I titled this blog post Temptation in the Church because I think it keenly speaks to the fallacies our communities have adopted when we talk about sexual assault/harassment. May is Sexual Assault Awareness month, so I feel now is an appropriate time to share some of my thoughts on this dangerous fallacy.
When we talk about sexual harassment we tend to focus on two key points: Temptation, and Intention. This first piece will focus on Temptation.
I love the Young Clergy Women Project and their blog “Fidelia’s Sisters”. Recently, Rev. Katie Chullino wrote a piece entitled “Making Church a Safe Place for for Everyone” in response to a piece from Pure Freedom, a purity culture ministry in the USA. “How Women Can Make Church a Safe Place for Men” by Dannah Gresh. It speaks to how women must minimize their role as ‘the temptress’ in the church. The article begins with the catchy first line:
When we dress provocatively, we dishonor God and display a lack of regard for His holiness. We can also become a distraction for our brothers in Christ.
The article includes confessions from church-going men who express that the greatest pitfall to their struggle for sexual purity is not freely available pornography or over-sexualized media and advertising, but…
“I’m struggling with the way women dress in church,” they groan. They are specific in adding those two words—in church—because the location is what makes them feel so vulnerable.
The article continues to say:
After all, isn’t church supposed to be a place where they can go to be free from temptation? What’s a guy to do when the woman in his Sunday school class keeps showing up in a tight shirt and miniskirt, announcing it was a little cold in the parking lot?
Unfortunately, the piece continues to degrade into a rant which shames women into disguising their body, covering up lest they act as an object of temptation to their “brothers” in Christ. Yet, as Rev. Katie puts it so well, “The church isn’t laden with impurity because of a low-cut shirt, but because of our condemnation of those we are called to love.”
In choosing to view women as temptresses, we are choosing both to view them as the cause of lust, removing responsibility from the one lusting, and lastly as sexual objects. Our churches cannot be void of temptation because they cannot be void of our own messy human essence; this is why we pray, as Jesus taught us, for God to “deliver us from temptation”. We also believe that God is capable of doing so, that God can strength us when our own will is too weak. God does not simply remove the object of our temptation but works with us to build our discipline, dignity, and to free us from the shame of our struggle. We must empower the one struggling, to build right relationships centered on true love, not blind lust. By blaming women for the sexual struggles of men we are blaming the victim for the transgression of the perpetrator and propagating an unbalanced, unhealthy style of gender relations.
Now, don’t think I don’t have sympathy for all those struggling with the desire for purity. In fact, I have a great deal of empathy as I have struggled to navigate God’s intention for my sexuality as both a single and married person. The one lesson I have learned, which Rev. Katie speaks to in her article, is the idea that right relationships, build on love and respect for both parties, are the best combatant to impurity. Yet, to have these relationships we must affirm all people, all individuals on the spectrum of gender, as full persons. We must all honour our own bodies and the bodies of others. We must affirm all people in their beauty and value; their depth and richness in the image of God as a sexual, spiritual and emotional being. We must avoid devaluing our bodies as things to be ashamed and fearful of because they are made in the image of God and they are good and holy things.
I do believe in modesty, but not the kind Gresh is preaching. Gresh refers to “leather pants”, “low-cut blouse”, and a “tight-skirt”, not nakedness. The women she is shaming are all covered, and frankly, are probably wearing clothing I enjoy myself (and I grew up Mennonite!). I recognize in our culture we have shame around our bodies, which stems from the sinfulness humanity entered when it turned away from God’s purposes (in the Garden, if you will). In our social environment, we can only see nakedness as private, which is a damn shame. But, collectively, we have chosen that nakedness is an intimate rite reserved for intimate relationships–in same gendered, family, erotic or medical settings. I do not believe nakedness is bad, only that we require trust in our nakedness. We reserve nakedness for intimate settings, since trust leads to intimacy, but not necessarily eroticism or sexuality. I believe in modesty when it comes to nakedness, but Gresh is not referring to nakedness. Gresh is referring to styles of clothing–she is shaming fully dressed women into believing they are tools of sin instead of the image of God.
Let me conclude with a final quote from Rev. Katie, a centering idea that should lead us into right relationship with our creator and fellow creation.
Women and Men, God has made you in God’s image and when you stray from that image God re-creates you in the image of Christ. Brothers and Sisters, hear the good news: you are more than skin and bones. Brothers, you aren’t helpless. Sisters, you aren’t temptresses.
Put on clothes which show you are God’s own image — as beautiful and beloved, created and re-created sisters and brothers in Christ.