I am a Professor of Theology and former President of Chicago Theological Seminary; I blog here, at the Huffington Post, and at other venues. I am a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress. I am interested in what I call "public theology," or how deeper meaning is made and contested in the public square.
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Many progressive commentators are urging that we pay attention to the rampant racism expressed by speaker after speaker on the opening night of the GOP Convention in Cleveland and not focus so much on Melania Trump’s plagiarizing Michelle Obama’s 2008 Democratic National Convention Speech.
But Melania Trump’s speech is racism. In fact, it is a stunning example of the sense of entitlement that is at the core of racism and it is the essence of White Privilege.
A hallmark of White Privilege is the assumption that whites are entitled to take what they want from African American creativity, from music or the arts or literature or culture or speeches and appropriate it as their own.
In higher education when you steal somebody else’s stuff and write and speak as though it were your own, that’s called plagiarism. I have been a professor for nearly forty years, and if Melania Trump turned in the speech she gave for the GOP Convention as a paper, she’d be on academic probation today.
Sections of the speech were lifted, unattributed, from Michelle Obama’s 2008 speech to the Democratic National Convention.
Despite Melania’s claiming (at first) to NBC News earlier on Monday that she had written the speech herself, some seem to want to let her off the hook for the whole sentences taken from Ms. Obama’s speech.
Joy-Ann Reid had it right when she argued if Michelle Obama had done something similar “she wouldn’t have gotten a pass,” and that Melania Trump is “an adult,” and the person who gave the speech, so she has to be held accountable.
Melania Trump needs to acknowledge she took Michelle Obama’s words without permission, delete those parts of the speech and circulate that amended copy with an apology.
Okay. Donald Trump is channeling fascism, Ted Cruz wants to destroy government, and Marco Rubio is, well, Marco Rubio. So, on the one hand, it is not surprising that Google searches for “how to move to Canada” have surged 2,450 percent since Trump won more primary elections on Tuesday, as Google told the Huffington Post.
But enough already with the Googling Canada, okay? When Muslims are being threatened with detention camps, the Ku Klux Klan is again politically significant, and the explicit male dominance of ‘whose is bigger’ takes over a GOP Debate, how will we have solidarity in the struggle against it if you walk away?
I am using Kimberly Crenshaw’s insightful work on “intersectionality” in the “Violence and Nonviolence Seminar” I am teaching this spring. In an interview, Crenshaw has this excellent diagnostic that she uses in regard to debates with white feminists on ‘who has the power to walk away?’
“At the end of the day, it really is a question of power: who has the power to end the debate? To walk away? To say, “I’m done talking about it, and I can go on with my rhetoric in a ‘business as usual’ kind of response?”” If you wonder if you have privilege in a context, ask yourself “Can I walk away?” And if you can, you have privilege.
Ask yourself if Googling ‘moving to Canada’ isn’t an exercise in the same kind of privilege in regard to current struggles in the U.S.
This is not the first ghastly prospect we in the U.S. have ever had, politically speaking. In my own lifetime, I struggled against Nixon, against Reagan, against W, and even sometimes against Clinton in so-called welfare reform. I’ve pushed back against Obama on drone war as well as other issues with which I disagree.
Thousands and thousands of Americans died in Vietnam before we got rid of Nixon and that war. Gains of the Civil Rights movement were systematically rolled back, and that continued with Reagan. Reagan gutted social programs, expanded the military, engaged in the covert Iran/Contra scandal, and blew racial dog whistles all the time. Our “Incarceration Nation” started growing. “W” attacked a country that had not attacked us, and his administration was complicit in war crimes.
Who paid the price for these terrible political choices? Those who couldn’t get a draft deferment like Dick Cheney or Mitt Romney. African Americans in loss of rights, jobs and personal freedom. Poor women whose job training programs were cut and who were thrown off welfare without adequate child care to help them. Other nations around the world whom we attacked.
Instead of thinking about moving to Canada, try this instead: stand and work as hard as you can and never ‘walk away’ from the people hardest hit by authoritarian, sexist, racist, classist thugs.
Never. At least, that’s my plan. I’ve done it before.
I hope you will join me and take a moment to pray for Planned Parenthood clinics, for all the brave people who work there and for those who seek its services.
The struggle for women and girls to control their own bodies is ever more needed, and yet ever more contested with political pandering, incitements to violence and even acts of violence.
The anti-abortion crowd (I refuse to dignify them with the term ‘pro-life’) have taken to Twitter to praise the shooter at the Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood clinic.
This is hatred of women, and of those who help women with needed reproductive services.
This is really hatred of God, as 1 John 4:20 makes crystal clear: “Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen.”
#IStandWithPP because I love God and my sisters and brothers who work against enormous odds to provide help to women and girls.
I was taken by this review from Hubert O’Hearn from Mayo, Ireland. His approach immediately immerses the reader in the existential reality that ignoring the mass injury and death of women and girls is like refusing to see the houses in your neighborhood are burning down or a pandemic is killing your children in front of your eyes. It helps us appreciate how much cultural and religious energy it takes to bring off this degree of willful not-seeing. I appreciated this way of getting into the issues.This, as we say in my business, will preach (and teach). Susan Thistlethwaite
A review of
Women’s Bodies as Battlefield:
Christian Theology and the Global War on Women’s Bodies
by Hubert O’Hearn
Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite (Palgrave Macmillan 2015, Hardcover) 224 pages, indexed, cover price n/a
I place before you a series of propositions. If a third of the houses in your neighborhood were regularly burnt by arson, would you demand greater police and fire protection? I think you would. If a third of the children were struck down by communicable disease, year-in year-out, would you not take a deep interest into the cause of that illness and insist on more and better health care? Of course you would. Both the arsons and the pandemic would be widely reported, taken personally and force a re-assessment of public safety. I don’t think anyone can really argue against my hypotheses.
However, 35% of all women worldwide are subjected to physical abuse at some point in their lives, often repeatedly and at the extreme of brutality. That is 35% regardless of nation, race or cultural origin. And yet we do not see these attacks on a third of humanity as a crime wave or an epidemic. The rape, beating or murder of women is seen as an exception, an outlier, perpetrated by random sick individuals. If the attacks occur during a declared state of war, then they are lumped together and seen as regrettable yet sadly predictable collateral damage. Heads shake mournfully, but then of course comes a response somewhere along the lines of, ‘That is why the war must continue. So we can protect women’s rights.’ Ah.
As a matter of fact – and I do mean fact – women must not take the fight into their own hands. Did you know that according to a study released by The Michigan Women’s Justice and Clemency Project, ‘The average prison sentence for men who kill their intimate partners is 2 to 6 years. Women who kill their partners are sentenced, on average, to 15 years.’? It should be a topic rich in public discussion as to why this obvious imbalance of justice exists.
By and large though, that discussion does not happen which is the value of Women’s Bodies as Battlefield. What Reverend Susan Thistlethwaite, a Professor of Theology at the Chicago Theological Seminary does is lay out in fine and painful detail precisely how it is that women are seen as beings are that are dangerous and justifiable spoils of power struggles.
What is stunning is how many of the deep thinkers throughout history, philosophers and artists alike, have taken the abuse of women as not only inevitable but also justifiable. A sampling:
Aristotle: Females are weaker and colder in nature, and it is necessary to regard the female status as a deformity, though a natural one.
St Augustine: ‘He concludes that the act of rape brings shame to the one raped “lest that act which could not be suffered without some sensual pleasure, should be believed to have been committed also with some ascent of the will.”’
Joseph Campbell: On the artistic depiction of rapes, ‘(R)apes over and over, “simply dramatize the will of consciousness, portrayed with male power, imposed upon natural frailty.”’
You know, don’t take it personally, it’s just human nature. Shrug.
Where Thistlethwaite’s book really soars and becomes indispensable is within her argument completely taking apart any theological justification for war. As the title of Women’s Bodies as Battlefield implies, she equates abuse to war. However Thistlethwaite also attacks the very concept of war itself and particularly how its consequences – the sight of ruined and dismembered bodies are kept away from our eyes lest we lose our taste for that mythical ruse of the ‘Just War.’
I could go on and would most happily, however I would then be delivering to you a precis rather than a review of Women’s Bodies as Battlefield. It is a deeply, deeply disturbing book as it literally questions the foundations of what we loosely term civilization. Yet, in order to not just observe a rape, a murder, an atrocity that flashes across the news as an isolated exception to common behavior – to instead witness that event as evidence of a larger crime, one has to be aware of the crime itself. Susan Thistlethwaite prosecutes her case with bravery, with calm passion and with eloquence. And if this sounds like a book you really don’t want to read, because who wants to read such nasty things … well that’s just the point, now isn’t it?
In the Spring of 2016 I have proposed a new online class at Chicago Theological Seminary, TEC 426, called the “Violence and Nonviolence Seminar.” This is the description:
This seminar will address multiple forms of escalating violence in the U.S. and global contexts, and explore practices of nonviolence to address these systemically. Students will work in small groups to collaborate on a draft US Kairos Document as a class project, engaging in a public commentary process to receive feedback and do revisions.
Now, here’s my current crowd sourced question: When we study the Kairos documents that have been produced over the last 30 years, and particularly the South African one, we see that the process is one where the draft document was submitted for commentary to key public constituencies as the work went on. So how do we do a seminar and write a draft Kairos document even as classwork and not include public engagement?
My idea, and one where I would like your feedback, is to create a WordPress public site and as each small group of students completes a section of of draft Kairos document, that group would first put it up internally, on the online class website for their colleagues commentary (and mine!), and then publish it on the WordPress site, soliciting commentary and feedback. Then, each section would be revised, and republished and so on. The ultimate outcome would be a process document that would not pretend to be the US Kairos document, but a demonstration of one process toward one such engagement with our times.
What do you think? This is rather like my “Public Theology” class where students create their own blogs in the public square and receive commentary from their class colleagues, from me, and from the general public.
But, it is also edgier. We can filter the comments on a WordPress site. I do that here. Yet, the issues we must take up can be so demonized that it is really hard. Of course, learning to handle such pushback is a crucial skill for the kinds of transformational ministries in which CTS graduates routinely engage. This is also an elective, not a required course.
Yet, we must also remember, this class will be going on during the spring of 2016, where rhetoric on race, sex, gender, economics, faith and justice will be far more over the top than it is now. Isn’t that, though, exactly when we see a Kairos moment?
Anyway, feedback and suggestions really welcome here.
I also thought you’d like to see the draft reading list to date. Suggestions for reading beyond this list are also welcome. There are also several articles and online documents I have not listed here:
Jennifer Harvey, Karin A. Case, and Robin Hawley Gorsline, eds., Disrupting White Supremacy from Within (Cleveland, OH: Pilgrim Press, 2004).
Charles Villa-Vincencio and John W. DeGruchy, eds., Apartheid Is a Heresy, William B. Eerdmans, 1983.
Kelly Brown Douglas, Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God, Orbis Press, 2015
Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite, Women’s Bodies as Battlefield: Christian Theology and the Global War on Women, Palgrave-Macmillan, 2015
Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me, Spiegel & Grau, 2015.
Gene Sharp, Waging Nonviolent Struggle, The Albert Einstein Institution, 2005.
Glen Stassen, ed., Just Peacemaking: The New Paradigm for the Ethics of Peace and War, Pilgrim, 2008
Just comment as you see fit and we’ll take this idea out for a test drive. Thanks. Susan
I should create an app to go along with the text of Women’s Bodies as Battlefield. Then anyone could just type in a given statement from candidates in this extraordinary primary campaign season and get a brief theological, biblical and philosophical analysis to go with it.
Even in the absence of an app, let’s try anyway. In the book, I argue the supports in Western culture for the War on Women fall into approximately these categories: contempt for the body, hierarchy and desire for power.
Let’s see how the candidates line up in these categories in my ‘not-an-app’.
Contempt for the Body
Donald Trump can express a startlingly negative, visceral attitudes toward women’s bodies and their natural functions. Trump had an “absolute meltdown” when a lawyer requested a break from a 2011 deposition to pump breast milk.” He got up, his face got red, he shook his finger at me and he screamed, ‘You’re disgusting, you’re disgusting,’ and he ran out of there,” attorney Elizabeth Beck has said.
It is not only lactating that gives Trump a problem; apparently menstruating does too. Trump had a extraordinary reaction to Megyn Kelly, one of the three Fox News panel running the primary debate, when she called him out on his history of disparaging remarks about women. Trump subsequently tweeted what most regarded as a reference to Kelly being on her period. “You could see there was blood coming out of her eyes. Blood coming out of her — wherever.”
The chaotic, messy female body has a long history in the West of being regarded not only as disgusting, but also as a symbol of such a threat to (male) order and authority it is actual physical rebellion. Elaine Scarry, Harvard professor and author of “The Body in Pain,” emphasizes that the “bodies of women are often used as vehicles to convey the physical manifestation of contemptible physical rebellion and deserved bodily punishment.”
The deserved punishment is key. A huge number of tweets praising or defending Trump starting appearing immediately after the debate that used horribly sexualized rhetoric in attacks on Megyn Kelly . The tweets included words such as “cunt,” “whore,” “bitch,” or “slut” and many refer to the Donald’s putting her “in her place.” “Trump is the only one who understood the importance of putting her in her place.
How dare Megyn Kelly not only lactate and menstruate, but also question a powerful man about his misogyny?
It is Trump’s supporters on Twitter who reveal the deep and dangerous vein of misogyny in American culture. And make no mistake, this kind of “put her in her place” attitude can lead to domestic violence, and to marital rape, as I wrote in “Yes, Marital Rape Happens and it is Terrible.”
Megyn Kelly is right when she defends her questions to Trump that she was not singling him out for difficult questions. She also asked, “Governor Walker, you’ve consistently said that you want to make abortion illegal even in cases of rape, incest, or to save the life of the mother. You recently signed an abortion law in Wisconsin that does have an exception for the mother’s life, but you’re on the record as having objected to it. Would you really let a mother die rather than have an abortion, and with 83 percent of the American public in favor of a life exception, are you too out of the mainstream on this issue to win the general election?”
Walker’s response was, “Well, I’m pro-life, I’ve always been pro-life” and claimed, contrary to Kelly’s research, that he was in the “mainstream.”
No, not quite, Governor. As I tweeted out, during the debate:
Note to Scott Walker. A woman's life is human life.
Mike Huckabee, who has actually pastored, retrieved the “personhood” argument and would apparently hire lawyers for the fetus, citing the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments.
Marco Rubio seemed to need to chime in on the ‘women’s lives are not human lives’ theme when he said he had never supported any exceptions to an abortion ban — though his record shows otherwise.
Here’s where a biblical/philosophical/theological analysis can also come in handy. Women are not considered, in some strong Western traditions, to be as fully human as men. Aristotle’s misogyny is legendary; in regard to women’s individual nature, she is “defective and misbegotten, for the active force in the male seed tends to the production of a perfect likeness in the masculine sex; while the production of woman comes from defect in the active force or from some material indisposition.. (De Gener. Animal. iv, 2). These Aristotelian views are very influential on Christian theology in regard to women’s lesser humanity. For Aquinas, the soul is over the body (Summa Contra Gentiles Book II, Chapter 68), and “naturally,” men over women (Summa Theologiae, 37). Immediately following the gender hierarchy is the ruling hierarchy.
So one can conclude from these sources that women’s lives are certainly not as much in the image of God as male lives, and thus are less humanly valuable. The extreme anti-abortion position is revealed not as a pro-life position, but an anti-women’s lives position.
Desire for Power
This one may seem like a piece of cake when we are talking about misogyny and power. Expressing anti-women views has often been a way to acquire political power.
For example, Carly Fiorina. Fiorina, the former chief executive of Hewlett-Packard best known for firing many American workers, said following the debate, said she would oppose a government requirement to give workers in the private sector paid maternity or paternity leave. This stance was couched as an ‘anti-government interference with business’ position, but it is still an anti-woman and indeed, anti-parent position. It is a power position, and one Fiorina is apparently experienced in taking.
Women still earn only 77% of what men earn, and their economic vulnerability especially in time of pregnancy, can be particularly hard on them and their families. Women who are employed outside the home are less likely to experience abuse than women who are totally financially dependent on a husband or spouse.
Hand-in-hand with hierarchy in being, power and subordination are crucial to sustain the kind of inequality that puts women more at risk for violence. Submission itself is institutionalized violence — a structure of unequal power that puts women in a vulnerable position whether in the home or in the workplace.
How many women did Carly Fiorina fire, and how many women’s income and family stability will be hurt by her position opposing a paid maternity or paternity leave requirement? What is the going price in women’s suffering for political power?
I will update this ‘not-an-app’ periodically as other examples occur in our public, political discourse.
Such is the discourse, I may have to actually contact an app designer!
These attacks often take the form of assaults on the enormously popular and crucial women’s health programs of Planned Parenthood, and attempts to defund the program, as recently happened in the Senate.
Jeb Bush, one of the pack of GOP candidates not named Trump, commented on this congressional maneuver that he just isn’t sure the government should be spending close to half a billion dollars on “women’s health issues,” and should therefore “defund Planned Parenthood.” He even acknowledged, “The argument against this is, well women’s health issues, you’re attacking, it’s a war on women, and you’re attacking women’s health issues.”
Yes, Jeb. Yes indeed. That is the argument against what you are trying to do. You are conducting a war on women by politicizing their bodies and putting their health in jeopardy.
Why do Republicans do this over and over? One argument is that it deflects the attention of the base from the fact that while the GOP candidates run on ‘jobs and more jobs’ as a platform, they never deliver the economic gains. And it’s a good argument.
But the real question is ‘Why does that distraction work?’ There is a deeper reason why attacks on women’s right to her own bodily integrity, and to make ethical decisions about it, works with conservatives. Women’s full humanity is still incredibly contested in Western culture and religion. Women are basically not allowed to be full human beings, in body, mind and spirit. And this deep struggle is why attacks on women’s reproductive rights happen every election season.
Elizabeth Warren, in an impassioned speech on the Senate floor, exposed this maneuver for what it is, an attempt to go back to the decade where women were pushed out of the modest workplace gains they had gained during WWII, and back into the home in aRepublican mythical golden age of the 1950’s. Or even better, before women’s suffrage.
“Do you have any idea what year it is?” Warren asked. “Did you fall down, hit your head, and think you woke up in the 1950’s or the 1890’s? Should we call for a doctor? Because I simply cannot believe that in the year 2015, the United States Senate would be spending its time trying to defund women’s health care centers. You know, on second thought, maybe I shouldn’t be that surprised. The Republicans have had a plan for years to strip away women’s rights to make choices over our own bodies. Just look at the recent facts.”
In the push back against Warren, it wasn’t just FOX News leading the pack. Joe Scarborough of MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” relied on debunked, deceptively edited videos to attack Warren for defending Planned Parenthood. And to show how much he doesn’t respect women’s intellect, when his female colleague Mika Brzezinski pointed out that he was attacking Warren for the wrong issue, Scarborough blew her off.
MIKA BRZEZINSKI: Okay. But with, you know, just to be clear here, she’s talking about the issue of defunding Planned Parenthood and its services. She’s not talking about what’s going on in these videos.
SCARBOROUGH: Nice try Elizabeth, nice try Elizabeth Warren. Nice try… Please stop insulting our intelligence, Elizabeth Warren. Stop.
Scarborough doesn’t acknowledge the truth his female colleague has spoken.
But women do speak these days, and that is why Sen. Elizabeth Warren strikes fear into the heart of conservatives, in fact, because of her intellect.
Elizabeth Warren can do math.
Can you do the math, Jeb? Because the “War on Women” didn’t actually work out all that well for the GOP in 2012.
Of course, I expected very little in the way of affirmation of my argument. But still…
Is there a shift going on? I wonder. Yes, there are the ‘we need to see concrete evidence’ type of soft denials, but there is less women-blaming than I imagined there would be. Of course, after 42 women have gone public with accusations against Bill Cosby for sexual assault over many years, the ‘they’re making it all up’ defenders of Cosby have little ground to stand on.
But if we really want to stop serial rape, it is absolutely critical to increasingly keep the attention on the alleged offender. The Cosby accusations bear a marked resemblance to the statistics on how many campus rapes are committed by serial rapists, as I note in an earlier Huffington Post piece, “The Hunting Ground: Stop Victim Blaming and End Campus Rape.”
There is a deep religious issue at stake in victim blaming and shaming. It is a profound betrayal of women as human beings, and it often precipitates a religious crisis for them.
I believe the two most basic religious questions are: “What can I trust?” and “Am I alone?” The immoral failure of our society is that women, as is especially clear in the case of acquaintance rape, find they cannot trust someone they thought they knew, and then they find they are not trusted when they try to report and they are often isolated and left alone. They are shamed and blamed for the violence committed against them.
The religious crisis, however, should be when many people of faith and people of humanist values do not believe women when they report rape, and when they are shamed and blamed, and asked to justify trying to report a crime.
Why is the attention not focused, to a great extent, on the alleged rapist? Who gets the ‘benefit of the doubt,’ and who is disbelieved?
We have to ask ourselves this hard question: why are so many women still left alone in their pain and grief?
As John De Gruchy, who studied at Chicago Theological Seminary, bluntly put it for Christians in South Africa, Apartheid is a Heresy.
It is telling that the Facebook page of alleged Charleston shooter Dylann Roof shows him wearing insignia that signals support for apartheid in South Africa.
Could Apartheid be a heresy gaining ground in the United States? Yes, I fear so.
Looking at this photo, I asked myself: taken as a whole, what do the recent series of murders of unarmed African Americans and increased racialized violence portend? To me, it is beginning to suggest that while people of conscience regard racial apartheid as part of a hateful, but bygone era, there are an increasing number who may think apartheid is a desirable American future. And combined with a society awash in guns, and prone to excuse abusing or killing African Americans, this future is actually more of a threat than perhaps many might imagine.
President Obama and sensitive journalists (not you, FOX News), have been quoting Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s words delivered after the deaths of four young girls in a Birmingham, Alabama church. King prophetically asks us to focus “not merely those who murdered them, but the system, the way of life, the philosophy that produced the murderers.”
Apartheid is one name for that system, that way of life, that philosophy.
South African Apartheid did not drop from the sky. While racial segregation began in colonial times in South Africa, it was not until 1948, in post-WWII economic turmoil, that the legalized racial segregation and deprivation of the rights of the majority African population were put in place.
Economic turmoil in the U.S., and the continued deterioration of economic opportunity, combined with increasing racial diversity are engines of the increase in white supremacist organizations and violent actions. The election of an African American president greatly accelerated this hateful and dangerous trajectory.
This morning I published a new Huffington Post piece, Sister Earth cries out”: Did Pope Francis just proclaim an eco-feminist theology? on Pope Francis’s new encyclical on the environment. While I celebrated the Pope’s explicit rejection of “dominion” over the earth as a theological license to exploit, I also added “the encyclical also illustrates how incredibly deep dominionism runs in Western religion and culture,” and that the Pope had not gone nearly far enough in rejecting all the hierarchies in Christian theology that have been promoted and sustained through that pernicious interpretation of Genesis.
Dominion posits a hierarchy in creation that has justified, even provoked, hatred and violence as is so evident in the racist hate crime just perpetrated in South Carolina. “We woke up today and the heart and soul of South Carolina was broken,” Gov. Nikki Haley (R) said in news conference.
I could not help but reflect on how the breaking of the soul of community and the breaking of the earth are so deeply intertwined.
And even in strong efforts, like the Pope’s new encyclical, the most profound connections are yet still not made, and the theologies that support them still not fully rejected.