The Privilege of Contemplation | A Conversation with Dr. Anthea Butler

TRANSCRIPT

DR ANTHEA BUTLER: How can you be contemplative and take a step back when the situation in the society and the murderous ways in which black people get treated in this country continue to happen on a regular loop?

CASSIDY HALL: Welcome to Contemplating Now, a podcast about the intersection of contemplation and social justice. Through interviews with scholars, mystics, and activists, this podcast will focus on contemplative spirituality’s direct relationship with issues of social justice. I’m your host, Cassidy Hall, a filmmaker, podcaster, pastor, and student, and I’m here to learn with you. 

Dr. Anthea Butler is professor of Religious Studies at the University of Pennsylvania and also the chair of the Department of Religious Studies. Her new book is “White Evangelical Racism: The Politics of Morality in America.” Her other book includes Women in the Church of God, In Christ, Making a Sanctified World and she’s also a contributor for the forthcoming book, a New Origin Story: The 1619 Project, which is due out in November of 2021. Dr Butler is a historian of African American and American Religion, and her research and writing spans African American religion and history, race, politics, and evangelicalism. Dr Butler is currently contributor for MSNBC Daily, and has also written for the New York Times, The Washington Post, CNN, NBC, and the Guardian. You can see her in the recent PBS series, the Black Church in America, in the forthcoming American experience on Billy Graham on PBS. 

So glad you could join me today.

DR ANTHEA BUTLER: Thanks so much. Glad to be here.

CASSIDY HALL: And so one of the ways I like to begin is kind of just asking for your personal working definitions of words like “contemplation” and/or “mysticism,” what they mean to you and maybe how you see them lived out in the world.

DR ANTHEA BUTLER: I think for me, personally, I think a lot of people think about these words as being passive words. But I would say that I have really been influenced by Ignatian tradition of St. Ignatius of Loyola. And I think about that in terms of how the Jesuits move through life. I mean, they don’t spend a lot of time in prayer, they spend a lot of time doing things, they step back when they need to, and there’s the spiritual exercises of course, that help in order to sort of think through about how to be a contemplative in a different kind of way. And so I think that for me, being a contemplative doesn’t mean that you escape society, or you escape the world, but that you find a place to anchor yourself firmly first of all, and then secondarily, take care of those things in the ways in which you need to take care of them. And that might not be the way that people traditionally think that you need to take care of your religious or spiritual needs. 

CASSIDY HALL: And do you think or do you see contemplation or mysticism playing a role in social action today?

DR ANTHEA BUTLER: Not in the traditional ways, no, I don’t. And I think that a lot of times, if we go through traditional ways of thinking about what contemplation means, you set yourself apart, you think about things, which I think is a very good way to be if you’re going to be an activist. But I also think that an activist means that you have to be active. And if we have this tension between contemplation and activity, then there’s times where you need to be active, and there’s times that you don’t. And I think that probably–I’ll describe it like a Depeche Mode Song, you have to get the balance right, you have to think about how you balance that out. And I think for a lot of people, especially right now, the rapidity and the speed in which things happen in the world. Sometimes you don’t have time to think, sometimes you have to actually act. But if you haven’t done that kind of work before to sort of think through and to sort of ponder where you are, then I think it becomes much more difficult. 

CASSIDY HALL: So kind of in the sense of the practice, the engagement and the practice cultivates the action and a more immediate response to the things which we need to immediately respond to?

DR ANTHEA BUTLER: Yeah, you have to be prepared, because in other words — I mean, I think it’s like, people have an idea, like, I’m going to go — I’m a church historian. So I’m going to use an example. People think that the old monastics like, Simon the Stylite, who set up on top of a pole and contemplated is the way that you should be, or you should be like a Buddha and you should pull yourself away from everything. And I think that those kinds of — I’m not saying that’s wrong, I just think that that doesn’t work for some of us. It doesn’t work for somebody like me who is very reactive to what’s going on, especially for things that I care deeply about. So I think, you work through that in the ways that you need to. And for some people, you might think, oh, maybe you’re just going around and around circles. I’m not. What I’m saying is is that contemplation and a contemplative life means different things to different people. And not everybody is going to be able to go away and be on an island or be in a monastic place, or to have quiet in their house because they got three kids and a husband or wife or spouse and they’ve got to deal with things that you just can’t. In today’s world, it’s very difficult to be contemplative, but you have to figure out ways in which to do it that fit who you are. 

CASSIDY HALL: Yeah. And I think to your point earlier, it seems like a lot of people can also use being a contemplative or having a contemplative life as an excuse to not fully engage in those things as well.

DR ANTHEA BUTLER: Yeah. And it means that they have the luxury not and I think that’s really important to say, is that, most people in the world, I’m thinking about Afghanistan this week especially, don’t have the luxury to stop and think about what’s happening or how to think through it because they have to be reactive. Their very lives depend on it. And so I think it’s also important to remember that these activities can sometimes be activities of the privileged and not of people who really do need time to think about things because they don’t have time. They can’t, they have to continue to work, they have to continue to run, they have to continue to try to figure out how to make their lives better. 

CASSIDY HALL: In a 2020 piece that you wrote, titled, In a Season of Reckonings Forgiveness is not Forgetting, you wrote “displays of forgiveness do not lead to forgetting but to remembering all the wrongs, all the murders, all the pain, all the suffering, we and our ancestors have experienced in America.” So my question for you from this in that incredible piece, when it comes to racism in America, what other Christian practices might do more harm than good when we’re talking about this idea of maybe contemplation can also be an excuse or a way to not engage, when we fail to engage in the fullness of these things. 

DR ANTHEA BUTLER: How long you got? I mean, I think this is one of those moments where I’m just going to say, I’m sorry, I’m going to offend a lot of people. I think the Christian practice of just leave it to Jesus and everything is going to be alright is basically bullshit. This is a podcast, I can say bullshit. And I think that that’s number one. Number two, the ways in which, especially American Christians, like to think about themselves as in relationship with just Jesus and themselves, is stupid. It doesn’t have anything to do with that. Jesus lived in a community, he had to deal with racism. I always use the excuse the example of the Syrophoenician woman to say even Jesus was racist. He didn’t want to give her anything, she had to remind him and tell him. So I mean, if your Lord and Savior can be racist, you can be too. And I think that what my — I wrote a whole book about this, so let’s just put that out there, “White Evangelical Racism: The Politics and Morality in America.” What I think is the problem in America is that so much of American Christianity is individualistic. We sing these nice little worship songs that don’t mean anything, that are focused in on how much we love Jesus, and not how much we love each other. And we can see the ramifications of that right now with the way that people aren’t getting vaccinated, people could care less about people going hungry, people are willing to put forth ideology instead of true Christian charity. I could go on all day long. But I mean, the fact of the matter is, is I found this very wanting and I think that it’s a horrible witness. I just do.

CASSIDY HALL: And speaking of that book, your book “White Evangelical Racism: The Politics and Morality in America,” you examine this incongruence, this deep incongruence in white evangelicalism. Like how white evangelicals often claim morality amid supporting immoral acts and immoral ways of being. Case-in-point the list you just offered. How do you think that this understanding or this understanding of that incongruence can help guide anti-racist movements or work in America? 

DR ANTHEA BUTLER: Well, I think as a starting point. I mean, I wrote the whole book, as somebody asked me: what do you want to have out of this book? I said, I did what I wanted to have this book, which was tell everybody is this you? This is the way you behave? So that’s one but I think the incongruence is going to have to change when realities change. I mean, I think one of the things that is very difficult right now for a lot of evangelicals in this country to see is that, them harping on critical race theory, at the same time while they’re not getting vaccinated and their kids are dying, is pretty bad. And they’re worried about the wrong things. And this is just, it’s a waste of our time. It really is in a world in which time is of the essence, it’s a waste of our time to have to be dealing with these kinds of issues about so called morality. And I think that it’s really important to understand that when I say morality, it’s about not just treating your neighbors right and everything else. I say about there’s great moral issues of our time. Are we going to feed people? Are we going to make sure everybody has a living wage? Are we going to make sure that everybody has voting rights? I mean, there are moral issues and then there are moral issues. And I think that for evangelicals and others in this country, moral issues have only centered around personal moral issues, as opposed to structural moral issues that should be resolved like racism. And so when you ask me this question about how does this make somebody anti-racist, I think the first thing you have to address in anything about racism or anti-racism, is to realize the racist structures. And if we can’t get people to agree that the structure is racist, how do we get to anti-racism in the first place?

CASSIDY HALL: I appreciate what you said about it being a waste of our time and seeing that it’s almost a distraction of a large group of people being so individualistic and harmful to the world at large and not even touching the structures that we’re really after. So how do we hold that sense of urgency and action alongside the fact that evangelicals that are in this space, are really gaining momentum in and of themselves? Or is that just what it seems like in the news?

DR ANTHEA BUTLER: I think you think that they’re gaining momentum, I don’t think that they are. I think that people like to think this because they have a way to amplify their voices in the public square, but I think that the bigger issue right now is not even evangelicals it’s really about the ways in which people believe disinformation. And that’s including evangelicals, whether they believe in QAnon, or they believe other kinds of fantasies about the virus, or anything else. That’s actually our biggest issue right now alongside of racism, because the disinformation and racism go hand-in-hand. If you are inclined to believe all these things, and you’ll be inclined to believe other things. And there are just some truth that we need to grapple with in this country. And I think that at this particular time that we’re in, which is really dangerous for a lot of different reasons, I sort of despair about thinking about people being able to think straight with their heads on their shoulders, to be honest with you. I don’t know that the average Christian in this country, who misses going to church because of the vaccine and decides to go anyway, hopefully they go masked up or maybe they don’t, or maybe they’re like… others who have decided that they don’t care about that and they should just March and be out there with white supremacist and Oregon. Because that just happened not too long ago. Those are the people that I look at and I think I’m not sure we have a lot of hope here. At the same time where all these people are hoping that Jesus is just going to come back, I’m like Jesus might come back but he ain’t coming back for you all. I mean, I say it in the most Texas way possible, he’s not coming back for you. He’s not coming back for you because I mean, basically, you’re not his people. And I think it’s really, it’s something that people need to hear right now and that they don’t hear enough; that maybe you’ve been waiting, you’ve been found wanting. And maybe the result of all this is the chaos that we see right now because we can’t even come together to just wear a mask, to treat other people well. I mean, just to think about somebody else, to do the golden rule. I mean, if you can’t even do the golden rule how do we think that anything else is going to last? I know, we started this off, like you were asking about contemplation, what I contemplate a lot, is the fact that we don’t have people in this country that I think that I could rely on if something really bad happened. Because basically, I don’t think I could rely on their Christian charity, I don’t know that I could rely on their common sense to be quite honest, to do the right thing, because they are so much willing to be involved in thinking things that will harm others, and even harm themselves.

CASSIDY HALL: So where the hell did this Jesus come from? Is this just a product of America?

DR ANTHEA BUTLER: Yeah absolutely. I mean, it’s a product of a lot of different things and I go through that a lot in my book, but I think these idealized Jesus’ that are always going to be there to support the nation, and always be there to support a white male patriarchy, maybe that sounds like a misnomer to put it like that but I think that’s the best way to say it. And these ideas about what family should be. I think that all of this stuff really has hurt us in certain kinds of ways. And if you put your moral center on these kinds of constructs, that nobody in the Bible had like a really great father, mother, two kids family. I mean, look at Solomon, how many wives? I mean, how much stuff is going on? Look at somebody like Paul who didn’t treat his mother right… There’s all kinds of crazy families in Scripture. And if we claim to say we want to look at scripture to be the model, then look at all of Scripture. Look at how people treated people. I mean, no different than what’s happening today.

CASSIDY HALL: Yeah. And I mean, back to what you said earlier about Jesus being racist. 

DR ANTHEA BUTLER: I know that’s hard for people to hear.

CASSIDY HALL: No, but that’s important for people to hear. Like you say, I mean, and that a woman had to explain that to him and teach him.

DR ANTHEA BUTLER: Yeah. But I mean, nobody wants to be taught now. Everybody believes that they know everything because they looked something up, or they believe a certain television station, or a certain personality or a certain president, depending on which one you want to pick. 

CASSIDY HALL: Yeah. And that way, it seems like contemplation or space away when it’s really trying to gather clarity. Could be really healthy in order to respond properly to the things in which we find ourselves present and awake to, as Therese Taylor-Stinson says. 

DR ANTHEA BUTLER: Yeah. I mean, I think there’s times where you just should shut up. Honestly, I mean, shutting up is not a bad thing. I mean, I talk a lot on social media but I don’t think that I need to say everything about everything. I mean, I’m just, like right now I’m at a loss for words about Afghanistan. There’s tons of things that are horrible about it. Do I need to say something about it? Probably not because that’s not part of the world that I’m knowledgeable about. But at the same time, I’m very fearful about it because I know that this means that there’s going to be an uptick in fundamentalist religion. I know that this actually gives a lot of oxygen to people who are thinking about these kinds of regimes, whether that’s Islamic or Christian, that don’t treat women well, that have a very strong patriarchal structure. It’s a time of strong men. And we have to figure out how we’re go come out of this.

CASSIDY HALL: Yeah. Would you mind sharing a little bit more about your work as a contributor for the forthcoming book, “A New Origin Story: The 1619 project”?

DR ANTHEA BUTLER: Sure. This particular chapter in a 1619 book came about in part because I had contacted Nicole Hannah Jones back when the first project came out and said, “I don’t think you can really write the story, or do whatever you’re going to do with the story next, without talking about black religion. You have to talk about, the contributions that African Americans have made in the religious realm.” And so when they started doing the book, they contacted me. And so the chapter, without giving it away, is to talk about the ways in which the black church has always been a challenge, and––how do I want to say it, the fulcrum about democracy in this country. In other words, how has the black church always kept America to account about its foundational documents? In other words, why is it that you say that this is supposed to be for everyone, when in fact you didn’t give that to African Americans, you didn’t do this for Native Americans, you didn’t do this, you didn’t do this, you didn’t do this. And these founding documents, which say all men are created equal, we seem to have to continue as African Americans to remind everyone in this country, that all people are created equal, that we are endowed with certain unalienable rights, and that there’s lots of people here in this country who don’t think we should have any rights. And we need to continue to keep fighting for them all the time. And so that’s what this chapter is about in the 1619 project book. And I’m proud of it, it took a long time to write and it was really difficult, because this book has been fact checked so many times, it’s ridiculous. But that’s because of all the fear. And I expect that when it comes out in November that everybody will lose their mind, but you know, it’s okay.

CASSIDY HALL: Dr Butler, what are some things that give you hope amid all things we’ve kind of discussed so far?

DR ANTHEA BUTLER: I don’t know. I mean, that’s a good question. I have to say, if there was a character that I would associate myself with, it would probably be Chicken Little, but even Chicken Little had to be hopeful that at the end of the day, he could go home, and live in some nice little hutch and maybe have a roof over his head have something to eat. I mean, what I’m hopeful for is that those of us who are thinking, who are trying to act and the people who are activists and stuff, are going to continue even with incredible odds. I get hopeful about people who are willing to stand up and speak the truth. I get hopeful about people who are willing to help others. I get hopeful about when I’m in the classroom, and if a student gets it, or they say I just didn’t know this, and I learned something, those are kind of little things that give me hope. I’m not sure that I’m hopeful about climate change, or am I hopeful about wars, or am I hopeful about the Coronavirus, I mean, that to me, are hopeless things. But I think the thing about the virus and I will say this, is that what’s been hopeful is to see how rapidly people have adjusted to thinking about things, whether that’s getting a vaccine, or research that’s happened or how people have tried to come together to help each other. That makes me help hopeful. And for those of us who’ve tried to do the right thing all through this time of virus, where we’ve tried to wear a mask, and we’ve tried to think about other people and tried to be as careful as we possibly could be, that gives me hope. Because it means that not everybody is a selfish son of a bitch. 

CASSIDY HALL: And I mean, you remind me to be looking for and looking at those things more, and putting my energy towards those things and towards increasing those things and expanding the frequency of the hope. 

DR ANTHEA BUTLER: Yeah. I think we tend to think about the whether it is contemplation or activism, all these things on a big scale. I think we have to think about them as everyday quotidian things that we do, that can engender hope or engender a space of maybe this is going to change, maybe, hopefully, somebody is going to get it today. It might not be a hundred somebodies but maybe it’s one somebody. Maybe we can get one somebody to change their mind about getting a vaccination, maybe we can help somebody in a classroom or in everyday work, and our everyday lives are. Those are the little things that add up. And I think that taking that instead of just thinking about the big things that might overwhelm us all, is a way to take a bite out of this life that’s very different. And that in and of itself, is contemplation about where you are, when you are, and how you are in society.

CASSIDY HALL: Yeah, well said. Who is someone or some people that embody mysticism for you? 

DR ANTHEA BUTLER: That’s an interesting question. I think — Sorry, nobody alive. Nobody alive. I was going to be real with you, I’m not the kind of person I really honest, this is part of my Catholic tradition. I don’t think about people who are alive as people who are helping me, I see people who’ve been in certain situations I was thinking about one of my friends, who teaches at Penn, wrote a book about Josephine Bakhita, who is a saint. And again, I think about those kinds of people or St. Ignatius or others who’ve gone through tremendous trials. Or to think about the everyday lives of black people in America. I spent a lot of time when I was doing graduate work reading slave narratives. And I think about those are the people that really speak to me in terms of having to have hope in the midst of really horrible situations, of being enslaved and having your children sold, having to been raped or beaten, all of these things. I think about that and I think about those are the people give me hope, because they managed to take a lot of things that happened that were bad, and turn them into something good. Do I think about people like that today? I mean, I think there’s people who do certain things in their own communities that help. But I don’t look to people who are alive as a sense of this person focuses me about contemplation, or hope or anything. Because again, I’m a historian. I tend to look at it through a historical lens than I do present day lens.

CASSIDY HALL: We kind of went over this a little bit earlier and I’m wondering, in your personal work and experience, have you seen social justice work or activism point to the need or experience of a contemplative life? We’ve kind of discussed that. But…

DR ANTHEA BUTLER: You know, yeah, I think I’ll be straight up with the answer, no! You know why? Because you can’t do this while you’re trying to do be an activist. The whole thing about what’s going on in this country, and you think about the kinds of responses that African American people especially have had to make, to whether that’s been Mike Brown, or the myriad — Trayvon Martin, there’s so many people, I could just go through this list. There’s no time to be contemplative, because shit is happening all the time. And this is the point I was trying to get at in the first time but I think it’s really important for me to say it this strongly so people understand what I mean, is that how can you be contemplative and take a step back when the situation in the society, and the murderous ways in which black people get treated in this country continue to happen on a regular loop? How can you do anything? How can you have time to think? How can you have time to step back and replenish yourself? This is why we have a lot of activists who have committed suicide. We’ve had activists who just said, I’m burnt out, I’m tired. I mean, I think as a black person and a black woman in this country, just the idea that I could take time off to be contemplative is a- blessing, but,  it’s privilege because even to say the word contemplative at this moment, is a word that it says privilege. And that, you know, I’m not trying to make you feel bad about the podcast or anything, but it’s a word that says privilege, it means that you have time. And most people don’t have time. They don’t have time to think about things or to sit back with a scripture or a book and think about stuff in that traditional way that we think about being contemplative, because stuff is happening in their communities all the time that they have to respond to.

CASSIDY HALL: Yeah, I love what you said that even to say the word contemplative at this moment is to say privilege, and to reveal that too. I think often about the people who go off for a Silent Retreat paying hundreds and hundreds of dollars, when people are dying, people are hungry, people are…

DR ANTHEA BUTLER: Yeah, I mean, I would love to take people in my community in Philadelphia, someplace where it would just be quiet and in the woods for a weekend because people kept hearing gunshots and stuff. They hear the sound of screeching tires, they hear all kinds of things. Just to even just be silent, not even to think about anything, but just to be silent. Silence is actually something that you get with money. So I mean, I think that’s a different way to think about all this. And maybe I hope, somebody’s listening to this. And you’re like damn, I wasn’t expecting her to say what she said. I think we have to think about the ways in which even being contemplative is privileged, to have silence is a privilege, to exist in this world of cacophony and violence and anger and illness is in silence is, you know, something.

CASSIDY HALL: Yeah, silence is a rich person’s reward — it’s privilege–

DR ANTHEA BUTLER: It really is. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t strive for it doesn’t mean that, you know, I hope that people can get it. I think, it’s just something that we don’t recognize as a privilege when we in fact, really should recognize it as such.

CASSIDY HALL: And also to your point, and some of the earlier things you’ve said, in striving for it we should be looking to share it and to offer it to others. Because it’s another thing that we’ve taken as this individualistic, this private retreat, this silence individual retreat away from the world or stepping aside without offering that space to others too.

DR ANTHEA BUTLER: Yeah, there we are.

CASSIDY HALL: I really appreciate everything you said, I really appreciate what you were saying about the changing one somebody was very, very powerful to me. And the association between contemplation and privilege is a really important reflection point, especially for white contemplatives.

DR ANTHEA BUTLER: Yeah, yeah. Because I think that whole construct just means that you have money. It just means that you have the means, you have money, you have time, those are things that most people don’t have. Yeah.

CASSIDY HALL: Well, thank you so much for joining and thanks so much for taking the time to be with me. 

DR ANTHEA BUTLER: Yeah you’re welcome. You’re welcome.

[OUTRO]

CASSIDY HALL: Thanks for listening to today’s episode of Contemplating Now to support this work and get sneak peeks of new episodes. join me over at patreon dot com slash Cassidy Hall. This podcast is created and edited by Me, Cassidy Hall. Today’s episode features the song Trapezoid, instrumental by Emily Sankofa, which she has generously allowed us to use. Please find this song and more from Emily Sankofa on your favorite streaming platform or by visiting E Dash s-a-n-k-o-f-a dot com. The podcast has created in partnership with the Christian Century, a progressive ecumenical magazine based in Chicago. The podcast is also created in partnership with enfleshed, an organization focused on spiritual nourishment for collective liberation. For liturgical Resource Is and Tools head over to enfleshed dot com.

Published by Cassidy Hall

Cassidy Hall (MA) is an author, filmmaker, podcaster, student, and holds a MA in Counseling. She works as a Teaching Assistant at Christian Theological Seminary where she is studying for her MDiv and MTS degrees. She also serves as Student Pastor of First Congregational United Church of Christ. Since 2017, Cassidy has been the Secretary of the International Thomas Merton Society. Cassidy worked on the production team of the documentary feature film In Pursuit of Silence and her directorial debut short-film, Day of a Stranger paints an intimate portrait of Thomas Merton’s hermitage years. Her podcast, Encountering Silence features interviews with contemplatives, modern-day mystics, and explores the ambiguity of silence in our modern-day lives. Cassidy’s work centers around the tension and intersection of silence and social action and contemplation in a world of action.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: