By Emily Mills, Founder + Chief Ideation Officer of Jesus Said Love
I was your girl.
I wonder how long my body will be caught in the crossfires of media ads, locker room talk, legislation and sermons? Here I am, 45 years old in 2023, Waco, Texas and I still know the war against her, particularly disguised in Jesus’ name. I grew up in a Southern Baptist church in East Texas and was trained in ministry at the largest Baptist college in the world. I was hatched from the egg of white, Christian evangelicalism. Weeks ago, a pastor’s sermon ignited and invited my rage, my remembering, my tears. I sit to process my grief and am joined by my sagging, larger breasts and bloated belly. Inescapable. Am I now intolerant to gluten, to dairy? Is this perimenopause? My hands are beginning to remind me of my mothers, a little puffy. Also, do fingers get shorter with age? I wonder how to behold my own body while words hurled from a pastor roll through my consciousness. “Perfect body” the pastor recalls, dramatically regurgitating an 18 year old memory of being propositioned at a bar while his wife wasn’t around. I’ve heard these same words before when my shape seemed to match a “perfect body”. I’ve heard that voice in catcalls, whistles, and glances. I’ve heard this voice echo through billboards and songs. I’ve borne the violent fallout of misogynistic, objectifying language as well through assault and exploitation. I felt the words physically when I endured the unwanted grabs at my breasts in third grade, the swipe of my crotch in sixth grade standing in front of the lunch room by the cutest, most popular eighth grade football player. Where did I learn to silence my voice?
Life and death are surely in the power of the tongue. Words both identify and permit. But this pastor’s words are not his own, and they’re the same words of many male pastors. I know them when I hear them, they’re the voice of my Accuser: “perfect body”. These are ancient curses pastor’s take on as their own. My battle is not with any particular pastor, but with principalities that make men look small and bound to the curves of women. And this voice has been slithering through pastors’ sermons for decades whether by telling women to cover up or shaming her desires. A common pastor’s tale is his propositioning by a seductive woman. And quite often, instead of pastors focusing on their own bodies, or identifying the oppressive system that asks us to use one another for power, instead of using this moment as an opportunity to SEE HER (insert the Samaritan woman story in the New Testament), so often their anger turns and launches AT her. In the name of Jesus, naturally. The demonization of women is vile. Jesus didn’t stand for it.
I remember another time when a pastor called women God’s “plan b” for leadership according to Judges using the story of Deborah. And another time when a camp pastor walked into our room as newlyweds, unannounced. We were leading worship for the camp and he barged through the door with the campus college minister singing “I smell sex and candy”. I shrieked while hiding in the bathroom naked, “get out!”. Brett said the college minister was mortified while the camp pastor cackled hysterically. We interpreted this as funny banter. Per usual, I moved on and did not see the signs of bully behavior or misogyny or sexual harassment. Brett too could not find his power, his own story of harm from the past wrapped up in present reality.
The good-news Gospel is that I am not their girl anymore, but I was for years. I upheld charismatic, evangelical male preachers and they loved my enthusiasm and fire. The evangelical system benefitted from my talent and charisma, even my beauty, to draw other women into the flock. I thought I was doing good. I wanted the gold star even if it meant beating myself up inside. I really believed that my propensity to buck patriarchy was my problem with submission. I didn’t trust myself. Even though I knew I had suffered at the hands of abusers, I believed my sanctification was through submitting to men, to the system. I couldn’t bless my own strength. I didn’t value my dreams or my desires, only the ones that were permissible and acceptable to the church. And who made decisions in the church? The holy men. Today, I know God never asked me to live under a man’s authority. Quite honestly, fidelity to God often looks like rebellion. Faithfulness to God will mean insubordination to a man at some point. That is a lesson worthy of submitting to memory over and over again. I know the ways I was complicit with patriarchy and misogyny, believing it was my duty and others to uphold male authority and devote my life to the system, rather than to Jesus. Following Jesus eventually ended up leading me into the strip clubs on outreaches for our organization Jesus Said Love, I didn’t know this would reach in. For nearly 20 years I have listened and learned from women on the margins which in turn caused a lot of problems for my hierarchical theology. Following Jesus actually returned me to my own self, my own thinking, my own body. I embodied so much trauma that a hierarchical system (and certainty) soothed. As I began to heal, I began returning home. I’m still learning my way.
Years of harm stored up in my body and one sermon inciting hatred toward women will still ignite her. I cannot dissociate from her. Trauma response beckons that I abandon her for a bit, but separation is an illusion. A smell, a taste, a physical touch, silence, a glance in the mirror brings me back home. It is impossible not to be in my body, even if I am not attuned to her.
On this International Women’s Day I am brought to the story of a revolutionary moment in Scripture. A woman caught in adultery was brought to Jesus for questioning and conviction. Surrounding her were men, holy men, ready to execute the Law of the land as they understood it, ready to kill her with clean consciences. But, Jesus sees her. He doesn’t examine if her parts are “perfect” by the culture’s standards; that too is an illusion. Jesus doesn’t tell her to cover up so that he doesn’t lust, he can trust himself even if aroused by her beauty. Jesus, fully man, accepts his humanity and shows us how to do the same. He doesn’t reject her nakedness. Bending down to the ground, becoming one with her in a proximate position, he begins to draw in the sand with his finger. What is he writing? Perhaps listing sins in the sand? Is he writing the derogatory names the holy men are certainly calling her, mustering up their delusions arousing their courage to kill? Jesus then says to the crowd of accusers “who of you is without sin?” In other words “who of you is different from her?” Oneness. And now that he has established that their “enemy” is really no different than themselves, he invites them to “cast the first stone”. Jesus knows that when you see another as yourself, you cannot kill (unless you’re a sociopath or on drugs).
Jesus didn’t go to the margins to condemn, he went to bring unity. People living on the margins have already suffered under the condemnation of institutionalized religion and oppressive regimes. Jesus knew his assignment and it wasn’t to demonize women or accuse them of venomous, premeditated hatred toward him. He didn’t say to the woman of “questionable reputation” who was crying and spilling perfume all over his feet, wiping her tears with her hair at a table full of men, that she was lusting after him and full of vitriol and hatred for him and his ministry. No, Jesus brings women near and offers connection, not condemnation. Jesus didn’t turn over tables in a brothel, but the temple. He shows us that when we’re disconnected within ourselves, we will not be able to offer connection to others. When we demonize others, we destroy opportunities for reconciliation. When we objectify, we oppress and resist union.
As male pastors and religious leaders continue to talk about women’s bodies and make determinations as to what holiness looks like for us, I am reminded that I am not their girl anymore. I will not take the bait of fragmentation and hate my own sisters. I will not compare my body to a so-called “perfect” one. I will also not hate these pastors who knowingly or unknowingly take the Lord’s name in vain by fostering contempt toward women from a pulpit.
I will not continue to fragment, splinter and contort myself to fit idol images. I will not siphon out my anger but tend to it, listen to it and allow love to do its transforming work no matter how long it takes. I will keep coming back to union, to belonging. I belong. My body is good. I begin at beloved. You belong. Your body is good. You begin at beloved. I will accept my limitation and attempts at controlling misaligned pastors who breed contempt toward women. I will enjoy the expanse of this limitation. They ultimately belong to God.
I will continue to seek understanding of the other. I will look at what seems strange and ask questions with kindness. I will not adopt the hot-headed, heavy-handed aggression I have been handed by both evangelical men and women to emulate. This is not Jesus’s Way. I can tell the truth and risk being misunderstood. I belong. My body is good. I begin at beloved.
On this International Women’s Day, may every pulpit be free from using women to fortify the pillars of patriarchy. May spaces dedicated to Jesus speak of freedom, not condemnation. May every male pastor do their own work, within their own stories, using their own selves as examples of sin rather than offloading their trauma onto unnamed, unsuspecting, unknown women. Today, and everyday may the pulpit be as free as Jesus would want it.
Emily Mills is the Founder and Chief Ideation Officer of Jesus Said Love which comprises outreach, education, ACCESS, Lovely Enterprises, Stop Demand School, and Lovely Village (housing for survivors). Lovely Enterprises, a justice enterprise of JSL, is aimed at reducing recidivism into the sex trade through empowerment programs, providing living wage jobs to survivors and launching micro businesses for those impacted by the sex industry. Lovely Enterprises studio storefront is housed within JSL HQ at 1500 Columbus Ave in Waco, Texas.
Emily is a licensed Baptist minister who still participates in hospital chaplaincy visits and survivor aftercare. She has served on the Heart of Texas Human Trafficking Coalition and also serves through leading worship for Church Under the Bridge in Waco. Emily is an innovative builder and loves to create space for others to experience connection. She enjoys writing words and music, is drawn to almost any body of water and adores learning new things. Emily and her husband Brett live in Waco, TX and have three incredibly gracious children: Hattie, Lucy and Gus.