In the Hands of an Angry God

This picture comes from Caryn Riswold’s blog. A feminist Lutheran theologian, Riswold reflects in this post on the idea of God’s wrath. She traces her readers back to Sarah Over the Moon, who wrote a provocative piece entitled “Maybe God is A Bitch.”  Both articles articulate quite eloquently God’s solidarity with marginalized peoples. Rather than spend time here telling you about how they explore preconceived notions of God’s anger as bad, I recommend both articles before moving forward here.

Though, I will go on to say, Riswold confesses her own insecurity with the idea of an angry God as a result of notions that take root with Jonathan Edwards, way back in the nineteenth century. Edwards’ rather infamous sermon articulates why God must go against God’s otherwise pleasurable demeanor and send the wicked to hell. Here are a few excerpts:

The Wrath of God burns against them, their Damnation don’t slumber, the Pit is prepared, the Fire is made ready, the Furnace is now hot, ready to receive them, the Flames do now rage and glow. The glittering Sword is whet, and held over them, and the Pit hath opened her Mouth under them.

Sin is the Ruin and Misery of the Soul; it is destructive in it’s Nature; and if God should leave it without Restraint, there would need nothing else to make the Soul perfectly miserable.The Corruption of the Heart of Man is a Thing that is immoderate and boundless in its Fury; and while wicked Men live here, it is like Fire pent up by God’s Restraints, whereas if it were let loose…if Sin was not restrain’d, it would immediately turn the Soul into a fiery Oven, or a Furnace of Fire and Brimstone.

No wonder mainline Christianity continues in her struggle to overturn such sexism and faulty theology like “God is love, but only to a certain point.” To the extent that entirely new waves of theology have arisen in response to traditional conservatism, the likes of which we learned from our Puritan frontrunners, we are able to craft new ideas that turn our orthodoxy into orthopraxy. Thanks to liberation, feminist, womanist, queer and other budding theologies, it is orthodox to experience an angry God. To take a step further, let us say that it is a sin to not be angered by the oppression that God’s people endure. How do we image/imagine this within the lens of Jesus’ own liberation-love tactics?

The two bloggers ask “What if the wrath of God is something else?” Aside from what Edwards explains as a force of domination or coercion. Aside from fundamentalism threatening hell. Aside from the fear of those who are in power losing their power.

Here’s a quote from Sarah over the Moon. I like how she also re-appropriates a term usually relied upon to connote a derogatory attitude and female posture. It also shows the idea of God’s anger coming from love, not fear.

Maybe God’s a “bitch.” An “angry black woman.” A “bitter” abuse survivor. Maybe God’s “too sensitive” and needs to “learn to take a joke.” Maybe God is all of the dismissive words that we throw out to try to silence those who are fighting for change and for justice. Maybe God is angry, and we should listen to her.

Here’s a quote from Caryn as she validates Sarah’s hypothesis with liberation theology.

…[E]ver since I became familiar with James Cone’s description of wrath as ‘God’s almighty NO!’ to the sins and oppressions we inflict upon each other, I started warming up to it, seeing it as Cone does, an essential ingredient of God’s love.

Wow! Anger as an essential ingredient of God’s love. How beautiful to experience God’s indignation that blossoms, not from fear, but from an intense understanding of the longing of our human condition. Who knows better than our Creator of our systemic woes, corporate sins, and beleaguered ideas of equality? When we are angered by injustice, we do well to mimic God’s anger with our efforts of advocacy and education.

This year the Women’s Center is one of expressing solidarity and giving voice to the issues that anger God. We also hope to proclaim honestly our own anger when we see people of God alienated from justice. So let us stand united under a banner that has been redefined yet still claims we are, indeed, in the hands of an angry God. And let us work to absolve fully God’s anger of love as we embrace ALL of God’s children.

As my blogging sisters already stated,
Maybe God is angry and we should listen to her.


God Beyond Gender

An iconic interpretation of the concept of the triune God

by Heather Thiessen

The Women’s Center advocates gender inclusive and expansive language as part of its mission. For us, then, this month’s decision by the United Churches of Christ to substitute “triune God” for “Heavenly Father” as part of a constitutional change was encouraging, despite the discouraging controversy it engendered. (See Peter Smith’s 7/16 Courier-Journal article.) We agree with Professor Amy Plantinga Pauw’s comment on the matter, that “there has to be real pastoral sensitivity around this issue” of language for God. As she notes, our language for God is the language of prayer, which is the language through which people intelligibly relate themselves to God. These God-words are theo-logy of the most fundamental kind.

That theology, or language, says much more about us than it says about God. What it says about us may not be easy or pleasant to recognize or accept. One of the functions of that needed pastoral sensitivity is to help people come face to face with the pervasive, unarticulated gender bias that is one of the deep wellsprings of resistance to expansive language for God, and to realize that it is permissible and desirable to challenge it.

Despite our determination not to make graven images of God, we tend to fall back on familiar clusters of meaning in our heads and hearts in our public and private rituals. While these meaning clusters are supported by Biblical language, their content comes largely from the world around us. It includes everything we know about various kinds of people — fathers, mothers, children, servants and so on — and their various relationships. It includes everything we know about which kinds of people can say or do what, to whom, when and where, and what all of that means — what conveys strength, e.g., or kindness, and whether the quality conveyed is positive or negative, good, bad, or indifferent.

Those clusters of meaning are awash with gender. It is commonplace for discussions about gendered language for God to appeal to God’s Spiritual genderlessness: God is famously “beyond gender.” But the human beings who make this claim are not. Whenever English-speaking people think of a personal, as opposed to an impersonal, reality, they are always already thinking of a gendered reality: him, or her. Thus, while we can honestly claim to believe in a God who is beyond gender, our ritual practice — particularly to the extent it invokes God as a personalistic reality — cannot support that belief articulately. We are driven over and over again to use gendered language, because it is the language we have available to us.

Because we do use gendered language, and have for millennia, we find that the challenge facing a person of faith in using new terms of reference for God is sharpened by the way gender plays a part in their clusters of meaning. To what extent can the new terms articulate or support the familiar understanding of God, the “same God,” that has been worshipped until now in other words? Or, if these new terms promote a change in the understanding of God, to what extent is that change experienced as a positive expansion of the possibilities attributable to God, or to what extent is it experienced as a denial or diminution in God’s positive attributes? It is at this point that we are liable to come face to face with one or more widespread, pervasive, normally unarticulated strands in our web of beliefs that have to do with gender.

Anyone can try this thought experiment:
First think of a familiar prayer that uses masculine-gendered language for God (e.g., “Our Father, who art in Heaven . . .) Then, try praying that prayer using feminine-gendered language for God (e.g., “Our Mother, who art in Heaven . . .) Pay attention to how this address to God feels. If it feels comfortable, try to put words to that comfort; “it feels good, because . . .” If it feels uncomfortable, try to put words to that discomfort; “it doesn’t feel right because . . . ” Finally: what does the feeling have to do with everything you know about the difference in meaning between the masculine term and the feminine term? That is: what does this experiment reveal about your own background assumptions about gender?

Very often, reasons for discomfort with this exercise take one or both of these forms: (1) I don’t feel I am addressing the same God when I use feminine language; or (2) I feel I am addressing God improperly — the word I am using doesn’t fit the God I am addressing, in a way that seems to take something away from God. Those feelings, in turn, give us clues about our understandings of these gendered terms. If I feel I am addressing a different God altogether, I may begin to realize the extent to which the image of God I cherish is, in fact, a distinctly masculine or patriarchal one, which cannot be supported by feminine language. If I find that I feel a feminine term is improper for God, that it takes something away from God, I may have to face the extent to which my own background assumptions about women include some form of inferiority, that makes those terms feel less than fully adequate to figure the divine. Either way, an exercise like this can face us with the extent to which we continue to hold a patriarchal understanding of God, which is held in place by our continued use of patriarchal language. As long as we never question our language practices, we can make statements like “My God is beyond gender,” fully believing them, while in practice worshipping and relating to a God we understand in distinctly masculine ways. Only when we begin to pay attention to our practices around language for God does this subtle form of idolatry come to awareness, and with it the limitation that imposes on our openness to encounter with the living God.

Once again, it is important to recognize that this exercise doesn’t pretend to tell us much about God, but about our own, usually implicit and unthinking, accepted and taken for granted, assumptions about gender. We can get at those assumptions by paying attention to the way we use and respond to language — its denotations and connotations, its emotional resonances — because language is our tool for communicating meaning. That’s also why the words we use for God shape and contain what we mean about God and what God means to us and for us.

For some, the problem with changed language for God is that the new language will not support an understanding of God that supports arrangements of power and privilege from which those people benefit. But for most, the even more profound challenge is that it opens up an avenue for fresh encounter with God, beyond accustomed and comfortable language and understanding. That opening is profoundly uncomfortable, and the intimation of an imminent uncomfort it announces ultimately has little to do with gender. It is rather the unsettling, frightening and yet fascinating awareness that the God we might really encounter is One who exceeds our categories and transcends our settled understandings so radically that no knowledge we already possess or imagine to be satisfactory is going to withstand that revelation.

Bracing the community of faith for that transformative encounter will really call for pastoral sensitivity.

updated 07/26/11

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Help fund the Women’s Center’s ongoing programs during our Summer Donation Days!

You can go to OUR ONLINE DONATION SITE, the LPTS Online Donation Site (designate your gift to the Women’s Center), or send your check payable to LPTS – WOMEN’S CENTER FUND to The Women’s Center at Louisville Seminary, 1044 Alta Vista Rd., Louisville, KY 40205.

Thank you!

“unveiling . . . continuing oppression . . .”

Workers in a New York Sweatshop, Shoshana, Oil on canvas, 1944

Third in a series of reflections on the mission of the Women’s Center
by Heather Thiessen

The Women’s Center’s mission statement commits us to work “for the unveiling of the continuing oppression of women of all races and nations.

The term “unveiling” suggests that this continuing oppression is hidden rather than obvious. Some readers may see a contradiction in the notion of unveiling for that reason. Oppression seems like something that would be obvious, rather than something hidden and in need of unveiling. It might be helpful to recall the definition of the verb “to oppress:”

  1. to burden or keep in subjugation by harsh and unjust use of force or authority; tyrannize;
  2. to lie heavy upon physically or mentally; weigh down; depress; dispirit.

As that definition makes more clear, a range of phenomena constitute oppression. The symbol of the dictator on the balcony, addressing the tank commanders about to crush the rebellious populace, captures one of its forms — not the most common. Oppression can be much less public, like the dictatorial control exercised by a violent and abusive husband. Oppression can be so subtle it blends into the background of ordinary daily life. It can include the persistent weight and dispiriting effect of never seeing a face like one’s own in a position of respect and admiration, or of references to one’s group apart from messages of its negativity, evil, incompetence, triviality, stupidity, or inconsequentiality. It can be as quiet as always being ignored. That private, subtle, silent oppression also demands exposure.

Unveiling is necessary, in part, because our culture is always too eager to announce the job of ending oppression accomplished. When it comes to women’s lives, many — especially including white middle class women — have been willing in recent decades to accept the assertion that the last century’s feminism achieved its goals and is now passé. The continuing challenges faced by working class women, women of color, and women in the two-thirds world become invisible in that outlook, as do the enduring structures of patriarchy. Similarly, our culture is always ready to ignore the multi-faceted character of gender-based oppression. The Women’s Center understands the mission of “unveiling continuing opression” to extend to all those who suffer injustice for reasons of gender. So we feel the need to call attention to, for example, the effects of bullying that targets LGBT inviduals, or that treats queer lives as “disposable,” just as much as we call attention to the oppressive patterns of violence against women and girls.

The “unveiling” of continuing oppression that is the Women’s Center’s mission is of two main kinds. One is the unveiling of oppression that has its effects so far away, on women with whom we have so few direct ties that it might never come to our attention. The distance does not mean we have no connections with the situation, but it does mean those connections are difficult to see — perhaps as difficult as seeing the mineral content of a cell phone. The conflict for control of sources of that mineral content has been fueling the vicious violence against women and girls in Democratic Republic of Congo, much in the news in the past three years. Unveiling of this kind means bringing the news of these women and their experience, and of their hidden connections to this community, to awareness. This is the unveiling that happens when, for instance, we write postcards to the Secretary of State to encourage her to enforce existing U.S. commitments to protecting the bodily integrity of women and girls in the Democratic Republic of Congo, or when we observe the Transgender Day of Remembrance with its focus on the past year’s incidents of anti-transperson violence.

A second kind of unveiling involves pointing out the oppressive impact of phenomena that may seem benign because they are familiar and accepted. An example here might be the relentless, exclusively masculine identification of God in Christian tradition, and its persistence into the 21st century. This prevalent usage reinforces the persistent, implicit claim that feminine forms are inadequate to represent or associate with the divine, the sense that they are not fully as imago Dei as masculine forms. This claim and feeling comes in spite of our sophisticated theological understandings that no gendered forms, male or female, would be fully adequate to represent the God whose own self-designated name, at least in one finite human language, is “I will be whoever I will be.” Our continued predilection for one set of inadequate forms over another, and our ongoing refusals to expand our linguistic possibilities does indeed have the heavy, down-weighing, depressing and dispiriting impact of oppression.

The commitment to unveiling may call for engagement with one or more of three main audiences: the audience of perpetrators, that of bystanders, and that of the oppressed themselves.

Unveiling for Perpetrators

We are infrequently called upon to play the role of Nathan before King David, or the Syro-Phoenician woman, whose task was to challenge a peron in authority, and in so doing open their eyes to the impact their actions had on others. Such unveiling sometimes means taking to the public square, detailing the harm of a public practice, or demanding corrective action. Calling for divestiture from businesses whose practices systematically disadvantage the poor and vulnerable would be an example.

More often, however, those who perpetuate oppression experience their own behavior as acceptable, excusable, and justifiable, especially to the extent that it is frankly unconscious, habitual and routine. The oppression that is built into the structures of normal, decent society is, tragically, still oppressive. It is the unintentional participation in oppression of well-intentioned people who don’t think of themselves as “oppressors.”

Unveiling — naming — thoughtless or habitual practices as oppressive in this way is thankless work. It regularly produces protests along the lines of “Well, I didn’t notice that” {which is why I’m bringing it up] or “I’m not sexist or racist” [which is why I’m pointing out that your behavior is, so you can stop] or “But it’s really hard to do anything else” [which is why we need to start finding and making alternatives now, so that it becomes easier sooner]. Everyone gets tired of it, the way a 12-year-old gets tired of being reminded to turn off the bathroom light or pick up her socks, and her mother gets tired of doing the reminding. It is also some of the most important work the Women’s Center does, because it is the work with the most potential for long-term, far-reaching impact.

Unveiling for Bystanders

Unveiling continuing oppression for bystanders is issuing a call to stand on the side of the oppressed, rather than to remain innocent and irresponsible. It is to call oppression to attention, for the purpose of motivating possible involvement with the hope of producing change. It is also to make possible an exit from complicity. So, in the case of domestic violence, unveiling here might involve pointing out to pastors and potential pastors that some preaching practices can leave domestic violence untouched by and in the life of the church, while others can lift it up for attention and intervention. Where domestic violence is never named as a problem, never voiced as a concern in prayer, and where theological concepts like sin, injustice, or liberation are never brought to bear on it, it is as if the church, like any other unhelpful bystander, is turning away and remaining uninvolved. Where, on the other hand, an end to domestic violence is asked for in prayer, where it is named as a wrong in proclamation and where it is made the explicit topic of theological reflection, hope is extended to victims and the climate is no longer one in which such violence flourishes unchecked.

Unveiling for the Oppressed

There are times when the oppressed themselves would not dream of identifying their experience as one of “oppression.” Other people are oppressed, such a woman might say. I’m just depressed [or, feeling like a failure because I cannot work a full-time job, keep the house spotlessly clean at all times, wisely and nurturingly motivate polite behavior and good grades from my children while never losing control, keep my family off of fast food, work out and stay in my size 2 jeans, and always look forward to date night with my guy; or, feeling wrong because I don’t even get to have those problems because I don’t have a job, or I don’t have a house, or I don’t have children, or I don’t have a guy]. Other people are abused, some women say; I’m just incompetent and my boyfriend never lets me forget it. Other people have internalized the idea that they’re not worth as much; I keep my ideas to myself in class because the other students always seem to speak first, and better than I would anyway.

The mission of the Women’s Center includes the work of reminding ourselves and our friends that the continuing oppression of women seldom names itself as such. Instead, it names itself “reality” or “your personal situation,” names that obscure the operation of systemic power. One method in the operation of that systemic power is its taking up residence in women’s own attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors. Women adopt these in response to the conditions and messages of the world around them, and then may energetically turn them on themselves, saving the rest of the system a good deal of trouble.

A Biblical Call to See and End Oppression

The commitment to unveiling oppression, which is part and parcel of ending it, derives its energy from our conviction that the God who frees us for life denounces oppression wherever it arises, and calls on us not to practice it, to bring it to an end where we see it, and to come to the aid and comfort of our neighbors who are enduring it. It is the Women’s Center’s ongoing mission to echo that prophetic call.

Is not this the fast that I choose,
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Isaiah 58:6

Click here to help fill the Women's Center's cup.

Readers can further the mission of the Women’s Center by making a contribution to the Women’s Center during our Summer Donation Days!

You can go to OUR ONLINE DONATION SITE, the LPTS Online Donation Site (designate your gift to the Women’s Center), or send your check payable to LPTS – WOMEN’S CENTER FUND to The Women’s Center at Louisville Seminary, 1044 Alta Vista Rd., Louisville, KY 40205.

Thank you!

Great Walk Day!

image of Louisville AIDS Walk point of origin

a view of the Louisville AIDS Walk

The Women’s Center is giving thanks for a marvelous time at the Louisville AIDS Walk! Thanks to Everyone who joined the Women’s Center team for the Louisville AIDS Walk, thanks to Everyone who supported team members with $$ and encouragement, thanks to the drivers, walkers and runners whose camaraderie made the day a human delight, and thanks to the organizers of the Louisville AIDS Walk who made the event to participate in possible! THANKS to God, who blessed the thousands of walkers with a gorgeous crisp early fall day, sunny enough to make the Ohio River sparkle, cloudy enough to make the sky a work of art, and cool enough to make walking thoroughly enjoyable.

We had a wonderful hour or so of walking, talking, meeting and greeting friends walking with other groups, all the while knowing that we had helped the efforts of the Louisville AIDS Walk to the tune of over $1,200 in combined online and cash donations from Team Women’s Center supporters.

So many thanks, everyone! Let’s all celebrate this great good day!