Open Doors

It does not take a Ph.D. in public media to see that women have been at the forefront in our news and politics. (Let’s go ahead a give a giant shout-out to Wendy Davis!) Sen-Wendy-Davis-filibusterAside from the government attempting to (re)take control of the female body through draconian legislation and fear-mongering, not the least of which stems from ignorance and a lust for power, a phenomenal and well-orchestrated event transpired this past weekend. The FBI succeeded in their largest nation-wide bust on the sex-trafficking industry here in the US. Over one hundred individuals were freed from the tyranny of their pimps and trading routines with even more arrests made to secure the freedom of the innocent. The majority of those rescued were women, the youngest only 13. Unfortunately in this case, good news does not make the bad more palatable. Like the ubiquity of the sex-trade for one instance.

I preached a sermon this past week from the lectionary passage Luke 11:1-13. The “Parable of the Persistent Neighbor” is a quirky little pericope exploring the idea of charity and compassion. The protagonist needs a loaf of bread to entertain some unexpected guests. Unfortunately, he called upon his neighbor at midnight for the favor of sharing his bread. Inconvenienced by the late-night call the benefactor eventually shares of his resources–not because they are friends, but because the guy was so persistent in his asking. He was not going to leave until he got what he needed! The crux of the story comes when Jesus says that God is not the curmudgeon neighbor trying to cover his head with the pillow when our middle of the night door knocking won’t cease. Seek and you will find, knock and the door will be opened. God is eager to share the gifts and goods that make for abundant living.

Except when we are still lost and the door is locked, right?


Are women across the globe not knocking loud enough? Have we not been knocking all night, so to speak? How dare our governments turn a deaf ear to our knocks. (Let’s give another shout out to Wendy Davis, our s-heroic persistent neighbor!) And what of the governments around the world who leave their female populations even more lost and wandering than America does?

God is a communal God. Jesus lived in community and spent his life compelling others to care about those who are left out in the cold night after night seeking food/security/shelter/equality/justice. God acts through God’s community of people. God continually shapes us into God’s fuller intentions for us. This means that we get to help God respond to those persistent and pesky knocks. The great doors of freedom and justice do not magically open on their own accord, especially with the winds of patriarchy and dominance bellowing to keep them shut! This means we have to react against the thrusts of looming legislation, entitled power-hungry, politically savvy men, and rise up ourselves in the middle of the darkness to usher in those whose rights are compromised.


The Women’s Center operates with an open door policy. (Well, not literally 24/7; I like to sleep in my own bed at night.) As we are formulating and growing our calendar of events for the coming academic year, we seek to be in partnership with the God who says, “Seek and you will find. Knock and the door will be opened.” We long to see this promised reality now. We also seek to participate with other women and organizations in Louisville who are also about the business of sharing our resources with those who have need. Will you partner with us?

A few events for you to anticipate this Fall:
October 10th  Celebrating National Coming Out Day (10/11) in Chapel
October 13th Louisville AIDS Walk
November 17th  Transgender Awareness Memorial Service in Caldwell Chapel

Events TBA:
> A film showing of “Pink Smoke Over the Vatican” followed by a conversation with two women seeking ordination in the Catholic Women Priest Movement.
> Our Light + Lunches with special guests from the community

Finally, William Sloane Coffin, former senior minister of The Riverside Church in NYC and rhetorical genius extraordinaire prophetically claimed in a sermon about the subjugation of women during the 19th and 20th centuries that God will not be mocked. (Published in this book.) How so? Sloane Coffin instructs us to remember early suffragists. These women who were martyred for their work and who are today celebrated, emulated, and revered. They are in our history books, their work having paved the way for many of the liberties we to which we are privy. We have erected statues in their honor, in some cases in the very cities that outlawed and murdered them. 01302012_AP070523074824_600Women like Anne Hutchinson, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Sojouner Truth (just to name a few of the big ones) along with more contemporary names like Katie Geneva Cannon, Emilie Townes, Sheryl WuDunn, Hillary Clinton and now Wendy Davis inspire and remind us to run with God to open wide the doors of oppression and truth.

What will our great-grandchildren celebrate in a few years because we kept our doors open with God today? Indeed when one who seeks is found and one who knocks is let in, God’s justice prevails. God will not be mocked!


A Call to Preach Peace for Women This Advent

Image of dove carrying heart, and the word PAZ, painted on a wall in Madrid

A Call for Peace

Those of us who have participated in the Christian liturgical year for while know that Advent is a time of preparation. During Advent, Christians prepare once again for the astonishing and life-bringing incarnation of the Christ, and renew their commitment to prepare for the still-anticipated, still-promising, fulfillment of the Reign of God. During Advent, Christians meditate on the hope that accompanies these preparations, the peace towards which they point and for which we long, the joy that already animates these hopeful preparations, and the love that they rehearse, which is called forth by the Love that is already good news for the world to meet that Love in action.

During Advent, we are already poised to proclaim the need to prepare the way of the Holy One in concrete ways, by repenting of our violent or thoughtless commissions, our hard-hearted or apathetic omissions, and by renewing our commitment to transformation in our own lives, our congregations, and our world.

This Advent, the Women’s Center at LPTS calls upon the preachers of our community to make December 4, the Second Sunday in Advent, a day to preach as “an activist and transformative response by the church to violence against women.”1

Specifically, we invite those who will preach on the Second Sunday of Advent to incorporate explicitly the three goals of preaching against sexual and domestic violence identified by John McClure in his essay on that topic:

  • to “speak a word of hospitality, resistance, and hope to victims and survivors;”
  • to “send a message that the church will cease to be a place of easy rationalization adn cheap grace for abusers;”
  • and to “invite the congregation as a whole to consider how it might become a ‘safe place’ and a force for compassion and resistance in relation to sexual and domestic violence.”2

We invite preachers to name violence against women as one of the wrongs we work to eliminate as we “prepare the way” for and live into the coming Reign of God; to call for repentance from our own acts of violence, and from the attitudes and practices that promote or facilitate them, like continued support for violence as a means of resolving conflict, or persistent acceptance of men’s legitimate control over women; and to identify the elimination of violence against women as a mark of the shalom towards which bend our efforts. We further invite preachers to make this Advent the beginning of a regular practice of preaching against violence against women.

We issue this call because we recognize that preaching is a form of activism, and that it calls the people of God to further transformative action; because the ongoing reality of violence against women cries to heaven for the active justice- and peace-making of the church, and because the church is called to active engagement in the continuing effort to eliminate violence against women; and because preaching that names violence against women as a wrong is a way to stand in solidarity with women and men around the globe who will be participating in the international effort “16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence.” We believe that global effort will benefit from our solidarity, as will we. Finally, we believe that explicit preaching against sexual and domestic violence, and against the structures like militarism and patriarchy that perpetuate it, is itself a form of repentance that is appropriate to this new beginning of the liturgical year.

Repentance: Breaking Our Silence
All too often, the topic of violence against women and girls – whether it is domestic or intimate partner violence, sexual assault, or other forms of coercion and abuse of power and control directed at women – is absent from the pulpit. This silence creates the impression that the church either does not perceive the reality of violence against women and girls, or countenances it, or has no word to say in the face of it. Despite the PCUSA’s official stance of opposition to domestic violence in particular, despite the General Assembly’s 2000 resolution calling for comprehensive efforts at all levels of church life to confront domestic violence and to promote healing for persons affected by it, and despite the General Assembly Mission Council’s passionate theological statement against it, many congregants have never heard a word spoken against violence against women from the pulpit. When the church, through its preaching, remains silent, its members cannot see it standing in solidarity with survivors of violence, nor hear it calling perpetrators to account, nor feel it challenging bystanders to become more actively involved in building a non-violent world.

The Second Sunday in Advent, December 4, is an opportunity to commit to making a change, by joining with others preaching on the same theme at the same opportune time. It is an opportunity to embrace the larger goals of preaching about violence against women, and to commit to incorporating the challenge of facing and eliminating it into future preaching.

Christians are sometimes tempted to deny the relevance of violence against women in the life of the church. Christianity, as we like to remind ourselves, is a religion of love and peace; most of us think of ourselves as peaceful people who, insofar as it is up to us, live at peace with all people, in accord with Romans 12:18. We imagine our congregations as violence-free zones.

In fact, however, the prevalence of violence against women means that experience with violence is predictably present in our congregations, albeit usually silenced. In the United States, National Institute of Justice statistics indicate that 1 in 4 women will experience intimate partner violence during her lifetime. (The corresponding figure for men is 1 in 13.) 1 in 6 will be a victim of rape.

The United Nations defines violence against women as any act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual or mental harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or in private life.

Globally, 1 in 3 women will experience such violence in her lifetime; in a warring world, that violence will often be an effect of armed conflict.

The Advent anticipation of peace speaks directly to this experience of violence, calling Christians to understand the demands of peacemaking as specifically including binding up the wounds of women who have experienced violence, and calling for justice in a world that positions women and girls as convenient and acceptable targets of violence.

Why December 4?
We are calling for a concerted preaching action on December 4, the Second Sunday in Advent, to coincide with the international effort 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence. This effort to focus attention and action on the cause of eliminating violence against women and girls was inaugurated in 1991 by the Center for Women’s Global Leadership at Rutgers University. The 16 Days run between November 25 – International Day Against Violence Against Women – and December 10 – International Human Rights Day – and were chosen to emphasize the linkage between violence against women and human rights, to dramatize the understanding that violance against women is a violation of human rights, and to make possible an international effort to raise awareness and focus energy towards the elimination of violence against women. The Center for Women’s Global Leadership annually outlines themes that unite women working for an end to violence around the world; this year, the theme continues its focus on the linkages between militarism and violence, under the heading “From Peace in the Home to Peace in the World: Let’s Challenge Militarism and End Violence Against Women!” [Read the 2011 Theme Announcement here.] We are excited about the prospects of bringing the voice of the church, with its specific promise of hope and ultimate healing, to this worldwide effort.

Resources – Links

More statistical information on violence against women is available from:

Centers for Disease Control – Violence Prevention [CDC resources include a fact sheet for the United States and a comprehensive report on the Cost of Intimate Partner Violence]

Domestic Violence Resource Center

National Domestic Violence Hotline

National Institute of Justice

Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN)

A valuable collection of resources addressing violence against women from a theological perspective is available through the FaithTrust Institute

For resources available from the PC(USA), visit

Presbyterians Against Domestic Violence Network (PADVN)

and consult Turning Mourning Into Dancing!, the 213th General Assembly’s Policy and Study Guide on Domestic Violence

1 Barbara Patterson, “Preaching as Nonviolent Resistance,” in John S. McClure and Nancy J. Ramsay, eds. Telling the Truth: Preaching About Sexual and Domestic Violence (Cleveland, OH: United Church Press, 1998) 99-119, 99.

2 John S. McClure, “Preaching about Sexual and Domestic Violence,” in John S. McClure and Nancy J. Ramsay, eds. Telling the Truth: Preaching About Sexual and Domestic Violence (Cleveland, OH: United Church Press, 1998) 110-119, 110.

Let me introduce myself.

Hi!  I’m Amy Hartsough, and I am the Student Coordinator for the Women’s Center this year.  Allow me to share with you three introductory facts about me:

1)  I’m a first-year M.Div. student at LPTS, in the ordination track with the PC(USA) — that’s the Presbyterian Church, USA.

2)  Today in chapel, I was reminded of the simple pleasures of honey, when I asked a friend to drizzle said substance on my communion bread.  (My hands were full, as I was holding an apple and a banana as well as the bread — the Table at LPTS is filled to point of overflowing, amen?)

3)  I am a coffee drinker.  I try to be a consumer of locally sold, fairly-traded coffee when I can.  But today, I made what might be a seasonal shift for me.  Today, I am drinking tea.  Carmel apple flavored tea with, you guessed it, honey, and a splash of milk.

So, now that we’ve been properly introduced — (I’m trusting our readers to leave comments introducing themselves!) — let’s talk a little bit about my presence on this blog.  Allow me to share something else about me, this time, some insight into my sense of passion and purpose.

I am passionate about language.  I remember reading one of Emily Dickinson’s poems in college; her words prompted a sort of mental “gasp” within me.  I “got” what she was saying.  It resonated with my own experience.  And then I thought, “how remarkable, that a woman in a particular time and place in the past wrote these words, and I’m reading them now, and they’re becoming my words — they’re about my life too.”  Since then, I’ve been fascinated by the way that human beings use language to create meaning and connections across these chasms of space and time.  As an English major, I became very aware of the privilage and power that I have because I know how to use words.  I can read, write and think about an endless number of things.  I can participate in so many conversations in my culture, because I have access to the tools of meaning-making.  I am a thinker, feeler, lover, friend, daughter, woman, human being.  And because I am also a student, speaker, writer, poet, liturgist, I am in a position to share my experiences with the world.  Or at least with particular parts of the world.

I continue to be in awe of the position in which I find myself.  As I continue in seminary, and with this blog, I hope to be guided by the unending purpose and hope of working towards the realization of a world in which all people’s voices are heard and celebrated, as mine has been and continues to be.

May it be so.

Something We Do: Advocate

Think Advocacy

A recurrent question around LPTS is “What is the Women’s Center?” and “What does the Women’s Center do?” It’s tempting to answer the question with some kind of list: it does things like bring in speakers at lunch, arrange film nights, sponsor the Katie Geneva Cannon Lecture, organize a team for the AIDS Walk, put on The Vagina Monologues, that kind of thing. Or, with directions: it’s in White Hall, where the sign is in the window. But the question could be answered a little more formally, by looking at what the Women’s Center says about itself, in its mission statement. This month, partly in honor of experienced students’ return to campus and new students’ arrival, it seems wise to do that. In the briefer mission statement, the Women’s Center says it will:

  1. Discern new ways of being and living into these realities by support and advocacy for women and other disenfranchised groups;
  2. Supplement the academic program of the Seminary and provide a prophetic voice on the Seminary campus;
  3. Celebrate and affirm the gifts and contributions of women in all spheres of life in past and present;
  4. Provide a safe space to discuss and hear one another’s stories and supply resources for information and edification.

September seems like a good time to elaborate some on each of these larger kinds of activities, which together might be summed up as: “Advocate, Educate, Celebrate, Congregate!”

Many people do think of the Women’s Center as an advocacy organization of some kind – where advocacy means something like “The act of pleading or arguing in favor of something, such as a cause, idea, or policy; active support.” Sometimes people think of advocacy as roughly equivalent to “shouting” – which can make people uncomfortable – or “always going on and on about, you know” – which can be boring.

We think of advocacy as something a little quieter (well, sometimes), and more interesting. Advocacy means creating a base of supporters who are educated about women’s issues, their relationship to fundamental theological, ecclesial and pastoral concerns, and their implications for the living out of Christian faith. These supporters are then in a position to become advocates as well, advocates of a more inclusive and comprehensive vision of the transformed world towards which Christians are called to bend their efforts. Advocacy involves taking the persuasive case for something to people who otherwise might not have heard it, or realized how glad they would be once they did.

A main message of Women’s Center advocacy is that women’s issues and gender issues are relevant, important, and concern everyone.

That’s a simple message, really. It doesn’t seem controversial. And yet – it is not always obvious that women’s issues are relevant. It is still easy to think that when our main concerns are theology or Scripture or designing worship, gender is really beside the point. It is still easy to fall into the trap set by our culture, of ignoring gender except for when it’s in the “right” places, like the family, private life, intimate relationships, or shopping for gender-appropriate clothing. We can then imagine that if we don’t think about or refer to gender, our theological reflection and ideas are gender-free, our construction of the political life of the church has nothing to do with gender, and so on. Advocacy is how we remind our collective self that whether we ignore the influences gender has on us, or whether we pay attention to them, they are there in everything we do – and if we ignore what we do with them, we’ll miss whatever chance we have to do anything new and better with them.

It is not always obvious that women’s issues are important. It is easy to think that what is most important is what appears – in newspaper headlines and TV trailers, on seminar agendas and reading lists, in all the best commentaries and the classic theological sources. Women’s issues don’t always seem to rank up there with the economy and the environment, or global mission and evangelism, or ethics and the Christian life, or whatever we recognize as things that really matter because we know the people they matter to really matter. But. As we learn to see how gender is relevant, we come to realize that in every human issue we know is really important, there is always already a women’s issue present; women are human, and every human issue is a women’s issue. There is no significant justice issue that does not reveal significant gender dynamics – when we bother to look. There is no significant intellectual issue that does not sound profoundly different in gendered conversation – when we bother to listen.

It can, in fact, happen that the ubiquity of gender influences masks their importance. Presuppositions about gender are woven into basic aspects of human life – appearance, gesture, language. Individually small but continuous, ubiquitous practices, that operate at a glacial pace, have a large effect. Efforts directed at changing those influences can seem like a focus on trivialities. Until – for instance, in the matter of “inclusive language – someone is challenged to count up the instances of masculine language used for God in the average worship service, and then multiply that by the number of all the worship services someone attends in a year, or 10, or their lives, and then to consider whether the influence exerted on a person’s understanding of the divine is or is not a sizeable one.

It is not always obvious that women’s issues and gender issues concern everyone. It’s still easy to dismiss the language of “gender issues” as code for things people who are not straight men would care about. It’s easy, because gender still defines many people to such an extent that “gender” itself seems like those people’s exclusive property. Advocacy insists that gender is a property of everyone’s humanity, that each of us has a particular gender through which we interact with everyone else in our lives. Each of us has an experience that gender — our own, and others’ — has had a hand in crafting. So “gender issues” are everyone’s issues. If we want to understand ourselves, and others; if we plan to counsel others; if we anticipate attending or planning or leading worship that will speak to people where they live; if we hope to extend the welcome of Christ to anyone in the body they live in, then we will do well to pay attention to how gender affects the way we do those things, and how people respond to us when we do.

Some people think that the time for advocacy around women’s issues has long since come and gone. According to that story, “all that ‘women’s liberation’ stuff” is so that 70s show; women have votes and jobs and grad school and pastoral calls now, so what is left to advocate for? According to us: just things like an end to violence against women and girls, access to education for women and girls around the world, the flourishing of lively and profound worship that fully incorporates women’s experiences and revelations, and all the other tremendous things that people who recognize that gender is relevant, important, and concerns everyone become able to wish for and work for.

Disruptive Christian Ethical Newsreading

by Heather Thiessen

The Women’s Center subscribes to Inter Press Service’s “Gender Wire”, which reports on events around the world that affect women. This week, the news included the report that the Organization of American States’ Inter-American Commission on Human Rights had ruled against the United States in a human rights case, the case of Jessica Lenahan (formerly Gonzales). [full story here] Its ruling holds that a local police department’s failure to enforce a restraining order against an abusive ex-husband, and subsequent actions of US courts, constituted a violation of the plaintiff’s human rights. Domestic violence infringes a human right, and it is among “the duties of the State to respond to situations of domestic violence with diligent protection measures.” Ms. Gonzales and her children received no such protection.

The facts in the case are truly “horrible,” as acknowledged by Justice Scalia in the opinion of the US Supreme Court, which nevertheless denied Gonzales’ claim that her expectation of protection under her existing restraining order constituted an enforceable “property right.” They are outlined in the OAS report on the case’s merits, and can be summarized as follows: Jessica Gonzales, of Native American and Latina American descent, held a valid restraining order against her ex-husband, Simon Gonzales, due to his abuse of her and her daughters. She was unsuccessful in having Castle Rock Police Department officers enforce this order when she first learned that her daughters Leslie (7), Katheryn (8), and Rebecca (10) had disappeared, then learned that they were with their father at a Denver amusement park, and then again when they did not return home by bedtime. Simon Gonzales drove to the Castle Rock Police Department in the early hours of the next morning, opened fire on the building, and was shot dead by police. Officers discovered the dead bodies of the three girls in the back of Mr. Gonzales’ pick-up truck after the shoot-out. Mr. Gonzales had purchased a 9 mm. automatic weapon shortly before 8 p.m., after picking up the girls and before taking them to Denver, clearing an FBI background check. US Courts ruled that Jessica Gonzales’ restraining order did not require its enforcement by local law enforcement officers; this fact appears to have influenced the US Supreme Court’s decision to rule that, however tragic the outcome, the Castle Rock Police Department had not violated Ms. Gonzales’ civil rights by not doing more to intervene in the situation.

In its ruling on the merits of the case, the OAS Inter-American Commission on Human Rights concluded that

The restraining order was the only means available to Jessica Lenahan at the state level to protect herself and her children in a context of domestic violence, and the police did not effectively enforce it. The state apparatus was not duly organized, coordinated, and ready to protect these victims from domestic violence by adequately and effectively implementing the restraining order. These failures to protect constituted a form of discrimination in violation of the American Declaration, since they took place in a context where there has been a historical problem with the enforcement of protection orders; a problem that has disproportionately affected women since they constitute the majority of the restraining order holders.

All of this may seem like a summons to mutter “how awful,” and maybe to say a heartfelt prayer for the peace of women and girls everywhere. But while it would be wrong to discourage that prayer, and while we are no doubt right to recognize how awful the story is, the summons is really very different. It is, rather, a summons to recognize this story as a profoundly relevant source of moral knowledge and a call to ethical reflection; an appropriate response to such a summons is to notice the ways I, myself – or we, ourselves – are actually implicated in this episode of our public life, rather than to see it as something randomly and disconnectedly “out there.”

At least, I think that is what I have been learning from reading Rev. Dr. Traci C. West’s Disruptive Christian Ethics. One of Dr. West’s points is that most Christians need ways to develop understandings of our world that help us stop seeing manifestations of institutional callousness as having no connection with our own ethical lives, and to develop ways to stop tolerating institutionalized immorality that stems from tacit understandings that support the dismissal and oppression of the powerless. Her work focuses on the need to permit particular moral concerns – such as those encoded in the story of Jessica Gonzales/Lenahan’s ordeal – to inform and challenge the abstract, universal terms and categories we use in developing our ethical responses, and to cultivate an ability to see these particular moral concerns as connected both to our own “in general” ethical reasoning, and to our own particular practice of it.

A full and careful analysis of this case, in its embodied, raced, gendered, classed, institutionalized, nationalized and globalized complexity, is beyond the scope of this reflection. It seems clear that it cannot, or anyhow, should not, take the form of a consoling apportionment of blame to easy others — as if I were in a position to know how I, myself, could and would have done better a job for which I’ve never trained, under circumstances I have no appreciation for, and as if I’ve never experienced the stomach-churning realization that something I did an hour or a week ago more or less routinely, thinking I knew what I was doing, has suddenly revealed itself to be a human disaster that I would do anything to undo. But it does seem to call into question some of my assumptions about what ought to be or “realistically have to be” priorities in doing any kind of work. (How different would my own work look if care and justice were consistently my top professional concerns, instead of . . . well, instead of the other things that are sometimes, right then, more on my mind?) Just as it seems to call into question a collective willingness to let the knowledge that consistent commitment to care and justice is hard work function as a justification for official lapses, rather than as an impetus to change the conditions that make it so hard.

And then there is the heartbreaking detail that one of the Castle Rock Police Department officers, with whom the mother of three little girls spoke on their last night in life, said that he couldn’t do anything because the children were with their father. If the children had been with someone else, could someone have done something? Would it then have been more permissible to consider that they really might be in some kind of danger? How much does all that we Christians say to sentimentalize the relationship of parent to child, and to sanctify that relationship in our collective imagination, and to deify the relationship of father to child in our ritual symbolic life, even to the point sometimes of insisting that lethal violence can be a property of the most profound paternal love, contribute to how difficult it can be to perceive facts in evidence in a particular case (like the existence of a restraining order against an abusive husband/father) that do not fit the overriding picture in our cultural mind’s eye that assures us that, universally, “children who are with their fathers are OK”?

And then there is the fact that the anguish a reader feels in encountering the report of this case, and the knowledge that the reader’s anguish can only be a pale reflection of the anguish of the people most intimately involved in it, is a source of moral knowledge. We know, because of how we feel about this particular story, that “this is wrong” — and so are in a position to know that whatever made this story true is wrong. The challenge of moral knowledge like this is to hold fast to the uncomfortable threads by which we ourselves are tied to whatever that is, so as to be able to follow them to the place where they knot together – around something that we together could yet loosen, and thereby change. At least, I think that is part of the lesson, difficult but promising, of Disruptive Christian Ethics.

Rev. Dr. Traci C. West will deliver the 2011 Katie Geneva Cannon Lecture Sunday, September 18, 7:30 p.m., Gardencourt. CLICK HERE FOR MORE INFORMATION.

On Transformation

Actively working on education

Transformation is in the air this month. The entering class of seminarians at LPTS is taking part in the course “Transforming Seminary Education,” a course that recognizes that seminary education poses many transformative challenges, and aims to orient students for navigating those intellectual and spiritual challenges openly, adventurously, and successfully. The stirrings of a new school year, with their Facebook photos of friends’ suddenly school age children about to board the bus and status updates from others’ surprisingly college students reporting their arrivals at distant dormitories, calls attention to the continuous transformations going on all around us, so slowly they are almost imperceptible to those closest to them, so surely that we wonder at our own surprise at learning, again, that children grow up and friends age. From the perspective of August, transformation can look like a force of nature, intent on making something different of everything.

Even a force of nature involves someone’s or something’s energy and activity; transformation does not “just happen,” even though it can seem that way to us. We may not give much credit to the physical and chemical activity that carves out canyons from sandstone lake bottoms over millennia (though we may give tremendous credit to the Creator for whom time is something like a lathe), but it doesn’t really qualify as passive or uninvolved. Certainly the biophysical and biochemical activity involved in growth and maturation, and the intellectual and social energy engaged in channeling and shaping that maturation, are strenuous, high-energy enterprises. And when we come to the transformation of our own lives, minds, circles, and so on, we know full well how much active energy and persistence come into play, how much the direction and shape of the transformations we ourselves have undergone and continue to undergo depends on our agreements and resistances, our persistent practices and repetitive refusals. Transformation always involves the active participation, if not always what we want to call intention, of the transformed.

Sometimes that active participation is pleasant. Often, however, it can be painfully strenuous. It can involve changes that feel like, or that really are, losses: loss of a familiar form or function, closing of a comfortable niche or comforting option. Transformation can, famously, feel something like death, as confining shells or skins or habits or customs are reconfigured or shed altogether. But if transformation does involve death, it is not the kind captured in images of destruction or annihilation. It is more like a redeployment of resources, reshaping and even at times adding to what is already there, to make the transformed something or someone new, but recognizably so. The trajectory of transformation is in important ways “saving;” whatever or whoever enters into transformation is in some substantial sense still present and participating on its farther side. The early church, for instance, we believe we know, was “nothing like the church of today;” but as transformative as the past two millennia have been, we also trust that our early church foremothers and -fathers would recognize the truest part of themselves also in us.

Given the unpleasantness that can be involved in transformation, it might seem odd that our conscious selves would seek this process out – and yet, we do. Often, transformation is intentional, or at least the activity behind it is. We undertake transformation on purpose, for ourselves or for the larger realities to which we belong. We choose some path that promises transformation, because we believe something is amiss and needs to change, or because we sense and believe, or only hope, that something better awaits the fruition of the practices we thereby undertake, the habits we take pains to cultivate. Education is just such an intrinsically and intentionally transformative enterprise. It promises to change us, and we sense it as an adventure for just that reason.

The Women’s Center’s mission is, at bottom, education: that is, intentional transformation. Its mission and intention is to promote and to participate in the transformation of the church and the world in the direction of gender equality and equity. If what we know about transformation in other contexts is any guide, the church and the world that have done away with unjust power and privilege differentials based on gender, and that have taken on new shapes according to principles of justice that acknowledge the full humanity of people of every gender and the multi-gendered character of all humanity, will look different than they do now, as they should. But we will still recognize them as the church and the world — the Body of Christ, the creative work of God through the agency of created humanity — just suddenly, surprisingly, recognizable as grown up to a wonderful new stature. We are working towards the day we can be amazed and proud to see what they have made of us.

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Squinting at Justice

A view from a scenic overlook

One of the luxuries of summer at the Women’s Center is having some additional time to sit back and reflect on why we do what we do, with an eye towards making the connections between our mission statement and our program more articulate for students and members of the wider community. What motivates the project, or mission, of the Women’s Center? When the Women’s Center achieves its pre-eminent objective, what will it have achieved? Of the various ways that question could be answered, perhaps the best is that a vision of comprehensive gender justice will have come to fully inform our understanding of good human life, our continuing strivings for the developed life of the church, and our anticipations of God’s realm of justice and peace. That is another way of saying that the task of the Women’s Center is to “write the vision” of full justice in matters of gender, large and clear enough that people can catch it, and brightly enough that they are inspired to pass it on. Saying that, however, also discloses the perilous nature of this project, or mission. Because writing any vision, especially a vision of justice to be sought and achieved, is always perilous; writing a vision of gender justice in particular is doubly perilous; and whether anyone in the Women’s Center is in a position to do so is open to question over and over again.

The problem of blurry vision
There is always a problem with articulating a vision of the desirable future. That problem stems from the mismatch between the people we are, with the knowledge we have, based on a knowable world that is far from good and just, and the reality of that other, fully different, world. It is a mistake to label the gulf between this world and that one “unbridgeable.” The bridge between those worlds is transformation itself. But the effects of transformation are holistic, affecting our desires and preferences, the very categories of our knowledge, our social arrangements, everything. For that reason, the present is never the best place to catch the vision of the good world in all its clarity and precision. We don’t get good reception, we might say, on this side of the bridge. At best we have approximations, of unmeasurable degrees of blurriness.

Worse, however, once we latch on to that distorted image, we can quickly cast it in stone. What first strikes us as a grandiose, almost unimaginably utopian vision of realized justice hardens over time into shackles of injustice around the ankles of the pilgrim community, making it harder and harder to move down the road of transformation. The people called to live into a world of harmonious justice and peace are also called to move past the impediments to that justice and peace as transformation in the direction of that justice and peace reveals them to be impediments. We, however, often prefer to enshrine our first, dim intuitions of beckoning justice as timeless, unalterable commands. For this reason, there is always a perilous and potentially treacherous balance to be struck between articulating a clear and attractive vision, and leaving room for the maturation and transformation of that vision.

The special problem of gender
If articulating any vision is problematic, articulating a vision of change that involves gender is especially so. The special problem that besets gender justice arises from the extraordinarily close, constitutive, and confounded relationship gender has to us and to the realities we are capable of perceiving as delightful enough to want to run towards. Gender is a basic category of human identity and human relationship, and it is everywhere; none of our social arrangements fail to incorporate it, none of our meanings lie outside of it. As a consequence, our definitions of concepts like “justice” and “equality” always already incorporate concrete understandings of the gendered way things are, always already incorporate our “blind spots” — with respect to what it means to be a real person, for instance, and how gender plays into that — and our visceral understandings of normality — with respect to what constitutes “violence,” for instance, in contrast to ordinary enforcement of normal standards of deferential behavior. Our very imaginations of what would be good, pleasant, desirable, are formed in and by a world of existing gender arrangements, and the desires of our hearts are saturated with their colors. A vision of gender justice painted in truer colors can easily seem pale, or garish, alongside the familiar injustices we have learned to long for.

The precarious position of the present
The Women’s Center and its staff are aware of these problems, and aware that we are not exempt from them. So we are also aware that whatever concrete vision we have of comprehensive gender justice is partial, provisional, open to examination and question, and liable to change and continuing articulation. The most certain elements of the vision we have are negative ones: gender justice won’t include violence against women and girls, will be incompatible with rape and sexual abuse, will not sacralize the silencing of women’s critical insights or the sidelining of women’s gifts and talents. Gender justice would not forget to remember the history of women’s participation in and contribution to human society, including the society of the church. Comprehensive gender justice would not walk hand in hand with the implicit knowledge that “man” is the normal standard for humanity, and “woman” needs to be considered only in exceptional circumstances. But such negative criteria leave open for discernment and development the ways real life could take shape to give positive expression to the world without those particular forms of suffering. So much remains to be seen.

But for that very reason, we believe, the project and mission of the Women’s Center that is the struggle to imagine and envision the concrete character of gender justice contributes to the ongoing project and mission of living into the Reign of Heaven. Because the challenges of vision are not, ultimately, unique to the Women’s Center or to the project of gender justice. They are problems core to the social, political, and economic mission of the church as a whole. We hope and trust that our lives and our work are moving in the direction of that just and peaceful world promised in scripture. But as we move, we learn, and change. We notice old sufferings as new problems, recognize hitherto marginalized people — sometimes, ourselves — as centrally important for an understanding of justice, and so come to realize that standards of justice we once thought expansive are still inadequate, even as we must acknowledge that the emerging standards are not yet fully clear.

So we are in the position of squinting at the justice we long to see: trying to make out the shape of something a little too distant to see clearly, while trying to move in its general direction. Of course we look forward to the time when we no longer see as through a glass, dimly and blurrily, but with perfect clarity. But in the meantime, it helps to know that from time to time we arrive at something like a scenic overlook, when the view becomes momentarily clear, even breathtaking. Then, the project, or mission, of the Women’s Center is to point, and shout, so that everyone can see what we see.