The Nashville Statement, Faithfulness, and My Story – Troy Medlin

thomas110_1027092On Tuesday, August 29, 2017 a group of conservative Christian leaders released what they called The Nashville Statement, an attempt on their part to give public witness “to the good purposes of God for human sexuality revealed in Christian Scripture” – essentially declaring that it is impossible for anyone in the LGBTQAI+ to be a Christian. Critical response was rapid, as Christian leaders from a variety of communities condemned the document for its theological and Scriptural basis. This week’s author, Troy Medlin, however, frames his response as both a critique of the evangelical Christianity that formed him, as well as a life line to those who – like himself – struggled with their sexuality while being part of churches that would likely stigmatize them if they came forward. 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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A few weeks ago, Southern Baptist and other Evangelical leaders, the president of my alma mater among them, composed and signed something called the Nashville Statement – the main message of this manifesto is basically that one cannot be both openly LGBTQ and Christian.

When I heard about it, I felt called to respond, but not by arguing hermeneutics or theology. I felt called to simply share my story as someone who has been impacted by some of the signers of the statement, is an openly gay seminarian, and who feels called to follow Jesus into the ministry.

It was among the Southern Baptists where I received my first formation – where I learned so many of the hymns that I still love, learned to love Scripture, where I fell in love again and again with the God revealed in Jesus, and this good news of grace that felt like fresh water to my weary soul. It was in this southern baptist church where I met dear saints who had traveled this journey of faith for much longer than I had and who inspired me to live a life of faithfulness, following Jesus no matter the cost.

It was these siblings in Christ who also encouraged me as I preached my first sermons.

I began preaching when I was 19, with no formal education, just a call and a passion. And, the people in this congregation affirmed my calling in such a beautiful way. They would encourage me to keep preaching and keep exploring this call to ministry and became dear to me.

Eventually I applied to Moody Bible Institute to continue to pursue this call to ministry. I spent the first part of my time at Moody commuting and continuing to preach and serve every now and then at my home church. But it was also at Moody, thanks to a good friend who shared part of his story with me, that I began to come to terms with something else that was just as true for me as this call to ministry, but that I hadn’t expressed before.

I was able to say for the first time that I was gay…

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In that moment I knew that whatever was going to happen in my life it was going to be informed by this – that I was gay –  and that moment felt holy, sacred, faithful. I felt free and liberated.

Shortly after that I began to experience some dissonance, for though on one hand I had been held and loved and accepted by God for who I was, on the other hand I was in a school where I could not be completely myself – where I had to be selective about who I shared this part of my story with. I had to deny these feelings that felt so intrinsic to me and so God given, that I wanted to spend my life in a covenantal, self giving, and committed relationship with another man and the fact that I felt convinced that I could in relationship with another man still image Christ and his church.

I had to wrestle with this conflict, between this peace I felt that I was blessed by God and the fact that, theologically, I was surrounded by people who had confirmed my calling to ministry and had taught me so much about what it means to be faithful – and yet who viewed my sexual orientation as a “struggle” that I had to deny and suppress

I had to wrestle with the fact that the Southern Baptist Church that had affirmed my calling, and had seen my gifts, who had let me preach, who had learned from my Bible studies, who I had prayed fervently with and for; these same people just would not understand.

They just did not have categories for who I was. It was simply confusing for them that someone who was so much like them, who shared so many of their values, and who had shared their same faith who also happened to be gay.

Moreover, I began to feel further isolated and on the margins as I slowly came to terms with my sexuality. I slowly began questioning some of my inherited theology around sexuality and other aspects of my faith. I tried to make sense of what was causing my cognitive dissonance. Despite the struggles I experienced throughout Bible College there were two things I just could not shake:

I was gay

And, I still felt called to be a pastor.

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The further I searched, prayed about, and discerned my sexuality, the more and more I felt confident that I was supposed to be a pastor – even when I thought it impossible.

There was this tension between what the Spirit was calling me to, and the communities who had given me so much – but I did not have the language to understand all I was experiencing.

As I was about to graduate college….as sort of a last attempt to remain in this inherited community, I attended a few sessions of a very mild type of reparative therapy known as healing prayer. It was here that I realized I was going to have to come out. I was going to have to live openly and honestly, and that denying my sexuality and denying myself intimate relationships with other men was not what God had called me to.

It was through something that was supposed to change my sexuality that God confirmed to me, that faithfulness was found in bringing all of myself to God.

And, so I began to come out to family and friends slowly and carefully, sharing that truth with those I loved and who loved me, and who had seen this calling to be a pastor grow inside of me.

And, in the process of coming out I tried one last time to shake this calling I had to be a pastor. Still maybe not fully believing that I could be openly gay and a pastor. I even applied for other jobs and thought that maybe it would be easier for me to not be a pastor, that is, not to work in the church.

The problem with that was there was always that still small voice, reminding me that I had been called; that God had made me to be a pastor. God had called me, with all of my story, in this body and everything that means…. to be a minister of the gospel.

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So, I came to seminary to further explore this call to ministry and to find a community where I could be fully myself and fully discern this call I had felt for the past 10 years.

The more I was honest about who I was, the more I embraced all of my story, even as I began dating another man, something happened:

I began to fall deeper in love with Jesus than I had in long time

My prayer life began to flourish again

My relationship with Scripture came to life.

My relationship with God was reborn.

And I felt more alive than ever when I was preaching.

This narrative is my response to the Nashville Statement and those who signed it – my story and how God’s faithfulness has proved itself in my life over and over again.

So to the supporters of the Nashville Statement, I say this: listen to my story. Listen to those like mine, look at our fruit, because Jesus said, “By their fruits you will know them.”

Let me, then, finish by talking directly to anyone who may be wrestling with his/her/their sexuality and are affiliated with Southern Baptist churches or other conservative spaces.

As a seminarian, a now-church intern, and as someone who still gets to preach, let me be one to tell you the deepest truth in the universe:

You are loved.

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To my lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer siblings:

You are loved.

The God who made everything, made you.

God made you in all of your uniqueness.

No statement, no one person, no church, no denomination can take this truth away from you or change what is most true about you.

And finally – we need you, the church needs you.

For as the apostle Paul says, “…In all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor statements, or churches, or pastors, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

I am here as proof that it all belongs, it gets so much better, and God is more faithful and more loving than we could ever imagine.

Amen.


troyTroy has a bachelor’s degree from Moody Bible Institute and is an ecumenical seminarian at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago. He is also currently serving as a ministry intern at Urban Village Church in the Wicker Park neighborhood of Chicago. He is a progressive evangelical who is passionate about helping people ask new questions and creating space for transformation. He believes that intentional encounters with people who are different have the power to change us and set us free. Troy currently lives in Hyde Park and enjoys eating breakfast at diners, politics, liturgy, 80’s classic rock and talking endlessly about how much he loves his hometown of Sandwich, Illinois.

 

The War on Women – Francisco Herrera

Linda Thomas at CTS eventA common maxim in our country is that before you can change, you have to acknowledge that there is a problem. In this week’s post, as part of Women’s History Month, return author Francisco Herrera speaks honestly and vulnerably about the moment that he realized that he personally wasn’t doing enough to fight sexism and gender discrimination and abuse. Centered on a very brief history of the study and treatment of trauma, he goes on to explain how easily even the most supposedly-sympathetic men in the church often don’t realize the ways in which they take too-lightly the stories of sexism and gender-based abuse, and then calls all men – starting with himself – to repent. 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.”


cover_article_84712_en_US.pngI write this post wanting to communicate with other men as we enter the last week of Women’s History Month.  I pen these words hoping to honor women and to be rigorously honest, if not confessional, by saying something that may be jolting to many:

I never would have thought that I was the kind of man to be inattentive to the troubles that women experience because of their gender.

Never.

Having been raised by a single mother, coming from a family that had been near-irreparably torn apart by a father who violently constrained the lives of his children and abused his daughters, as someone whose adolescence has been scarred by the lashes of abuse from one of his mother’s boyfriends, and as a queer Latino who has spent much of his life either fighting against or being a victim of destructive expectations of masculinity – I thought that I had truly internalized the unavoidable truth that the women of the world need regular support and acknowledgement of the gender-harassment that they experience, and that I myself would be ever at the ready to provide such support and acknowledgement.

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All of this changed back in December of this past year when a respected pastor, knowing some of the history that I mentioned earlier in this post, recommended that I read a book called Trauma and Recovery, by Judith Lewis Herman, MD. Having herself come from a difficult family life, this pastor had a feeling that the book would help me understand myself better, as the book had been very beneficial to her as well.

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A late 19th century drawing of one of the “stages” of an attack of hysteria.

It was a truly engrossing read – but for as long as I live I will never forget that introductory chapter. Presenting an abbreviated history of the development of trauma studies, it identified the first shoots of the discipline as being in the study of ‘hysteria’ in the late 19th century – the illness given its name from the Greek word for uterus hystera, because it was first believed to be a condition only suffered by women. Described as a condition of “ungovernable emotional excess,” and despite being laden with the patriarchal assumptions of the age, the study of hysteria was still vital and ground-breaking because it was the first serious, clinical attempt by scientists to take seriously the emotional and physical suffering of women and to create scientific treatment to address it.

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A soldier during World War II suffering an attack of shell-shock.

Though the study of hysteria would eventually fall out of fashion by the early 20th century, in the wake of World War I – with the thousands of returning combat veterans suffering under a strange new psychological illness known simply as ‘shell-shock’ – physicians searching for precedent in the medical record quickly found clinical research into hysteria their only point of previous reference. Just as hysterical women had exhibited heightened fear, vigilance, and were in a constant state of distress that could not be easily explained nor remedied, so similarly were thousands and thousands of men who returned to their homes after having spent months and years under the pall of sudden death at the hands of bombs and machine-guns – and the doctors seeking to treat these fractured former soldiers found the earlier research into hysteria to be the only useful theoretical/clinical basis as they sought to treat these who had been horrifically warped by combat.

And then at last, nearing the end of this introductory chapter, I read the following sentence – which immediately seared itself into my brain:

“Combat and rape, the public and private forms of organized social violence, are primarily experiences of adolescence and early adult life… Rape and combat might thus be considered complementary social rites of initiation into the coercive violence at the foundation of adult society.”  Judith Herman, MD. Trauma and Recovery.

After I read this I put the book down and stared out of a window for about 10 minutes as a terrible realization sink into me. Saying that there is a “war on women” is not just a dramatic and effective metaphor for constant abuse that women suffer every day – it is a scientifically established fact.  And in that moment, I had to confront the fact that, as sympathetic as I thought that I was, I had still always thought that ‘the war on women’ was just a metaphor. An accurate one, a fitting one, a true one – but still a metaphor.

And consequently, my witness on behalf of the suffering of all women was woefully incomplete.

Again:

The war on women is not a metaphor.

The war on women is a scientifically established fact.

To be a woman alive in today’s society is to be under constant attack.

To be a woman in today’s society is to risk post-traumatic stress that is essentially indistinguishable from the shell-shock experienced by men who have been in prolonged combat – and this constant state of potential violence is part of the very foundations of our country. 

And, therefore, anyone who not only doubts this but actively works to try to dissimulate this fact is guilty of crimes against women.

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But even in this simple juxtaposition there is a dreadful irony – the irony is that despite the fact that research into the suffering of women unquestionably aided the development of treatments for male combat veterans, similarly broad acceptance of women’s sexual trauma is as elusive as ever. And what’s more, women who speak openly and boldly of the harassment they have suffered are still regular prey to the mockery and militant  gas-lighting of wicked men and complicit women.

Hence, ignoring or mocking a trans woman who has been beaten and violated is the psychological equivalent of telling the sole survivor of a wartime ambush that their pain isn’t really as bad as they say it is – and that they are likely making up the whole story for the sake of getting attention.

And this is horrifying.

And this is what many women – transgender, cisgender, and ambi/agender – must go through every day.

I had originally planned to compliment the observations in this post with stories from Scripture, testimonies from survivors of sexual trauma, even excerpts of anonymous testimony from candidates for ordination among the mainline denominations in the United States – but I decided against it. For I, too, had long been aware of such stories and thought that I had been able to make at least a faint of understanding and genuine empathy. But that one little sentence from Herman’s book proved me terribly wrong.

So instead of that, I am going to end with a prayer – and I am asking the men who read this, specifically, to add this prayer to their devotionals during the remaining days of Lent. We can change, yes, and God will aid us in our change.

But first we must atone.

All of us.

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Image courtesy of aboutislam.net/spirituality/on-repentance-and-hope.

Dear God…

In this season of Lent, once again, you call us to repent – both of those things that we have done and those things that we have left undone. As men who benefit from this very unearned privilege, we beg you to pardon us for our willful sightless-ness to the constant and unyielding suffering of all of the women around us. As we look to the cross and the sufferings of Jesus – remind us that the physical and emotional terror of the cross is something that many women live, day in and day out, from the time of their birth until they return to their final rest in you. Fill our hearts with anger and courage to stamp out sexism and gender-based violence wherever we witness it – whether it manifest in word or in bloody deed. And if we ever choose to belittle and ignore the testimony of the suffering and pain of women, may our tongues stick to the roof of our mouths and our consciences be troubled so that they may know no peace. It is a terror and a shame the ways that men, since time immemorial, have aided and abetted this nightmare, and we need your help to stop it. Please help us, for we have failed. Please help us, we beseech you.

In the most precious name of our Savior, Jesus the Christ.

Amen.


16387422_10154054051765213_6455367828101312019_nBefore coming to Chicago Francisco Herrera studied classical music (viola and orchestra conducting) in his hometown of Kansas City, Missouri and then Geneva, Switzerland. After feeling the call to ministry at his home church in Geneva, The Evangelical Lutheran Church of Geneva, he returned to the US to enter seminary in 2005, completing his M.Div. from Chicago Theological Seminary in 2012. Since beginning his Ph.D studies at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago (LSTC)  in Fall of 2013, he has also been developing his skills as a seminary instructor, both at LSTC and the Lutheran Seminary Program in the Southwest. And when he isn’t doing any of those things, polymath and scatterbrain that he is, Francisco likes to write worship and devotional music, blogs at www.loveasrevolution.blogspot.com, tweets at @PolyglotEvangel, and travels the country as one of the central leaders of #decolonizeLutheranism.

Gender, Pleasure, and God – Rev. Lura Groen

ThomasLinda sittingIn many, many Christian circles enjoyment is suspect and “pleasure” is a dirty word. This quandary even more problematic when you’re a woman (let alone any other gender-oppressed group), as society is often perpetually finding ways to force itself upon everything in your life – let alone your sense of pleasure. In response to this, Rev. Lura Groen provides a rather eloquent and affirmation that bodily pleasures are part of what it means to be created by God – and by extension are holy. It makes a wonderful addition to this months entries and we hope you enjoy 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.”


Like an apple tree among the wild trees,
so is my lover among the young men.
In his shade I take pleasure in sitting,
and his fruit is sweet to my taste.
He has brought me to the house of wine;
his banner raised over me is love.

Sustain me with raisin cakes,
strengthen me with apples,
for I’m weak with love!

His left arm is beneath my head,
his right embraces me.

(Song of Solomon 2: 3-6)

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God created humanity in God’s own image,
in the divine image God created them,[b]
male and female God created them.

28 God blessed them and said to them, “Be fertile and multiply; fill the earth and master it. Take charge of the fish of the sea, the birds in the sky, and everything crawling on the ground.” 29 Then God said, “I now give to you all the plants on the earth that yield seeds and all the trees whose fruit produces its seeds within it. These will be your food.30 To all wildlife, to all the birds in the sky, and to everything crawling on the ground—to everything that breathes—I give all the green grasses for food.” And that’s what happened. 31 God saw everything he had made: it was supremely good.

(Genesis 1: 27-30)

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Pleasure is good and holy and given to us by God.  Bodily pleasure, sexual and non sexual, food pleasure, touch pleasure, laughter and singing pleasure, they’re given to us.  

By God. 

And women, it’s given to US too.  Anyone who experiences gender oppression, (femme men, nonbinary people, gender nonconforming people, transgender men, etc) it’s given to us too.  Sometimes we forget.  Sometimes we affirm, theoretically, that pleasure is good, but forget to give it to our own bodies, feel guilty when we do, or judge the ways in which we do or don’t receive pleasure.

This isn’t surprising, because it’s how the world teaches us to think. The world teaches us that men get to joke about how much they love to eat bacon, but we don’t.  The world teaches us that sex is about the pleasure of the (presumed heterosexual, cisgender) man.  The world teaches us that comfortable clothing isn’t for us, that looking professional means having an uncomfortable body. We walk through the world bombarded by messages telling us that our bodies deserve to be starved, pinched, and hated.

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But those messages are wrong, those messages are ungodly, those messages are demonic.  They are wrong when they come from the outside world, and then they are wrong when they make their homes inside our own heads, telling us we don’t deserve pleasure.

Other times the world commands us to have pleasure in ways we don’t want: the cool woman eats like a man, the desirable woman wants sex whenever her partner wants it, and the woman to emulate is always living life extravagantly.  This is a twisted way of telling us that even our own pleasure is for other people, not for us.  And it is another lie.  (Because the Song of Solomon also says “Don’t rouse, don’t arouse love, until it desires.”) Your pleasure is for you, and you feel it when and how and only when and how you want to.

And yes, of course there are caveats.  We don’t get to have pleasure in ways that harm someone else, or use pleasure for power over someone else, or break promises we’ve made, or live only for pleasure. 

But let’s be honest. 

Most of us aren’t doing that.

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The Lovers – Rene Magritte, 1928.

We’re so busy caring for others that we feel guilty when we get enough sleep, think it’s luxurious to eat a healthy, delicious meal, and experience it as a radical position that our sexual pleasure is as important as our partners’.  Those caveats about enjoying pleasure have been used against us in ways they haven’t been used against gender conforming men, as a way to prevent us from having pleasure that is seen as theirs to have. We have been held to higher standards based on gender oppression, and therefore these standards have become weapons. We have been taught to deny ourselves in gendered ways, and therefore in unjust and ungodly ways.

God gave us good food to eat. Maybe for you that’s bacon, but maybe its apples and raisin cakes. God loves it when food tastes good to us, gave us bodies that crave and taste buds that celebrate.   Yes, we have choices about the healthiest things to eat, and sometimes that choice means limiting certain pleasure, but that doesn’t make the pleasure bad.  The pleasure we get from eating good food is holy, and given to us by God.

God gave us bodies, and called them supremely good.  God created our bodies such that touching people we love gives us pleasure: snuggling babies, hugging a good friend, or kissing our lovers.  Yes, we need to take care to touch in ways that respect consent and the boundaries of all involved, and that honor the differences in how people like to be touched or not, but that doesn’t make the pleasure bad. The pleasure we get from touching each other (or our own bodies!) is holy, and given to us by God.

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Pleasure from food is good and holy, pleasure from our bodies is good and holy, but also, if you don’t get pleasure from these things, for whatever reason, and get bodily pleasure from something else, that is good and holy too. 

It is a holy thing, a spiritual thing, to enjoy the gifts given to us by God, and give thanks to God for them.   And so, I make a modest proposal for Women’s History Month: explore pleasure for your body as a spiritual discipline.  If that makes us a little uncomfortable to think about, it might be exactly because we have been taught that pleasure isn’t for us.  But you still get to pick: the pleasures, and only the pleasures, that your body likes, that you want to enjoy, that you consent to.

I know Women’s History Month falls in Lent this year, as it often does.  And that we aren’t encouraged to embrace pleasure during Lent.  Perhaps you might decide you’ve been living Lent too many seasons of the year, and might skip it this time.  Or perhaps you might decide right now that we are encouraged to feast for the 50 days of Easter, (longer than the 40 days of Lent!) and that celebrating God-given bodily pleasures is your way of celebrating God’s love, God’s triumph over sin and death and judgment.

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Dear sisters, dear siblings, God gave us our bodies, and created them to feel pleasure.  You’re allowed to feel it when and how and in which ways you desire.

Thanks be to God. 

Amen.

(Thanks to Dr. Irina Greenman for editing assistance)


16195119_10154258760571662_4424052491010862736_n.jpgRev. Lura N. Groen attended St. John’s College in Annapolis MD, studying the Great Books Program.  Prior to seminary, Pastor Lura was a two-year member of Lutheran Volunteer Corps, serving as a case manager to homeless people in Baltimore, MD and Washington D.C.  Lura continued her social service work as an employment coach before attending seminary at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia, and was admitted to the clergy roster of the ELCA in 2010. Currently based in Cumberland, MD with her husband Jess and pit-bull – Clara – she is also blogs at luragroen.blogspot.comand is a chaplain for #decolonizeLutheranism.

What it’s All About – Francisco Herrera, Ph.D. student, LSTC

ThomasLinda sittingEvery so often the Church gets so stagnant, and human beings so ornery, that the Holy Spirit can’t help but step up and raise some mischief. Inspired by a series of internet memes and only six months old, the #decolonizeLutheranism movement is quickly becoming a national force in the efforts of countless Lutherans to make their churches truly accepting and loving of everyone. One of #decolonizeLutheranism’s early adopters, Francisco Herrera, shares not only a brief take on the theology of #decolonizeLutheranism, but even a simple overview of the movement’s first revival, ##decolonize16, completed this past Saturday. It is a simple, eloquent, and inspiring read. So take it in, comment, and share, friends.

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


“So what is this #decolonizeLutheranism thing about,  anyway?”

I get this a lot.

My first response is usually, “It’s about creating a Christian community where no one has to prove to anyone else that they’re a human being, let alone a child of God.” Because, really, at bottom, that is what this is about. So many of us are through with being “issues” or “problems” or “too much/too soon/too fast” and not Children of God.

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Because if you’re a seminarian of color who has heard things like…

 “You’re not a real Lutheran.” “You black people may clap in church, but not us!” “That wasn’t a Lutheran ordination. People were talking while the pastor was preaching!”

…When ethnocentric comments like these are made you are precisely being told that you’re not a human being, let alone a child of God.

Or if you’re a pastor or lay leader who is LGBTQ and you hear…

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 “How can a gay pastor marry a straight couple?” “They’re calling us ‘the gay church’!” “We didn’t have financial problems before our church accepted the gays.”

…at some point you start to believe the lies and the Devil rubs his hands with fiendish glee as cracks deepen and spread through your once-solid faith.

And women pastors and seminarians? Pshaw…

“All women pastors are just lesbians who want to be men.” “Your husband approves?!” “You can’t wear a dress like that – it’s too risque for a seminarian.” “What does your husband think?”

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@TrybalPastor, aka Rev. Kwame Pitts, welcoming in a capacity crowd of 203 people.

So in order to purge themselves of so much filth and ick, while all-the-same moved by the Holy Spirit and hopeful for the future of Lutheranism in the United Sates, 203 beautiful souls from all over the United States converged here in Chicago (on the campus of the Lutheran School for Theology at Chicago) for one glorious day of challenge and refreshment, sharing the theologies and melodies of Lutheran voices known by a precious few.

And they stayed in this familiar, but ever-modulating choir all day long.

All day long.

We had songs from Mexico and Pakistan and the United States and Germany. We had piñatas – decked in the fullest of Roy G. Bivs – to teach us that, though pleasant to the eye, that sin needs to be destroyed – and that sin’s destruction is sweet to the taste. There were drums – oh yes – there were lots of drums, and maracas, and a cajon – and a poet who mourned that her mocha-brown skin seemed only to be a magnet for bullets for many people.

Then there were stories.

My goodness were there stories! Each of the main presenters told their own stories – about how the church doesn’t really see them, how so many Lutherans revere the Augsburg Confession as if it is Scripture although they don’t do anything it really says or teaches. One of the presenters talked about the day he learned that he was black, another lead a conversation on the Doctrine of Justification accompanied by the song ‘Amazing Grace.’ There were over 30 small groups that shared their stories, talked about what Grace meant to them, what sins they wanted to smash upon the paper skin of that piñata, and an entire assembly sang songs in Urdu and Xhosa as they lamented the ways their own church, that each of them personally, were complicit in racism and violence.

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Because everyone has to pee.

And as I myself stood there – posing the self-same deceptively simple question “What is this?” – I began to realize something. As we came together to ask what this day was all about, with little surprise and boundless joy I realized that, as we were dreaming of what Lutheranism could be and could become, all of us assembled truly and surely became the very church for which we sought. We were a church where a queer woman of color had her call recognized by the community and wasn’t gas-lighted into oblivion. It was a place where a black man could talk about Black Lives Matter – accompanied by loud hoots of acclimation as his face streamed tears of relief. Gender Non-Conforming and Trans folkx had all the harassment-free bathrooms they needed and no one ever asked anyone if they were really Lutheran. No one. Not once. And in that wonderful, wonderful day a special clemency, a fresh conviction, and – yes – an amazing Grace – filled every space of the seminary.

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“I did not feel like preaching in an alb.” Rev. Tuhina Rasche

Because those of us that don’t fit the default white, cis-het, sexist, racist profile of greater Luther-dumb suffer much and suffer long – yes. But, too, we know about justification, Augsburg Confession Article IV, about Grace. Because many of us were forced to walk a different walk, to straighten our hair, our teeth, go on a diet, to swap-out Public Enemy for Vanilla Ice – to do the this, the that, and EVERYTHING in between – only to be reminded once again that being forced to change how and what we do – to believe that we must DO things before we can be loved – only makes us despise ourselves.

But God still loved us as we hated ourselves and strove to conform. God loved us when we loved our rolls, let our hair kink, smiled at the bounce in our step, and raised a black-gloved fist next to ours as we shouted “Fight the power!” because God loves us in our pain, in our us-ness, even when we don’t love us – and ESPECIALLY when others turn our self-love into self-hate. Because Jesus, well, his blood washed away the default settings that Satan is always so keen to sculpt and keep. And through this wond’rous love Christ lifted us all up to eternal life.

And lots of Lutherans seem to have forgotten that.

So the Holy Spirit called #decolonizeLutheranism to remind everyone of this love, yet again. And that’s what we did this past Saturday. All. Day. Long.

All day long.

And it was glorious.

And that’s what we’re all about.


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Before coming to Chicago Francisco Herrera studied classical music (viola and orchestra conducting) in his hometown of Kansas City, Missouri and then Geneva, Switzerland. After feeling the call to ministry at his home church in Geneva, The Evangelical Lutheran Church of Geneva, he returned to the US to enter seminary in 2005, completing his M.Div. from Chicago Theological Seminary in 2012. Since beginning his Ph.D studies at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago (LSTC)  in Fall of 2013, he has also been developing his skills as a seminary instructor, both at LSTC and the Lutheran Seminary Program in the Southwest. And when he isn’t doing any of those things, polymath and scatterbrain that he is, Francisco likes to write worship and devotional music, blogs at www.loveasrevolution.blogspot.com, tweets at @PolyglotEvangel, and relishes in his duties as the Convener of #decolonizeLutheranism.

 

Violated Sanctuaries: Pulse, Mother Emanuel, and Intersectional Evil – Rev. Dr. Pamela Lightsey

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In some cultures, sharing the day of death links a group of people to each other. The Vietnam Monument in Washington DC offers an example. A woman of Chinese descent named Maya Ying Lin designed the memorial. The names of the deceased are listed on a shiny granite stone in chronological order by the date of casualty in alphabetical order. Lin’s artful design of arranging the names of those who may not have known each other in life but shared death on the same day infers that these saints shared a deep knowing of another sort. Rev. Dr. Pamela LightseyAssociate Dean for Community Life and Lifelong Learning as well as Clinical Assistant Professor of Contextual Theology and Practice at the Boston University School of Theology, reflects on exactly this thing – and how the terrible desecration of holy ground (a church, a nightclub, a body) must unite all of us in the struggle for justice and the struggle against evil. Read, Listen, and Contemplate.

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


Sadly, the cruelest contradictions of our struggle are often seen in times of crisis. As I write this blog aboard a plane bound for Orlando – a city reeling from the 49 LGBTQ Latinx and friends massacred by a United States terrorist – I feel these contradictions as much as I felt them a year ago when another United States terrorist massacred 8 members of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church and their pastor.

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During the days that followed this tragedy the Supreme Court declared the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) – the law that prohibited the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriages of couples who wed in states where such marriages were legal – was  unconstitutional. The year prior this same court in its ruling, Shelby v. Holder, struck down section 4 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, basically gutting a key provision that prohibited states from discriminatory voting practices including legislation that adversely affects voting.  So it was that the Supreme Court had struck down DOMA just a day after it gutted key  provisions of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.  

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I distinctly remember watching the memorial simultaneously tweeting my thoughts about the history of Mother Emanuel, as the church is called. I was struck by the dearth of knowledge about this historic church and its founders. I and other Black scholars, leaders and activists were therefore busy filling the gaping hole that left out so much African American history while journalists and political pundits described the church as though it came into being only as a religious site. Mother Bethel was much more. In fact, it was a church born in protest to racism. Its leaders included Richard Allen – who founded the denomination which we know now as the African Methodist Episcopal Church – after enduring racism within the white Methodist Episcopal Church. Six years after the creation of Mother Bethel, two of its founders, Denmark Vesey and Morris Brown were charged with helping to plan  a slave revolt. Vesey was executed and Brown was incarcerated but ultimately set free. This was and is the history many Americans know little of even, regrettably, when the spotlight of American media shined upon it and its followers.

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CHARLESTON, SC – JUNE 26: President Barack Obama sings “Amazing Grace” as he delivers the eulogy for South Carolina state senator and Rev. Clementa Pinckney during Pinckney’s funeral service June 26, 2015 in Charleston, South Carolina. Suspected shooter Dylann Roof, 21, is accused of killing nine people on June 17th during a prayer meeting in the church, which is one of the nation’s oldest black churches in Charleston. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

I was overcome with a deep sense of loss and pride as I watched the memorial. As an African American, who had lived most of my life worshiping in predominately Black churches, I understood the liturgy, connected with much that was being broadcast, the familiar phrases of hope and determination in the face of the horrors of bigotry; the gospel music soothing the souls of those who swayed from side to side in the pews; the unique expressions and idioms used by African American clergy; the leadership and the solemn reverence African Americans have for their episcopal leaders. When President Obama “preached” his keynote ending it with a signature “preacherly” hymn, I was lachrymose. I remember seeing Breaking News alerts about the SCOTUS decision on DOMA and I remember filling torn because I could feel no celebration in my spirit that day. The LGBTQ community had won a significant victory but African American LGBTQ person’s attention was fixed on Charleston, SC.

How does it feel to be a problem? These words written by W.E. B. DuBois haunt me in an inspirational way for my blackness and sexual identity and expression are often problematic. I encouraged the LGBTQ community a few days after the SCOTUS decision to remember the pain their African American family were experiencing despite the end of DOMA. We should always be cautious to move to the universal without taking into account the particularity of the oppression communities within our community experience. The is especially true this year as we remember the Charleston 9.

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The massive vigil in Orlando, Florida after the Pulse massacre.

This year, we must remember the massacre of 9 African Americans killed by a young white male terrorist as they sat in their church studying the bible. A sacred place; sacred study. We must also keep in mind 49 of our Latinx LGBTQ family along with other Black and Brown LGBTQ persons who were massacred by another domestic terrorist while in what is also considered a sacred setting, an LGBTQ nightclub in Orlando. I hope we will not allow the particular contexts of these innocent persons to be consumed under a narrative that erases. Yes, this tragedy occurred in Orlando and yes, this attack affects Americans BUT, this evil was perpetrated and designed specifically as a hate crime with LGBTQ persons as targets. This terrorist drove from his home over 2 hours away for the purpose of going to this club because he hated the LGBTQ community. We cannot allow this truth to become obscured. Nor can we allow the truth that those he killed were Latin@/Latinx primarily along with other Brown and Black people. This is especially important not only for the sake of history but also for the here and now.

Right now support services have and are being put into place to help persons who managed to escape and those who were shot but survived. Though not all who survived are Brown and Black people, most are. Therefore, these services will need to be culturally sensitive in their design, outreach and implementation. I am so very aware that it is during these times of crisis, when healing should be taking place that those who suffer are additionally traumatized by persons who lack competence, have no social skills and/or are culturally insensitive. Our Latinx LGBTQ community ought feel our love and see our care. Now is not the time for political rhetoric around immigration couched in language of American protection and exceptionalism.

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It is also important that persons of faith do no harm. Even as I honor the memory of those killed at Mother Emanuel, I pray the love that filled that bible study on the night of their assassination is the same love that the LGBTQ community hears and receives from religious leaders now and in the days ahead. That love needs to drown out the hateful language as “love the sinner hate the sin” and other such fanatical phrases that the LGBTQ community has grown accustomed to hearing by people who profess to love God. Even now religious “leaders” have mounted their pulpits and broadcast lecterns to spew hate language.

Is it, then, any wonder why we find sanctuary at the club?!!

LGBTQ activism that does not also serve the interests of Black and Brown people perpetuates white privilege. It advances white LGBTQ utopia while ignoring the everyday oppressions of Black and Brown people in general and Black and Brown LGBTQ persons specifically. It is my belief that any social justice activist work that does not regard the liberation of oppressed people within its core will always be obliged to a stratified vision that requires justification for attending to “other causes.” There is no real solidarity without intersectional work. The struggle to end discrimination is never, can never be, if it is authentic done for the benefit of only one oppressed group.

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Wilfredo Perez (L), a local bartender at a gay bar, is embraced by his partner Jackson Hollman during a vigil to commemorate victims of a mass shooting at the Pulse gay night club in Orlando, Florida, U.S., June 12, 2016. REUTERS/Adrees Latif – RTX2FUPG

Wednesday night, June 17, 2015 and Sunday morning, June 12, 2016. Sanctuaries, sacred places, Black and Brown people, heterosexual and LGBTQ. Tragedy can bring us together. I pray we can work together for the common good, which is the eradication of bigotry. For this cause we can say we ALL must be invested.


PamelaLightseyFerguson.jpgThe Rev. Dr. Pamela Lightsey is a scholar, social justice activist, and military veteran whose academic and research interests include: classical and contemporary just war theory, Womanist theology, Queer theory and theology, and African American religious history and theologies. Dr. Lightsey is currently the only out African American queer lesbian ordained as an elder in full connection in the United Methodist Church. She currently serves as co-chair the American Academy of Religion’s Womanist Approaches to Religion and Society Group, as well as helps lead the work of the steering committee to develop their annual conference sessions dedicated to privileging the theological and ethical scholarship and experiences of Black women in America. She has also published a recent book, Our Lives Matter: a Womanist Queer Theology, which she shared with the students at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago earlier this year. A professor at the Boston University School of Theology, she is Associate Dean for Community Life and Lifelong Learning as well as Clinical Assistant Professor of Contextual Theology and Practice.

Re-Naming God and Smashing Idols – Francisco Herrera, Ph.D. student at LSTC

Linda Thomas at CTS eventHave you ever heard a grown man squeal? That’s precisely what happened when I asked this week’s writer, Francisco Herrera – the blog manager for “We Talk. We Listen” – to write a piece on theological language and gender. Though he mostly writes about race and power in the church, he also has a keen interest in sexuality, gender and power and it shows. And through his humor, he leaves us all with a jolting reminder that, if we don’t open ourselves to myriad ways of talking about God, then we can very well sacrifice others on the idols of our own theological complacency. Take a peek and share!

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


My first serious object lesson in adventurous theological language happened about four years ago when I had to prepare a Bible study for a class. The professor gave us four Biblical excerpts from which to choose – two safe (from John 3 and John 5) and two risky (Ephesians and The Song of Songs) and left it up to us to decide.

The first presenter, who we will name “Emily,” chose the snippet from Song of Songs, and had us start the exercise by reading this juicy bit to ourselves:

Listen! My beloved! Look! Here he comes,leaping across the mountains, bounding over the hills. My beloved is like a gazelle or a young stag. Look! There he stands behind our wall, gazing through the windows, peering through the lattice. My beloved spoke and said to me,“Arise, my darling,my beautiful one, come with me. See! The winter is past; the rains are over and gone. Flowers appear on the earth; the season of singing has come, the cooing of doves is heard in our land. The fig tree forms its early fruit; the blossoming vines spread their fragrance. Arise, come, my darling; my beautiful one, come with me.”  

(Song of Songs 2 : 8-13)

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“When we read Scripture,” she began, “we tend to understand it through three basic hermeneutical lenses.” At this point she started writing on the board. “It is either God speaking to us, Jesus speaking to us, or people speaking to each other.” She paused for effect and then looked calmly but determinedly back at the class. “So my question is this…

“If this excerpt from the Song of Songs is God speaking to us, what does it say about God?”

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Woman and Flowers – Marc Chagall

The responses from the other students were sweet and anodyne. God loves us. God cares for us. God wants to be with us, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. Riled up, but leery and afraid to start trouble, I did my best just to sit and keep quiet. Emily wasn’t having it, though. And likely intuiting my impatience, she soon keened her green eyes and elvish grin hard upon me and asked:

“So Francisco…what do you think?”

Duly summoned, and with the knowingest grin easing across my face, I steadied myself and replied:

“God is a woman… who loves us, who desires us, who wants to make love to us, who longs for us in a perfumed garden, eagerly waiting to give herself to us with passion and abandon.”

And as I spoke, seduced by my own imagination, there I was – languishing in some highland orchard, hiding myself among the apple and peach blossoms – oiling my skin, lining my eyes with kohl, waiting for my Lord to come so that that he could delight in me, and I could delight in him.

tumblr_m4pda2yY5p1r0y25wo1_1280.pngThough utterly predictable, the group freak-out that ensued was truly one for the books:

“Well, I don’t think it is right for you to sexualize women like that.”

“But I don’t know how you could say that, there aren’t even any masculine pronouns here.”

“But appealing to that base kind of imagery is something completely unbefitting of a pastor.”

And my favorite question/accusation?

“I don’t know how you could have possibly come up an answer like that anyway…”

To which I grinned and, calmly gesturing at Emily, retorted: “Well, I’m simply following her paradigm.” Emily was maybe a bit too discreet to look me in the eye that moment, but I could still plainly see that the ends of her grin were stretched back on her face tight enough to lick her ears. It may have been problematic to think of myself as a highly-aroused, female concubine- but oh my was it ever fun and revealing!

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And yes, I was being provocative, at least for this crowd, but I believed my insolence towards the class honest and just. Despite the shocking nature of what I said, in truth, my comment was actually a classic example of biblical literalism. If this excerpt is God speaking to us, well then, God is a woman who wants to have sex with us – apples and turtledoves and young stags and all. No imagination necessary. What’s more, these soon-to-be-pastors’ well worn theological tropes – though socially acceptable – completely drained this holy Scripture of its unquenchable fire and, well, butchered its song. But what really took my breath away was how quickly students moved to hush me – scandalized by the idea that God could possibly be a sexually active woman.

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Had I talked about her in more socially acceptable tones – as if God were a woman like a statue of the Virgin Mary: flawless, impassible, and white-washed – I doubt they would’ve protested. Suggesting that God could be like a woman with passions and desires on the other hand, like pretty much all of the women that I have ever known, was just too much.

No one wanted to explore my ideas, extrapolate or even humor me condescendingly. They just blindly contradicted my musings and tried their best to move on. It chilled me to the bone – conscious or no – to realize that my own peers were committing a kind of theological idolatry. Their understanding of the relationship between sex and gender and God was so upset by my insolence that their basic response was to try to shut me up. Looking back in hindsight, feminist liberation theologian Marcella Althaus-Reid would have called my interpretation a classic example of indecent theology; speaking unapologetically about gender, sex, power, and God in such a way that it exposes the hypocritical violence inherent in so much respectable “church talk,” even (and sometimes especially) progressive theological God-Talk.

And at that point I could truly appreciate how shocking and vital it was to speak of God not only as “not male,” but in brave and shocking ways, indecent ways – because doing so exposes the hidden idols in our theology that so often blind us to the pain and suffering  and oppression that we initiate and/or perpetuate.

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“Christa” – Edwina Sandys

Let’s even do a test here, now, and pay attention to yourself and see how you twitch:

Think about God as: a sexually active woman, as “daddy” (Abba), speak of Christ as “Crista”a controversial statue depicting Jesus as a nude, crucified womana woman in labor, as the plague of the first-born, as a good Samaritan. Even in literature. Think of  Shug, from Alice Walker’s epochal the Color Purple, talking about how she felt closer to God while having sex; or Nedjma’s scintillating memoir on Islamic womanhood – The Almond – where she reflects on how God loves us so much that they delight in our delight and “even watches over us while we snore.”

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Using such powerfully transgressive language for God often does a fine job of exposing destructive limitations in our theology, limitations that we have been taught, even inherited – and hence makes it easier for us to query them and, as with any idol, to smash them. And if we don’t, we run the risk of sacrificing our friends, loved-ones, colleagues, and parishioners on theologies that serve nothing but our own arrogance, convenience, or own our unholy hungers.

Plus you might even make new friends! – as Emily and I most certainly shared a quiet giggle to ourselves, leaving class together and sporting the same sly, knowing smirk.

We’d broken a few barriers that day, and hopefully, some more imagination would come from it. Some more grace might come from it, too, and maybe – just maybe – even some more love.


10426792_10152402252785213_3657317853318980302_n.jpgBefore coming to Chicago Francisco Herrera studied classical music (viola and orchestra conducting) in his hometown of Kansas City, Missouri and then Geneva, Switzerland. After feeling the call to ministry at his home church in Geneva, The Evangelical Lutheran Church of Geneva, he returned to the US to enter seminary in 2005 He completed his M.Div. from Chicago Theological Seminary in 2012 and then began Th.M./Ph.D studies at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago in Fall of 2014 – his emphasis on World Christianity and Global Mission. A polymath and a scatterbrain, when he isn’t preparing for school stuff he blogs at www.loveasrevolution.blogspot.com and Tweets at @PolyglotEvangel.

My Gender, So Far… – Rev. Andrew Tobias Nelson

ThomasLinda sittingAs our conversation on gender continues, we’re going to make a marvelous twist in the road with our next author, Andrew Nelson. From the halls of the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago to Holden Village to his call in New York state, Andrew is extravagant with his energy, sincerity, and enormous heart. Since coming out as trans a little over one year ago – barely one year into his first call – Andrew has spoken openly and playfully about everything that he’s been going through. Thankfully, Rev. Nelson is now, generously and joyously,  sharing some of those thoughts with us. Gender is a thing, people, so take a peek at what Pastor Andrew has to say about it and – of course – 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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A transmasculine person writing on why gender matters…
There’s a sentence, isn’t it?
Are we ready for a conversation about genders outside the binary, genders along the spectrum, genders that are fluid, genders for which we don’t have words in English?
To put myself in a gender category is easier some days than others. Growing up with a female body (that’s called my sex, different from my gender) there were expectations for my behavior which were only partially enforced. Grandma called me ‘young lady’ when I needed to calm down, my father adjusted my posture at the piano, and of course I had to go to prom in a dress. But when it came to climbing trees and playing music or sports, I was just a kid, and being a boy or girl didn’t come into it.
When I came out as Transgender about a year and a half ago, some of my friends who have known me awhile responded by nodding and telling me I make more sense male than I do female. While this was a great affirmation to hear, it does make me wonder what in the world we mean when we perceive people as either male or female, how we behave when we meet somebody who is androgynous, and why it matters so much.
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Everyone inhabits a multitude of spaces: age, gender, sexuality, class, race, mental health, physical ability, education, politics, family systems, culture, Star Trek or Star Wars… We are none of us only one thing, yet male/female seems to be one of the first things we give as primary identity. It’s already been noted that when a baby is born or expected one of the first ways we decide what gifts to get and what dreams to start dreaming is to unveil the birth sex (which we call gender, but these are not actually the same thing).
Gender plays into our power structures, culturally who is allowed to get how angry about what, who is allowed to grieve in what way, who is expected to take care of the household or be the breadwinner. Even when a heterosexual couple tries to live in an equal partnership, the pay gap and surrounding culture don’t support equality within marriage as much as reinforce unhealthy pressures for culturally gendered roles. We’re getting a little better, changing tables are gradually showing up in men’s restrooms so dad can change a diaper, Target recently stopped specific gender marketing toys for kids (though toy guns have an aisle that’s blue and dolls have an aisle that’s pink – and don’t even get me started on “Lego Friends”), and more hopeful stories are being told about folks who don’t buy into to the binary – but it’s slow going since so much of our expectations are internalized past the point of noticing them.
Gender is the water we swim in.
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So why do we still hold to gender? What does it matter that ‘real women have curves’ or ‘real men love Jesus’? What are ‘real’ men and women, and why do we perpetuate that conversation as though we need to prove our own validity as human people?
Can’t a ‘real’ person just be a person?
I remember an old movie I used to watch as a kid included the song “I enjoy being a girl,” which, coming from a family where sexuality was taboo and gender got all conflated with attractions and purity, was not something we ever really talked about. But then came the Disney movie Mulan and the song “I’ll make a man out of you” was both exciting because I connected with it, and problematic because it reinforced a very particular kind of masculinity. I mean, my father darns his socks and speaks quietly, but he’s no less a man for his gentle behavior.
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So how do I know how to behave to convince the people around me of who I am as a transmasculine person?
Does it even matter that they see my gender?
How do I have to hold myself in public to hear ‘sir’ instead of ‘ma’am’ (neither of which seems like I’m old enough for those labels, which speaks to cultural ageism)? (How) do I need to adjust my interactions with women and other men so as not to make anybody uncomfortable by my loud humor and big hugs, which could be received differently depending on if I’m wearing a suit or a dress? Navigating gendered space, like public bathrooms, is not something we should have to be afraid of. Yet because our brains learn categories as a way to make sense of the world around us, we need to know some basics, some boundaries, some common sense for keeping one another safe and providing for community flourishing the best we can.
Gender matters, in that we can fall back on it for generalities, for stories, for illustrations of ways of being, but it also doesn’t matter, in that there are so many ways to be male or female or both or neither, and every situation and relationship calls out different nuances, different varieties of strengths and weaknesses, as we support and connect with one another. Gender can be a game instead of a power play, it can be fun instead of rigid, but far too often machismo and homophobia relegate masculinity and femininity to small, tight spaces where there is no room to breathe or figure out who we actually are. We do not need to prove ourselves as ‘real’ men or women to celebrate and discover who we are individually and as part of God’s Beloved Community.
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I am a transmasculine person who looks forward to playing with gender expectations, to make the space around me safer for those who don’t fit the binary, to open up conversations about getting to know one another beyond the ‘types’ of our male/female expectations.
I am a transgender man because it is the most honest way I have to present myself to the world around me.
That’s what gender is about, how we relate to and through our presentation of self and our interactions with others, how we explore and share the selves God has created us to be, how we reflect the Image of a God who is so much bigger than our labels.

1234069_10100529137486034_1394595583769889368_n.jpgAndrew Tobias Joy Nelson is a 2012 graduate of LSTC, serving his first half-time call in Chatham, NY. He’s trying to be as visible as possible about being Trans for the sake of those for whom visibility is impossible because it would put their lives and livelihoods at risk. Andrew plays french horn and is always reading four or five books at a time, though he can’t pick a favorite between Star Wars and Star Trek because the musical scores are too good. He writes in tribute to his mother, who responded to his public gender transition with the assurance that she “always knew [she] was carrying a boy.”


A White Male’s Take on Why Gender Matters – Benjamin Taylor, PhD student at LSTC

ThomasLinda.jpgThis month, “We Talk. We Listen.” will be featuring multiple responses to Women’s History month written by male Christian leaders. ELCA Lutheran PhD student Benjamin Taylor is the first contributor, and his post does something quite wonderful: he gives 1) a good overview of common male-centered oversights in Christian theology while simultaneously 2) providing the reader with a wealth of information on feminist theologians and their works. It is worth a good, careful reading, even three or four readings. So dig in, and don’t forget to 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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My act of writing a piece for “We Talk. We Listen.” on feminist theology [1] must begin with a personal recounting of my own experience, a telling of how I journeyed into the present. I am a white man—more precisely, I am a white heterosexual man, and even more precisely I am a white, heterosexual man with relative privilege. Each of these qualifiers are important to who I am. Each of these qualifiers afford me a set of protections and advantages over against those who do not identify as male, or who is not white, heterosexual, or privileged.[2]

Although many women theologians self-identify as “feminist theologians,” it is crucially important to point out that the contexts, methodologies, insights, projects of feminist theologians vary from individual to individual. In this sense, we should be wary of the tendency to generalize “feminist theology,” or “feminist theologians.” Also, it is important here to problematize the identification of “feminist theology” or “feminist theologian” with “white women.” While myraid women of all races and ethnicities self-identify as “feminist,” in the USA context the term usually signals “white women.” That said, it is also important to note that “feminist theology” goes far beyond white woman. For example, some Latina theologians identify themselves as “Latina feminists,” while some self-identify as mujerista. This point is important for reasons of representation. To identify “feminist” as “white woman” is to deny the agency of and the voice of Latinas, black, queer, Third Word, etc. theologians and theorists who identify as feminist. Also, at the same time, it is important to note both intersectionality and the interdisciplinary nature of feminist and contextual theologians who are women. The incorporation of diverse voices and backgrounds as “feminist” allows for the diversity of voices, overlapping experiences and shared concerns to be heard.

A few weeks ago in her piece for “We Talk. We Listen,” Dr. Wenderoth wrote about how way that the language we use shapes the way we see the world. Likewise, MDiv student Allison Bengfort reflected on the ways in which society teaches both men and women to objectify women—men to objectify women sexually and women to objectify themselves for the benefit of men. Rev. Julie Ryan witnessed to the rich mosaic of work that is the ministry of clergywomen within the ELCA. And Marissa Tweed reminded us that even though women are ordained in the ELCA, clergywomen continue to face the struggles and challenges that come with being a clergywoman in a deeply partriachial culture, both within the church and in the society at large. These powerful and diverse reflections reveal both the interdisciplinary nature and intersectional approach within the study of feminist theology.

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Feminist theologians,[2] by and large, start from the premise that men have maintained a monopoly on God-Talk throughout the history of Christianity. In other words, feminist theologians argue that men have exercised their power to tip the theological scales in their benefit as they shaped the Christian tradition. These androcentric (male-centered) theologies work hand in hand to create and sustain partriachial societies. In explaining the patriarchal nature of these societies, feminist theologians have looked at the way power has revealed itself in their own societies.

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As often as power is exercised explicitly, it is often exercised implicitly. In Feminist Theory and Christian Theology, feminist theologian Serene Jones writes about the experience of giving birth in a hospital.[3] Upon giving birth to her baby, the hospital staff placed a pink cap onto her newborn, thereby assigning her newborn the gender identity “female.” Jones uses this narrative as she explains the theological construct of original sin: “In the first ten seconds of her life, my daughter had been placed in a web of social meanings that shaped expectations about her. My daughter’s being ‘born into sin took form of a pink cap, a set of hospital rules, and the complex web of social interactions they initiated.”[4]

As we are born (“fallen”) into sin, we are also born into a set of sexual, cultural and political constructs that condition our lives and our self-expression.

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by Kimberly Peeler-Ringer

Jones’s example illustrates the perniciousness of power in our society. Power not only oppresses the one it deems to be Other, it also represses the one it considers to be Other. Power shows itself by hiding itself under the banner “this is the way things are and this is the way things must be.” Many feminist theologians argue that men have hijacked the symbols and narratives of the Christian faith to legitimize and exercise their patriarchal oppressive power over women. Some obvious examples within the Christian tradition are I Timothy 2, in which the male writer of the letter warns women to be silent in church, and the Roman Catholic hierarchy’s decision not to ordain women on the basis of their sex. Instead of viewing these examples apolitically through the lens of “tradition” or “custom,” it is important to name it for what it is: a manifestation of the patriarchal society in which these decisions were made.

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But it is also important for us to go beyond these common examples. Feminist theologians note that male theologians have long taken their particular experience of being male (and usually, white, heterosexual and privileged) to be the universal experience of all people. When this happens, the experience of being a woman in a partriachial society is negated. As a result, many feminist theologians have incorporated their own experience of being a woman in a partriachial society as a way of subverting this androcentric tradition. In addition, many feminist theologians look to other resources within the Christian tradition to subvert the sexist, racist and homophobic power structure in society.  A few examples, from both feminist theologians as well as from the wider field of contextual theologians, help to show the diversity and the wealth of voices that challenge androcentric theology.

I am the youngest member of my family. I have two older brothers, and when the family discussion (finally) gets to me and what I “actually do” with my time, I often utter the words “feminist theology” or “black theology.” When they ask further questions, they assume that the qualifier “feminist” or “black” means “other.”

In reading and engaging with contextual theologies (feminist, womanist, black, Dalit, queer, mujerista), it is crucial that we do not understand “contextual” to be “other,” which so often is interpreted to mean “less-than.”  We must remember that Western theology, from Augustine to Tillich, is just as contextual as the theologies that we live into and envision in our constructive theology classes. It is merely that constructive or contextual theologies are more honest about their identity and more open to the experience of difference than are other “traditional” theologies.

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Early, and often ignored, women leaders of the church.

At times, judging by our slate of courses, our community does not always acknowledge the bountiful gifts brought by diverse theological voices. It can be difficult. The acknowledgement of different voices is fraught with tension. In my own experience, I have struggled with this tension as I came to read these theologians very late in my academic journey. That is a tension I still carry within myself. The engagement with voices that differ from my own offers me a chance of reflection and of self-examination along the journey.

And in this, I invite you to come along.


beneditedBenjamin Taylor is a PhD student at LSTC, where he studies systematic theology and continental philosophy. He enjoys reading, traveling, writing, playing golf, and walking his playful—if, slightly misbehaved—dog, Riley. He also works as the Graduate Research Assistant in the JKM Library and serves as the Sittler Fellow in the Joseph Sittler Archive. Ben completed his qualifying examinations on feminist theology in March.


 

[1] Although many women theologians self-identify as “feminist theologians,” it is crucially important to point out that the contexts, methodologies, insights, projects of feminist theologians vary from individual to individual. In this sense, we should be wary of the tendency to generalize “feminist theology,” or “feminist theologians.” Also, it is important here to problematize the identification of “feminist theology” or “feminist theologian” with “white women.” While myraid women of all races and ethnicities self-identify as “feminist,” in the USA context the term usually signals “white women.” That said, it is also important to note that “feminist theology” goes far beyond white woman. For example, some Latina theologians identify themselves as “Latina feminists,” while some self-identify as mujerista. This point is important for reasons of representation. To identify “feminist” as “white woman” is to deny the agency of and the voice of Latinas, black, queer, Two-Thirds World, etc. theologians and theorists who identify as feminist. Also and at the same time, it is important to note both intersectionality and the interdisciplinary nature of feminist and contextual theologians who are women.

[2] My own experience living in Hyde Park is an experience of negotiating this privilege—realizing it, struggling with it, speaking to it, hiding behind it, coming to terms with it, being embarrassed about it—sometimes all within a matter of hours.

[3] In using the verbiage “feminist theology” or “feminist theologian(s),” I follow the crucial distinction between “gender” and “sex” that is largely assumed in feminist theological discussions. By this, I mean that sex refers to one’s own biological makeup, while gender refers to the set of cultural meanings and social designations that society ascribes to one’s performance in society. See Linda E. Thomas and Dwight N. Hopkins, “Womanist Theology and Black Theology: Conversational Envisioning of an Unfinished Dream” in A Dream Unfinished: Theological Reflections on America from the Margins, Eleazar S. Fernandez & Fernando F. Segovia, eds., (Marynoll, N.Y.: Orbis Press, 2001), 72-86. On “sex,” Thomas and Hopkins write, “By sex, we signify the biological designation that human beings receive at birth. Thus, sex is a biological construction based on genitalia (78).” On “gender,” Thomas and Hopkins write that “Gender is a socially constructed category. By this we mean that it is not a biological category…Gender is not formed overnight, nor even is it a finished product; it is dynamic and subject to the ongoing formation of human culture (77-78).”  Heteronormativity has long portrayed gender as a binary: either one is male or female. This binary needs to be problematized. Gender is a performance that does not need to fall into traditionalist determinations of what is male or what is female.

[4] Serene Jones, Feminist Theory and Christian Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000), 117.

“Boys Are Bad!” – by Allison Bengfort, M.S.W. and Candidate for Ministry, ELCA

Linda Thomas at CTS event

In continuing Women’s History Month we now have an intimate reflection on how sexism influences even the most “enlightened” of upbringings. Starting from her childhood until the present day, Allison Bengfort speaks directly and revealingly of the ways that sexism was tangled into all aspects of her life – and the ways in which she works to remove them, one-at-a-time. Read, enjoy, and share!

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


 

Maybe you consider yourself a feminist. 

Maybe you don’t.

Maybe you think you can be not-sexist, and not-a-feminist.

Maybe you think there is no need for feminism any more. 

We can do it

I was born in 1987.  No one ever told me that I could not be a doctor, a lawyer, a pastor, or anything else that I would ever want to be.  I grew up going to coed schools, where girls were always the top students in the class.  My father did all the cooking and cleaning, and my mother was never a stay-at-home mom.  All these signs point to progress – congratulations, feminists!  It seems that your work is done.

Unfortunately, this is not the full story.  Sexism was woven into my reality, whether I knew it or not.  The media consistently bombarded me with sexualized representations of women, and the lives of my friends and family were predicated on patriarchal assumptions.  Many of these assumptions were passed on by the people closest to me in seemingly innocent, playful ways. 

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My father is a lovely person with a fantastic sense of humor.  He is also a Roman Catholic who thinks that women should be allowed to be priests.  When I was little, he often tucked me in at night.  He made up epic stories about my stuffed animals getting lost and finding their way home again.  He had several phrases that he repeated each night, such as “I love you,” and “God bless you.”  One of the things he often did was lean over my bed and whisper in my ear.  “Boys are bad!” he would say.  He’d smile, I’d roll my eyes, and we would continue our goodnight ritual.  My mom’s version of the story includes my dad doing this even when I was a baby.  Apparently, he would check on me in my crib and whisper, “Boys are bad!”

Danger bad boy

It was supposed to be a cute story.  Sweet, even.  It showed that my dad loved me and was protective of me.  However, comments like this are also how I learned what it meant to be a girl.  Through this catchphrase and other conversations with my dad, I learned that all boys wanted from me was sex.  I was told that boys had trouble thinking about anything else, and that they would always be trying to “get me in bed.”

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Boys would make advances, and I was the territory they advanced upon.  Thus, I needed to protect myself.  I was to act as a security guard, protecting my virginity, which was an asset reserved for my future husband.  Strangely, I was never told that I myself might want to have sex, and that I would have to counteract my own sexual impulses as well.  While I knew all about the male sex drive, male arousal, and male orgasm, I did not know there were female versions of these things.

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So, what did it mean to be a girl? It meant being an object.

So, what did it mean to be a girl?  It meant being an object.  Being something that is looked at, chased, and obtained.  I have a distinct memory from middle school, in which I was picking out an outfit for church.  I had a crush on a few boys at our church, and I wanted them to like me.  I remember having an idea that I wanted to dress “for the boys.”  For the boys.  As in, for their enjoyment.  I wanted to give them something nice to look at.

 

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After all, this was my role – to be looked at and lusted after. 

If you had asked me if I was a feminist in middle school, I would have said no.  After all, it’s impossible to know what you do not know.  I didn’t realize that I was ignorant of my own sexuality, and I didn’t know that my pattern of objectifying myself was harmful.  I had no idea that viewing myself as being “for” men was at all unhealthy.  In fact, I thought it was natural. 

If you had asked me if I was okay with using male language for God, I would have said yes.  After all, English has no gender-neutral personal pronoun.  We need a pronoun for God, so why not use “He”?  I wasn’t offended.

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In college, I was surrounded by feminists for the first time.  I began to realize, through both personal experience and academic study, that my ideas about gender and sexuality did not hold up.  The objectification of human beings is not, in fact, natural.  Sex is not something that men do to women, and there is no reason that women’s bodies need to meet anyone’s standard.  Instead, the sexualization and objectification of women is a way that our society maintains male dominance.  It is about the use and abuse of power. 

Similarly, referring to God as “He,” is not neutral.  The term “God” represents whatever a group of people regards as most holy, most precious, and most worthy of imitation.  Referring to God as “He” lifts up maleness as the default, the ideal, and the source of power.  For as long as we are uncomfortable referring to God as “She,” we can be certain that we are not yet free of our patriarchal programming. 

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“Neither was man created for the sake of woman, but woman for the sake of man” (11:9).

Unfortunately, the concept of women existing for the sake of men is not just a secular idea.  For many Christians, it goes all the way back to Adam and Eve.  Eve was created second, for the sake of Adam.  As explained in First Corinthians, “Neither was man created for the sake of woman, but woman for the sake of man” (11:9).

The bad news is that Christianity is complicit in the patriarchal programming that we continue to pass on to our children.  The good news is that we as church leaders are in the perfect position to make a difference on this issue.  Sexism is still alive and well, but we are not powerless!  The way you do theology matters.  Experiment with using female language and metaphors for God.    Adopt a hermeneutic of suspicion.  Whenever you notice differing expectations, treatments, or norms for men and women, get suspicious.  Ask yourself how patriarchy may be playing a role. Tackle Biblical passages that reflect patriarchal norms, and don’t hold back – the Bible does not need defending.

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Experiment with using female metaphors and language for God.

I am a feminist. 

I believe that God is present in me, just as She is present in men. 

Boys are not “bad,” sex-crazed animals that cannot control themselves, and girls are not objects in need of protection.  Do not assume that sexism is over, and do not leave it to others to speak up.  You can make a difference. 


 

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Allison Bengfort, MSW, is a senior M.Div. student at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago.  In addition to experiencing the negative effects of objectification in her own life, she has witnessed the trauma that results from this culture in her work with sexual assault victims and their families at the Sexual Violence Center (Minneapolis, MN) and the Chicago Children’s Advocacy Center.  Allison is a candidate for ordination in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and is looking forward to beginning an internship next year in Seattle, WA.

Additional Resources
Ellen Pao (former head of Reddit) talks about sexism in the Silicon Valley.
Images used in an ad campaign highlighting the global reach of sexism.
An article on how teachers in Great Britain are combating sexist programming education.
A YouTube video featuring blatant displays of sexism on Fox News.
Photographer Allair Bartel’s series “Boundaries” shows the reality of every-day sexism.