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Theology

theological foundations: child liberation theology

Part One: Public Theology | Part Two: Incarnation | Part Three: Resurrection | Part Four: Trauma Theology

As you might have noticed at this point, each of the previous posts in this series have been building blocks. I began by asking myself what role theology should play in my public life and discussing the tension between my activism being grounded in my faith and needing to respect secular institutions and spaces. This led to the place where my Christian faith begins: in the Incarnation and how “God with us” teaches me to value lived experience and context. Jesus’ ministry began in the Incarnation, but closed with the Resurrection, and I discussed the ways that different views of the “crucifixion-resurrection event” affects our views on suffering, arguing that suffering is not redemptive and our lived experiences matter when constructing a theology of the Cross. That flows naturally into trauma theology, and how deeply our views of trauma affect our views of humanity, God, and every relationship that ties us together.

Which brings me, finally, to child liberation theology.

If you’re not familiar with Christian liberation theology more broadly, a brief explanation is liberation theology asserts that Jesus stands with the marginalized and oppressed, and one of his primary ministerial activities is found in Luke 4:18 (where he is reading from Isaiah):

The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

Liberation theology also teaches we are to engage in this mission, and often references the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats, where Jesus instructs his followers to feed the hungry, invite in the stranger, heal the sick, and visit the prisoner.* One of the best things about liberation theology, in my opinion, is how it respects the power of lived experience and all the nuances and complexities of suffering and oppression; because of that, liberation theologians can focus on individual dynamics: Latin American economic oppression, the particularly virulent racism faced by Black people in the US, the avenues explored by womanist and mujerista theologians …

Because of my “job” as a policy advocate with the Coalition for Responsible Home Education (I’m not paid, but I do consider it my main job at this point), something that consistently captured my attention in seminary was the question “what about children?” Our class discussions always did an excellent job delving into womanist, feminist, queer, and religious minority perspectives, but very often children got left out of the picture entirely. In research for one of my papers, I discovered there are other theologians considering this question, like Rebecca Stevens-Walter asking “where are the children in all of this?” in her post “God of the Oppressed Child.”

I believe that, unlike many of us in our theological discourse, Jesus never forgot children. I also think his life gives us a framework to understand children in a liberative way, beginning in his own childhood.

When I read the end of Luke 2, where Jesus stays behind at the Temple and Mary and Joseph don’t realize he’s missing over a day of traveling, I can hear the panic in Mary’s question when she finally finds him sitting among the teachers: “why have you treated us like this?” This reaction is understandable– I don’t have children yet, but I can imagine how losing your child must have been beyond heart-wrenching. It makes sense to me that Mary would center herself and Joseph, and for anger to come to the surface after experiencing such fear and panic. It’s a common question for parents– how could you do this to us? I’ve heard it a few times, from my own parents. I’m sure most of us have.

But Jesus’ response is a calm, quiet, steady affirmation of his own identity and autonomy, separate from Mary and Joseph: “didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?” Seen through the perspective of child liberation theology, that response is extraordinary to me. Mom, I’m myself. I have my own purpose, separate from yours. I am my own person. I decide where I need to be, what I need, who I need to talk to. I have my own religious experience. I have my own relationships with God and other people that are not about you. And while he returns to Nazareth, the text describes him as deciding to be “obedient” to Mary and Joseph– it’s another choice, another example of autonomy and agency. The entire passage concludes with how Jesus grew in “wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and man”; this is a continuation of his initial decision to remain behind at the Temple, not a departure from it.

I think his expression of autonomy and individuation when he was twelve is re-affirmed throughout his three-year ministry. One of the harshest rebukes he ever gives his disciples is over their treatment of children, and not only does he say that children have the right to access him and his teachings, he tells everyone present how the kingdom of heaven belongs to children. I don’t want to understate how powerful it is that Jesus links children and the kingdom of heaven. This theme is echoed everywhere– “whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven” demonstrates clearly that Jesus understood exactly the rung on the social ladder children inhabit, especially since he teaches elsewhere the “last shall be first”; here, children shall be “the greatest.”

He knows how children were treated, were viewed, and he admonished anyone who would listen to completely upend that way of thinking. At one point Jesus even tells his audience it would be better for someone to have a millstone tied around their neck and thrown into the depths of the sea than for them to cause a child to stumble. For him, children are not just progeny, or economic assistants, or heirs, or tools. They are people and deserve the same liberation from oppression as anyone else.

***

I love children. To me, they are endlessly exciting, invigorating, inspiring, encouraging. Some of my heroes right now are Greta Thunberg and Emma Gonzáles (although they are both quickly becoming adults, Greta is 16 and Emma is 19), and I’m constantly uplifted by young people in my own community taking on tasks and leadership because the adults in their life have neglected or abandoned their responsibility. Watching them work  is like watching fireworks– they can be utterly dazzling.

I also know that not every child is empowered to shoulder those mantles of leadership. Most aren’t, in fact. And it’s my job to be like Jesus and not forget them.

*For a more in-depth exploration of liberation theology, I highly recommend A Black Theology of Liberation by James Cone, read alongside Sisters in the Wilderness by Williams.

Photography by Leonora Enking

 

Theology

theological foundations: trauma theology

Part One: Public Theology | Part Two: Incarnation | Part Three: Resurrection 

Back when I was still trying to make it as a freelance editor, I took on a contract for doing developmental edits for a “Christian Living”-genre book (a self-help book with a dose of self-righteousness, moralizing, and religious-based shame thrown in for good measure), taking it on because the topic sounded like it was in my wheelhouse. She pitched the concept to me as wanting to get Christians to make room for suffering and pain and how she had been on that journey herself, so I thought I’d be reading a memoir-ish book along the lines of Lewis’ The Problem of Pain.

Instead, what I got was a preachy screed filled to the brim with victim blaming and judgment. Her only argument was the one we’re all used to hearing: ignore your trauma and “choose joy” (or you’re bitter, which is a sin). She was essentially just trying to turn Romans 8:28 into a book. It also became clear that this cis straight middle class white lady had no real idea what she was talking about– her examples of “suffering” included: sibling infighting, bad grades, losing friendships, etc. I only edited the first three or four chapters because I kept pointing out how her words and arguments might be received by traumatized people, abuse victims, grieving parents … she resisted at every point because her theological system demanded compliance over compassion.

A while later I ended up leaving my church over a similar issue: the pastor kept preaching sermons that deliberately conflated suffering abuse with perpetuating abuse, or cracking jokes about spanking babies, or encouraging women to “stick out” unhealthy relationships. At that time, I realized that how people understand trauma affects absolutely everything in their theology. If you do not understand how trauma happens, how trauma works, or the way trauma lives in the body and the mind, then you’re not going to offer appropriate care to anyone affected by it.

Last year I discovered trauma theology and immediately latched on to it as the framework I’d desperately needed to explain this reality. The experiences of my life mean that a Christian theology articulated principally by abusers — Luther, Wesley, Calvin, notably– can only be an unmitigated failure for me. Theology uninformed by trauma does not and cannot work for trauma survivors. In my experience, those theological systems will constantly re-traumatize me, or force me to assent to some sort of complicity in my abuse in order to “seek healing.” And that doesn’t even cover systems that are explicitly and fundamentally abusive, like complementarian theology.

Most compellingly, though, once I was working with a trauma theology framework, it became conspicuously obvious how well it fits as a way of working with Scripture. I’ve used all sorts of lenses over the years to interpret the Bible– historical-critical, Marxist, deconstructionist, feminist, phenomenological, and so on– but most of the time those lenses feel rather “after the fact.” There’s a lot of value of reading with a “hermeneutics of suspicion” or looking for power dynamics, or places where the relationship between signifier and signified might be disrupted, but they are ways of interacting with the text at a distance. Trauma theology, though, just … clicked into place for me, like the Bible was meant to be read that way, that it had been written with trauma theology in mind.

I think this feels so true because trauma, unfortunately, is a deeply human experience– and the Bible is nothing if not deeply and profoundly human.

Last semester I took a class that studied sections of the Tanakh, including the story of Elijah. One of the passages we were asked to prepare an interpretation of before class covered I Kings 19, where Elijah flees from Jezebel and meets G-d at Horeb. As I read the story for the first time in years, I resonated so much with how Elijah responds. After Jezebel threatens him, he flees for his life– and it’s like my gut remembers what it feels like to feel that fear, to be that afraid, because it clenches. Then, he leaves his servant behind and goes into the wilderness alone– and I’ve been down that road myself, both desperately seeking isolation and feeling like I don’t deserve to be around anyone who might care about me. Eventually he collapses underneath a broom tree, begging G-d to just let him die and falls asleep– and I think about the countless times I’ve pulled the covers up over my head and just wished that everything would just stop, could I just stop existing please.

What happens next is so ineffably beautiful.

Elijah awakens to feel a gentle hand on his shoulder, smelling the warm and sweet smell of fresh bread, and hears someone telling him “Get up, and eat.” He looks, and there’s bread baking on the stones beside him, with water beside it. He eats, drinks, and goes to sleep again. When he wakes up, the voice is still there, and so is more fresh water and hot bread. As I read, I thought of all the times I’ve been in bed when my partner comes home, struggling to both embrace and fight off the absolute numbness that pervades my life sometimes. I thought of all the times he’s put a gentle hand on my shoulder and said “Get up, and eat,” and I look, and he’s made pancakes and there’s a mug of tea on my nightstand just how I like it.

Elijah is traumatized. It’s the only word to describe what he’s been through– he’s lived in fear for his life for who knows how long, and it’s taken a toll. He’s tired. He’s done. He puts one foot in front of the other until he just can’t anymore, and what does G-d do? G-d tells him to sleep. G-d brings him food.

G-d meets him. Elijah encounters G-d not in the thunder or earthquake, but in a “soft murmuring sound.” G-d understands his trauma, and gives him the time he needs to heal and recover from being triggered by Jezebel’s emotionally and psychologically abusive threats. G-d helps Elijah restore some of his equilibrium, and then sets him on a path where he meets Elisha for the first time: a relationship. A partner, and his legacy.

Trauma theology helped me see all that, revealing it all in an intuitive, natural way. I can see it everywhere now, too– in every single one of Jesus’ healing miracles, when Moses flees Egypt, the interactions between Paul and Barnabas, or Mary Magdalene at the Tomb. I especially see it when Jesus tells Thomas to touch his hands and his side, because as a rape survivor who has spent half a dozen years trying to get people on the internet to respond to rape victims appropriately, I know exactly what it feels like to offer up your wounds as proof for skeptics to shove their hands into.

***

In real-world practical terms, what truama theology unveiled to me is that I believe Christianity should fundamentally be about healing– all forms of healing. I want to see a world of spiritual restoration, physical balms, emotional resilience, strong connections, and relational power. I need to join Jesus’ ministry of healing, of “touched and being touched.”

Spending the last year reading Scripture through a trauma theology lens and fleshing out my trauma theology has also made it easier to view my life and other people in a trauma-informed way. The last seven months of my life have been extraordinarily difficult, and at times I wasn’t sure how I was going to be able to handle some pieces of it. Trauma theology, though, helped me retain my values– kindness, compassion, understanding– because through a hazy cloud of my own pain I could more easily see the ways trauma, shame, and vulnerability were being activated in all the situations I’ve been in this last year. Social researchers call this “self-differentiation,” but I’m starting to think of it as “becoming more like Christ.”

Photography by Leonora Enking
Theology

theological foundations: suffering & resurrection

Part One: Public Theology | Part Two: Incarnation

I think one of the elements that tend to push people away from Christian fundamentalism and evangelicalism is that there is no rigorous or deep conversation happening about suffering. In those contexts, when we encounter pain, abuse, trauma, loss, grief, tragedies, or horrors, there are only a handful of half-baked platitudes available to offer each other. “Everything happens for a reason,” we say, or “God only gives us what we can handle”; even worse, we take on the mantle of one of Job’s friends and victim blame: “what are you doing to make him act like that? Are you being a good, submissive wife?” Or, the one I’ve seen most often this week: “if they’d been carrying a gun, they could have stopped it.”

Most conservative Christian articulations of theodicy— the attempts to answer the “problem of evil”– can take us into some harrowing theological territory. Evil is really just God punishing the wicked, goes one argument; the one I’ve personally encountered the most often is “God’s ways are not our ways,” and something we think is “evil” may not, in fact, actually be evil at all. I’ve always found that one deeply disturbing, because it renders our conscience completely irrelevant– and totally and utterly unreliable to boot. All my life I found the pat, tidy, almost pre-recorded responses to my suffering unsatisfying and inadequate. When I was struggling the hardest with all the abuse I’d experienced, hearing “everything works according to his plan” infuriated me.

There are very few things I know beyond all doubt, but one of them is: suffering is not redemptive.

… which makes thinking about the Crucifixion and atonement theory a difficult proposition. Penal substitutionary atonement theory (a type of satisfaction theory)– the dominant theory that most evangelicals believe must be accepted as a fundamental truth in order to “be saved”– is deeply troubling to me because of what it says about suffering. In this model, suffering is not just good, but necessary. In order for God to accept us, someone had to be made to suffer. We’re supposed to find it beautiful that God chose Themself as the person who would do the suffering, but in reality it’s just horrifying. It forces Christianity to be fundamentally about death; it renders Jesus’ entire earthly ministry and his Resurrection an afterthought. Nothing is as important as the fact that he died for our sins.

Other atonement theories I’ve encountered in the last six years have been better, but not by much. I held onto christus victor theory and moral influence theory the longest, but both ultimately teach that suffering can be the most redemptive option. Suffering can be good if it breaks the chains of death and evil on the world. Suffering can be good if it teaches us to be compassionate.

And then I read Sisters in the Wilderness: The Challenge of Womanist God-Talk by Delores Williams and broke down crying– tears of relief, joy, hope. I was ecstatic. I felt almost enlightened– in religious language, it was a liminal encounter with the divine. Something inside of me jolted awake and recognized her words as True:

The resurrection of Jesus and the flourishing of God’s spirit in the world as the result of resurrection represent the life of the ministerial vision gaining victory over the evil attempt to kill it … Jesus therefore conquered sin in life, not in death. …

The resurrection of Jesus and the kingdom of God theme in Jesus’ ministerial vision provide black women with the knowledge that God has, through Jesus, shown humankind how to live peacefully, productively, and abundantly in relationship. Jesus showed humankind a vision of righting relations between body, mind, and spirit through an ethical ministry of words, through a healing ministry of touch and being touched, through the militant ministry of expelling evil forces, through a ministry grounded in the power of faith, through a ministry of prayer, through a ministry of compassion and love.

There is nothing divine in the blood of the cross … Jesus did not come to be a surrogate. Jesus came for life … As Christians, black women cannot forget the cross, but neither can they glorify it. To do so is to glorify suffering and to render their exploitation sacred. To do so is to glorify the sin of defilement. (146-48)

In William’s ministerial atonement theory, suffering is a reality that can’t be forgotten or ignored, but it is recognized as something being wrong with the world, or with humanity. Evil is acknowledged as real, and as incredibly powerful. She also piercingly recognizes how evil operates: it attempts to kill not just life, but peace, abundance, relationships. Its source is often found in the breakdown of connection, of losing physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual coherence as a person and as a society. Life and resurrection, in this ministerial vision, is the search for healing, compassion, and love– as well as the fight against disconnection and exploitation.

Kelly Brown Douglas argued for something similar in Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God when she speaks powerfully on rooting our theology in the Resurrection and not just the Crucifixion:

There is not one story reported in the four Gospels in which Jesus cooperates with death. … What the crucifixion-resurrection event reveals is that God does not use the master’s tools. God does not fight death with death. God does not utilize the violence exhibited in the cross to defeat deadly violence itself. …

Maintaining the connection between the cross and the “empty tomb” is essential to the meaning of the resurrection itself. It grounds the resurrection in history. It makes clear that the evil that God overcomes is historical, that is, that God really defeats the powers of this world. …

The resurrection restores life to those who have been crucified. It calls attention to the meaning of a life. (181-192)

***

The consequence of reorienting my conception of the “crucifixion-resurrection event” from one that revolved around death and suffering to one based in life and ministry is that my faith is no longer about fear, shame and avoidance. Before, my religion was completely wrapped up in keeping myself and others away from an eternal afterlife of misery and torment, but now my religion is fundamentally about life, and having it more abundantly. Like Jesus, I will not cooperate with death. I will not allow the evils of disconnection and exploitation to fester– not in myself, and not anywhere else, either. A “ministerial vision” of faith compels me to actions that are more than just evangelism, but toward justice.

And, as Kelly Brown Douglas put it, my faith is grounded in the “historical”: the worldly, earthly, and human. I believe that the resurrection asks me to see this life, and all our lives, as important and valuable. It’s my job to bring a reality of resurrection, not some far-off distant hope with no real-world applications or substantive changes.

In my life, believing in the resurrection this way teaches me to look for ways to “bring dead things back to life again,” as Rachel Held Evans put it in her introduction to Searching for Sunday. How can I bring about a cultural shift among homeschooling families? How can I help bring about a world where children’s lives are seen as valuable, important, and worth not just protecting from harm to but to aid them in flourishing and finding fulfillment, meaning, and purpose?  How can I strengthen connections in our communities– between legislators and graduates, parents and social workers, educators and children? How do I make sure that everyone at the Coalition for Responsible Home Education is treated in a way that values their life and living it abundantly, even when the work we’re doing encounters the “banality of evil” every day? How do I make sure when I’m in the political arena, a field where negotiation and compromise is essential, I work in a way that does not “cooperate with death”? That makes sure the policy proposals we make and pursue do not harm life, or contribute to human suffering?

The resurrection has taught me how much resisting death, suffering, and evil matters.

Photography by Leonora Enking
Theology

theological foundations: the incarnation

| Part One: Public Theology |

I no longer believe that Christianity is the only “correct” religion– in fact, I do not believe that any religion can be  “correct,” and I find the entire enterprise of “proving” a religion, or of thinking about religions as “real” or “not real” (in an empirical sense) or “factual” to be ridiculous nonsense that entirely misses the point. I am a spiritual person because, for myself, the world and my experiences in it are more coherent with a spiritual component. I hold this spirituality loosely, but it’s still significant to me in how I interact with others and understand myself. This point of view often leads people to ask me the question “why are you still a Christian, then?”

The short answer: the Incarnation.

There are lots of other reasons why I’m a Christian — it’s the religion of my family, my culture, my personal background, and to be honest those factors are probably the real reason why. Christianity is familiar and comfortable. However, I have spent some time studying other faith traditions and have given serious, prolonged thought to converting to Judaism in particular. However, I keep deciding to remain a Christian because the Incarnation is unique to Christianity (at least as far as I know, please feel free to point me to other examples) and it holds remarkable power for me as a concept. God became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we beheld his glory continues to capture my theological imagination in a way that no other religious doctrine does. I listen to Casting Crowns “God is With Us” every Christmas and every year I start crying when I sing God is in us, God is for us, God is with us, Emmanuel.

I should make clear that the emphasis I’m placing on the Incarnation doesn’t align very well with what emergent theologians call “incarnational theology,” and that my conceptualization of the Incarnation is still pretty traditional, surprisingly– hypostatic union, Athanasian, Chalcedonian, etc. However, I do believe that when it comes to Christianity, the Incarnation is the most consequential event and my faith practice is almost completely oriented around it.

What the Incarnation teaches me is how much our lived experiences matter. God was born to a first century Palestinian Jewish mother, grew up under Roman occupation, trained as a carpenter, most likely worked as a day laborer, and ultimately became a political and religious revolutionary* in that specific context. The experiences of his daily life are important to understanding who he was and the actions he took; the political realities are critical to understanding many of the situations he found himself in (does the story of Zacchaeus make any sense if you don’t know anything about how tax collectors were consistently despised as collaborators with Roman oppression?); as are the socioeconomic and gender dynamics (see: the Woman at the Well and the Syrophoenician Woman).

God entered into our experience in the person, time and place of Jesus of Nazareth. Understanding this “God with sandals on” means giving our attention to the concrete and incredibly specific story of his life. We do not understand Jesus if we do not understand his Jewishness. We do not understand Jesus if we do not understand the economic and class realities of the people he was teaching. We do not understand Jesus if we do not pay attention to the places he traveled and what it meant to live there– an economy based on pig farming might be seriously damaged by two thousand pigs being drowned, so why would he do that? What’s the point? We do not understand Jesus if we do not understand his people’s cultural traditions — like weddings (Water into Wine), or feasts (Feeding the 500), or funerals (Raising Lazarus from the Dead).

The Incarnation is also important because of what it tells me about Story. Jesus came to earth, told us stories for three years, and then left. His ministry, as remembered by the people he taught, was primarily ordered around the stories he told and the story of his life he gave them. “Humans are hermeneutical,” as my hermeneutics professor at seminary liked to say– meaning that our lives are rooted in stories and interpretation. We have stories about ourselves, and those stories define who we are. We tell stories about ourselves and listen to stories about others in order to forge connections. We constantly create stories to make meaning, to teach, to pass on knowledge, or to think through complicated ideas or problems.

I’ve often heard the criticism that Jesus’ earthly ministry was largely a waste because he didn’t explain himself enough. To a lot of people, it was absurd and harmful that he kicked off this entire Christian religion thing without giving us enough guidelines or rules– things like “when you think Crusades are a good idea … how about you just don’t?” or “concentration camps are BAD y’all.” He left everything completely up to interpretation– and he didn’t even write any of it down himself! This has not gone well for the world for the last two thousand years, with a handful of notable exceptions. To an extent, I understand the criticism. I am often frustrated by how easy it is for Christians to dismiss Jesus’ life and ministry in favor of (what appears to be, but aren’t) all the “clear cut rules” we find in the Pauline epistles.

What I do know, though, is that if Jesus had left us with anything else except these extremely compelling, human, poetic stories that it would not have worked. Without communicating truths through story, we never would have gotten his ideas in the first place, let alone remembered them. There’s a reason why no one writes morality plays anymore, conservative Christian media sucks, and fables with morals at the end are considered teaching tools for small children. We generally despise it all as demagoguery and propaganda– and we’re right.

The stories Jesus gave us were also not so broad in an attempt that they be “universal,” either. They often began with things like “there was a certain rich man,” or were oriented around concrete elements of daily life– pulling up genuine wheat in an attempt to get rid of the weeds, or losing coins and sweeping your entire house from top to bottom to find it, or building more barns for all your stuff, or travelers on a road all the locals knew about from Jerusalem to Jericho. He encountered women at wells and told them “everything she ever did.” His stories were rooted in lived experience, and took their lived experiences seriously.**

***

So how do those two ideas about the Incarnation apply to my life? How are they the foundation for my work, for any attempt I might want to make at social transformation?

One way is easily summed up in the common activist phrase “nothing about us without us.” It is critically important that any kind of change is generated by the community it would most affect– both for the obvious reason that those who have the most at stake should have the loudest voice, and for the less-obvious but still intuitive, practical reason that changes created on the “outside” and then forced on them won’t work.

I have seen this over and over again as a policy advocate with the Coalition for Responsible Home Education– in one state a few years ago, legislators heard a horrifying story about a child who was tortured and eventually murdered by his caregivers, and they exploited the homeschooling statute in order to do it. In response, a few compassionate legislators proposed a solution … that would have made everything worse. They wanted to do the right thing and protect children from torture and murder, but they didn’t talk to anyone who had grown up homeschooled– if they had spoken with CRHE, we would have been able to immediately tell them about the consequences their bill would have in reality, in real homeschooled childrens’ lives. I’m also empowered by my lived experiences to propose ideas that legislators couldn’t think of on their own– real changes that would actually have helped me and any child in my situation.

Jesus’ lived experiences are critical to understanding his ministry, and the lived experiences of vulnerable, marginalized, and abused people are critical to understanding what can be done to “liberate the oppressed, and set the captive free.” Because I value the Incarnation, I have taken the time to really delve into the complexities and nuances of identity, gender, class, power, political movements, and personality that informed Jesus’s life– and I believe that the Incarnation teaches me to take the same exact amount of care learning from and listening to people that live and breathe today. Jesus became flesh and dwelt among us for a reason, and I believe part of that reason was to teach us to pay attention to the details … because God did.

The second thing I’ve learned from studying the Incarnation is the power of Story. Stories can be True in a sense that nothing else can capture, they can be felt like no spreadsheet or table ever could, and no lecture or screed could ever hope to inspire or motivate as much as a story … but only as long as they are grounded in the particular, rooted in the concrete, and viscerally relatable.

It’s my responsibility to tell stories carefully and respectfully, with just as much care and respect as I’d give to any of Jesus’ parables. I can’t manipulate stories to suit me, or only look for data that supports me; doing so would undercut any change I’m trying to make.

Telling stories is my life. I have made sense of the horror and tragedy of my life through shaping and crafting narratives– sometimes those stories have served me well, sometimes I’ve needed to start telling myself a different story. I tell my story every time I write in order to build relationships, to learn to love myself and others, as well as try to show others how they might be able to do the same. I tell my story to politicians and leaders in order to convince them to take action.

The Incarnation shows me every day how stories can change the world.

***

*for more reading on this subject, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of NazarethJesus: The Life, Teachings and Relevance of a Religious Revolutionary, and Jesus of Nazareth: King of the Jews are excellent biographies of Jesus written by Reza Aslan, who is Islamic, Marcus Borg, who is Christian, and Paula Frederickson who converted to Judaism, but grew up Catholic.

**a truly wonderful resource on Jesus’ storytelling is Short Stories by Jesus: The Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi by Amy-Jill Levine, a Jewish scholar.

Photography by Leonora Enking
Theology

theological foundations: a personal survey

A note on this series: I am currently writing a six-chapter report on my Capstone Project for my seminary degree in Social Transformation. I have been working on this project, in various forms, for the last three years and this report is the culmination of all that work. One of the chapters I must include covers the “theological foundations” for my project, and I realized that it is a perfect fit for this space. This series of five posts will be a “rough draft” of sorts of that chapter.

I have mentioned in passing a few times two elements of my journey out of fundamentalist Christianity and toward a progressive, loving faith. The first is how I deeply struggled to reconcile my values with my religion, and ultimately decided that if Christianity and my values — things like feminism, affirming queer people– conflicted, that it was going to be Christianity that got the boot. Obviously, since I’m still a professing Christian and even did one of the most Christian-y things one can do and went to seminary, I decided they did not conflict. The second element I’ve mentioned from time to time is how Christianity is commonly understood as being a “motivation” for advocating for progressive values. I think we run into this idea a lot– abolitionists were motivated by their Christian faith, Martin Luther King Jr. was inspired to engage in the Civil Rights Movement because of his Christian faith, etc.

What I have not often seen examined is what do these things actually mean. What do I mean when I say that Christianity can be practiced and understood to have a place for feminism, for affirming all queer people? What does it mean that Christianity inspires me to advocate for civil rights, for justice, for peace, for restoration and and repentance and liberation? What are the theological foundations for my work, exactly? How do those foundations affect what I build on them, like this project?

Another important part of this conversation is what it means to be “inspired” by and “motivated” by religion when engaging in areas of our culture that are public, secular, and political. We’ve seen this sort of motivation go absolutely haywire in the US– “Christianity” as commonly practiced by evangelicals and other conservatives is a civic religion* and it’s brought us white supremacist terrorism, chattel slavery and its historical offspring (redlining, Jim Crow, for-profit prisons, police), theocratic authoritarianism in churches and government, brutalities against queer bodies, especially trans women … People have used their “Christian” religion to baptize all sorts of atrocities both individual and communal. It can be very dangerous to be “motivated” by religion, especially a religion that enjoys such an incredible amount of power like Christianity does in my culture.

Clearly, religion playing such a public role in society can be harmful. And while I think there are essential differences between how progressive Christians talk about their faith in public ways, we’re not immune to these types of problems. It’s also critical to remember that even if I am deeply informed by my faith practice, that it shapes how I interact with society, I must respect public spaces and other people. I cannot assume other people are Christian– or even religious–and part of “freedom of religion” is freedom from religion; pushing people’s boundaries and expectations around religion is not always appropriate. Jesus encouraged all of us to “pray in private,” after all.

There’s a tension here, however. Is it alright for presidential candidates to speak on what their Christianity asks of them as public servants on a debate stage? What about in a private interview, or when they’re directly asked about it? If I’m giving oral testimony in a legislature committee hearing, can I quote a compelling biblical passage? If I’m writing a letter to my representative, or calling their office, should I reference our shared Christian faith and ask them to vote according to my understanding of its principles? What about brief mentions during PTA meetings, or homeowners associations, or when volunteering for non-profits? I joined #NeverAgainAction a few weeks ago to help shut down ICE headquarters in DC, and some of us who were arrested talked openly about our faith for hours: how we struggle with it, how it’s harmed us, and how it can heal us, too … and I could not help but reflect on Paul and Silas singing hymns in prison. Several people said afterward how participating in that conversation, in the context of sitting in jail for protesting concentration camps, was deeply restorative to them even though they do not consider themselves particularly religious.

The reality is that while most of my faith exists below the surface and it rarely ever explicitly comes up in my public work as an activist and policy advocate, I have been indelibly molded by it. My experiences with Christianity and my appreciation for Jesus’ ministry continue to evolve, as well as inform my point of view. I fight for women’s rights and LGBT+ rights and reproductive rights because I am a Christian. I am anti-racist because I am a Christian. I am a lobbyist for children’s rights and protections because I am a Christian. My Christianity shines a light on my path toward wholeness, healing, and liberation–and it provides the nudge I occasionally need to keep going.

*an excellent resource to understand this concept better is Migrations of the Holy by Cavanaugh.

Photography by Leonora Enking
Theology

re-reading Ruth

I am riding the crest of a pretty incredible wave at the moment. I’m graduating seminary on Sunday, the 2019 legislative session is pretty much wrapped up, and I’m heading into summer break with a profound sense of accomplishment and achievement. Life, at least for the time being, is good, and I’m very happy. There’s also lots of incredible things to look forward to, one of them being my blog that I’ll be finally able to start up again in July-August. I can’t wait to get back to regularly writing for myself.

Speaking of, Crystal Cheatham reached out to me a bit ago and asked if I’d be willing to write a devotional series for the Our Bible app. If you haven’t heard of this app before, they describe it “as an alternative to devotional and Bible apps made by large, conservative, and destructive ‘Christian’ media organizations. Our Bible App was started to be a place where every person would feel welcome to explore the Christian Bible and tradition.” Their posts and writers are anti-racist, pro-LGBT+, and write from a progressive and liberative lens. I’ve been in love with the concept since they started, and was thrilled to be approached to write for them. I pitched a couple of ideas, and one of the series, “Re-Reading Ruth,” launched yesterday.

Since they’re an app there’s not a great way to link to it, but they have the first post in the series, where I explain what I’ll be doing and why, up on their blog. I’m proud of the way it turned out– I wrote prayers for other people to pray for the first time. That was an experience, for sure, but I think I did a good job? Y’all should let me know (wink). I’ll also be on Crystal’s podcast, Lord Have Mercy, to talk about it.

What are y’all’s plans for the summer? Mine include: a stay-cation, going to a friend’s apartment’s pool all summer, visiting Denver in June, and then maybe visiting family I haven’t seen in a while. There will be lots of video games–Elder Scrolls Online: Elsweyr is launching in June, I am going to do nothing but play Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey for a week after I get back from graduation, and I’m pretty much addicted to Overwatch (I play Sombra and Ashe, mostly– if you play, who are your mains?).

Also I’ve decided to learn embroidery and got Needle Painting Embroidery: Fresh Ideas for Beginners by Trish Burr and can’t wait to get started. I started practicing back stitches and satin stitches last night while watching Bon Appetit YouTube videos and had a blast. Any tips, tricks, instagram accounts, blogs I should follow?

Theology

The Blessed Unrest: Black Theology and the Salvation of the White Church

Note: this is my term paper from a class last semester, Black Theology. The assignment was to write on “Black theology and the church,” and our primary text to engage was The Divided Mind of the Black Church by Raphael Warnock.

I’m telling these tears gonna fall away
May the last one burn into flames
Freedom, cut my loose
I break chains all by myself
Won’t let my freedom rot in hell.

Beyoncé, “Freedom” from Lemonade

No way to make the pain play fair
it doesn’t disappear
just because you say it isn’t there, so
When they ask why’d she go you can say ’cause
life in Eden changed

Sara Bareilles, “Eden” from The Blessed Unrest

In the summer of 2014, I was invited to be a guest on BBC4’s Things Unseen radio program to relate my experiences in American Christian fundamentalism and with religious trauma. I recorded my segment several weeks before it aired, and while I knew that my story was meant to imbue some color into a program that was mostly a dry conversation among academics, I did not know who they would be or what angle they would take. One of the questions I answered was about my faith location at the time: was I still a Christian? Why? I became animated as I explained my encounters with liberation theologies and spoke of Gutiérrez and Cone. A few weeks later when I listened to the broadcast, I was surprised and dismayed by how the theologian responded: he was utterly dismissive. Liberation theology, he said, was not real theology, and Cone was too “narrow and limited” to apply to the Church universal. I knew immediately what I have only recently been able to articulate: the specificity, the particularity of black and womanist theological work is exactly what makes it a salvific gift to the white American Church. Black theology offers us a chance at redemption by offering an opportunity for critical self-reflection, revival, and social transformation.

Let me paint a picture for you then I’ll have to teach you to see it
~Sara Bareilles, “Eden”

The modern white Church desperately needs a reckoning. For centuries we have participated in an utterly corrupt system constructed around white supremacy, and it has grown into a beast so familiar we cannot even recognize how it has been twisted and malformed. A terrible reality is that we have inoculated ourselves effectively against criticism; we are no longer capable of growth or of living out what Jesus calls us to as his disciples. At this point, the white church is still the living embodiment of what Warnock calls a “racialized hierarchy within the body of Christ.” With all of our talk on “racial reconciliation,” an “emerging” church that “values diversity,” or of “missional living,” we still have not even begun confronting the realities of cisheteronormative white supremacist capitalist patriarchy embedded in the foundations of our churches.

However, black theology offers us hope if we truly humble ourselves, listen, and embrace a season of critical self-reflection. The words and lives of black theologians is a mirror to look at ourselves honestly and unflinchingly confront what appears. One of the first truths we must face is that “in the face of a determined, organized, and incorrigible evil, good intentions will never suffice for an authentic encounter with God.” White supremacy and racism is that “incorrigible evil,” and the white Church has spent the decades since the Civil Rights Movement attempting to cover it up with nothing more than good intentions. Instead of examining our institutions, systems, and hearts in order to flush out our communal sin and repent of the wreckage we cause, we turned to individualism and rhetoric to make ourselves as whited sepulchers. We have made racism a “heart issue” constrained to isolated people—and carefully selected a handful of phrases, words, and attitudes as the only permissible evidence of it. As long as we avoid saying (and we made sure racism is always about words, not actions) the N-word or anything about inferiority, to us our slate is clean. Black theology makes it clear that this is not enough. We must reckon with how we are a “co-opted church [which] knows only the cross of Rome, with its varying secretions of violence and victimization.” We have deliberately made ourselves forget the central message of Jesus’ ministry, which focuses on liberation, love, and healing for the wounded and marginalized. Black theology can remind us of what we lost. As J. Cameron Carter makes it clear—if we do not “receive the ‘new wine’ black Christians have to share” we will have “lost the chance of a lifetime.”

when you love me / you love yourself / love god herself
~Beyoncé, “Don’t Hurt Yourself”

The white church, because it has been consumed by racism, is stagnant. Its only institutional interest is how to maintain its access to whiteness, its source of power. Preserving that power requires massive investments into upholding the status quo, which means that the modern American white church is rendered incapable of growth. We cannot become more like Christ because we are cut off from any ability to change—we are beholden to a system that is focused myopically on replicating itself and nothing more. Without change, we cannot live. Without change, we cannot be revived.

Listening and self-reflecting on black theology could bring the revival we have been searching for. Black theology is an invitation to reexamine every area of our theology and belief systems, to evaluate what has born good fruit or bad fruit. Warnock highlights this invitation to revival in Martin Luther King Jr.’s work, showing how his “mass meetings and impassioned preachments … served as a catalyst for a tectonic shift in theological emphasis.” Rev. Dr. King urged us to reject a “dry-as-dust religion” in favor of one full of vibrancy and hope; he called on Christians to embrace a lived-out gospel driven by God’s call for liberation. White churches should renew their commitments to the central themes of our faith by seeing salvation, the Cross, and the Resurrection in the light of black theology. “The doctrine of salvation is the place to begin when speaking of the church’s mission because … the Bible … ‘introduces on practically every page the theme of salvation.’ … Communal liberation was the focus of salvation talk,” as Warnock makes clear. Brown Douglas speaks with power on the Cross, illuminating how “the crucifixion-resurrection event reveals … that God does not use the master’s tools. God does not fight death with death. God does not utilize the violence exhibited in the cross to defeat deadly violence itself.” And Williams shines a compassionate, multifaceted light on the Resurrection, arguing “the resurrection of Jesus and the flourishing of God’s sprit in the world as the result of resurrection represent the life of the ministerial vison gaining victory over the evil attempt to kill it.” We have an opportunity in black theology to become a new theological creature, to put off the old man and put on the new. As Cone put it, “To change communities involves a change of being. It is a radical movement, a radical reorientation of one’s existence in the world. Christianity calls this experience conversion.”

it’s time to listen / it’s time to fight / forward
~Beyoncé, “Forward”

A thread woven throughout black theology, and Warnock’s The Divided Mind of the Black Church especially, is that the work of liberation is “not merely the work of a movement, but fundamentally the church’s reason for being.” The prompting I have felt throughout this semester is to “radically reorient” how I think of the function, purpose, and embodiment of the Church’s mission. If the church’s core task is liberation, I must ask, isn’t it also true that the Church is wherever liberative work is taking place? I believe that, guided by black theology, the Church should find a different mold and grow into a wholly new conception of itself.

Black theologians have generously put forward a vision for faith-based social transformation, one grounded in the experience of oppression and living on the margins. Through their work they have made it clear “Theology that is not lived is not theology at all.” Grant, in her essay the “Sin of Servanthood,” shows how easy it is for church folk and preachers to embrace a form of spirituality and piety that does not work for liberation: “to speak of service as empowerment, without concrete plans for economic, social, and political revolution … is simply another form of ‘overspiritualization.’ It does not eliminate real pain and suffering, it merely spiritualizes the reality itself.” We should move away from spiritualizing pain and suffering to actively working on a revolution that eliminates it. Our religion and faith should motivate us, like how Williams relates in stories of black women who “were not afraid to let their religions express itself in the rebellious action they caused.” She quotes Katz, noting “on many plantations, they kept the rest of the slaves in a state of unrest.” Her admonishments are pragmatic and embodied: “Fight, and if you can’t fight, kick: if you can’t kick, then bite.” Black people have been creating and recreating the church on the margins since they were forced through the middle passage. Martin writes about one way this is currently happening, showing “the dance clubs have become spaces for reclaiming fragments of their traditional faith.” Each of these writers demonstrate the life-restoring beauty and particularity of making Church happen wherever we are.

All of these paths toward self-reflection, revival, and social transformation are not locked away behind church doors or tucked away under our pews. The white American church should look to black theologians on how to join in the work of liberation and social transformation, and perhaps, on that journey, find a way to survive.

Theology

folk and formal theology

My partner and I were taking our usual walk around our apartment complex and through the woods around it when I announced that I wanted to go to seminary. I had been thinking about it for a while, but by that evening I was sure that’s what I wanted. When he asked why I had several answers ready, and one of the most significant was that I wanted to formally study theology. As a lay person and average church goer I’d been obsessed with different theological subfields my entire life (bibliology being at the top of that list), and I wanted to engage one of my passions in an academic context. I wasn’t satisfied with approaching it through the “accessible” and “popular” texts anymore, but I didn’t know how to wade through the ocean of theological works and contexts on my own. I wanted the hand-holding, the guidance, that a solid seminary would give me.

One of the things that brought me to that reason was the church we’d been attending at the time. The head pastor had never gone to seminary, had no real intention of going to seminary, and I felt that a lot of my frustrations with his sermons stemmed from that. Often he’d include something I knew to be wildly inaccurate (but a popular myth among evangelicals) in his interpretations, or as illustrations, and I felt that a seminary education would have prevented some of that.

I was also in a two-year class the church offered called “The Theology Program.” Interestingly, I’d found the classes helpful in deconstructing fundamentalism even though the video instructors were themselves fundiegelicals who’d graduated from Dallas Theological. While I wildly disagreed with most of their conclusions and thought many of their arguments against “heresies” were strawmen, the act of going through a historical look into the Christian tradition and touching on most of the significant theories was informative. It gave me the words and the tools to go looking for things on my own.

One of the things I picked up from the instructors, though, was a condemnation of “folk theology.” Their use of that term was fairly loose, and generously applied– basically anything that didn’t belong in one of the major systematic theologies was “folk theology.” Essentially, if something you believed wasn’t straight-up Wesleyan, Calvinist, Catholic or in one of the catechisms (like the Westminster Catechism), then it was “folk theology.” In a way, this made sense to me. My experiences had showed me the harm that can be caused by reckless, inconsistent, pick-and-choose theological structures. I didn’t assume that every “systematic theology” was immune from problems because it was supposedly all-encompassing, holistic, and internally consistent; however, I thought systematic theologies had value because they at least had the benefit of being well thought-out.

I started seminary a few months before the election, and threw myself headfirst into as many theology classes as I could take. I became familiar with the theologians who were known for developing progressive systems and tried to absorb as much as I could about the structures and interconnecting ideas that shaped feminist, liberation, and queer theologies.

***

One thing that 2014 me would be surprised to learn is that I’ve almost completely changed my mind about both folk and formal theology.

I’ve loved (almost) every second of seminary and every day feel blessed to be able to access the wealth of knowledge and experience at United. I have learned and grown so much, and the sheer breadth of perspectives I’ve been introduced to is breathtaking. I will be exploring some of these authors and fields for the rest of my life, probably.

One thing I’ve come to realize through all these books and classes and discussions is that a heavy-handed emphasis on “systematic theology” is inherently oppressive. Most of the well-known “systematic theologies” are incredibly Eurocentric, and nearly all of them were developed by straight, white, upper-middle-class (or upper class, or noble) men … and it all comes with the implication that straight, white, well-to-do men are the only objective source of theology. Now, when I hear someone expounding on the importance of adhering to systematic theologies all I hear are empty words from someone who is afraid of engaging with varied and diverse experiences, or of allowing the voices and perspectives of marginalized groups into their theological conversations.

Systematic theologies tend to generalize the specific, make universal the contextual, and strip the humanity from our sacred narratives.

Many of the kinds of theologies I’ve been exposed to in seminary would fall under the “folk theology” umbrella I heard condemned in those video classes, but what I’ve discovered is that there is a wealth of beauty and wisdom in concrete, experienced, lived-through, lived-out theologies. A phrase that’s stuck with me came from one of my professors, Dr. Alika Galloway, who said she always preaches “with a Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other.”

The upside of “folk theology” is that it is endlessly adaptable. It’s the theology that we make work for our lives, fit into our contexts, and shape around our experiences. It’s flexible, and practical, and real. Sure, a lot of it can go off the rails and loose all grounding in logic or fact, but the obverse is true of formal theology: experience and compassion can be sacrificed on the altar of internal and hermeneutical consistency.

I went into seminary thinking I’d come out on the other side with Samantha Field’s Very Well Thought Out, Consistent, Progressive, and Universal Theological System, and instead I’m going to leave seminary with Screw It, Believe What Works For You.

Photography by Tim Wilson
Theology

sin is not just a “heart issue”

If you’re a person who has frequented the internet over the last month, you’ve probably heard, seen, or read discussions around whether or not companies or governments should “ban” single-use plastic straws. On one side you have people who believe that we should eliminate– or at least reduce our reliance on– single-use plastics, and disposable straws are their current target. On the other side, disability activists argue that there aren’t good alternatives to single-use plastic straws and that disabled people’s need to stay hydrated without dying due to anaphylaxis or aspiration is more important than the 0.025% of plastic floating around in our oceans, especially when abled people can just stop using disposable straws if they want to.

Another facet of the discussion has tried to point out that if you actually want to tackle the problem of plastic waste polluting our oceans, we should look at elements like industrial fishing methods, since 46% of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is plastic fishing nets and the rest is almost entirely other pieces of fishing gear. Any environmental or climate change concern is going to have similar elements: the bulk of the waste and pollution is caused by entire industries and corporations; altering individual behavior is good but ultimately ineffective. If we actually want to address plastic waste in our oceans, we need to change the behaviors of industries and entire economies, not whether or not Deborah gets a straw in her mocha frappuccino.

Unfortunately, changing the course of an entire industry is much more difficult than telling me, individually, not to litter or use plastic straws– and it is difficult because corporations have a vested interest in making it difficult. Moving away from single-use plastics will hurt their bottom line, so they throw money at lobbyists and politicians and regulators to make sure they can keep strangling our planet with their garbage. Starbucks can announce that they’re going to phase out plastic straws and get plenty of kudos and accolades … and keep on using unrecyclable plastic-lined paper cups to the tune of 4 billion cups per year. They could start using biodegradable, compostable, or recyclable cups, but they won’t.

Industries and corporations continuously point fingers at individual consumer habits so they don’t have to make any substantive changes. Take the “Crying Indian” ad from 1971– it was paid for by a conglomeration of some of the biggest polluters in the country in order to take the focus off packaging and throw-away containers and put that focus on individual consumers. That’s the whole point: make the conversation about Deborah’s frappucino and not how Proctor & Gamble is packaging its shampoo in the Philippines.

***

All of the above functions extremely well as a metaphor for the common American Christian articulation of sin as a “heart issue.” Maybe like me you’ve noticed a pattern of influential Christian ministers referring to racism or sexism as a “heart issue,” and found it as frustrating as I do.

Framing racism or other systemic social problems as a “heart issue” accomplishes a few things. First, it centers Christianity in the conversation. If racism is a “heart issue,” then the solution is conversion or repentance– all the individually racist person needs to do is repent and allow Jesus to change their heart. If a racist person accepts Jesus into their heart and once they’ve done so, follows the Spirit’s guidance away from prejudice and towards acceptance– then racism is solved with the Christian religion. Saying racism is a “heart issue” means that we don’t need affirmative action, we need Evangelical Jesus.

Second, it allows people and their communities to escape any feeling of responsibility or guilt. If racism is truly a single person’s heart issue, and the resolution is for that person to repent, then there’s nothing that Bob or Susie is responsible for when Jim is a racist turd. If Jim is a Christian, then Jesus and the Holy Spirit will handle it. If he’s not, then there’s nothing more for Bob or Susie to do– they just have to continue being Jim’s friend so they can be a “good witness” for Christ in his life. What good would it do to tell Jim that he’s being racist, if it’s a heart issue? No, we just need to “love on him” more and “be the only Bible he’ll ever see.”

Lastly, if racism is an individual’s “heart issue,” then it’s not systemic. An indiviudal’s heart issue does not require a church, as an institution, to change. Heart issues do not ask the Church to examine itself or shift course; in fact, if racism is a heart issue than most Christian churches are doing the exactly right thing by harping on a “personal relationship with Christ” and telling its members to repent of private, individual sin.

If we were to communally acknowledge that racism or sexism or ableism is systemic, then we’d have to commit to a massive undertaking. We’d have to take a hard look at how our seminaries and ordinations and denominations and alliances and conventions operate and be honest with ourselves for the first time in history. We’d have to overhaul power structures, ordination tracks, and hiring processes– and everyone who currently enjoys all the cultural power, who wield all the political influence, would lose their access and prestige. The leadership would have to admit that it’s not God who brought them to the position they hold, not their commitment to the faith, not their hard work, but systemic, structural practices that marginalize anyone who isn’t a cis, white, heterosexual man.

It’s not coincidence that the people who stand to lose the most power, influence, and money are the ones claiming that sins like racism are an individual problem and the solution is to maintain the status quo.

Photo by Kish
Theology

disappointment is the guide to happiness

For most of my life, I was not allowed to experience disappointment. That doesn’t mean that nothing ever happened that could disappoint me—just that when it did happen, I wasn’t allowed to feel disappointed. If I ever expressed my disappointment to a peer, friend, or adult in my life the standard response was that I should be grateful for an event, circumstance, or item because after all it’s only the saving grace of God that’s keeping me from being tortured in hell forever.

Writing it out like that it sounds like hyperbole, but it’s not. A few months after I’d gotten married I was talking to a trusted person about something that had gone wrong in my life and how I didn’t deserve what was happening to me, and their response was “well, you should be grateful because what you really deserve is hell.” They said it … almost glibly. They’d said it so often and to so many people that the sheer horror of it couldn’t even hit them.

This thread was woven into nearly every aspect of my life. I was forced to be “thankful” for any misery, unhappiness, disappointment, or discontent because what else could a hopeless wretch like myself dare to expect? I should be happy with what I’ve got and thankful it’s not any worse. The result of this mentality was twofold: I never learned how to deal with disappointment appropriately, and I never learned what gratitude is or learned how to be truly thankful.

The intended result of cutting me off from “negative” emotions like anger or disappointment was to prevent me from feeling them, but how anyone thought that was ever going to work is beyond me. I still experienced the entire emotional spectrum but was taught to ignore a significant section of it, to bury those feelings. With all their talk of not letting bitterness fester you’d think they’d be more conscious of what unresolved disappointment can do to a person, but no.

Stunted emotional growth doesn’t even begin to describe it.

Once I started deconstructing the fundamentalist ideology I’d been raised in, a lot of things started to grate on some incredibly raw nerves. I wanted to lean in to being disappointed—to throw massive pity parties and lay in bed and mope and do all the things children do when they’re learning to self-regulate. I was essentially trying to cram two decades of disappointment into a year so I could get it all out of my system and learn to cope with it better. During that time period I really learned to hate the phrase “an attitude of gratitude” and any of its linguistic compatriots. Anyone trying to tell me that gratitude is the key to happiness would provoke a run-screaming-into-the-hills reaction.

In my personal experience up until that point, gratitude was most definitely not the key to happiness. I’d been forced to try that for almost as long as I could remember and nope. I wanted nothing to do with the entire concept—no one was ever going to tell me to “be ye thankful” ever again if I could help it.

***

Recently, I’ve learned that part of the healing work, part of recovering from fundamentalism, is learning to separate out the parts that are true but that fundamentalists got wrong. For a long time I had to reject all of it wholesale, because tossing the baby out with the bathwather was the only way to set myself free from the entire toxic system. For years I didn’t believe that bothering to recover any of that would be healthy or helpful.

Last weekend, though, I realized that gratitude is actually woven through all my happiness. Because I’ve learned how to experience disappointment, I could finally recognize gratitude. In my experience, they’re two sides of the same coin. Disappointment has been an overwhelming experience for me over the last five years—nothing quite makes me want to curl up into a ball like disappointment. I’ve finally experienced the truth of a “hope deferred maketh the heart sick,” and the past few weeks have been a double helping. I actually went to bed in the middle of the day and cried myself to sleep a few times last week.

But, not just despite the disappointment but because of it, gratitude has shone even brighter. Now it’s a golden thread in my life, helping me to refocus and revealing the good things that exist in the middle of sorrow. I’m horribly disappointed that something I’ve been working on personally for the last year and half got ripped out of my hands and stomped on, but gratitude lets me see how it’s not been for nothing. I have friends I wouldn’t have made otherwise, connections and resources that are going to help me tremendously in other work I want to do. I’ve learned and grown and gained important skills.

I’m grateful.

What the fundamentalists got wrong is that I am not grateful instead of being disappointed. I’m both. I can recognize that what’s happening is unjust and unfair and sensible, reasonable people wouldn’t be behaving this way … and I can look at everything I’ve gained by being a part of it. I wouldn’t really be able to understand the full picture of my life right now without both of these feelings.

Gratitude is present in everything that makes me happy, or feel accomplished, or content; and it’s there in everything that hurts. Sometimes I’m so grateful it makes me dizzy—I can have a weekend full of good food, supportive friends, entertaining movies, satisfying gaming victories, beautiful landscapes and sleeping in and thinking about it makes my head explode a little bit how it’s possible for one person to be this happy. Gratitude is feeling so full of joy and contentment I might burst from it.

None of it would be possible, though, without disappointment as an emotional transition color. By embracing disappointment, I can understand my worth as a person. I can understand the way things are versus the way things ought to be and know where I fit, where my place is at the moment.

Disappointment guides me to gratitude by pointing out what’s wrong so I can see what’s right.

Photography by Peter Toporowski