By Janene Cates Putman
Janene writes: I recently had the distinct pleasure of chatting with Christian feminist, writer, speaker, TV producer, news pundit, ordained reverend, life coach, and abuse-victim advocate Ashley Easter. In this short conversation, she gave me such joy and hope. I know you’ll feel it, too.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity. Janene’s questions are noted by her initials, JCP, and Ashley’s answers by her initials, AE.
Rocking the World in a Good Way
JCP: Thanks for being with us today, Ashley Easter! Let’s just jump right into it. Will you please give our readers who aren’t familiar with you a brief background on your story?
AE: I grew up in the independent fundamentalist Baptist church. Both of my grandfathers were pastors in that denomination, so I was very churched. I left at around age twenty-one. It was a very patriarchal environment, a very legalistic environment. I experienced multiple forms of abuse growing up in that church experience. Overall, it was not a positive experience, but I did develop faith in God in that community. That faith has since evolved and shifted and grown. I still hold to faith now; it’s just one that is extremely different than the one I grew up with.
JCP: For me, one of the definitions of faith has to do with growing and shifting and evolving. Because I’m not the same person I was yesterday, and my faith is part of me, it makes logical sense in my mind that, as I grow and shift and evolve, my faith would also do those things.
AE: Absolutely – I believe that 100 percent. I know it’s cliché, but I think of a tree; if it’s not growing, it’s dying. I want to see that growth.
JCP: Congratulations on your ordination. How did that come about?
AE: From the age of four, maybe even younger, I felt this call to preach. I was one of those kids who would line up my stuffed animals and serve them communion. At bath time, I would pretend my boat was on the Sea of Galilee and I was Jesus preaching to the disciples. It was very much a part of what I felt God was calling me to do from a young age. When I was about seven years old, I disclosed this to my grandfather pastor. His response was not one of anger, but he was very matter-of-fact in telling me that women don’t do that. It was devastating.
Combined with a lot of other things, that really repressed my spiritual gifts, my personality, and my person in general. I lost that passion for years. I thought of other ways to have that gift come out, so I was speaking and writing and finding all the loopholes to preach without preaching. When I discovered egalitarianism and realized that God calls women, too, it took me years from that point, but I steadily regained this desire to become ordained. Last October, I was ordained with the Progressive Christian Alliance. It was a great fit and a very powerful experience. I don’t cry for things like that, but I sobbed. It was so meaningful.
JCP: I love that! I saw something in your bio that fascinated me that I hadn’t heard about. It says you are a TV producer. Please tell me about that.
AE: Last year, I was contacted by a production company, and in the last nine months I have been steadily working with them to develop TV shows around abuse and healing and those types of things. These shows are not out on TV yet; it takes a bit of time. I can’t disclose too much information but stay tuned for a big announcement! This is going to rock the world in a good way and bring the voices of survivors up and out of oppressive environments.
JCP: I totally resonate with that. I just got God-bumps when you were talking about that. I know God is going to do big things with that. I hope when you’re ready for the announcement, you’ll talk to us again.
AE: Oh, that’ll be great.
A Dynamic Duo for a North Star
JCP: You say in your book, The Courage Coach, that, following your abuse, you needed a North Star to guide you. How did you find that North Star, and what is it for you?
AE: That’s an excellent question. For me, the North Star that I found was really my mission and the Holy Spirit, a combination of both of those. As a person of faith, I believe that God speaks to us today and that God was drawing me out of that abusive environment and showing me the light and opening me up to many healing modalities. I was learning that I was going to heal and be safe and start working in a field to help other people. I felt the Holy Spirit was my North Star, along with my intuition. I think every person has an inner voice. Our mind is such an intricate thing; we have a conscious mind—what we think about—and an unconscious mind, with signs and symbols and things we pick up. Our brain works so fast that we can’t process it, but we get gut feelings. I started listening to those gut feelings. When I listen to gut feelings, combined with my faith, that protects me. That has served me so well. My North Star is really the Holy Spirit and my intuition—that dynamic duo.
JCP: That picture of a dynamic duo is so powerful! How did you develop your intuition? After my abusive marriage, I had to relearn how to trust my gut and listen to my heart and pay attention to my intuition, because I had to squash them all of those years. It was a process for me to get that back.
AE: Yes. I think that is so common. I remember as a young child having that intuition. Then, through a series of unhealthy events, I really silenced that voice. I was encouraged to listen to other people’s voices rather than my own intuition. Growing up, I believed in complementarianism. When I got older and started asking questions, that was a crisis point in my life. I knew if I kept asking questions and doing research I would have to change. So I took the time to get alone and to listen again. I learned my intuition was still there. Writing down my thoughts, asking myself questions, stretched my intuition. There’s a difference between feelings and intuition. With feelings, there are a lot of emotions attached. With intuition, there is clarity and “knowing.” Asking questions and listening for that first knowing is the process to start activating that intuition again. And you’re right; it’s a journey.
JCP: My best friend always said that my fatal flaw was second-guessing myself. Many times in my previous life, I would act on my intuition, and then I would second-guess myself. Or I would make a good decision, second-guess myself, and take it back. I really had to learn to trust my gut. I agree with you. In my experience, there was much listening to the Holy Spirit and getting alone and listening to my thoughts instead of other people’s thoughts. I had to learn that my instincts are good; my intuition is spot-on. I think our intuition is somehow connected to the image of God in us. To squelch that is to squelch the image of God in us, which, of course, is the very essence of abuse.
AE: Absolutely. I 100 percent agree! Abusers like to flood your mind with their thoughts so that you don’t have time to think your own thoughts and you don’t have space to process. One of my biggest recommendations to someone who may be in an abusive relationship—if you can safely do it—is to take a couple of hours by yourself to listen to yourself without the bombardment of negativity; you’ll be surprised at the wisdom you’re able to find.
JCP: I completely agree.
Do You Have Free Choice?
JCP: Now, with the wisdom that we’re talking about comes choices. And you mention in your book The Courage Coach the difference between free choice and “bounded choice.” Tell me a bit about that.
AE: This is something that’s often a stigma against abuse survivors. Bounded choice is really just the illusion of free choice. In free choice, you may experience natural consequences for your decisions, but there is no guilt or shame or punishment for making those choices. There’s no one from the outside who is punishing you in some way for those choices. That’s a truly free choice. A bounded choice is when somebody says you can choose; but if you don’t choose the way they want you to, they enact punishment that isn’t a natural consequence of that choice. An example of that could be a woman growing up in a patriarchal environment. There’s somebody saying, “It’s your choice to submit to your husband.” That may sound good, but it’s backed up with unspoken words that say, “But if you don’t, God is going to be angry with you; you’re not going to be in God’s will; something is going to harm you.” That’s not really free choice when you have all that threatening connotation. It’s not free choice when there’s punishment behind it.
JCP: Yes, and the punishment that could be enacted in the example you give is not only putting yourself in danger; it’s putting your mortal soul in danger. So when there is an eternal punishment or the question of your faith is involved, that’s not a free choice.
JCP: And that goes right along with this: People who are unfamiliar with abusive relationships often say, “Why don’t you leave? Why did you stay for 20 years? You had a choice.” Yes, I did have a choice. And it was a bounded choice. In one of the chapters of The Courage Coach, you listed the different kinds of abuses; every one of those was present in my first marriage.
AE: Oh, I’m so sorry.
JCP: And for people to say, “Why didn’t you leave?” shows me that they have no understanding. And thank God that people haven’t been through that and don’t know, but I love what you do to educate people to say, “Maybe that’s not the question we should be asking.” Maybe the question we ask is, “What kind of systems, particularly in our faith communities, have we set up that not only allow this but, in some ways, encourage it?
Abuse Can’t Survive Where There is Equality
JCP: You talk in the book about the root cause of abuse being power and control. Talk a little bit about how our faith communities or denominations or religious beliefs can play right into that.
AE: Power and control is the motivating cause of abuse. Whether it is spiritual abuse, physical abuse, emotional abuse, sexual abuse, the goal of the abuser is always to get power and control. That is always the reason for abuse. Unfortunately, many churches encourage these dynamics of power and control, and they do that through a variety of patriarchal theologies. An example I use all the time is complementarian theology. Complementarianism and patriarchal theology are designed for men to have power and control over women. That can be through physical force or emotional manipulation or spiritual manipulation; at the end of the day, the result is the same. The theology is teaching that one sex has power and control over the other. That’s not to say everybody in complementarianism is going to be abusive, but it is the abusive system of patriarchy. It’s a system based on an unbalanced power structure, and that’s unhealthy.
I believe the ground is level in fellowship with God, and, unfortunately, these doctrines lead people to believe that these unequal power structures are biblical and then it surprises us when abuse happens. As power and control is motivation for the abuser, the balance for that is equality. With equality theology, abuse can’t survive when there’s a truly equal relationship going on; it’s impossible. The actual idea of equality itself is a much safer theology.
JCP: Oh, I so agree. Talking about different theologies, I’ve thought quite a bit about this. I think that a lot of the power and control and patriarchal structures can be traced back to what one believes about God. Do you believe that God is to be feared, that God can squash you like a cockroach at the first hint of evil, that God is going to dangle you over the pits of hell like in Dante’s Inferno? If you believe those things about God, I think it’s easier to fall into a patriarchal system of theology. When you believe that God is loving and kind and wants the best for you and created you because God loves you . . . when you believe those kinds of things about God, it’s easier to believe a theology of equality.
AE: One hundred percent, 100 percent. If God is really that way, that negative notion of who God is, that would be an abusive God. “If you don’t obey me, I am going to burn you forever.” I mean, if anybody got in a relationship like that, I would say “Leave” right off the bat. I don’t believe that God is a monster; I believe God is a God of love. And you’re right; I think the way we view God really does affect all of our relationships – in how we expect to be treated and how we treat other people.
The Courage Conference
JCP: Let’s talk about The Courage Conference coming up in October. Telling our stories is cathartic and healing, and being trusted with somebody else’s story is holy work, which is what you do every day. That’s kind of what The Courage Conference is based on, correct?
AE: Yes. The Courage Conference centers around survivors’ stories. We always have survivors who are a little farther along on their healing journey sharing their techniques. We have an empathy team there for survivors who want to talk to somebody about their story. We connect them to local and national support organizations so they can really step into that healing freedom they deserve. We have all sorts of experts, from legal experts to mental health professionals. All of it is focused on survivors’ stories. I really believe that hearing survivors’ perspectives is going to be a point to heal all of us.
The Courage Conference 2019 is in Orlando, October 25 to 27. We’d love to invite everybody to come to that, whether you’re a survivor or you support a survivor. This is a life-changing event, and it’s certainly changed my life.
JCP: Oh, that’s wonderful! I can relate to how telling your story and making yourself vulnerable in order to help other people is so powerfully healing. Speaking of that, you are a certified abuse victim advocate. Tell me what that is and how I can find one in my area.
AE: A couple of years back, I was not only recognizing my abuse but realizing the real need for me to advocate for others. I wanted to make sure that I was trained in such a way to become a first responder when people were experiencing abuse. So many were reaching out to me with their stories, and I wanted to be prepared to really assist them. I went through the Sexual Assault Response Program. It’s a program affiliated with the YWCA to train people to be first responders in that situation. If you’ve experienced abuse and haven’t gotten the help yet that you need, a great way to find an advocate like that is to go to one of my favorite websites, DomesticShelters.org. You go to the site, put in your zip code, and it gives you all of the abuse prevention centers in your area. You can contact people close to you and ask for an advocate.
“Forgive and Forget”?
JCP: We talked a little bit about theology. And one thing I often see used against victims, particularly in talking about #churchtoo, is the idea of forgiveness. And forgiveness is absolutely freeing. But at the same time, some church leaders use it as another way of punishing the victim. Can you talk about that?
AE: Forgiveness is really a touchy subject and means something a little bit different to each person. When I’m advocating for a survivor, I never tell them to forgive; that advice is just not helpful. I think forgiveness is more about getting to a place where the abuse no longer controls your life. Pastors and church leaders often advise to “forgive and forget.” You can never forget. Being a Christian doesn’t give you selective amnesia; you never forget. Sometimes people say to forgive is to reconcile with the abuser. That is NOT what forgiveness is. There are circumstances in which a survivor might choose that, but it is NOT required.
JCP: You can forgive from afar.
AE: One hundred percent, yes. I don’t believe that survivors should be pressured to forgive before they’re ready or be encouraged to reconcile with their abuser. That’s actually more damaging and traumatizing.
JCP: It’s more abuse. It’s spiritual abuse is what it is.
AE: I’ve seen people who feel so triggered and chained by the word forgiveness that I’m not even sure it’s a helpful word to use in the process of freeing yourself from abuse. The concept of compassion should be in the forefront, so I’m not sure the word forgiveness is beneficial.
JCP: When I was going through my divorce, my fabulous counselor asked me, “Do you want this person to control another second of your life?” That was a good way to put it, because I was in no way ready to forgive by any stretch of the imagination. That’s what healing does – it takes away the control from the abuser.
AE: Yes, I agree.
The Revival We’ve Been Praying For
JCP: Let’s talk about the SBC For Such a Time as This rally. I love your sermon from last year’s rally and I’ll link to it below. You said:
Look out, you oppressors, you who abuse and malign God’s image bearers! This is the Justice Generation. We put our hands up and say, “No.” No to abuse. No to silencing, no to coverups, no to religiously-sanctioned discrimination. Not on our watch. Oh, no. Not on our watch.
So, there I was in my office having a little experience with God as I was reading that. What can we do in our local faith communities to bring about justice in the #churchtoo era?
AE: That is a great question. For Such a Time as This rally is calling the Southern Baptist Convention to be accountable. We view our witness as kind of like a prophet, calling out for the oppressed. That is one way that we, in our church communities, can stand up for survivors of #churchtoo. When we see abuse happening, we’ve GOT to call it out and say, “That is not okay; that is not of God; that is not aligned with the heartbeat of love.” Survivors need to be given empathy and professional resources, not just connected with a “pastoral counselor” and handling it in-house. Instead, we need to connect them with professional therapists and with legal services. I think that’s the way we’re going to change this, by calling it out, being educated on it.
I remember, as a child in my independent fundamentalist Baptist church, we were begging God for revival. And you know what? I think #churchtoo and #metoo is the revival we were praying for.
JCP: Oh, I completely agree.
AE: And to be part of God’s movement in the 21st century, we’ve got to be an advocate for the marginalized.
JCP: I love that! Like I’ve said, my dad’s a retired Southern Baptist minister, and I’m proud to say he is planning on coming with me to the rally. He is advocating for the things that you’re advocating for. Have you seen a difference in the SBC since last year’s rally?
AE: You know, I’m honestly challenged by that question. We’ve seen some positive movement, both in public statements and in meetings with SBC leadership. The Houston Chronicle’s exposé naming predators was really powerful. I wait to see action before I tell people whether I see change. I hope and pray things are different; however, this isn’t the first time that abuse has been brought to the surface and that women and the media have spoken out. I’m going to reserve my judgment for a couple of years down the road to see actual action first.
JCP: What is the theme for this year’s rally?
AE: This year’s theme is much the same as it was last year. We’re coming together against predators, asking for a database. Churches need to have a way to work out whether their pastor or potential pastor has had allegations or convictions against them. We want to see women honored; unfortunately, historically, women have not been honored in the SBC. We want to make sure that students who are training to be pastors are equipped in abuse prevention and response training. These should be mandatory classes in seminary.
JCP: I plan on being there with you, and I can’t wait!
I have one last question for you. What’s a question you would love to answer that you never get asked?
AE: I like that question! Something that people don’t necessarily ask me is, “What is the secret to your finding healing and thriving as a survivor?” People may think that I just pulled myself up by my bootstraps and did it by myself. That could not be further from the truth. Being in healthy relationships, having a healthy marriage really helps me heal. The love from that is so healing.
JCP: Oh, me, too! I now have a healthy marriage that is absolutely a gift from God that I never expected. My relationship with my husband is so healing and peaceful and loving and kind and supportive.
AE: Yes! I think having a healthy spouse and healthy relationships with loved ones is powerful. I also recommend therapy and coaching. I’m now offering life coaching.
JCP: I saw that, and I’ll put the link below.
AE: That’s awesome!
JCP: I can’t thank you enough for this time, Ashley! It’s been an absolute delight, and I could talk to you for hours. I’m so grateful and honored that you took this time for us today.
AE: Thank you, Janene!
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