The scholarship featured continues to influence and inform the ways I encounter contemplative life and mystical experience/expression. In the thesis I consider the ways social action/activism and mysticism intersect. A brief excerpt:
“At this point one might question what the mystic and the activist have in common. Is it possible social justice activism could be itself considered a marker of mystical encounter? While one could easily deem the mystic as innately religious (or spiritual) and the activist as innately active, where do these roles intersect, if at all? In response to this question, one might consider the historical ways in which both the mystic and the activist have sought to subvert empire, disrupt the status quo, and pursue the common good. Both the mystic and the activist pursue lives disentangled from institutions, lives which pursue communal well-being, that great marker of mysticism: charity, previously mentioned as a marker of mysticism’s authenticity. An additional voice in this conversation comes from German Theologian Dorothee Sölle whose words on mysticism could be interchanged with the work of the activist when she writes, “Mutual dependence is the fundamental model that mysticism has put in place of domination.”
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: 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.
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.
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.”
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.”
Contemplation has been a part of my life since I was a child taking long walks to pause and process. In 2011, after reading Thomas Merton’s New Seeds of Contemplation, I quit my job and traveled to all 17 Trappist monasteries in the United States. But as I journeyed, I sensed there was something lacking. As a Queer white woman, it took me an embarrassingly long time to recognize what was missing: voices and truths beyond white, male contemplatives like Merton, Rohr, and Keating. Voices speaking into the work of justice and liberation, while also hosting a contemplative interior life that fed their activism. Rev. Dr. Barbara A. Holmes speaks of “public mystics,” leaders whose “interiority and communal reference points” must intersect, including Fannie Lou Hamer, Malcolm X, Sue and Howard Thurman, Rosa Parks, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and more.
Since 2017 I’ve co-hosted the Encountering Silence podcast with my colleagues Carl McColman and Kevin Johnson. Through 100 episodes of interviews and discussions about the importance of silence, I continued to be drawn to the contemplative lives of the marginalized. Now in seminary, I continue to see the ways a white-washed, patriarchal contemplative Christianity hinders collective liberation and justice.
The founder of Spiritual Directors of Color Network, Therese Taylor-Stinson, says contemplation “must consist of both inward solitude and reflection, and an outward response to the situations in which we find ourselves present and awake.” The Contemplating Now Podcast was birthed from the desire to learn from scholars and activists who embody that fullness of action and reflection. During my studies for my MDiv and MTS at Christian Theological Seminary, and in my own contemplative practice, research, and deconstruction, I realized how whitewashed the field of contemplation was and began to seek out the work of Black women and nonbinary folks. In this podcast, I wanted to give them the mic and bring attention to their important contributions to the study and practice of contemplative spirituality and mysticism. My goal is to listen and learn from my guests alongside you.
Find it on all podcasting platforms, and if you’re so inclined, leave a review to help other folks find it more easily.
The Christian Century(progressive Christian magazine based in Chicago, the “journal of record” for mainline protestants, the first to publish “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” in 1963), will be hosting the podcast on their site.
This labor of love project is created, produced, and edited by me. With no funding or financial support for the project, I hope you’ll consider helping keep the work afloat by joining me over on Patreon.com/cassidyhall
I’m also delighted to have support in the form of loving-kindness from my friends over at enfleshed, an org which offers liturgical resources focused on collective liberation. Thanks also to the brilliance and eagle-eyed editor Jessica Mesman.
Finally, I am so very grateful to EmmoLei Sankofa for her delightful music in the opening and closing credits, and a perfect logo from my pal, Patrick Shen.