After launching this blog on June 5, 2012 and spending nearly 4 years working for awareness and healing around the topic of sexualized violence in the Mennonite Church, it is time for me (Rachel Halder) to step down from this blog so I can step up to other projects that life presents. When I had a dream while traveling on a plane to create a space for people to tell their stories of sexualized violence, I had no idea what a deep impact this blog would make on the world and lives of so many. The journey this space has taken me on is radical. This blog, alongside my family and amazing beings who have supported and poured their hearts into this blog, has helped me heal, transform, and create a new life I never knew was possible.

I have tremendous gratitude for Barbra Graber and Hilary Scarsella, my two blog partners who joined me on this journey–stepping up in ways I did not know how and aiding me in my healing journey. Though I am stepping away as director of this space, the work of Our Stories Untold will continue to create change, transformation, and healing in a world that needs it so deeply. I am passing on the position of director to Hilary, while Barbra continues to act as editor and caretaker of this amazing and collaborative space. I have full confidence they will maintain and expand Our Stories Untold’s mission and make this space even greater for those who know of it now, and for those who stumble upon it in the future.

Today’s post is a farewell piece–my last writing as director of this blog. Yet I know it’s only the beginning of understanding myself in relation to Creation, the Universe, and the Divine light; only the opening of deeply embracing love, compassion, and grace within my life; only a dawning as I continue to navigate my inner world, while presenting it to those outside. Thank you all for holding me through this process, for walking this journey with me, and for continuing to support me as I write my way into being.

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When I first began processing my history of sexual abuse, the first thing I realized was how the religion I grew up in—the only religion I knew or understood up to that point—had lied to me. The messages Christianity told me as both child and young teenager were instrumental to keeping the shame, guilt, and silence alive within my own being, allowing me to believe that everything was my fault. On December 18, 2012, I wrote about the culture of shame, stigma, and victim-blaming that happens both in our culture and our churches. I made the claim, “In order to live a spiritual life we must be aware of victim-shaming.” In the past years of working through my abuse and reclaiming who I AM, my spiritual life has flourished in incomprehensible ways. And within this I have needed to acknowledge spiritual abuse more than the actual physical experience of sexual abuse. With those words in 2012, I foreshadowed my own deep spiritual journey into the dark realms of my shame, fear, and stigma brought on by deep-rooted theological beliefs that left me lacking not only self-worth and power, but also lacking a God who looked like me, understood me, and loved me for exactly who I am, experience included.

My spiritual journey of rediscovering the Divine presence who has always walked with and within me is entangled in my journey of finding healing from sexual abuse. In the most obvious way the two are directly enmeshed by the fact that I was “Saved” by Jesus by the same (cultish) Baptist group whose adult leaders also knew about the sexual relationship I had with a 19-year-old when I was only 15. They indirectly told me I was responsible for creating and tempting, and responsible for my inevitable hell-doomed life if I didn’t take ownership for my sinful nature and give my life over to Jesus. I still remember coming home from one of those youth group gatherings and asking my mom what this whole “being saved” business meant. I had never encountered that language at my rural Mennonite church and the notion of becoming “saved” seemed foreign and confusing. It was also an extremely convincing concept to an eternally damned and heartbroken, terrified and confused 15-year-old.

There are many more story lines that could be pulled from that particular period of my life, though even skimming the surface brings up pain and anger. This anger is no longer directed towards the 19-year-old boyfriend. I actually have a lot of compassion for him, and understand his hurt within all of this, too. The pain and anger instead lies in the fact that I was in an unhealthy and slightly coercive sexual relationship with a 19-year-old that went unchecked and unquestioned by that Christian community, while they threatened me with eternal damnation. My pain lies in the fact that that time period of my life also destroyed the idea of a loving, nurturing, womb-like goddess-mother of a Divine that I needed so badly both then and now. My anger is directed towards the adults in my life who never sat me down to talk about healthy sexuality, listen to my story, and offer words of love and wisdom. Other than my mother who sat me down for a nonjudgemental talk when she learned I was having a sexual relationship, all other adults who knew avoided the topic like it was some sort of plague. My pain still exists in the term “slut” and “easy” directed towards me by certain peers for most of my high school career. My anger still lies in the sex-negative sex education the church offered me that so thoroughly lacked any sort of helpful advice or gave permission for young women and men to be the sexual beings they were created to be! Sexuality is a gift. Thankfully, I am finally figuring that one out.  

Ending that sexual relationship with the 19-year-old and ending that relationship with the Baptist youth group were amazing decisions that I made alone, though I trust the Divine spirit was guiding me toward greater wholeness. But the residual effects of that time of my life carried over as I tried to run-away from my problems and transferred to a private Mennonite school, a place I thought I would find refuge but where I actually confronted the deep stigma, shaming, and guilt of being labeled a “sexually active young woman” (even though I was not sexually active).

Shortly after that December 2012 article on shame and stigma, I wrote another article titled “Purity, lust and religion: How Christianity confuses rape with sex,” a piece I know was influenced by the experiences I mention above. It’s amazing to quote myself over three years later, only to realize it was the beginning of me trying to reclaim my high school story of sexual abuse. “Words such as purity and lust have become ingrained in traditional Christian text and tradition, and that is where I think our society, religion, and culture have done some serious damage. That is why here on my blog I want to repeat an important message, loudly and clearly: RAPE IS NOT SEX,” I wrote passionately, declaring that a woman’s value goes far beyond her sexual “purity.” I see now that what I was getting at was a deep feeling in my core that my only apparent value was in my body, and that the world at large was terrified of my womanly curves, sexual power, authenticity and authority that lay within my cellular make-up. I was terrified of it, too.

My story could be fleshed out in so many more ways, and someday I would love to write this chapter of my life, but today I am going to focus on a few powerful theological mistakes that I believe continue to spiritually abuse and destroy not only sexual abuse survivors, but other minoritized and marginalized communities including LGBTQ persons, First Nations persons, black women and men, Latino/as, and so many other groups, not to mention Mother Earth and her animals and plants, who are constantly on the shitty receiving end of an omnipotent God.

theologicalmistakesThough these theological mistakes are something I’ve been grappling with since I was 15-years-old, they are also some of the theological mistakes that the religion and metaphysics philosopher Charles Hartshorne named as the “6 common theological mistakes of classical theism” that I think brilliantly encapsulate my own feelings toward the God I was told was my God, but who so clearly was not created for me. Therefore, some of this blog is influenced by his line of thought, as well as other process philosophers and theologians I have studied at Claremont School of Theology. (See end of blog post for recommended texts for further reading.)

These theological mistakes of classical Christianity are rooted in dualistic thinking: thinking that separates the world into black and white, good and evil, us and them, above and below, higher and lower, now and eternity, male and female, saved and not saved, and so on. The biggest and most obvious theological mistake for me is the idea of omnipotence, or the belief that God is all-powerful. I am not saying God is not power—by all means, God is one of the most powerful forces in my life, and with that power God empowers me to be the Truth that I am. There is one thing I know to be true for me every single day, and that is of the power of the Divine spirit living within my very being, as well as embodying everything else—plant, animal, human—that I encounter. But the powerful omnipotent image of God that harms us is the one who is a bully, king, man, and sometimes even a tyrant. The angry and vengeful God who sends people away. The powerful, vertical God who has power over creation. The omnipotent God I was introduced to when I was told that I was doomed for hell unless I accepted Jesus and repented for my “sexual promiscuity” as a 15-year-old who had had only one (unhealthy) sexual relationship with one man in her entire short life.

MANGODThis kind of bearded and staffed Man God allows us to get away with saying, “God made it happen,” or “God’s ways aren’t our ways,” or “Only God knows why this needed to happen” or “Trust in God’s plan, only He knows the truth.” This is the kind of God who justifies wiping out Native Americans who lived on this land first. This is the God who justifies slavery. This is the God who sent hurricane Katrina to New Orleans to clean out all the homosexual sin. This is the God who continues to justify sexism, racism, slavery, and gender and sexual orientation discrimination. This is the God who lets us off the hook, who prevents us from being accountable for our actions, who allows us to think, live, and act as if everything that happens in this world is caused by God.

You might be saying, “Woah, that is really dramatic, Rachel! MY God certainly doesn’t justify slavery.” And I agree, the examples I am using here are pretty outlandish… and they are real. This omnipotent God operates in subtle ways though, too. This is the God who was at the Mennonite convention this past summer where I (and others) experienced the most intense bout of PTSD and trauma I have ever experienced in my life. This is the God of the Mennonite man in a workshop on sexual abuse who said, “Let’s put these situations into God’s hands. We can believe there is a something bigger and better God can do about these horrible situations.” The man meant no harm, yet in that statement created a lot of harm. At the time I didn’t understand why I was so dramatically triggered by that statement. Now I see the biggest mistake in that line of thought is the idea of a good, perfect, omnipotent God who has hands to do all the work for us. What this line of thought does is completely let us all off the hook. If God’s hands are taking care of it, what good will our own hands do?

The issue with all of these versions of “God” is that it is a God based on hierarchy, dominance, and submission. If you do what God wants, your life will be blessed. If you don’t, you will face destruction. This idea of the omnipotent God then easily transforms into the hierarchies of the institutional church. (And yes, I’m still talking to you, Mennonites, though I know we love to pretend that no such hierarchies or authorities exist in our “priesthood of all believers.”) A dynamic develops with religious authority that is based on dominance and submission, no matter how subtle or slight this may appear. And this dynamic leads the way to an abuse of both power and position—all under the guise of “doing God’s work” and “helping lost sheep.” The pervasiveness of sexual abuse, the exclusiveness of LGBTQ lives, the ignorance of racial issues all come from a root theological belief of an omnipotent God that helps normalize the abuse, dominance, and submission that gets played out ever so subtly in our churches at large. Those who use critical thinking and show dissent or speak out when they confront this abuse of power often get labeled bad, lost, damaged, and just plain wrong. But what those labels really show is the immense fear people feel when someone steps outside of the norm and fold of what is “right” and “normal,” when someone breaks away from the prideful pack.

So if God isn’t omnipotent, then what is God?

omnipotent godProcess or relational theology focuses on a Divine presence that is omnipresent: everywhere and in everything, always there and always here, responding to each creature intimately and personally, from within and without. Rather than working over creation, God actually works with creation in a partnered sort of way. In other words, we actually co-create the world with God through Divine inspiration. Cooperation, partnership, and mutuality are words often cited in this sort of philosophical theology. I like to use the words synergy, communion, and unity. In other words, not everything that happens in the world is God’s work, and God can’t be blamed for the bad things that happen, either. Both chance and human choice play a major role in the reality of our world.

With an omnipresent God we all have creative freedom to make whatever choices we wish. This doesn’t mean that God isn’t with us or that God will leave us, but it does mean that we have the opportunity to either listen to the lure of God or listen to the other influences (fame, fear, power, shame, wealth, etc.) luring us. For example, the choice to rape someone is a choice that someone makes. God did not influence that person to be abusive. God also did not prevent that person from committing the crime because that is outside of God’s abilities. There may have been outside influences in that person’s choice, such as gang-rape frat party stunt. They may even have experienced rape themselves. But the choice was still their choice to make. Sometimes individual choices are also created from societal structures imbedded in our cultures. Rape culture is something very apparent in the United States, especially in high schools and colleges, making rape seem normal and acceptable. But these individual choices still demand accountability from both the individual and our society at large for creating such a world where a culture of rape is accepted. Persons in institutional positions of power who cover up for these abuses must also be held accountable.

Web of Life drawing by Deborah Jane Milton, an artist, mentor, and eco-psychologist. More work can be seen at: https://awakeningstorylines.com/2012/03/13/seeing-plaid/

Web of Life drawing by Deborah Jane Milton, an artist, mentor, and eco-psychologist. More work can be seen at: https://awakeningstorylines.com

Individual choices have an impactful, rippling effect on everyone, including God. The world we live in is an interconnected web of life, though in our individualistic Western society that is sometimes hard to see. In the context of someone who raped someone else, God acutely feels the effects of that crime. That memory is swirled into God’s vast beingness, and God understands and holds the pain of that crime in ways humans don’t even know possible. But that crime doesn’t only affect God and the perpetrator, but also the survivor, their family, their loved ones, their future relationships, their communities, their faith, and the broader world as it again impacts the common narrative of rape culture, dominance, and abuse of power. That crime impacts the entire web of life, including the domination we exert over animals, nature, and the universe at large.

God does not leave the person who committed the crime either. An omnipresent God is still walking with that person, waiting for them to open themselves to a symbiotic relationship in which they can influence God and themselves for a greater good. God is constantly luring that person to their greater potential, to love and harmony and beauty. But God cannot make that person turn towards that potential. God can only lure the person into the wholeness they must accept. Each person must make the choice.

God also does not leave the survivor. Nor does God leave any of the consequential situations rippling through time also influenced by this crime. God is feeling, experiencing, and creating right alongside the person who was raped. In that scenario, God is also hoping to be received, acknowledged, and invited into a symbiotic relationship in which God, survivor, and community can influence each other for the greater good. And by all means, God fully accepts the anger, fear, shame, and hate that person may feel towards their abuser and the world at large, and towards the Divine presence itself. God recognizes where it comes from and holds it in the swirl of vast beingness in ways humans find incomprehensible.

An omnipresent God has Divine sympathy that is both active and passive. By participating with all of creation—humans, plants, animals, galaxies—God persuades the world towards greater balance, life, harmony, and love. This means at any given moment—every breath we take—we have the choice to open our hearts to the Divine presence and act in ways that can radically change and shift our world. And in this way, we become accountable to our own actions. Those struggling against an omnipotent God can be comforted in knowing that there is a degree of freedom in every single situation. They always have a choice, even if that choice exists in a very oppressed state—for example, Lauren Shifflett chose to tell her story of Luke Hartman when she realized it was her last chance to reclaim herself in a crime unacknowledged. There is still a choice to be lured by the Divine spirit, even when stuck in very hard places.

birthgoddessGod is birthing us in every single moment, allowing us to crawl or walk or even run at our own natural pace. God does not push us, God does not coerce us, and God does not offer only one solution to a problem. No matter the choices or decisions we make through life, God is there, working with them, guiding them, learning from them just as we are. We evolve with God, as God evolves with us.

This point of view seems to somehow scare people, cause them angst. I think it may be tied up in the nature of change. We humans don’t really like change. I myself feel a bit rocky and emotionally turbulent when I am in the midst of a massive shift in my life. Yet what we fail to recognize is that we are changing, evolving, each and every moment of every single day. Who I was this morning is not at all who I am at the moment I am writing this. Through the process of writing this I have shed many tears, which has changed my body chemistry. I have resurfaced tragic memories that I left in the shadows. And I have had numerous conversations with people telling them my newfound dawning that I am processing spiritual trauma through my studies. All of this made a deep impact on who I am. And yes, who I am when this post went live is not the same person I am/was when writing. Once this goes live I will have presumably slept a few nights, meditated and prayed a lot, processed some emotional turmoil and trauma, and have come to stable place where I feel like what I have written is the best I have to give at this moment in time. We are in constant evolution, and the Divine presence is constantly evolving right along with us. God is not who God always was, because the Divine is influenced by creation each and every moment of all “time.”

Understanding change means embracing embodiment: coming into our own selves and seeing that we are breathing, living, changing, evolving aspects of creation, who are connected to all other aspects of creation. As a damaged 15-year-old I learned how to disconnect myself from my body. It was easy for me to pretend the trauma I incurred didn’t affect me. It was equally easy for me to turn off sexual feelings, to protect myself from any potential future harmful situations, to build up walls against any romantic relationships, and to ignore the pain that lived and resided in different parts of my body. In fact, it wasn’t until my mid-twenties when I developed an autoimmune disease located in my bladder called interstitial cystisis that caused intense pain in my vaginal region that I was actually forced to deal with the embodied aspect of trauma I carried around, something I am still consciously working on today through Taoist tantra practices.

The lack of embodiment that exists in our current structure of Christianity is a side effect of the omnipotent God, in addition to some extremely harmful theology spouted off by Augustine, as well as Classical philosophy from Plato, Aristotle, and the Neo-Platonists adapted into Christianity. From these thinkers we received the message that God’s power is equivalent to that of a tyrant, not required to take any account of the needs of the subjects around Him. We also received a message of disconnection—that the earth’s beauty and creation is somehow separate from ourselves. But the truth is that God’s power is so empowering, so full, so encompassing that God loves the world with an unfailing, never lacking love that is always present in all situations. God cares about all creation. And God lives within all creation—yes, that also means inside our bodies!

Thinking comes from the body. We know experiences because of how our body responds. When we pull over to get gas at 11 PM on an unknown interstate and realize we are in a rather dangerous area, we feel it in our body—our guts tighten, our adrenaline rushes, our awareness shifts to a new level. We may recognize that our bodies respond to situations and that in some instances of psychosomatic disease, like my interstitial cystitis, our bodies are trying to tell us something. Yet, those of us in the Christian church grow up being told there is infallible truth that we need to know, understand, and listen to. In fact, we are told that revelation itself is infallible. But the thing about infallible revelation is that it’s a cop-out. When we believe a certain someone or something (guru, pastor, doctrine, culture, writing in a book) is the only thing that reveals the truth, we are looking outside of ourselves for answers. When we look outside of ourselves for the answer, we bypass our responsibility to make difficult decisions. When we are relieved the responsibility, we no longer remain accountable to our life or the lives of others. But embodied, embedded knowing that lives deep inside ourselves, through the Divine presence within ourselves and within the world, offers us a truth that perhaps only we can really know for ourselves.

carolchristquoteThere really are no absolute truths in life, religion, philosophy, or this world. Carol P. Christ explains that all knowing is found in this embodied and embedded way—even the knowing that others “know” has come through in this way. In She Who Changes: Re-Imagining the Divine in the World, Christ asks, “How do we know the divine presence living in our lives?” She answers herself by saying, “We know in the living of our lives. No one else can know for any one of us. No one else can know what we know. We listen to our bodies and the feelings that come through our bodies. We share our lives with others in friendship and community. We read. We pray or meditate. We reflect. And yes there is much we do not know. Life is a process of change, and we know only small parts of it.” Jesus is the perfect example of one who walked in embodied, embedded knowing. Going against the religious community of his time, arguing with priests and rabbis, speaking on matters previously unspoken; Jesus found his way through this embodied and embedded way of knowing, through the Divine presence, through his Abba who lived within him and in the world all around him.

Yet something we must recognize in this embodied, embedded way of knowing is that all-knowing is fragmentary, relative, subjective, and partial. We can never know everything and we can always know more. All traditions must be examined with a critical eye and questioning. All thought must be checked internally and externally, compared and contrasted with what was previously known and with what could be known. Even with this though there are relative truths that can be learned by being open to the feelings and emotions that come through our own lived experiences and bodies. For example, the trauma I experienced at Mennonite Convention told me something very particular about my own experience. It told me that the theology I was raised with was spiritually abusive to my being. It told me that being acknowledged for my sexual abuse but not being acknowledged for my queer identity was not okay. It told me that finding love deep within myself was more important than making sure the Mennonite Church felt okay about my physical presence. It told me that sticking with the people donned in pink who understood my experiences, who understood what I was going through was important and necessary for survival.

Sometimes our embodied knowledge seems a little off at first. In March, I had a revelation that I needed to step away as director of this blog. The inspiration of creating this blog four years ago came from a very embedded knowing that I had to tell my story and create a space for others to do the same. Since that time I have acted as director and main editor of this blog. Yet in the past year this work has felt more burdening and challenging than I thought possible. The idea of stepping away never occurred to me, even though I recognized the toll the blog was taking on my spiritual and emotional self. Then in March, while participating in an all night prayer ceremony with one of my spiritual communities, I had a Divine revelation that I needed to let this work go. Through tears, stomach pains, and a great upheaval of emotion I was able to unearth the fact that I am no longer serving myself or others through continuing to work on this blog or remaining so deeply connected to the Mennonite Church. Through embodied, embedded knowing I was left with the conclusion that the work I need to do in this world, at least for now, is beyond the church walls that I feel so isolated and blocked within. And through this embodied, embedded knowing, I knew this blog would be held by my amazing partners Barbra and Hilary and that the future for this blog was one of empowerment, beauty, and courage. I can step away knowing everything is held within the Divine being of this world and universe.

This is how we know. We do not know because others tell us it is the truth. We don’t know because we’ve been forced to memorize scripture. We don’t know because of laws someone else teaches us. We don’t know because we’ve been threatened with damnation. We don’t even know because we come from a tradition that places alleged authority within the tradition itself. Our Mennonite philosophy of nonviolence and pacifism, and what we have decided those two loaded words mean, has become our authority. But we don’t even know through that! We know because we live and experience life. With this in mind, as well as the omnipotent and infallible God we grew up with, I must challenge us on something:

Are we actually able to question and call out abuses of power if we have submitted our intellect or will or our own knowing to an overarching authority, including the idea of peace and reconciliation? So often I think this is what happens in situations of abuse within church walls that Marissa Buck so clearly outlined in April. So often I think this is what happens to individuals living and submitting to a particular framework on how life is “supposed” to be done. We must learn to accept limitation within our own sense of knowing. We must learn to accept vulnerability as a way of being. And we must not shy away from the fear of our own embodied, embedded knowing.

In order to overcome these theological mistakes of omnipotence, infallible truth, and disconnection from our bodies, we must stand up and declare, “I AM.” I am truth. I am love. I am an incarnation of the Divine. And I know what is best for me, and what is best for me is also best for the community at large. The boldest motion we can do for ourselves is to let God’s light shine in our life. The boldest affirmation we can make in this world is the task with which Jesus offered and tasked his followers: our own True Identity. The boldest love we can give is the permission for ourselves and others to be who we are meant to be—embodied and emboldened and embedded creatures of Creation.  

IAM

Recommended Reading list for Process/Relational Theology that influenced this blog post:

Omnipotence and other Theological Mistakes by Charles Hartshorne

Process Theology: A Basic Introduction by Robert Mesle

Making a Way Out of No Way by Monica Coleman

She Who Changes: Re-Imagining the Divine in the World by Carol P. Christ

The Fall to Violence by Marjorie Hewitt Suchocki