A ViewPoint by Angie Best
A blind man wanders into an all girls’ biker bar by mistake. He finds his way to the bar and after sitting there for a while, he yells to the bartender, “Hey, you wanna hear a dumb blonde joke?”
The bar immediately falls silent, and the woman sitting next to him says, “Sir, before you tell that joke, it’s only fair that you should know a few things. The bartender is blonde and she carries a baseball bat. The bouncer is blonde and she has a black belt in karate. The woman on the other side of you is six feet tall, weighs 175 pounds, and is a blonde professional wrestler, and I’m a blonde professional weightlifter. Do you still wanna tell your joke?”
The man thinks for a minute, shakes his head and says, “Nah, not if I’m going to have to explain it four times.
All around me, people chuckle, and a few groan, and without missing a beat, the pastor continues his sermon. I’m stunned for a second, quickly scanning the faces of the other 150 parishioners sitting around me, looking for any sign of frustration or disappointment. It if was there, I missed it. Just a few moments earlier, this Harvard-educated pastor had cracked a joke about women drivers and, suddenly, this sanctuary has been transformed from holy ground to hostile territory. The open and affirming spiritual community my partner and I had been slowly settling into felt less safe in a matter of just a few moments. I struggled during communion to stay present, to not be reminded of the too-many-to-count times in church I had been told as a woman, a Christian, a pastor, to sit down, to be quiet, to know my place.
A seminary advisor urges me to consider taking the Christian Education track instead of pastoral ministry, because it is more conducive to “family life.”
I write the pastor later that afternoon, starting and stopping a dozen times. My partner and I are new here and we like this church, and I don’t want to upset the fragile peace we feel here. We want to be able to remain but I am unable to remain silent.
In theology class, my fellow students argue that women are not Scripturally permitted to serve as pastors, and my professor is silent.
And so I write. I have such respect for this pastor. His sermons are exegetically sound and they challenge me. Until today, I was content to sit under his teaching. My letter is brief, but it is clear. Sexist jokes do not belong in church, any more than if the jokes had been racist, I say. I can’t worship if I’m being told I’m less than. You have to do better than this.
A regional superintendent once announced to me, “As long as I’m in this office, no lady preacher will be recommended to the denomination for ministry from this district.” None were.
The pastor’s response was swift and mostly reflective. Without justifying, he said, “Let me explain what I was thinking, and as for your feedback, I didn’t see the dumb blonde joke as sexist because the female characters were so strong. Besides, I often tell dumb blonde jokes where the lead character is a male.” This, he tentatively suggests, makes the dumb blonde joke gender-neutral and, therefore, acceptable.
It’s a stretch and he has to know it. Out in the “real” world, the dumb blonde joke is never gender-neutral. It depends on mocking the intelligence, or lack thereof, of the woman. The predictability of her stupidity is what gets the laugh.
At one pastoral candidate interview, a board member says, “At least if your sermons are boring, you’ll still be pretty to look at.”
An oxymoron, he explained in his sermon, is the juxtaposition of two opposing terms, like deafening silence, or women drivers. That joke was just a “gentle tease,” he explains. “Much like a Colts versus Steelers rivalry, a friendly rivalry among equals in a post-sexist context.”
Here, he lost me. The argument that we live and move and have our being in a post-sexist world is arguably laughable. To suggest it is so ignores reality. Only when we have income parity, reproductive freedom, fair political representation and a Constitutional amendment giving equal rights can he suggest we live in a post-sexist world. My daughter is groped by a stranger walking past her. Hillary Clinton is awarded the Democratic nomination for president and newspapers around the country run her husband’s photo on the front page. I ignore an unsolicited flirtation on social media and am called a stuck-up bitch, a dyke, a whore. I want that post-sexist world he was talking about.
A parishioner explains that women can’t be ushers or serve on the finance committee because, “That’s just the way we’ve always done it and, besides, women don’t really have a head for money.”
The problem, I explain, is that no church member has ever been refused communion for liking the Colts, or told they weren’t allowed to speak in church because they loved those Steelers. I’ve had both these things happen because I am a woman. I’ve watched talented, educated women of faith get turned away from church leadership positions over and over again because the church “just wasn’t ready.” The church universal has a long, rich, misogynistic history and in far too many quarters, the pulpit is little more than a weapon. Institutional patriarchy continues to refuse to allow female members to participate fully in the life of the church.
My internal critic is loud as I respond, and I realize I’ve absorbed the cultural messages well. Am I overreacting? Do I sound shrill or angry? He didn’t mean anything by it. It was just a joke. But I shake it off and go back to the truth I feel in my bones and I tell him this: research from Western Carolina University shows that dumb blonde and women driving jokes are more than innocent fun and games. Psychologists have proven exposure to sexist humor like that “gentle tease” about women drivers leads to tolerance of hostile behavior toward and acceptance of discrimination of women. The joke from the pulpit gives permission for the silencing in the conference room.
“I just don’t know if I can think of a woman as a minister,” says a parishioner in whose church I’m interviewing. “Don’t take it personally. I just don’t think I could ever take a woman preacher seriously.”
My pastor is gracious in his defeat, though I am unsure whether I have convinced him or merely worn him down. He is apologetic, sheepishly so. “Thank you for making me, and us, better,” he says. I am grateful he listened, yet I’m listening for clues he’s had an epiphany. I’m not sure he gets it; how can I be? I have little desire to be the sexism police, but I remain wary the next Sunday, knowing that, if the tone is the same, I won’t stay in this community.
I need my church to set the bar high and to fully welcome me. To be a follower of Christ demands radical inclusivity and there is no greater calling in our faith communities. Our sons and daughters deserve to hear their pastor, church, and community say, “This is what it means to be a person of faith and to love each other. Watch what we do and go and do likewise.”
I deserve, as well, to be recognized as a full partner in ministry and church life. And this time, I won’t settle for less.
Angie is a feminist Quaker pastor, psychiatric nurse, mother, and author. She is currently writing her 11th book on coming out as a lesbian later in life. Two of her books include Heart of a Shepherd: Meditations for New Pastors, and Surviving Your First Year as Pastor: What Seminary Couldn’t Teach You, both published by Judson Press.
© 2016 by Angie Best