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.

Feminism

y’all. I’m in COSMO

Something that has been gently simmering away on the back burner of my life for a good long while is an article that dropped this morning, and one I’m proud to be a part of.

Inside the Scam of the Purity Movement” by Sarah Stankorb, in Cosmopolitan Magazine.

Sarah is a writer I’ve been in contact with for several years at this point– I appeared briefly in another article she wrote for Marie Claire covering the stay-at-home-daughter movement. She’s done a lot of work to understand the point of view of those of us who have survived these cultures, and I have a lot of respect for her. You should absolutely read both these pieces– “The Daughters Great Escape” is just as good.

I do have two notes about the Cosmo article. The focus of the piece changed a little bit after our first interview back in November– our first conversation centered on the way that my experience and Harris’ experience overlapped, and why it’s not a coincidence that I Kissed Dating Goodbye was written by a homeschooler (about half of the top 12 purity culture books are written by homeschoolers, and we’re only 2% of the population. That’s a huge over-representation.)

In that interview, I talked a lot about how purity culture can trace its ideological heritage straight back to white supremacy, a fact I bring up every time someone asks me about purity culture because they can’t be separated. Purity culture’s roots are buried in the murk and mire of how white supremacy codifies bodies as “clean” or “unclean,” or “pure” and “sullied.” White bodies are good, pure, chaste and maintaining that state is of absolute critical importance– we must not taint our bodies with the “filth” of sexual sin or miscegenation. Black bodies are beyond redemption; black men are viewed as inherently sexually ungovernable and black women have no right to autonomy over their sexual and reproductive lives. This is a critical piece of purity culture that somehow always gets overlooked by editors when they decide to run a piece on it (insert eye roll here).

The second note I’d like to make is that, probably due to length constraints, one of the nuances of my story gets a little muddled in this paragraph:

Samantha Field, now 31, describes staying with a sexually abusive partner for years, believing that because they’d had sex, she was “disgusting garbage” that no one else would want. “I have to constantly fight against the lie that because I wasn’t pure enough, that because I had ‘dressed provocatively’ and allowed myself to be alone with him, that I invited it,” she wrote on her blog.

I did not have sex. I was raped. However, being a rape victim in purity culture made me unable to identify that what was happening to me was rape. I even verbally said no and physically resisted during one of the assaults and still did not understand that he was raping me. I was responsible for anything that happened to me– I must have incited his “lust” in some mysterious way (rape is about power and control, not arousal). I was alone with him, so of course anything that happened is my fault. It took me literally years to figure out things like “no means no” because of how badly purity culture damaged my understanding of consent.

I’ve written about this a bit. The post the Cosmo article references is this one, “How Purity Culture Taught Me to be Abused,” and I’ve also covered this for Rewire: “Purity Culture Itself is the Problem.”

Anyway, that’s a critical part of my story of surviving purity culture, and it’s a common thread among those of us from purity culture who are sexual abuse victims, and I just want to make sure that it’s a part of any conversation we have about it.

Many of the people in the article are my friends and colleagues, as well, and you should 100% check them out. I met Linda Kay Klein a while ago, and she invited me to speak on the white supremacist origins of purity culture at a gathering she hosted last spring. Her book, Pure, is fantastic and you should absolutely read it. Dianna Anderson wrote Damaged Goods and Problematic, and is as amazing in person as she is on twitter. Emily Joy is one of the fiercest, most badass people I know and I have loved all the work we’ve done together (the article mentions #IKDGstories, but we also covered the disastrous #GC2Summit a few months ago). I don’t personally know Lyvonne, but her work is definitely worth a look.

Photography by Angie Smith, who was absolutely wonderful, and owned by Cosmopolitan.
Uncategorized

vision-making and rabble rousing

First, I want to thank everyone for being patient with me, my work, and this space while I’ve attended seminary. Many of you have been loyal Patreon supporters over the last several years despite the lengthy pauses between posts and updates, and I very much appreciate it.

I took a good long break over the holidays, and I’m starting back to seminary this week feeling well-rested and excited about the work I’ll be doing. It’s my last semester, so most of my time will be taken up with my capstone project which I unfortunately will not really be able to talk about in a lot of detail, although it’s incredibly exciting and fulfilling. I joined the board of the Coalition for Responsible Home Education a little while ago, and am helping out with their organizing and lobbying efforts– which will be a part of my seminary degree. That’s going to be keeping me incredibly busy this spring.

Looking ahead, especially past graduation, my plans are to really dig back into my writing. Seminary takes up all of my reading-writing-researching energies (a big reason why my World History and Cultures series has been languishing), but I’m really starting to feel the itch to return to the topics and audience I care about the most. Ask me sometime about progressive Christianity’s limited scope and audience in academia and I will get up on a soapbox and shout for an hour, maybe more.

My hope is, after graduation, to take a short break and then start working on a book proposal. Remember way back when I said I was working on a book about how complementarianism = abuse, and you’ve barely heard more than a peep about that since? Well, one of the reasons I went to seminary is so that I’d look more credible as an author, and –fingers crossed– I’ll have a book proposal to start sending out to agents by the end of this year.

I’d also like to start speaking more. I just got back from the Q Christian Fellowship conference in Chicago, where I spoke on queer hermeneutics (my breakout session title was “Reading the Rainbow” because I’m a 90s kid). I think the workshop went really well; my goal was to help bring some playfulness, joy, and redemption to a book that has been used as a weapon against so many of us, and I think I was successful. The interpretations and themes the groups shared …

Larry the Cucumber dressed as “Larry Boy,” telling Bob the Tomato “I laughed, I cried; It moved me, Bob.”

I wish I could’ve recorded the session just so I could have the twenty minutes at the end when everyone was sharing what their group had come up with. It was delightful– I’d been working with the passages I’d chosen for months and some of what was shared had never occurred to me before. I couldn’t have been happier.

So here’s to 2019: may it be filled with triumphs for all of us, great and small.

(If you’re curious about what I was reading and playing, here you go: Shadow of the Tomb Raider, Assassin’s Creed: Origins, Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi, Deborah Harkness’ All Soul’s Trilogy and Time’s Convert, Skyward by Brandon Sanderson, and Spinning Silver by Namoi Novik.)

Photography by Yamavu
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
Feminism

I was arrested for protesting Kavanaugh’s nomination. Here’s why.

The image at the top of the post shows me being arrested at the #cancelKavanaugh direction action organized by the Women’s March and the Center for Popular Democracy Action. You can see my head just beyond the woman in orange.

There’s still a lot to process from yesterday, but I wrote down what motivated me to be willing to do that for Sojourners, in “A Christianity that Makes Room for Rage.”

The rage I began expressing scared many of the people who knew me, who cared about me. They came from the same faith tradition I’d been brought up in, a tradition that teaches that “negative” emotions like rage, despair, sadness, anger, and bitterness have no place in a Christian’s life. My rage deeply concerned them, and I began receiving a consistent stream of worried messages, texts, emails and phone calls. They all tried to persuade me that I could only be healed if I let go of my rage, but I knew deep in my bones they were wrong. Rage was the only sensible path forward, the only roadmap I had to recovery.

I slowly came to understand that if I was going to remain a Christian, I needed to find a path that had room for the rage and grief I carried with me as a rape survivor. Rage is the only human and rational reaction to the trauma I’d experienced, and I could not smother my humanity in order to remain a Christian.

Read the rest of it here.

Photography by PBS.