actions of Ruth, Boaz, and ultimately of Naomi too. . . . YHWH is the ultimate hesed giver. The confidence and hope of God’s people banks on the fact that YHWH is “abounding in love [hesed]” (Exod 34:6). . . . The book of Ruth puts God’s hesed on display. . . . God’s hesed love is indiscriminate, unearned, and persistent. YHWH’s hesed will reach Naomi through the selfless and relentless commitment of Ruth to fight for her, and Boaz will join Ruth in this effort. . . . What [Naomi] learns is indispensible to us—because so often we struggle to put suffering and God’s hesed together in our own stories.” Finding God in the Margins, (49, 51).

[2]King David echoes Naomi’s theology when he writes, “Surely goodness and hesed will follow me all the days of my life” (Psalm 23:6a).

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Male Power and Privilege—Destructive or Subversive?

Finding-God-in-the-Margins-V4The much-anticipated Singapore Summit put male power and privilege on full display. It was a meeting between two men whose ascendance came from the privilege of birth, crushing their rivals (often by bullying and brutal means), and the power of office.

Post-summit, political experts are assessing whether the summit was a win-win or if the participants’ conviction prevailed—that life is a zero-sum game of winners and losers.

In a world suffused with patriarchal values, cultures everywhere bestow power and privilege on men and boys at birth. History tells the sordid story of how destructive patriarchy is for women, but also for men as well.

Now a powerful counter force is changing all of that. The Silence Breakers, #MeToo/#ChurchToo Twitter movements, and thousands of Southern Baptist women are holding men accountable for misusing their power and privilege by sexually abusing and mistreating women and for protecting men who do.

This counter movement has deep biblical roots embodied in the lives of men we talk about constantly, but evidently never stop to notice how they shed the restraints patriarchal masculinity imposes on men to embrace a whole new gospel way of being male.

Judah, Boaz, Barak, Joseph of Nazareth, and the Apostle Paul are worthy studies, but most especially Jesus.[1]

The excerpt below is from Finding God in the Margins: The Book of Ruth. It reveals the true subversive power of power and privilege. It is also a long overdue corrective on traditional characterizations of Boaz as a romantic figure that deprive him of the true credit he deserves.


The Manly Side of the Story

In 2013 esteemed newsman Tom Brokaw predicted that the twenty-first century will be known as “the Century of Women.”[2] In her grimly titled book The End of Men—and the Rise of Women, journalist Hanna Rosin confirms his thesis and examines the flip side of this development. Her research (which is surprisingly sympathetic to men) substantiates that current social, cultural, and economic changes are benefiting women and disadvantaging a lot of men. “For nearly as long as civilization has existed, patriarchy . . . has been the organizing principle, with few exceptions.”[3]

Now all that is changing.

Traditional roles are becoming more fluid, and definitions of what it means to be “a real man” are not as clear or attainable as in the past. A man’s previously secure status as the chief decider, breadwinner, and protector is eroding.

Men must compete with women for jobs. Jobs are disappearing as computers replace men and whole industries shut down or move overseas. Furthermore, a lot of men are working in jobs where their boss is a woman. As one man lamented,

Women live longer than men. They do better in this economy. More of ’em graduate from college. They go into space and do everything men do, and sometimes they do it a whole lot better. I mean, hell, get out of the way—these females are going to leave us males in the dust.[4]

It seems the pendulum that favored men for millennia has swung in favor of women. . . .

The Pivotal Moment

Much is made about the initial encounter between Ruth and Boaz in Boaz’s barley field. Without question this meeting is the pivotal moment in the story. But no one could know ahead of time that things will turn out well. Good stories have tension. One of the key questions posed by the presence of Boaz is, how will this impressive man use his power and privilege?

For starters, the enormous social and cultural disparity between them could not be more pronounced. They are polar opposites. He holds all the advantages. The disadvantages belong to Ruth. Throughout human history and right up to the present, the differences between them are the makings of some of the most horrific violations of human rights. Only consider the explosive combinations: male and female, rich and poor, young and old, Jew and gentile, native born and immigrant, powerful and powerless, valued and discarded. Anyone watching this nitroglycerin mixture would be expecting something terrible to happen. Especially when her request implies criticism of how he’s managing his field.

But Boaz’s response to her request to glean in territory that was off-limits to gleaners is a show-stopper. He was not offended, although obviously taken aback. Her perspective on Mosaic law was eye-opening to him. Not only does he listen and grant her request, but he exceeds it with evident determination that nothing must prevent her from succeeding. He even serves her a meal. How countercultural is that?!

We must not miss the earthshaking implications of his response. Boaz has just been introduced as a man who needs no improvement. In the eyes of the culture (and also of the narrator) he is golden. And yet, his exchanges with Ruth are eye-opening to him. He realizes what she is trying to do. Her perspective shed new light on a business he had been running for years. . . .

Boaz’s response raises a huge issue for Christians. One of the biggest obstacles to a deepening walk with God is resistance to rethink our beliefs, to listen to others, to learn, and to change. All through the Bible, God is repeatedly asking some of the people who walked with him the longest to be willing to be wrong and to learn and grow. Sometimes walking with God means learning truth that means rethinking your entire life. Abraham’s journey with God began in earnest when he was seventy-five—an age when people have a right to be settled in their ways. Abraham had to change, and with each change he grew deeper in his faith.

Boaz openly violates cultural expectations in his interactions with Ruth. Instead of showcasing patriarchal standards of masculinity, Boaz subverts them. He bucks the system. He is not held captive to dominant definitions of masculinity. He is free of such expectations and big enough to do the right thing, even when it costs him. In his interactions with this foreign newcomer, Boaz accepts her influence and in doing so discovers room to grow.

Boaz was a man ahead of his time. In the workplace today, equal pay for women remains an unmet goal. Boaz went beyond equality. So Ruth’s take-home pay was as much as fifteen to thirty times what a male harvester would pocket for a day of labor. Boaz pursued the spirit of God’s law—to seek justice for the poor and to feed them. . . .

Boaz and the Power of Power

Boaz’s self-appointed advocacy for Naomi on Ruth’s behalf demonstrates how radically out of step he is with his culture. At the male-dominated seat of government, Boaz gives women legal voice. He assumes Naomi has property rights and insists that purchasing her land is an urgent matter. If that wasn’t surprise enough, he bends the law to require the kinsman redeemer to fulfill the levirate law too in lieu of a blood brother.

He also bends the law emphatically toward women’s rights—a concept unheard of in ancient times but a pressing contemporary global issue today. And Boaz, a heavyweight among Bethlehem leaders, proves unstoppable. Not only does he push through everything Ruth requested, he depletes his own estate to rescue Elimelech, just as he vowed he would. The fact that not one man attempts to oppose him signifies just how powerful Boaz was.

Boaz shows how male power and privilege can become a powerful force for good. He voluntarily makes extraordinary sacrifices beyond what the law requires. But that’s what hesed[5] looks like.

His story also refutes the misguided adage that the rise of women comes at a cost for men. The rise of Ruth influenced Boaz to become a better man—one of the best men in all of Scripture.


For more on the book of Ruth, see Finding God in the Margins


Presentation1[1]Read Malestrom: Manhood Swept into the Currents of a Changing World, for more on these powerful, radically counter-cultural men. They embody God’s emancipating (pun intended) and transforming power in the lives of his sons.

[2]Tom Brokaw, “Welcome to the Century of Women,” April 29, 2013.

[3]Hannah Rosin, The End of Men—and the Rise of Women (New York: Riverhead, 2012),10.

[4]Ibid., 13.

[5]Hesed is a costly, voluntary, stubborn brand of love that involves going above and beyond what anyone has a right to ask or expect. God’s hesed is the bedrock of his people and the keyword in the book of Ruth. It is the brand of love at work in the actions of Ruth, Boaz, and ultimately of Naomi too.

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They Came Out Swingin’!

Every writer owes a lot to people who take the time to read their work and become advocates afterwards. I’m especially indebted to two women whose reviews I’ve posted below.

I’m a big Sarah Bessey fan. In my endorsement of Jesus FeministI described her “not as a fire-breathing debater—but as a woman utterly captivated by Jesus who will stop at nothing to follow him.” That description spills out onto every page of her books, and now Finding God in the Margins is a beneficiary of her passion. If you’re not already acquainted with Sarah and with her work, you’ve been missing out!

I met Stacy Harp recently when I was a guest on her program. Having done my share of interviews, let me just say that some interviews are better than others. Some interviewers actually read the book and even get personally involved in the subject matter. When that happens, you forget you’re being interviewed. It feels more like a private conversation with a friend. Talking with Stacy was like that. She was fearless, funny, and focused on heart issues. She’s someone else you should know.


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Sarah Bessey

A quick book recommendation for you this Thursday, friends! If you’re looking for a book club or Bible study or even personal study companion for the summer, check out Carolyn Custis James’ latest Bible study, Finding God in the Margins: The Book of Ruth.

It is so good! So good! 👏👏👏

You know how I won’t shut up about how important it is to re-read and re-learn the stories of scripture through a feminist lens and the cultural context? well, this is that but as a traditional Bible study for all of us who never went to seminary.

AND it is deeply relevant content for our moment in time – the book of Ruth tackles everything… power and privilege, poverty, refugees, undocumented immigrants, injustice, women’s rights, and so on. Turns out Ruth is not actually a love story anymore than the story of Esther is a tale of a beauty pageant. Who knew?!? 😉 God chose two marginalized women cast aside by their patriarchal culture to reveal the Kingdom of God to us for right now – straight fire here.

(P.S. This isn’t a sponsored post or anything – I just wanted to pass along a recommendation since I get asked so often to recommend traditional format Bible studies from a non-traditional perspective and this is a great fit for that.) (Edited to add: Kindle edition is just $3.99!)

Happy Bible-studying this summer!


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Stacy Harp

I had the tremendous honor of being able to interview Carolyn after I received the information about her book, Finding God in the Margins . I generally don’t write reviews for books because I consider my interviews with the author as my review, but in this case, I have to make an exception.

Carolyn is an amazing biblical scholar and has written a POWERFUL book about the marginalized women of Ruth and Naomi. I can relate to these women on so many levels, but in particular on the level of barrenness. As a middle-aged woman, in a Christian culture, we are often marginalized and forgotten within the body of Christ. I’m not sure the church does this on purpose or if it’s just stupidity, but it does happen.

Carolyn’s book really touched my heart from the beginning to the end, not only because she addresses these issues realistically but also biblically and within the proper historical context in which it is written.

Her description of Boaz is also amazing because there is a man of power who didn’t abuse it and who used it to bless instead of abuse. Our church culture today could stand to take a lesson from this book especially with all the egomaniacs out there masquerading as Christian leaders.

I highly recommend that all women and men buy this book and then study it. Carolyn offers thoughtful questions for reflection and study at the end of each chapter and this book is just over one hundred pages so anyone can read this with no problem. I know I will be reading mine over and over again as it has touched my heart in deep ways.

On page 97 we read this,

“From start to finish, the book of Ruth is ultimately YHWH’s story. The whole story shifts into high gear when Naomi gains a clearer understanding of YHWH precisely because she looked at the world through tears. From something as mundane as a load of winnowed barley (something that would have passed unnoticed in better days), Naomi detected to her astonishment hard evidence of YHWH’s unending hesed for her.”

Still waters run deep. If your heart has been broken over and over again, definitely pick this up and read it. You will not regret learning about God’s love for you in a fresh way through our spiritual mothers.


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