This week, I heard the word ‘clitoris’ in church for the first time. It was spoken from the pulpit of the Baptist church of my spiritual upbringing by Lyvonne Briggs, a body and sex-positive womanist spiritualist who is also a pastor, preacher, and spiritual life coach. Pastor Bae, as Briggs is lovingly known, was speaking at the “Nevertheless, She Preached” conference, which “elevates and centers female, queer, and BIPOC voices,” creates “brave space for faith leaders and justice makers to experience healing and be valued in community as their authentic selves,” and pursues “freedom from the toxic power of patriarchy, colonization, racism, and heteronormativity.” (Men were welcome to attend the conference. Very few did.)
In half a lifetime of my church attendance, several words have breached my innocent ears: ‘whore’ (that’s biblical, and the King James Version even gives us the ever-so-patriarchically creative ‘whoredom’), ‘damn’ (we sang that in church last Sunday), and ‘ass’ (the Christmas hymn “What Child Is This” would simply be naked without it and the ox). But clitoris? This was new. Why was I hearing it in a house of God?
It wasn’t for shock value or to rouse controversy. It was to tell the truth. In the context of our likeness in the Imago Dei—the image of God—Pastor Bae pointed out that the clitoris is an organ whose sole purpose is sexual pleasure. She explained how that undeniable part of a woman’s body defies the patriarchal insistence on procreation as the primary or even exclusive purpose of sex, where, by consequence, women are reduced to what The Rev. Dr. Wil Gafney translates as “womb-slaves” (Womanist Midrash: A Reintroduction to the Women of the Torah and the Throne). It was a liberating word that I heard as elevating women above the hushes that keep their bodily autonomy in check by keeping any mention of sex and sexuality, let alone the word ‘clitoris,’ out of what is freely, joyfully spoken in churches.
Throughout the conference I heard other things that I rarely, if ever, hear in church settings. “Black lives matter,” was said more times than I’ve heard it spoken pretty much anywhere in a long time. Poems and testimonies included occasional curse words, not to be provocative, but to give authenticity to the speakers’ faithful witness to the overlooked biblical discipline of lament, and to God’s Spirit speaking through their life. Racial justice pulled no punches with whiteness, white fragility, and white privilege being named, called out, and put in clear perspective as hindrances to the Imago Dei in which we are all made. And the more I heard those things that don’t get said in church, the more natural, honest, good, and true they sounded; to the point that my soul asked, after sleeping on it, “Why haven’t I heard those things before?”
“Nevertheless, She Preached” drew together preachers, speakers, and teachers that are still largely marginalized by the Church. Hearing their voices, their stories, their unapologetic words gave witness to what the Church is missing by pushing those essential parts of the body of Christ aside with hushes that say, “We don’t talk about that here.” If we think about this, it becomes glaringly obvious that this timid acceptance of what we’ve always popularly believed about the faith we practice, the God we worship, the Christ we follow, and the Church we serve is doing us all a disservice, not just those pushed to the margins.
In her message, Pastor Bae asked, “Who does it serve to believe things as they are?” I wonder, if I’d heard that question in church when I was growing up—if I’d heard faithful questions like that in the Church I loved then as much as I love it now—how might my life and the world around me have been transformed all the more to look like the kin-dom of God?