Today’s post is simultaneously appearing as a guest post on the blog of my friend Stephen at http://sacredtension.com/
Trigger warning: This post contains descriptions of sexual abuse, rape, and violence.
I read an article on CNN last year that has haunted me ever since. Entitled “Slavery’s Last Stronghold,” it described the brutal reality of slavery that still exists in the West African country of Mauritania. In 1981, Mauritania was the last country in the world to abolish slavery legally, but still it persisted there without any real opposition. In 2007 the government finally made it a crime to own another person, yet as of 2012, only one case had been successfully prosecuted. The United Nations estimates 10-20% of the population is enslaved. That’s 340,000 to 680,000 people. Slavery in Mauritania dates back 2,000 years to a time when Arab slave traders captured and enslaved darker-skinned people from sub-Saharan Africa. The country now has a strict caste system in which the descendants of slaves inherit enslavement as their proper place in the social order. Official governmental denial, religion, poverty, and illiteracy all reinforce slavery in Mauritania. Islamic clerics reportedly preach that slaves who submit to their masters earn a place in paradise. The unemployment rate is 30%, and half the population is illiterate. In some places there is so little food that children eat sand to try to fill their stomachs.
While these stark facts are dismal and shocking, what disturbed and horrified me most was the story of a slave woman named Moulkheir and her children, all conceived in rape by her master. Her life was a hellish existence of beatings, back-breaking labor, and powerlessness. To survive, she did what she had to and told herself that her master knew what was best for her, even if it meant she suffered. Most appallingly, when Moulkheir was offered a chance at freedom by some abolitionist rescuers, she declined because she did not know there was anything wrong with her situation. The caste system convinces slave and free alike that slaves deserve their lot in life.
Shackles that constrain the mind prove harder to break than those that bind a body. What finally got through to Moulkheir was the death of her infant daughter at the hands of the master. One day when she returned from working in his fields she found the baby, dead from exposure, her eyes covered in ants. The master had abandoned his own child in the desert sand to punish the mother for not working hard enough. In keeping with his culture that normalized slavery by dehumanizing slaves, he said the baby had “the soul of a dog” and denied Moulkheir time even to wash the corpse and give the infant a proper burial. This at last planted in Moulkheir the knowledge that she was not free. She could not take the action her heart deeply desired in one of the most basic and intimate concerns of her life.
The slave rescuers reported the abuse she was enduring to the government, which staged a cover-up. Her first master made a show of giving her six goats and a loincloth and sending her and her children to another man. The pretense was that she would be a paid employee, but this second man enslaved them again and was even more heartless and abusive than the first. He began raping and beating the oldest daughter when she was thirteen. A couple of years later, he impregnated the girl and then drove her around in the back of a pickup truck on rough roads until the baby inside her died from the beating, as he intended. This was the final horror that made Moulkheir resolve to pursue escape. This was what it took for Moulkheir to reject the idea that somehow even things the master did that hurt her were best and to realize that his actions were evil. Only then could she see what was missing in her life and assert her own will to pursue it. If the slave waits for the master to allow her freedom, she remains powerless and dependent. She is truly free only when she knows what she lacks and acts to claim it. Freedom, as it turns out, cannot be granted; it must be claimed.
Around the same time that I read this harrowing story, my friend Stephen was going through a nightmare struggle of his own. Stephen is a gay Christian and had come to the realization that his sexual orientation would not go away despite his desperate pleas to God and efforts to change it. He belonged to the Side B camp of belief about homosexuality, which teaches that homosexual orientation in itself is not sinful, but that acting on a same sex attraction is a sin. Accordingly, Stephen thought it would be a sin for him to act on his attraction to other men, but the prospect of a lifetime of celibacy was not something he could handle. The thought of living alone for the rest of his life in a culture and a church that did not truly understand what it was requiring of him and did not know how to support celibacy filled him with terror and despair. He did not sense a calling or an empowerment by God to live a celibate life; he felt it being cruelly imposed upon him. The burden was crushing him, yet he wrote that he had to “believe that by some miracle obeying God will hurt less than disobeying him.”
That’s when it hit me:
What Stephen was saying sounded horrifyingly similar to the
rationale Moulkheir had used to cope with her enslavement.
Suddenly I saw with great clarity that the only thing that makes radical trust and submission safe and life-giving instead of hellish and destructive is if the master himself is good. Everything hinges on the master’s character. If the master is good, loving, wise, and strong, then the fruit of obedience will also be good. All shall be well. On the other hand, if the master is violent, self-absorbed, cruel, and evil, then submission equals permanent condemnation to a hellish existence. The fruit is evil, and one cannot escape the torment without getting free of the bad master. This sort of existence was what Stephen felt himself facing. For years he suffered in a “deep, destructive agony” of self-hatred in which he abused his body through addiction and cutting. He fought the urge to end his life and feared that one day he would lose that battle. Finally, after years of painful questioning, study, and discussion, Stephen came to the conclusion that if he wanted to live he would have to stop denying this part of himself and instead accept it. The stark realities of his existence forced him to reexamine his Side B adherence and recognize that the results in his life were destructive. His self-rejection and self-hatred were a bad master. I am not saying here that God is not good; far from it. What I am saying is that if God is good, as I believe to be true, then the fruit of relationship with God will also be good. It may take a while for us to struggle through to bear that fruit, and it will not be without pain or effort, but its end will be life and not death. We will move towards health, integrity, and wholeness, not the sickness of despair, inauthenticity, and fragmentation.
As I watched Stephen undergoing this process, I was asking some difficult questions myself. I compared Stephen’s struggle with my own journey. I, too, had been told from an early age that a vital aspect of myself – one that I could not deny without doing violence to my wholeness as a person – was unacceptable. As a twelve-year-old girl I heard God’s call to be a minister. I had great clarity on what God wanted, but I became quite confused about how to obey the call when authority figures invalidated it. In their eyes, my experience was illegitimate because they knew with certainty that God would never call a female to be an ordained pastor. They cited Bible verses in an authoritative manner and insisted that their interpretation of them defined the only way of being submissive to God’s authority as expressed in God’s own word. Their certainty left me with no good options for understanding who I was and why I had this sense of calling. Was I crazy? Evil? Deceived? Rebellious? Why wouldn’t this calling go away? If they were right, and it could not possibly be from God, then what did my inability to escape it mean about me? At times, the very impossibility of repudiating my sense of call loomed large as its own indictment. If I insisted on holding to my conviction, I merely confirmed its illegitimacy in the eyes of those who had already rejected it.
I was in an impossible bind. I could not acquiesce to their requirements for submission to God’s will without disregarding what I knew God had communicated to me. Under the constraints of logic, I could not live in any manner consistent with my values and my sense of self at the same time. I spent years wrestling with this dilemma until I finally reached a way of understanding Scripture that validated my experience while still affirming the authority of God’s word in my life. What, after all, would have been the point of making promises to serve God if my internal sense of self and my call conflicted with what I believed God’s word to be saying? The path forward required that I give up the comfortable idea that there is a clear way to interpret Scripture that is at once both obvious and unambiguous to all. I had to accept that I could be wrong any time, trust that God would see my intention to be obedient, and count on God to guide me even when my execution was flawed. Breaking off the mental shackles that demanded perfection in my understanding and in performance set me free from a tyrannical standard that had kept me captive so I could not risk pursuing my God-given dreams.
If I claim my freedom to pursue wholeness through living consistently with my values even though I might be wrong, how can I deny this solution to someone else? To some people it may seem obvious that Scripture supports women in ministry but not committed homosexual relationships. To them I observe that at one time it seemed unquestionable to me that Scripture did not affirm either one, and I am now ordained. People quoted Bible verses as a defense of slavery. To those who prescribe “Love the sinner but hate the sin” I say that it was no more possible for me to love myself and hate my calling than it is to love Stephen and hate a basic part of his identity.
I must acknowledge that I do not have clear answers to everything I would like to be certain of, and yet, I must go on with the business of living. Apparently God means for me to make the best of my dreams, gifts, and relationships despite the lack of certainty and the inherent tensions it creates. Following any conviction that violates my integrity, creates self-hatred in myself or others, or excludes anyone from love and encouragement to live into the image of God in them does not bear good fruit. I do believe that truth exists and that I am capable of knowing it, but only to whatever extent the Holy Spirit reveals it to me. I can study, pray, and ask for wisdom, but I cannot demand and receive the absolute clarity I would prefer. I must live in humility and dependence on God, and I must love my neighbor as myself. When people press me to say whether I think homosexual behavior is a sin, I resist answering. I ask why they care what I think, because I could be wrong. I think it is far more faithful for me to admit that and encourage them to seek an answer for themselves with my acceptance and support of their process. I must suspend judgment in order to walk with them and listen to them. I believe that the world needs my love and listening far more than it needs my judgment.