#MeToo and the Idolatry Trap by Tallessyn Zawn Grenfell-Lee

Really – everywhere we look – there are dead white guys. National holiday? Most likely in honor of a dead white guy. Statue on a green? Founder of a major Christian denomination? Dead white guy. Classic literature, painting, play, music ‘everyone’ is supposed to know about? Yup, probably by a dead white guy.

It’s a little exhausting.

It’s easy to develop a pretty negative attitude about all these dead white guys. I mean, some of them were pretty questionable if not downright oppressive people. Enough, already! Am I right?

Yes! Yes. Well… sort of. The thing is, some of them really did say and do wonderful, important things. I suppose we should not dismiss an entire portion of our history just on race and gender alone. And, truth is, I have a confession to make. I kind of really love the insights of some of these folks. I guess it’s easy to complain about all these dead white guys… until you fall in love with one of them.

I fell a bit for David Hume. It wasn’t just his sense of humor and stinging critique of organized religion – those are great – but it was his dedication to compassion and to community. Hume argued that if we peel away all the trappings of religiosity, what’s left is communities of people trying to live together in compassion and justice. The more compassion we express, the less justice a situation requires – and vice versa. And what gives us compassion? Not our reason. Our passion. If we allow good judgment to guide our passion, we literally fall in love with one another and the whole Creation. Relationships keep us honest – community guides our desires away from selfishness and toward the common good.[1] It falls to us to form those relationships with people – and creatures, and ecosystems – outside our clan and comfort zone – and to advocate for the disempowered within it.[2]

His toe is shiny because it’s said he has more intelligence in his big toe than most folks have in their whole brain. So to top up your intelligence, just rub his big toe!

Okay, great; so Hume’s a proto-ecofeminist. I’m sure he’d love that label. This is good stuff! I just wonder, sometimes, whether Hume himself really deserves all the credit. See, I’ve noticed this habit, when studying these dead white guys, of lifting up their pearls of wisdom as the true essence of their philosophies – and dismissing anything considered objectionable as a ‘product of their time.’ Insights that build peace and justice? He’s a genius! Comments that betray a lack of awareness about gender and race – such as Hume’s comments[3] about the inherent inferiority of women and “negroes”? Oh, he didn’t know any better; in those passages, he was just a product of his time.

I like that phrase – a product of his time. I agree. All of us – including all the dead white guys – are products of our time. Because I say, you can’t have it both ways. Either someone – maybe everyone? – is not only a genius but also a bigot; or, everything we write is a product of our time. All the relationships, conversations, experiences, environments, ecosystems – they work together to form our thoughts, insights, and rough edges. I propose that everything – from the embarrassing flaws to the lasting legacies of wisdom – emerges from context. Our webs of relationships and our life journeys build ideas and enable us to articulate them. The people who became famous are the ones who articulated the most powerful thought of their time in the most accessible ways. They had access – to education, to an audience, to the microphone. It was Hume – and it was not. Hume never could have written these beautiful, powerful theories without all the women, children, other creatures, relationships that formed his thought – which was also formed by his patriarchal context.

It seems like every week, we read new allegations of sexual harassment and assault by another of our male heroes. The #metoo awareness campaign, begun by Tarana Burke and spread more recently by women who Harvey Weinstein assaulted and harassed, has now raised awareness of not only how many women have experienced these attacks, but also, how many men have committed them. The list just keeps growing. Val Kilmer. Kevin Spacey. George H. W. Bush. Ben Affleck. Casey Affleck. Bill Cosby. Neil deGrasse Tyson. Elie Weisel. Martin Luther King, Jr. Gandhi.

Naturally, we initially respond with horror and disbelief. Despite the federal study by the National Sexual Violence Resource Center that demonstrated that accusations are false only 2-10% of the time – and that at least 63% of assaults are never even reported – why do we have so much trouble believing these accounts?

Maybe, deep down, we resist letting go of our idols. Maybe the deeper problem stems from a toxic paradigm that not only dehumanizes female bodies – especially bodies of color – but also elevates others to superhuman personifications of all that is wise, prophetic, creative, intelligent, or talented. Clearly, we need to reclaim the humanity of women; maybe, we also need to reclaim the humanity of men.[4]

Anyone, of any gender – any parent, mentor, teacher, or boss – in a position of power, of superior strength or influence, might abuse that power. Children experience much of what passes for parenting as nothing more than abuse. Heartbreaking as it feels, I would not be surprised, today, to learn that any of my favorite male superstars, from Hume to Jesus of Nazareth, was poisoned by power and adulation to the point of abusing that power. After all, that is what patriarchy does – it poisons. For every idol it creates, by necessity, it also creates another demon.

So as we work, as Hume did, to name oppression and build compassion; as we strive to heal patriarchy, form resilient communities, restore ecosystems, and rebuild our kinship with sea and soil, let us also dismantle the idolatry and vilification that enables us so quickly to glorify one and blame another. Let us bear witness to the truth of another’s testimony. Take responsibility for the brokenness in our communities and cultures. Weave new structures that embody the divine, interconnected web that embraces all Creation. And maybe, a new generation will emerge – one with no more idols who abuse and eventually topple, smashing our hopes and illusions and blissful ignorance. And one with no more daughters struggling to find the courage to face the shame, rejection, and disbelief when they come forward to say, #metoo.

[1] See David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature (153-61), and Essays, Moral, Political, and Literary and the Principles of Morals (438-41).
[2] Annette C. Baier argues for the compatibility of Hume’s philosophy with feminist principles; see “Hume, the Women’s Moral Theorist?” Moral Prejudices: Essays on Ethics, Harvard University Press, 1995. Gus diZerega similarly argues for compatibility with biocentrism: “Deep Ecology and Liberalism: The Greener Implications of Evolutionary Liberal Theory,” The Review of Politics 58, no. 4 (Autumn) 1996.
[3] See Hume’s Essays and Treatises on Various Subjects, 227; Essays, Moral…, I.XXI, footnote 10.
[4] For in depth analyses of this concept, see The Social Psychology of Good and Evil (Arthur G. Miller, ed., The Guilford Press, New York, NY; 2nd edition, 2016), which includes discussions of hubris, dehumanization, and the empathy-altruism hypothesis. René Girard’s mimetic theory also discusses the futility of scapegoating.

Tallessyn Zawn Grenfell-Lee recently earned her Ph.D. in social and ecological ethics from Boston University School of Theology. She continues to study intersections of ecofeminism, permaculture ethics, grief, and nature connection. She previously did graduate research on Alzheimer’s Disease and preventive research on Ovarian Cancer. She received a B.Sc. in biology from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, an M.A. in Molecular Biology from Harvard University, and an M.Div. from the Boston University School of Theology. She lives in central Massachusetts with her husband and two daughters, and enjoys gardening, canoeing, learning about medicinal and edible wild plants, and rewriting old hymns to make them more inclusive.

Author: Tallessyn Zawn Grenfell-Lee

Tallessyn Zawn Grenfell-Lee, PhD is an Ecological Ethicist and the founder of Climate Resilience Leadership, which offers resources for Climate-Proof Leadership and Unshakeable Hope. She studies intersections of ecofeminism, permaculture ethics, grief, and nature connection. She previously did graduate research on Alzheimer’s Disease and preventive research on Ovarian Cancer. She received a B.Sc. in Biology from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, an M.A. in Molecular Biology from Harvard University, and an M.Div. from the Boston University School of Theology. She lives in metrowest Massachusetts with her husband and two daughters, and enjoys gardening, canoeing, learning about medicinal and edible wild plants, and rewriting old hymns to make them more inclusive.

24 thoughts on “#MeToo and the Idolatry Trap by Tallessyn Zawn Grenfell-Lee”

  1. You peaked my interest in David Hume!

    I enjoyed reading your article until I got to the point where you suggested that Jesus of Nazareth (I personally say Jesus Christ) may have been “poisoned by power and adulation to the point of abusing that power”.

    I also think it is a bit offensive to liken Jesus to a “male superstar”.

    I believe I am a fairly tolerant Christian but this is a Feminism and Religion forum and you have a responsibility when contributing articles that you don’t offend people like me.

    You have free will not to honour Jesus – who, in my belief system, is the son of God and therefore is Divine (unlike Martin Luther King etc), but I would ask for respect for someone like me, who chooses to believe that this is true.

    Believing in God/Jesus, is not an easy option and Im not prepared to defend everytime people say things I don’t like, but on this occasion, I felt it was important.

    You basically demoted Jesus to an ordinary man – albeit a superstar, which is NOT what I consider him to be.

    I can feel my anger growing as Im typing this.

    I remember a christian friend telling me that God doesn’t need me to defend him. I didn’t agree at the time and Im not sure I agree with it now.

    I ask myself, would it be ok to be married and have someone devalue my husband, in public, and say nothing? That’s how much I love God and his son, Jesus.

    Your article, for the first time, made me question whether I should unsubscribe from this forum. Do I want to ‘hang out’ with people who think its alright to dishonour my husband? Whether you believe it or not, the bible talks about God being thy husband. “Thy Maker is thy husband”. I also think He is my Father, my Mother. He is my All.

    More than anything now, I need to sign off and take care of myself and my anger, which is my responsibility.


    1. I hear you, Helen. It is really, really painful to think about the figures we love and revere most ever doing serious wrong. I remember wrestling very hard with this issue in terms of the Canaanite woman Jesus rudely refuses to help at first. The bigotry and sexism of that passage really pained me.
      I don’t know if this helps, but for me, it helped when I thought of Jesus as wise enough to keep learning. Unlike many people, who only want idols and memorials, I want a living divine, a Spirit that speaks, a Creation-Creating-Creation divine that is noun, verb, and the connection between them.
      Then I’m not so afraid of failure and prone to shame, if I can rest in the Divine Love that’s in the midst of all learning and birthing and becoming. ❤️


      1. Thank you, Helen. I am sure you are voicing what many others feel. There are diverse strands of feminist theology; some of them fit well with what you have expressed, and others question locating the Divine solely in any one person (even Jesus) or image (such as a Father God), as idolatrous. Others suggest that divinity includes the ability to grow and learn and change, which is consistent with biblical narratives of both God and Jesus. Either way, I am glad the post was interesting to you, despite the ways it does not fit with your own feminist theology.

        I want to emphasize that I did not say that I think Jesus sexually abused women. I only tried to express that I am no longer surprised when anyone who holds great power, particularly in worshipful and idolatrous ways, is found to have abused that power – I believe this is a human trait we can all succumb to in differing ways. For me, the deep power of Jesus’ message depends on his full humanity – it shows that the incarnation is for all Creation, not isolated to one person. I know that other Christians do not share that view, and I celebrate the importance of diverse theologies, in order to have fruitful dialog. Thank you again for engaging!

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I agree it is painful to think about the figures we love and revere most ever doing serious wrong. It has been extremely painful for me to have stories come out about Rolf Harris, Martin Luther King etc.

        You don’t mention the parable of the Canaanite woman and I can’t recall which one it is, however, there are lots of passages in the bible that, on the face of it, can be considered rude and abusive. Jesus to his mother “you are not my mother”, to Peter “Satan, get thee behind me”. “Don’t give your pearls to swine” (the idea of calling people ‘swine’!)

        I have had on my altar for a while now the scripture of “Teacher, we know that You are true, and care about no-one; for you do not regard the person of men, but teach the way of God in truth.”

        This would suggest the complete opposite of what Jesus is predominantly portrayed as. He cares for no-one? I would suggest that he cares/cared for people’s souls and sometimes perhaps it is necessary to be blunt to the point of rudeness, which could be seen as “abusing his power”.

        I don’t think the same rules apply to Rolf Harris, Martin Luther King as they do to Jesus.

        I don’t mean to be rude, but your comment seems to suggest that although it is painful, one day I might realise that the truth of the matter is that Jesus was abusive…..which, if nothing else, is a bit patronising.


  2. I personally have no tolerance for dead guys – especially the ones on horses – products of their time? I seriously doubt it when harassment and rape continue unabated.

    I loved this article – Thanks.


    1. Glad you enjoyed the article, Sara! Unfortunately, patriarchy is part of almost all historical contexts… I hope we can continue to build communities that reveal and heal its toxicity. :(


  3. I had to “google” David Hume! Now I keep hearing everything in a Scottish accent! Thank you for the introduction.
    “let us also dismantle the idolatry and vilification that enables us so quickly to glorify one and blame another.” Yes! We are on a journey, and walking a road that changes as we mature, get tired, learn something, change, etc. We need more compassion and less certainty I think, since we all, male and female, bear our wounds.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for your comment, Barbara. I love how you say, we all bear our wounds. It highlights Hume’s insistence on compassion as the true foundation of justice and healing. Importantly, we need to be compassionate with ourselves as well, and not expect to be perfect mothers, parents, partners, professionals, or otherwise, either. How to strike that balance between safety/high standards and yet compassion and healing is the messy work of life – that Hume says should happen in loving, supportive communities. Maybe partly so we don’t despair, either of ourselves or one another? Community – especially the next generation – can give us hope.

      PS Totally agree, everything sounds better in a Scottish accent! :)


  4. I would add that I don’t “locate the Divine solely in one person”. “Ye are all gods”, I just don’t think demoting Christ or Christ consciousness to that of material man is helpful or true.


  5. I seem to have lost the ability to comment under the appropriate person’s comment, for which I apologise.

    I note that however interesting David Hume may be, he is an atheist, along with a lot of other male philosophers – I am not.

    “Founder of a major christian denomination? Dead white guy?” Did you mean Jesus?
    “I mean some of them were pretty questionnable if not downright oppressive people” – did you mean Jesus?

    You say you want to emphasise that you did not say that you think Jesus sexually abused women. No, you didn’t but you seem to say you wouldn’t be surprised to learn that he did. That’s not offensive?


    1. Helen, I’m sorry my comment made you feel patronized- that was not my intent. Also, I did not mean to imply that someday you might realize the truth that Jesus was abusive. Not at all. And I’m also sorry if I’ve created confusion by commenting on my sister Tallessyn’s post this way.
      I’m referring to the story when Jesus refuses to help the Canaanite woman because he says he has come only for Israelites, and it’s not right to give their food to the dogs. For many years I figured he must have been testing her persistence or her faith, planning to help her all along. It still didn’t sit well with me, but it preserved my sense of Jesus as ultimately wise and infallible. Gradually, I came to realize I preferred a Jesus who was wise enough to be taught and corrected by women. As you say, it happens more than once. And that opened up for me the idea that he wasn’t infallibly wise.
      That idea helped me when reading my sister’s post. As she says, she didn’t accuse Jesus of abusing women,.. but she doesn’t insist it’s impossible, either, which feels painful to hear (for me). But I’ve had people I love most dearly, accused of sexual assault… and that’s actually much more painful for me… truly agonizing. I was only trying to hear and validate your pain, and offer what helps me, but I’m sorry if it did not have the intended impact. Peace.


      1. I accept your apology.

        Thank you for reminding me of the Canaanite woman parable. I’ve also looked it up, to remind me. I think I disagree with your analysis. I’m thinking its got more to do with not wanting to perform miracles for people (or their relatives) that just want their own personal healing, without any belief or honouring of God. Jesus, at first, ignores the woman completely and it is only when she demonstrates that there is an element of faith/belief in God, that Jesus performs the miracle and replies “O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.” And her daughter was healed instantly.

        I don’t believe it was that Jesus was wise enough to be taught and corrected by women.

        Im sorry to hear that you’ve had people you love accused of sexual assault and obviously I appreciate that must be extremely hard.

        Its probably best we leave it at that.

        Helen x


    2. Just to clarify, when speaking of founders of major Christian denominations, I was speaking of Wesley, Calvin, Luther, etc etc.


  6. Thank you for this post. I’ve been pondering for a while now the question of what to do with the good accomplishments of men who have done terrible things. Do we throw away all of Woody Allen movies? Negate the contributions of The Cosby Show? Renounce the theology of John Howard Yoder?
    Is it possible to condemn these men for their abuses while still honoring their accomplishments?
    I don’t know the answer. Letting go of our idols and, as you say “reclaiming the humanity of men,” is certainly one aspect. I look forward to hearing more from you on this so very important subject.


    1. It was so comforting to read your reply (smstrouse) because I also struggle with that issue. No one is 100% bad/evil/immoral nor are they 100% good/whole/moral. It is difficult for me to condemn someone for part of his/her life.


      1. Indeed. I cannot imagine how I would navigate that. I’ve had to work through issues with both my parents: coming to see them as flawed human beings, but also recognizing the damage done to me. But I did not have to deal with issues of outright abuse.


    2. Yes, this is such an important ethical question. I always come back to Saul. it was, ironically, Elie Wiesel – now accused of assault – who wrote Five Biblical Portraits, in which he discusses this very issue, in a way – why did God reject Saul, who never wanted to be king, who prioritized justice, uniting the people, riding out to battle in front rather than behind – by many measures a much more righteous person than David. Saul has one wife; Saul divides the spoils of war among the soldiers – David amasses great wealth, treats women and his children poorly, rides behind the soldiers, etc, etc. But in the end, David gets all the lament, all the glory. Can we see Saul as a whole person? Can we remember what he was like before he started to lose his mind? Was it PTSD from battle that tortured him and drove him to what he was like in the end? I find comfort in the story of Saul and in Wiesel’s reclamation of it. Until we can acknowledge the potential Nazi inside each of us, how can we heal our brokenness and try to live into the Divine Image? What does truly restorative justice look like? Thank you for your comment.


  7. Brilliant post! I’m always reminding myself of context these days, not as a way to excuse behavior but to understand it and grow from it — whether in myself or others. I find myself reflecting, often, “what made this person this way? why did they say or do such-and-such?” And, in the spirit of synchronicity, just this weekend I was reading the 1905 book “Spirit of the Mountains” by Emma Bell Miles and, in reference to her own reflections upon context (in Appalachian Tennessee) about the men who were talking about religion & crime, the author writes: “In the same abstract way Gid prated on of righteousness, temperance and judgment to come, without a thought of his own selfishness, since the victim of it was only a woman, and his wife at that.”


    1. Wow, Darla, what a telling quote. Thank you for your comments. It reminds me of a newspaper article about the problem of wife beating in Korea. The man they interviewed was giving a lot of information and analysis about the problem. At the end of the interview, they asked him, have you ever beaten your wife? And he responded, well, I have been married to her for decades- how could I be expected NOT to have beaten her in all that time?

      Liked by 1 person

  8. OMG – just read about Ghandi’s sex life…..married but then at some point during the marriage deciding on a life of chastity, which amongst other things, involved sleeping alongside young naked women to test that chastity.

    Today is the 70th anniversary of his death.

    Obviously, we fell out over Jesus. My faith is built on him being the son of God and being divine. If, when I die, I find out that Jesus did, in fact, abuse women, abuse his power, then obviously I will face the pain of realising that I was wrong, but all the time I am alive, I choose not to believe it. That is what faith is all about, I suppose. I have always said that I don’t care whether it was true or not, whether it was a myth of not, it’s how I choose to live my life. I choose to live my life, believing that Jesus existed, in the way he has been portrayed upto now and to believe that I too, can be like him (as it says in the bible)


    1. Thank you Helen. I think role models are incredibly important. They help us feel inspired to become the people we want to be, we feel called to be, by the Spirit. I want to reassert that I am not claiming that Jesus abused the power the crowds and his colleagues gave him – as a matter of fact, he kept resisting it and resisting it. A huge part of the message of the gospel is that Jesus did not want to be a king or superhero. (This is one reason the song “Jesus, You’re My Superhero” really bothers me). Prophets tend to feel uncomfortable when people confuse the message with the messenger.

      Confucius said, when two people are walking along, you can learn something from each of them. What he meant was, one of them will show you how you want to be, and the other will show you how you do not want to be. I think I have been a good role model (for my children, etc.) in some cases, and in other cases, I have made mistakes; however, I have tried hard to model apologies, and attempts to learn and grow. I see Jesus that way – as someone who, in addition to providing a sorely needed prophetic word, also models both of those things: great wisdom and justice, as well as the commitment to continue to learn and grow, despite being fully human, and therefore capable of making mistakes. My Wesleyan theology is about ‘going on to perfection,’ with moments of ‘perfection’ when one is wholly focused on and in Love, but not as a static state of perfection.

      I want you to know that I completely respect the strands of Christianity that hold Jesus up uniquely as the same as God/dess, the Divine. It is a large part of Christianity! I happen to have been raised by parents who warned against ‘Jesus worship’ as problematic – they would not have seen this as some progressive or liberal thing, but actually a traditional view; they saw Jesus worship as a recent, evangelical phenomenon in the conservative branches of Christianity. So I know that all of these aspects of my upbringing and context affect my engagement with this question: was Jesus perfect, in the static, unchanging sense? What does ‘Divine’ mean? Is it something we all share, or is it limited to Jesus and God? What is ‘perfection,’ and ‘Christian perfection’?

      I appreciated the opportunity to think through these things with you. Many blessings!


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