Super chill book review: God is a Black Woman (Christena Cleveland)

God is a Black Woman by Christena Cleveland (HarperOne, 2022)—what a book. It’s basically a mix of spot-on critiques of what Cleveland calls whitemalegod (you may know the one) and compelling explorations of what it can look like to ditch whitemalegod and seek the Sacred Black Feminine instead.  

I was a fan of Cleveland’s work back when she was trying to help the white-dominated evangelical church do better in terms of racial justice; I’m still a fan of her work now that she’s jumped ship and is finding healthier, more honest, more life-giving forms of faith outside of white evangelical spaces. 

I feel like I’m over here rooting Cleveland on in her journey. And I’m grateful for her being willing to share this journey with anyone who would benefit from reading about it. Which is lots and lots of us, I think.

A few thoughts and memorable quotes:

1) Cleveland’s book kind of strikes me as a race-conscious version of The Dance of the Dissident Daughter (by Sue Monk Kidd) for a new generation. I really enjoyed The Dance of the Dissident Daughter and learned a ton from it—and I also felt its whiteness. 

I’m grateful for Cleveland’s exploration not just of the Divine Feminine—who many of us might imagine, by default, to be just as white as whitemalegod—but specifically of the Divine Black Feminine. This brings so much richness and complexity into the picture. 

As Cleveland writes, “She is the God who has a special love for the most marginalized because She too has known marginalization” (p. 17). That feels right to me. I’m not Black, but this is a God I could get on board with. 

2) In a similar vein, I appreciate how Cleveland writes about the Sacred Black Feminine in a way that centers Black women but is not exclusive to them. 

Cleveland writes, 

“She is the God who is with and for Black women because She is a Black woman. She is the God who definitively declares that Black women—who exist below Black men and white women at the bottom of the white male God’s social pecking order—not only matter but are sacred. And, in doing so, She declares that all living beings are sacred. She is the God who smashes the white patriarchy and empowers us all to join in Her liberating work” (p. 17). 

Yup, all for that. It makes sense to me that we might have to imagine God as Black and female to really get it into our heads and hearts and souls that, as Cleveland puts it, “all living beings are sacred.” 

The whitemalegod of the colonizers—and of those who do things today like incarcerate way too many Black men and deny women access to reproductive health care—doesn’t really affirm, or help his followers affirm, the sacredness of all humanity. But perhaps the Sacred Black Feminine can, and does.

It reminds me of what many activists have pointed out—that we should all be able to get behind the project of Black female liberation, not only because Black women matter, but also because it turns out that what is good for Black women is good for everybody. It isn’t a competition or a zero-sum game; it’s a matter of implementing systems, policies, and practices that promote the liberation of the most oppressed and the flourishing of the most marginalized—and that therefore promote liberation and flourishing for us all.

3) I appreciate Cleveland’s reflections on need and neediness. I’m reminded of an evangelical idea that resonated with me for a while back in the day, but which I now consider a load of baloney. The idea is that we as Christians have everything we need in Christ, so we come into relationships with other people not needing anything from them. The implication is that we can just give, and give, and give—and this is how Christians ought to be.

I’ve really moved away from this mindset over the last ten years or so. And I’ve moved toward the reality that I am a needy human, and my relationships are at their best and most beautiful when I’m both giving and receiving. Anything else is some combination of arrogance and denial of my own humanity—as well as denial of the other person’s humanity, to the extent that I’m tempted to think that “I don’t need anything from them” means “they have nothing to offer.”

Related to this, Cleveland writes, “in whitemalegod’s society…patriarchy and white supremacy partner to proclaim that to be human is to express no need. In whitemalegod’s society, toxic masculinity screeches ‘boys don’t cry,’ young girls struggle to get dates after being labeled ‘high maintenance,’ and women are demoted for being ‘too emotional.’ Further, our infinitely vast gender diversity is squeezed into two suffocating male/female boxes in which men are more valued when they express no need, women are devalued precisely because they are often unable to adequately hide their need, and all other genders are completely erased unless they cram themselves into one of the two ‘official’ gender boxes” (p. 85).

This strikes me as true, and important. To be human is to express no need is a lie that’s closely connected to a toxic form of masculinity. I’m all for building a world where people of all genders are free to feel what we feel and need what we need, without being shamed for it.

4) Relatedly, I resonated with this from my evangelical days:

“The only time people in whitemalegod’s world are allowed to talk openly about their need is when they are regaling themselves with tales of how they triumphed over it. We love to exchange stories about how we used to be homeless but now own a home with no mortgage on it, were once illiterate but now are a New York Times best-selling author, once struggled to manage our anger but now are a celebrated mindfulness teacher, previously had marital problems but now it’s all good. In other words, it’s okay to struggle, as long as you triumph in the long run. Just please don’t tell us about your need in real time. Need is only acceptable in the past tense” (p. 86).

I’m reminded of the way testimonies are often framed and shared in evangelical churches. In one of the more extreme versions, I knew of a college campus ministry that gave its students a particular outline for their testimonies to follow (and, in this case, to be filmed and posted on Facebook). Students were to talk about what their life was like before they met Christ, and how much better their life is now.

These students were to share about their needs in the past, not their needs in the present. But they were human. Surely they had present needs, too.

Why is it so hard to be honest about the fact that we are needy? Can we talk about how we’ve experienced God as real and good in some ways, while also being honest about the things that are still difficult and painful, and the ways we want to see God but haven’t yet? 

I want to be part of faith communities that can voice present lament, as so many writers of the Bible did—not just victory over past difficulties.

5) I don’t know if I’d really thought about matriarchal cultures in this way:

“As scholar Heide Gottner-Abendroth is quick to point out, matriarchal societies aren’t simply the reversal of patriarchal societies, with women ruling over men. Rather, they are need-based societies that are centered around the values of caretaking, nurturing, and responding to the collective needs of the community. In matriarchal cultures, everyone—regardless of your gender or whether you have any biological kids—is taught to practice the societal values of caretaking, nurturing, and responding to the collective needs of the community. In such cultures, these values are the basis of what it means to be human” (pp. 113-4).

That’s cool. And very much in line with what I see as the goals of feminism. Feminism isn’t a scary and threatening thing where women are trying to grab and hold power over men in the same way men have often grabbed and held power over women. 

Rather, we’re trying to build a different kind of world—one based on mutuality, equality, and healthy interdependence, where no one is trying to grab and hold power over anyone. A world where values for things like authority, hierarchy, individual success, and personal accumulation of wealth are replaced by values for things like “caretaking, nurturing, and responding to the collective needs of the community.” Matriarchy for the win.

6) I appreciate the clarity and honesty of Cleveland’s reflections on her work for racial justice in white-dominated spaces:

“Somewhere along the line, I had been taught that in order to accomplish justice, I needed to convince white people that I am worthy of justice…Somewhere along the line, I had been taught that it was my work to convince white people to affirm my humanity…Though I had been heralded as a ‘trailblazer’ in the mostly white, male-dominated Christian world, my justice work had extracted me from the safe spaces that nurture and protect me as a Black woman and catapulted me into the unsafe and oppressive spaces of the powerful where I was exposed to the soul-crushing forces of its institutional racism, sexism, and poisonous theology. In those spaces, I gave much yet received little more than lip service and a steady stream of macroaggressions” (p. 149).

I hear and feel Cleveland’s (totally valid) anger about all this, and I stand with her in it. None of this was right. And I think that her testimony (you know, the honest kind, not the kind with only victories) is a crucial one for church folks to hear.

7) Cleveland writes:

“That’s how whitemalegod controls us, by convincing all of us…that we’re not enough. We must constantly strive for whitemalegod’s version of excellence and conquer our imperfections in order to prove to whitemalegod that we are worthy to sit at his table. But since we’re all desperately scrambling to get a seat at a table in whitemalegod’s exclusive club, we never stop to ask ourselves: Do I even want a spot in whitemalegod’s tiny circle of acceptability? No, we’re too busy scrambling and trampling others as we chase the acceptance we will never receive” (p. 169).

I’ve totally felt this vibe and this struggle. For me, it was a feeling of tension between wanting to be accepted—and, in my case, as someone who worked in Christian ministry, wanting to be accepted as a leader—in evangelical spaces, but knowing, or at least fearing, that if I expressed (or just existed as) my authentic self, I would not be. It’s a feeling of having to hide something to belong. Which means, of course, that you—the real you—does not actually belong. 

I’ve felt this, for example, as an introvert, feeling like I needed to act like an extrovert to be accepted as a leader—or even just as a valuable and respected human. And I’ve felt it as someone who came around to LGBTQ+ affirmation, feeling like I didn’t know what would happen if I talked about these views openly.

Like Cleveland, at some point I started to think, Wait a minute, do I even want a spot here? Do I really want to chase the affirmation of people who fundamentally don’t accept me for who I actually am, or to chase power in their circles that are actually quite toxic? 

That would be a “nope.” Hard pass. But, like Cleveland, it took me a minute to get there. The pull of acceptability is powerful—especially when it can seem like acceptance in a particular evangelical circle equals acceptance by God. Fortunately, in truth, these things couldn’t be farther apart. But that isn’t always easy to see when you’re in the midst of it.

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I hope this gave some worthwhile food for thought! I’d love to know what you think about any or all of it.

The body of Christ as spiritual fellowship

This is sermon part 3 of 3! In it I offer some thoughts on spiritual fellowship. (Here are the first two parts, on shelter and nurture.) There are also a few brief general reflections at the end. 

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I don’t know if the words “spiritual fellowship” are words that most of us say on a regular basis in everyday conversation. But maybe “spiritual fellowship” is really just a fancy church-y way of saying community. So let’s talk about community.

One of my favorite verses in the 1 Corinthians 12 passage is where it says that the parts of the body should have equal care, or equal concern, for each other (v. 25). Part of why I like this verse is that, in the Greek, it literally says something like “be equally anxious for one another.” Be equally anxious for one another. I find this intriguing. It’s not often that our scriptures tell us to be anxious.

Now, I’m all for reducing anxiety in our lives when possible. But there’s also something compelling to me about a community where everyone is that concerned for everyone else’s holistic wellbeing. It’s the kind of concern that keeps you up at night if you know someone in the community isn’t doing well. It’s the kind that keeps you praying. It’s the kind that keeps you thinking about what you can do—what your community can do—and that moves you to do those things.

It can be deeply comforting and deeply encouraging to know that other people are this genuinely troubled on our account when we’re struggling. To know we’re not alone. That’s spiritual fellowship. 

Sometimes some of us hesitate to trouble others. But it’s not always a bad thing to cause others to be troubled. It’s part of being real with each other and learning how to care for each other.

I think this is what the scripture passage is getting at when it says when one part of the body suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it (v. 26). Spiritual fellowship looks like suffering with those who suffer, rejoicing with those who rejoice. It looks like choosing to live into the reality that we are all interconnected, whether or not it might look like it. 

When one part of a human body hurts, the rest of the body—at least if it’s functioning well—doesn’t try to cover up the pain. It doesn’t ignore it or pretend it isn’t there. It doesn’t say, Oh, well, it’s just the ear that’s suffering, not the eye, so it really isn’t a big deal. Rather, the whole body says, Ow! Help! We hurt! 

We are all one body together. And so when violence is done to women’s bodies, violence is done to the whole body. When violence is done to Black and brown and indigenous bodies, violence is done to the whole body. When violence is done to queer and trans bodies, violence is done to the whole body. Our suffering is tied together. And our joy is tied together.

Spiritual fellowship looks like living in this reality. It looks like choosing to mourn with those who mourn, lament with those who lament, rejoice with those who rejoice, celebrate with those who are celebrating. God invites us to experience life fully—the joy and the sorrow, the excitement and the disappointment, the gratitude and contentment and anger and rage and all of it. To experience all the feels. And to do that together in community. 

There are unjust and evil things in this world that I don’t know how to make better. But I know it helps to not be alone. And I know that where we can make real change in things like culture and law and policy, we definitely can’t do that alone.

In our justice-oriented approach to life and faith at Lake B, we talk often about solidarity. We seek solidarity with those who are most vulnerable in our broader communities—in Burien and White Center and all the different places we live and work. 

I love that we want solidarity to extend beyond this church community and the people in this room (or who are watching online, or who otherwise consider Lake B their home). And I also think: solidarity starts here. We want it to extend beyond us, yes—but it starts here. We need solidarity among us, within this church community. We need solidarity with one another.

We all need shelter, nurture, and spiritual fellowship. And we’re all invited to offer these things. It isn’t something a special class of pastors or elders or especially outgoing people or especially naturally caring and saintly and wonderful people do for the rest of us. It’s something we’re all invited to do for one another. 

We’re all invited to create truly safe spaces of belonging. We’re all invited to nurture one another’s spiritual growth. And we’re all invited to receive these things from one another. We’re all invited to pursue spiritual fellowship together, to build community together, to get to know each other, to rejoice and mourn together. 

We need one another. Life is hard. This world is hard. Things are not getting easier. In the middle of a world full of violence and poverty and climate change and illness and inadequate healthcare systems and unjust laws and so many hard things—we need one another. We can work to change some of these things—and in the meanwhile, when things are still messed up and not working, we can choose to be a community where shelter, nurture, and fellowship happens anyway. 

Let’s keep choosing to be that kind of community. And may we keep drinking from God’s Spirit who breathes life into all of us as we do.

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Did you resonate with anything in this sermon? What did it make you think of? What do you love (or hate, or have other feelings) about the metaphor of the body? Feel free to comment or otherwise reach out – I’d love to hear.

The body of Christ as nurture

This is part 2 of a sermon split into 3 parts. (The first one is here if you missed it.) The scripture passage is 1 Corinthians 12:12-31, and the theme is “shelter, nurture, and spiritual fellowship of the people of God.” This is the part reflecting on nurture:

I think nurture, like shelter, can also be kind of a weird word. For one thing, it can sound kind of stereotypically feminine. (And as such, it gets devalued, as anything associated with femininity often is.) But nurture is for everyone. It’s something we all need. And it’s something we can all offer to others.

When I think of nurture, I think of growth. Holistic, healthy growth. In our scripture passage there’s an image of all of us being given one Spirit to drink (v. 13). It’s an image of the Spirit of God breathing life into us, pouring living water into us, nurturing us, giving us the nourishment we need to grow.

The metaphor of the body makes it clear that we all grow together, in proportion with one another. This runs very counter to dominant US capitalist culture. It’s a non-competitive vision—which is totally radical in the midst of a society that tries to make us compete with one another, that tries to tell us to get ahead and make ourselves bigger (richer, more successful, more powerful, etc.) at the expense of others. 

But the metaphor of the body helps us see that, when we try to get ahead at others’ expense, all we’re really doing is growing one gigantic grotesque eye, or one ridiculously enormous ear (v. 17). That’s not the point. We are a body made up of interconnected, interdependent parts. And so we grow together, or not at all. In the body we want one another’s flourishing as much as we want our own.

Fortunately, at Lake B we are certainly not all one big weird-looking eyeball. We have many different parts here among us. So many different parts. We are extraverts and introverts, men and women and nonbinary folks, cis and trans folks, straight and queer folks, Black and brown and white folks, people who are financially well-off and people who are less financially well-off, older folks, younger folks, folks with all sorts of different passions and personalities and perspectives.

And this is good. I imagine God creating all of this, bringing us all together, and saying, this is good. It might not always be easy, but it is good. As our scripture passage says, God has placed the parts in the body, every one of them, exactly as God intended (v. 18). Every one of them. No exceptions. 

We live in a world where some of us get the message on a regular basis that we are dispensable, or that we don’t belong, or that we aren’t good enough, not as valuable as someone else. The metaphor of the body helps us understand that these things are not true. It helps us understand that we are all worthy of nurture. We all deserve to be part of communities and spaces and friendships and spiritual contexts that nurture hope, life, wellbeing, wholeness, joy, and love in our lives. There is no one who does not deserve that.

At the same time as some of us get the message that we’re dispensable, others of us regularly get the message that we’re better-than. That we’re more valuable than someone else. That we don’t need others. That the goal of life is rugged individualism where we achieve power and success alone. The metaphor of the body helps us understand that this too is not true. It helps us understand that everyone is worthy of nurture. Not just us, but those around us too. We are not more deserving of life and hope and joy and wellbeing than anyone else.

Of course it’s not quite as simple as dividing people into two camps. Most of us have many intersecting identities—some of which are marginalized, and others privileged. As a woman, for example, I live in a world and a society that considers me less valuable than men and that communicates this to me in all sorts of ways on a regular basis. At the same time, as a white person, I live in a world that considers me more valuable than people of color and that communicates this in all sorts of ways on a regular basis. Sometimes these ways are harder for me to see because I fall on the privileged side of things. But they are very much there. 

The metaphor of the body helps me understand that neither of these things are true. I do not belong any less or carry any less honor or dignity or value because I’m a woman. And I do not belong any more or carry any more honor or dignity or value because I’m white. In the body, everyone belongs, and everyone deserves nurture. 

As a church community, we’re here to grow. We’re here to nurture and be nurtured. To become more whole, more complete, and more fully ourselves—the most kind and loving and truth-telling and justice-seeking versions of us. This is a sacred thing—that we get to help one another along this path in this community.

In the body there is no room for gigantic oversized eyes. There is no room for nurture for some at the expense of others. We all experience nurture together, or none of us do. This is kind of terrifying and sobering, but I hope it’s also maybe exhilarating, maybe healing. There is a world of possibilities for the ways we could grow together—so much more than any of us could be on our own.

The body of Christ as shelter

Two Sundays ago I got to preach at my church, Lake B, for the first time in person. The video is here if you’re interested in watching rather than reading it.

I was struck by how different it is to preach in person as opposed to recording a sermon online. Among a supportive community, it’s a beautiful thing. I’m thankful for the people who laugh at the funny parts and say “yes” or “amen” or nod their heads when they resonate with something.

Anyhow, I thought I’d share a written form of the sermon here in three segments. The topic of the sermon is “shelter, nurture, and spiritual fellowship of the children of God.” I got to choose a scripture passage to go along with it, and I chose 1 Corinthians 12:12-31.

Here’s the scripture passage in the NIV:

12 Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ. 13 For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink. 14 Even so the body is not made up of one part but of many.

15 Now if the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason stop being part of the body. 16 And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason stop being part of the body. 17 If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be? 18 But in fact God has placed the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be. 19 If they were all one part, where would the body be? 20 As it is, there are many parts, but one body.

21 The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” And the head cannot say to the feet, “I don’t need you!” 22 On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, 23 and the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor. And the parts that are unpresentable are treated with special modesty, 24 while our presentable parts need no special treatment. But God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the parts that lacked it, 25 so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. 26 If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.27 Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it. 28 And God has placed in the church first of all apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, of helping, of guidance, and of different kinds of tongues. 29 Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? 30 Do all have gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret? 31 Now eagerly desire the greater gifts.

And here’s the first part of the sermon—some initial general thoughts and then some thoughts focusing on shelter:

I really love the picture 1 Corinthians 12 paints of a community of interconnected members who all bring different gifts to the table—like a human body made up of many unique, connected, important parts. I love this idea that everyone has something to offer. And our differences make us stronger together.

We’re a couple weeks into a sermon series about the “Six Great Ends” of the church. This is apparently a Presbyterian thing that I’d never heard of until a few weeks ago. “Great Ends” is just a way of saying, these are some of the things we want church to be about at its core. These are some of the goals we’re aiming for. 

Some of the “Ends” we’ve talked about already are worship and the proclamation of the Gospel. Our “End” for this morning is shelter, nurture, and spiritual fellowship of the children of God. In the next couple weeks we’ll talk about things like social righteousness and preservation of the truth.

I kind of feel like I got the nice “End” here. Shelter, nurture, spiritual fellowship—these are all nice, warm, fuzzy, friendly things. They’re community-oriented, in a very nice and pleasant-sounding way. Things like proclamation, social righteousness, preservation of the truth all sound a little more challenging. But shelter, nurture, fellowship—it all sounds so nice and cozy.

One might even wonder: Why are we talking about comfy-sounding things like shelter and nurture? Aren’t we all about boldly confronting the powers that be, embodying justice, protesting and lamenting and engaging with our world in transformational ways? Aren’t shelter, nurture, and spiritual fellowship perhaps a little bit insular? Are they a little inward-focused—focused on ourselves rather than the broader communities we’re a part of?

In one sense, I would say, yes, kind of. They are all about us. They’re about the community we have among ourselves—by which I mean the people in this room, and the people tuning in online (hi), and the people who couldn’t make it this morning—anyone who considers Lake B their church community. It’s all about us—our togetherness, the strength of our connections and relationships.

But I would suggest that looking inward in our community is not at all at odds with our more obviously outward-facing values like justice and collaboration and hospitality—our values that center us in our broader communities beyond the walls of church. I would suggest that the strength of our nurture and fellowship within this community is actually what empowers us to do the work of justice in our world. The shelter and nurture we experience here strengthens the work of our lives beyond here. 

And, to flip things around, I would also suggest that when we do work for justice in our world, we aren’t just aiming for justice for justice’s sake. We’re aiming for justice because it’s an essential step toward building a truly beloved community. So it’s all connected together. These things reinforce one another.

These are some of the things I think about more generally when I think about today’s “End” in light of the metaphor of the human body from 1 Corinthians 12. But I also want to get into the specifics of the three different parts of this “End.” Let’s start with shelter.

I feel like shelter can have a bit of a negative vibe sometimes. We might say, you’re so sheltered, to mean sheltered from reality. Or, even worse, shelter can be used in the sense of a cover or hiding place—as in, that organization (or that church, theology, etc.) provides shelter for abusers. This is, of course, not the kind of shelter we want to be.

And yet, shelter, in some sense of the word, is a good thing. It’s something we all need. We all need safe spaces. I think of Jesus imagining himself as a mother hen who longs to gather her people under her wing (Luke 13:34). We all need safe places to gather, under wings of love and peace and comfort. 

What does it mean to cultivate truly safe space, truly safe community? When we read in scripture about the metaphor in the body, we see that the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are actually indispensable (1 Cor 12:22-3). They are treated with honor. 

Truly safe spaces are spaces where all of us are treated with honor. They’re spaces where the most vulnerable ones among us especially are treated with honor—or, really, where they’re recognized for the honor they already carry in their being. The dignity they already embody as children of God is recognized by the whole community. 

We live in a world where some people are considered dispensable. Sometimes that’s women, when our rights of autonomy are revoked. Sometimes that’s people of color, in our society built on racism and racial violence. Sometimes that’s grocery store workers and healthcare workers and other people considered “essential workers” but also considered dispensable during a pandemic. 

But in the metaphor of the body, there are no dispensable people. A community of safety—a community of shelter—lives out this reality. There are no dispensable people.

Really, the metaphor of the body is a metaphor of belonging. In a body there is no part that does not belong. And there is no person here among us who does not belong. Belonging is for everybody. This is where a true sense of safety and shelter come from—from knowing deep within ourselves that we belong. 

We can offer this gift of belonging to one another. This is what Jesus did throughout his life. I think of Jesus giving away belonging like Oprah gives away cars. You get a car, you get a car, you get a car. Everywhere Jesus went and everyone he interacted with—I picture him saying, basically, you belong, you belong, you belong. 

I picture him saying, you don’t deserve to be plagued by that demon. You belong. You with the illness—you belong. You who are outcast—you belong. 

You belong, exactly as you are. Not just the nice parts you like to show on social media. Not just the nice parts you like to bring to church. You belong—the real you. 

True shelter doesn’t mean we won’t hurt one another, or that we’re all perfect and have no room to grow. Far from it. But it does mean we are responsible to one another. We are accountable to one another. Shelter is shelter not necessarily for everything we say and do but for the core of who we are. 

We can claim this belonging for ourselves. And we can offer this belonging to one another. It’s the gift of shelter, and we share it with one another in community.

That’s the first part! Come back next week for the second section—thoughts on the body of Christ and the idea of nurture.

New post at Feminism & Religion

Just got done with a Zoom book discussion of Kyla Schuller’s The Trouble with White Women: A Counterhistory of Feminism. What a book. Definitely “super chill book review” material, so keep on the lookout for that sometime soon-ish.

(And spoiler alert: as a white woman, I didn’t feel nearly as offended as the title might perhaps make one worry. I didn’t feel like the book was criticizing me so much as inviting me into better ways of thinking about things and moving in this world. Which most of us very much need.)

One of the (many) things The Trouble with White Women made me think about was the (complicated) legacy of Margaret Sanger in regard to birth control and reproductive rights and that sort of highly-relevant-to-current-events thing. I wrote a post about all this at Feminism & Religion – check it out here if you like!

Fourth grade child, crucified

Processing the grief and horror of the school shooting in Uvalde, TX with a poem. God, have mercy.

Fourth Grade Child, Crucified

Fourth grade child on the cross,
you did not choose this.
There is nothing in you 
nor your family, friends, or schoolmates
that deserved this.
All forever changed without consent.

Where was Christ to wipe your tears
and who was there to honor 
all the sacred blood that left your side?

Fourth grade child, crucified
because the Romans shouted “freedom”
and would not give up their guns.
Because lobbyists lobbied 
and senators are spineless
and lines are drawn unjustly
and our addiction to violence 
is strong.

You deserved to live 
among a people who cared. 
You deserved a long life
among a people who are for life.
And now you deserve the birthing of a world
where this will never happen again.
Even so, you’re gone forever.
It would not be enough. 
It would be something.

Fourth grade child, 
the grief of those who love you
is real and raw 
and right and angry.
You were unprotected by 
the ones who pledged to keep you safe.
We failed you.
No excuses remain.
Nothing to be said
and nothing left to do
but bear witness and not turn away.
To grieve and scream.
Hold vigil.
Refuse to forget and move on.
Demand better.

Fourth grade child, innocent,
I need you to know -
I need us to show you tangibly -
your life was worth more than all the money in the world
and all the power thrown around
by those who lead 
but do not love us.

Super chill book review part 2: All the White Friends I Couldn’t Keep (Andre Henry)

As promised—and eagerly awaited, I’m sure!—this is the second part of a super chill book review of Andre Henry’s All the White Friends I Couldn’t Keep. (The first part is chillin over here if you didn’t catch it before.) 

Here are a few more quotes and thoughts.

4) On the language of “can’t”:

“That was the second time [seminary friend] Kevin used the word ‘can’t’ in regard to condemning slavery…He echoed his predecessors, who often wrote about how they couldn’t abolish slavery, because the world they were building depended on it too much. A straight line can be traced between the colonizers who claimed they couldn’t abolish slavery to white people today who ‘can’t’ condemn it in the present, nor imagine a world without its descendants: the police and prisons. Perhaps they do this because they know they can’t categorically condemn the violence that structures their world without implicating themselves” (pp. 87-8).

I hear and honor the specific context of race and racial violence that Andre’s writing about here. And, at the same time, when I read this, my mind also wanders to all the other things I’ve heard Christians say they can’t do.

For example, “I want to support women in ministry, but I can’t—it isn’t the way our church/denomination does things, and there isn’t enough will to change.” Or, “I want to affirm LGBTQ+ people and relationships, but I can’t—I just don’t see how the Bible could be understood in any way other than condemning.” 

What is this “can’t”? 

In a sense, it’s a sort of appeal to a higher authority. I want to do something, but some thing/person/rule/structure/system/theology/authority won’t allow me. At some point, though, in my view, we don’t get to absolve ourselves so easily of responsibility for our own choices and the impact they have. 

Sometimes, in order to be whole and healthy humans who want wholeness and health for others as well, we have to go against the way things have always been done. Sometimes we have to disagree with church/denominational higher-ups. Sometimes we have to read the Bible differently from what we’re used to or what everyone around us is doing. These things are not easy. But we can do them. 

We get to make choices, and we are responsible for these choices. Those who felt they couldn’t abolish slavery are still responsible for the suffering it caused; those who feel they can’t challenge the status quo today are still responsible for the suffering in our current world, whether by way of racial violence, institutionalized misogyny, homophobia, or any other forms it might take.

I don’t find it easy to imagine, as Andre writes, a world without…police and prisons. But, in solidarity with people who are most impacted by the injustice and violence of these systems, I can try.

5) On God and racism:

“I don’t think they always realize this, but when a Christian says God isn’t concerned about racism, they’re saying God doesn’t care about Black people. Those statements are inseparable. We fight for people we care about, period. If you saw a friend in danger, love would compel you to try to save them. So to say God won’t intervene against anti-Black violence, because it’s not important, could only mean God doesn’t love us” (pp. 120-1).

I read this, and I think about how sometimes Christians get some weird ideas about redemptive suffering. And it gets especially gnarly when people try to apply these ideas to other people’s lives rather than their own. 

If someone went through something difficult and felt that it was redeemed in some way, whether through character growth or something else good that came out of it, that’s great. I’m all for it. But I don’t think I get to tell someone who is not me that their suffering is redemptive.

Yet that is often what white people do to Black people. And it’s violent. It’s the opposite of loving. For those of us who are not Black, if we love our Black sisters and brothers and siblings, as Andre writes, we won’t try to tell them that God isn’t concerned about racism. We’ll believe with them in a God who fights for them—and we’ll join them in the fight.

6) On what comes next:

 “The question I have today is whether or not all those millions of people who filled the streets in 2020 for George Floyd and Breonna Taylor have realized that their next task is to use nonviolent direct action to cripple the operations of a repressive society. We’re not just fighting for white Americans to be nicer; we’re fighting against a corrupt empire. We must connect the struggle for Black lives today to previous movements against imperialism, authoritarianism, and fascism around the world and at home. We must learn from those movements and apply their lessons to our situation today, with the understanding that tinkering with the current system isn’t enough. The current system was built to oppress, which means it must be replaced. We must go from being a fundamentally unequal society sustained by violence to a truly egalitarian society sustained by mutual care. A revolution is necessary to make Black lives matter, and we have to plan it” (pp. 144-5).

I don’t really have anything to add to this—just wanted to include it here, because I feel like it captures the heart of a lot of what this book is about. 

Where do we go from the summer of 2020? What more is needed? What does continued and genuine antiracist engagement look like? We’re not just fighting for white Americans to be nicer. We’re fighting to become a truly egalitarian society sustained by mutual care. Amen to that.

7) On white folks who want to get involved:

“If white people are serious about fighting white supremacy and anti-Blackness, they need to start within themselves. This kind of work is essential because without it, white people will enter movement spaces and cause the same kinds of harm Black people are trying to get away from. They need to confront the ways they’ve been shaped by anti-Black ideas and been complicit in defending the racial hierarchy. They need to dedicate themselves to the work of fighting against racism in their own communities, instead of rushing straight into spaces where Black people are trying to heal and organize for our own freedom.

“White people should consider how they can organize for racial justice in ways that give Black people space: space where we’re free from the pressure to educate them, perform for them, or coddle them. One option is for white people to join non-Black ally movement groups that work in parallel with Black-led organizations and are accountable to trusted Black leaders: White People for Black Lives (WP4BL) or Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ), for instance. White people who really get it understand that such space is necessary” (p. 163).

As a white person hoping to be useful to the cause of racial justice—and who knows a lot of fellow white people in a similar boat (hi, Lake B)—I appreciate this warning and encouragement. Not every justice movement space is a space for us—and that’s okay. Not every space needs to be for us, and not every space should cater to us. 

This doesn’t mean we can’t be useful. It just means that anti-Blackness is so deeply ingrained in us that we need to be thoughtful, careful, and humble about where and how we show up, so that we don’t do more harm than good.

8) On hope:

 “Frankly, I thought hope was bullshit. Mostly because all of the hopeful people I knew had a tendency to minimize problems in order to stay positive. It seemed that the only people I knew who had hope weren’t paying close attention to what’s going on in the world. [Activist Rebecca Solnit’s book] Hope in the Dark was the beginning of a journey that would permanently shift my perspective.

“The idea that struck me most in Solnit’s book was that there’s a difference between hope and certainty. To be hopeful doesn’t mean we’re sure about the future. ‘Hope is an embrace of the unknown and the unknowable, an alternative to the certainty of both optimists and pessimists,’ she explains. ‘Optimists think it will all be fine without our involvement; pessimists adopt the opposite position; both excuse themselves from acting.’ My mouth dropped open when I first read those words. They gave me a concept of hope that looked ugly truths in the face and left room for human agency. It felt like good news” (p. 169).

I feel this tension between holding onto hope and trying to pay attention to what’s actually going on in the world. I also really enjoyed Hope in the Dark. I have not been engaged in activist scholarship and struggle nearly as deeply as Andre has, but in the ways I have tried to engage, Solnit’s book felt like good news to me, too.

As far as good news goes, I feel like many of us who’ve been involved in the evangelical world have been awakening to a realization that the white American evangelical gospel doesn’t actually feel like good news. (As Andre articulates in his song Playing Hookey.) So I think it’s worth asking, and paying attention to our answers: What does feel like good news?

What’s actual, legit good news for you? For your community? For those “with their backs against the wall,” as Howard Thurman writes in Jesus and the Disinherited? I don’t know if the answers that come to you will line up very well with a conservative evangelical version of Christianity. But I suspect God might be in them. 

Well, this really just scratches the surface of a few parts of Andre’s book. There’s a lot there. I hope you get a chance to read it, and I’d love to chat about it if so (here, FB, email, real life, whatever you prefer)!

Super chill book review part 1: All the White Friends I Couldn’t Keep (Andre Henry)

I was fortunate to cross paths with Andre Henry while studying at Fuller, and I have a great deal of respect for him as a musician, writer, and human. So my expectations for his first book, All the White Friends I Couldn’t Keep: Hope–and Hard Pills to Swallow–About Fighting for Black Lives (Convergent 2022), were pretty high.

All the White Friends I Couldn’t Keep did not disappoint. I knew Andre was brilliant, but it’s a whole other thing to see that brilliance laid out so eloquently, bravely, and compellingly on the pages of a whole book. I’m thankful for the labor of love this book must have been.

There are a few quotes and thoughts I’d like to share. It got kind of long, though, so we’re going to take it in two parts. Here’s the first! 

1) “Contrary to what people love to say about racial violence—that it springs from ignorance or blind hatred—the Maafa wasn’t, and isn’t, senseless. The crime was undertaken for a reason: profit. Over and over again, in their writings about the slave trade, white men spoke of how they must use the sweat and suffering of enslaved Africans to build their banks and textile industries, their ships and plantation homes, and to produce whatever else they ‘needed’ to buy or sell: their coffee, tea, sugar, rum, cotton, indigo. It was just business” (p. 20).

As Andre writes, racism doesn’t just exist in a vacuum. It doesn’t just exist because white people are randomly ignorant or hateful in random ways and for no particular reason.

Rather, it’s closely connected with a brutal, unchecked sort of capitalism, where profit is all that matters, and the people making ruthless decisions to pursue the greatest possible profit at any cost (to human life, the earth, etc.) keep themselves at many arms’ length from the consequences of these decisions.

I think about how greed and love of money are sins that Jesus has so much to say about but churches often don’t. In many churches the wealthiest people are the most respected, assumed to be the best leaders and the best influences on young people. But that wealth has often come at a cost. And the cost is often inflicted most brutally on people of color and materially poor people whose lives are considered expendable, an unfortunately necessary sacrifice. 

More and more churches and other organizations are opening up to conversations about race and racism, at least in some form. But we can’t have these conversations fully and honestly without also talking about capitalism, greed, money, and the (human) sacrifices powerful people are willing to make to increase their profits and amass grain in their storehouses.

2) As an enneagram type 1 and a (self-designated) Angry Woman, I appreciated Andre’s chapter on anger. These next few quotes are from that chapter.

“I spent a lot of time in the spring of 2015 trying to appear respectable to the white friends I couldn’t keep. I wanted to avoid the appearance of being angry, thinking it would be more persuasive. Because once white people sense you’re angry, you lose them. Just as I had with Sherry, I always responded to their racist comments with ‘I can see why you’d think that, but . . .,’ always giving them the benefit of the doubt. I thought I had to approach my white friends like that in those days—to educate them without offending them” (pp. 45-6).

I hear this. Maybe one of my goals as a white person trying to be antiracist should be to become unoffendable.

I know that may not be totally realistic, and it’s probably an odd way to put things. But what I really want is to become the kind of white friend (or white human in general) who can hear the truth of someone else’s experience, whatever it might be, and honor that truth. 

This truth can be different from my experience, and someone’s reflections on it might lead that person to different conclusions about the world than the ones I’ve come to. Even if that’s the case, though, hearing from that person is still a gift, not to be taken lightly—not to be undermined or violated by my defensiveness, but to be received with gratitude.

I don’t have to see everything the same way. I can still listen, try to be open, choose not to be offended but to learn.

3) A couple more quotes from Andre on anger:

“I’d been angry for as long as I could remember, from the day I came to recognize what it meant to be Black in this country, but I’d been trained to feel like rage was off-limits…

Angry is a loaded term for us because we know how rare it is for white people to respect it. When white people say you’re angry, they’re not saying, ‘I recognize how you feel, and that’s valid.’ More often, they’re appraising your character, naming an innate quality, a defect. You’re angry in the way that bacon is salty or mangoes are sweet, ‘one of those perpetually angry Blacks.’ It’s a statement of disapproval, meant to make us loosen our lips, fix our faces, and take the bass out of our voices. We’re expected to speak about the injustices that threaten our bodies the way someone would read the dosage instructions on a bottle of pills. Do anything else, and you risk a range of punishments: from a white friend shutting down the conversation to an officer pinning you to the ground” (pp. 48-9).

We’re expected to speak about the injustices that threaten our bodies the way someone would read the dosage instructions on a bottle of pills. I feel that. It’s so clearly not right. I think this is a metaphor that will stick with me. 

“Rank-and-file white people also try to stamp out Black rage wherever it emerges. They tell us Black anger is destructive and can’t be trusted. The truth is just the opposite.

“Black rage is trustworthy because it carries an analysis of present injustices. On a physiological level, anger is the body’s way of telling us that a boundary has been violated. It’s the natural emotional response humans have to being wronged, especially if that wrong is recurring and denied by the harmdoers. Therefore, Black rage is a healthy sign that we as a people recognize the crimes that have been, and continue to be, committed against us. Our anger is based in our personal experiences of anti-Black hostility in the white world and backed by our knowledge of our history.

“Black rage can be constructive because anger can be the starting point of hope. If anger is something like an alarm system, telling us things ought not to be a certain way, then it’s likely that we already hold some idea for how things ought to be. That vision of how things ought to be is the most important building block for a revolution; after all, it’s hard to build a world we haven’t envisioned” (p. 53).

Anger can be the starting point of hope, because it signals that we already hold some idea for how things ought to be. In this light, we can see that attempts to quell or placate anger are often really attacks on hope—they’re conservative maneuvers that uphold the status quo. 

Let’s learn to be comfortable with anger—our own, and others,’ and especially that of people on the underside of the power structures of our world. Let’s pay attention to what this anger is telling us about what ought to be.

More to come later this week!

Public property, 73%, centering, and quickening: four brief thoughts on abortion

You may not be surprised to hear that, over the last few days—like much of the U.S.—I’ve been thinking about abortion. Sometimes I see people—mostly Christians—say that they feel like they “need” to weigh in. I don’t really feel that need. 

Part of it is that I generally don’t feel the need to weigh in on anything right away. My first reaction is usually not the best-thought-out one, and I would rather stew for a while and then hopefully say something more thoughtful if or when I have something to say. 

I also don’t really want to play into the news/media/outrage cycle that tends to happen. Often an issue gets a lot of attention for a few days, but really it’s a long-term, long-standing thing. And there are lots of people who have devoted many years of their lives to it. I’d rather listen to those people—the experts on a given topic, those who are committing their time and energy beyond the two days when it’s trending and at the forefront of everyone’s mind—than feel the need for everyone to speak all at once, whether or not we know much at all about it.

Basically, if I speak or write, I want to contribute to movements working to build a better world for the long haul—which often means choosing not to react spontaneously to whatever seems most egregious at the moment.

Caveats and hesitations aside, though, I’ve been thinking about abortion and the complex web of issues that come up whenever people start talking about it. And I have four brief thoughts.

1. Women’s bodies as public property

This is what I think about when I see abortion-related conversations go down. I find it kind of mind-blowing that people have so many opinions and philosophies and theologies about this thing that is so intensely intimate and personal. It’s not just an abstract topic for debate; it’s real women’s medical care, pregnancies, bodies. 

People feel so free to state their opinions to anyone who might listen and many who will not. This is a reminder, to me, of how women’s bodies are often treated as public property. 

I believe Paula Stone Williams writes about this in As a Woman: What I Learned About Power, Sex, and the Patriarchy After I Transitioned. Paula is a transgender woman who reflects on how life is different for her now since transitioning in her sixties. Among many other things, once she transitioned, she noticed that people feel free to comment on her appearance in a way they didn’t feel free when they saw her as a man. She felt as if her body, for the first time, was considered public property.

Would people feel the need to state their opinions on difficult health care decisions—not to mention related topics of pregnancy risks, and rape and incest, and teen pregnancy, and that sort of thing—if it were primarily a conversation about men’s bodies? It’s kind of hard to imagine. What men can or can’t do tends to be seen as their own decision. 

So I guess I generally feel like it should feel more uncomfortable to talk about abortion than it is. And when we do talk about it, I would love to hear more respect for the privacy, autonomy, and agency of every woman who has had to make difficult pregnancy choices. 

There’s something a little dehumanizing when this sensitivity is lacking—something a little disturbing about how everyone feels the need to weigh in with opinions that are often more intellectual than personal, more overly generalized than sensitive to individuals’ needs, highly ideological and not nearly nuanced enough to take into account all the complexities life and pregnancy and birth and parenthood hold. 

2. 73% of Americans care about my life

I’ve been sitting with a statistic I saw the other day: “73% of Americans say abortion should be legal if the woman’s life or health is endangered by the pregnancy” (see full Pew Research article).

(To be fair, only 11% say it should be illegal in that case—but I’m also not super happy with the 14% who say “it depends.” I’m not at all sure I want people looking at each individual woman to decide whether her life matters—and when people do that, it’s hard to imagine that things like race and socioeconomic status wouldn’t come into play.)

73%. What this statistic makes me feel is that if I were pregnant, and if there were complications such that my life were at risk, less than three out of every four people I meet in daily life or shop with at the grocery store feel quite sure that they would want my life to be saved. That doesn’t feel very good. 

I think of the psalmist’s lament: no one is concerned for me; no one cares for my life (Psalm 142:4). I’m sitting with this—for myself as a woman, and also, especially, in solidarity with women who have experienced real danger in pregnancy.

3. Center those most impacted

This is something we’ve learned from various social justice movements. Why would it be any different when it comes to conversations about abortion?

I remember the time, back when I was working in college ministry, that some of the students wanted to attend an on-campus debate about abortion. So off we went to the debate. Both speakers were men. 

On the one hand, I was used to stuff like that. On the other hand, and especially in retrospect, it was kind of surreal. It didn’t make any sense. What exactly qualified these two men as experts on something that impacted other people’s bodies more than their own?

If we’re going to talk about uteruses, we have to center the voices of people who have uteruses. If we’re going to talk about pregnancy, we have to center the voices of people who have experienced pregnancy. If we’re going to talk about abortion, we have to center the voices of people who have made a difficult choice to end their pregnancy. Likewise, if we’re going to talk about various options for abortion-ban exceptions—things like rape, or incest, or risks to the mother’s life—we have to center the voices of people who have experienced these things.

I don’t want any of these people to feel like they have to speak. They get to choose whether they want to speak. But there are those who are speaking. Are the rest of us listening?

4. Quickening

In my younger and more conservative days, I used to think that since I was a Christian, I believed that life began at conception. It was all part and parcel of being a believer. 

I’ve learned, since then, that the “life begins at conception” argument is really a rather recent one. There is a long, long historical Christian tradition of people who didn’t necessarily think this way. (Alternatively, if you think there weren’t any true Christians in the world until the last half of the twentieth century…I suppose that’s a view you could take.)

I think of this fascinating article from a couple years back. Its author, Dr. Freidenfelds, is a historian who spent fifteen years researching and writing about miscarriage. Freidenfelds suggests that, in the earlier years of Christianity, people believed the soul of a baby entered the baby’s body when the mother first felt her child move in her womb—a moment known as “quickening.” 

That makes a lot of sense to me. And even if it doesn’t make sense to you, it’s an example of how Christian beliefs about souls and bodies and fetuses and life have changed dramatically over time. “Life begins at conception” is a newer idea, and it is not a statement every Christian must believe. 

Well, those are my four thoughts. I don’t really want to provoke more debate, but do feel free to share your own thoughts and feelings over these last few days—I’d love to hear.

Post at Feminism & Religion – Jesus, temptation, and gender

I’ve enjoyed being able to contribute a couple of articles to Feminism & Religion in the last couple months. Here’s another!

It’s about the second temptation of Jesus in the wilderness, as told in Luke 4. We talked about this passage in a church small group a few weeks back, and our conversation got me thinking. How might Jesus have been tempted differently if he had been a woman?

The piece is pretty speculative, but I’ve really come around to the view that that’s often how scripture operates at its best. It brings up questions, makes us think about things, gets us going off on what might seem like tangents but really are the things that are real and pressing in our lives – and I think we’re meant to bring all of this to the Bible and faith and church and everything.

So, check out the article, and feel free to holler here or at Feminism & Religion or otherwise if you have thoughts!