I’ve Internet-known Kath for a while, but, until I started this series, not that she was a Christian. She hails from Brisbane, Australia, and is an IT librarian. You can catch her at Fat Heffalump. You can check out the rest of this series, and its purposes, through the Feminists of Faith tag.
1. Tell us about the formation and constitution of your feminist identity, and your faith one.
I was born into an Anglican (Church of England at the time of my birth) family – not a particularly religious one, but we did go to church on holy days, most family members married in church, along with Christenings, funerals and the like. I had planned to do my confirmation like other kids, but by the time I got to that age many years of domestic violence had kind of pushed me away from participating in anything publicly/socially. By the time I hit my mid-teens, I was really beginning to question faith and religion, as I remember seeing so many contradictions. In church everyone would be talking about being good samaritans and loving thy neighbour, and then we’d go to the hall afterwards for morning tea and the gossip would be tearing people down and stirring trouble. When we fled my violent father and people started making it known that they had always known about his violence towards us, I really couldn’t understand why none of these people, who claimed to be decent Christian folk, ever offered to help us. Why did they turn a blind eye to what was happening to us?
By the time I was 17, I had decided that I was an atheist. I was very angry and just felt that I could believe in there being a God when so much hypocrisy was rife in what was supposed to be His people. I think at the same time, I started to ask questions about how women are treated in the world, and the first seeds of my feminism were sown.
I considered myself atheist for most of my late teens and through my entire 20’s. The roots of my feminism were there through all of that time, but they really didn’t push through the surface for me to express them or become active in women’s rights at all. Mostly that was due to low self esteem and depression. It wasn’t until my 30’s that I began to outwardly identify as feminist, and as I became more involved in fat activism, my feminism has come further and further to the forefront.
However during that time, I continued to work with church groups, under particular ministers/pastors doing youth work. I found that if I couldn’t trust the leader of that particular church group, I couldn’t be involved with any of the community work they did. For several years in my early 20’s, despite my being vocally atheist, I worked with the local Baptist Church on a youth group through a friend of mine, who was the Pastor’s daughter. Pastor Ian, and all of his immediate family are the kindest, most generous people I think I’ve known in my life, and they completely accepted and respected my beliefs, believing that we worked towards a common goal of keeping kids in our small town from ending up in a cycle of drugs and alcohol to relieve boredom. Mostly we worked with kids between 13-17, just organising a lot of social activities like movie nights, bowling, games nights etc to give them something to do. It gave me something to do as well. I remember at their Easter service one year they invited me to attend and read something secular of my choice for the congregation. I can’t remember what I read, only that it was a poem. Pastor Ian and I regularly debated faith and religion, and he very much believed that it was not his job to “convert” anyone, just to be there to welcome them if they came to him. It was a vast difference to the church I had grown up with. Sadly he was transferred away from our town, and a new pastor came, who was far more radical and very anti-women in his teaching, so I stopped helping out with the youth group, and it disbanded soon after.
It was in my early 30’s that I had a kind of slow epiphany really. I can’t remember why, but I started reading about the origins of various faiths (I think to educate myself basically) and I remember feeling something growing within me. The sense that man has completely bastardised very ancient philosophies and teachings to suit his own gains. The deeper I got in various teachings, the more I found they had the same core beliefs behind them. Teachings of peace, love, caring for those in need, treating others as you would be treated yourself, honouring dead loved ones, equality of all people, standing up for justice, community and so on. I feel they are at the core of every faith – unfortunately in many cases, they have been forgotten in the name of pomp and ceremony, and a grab for power.
The more I read about Jesus, the more I felt He was a great philosopher and teacher. It just felt right for me as I felt aligned with His teachings. That said, I’m yet to find a church that fits me right, so I now consider myself a non-denominational Christian.
2. How is your feminism tied to your faith? Perhaps aspects of your faith inspire your feminism?
I think the stronger I have got in my faith, the more my feminism has come to the forefront. That core belief that all of God’s children are equal, that He loves all of His creations is central to my social justice. Not just women’s rights but against any kind of oppression.
3. Have you experienced conflicts between your faith and your feminism? Have you had to make compromises? If so, from where did the pressure come, and was one aspect more difficult to compromise on than another?
Regularly! And I believe that is part of Christianity too – that need to question your ethics and beliefs, and to work out what is truly right and wrong. I believe the answer to those questions usually lies between religion and faith. Religion is a human invention. Faith is something that sits deep in my soul. Mostly the compromises lie in trying to find out where I fit in to various communities – feminism, social justice, faith, friends, professionally. My belief is that whatever is your reality, is your reality, and they don’t have to be the same from person to person. My reality is that I feel a deep spirituality that comes from the teachings of Jesus. Other people feel different, and that’s just as real for them as mine is for me. I don’t believe in evangelising or proselytising my spiritual beliefs, and I don’t feel the need to prove them to anyone, or demand anyone else prove theirs to me. I believe there’s room for all of us, so long as the core human ethics are there. How you come to those ethics is as personal as your fingerprint.
Unfortunately, many other Christians don’t feel this way – and that’s where the conflict comes in for me. How can I identify with Christianity when it is so often used as an excuse to commit injustices? I think coming to the realisation that what those people practice is not what I define as Christianity. We are not the same. And I believe they do not follow the teachings of Christ.
4. What kinds of responses to your being a feminist of faith have you received? From feminists, your faith community, or others?
I tend to get this response from feminists of incredulity. A kind of “How can you believe that knowing what you know and being who you are!?” thing. But I think that’s because most people have seen the “religion” of Christianity, that proselytising, judgemental, controlling organisation that has been oppressing people for centuries. I don’t belong to that religion. I hold the Christian faith, not the Christian religion. If I could find a denomination locally that embraced what I believe to be Christ’s teachings over religion, I’d gladly join the congregation – I miss that sense of community in faith. I know they exist – I attended a church in the US that fit like a glove – but haven’t yet found one here in my home town of Brisbane.
The other is the assumption that I’m just following a faith of my childhood, that I’ve not given it careful consideration and questioning. About 15 years of consideration and questioning led me to where I am today – which is Christianity, but not the kind I was raised with, and through a path of fairly vehement atheism for a good solid decade until I found the philosophies that suit me.
Consequently I tend not to talk about it, but also because I find it a deeply personal thing.
5. What are the challenges you encounter as a feminist in your faith community and/or tradition, and vice versa?
Well, I have Christian privilege, so my first challenge is acknowledging, understanding and working to balance that. It’s a constant learning process and I know I get it wrong regularly. I hate that I get it wrong – I try hard to operate under a “first, do no harm” philosophy. But my second challenge is being anti-religious* while having a deep faith. Most people believe the two are permanently linked together, but I don’t.
6. How can feminism and faith usefully work together?
When I boil it down to the bare bones for me, both my feminism and my faith are the same core philosophies – that we are all created equal human beings. It just goes hand in hand for me.
* I was pulled up by this, so I asked Kath, ‘I’m just wondering about the bit where you mention being anti-religious. It reads like you’re saying you think all religion is always bad, where obviously it’s more a matter of you not wanting to be aligned with conventional Christian institutions – and also separating out the concepts of religion and faith, which I thought was really interesting. Would you mind clarifying?’
She said, ‘Interesting question on the anti-religion thing. I’m not sure how to express it. I guess in a way I am anti-religion (as in the religious institution) in the sense that I see “religion” as social construct, but faith as something deeper – spirituality/faith is not the same thing as religion to me, but to many other people, they are one and the same. I think humans have corrupted spirituality/faith into religion for their own gains. Be it for money, power or fear. I guess that’s why I find it so hard to find a denomination or congregation that fits me – because I always see human intervention into faith/spirituality. I can’t speak for other faiths of course, but I see that thing of those who twist the basic principles of faith to their own gain popping up the world over. In Christianity, it’s really apparent in a lot of religious “laws” that came from The Church (as in, religious institutions) making sure they kept power, money and land.’