Birmingham Woman Shares Some of her Final Memories with Lived Theology Group

Contributed by guest author Marie Sutton

Just a few weeks after meeting the Prophet with a Pencil scholars and theologians to share her story of being jailed and persecuted for freedom, civil rights foot soldier Betty “BJ Love” King passed away.

The 72-year-old Birmingham, Alabama woman sacrificed her childhood through countless non-violent protests and demonstrations to help break the back of segregation in what Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. called “the most segregated city in America.” She was with the Lived Theology group in early June at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute and softly spoke of the path that led her to fight segregation. She died, surrounded by her family, on June 19.

BJ Love (center) at the Prophet With a Pencil meeting
Photo by H. Jay Dunmore.

“There is a scripture that says, ‘He who has ear let him hear.’ She was one of those who heard the cry to fight against segregation,” said King’s sister Dr. E. Dashanaba King, of Ghana. And, up until her passing, King never closed her ear or silenced her call for equality and social justice for the disenfranchised.

As a 16-year-old preacher’s kid in 1963, the young woman was sitting in class at Wenonah High School in Birmingham when the “freedom bus” pulled up to recruit students to volunteer to protest laws that prevented African Americans equal access to public accommodations. While others stalled, King popped up and walked out the door.

She and others were transported to the city fairgrounds where stiff-necked policemen treated them like chattel, putting them and other children as young as 8 in cages. The young people weren’t given food and watched as their desperate parents tried to push rations through the gate. Eventually, King and the others were taken to the downtown jail where convicted criminals and thugs called home.

“She didn’t know all the fearful situations she would be getting into,” King’s sister recalled, “but she wasn’t afraid.”

King was reared by a foot soldier. Her father, the late Rev. Floyd King Sr., was an active movement man who hosted the People’s Religious Broadcast radio show and also walked alongside Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth and Dr. Martin Luther King.

“He would always tell us we had to do the will of God. When you feel in your heart that you have to do it, you have to do it. ‘He who has ears let him hear.’”

After being released from jail, King shared her testimony at mass rallies and church services across the city in order to help recruit other young people. And, she continued her fight against segregation, feeling the sting of water hoses and knowing the threat of being bitten by police dogs. She participated in at least 40 Freedom Rides and engaged in sit-ins and kneel-ins at white churches. She also boycotted the local library as well as countless whites-only lunch counters at restaurants and retailers. And, she was among the thousands of young people who attended the historic March on Washington.

Eventually, King and her family moved to New York. There, she took her voice to the radio airwaves alongside her father. On Sunday mornings, they would co-host a show bringing on various local choirs and gospel artists. King also shined a particularly special spotlight on what would be a fusion of gospel music and Caribbean beats that she coined, “Gospelipso.” She even penned an award-winning play called “Hallelujah New Orleans,” which was performed at the historic Cotton Club in Harlem.

In addition, King worked professionally as a certified physical therapist technician at the Brooklyn Veterans Affairs Medical Center where she got the nickname, the “singing lady with healing hands.”

“She had the biggest heart,” her sister said. “That’s why her name is BJ Love.”

Years later, King made her way back to Birmingham where she was active with social justice organizations and well as being back on the airwaves with her show “From the Mountain 2 the Valley Civil Rights Broadcast” and then later co-hosted “Great Legends in Gospel.”

In 2011, she and five other women were granted pardons for their 1963 conviction of “parading without a permit” under a city law called the Rosa Parks Act. King initiated the request and got it granted along with the other women, including her sister, Carolyn, who in 1964 integrated the all-white Jones Valley High School.

“I want her to be remembered as a lady of love,” King’s sister remarked. “Also, I want her to be known as a woman who always encouraged you to never give up. No matter your lot, if you find yourself in the fiery furnace do not give up.”

For more event details and up-to-date event listings please click here to visit the PLT Events page. We also post updates online using #PLTevents. To get these and other news updates, please like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter @LivedTheology. To sign up for the Lived Theology monthly newsletter, click here.

On the Lived Theology Reading List: A More Beautiful and Terrible History

A More Beautiful and Terrible History: The Uses and Misuses of Civil Rights History, by Jeanne TheoharisThe Uses and Misuses of Civil Rights History

In A More Beautiful and Terrible History, political science professor Jeanne Theoharis aims to bust myths about the civil rights movement. According to Theoharis, the civil rights movement in popular memory has wrongly become “A narrative of dreamy heroes and accidental heroines, the story was narrowed to buses and lunch counters and southern redneck violence.” (pg. xiii) In correcting this inaccurate portrayal the book address numerous issues including the persistence of northern racism, and the unpopularity of Martin Luther King among white Americans. A More Beautiful and Terrible History makes the point that how we tell the history of civil rights struggles is never removed from contemporary political concerns.

Reviews and endorsements of the publication include:

“A bracing corrective to a national mythology that renders figures like King ‘meek and dreamy, not angry, intrepid and relentless’…It’s clarifying to read a history that shows us how little we remember, and how much more there is to understand.”—New York Times

“In A More Beautiful and Terrible History, Jeanne Theoharis debunks nearly a dozen national fables of polite civil rights workers humbly petitioning the nation to become a ‘more perfect union.’ The propaganda of America’s exceptionalist history, she demonstrates, not only distorts the truth of the nation’s deep and recurring commitment to systemic racism. These ‘mis-histories’ of the civil rights movement discredit the actual and necessary work of antiracist activists today, whose youthful courage and creativity are the real legacy of the past.”—Khalil Muhammad, author of The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime, and the Making of Modern Urban America

“Jeanne Theoharis is one of our nation’s finest civil rights scholars. She brings an incisive, urgent and unique critical perspective to our understanding of an era that is increasingly distorted and misunderstood. A More Beautiful and Terrible History is an important book that sheds new light on our recent past and yields a fresh understanding of our tumultuous present.”—Bryan Stevenson, author of Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption

For more information on the publication, click here.

Fellow travelers are scholars, activists, and practitioners that embody the ideals and commitments of the Project on Lived Theology. We admire their work and are grateful to be walking alongside them in the development and dissemination of Lived Theology.

For more of “On the Lived Theology Reading List,” click here. To engage in the conversation on Facebook and Twitter, @LivedTheology, please use #LivedTheologyReads. For more recommended resources from our fellow travelers, click here, #PLTfellowtravelers. To sign up for the Lived Theology monthly newsletter, click here.

Kindly use

Every remembered place had been displaced, every love
unloved, every vow unsworn, every word unmeant
to make way for the passage of the crowd
of the individuated, the autonomous, the self-actuated, the homeless
with their many eyes opened only toward the objective
which they did not yet perceive in the far distance,
having never known where they were going,
having never known where they came from.

— excerpt from A Timbered Choir (Prologue) by Wendell Berry

There a few writers who capture the “placelessness” of contemporary society as well as poet, author, and farmer Wendell Berry. As a millennial formed in the crucible of technology and transiency, I feel haunted by Berry’s descriptions of the pervading monoculture in the United States, a culture defined by consumption and disconnection from geographic location. Indeed, our historical moment is one in which travel-for-the-sake-of-travel is a prevalent past-time, social media has rendered space and time basically irrelevant in the spread of information, and the majority of the World’s population lives in urban areas with limited interaction with their terrestrial environments. I think I am unsettled by Berry’s words because, admittedly, I recognize within myself a propensity toward these lifestyles and so I feel a sense of complicity in their problematic byproducts—American imperialism, desensitization to reports or images of violence and suffering, urban colonialism, just to name a few. However, despite the strange ways globalization has impacted my development, I feel a kindred attraction to alternative modes of existence, ones that value place and people, soil and thrift. I wonder, what does Wendell Berry’s deeply rooted witness have to teach me, the placeless?

Ocean and sky

As I was reading “Covenantal Economics” a marvelous chapter by Ellen Davis, I was captivated by the notion of “kindly use” a term which arises from none other than Berry himself. Davis explains that “kindly use” is, according to Berry, the spiritual discipline of “caring for land in its particularity” which demands a kind of “local knowledge.”[1] This sentiment is indisputably wise, intensely practical, and very lovely…but what wisdom does it hold for those of us who are not interacting with the earth in our daily work, let alone “caring for land”? Perhaps Davis and Berry are speaking to something deeper, something having to do with stewardship and paying attention. Davis clarifies, “Kindly use depends upon intimate knowledge, the most sensitive responsiveness and responsibility.”[2] Which leads me to believe kindly use points toward a larger ethic, an ethic which insists that humanity and creation are designed to live in mutually constitutive relationship, and that humanity ought to reverently “tend and keep” the lands we only temporarily inhabit (Genesis 2:15).

Mountains and ocean

This introduces another countercultural characteristic of kindly use—an “economics of permanence.”[3] When I first considered an economics of permanence, I wondered if Davis and Berry were speaking in contrast to the placelessness and transiency I described above. However, the more I contemplate an economics of permanence, the more it seems to be something else, something any individual can and ought to practice regardless of the measure of stability in one’s life (lest we forget stability itself a great privilege). Perhaps an economics of permanence necessitates that we would treat our land and our resources with a boarder vision in mind, one that extends beyond ourselves into both past and future. Consider that land you which sustains you, your loved ones, your livelihood. Who and what inhabited the same land previously? What are the stories of the land, the people who did or did not practice kindly use? Did they leave in their wake a generous coverlet of nutrient rich topsoil and a vibrant watershed? Or did they prioritize extraction and profit making, perhaps stripping mountains of their covers and protective skins? An economics of permanence demands acknowledging, addressing, and responding to such histories. It also necessitates looking forward and implementing practices which will benefit the generations to come, generations that will live under the approaching shadow of Climate devastation and its fatalistic effects. An economics of permanence challenges us frail and finite creatures to ponder and live into a world bigger and beyond us—the Great economy of the Kingdom of God, where all living things exist in symbiotic relationship with one another.

[1] Ellen F. Davis, Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture: an Agrarian Reading of the Bible (Cambridge University Press: 2009), 108.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

Letters, marches, and protests: all necessary, none sufficient

“What a time to be alive.” These are the words that I’ve heard probably most frequently during my time here in DC. It’s a complex time of disappointing politics and incredible community organizing. I’m consistently torn between feelings of deep grief and lament for the injustices that are unfolding before my eyes in this country and in this world, and feelings of inspirational hope from the community organizing that demands accountability and responsibility from our political leaders. I’ve seen our Attorney General use scripture as a weapon to defend unjust policies. I’ve seen our president use and encourage a rhetoric of egregiously hateful and derogatory language towards a group of people who are fleeing for their lives. However, I’ve also seen resilient community organizers call people to action and rally thousands of people to protest and speak out against these political failures. I’ve seen the Church, although admittedly somewhat waveringly, stand in opposition, condemn these injustices, and defend the actuality of scripture’s contents. What a time to be alive.

This past week, I caught myself repeating this phrase almost daily. My week was full of events that I could talk about individually for hours. I could tell you about a gathering of public theologians I attended for the official publication of a statement signed by over 300 religious scholars condemning the actions of President Trump’s border policies. I could tell you about hearing widely respected religious leaders like Sister Simone, from Nuns on the Bus, or Rev. Adam Taylor, the new executive director of Sojourners, denounce this administration’s recent actions. I could tell you about being speechless as I witnessed one of the most impressive demonstrations I have seen in the atrium of the Hart Senate Office Building by the Women’s March where almost 600 women acted boldly in solidarity with the detained immigrants by performing acts of civil disobedience and being arrested. I could tell you about the pure excitement my office felt when the Farm Bill, which we have been exhaustively lobbying for, passed the Senate on Thursday. I could tell you about thousands of people who marched down Pennsylvania Ave. in 100-degree DC heat to make sure their voices were heard.

Protest in Washington, DC

In a conversation that I had with my site mentor—Jane Adams, Domestic Policy Analyst at Bread for the World—on my first day there, she said something very intriguing to me about lobbying and activism. She said “MLK is always remembered for his speeches and marches on Selma or Birmingham, but what was most important and what changed history was not the marches or the speeches; it was when he sat down and wrote the Civil Rights Act and put all of the protest’s energy into concrete law.” I was caught off guard when I first heard her say this. My default reaction was to defend the civil rights movement’s organizing skills; however, after thinking about this a while, I realized the point that she was making. The reality of our political world means that if we want to see real, lasting, sustainable change in society, it has to be drafted into law. After being wrapped up in a week of protests, marches, and letters, I realized that while all are necessary aspects of positive change, none are sufficient on their own.

After some more reflection on this conversation, I was posed with the question, “What does all of this actually do?” I found myself unable to answer the question. I was looking for the direct, real impact that each letter or march or petition brought about. I had to get myself to step back from the energy of the movements that I had been wrapped up in this week and ask myself this very challenging question. These groups are writing letters and petitions and organizing thousands for marches and protests, and hundreds are putting their bodies on the line in acts of civil disobedience to protest, but what do each of the acts bring about? Are they effective in catalyzing the desired change? Are they enough, or should we be taking more drastic measures? Are they a privileged response that protects our own self-purity, or are they actions of solidarity and calls to action? What does all of this actually do?

I decided these questions were probably out of my very limited scope of understanding, so I decided to ask my theological mentor, the Rev. Dr. Kris Norris. On our walk back from the release of the letter signed by over 300 religious scholars, I asked him what his thoughts were on all of this. He responded by saying that things like letters and petitions are always necessary as the initial steps for building a movement. While they might not seem to do anything drastic in the immediate, they provide a source of guidance and tethered direction that people can always refer back to and see exactly why the movement matters or what the foundational principles of the movement are. They serve as cornerstones for bigger things. It’s not that they aren’t effective, but as Jane said, they don’t independently cause systemic change. This means that letters and petitions serve as a necessary initial mode of action in order that other forms of protest can be successful after the fact. It also means that they are not enough on their own to cause change.

After working with Jane for a couple days and seeing that the realms of policy and protest seemed to be a bit disconnected, I asked her about how policy answers the demands of protests and how protests influence policy. Her response was quite inspirational. She talked about how policy must take a more realistic approach than protests do, but protests are necessary in deciding how much compromise has to be achieved. For example, if literally everyone in the US decided they were going to protest  for something to change, very minimal compromise would be necessary. The amount of compromise is usually inversely related to the support of the protest; as support decreases, necessity to compromise increases. Policy has real impacts and has the potential to change lives, but it can only be effective if citizens are politically aware individuals making sure not only that their voices are being heard, but the voices of the marginalized are also being heard.

On the Lived Theology Reading List: Christian

Christian: The Politics of a Word In America, by Matthew BowmanThe Politics of a Word in America

In Christian: The Politics of a Word in America, historian Matthew Bowman traces how the term “Christian” had numerous meanings to different groups in the United States. Bowman examines how the rise of Western Civilization Courses at Columbia University in the early twentieth century underpinned attempts to connected Christianity and American democracy, while the African-American faculty of Howard University worked out how Christianity fit into challenging white supremacy. The book captures a multitude of voices, most of them claiming to be the most authentic representation of Christianity. Bowman’s work shows how from contemporary conceptions of “Christian” being tied to the political right to historical developments, the term has always been a contested one.

Reviews and endorsements of the publication include:

Bowman tells the rich and complex story of how the term ‘Christian’ moved rightward from the Civil War to the present, through a series of fascinating chapters that cover unusual and unexpected topics. Anyone who wants to know why ‘Christian nation’ has come to mean what it does today will want to read this expertly argued book.”—Paul Harvey, author of Christianity and Race in the American South

A thought-provoking series of case studies that charts the long history of Christian political rhetoric in the United States… Most striking for our current political moment may be Bowman’s attention to the ways the politically powerful have used Christianity to claim a divine right to govern, derived—as they saw it—from the superiority of a racialized white Christian cultural heritage. Bowman, in this rigorous study, persuasively argues that Christianity has shaped a collective understanding of the national past and continues to lend spiritual weight to competing visions for America’s future.”—Publisher’s Weekly

Spanning American history from Reconstruction to the present, Bowman’s book shows that the word ‘Christian’ has persistently borne political and cultural meanings that far transcend theological beliefs and religious practices. Elegantly written, deeply researched, and persuasively argued, Christian sets a gold standard for serious scholarship about a topic that matters.”—Grant Wacker, author of America’s Pastor: Billy Graham and the Shaping of a Nation

For more information on the publication, click here.

Fellow travelers are scholars, activists, and practitioners that embody the ideals and commitments of the Project on Lived Theology. We admire their work and are grateful to be walking alongside them in the development and dissemination of Lived Theology.

For more of “On the Lived Theology Reading List,” click here. To engage in the conversation on Facebook and Twitter, @LivedTheology, please use #LivedTheologyReads. For more recommended resources from our fellow travelers, click here, #PLTfellowtravelers. To sign up for the Lived Theology monthly newsletter, click here.

On the Lived Theology Reading List: The Dream is Lost

The Dream is Lost: Voting Rights and the Politics of Race in Richmond, Virginia, by Julian Maxwell HayterVoting Rights and the Politics of Race in Richmond, Virginia

Historian Julian Maxwell Hayter starts out The Dream is Lost by observing that Richmond, Virginia is “seldom central to the narrative of the American civil rights movement”, but his study of race and politics in that city from the 1950s to the 1980s proceeds to make a persuasive case for why it should be. His account follows the political struggles of African-Americans who formed groups like the Richmond Crusade for Voters to avoid being disenfranchised. Hayter’s work shows that local activism and legal measures like the Voting Rights Act led to African-Americans gaining political power in the city, but it also chronicles how economic woes caused by the legacy of white supremacy made that an almost pyrrhic victory.

Reviews and endorsements of the publication include:

“This detailed narrative explores the quest for African American political power but also chronicles the limitations of this achievement. Hayter’s description of voter mobilization efforts, coalition building, and litigation offer an important level of detail to our understanding of black politics during and after the civil rights era.”—Pippa Holloway, author of Living in Infamy: Felon Disenfranchisement and the History of American Citizenship

“This illuminating book offers a sobering account of the limits of politics as a vehicle to transform African American communities.”—Timothy N. Thurber, author of Republicans and Race: The GOP’s Frayed Relationship with African Americans, 1945–1974

For more information on the publication, click here.

Fellow travelers are scholars, activists, and practitioners that embody the ideals and commitments of the Project on Lived Theology. We admire their work and are grateful to be walking alongside them in the development and dissemination of Lived Theology.

For more of “On the Lived Theology Reading List,” click here. To engage in the conversation on Facebook and Twitter, @LivedTheology, please use #LivedTheologyReads. For more recommended resources from our fellow travelers, click here, #PLTfellowtravelers. To sign up for the Lived Theology monthly newsletter, click here.

Prophet With a Pencil Gathers Scholars in Birmingham

Prophet With a Pencil 2018

On June 8 and 9, 2018, the Project on Lived Theology convened our Prophet with a Pencil workgroup in Birmingham, Alabama, for two days of presentations and conversation focusing on the theological significance of Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail”. The assembly’s work will produce a single volume entitled Prophet with a Pencil: The Continuing Significance of Martin Luther King’s ‘Letter from Birmingham Jail’ which will be released by Cascade Books in 2019.

The Prophet with a Pencil contributors shared and discussed their work during this two day research retreat. Day one was held at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute (BCRI) located in the historic Civil Rights District of Birmingham, just across the street from the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church and Kelly Ingram Park. Contributors’ chapters-in-progress focused on theological themes from King’s letter and its surrounding culture including judgment, rest, gender, and the power of images to affect change.

At lunch time, the workgroup welcomed participants in the historic Children’s March in Birmingham, 55 years after this historic event. Our guests shared stories from their time as “foot soldiers” and talked with the group about their continuing civil rights efforts.

Following the afternoon work session, the group toured the Civil Rights Institute.

On the second day of the workgroup, we met at Historic Bethel Church, a National Historic Landmark and Civil Rights National Monument. The church played a central role in the civil rights movement under the leadership of Rev. Fred L. Shuttlesworth. In this sacred place, Prophet with a Pencil contributors delved deeper into the theology of King, focusing on his non-violent approach and the sociology of racism.

At the close of our meetings, we heard a presentation by Dr. Martha Bouyer, executive director of the Historic Bethel Baptist Church Foundation, on the history of the church’s role in the civil rights movement. She shared a beautiful tapestry covered in affirmations and notes of thanksgiving from individuals and groups around the world who have visited the church.

Before returning to the hotel, participants visited the Birmingham Civil Rights Heritage Trail, which highlights the integral role the city played in the movement.

The mission of The Project on Lived Theology is to clarify the interconnection of theology and lived experience and promote academic resources in pursuit of social justice and human flourishing. The Project offers a variety of familiar and unconventional spaces where theologians, scholars, students, practitioners, and non-academics can demonstrate the importance of theological ideas in the public conversation about civic responsibility and social progress. The project was established in 2000 with a grant from the Lilly Endowment.

For more event details and up-to-date event listings please click here to visit the PLT Events page. We also post updates online using #PLTevents. To get these and other news updates, please like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter @LivedTheology. To sign up for the Lived Theology monthly newsletter, click here.

On the Lived Theology Reading List: Clarence Jordan

Clarence Jordan: A Radical Pilgrimage in Scorn of the Consequences, by Frederick L. DowningA Radical Pilgrimage in Scorn of the Consequences

Starting in the 1940s, Clarence Jordan tried to put Christianity into practice in the South, which was flouting segregation and inequality. Despite having a PhD, he made an impact not by being a lofty intellectual but by founding Koinonia- an interracial Christian farming community- and serving as a formative influence on Habit for Humanity. As the writer of the Cotton Patch Gospel, Jordan adapted the stories of the New Testament to fit the South and to address racism. In this new biography by Frederick L. Downing, who previously authored religious biographies of Elie Wiesel and Martin Luther King, puts Jordan in historical context and looks at the influences that shaped him. Jordan’s life has rarely been studied and Downing’s work is an important effort to document his prophetic witness.

Reviews and endorsements of the publication include:

“Downing has rendered us a great and judicious service by his compelling research. It is crucial that Jordan in all his daring courage should be remembered. Downing assures us that this singular saint of gospel obedience will not be forgotten.” —Walter Brueggemann, William Marcellus McPheeters Professor Emeritus of Old Testament, Columbia Theological Seminary

For more information on the publication, click here. To read more about Clarence Jordan on our Civil Rights Digital Archive, click here.

Fellow travelers are scholars, activists, and practitioners that embody the ideals and commitments of the Project on Lived Theology. We admire their work and are grateful to be walking alongside them in the development and dissemination of Lived Theology.

For more of “On the Lived Theology Reading List,” click here. To engage in the conversation on Facebook and Twitter, @LivedTheology, please use #LivedTheologyReads. For more recommended resources from our fellow travelers, click here, #PLTfellowtravelers. To sign up for the Lived Theology monthly newsletter, click here.

Dualism and embodied theological education

Abundant Table Farmers

What do you think Jesus learned in his time as a worker, when he spent years laboring as a carpenter or stonemason? Do you suppose, as Dorothy Sayers might suggest, that Jesus crafted excellent tables? My pietistic knee-jerk reaction is to surmise that Jesus probably prayed during this time–like, prayed a lot. But I wonder if Jesus liked to hum or string together words in a song of his own making. I’m pleasantly bemused by the thought of Jesus daydreaming and wonder what a limitless imagination could capably conjure. Maybe Jesus’ mind thrummed with a meditative ebb, as peaceful and powerful as the ocean ceaselessly breaking and birthing itself. I ponder these questions and reflect upon my own time in the farm’s fields, with occupied hands and a mind that’s free to wander. Still, I am beginning to earnestly believe I know more of Jesus not from speculating about what was in his head 2,000 years ago, but because of our shared work. I don’t mean “work” in an abstracted sense. There are many different sorts of work, but I am speaking about the process of laboring in creation with my body, similarly to God, who found it meaningful to take on flesh, to carve wood, and cut stone.

Our spiritual formations, theological educations, and religious practices are so much more than an internal landscape consisting of thoughts and feelings, knowledge and belief. We experience everything in and through our senses and our bodies; just consider the way in which mystical experiences translate into an illumination of the brain’s mysterious networks of synapses and chemicals. However, Dualism—the divorcing and dichotomizing of the spiritual and the material—has always marked the Christian tradition. Ecofeminist and liberation theologian Ivone Gebara claims, “The schools of thought which accentuated mistrust of matter underlined the spiritual transcendence of God” and the dichotomizing does not stop there.[1] Rather, “The patriarchal world always made distinctions between the good and the bad, the just and the unjust, and the masculine and the feminine; it always erected clear boundaries around what it pompously judged to be good, just, pure, and perfect.”[2] Within the Western Christian Imagination, the earth, the body, and the feminine have been entombed as categorical “others,” or in different terms, they have been understood as the counterpart to what is normative and good—the heavens, the spirit, the “objective” masculine subject.

I believe this is inextricably connected to the “deep pedagogical sensory deprivation” Willie James Jennings describes in The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race.[3] Simply put, “Western Christian intellectuals still imagine the world from the commanding heights.”[4] I don’t fully comprehend Jennings’ notion of “deep pedagogical sensory deprivation” within the Christian tradition and Enlightenment Thought more broadly. Indeed, I cannot, for this deprivation has starved my imagination such that it is difficult, if not impossible, to call upon faculties I was never taught to use but was instead taught to suppress. However, something deep within me rises up and cries out in an awareness of the dissonance. I detect the sensory deprivation of my Christian tradition when I am crouched in a row of fledgling tomato plants—fingers deftly pruning back the smaller branches with faith that this act will ultimately yield a stronger plant—and I sense a sacredness within and around me…but cannot verbalize it. In the same vein, it is challenging to articulate why I have faith that farming will ultimately yield a stronger theologian, but I do.

Despite this difficulty, I am hopeful. On the topic of overcoming Dualism within the Christian tradition, Gebara implores that the current moment “offers us the great challenge of learning to think of ourselves in categories that are no longer oppositional, but rather inclusive.”[5] I see this movement taking place at The Abundant Table which ambitiously attempts to offer its pupilsvisitors, volunteers, and workers like myselfan embodied theological education. In this pedagogical framework, cultivating a familiarity of and affection for the earth (and the infinite life within it) is concomitant with nurturing a love of God, of neighbor, and of self…categories which are far less defined and absolute than we might suppose. The Abundant Table Community has grown out of the recognition that Dualism is “inadequate in explaining the complexity of reality.”[6] Undoubtedly, this sophisticated cosmology, which can hold complexity and paradox, is a reflection of this unique community—a farm community which is primarily comprised of women! Yes, I think ecological and feminist theologies have a great deal to teach us about inhabiting our bodies, our faiths, and our shared planet.

[1] Ivone Gebara, Longing for Running Water: Ecofeminism and Liberation (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1999), 104.

[2] Ibid., 108.

[3] Willie James Jennings, “Introduction” in The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2010).

[4] Ibid.

[5] Gebara, Longing for Running Water, 108.

[6] Ibid., 104.

The faces of past and present

As I walked into the office on Monday, I was met with the peaceful background noises of 7 a.m. traffic on Pennsylvania Avenue and an empty office to myself for a short while. I spent the beginning of my morning reading out of James K.A. Smith’s third volume in his cultural liturgies trilogy titled “Awaiting the King.” As I was reading, what struck me was his idea that every act, whether secular or religious, intentional or unintentional, is a form of worship.

An hour later, my site mentor walked into the office, and after some small talk, she gave me one of my assignments for the week: a theological reflection on the National Museum of African American History and Culture. I was simultaneously excited and anxious for what I would uncover in this assignment. I’ve done my best to craft a narrative of some of the more significant moments in this experience. However, having spent nearly eight hours in the museum between two days, these are merely a few of the many moving moments I had the privilege to experience.

National Museum of African American History and Culture

The museum is laid out as a “journey” through African American history, so it is set up for guests to wind their way through a mile and a half of 400+ years from slavery to the present. At one point on the journey, during the period of Reconstruction, I turned a corner and was immediately brought to an abrupt halt. There, encased directly ahead of me and staring back at me with the empty, yet ever-present face of evil, was the hood of a Ku Klux Klan member. I was paralyzed by the reality of its gaze. As I got closer I began to feel the very real aura of intimidation that filled the room around the hood. Poised only a foot away from me, illuminated by an eerily dim light behind the glass, and surrounded with pictures of horror outlined in red for viewer discretion, was a mask that another human being wore with great pride.

I stood there, stunned with fear, confusion, and sadness. My initial reaction was to distance myself from the people who wore these hoods. It felt right to label them as “demons” or “monsters,” but never as people. How could someone standing for so much hate, bigotry, and vile racism be in any way similar to me? It’s often easier and more comfortable for white folks like me to see the ways that we differ from groups like the KKK because it allows us to distance ourselves from the realities of our own racist tendencies. It allows us to continue to turn a blind eye towards the deeply engrained beast of racism that lurks in our own lives. We must learn to use the hood as a mirror. We must allow the chilling gaze of the hood to penetrate our own walled off lives and painfully illuminate our similarities with the Klansmen that are deeply buried in our own lives.

While I was standing there, caught in a storm of emotion, a white mother and her young son walked around me and passed by the hood. The little boy tugged on his mother’s arm and asked her, “Mommy what is that mask?” His mother looked down and said to him “That was worn by a group of mean people a long time ago.” My stomach churned when I heard this. I wanted so badly to correct her. My mind raced back to this past August when those same hoods terrorized my city. The KKK is not a past event. As unnerving as it is to admit, the KKK is a present reality. As the Rev. Dr. Wil Gafney of Brite Divinity School said earlier this year, “we live in an age of unhooded white supremacy.” The response to this must be one of swift and unwavering opposition. If not, we run the risk of propagating a false story of the arrival of this so-called “post-racial society.” The presentation of this hood in the museum is a startling reminder of a dark past, but as James Baldwin, a celebrated champion of black culture, says, “To accept one’s past – one’s history – is not the same thing as drowning in it; it is learning how to use it. An invented past can never be used; it cracks and crumbles under the pressures of life like clay in a season of drought” (Baldwin, The Fire Next Time). We must accept the past, understand its implications for the present, and act accordingly for the future.

In another section of the museum, I viewed Emmett Till’s casket. Emmett Till was a 14-year-old African American boy who was lynched in Mississippi in the 1950s after being accused of flirting with a white woman outside a grocery store. I was especially struck by the pictures of him as a young boy. I can see Emmett Till’s face all over the place today. I can see him in the playful faces of children who run around in parks as we walk past or in a childhood friend who looked a lot like Emmett when he was that age. Unfortunately, he can also be seen all too often on the news amidst the most recent case of police brutality in this country.  He is in the face of Trayvon Martin, Freddie Gray, Christian Taylor, Tamir Rice or any number of other victims. Emmett Till became an icon of the civil rights movement, and his legacy lives on today. He reminds us that the beast of white supremacy and racism continues to be fed by something deeply engrained in our society. It’s a beast that must be pried out from the caves of our Constitution and the depths of our Declaration. It will be liberating for some. It will be painful for most. However, if the values that we hold dearest are the same values that continue to disgrace the brutally murdered body of Emmett Till, it is of the utmost importance that they be uprooted and destroyed immediately, whatever the cost.