I grew up in a world that preached of a need for a redeemer—of my failures and my inability to do any good on my own. This is the story of my redemption and finding the greatest joy my heart has ever known.
I was born into the role of the enemy in my own life’s story. Every thought I had—sinful. Every action I took—double minded. I would never know a pure mind or heart because we live in a sinful world where that can’t possibly exist. The language that was used to show us that Christ was our savior, more than anything, drove the point home that I was worthless—I could never be a hero, even in my own imagination. Regardless, my job was to keep working towards purity and holiness despite the fact that achieving it was well known to be impossible. A treadmill pointed in the direction of Heaven.
I longed for the eventual day when all of this self-hatred would burst forth into the freedom and joy that we sang of from our hymnals. I knew that if I was just more holy, finally I would see light. Seeking guidance, I had learned to explain away the perpetual guilt and bondage that I felt as simply an indicator that I was far from understanding the complex nature of God’s salvation. I wasn’t working hard enough.
I hated myself as an act of obedience to Christ. I was full of sin and he was full of light and there is no darkness in him. So while I prayed, daily, for him to come live inside of my heart I had an inkling that even if he did, our spirits could not really co-exist. I knew he was there because I’d asked him to be there and they told me those were the rules. But I could not feel him. I pictured him setting up camp in a sealed jar inside of my heart, present but never risking contamination.
They preached modesty because our bodies belonged to Jesus as well as our one-day husbands. The boys’ minds will wander and how dare we lead them down a path of sexual destruction when their minds should be focused on the holy things. The mind of a boy—the way his whole life could be derailed simply by bearing witness to the presence of skin was my responsibility.
What if you happened upon someone who didn’t know that Jesus would save them from Hell if only they’d ask him to? It’s so easy if you just tell them about what he can do for them. I hadn’t yet felt this freedom they promised but I was sure it was coming—in fact, maybe I’d finally feel it if I helped to save a person from themselves. Just stop and tell them about Jesus—it’s easy. On top of all these other things to feel guilty about, what’s the weight of another person’s soul? Pile it on, I’d learned to bear the weight.
I was nearing the end of my education at a liberal arts Christian University before the heaviness became too much to bear and I started to toy with the idea of dropping some of it. I stopped going to church on Sunday mornings. That first Sunday, I realized that the only other people in the dorm at that time of day were the hung-over girls and they weren’t going to judge me. I became the one who would retrieve food for them. I’d bring them water and tacos and help them to feel a little better. I never felt guilt over missing church and fully embraced my position as Administrator of Fast Food. It was the first time that I remember feeling like I could breathe full, whole breaths unencumbered by the weight of duty.
I had been told that people who turned their backs on the way that we’d been raised would have no moral compass—that there was nothing to pull them towards living a good life. One person told me that the only thing keeping him from cold-blooded murder was his love for Jesus and the same was true of me. Of course I believed him but it turns out, this wasn’t true. More than anything, my love for others blossomed under the freedom that I finally felt when I began to leave that life behind.
I started dropping other small things and by the time I was 25, I’d given it all up. All of it. I was shocked at how quickly and effortlessly it all just slipped away. The guilt, the self-hatred, the responsibility for the lives and afterlives of others—it dropped right off. Things I held so tightly for so long didn’t hold onto me at all. It felt like sun on my back and wind on my face after a lifetime in a basement. Regardless of this relief, I couldn’t help but resent the faith that I was born into. I blamed it for keeping this joy from me for so long. But with all the rubble of my former belief system at my feet, I began a decade-long excavation process where I was able to pick things up individually, research, and listen to find out exactly how I really felt about subjects.
It was around this time that a dear friend of mine breezily referred to herself and her husband as feminists. I played it cool but I was flabbergasted by what she said. She mentioned it in such a way that suggested that anyone who isn’t a total monster is a feminist. I laughed along, pretended to understand what she was talking about and made a note to do some Googling when I got home. It’s not that I’d never heard of feminism before—it’s just that the only way it had ever been presented to me was in a negative context. In the world in which I grew up, a feminist was basically the worst thing that a woman could be. She laughed in the face of tradition and she sought to destroy God’s idea of family. In my research, I tried to maintain a cynical point of view. I didn’t want to blindly accept something simply because it felt to be in conflict with the faith I had left behind. In the deconstruction of my faith, it never occurred to me to pick up this concept, turn it over in my hands, and learn about it in a new way. But when I did, I saw that there was nothing scary about feminism. In fact there was nothing about feminism that didn’t feel absolutely right deep inside of my spirit.
On a basic level, I agree with my friend: anyone who has much basic decency is a feminist at least to a certain degree—whether they acknowledge it or not. Believing that all persons should be honored as humans and not treated differently based on gender is really all it takes. A whole and happy life is for all of us. Feminism told me that I was the hero of my story and that I didn’t have to wait around for someone to save me or even that I needed saved in the first place. When I encountered this world, it was the first time that I’d ever been told that I was worthy of good things or that I was capable of making them happen. I learned that I had certain skills and affinities for certain tasks—I didn’t just have a list of things that women must do. I finally felt an ownership over my life and my body. All this and more compelled me to seek out ways that I could shine this truth to other people, as well. I wanted to shout from the rooftops, “Have you seen this? Did you know how great and capable you are?!”
In more recent years, I joined a private Feminist Facebook group and that has been personally revolutionary in so many ways—not only in a community building sense, but in prompting me to look more closely at the faith with which I was raised. Perhaps there was a baby in that bathwater all along. Many of my deepest friends are believers and they have found a way to marry their faith with their feminism—I see it play out in a certain ways that make it look like the two concepts were made for each other and I wish this was something I’d seen in my youth. Sometimes I wonder if it’s just too late for me–I’m not there and I might never be and I’m very comfortable with that. Cynicism is still an important aspect to the way that I view the world but the bitterness is getting left behind on account of all of this joy.
The more I learned about equality, I learned about my privileges, Intersectionality, and the way that I could be advocating for equality between all types of people. It’s never been about raising up women and leaving everyone else in the dirt—contrary to what I’d been originally taught. Advocacy for safety and security of all people of all races, gender identities, sexual orientations, all abilities and sizes is crucial to the feminism to which I subscribe. Feminism tells me to stand in the way of those things set to destroy others.
Feminism gave me everything that decades in the church promised would come to me in time—but in a completely different and unexpected way. “Feminist” was the first and only label that I adopted after I decided that I didn’t want them anymore. It’s the only label that has given me more freedom than chains. I feel free when I am strong enough in my body and in my mind to stand up on behalf of someone else. Whether it’s to serve tacos to the hung over or to march on behalf of the forgotten in our community—I have found strength in these bones to rise up. I have finally found redemption.
Lead photo: Blue Muse Photography