Charlottesville And The Truth About America – Rev. Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas

Linda Thomas at CTS eventFurther exploring the issues raised around Charlottesville, VA – and also in commemoration of this blog’s 100th post – this week we are going from out of the world of Lutheranism to talk with a long time friend of the blog, the Rev. Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas. Generously shared from its original home on .base – the Black Theology Project –  Dr. Douglas wastes no time deconstructing the myth that what we saw last Saturday “was not America.” Indeed, she shows how the violence in Virginia has been fore-ordained and set in place since the earliest years of settlement in North America, as well as what we can do about it. Read, comment and share!

Rev. Dr. Linda E. Thomas – Professor of Theology and Anthropology, Chair of the LSTC’s Diversity Committee, Editor – “We Talk. We Listen.”


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While the Charlottesville, Va. “Unite the Right Rally” is certainly alarming, it should come as no real surprise. For as disgusting as many Americans find the beliefs of these “alt-right” crusaders, their white supremacist beliefs reflect an ugly truth about this country. The truth is this country, even as it proclaims freedom and justice for all, was founded on an “Anglo-Saxon myth” of white racial superiority.

This is a truth that Donald Trump’s politics has tapped into and brought into clear relief. Simply put, during his campaign and now presidency, Mr. Trump guilefully exploited America’s defining Anglo-Saxon myth while dangerously revitalizing the culture of whiteness that serves to protect it.

Many Americans, horrified by the hate and violence on display in Charlottesville, exclaim, “This is not America!” But the truth we need to know to actually root out white supremacy is that this is integral to America, and has been, from the very beginning.

When America’s Pilgrim and Puritan forebears fled England in search of freedom, they believed themselves descendants of an ancient Anglo-Saxon people who possessed high moral values and an “instinctive love for freedom.” These early Americans crossed the Atlantic with a vision to build a nation that was politically, culturally—if not demographically—true to their “exceptional” Anglo-Saxon heritage. Theirs was a vision soon to be shared by this nation’s Founding Fathers, such as Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin. As such, America was envisioned as a testament to the sacredness of Anglo-Saxon character and values, if not people.

In order to safeguard this vision a pervasive culture of whiteness was born. Why? Because simply put, not everybody that looks like an Anglo-Saxon in the United States is actually Anglo-Saxon. The perpetual vexing problem for the nation is that from its very beginnings it has been an immigrant nation with migrants—even from Europe, who were not Anglo-Saxon. Yet there was a mitigating factor, at least for those who came from Europe, they were white—and this whiteness made all the difference. To be white was to be considered Anglo-Saxon enough.

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Put simply, whiteness became the passport into the exceptional space that was American identity with the rights and privileges of citizenship. From its earliest beginnings, therefore, America’s social-political and cultural identity was inextricably linked to a myth of Anglo-Saxon superiority. The “city on the hill” that the early Americans were building was intended to be nothing less than a testament to Anglo-Saxon, hence white, chauvinism. There is simply no getting around it, a myth of Anglo-Saxon “exceptionalism” has shaped America’s sense of self. It and the culture of whiteness that sustains it runs deep within the DNA of this country.

This is echoed, in a profoundly revealing way, by Donald Trump’s claim that his success is due to the fact that he has “superior genes.” This brings us to the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville.

What happen in Charlottesville is another instance of the resurgence of bigoted hate that has erupted across the country since the November election. And, if we are going to come to grips with this resurgence then we must face the fact that Donald Trump’s vision to “Make America Great Again” is essentially a 21st century manifestation of America’s Anglo Saxon exceptionalist myth and the culture of white supremacy that protects it. His “mantra” of greatness has served as more than a “dog-whistle.” It has been a clarion call to action for those who have clung tightly to the Anglo-Saxon/white vision of America. No one made this clearer than past imperial wizard of the Klu Klux Klan than David Duke when he said, “We are determined to take our country back. We are going to fulfill the promises of Donald Trump. That’s what we believed in, that’s why we voted for Donald Trump. Because he said he’s going to take our country back. That’s what we gotta do.”

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Just as a “Unite the Right” rally should come as no surprise, neither should President Trump’s refusal to unapologetically and unambiguously denounce the violence that is white supremacy and religious bigotry (make no mistake about it, such ideologies in and of themselves are violent. For any ideology or system of thought that objectifies another human being and fails to recognize their very humanity must be recognized as violent. Moreover, such ideologies and systems serve only to precipitate more violence.) Far from rejecting the “alt-right” groups and their violent ideologies Mr. Trump has emboldened them with a “birtherism” crusade along with racist, Islamophobic and xenophobic campaign rhetoric: this runs smoothly into his wall-building, “Law and Order” and “nationalistic” immigration policies. Essentially, Donald Trump’s rhetoric and policies have played into the bigoted fears and stereotypes that fuel white supremacy, thereby making various expressions of white supremacist violence predictable if not inevitable. To be sure, the politics of Donald Trump and “alt-right” beliefs reflect the inherent danger of America’s defining Anglo-Saxon myth: when it expresses itself it makes people the problem. Hence, “To make America Great Again” is to “take back the country” from the problem people—that is, non-white peoples. So again, it is no wonder that we are witnessing a resurgence of bigoted violence or for that matters presidential calls for bans, orders and policies that prevent “certain” peoples from enjoying the full rights and privileges of citizenship.

If it wasn’t clear before, the events in Charlottesville have now made it abundantly clear—we have reached a decision point as a nation. We must decide whether we want to be a nation defined by its Anglo-Saxon myth of exceptionalism and white supremacist culture or one defined by its democratic rhetoric of being a nation of liberty and justice for all. This question is even more poignant for people of faith. For we must decide if we are a people committed to a vision of a country that reflects an “Anglo-Saxon” God or a God whose image is revealed through a racial/ethnic/religiously and culturally diverse humanity.

If we are in fact committed to building a nation and being a people reflective of a God with a vision of justice and freedom for all, then we must do more than just counter-protest. Rather, we must proactively protest for the kind of nation and people we want to be.

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Proactive protest first and foremost means telling the truth, even the harsh truth about who we are as a nation and a people. We continue to arrive at these “Make America Great Again,” moments of Anglo-Saxon chauvinistic violence because of America’s utter refusal to face the hard truths of it own story. James Baldwin is right, ‘Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” Until America faces the truth of itself, the violence of white supremacy in all of its expressions will continue to plague our nation and prevent us from ever living into the rhetoric of being a place where there is justice and liberty for all.

This brings us to another aspect of what is required of us if we are in fact committed to building a nation and being a people reflective of a God with an inclusive vision of justice and freedom. We are required, as Mahatma Gandhi said, to “be the change we want to see.” This is indeed at the heart of proactive protest.

Practically speaking this means that we should be people of sanctuary and witness.

To be a sanctuary means that wherever we are present no one should feel diminished or unsafe because of who they are or are not.

It also means that we must work to make our communities safe spaces for all who are made to feel unsafe by the various policies, bans and orders of exceptionalism in our society. More specifically, it means creating spaces free of bigotry or intolerance of any kind and resisting at every level of our society any efforts to reinstate 21st century versions of Jim Crow Laws like “Stop and Frisk,” or poll taxes like Voter Id’s, or LGBTQphobic orders, or ethno/religiously-centric “travel bans” and immigration policies. This leads to what it means to be a witness for the kind of change we want to see.

Proactive witness means, in the least, calling out racism, xenophobia and any other ism or bigotry for what it is, even when it mask itself in the “politically” correct language of “greatness.” It further requires calling out the racially biased social economic policies, laws, systems and structures that traps certain peoples in a dehumanizing culture of poverty and feeds the prison industrial complex. We must refuse to be silent until these systems and structures are dismantled. Audre Lorde has reminded us that our silence will not save us,” and she is right.* Our silence has not and will not save us from the violence of Anglo-Saxon exceptionalism—therefore we must proactively witnesses against it.

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In 1961 James Baldwin declared, “The time has come, God knows, for us to examine ourselves, but we can do this only if we are willing to free ourselves of the myth of America and try to find out what is really happening here.” The events of Charlottesville make clear that the time has come for us to decide who we want to be: a nation that is defined by racialized “greatness” or by justice and freedom for all.


headshot_kelly-1-700x430Kelly Brown Douglas, MDiv, PhD, is currently the Dean the Episcopal Divinity School in Manhattan. Before that, she was the Professor and Director of the Religion Department at Goucher College in Baltimore, Maryland. She is a leading voice in womanist theology and has served as an Episcopal priest for over 20 years. Widely published in national and international journals, her groundbreaking book Sexuality and the Black Church was the first to address the issue of homophobia within the black church community. Her most recent publication is Stand Your Ground, where she writes, “There has been no story in the news that has troubled me more than that of Trayvon Martin’s slaying. President Obama said that if he had a son his son would look like Trayvon. I do have a son and he does look like Trayvon.” Other publications include, The Black Christ, Black Bodies and the Black Church, and What’s Faith Got to Do with It? She has also received the Goucher College Caroline Doebler Bruckerl Award for outstanding faculty achievement, and was honored as “Womanist Legend” by the Black Religious Scholars Group.

*Paraphrased from Audre Lorde, The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action* Lorde, Audre. Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches (Crossing Press Feminist Series) (p. 40). Potter/TenSpeed/Harmony. Kindle Edition.

What are You Doing Here? – Rev. Dr. Yolanda Denson Byers

lt-ny-eve-march-2016These are hard, strange days in the United States. Reading the news, it isn’t hard to think of Jesus’ warning in Mark 13 – to keep awake as thing start to unravel. But in dark times like this, there is still good news to be preached and the Rev. Dr. Yolanda Denson Byers delivers. Read, comment, and share!

Rev. Dr. Linda E. Thomas – Professor of Theology and Anthropology, Chair of LSTC’s Diversity Committee, Editor – “We Talk. We Listen.”


This extemporaneous sermon was preached on Sunday, August 13, 2017, at Resurrection Lutheran Church (ELCA) in St. Joseph, Minnesota. (For the original video recording click here)

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Lord, let my heart be good soil. And let your love reign supreme. And may the words of my mouth, and the meditations of each heart under the sound of my voice be found acceptable in your sight. For you are our Lord, our Rock, our Redeemer… Amen.

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The Rev. Dr. Yolanda Denson Byers

So, let us begin in the only way we can possibly begin (*Holds up paper*). This was today’s sermon (*Tears it up and drops it on the floor; Laughter from congregation*). Like every pastor in America, I wrote THAT before yesterday. And like every pastor in America, of good conscience, I knew that I could not preach that today.

If you’re anything like me, you watched what unfolded in Charlottesville, Virginia yesterday with the utmost horror. The America that I, and people who look like me always knew existed, roared onto your television sets yesterday. Unhooded, uncovered, unashamed, and bold as it could be.

There’s a few of you in this room I can tell didn’t see your televisions yesterday because you don’t know what happened. Charlottesville, Virginia, is the hometown of some of my family, so I am VERY impacted by what happened there yesterday.

This narrative began to unfold on Friday night, when two counter-protest groups arrived in Charlottesville, Virginia. One group arrived with members of the KKK, Neo-Nazis, Skin Heads, and other white supremacists who were there shouting slogans like, “White lives matter!” and “Blood and Soil!” (which is a Nazi chant) and “We will not be replaced!”

And then another group arrived Friday night, saying things like, “Racism is wrong!,” and “Black lives matter!,” and “God wants better and more than this for our country!” And on Friday the group of anti-racists gathered in a church, and there were many of our ELCA brothers and sisters there. I don’t know if you were watching that, but there were many ELCA pastors who were there, along with other pastors from denominations all across the United States – who banded together inside of the church, to pray that God would rescue our country from the sin and the stain of racism.

As they sang, and as they prayed, and as they called, “Lord, help me!,” like Peter, the church was surrounded by white supremacists with torches. And they were unable and un-allowed to exit that church. It was a scary moment – how many of you saw the picture of a little African American girl, swept under the arms of a white bishop *(see image caption below)SHAKING – because she was so terrified that she was barricaded in that church, and she thought that was going to be her last day on the Earth. Who saw that picture…?

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*addendum: this picture was taken by the ELCA bishop of the Delaware-Maryland Synod (Bill Gohl), however, it actually shows Pastor Seth Wispelwey of www.restorationvillagearts.org and his daughter, in St. Paul Memorial Episcopal Church in Charlottesville, VA.

Yeah … one person.

I encourage you – go home and look it up. If you guys had had a screen – I was gonna show you everything!

(*Someone whispers, “We can go get a screen.”*)

We’ll just have people go home.

But there’s a little African American child, in the arms of a white bishop, and he’s holding her against his chest, y’all. As this little girl shakes in fear – as the church is surrounded — they’re barricaded and can’t get out.

Ultimately, somehow, by the Grace of God, the police extracted them – but not without great violence. There were actually University of Virginia students – how many of you have college kids in your families? Yes, there were some heroic students, who faced down the mob, and for their efforts were beaten bloody at the base of the Lee* statue which is at the heart of this argument (*adendum – the statue was actually of Thomas Jefferson).

The next day, white racists had called for a protest march, and THOUSANDS of militiamen, armed with assault rifles and guns, and their supporters, arrived in Virginia. And what unfolded on yesterday was something we have never seen in recent memory on the televisions of the United States of America.

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The vehicular assault at Charlottesville, VA – Saturday, August 12, 2017.

There was blood-shed, three people died, nineteen people were injured in a vehicular terrorist attack, and let’s call it what it was – terrorists attacks are not only perpetrated by people with brown and black skin, ya’ll!

A woman named, Heather Heyer, was killed in this vehicular terrorist attack. A white racist drove his car into a crowd of protestors – have you seen the pictures? Raise your hand if you have!  – Bodies LITERALLY up in the air; upside down!

Lieutenant H. Jay Cullen and Trooper-Pilot Berke M.M. Bates – they didn’t come home last night. Somebody is missing their husband. Somebody is missing their wife. Somebody is missing their mother. Somebody is missing their father.

“What are you doing here, Elijah?!”

While we the church, have been hidden away in a cave, failing to teach even our own children, (pointing outside of the walls of the church) that’s what our country has come to!

We’re the church, y’all! We, more than anyone else, ought to declare – as the disciples did – You are the Son of God. They said, “Indeed, you are the Son of God.

Yet what does that mean?

What does that mean when our black and brown brothers and sisters have to be terrorized in the streets of Virginia and elsewhere? What does that mean when our children think that my brown skin is brown because I’m dirty? What does that mean when you’re sitting at the Thanksgiving table and your father makes a racist comment, and you snicker and you look away because you’re afraid to confront it?

What does it mean?

To be quite honest, it doesn’t mean much.

If we, in church, don’t have the moral courage to stand up at a time like this, our faith won’t mean much.

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I saw on Facebook, someone asked, if you ever wondered what you would do during the Holocaust, during the Civil War, during moments like these – you now know. You would do whatever you’re doing right now.

If you ever wondered how you would stand up and be counted in a moment when destiny has seized us, whatever you do in this moment right here, is what you would do. And so in churches all over America, we have to say something that’s True.

And what is True?

Jesus love us, this we know. For the Bible tells us so. Red and yellow, black and white, we are precious in God’s sight. And when we fail to love the Lord our God with all our heart, with all our mind, with all our soul, with all our strength, when we fail to love all of our neighbors as ourselves – it is SIN, my friends. Racism is sin. White supremacy is sin. And what happened in Virginia is not anything new under the sun. This is not new to your black and brown brothers and sisters. It may be new to you today, but it is not new to me.

This morning I woke up so mad at Pastor Tim, I didn’t know what to do! (*laughter*) Because this would have been a better sermon from a white man.

We’ve been sayin’ it! We need YOU to say it. We need our white brothers and sisters in Christ to SAY IT!

Did you see the young men on the television holding the torches with crosses around their necks?

SHAME ON US!

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Those are our … Those are YOUR sons! Those are your daughters! Those are your nephews, those are your nieces, those are your cousins.

Go… Get… Your… PEOPLE! (*long pause…*)

And what’s worse? They’re OUR sons, and they’re OUR daughters, and they’re our nieces and our nephews. Do you remember when the Charleston Bible study was gunned down? Do you remember who did that? A child of the ELCA!

His name was Dylann. He grew up in OUR church.

This denomination is 97% white, y’all. And the ELCA is going to have to decide whose side we’re on. We’re either on God’s side – the side of love, the side of justice, the side of righteousness, the side of mercy, the side of kindness, the side of goodness, the side of faithfulness – or we’re on the side of the folks with tiki torches! Mowing down men and women and boys and girls in the streets.

Martin Luther taught us that sermons are not supposed to be feel-good messages, y’all. He said preach LAW, and then preach GOSPEL. Diagnosis the problem and then give the solution – which is ALWAYS King Jesus! Tell the truth! It’s always in order.

I am so sad for my white pastoral colleagues who didn’t find the courage today to tell The Truth. (*holding hands up; palm out*) In my flesh, I embody the wounds of racism today.

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I could not put on my white robe because it reinforces what we now know our children even believe – that white right, and white is clean, and white is good, and white is holy!

And so I wore my black robe (*holds up the bottom of black robe*). Because black is beautiful, and black is strong, and black is creative, and black is powerful, and black is original, and black is holy!

I got my doctorate at Luther Seminary, in Congregational Mission and Leadership – it’s a fancy word for Evangelism, but Lutherans are afraid of evangelism, so… (*laughter*).

We call it Congregational Mission and Leadership. And what I learned there is that God the Father sent God the Son. And God the Son sent God the Holy Spirit. And God the Holy Spirit sends the church. And the church is sent out of the four walls of this place to be the hands, the feet, and the smile of Jesus, in a world that so desperately needs Him.

And if we keep this Jesus to ourselves – Shame on us!

And if we don’t tell everybody that God loves them, then shame on us!

And if we don’t confront racism wherever we find it, even if it’s at our own kitchen tables, then we’re complicit in this sin!

We’re complicit …

And so from today, I can’t do anything about anybody that wasn’t here today (Amen!).

But for those of us who were in this room, you have heard the call to action. You don’t have to go somewhere far away. You don’t have to get on a plane and go save somebody, in Africa. Stay at home, at your own table, and change your little piece of the world for Jesus.

The storm is raging; yes it is!

There are enemies outside of the cave; yes there are!

This is a scary time in America; yes, it is!

But the Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness shall not overcome it!

Jesus is the light of the world.

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Take your fingers and mark yourselves with the sign of the cross (on the forehead). This is the calling of our baptisms. This is why we are called and sent and gathered every Sunday – not to hear feel-good messages — but to hear Law met with Gospel, and the to be sent out to be God’s Love for the world.

In the Name of the Father, in the Name of the Son, in the Name of the Holy Spirit – Amen.


20840125_10155521289087429_1747948382_n.jpgThe Reverend Doctor Yolanda Denson-Byers was born and raised in St. Louis, MO. She was educated at Wesleyan University, Harvard University, and Luther Seminary. She is currently in her twenty-first year of ministry and serves, in extraordinary call, within the Southwest Minnesota Synod of the ELCA. She is a hospice chaplain and an itinerant preacher. She is a proud wife, mother, daughter, sister and friend. But most importantly, she is a child of the Most High God.

Hospitality: A Burden and Disruption – River Needham, MDiv Student LSTC

ThomasLindaPresident Trump’s recent transgender military ban has once again catapulted trans identity and issues to the forefront of the national discussion – and it is a complicated discussion at that. To help us sort through this, blog regular River Needham has composed a rather thoughtful explication of the complications around the trans community, health services, and the United States military – as well as the lesson this has for the nation and the way that we take care of each other. Read, comment, and share.

Rev. Dr. Linda E. Thomas – Professor of Theology and Anthropology, Chair of LSTC’s Diversity Committee, Editor – “We Talk. We Listen.”


One of my first memories of my faith journey becoming my own was when I was turning 18, and the time came for me to register with Selective Service. One of the few gifts of having an ‘M’ as my assigned gender marker. Soon after registering, I remember having conversations about becoming a conscientious objector, because I found war abhorrent, as much as I found poverty and homelessness repugnant. Unfortunately, my faith tradition of origin was not a peace tradition. So I began claiming the words of Scripture as my own and creating my theological basis for resisting war – for resisting the systems that incentivize nationalism economically and seek out disadvantaged people to “voluntarily” enlist for military service.

I share this to emphasize that while I have deep respect for people who serve in the armed forces, it is not something I could do, nor have I ever done. What I write here should not be understood as a critique of individuals in the armed forces, but rather an analysis of the systems that comprise the military and the military adjacent industries.

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People who receive a vocational and voluntary calling to the military – they are a gift. This past week we found out through a social media posting that our President finds some approximately 15,500[1] current service members a burden, incurring high medical costs and disrupting military readiness.

In a volunteer Military, we must interrogate who serves, why they serve, and if we are truly a volunteer force. In the book Soul Repair, Brock and Lettini prove that recruiters often target the poorest and most vulnerable U.S. citizens, providing attractive offers of free college education, “three hots and a cot,” or engaging assignments to help develop a career.[2]  The hope of access to gender confirmation surgeries – which civilian health insurance does not cover, with few exceptions – attracts transgender people to serve at a higher rate than the general population: nearly 15% of trans people have served in the military, compared with 8% of the general population.[3] 

 

These statistics and analysis point to the reality that trans people are frequently in positions to make not entirely free decisions to keep themselves safe, fed, and housed with their needs met. When looking at the brutal realities of underground economies, familial relationships and the general devaluing of transgender people, feminine people, and particularly trans feminine people of color, we can ask more probing questions about the freedom people might have to say ‘no’ to a military recruiter.

Sadly, the U.S. Military consumes trans people, particularly trans women, beyond those who serve among its ranks. Regardless of how much thinly-veiled transphobia might show up in tweets from the commander in chief, these transgender women are a resource that is harder to cut off from use: trans women killed by members of the military.

Almost three years ago, Jennifer Laude, a Filipina trans woman, was engaged to a German National, but instead was found dead in a hotel room after U.S. Marine Lance Corporal Joseph Scott Pemberton violently murdered her. He had been stationed in the Philippines, and numerous military colleagues testified against him – that the techniques he used to kill Laude were techniques learned in his military training, and that he admitted to using them as part of his trans panic defense.[4]

Similarly, about a year ago, Dee Whigham was murdered by a Navy Sailor, who in just over 20 minutes stabbed her 190 times. Dwayna Hickerson, who recently pled guilty to Whigham’s murder, was training to be a weather forecaster at Kessler Air Force Base. His defense as to why he killed Whigham was primarily the same as Pemberton’s. In this situation, the trans panic defense looks like this: after Hickerson found out Whigham’s transgender status, he experienced rage or fear compelling him to kill Ms. Whigham as a means of protecting himself or his reputation. In addition to being a particularly dehumanizing defense, the trans panic defense remains valid in 48 of 50 U.S. states.

That’s not something I want in the world-as-it-could-be.

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In the wisdom of the Prophets, we read: “[…]this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy.” (Ezekiel 16:49-50, NRSV). Similarly, we read Jesus’ statement that towns rejecting his disciples would be less bearable than for the inhospitable Sodom.[5]

In the United States, we have a problem in that we hate transgender people, particularly transgender women of color. Transgender individuals often engage in underground economies. Nearly 50% of those participating in a street economy[6] experienced housing instability, or experienced extreme poverty (living on <$10,000 a year).  These are the facts that burden me.  Perhaps trans healthcare is expensive, but estimates place the actual cost of gender affirming hormones and [potentially] surgeries at 0.14% of the total military health care expense. 

The 2015 Trans Survey breaks down many aspects of transgender experiences. One typical response from our families when and after we disclose our gender journey is to end the relationship. According to the survey, 26% of people report having relationships end within a year of coming out; ten years after coming out the number has increased to 43%.

The reality of ended relationships disrupts my life, and even more disrupting is the realization that trans people whose families have ended relationships with them, or whose loved ones have unsupportive relationships with them, have a 57% lifetime rate of attempting suicide. Having affirming relationships – hospitality – turns that 57% lifetime rate of attempting suicide into a 33% chance of attempting suicide.

In the example of inhospitality, of preying on the stranger in the Bible, Sodom and Gomorrah became an example of how not to act in the world. Time after time the scripture reminds us that their sin of inhospitality is what brought about their end.

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Certainly, transgender people are not about to cause the collapse of society. Perhaps other deeper views about us point to other ways the world as we might like it to be is collapsing. Some organizations use the statistics around transgender existence in the world without advocating for needed changes.  Others count our health care a burden while considering the analogous treatment for a hypoactive thyroid to be a reasonable accommodation.   The world-as-it-is is becoming the world-as-it-could-be, and I’m eagerly anticipating a world filled with hospitality for all the people God has created. Where hospitality neither disrupts nor is a burden. Where medication and health care are available in abundance to all who need; and where all are treated with dignity and live until we die of old age and not because of some system exploited us until we die.


PressPhoto.jpgRiver Needham  is a clergy candidate with the Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches (UFMCC/MCC), and studies at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago. River focuses their time and studies on fostering trans/formation and emotional wellness within local congregations. River uses pronouns like they/them/theirs/themselves.

[1] http://www.politifact.com/wisconsin/statements/2017/jul/26/mark-pocan/how-many-people-military-are-transgender/

[2] Brock, Rita Nakashima and Gabriella Lettini, SOUL REPAIR Recovering from Moral Injury after War Brock, Rita Nakashima. Soul Repair: Recovering from Moral Injury after War . Beacon Press. Kindle Edition., Kindle (Boston MA USA: Beacon Press, 2012), 2–4.

[3] James S. E. et al., “The Report of the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey” (National Center for Transgender Equality, December 7, 2016), 166, http://www.transequality.org/sites/default/files/docs/USTS-Full-Report-FINAL.PDF.

[4] In April 2017, the appeal was resolved, with Ms. Laude’s family receiving P150,000 as Civil Indemnity and Moral Damages.

[5] Matthew 10:14-15

[6] Street Economy is a collective term referring to economies which are not regulated and do not exist in formal ways, but are employed to help people meet their needs. It includes such things as drug dealing, the sex trade, and other economies like trading other services for places to sleep or food.

Christian Ethics and Politics – A Christian Ethics Perspective on the Politics of this Country

thomas110_1027092Love – it isn’t easy. Possibly one of the hardest things Jesus ever told us to do was to tell us to treat others as we would like to be treated, and this fact is no more apparent than in today’s political climate. Rev. Ronald Bonner, the pastor at Atonement Lutheran Church in Atlanta, Georgia, has a reflection on what the Christian ethic of love has to say to us in our time and place, and how much our time and place needs it. Read, comment, and share.

Rev. Dr. Linda E. Thomas – Professor of Theology and Anthropology, Chair of LSTC’s Diversity Committee, Editor – “We Talk. We Listen.”


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“Be imitators of God, therefore as dearly beloved children and live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” Ephesians 5:1 NIV

At the center of Christian ethics is the concept of love. 

Christian love is not the sense of emotions or sentimentality but love is a construct of caring for another to the point of personal sacrifice for the well-being of another.  The soldier who dives on a grenade, like Milton Lee Olive III, to save the lives of his fellow soldiers is a tangible example of love, caring for others, which is the at the center of Christian ethics.  Love and loving others was at the core of Jesus’ preaching and teaching.  Since Jesus espoused a love ethic, it is easy to state that at the heart of Christian ethics is love. But in today’s world it appears that love has been replaced with a self-serving concept of personal achievement, even it means sacrificing others at the altar of personal success. As the theological consortium of Rose Royce would conclude regarding the appearance of Christian ethics: “There’s a vacancy Love don’t live here anymore.”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer posits that the absence of Christ, and thus love, in the Christian message raises the possibility that Christianity becomes nothing more than distilled self-expression and thus “radically religionless.” This would leave a state of liminality in the practice of Christian ethics and would lend itself to popularity rather than the rigors of discipline or discipleship, producing a fruitful harvest of what Bonhoeffer would call “cheap grace.” It is evident that we are living in an age where the Christian message of being imitators of Christ as written in Ephesians 5:1 has little relevancy in our business or political ethics.

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The lay-out of a slave ship.

Historically, Christianity has brought the world genocide, racism, sexism, classism and many phobias against same gender loving and queer people. But let’s refer to that as “religionless Christianity” merely a virus-infected form of behavior that is Christianity in name only, seeing as it does not conform to the concept of love, but instead embraces the globalization of masculine hetero-hegemonic white supremacy.  Much like the purportedly Christian-inspired Doctrine of Discovery which authorized and gave birth to global racism by stealing land in the Americas and then stealing and enslaving people from Africa to work and develop them.

 

Today ‘s corrosive political climate clearly reveals that the core of politics is not to represent the needs of the people but to assert coercion in the search for power. Politics in today’s world does not reflect the nobility of the words of the shapers of the United States Constitution.  The current political climate stands in stark contrast to the vision embedded in what was written in founding the country, despite the injustices that occurred at that time:

“We the People of the United States, in order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity…” 

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Outside the Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia, PA.

 

The vision always was larger and deeper than the visionaries for even George Washington who held persons enslaved in 1790 wrote in a letter to Jews of Newport, Rhode Island, “Happily the Government of the United States… Gives to Bigotry no sanction, to Persecution no assistance.” 

These words have lost their value in today’s political climate as have the words of Ephesians 5:1 in the expression of Christian ethics, especially for those who support policies that do harm to those who are the most vulnerable in our society.  We are under siege, living in a Reinhold Niebuhr-defined state of political coercion. A state of coercion, not for the benefit of the people or for bringing justice, as was the case during the Montgomery Bus Boycott. The siege and coercion we live under is for the benefit of a hegemonic elite that seeks to jettison the doctrines of consent and the edict of “We the People” for personal gain.

Today, those called politicians, especially those that have served for more than two decades, have become anesthetized to the mores of civil engagement in the pursuit of power, performing not for the will of the people but for the societal elites that contribute to their campaigns and desired lifestyles. These in office are further anesthetized to the pain and suffering that their callous disregard for others is causing.  They behave like myopic malevolent minions focused on establishing an oligarchy form of government, where the personal earned rights of its citizens are subject to elimination or eradication.

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The 13 white, rich, male GOP senators who composed – in secret – the Senate version of the American Health Care Act.

We see this callous disregard in the current Congress’ desire to undo the Affordable Care Act. Our current Congress is led by a man who for the past eight years has had a single mission to serve as an obstructionist to the opposition party and, in particular, the former President of the United States. This behavior is inimical to the benefit of the people that he took an oath to protect. But in the pursuit of control, the fact that his leadership could cause 33 million people to lose health care benefits is of no concern to him or those who follow him. This partisan blindness to the welfare of the people is akin to the apathy for others displayed in the famous Milgram studies of the 1960s. In that experiment people were instructed by a person in authority to administer electric shocks to learners who got answers to the test questions wrong. The range of volts or shocks ranged from five to 450, with 450 being considered lethal. In the initial study 65% of the test subjects were willing to administer the lethal dose when encouraged by the tester who was viewed as an authority figure.

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In today’s political climate those in Congress are willing to administer the lethal dose by rejecting health care, by rolling back Food Stamps, selling federal land to developers, rolling back EPA guidelines, dismantling international relationships dismantling Social Security, and weakening Medicare.  And the so-called opposition party mostly remains silent as this destruction becomes more evident and this disease spreads to local politics as well.  An example is what is called the school to prison pipeline, where rural America’s economy is supported by urban center decline.

Edmund Burke stated: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men (people) to do nothing.” Albert Einstein put it this way: “The world will not be destroyed by those who do evil, but by those who watch them without doing anything.” Rev. Dr. Susan Thistlewaithe would say “if one does not dissent then one is a collaborator.”  Our political climate has become a circus of those who coerce and those who collaborate.

When seeing “Christians” endorsing the policies of despair and those who initiate them we must ask questions about the validity of Christian ethics as a moral compass.  The questions for Christians are: How do we rescue the church from its historical and current level of collaboration with coercion for the sake of power and personal gain? Where do we engage our society not merely in social media or written dissent but in actual action driven resistance to the current climate of political balkanization? The answer is the church can’t rest on its indifference because that is what caused God’s wrath to be poured out on Sodom.  Good people who became indifferent to the conditions of others because of the blessings that they have received.  Ezekiel 16:49 reads: “this was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters (sons) had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy.”

Our political process has become a process of coercion and indifference which is the opposite of the love ethic expressed by Howard Thurman and displayed by Fannie Lou Hamer, Marian Wright Edelman, Martin Luther King, Jr., and others, including Jesus Christ, the author and finisher of our faith.  I believe that Dr. King, would liken the current political process to cannibalism at the dawn of the age.  Our current political climate and policies are cannibalizing our future for the sake of the few. If these policies and the current political direction are maintained, they will force many innocent people into a life of poverty and facing a constant state of coercion and terror.  Christian ethics must resist the collaboration with evil and indifference and seek to eliminate and not exacerbate injustice, poverty and apathy in the 21st century.

 


pastorfotoRonald S. Bonner Sr., is the pastor of the Lutheran Church of the Atonement, Atlanta, GA.  And a Director of Evangelical Mission/Assistant to the Bishop of the Southeastern Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. And the author of two books, No Bigotry Allowed and The Seat.

 

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Reading Lists and White Supremacy – Marissa Becklin; MDiv student

Picture 002Reading – what a wonderful activity, yes? Reading is important to how we explore new ideas, deepen ideas we currently have, not to mention deepen our faith as Christians. But sadly, even here, what we read – and more specifically how we choose what we read – can just as easily be a tool of white supremacy, and the forces of this world that seek to keep us divided up and primed-up. Marissa Becklin, MDiv sudent at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, shares her personal epiphany of how even something so simple as her personal reading choices entrenched her biases and privilege, and what she is doing to address it. Read, comment, and share.

Rev. Dr. Linda E. Thomas – Professor of Theology and Anthropology, Chair of LSTC’s Diversity Committee, Editor – “We Talk. We Listen.”


I love reading.

books.jpgI have loved reading for as long as I can remember—as a child I used to stay up late (long past when my parents had thought I had gone to bed) in order to finish the book I was currently immersed in. At that young age I read to hear the stories of others, to learn about their experiences, their joys, their challenges—to feel connected to others in a way that felt somehow more vulnerable and real than the interactions that I watched adults around me engage in with one another. Reading was a way for me to seek understanding—it was a way for me to practice listening.

Today, as an adult, I still love to read. I enjoy all sorts of genres, and benefit greatly from hearing about the world through the eyes of another. Reading has become a spiritual practice for me during seminary—when I am overwhelmed, exhausted, bored, and am about to turn to my phone, computer, or TV, I turn instead to a book. When people I am friends with find out how much time I spend reading, they are often astonished—they wonder how I find the time, and sometimes imply that my time spent reading must equate to a habit of laziness. In fact, reading is not a silly habit that I need to actively make time for in my life—it is a practice of quiet time and reflection that I depend on in order to function holistically. Through hearing the stories of others, I feel closer to God.

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But as a white, cisgender, heterosexual woman, born in the United States, who grew up middle-class, if reading is my spiritual practice and my reading list only privileges the voices of those who have been historically privileged, I am worshiping the false idol of white supremacy instead of God.

I have been guilty of this on so many occasions—of reading books primarily by white authors, by male authors, by US authors, by straight authors, by cis-authors. Of, as a student, buying into the narrative handed to me in a public high school in Iowa that the “literary canon” is made up of white men because they “write the best stories.” Of tending only to see or perceive as esteemed and worthy those authors who the narrative of white supremacy names as esteemed and worthy. Of letting the voice of white supremacy ring in my ear in the stories that I chose to read.

As summer begins in the northern hemisphere, this is the season of blog posts about summer reading list recommendations.

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Though it is not shocking, many of the posts that I see pop up on my Facebook page are lists of white authors, or are fluffy stories deemed appropriate for ‘reading on the beach.’ These are lists of books to help privileged folks deny the pain of the world, avoid the reality of oppression that they participate in, and ‘escape from it all.’ The ability to ‘escape from it all’ in books is a sign of privilege. The ability to, in one’s free time, choose not to think about the hardships that others face (and the ways in which many benefit from that hardship), is a sign of privilege. It reminds me of what a white congregant once told me when we were talking about Islamophobia in the United States during an adult education session—“Do we really need to talk about this? I don’t come to church on my day off to get bummed out.”

This existence in a literary vestige to privilege brings me no joy. As I continually reevaluate my reading habits and watch for sinful patterns in my choice of books, I ask myself the question—why do I read?

Do I read to feel good about myself?

To ‘get away from it all’?

To deny reality?

The answer is no.

I read to hear the stories of others.

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Links: Farewell to Manzanar, The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Borderlands/La Frontera, Midnight’s Children, Between the World and Me, Our Lives Matter.

I read to listen—to hear what another person sees in this world, to seek understanding. I read to hear in someone’s own words about their history, their experiences, their life. I read to feel closer to others, and subsequently to feel closer to God, and when I read only or primarily the voices of those historically privileged, I grant power to the idol of white supremacy. I sinfully ignore the voices of so many who have stories to tell, truth to speak.

In this sinfulness, I feel separate from God.

Hearing the stories of others, in all of their intricacies and complexities, makes me a more whole person. In the insidious world of white supremacy, the propagation of oppression and violent narratives about the ‘normativity’ of white culture depend upon all of us—all of God’s beautiful, unique, intricate people—not hearing one another’s stories. When we don’t hear one another’s stories, it becomes so easy to buy into false narratives of scarcity—to believe that we are in competition with one another, that our liberation is not interrelated and interdependent. The onus is on those who have privilege—on me, as a white, cisgender, heterosexual, married, Christian, U.S. citizen—to do the work of listening for the voices of those we have wrongfully and sinfully deemed unimportant or lacking in esteem.

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The onus is on people with privilege to seek out the stories of those whose oppression they have wrongfully benefited from, and to amplify their voices.

So, during this season of book lists, why do you read?

Who do you read?


ATT00001..jpgMarissa Becklin is a final year semianry student pursuing her Master of Divinity degree at the Lutheran School of The at Chicago, and is currently as an intern at Christ the Servant Lutheran Church in Waukesha, WI. Her passion for gospel-centered justice was ignited at Luther College in Decorah, IA, and further fostered during her summer unit of Clinical Pastoral Education at Sinai Health System in Chicago. Marissa lives with her husband Hans, who is also a seminarian completing his internship year in Chicago. She loves reading, playing the saxophone, and traveling.

 

Listening and Change – Michael Markwell

Linda Thomas at CTS eventDespite even our sincerest efforts to the contrary, bias easily bleeds into and warps our best intentions and actions. This is certainly true in today’s post, where Michael Markwell reflects on the difference between earlier efforts at Muslim/Christian dialogue that he’s done as opposed to a recent experience. Part of my class, “Identity and Difference: The Intersection of Race, Ethnicity, Gender, Class and Sexuality,”  makes another wonderful addition to our recent conversations on intersectionality on the blog, and I hope you enjoy it as much as I do!

Rev. Dr. Linda E. Thomas – Professor of Theology and Anthropology, Chair of LSTC’s Diversity Committee, Editor – “We Talk. We Listen.”


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A few weeks ago I got the privilege of accompanying a group from my church to an Islamic Mosque. The visit to the mosque followed a multi-week study based on the book My Neighbor is Muslim. The first part of the study was a look in on what we as Lutherans believe, How can we understand our neighbors faith if we do not remind ourselves and make sure we are firm in what we believe.

This look at our own faith then allowed for us to look at the beliefs and teachings of Islam. The journey through this study was an important opportunity for our congregation. Mainly white middle-class in a south suburb of Chicago, the majority of the middle aged participants in the study have had little interaction with Muslims. The study was capped off with a trip to a local mosque. This was my first time to a mosque, we attended mid-day prayers, then following the prayers leaders of the mosque meet with us. They provided us with a space to ask questions, about them or about their faith.

Because how can we love our neighbors without knowing what they believe?

Every couple of weeks I see very similar posts on social media. The post typically involves a snapshot of a homework assignment and a letter that a parent wrote to the teacher/principal/school board. There is always a question on the homework assignment that ask something along the lines of “What are the five pillars of Islam.” The response from the parent is usually rage and anger:

“How dare you teach my kid about Islam and Jihad, stop trying to brainwash our kids, there are no assignments on Christianity?!”

How are we to love our neighbors if we refuse to even understand their beliefs? How can we serve our neighbors if we don’t know their needs?

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I can remember back to times when I was in school and studied world religion, including Islam. I was a junior in high school taking world history and we studied the basic principles and practices of all major religions. When I was in college, as part of my history degree, I took a class in the history of Christian and Muslim relations. Again we started the class by learning the basic beliefs and practices of each religion. Refusal to learn about the practices of another religion is not wanting to protect children from influences of other religions, it is a refusal to sit at the same table.

Yet it surprises me that at least on the two occasions I remember studying Islam neither time did we have a Muslim speaker or visit a mosque. Both previous times I learned about Islam the information was presented in a very informative matter, but it seems odd to me to not have had the opportunity to learn firsthand.

I got a serious lesson in hospitality when we visited the mosque. Before we left for the mosque we made sure our group had eaten. We visited the Mosque during Ramadan, and we were not expecting any refreshments as they were observing the fast. The last thing I would have expected was to be served a full meal during the day during a fasting holiday. But our gracious hosts did just this, serving us pizza, there in the mosque they served us pizza. The children of one of the leaders stood there no more than 10 years old and served us, despite them not being able to eat.

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Boy preparing evening meals during Ramadan.

We were thanked for our approach and our willingness to listen to their stories. The leader of the mosque was grateful that we were going beyond what we hear about through the news. I had the opportunity to talk to a leader in a private conversation.

He said his prayer every day when he wakes up is that he won’t turn on the TV and see another terrorist attack. Each time there is an attack in the news he worries for his family, especially his children.

What I took away from the whole experience is the importance in our congregations and communities to encourage opportunities to learn in ways that challenge and break down our pre-conceived notions. I had some concern when we first went to the mosque, concern that members of our congregation who may have come in with preconceived notions, even following our study would be rude or insensitive. But to my relief the experience of having the opportunity to meet a Muslim and hear their story, separated what they have been feed from Fox News. The power of stories continues to amaze me in the work that it does to educate and to break down walls.

We have the power to listen to stories. Unfortunately only one story of Muslims gets told in the news. That is the story of ‘radical Islamic terrorists.’ However if we took the time to listen to the stories of Muslims we would learn that they are professionals like us, they are parents like us, they go about life in similar ways. There are tons of ways to access stories of individuals from other religions, cultures, economic backgrounds, races, and genders.

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As a white, cis-gender, anglo-saxon, protestant, married, heterosexual, male of middle-class upbringing, I feel that it is my responsibility to allow others to tell their stories, and when I cannot, to do the best I can to tell them on their behalf.

We cannot allow single narratives to continue to dominate our society and shape the way we view other cultures.


pic.jpgIn addition to being the Youth Ministry Coordinator at Shepherd of the Hill Lutheran Church in  Lockport, IL, Michael Markwell has just completed the first year of his M.Div. studies at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago. Prior to beginning his studies he was a school teacher, camp counselor, and dorm resident assistant.

What I Learned about Racism and White Guilt – Karen Katamy

thomas110_1027092In the coming weeks We Talk. We Listen. will be hosting a series of blog posts on intersectionality, defined as “the interconnected nature of social categorizations such as race, class, and gender as they apply to a given individual or group, regarded as creating overlapping and interdependent systems of discrimination or disadvantage.” Our first post is by LSTC student Karen Katamy, and the insights that she gained upon reading lesbian black scholar Audre Lorde in my class “Identity and Difference: The Intersection of Race, Ethnicity, Gender, Class and Sexuality.”  Read, comment, and share!

Rev. Dr. Linda E. Thomas – Professor of Theology and Anthropology, Chair of LSTC’s Diversity Committee, Editor – “We Talk. We Listen.”


Recently I took a class at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago on “Intersectionality” by Dr. Linda Thomas.  This was hands down the most powerful and emotional class I have ever taken. But at the end of the one week intensive class, I was struggling with the emotions that I felt and wondering, where do I go from here?  How do I, an older white, middle class, heterosexual female, make a difference in a world where I am privileged and many are marginalized? Are my emotions from guilt for being complicit in the suffering of others, or because God is calling me to make a difference and I don’t know where to begin?

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I felt I needed to explore these emotions a little bit more and went to the library and found a book published in 1997 on racism titled Race: An Anthology in the First Person, edited by Bart Schneider, and began reading some of the stories and lectures by various authors.  I finally found one that addressed what I was feeling and helped me to understand.

The entry was a speech given by Audre Lorde as a keynote presentation at a Women’s Studies Conference at the University of Connecticut in 1981.  Yet this speech could easily still apply today.  The anthology gives this background on her: “Audre Lorde was born in New York City in 1934 and died of cancer in Saint Croix, the Virgin Islands, in 1992. She was a poet and essayist who worked as a librarian and creative writing professor. Her books include Zani: A New Spelling of My Name, Use of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power, The Cancer Journals, Sister Outsider, and The Marvelous Arithmetics of Distance, which was nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award in poetry. A powerful writer and speaker, Lorde articulated with a passionate anger, the reality of being a woman of color in America, and made clear the relationship between racism and sexism. She was an inspirational individual and social leader who wrote important essays on lesbian mothering, the erotic, and surviving cancer.”

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Audre Lorde (1934-1992)

Audre Lorde’s speech is titled “The Uses of Anger: Women Responding to Racism.”  In her speech, she says this:

“My response to racism is anger. I have lived with that anger, ignoring it, feeding upon it, learning to use it before it laid my visions to waste, for most of my life. Once I did it in silence, afraid of the weight. My fear of anger taught me nothing. Your fear of anger will teach you nothing, also.

Women responding to racism means women responding to anger – the anger of exclusion, of unquestioned privilege, of racial distortions, of silence, ill-use, stereotyping, defensiveness, misnaming, betrayal, and cooptation.

My anger is a response to racists’ attitudes and to the actions and presumptions that arise out of those attitudes. If your dealings with other women reflect those attitudes, then my anger and your attendant fears are spotlights that can be used for growth in the same way I have used learning to express anger for my growth. But for corrective surgery, not guilt. Guilt and defensiveness are bricks in a wall against which we all flounder; they serve none of our futures.”

Ms. Lorde than lays out some examples of encounters that she has had with white women, which shows how clueless and insensitive white women can be sometimes (myself included – trigger the guilt and shame).  Then she pointed out another factor, which can still be true today:

“Mainstream communication does not want women, particularly white women, responding to racism. It wants racism to be accepted as an immutable given in the fabric of your existence like evening time or the common cold.

So we are working in a context of opposition and threat, the cause of which is certainly not the angers which lie between us, but rather that virulent hatred leveled against all women, people of Color, lesbians and gay men, poor people – against all of us who are seeking to examine the particulars of our lives as we resist our oppressions, moving toward coalition and effective action.”

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So, getting now back to that guilt and shame that I am feeling, where do I go with that?  Do I pull back into my white privilege bubble and ignore what I see happening around me?  Or can I use that constructively?  Here is Ms. Lorde’s response:

Guilt is not a response to anger; it is a response to one’s own actions or lack of action. If it leads to change then it can be useful, since it is then no longer guilt but the beginning of knowledge. Yet all too often, guilt is just another name for impotence, for defensiveness destructive of communication; it becomes a device to protect ignorance and the continuation of things the way they are, the ultimate protection for changelessness … Guilt is only another way of avoiding informed action, of buying time out of the pressing need to make clear choices, out of the approaching storm that can feed the earth as well as bend the trees …

But the strength of women lies in recognizing differences between us as creative, and in standing to those distortions which we inherited without blame but which are now ours to alter. The angers of women can transform difference through insight into power. For anger between peers births change, not destruction, and the discomfort and sense of loss it often causes is not fatal but a sign of growth.”

Guilt then can be the beginning of knowledge.  And so my journey begins!


3696194Karen Katamay is a Master of Arts in Ministry student at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, studying to be a deacon in the ELCA.