On its surface, Twitter is a social networking service not all that dissimilar to its cousin Facebook. Users write and read messages called “tweets” that are 140 characters or less. If a user wants to talk about a particular topic, they use a hashtag. This allows other users to find people who are tweeting about the same subjects. For example, recent top trends include #Hamburglar, #NationalDayofPrayer, #BenCarson, and #ElectionDay.
It’s not the place one would expect to find social reform underway. After all, how much change can one create with a 140 character limit? Quite a lot as it turns out. It even has a name: hashtag activism.
Though many important topics have been discussed through hashtag activism in the past year, women’s issues have predominated. Twitter is at the forefront of a social movement that is giving women a voice and a platform on topics including sexism, domestic violence, and equality – and it’s time the church sat up and listened.
Earlier this month, a senior at an Adventist university wrote an article discussing the hashtag #YesAllWomen which debuted in May 2014. Within four days of the hashtag first appearing on Twitter, it had been tweeted 1.2 million times. The point of the hashtag is that while not all men are sexist, every woman has experienced and been affected by sexism.
This isn’t something we’re comfortable talking about as a church. Perhaps we think we are immune from the evils of sexism that prevail in the world outside our Adventist bubble. But in reality, sexism runs so rampant through our church aisles that we don’t even recognize it by that name when it occurs.
In September 2014, the topic of domestic violence was brought to the forefront of news headlines due to a leaked video of NFL player, Ray Rice, violently attacking his then-fiancée (now wife), Janay Palmer, in an elevator. Whether you follow sports or not, it was hard to miss the commentary that followed. While there was an outcry from some demanding legal action against Rice, others engaged in victim blaming. Adventism’s own Ben Carson weighed in saying, “Let's not all jump on the bandwagon of demonizing this guy. He obviously has some real problems, and his wife obviously knows that, because she subsequently married him.”
Many people expressed a similar sentiment, questioning why Ms. Palmer would marry Rice in the first place, knowing what he was capable of, and why she would subsequently stay. Shortly after the leaked video, a writer named Beverly Gooden took to Twitter with the hashtag #WhyIStayed, hoping to enlighten and raise awareness about a situation that one out of every four women will face in their lifetime.
Gooden stated, “I hope those tweeting using #WhyIStayed find a voice, find compassion, and find hope.” It seems domestic abuse survivors found just that: in less than 24 hours, the hashtag had been tweeted over 46,000 times.
For many women, the reason they stay revolves around what their religion, church, or spiritual counsel told them to do. Gooden herself tweeted, “I stayed because my pastor told me that God hates divorce. It didn’t cross my mind that God might hate abuse, too. #WhyIStayed”
User @LaurenAshleyMay stated, “#WhyIStayed Because the elders of our church told my mother and I that it was our fault.”
Countless women echoed the sentiments of these tweets, with their own stories of their church siding with the abuser, victim-blaming and shaming the survivor, or ignoring the situation altogether. What wasn’t found were examples of churches stepping in or pastors who intervened.
In February, an anonymous Adventist woman shared her own story of spousal abuse and the lack of support she received. Far too many women sitting in our pews each Sabbath have a similar story. But while these women are shunned, shamed, or silenced by the church, Twitter is asking for their stories and giving them a voice.
As heartbreaking as the #WhyIStayed tweets were that September day, tweets with the hashtag #WhyILeft started appearing too, with women sharing how and why they finally found the courage to leave. In the coming days, a domestic violence survivor set up a Twitter chat where women (and some men) meet online weekly to share and counsel together. These strangers are united by only two things: they suffered domestic abuse and they are on Twitter. Yet, the virtual support they give each other brings about tangible results.
Twitter’s success at creating safe spaces only underscores the fact that the Christian church, and the Seventh-day Adventist Church specifically, has yet to do so. We can’t even bring ourselves to address the issue of domestic violence in our pews head-on, let alone provide counseling and safety for the victims, and an action plan for dealing with abusers.
In addition to discussing sexism and domestic abuse, Twitter users are also creating affirming messages for young women. On April 14, 2015, author Courtney Summers launched the hashtag #ToTheGirls, asking women around the world to “take the opportunity to tell the girls you know – and the ones you don’t – that they are seen, heard and loved. Share advice. Be encouraging. Tell us about or thank the girls in your life who have made a difference in yours.”
Over 70,000 women (and a few men) began sharing uplifting and affirming messages of strength, equality, success, and confidence:
User @rachelcaine wrote, “#ToTheGirls Your gender does not define or limit you. Reach for greatness. Fight for it every day, in every way you can.”
@maureenjohnson tweeted, “#ToTheGirls There are no rules about how to be a girl, so whatever way you want to do it? YES. THAT'S THE RIGHT WAY.”
@sarazarr added, “#ToTheGirls: You don't have to grow up to be a mom or a wife if you don't want to. It's ok to not have kids, not want to babysit, etc.”
So often in Adventism we pigeonhole women. We should be wives, mothers, caretakers. If we are not these things, we are told we’re “less than” or we are not fulfilling our duty as Christian women. We are told we should be submissive. When we are leaders we are chastised and reminded of our place.
The Adventist church has left women wanting and needing more. We experience sexism in our churches and we are silenced. We experience domestic violence in our homes, and we are told it’s our fault. We are reminded each and every day that Adventism does not believe we are equal to, or as worthy as, men.
What would it look like if the Adventist church sought to affirm women each day instead of reminding us of antiquated notions of womanhood? What can the church learn from these hashtags that have done more for women in the past year, than the church has done in 150 years?
#YesAllWomen and #ToTheGirls remind us to recognize the sexist views we hold about Adventist women, specifically of the female pastors in our pulpits and the single women in our pews. Let’s actively work to affirm all women, and remember that their value and worth is not based on their relationship status, their career goals, or whether or not they have children.
#WhyIStayed demands that we recognize that domestic abuse is happening to members of our church family. We need to be able to admit that sometimes divorce really is the best option, and that a woman’s health and safety should be our first priority. Our pastoral staff needs to be trained in how to deal with this issue in helpful and constructive ways.
All over the world, women have found a voice through social media that they have not been granted by our church. It’s time that changed. Let’s create a church that hears, that listens, and that affirms women. Twitter shouldn’t be the change we see in the world. That’s our role as the Adventist Church, and we’ve fallen down on the job.
Alisa Williams is Spirituality Editor for SpectrumMagazine.org.