When I saw the news on Saturday, this is what first came to mind, and I shared it: “The unexpected death of Rachel Held Evans this morning was a great loss for so many of us, for the church still becoming, and for the world where more and more people were listening to her. For her life and voice, thanks be to God.”
Since then, so many people have testified that Rachel Held Evans created a safe place for them — in person, for some, but overwhelmingly online, with a blog that became an internet sanctuary where people were welcomed, affirmed, encouraged, and lifted up. The hashtag #becauseofRHE highlights these incredible stories across social media — scrolling through the moving testimonies on Twitter feels like attending an online memorial service. Many are calling this online community her church; Rachel had been their pastor.
They are speaking up in their grief, but also in deep gratitude for her legacy of inclusion and advocacy to bring diverse voices to the table: championing women, especially women of color, and LGBTQ people, and advocating to ensure they were featured voices in conferences and on her own platform. A common thread in many tributes is how she often encouraged writers and journalists behind the scenes, particularly when they were being attacked for their work.
Her book, A Year of Biblical Womanhood, was an important entry point for many wrestling with complementarian theology, along with its oppressive effects on women and biblical thinness. Similarly, some of her other books, like Searching for Sunday, spoke to many who no longer felt at home within the church for reasons of their own identity or because of the many abuses committed within the church.
Rachel’s voice offered reasons not to give up on Christianity altogether. She left evangelicalism but not the faith. Ultimately, she saw the injustices within evangelicalism and how it treated women and the LGBTQ community untenable for her but still managed to speak truth in grace, not dismissing people still wrapped in that theology.
One of the things that Rachel Held Evans teaches me is that often the best critics of a tradition are often those who grew up in it rather than those attacking it from the outside. Like myself, Rachel grew up in the conservative white evangelical world and became someone who could see what was wrong with it and felt the hurt that it caused. She understood how all of our faith traditions must be transformed from their cultural captivity. Ultimately, she came to see where the place of truth and authority most lies, for evangelical and any other kind of Christian: with Jesus Christ — a Jesus that Christians often seek to avoid.
Author Katelyn Beaty put it this way: “… Rachel wrote confidently that her mind was made to know God —to ‘stand before Jesus on her own soul’s two feet,’ to quote Rachel’s dear friend, Sarah Bessey.”
Instead of trying to put Jesus in his place, in a structure of patriarchy and white supremacy, Rachel saw Jesus in the place he belongs, announcing a new order of things whose gospel sets all of us free, and especially liberates those who have been marginalized and oppressed. And she honestly testified to what it meant for her to try to be a follower of Jesus — which isn’t always easy, simple, or perfect, but rather full of love, justice, and grace.
I encourage all of you to explore the #becauseofRHE hashtag and let it encourage and challenge you going forward in your work.
Rachel Held Evans understood that life is full of both deep losses and great joys. The death of this gifted church leader — yes, she was a “church leader,” the kind the church sorely needs today — is indeed a great loss. But her loving and challenging life and words will stay with us as a great joy. Therefore, let us all say together, Thanks be to God for our sister, for Rachel Held Evans.