Beloved Space – United Methodist Insight

I’m a proud Dork Dad, and one of my favorite Dork Dad activities is reading Mrs. Marvel’s comics to my four-year-old daughter Lily. For those of you who are more productive at reading, there’s a new character from Ms. Marvel. Kamala Khan is the sixteen-year-old daughter of Pakistani immigrants who takes on a shape that changes superpowers. The comics teach inspiring lessons about the life and experience of the modern American Muslim. Lily loves him almost as much as I do.

One issue focused on the concept of consent and body autonomy. Kamala started dating the boy, so he offered to take her to school. Instead, he drove her to the secret hideout of his evil boss. You know, like teenagers going to act right? The comic did a great job in resolving the border violation, and Lily realized it right away. “It simply came to our notice then. Kamala has the right to decide what will happen to her body, ”said Lily without missing a moment.

From the day Lily was born, my wife and I have been trying to teach Lily about bodily autonomy. “Body autonomy is the right of a person to control what happens to his body without outside influence or coercion.”[1] When Lily was a little baby, we always asked her if we could pick her up, hug her, or still express physical affection. We also taught her that she can always say no. At a previous meeting, a truly wonderful man in his eighties went to get Lily. She told him no, but he wasn’t used to asking permission from an 18-month-old. Lily continued to scream bloody murder and maimed the poor man. Just like we taught her. He was genuinely confused when we celebrated Lily’s behavior, but since he loves us, he didn’t say anything. I understand his confusion, he was from the “second generation,” “things were different while he was raising the kids,” and I fully appreciate how strange and different it must have felt, but my daughter’s well-being is more important than traditional expectations.

One in three women will experience unwanted sexual contact before the age of eighteen.[2] The only thing we can do for our children is to teach them that they have the right to control what happens to their body from the beginning. It’s so insanely hard to do in practice! Do you know how hard it is to get permission from my wild two-year-old son to change a diaper without using coercion or force? I often wonder how many days in my life I have spent haggling with my daughter to make her eat vegetables, but no matter how hard it is, it is more important to them that they have established limits for their body and the confidence to apply them. Following this path they are less likely to be victims of sexual assault and will be much more likely to share their experience if this happens. It’s worth a few years of frustration.

Do we practice body autonomy in the church? While some would complain that mask mandates and singing restrictions violate their body’s autonomy, I would argue that our pandemic practices have allowed for a deeper sense of bodily autonomy. We set expectations and we all know the rules even if they don’t fit into our personal comfort zone. One of my close friends is an extreme introvert. The passing of peace in her church frightened her! Especially since some of the men insisted that her church was “a church that embraces”. There is nothing wrong with hugging, if everyone in the hug really wants to be hugged. When the expectation “this is a hugging church” is standard, it moves into the realm of coercion. It limits a person’s ability to refuse a hug. Everyone should feel safe, protected and at peace in the church. The church should be a place where people can be their authentic selves, whether introverted or extroverted. People who don’t hug in a church that hugs never feel safe. They feel like they have to put on a show to make others happy. They feel like they are in exile while in their sanctuary. The discomfort we extroverts feel along with social distancing is nothing compared to the constant violations of boundaries that our introverted siblings have suffered. My friend says that because of the social distance she felt more comfortable in church. It has the space and autonomy to feel at home. How do we align the personal space of others with the need for affection?

This might seem like a trivial thing, but a culture that doesn’t respect consent allows bigger sins to happen as well. Two years ago, a conference in North Carolina produced a video of a male clergyman reading comments received by their colleagues.[3] This video was shocking to me. Unfortunately, most of my friends are not. This kind of behavior happens in every church.

Teaching children about body autonomy and empowering adults to exercise it will help, but we need to change the focus and culture. We have focused so much on preparing our women and girls to deal with it, but we need to establish healthy boundaries for interaction and hold everyone accountable to those standards. The burden of the victim should not be borne by the harassment. Remember the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus didn’t say, “And if someone touches you in a way you don’t like, tell them to stop.” No, he said, “But I tell you that anyone who looks lustfully at a woman has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye stumbles, take it out and throw it away. It is better to lose one part of your body than to have your whole body thrown into hell. And if your right hand stumbles, cut it off and throw it away. It is better to lose one part of your body than to have your whole body go to hell. ”(Matthew 5: 27b-30) Jesus was pretty clear about who should take responsibility here, and we failed to live up to that standard.

For me, this whole issue became much more urgent last week. I cry for women and girls in Afghanistan every day. Of course I pray for the safe return of our staff and those who support them, but they have a place to come. But thousands of women and girls have an uncertain future. They are in danger of losing their physical autonomy and could be very limited in their educational opportunities. I can’t imagine the fear these women currently have. I can’t help but think, “What if it was my daughter?” That thought has psychological and spiritual compulsion.

Sometimes look for a Dunbar number or social brain for more information on this. This thought seems protective and obvious. Ghost! Apparently all these women are someone’s daughter. People struggle to see others, so distant and different, as real people. We try to reduce them to numbers, culture or concepts. For those who slowly connect the dots of people like me, we must establish that connection so that the well-being of others is personal and powerful. Jesus understood our cognitive deficiencies. If our mind cannot, or will not, see these distant others as people we need to care for, then we should imagine Jesus in their place. That is why Christ told us ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of these least, you did not do for me.’ (Matthew 25:45) As a global community, we have failed these women, we have failed to see Christ among them, the least we can do is recommit ourselves to the security and empowerment of women in our community.

I am truly grateful to have read Ms. Marvel with my daughter because it rightly reminded me that horrific Taliban practices are not common in the Muslim faith. True and good people of all faiths work hard to serve and empower their children. I am grateful that my daughter has the opportunity to learn these lessons, and even more grateful that these lessons have been confirmed by her loving church family.

[1] Dr. Sharon Nienow, “Seven Steps to Teaching Children’s Autonomy” you can, and should read the full article here https://www.rchsd.org/2019/12/seven-steps-to-teaching-children-body -autonomy /

[2] Found in the same article. Seriously, you should check that out.

[3] You can find the video here. Please check https://vimeo.com/335862568


Nathaniel Mason is a licensed local pastor who serves the United Methodist Churches of Booneville and Maple Grove on the western edge of the Des Moines Metro. He previously served as Minister of Leadership Development for Ministries of Youth and Generations (2013-2015) at the annual conference in Iowa. When not engaged in the service, Nate is preoccupied with other cooking jobs and a fun dad for his two young children. “Staying in Exile” is a conference spiritual support project.





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