I really love my seminary, the McAfee School of Theology, Mercer University. Faculty and staff there are committed to issues of justice and spiritual growth. It is also a place where only about 45% of the students are white. I want to support a place like that and more important, learn from the variety of perspectives and experiences of my classmates. It is a place where I can focus on issues important to me, like being a good ally by attending to my white privilege. I am convinced that my anti-racist work as a white Southern academic should also include theological and religious frameworks. I needed to get in touch with my Jesus.
Part of the institution’s commitment to spiritual formation is the annual faculty, staff, and student weekend retreat, which the founding faculty built into the design of the programs. We just recently had one at the Pinnacle Center in the North Georgia mountains, where we spend two days worshiping together and getting to know one another. We build deeper relationships as classmates at a setting like this, where we pray and take communion together. This year, the dean announced he had been working with friends in Union Point, Georgia, to plan a work day at a historic cemetery near the original location of Mercer University. Here’s what he said:
This summer I learned of a neglected African American cemetery located nearby the Penfield cemetery. I have partnered with African American activists and other leaders to help them with a clean-up effort on October 26. I would very much appreciate it if you would join me as we honor this sacred space and practice remembrance.
He noted that enslaved persons were buried there.
Here is what I wish I had thought: Does it make a difference that the dean is a straight, white, cis-male? Were faculty invited to discuss this topic, welcoming voices from faculty of color? Could groundwork have been laid so that the announcement would have had context for the benefit of the students, most of whom were African American? What is motivating me to want to participate?
What I actually did, though, was volunteer to clean up the cemetery.
A few days later, the dean sent a reminder and included additional information that a filmmaker friend and seminary grad would be filming for a documentary. A few days after that, I learned that a group of African American students had submitted a letter to the dean to express concerns about the project. I have not seen this letter, but the seminary grapevine is real. That was the day I discovered the “Savior Barbie” Instagram account. If you haven’t heard about it, below is a Huff Post article, along with 2 examples of Barbie’s posts.
White Savior Barbie pokes fun at people who suffer from “White Savior Complex,” the term used to describe the white Westerners who travel to third world countries and make the entire affair an exercise in self-congratulatory sacrifice. (Huff Post). The account owners, who remain anonymous, point out, “We have both struggled with our own realizations and are definitely not claiming innocence here.” “Barbie Savior, we hope, is an entertaining jumping off point for some very real discussions, debates, and resolves.” It isn’t that there is anything inherently wrong with doing volunteer work to help people. WSB targets the idea that Africa needs saving from itself and white people are the ones who can do it. Barbie Savior is there for a photo op, the ultimate selfie. This kind of thinking supported colonialism, conquest, and slavery. It is white supremacy.
Let me be clear: I am not suggesting for a minute that the McAfee dean is in error. I have no idea until and unless he discusses it what the process was for bringing this opportunity to the students. For all I know, he brought it to the faculty first for them to unpack together. The letter from students is said to contain references to a diversity strategic plan, which I imagine calls for voice and conversation and inclusion in initiative planning. I have no doubt he is prayerfully and profoundly considering what they have written and will respond appropriately. This is not about him; it is about my own complicity in maintaining racist systems in which the White Savior Complex operates.
So just what was I thinking? My first thought was what a great service project! As a Southern Christian who knows what “Decoration Day” is, I have cleaned old cemeteries for as long as I can remember. My second thought was about the historical significance of the place, for yes, I was in part motivated by it being a very, very old African American cemetery that was the final resting place of former enslaved persons.
My third thought was about my friend Edeltress in Baton Rouge, who had taken me on a detour to her ancestral cemetery one day while we were on a school visit for work. “Do you mind?” she asked me. “It’s been so long since I’ve been here. I was a little girl and my parents brought me.” So we drove to a countryside in Louisiana that I couldn’t find today if I had to. “Here it is,” she said. But looking around, I couldn’t see a graveyard. Just what looked like woods, undergrowth, weeds–way back, about a hundred feet off the side of the road. Edeltress laughed. “Oh, you’re looking for a white cemetery. This is how our cemeteries look.” We tramped around the site, being careful not to step on the graves, and on the way home, she told me stories about her father, who had driven an old broken-down truck so that his white neighbors would not recognize him for a landowner and successful farmer. My people were dangerous. So that is the image I got in my head when the dean asked for volunteers. I thought of paying tribute, in this small way, to my friend.
That is why I am going to acknowledge my white privilege, acknowledge the concerns of my classmates–for they hold us accountable for thinking of and processing these issues before complying–and then go clean up a grave yard. But you won’t see it on Facebook or Twitter. I will not take a selfie with a tombstone. Does this make me admirable? Is this sufficient acknowledgement, or am I assuaging my conscience? Am I asking the right questions? I don’t know, but it gives me something to ponder as I pull weeds.
White supremacy can look like skin heads carrying swastikas; it can look like angry white people wearing red hats. It can be masked by well intentioned white people who secretly voted for Trump. And it can be a white seminary student who fails to do the work of problematizing a workday over the graves of enslaved persons. There is another White Savior resource I find relevant here. White Savior: Racism in the American Church (2019). The film “explores the historic relationship between racism and American Christianity, the ongoing segregation of the church in the US, and the complexities of racial reconciliation” (imdb). I recommend it. The film closes with an African American minister from the Bronx discussing being an ally. “Being an ally,” he said, “means asking ‘What do you need? and sometimes that means just shut up and listen.”
At the end of the day, I believe in a place like McAfee. It exemplifies the complexity of racial reconciling and justice. The messiness of it. It is a place where we can make all the mistakes–and there are many–and learn that the sky doesn’t fall when we make them. It is a place where, sometimes, we can just shut up and listen.
This week I had to check my whiteness two times, first at the ONA Coalition National Gathering and then at the UCC General Synod. The lesson was reinforced for me that, even though I have more than one historically marginalized marker with which I identify (gender and sexuality), that does not mean I am enlightened or evolved in relation to other marginalized populations. It is no fun having to face this in real world situations, but it’s crucial to remember. It also teaches me that in discerning for the ministry, I have a lot to learn. It is God saying, “You’re not there yet.”
The first was during a talk given by a candidate on the slate for a UCC national office. Right after the UMC vote, I had been a little indignant about African delegates being the conservative votes that put the resolution against LGBTQ ordination over the top. Reverend Karen Georgia Thompson pointed out that the African delegates had been heavily lobbied and probably manipulated by conservative (probably Southern) delegates. Of course they had; it created the narrative that benefitted U.S. delegates while reinforcing the stereotype that Black bodies and Black churches were by nature “essentially” conservative.
The second instance was personal. I had a roommate for Synod, a gifted African American chaplain I’ll call Susan. One night, we went to a late evening reception for Members in Discernment for ordination. It was late, so there weren’t many people in the large Hilton hotel suite. In the corner, engaged in conversation with a conference delegate, sat Reverend Traci Blackmon, a rock star minister, prophet, activist in the UCC. She came on the national scene in helping people from Ferguson, Missouri, respond to the Michael Brown murder in 2014. Naturally, we were both star struck. While helping ourselves to the snacks and wine, Rev. Blackmon walked over and began heating up her leftovers from Maggiano’s. The three of us struck up a conversation about a contentious topic in the last session. She was very gracious and seemed to me to be in the mood to talk. It seemed like she needed to unwind before calling the very long day a night. So the three of us sat down in the living room area of the spacious suite while she ate. Even though it was late, I was energized. Like those cop shows where they have to keep the caller on the line so they can trace the call, I just wanted her to keep talking. She is a public theological intellectual, and like bell hooks, a treasure.
When we got back our room, I was revved up from the experience. “Traci Blackmon had a conversation with us,” I said. “Well,” said Susan, “she had a conversation with you. I think I may have made one statement.” Screeching halt. She was right. I, in my white academic privilege, had manipulated the conversation so that I could “own” an engagement with this person I admired. I knew how to guide conversation, to interview a subject, and that’s what I had done. My new friend was gracious, and to her great credit, she didn’t excuse or deny it to make me feel better. The irony is that throughout the conversation with Rev. Blackmon I kept telling myself that I was humbled to be in her presence. No I wasn’t; I was proud. Humility is what Susan exhibited, yet I was so blinded by my privilege I did not see it.
I am not suggesting Susan did not have voice–she did, and she could have called me out severely as we debriefed. What I realized was that in this space where justice and covenant were sacred ideals to be put into practice by all Christians, I had performed a microaggression from a place of privilege, so I am glad the space is also one of grace and mercy. Although, like the tools of privilege in my invisible backpack, I do not deserve them.
Today is June 19th, Juneteenth, the day in 1865 when news of Lincoln’s signing of the Emancipation Proclamation two years earlier finally reached enslaved persons in Texas. It coincides with the National Gathering of the UCC Open & Affirming National Gathering and a Race and Religion course assignment on whether the Lost Cause still exists in the South today. All things work together, and it is fitting.
When I was a kid my parents took my little brother and me to Shiloh National Military Park. This began and strengthened my fascination with the Civil War. Other Southern writers have written about how prominently Civil War lore figured into their childhoods, how it shape their psyches as Southern men. No major battles took place in Alabama like in Virginia and Tennessee, so my parents—who took exactly one vacation in their lives and it was NOT to the beach—hauled us on a day trip to Shiloh. We saw the exhibits with artifacts from the battlefield: bullets, bayonets, buttons. We saw a film that mapped out the two-day fight from April 6-7, 1862, the bloodiest battle until Antietam five months later. It remains the sixth on the top ten list. We walked around sites so horrific they had been named: Hornets Nest and Bloody Pond, water colored red by soldiers’ blood. At the end of the day, my parents took us to the gift shop, where we were each allowed one souvenir. My brother and I got the same memento—a confederate private’s cap. We did not even consider the Union blue cap of the yankees.
I think perhaps the Lost Cause takes on a different meaning for working class Southerners than it had for the old plantation class that evolved into wealth obtained from industry and later, investment. For us, the Lost Cause equated with the tragic romanticism of the lost war. The South is a contested place; it is a place looked down upon by those outside—and sometimes inside—of it. During the tour, my brother and I cheered for the Shiloh story of Day 1, that went to the confederates. On the second day, Grant’s reinforcements arrived, Albert Sidney Johnston was shot, and the battle went to the Union. The feeling I had then is similar to the physical and emotional drain I feel after the University of Alabama loses a big game to Auburn. It is real disappointment that I feel for the rest of the day. Our land had been invaded and we had lost. That was my lost cause, and its symbols took on religious meanings—the Stars and Bars battle flag, the gallant General Lee upon his steed Traveler (yes, I know the horse’s name), and of course, Dixie, our hymn.
Constructing the Lost Cause narrative so strong that is part of the psyche of Southerners who have no discernable connection to the Old South other than geographic location required a national comprehensive campaign. So the question to consider is, in whose interest was it to create the Lost Cause as an organizing theme? The white plantation class, supported by southern newspapers convinced poor whites that they were whiter than they were poor; thus, they allied with the people who looked like them. We continue to do this today, voting and allying against our economic interests because they are white. Northern and Southern Protestants turned defeated confederates into defeated Christians as the Lost Cause became a vehicle for Southern Redemption—redemption that was religious, social, and political.
Yesterday, I attended a session at the UCC Open and Affirming (ONA) National Gathering in Milwaukee, called Offensive Faith: Queering the Playbook for Religious Engagement. Rev. Naomi Washington-Leapheart, of the National LGBTQ Task Force stressed the intersectionality present in dismantling systems of gender and sexuality oppression. People of color are disproportionately affected by violence in this country; the same is true for gender violence. One of the pictures she shared prompted my reflections here, connecting religion, the Lost Cause, and racial (and gendered) violence. I look at it now and am offended, yes, but I see it and know that the stirrings of nostalgia I also feel seeing the old black and white photo that could have been taken at Littleville Elementary School, where I grew up a confederate child. My nostalgia is a fruit of white privilege, and so too is offensive.
The second photo Rev. Leapheart shared will likely offend Lost Causers—not only them, it will offend many other white people. I think when we as a people can be offended by both images because they stand for a history of racial violence in which religion has been complicit—then we might hope for redemption.
Please also take time to visit the National LGBTQ Task Force web site and read about their All of Me. All the Time campaign for the Equality Act. They have this description:
The National LGBTQ Task Force educates federal policymakers about the need for non-discrimination protections that ensure the whole person is able to advocate for themselves when discriminated against, wherever that discrimination takes place. We work with a wide range of progressive partner organizations across the country both at the state and federal level, like the National Black Justice Coalition. The Task Force shifts the conversation from a political and technical one to a national and inclusive conversation based on morals and values.
It is Holy Saturday, God, the day good Christians celebrate Jesus’s body lying in the tomb while his soul descended into hell, the Harrowing of Hell, they call it. Holy Saturday is coming home from a funeral. Everybody is exhausted, and the loss is starting to get real. You have to eat~~people have brought food~~but you are not hungry, might never be hungry again. After Big Mama’s funeral, I sat at the familiar kitchen table with her old friends, who told stories. Those of us at the table laughed until we cried, but the sisters—my mother and Lois and Mary and Judy and Barbara—were in the dark bedroom where their mother had taken her last breath; they did not laugh. They could hardly hold themselves up, so they held each other. It was raw and ugly, and if any of them had dared, they might have cursed you, God. They were groaning in their utter desolation. Holy Saturday started like that, with women holding vigil in their sorrow.
There is another word I first (and pretty much only) heard in the Bible: iniquity. Iniquity is to wickedness what groaning is to grieving. You are good, God, and trust in your goodness outweighs my worry; but my fundamentalist conscience tells me our United States will give an accounting for our iniquity. We sin together, all of us: we are inhospitable to neighbors at our borders, we march in hatred to maintain an apartheid state, and we lay offerings at the feed of corporate gods. We do not merely turn our heads as our poor fight to live—and often lose the fight—but we defiantly jut out our chins at them because they got what they had coming. It helps that they are different colors than we are. We incarcerate young men of color to prove our point. We busy ourselves with what goes on in one room of the house—the bedroom—with little concern with what goes on in the rest of your world. Longsuffering God, batter our hearts, as the poet cried (John Donne). Lay us bare again so that in our nakedness the only place our eyes can turn is to you. On this Holy Saturday, harrow our souls toward reconciliation with you as we keep vigil for the terrifying Resurrection we (don’t) know is coming. Amen.
This week’s post is an updating of a one that began as a paper I presented at the 2017 South Eastern Women’s Studies (SEWSA) Conference called Intentional Monogamy: Not Your Grandma’s Sexual Ethics. I’m thinking about monogamy as an act of queer intentionality.
Even before I started my MDiv at Mercer, I had been playing with God-talk (theology) in my curriculum theory writing. For example, I believe that Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s notion of ethics and existentialist theologian Paul Tillich’s conceptualization of God and Christ are not just relevant to our world today, they are essential. Three semesters in to seminary, I’m just learning what I do not know about Christian Ethics, so I will start small, with the most common state of being in a relationship in Western practice—monogamy—I’m thinking about it in the context of the current issue of same-sex marriage. We have constructed a God to suit our dominant White Western culture, just as we have constructed normal, normative sexual ethics. The god we crafted has a preference, which we codified into morality, for matrimony. Marriage is one man, one woman, monogamous. You know the Wedding Vow: “I, ___, take thee, ___, to be my wedded husband/wife, to have and to hold, from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death do us part, according to God’s holy ordinance; and thereto I pledge thee my faith [or] pledge myself to you” (https://www.theknot.com/content/traditional-wedding-vows-from-various-religions).
In Mimi Schippers Beyond Monogamy: Polyamory and the Future of Poly Queer Sexualities (2016), she extends Adrienne Rich’s idea of compulsory heterosexuality to include compulsory monogamy as a “regime of sexual normalcy” (Kindle loc 183) and offers a critique of mononormativity. She points out, There have been very few theoretical interrogations of how monogamy is implicated in and productive of gender, race, and sexual hierarchies or the role of monogamy as an organizing rationale for regimes of normalcy and social structures of inequality (loc 254). Schipper didn’t leave much space for conceptualizing a postmodern, queer monogamy. Intentional monogamy is queer monogamy–even if the participants are heterosexual, cis-gender participants. It holds similar queer possibilities for disruption. How? Because of its intentional nature. Hence, intentionality is transgressive.
Intentional monogamy confronts monogamy by default, which renders monogamy invisible, unconsidered. Also by default is the assumed and legitimized feature of monogamous couples to reproduce the heterosexual, heteronormative family. There is a whole other discussion here—for another time—on how the re-production of “the family” also reproduces the hierarchies and inequities—personal, political, institutionalized, time-honored. There is a lot hinging on monogamy.
So, in this space, I want to look finally at the intentional part of Intentional Monogamy. For this, I need a story. In Beyond Monogamy, Schippers makes a very interesting point that I will admit I had not thought about, but of course should have: that cheating narratives are important to maintaining mononormativity and leaving monogamy invisible as the hegemonic norm (loc 742). Cheating is the threat that keeps couples within monogamous bounds. Cheating holds monogamy together. It is to relationships what sin is to Christianity. Like sin, cheating is a transgression of the vow to be in right relation. But again, what if we flip this thought so that intentionality is the transgressive turn?
About a year and a half into our relationship, Sarah and I began discussing the terms for our future together. Knowing Sarah, this in fact is romantic. One evening she entered the room, stopped in the middle of it, and said, “I’m monogamous.” I half-looked up from emails or the tv, or whatever I was doing and said, “Yeah, so am I.” And that, as they say, is when it started getting real. She got my complete attention by telling me that to her, I wasn’t at a place to make that assertion. It’s true: I had been living under a few assumptions, stretching all the way back to adolescence and dating. Yet I thought our own commitment had been understood when we had made a commitment. Exclusivity, to me, had implied monogamy, and that was her point. Implied monogamy was not sufficient grounds for a long term relationship. I argued, cajoled, reasoned—used all my skills to persuade her—and myself—that I was a confirmed monogamist. And then she said something so shocking and profound that I knew it to be true: You say you are monogamous when what you really want is someone who won’t cheat on you.
Sarah’s declaration of monogamy, her intentionality, was a disruption of heteronormative compulsory institutional default relationship form. For me, it troubled the cheating narrative, which played right into reinforcing hetero- and mononormativity. From Beyond Monogamy: Monogamy needs cheating in a fundamental way. In addition to serving as the demonized opposite of monogamy, the mark of the cheater is used to push individuals to conform to monogamous behavior and monogamous appearances (loc 748). Wow. You have to confront your monogamous privilege just like you do your white privilege. You have to know that there are other ways of being in relationships–ways that involve more than two partners, she said, and then you can come back to monogamy. Of course, my first question for her was, “Good lord, do I have to try them?” “Not necessarily”, she said,” just as long as you know enough to make an informed decision.”
My students often ask whether anyone can be queer; that is, can you be a straight cis-person and be queer. Sometimes I give them a simple answer. Queer has a political requirement to it; it is purposefully disruptive of normative structures (yes, that’s part of my simple answer to them). It is intentional. So, I tell them, to be queer, you have to believe yourself to be. And that is part of how monogamy can be a queer act—in its intentionality. Monogamy is not a condition to be bound to, a “till death” sentence of imbalanced power. It is a state of free, into which we might freely enter. After about a month of my coming to learn that, Sarah was satisfied. We married on the day the US Supreme Court ruled on Obergefell, June 26, 2015.
Untheorized, monogamy brings its heteronormative baggage into sexual ethics, thereby invalidating its very underpinnings. There’s a famous line from Our Town: People are meant to go through life two by two. ‘Taint natural to be lonesome. Along my journey toward monogamy, I have learned that ‘taint necessarily natural to go two by two, but if we want to, it’s queerer than we might think.
Schippers, M. (2016). Beyond Monogamy: Polyamory and the Future of Polyqueer Sexualities. New York: NYU Press.
My Spiritual Formation this week is from What Matters Most: Ten Lessons in Living Passionately from the Song of Solomon by Renita Weems. She takes takes the “ten lessons” from the Shulammite woman’s fearless living and loving in the Song. Interestingly, I’ve heard the Song of Solomon called “The Porn Book of the Bible,” which reinforces masculine patriarchal dominance of Scripture. Weems allows the Shulammite woman to claim her identity through characteristics of liberation. Three quotations from this week’s reading on Choice stood out to me. Here they are with my reflections:
The Shulammite risked ridicule, criticism, challenge, failure, and embarrassment for the possibility of living a bigger life than the one society assigned to her as a woman (Kindle, p. 80).
Societal rules are powerful, so powerful that we internalize them and regulate ourselves. Growing up, I wanted to be a CIA agent or a lawyer. It was inconceivable to me, my parents, my friends—everyone who knew me—that I would not go to college on a scholarship straight out of high school. But gender role norms are deeply embedded in how we think and act and move about in the world. By my junior year I was “engaged,” in a relationship just like the other girls. I was married at age 18 and had a baby when I was 19. I look at those numbers and shudder—so young! I gave up my own bigger life.
Being passionate means living your life fearlessly. What if I make a mistake? What if something goes horribly wrong? What if I lose more than I gain? What if I make a fool of myself? (p. 83).
Before age 35, I had never lived outside of Alabama. That year, I got divorced, came out to myself, got a job at the Louisiana Department of Education, enrolled in a doctoral program at LSU, and moved to Louisiana. After escaping with my identity—which I had fought for 16 years to hold onto—I did not once ask myself these questions. Like the Shulammite, I was living fearlessly. However, and this is important, my communing with God was a one-way conversation. Although God was ever-present with me, I continued to press through under the delusion that I was accomplishing these things by myself. I give thanks now in retrospect.
But what if the path you’re about to take leads you off the beaten path and falls outside the norm of what others deem acceptable? (p. 87).
On the day I moved to Louisiana, my mother was seeing me off. It was a poignant moment. Two women whose love for one another most often went unspoken, said goodbye. “Mother,” I said, “I’m sorry. It’s hard. I just…” trailing off, not knowing how to speak the things that were in my heart about my life, about her, about all the years I felt I had lost. She thought for a minute, trying hard to blink back tears so that I would not see them—something I learned years later she had often done. “You go ahead. I know you need to. We always knew you’d leave one day.” The beaten path, my parents knew, was not for me, no matter how hard they had tried—through church, modeling, instructing, shaping—to guide me along it. That day, when the strongest women I have ever known blinked back tears and let me leave, was the day I began to live without a net, yes, but in vivid color.