For though we walk in the flesh, we do not war after the flesh: for the weapons of our warfare are not carnal, but mighty through God to the pulling down of strong holds, casting down imaginations, and every high thing that exalteth itself against the knowledge of God, and bringing into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ, and having in a readiness to revenge all disobedience, when your obedience is fulfilled.
— From the Second Epistle of St. Paul to the Corinthians, King James Version
I was not a feminist from birth, but under different circumstances, I could have been.
Growing up as I did in Newport News, Virginia—an East Coast military-industrial city that is one half transplanted sailors and soldiers, one half old money front porch folks, one half historic black neighborhoods, and one half newly minted immigrant Americans—it’s deeply ironic though unsurprising that I grew up in one of the least diverse church communities that you could imagine. 90% white, 100% died-in-the-wool Republican, majority homeschooling, nondenominational, my church was like a funhouse mirror reflection of the reality that was the city surrounding it.
So naturally, when I sat in Sunday School and AWANA and memorized passages like that one above from St. Paul, plucked gingerly as they were from the whole picnic cloth of Scripture and digested by themselves, I slipped into a war whose reasons were always explained in the broadest of terms: “[insert enemy here] opposes the whole truth of God’s Word in [these compromising ways] and we have to defeat them by fighting back with [this political/evangelistic tactic] so that [geographic or political arena] is captive for Christ and building his Kingdom.”
Even now I can picture the images that flew through my young brain, catapults and trebuchets smashing castle walls and ne’er-do-well ideas being led in chains to dank dungeon cells. Even now I can remember the nights I’d lie awake trying to banish every incorrect idea from my head, so I’d be able to receive communion “in a manner worthily.” So difficult for a kid like me, a boy who sat still and read and imagined and created almost from the moment I first became able to articulate thoughts.
Such a weight and such a chain and such a prison, and even more so, since it came under the name of grace, wrapped in a blanket of faith.
But in those late nights, there were stories, first on tape, and then in hardbound form when I figured out that my mom was secretly pleased to catch me reading in the dark. Amid the Quimbies age 8, fiery girls named Anne, and madcap queens romping through fields with lions that accompanied me through childhood, one story still stands out as the one which has most deeply impacted my mind.
Even before I learned to call myself a feminist, my mind was set free by Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time. This book, which I first encountered in the crackling New England tones of the author, is the story of a smart, self-deprecating girl named Meg, who saves her father, her brother, and the world. It’s a story where the wisdom of three divine women sets forward and guides the entire narrative. It’s the first book where I heard the names Gandhi, Darwin, and Jesus mentioned together in a positive context.
But it’s the book’s most vivid and central enemies who more than anything have shaped my understanding of the world. Or perhaps more accurately, it’s the way in which those enemies are defeated, and by whom.
As Wrinkle’s story heats up, Meg, her brother Charles Wallace, and new friend Calvin journey over space and time to a shadowed world called Camazotz. On this planet, they are surrounded by a city trapped in a goose-stepping rhythm, a captivity of mind represented and perpetrated by a great disembodied brain called IT. IT claims to have perfected happiness, unity, and equality by making all of Camazotz’ people wholly alike. L’Engle’s heroine answers this message, and her response still reverberates through my mind, grounding all of my values in one devastating sentence.
“Like and equal are not the same thing.”
This emphatic declaration slipped into my mind and fell like a grain into the cold earth, to flower later.
As a child, unsophisticated as my response was, I still was amazed at Meg’s triumph over IT. It is not the brilliant Dr. Murry, the athletic Calvin O’Keefe, or even the innately gifted angels Whatsit, Who, or Which who are able to cast off the enshackling rhythm of IT and pierce the shadow surrounding the captive planet. It is Meg, full of self-doubt, overflowing with oft-anxious imagination, who banishes the grasp of IT without violence or displays of power.
It is Meg who through holy stubbornness believes she has what IT can never have: the love to see and name people for what they are, piercing through all appearances and preconceptions of “what should be”.
It is Meg who confounded power and wisdom, by rejecting lies and imagining a better truth.
I grew up in a school of thought and belief whose power was in systemization and encouraging the imitation of one way, one faith, and one rhythm, but which shrunk from the notion of equality. As a child, my image of feminism was Hillary Clinton riding on a tank into Washington, imposing regulation of schools, welfare for all, and free abortions on every corner. (Never mind that such a thing had about as much to do with reality as Winifred Banks whirling around her parlour chirping about votes for women while upholding late Edwardian social mores.)
I don’t remember the day that I first turned these ideas over like a filbert in my hand and saw things differently, perhaps because I was seeing things differently all along, but believing other things in my conscious mind. What or whenever the moment happened when I kicked at darkness and the light came through, it has, and the cracks only get wider and light brighter.
What every teacher in every lesson taught me was that like and equal were the same thing. I don’t believe that any longer. I’ve learned to hear the teaching voices that were present all along. The seed that Madeleine planted has yielded a harvest one hundred fold. The stories I learned to imagine and the theologies I am learning to weave are now in harmony.
Because I grew up sharing a room with Ramona Quimby, I want to see all children affirmed in their capacity to understand and imagine the world as creatively as they can.
Because I sat impatiently through schoolwork with Anne, I want to build a world where no one is mocked for their differences and I crave a life built on intimate, bosom friendships.
Because I wept with Lucy and Susan over the altar of Aslan’s death, I can now raise a loud Eshet Chayil!, praising the womanly valor of St. Mary of Magdala, Apostle to the Apostles, and all the women who daily proclaim the Resurrection’s power into my life.
And because I loved and learned with Meg Murry to imagine a deeper and more beautiful world, today I am proud to say that I am a feminist, participating in a conversation that at its best, exists to unchain the imagination, to envision and build a world set free from imprisoning ideologies, a world where all are equal, even if not alike.
With St. Julian of Norwich, one of so many mothers of the faith, I am flowering in the belief that “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.” Together, liberated men and women everywhere, delivered out from the domain of darkness and oppression, are, through grace and throughout many faiths, freely imagining and experiencing the Kingdom of God. Today, here and now, Life is present.
I am learning, through stumbling and hesitations, to take every thought captive to love, and set every dream free to love, and to work and speak and laugh and cry and eat and drink for love, love, love.
My mind and heart are free.