That We May Dare to Suffer: The Moral & Theological Urgency of Flourishing – Stacey Floyd-Thomas

Posted By on September 16, 2019

>>Good evening. I’m from a black Baptist tradition, so call and response is really necessary. [audience laughs] In order to establish
some sense of protocol, I want to give sincere
thanks and appreciation to Evan Rosa and to Laura, for
just showing the face of God by being so very hospitable, as well as providing me the privilege to be with some sharp thinkers who provide fire and iron for my work, and the new lessons and challenges that I have received from my
co-presenters, and of course to our last presenter, Marisol
Fouth, who has introduced me to this larger Templeton
family: thank you. But more importantly to
you, the gathered audience, whose engagement has been so palpable. Though our insights and our
stories have challenged you, the fact that you yet remain, [audience laughs] shows that indeed two or three, when we are gathered on one accord and we are on many accords in this room. So we see, the many face presence of God, I thank you and ask you that
you stay in that spirit. As an African American female
follower of Jesus Christ, there is an ever stinging
irony that I embody. As one who’s very dasein,
to use Heidegger’s words, or being, or to use womanist
Emily Town’s words, isness, is the amalgamation of
having African blood, being a descendant of American enslavement and a water and fire baptized Christian who as a black woman, is
either scorned, shunned, set aside, sentenced, or silenced by any normative reflection of myself in society or scripture. To use Zora Neale Hurston’s words, “to be such a being is to live “and cook in sorrow’s kitchen “and lick all the pots clean.” In her novel, The Color Purple, Alice Walker offers a salient
example of such irony, and what I deemed as a
convergence of perspective, perception and divine purpose
found within suffering. This hermeneutic of
suspicion and discovery can be found in the epistles
of Celie, her protagonist. Here, the reader can tell that Celie, the black share-cropping,
marital property of a cruel, unfaithful husband, and
the incestuous victim of a low-down step-pa. She is punished by him to only speak of her suffering to God. And so she discloses in her epistles that she is a confused Christian,
who was taught to worship and follow the lead of a God
that is a big, white, old, bearded, bare-footed man
with blueish-gray eyes. Unquote.
And due to her dissonance, she finds herself wanting more, and ends up disavowing a God to whom she once bared her
soul, submitted her will and suffered her abuse in
silence and shame, in a letter, instead of God, but to her
sister Neely- Netty, she writes. “I don’t write to God no more. “I write you. “What happened to God?, ast Shug. “Who that? I say.
She look at me real serious. “Big a devil as you is,
I say, you ain’t worried “about no God, surely. “She say.
wait a minute. “Hold on just a minute here. “Just because us don’t harass
it like some people us know, “don’t mean I an’t got no religion. “What God do for me? I ast. “She say, Celie!
Like she shocked. “He gave you life, good health- “Yeah, I say, and he
gave me a lynched daddy, “a crazy mamma, a low-down dog
of a step-pa and his sister “I probably won’t ever see again. “Anyhow, I say, the God I been praying “and writing to is a man. “And act just like all
the other mens I know. “Trifling, forgetful, and low-down. “She say, Celie you betta hush! “God might hear you
Let him hear me, I say. “If he ever listened
to poor colored women, “the world would be a different place.” The world of difference
that exists between Celie and her perception of a
Eurocentric, anthropomorphic, and sexist image of God, is
made all the more injurious because he is found not
only to be alien in nature, but more importantly,
alienating by disposition. And we know all too well
how and why this alien and alienating God came
into her consciousness; to keep her inured to suffering
while forever separating her from a liberating salvation. This God she came to know
was probably most manifested through an oppressive slave
theology, or a racist, misogynist, Bible-dumping,
demonizing-preaching, illustrated in the hard work
of preachers, patriarchs, and their pitiful female
partners in crime, who stand vigilantly silent in the face of death-dealing social oppression. Within Celie’s poignant
description of material suffering and soul murder, dealt at the hands of a Carmelite colonizing religion. There is a moment for the
first time in her life, Celie, America’s poster
child of suffering, is able to articulate
her cognitive dissonance regarding her lifelong
relationship with God. During the course of
this intimate disclosure to her sister, Celie
professes the abundant faith she has always demonstrated,
the miserable return which has always met her
spiritual investment, and her realization that the
world would be a better place if God could only see it through her eyes. Here the voice of Celie represents a story that is well known, but never told. The more wisdom yet
spiritual angst of those who have been rendered
silent and invisible by the lack of ethics and
proof texting, postilizing, or poor patriarchal biblical
teaching and preaching. Such teachings and preachings,
as many of you know, is a major if not social vehicle through which many black people
have come to imagine God. For those of us who are
descendants of enslaved Africans, it was the spoken word that
enslaved and liberated us. And it is the spoken word
today that still enslaves and/or liberates those, like
Celie, who are triply cursed because of their race, gender, and class. As literary theorist
Hortense Spillers says, “When you look at me, let’s face it. “I am a marked woman, but
not everybody knows my name. “Peaches, Brown Sugar, Sapphire, “Earth Mother, Auntie, Granny, “God’s Holy Fool, Miss Ebony First, “or The Black Woman at the Podium. “I’ve described a locust
of confounded identities, “a meeting of investments and privations “in the National Treasury
of rhetorical wealth. “My country needs me,”
Spiller says, “and if I were not here, it would have invented me.” Unquote.
you can imagine her as a modern day Eve, Ham, and
Hagar, rolled up into one. Those like Celie who are
deemed little more than three fifths human, are never
afforded the status of being a responsible self in the
normative ethical gazes of H. Richard Niebuhrs of the world. As you may recall, Niebuhr presumes that the responsible
self is a moral agent, who has the power and
autonomy to exercise freedom in relation to God and neighbor. Of course, this represents
a type of agency unavailable to Celie, because she
has neither the power nor social regard with which
she can engage man or God. Her experience of what it means to be human is thus denied. Celie’s experience of what it means to be an embodied person exposes
John Rawls’s classic theory of justice as an absurdity,
because it disregards envisioning a justice for human beings who are actually embodied people. This moral reflective weakness is not exclusive to scholars alone. Even those like Celie are
mystified by every day, well-intentioned and
God-fearing white people, or black preaching men, who
claim to see the humanity in everyone, ignore or are still befuddled by the interlocking nature
of gender, class, and race. So they suffer because we live in a world, as Patricia Bell-Scott reminds us, where all the women are white,
and all the blacks are men. But some of us are brave. So what do we do with
the Celies of our world who we either see in our pews,
have run out of our churches, don’t allow in our schools,
or who we would never allow to enter our unwelcoming gates? How can we de-center ourselves
from our privileged positions of preacherly comfort,
while simultaneously placing at the center of our
sermons teachings, thoughts, and actions, the constructive
envisioning offered to us by the most marginalized amongst us. Herein lies the crux of my
paramount concern as a Christian scholar and activist, and what
I hope are urgent questions for those of us who
dare cultivate an ethic of informed faith about
suffering in the world today. But the heart of the problem
that we face in this regard is not preaching about an aesthetic, or idealed image of God, per se, making God a raced,
sexed, embodied entity. But rather seeing in
those to whom we preach, regardless of their race,
gender, sex, and class, a voice and presence of a suffering God that needs to be understood and felt. Instead, the moral crisis of
identity within both the church and society, occasioned by
the unending violence of discrimination, poverty,
hatred, and terror, is expressed by the fear that
it is we, as religious leaders and believers, who have
not only merely carved out, but may have embodied through
our Christian witness, a strange God who is blind
to gender, class, and color, and neither shares nor sees our interests, concerns, and thoughts. Religious scholars and
religious folks must come to realize that it’s
within the scholarly tones of the written word,
and the oral tradition of the preached word, that the face of God is less like Charleston Heston … but can more likely be
found in the suffering faces of those who are truly just a sister away, if we are ready and willing
and able to just look for her. Those women who, like the
Mother Mary, Mary Magdeline, or Martha, or Mary of Jesus’ day, cause Jesus to pause,
reconsider the course of events, and perform miracles,
hand over the gospel, or weep when challenged by ordinary women who had extraordinary faith that ventured beyond their expectations. These biblical women, like
Celie, her allies, and heirs, like me, realize that
surviving shame and suffering is dependent upon knowing
the difference between God, and men who imagine themselves to be Gods. And discerning this
difference is the only thing that we must dare to suffer through because it’s the only way
we may save our own souls without losing our minds
and lives in the process. But even if we shift our
focus from a figure as humble and beset upon as Celie,
to one of our nation’s most celebrated and acclaimed icons, though he was hated when he was living. We recognize suffering in
the lives of black people, does not change much at all. Here we can consider others
like Martin Luther King Junior, who preached sermons and penned
prophecies from jail cells so we might know, in the
midst of our suffering, how to discern the
difference between the God of the oppressed, and the false gods of this yet to be United States. When Martin Luther King delivered his 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech, on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial,
he didn’t wax poetic about the commercialized
utopian images of racial harmony that now get incorrectly
projected on to him, of black children experiencing
joy and gaining equity by the mere proximity and
touch of white children, nor by a melting pot of people gathered around a smorgasbord to
break bread together. Rather, he invoked the metaphor
of bad business and banking, when he talked about a bad
cheque America had written. And talking of the United
States as a moral skinflint, compelling it’s blacks to
suffer injustice in silence, he opened, quote: “In a sense we’ve come to our nation’s “capital to cash a cheque. “It is obvious today that
America has defaulted “on this promissory note,
in so far as her citizens “of color are concerned.”
Unquote. Now many historians remind us
that this part of the speech has been mostly forgotten
if you even heard it at all. Swamped in collective memory
by the passionate rhetoric of kings oration, or
passionate prose of a preacher, even when initial renderings
for the new Martin Luther King Junior Nation Memorial
were first unveiled, they included a prominent place for the promissory note metaphor. But, as the project went
forward, and funds needed to be raised, it was
deemed too confrontational and dropped from the final design. And I can imagine many
this evening thinking that this painted picture
is part of our past, yet when we consider the
spate of unarmed shootings, including the Charleston
Nine, along with the history of childhood slavery that has
loomed large and manifested itself in the leasing and
lynchings of black bodies, racial segregation, racial
profiling, police brutality, the prison industrial
complex, forced sterilization and sex trafficking, it has
been made poignantly clear in the public square that
black lives do not matter, making the metaphor of
bounced cheques seem comedic. And so at this crucial
moment, instead of our eyes watching God, our churches shrink, our best scholars shudder,
and our millennial generation wonders whether God is in
fact playing hide and seek. Or even worse, is God a
white racist after all? As William R. Jones queried in the title of his classic text. This evening I would
like to appeal to each of you as thinking people of faith. In order the examine
and evaluate the manner in which our hermeneutics of
suffering produces meaning for those blackened by
blood, history, and faith, by showing how sacred narratives,
whether Celie’s or King’s, the Children of Israel
or Hagar, Mary or Martha, Job or Lazarus, serve not
only as religious means of survival, but also as
modes of religious response to their ongoing suffering
that forges human flourishing as what womanists have often referred to as “the hope that remains in the holler”. Here we must heed carefully
to womanist theologian, in Shawn Copeland’s words, that quote, “The suffering disclosed in
these stories are neither “pedagogically motivated,
nor is it some form “of spiritual beneficial aestheticism. “For when suffering is done
to people, it is a lynching. “It is meant to break and
not temper the spirit.” Unquote.
Suffering, whether it’s a crucifixion or a lynching,
or being prostituted by the lots of this world who pose as fathers, yet are truly pimps who
traffic and terrorize women they claim to love and vow to protect … Such actions and such representations of suffering are evil, simply put. But it’s our responses to
suffering that may redeem us, but never does it redeem
the evil act of suffering. All you have to do is ask
anyone who has truly suffered. So, suffering, nonetheless,
as we just learned in our liturgy, does
signify something within us, whether it be a rationalized
result of a bad happening, or denial of statistics
and instead an aspiration to want more than is considered
good or possible to have. The moral condition of those
who have survived the underside of history, have done so
that we may dare to suffer. Not for piety or pies in the
sky, but to expose the false gods who have honed a structural
reality that keep many of us from destroying
the power it has over us. In her excursions to what’s
faith got to do with it, womanist theologian Kelly Brown Douglas pressures this issue by
stating, and I quote: “What is it about Christianity? “Is there something
about Christianity itself “that suggests a disreputable,
dehumanizing legacy? “Christianity, a closed
monotheistic religion, “is defined by a christological
paradox,” she says. “and Christianity is a religion
with a violent crucifixion at it’s very center. “Each of these theological characteristics “has greatly contributed
to Christianity’s implicit “and explicit participation
in acts of human terror.” Unquote.
Now, before you think me blasphemous, let me remind you. One, I am a Christian. But two, the power of my
faith is generated not because of Christ’s dividic lineage,
or heir to an internal empire, but from the fact that
a righteous man from Uz, who suffered, did not do so
in silence but implored God in God’s perfection that
his suffering necessitated an advocate that foreshadowed the coming of a single teenage
mother, who suffered shame to present to the world
a living sacrifice, revealed through God’s
lowering of God’s self into the form of a man who was
despised in his own hometown, betrayed by his own friends,
and lynched on a tree carried by a slave, because
he was that kind of God who preached that the spirit was upon him, because he could set
free those who suffer. My faith therefor is formed
not in the genealogies of Christian empire, but
through the actions of a historical Jesus, who
literally lived, flesh and blood, wept, was tempted, betrayed,
and murdered at the hands of an evil empire that cannot be redeemed, no matter how many crosses
we wear around our necks … But that the work and witness
he suffered through must serve as a moral exemplar for us
to cultivate the moral muster and theological urgency
to wrest human flourishing from the empire that seeks to terrorize us in the name of God. As historian of religion
Charles Long reminds us in his seminal work,
Significations: Signs, Symbols and Images in the Interpretation
of Religion, quote: “The oppressed must deal
with both the fictive truth “of their present status, as
expressed by their oppressors, “that is, their second creation, “and the discovery of their
own autonomy and truth, “their real God-given first creation. “the locust for this structure
is a mythic consciousness “which de-historicizes the
relationship for the sake “of creating a new form of humanity.” Unquote.
That we dare to suffer is not to call enduring brutality a virtue. On the contrary, that
we must dare to suffer is that we will not take
shelter in the false sanctity of suffering, but rather
in endowing ourselves with a conscious-laden
experience of realizing that we exist in the realm of
the already and the not yet. Or as Barack Obama put it, “Between the promise of our ideals and the reality of our time.” That we dare suffer,
insists that we have life and have it more abundantly,
so we may reconcile ourselves to Jesus’s intention for our lives. That we dare suffer is never
to wait idly by accepting abuse in silence and shame,
but that we, like Celie, whose lives do not exist in a context, where all the women are white
and all the blacks are men, that we know that the true
God is one in whose image we too are fearfully and wonderfully made. And thus we dare to suffer to
be brave enough to not only press our way through crowds,
to bypass all the H.I.M.s, but to touch the H.E.M.s
of divine healing. And brave enough to activate the divinity in a hesitant boy to turn water into wine to save the face of our
girlfriend on her wedding day. And brave enough to stop
a Messiah on his holiday to insist that he heal a
child, in spite of the fact that he calls us a dog. That we may dare suffer
to be modern day Moses’s that create underground railroads to set at liberty those who are captive. Cash in on constitutions and cheques that were never written with us in mind. That we dare suffer to
climb poles, not to strip, but to tear down flags. To cellphone recorded Facebook
posts and Snapchat livestream injustice via cellphones and social media, screaming Black Lives Matter in the face of these yet to be United States. Suffering for all of it’s
hell mustn’t stamp out our opposing it for the evil that it is. My prayer and purpose and
clarion call, for those of us who claim both God and
the gospel, who know both the whitened hate
and the blackened hope that has shaped this nation,
is that in order for the art to bend towards justice, we
must be the ones who bend it. That we may dare to suffer
is to flourish by having the moral muster and
theological urgency to realize that we are the ones we’ve
been waiting for after all, because God is already living within us, and her name is not
suffering, but resilience. [applause]

Posted by Lewis Heart

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