We Will Not Be Owned: A Response to Roy Moore & Purity Culture

Nausea washed over me when I saw the article in my feed about Pastor Flip Benham’s statement that Roy Moore dated younger women because of their purity. The coded fetishization is something that ought to sicken us all, but for those of us raised in purity culture it bears with it an extra stench.

The heartbreaking stench of a “Vote Trump” sign in front of the home of a friend, father, brother, whom you were taught was supposed to “protect” you from men like Trump.

The stench of Joshua Harris’s apology during the heat of last year’s election to all the women whose lives were damaged by his book, “I Kissed Dating Goodbye”, the Holy Grail of purity culture.

The stench of insincere apologies from unrepentant men who preened on the progressive moral high-ground for decades, while using their power to take from women what they wanted behind the scenes.

Purity: freedom from adulteration or contamination. freedom from anything that debases, contaminates, pollutes.

Freedom. It would be hard to find a more ironic choice of word. 

Purity in reality has been related to women’s status as property. Women, transferred from one man to another. Unsullied. Undamaged. Property. Extra virgin, just like the olive oil. A descriptor of our status and value and worth. Neither “Good” nor “Excellent” would do, our Amazon rating must be “Like New” or the purchase is void.

We strived to keep our wrapping intact, for the purchaser on the other end. We tried to make sure that we were worthy of being “Handled with Care.” Even so, our wrapping could be torn by a bike accident. Or a young ER doctor in Nashville who really wants to get in some practice with a speculum while you are sedated on morphine and cannot say no anymore. Or, for so many of us, a #MeToo moment, a Roy Moore moment, or a #ChurchToo moment.

Then in this historic moment, all is revealed. The evangelical churches that raised us overwhelmingly stand up in support of a man who we have known was a tearer of wrappings since we were kids. He is no stranger to us. We have watched how Trump treated women our whole lives. Our whole lives. Our whole lives. Our whole lives. When the churches we were raised in supported him, it revealed that our whole lives were a lie. We had never been special. We had never been precious. We had always been property. Like a hammer. Like a spoon. Utilitarian. Use us as you may.

Is it any wonder the onslaught of fury and honesty that has been unleashed from women who have been betrayed. Women who have stayed silent because our culture told us that it was we who were at fault if the estimation of our property value was diminished by the unwelcome touch of a heavy hand.

Then a pastor leans up to a microphone in Alabama, and he tears the whole facade down. “He did that because there is something about the purity of a young woman, there is something that is good, that’s true, that’s straight and he looked for that.” He tells us that Roy Moore went for younger women because they were more pure. Translation: Some conservative Christian men fetishize our innocence and fantasize about being the first to get to us. Our purity, they believe, like everything else about us, belongs to them. In their lecherous perversion, they salivate at the innocence of children. They long to unwrap us like a new phone, with no fingerprints or scratches. They do not want to be the second one to get to us.

For we all know the property value drops the moment that you drive the car off the lot.

As a Christian minister, I must confess the role the church has played in this, even while standing in the role of victim more than perpetrator. Yet, is that not the burden that the world places upon women. To both bear the mess, and be the ones to clean it up. We told young women this was about our relationship with God, which it can be. Yet, the earthly consequences we heaped on them when they acted with self-possession, as if their bodies were their own and no one else’s, made it clear that this was much more about earthly powers than heavenly ones. We called them damaged goods. We taught them that male aggression was caused by the length of their shorts. We measured them with rulers when they came to school. Once “sullied,” we told them no one would want them now. At the same time we elevated the very men whose contact supposedly contaminated them. We looked down our nose at them like so many dented cans in the bargain bin, judging can but not denter.

If we really think about it, we never even tried to hide it. For what are “damaged goods” but another way of telling someone they are property. What is “left on the shelf” but another way of saying unpurchased.

I will not be owned.

Sisters, let us not be owned.

You are valuable, just as you are. You are powerful, just as you are.

You are beautiful, even if no one ever tells you. I’m telling you now.

You are brave, look at all that we have born.

We will not be owned.

When We Cannot Say Her Name

On the Sonora, Mexico side of the border wall running through Nogales, I bent over to pick up a white cross from the dust. “Girl, 18, Mexico,” it read. Two words and a number, all that was left of a life cut short by this desert whose dangers we make light of as “a dry heat.” A few yards away musicians played for the crowd assembled on both sides of the wall, a community of people intersected by the rusty metal slats that unnaturally divide our life here in the Sonoran desert. These bars that seek to diminish our humanity on both sides as men in Michigan and Iowa and Washington debate the contours of our lives. Who comes, who goes. Who stays, who leaves. You would not dare to ask a person which of their arms they would like to keep, but here we stand under the daily threat of our communal body being hacked, vital limb from vital limb. They threaten to take from us those people that we cannot live without, and expect that we will accept it heads bowed low.

I looked down at the cross in my hand and felt the weight of it wash over me. For the past two years of my life, I have fought to make the world #SayHerName #SandraBland from the moment that those words left her sisters lips at the pulpit of Hope AME in July of 2015. Thousands of hours, of miles, of images posted from the jail where she died. Relentless, consuming, determination that she would not be silenced. Hundreds of videos covering the progress of the case, and documenting the activity of the police. We said her name and it drew out with it others: Natasha McKenna. Renisha McBride. Yvette Smith. Rekia Boyd. Gynnya McMillen.

I looked down at the cross in my hand and realized that we could not draw out her name from that wood anymore than we could from the sand and dust that had cradled her. I could not scratch behind the paint to unearth it. I could not cut into the wood. I could not claw the truth out of the sand.

How do we find justice for her when we cannot even Say Her Name?*

Girl, 18, Mexico. Unidentified. Unknown.

As is the tradition of the School of the Americas Watch, the crosses were picked up and the names read one by one. 147 deaths in our Sonoran desert this year alone; 147 that were found at least. Driving through our border lands, it is easy to see how some could disappear without even two words and a number to mark their passing. Each name was read, as the crosses were lifted, and voices raised to answer “Presente.”

The School of the Americas was opened by the U.S. Military in the Panama Canal Zone in 1946 and trained Latin American soldiers in assassination, interrogation, and psychological tactics to control the politics of the region and quell uprisings of the people. It’s graduates include Manuel Noriega, Leopoldo Galtieri, and Hugo Banzer Suarez. In 1980, soldiers trained at the School of the Americas were involved in the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero as he celebrated Mass. Four years later, in 1984, Panama was able to rid themselves of the School, but it re-opened in Fort Benning, Georgia the same year. In 2000, the school ‘closed’ only to reopen the next year and rebrand itself as the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation. As citizens of the United States engage in uproar over Russian meddling in our elections, we stand in a nation that has indulged in a rich tradition of interference in other nations’ governance.

I looked down at the cross in my hand with the realization of what I held. This tool of execution. This archaic electric chair. This noose. This pyre. This needle. This wall. This cross. The thousands of ways we have killed people by the power of the State. The thousands of ways we have continued to miss the whole point of it all. Adorning our walls and necks with an instrument of death, forgetting it’s implications for those that we kill, embedding it with jewels and filagree and flowers. Compromising the Gospel as it fits our needs, our prejudices, and our economic goals. Slathering the name of Jesus like butter over burnt toast, attempting to cover up the burning.

I looked down at the cross in my hand and realized how much of Christianity remains unconverted. We seek and speak and vote to banish Jesus from our company. As the arbiters of condemnation, we speak with Paul’s words, challenging people about whether they are ‘saved,’ without lining up our own lives agains the measure of Jesus words and example to discover where we stand.

“I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was an immigrant and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in detention and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or an immigrant or naked or sick or in detention, and did not take care of you?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

We have Christians walking around bold, condemning people to their left and right without taking an honest inventory of the unrelenting cruelty that pervades their life both in word and in deed, stripping them of any claim to the name of Jesus even as they use that name to rain down judgment on their neighbor.

Girl, 18, Mexico. Unidentified. Unknown.

Jesus was there when she said the same words that he spoke as he died: I thirst.

Where were we as she lay dying? Where were we as he lay dying?

Girl, 18, Mexico.

How do we find justice for her when we cannot even Say Her Name?

Still without a name, we can know that the same system of white supremacy that killed Sandra, by one means or another, took down Girl, 18, Mexico as well. This system that teaches us to fear one another. This system that criminalizes and dehumanizes people of color. This system that targets the most vulnerable for elimination by the power of Empire.

What can we give her in death that we did not give her in life? We can tear down the system that took both their lives. We can tear down the system that this cross in my hand represents, this symbol of state violence, this symbol of the powerful intimidating the people into fear. Leaving Jesus on the cross to intimidate those who would rise up against the Romans. Leaving Michael Brown in the streets of Ferguson. Leaving Jose Antonio Elena Rodriguez in the streets of Nogales. Leaving Sandra Brand unchecked in her cell. Leaving Girl, 18, Mexico to pass from recognition under the heat of the Sonoran sun.

We can educate ourselves to understand that we have caused the very flow of humanity that we seek to impede. We can spend 5 minutes researching our own nation’s abuses of others’ democracies for every 1 minute that we spend outraged over Russia’s abuse of ours.

We can start by tearing down that Wall. We can start by understanding that Jesus is not on our side of it. Like a spear, the wall has pierced his body, separating blood from water, limb from limb.

In this, our desert, he pleads through the rusty slats that pierced his side once more, “I thirst.”

His name? “Girl, 18, Mexico.” Say it.

…just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me… 

 

*This week, as we honor Transgender Day of Remembrance, it is important to remember as we engage in the movement to Say Her Name it’s roots in the erasure of transgender women of color as media outlets and family members would misgender and misname transgender women of color in death, doing further violence to them and leading to the push to Say Her Name. 

 

On Appearing in the Senate Intel Report

When I first saw myself in collar and Sandra Bland pin, front and center of a photo released by Senator Richard Burr, Chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, I laughed it off. “Well, I’m part of Russian propaganda, now,” I told my friend as we watched the Houston Astros crush Game 7 of the World Series.

When I took a closer look at what the photo was supposed to portray, however, I became concerned. The photo was not part of the propaganda the Russians had employed, rather it was photos the government had on file of a protest they were describing as one which the Russians planned in an attempt to bring together two volatile groups to fight in the street.

By the next morning, when I awakened to a clip of Jimmy Fallon talking about the thousands of people who had been manipulated to show up for contrasting pro-Muslim and anti-Muslim protests, I began to realize that this was more than a laughing matter. By mid-morning, when receiving messages from friends assuring me that they knew I wasn’t a servant of the Russian state, I was concerned.

Let me set a few things straight.

IslamophobiaFirst of all, no one that I know holding “Peace on Earth” posters and boxes of Arm & Hammer baking soda had come to stand outside the Islamic Dawah Center because of a Facebook event planned by Russia under the premise of claiming to be “United Muslims of America.” Folks were there because of a Facebook event put together by a real, live, Lonestar College student who delivers pizza when he is not studying criminal justice and was wise enough to change from Papa John’s to Pizza Hut before their stocks tanked this week. The event was called “Stop Islamophobia: Defend the Muslim Community.”

And, yes, for those of you who may already have guessed, people brought boxes of Arm & Hammer so that we could make light of the fact that we were standing across the street from men and women with AK-47’s who actually had been brought there by Russia under it’s “Heart of Texas” disguise. We were “armed” too… with baking soda. You have to smile when you can.

What people need to know about the past few years, and let’s just call it decades, in Texas, is that, for some of us, confronting white supremacist hate and violence was as regular a part of our routine as getting our morning coffee. Pre-election, that same group that was summoned by the Russians would show up on regular occasions with their assault rifles and vitriol. They did it in front of the NAACP; they did it in front of the Jewish Anti-Defamation League; they pretty much went anywhere that Hitler would have gone. They may have shown up on May 21, 2016 because the Russians summoned them, but the Russians did not create their racism; the Russians only created one more of many opportunities they had to exhibit it.

“…confronting white supremacist hate and violence was as regular a part of our routine as getting our morning coffee…”

On September 26, 2016, several months after the event that Burr released photos of, and just shy of a month before the election of Donald Trump, a disgruntled attorney wearing a Nazi uniform showed up at a strip mall near the offices of the Anti-Defamation League and opened fire. He injured nine people before being shot by police.

What Senator Richard Burr failed to include in his comments is that standing up against white supremacy in Texas means looking death in the eye every day. To equate those who stand for love, with those who stand for hate, as equal pawns in the hands of the Russians is to do a severe disservice to the truth.

“To equate those who stand for love, with those who stand for hate, as equal pawns in the hands of the Russians is to do a severe disservice to the truth…”

So, let me tell you who was hanging out there across from those assault rifles on May 21, summoned not by the Russians, but by a pizza delivering college student who wanted Muslims to feel safe and loved in our city of Houston.

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Photo by Burnell McCray

Instead of Jimmy Fallon’s thousands, there was probably more like a hundred of us. We were poets, and musicians, and grandmothers and children. There was a hilarious comedian, David, who got on the mic to do a set about flying while being a brown man to lighten the mood. There was a band that often showed up to these kinds of events with brass instruments and drums to keep the atmosphere light-hearted; you don’t want things to get too serious when you are staring at the barrel of a Nazi’s gun. There was a whole crew of Unitarian Universalists in their highly recognizable yellow “Standing on the Side of Love” tshirts. I think it was Amir, one of the most influential poets in Houston, who brought the Arm & Hammer baking soda that cracked me up. There were folks from SURJ, and a sweet older woman who had brought the speaker that the comedian did his set on. I also used it to talk to the folks across the street about Jesus and our calling to love. Surprisingly, they actually stopped their taunts and listened, causing me to wonder if hearing a preacher speak against racism was that rare in their life that it merited curiosity.

We showed up there not to fight with white supremacists, in the street or otherwise; and to be clear, Russia had nothing to do with our presence. The reason we showed up was very simple: our Muslim brothers and sisters were going to be faced with armed men and we did not want them to do it alone. We placed our bodies, as we often did between hate and its object and we spoke love into the space.

In the year that followed, white supremacists became even bolder. With the election of Trump, they made every sidewalk a potential place to encounter their hate. The week after the election, while attending one of the poetry events that Amir curates at Avant Garden, a white man who works for “Hook it Up, Towing” in Houston, Texas began to heckle the Black woman who was performing poetry over the fence of the courtyard with the words, “White Power, Donald Trump Rules! White Power, Donald Trump Rules!” When we came outside the venue and I found him cowering in his black BMW with a license plate reading Euro Power, he threatened us by telling us he had a gun before speeding off into the night. He would continue to be an intimidating presence in the Montrose neighborhood of Houston.

In January, when Trump’s travel ban kept some of our college students trapped at Bush International Airport, I would be physically assaulted by William Fears, a white supremacist who now lies in custody at the Alachua County Jail for attempted homicide of protestors in Florida.

We do not stand against white supremacy because Russia compels us to do so. We stand against white supremacy because our consciences compel us not to leave hate unanswered.

Some took a stand for love because they were Muslim; or assumed to be, because when hate is looking for a place to land, it is not overly picky. Some because they know that violence against one is violence against all. For me, it was because some wise people once said these words:

“If I fall, I’ll fall five feet four inches forward in the fight for freedom.” -Fannie Lou Hamer (beaten to the brink of death by racist jailers, June 9th, 1963)

“In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” -Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (martyred by white supremacist, April 4, 1968)

“We are not to simply bandage the wounds of victims beneath the wheels of injustice, we are to drive a spoke into the wheel itself.” -Rev. Dietrich Bonhoeffer (martyred by the Nazis, April 9, 1945)

“Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” -Jesus of Nazareth (martyred by the Roman Empire, AD 33)

To Senator Richard Burr, Republican of North Carolina, let’s be careful about creating any appearance that we are equating racists with those who stand against them. History has taught us how easily it is for those who preach peace to find themselves under the heel of the boot.