Questions of faith color so much of southern culture that the late Flannery O’Connor described the south as a “Christ-haunted landscape”. Some would add as well that we are a race-haunted landscapes, with our towns and countryside littered with the vestiges of southern slavery and racial segregation – from the beautiful plantation mansions some tour, to the confederate memorials, to the market houses in the center of many of our towns where people were sold as property alongside produce.
In my feature “letters from a haunted landscape” I want to review books which speak to issues in our southern culture from a progressive perspective. As I’ve noted previously in my blog, one task the progressive Christian has here in the south is of embracing the beautiful and good in our southern story and culture while also working to name and exorcise the remnants of prejudice which also have been so intricately woven into our way of life that neither the Civil War or the Civil Rights movement has fully removed.
One lingering legacy of the old Southern patriarchal system is how some churches historically have not only endorsed first slavery and then racism, but also the oppression of women. I’ve always been aware of the church using letters attributed to St. Paul that say things like “women submit” and “women be silent in the church” to silence women who felt called to speak up against injustice or to speak God’s Word. While working among those who were homeless a few years ago I had a chance to work in a leading southern city with families affected by domestic violence. I met many women who had been horribly abused, some beaten within an inch of their life, by controlling & abusive husbands. Many of them had to flee their home, children in hand, for safety. What broke my heart the most about these tear-filled women and their children was hearing how the churches they came from often would actually make situations worse. Many would share about telling their experience to pastors or mothers of the church only to hear a call to forgive their abuser, to give him another chance, or to be shamed by questions like “what have you done wrong?” Many struggled with their experience, wondering where God was in their journey. Sadly too often just as we have often been on the wrong side of history about racism and about homophobia, so the church has failed to know how to be on the right side of issues women of faith are facing in their families and their personal life.
I was recently blessed to receive and read a copy of Rev. Dian Griffin Jackson’s book Phoenix – Rising From the Ashes. This book tackles head on many of the issues Christian women and women of color face in their lives, many of which they are often shamed into silence about in the church. Being written by a North Carolina pastor, it reminds us that faith can be big enough for the questions, struggles, and heartache faced by women in our communities struggling to find their way in the face of abuse. It also deals directly with the experiences of a mother of color in the south – from seeing first hand the experience of rejection by the church and community the main character, Melanie, not only experiences but also her gay son; as well as the experience of a son who experiences the very stigmatization by the criminal justice system I discussed in my review of the New Jim Crow. Rev. Jackson goes beyond just describing the heart-felt experiences through the voice of the protagonist to boldly presented in a no holds bar way the questions about faith, the doubts, and even the struggle to recover one’s sense of holy sexuality and comfortability in their own body one faces when recovering from the experience of abuse.
And Melanie, the protagonist of this story, not only begins the process of healing from abuse and other heartaches, she truly discovers her own inner strength and her own voice. Before the end of the novel, you see her begin to live with confidence and boldness, owning her own power as a woman of God.
I highly recommend Phoenix – Rising From the Ashes for any one wanting to become more aware of the issues faced by women of color, women experiencing abuse, or women ministers in the church. It is a powerful clarion-call from a southern woman for the church to wake up to its need to embrace and support all God’s children and particularly for women in our communities to discover their own sources of healing and inner strength.
Before reading this book I was graced to meet Rev. Jackson, a United Church of Christ pastor in the association I serve. Here is an example of a powerful sermon she gave recently on this same theme:
As I prepared to read the book, I heard from few fellow UCC ministers in my association to be careful because you will not be able to put her book down. And it did not disappoint. Once I got through the initial introduction to the book, the heartfelt and honest story in its pages drew me in. The courageous honesty of the protagonist, Melanie, to tell her story openly without holding back made me feel as if I am sitting right beside her in her experience of motherhood, of experiencing abuse at the hands of her husband, in finding the strength to stand up for herself and find her strength. Although there are a few editing issues which at times distracted me from the deep meat of the book (the only criticism I have for the book), I still could not put it down.
I’d encourage you to consider reading this book on your own or with a book club at your church or in your community.
And all of us, let’s raise our voices in this same clarion call until all our daughters and sisters recognize their full strength, vitality, beauty, and freedom so that they no more feel a need to take a second class place in life.
And I ain’t just whistling Dixie!
Your progressive redneck preacher,