We Are Interconnected: A Conversation with Rev. Dr. Pamela Lightsey

In her book Our Lives Matter: A Womanist Queer Theology, Rev. Dr. Pamela Lightsey writes, “Black spirituality is deeper than-and can also be absent from-any relationship with the Church universal. Black spirituality, especially Black women’s spirituality, is connected to our very being.” In this second episode of Contemplating Now, Rev. Dr. Pamela Lightsey shares about contemplation’s role in activism and asks, What does protest mean for a scholar?”

The Rev. Dr. Pamela Lightsey is the author of Our Lives Matter: A Womanist Queer Theology. She is a scholar, social justice activist, and military veteran. Since January of 2018, she has served as Vice President of Academic and Student Affairs and Associate Professor of Constructive Theology at The Meadville Lombard Theological School. Before that, Dr. Lightsey served as Associate Dean of Community Life and Lifelong Learning, Clinical Assistant Professor of Contextual Theology and Practice at the Boston University School of Theology.

Her work centers on the causes of peacemaking, racial justice and LGBTQ rights making note of her belief that “humanity is interconnected. This means, I have a responsibility to the world to agitate for justice; I also have a responsibility not to lose my love for the human soul and human dignity in the midst of that work.”

In her book, she writes, “Queer womanist theology makes the claim that those bodies of LGBTQ persons are important for the tasks of helping build a peaceable and just world. That happens in relationships.” and “At the end of the day, eradicating oppression is the heart of queer womanist theological reflection. We must examine not just racism but sexisms, not just homophobia but transphobia, not just poverty but war, and not just the fluidity of boundaries but the hegemony of the status quo.”

Transcript:

Dr. Lightsey [00:05]: As human beings, we are interconnected. And we really do–I mean the survival of humanity is dependent upon the well-being of one another. We’ve seen that no better than during this pandemic.

Cassidy Hall [00:23]: 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. Today in the podcast, the Reverend Dr. Pamela Lightsey. She’s the author of Our Lives Matter, a Womanist Queer Theology. She is a scholar, social justice advocate, and military veteran. Since January of 2018, she has served as Vice President of Academic and Student Affairs, and Associate Professor of Constructive Theology at the Meadville Lombard Theological School. Before that, Dr. Lightsey served as Associate Dean of Community Life and Lifelong Learning, Clinical Assistant Professor of Contextual Theology and Practice at the Boston University School of Theology.

Her work centers on the causes of peacemaking, racial justice, and LGBTQ + rights, in her book Our Lives Matter, she writes “Queer Womanist theology makes the claim that those bodies of LGBTQ persons are important for the tasks of helping build a peaceable and just world––that happens in relationships.” And she also writes, “at the end of the day, eradicating oppression is the heart of Queer Womanist theological reflection, we must examine not just racism, but sexism, not just homophobia, but transphobia, not just poverty, but war, and not just the fluidity of boundaries, but the hegemony of the status quo.”

Well, Dr. Lightsey, thank you so much for joining, and for taking the time to be with me today.

Dr. Lightsey [02:06]: You’re welcome. It’s my pleasure.

Cassidy Hall [02:09]: Your book, Our Lives Matter, a Womanist Queer Theology was completed during Ferguson in 2014, published in 2015. And with that, you took the time to add an epilogue to the work, which voiced your outrage and despair. And also, as a veteran, you wrote that you felt a “sense of deployment” as a scholar and an activist. And in this epilogue, you specifically asked, “what does it mean to be a theologian who’s placed for doing theology is within in alignment, and or perhaps even as a participant within the activist movement?” And I’m wondering today, and you know 2021, could you speak into that question?

Dr. Lightsey [02:48]: Sure. I was particularly concerned when I was writing, and as I was doing the work, I mean, the reason that I was in Ferguson, and later in Baltimore, I was in Ferguson for more than just a brief period of time. My relationship with Ferguson spanned across years, after Ferguson. So I established deep relationships and, you know, commitments that lasted beyond. And that was good, and it should be so. My question was a question about the way that scholars have generally done their work. I saw scholarship as being work that’s done almost as a spectator, if you will of the events and the issues of our time, that we somehow are disattached-or believe to be unattached from those issues.

And I saw it in the book, and in my work, to make it clear that I was not trying to be an unattached presence in the commitment to liberation and justice. And that my scholarship, that I was committing my scholarship–as I was committing my body to being in the midst of the protest. Now, here we are in 2021, there’s an insurrection that has taken place at the Capitol. What does that now mean? You know, what does protest now mean for a scholar? I think in many ways, it means, even more: the necessity for the scholar to understand the goals and the motivation of the protest prior to committing even on paper, a connection to that movement and affinity that even saying that one resonated with the movement, you really have to understand it.

And it’s really important that we do that now more than ever before. You don’t want to be… You don’t want to naively engage a protest whose goals, whose motivations, whose ultimate aim is the overthrow of the government, you see. Black Lives Matter, the aim of Black Lives Matter was justice and the end of excessive police force, ultimately, the killing of Black bodies, which we’ve seen on repeat over and over and over and over again. That in contrast to the insurrectionists, who saw, and who articulating, I mean, a primary goal of taking over the United States government, to control the government. They’ve not said what they’re going to do. They didn’t say what they’re going to do once they control it. What is the plan once you get in, once you have the, you know, the Capitol, have a legislator? What are you going to do for the people, people like me? You know, and during that time was really a lot of criticism against Black Lives Matter saying, you know, what do you all…what’s your goal? What are you shooting for? I don’t know how many times the goals of Black Lives Matter, and before that– Hands Up, Don’t Shoot, had to be articulated for the public. So that’s where I am on that issue.

Cassidy Hall [06:15]: Thank you for that. You know, it strikes me that you were writing a book when Ferguson happens. The death of Mike Brown, more specifically happened, the murder of Mike Brown. It strikes me that you were kind of in this maybe, maybe contemplative space, you were writing, you were processing, you were doing these kinds of things. Yet, the urgency, right, the urgency occurs. And I wonder if you could speak a little bit to maybe the need for contemplation to know that, that we’re aligned with something does that allow us to more urgently respond to things?

Dr. Lightsey [06:47]: I don’t know that I have an answer to that…I can…And I hesitate to speak with a broad brush, I can only speak to my sensibilities and my sensibilities have been shaped by any number of things. One by growing up in a community that very much understood its place in the scheme of things, And that just not being the material world, but understanding that there was a spiritual world at work and that we were in the middle. We were but human beings in the middle of many things happening that we could see and not see. And that there were some things happening that were outside our control.

I grew up understanding that not everything is going to be in my control as a human being. Okay. That understanding that there are matters in this world that are outside human control, have suited me well, both as a person of faith and as a scholar, it has given me the luxury to rest easy with the questions of life, with things not being resolved totally, with also understanding that my work is a continuation, and may not always be a period at the end of a sentence, but maybe some ellipses, or commas, or, you know, continuations.

You know, I am a contemplative person also, because I’ve experienced a community of Pentecostal believers who also very much so reminded me of the spirit world. Now, sometimes that experience was really raggedy and lacked sound theology. And over the years, I’ve had to kind of reshape myself without totally tossing away the very fine things that Pentecostalism, excuse me, offered me, and gave me. But it certainly gave me an appreciation for the contemplative, for sitting oneself down and just resting, you know, connecting with another dimension of life.

Cassidy Hall [09:12]: I think for activists in particular, it’s important to acknowledge rest, even sleep is a form of contemplation, right? It is a regeneration, a meeting place, a sacred pause.

Dr. Lightsey [09:25]: I think it’s good. I hesitate to speak for all activists in terms of a kind of spirituality or religiosity. Because I speak through the lens of a Christian, and there are activists who are not Christian, there are activists who are agnostic, atheist, and are doing very fine work, and I respect and appreciate them for that. So I wouldn’t go so far as to articulate it in that way, although I know very much so that a good number of Black activists because such a large percentage of Black people in America are ascribe to spirituality at the very most, and Christianity, I say now at the very least. I would have switched that up maybe a decade or two ago but we do believe and understand ourselves to be spiritual beings. That a sense of or an appreciation for contemplative space, for one’s health and well-being, is certainly necessary. We talk about it all the time, and that is taking care of yourself in order to take care of others. And I’m with a group of activists who are committed to resistance but also committed to our well-being, it has really been good for me.

Cassidy Hall [10:48]: There reminds me of in your book, you write oppression on one level intersects with oppression on other levels, there is no safe quadrant of society if we allow unchecked and unprovoked hostilities to occur against any single community of people.

Dr. Lightsey [11:02]: Racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, are equally discriminatory. And we do a disservice to humanity, when we try to parse them out, and level them up or subscribe, a percentage or, you know, a certain magnitude to one over and against the other. They’re all horrible. They’re all equally destructive to the human being, to our society, and to our communities. And I think as we’re paying attention to one, we are also making invisible, the other, you know, until that other demands its attention, you know, you ascribe attention to sexism, then what about racism, you know, so it’s a journey. It’s not a juggling act, but it’s a journey towards giving, giving attention to the fullness of who we are as human beings, while at the same time trying to resist, I think, in some ways, human nature to make subordinate certain other human beings on the basis of categorizing: that women are less than men, that Black people are less than white identified person, so on and so forth, that heterosexual persons are, you know, better than the LGBTQ community. As human beings, we are interconnected. And we really do, I mean, the survival of humanity is dependent upon the well-being of one another, we’ve seen that no better than during this pandemic. The race to a vaccine has been dependent upon human beings across a spectrum of diverse identity, and we’ve needed those persons.

Cassidy Hall [13:13]: Yeah, that’s another thing I really appreciated about your book and actually wrote about for a class is, recognizing the dynamic and the expanse of the Imago Dei, the image of God, as we see these intersectionalities, right? As we see each other, God expands, and more specifically identify as a queer woman, and in your book you write, “as queers, we declare that God cannot be limited, God is not finite.” And I think along with that queerness has something to offer to activism, to movements in the way that it expands the appearance of God. And again, of course, we’re talking in Christian terms in particular right now, but I wonder if you could speak into that a little bit.

Dr. Lightsey [13:53]: For me, the beauty of queerness is that it encourages people to deal with the ambiguity of life and the complexity of the human being. That’s the beauty of identifying as Queer, I identify as Queer Lesbian, for any number of reasons, which we don’t have time to go into today. But the beauty of queerness is that it asks us to accept ourselves as complex as we really are. And I’m still working with accepting some human beings in their complexity. Some things I don’t like about them, some things I read about and I say, oh if I knew about that, I wouldn’t. Oh. I wouldn’t. But then that part of me that understands human beings as complex says, okay, well, will you just throw this away? Will you throw this brilliance away because of this, you know? Is humanity totally irredeemable? I don’t think so. I think there’s something redeemable about humanity. Even though I have a low anthropology on most days. I think there is something that is redeemable about humanity. I mean, I deal with myself, you know, I’m my worst critic. So I think there is something redeemable. And queerness allows us space, not only for the complexity and the differences, but also for the imperfection. And we don’t…I don’t think we talk enough about that in queer space. Queerness allows us the capacity to embrace imperfection, more than anything else that I have really worked on in my academic career.

Cassidy Hall [15:47: Thank you for that.

Dr. Lightsey 15:48 You’re welcome. Thank you for the conversation.

Cassidy Hall [15:52]: Yes, likewise.

Dr. Lightsey [15:53]: I bid you well on your scholarship and your writing. I see all your beautiful books!

Cassidy Hall [15:59]: Oh, thank you. Thank you so much.

Dr. Lightsey [16:02]: Take care.

Cassidy Hall [16:03]: You too.

Dr. Lightsey [16:04]: Bye. Bye.

Cassidy Hall [16:05]:  Bye.

Outro: Cassidy Hall [16:08]: 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.com/Cassidy Hall. This podcast is created and edited by me, Cassidy Hall. Today’s episode features the song “Trapezoid instrumental,” by EmmoLei Sankofa, which she has generously allowed us to use. Please find the song and more from EmmoLei Sankofa on your favorite streaming platform or by visiting E-SANKOFA.com. The podcast is 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 resources and tools, head over to enfleshed.com.

And for those still here, one last reading from Reverend Dr. Pamela Lightsey’s book, Our Lives Matter, a Womanist Queer Theology. On page 63 she writes, “Black spirituality is deeper than and can also be absent from any relationship with the church universal. Black spirituality, especially Black women’s spirituality is connected to our very being.”

Dear Nashville Statement

Dear Nashville Statement,

I used to hear your voice when I was a closeted LGBTQ+ person in the Evangelical Church.

I recall your commanding tone, almost always spoken by a man telling me which thoughts to think, which words to say, which feelings to feel. I remember your inflection and the flicker of heat in it that hatred brings. I know who you are. And you no longer scare me into thinking your thoughts, saying your words, feeling your feelings. You no longer scare me.

I remember the certainty in your emphasis. The ways you’d enforce your stances on God as if God was something or someone to be fully understood. For years and years, I sat in your pews and watched your men tell me what behaviors made me Christian and what behaviors didn’t.

I avoided reading you for a few days, Nashville Statement. There’s just no longer a place for your harmful rhetoric in my life. But, I’m learning that so much of life is confronting the narratives from which we have been evolving. Much of life is having dialogue with one another to understand our pains and see one another’s truths. So, I took a look today.

And there you were just as I remember.

Another aggressive move towards domination over the beautiful uniqueness of our society. Another frantic jump from fear of who and what is different from you. I wasn’t surprised to read your narrow words and your parochial views. I used to buy into and even parrot this jargon myself. I used to listen to and heed your hate-fueled notions. It is terrifying to think about how much influence you once had over my understanding of God and my fellow human.

I have grown. I have changed. I have evolved.

When I read your words of anxious flailing which leads to monstrous rhetoric, I was not surprised. I knew you would use words that did not come from the mouth of Jesus and morph them into thought that suits a misogynistic group; a group that perpetuates bounded behaviors by rhetoric of nonsensical legalism. I knew it would be man-led and focused on a fundamentalist interpretation of a book that has been translated and interpreted numerous ways at numerous times.

Your words are violent and harmful. Your tone is vicious and degrading. You ruthlessly force thoughts and words about sexuality and gender into the mouth of the risen one who never spoke a word of it, lest for love. The commanding word you use over and over, “deny”, suggests a dismissal of the freedom and infinite love I, and so many others, have found in Christ. You, the words you choose, the the tenets you cling to with white knuckles continues to place more emphasis on a theological certainty instead of loving. Instead of the inexhaustible love of Christ.

And, if you’re willing to let go and look… that boundless love is everywhere.

I see God’s vastness in sexuality and gender. I see God in my heterosexual friends. I see God my Catholic friends. I see God in my Muslim friends. I see God in my Jewish friends. I see God in my LGBTQ+ friends… I see God in the rainbow of our society. Your statement has made it more obvious than ever to me that you love your bogus rules far more than the very people before you. You care more about commanding than the wholeness of people living out their true-selves as created by God, as children of God.

I’ve been rewriting my narrative in the places where you’ve influenced my life and dismantled my personhood. I’ve been removing the poison that diminished who I was— the hatred, the self-denial of who God made me to be, and the parts that didn’t leave room for us all at the table. I have never felt sad letting you go. I am only sad that you remain in such a hate-filled way.

You are not saving anyone with these statements; you are killing them.

Loving your neighbor is not walking them into hating themselves or feeling suicidal. Loving your neighbor is not dominating them with what you think is right or just. Loving your neighbor is sitting with them and listening to them with a longing to catch a glimpse of God. Do we need to go on defining love when Jesus showed us so perfectly what it looks like?

Nashville Statement, I have a promise for you. I promise I will keep turning your tables and covering them with rainbow tablecloths. I will keep inviting those you so blatantly “deny” at your table time and time again. It is not your table. It is not my table. It is God’s table and God longs for us to find a place. So I will keep inviting. And, if you can leave your hatred and certainty at the door, I will invite you too. Because all are welcome. What if you found a place among us all instead dictating the size of a table that does not belong to you?

I serve a God whose artistry in creation is as vast as it can be within us. And this table is not for removing people or telling them to go away. The table was always meant to be shared. Shared beyond our vision. It is for our Muslim neighbors and our Jewish friends to join us, too. It is for our Atheist coworkers and Agnostic family members, too. For what is this table if it is not love, and what is love if it is not shared?

You may not care any longer since I’ve moved on from you, Nashville Statement, but I’ve since made friends who point me to God instead of trying to tell me exactly who God is. They suggest and do not demand. They question alongside me and shake their fist in horror with me. They talk to me and do not jump to argument. They welcome me and don’t need to or obsess over boxing me in to a denomination or sexuality. And we still meet at the table. 

Peacefully. Lovingly. Joyfully.

So, I hope you can peel back your sweaty palms that are so desperately clinging to a narrative that leaves out so many children of God. I know rewriting can be hard. I know reprogramming can be painful. I had to do it when I left you. You know the best part? You don’t have to do it alone. There’s a multitude waiting for us at the table. There’s a gathering waiting for us to be who we are in the God of love. Will you join me?

Cassidy

 

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I Wasn’t Ready To Write This

Love alone could waken love.” Pearl S. Buck

There are moments in life that I won’t be ready for. That doesn’t mean they won’t happen. That doesn’t mean I should sit back and do nothing. I wasn’t ready to write this.

This isn’t another article about names in politics; this is an article about you and me.

The hatred and violence in the world today (as if this were a new thing) is beyond my ability to fathom. It bears the infinite weight of endless agony prompted by fear, self-hatred, other-hatred, disoriented religions, and a reckless abandonment of anything associated with love.

Where are we and what are we doing here?

It is important to note that situations and experiences cannot be compared, for none of them are the same. Each of us relates differently to each of the things happening in the world precisely because we bring our own lenses and our own experiences to them. My lens is one of ignorance, privilege, whiteness, and a very clear sense of my lack of experience with discrimination and/or being in unjust situations.

However, that doesn’t make any one of us exempt from the human race. And if I see a brother or sister in the human race hurting or in danger, how is it not my responsibility to speak up, stand up, and do my part to help love grow where it has died? How is it not my responsibility to stand with, near, or in front of those hurting to remind them the importance of their very lives? Every ounce of love-oriented humanness lost, especially unlike me, diminishes all of our lives and all of our abilities to live out who we are.

I am therefore not completely human until I have found myself in my African and Asian and Indonesian brother because he has the part of humanity which I lack.” Thomas Merton 

Names should be spoken. The names of victims, the names of movements, the names of those who need us to keep their balance, and whose eyes we need to keep ours. These truths and beyond deserve to be spoken:

Black lives matter. No one should wake up in fear just because of the color of their skin.

The LGBTQIAA community deserves the right to live their lives openly and without fear.

Muslims deserve to practice openly and peacefully without judgments or assumptions.

And, certainty, this list goes on and on.

If one cannot get a grip on saying any of those sentences because they feel all lives matter or because they disagree with Islam or being gay, then they’re missing the point. We say these things precisely because all lives matter; we say these things because we are less whole when our fellow human is in danger physically, emotionally, or otherwise. And, it is time to listen and time to stand with these lives that are in danger.

Listen. Speak. Stand.

I have never felt so strongly in my life that our silence in such situations only arms us with the precise violence that created these problems in the first place. Some of us fear our own stance — that we might lose friends or go into a rabbit hole of discussions with the “other side”.

Do I want to live a life of love? Then, there’s only one “side” and only one clear evident stance to take. To stand in love with my fellow human beings.

How many times have I hindered my love and compassion because I was worried what others might think? Towards lovers, friends, family, or someone different from me? Countless times. Even now, as my black friends are hurting beyond words, my police officer friends put on their uniform trembling, my Muslim friends attempt to discontinue lies being told about them time and time again, and so on.

Do we enjoy being able to walk down the street without fear of being shot? So do our neighbors. Do we like being able to openly love whom we love? So do our neighbors. Do we appreciate being able to openly express our religious beliefs without fear of discrimination, hatred, or violence? So do our neighbors. Do we like being able to do our job peacefully? So do our neighbors.

Neighbors. Whether we like it or not, we’re all in this together. We must listen, weep, speak up, and stand up for more than just our own wounds. We must recognize that we share the same wounds – whether I had a part in creating yours or I simply see it; I have a shared responsibility as a fellow human to work towards healing.

Some days I back off of saying something thinking it will pass. Some days I’m so worried about looking good or hoping others will just feel better.

But our silences do not look good and they make no one feel better. Our silences in matters of hate, violence, bullying, and negativity only give power to the oppressor and make the oppressed feel more and more alone.

The world is a scary place. And, we need each other. We need examples of people being who they are in love. We need people to stand up next to their alienated friends and co-workers as they expose parts of themselves that may be difficult. We need to wander into life hand-in-hand with those different from ourselves. We need more compassion and understanding. We need to look at one another in the eye as the neighbors that we already are. We need hope. And hope is not vain optimism. Hope is a weary voice that keeps speaking truth. Hope is our continual emergence in standing with love, in love.

Hope will not be silent…” Harvey Milk

There are moments in life that you won’t be ready for. That doesn’t mean they won’t happen. I wasn’t ready to write this.

I may be wrong, but maybe Martin Luther King Jr. wasn’t “ready” to spend his life on the civil rights movement, but he knew something needed to change. Maybe Gandhi wasn’t “ready” for a hunger strike, but he knew that was his part to promote love. Perhaps, Harriet Tubman wasn’t “ready” to help slaves into freedom, but who else was going to do it? And possibly Susan B. Anthony wasn’t “ready” to be the face of the women’s suffrage movement, but she simply stood up for what was right.

I know I can listen, speak, stand, and will continue to. I know I can weep, and will continue to. Whether alone, in the company of loved ones or strangers; our sadness, outrage, and most importantly our aligned stance disarms us into a unified voice that cannot be denied.

Love evokes hope; hope evokes love. And both tell me to stand. They tell me to stand and be myself and recognize those doing the same or needing someone to rise up next to. They tell me to stand near them, to stand with them, but even if alone — to stand.

I was going to die, if not sooner then later, whether or not I had ever spoken myself. My silences had not protected me. Your silence will not protect you.

What are the words you do not yet have? What do you need to say? What are the tyrannies you swallow day by day and attempt to make your own, until you will sicken and die of them, still in silence? Perhaps for some of you here today, I am the face of one of your fears. Because I am a woman, because I am Black, because I am lesbian, because I am myself — a Black woman warrior poet doing my work — come to ask you, are you doing yours?” Audre Lorde