Sending the Four Horsemen Away - by Allyson McKinney Timm ‘17 M.Div.
Profound, enduring concerns about violent injustice against women and girls, coupled with an expectant hope that Christian faith might have some salutary response to this longstanding scourge, propelled me to divinity school. It proved a difficult mission.
The first semester at YDS was the hardest. In my Feminist and Womanist Pastoral Care course, we read Christie Cozad Neuger’s Counseling Women and examined four destructive forces that confront women in particular – sexual abuse, intimate partner violence, rape, and depression. None of them were perfect strangers, I realized.
I had witnessed – in my vocation as a human rights lawyer, in the lives of people I loved, and in the course of my own personal journey – how these four horsemen menaced and ravaged.
An Unwelcome Cohort
For the most part, they trampled only the edges of the largely idyllic garden of my privileged life. They startled and threatened, without overtaking. Only the last one – depression – lingered on, a grim reminder of his unwelcome cohort.
But, before divinity school, I had scarcely breathed a personal word about any of them. And never do I recall hearing them named in church.
In several decades of adult life in the Christian faith, exploring and relishing the diversity of Protestantism, I had perceived an unspoken divide between the world of Christian practice and the world of concern for women’s rights and well-being. Both were vital to nourishing my soul and healing my wounds, but rarely did I find them in the same place.
This divide was – and still is, I believe – starkest around sexuality, sexual ethics, and gendered power dynamics. The place to talk about these fraught issues, I found, was among trusted women friends, preferably far from church.
If God is fully captured by the overpowering label “Father,” how could a sensitive girl or a wounded woman approach this male authority figure, or the authoritative men who represented him, and share experiences of profound vulnerability, such as sexual abuse or exploitation?
This masculine side of divine personality could, at times, be a comfort. As a young lawyer, I found great reassurance in the mighty and powerful God of Justice, whose righteous anger, the Psalmist tells us, vanquishes the oppressor and breaks the teeth of the wicked and the unjust. This God was clearly outraged by human trafficking and sex slavery in faraway places. And churches said so. He remained the defender of the widow and the orphan.
But rarely if ever did I hear this mighty Father God condemn everyday sexism and sexual harassment closer to home, the widespread rape of American college students, the daily murder of women by their partners. If these gendered harms were part of the same violent quest for dominance as sex trafficking, one would not have known it by the way we Christians prayed.
Divinity school, I’m grateful to say, offered new ways to contemplate the Holy One and bridge my cherished worlds – the world of the woman and the widow, with which I identified profoundly, and the sacred world of worship and prayer, which had been my salve against the wounds of the first, even as they appeared walled off and separate.
I discovered new intellectual and spiritual teachers – most strikingly Margaret Farley, ethics professor at YDS, and Marie Fortune, founder of FaithTrust Institute – who had done the rigorous, painstaking work of explaining how the church had fallen short in its treatment of sexuality and of sexual violence. These courageous and brilliant women have gifted the church with guidance on how to minister to these weighty aspects of human experience.
In time I discovered communities where women could gather and speak openly about our experiences, whether routine discrimination in the ministry profession or the struggle to overcome sexual trauma. I even witnessed, at one stirring public event, another student rising calmly, head held high, eyes straight ahead, to explain without flinching that she had survived being raped by her partner, and that this informed her convictions about the value of women’s rights.
“What power is this,” I asked myself, “that this sister can speak so calmly yet fiercely, and without a hint of shame – speak of these awful things, and not die?”
I came to consider that the Holy One, in whose image each of us is made, must be as much feminine as masculine, as black as white, as alien to Americans as we are to others. When I fathomed that personally bearing God’s image implies that She encompasses my own, this simple turn of logic began a profound theological shift. A God I could identify with my female form and person was one I could better trust with tearful prayers about the pains of womanhood. This understanding of Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer changed everything for me.
Looking back on difficult younger days when I saw the four horsemen threatening, I think now about what I would have asked from my communities of faith, if I could have. If congregations had openly condemned sexual violence, I might have understood – through a sermon, a class, or a spiritual mentor – that I was not to blame and I was not alone. I might have summoned the courage to bring my deepest hurts before my greatest source of strength and solace. Perhaps I could have believed that the God of Justice who vanquished oppressors was pained by the violence visited on me, too. Yet I never heard a sermon about it. Amazingly, to this day, the lone sermon I have ever known to shine a spotlight on sexual or domestic violence – and to name these harms as sin – was the one Marie Fortune preached in Marquand Chapel at YDS at the invitation of the YDS Women’s Center in 2014.
Beyond condemning obvious harms like rape, abuse, and exploitation, I would have asked – and I ask now – that our churches acknowledge the profound injustice and violence that women continue to face, ills sustained by the subordinate status that women are assigned in economic, social, and political life. Even now our US justice system fails to recognize that women have equal human dignity entitling us to equal human rights.
Time for Détente
I ask that we reckon with how our faith traditions have contributed, through silence if not complicity, to injustice and violence against women, and against all who do not easily fit into prescribed gender archetypes. We should all ask ourselves why the church has been so long alienated from the broader liberation movements that champion women’s dignity and rights. A détente is desperately needed.
Our churches, let’s remember, bring a unique message to the conversation: An understanding of a good God at work in a broken world, of a line between good and evil running through every human heart, and of the promise of redemption despite even the most reprehensible of our misdeeds. All are messages that the world yearns to hear.
This is asking a great deal, to be sure. It will necessitate studying the leaders, both Christian and secular, who have confronted violence against women for decades. Probing connections between sexual violence and wider concerns about women’s rights, racial oppression, and LGBTQIA animus is vital.
The four horsemen are still circling – around our churches, homes, workplaces, and seats of government power. They threaten and scheme to trample the peaceful gardens of social, family, and public life that we have so carefully tended. But with each word we speak, each sermon we preach, each time we name rape as a sin against God and her children, each time we take on the sacred responsibility to demand justice or provide care for survivors, these ominous horsemen cower and shrink a little further.
Based in Washington, DC, Allyson McKinney Timm ’17 M.Div. is founder and director of Justice Revival, which provides churches with education programs that explore the urgency of human rights and its importance to a Christian understanding of justice. She is a Presbyterian elder with more than a decade’s experience as a lawyer in international human rights and gender-based injustice.