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.

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

There is still time to support the Women’s Center’s transformative mission by making a donation 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!

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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.

Give a Pastor a Shirt!

front t-shirt image

front t-shirt image

. . . and while you’re at it, talk about what the congregation can do to be part of bringing an end to violence against women.

Seriously.

It’s true, the Women’s Center would like to sell the remaining commemorative t-shirts from Friday’s performance of Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues. But it’s occurred to at least one of the staff members here that a good way to do that would be to make them an occasion for bringing the message of the church’s involvement in violence against women to a wider audience. A simple way to do that would be to encourage folks to make a gift of a t-shirt to their pastors.

When you give a pastor a t-shirt that says “V is for Venite — days without violence are coming”, you have an opportunity to talk about why the Women’s Center at LPTS decided to perform The Vagina Monologues here in the first place:

    because violence against women is an issue for the community of faith, because it’s a violation of a part of God’s human creation, and because where the community is called to cry out for justice, the cry against violence against women needs to be part of that message.

    And because the church has for long (by “long,” we mean a couple of millennia) also been complicit in promoting images of and attitudes about women that invite violence, counseling women to bear with violence out of a misplaced understanding of the meaning of love, and slow to name violence against women for the injustice to women and the offense to God that it is.

    And because the pulpits of many, many congregations continue to be places of silence around violence against women, places where the proclamation of the word doesn’t make room for naming and addressing this reality.

This t-shirt is an opportunity and an invitation to say “yes, it’s important to be frank here: we live in a world where considering women’s pleasure is made taboo, where women’s pain is tolerated, and where causing women pain is condoned. This is wrong. As women’s neighbors and as members of the church of Jesus Christ, we need to say so. Transforming this aspect of the world is part of the total transformation that we are hoping for in God’s realm of justice and peace.”

All that for $15 + shipping. We hope you’ll think about it.

Note: Shirts are black, 100% preshrunk cotton, with image above on front and image below on back. Still available in sizes S-M-L-XL.

back shows this image with performance information

back shows this image with performance information

Green Dot Kentucky

What's with the green dot?

What's with the green dot?

Something else we found out at the Take Back the Night rally on Tuesday night was that there is a campaign to end power-based personal violence in the state of Kentucky by changing the culture that supports it. The effort is called Green Dot Kentucky. It is based on research (summarized on the project’s web site) about what does — or more often, doesn’t — work to actually turn the tide of domestic violence, child abuse, and sexual assault, and what kinds of social practices in other contexts have been shown to have effects.

We think this project sounds like a great idea!

Its champion, Dr. Dorothy Edwards of the University of Kentucky’s Violence Intervention and Prevention Center and Women’s Place, gave a stirring and thought-provoking address to the assembly at the rally on Tuesday. Her main point: CULTURE CAN CHANGE. While we think of “the culture” as a static monolith, something outside us that determines “the way things are,” it gets its staying power from the people whose attitudes, behaviors, and statements hold it in place. When we change, and when those attitudes, behaviors, and statements change, the culture changes.

So — if the culture that produces and supports violence against women thrives on bystanders who turn away from an argument (“it’s none of my business”) or who shut the window rather than call the police when they hear the sounds of violence from the house next door, on conversation partners who let victim-blaming statements go by without a murmur, on pastors who avoid mentioning violence against women from the pulpit, never naming it as the sin and brokenness it is — then that culture begins to stop thriving and to start changing when people stop going along with it, and begin going against it, towards something different.

(This reminded me of a story LPTS professor Amy Plantinga Pauw shared in an article (alas, I’ve lost the citation!) — an anecdote about a French class, whose professor chided her students, Amy among them, on a particular usage, but who also noted that the technical distinction in question was passing out of contemporary French — “grace à vous, peut-etre”.)

The model of cultural transformation that comes about from intentional and principled communal refusal to go along with cultural business as usual is the very stuff of the life of the church. Isn’t it? The green dots of Green Dot Kentucky are small — like grains of mustard seed, like leaven mixed into three measures of flour. And perhaps they hold the same kind of promise for a commonwealth of justice and peace.

(We’ve also learned that there will be a green dot training institute, for practitioners interested in launching a green dot campaign in their own communities, as part of the upcoming Ending Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence Conference” scheduled for December 8-11 in Lexington.)

On Sending the Rich Away Empty

looking at an empty plateReflecting a little more on Mary’s exultant claim that God “has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty” (Luke 2:53): 

This text has been one of those (don’t most of us have these?) that bothers me a little every time I hear it.  Since it is a reading for Advent, that’s regularly.  It’s very nice to fill the hungry with good things, but it never seems very nice to send the rich away empty.  Not that God is constrained to be nice.  Still. 

 

[Maybe my discomfort comes from applying WWJD logic to that passage.  If I were passing out goodies, and made a point of giving them to poor people, and not to rich ones, wouldn’t I be being unfair by not treating everyone the same?  Of course, maybe it would depend on what the goodies are, and why I’m passing them out . . .  And then, everyone is not the same . . .  And then, I remember that the point here isn’t niceness, it’s justice.  But I have to go back through that reasoning again and again, as if it’s one of those words I always have to look up in the dictionary to know how to spell properly.]

 

 

But on the day after Thanksgiving in the United States, which is by popular cultural paradigm a day when Americans celebrate their freedom to overindulge, sending the rich away empty takes on a whole new meaning.

 

Maybe it is a good thing to be sent away empty – for the rich themselves.  Maybe it is a bad thing always to be full of whatever it is one is full of when one is rich, or even too rich.  Maybe sending the rich away empty means sending the arrogant away emptied of pride, or the greedy away emptied of acquisitiveness and materialism, or the pushy away emptied of selfishness.  That would be the kind of transformation that leaves everyone better off.

 

That would be nice.  To say nothing of being just.