Building Bridges, The Challenge of Being In-Between—Kendra Weddle, Letha Dawson Scanzoni, and Jann Aldredge-Clanton

It was an honor to join Letha Dawson Scanzoni and Kendra Weddle in a presentation titled “Building Bridges, The Challenge of Being In-Between” at the Christian Feminism Today Gathering. The theme of the Gathering was “Standing Up, Speaking Up in Such a Time as This,” based on Esther 4:14. Drawing from our new book Building Bridges: Letha Dawson Scanzoni and Friends, Kendra and I highlighted some of Letha’s work, showing how much it’s needed in our world today. As in the book, we also included excerpts from stories of people whose lives she has transformed through her writing, mentoring, and leadership of Evangelical & Ecumenical Women’s Caucus-Christian Feminism Today (EEWC-CFT), an organization she co-founded. Then Letha gave us her words of wisdom for “such a time as this.”

Kendra and I connected the work of Letha and EEWC-CFT to the current “Me Too,” “Church Too,” and “Time’s Up” movements. These movements confirm all the justice work Letha and EEWC-CFT have been doing for decades, creating a viable way forward for women who are now waking up to sexist realities all around us, including in our churches. Many are now speaking up and resisting patriarchal structures, like exclusively male leadership and language in churches, that form a foundation for abuse and violence against women. But we didn’t get here without someone doing the spade work, digging in the biblical narratives to apply the liberating message of Jesus to women and others who have been marginalized. That work was accomplished in large part by Letha Dawson Scanzoni in collaboration with others like Nancy Hardesty and Virginia Ramey Mollenkott.

Kendra and I explained that we chose to take a feminist approach to our book Building Bridges, so this is not a traditional biography that spotlights one person. While Letha Dawson Scanzoni, one of the most important founders of Christian feminism, is certainly a worthy subject of such a book, her life suggests a different kind of approach. We decided that her story could be best understood by connecting it with the stories of those whom she has influenced and those who are continually being transformed by her life and work. Her story is a story of feminist collaboration. Her story is the story of EEWC-CFT. Her story is our story.

The title of our book comes from Letha’s work of building bridges to spread the good news of the liberating message of Jesus that includes all. To spread this good news she and her friends have built many bridges including:
between Christian feminism and the wider culture;
between evangelical and mainline Christians;
across genders and gender identities;
across races;
across sexual orientations;
across generations.

In the CFT Gathering presentation, Kendra and I highlighted Letha’s books All We’re Meant to Be (co-authored with Nancy Hardesty) and Is the Homosexual My Neighbor? (co-authored with Virginia Ramey Mollenkott) and her work with EEWC-CFT.

In All We’re Meant to Be, Letha and Nancy establish their methodology of biblical interpretation as christocentric, and focus on the historical and cultural context and on the major themes of the Bible. They acknowledge that they read through the lens of Jesus. In places where the Bible isn’t clear or contains contradictions, the person of Jesus takes precedence. Letha has been difficult for evangelicals to criticize for she remains steadfastly convinced of the centrality of Jesus. Because Letha and Nancy understood Jesus’ message as one of liberation, this key idea provides a focus through which to examine all questions. Historical and cultural contexts are necessary to understand a biblical passage within its time period, and studying them is not intended to reduce the value of the text (a key fear that still motivates critics today). Letha and Nancy claim we must know what something might have meant then in order to take seriously what it might mean today. Focusing on major themes guards from the fallacies of using a proof-text method. The liberating work of Jesus is the main theme Letha and Nancy use. So a passage like 1 Tim 2:11-12, that some people still quote to keep women from church leadership, must be examined in the light of Jesus’ liberating message and actions.

In the Introduction of their first edition of All We’re Meant to Be, Letha and Nancy write: “Women have just as much right as men to think of themselves in God’s image.” They provide substantial biblical support for their main theme: gender equality based on the divine image including female and male. First published in 1974, All We’re Meant to Be became an instant hit and received Eternity magazine’s Book of the Year award. Historian Pamela Cochran calls it “the most influential work in helping launch the evangelical feminist movement.” More rewarding than awards and accolades to Letha and Nancy were readers’ comments to them. They begin their third edition of this book by writing that over the past two decades since the first edition came out, hundreds of women and men across the country have walked up to them and said, “Your book changed my life!” All We’re Meant to Be and Letha’s other published work, her work through EEWC-CFT, and her mentoring continue to have transforming power. Building Bridges includes stories of a diverse group of people, drawn from interviews.

Here are some of the quotes we included in the Gathering presentation:

I was searching for something that would put the pieces together of a feminist biblical hermeneutic that spoke to the harmful biblical interpretations that I had grown up with in the church. All We’re Meant to Be is timeless in that it still actively stands against traditional evangelical interpretations of Scripture that unfortunately keep returning.Jennifer Newman, 2014 Nancy A. Hardesty Memorial Scholarship recipient

Letha has given me strength to flex my muscles as a confident, strong African American woman. When I read All We’re Meant to Be, I could literally hear Letha’s voice and feel her passion, commitment, and wisdom. I found myself in the pages. I was affirmed as a single woman with a mission of social justice for all. —Leslie Harrison, womanist minister, EEWC-CFT Council member

All We’re Meant to Be inspired Kendra and me in our writing of If Eve Only Knew. The idea that has resonated with me most fully is the central claim that we are created to be all God means for us to be, and that we need to live fully into God’s calling, despite the many barriers placed in our way. —Melanie Springer Mock, English professor, author

In Is the Homosexual My Neighbor, first published in 1978, Letha and co-author Virginia Ramey Mollenkott also interpret Scripture through the lens of the liberating message of Jesus. They apply this liberating message not only to women but also to people who have been marginalized by church and society because of sexual orientation. Virginia gives credit to Letha for the title of the book: “Letha had come up with the title that made many anti-gay Christians angry because it tweaked their guilt over their judgmentalism.”

At the beginning of Is the Homosexual My Neighbor? Letha and Virginia write: “The question that makes up the title of this book shouldn’t be necessary. After all, Jesus made it clear that every person is our neighbor.” Jesus did not narrow the identity of our neighbor to geography, race, or religion but only to need. Letha and Virginia make the case that Jesus’ countercultural actions mean that in every instance where people are oppressed by social and faith-related structures, the work of justice must be done. Taking a stand for LGBTQ justice cost Letha the acceptance she had formerly enjoyed as a public figure within the evangelical community. Many people accused her of being on a “slippery slope” theologically. But she insisted that she was following Jesus’ commandment to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:39).

Letha and Virginia had the courage and compassion to write one of the first books by Christians that takes a positive stand for LGBTQ people. This book has been life-changing and life-saving for countless people.

This book was a gift, just a gift. It quite literally saved my life. —Elizabeth Kaeton, Episcopal priest, hospice chaplain, pastoral counselor

In no small part because of Letha Dawson Scanzoni, I’ve been able to express my sexuality in ways that are loving and life-affirming. —Jeff Lutes, former executive director of Soulforce

What allowed them to find the courage to write this book, even though they must have known most people would certainly not react favorably? I figure that Virginia must have been starting to understand this work was about her own life. But why would Letha do it? That, I think, sheds light on who Letha is. —Lē Weaver, EEWC-CFT’s Director of Public Information

At the Gathering we also highlighted Letha’s transformational work with EEWC-CFT. Letha did not start out to create an organization or a move­ment when she began writing about biblical feminism in the 1960s and ‘70s. Instead, she wrote to address the various ways women were oppressed by church leaders and theologians who made inaccurate assumptions about the Bible, and indeed about women. And yet, no one has had more influence on EEWC-CFT than Letha. Her steady leadership and guidance as well as her longtime editorial work on the organization’s newsletter (EEWC Update) and subsequent website have shaped the mission and function of the organization.

EEWC-CFT began as a women’s caucus formed within Evangelicals for Social Action (ESA) in 1974 to consider issues like the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) and removing sexism from Christian education curricula. The following year this group, at that time called Evangelical Women’s Caucus (EWC), met on its own at a national conference in Washington, DC. At this and other conferences Letha gave plenary addresses, inspiring women to claim God’s call to fulfill their full potential, empowered by an outpouring of the Spirit to step out without fear. Between 1974 and 1978, the group solidified, forming local chapters and a national organization with a statement of faith, bylaws, and elected officers. The 1978 publication of Is the Homosexual My Neighbor? laid the foundation for the organization to vote at the conference in 1986 to take a stand for LGBTQ rights. Many people who opposed this prophetic stand left the organization to form Christians for Biblical Equality (CBE). Letha continued to guide EEWC-CFT as editor of publications and manager of online content. In 2014 she delivered another challenging plenary address, calling Christian feminists to reach across geographical and ideological boundaries and to become more aware of the intersectionality of all oppressions. It is this sense of an ever-widening circle of justice that punctuates Letha’s view of where EEWC-CFT has been and where it will go in the future.

Letha has continued to increase her connections with people of many generations, races, sexual orientations, and religious affiliations.

It is because of EEWC-CFT and women like Letha and Nancy that I can continue to question and critique documents and practices of faith, while still proclaiming myself to be a woman of faith. Their groundbreaking work and guidance empower new generations of Christian feminists to continue moving forward toward the goal of a truly holistic and equality based life for all people of faith.— Katie Deaver, 2015 Nancy A. Hardesty Memorial Scholarship recipient

All in the CFT family have welcomed me into their fold with open hearts and open minds. ‘Welcome’ is a good word to associate with CFT because this network of incredible people embodies the Feminine Divine as they foster space where those committed to equity and equality can find a space to belong. —Alicia Crosby, cofounder and executive director of the Center for Inclusivity

Now I know that I am not alone in my convictions and that feminists are diverse and dynamic. Feminism isn’t just a part of my life, but something that is woven into the character of who I am and has fundamentally changed how I think, feel, and relate to others. EEWC-CFT has aided in the stitching. —McKenzie Brown, CFT Gathering emcee

As WATER has grown more diverse, EEWC-CFT is a natural ally. I find EEWC-CFT to be a vital and welcome partner in the work of feminist, religiously rooted social change. Future scholars will comb the archives with excitement as they find the countless contributions that Letha has made to EEWC-CFT and the larger feminist religious community. —Mary E. Hunt, Catholic feminist theologian, cofounder and codirector of Women’s Alliance for Theology, Ethics, and Ritual (WATER)

Letha Dawson Scanzoni

Letha concluded the presentation with words of wisdom and challenge.

She spoke about being a reluctant prophet and about feelings associated with following a prophetic call: “You feel terribly alone. But you feel the call. And you need to do it. You pray, ‘Give my courage. Save me from my fear.’ Often the prophet feels resistant and struggling. I particularly felt that when writing Is the Homosexual My Neighbor? But our loving Godde Sophia is with us. We are ALL called for such a time as this.”

The book Building Bridges, Letha said, is “about all of us.” She expressed gratitude for the book: “I’m grateful they wrote it or you wouldn’t have the story. But I like to think of it as OUR story together.”

The story began for her when she became “bothered by the limitations placed on women in the church.” She acknowledged the importance of timing: “I was the least person you could imagine as radical. First, there was the women’s movement, and then Stonewall. It’s about timing. This is your time now.”

Letha challenged us all to find and follow our liberating call for such a time as this: “Ask yourself who you are meant to be. Think about it. Are you on the road for doing that? If not? Why? How can I help my neighbor? Each of us must ask ourselves this question. What is my responsibility to my neighbor?”

 

Thanks to Dr. Christy Sim for the photos from the Gathering.

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Standing Up, Speaking Up in the Gospel of Mary—Deborah Saxon & Mark M. Mattison

Dr. Deborah Saxon & Mark M. Mattison

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mark M. Mattison & Dr. Deborah Saxon
(photo by Dr. Christy Sim)

At the Christian Feminism Today Gathering Dr. Deborah Saxon and Mark M. Mattison gave a fascinating plenary presentation titled “Standing Up, Speaking Up in the Gospel of Mary.” These two biblical scholars illuminated a text used by followers of Jesus as early as the second century. This long-ignored text portrays the courageous leadership of Mary Magdalene in the early Jesus movement. Deborah and Mark used this long-ignored Gospel of Mary to help us think together about the challenges and opportunities for us today as we stand up and speak up for what we believe.

In conversations with Deborah at the 2016 Christian Feminism Gathering, I learned of her research and writing, some of which is published in her book The Care of the Self in Early Christian Texts. A little more than seven years ago, I learned about Mark’s work on the Divine Feminine Version of the New Testament and featured him on my blog and later in She Lives! Sophia Wisdom Works in the World. I have been impressed by the depth of Deborah and Mark’s biblical knowledge and scholarship.

In their presentation at this summer’s Gathering, Deborah and Mark began by displaying art from the early Christian centuries. Some of these artworks show Mary, the mother of Jesus, and other women in positions of authority and leadership in the early church. Although women are often denied leadership in churches today, ancient art and texts reveal women as leaders in the early Jesus movement.

Moving on to the Gospel of Mary, Deborah and Mark pointed out that this Gospel is about Mary Magdalene, but not written by her. The Gospel of Mary was discovered a little over a century ago in Egypt, but more than half of it is missing. It was originally written in Greek early in the second century and later translated into Coptic.

Deborah explained a portion of the Gospel of Mary that gives a perspective on the interconnection of all things in nature. “Every nature, every form, every creature exists in and with each other, but they’ll dissolve again into their own roots, because the nature of matter dissolves into its nature alone.”

In the canonical Gospels Mary Magdalene plays a prominent role as a follower of Jesus (Luke 8:1-3) and the first witness of the resurrection (John 20:1-18), “the apostle to the apostles.” The long-overlooked Gospel of Mary adds to the story of her as a leader of the early followers of Jesus.

Mark compared the part Mary Magdalene played as a teacher of the other disciples to the role of the Holy Spirit, whom Jesus mentions as teaching “all things” and reminding them of everything that Jesus had told them. These verses from the Gospel of Mary and the Gospel of John illustrate this comparison:

Deborah and Mark pointed out passages in the Gospel of Mary that record the disciples’ questioning Mary’s authority as a teacher and leader (translations by Mark):

In response Andrew said to the brothers and sisters, “Say what you will about what she’s said, I myself don’t believe that the Savior said these things, because these teachings seem like different ideas.” In response Peter spoke out with the same concerns. He asked them concerning the Savior: “He didn’t speak with a woman without our knowledge and not publicly with us, did he? Will we turn around and all listen to her? Did her prefer her to us?”

Although Andrew and Peter didn’t believe Mary, the only woman in the group of disciples, she had the courage to stand up and speak up for what she knew to be true:

Then Mary wept and said to Peter, “My brother Peter, what are you thinking? Do you really think that I thought this up by myself in my heart, or that I’m lying about the Savior?”

Then Levi spoke up in Mary’s defense:

In response Levi said to Peter, “Peter, you’ve always been angry. Now I see you debating with this woman like the adversaries. But if the Savior made her  worthy, who are you then to reject her? Surely the Savior knows her very well. That’s why he loved her more than us.”

The Gospel of Mary doesn’t record the male disciples questioning Levi’s words, just as today men are often believed more than women, Deborah and Mark observed. Male advocates, like Levi, are then important.

You may want to explore these questions that Deborah and Mark posed to participants at the Gathering:

1. Have you ever heard of the Gospel of Mary before tonight? What parts of it do you find most interesting, compelling, or relevant to your own life and social context
2. What are the challenges Mary faces in speaking out in her Gospel? What challenges do you face in your own life? What form do they take?
3. What sustains you or helps you in speaking out? What inspiring contemporary examples can you share that parallel Mary’s courage?

 

Dr. Deborah Saxon

Deborah Saxon, Ph.D., teaches at Butler University in Indianapolis, Indiana. She is the author of The Care of the Self in Early Christian Texts. Deb researches newly discovered Christian texts, women’s voices, the inclusive perspectives they reveal, and the intersection of gender and religion.

 

 

 

 

 

Mark M. Mattison

Mark M. Mattison is an independent writer and scholar. He is the author of The Gospel of Judas: The Sarcastic Gospel; The Gospel of Thomas: A New Translation for Spiritual SeekersThe Gospel of Mary: A Fresh Translation and Holistic Approach; and The Goblin Gambit. He was one of the creators of the Divine Feminine Version of the New Testament.

 

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Locating Your Role in the Story of Our Collective Liberation—Alicia Crosby

Alicia Crosby

At the Christian Feminism Today Gathering Alicia Crosby gave a thought-provoking, inspiring keynote presentation titled “Locating Your Role in the Story of Our Collection Liberation.”

At two events several years ago, I had the joy of connecting with Alicia and participating in her workshops on creating communities where all are welcome. On this blog I have written about my experiences in these workshops. In conversations with Alicia I have also learned about her passion for following her call, which led her to co-found and lead the Center for Inclusivity (CFI).

Alicia began her plenary presentation at this summer’s Gathering with guidelines on “Setting Up Our Space”:

  • compassionate listening
  • refraining from making judgments/assumptions
  • speaking up
  • respecting and expressing boundaries
  • confidentiality
  • reflective listening
  • respecting our different perspectives
  • respecting our different relationships with Christianity

Then Alicia illuminated the biblical story of Esther, from which the Gathering theme “Standing Up, Speaking Up in Such a Time as This,” was drawn. When I was growing up in Sunday school and Girls’ Auxiliary in my Baptist church, I loved the story of Esther. But I never heard that Esther was a concubine before she became queen, that she was one of many young women forced into the king’s harem, and that she and the other women had to go through a year of “beauty treatments” to please him.

Alicia continued to shed light on this story through the perspectives of the marginalized. While the king was throwing a long, lavish party for all the noblemen and military officers, we never hear about all the common people and we don’t see the refugees from the wars won to build his large empire.

After King Xerxes banished Queen Vashti for refusing to parade in front of him and the other drunken men at his party, he had young women brought into his harem to take turns to see which one pleased him most. But we don’t hear about the young women when they were forced to come to try out to be queen, Alicia said. “They were taken against their will. Violated. They were held captive at least a year. What happens to the human spirit when you know you’re held against your will for a whole year? And when you leave, your body has been used? What happens then?” There’s so much in the Esther story that I never heard or thought about, like trafficking and violence against women.

Mordecai was also marginalized in this story, Alicia pointed out. He was a Jew in Persian culture. He refused to bow down to Haman, the king’s top official, as the king had commanded. Alicia compares Mordecai to young black people who’ve been oppressed by police officers and don’t feel they need to show them respect.

When King Xerxes went along with Haman’s plot to destroy all the Jews, Mordecai publicly lamented. But he pushed Esther to act, instead of acting himself, Alicia said, “like black women asked to save people, to speak out. Mordecai threatened to out Esther as a Jew if she didn’t speak up to the king, like people outing others for their own benefit” (Esther 4:13-14).

“What can we take away from the story of Esther?” Alicia asked. Here are some things Alicia mentioned that she saw: “Like Mordecai, we can be marginalized and still contribute to the marginalization of others. We also see this in the eunuchs in charge of the king’s harem. Agency was taken away from Esther and the other women, but Esther still stood up and spoke up. Vashti was also a heroine in the story; she said ‘Time’s Up. No more.’”

Alicia continued her presentation by asking us to form small groups to examine our own social locations, using these questions:

  1. What are my identities?
    2. What facets of my identity allow me to experience privilege? How does that privilege function?
    3. What are the ways in which I experience marginalization?
    4. What people groups have more privilege than me?
    5. Who experiences oppression and marginalization that I do not have to face?

Alicia concluded her plenary talk by challenging us:

  1. “What resources do you have that you can contribute to our collective liberation? If you think we’re all free, I’m not sorry to tell you we’re all not.”
  2. “How will I work to share the resources I have with others so that we can all be free?”
  3. “What role(s) can I play in the story of our collective liberation? Some of us are teachers. Some of us are listeners. Some of us can build things. Think of who you are and the gifts you have and how they can be leveraged. What are you doing? What are you going to do?”

My thanks goes to Dr. Christy Sim for the photos from the Gathering.

Alicia Crosby

Alicia Crosby is the Co-Founder and Executive Director of the Center for Inclusivity (CFI). Her passions for justice, spiritually engaged activism, and community engagement led her to pursue an M.A. in Social Justice and a Certificate in Non-Profit Management & Philanthropy at Loyola University Chicago. She also has a B.A. in Interdisciplinary Studies from Hollins University.

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Christian Feminism Today 2018 Gathering—Rev. Dr. Leslie Harrison

Rev. Dr. Leslie Harrison

Rev. Dr. Leslie Harrison inspired and challenged us at the Christian Feminism Today Gathering worship service and in her workshop “Don’t You Forget About Me: Black Female Issues Rarely Addressed by Society in Her Context.” The theme of the Gathering was “Standing Up, Speaking Up in Such a Time as This,” based on Esther 4:14.

 

 

 

 

In the Sunday morning worship service Rev. Dr. Harrison led this powerful responsive “Prayer for the People—For Such a Time as This” that she wrote:

Leader: We know, through our DNA, all of us come from the four corners of the earth.
We have been oppressed, depressed, segregated, and amputated.
Oppressed by a patriarchal system and each other.
Depressed by those who refuse to acknowledge our gifts, our intelligence, and our wisdom.
Segregated from our fullest expression based on gender, race, sexuality, and so many other distinctions.
Amputated from our thoughts, our spirits, our experiences, and our futures.
However, we stand tall and speak with strength because we were created . . .

All:      For such a time as this.

 Leader: We give thanks to our Creator for all the good works which prepared this world for our entrance.
We give thanks to the Creator for orchestrating our emergence into time, to
maximize our usefulness as co-laborers in the restoration of justice.
We give thanks to our ancestors for being stepping stones to wisdom and
cornerstones of strength as we embrace these many challenges . . .

All:      For such a time as this.

Leader: We will stand up and speak up to overcome oppression, depression, segregation, and amputation.
No longer will we sit mute in moments of injustice.
We will stand up and speak up because each life matters.
We will stand up and speak up because everyone should be able to live out their dreams.
We will stand up to march, we will speak up to raise consciousness, and we will
use our dollars to change the economics of political injustice . . .

All:      For such a time as this.

Leader: We will fast, just as Queen Esther called for a fast.
We will turn over our plates to actions which perpetuate selfishness, greed, discrimination, stigma, poverty, and hate.
We will stand tall filled with indignation, audacity, courage, valor, moxie, and boldness
to right that which is wrong and demeaning whenever and
wherever necessary. . .

All:      For such a time as this.

Leader: We will work to free our siblings who are bound by archaic traditions and regulations.
We will strengthen systems that are just, uplifting, and uniting.
We will assist the oppressed, depressed, segregated, and amputated.
We will move toward the enactment of justice for all . . .

All:      For such a time as this.

Leader: We will stand up, we will speak up, we will lift up, and we will turn up.
We will invite ourselves to the table when and where decisions are being made.
We will walk boldly and decide our own fate.
We will stand up to demand justice for ourselves and others.
We will speak up for those who have been silenced . . .

All:      For such a time as this.

Leader: Our ancestors, all genders, all races, all creeds, proved that we have the ability to
stand and speak up even in the face of great adversity.
It is their examples that we were created to follow, to pursue justice with dignity and courage.

All:      We remember who we are and what our ancestors accomplished.
We stomp out injustice, share hope, tolerate only that which is good and just, and teach that love conquers all.
We are the ones who ensure our neighbors feel welcome.
We do the right things for the right reasons at the right times.
We are the ones standing up and speaking up,
For such a time as this.

© 2018 Leslie Harrison. Used by permission.

Later in the worship service Rev. Dr. Leslie Harrison delivered an inspiring sermon titled “For Such a Time as This.” She highlighted three strong female voices in the book of Esther.

Queen Vashti, she says, is one of King Xerxes beautiful trophies. “King Xerxes is as drunk as a skunk, and he wants his trophy to come down” so he can show her off to all the men at his lavish banquet. “The queen says ‘there’s no way I’m marching around all those men. He’s got the wrong woman here.’ Vashti stands up and speaks up: ‘No. I’m not giving up my pride and self-esteem.’”

The second strong woman is Esther. “She’s an orphan; all her family is gone but a distant cousin, Mordecai.” Leslie continues: “When the king asks for all the beautiful women, Mordecai says, ‘go ahead and apply for the scholarship.’ Esther’s learning stuff. But Mordecai is crying and is a hot mess. She didn’t know there was stuff happening outside the walls of the castle. Esther says if I go before the king, it will be bad. So I’m going to keep living. I’m not doing anything. Her cousin says ‘don’t think you got up into royalty just for yourself. You’re there for a purpose. Do what you need to do.’ So she goes before the king, probably anticipating her death. But she does it anyway. And the king welcomed her.” Because she stands up and speaks up, Esther saves her people.

Rev. Dr. Harrison identifies the third voice in the book of Esther as Christ-Sophia. “Her name isn’t spoken, but it is Christ-Sophia moving in the hearts of people, giving Esther the wisdom to do what Godde asks. It is Christ-Sophia who gives Esther the courage, and it is the presence of Christ-Sophia that changes the heart of the king to accept Esther as she is.”

Rev. Dr. Harrison applies the Esther story to our lives, saying that some of us are living a privileged life. “And we see the people wailing outside the gate. How many of us are willing to hear what the needs of the people are? How many of us are willing to give a kind word? How many of us are willing to share the wisdom we have? Think about how we can go down to the wall. Why are the mothers crying? Because their babies were taken away. Because of inhumane immigration practices. Because there’s a wall.”

“We are tired of being tired. But we can’t be so tired we go somewhere and lie down. We have to stand up. Stand up against injustice. Let us find the courage and energy we have in Christ-Sophia to stand up and speak out. Because it’s for such a time as this.”

On Saturday morning Rev. Dr. Leslie Harrison also challenges us in her workshop titled “Don’t You Forget About Me: Black Female Issues Rarely Addressed by Society in Her Context.” Here is her workshop description:

“Black females are the foundation of America. We nursed our babies and the master’s babies at the same breast; we nurtured and trained the master’s children hoping to keep our children from being sold further into slavery. We walked away from slavery but remained slaves of our husbands, families, and a society that refused to acknowledge our presence, our power, and our debilitating issues. Over the years, we have learned to stand tall and speak up through our actions rather than our voices. During the Civil Rights movement, it was our tired and sore feet that desegregated buses and marched for equality. We did not become a major part of the early feminist movement because so many of the issues did not pertain to us. We love America; we would die for America. And now we ask America, ‘Don’t you forget about me!’”

Drawing from womanist theology and literature, Leslie begins with a famous quote from Alice Walker: “Womanist is to feminist as purple is to lavender.”

Leslie names some experiences in the history of African American women:

  • oppressed
  • voiceless
  • misrepresented
  • miseducation of children
  • deletion of role models
  • distortion of image
  • alienation from known history
  • dehumanization of race and culture
  • Middle Passage—slaves, bonded servants
  • separation from family and neighbors
  • stripping of identity
  • increasing of inner strength

She continues by naming and celebrating some African American women who laid the foundation of feminism and womanism and some who are continuing this work:

  1. Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, author, orator, social reformer and founding member of the National Association of Colored Women
  2. Katherine Ferguson, whose freedom was bought by a friend for $200, and who established the first Sunday School in New York
  3. Sojourner Truth, who delivered her famous “Ain’t I a Woman” speech at the Ohio Women’s Rights Convention in 1851
  4. Esther Cooper Jackson, civil rights activist, social worker, and founding editor of the political and literary journal Freedomways
  5. Claudia Jones, immigrant from Trinidad, journalist who wrote against gender and racial discriminatory practices, whose best known piece was “An End to the Neglect of the Problems of the Negro Woman”
  6. Mary Church Terrell, advocate for civil rights and the women’s suffrage movement, charter member of the NAACP, one of the founders of the National Association of Colored Women
  7. Angela Davis, emphasized triple oppression of racism, sexism, and classism experienced by black women, who said: “ I am no longer accepting the things I cannot change. I am changing the things I cannot accept. “
  8. Anne Moody, author, civil rights activist, who wrote Coming of Age in Mississippi about her experiences growing up poor and black
  9. Amandla Stenberg, actress, created video “Don’t Cash Crop on My Cornrows,” calling out the appropriation of black culture: “What would America be like if we loved black people as much as black culture?”
  10. Solange Knowles, actress, singer, songwriter, uses music as her form of activism, number-one album titled A Seat at the Table
  11. Alice Walker, author, activist, introduced word “womanist” to emphasize exclusion of women of color in early feminist movement and to focus on the intersectionality of racism, sexism, and classism

Leslie further emphasizes that womanism focuses on the experience of black women and the well-being of all. She says, “I refuse to be an ‘angry black woman.’ I’m an energy conservationist.”

My thanks goes to Dr. Christy Sim for the photos from the Gathering.

Rev. Dr. Leslie Harrison

Rev. Dr. Leslie Harrison is a listener, a friend, and a voice for the voiceless (until they find their voice!). She recently completed her doctorate in Marriage and Family Therapy at Eastern University. Her Master of Divinity is from Palmer Theological Seminary. She is an Itinerant Elder of the African American Episcopal (AME) Church. As a life coach, she is passionate about helping people live into their dreams and purpose. Leslie currently works as pastor and chaplain at AtlantiCare Regional Medical Center in Atlantic City, New Jersey, and in its hospice program. She is vice-coordinator of the CFT Council. Among Council members and in our online community, Leslie is beloved for her gift of earnest and eloquent prayer.

 

 

 

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Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Dorothy Kelley Patterson

Dr. Dorothy Kelley Patterson

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

After I recently saw the film RBG, my interaction with Dorothy Kelley Patterson years ago came to mind. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Dr. Dorothy Kelley Patterson, in the same generation with Ruth a little older than Dorothy, both experienced sexism, but they responded in opposite ways. The film includes a photo of Ruth at Harvard Law School surrounded by men—she was one of only nine women in a class of about 500 men. Dorothy was among the few women theology students in her class at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary and in the Doctor of Ministry program at Luther Rice Seminary at that time.

Justice Ginsburg’s experiences of discrimination led her to work tirelessly for justice and equality for women throughout her career. Dr. Patterson’s experiences led her to work tirelessly to fit traditional subordinate roles for women and to teach other women to fit into these roles. What made the difference?

Both Ruth and Dorothy drew guidance from their conservative religious traditions. Ruth grew up in Orthodox Judaism. But when she saw up close the second-class status of women in her religion, she chose to focus on the demand for justice in Jewish history and tradition. She has a large sign in her chambers inscribed with Hebrew words from Deuteronomy, translated “Justice, justice shall you pursue” (16:20). When Dorothy from her conservative Southern Baptist religion also received messages that God intended only men to be leaders in church, home, and society, she chose to focus on passages in the Bible used to place limits on women.

My religious background, like Dorothy’s, is Southern Baptist, but I resonate more with Ruth. My Baptist roots run deep. My father and grandfather were Baptist preachers. My mother, father, grandmother, grandfather, my husband, David, and I all graduated from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. But instead of messages of restriction based on my gender, from my Baptist heritage I got messages of freedom to follow God’s call wherever that leads.

So, when I debated Dorothy in 1988 at the Southern Baptist Historical Society, I had a hard time understanding how she could defend putting limits on God’s call to women. The debate took place in a large meeting room in one of the imposing buildings of the national Southern Baptist headquarters in Nashville, Tennessee. David, who had come to cheer me on, and I arrived early to learn the order for the debate. I was scheduled first to read my paper “Why I Believe Southern Baptist Churches Should Ordain Women,” and then Dorothy would read her paper, “Why I Believe Southern Baptist Churches Should Not Ordain Women.” (These papers were later published in Baptist History and Heritage.) We had twelve minutes each. Although Dorothy and I had read each other’s papers prior to the debate, we were to make no rebuttal of each other’s points until both of us had finished. Then the audience could direct questions to us, and we could respond to them and to each other.

I sat on the platform beside Dorothy, wife of Paige Patterson, former president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and one of the architects of the fundamentalist takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention. Dorothy wore a hat as a sign that she submitted to male authority, just as the Bible told her to do, she said. I felt weak and shaky as I listened to the moderator introduce me.

When I stood at the pulpit and looked out at the sea of male faces, my knees shook so hard I felt I might collapse. My voice began softly and tentatively but gained power as I referred to the biblical story of Gamaliel, who counseled religious leaders not to hinder the apostles’ work because “if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them. You might even be found opposing God!” (Acts 5:39). I swiftly drew the parallel, “Southern Baptists cannot overthrow the ordination of women because it is of God.” I then moved confidently into my theological arguments, heavily supported with scriptural passages including Acts 2:17, which records Peter’s announcement that “your sons and your daughters shall prophesy” (The Greek word translated “prophesy” also means “preach.”) Also, claiming Baptist history, I commented on women preachers in England as far back as 1646 and told of a leading Presbyterian minister at that time who accused Baptists of having “she-preachers.” I cited well-known Baptist women preachers in eighteenth-century America such as Martha Marshall, Eunice Marshall, Margaret Clay, and Hannah Lee. Inflamed by my passionate conviction, I delivered my concluding call to action:

As in the issue of equality of the races, Southern Baptists have failed to take a prophetic stand on the equality of men and women. Not only have we failed to be a redemptive force in society, but also we have impoverished our churches by placing restrictions on the ministry of women. The pressing spiritual, emotional, and physical needs in our world demand that Southern Baptists cease to limit the ministry of more than half our members. If we follow the steps of Christ and of our Baptists forebears, we will repent of past sins and ordain all women, along with men, whom God calls to ministry.

Dorothy clapped along with the audience as I sat back down beside her. She then rose and walked slowly to the pulpit. Instead of beginning with her paper, according to the agreed-upon procedure, she began a rebuttal of my points. She questioned the legitimacy of my biblical interpretation and the orthodoxy of the theologians I referenced. And then in the midst of her paper, she made a comment about “women whose need for power led them to seek positions in denominations other than Baptist.” It was obvious that she wanted to discredit me by implying that I was not a true and loyal Baptist because I had taken a pastoral appointment in a Methodist church. Sweat started trickling down my back, but I tried to sit there on the platform looking pleasant and professional. Dorothy proceeded to muster all the biblical passages traditionally interpreted to exclude women from ordained ministry. She spent the longest time on a few verses in 1 Timothy that state that women should “learn in silence with full submission” and should not “teach or have authority over a man.” In my paper I had commented on this passage in 1 Timothy: “Those who take the statement concerning women’s silence in church as an eternal principle must also take as a literal command for all time the preceding statement forbidding women to wear braided hair, gold, pearls, or costly attire. Those arguing against ordination of women on the basis of this passage practice selective literalism, violating contextual and historical hermeneutical principles.”

After reading our papers, the moderator invited questions and comments. An earnest young man in the audience directed the first question to Dorothy: “Dr. Patterson, if you believe, as you stated so strongly, that women are not to teach or to have authority over a man, why is it that you have come here today to teach us, an audience of mostly men?

“That’s a good question,” she said. “I’ve come here only by the permission and under the authority of my husband, Dr. Paige Patterson. By the way, he regrets very much that he could not be here today, but he gave me permission to speak to you. As you probably know, I wear this hat as a symbol of my submission to the authority of my husband.”

One man asked me why I had taken a position in a Methodist church, but I could tell by his tone that his question was not so much a challenge as an invitation to defend myself against Dorothy’s charge. I answered that although I’d like to have had an opportunity to pastor in my Baptist tradition, my call to ministry took precedence over denominations. He responded by lamenting the loss of talent Baptists suffered by excluding women from ministry.

After the program, Dorothy and I exchanged polite compliments. Then she opened her Bible to Genesis and redoubled her efforts to prove to me that, from the beginning of creation, God had ordained women’s subordinate role. I countered that hers was only one interpretation of the passage and proceeded to reiterate mine. Pointing adamantly at the verses, she insisted, “But this is what God says, right here! Can’t you see?”

Later when David asked what Dorothy and I had been talking about so long, I said, “She kept trying to persuade me that her interpretation was not an interpretation at all, but the literal, inerrant word of God, and that’s scary!

Now 30 years later, as I reflect on my interactions with Dorothy, I find it sad that a woman with so much intelligence, leadership ability, and theological education would spend her gifts and energy advocating and teaching limitations on the exercise of women’s gifts. And I find myself asking what made the difference in Dorothy Kelley Patterson’s becoming a strong defender of restrictions on women and Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s becoming a strong advocate for women’s equal rights. I find it tragic that Dorothy’s biblical interpretation still limits women’s gifts and calling in so many churches. Also, I find it scary that this theology so often leads to and condones abuse of women.

Theology and biblical interpretation have consequences, as Dr. Molly T. Marshall so powerfully articulates in her article, “The Peril of Selective Inerrancy,” in Baptist News Global.

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