Blessed Are You Among Women – Rev. Alaina Kailyn Cobb

What does Mary and mother mean to you when when society doesn’t even see you as a woman – though you are? Sanctuary‘s founding pastor, Rev. Alaina Kailyn Cobb, shares her thoughts about Mary, love, sexual assault and consent, and how Mary’s love for Jesus fills her with wonder and awe – submitted as we near the night of our saviours birth. Read, comment, and share.

Francisco Herrera – PhD student, Interim Editor

__________________________________________________________________

TW – extensive discussion of rape in Biblical context, transphobia

________________________________________________

I have no womb. 

I am barren. 

Let’s establish that from the beginning. 

In part because of this I have what I think is an understandably difficult relationship with Mary. I have often found depictions of her saccharine and unrelatable. I’ve written poetry about it. I have talked to friends about it. I find the Christmas season’s focus on birth and pregnancy narratives, at times, emotionally unbearable. I’m the woman who simply cannot attend every advent service because I find the salt in the wound particularly astringent this time of year. 

Mary is a trying subject for me.

I say that because I want it to be clear that I am not writing this out of some personal need to elevate her. And while I find this season difficult neither do I wish to demean her because of my own struggles. Rather I am writing this out of concern for a woman that I feel has been wronged. I am writing this as a woman who also knows what it feels like to be stripped of her agency, whose grace has been seen as insufficient, who has been made into something other than what I am by a church that does not know what to do with me.

And most assuredly… I am writing this as a woman who has also survived rape.

The idea that Jesus came about as the result of the rape of Mary is not new. In fact I’m certain those arguments began before he was born. Even in modern theological circles the idea itself is not rare, it’s just not often discussed or at the very least not often discussed to my personal satisfaction. Because while most theologians get caught up in how this complicates their Christology, no one seems to notice the woman at the center of this. She is relegated to a footnote in the discussion, just another rape victim. Just another woman stripped of her humanity.

And despite my best efforts to avoid her, that is not what I have come to see. 

To me, even in my seasonal bitterness, I cannot help but be shaken by the revolutionary holy strength of Mary. Even in my barrenness, I cannot help but be in awe of the joyous rebellion of daring to believe in the divinity of a child conceived in violence. And if I can see it so clearly then why are those discussions missing? 

Even Luke’s shoehorned consent cannot cover up the risks forced upon Mary, so why are we not talking about it? Why do we ignore what must have been a maelstrom of emotional turmoil? Why are we not talking about what all of this must have been like for a first century woman?

When we ignore Mary, when we remove her agency in the middle of her own story, when we ignore the pain and fear and frustration and shame that must have been heaped upon her, we miss the actual miracle at the heart of Christmas: a young woman dejected and victimized, with every reason to hate the cause and constant reminder of her struggle that was growing inside her, instead called him divine. 

Called him blessed. 

Called him the future savior of the world. 

She dared to dream that this curse was her blessing and in so doing blessed the whole of creation.

If we believe in a God of love, then how is this not a more fitting narrative? Does it not make more sense? Is it not so much more in line with the character of the God revealed in Christ? 

We can talk about power dynamics, we can talk about Mary’s supposed age, we can talk about tainted consent, about patriarchal structures of oppression, there are so many angles to consider. But the question I come back to, is which reveals more about the character of God and what fits the story of Jesus elsewhere? Is it condescending to be with us through a virgin birth in an immaculate conception or is it a young woman deciding to love a child forced upon her so deeply and with such holy fury that he grew into a man possessed of that love?  

And furthermore what would have become of Jesus born of Mary’s Uterus if she had not dreamed of loving him? If she had not transmuted the rage and hatred deep within her body into love, into the water of life he floated in?

I do not believe we would be having this discussion. 

But she did.

And so I, a lifelong Protestant who has always had a problem with Mary, have found myself with very high mariology indeed. 

Precisely because I believe in her rape.  

It’s through that understanding I find myself calling her Mary the Mother of God because she birthed love long before she birthed the Christ. I see her easily as Mary Most Holy for she took the sins of this world upon her body and used it to feed her child. I gladly adore Mary Queen of Heaven still bearing the scars of the conception of God in her vagina, smiling upon a son who would perform the miracles she taught him? When I lose the one dimensional “vessel” that patriarchs have always sought to condense us down to and I look upon Mary truly full of Grace; How can I look away?

So yes, I have a complicated relationship with Mary. I still can’t stomach the Mary we sing about, the one we put on christmas cards and rosaries. But the one who limped home carrying the pain of a world that had no place for her? The one who cried herself to sleep and begged God that her period would come? The one who birthed God in her heart? That woman will always have a place in my own heart.

She knows what heartache feels like, and she knows how to make it into something that can heal the world. 

________________________________________________________

Rev. Alaina K. Cobb is is a mother, minister, theologian, activist, poet, trans woman, anarchist, mystic, anti-fascist and Interfaith Pastor and Director of Sanctuary – a collaborative effort between queer and trans activists, ministers, and organizers to provide a space of healing, education, and resistance. Raised in fundamentalist Pentecostalism, as a young girl she began a lifelong obsession with theology in her quest to understand who she was and how her transness and bisexuality fit into her faith – and since transitioning, realizing the startling lack of pastoral care and affirming faith resources for her community, she pursued ordination as a way to serve those who could never feel safe within the bounds of the traditional church. Co-Chair of the Leadership Council of the Progressive Christian Alliance and Founder of the Transgender Crisis Ministry Network.

Wearing Maundy Every Thursday – Rev. Hannah Bergstrom de Leon

For our first post during Woman’s History Month we are turning to Rev. Hannah Bergstrom de Leon – pastor at Minneola Lutheran Church in rural Minnesota – and a personal reflection she makes on the #ThursdaysInBlack campaign sponsored by the World Council of Churches. It may not seem like much, but wearing black every Thursday, snapping a selfie, and sharing it with the world makes a difference and in ways one doesn’t expect – this story demonstrates it. Read, commment, and share.

Francisco Herrera – Ph.D. student, Interim Editor


thursdays

Every Thursday I wear black.

Two years ago a colleague of mine, having just returned from a conference of clergy women, decided to join the #ThursdaysInBlack campaign.  On her first Thursday of wearing black, she posted a picture on Facebook and as I was doing my regular morning scroll, her picture came across and I read her words.  They unnerved me.  A desire to do something rose within me and in that moment, doing something led me to comment on her post.  In reply, she invited me to join her in wearing black every Thursday and I said yes.  So now, every Thursday as I go to my closet, I pull from it the black dress, the black shirt, the black scarf and I don it in solidarity with the victims and the survivors of gender based violence and rape throughout the world.

#ThursdaysInBlack was initiated by the World Council of Churches having been inspired by a number of global movements motivating people to bring an end to global violence and rape.

From the World Council of Church’s online resources:

The campaign is simple but profound.

  • Wear black on Thursdays.
  • Wear a pin to declare you are part of the global movement resisting attitudes and practices that permit rape and violence.
  • Show your respect for women who are resilient in the face of injustice and violence.
  • Encourage others to join you.

It was simple. 

In the melee of the world’s politics, social struggles and human displacement here was a simple act in which I could participate.  #ThursdaysInBlack gave me something to DO in my weekly life that allowed me to be part of something bigger than myself and something for “the least of these. (Matthew 25:40)”  As a Lutheran Pastor I could no longer ignore Christ’s call to speak the truth about the world, the beauty and the horror.  As a Christian I could no longer ignore Christ’s command to love the neighbor but also to feed, cloth and welcome them too.

As a member of the human race on this globe, I could no longer do nothing.

muhlaysia-booker-protest-01-rt-jef-190612_hpMain_16x9_992

 

As the public consciousness was rising around gender violence particularly in regards to #MeToo and #ChurchToo and as trans women of color continued to be murdered at a higher rate than any other demographic in the United States, here was a way for me to simply draw a line, make a statement and keep the awareness, the humanity of those suffering sacred by holding it every week by choosing to wear black.

But as often happens, after two years the intensity and my commitment began to waver.  Slacktivism is real folks, and I was beginning to suspect I had fallen into the trap of promoting a social cause on social media but without making any meaningful commitment, engagement or impact.  As 2019 came to an end, I began debating if I should let go of my Thursdays in black.

As I sat in this possibility, I began to notice odd little comments and moments that tied back to my wearing black every Thursday. Things like:

  • A church member giving me a black scarf because she knew I wore black on Thursdays and she wanted to support my effort in some small way
  • Our Sunday School connecting to our local womens’ shelter by making bathroom baskets full of staples so women had some essentials as they began to start over
  • A number of colleagues sharing that part of their inspiration to join #ThursdaysInBlack came from viewing my posts from the years prior
  • A family member telling me how important it was that she knew I would be praying for her, a survivor, every Thursday

cloudy night

Getting overwhelmed with the problems in this world is inevitable, yet my faith reminds me every single time I open my bible, that I am not the Savior.  The weight of this world is not mine to bear.  I can’t and I won’t, but I will see the world for what it is. I will name the places of pain and horror just as easily as those of joy and expectation.  I will do the things, small and seemingly insignificant things that the Spirit compels me to do and I will trust.  I will trust that God will make them enough because my God, our God, is a God who uses what is small, weak, lowly and foolish to change this world. (1 Corinthians 1:29).  Mother Teresa encapsulated this aspect of faith; “I alone cannot change the world, but I can cast a stone across the waters to create many ripples.” 

Let God do the rest.


bio picHannah was born and raised in Iowa; the youngest of five to a relatively mobile ELCA pastor. After graduating with a degree in English Education from Iowa State University, she moved with her best friend to the Twin Cities, making MN her home for the past 15 years.  After teaching for two years and working for a software startup for five, Hannah got her call to ministry during her now annual silent retreat on the shores of Lake Winnebago.  Hannah attended Luther Seminary in St. Paul and during her time there she realized her love of congregational ministry and gave birth to twin boys.  She was first called and has now served Minneola Lutheran Church in rural Goodhue County for four years.

 

This is a Love Letter – Maija Mikkelsen, M.Div. student LSTC

Dr TWe are now nearing an end-game with the Senate hearings for Judge Kavanaugh. However it turns out, the impact will be jarring, and so I was most blessed to hear the following poetic reflection from a student at my seminary – Maija Mikkelsen – taking Paul’s body metaphor in 1 Corinthians 12-26 as her inspiration. So as the country prepares for what is to come, please read this poem, share this poem, and know that you are deeply and fully loved by God.

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


 

g9510-20_ford-cover

This is a love letter to Miriam, who led her people out of exile in Egypt.

This is a love letter to Ruth and Naomi, who cling one another in great devotion.

This is a love letter to Esther, who risked her life for a moment such as this.

 

This is a love letter to my mothers, my sisters, my aunts.

To my nieces, who are just getting started in this world.

To my friends and my neighbors and my classmates and my colleagues.

 

You, strong and resilient women and femmes,

who grasp each other tightly against the toxicity of this world.

You, who were all created in the image of God,

who makes all things, and sees that they are good.

—-

 

This is a love letter to the Egyptian slave, Hagar.

This is a love letter to Dinah and Bilhah and Zilpah.

This is a love letter to the unnamed Levite Concubine woman.

 

This is a love letter to the woman who is afraid to walk to the store alone at night.

To the femme who decides not to wear their favorite heels today.

To the man who is too ashamed to tell his story.

To the one who wonders, “does my story count?”

To the survivors who are not believed, who are silenced.

This is a love letter to the brave and the terrified,

to the loud and the quiet,

to the ones who speak up and the ones who cannot.

This is a love letter to all of those who have been affected by sexual violence.

Because #MeToo.

 

You are not alone in your suffering,

for as you suffer, we suffer with you, Christ suffers with you.

You are believed by Christ.

Your story matters.

You matter. You are loved.

——

Screenshot (13)

This is a love letter to Leah, forced to marry a man who did not love her.

This is a love letter to Jezebel, strong and defiant, whose masculinity threatened the men around her.

This is a love letter to Jael, who shed the role expected of her and became a warrior for her people.

 

This is a love letter to the ones who thought they were loved only to find out they were objectified.

To the 28th trans person whose body

was murdered and destroyed out of hatred and misplaced fear.

To the young girl who takes justice into her own hands, saving herself from her abuser.

 

You, my dear ones, you are holy and loved.

Your God bleeds alongside you, knows your pain, and promises you resurrection.

 


 

 

 

This is a love letter to Tamar, who creates her own understanding of righteousness.

This is a love letter to Ruth, takes it upon herself to initiate an intimate night.

This is a love letter to the women who are told that to be prude is not a choice,

yet to be sexual is not a choice either.

To the virgin bride, ashamed and frightened on her wedding night.

And to the lovers who hold each other’s naked bodies,

blissfully falling asleep after knowing each other intimately.

 

Your bodies are made for feeling deeply.

Your legs bring you to the highest summits,

Your minds paint the most beautiful pictures,

Your mouths sing the sweetest songs,

Your backs arch in ecstasy as your fingers grip the sheets.

God made you so, and saw that this is good.

——-

This is a love letter to Eve, who walked through the Garden naked and unashamed.

This is a love letter to Mary, the mother of Christ.

This is a love letter to Mary Magdalene, who witnessed and was not believed, who loved Jesus the Christ and who was loved right back.

 

This is a love letter to the bodies torn asunder in birth. And the souls shattered at loss.

To those across the world who bleed and bleed and bleed.

To those who stand in the mirror convincing themselves that they are worthy of being wanted.

To those who starve and purge themselves in an effort to feel accepted.

To those whose bodies are stolen from them and dragged through the streets.

 

Your bodies are good and whole.

Your bodies that cannot see, hear, or walk are good and whole.

Your black and brown, thick and thin, curvy and straight bodies are good and whole.

Your bodies that exist here in this world. With all their parts and uniqueness.

Your bodies are good and whole and part of the great body of Christ.

—–

7118622.jpg.scaled500.jpg

The Incarnate One has become just like you,

because you are chosen by God and because you are loved.

 

Before Jesus was at the Jordan River,

he was baptized by his mother’s blood,

coating him with a carnal love as he made his way into this world.

 

Before Jesus fed the five thousand with loaves and fishes,

Mary nourished him from the warm milk of her breast.

 

Before Jesus cast the demons out from the afflicted,

Mary held him and comforted him in his fears.

 

Before Jesus healed the bleeding woman,

Mary tended to his cuts and scrapes with tender care.

 

Before Jesus rose from the tomb,

Mary Magdalene held vigil by his pierced and lifeless body.

 

Jesus lived in a human body. Jesus was human.

God came into a human body because human bodies are good.

—–

This is a love letter to all of you,

This is a love letter to all of me,

For we are all one body,

together and necessary and good,

in Jesus the Christ.

Jesus the Christ who became human,

Became ordinary –

Just like you and me

Not in order to make us sacred,

But because we are already sacred

You, my beloved, you are sacred.

Amen.

*original art – “Ruth’s Heart,” Hilary Sylvester / “Tiara and Eve Marie,” Kate Hansen.


43160331_170448727170143_9121484735304957952_nMaija Mikkelsen is in her third year of studies for her Masters of Divinity at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago. She works to serve refugee populations both here in Chicago and in Rwanda, while working towards a career in pediatric chaplaincy. Fueled by the women around her, mothers, aunts, sisters, nieces, and friends, she seeks to live a life filled with love, honesty, and art.

More Suffering Will Not Save Us: Survivors and the Community of Salvation – Katherine Parent

IMG_4512Last Thursday’s Senate hearings for Dr. Christine Blasey Ford put millions victims of sexual violence on edge – and understandably so. Therefore, in order to process what last week’s trauma and insight, “We Talk. We Listen.” has asked Luther Seminary PhD student, Katherine Parent, to share some of her thoughts on the testimony – which she does keeping a firm eye on not only Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, but also Dr. Anita Hill – the first, and arguably most famous, of women to confront another Supreme Court nominee (this time Clarence Thomas), as well as what last week’s furor says about our nation. Please 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.”


180927104516-10-ford-senate-hearing-0927-large-169.jpg
Dr. Christine Blasey Ford before giving her testimony last Thursday.

It’s been a hell of a week. For the nth time, survivors stand in a global spotlight to witness to a prestigious white male attacker’s acts of sexual assault. Once again millions of survivors relive our pain, powerlessness, fury and grief, in millions of individual and unspeakable ways. The outcome matters; the US supreme court is part of a government that currently holds powers of life and death over billions of people.

But the outcome, for many of us who are survivors of sexual and domestic violence, feels horrifically predictable.  Literally every person who taught me about support for survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence has told me that justice almost never happens through our court system.

Every man who ever hurt me did so in a way that would have been virtually impossible to prosecute by our country’s laws and in our culture. They knew it would cost more, socially and financially, than I could afford; they knew how to not leave marks.

One even boasted to the mutual friends who confronted him, “at least I haven’t raped anyone.”

So when I see people name this week’s courageous accuser as a Christ figure, it burns like salt in an open wound.

Christine Blasey Ford is incredibly brave. I believe her and I want her truth to be publicly known, as that is what she has stated she desires to mitigate further harm.  As I watch her most intimate pain ripped open on live feed, subjected to the scorn of trolls and senators, I certainly see Christ crucified.  I’m too young to have watched the Anita Hill hearings, but friends have told me how, like last Thursday, everyone in the country stopped what they were doing to listen. To debate whether they believed her. Hill says at the end of her powerful testimony that it would have been more comfortable for her to remain silent. 25 years later, Ford wrote that she was terrified to come forward, that she hoped against hope that it would not be necessary.

christa
“Christa” – a female depiction of the crucifixion by Edwina Sandys

I’m reminded of the words of Jesus begging for the cup of suffering to pass; knowing that the powers of this world would not allow that mercy.

Like so many other abusive white men I have known, Kavanaugh had people jumping to his defense with Jesus memes. I heard a white man decry the hearing as a “crucifixion” of Kavanaugh. Of course, this doesn’t compute. Jesus wasn’t crucified on his way to being interviewed for one of the top establishment positions in the land. No, he knew he was going to court to lose, to be imprisoned, and literally executed. But this defender clearly saw Kavanaugh as messiah-like in his power to swing the balance of the Supreme Court toward what they felt was godly. They saw him as betrayed by cruel and jealous masses who wanted that power for our own.  My mind jumped back two years to the Christian radio hosts mourning the “harm” done the Trump family by the dozen-plus women accusing him of sexual assault. The editorials by church ladies comparing him to King David, an imperfect man who God would use as an instrument of righteous violence. The moment I acknowledged the intuition, burning in my dreams and bones, that this rapist would be elected.

christine-blasey-ford-anita-hill-senators-1538070873
Above – the Republican members of the Senate Judiciary Committee during Dr. Ford’s testimony last week / Below – Democrat members of the Senate Judiciary Committee during Dr. Hill’s testimony in 1991

I’ve known since I was a little girl that white frat boys were allowed to binge drink and rape women, and that many of the richer and more prestigious of those same men went on to become senators and judges. I was also taught as a white woman that my anger was only holy if turned inward, and downward, at those scapegoats powerful white Christian men deemed best–the projection of their own violence onto black, brown, native, poor, immigrant, female, queer and trans bodies. My dutiful young answer to WWJD was “turn the other cheek” — meaning, forgive the angry white men. I eventually realized that I had been recruited, as a white woman, not only to accept white men’s violent whims but collaborate with them in oppressing others.  I realized that following the rules of rape culture, being an obsessively “modest” and virginal white Christian woman, took a good deal of privilege and self-harm to accomplish and did little to actually protect me from sexual harassment or intimate violence.

That these powerful white men did not themselves turn the other cheek, but rained denial and scorn on their accusers and bullets and bombs on those who dared to fight back. And that in publicly believing and repeating the sources of those rules—white male pastors, politicians, community leaders—I was harming not just myself but the millions of people on whose exploitation our country was founded.

anita-hill.jpg
Dr. Anita Hill before giving her testimony during the confirmation hearings for now-Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas in 1991.

As a church historian who studies white Christian racism, I’ve been struck by the constant signs in my source material that people knew. European settlers knew we were committing unacceptable violence against native people in our colonial occupation of North America. White people knew that the enslavement and for-profit torture of black people was abominable and wrong. Men knew that rape and control of women’s bodies was harmful. White women knew that white cisgender men – not the black and brown ones people blamed and lynched, not the queer and trans people persecuted – were far more likely to harm us than anyone else.  We had prophets in every generation. And in every era of American history that I have searched, I’ve found accounts by white people who both publicly recognized, but excused, the violence of their status quo.  Incredibly often, they excused it on the grounds that forcing people to accept a purer, superior faith in Jesus was worth any price.

So I hold the bitter knowledge that even if Kavanaugh had lost this particular job because people in our government believed his victims, we would not be saved.

If all it took to dismantle patriarchal white violence in our government was the public truth-telling of one survivor, Anita Hill’s courage would have done it.

Furthermore, black women would have taken the entire system down hundreds of years ago. Indigenous women would have dismantled the foundations of the European colonialism long before the US Supreme Court was created.

As generations of survivors who speak out against oppression and white patriarchal violence have learned—public truth-telling is needed for healing, but it does not cause empires to fall.

Who will save us? 

I know from experience that I cannot trust our court system, our police, our government—or our denominational or seminary structures–to protect me and people I love from sexual and domestic violence. I see Christ’s suffering reflected in Ford, in Hill, in all survivors of sexual violence—both those who choose to speak out and those who want or need to remain silent. But I do not see salvation in those moments. We do not need another sacrificial messiah, one more hurting body presented for scrutiny to a devouring hierarchy that shows its power by using and discarding such bodies.

anita hill brandeis
Dr. Anita Hill today – tenured professor at Brandeis University.

After being believed, the most important thing for many SV survivors is being supported in choosing and leading our own healing process. So I was curious about what Anita Hill had gone on to do after Congress confirmed her harasser Clarence Thomas as a conservative supreme court justice. I learned that Hill is a scholar who continues to teach and speak out against sexual harassment. What I learn from Hill, and from other survivors in my life, is that we can create alternative communities that make the justice and healing we need more likely to happen in the midst of political structures that refuse to change.

In “Making a Way out of No Way,” womanist theologian and survivor Monica Coleman writes a Christology not of an individual messiah but of salvific communities. People in our country—especially indigenous, black and brown people, women and queer and trans people—have already been doing this work for generations.

There are vast numbers of beloved wounded who have already created our own saving communities of harm reduction, restorative justice, mutual support and care.

 It’s never enough, it’s vulnerable, it’s messy and hard work.

But it is already happening, and we do not need to wait.


parentKatherine Parent is a young adult and PhD student in religious history at Luther Seminary in St. Paul. She is a multimedia artist in residence at Redeemer Lutheran church in Minneapolis. She has been a frequent guest artist at local kids camps and protests, and a performer with the Carnival de Resistance and with her folk band the Lacewings. She lives in intentional community and enjoys catching up on all the cartoons she didn’t watch as a kid.

Stopping Gender-Violence: The Role of Narrative – Alexis Witt, Ordination Candidate, ELCA

thomas110_1027092#MeToo took the United States – and much of the world – by storm last week. Originally started by activist  Tarana Burke in 2006 in order to “give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem” of sexual assault, harassment, and rape – especially against poor women of color – the trend took off  in the wake of the recent Hollywood scandal around Harvey Weinstein. MDiv Senior Alexis Witt, then, gives her perspective of the #MeToo campaign, how it’s impacted her, and specifically around the power of stories to both heal wounds and shatter silence. 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.”


171018-crocker-whats-next-after-metoo-hero_lba4gh.gif

With the current social media trend #MeToo and with October being Domestic Violence Awareness month, it is an important time to talk about the gender-based violence that is rampant in this culture. I write both as someone who says #MeToo and as a final year seminarian, seeking to be ordained in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. This is a topic that we, as individuals and as a larger church, must face. None of us are free from this; even if someone has not experienced this kind of violence themselves, everyone knows someone affected by gender-based violence.

The statistics are staggering. Looking at the following statistics, it is important to note that, while people of all genders experience gender-based violence, gender-based violence disproportionally affects women (including transgender women – transgender women are women!) and gender non-conforming people. That does not diminish the pain or the experience of men who have experienced sexual violence, but rather it points to the role of gender in gender-based violence.

1 in 4 women and 1 in 9 men have been victims of intimate partner violence.[1] Nearly half of all female murder victims were killed by a spouse, an intimate partner, or a former spouse/ partner, compared to 5% of male homicide victims.[2] 1 in 3 US adolescents are victims of physical, sexual, emotional, or verbal abuse from an intimate partner.[3] 1 in 3 women and 1 in 6 men have been victims of sexual violence in their lifetimes.[4] 75% of stalking victims are women; and roughly 67% of people who stalk women are men.[5] 21% of transgender, genderqueer, and gender nonconforming college students have been sexually assaulted.[6] As the recent #MeToo social media trend hoped to show, most (if not all) women have experienced sexual abuse or sexual harassment. As Pamela Cooper-White writes, “while not nearly all men harass women, nearly all women have been sexually harassed in some setting in their lifetimes.”[7]

stream_img.jpg

These statistics represent millions of stories, stories of violence – with the wide range of accompanying stories of being heard and being silenced, of belief and of doubt, of self-blame and of victim-blaming, of hurt and of healing, of surviving and of dying, and of everything else in-between and beyond. The #MeToo trend provided an opportunity for women who have experienced sexual violence, harassment, and abuse to tell a piece of their story – some for the first time – and to put faces to these statistics.

(As we reflect on this trend, it is important to note that not all people who experienced sexual assault and harassment posted #MeToo, for any number of reasons, all of which are valid and should be respected. Victims and survivors of assault and abuse do not owe anyone their stories.)

Thus, the #MeToo trend has brought to the surface not only the pervasive nature of sexual assault and harassment, but it has also pointed back toward the importance of narrative and of stories. As I scrolled through my Facebook feed and through various Facebook groups, I read countless stories from friends, from co-workers, from family members, from complete strangers. I posted some of my own stories in certain places – from the pastor who during my field education experience, when I raised my discomfort with having my back toward the congregation for long periods of time, responded “well, the congregation wants to see your backside more” to the former classmate who openly and publicly mocked me on Facebook for *still* being single to men sending unsolicited nude photos or unsolicited sexual messages on dating websites.

417v47B7Z6L._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_.jpg
Google Books Link.

Cooper-White rightly argues that the first step in stopping gender-based violence is “to hear the stories from [the victim’s] own viewpoint insofar as it is possible.”[8]

The power of story – when truly heard – is multi-faceted. Story can empower others to tell their stories (as the chapter I reference below empowered me to tell mine). Story can heal, externalizing what was kept silent and internal; it can liberate us from the pains that we have kept hidden deep within ourselves. Story can disrupt the power that keeps violence in place.

During my first year of seminary, I read a chapter from Proverbs of Ashes entitled “Tiamat’s Tears: Rebecca’s Story.” The author of the chapter, Rebecca Ann Parker, wrote, “Violence, I was beginning to understand is assisted by silences, to stop violence, the silences have to be broken”[9] Violence – whether it is domestic violence, in particular, or gender-based violence, in general – is about maintaining power, specifically about maintaining power over another person. People who use violence seek to control another person, to dominate them, to use them for their own benefit, seeing the other person as an object, an “it,” rather than as a full, equal human being.[10] Violence seeks to keep power in the hands of the powerful, or privilege in the hands of the privileged, while seeking to keep power out of the hands of the powerless and keep oppressed people in the bonds of their oppression.

Yet when those who have experienced violence have space to tell their stories – in their own time and in whatever way is safe and healing for them – and when the stories are heard and accepted, power is reclaimed and the perpetrators’ hold on power is disrupted. Narrative demands that we are not objects or “its” but we are a fellow human being, claiming that our voices matter and that we have power. Narrative forges connections between people with similar or shared experiences giving them power flowing from relationship and solidarity with each other. Listening to the narratives and believing them is an act of love that opposes violence and can bring about healing.

IMG_4519-570x570

Thinking about the power of story as it relates to Christianity, we must see and acknowledge the ways which story can also be used to harm and to inflict violence. Christ’s story has been misused to silence women, transgender, and non-binary people and to uphold the patriarchal system that perpetuates violence. The church has pointed to the cross and told those who experience domestic violence that this is their “cross to bear.” The church has pointed to Jesus, seeing Christ’s maleness as evidence for God prioritizing the male over the female. The creation story of Genesis has been used to claim that one is either male or female and all other gender identities and expressions are against God. The false narrative that the church is full of saints leads to the false notion that sexual abuse and violence doesn’t happen here.

How can we, as individuals and as members of the church, claim Christ’s narrative in ways that it may be liberating to those who experience gender-based violence (and to all others who are oppressed)?

We can relate “a personal story of death and destruction to the story of the violent death and liberating resurrection of Jesus.”[11] We claim that, in Christ, we see that we have a God that not only suffers with and stands in solidarity with those who suffer violence.

We claim that in Christ reveals that God is emphatically and radically opposed to the kinds of power that promote violence to keep control and dominion over people. Christ died at the hands of an Empire that sought to keep the power in the hands of the powerful and to keep power out of the hands of the powerless. Christ’s work aims to upend the systems of power that currently rule this world. The power of the Kindom of God is a power based not in dominion or control over another but rather power based in humility and love overflowing for the other and for a broken humanity, made manifest in Christ’s incarnation into real-human flesh, Christ’s ministry, Christ’s death and resurrection. It is a love that seeks to lift up those who are on the margins, giving power to those society deems as powerless.

We claim that, in Christ, we have a God that sees all people, especially the people who are used, abused, and on the margins, as beloved children of God – worthy of love, worthy of respect, worthy of grace, worthy of healing, worthy of wholeness. God sees us and claims us as God’s own. Gender-based violence, which sees the other as an object, thus tramples on God’s vision for humanity.

women.jpg
Women at the Tomb – He Qi.

Hearing the stories – including the laments and the cries – of those who have experienced violence and dwelling in Christ’s narrative are just the beginning.

From there, it is my hope the church and all within it may, with the help of God, become active forces in dismantling gender-based violence, along with all forms of power that seek to oppress, control, and diminish others.


19366272_10211351941091470_8631562276451804097_nAlex Witt (she/ her/ hers) has a BA in religious studies from the University of Richmond. She is a senior MDiv student at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago and a candidate for the Ministry of Word at Sacrament through the Virginia Synod. She served as the Intern Pastor at United Lutheran Church in Lincoln, Nebraska. Alex has a passion for pastoral care, biblical studies, and gender studies. In her free time, Alex enjoys tennis, cheering for the Richmond Spiders and the St. Louis Cardinals, social ballroom dancing, and spoiling her beloved pup, Ginger.

[1] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), “Facts Everyone Should Know About Intimate Partner Violence, Sexual Violence, & Stalking,” The National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey: 2010-2012 State Report (Atlanta, GA), https://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/nisvs/infographic.html.

[2] Pamela Cooper-White, The Cry of Tamar: Violence against Women and the Church’s Response, 2nd Edition (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2012), 126.

[3] Love Is Respect, “Dating Abuse Statistics,” LoveIsRespect.org. http://www.loveisrespect.org/resources/dating-violence-statistics/.

[4] CDC, “Facts Everyone Should Know about Intimate Partner Violence, Sexual Violence, and Stalking.”

[5] Cooper-White, Cry of Tamar, 92.

[6] RAINN, “Victims of Sexual Violence: Statistics,” https://www.rainn.org/statistics/victims-sexual-violence.

[7] Cooper-White, The Cry of Tamar, 87.

[8] Cooper-White, The Cry of Tamar, 38.

[9] Rebecca Ann Parker, “Tiamat’s Tears: Rebecca’s Story.” In Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Ann Parker, eds. Proverbs of Ashes: Violence, Redemptive Suffering, and the Search for What Saves Us (Boston: Beacon Press, 2001), 108.

[10] Cooper-White, Cry of Tamar, 43.

[11] Herbert Anderson and Edward Foley, Mighty Stories, Dangerous Rituals: Weaving Together the Human and the Divine (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1998), 172.

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.

51feqltiR4L._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_.jpg

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.

41ea081ea13a9ef53dd5ca65f573ddd6.jpg
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.

8182904290_1fb23938fc_z.jpg
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.

Be-Silent-Not.jpg

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.

depression.jpg
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.

Mary, Do You Know La Malinche? – Sarah Degner Riveros

Linda Thomas at CTS eventMary, the mother of Jesus, is hands-down one of the most fascinating people in all history. Praised and doubted, her integrity questioned not only in her own life time (Matthew 1:19) but also in ours, Christmas is the time of year when the Church ponders her the most. However,  in a special pre-Christmas post, Sarah Degner Riveros shares with us levels of tragedy and depth that one too easily misses in the story of Mary – a depth that many would rather be ignored. Read, 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.”


TW: virginity, rape, oppression


The last time I spoke in church was to read the Scriptures on Christmas Eve.

9e997e6c1ac7e9bcac2ac46f2eafaae5
by Dom George Saget, Senegal.

I was 20 years old. It was a service of Lessons and Carols. I was invited to read the part about going to Bethlehem to register with Mary, who was expecting a child, and the baby being born and laid in a manger, and the angels of the Lord appearing, and the shepherds being amazed. But when I got to the line “But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart,” my angry heart froze, my voice cracked and I started to lose it. There I was, the pastor’s kid, home from college on Christmas Eve, honored to have been chosen to read in a congregation where mostly male elders read the lessons, with hundreds of worshipers staring at me to finish the story of Jesus and his Mother.

My throat swelled up and my voice was tight. And I kept reading the lesson, but my voice was squeaky.

After church at dinner, my family asked me what happened. I looked up, and I choked again. I couldn’t talk about it. At the dinner table. At Christmas dinner. I’d just come home from a year in Spain where I’d experienced three sexual assaults, one in my dorm in Madrid; one in my apartment in Barcelona, and one in a parking garage, along with two punches to the head, and three forcible rapes, and two pregnancies and losses. I learned Spanish from some excellent teachers, I traveled around Europe, I experienced cultural immersion–but I paid for it with the bodily harm I endured. So I was still kind of angry. Angry at the men. Angry at sleep. Angry at the system. Angry at not having the words. Angry at patriarchy. Angry at what I could and couldn’t do. Angry at my body. Angry at God.

These memories and feelings emerged after reading a courageous article in the Washington Post by Rev. Ruth Everhart, exploring the relationship that the author has with the Virgin Mary’s cultural image as she grapples with the emotional aftermath of being raped at gunpoint. For me, reading her story brings up a lot of big feelings, and since I can’t afford counseling because of a high deductible, I’m writing so that I can get these feelings out and get some sleep. That was a difficult Christmas when I was 20, and for some reason this year, I keep flashing back to it.

tumblr_inline_nh0l44ggyG1qkqzlv.jpg
“Mary Consoling Eve.” Sister Grace Remington, Order of the Cistercians of the Strict Observance.

For vulnerable bodies, there a high price to pay for being educated – take Eve who paid the price for the knowledge of good from evil.  Sometimes there isn’t much choice in the matter – just ask Malintzin aka La Malinche, who, around 1519, was sold into slavery and used her Mayan and Nahuatl along with Spanish, serving as Hernán Cortés’ concubine and translator to broker colonization.

La Malinche embodied a bicultural identity that comes with the curse of never quite fitting in while belonging to everyone.  Sometimes La Malinche symbolizes the Mother of the Mexican people, yet she is still blamed for betraying her people in the conquest of the Americas.  But I’m sure the loss she actually felt was that of her own freedom.  Did she know how their compounded traumas would play out over a lifetime and through history?

La-Maninche.jpg
16th century pictographic deptictions of Hernan de Cortes and Malintzin (standing female with the checkered robe/garment).

Mary, Eve, Malintzin, did you know?

That Christmas, having just returned from Spain and completed a Spanish major, I wanted God to redeem Spanish for me so that I could get a job, use my degree, and do something useful in the world. I prayed for that opportunity. That same Christmas break, I took the GRE and finished my applications for graduate schools to study Spanish literature. I also graduated from college, skipped commencement, and had an interview for my first full-time salaried job. In fact, that very day that I last read the Scripture in church, that same Christmas Eve afternoon, my dad’s friend stopped by the house to ask me if I wanted to work for his law firm in downtown Chicago. So it was kind of an emotional day since I was nervous about work and needed a job. He offered an interview at a civil rights law firm specializing in employment discrimination.

I got the job and spent 9 months answering phones in a class action sexual harassment case against some financial firms that had discriminated against women. Those companies had enabled wealthy men in power to do some very yucky things to women’s bodies, women’s ears, and women’s professional lives. I took the train downtown every day and took notes as women who were vice-presidents and financial advisers, who had fought hard for their careers, called in to detail their experiences with misogyny in the financial firms that are the crown of our nation’s capitalism.

But after 9 months of mostly taking a break from Spanish, I hadn’t given up on the humanities, nor on European and Spanish culture, so I moved to NYC and eventually wrote my dissertation about the Virgin Mary in the Middle Ages. I examined portrayals of parents and children and the Virgin Mary in the text and images of the Cantigas de Santa María by Alfonso X (King of Castile-Leon from 1252-1284). Alfonso gathered stories about the Virgin Mary to create an illustrated collection of songs in her honor. Her Holy Mother image in those medieval songs is the portrait of a loving advocate and defender of the people.

cat-page-001.jpg
Illustrations from Cantigas de Santa Maria.

The Mary painted in the Cantigas wasn’t demure–she more like a badass community organizer, a pro bono human rights lawyer, a Jewish mother, a vigilante peacekeeper for orphan’s and widow’s rights. Santa María exhibited agency as she defended the weak by casting spells and slaying evildoers. She filled in during choir practices for a pregnant nun to cover for her as she hid her pregnancy, and she raised the baby for her. She went after the devil with the broom, she gave a skin disease to a guy who had slapped his mom, and she threw a child abuser into the fire. The 427 miracle songs are divided up like a rosary, with a formulaic song of praise punctuating every 10 stories. But the stories themselves are transgressive and earthshatteringly feminist, — or at least that’s how they seemed to a Lutheran rape survivor who had been raised in 1990s Texas purity culture.

Like Ruth Everhart, I have approached marriage and motherhood as acts of faith and as ways to redeem my experiences and to get back my trust in God who created the heavens and the earth and who formed me in the womb, and who let horrendous things happen to my body. I am in no emotional shape to be called into the ministry, but I admire her courage and willingness to serve, and to be open in speaking truth to the rape culture we have created.

It’s hard to write and to talk about virginity, sexual violence and gender-based abuse, especially as internet trolls prowl around like roaring lions. Like that 20-year-old me, my voice still cracks when I speak of these things. I continue to treasure up a lot of things and ponder them in my heart, but sometimes my heart feels like a chasm, the murky depths of the abyss, or heavy like a stone. To be honest, after the things that I have lived and seen, I like to keep it that way.

Women_and_children_among_Syrian_refugees_striking_at_the_platform_of_Budapest_Keleti_railway_station._Refugee_crisis._Budapest_Hungary_Central_Europe_4_September_2015._3-300x200.jpg
Syrian women and children interned in Hungary.

But sometimes during Advent, when I see Mary tilting her sweet head toward that tiny baby, I start to cry. And now, this Advent, I am back in the same emotional place.

The pregnancies I lost would have been 19 year old college kids this year, the same age that I was when I was raped, and my heart holds space for them, even as I hold myself together for my children and my students.And when I see how we treat refugees, and pregnant teenagers, and babies born in poverty, the rage still chokes me and I scream at God to rend the heavens and come down to earth. 

Rend the heavens and come down and God sends us angels disguised as refugees who knock at our door seeking a warm shelter for the night. Rape survivors know like no one else that staying alive requires learning again how to trust strangers, and how to believe and be believed by family and friends.

God rends the heavens and shows up late at night in homeless shelters, on busses in the city, on rape crisis hotlines, in nursing homes, on street corners, in prison cells–in places where virginity isn’t touted or even mentioned. God hangs out in places that the mighty and powerful have forgotten.

56717423abfb8.image.jpg
Children in New Mexico enacting the Mexican-Catholic Christmas tradition “Las Posadas” – where children enact the night that Mary and Joseph sought shelter before Jesus’ birth.

God enters the world through the open hearts of the poor when, amid terror and evil, we trust each other, we lean on each other, and we hold sacred space in our hearts for God to still be present when it all hurts.


12592758_10153921169827792_5301104737539609375_n.jpgSarah Degner Riveros lives with her family in Minnesota where she writes, mothers children, raises chickens, and teaches Spanish.

Sexual Assault: A Violation of God’s Body, a Necessary Editorial – by the Rev. Dr. Linda Thomas

This has been a difficult week for me. I noticed a distinct change in my mood after the Presidential debate on Sunday night. I knew that something was very wrong with what I witnessed. I knew it intellectually and the clearest signal that something was extraordinarily out of alignment was when my body began to “speak.” Memories flooded my mind.

eminence-taylor-michael-art-photography-01
From “Eminence” – a photographic project at Brown University (HBCU).

I have been ordained for thirty-five years and in that time, whether it was during the time I worked with youth, single young adults, or married women, the fact is that assault – sexual, verbal, physical, emotional – was a significant part of a narrative I heard and responded to pastorally.

It was also a narrative to which I could speak personally.

So, when I heard my friend Michelle Obama say, “(This has) shaken me to my core in a way that I couldn’t have predicted,” during her impassioned speech, I felt a congruence with that statement. Michelle said what I knew but did not yet have words for. Something within me asked, “Who will speak to what has happened from a perspective of faith?”

When it comes to asking that sort of question, we are all shaped by a number of factors. On the Meyers-Briggs Inventory, I am an Introvert (close to an E because my role as professor/pastor/prophet calls me to act like an Extrovert); and also N/S, that is, I am Intuitive when I feel safe, and Sensate when I believe I have to be guarded (usually around issues of safety in my immediate environment). I am solidly a T-Thinking and J-Judging, meaning that I am inclined towards assessing situations, doing analysis and evaluation. I give this background because, like Moses, I did not and do not want to speak to “this” issue of sexual assault but I feel called to say a FEW words, as much as my introvert self would like to eschew that responsibility. Pain compels me to speak.

rs_1024x682-160304110216-1024-lady-gaga-performing-oscars-survivors-030416
Lady Gaga, surrounded by survivors of sexual assault, after performing her song about her experiences recovering from her own sexual assault from 2006, “Till it Happens to You.”

First, people of faith – whether rostered or lay – need to be culturally competent around issues of sexual assault.  Sexual assault breeds a culture that normalizes women being objectified, demeaned, and unsafe at the pleasure of men. It is a violation beyond imagination that ruptures if not shatters a woman’s body and spirit.

Depending on the person’s constitution and the power dynamics between the victim and the abuser, one may be forced to cut off a part of herself or himself in order to function. This is much more then splitting oneself. It is a survival mechanism that numbs one’s spirit and may interfere and/or block one’s potential. In sum, sexual assault as well as other assaults is similar to cutting off a part of one’s being while that person still has to function, but with a sense of loss that deadens emotional nerves. Needless to say, it can also dramatically inhibit or damage someone’s ability to enjoy the good gifts of sexuality as God’s good creation.

Because “good people often minimize these experiences” one learns to suppress feelings which, in turn, often causes an ongoing disorienting trauma; yet, the victim must press on with day-to-day living. So, when Trump’s words from the Howard Stern tape as well as the “Access Hollywood” video were played repeatedly for many women, children, and men [or people who may or may not identify with these identities], may have felt something that had been dormant begin to stir within. I wrote elsewhere, “What the mind forgets, the body remembers,”[1] and for many those memories stored in the deep freezer of our bodies began to thaw.

heal

That’s what happened to me, and it became worse as the week progressed. I was a wreck—not being able to focus or process clearly, having my sleep interrupted. Sometimes I would just contemplate in utter disbelief of what Donald Trump’s words unleashed in our public discourse. It was evil and vile. I wanted to close my daughter’s ears as well as my own.  I was angry, absolutely livid–the one emotion that my superego keeps “under control” lest people experience me as an “angry black woman” and call the police, which as we all know can result in my being put in jail, or shot.

Intersectionality creeps in and I don’t know which one to process. All I know is that I cannot get angry, but God damn it (and I mean that quite literally and in full awareness of the theological implications) I am outraged, because sexual assault is violating God’s body and that’s what Donald Trump did and boasted about. God help this man, yes, this child of God who in my mind has no functioning superego and is mostly id gone wild. Even with all of this craziness, I return to the promises of my faith, “God cannot be trumped.”[2] I, along with others, may flourish given time and safe space.

What are ministerial leaders called to do in such a time as this? We can use the methods employed in the Public Church curriculum at LSTC.

First, we need to listen to Narratives, understanding the macro-narratives that are dominant in our culture and society because of power. Be mindful to listen for what people whose personal agency is unrealized and therefore may not express themselves with words but rather with body movement, facial expressions, and mood swings are speaking in the depths of these actions and signs. Check in with yourself—what is your narrative? Do you hold a story that someone told you about being sexually or otherwise assaulted? Did you witness the violation of a loved one as a child? (I did).

woke

Second, do some simple ethnography—notice what’s going on around you. Most importantly, read the emotional landscape. That is, read the culture to which you are most closely connected at home, at church, at work, in your daily comings and goings. Third, consider being involved in Congregationally Based Community Organizing that deals with deeply embedded with layers that support racism, sexism, classism and are lodged in institutions that are patriarchal and often fully misogynistic. We witnessed the institution of a candidate for the presidency of the United States of America on a public stage attempt to humiliate the first woman nominated for the presidency of the US, and we also witnessed this woman have to answer for her husband’s behavior, be called “the devil,” be threatened to be imprisoned, and be told that she should be ashamed of herself for her actions towards three women who committed adultery with her husband.

This was shameless and, yes, it was the assault of a woman on a global stage. I just want to weep as Jesus did as he entered Jerusalem.

Things will change when we organize. Don’t think that Donald Trumps’ behavior is normative – call it out for what it is. But recognize too that, while it might not be normal, it does reflect deeply embedded patterns of patriarchy and systems in our country. As Lutheran theologian Robert Saler puts it, “He is the lump that signals the cancer in the body politic that the collective mind of that body would prefer to deny.”[3] Support women who are telling their stories from 35 years ago. Offer them the gift of listening and think of ways you can join others to serve the interests of the vulnerable.

repentance_forgiveness-570x265

Finally, know that forgiveness is the last step.[4]

Yes, that is what I said.

Premature forgiveness is like cheap grace—it is harmful and oversteps the process of restorative justice. Let yourself and help others to work through feelings. Give yourself and others the space to get through actions that occurred decades ago. And know that intersectionality complexifies things for women of color who are the descendants of enslaved people, or historically dominated people as well as marginalized folks who do not identity with their birth-gender. These children of God are violated often and brutally. Support people in getting help for themselves and, most importantly, be loving toward yourself and those with rekindled painful memories. Presence is sometimes more important than offering words that may be more harmful then helpful.

Thank you for listening to my narrative.  May your life and those you love flourish!


ThomasLinda sittingDr. Linda E. Thomas has engaged students, scholars and communities as a scholar for thirty-one years. She studies, researches, writes, speaks and teaches about the intersection and mutual influence of culture and religion. Her work is rooted intransitively in a Womanist perspective. An ordained Methodist pastor for 35 years with a Ph.D. in Anthropology from The American University in Washington D.C. and a Master of Divinity from Union Theological Seminary in New York City, Dr. Thomas’s work has taken her to South Africa, Peru, Cuba and Russia. She has been recognized as an Association of Theological Schools Faculty Fellow as well as a Pew Charitable Trust Scholar.


Links:

Donald Trump tells Billy Bush about trying to have sex with a married woman in a video obtained by the Washington Post. Trump said it was ‘locker room’ banter.

Saturday Night Live gives a comedic spoof of the Bobby Bush/Trump video.

BuzzFeed has rounded up audio of Trump speaking out about various women through the years – and he doesn’t hold back.

Within days of the video, other women have come forward sharing their stories of being harassed by Trump.

And still more women come forward.

Donald Trump calls these newer allegations against him “False smears” – from the NY Times.

A New York Times article about how deflecting and gaslighting cause problems for women seeking acknowledgment of having been sexually assaulted.


[1] Womanist Theology, Epistemology, and a New Anthropological Paradigm,” Cross Currents, Summer 1998, Vol. 48 Issue 4.

[2] Otis Moss III sermon, “stay woke,” September 4, 2016.

[3] Robert Saler, personal communication, 14 October 2016.

[4] Forgiveness: The Last Step by Marie M. Fortune in Carol J. Adams & Marie M. Fortune, Eds. Violence against Women and Children: A Christian Theological Sourcebook (Continuum 1995) pp. 201-206