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.


Looking Forward to Hearing

Rev. Clemette Haskins will preach on September 19 as part of the Katie Geneva Cannon Lecture events

Several things have made the Katie Geneva Cannon Lecture uppermost on the Women’s Center’s mind this week.

First, this morning we read Debra Mumford on Traci West’s Wounds of the Spirit, over at “Thinking Out Loud.” Dr. Mumford’s appreciation of that work reminds us how illuminating it is going to be to hear Dr. West in person on Sunday, September 18 for her lecture, “What Does Anti-racist Christian Exsual Ethics Look Like?” and also on Monday, September 19 for her workshop “U.S. Christianity and Violence Against Women.”

Then, as we work to put the finishing touches on the brochure for the event, we re-read some of the materials Rev. Clemette Haskins has sent us, and experienced a fresh thrill of anticipation. Clemette will be the Alumna preacher at worship on Monday, September 19, 9:00 a.m. in Caldwell Chapel, and we are especially proud and delighted to welcome her once again to the pulpit at Caldwell Chapel and the events of the 6th annual Katie Geneva Cannon Lecture. Clemette is a past Presidential Scholar, recipient of the Burton Z. Cooper prize for excellence in constructive, theological scholarship, and of the Fielding Lewis Walker Fellowship in Doctrinal Theology. Since graduation she has served the church in interim and pastoral associate ministries, and in 2010 was named one of 12 New Clergy Fellows for Ethical Leadership and Sacred Spaces by New York’s Chautauqua Institute. Her ministry draws on her rich experience as a chef, three-time All-American basketball player for Western Kentucky University (B.A., 1987), and coach of Division I women’s basketball.

During and since her time at LPTS, she has been a true friend of the Women’s Center. We know from personal experience that the worship she organizes is profound and moving, too; for example from our memories of her service as liturgist at the 3rd annual Katie Geneva Cannon lecture, and as preacher and worship leader for a service during the inaugural V-Week in 2009. So we are eager to hear her preach on “When Silence is Violence,” which promises to focus on the discrepancy between models of pastoral leadership that “call for leaders to bring voice to those long silenced” and that “rooted in ‘compassion, goodness, humility, sense of humor, integrity, acceptance and justice can transform us individually and collectively from fear and violence to lives of hope and promise,’” and the suffering that women in congregations experience as “violence from the muted, at best, muffled, voice of the church.”

Since the brochure also contains a nod of recognition to the Planning Group, it reminds us that we are looking forward to next week’s Katie Geneva Cannon Lecture Planning Group meeting, Wednesday, July 27, 12:30, in the Women’s Center. We will have some light lunch available, as hear one another’s reviews of the tasks completed so far, and the tasks still to be done to prepare for September’s lecture and events. All interested members of the Seminary community are cordially invited to participate!

More Information on the Katie Geneva Cannon Lecture

Register Online for the Workshop

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

Help fund the upcoming Katie Geneva Cannon Lecture and other Women’s Center 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!

New Flyer for Katie Geneva Cannon Lecture

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

Help fund the upcoming Katie Geneva Cannon Lecture and other Women’s Center 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!

Power and Forgiveness

Hester Prynne, famous literary example of a victim bearing the consequences of official sexual misconduct

I have been thinking a lot about sexual misconduct lately. Maybe that is because it has been dramatically in the news, with the arrest of the Director of the International Monetary Fund on charges related to sexual assault, the revelations about the clandestine sexual activities of the Governor of California, and the impending investigation of whether a former Senator from North Carolina used political contributions to his presidential campaign to cover up a potentially embarrassing, illicit sexual relationship. Or maybe it is because I had a conversation some time ago with a colleague who is writing a dissertation on clergy sexual misconduct, and who said that in the course of his conversations on the topic, he hears new stories about that phenomenon every week. Or maybe it is because I have been reading Rev. Dr. Traci C. West’s book Disruptive Christian Ethics, which calls for making the connections between universal moral and ethical thinking and particular cases in which that thinking has to be tested out, at the same time that I have heard friends of mine make comments about our Christian need to forgive, or to let bygones be bygones and move on.

The juxtapositions have led me to think that:

(1) the dramatic national and international news illustrates something pervasive and systemic rather than representing a few isolated aberrations — that is, once again, “the personal is political”;
(2) our global and local responses all somehow fall short of the actual justice and healing needed by the concrete people involved in these events — including the members of the affected communities;
(3) the shortfall has something to do with our efforts to ignore the problem of power in the world that keeps on churning out these events; and
(4) we are confused about the specific relationships between remorse, apology, repentance, restoration, reconciliation, forgiveness, and kindness.

People do talk about power in the dramatic international and national sexual misconduct cases. People quote Henry “Power is the ultimate aphrodisiac” Kissinger, and shake their heads over “men in power,” as if the phenomenon we are observing here is confined to an elite stratum. When viewed from a social distance, we may be able to recognize the dynamics of power that operate within and through the dynamics of desire, “attraction” or “chemistry” or “need” or “love,” that we associate with sexual or sexualized relationships. We may even notice that the aphrodisiac effect of power seems to operate on the more powerful when regarding the less powerful, to produce desire and a sense of permission or entitlement, as much as or more than it operates on the powerless.

People seem rather less quick to recognize the operation of power in the local congregational or institutional cases. So a friend, talking to me recently about a situation that had arisen in her own congregation, was quick to dismiss the seriousness of the off-limits behavior “as long as this was consensual, between two adults; I just don’t see the problem.” A quick glance at the resources at the FaithTrust Institute would remind us that power is so much at work when a communal authority engages in a secret sexual relationship with a member of the group, and is so much unequal, that meaningful consent cannot really be given. But It seems uncomfortable for us to acknowledge that our own immediate day-to-day world is shaped by such lines and dynamics of power, all the way into our most intimate contexts. It is more comfortable for us to think of “power” as something that other people – that is, people with real power, far away – have, rather than something that people near and dear to us, including we ourselves, actually have, and actually use in varying ways and to varying degrees. When the context is closer and more personal, we are prefer to draw on a different inventory of explanations and responses: personal failings (“none of us is perfect”), or pressures (“he has that high-stress job”), or personalities, period (“she had some serious issues”).

Holding the two categories of situation apart in this way allows us to ignore the systemic features that make the international, national, and local events instances of a common world. In that world, in which our own lives participate, power often takes the form of, manifests itself as, the assertion or appropriation of permission to ignore or transgress boundaries that limit access to women’s bodies. This is especially true when those boundaries are asserted by women themselves. Why it does that is an interesting question, that would lead us into a long exploration of how we recognize and acknowledge power, what enables us to perceive it, and how we understand it to be distrubuted, or produced, in the interactions across various boundaries. For now, however, it seems enough to note that whether it is showing up in the news, or the local grapevine, cases of sexual misconduct are typically cases of the abuse of power.

Knowing this ought to make us somewhat more cautious than we sometimes are in our enthusiasm for quick and radical forgiveness as a Christian practice. The dynamics of power shape the context in which forgiveness is being sought, can be granted, and may be productive of healing. Oliver Hallich notes that forgiveness is a “three-place predicate: someone forgives someone for having done something,” and Traci C. West would, I believe, remind us that those three places are always constitutive of and embedded in particular circumstances, making “forgiveness” a situationally specific, rather than an abstract universal, good. The specifics in a situation in which someone is being asked or expected to do something like forgive someone for something like sexual misconduct, which is an exercise of power to begin with, also involve power.

Forgiveness involves power from the beginning, of course. The paradigmatic forgiveness scenario for Christians is the forgiveness God grants human beings. It is probably not necessary to review the power differential in that scenario, and who has more of it, along with justice and mercy. Some human contexts — like that of a child confessing to drinking the grape juice that is now staining the living room carpet — match that scenario’s dimension of power more closely than others. In a case in which someone in power has abused the position, and then seeks forgiveness and restoration, the question is complicated by whether that seeking is a renunciation of the power abused or is, in effect, a further exercise of that power, and therefore the seeking of a pseudo-forgiveness in which abused and abusive power relations are not realigned, but reinforced.

That is, when a victim of sexual assault or abusive relationship is enjoined to forgive her assailant, the question is whether she is in a sufficiently empowered position to do so. She may be — she may have received the assailant’s repentance, some effort at restoration or repair of the harm done, she may have had her story and her experience validated by admission or confession, and she may have experienced healing from the harms done. All of these processes have the effect of empowering the victim, relative to the perpetrator, to the point where she can genuinely, as a way of letting go and moving on for herself, grant that forgiveness.

But she may not be. In that case, insistent counsel to forgive amounts to coercion. It becomes a practice of siding with the more powerful against the less powerful, and a further exercise of entitlement thinking. Genuine forgiveness dissolves some or all of the consequences of an act, as being no longer necessary. Forgiveness is sometimes sought from the victims of sexual assault or abuse under circumstances that demonstrate that those powerful enough to engage in that behavior in the first place are also to be exempted from experiencing its consequences. What is being sought is less forgiveness, than renunciation of the demand for justice in the face of injustice supported by power. The form of forgiveness is appropriated, and made to serve ends that have little to do with healing or grace.

Similarly, the members of communities may be enjoined to extend forgiveness and the “forgetfulness” of silence before the damage done to their relationships and their understanding of the world has been repaired. Here, too, this amounts to seeking or insisting on a pseudo-forgiveness from a position of power, expecting the powerless to bear the consequences of the rupture. In the case of the community, the consequences turn out to be impaired capacities for trust, relationship, and communication, along with a debilitating confusion about the meaning of justice, mercy, and kindness.

None of this is to suggest that we should think less of forgiveness in general. It is, rather, to acknowledge that the conditions for granting the genuine forgiveness that heals and restores may be austere and demanding. And to insist that there are circumstances in which these conditions cannot be ignored or evaded without emptying forgiveness of its meaning and value. It is, in fact, to argue for preserving the meaning and value of forgiveness, by refusing to accept those substitutes that travel under its name, and obstruct the transformation of which forgiveness is both the promise and the fruit.

Save the Date: September 18 & 19

Rev. Dr. Traci C. West will be the 2011 Katie Geneva Cannon Lecturer

Save the Date . . .

2011 Katie Geneva Cannon Lecture
Sunday, September 18
6:00 p.m. Reception
7:30 p.m. Lecture (free and open to the public)

    The 2011 Katie Geneva Cannon Lecturer will be Rev. Dr. Traci C. West, Professor of Ethics and African American Studies at Drew University Theological School, and author of Disruptive Christian Ethics, among other works.

Monday, September 19
9:00 a.m. Worship with Rev. Clemette Haskins, Caldwell Chapel
10:30 a.m. Workshop with Rev. Dr. Traci C. West, Laws Lodge
12:30 p.m. Lunch followed by closing worship in the Women’s Center

More details as well as online registration for Monday’s workshop will be available online in the coming weeks.

Time to Plan!

Rev. Dr. Traci C. West will be the 2011 Katie Geneva Cannon Lecturer

This week in the Women’s Center, the emphasis is on thinking ahead. We will be meeting
Wednesday, May 11,
12:30 p.m.,
in the Women’s Center
to start planning for the 2011 Katie Geneva Cannon Lecture, and will interview applicants for the 2011-2012 Student Coordinator position this week and next.

This year’s Katie Geneva Cannon Lecture is scheduled for September 18. Rev. Dr. Traci C. West will deliver the lecture Sunday evening; events on Monday, September 19 will include morning worship with Rev. Clemette Haskins and a workshop led by Dr. West.

Our imminent planning meeting has made the 2011 Katie Geneva Cannon Lecture “top of mind” here, and has gotten us anticipating meeting the 2011 lecturer. We are always excited to meet the lecturers, and this year is no exception. Rev. Dr. West is Professor of Ethics and African-American Studies at Drew University Theological School, and an ordained minister in the United Methodist Church. Her scholarly work has focused on the ways religion intertwines with race and gender to perpetuate violence against women — and how religion can become a resource against this very violence. She stands in the high tradition of the public theologian and scholar, committed to making new knowledge take effect in the world and produce significant change. A sampling of her work can be found online, at links like these:

Her website: http://users.drew.edu/twest/

her testimony at press congress supporting 2009 legislation to include GLBT people in federal hate crimes legislation

her statement “Religious diversity in My Life and Work” at the World Council of Churches website

an interview with Feministing, March 14, 2009

“Hearing God’s Call to Love, Not Hate,” at UMC Response

The “Breaking Silences” website

Anyone who would like to learn more about Dr. West’s academic work could explore her books:

Disruptive Christian Ethics: When Racism and Women’s Lives Matter (Westminster/John Knox, 2006)

Wounds of the Spirit: Black Women, Violence, and Resistance Ethics (New York University Press, 1999)

Our Family Values: Religion and Same-sex Marriage (Praeger, 2006) an edited volume

Holy Conversations: Talking About Homosexuality, co-authored with Karen Oliveto and Kelly Turney (Cleveland: Pilgrim Press, 2005)

Or, look for one of her articles in publications like Theology Today, Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion, Annual for the Society of Christian Ethics, and so on.

From this, our readers can see why we are eagerly looking forward to September, and to sharing conversation with this scholar, teacher, pastor and citizen.

edited for content 05/31/11