gender-based spiritual oppression
By Debra Jo Borden
While this article focuses on the topic of spirituality as a part of a person’s journey for healing, it is just one component to what some people may find in an overall balanced life. I advocate for methods of wellness to include medical care with professionals, along with mental and behavioral health care, and more.
INSUBORDINATION & FAITH
There is a story my grandma told of a night where her oldest son was very ill. The situation regarding his health was very serious. I cannot remember specifically if a man (priesthood holder) wasn’t available to give a blessing, or if the blessing given by the priesthood holder available didn’t have any specific promises for healing in it. Either way, what I remember overhearing was that my grandmother was so distraught with the situation surrounding her baby’s health and she felt the urgent, perhaps personal need for him to have a powerful blessing of healing with the laying on of hands. This is when she reached out to do it on her own. When she did, she felt a shock, and she took her hand(s) back and prayed for forgiveness for trying to bless her son herself.
The message that was absorbed by her at that time and the message that has been shared with generations of her posterity is that she received the spiritual shock because it wasn’t her place to be giving a blessing. She absorbed the message as a rebuke and chastisement from God because she didn’t hold the priesthood. The message was of shame, that she was out of line, and that she needed to have more faith in the proper line of authority. In her despair and anxiety, she had a moment of insubordination because her faith wasn’t strong enough. We were taught to have faith in the church leaders and leadership, hold respect for the way the priesthood was supposed to be administered, and to remember as women to never try anything like she had. We were taught that when following the right avenues, we could have a more influential affect if we remained respectful of the process and didn’t act in disobedience. Acting in faith, we could add to the administration of priesthood blessings best through our silent prayers.
Besides this one particular tale of chagrin, I find it interesting that my grandmother is the one who is revered as perhaps the greatest of the spiritual leaders in the family and she is a very treasured matriarch. Her ability to love everyone unconditionally, to forgive my grandfather of affairs, to pray without ceasing, to live obediently, and to inspire others to great heights of action, love, and spirituality, was unprecedented and is likely unmatched within the family tree. My grandfather is also revered, especially because of his ability to never give up on working to overcome and repent of his personal vices. But specifically in regards to spirituality, it is my grandmother’s legacy that is most respected and applauded overall by the family.
I have always wanted to have the kind of caliber, unconditional love, and spiritual strength that my grandmother had. Even though she was human, in my mind she essentially had no flaws whatsoever. However, as I reflect on her stories long after her passing, I have identified an imperfection because it became a trait passed down to me.
The character flaw is how much shame my grandmother carried in her life.
I wonder how much shame and worthlessness could have been held in that one moment of reaching to give her son a blessing. It was so much shame that she pulled back and entered fervent repentance. Apparently there was so much shame that this story is well known for generations. It seems there was so much shame that she never ever tried something like that again, and she cautioned all the females in the family to never do such a thing as she had done.
But I personally wonder:
What if the shock she felt wasn’t God telling her to stop seeking healing for her son?
What if the shock had nothing to do with chastisement?
What if it was actually the reserves of her own spiritual energy and power that she had never before been taught to recognize (simply because girls were not taught how to ‘handle’ the priesthood)? Maybe it scared and surprised her and she didn’t know what it was or what to do next, and so she absorbed it as a negative message. But there are many women of faith in scriptural records as well as recorded history who have had extreme spiritual gifts. So where did my grandmother learn that it was shameful for her to try to participate in spirituality in this way?
As a female, she wasn’t trained in church like the elders were, but lack of training or lack of ordination doesn’t mean that a spiritual gift and capacity did not exist within her natural capability.
Wasn’t there a woman in the Bible who reached out with so much faith that she withdrew healing power from Jesus himself? Jesus didn’t shame that woman for misusing or misunderstanding the “proper line of authority”, even when her spiritual focus and longing for healing was so strong that it pulled the power from Him to heal her. She didn’t actually have ‘permission’ to do that, but it still happened.
WHAT IF that moment of my grandmother’s pure intention was actually what healed her son (or was the catalyst to put him on the right path to healing)? Perhaps her spiritual gifts or healing “power” transferred in a current from herself TO HIM. What if the “shock” she felt was actually the moment of transfer? Because you know, he DID get better.
He also became a great spiritual leader himself, interestingly enough.
In the mix of the circumstances, even if he also got a blessing from a man with the priesthood authority, who is to say that the baby’s healing came from “his blessing” and “not hers”? Who is to say that the man’s practiced blessing was more powerful than her unpracticed bestowal?
I believe the same kind of spiritual influence from a woman’s faith can be equally comparable to a man’s (even if he is ordained in the priesthood and she is not), and so I would further like to ask:
Just how many spiritually powerful women have been shoved under the rug (along with their gifts that could have helped the world around them), as they have been led to believe that they’re not worthy of tapping into and sharing God’s healing power?
In the Bible, it is expressed that God is not a respecter of persons. That doesn’t mean only races and religions. That means genders, too. God doesn’t elevate one type of person over another, so how much spiritual damage have WE done, not only to ourselves but to each other, by believing and promoting many faulty and harmful cultural constructs as doctrines sanctioned by God?
How much damage?
OTHERS SEE IT
One of my friends is an educator and recently told me she can pretty easily recognize when one of her young students is a Latter-Day Saint girl. She purposely tries to be a little more gentle, a little more understanding, and a little more kind to those kids, because she can’t even imagine what it’s like to grow up feeling worthlessness simply for being a girl. Her comments made my heart grow and sink simultaneously. I felt so much gratitude for her compassion to reach out to kids in her own silent but empathetic way. Her comments gave me a quick flashback to what my life was like in the age group that she teaches — I knew that if she had taught the younger version of me, she would have been there to build me up in my innocence. I felt as if her kindness to those girls now is by extension an act of kindness to the younger me. But of course my heart still sank because of the later version of me and fall-out effects of the oppression she speaks of that growing up, I had not necessarily been aware of or savvy to; I realized my friend could acutely see parts of my life struggles that I used to think only I could see. There is an integral self-loathing part of my life story that I thought was my own “silent Gethsemane”. My heart sunk, because what I have been through is not isolated. It was not super personal to only me as I previously thought it had been. My heart sank because there is actually a wide-spread negative cultural effect on a specific population of people that I happen to belong to.
Ladies, the worthlessness that we may feel due to the so-called “religious doctrine” that only men qualify to access “the power of god on earth” has effects on us that are not invisible. We think and say that we are content with our places within the church. We may even live in denial of the effects, because sometimes ‘ignorance is bliss’, and sometimes ‘perception is reality’. Or we might actually feel the marginalization in some ways but openly deny it to others by saying that we don’t experience this even slightly. Some of us may have these ideas resonate within us and yet we don’t talk about it. We think we are strong enough to be quietly alone in our suffering and we think that no one knows, and that maybe the feelings will go away. Perhaps we may even feel shame for even having experienced feelings like this and we feel we must fervently repent in order to get rid of those feelings.
But the truth of the matter is that other people still see it.
There is another layer to all of this: many women may feel something along these lines, but wouldn’t want to say it out loud in case some sort of punishment were to happen to them at the hands of the church (or in their social circles, or in their families). But one thing I have learned as a foster and adoptive parent in the throes of parenting children from abusive circumstances, is that trauma occurs when something happens to you and you’re unable to talk about it. Through attending many therapy sessions with my kids, we have learned that preverbal trauma is something my foster and adopted kids deal with and we see the later effects when they “freeze” up and aren’t able to speak. For children who were abused in the age range before they could speak, this trauma trigger can manifest in a very specific way.
For grown men and women who speak fluently in their languages, there are other causes that can make someone feel as though they are “not allowed” to talk, and in these types of circumstances, trauma can still occur. Instead of non-verbal or preverbal trauma, I might personally label this a “gag-order” type of trauma, and in my own experience the psychological effects and traumatic responses can still surface in the same kinds of ways. Sometimes people feel forced into silence, and this can happen easily to a woman who is taught to believe that only men are allowed to speak directly to God for guidance and revelation, that she must listen to her husband and follow what he says because he presides over the home, and that if she does anything “out of the proper order” spiritually that she will lose everything that is precious to her, such as her entire life as she knows it, her family, her children, and even her eternal destiny.
Within the journey of working through my own experiences of (unintended) religious and spiritual abuse from the doctrinal beliefs and faulty explanations surrounding our church’s theology, I have personally had to work through an imaginary clasp on my neck — a restriction around my voice. Sometimes this imaginary or unseen restriction has actually felt like it was physically there clasping my neck and stopping my voice. Interestingly enough, people who believe in the metaphysical effects of our life experiences might not find it coincidental that I have physically developed thyroid nodules and disorders to deal with.
GENDER-BASED SPIRITUAL OPPRESSION
There are common beliefs among members that women are so pure that they don’t need the gift of the priesthood to keep them spiritual. I’ve heard it often explained that men are not as naturally inclined with spiritual things so that’s why they get the priesthood responsibilities. Other explanations along similar lines get shared in testimony meetings and Sunday school lessons.
What’s tricky about these beliefs is that it is inherently very degrading to men to say that they’re essentially too dumb and/or lazy to figure out who God is by seeking Him on their own, and so for that reason they are given the responsibility (perhaps even begrudgingly) by God to be trained in the priesthood and leadership in order to help them attain the worthiness of Heaven to match their superior female counterparts, and all of this because they are male. So I imagine it could feel unfortunate for them to have been born male — being deemed the lesser of the two subclasses in the human species, and to have to be forced into dominion over the females whom they understand or might believe could likely do a better job anyway. These beliefs or explanations that the men live with do no favors to the male psyche, and actually depress their abilities to access the priesthood spirituality that they are ordained to, because it increases their focus, even if it’s just subliminally, on their worthlessness for simply being male.
It may sound like a compliment to women that in their inherent purity they “don’t need” to hold the priesthood because they can access everything they need spiritually without being ordained. It may momentarily feel elevating to be told as a woman that you’re “superior” to men, but then in the same breath you are also taught to behave with learned helplessness by being told you cannot access God’s power without going through the men for counsel, advice, and healing in the church.
So what is it? Do women need the “proper line of authority” for deeper spirituality and the use of their spiritual gifts, or don’t they? Even if this spiritual superiority were real, and even though women are routinely told that they “don’t need” the priesthood, the women of the church live in fear of losing everything they have (including their children & families eternally), because doing any sort of exploration into the realm of discovering their spiritual gifts is something I’ve heard referred to as being heretical, part of the “occult”, or even connected to “priestcraft”.
How confusing it is to grow up and believe that you don’t need to hold the priesthood because as a female, you are spiritually advanced and yet for the same exact reason, you must be patient and follow men as they talk to God on your behalf. How confusing to believe that if found breaching these guidelines regarding your natural spiritual gifts, you could lose all worthiness or access to the spiritual gifts that you were previously told that you don’t need guidelines, explanations, ordinations, or even training for.
Would that turn women into “witches” for using their natural spiritual gifts in any way?
If I haven’t adequately been able to describe that there is a problem — then let me just say it —there is a doctrinal and cultural problem happening that causes psychological damage to both men and women in spiritual ways.
There is religious abuse happening in regards to understanding and misunderstandings of what has been taught or perpetuated regarding our beliefs in the power of God on earth, in regards to accessing the spiritual realm, and in regards to who can and who cannot do it.
There is and has been a very real gender-based oppression happening within my church.
Whether the spiritual oppression created was intentional or unintentional doesn’t necessarily matter when you can see that the fall-out effects of the head game are the same.
The church was established in a time when women of the Western world were marginalized far more than they are now (the 1800’s). Then, instead of moving forward in regards to having respect for a woman’s equality, the church was catapulted backwards in time and across continents into the restoration or re-establishment of Biblical culture and practices of polygamy that were even less advanced for liberation and equality for women compared to how far humanity has come.
In regards to the further justifications of what has happened to my people, I would also like to ask:
Why are people in our church so heavily focused on the Old Testament to explain the correctness of our past and/or current spiritual actions?
Why are we so extremely focused on the need to keep the hierarchy of men being “over” women? Or to excuse these discrepancies away by calling women who feel marginalized faithless?
Aren’t we professed to be Christians and didn’t Jesus Christ himself fulfill the Mosaic law? Didn’t He also go against the grain regarding the biased Biblical culture of that time that was stacked against women? So shouldn’t we live in the spiritual liberation that was brought in the New Testament, and accept that the use of spiritual gifts is a possibility for everyone, even while recognizing the need for gender equality in all of its nuances?
If our religion leads us to rally together in political realms to fight for liberation of oppressed peoples, and if maintaining God-given liberties is what our religion leads us to most passionately fight for, then why aren’t we recognizing the same kinds of injustices and the same kinds of oppression that are imbedded (whether intentionally or unintentionally) within our own church system, teaching of families, leadership, and culture?
There are people throughout the world who tap into the spiritual realm, and know exactly who God is, and they are guided by God in their lives, and those people have no connections to our church whatsoever. Those men and women can do it on their own without the church. Why can’t we do it on our own as women within the church? Why must a woman feel the need to repent for her whole life after the participation of miraculously healing her son in faith from calling down God’s power to heal him?
And while we are damaging the women and their self-worth, why are we also hurting our men with equally damaging beliefs that hinder their own spirituality?
THE WAY I SEE IT
Going to church and adopting habits and patterns intended for mindfulness is something that can be extremely beneficial and even fulfilling. But in the path to developing my own personal relationship with God, having a tight-knit community has been both helpful and harmful in the way I have come to understand myself in relation to God. While I have been seeking my inner voice and guidance from the Divine, it has been helpful to learn to recognize and protect myself from psychological behaviors that are harmful and to avoid participating in the same behaviors that can hurt others; I feel it is critical to teach my kids how to be empowered enough to do the same.
To degrade someone while also complimenting them to make it seem better is called gas lighting (just one of many types of gaslighting).
To hold a serious consequence over someone’s head that causes them fear in order to keep them quiet and in line with the way everyone else does things is called manipulation (and is a form of authoritarian leadership).
To misunderstand the implementation of a painful cultural construct and pass it off as “God’s will” for someone else to have to live with in faith is called religious abuse.
And to pit a person’s sex against their ability or inclinations to access God’s realm of spiritual intention, gifts, and healing power (whether the explanations are degrading for a man or a woman) is gender-based spiritual oppression.
With all of this being said, I would also like to say that I remain grateful for all of the life experiences that have contributed to my own spiritual journey (even the painful moments connected to my religion). I want to clarify again that the spiritual oppression that has occurred in my own experiences has been unintentional by those around me and that I am connected enough to those who love me to know they would never have done anything intentional to try to separate me from feeling close to God and wouldn’t have wanted to even unknowingly perpetuate untrue or harmful beliefs. I recognize that not everyone is so lucky. I also appreciate the influential and powerful blessings of healing that have been given to me in love, service, pure intent, and with faith from the men in my life who are spiritually inclined and who share their spiritual gifts freely with others by using the method of the Melchizedek priesthood; I have seen many miracles in my life because of it. Just a few years ago, I asked my brother for an anointed blessing to help me in my battle against chronic and severe depression. That blessing was one of the catalysts that has been part of my personal journey towards empowerment — a journey that is allowing me to unravel what has happened to me in the mix of many complicated religious and spiritual experiences and to find my own healing and inner voice. Being able to write this article and use my own voice is one of those miracles.
My husband while reading this felt that my conclusion lacked a call to action that would potentially help people in the same kind of situations to heal and move forward. But what is that call to action supposed to be? And who am I to tell other people what to do, when a lifetime of other people telling me what to do or not to do has been a large cause of my own pain? I have shared my experiences and I know I am not isolated in these types of suffering. Many people leave the church or are pushed out of church circles when they express similar feelings as I have to their friends and family.
Awareness perhaps can help the cause for people who attend church to actively work against the tide of religious abuse when it is perpetuated even in nuanced ways.
A utilitarian construct or method of implementing religious practice in order to teach people to come to God is something that can benefit some, but may not benefit all. In any given program or implemented practice there will be marginalized groups who suffer directly from policies that may help others — maybe that’s like an unfortunate yin and yang of good intentions, or maybe it’s “the law of opposition”. But just because something isn’t intended to hurt someone doesn’t mean it didn’t happen, and it doesn’t mean that it is the victim’s fault that it happened. The unintentional and unforeseen negative impacts of choices we make as lay church people in the cause to uphold what we think is right is perhaps best explained to be the direct result of a “sin of omission”.
I’m not going to tell anyone what to do, but I do believe it’s essential for all of us to understand that each person’s spiritual journey is their own to have, benefit from, understand, and interpret. I believe that all too often, gender biases or spiritual misunderstandings are used to oppress one gender over another, that it actually causes trauma that needs to be undone, and that it is not okay when that happens.
I also believe that I had an extremely special, very cool grandma. 🙂
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