Carter Heyward is one of the most influential and controversial theologians of our time. Under headings Speaking Truth to Power, Remembering Who We Are, and Celebrating Our Friends, she reflects on how movements for gender and sexual justice reverberate globally. In this volume of occasional pieces, the lesbian feminist theologian bears witness to the sacred struggles to topple oppressive power. These pieces illustrate feminist theologys bold and transformative engagement of its cultural, political, social, and theological contexts.
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Keep Your CourageA Radical Christian Feminist Speaks
By Carter Heyward
Seabury BooksCopyright © 2010 Carter Heyward
All right reserved.
Chapter OneMessages to the Empire
Every year the graduating class at the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, invites a member of the faculty to preach at its Commencement Eucharist. I preached this sermon on 19 May 2004. The word 'Empire' refers here not, primarily, to the United States of America but rather to the structures of global capitalism and militarism which generate economic and social injustice in the United States and throughout the world.
Sister Angela (see also Chapter 31), a contemplative Anglican nun, mystical priest, and beloved friend of many of ours here at the Episcopal Divinity School told a story about a three-year-old Australian boy named Bobby whose parents overheard him one night leaning over the crib of his newly arrived sister: 'Baby! Baby! Wake up and tell me about God, because I've begun to forget what God is like!' This is the kind of story we cherish because it makes us happy, even perhaps ecstatic, to imagine such a God and such a child as little Bobby. I love this story! I believe this story, and I wanted to share it with you, because it is a beautiful introduction – and counterpoint – to a Commencement service about loving such a God in the age of Empire.
Be clear that the God whom young Bobby is trying to remember is the same God about whom we have been hearing in today's lessons, appointed by the Prayer Book as lessons for 'Ministry'. They are lessons which need to be heard as lessons about ministry in the Empire: a ministry of speaking truth to power, of speaking up in the context of a deafening silence. It is a ministry we share with our christic brother from Nazareth – a ministry of solidarity with those left standing outside the centres of power; a ministry today of helping save the people, like Bobby, his sister, and all creatures great and small from the devastation we will surely endure if our nation continues to pursue its policies of arrogant and reckless disregard, of waging war for the sake of profit and making profit for the sake of the rich.
If Mel Gibson's slasher film The Passion of the Christ has any theological merit, it is in its portrayal of how Empires treat those who, like Jesus and his disciples, are experienced as troublemakers. Rome was Jesus' imperial context and that of the early church. Ours today is the United States of America and a world being shaped by it. Our context as Christians is also the Church. So let's try to hear this afternoon, in this double context of world and Church, what Bobby's God is saying to the Church.
In the reading from Exodus, we hear God exhorting the people of Israel, through Moses their leader, to obey God's voice and keep God's commandments. And why should they do this? Because they, the people of Israel, are a chosen people. It is a tradition Christians share with Jews – to think of ourselves as chosen by God. It is a tradition fraught with danger, especially the danger of mistakenly lifting ourselves above others as a people set apart by God to be his only chosen, an exclusive people, a 'designer people'. It is a dreadful mistake shared too often by Christianity, Judaism, and Islam to the exclusion of one another and of all other 'heretics' and 'infidels' within and beyond the 'chosen' tradition.
But listen to what Psalm 15 has to say about being God's chosen people: 'O Lord, who may abide in your tent? Who may dwell on your holy hill? Those who walk blamelessly and do what is right. Those who speak truth from the heart.' God isn't saying that only Israelis may abide in the tent or that only Palestinians may dwell on the holy hill or that only Christians will inherit eternal life. God is not talking about who we are, dear friends, or what religion we may profess. God is interested in how we act, what we do, whether we love our neighbours as ourselves, whether we forgive our enemies as we wish to be forgiven. In our advanced capitalist global order, as graduate Brad Brockmann reminds us, God is choosing us to lift the burden – literally, the debt – from off the back of the poor, so that the poor can live and thrive with us, our sisters and brothers, in God's world.
To live as people chosen by God is thus to extend our wings as far as we can and – with the Holy Spirit as the wind beneath our wings – to soar toward inclusivity, seeking out those who have been marginalized by us or others, those cast out by the dominant social order and, too often, by the deafening silence of the liberal church. Indeed, our critique of the world must always include a critique of the Church, because our religious organizations are shaped by the same social forces, fear and greed, which are distorting the shape of the world around us.
So one message we are called to bring to the Empire is that, whatever our identity, whatever our social location, we are never, ever, chosen by God to be an exclusive people.
As you graduates can attest, the EDS curriculum includes a required course called 'Foundations', hardly anyone's favourite course, because it calls us all to a vocation of self-criticism, of studying critically our power relations as people of different races, cultures, classes, genders, sexualities, religious traditions, and other varieties of social location. Learning how to be self-critical, to notice how we are shaped by, and often benefit from, power relations, helps prepare us spiritually to speak truth to power.
So then, to be chosen by God is to learn about power, to make justice roll down like waters, to love mercy, to walk humbly with our God, understanding ourselves as rooted and grounded in the same God as every other creature, human and other, on earth and throughout and beyond the cosmos.
To be chosen by God in this cosmos is also to dare to dream big spiritual dreams – to envision an earth upon which no one is an alien, a world in which there is no terrorism because there is no poverty, no oppression, no Guantanamos. Can we imagine a world in which there would be no suicide bombers because all horrific systemic oppressions which sap the human spirit would have been dismantled and laid to rest? Can we dream such a world in which there would be no Departments of Homeland Security, because religious fanaticism would have given way to respect for spiritual and cultural differences?
Can we stretch our minds and hearts to imagine our own involvement in the un-doing of the major evil of the postmodern world – the greed of unfettered global capitalism? Dare we dream that our own small lives can make a big difference as we struggle toward that utopian realm – Jesus called it the 'kingdom of God' – when the lust for profit has finally succumbed to the 'constant love for one another' of which 1 Peter speaks?
Can we bear to imagine ourselves sharing the christic willingness to lose our life – our security as religions and as nations – in order to find our life as a people chosen and blessed by God?
Bear in mind that one of the ways the Empire keeps us in bondage is by trivializing our dreams. The Empire badly wants us to dream small dreams about computers and clothes and chocolate. The Empire uses fear as a tool, wanting us to be overly preoccupied with staying safe. We are well-trained by the Empire to be good consumers and good citizens, cultivated to ignore our big spiritual dreams. After all, fear shrinks us spiritually – and the Empire, like its capitalist foundation, is cemented in a collective fear crafted to make us believe that the less things change, the better.
So, another message we are to bring to the Empire and to our churches is the stuff of big spiritual dreams – a message of God's universal love, of his dances of universal peace, of her dreams of a 'common language', in the words of the remarkable Jewish lesbian feminist poet Adrienne Rich.
Still another message we should send to Empire and to the Church today is that we will not let ourselves be silenced, as church people or as citizens, by the predictable plea for patience with injustice and oppression. Jesus asks us to consider what it will profit us – as a nation – to gain the whole world, what it will profit us – as a church – to contain all the people, and especially the ones with money, if we lose our rootedness in the Spirit of justice-making, reconciliation, and compassion, especially for those most marginalized?
Martin Luther King wrote in 1963 from a jail cell in Birmingham, Alabama, that the white moderate who envisioned peace as a absence of conflict rather than as the 'presence of justice' had deeply disappointed him and had proved to be a more problematic 'stumbling block' to freedom than those members of the White Citizen's Council or of the Ku Klux Klan.
Let us beware of the constant temptation we face as clergy and lay leaders in the world and Church – to mistake appeasement with love and efforts to minimize tension with peace. This is the mistake of the liberal church's current response to the jubilant 'gay marriages' blossoming in the Spirit all around us here in Massachusetts today. Thanks be to God!
This leads me to suggest that we should be clear to the Church in these times that we, the people of God, are called to help lead the way through these confounding times.
Those who believe that God's spirit arcs toward justice, those who believe that love is concrete, economic, and nonviolent, those who have faith that God's love is for all persons and creatures, those persons, you, I, and many, many others are called to help lead the way in both world and Church today, not to follow along once it seems safe. What a feckless vocation that would be!
Our former colleague and pioneer for the ordination of women, Sue Hiatt (see Chapter 32), often made the point that whenever in the journey for justice church leaders slow down for fear of going too fast and getting too far ahead of the people, the Church winds up getting rear-ended – and is shown, yet again, to be the caboose rather than the engine in God's movement for a better world.
A final message the people of God should send to the Empire is that life in the Spirit, life in the struggle, is a blessing and often a joy experienced with gratitude and humility. It's not only dangerous to live in the Spirit, although it is that, but it's also a pleasure. It's not about long faces and over-serious attitudes. To live willingly and gratefully in God's Spirit is to be good-humoured and enthusiastic, not because it's an easy way to live, but because it's such a wondrous opportunity to learn and grow and teach together, to pray and play and march together, to protest and rest and love and work together!
Of course, living together in this Spirit of mutuality and joy means that our spiritual engine must keep chugging along on tracks which run counter to, and often cross, those of the dominant capitalist spirituality and its politics in a postmodern world. There will be many collisions and more than a few casualties. So one of our tasks as God's people is to help one another learn how to weather conflict and how to survive, if possible, our crashes with the Empire within and beyond the Church.
The founders of Alcoholics Anonymous figured it out: It is only as a team, only together – understanding our survival, our sanity, and our spiritualities as utterly bound up in one another's – that we have even a chance of surviving the violence and insanity, which threatens to suck us collectively, as well as individually, into the abyss.
And so, my friends, here we are at this commencement, a time of new beginnings, of going our separate ways. May we never forget that we go together in God. May the Holy One of Mary and Jesus, the Liberating Spirit of Church and world, give us the serenity, courage, and wisdom to live faithfully in Her Spirit, wherever on this planet we may find ourselves. May we keep learning, forever learning, how better to share the earth, how better to love one another, how ever more gracefully to let ourselves be borne on eagle's wings, soaring in the Spirit which arcs toward justice, the same God that little Bobby asked his sister about, the One who is our first and final home. God bless us one and all!
Chapter TwoBeyond Shameful Theology
This piece was published in The Charlotte [NC] Observer on 24 September 2001. I wrote it in response to the Reverend Jerry Falwell's contention that the terrorist attacks of September 11 were God's punishment of the United States because of the presence of lesbians, feminists, abortionists, and liberals. Falwell was interviewed by the Reverend Pat Robertson on Robertson's television show The 700 Club, where Falwell said:
I really believe that the pagans and the abortionists and the feminists and the gays and lesbians who are actively trying tomake that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People for the American Way, all of them who have tried to secularize America, I point the finger in their face and say 'you have helped this happen'.
Christians everywhere must emphatically reject the theology of the Reverends Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and other narrow-minded Christians who are inclined to interpret the terrible events of September 11 as God's judgement upon this nation or upon any group of people in it. As Episcopal Bishop Jane Holmes Dixon of Washington DC has stated in the strongest possible terms, this theology is 'beyond shameful'. It has nothing to do with the love of God or Jesus of Nazareth. It also has nothing to do with Christian morality, which is about the deeply human struggles for right relation, not self-righteous judgements upon everybody except oneself and one's own.
We who are Christians, as well as people of other spiritual traditions such as Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, and Wiccan need to be clear and public in our shared affirmation of the power of love in history. This Sacred Power, which most Christians call 'God', heals the wounds which divide us. This God is a Spirit which 'arcs toward justice', as Martin Luther King, Jr., said. In no way is this God ever involved in terrorist activities, except as God is deeply present with the victims and their loved ones.
The notion of a deity, who violently wipes out his enemies, is a terrible misinterpretation of Christian scripture with historic roots in our deep fear of 'enemies' and in our very human inclination to make 'God' in the image of this fear. The best that can be said about the Falwell–Robertson charge that – due to the presence among us of feminists, lesbians, gay men, abortionists, and other liberals – God chose not to 'protect' the United States from terrorism is that this spiritually ignorant view reflects its proponents' own fears and moral confusion. It would be simply a pathetic view if its proponents had not become so politically influential over the last several decades.
As it is, the fear-based theology of Falwell–Robertson has become a political instrument of division and destruction being wielded against those whom they believe to be the enemies of God. This weapon is being used not only in the name of a judgmental and violent God but also, increasingly, in the name of the United States of America. This theology of fear and hate needs to be named for what it is: shameful and blasphemous in relation to the God of love, justice, and compassion, the One whom Jesus loved, and the One whom Moses and Mohammed also loved.
Especially chilling at this moment is the realization that the Falwell–Robertson version of Christianity is a very close cousin to the theology of those who bombed the World Trade Center and Pentagon with hijacked commercial airliners last week. What we witnessed in horror as the planes hit their targets, taking with them thousands of our brothers and sisters, was the dramatization of a theology of fear, hatred, and narrow-minded absolutism in which its proponents assumed that they, and they alone, could speak for God and indeed represent God in the wiping out of his enemies. Whether a perversion of Islam (as it seems to have been in this case) or, in other instances, a perversion of Judaism or Christianity, this wretched theology of judgement and violence is a primary source of evil among us. In the name of God, we must reject it.
Excerpted from Keep Your Courage by Carter Heyward Copyright © 2010 by Carter Heyward. Excerpted by permission of Seabury Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Part 1 Messages to the Empire 1
1 Messages to the Empire (2004) 4
2 Beyond Shameful Theology (2001) 10
3 Queer Christ: Transforming Anger into Hope (2004) 13
4 The Passion of Mel Gibson (2004) 18
5 Why I Decided to Solemnize Marriages between Persons of the Same Sex (2004) 22
6 Make Us Prophets and Pastors! An Open Letter to Gay and Lesbian Leaders in the Anglican Communion (2005) 26
7 Some Violent Connections: Capitalism, War, Religion, Fear and Women (2006) 38
8 Strong Faith: Martin Luther King Prayer Breakfast (2006) 54
9 The Dream Continues: Martin Luther King, Jr, Day Celebration (2007) 62
10 The Wisdom to Lead: Why I Support Obama (2008) 74
11 Feminism and Love (2009) 79
Part 2 Remembering Who We Are 85
12 Compassion and Enemy-Love: The Hope of the World (2000) 89
13 Pentecost and Harry Potter (2000) 95
14 Godbearing in Hopeless Times (2001) 98
15 God of All, Not Just Humans (2002) 111
16 The Horse as Priest (2002) 118
17 Good Friday: The Ones at the Foot of the Cross (2003) 122
18 Forgiveness (2004) 125
19 Stubbornness in the Spirit (2004) 129
20 Queer Conspiracy! (2004) 133
21 A Path Wide Open: Sexual and Gender Diversity (2006) 139
22 Remembering Who We Are: People of Soul (2007) 152
23 But How Do We Love? (2008) 159
24 Humility: Root of Compassion (2008) 164
25 God's Fierce Whimsy (2008) 169
26 Light as a Feather (2005) 176
Part 3 Celebrating Our Friends 184
27 Womanism and Feminism: Honouring Delores S. Williams (2005) 186
28 The World According to Bev: Honouring Beverly Wilding Harrison (2007) 190
29 Beyond Liberal Feminism: Responding to Rosemary Ruether (2007) 200
30 Biophilic Courage and Be-Dazzling Creativity: Responding to Mary Daly (1998) 204
31 An Almost Unbearable Lightness of Being: Remembering Sister Angela (2002) 210
32 What Will We Do Without Sue?: Remembering Sue Hiatt (2002) 218
33 Making Us Homeless: Remembering Dorothee Soelle (2003) 223
34 Keep Your Courage: Remembering Bishop DeWitt (2004) 228
35 Like a Little Child: Remembering My Mother (2009) 233