The Pulpit as Intersectional Space: Jesus’ Good News
When I was 16 years old I found the courage to say “no more” to an abusive relationship that included sexual assault, stalking, and emotional tyranny. After that day, his threats and stalking got much worse. But I knew that I would rather die standing in my truth, than live in the captivity of trying to placate him anymore. Jesus led the way. I heard and believed Christ’s voice of healing, “I want you to be well.”
After I said “no more” school became a place I dreaded to go. He was a great athlete in my small town so people thought he could do no wrong. He was watching me with an aggressive stare, he would skulk around any other boy who talked to me, and he would leave notes in my locker that he was going to kill himself or hurt me if I didn’t come back to the relationship.
He became especially aggressive as prom time approached. No one had the courage to ask me because of him. So I asked a friend who had already graduated if he would take me. It was the 16-year old me trying to regain some power, trying to find some joy in my junior year of high school. This enraged him. When he got wind of it, he got more aggressive pushing me into a locker, following me around the halls, following me in his car, standing up on the hill during track practice and waiting for me to leave.
One day during lunch in front of the whole school, he approached me and began yelling at me about my alleged prom date. I quietly gathered my books (I had wisely strategized that I should not talk to him when he tried to talk to me) and stood up to walk away. He knocked all my books down to the ground. I began to pick them up. Every time I leaned over he would push me. No one watching said anything or stood to help me. I kept picking up my books and he kept pushing me. I finally got all my books picked up and walked through the doorway into the lobby of my high school. At the entrance to the door stood one of his friends. As I walked past him he said, “If you weren’t such a bitch he wouldn’t have to act this way.”
I was initiated into the world of hostile men and how our culture protects them at an early age. Since then, I have become even wiser to those dynamics. Because my workplace is the church, I’ve become wise to how those dynamics work in the church as well. Power is not a one size fits all reality, it is an intersectional one. The way culture marks us as bodies, as voices, and as sources of authority is formed and fed by the intersections of race, gender, sexual identity and orientation, class, and culture. When a woman is a pastor she has to navigate all sorts of dynamics that men do not.
I have had male parishioners comment on my clothing and appearance almost everyday of my professional life. I have had a male colleague with lesser training than me say, “why do you think you should be able to call yourself Dr.” When I pointed out that I have a PhD so that is an appropriate part of my title, he did not relent with his judgment that it was arrogant of me to use that title. I have had male colleagues in positions of power over me in the church sexually harass me. I have had a male parishioner try to get me fired because I am just a “cheerleader” in the pulpit. I have had men come in the church after hours and block my office door with their bodies while they asked me for everything from money to personal information to a date. And that is just a partial list of what the church has taught me about women in ministry and the nature of our power.
When I step into the pulpit each Sunday, I take up space there with all these intersections of power and identity in the church and in our world. I am not a victim in the pulpit, but I am a survivor. I am not a disembodied person; I am a woman with battle scars and years of healing work under my belt. When I wear a robe, it is not just because of John Calvin’s contention that teaching elders wear academic regalia; it is to help protect me from the gaze of those who scrutinize my dress and my appearance. I am not a free agent, I am serving a God who calls me to preach about healing and justice and freedom and joy. And that call invites me to embody the good news I have known as a woman whose life has been saved by Jesus.
The pulpit is an intersectional space—that means I do not occupy it the same way a man does. That means people of color do not occupy it the same way I do as a white person. That means LGBTQ people occupy it with their experiences in a way I do not and cannot because of my sexuality. The pulpit holds and folds power and identity into the task of preaching good news to the oppressed, truth to power, and freedom to the captives. It is a space of power and vulnerability. It is a space of power IN vulnerability. Consider for a moment, for example, how fraught and pressing the preaching task is for people of color in our current cultural moment. The collective memory of the black prophets of our modern age like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X being gunned down while speaking truth to power are present each time a person of color stands to proclaim the Gospel. For the church to be the church we need to support such courage and hold space for the voices of those most impacted to be heard from the pulpit. The pulpit is intersectional, and that is how it has the capacity to be a place where Gospel is proclaimed.
The way I use my power in the pulpit carries with it the layers of what it means to be a women in an institution that was formed by and is still policed by men. Men of my father’s and my grandfather’s and my great grandfather’s generations who were taught never to say anything personal in the pulpit, came along in a world where the white male experience was equated with the human experience. They didn’t need to use personal experience because their experience was the human experience that spoke to them from the commentaries and from seminary professors.
Recently the Spirit led me to speak truth from the pulpit about someone who is abusing his power in my current ministry context. This was an urging I did not readily heed. But after months of attempts to remedy the situation through formal channels and no let up in his destructive behavior, I named the behaviors, not the person, in the context of a sermon about Jesus being who we follow into the fray.
Unlike my teenage days when I stood up to an abuser alone, as an adult I know how to seek support in situations when there is bullying behavior. As a pastor I could see how these behaviors were hurting other people in the church, not just me. Secrets protect bullies. Sunlight supports healthy systems.
Since that sermon I have been overwhelmed with the gratitude I’ve received from all sorts of people for naming something that had been going on for too long, for being honest about a problem in the church, and for inviting the church to be a healthy place. And there a few who say I turned the pulpit into a “bully pulpit” or that I used it for a “personal vendetta.” It is troubling, but not unexpected, to find the courage to say “no more” to a bully in the context of church and then be told that I am the bully. It’s something I guess women or others whose power is tenuous in our culture will always hear from someone when they find the courage to say “no more.” It is the intersectionality of the pulpit that means I am not called to occupy that space the same way others are. My careful and prayerful attentiveness to the preaching task will not always please everyone, but with God’s help it will have Good News for everyone.
I learned a long time ago that being a healthy person isn’t something the church always knows how to support. This time around it’s not just my health that is at stake. I am taking up space as someone charged with caring for a community of believers, not just for myself. And I will use everything that God has given me—my experiences, my training, my conscience, and my courage, to serve the community God has called me to shepherd, to teach, and to love. The pulpit’s intersectionality is one way ministers live into our call. And that is why the pulpit is a place from which we can sometimes actually hear the Good News: Jesus is a healer and he wants us to be well!