My Journey from Fundamentalist to Feminist

A ViewPoint by Kayla Mueller

Kayla Mueller as a Child - illustrating her piece From Fundamentalist to Feminist
Kayla Mueller as a Child

I was a feminist before I even knew what the word meant. I can remember sitting in my childhood Sunday School class and questioning why the women of the Bible did not get the same treatment as the men. I didn’t know exactly what my teacher meant went she nervously chuckled and called me a “little feminist,” but I knew it felt good. I was proud of whatever that was.

I’d like to say that the feeling lasted, but it didn’t. I grew up in the heart of the Bible Belt. Postcards and poems paint my home as a place of sweet tea, pie, and impossibly humid summers. It is all those things, along with being, also, a tornado of racism, sexism, and discrimination.

I sat in church as a child and listened to my preacher teach the word of God from an inerrant, fundamentalist perspective. In my church, the women taught the children, sang in the choir, and made refreshments. And nothing else.

Maybe I could have dealt with just that, you know? If that had been it, maybe I could have taken a step back, studied some other perspectives, and figured out what I really believed. But, as life tends to go, that wasn’t all there was to the story.

My mother married my stepfather when I was five, and my life became a living hell of abuse, rage, and tears. Ironically, the only thing that was constant in all that was church. My mother and I held each other and cried, and then we went to church. My stepfather ruined my birthday party because he loved to humiliate me, and then we went to church. My stepfather beat my mother and busted her head open, and then we went to church.

It was around this time that I started to really listen in church. God was supposed to be my everything, and I knew He must have some answers for all this. He must know a way out. But I heard the verses that commanded women’s silence and, though I wanted nothing more than to shout at the top of my lungs and expose my stepfather as a monster, I remained silent.

God knows best, I thought. If He commanded this, there must be a good reason. If I could just follow all these rules to the best of my ability, God would make things right.

I became ashamed of my gender, in part from what I learned from the church teachings and in part from my stepfather’s hatred of women. We were all whores to him, all of us disgusting and useless. And yet, he was a man of God. He attended church every week, contributed to offering, and participated in Sunday School.

I knew, somewhere deep inside, that my stepdad was just a messed up person and that I really shouldn’t compare him to God. Yet I was reminded again and again of the God-given authority he had over me and my mother simply because he was a man. If God approved of him, then who was I to say otherwise?

I was still a “little feminist” at heart, but I wanted so much to be a good Christian so that I, maybe, could understand. Finally, I decided that if God wanted me to hate my gender, then so be it. If He wanted me to be in constant distress over what I really felt and what I was supposed to feel, then so be it. If it saved my mother, then I would do it.

I fashioned myself into the perfect victim. I didn’t need anybody to come beat me down because I was already doing it to myself. I constantly reminded myself, over and over in my head, of how worthless and disgusting I was.

It is ironic that, after the ultrasound my mother had during her pregnancy with me, the doctor made a mistake. He said I was a boy, and it was only at my birth that my actual gender was revealed, to everyone’s surprise. I couldn’t help but wonder if that was some cruel joke God had played on me, signaling that He had almost made me a person worthy of love and acceptance but then chose not to at the last minute.

I recently read an article that stated that a married woman does not have to consent to sex with her husband, because God has given him control over her body. In other words, he can rape her all he wishes with nothing but approval from God.

At one time, I would have believed this. I would have fallen deeper into the dark pit I was already in, but I would have believed it.

I spiraled into a depression that led to a suicide attempt in high school . . . all in the name of being good. I was self-destructive for much of my life. I figured that if God didn’t care if I was raped or beaten, why should I? A lot of my friends thought I was brave and courageous. I wasn’t, really; I simply didn’t care if I was alive or dead.

I had my first major breakthrough when I moved to another state, eight hours away, to attend college. Suddenly, I was away from my destructive home life and my old church. I felt, for the first time in my life, that it was just me and God. No one was yelling at me or hitting me. It was just Him and me, as if we were standing in an open field, waiting for each other.

So I told Him the truth. I told Him how much I hated Him. I told Him how angry I was. I told Him I was done trying to be something I wasn’t. I told Him I was a feminist and that I believed in equality for women, not abuse and neglect.

If He had a problem with that, in my mind, what did it matter? I was just a woman; it’s not like I was important to Him.

After a few months of avoiding church, enjoying college, and being happy for the first time in my life, I began feeling a pull to go back to church. I ignored it at first, but soon decided to go. This time, I got to choose where I would go and how I would respond. If I didn’t like it, I could go somewhere else and find a church I did like.

I actually fell back into church easily. I realized that, despite all of my previous anger and rage, I was still a Christian. I already fully believed in Jesus Christ, and I couldn’t really undo that. So, I came back to the church and promised myself I would never become that self-hating, angry person I had been before. I believed in equality for women, and I would fight for it. I still wasn’t sure if God was okay with that, but if not, I only hoped He would forgive me and love me anyway.

As I released the old religious rules and began really listening and learning about God for myself, I began to feel an outpouring of love within me. It was as if God was giving me a great, big hug and slowly healing all my wounds.

Okay, so God didn’t totally hate me for being a feminist, but how far could I really push it? I couldn’t let go of the pages and pages of rules and regulations outlined in the Bible, most of them not favorable to women. And there were the people who told me I was only drawn to feminism because of my “sinful nature.” Were they right? Was it just the evil side of me lurching out?

I began to fall into old habits, feeling discord within myself once again. I scoured books and the Internet looking for answers and other people who had gone through the things I had. I found a few but not many. Until, just a few short months ago, when I had my second breakthrough. During my research, I happened upon a small, humble blog called Jesus Without Baggage. It was written by a man named Tim Chastain, and it detailed his entire journey from strict fundamentalist to progressive Christian.

Tim had done hours and hours of biblical theological research to back up what he said. He explained how fundamentalist beliefs are absolutely detrimental to the human spirit and how many people never recover from the damaging messages that many churches send.

For the first time in my entire life, I felt a huge weight fall off my shoulders. I had finally found someone who had a journey similar to mine, and everything he explained and backed up with Scripture made perfect and total sense.

Since that discovery, I have cemented myself as a feminist Christian and have taken to finding others who see things the way I do. Thus far, at least, I have not felt any anger from God over my feelings.

I don’t take issue with fundamentalists. Many people will disagree with me, but I’m okay with that, too. We all don’t have to agree; we just have to respect each other. I realize that not all fundamentalists are violent abusers like my stepfather. Some of them are quite nice and gentle, with the best of intentions. But fundamentalism almost killed me. And it would have, if I had truly got my way.

As a feminist Christian, I have finally found a place that reconciles who I am as a Christian with who I am as a person. There is, finally, no discord within me, no bloody shards left over from two warring sides. It is now peaceful and calm. I think I’m staying on this side.

 

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