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SCE Women's Caucus

We must learn what we are to know of love from immersion in the struggle for justice.

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suffering

Art as Essential to an Ethic of Love Supreme

Benae Beamon, Boston University

Wading through the complexity of my emotions after the 2016 election, I found myself in need of a resource that would not simply refute the tragedy and pain or forsake the possibilities of joy and justice but own the value and reality of both. The womanist and mujerista traditions believe in the expansiveness of the ethical canon with the lived experiences of women of color acting as ethical lessons, and even Marcella Althaus-Reid took ethical and theological example from women lemon vendors in Buenos Aires. There are profound cultural resources that offer ethical insight, empowering and teaching individuals about ethical possibilities and how to ignite one’s own ethical imagination.

Favianna Rodriguez, an artist and activist, talks about the unique capacity of art. Rodriguez notes that art is distinctive in its ability to deliver “potent, powerful, and empathetic content.” Art exposes the true capacity and depth of human beings as well as the heights of our moral imagination. Rodriguez refers to art as cultural strategy, an agenda that is intrinsically political but speaks to something beyond the political in the individual. She touches, here, on art as cathartic because it reflects sheer humanity, in both its seemingly impetuous hopes and its perilous ills.

I’m interested in the indefatigable ability of art to speak to all of these realities simultaneously without disposing of the ethical certainty that the universe bends towards justice. Beyond that, I am moved and inspired by this capacity as it speaks to the resilience of the human spirit. The blues sits in pain unapologetically; poetry maintains that even complexity has a rhythm; and jazz speaks to the spontaneous capacity of the individual to create joy without abandoning even the most troubled baseline.

After the election of Donald Trump, and the inhumane and/or nonsensical executive orders and press conferences that followed, I was determined to acknowledge how lucky I am to live in the presence of beautiful, brown bodies that lift one another that thrive, survive, and love in community. As a black, queer, woman born from the South, I contemplated all of the ways in which I carry my ancestors and their strength with me and take solace in the voices and arms of people that I love. I, also, heard the universe’s admonition of Trump and his white, cisheteropatriarchal, neoliberal capitalist excuses for prejudice and propagation of evil as Nina Simone sang “so you’re living high and mighty/rich off the fat of the land/just don’t dispose of your natural soul/ ‘cause you know darn well/that you’ll go to Hell.” While I do not necessarily want to encourage the dichotomous and binarist notions of Heaven and Hell, I connect deeply to Simone’s call never to abandon one’s humanity as a connection to one’s sense of justice, morality, and truth. Simone nearly makes one’s humanity sound unimpeachable while reflecting back the tragedy in its loss; she reminds me to trust myself and my internal moral compass as innately bent towards justice and right. coverMeanwhile, Rapsody laments “all my people growing tired/mamas fighting with they babies/they the ones to start the revolution, shit crazy/the media portray me with lies/wanna justify how my Black folk die/they don’t wanna hear our cries.” Rapsody registers current horrors, unjust and undue death and violence, without losing sight of the revolutionary love that combats it.

Jazz musicians Max Roach and John Coltrane fill me with joy through some of their most powerful, sociocultural exchanges, We Insist! and A Love Supreme, respectively. Both of these albums were released during and intentional responses to Apartheid and injustice in the Civil Rights Movement. Roach’s track “All Africa” asserts that “the beat has a rich and magnificent history/full of adventure, excitement, and mystery/some of it bitter, and some of it sweet/but all of it part of the beat.” Roach embraces the complication of human emotion and holds firm to the power and pertinence of historical memory. Roach and Coltrane create consistency and a semblance of order but don’t let it outweigh the power and freedom of chaos and spontaneity. The music of Roach and Coltrane provides lessons on elegance, balance, and the ethical value of simplicity. Coltrane plays impassioned flourishes, creates space for every individual voice, never loses that of the collective, and maintains direction; he does all of this and leaves the listener with one phrase “a love supreme,” his guiding principle.20170217_163620

The voices and artistic expression of Simone, Rapsody, Roach, Coltrane, and more teach me about the ethical capacity of the individual and the ways in which it proves inseparable from emotion. Injustice, hierarchy, and hegemony produce anger, frustration, veracity, hope, joy, and more, and inspire my understanding of the expansiveness of ethical possibilities and examples. More importantly, these artists teach me about ethical possibilities by envisioning more welcoming and open moral possibilities with their music. It is this pushing of the moral imagination, which those oppressed and burdened by hegemonic leanings do everyday, that I find most uplifting about art: its uncovering of the potential for a love supreme.


Benae Beamon is a PhD candidate in the Graduate Division of Religious Studies in the Religion and Society track at Boston University. She focuses on black queer ethics, folding the study of black churches and philosophical hermeneutics into sexual ethics discourse, and the title of her dissertation is Black Religious Ethics and Black Transwomen’s Bodies.

On Remembering and Surviving

Thelathia “Nikki” Young, Bucknell University

Every single breath we take is a miracle

We were not meant to survive

We were meant to die, to be buried, to be trampled underfoot

Every heartbeat is a miracle

We were not meant to survive

We were meant to disappear, to wither into nothing in the soil

Every brain wave is a miracle

We were not meant to survive

We were meant to see only devastation, to bind ourselves with the shackles of someone else’s vision

Every muscle response is a miracle

We were meant to evaporate from history, to never have existed in the first place

We were not meant to survive.

But we did.


That we – people who are marginalized in America – have the audacity and the unction to continue in existence makes people question reality. Constant efforts to snuff out our lives with acute and massive violence, to squelch our spirits with demoralizing policies and laws, to render us hypervisible invisible entities, to dilute our cosmological imaginings with watered down notions of divinity… all this effort means that our survival makes no sense. And yet, even as some among us die, we must remind one another that we are surviving.

When I walked into my Race and Sexuality class on November 9, my students looked downtrodden and demoralized. For some of them, the election was the first realization that we do, in fact, live in a national context where racism, sexism, classism, heterosexism, and xenophobia are substantiated by violence and threats of further violence. For others in the class, nothing new happened on election night; the country simply confirmed and punctuated its own history of social and political oppression. In both cases, students struggled to articulate their feelings and floundered in the face of the country’s undeniable callous disregard for (social) justice.

I wanted a way to remind them of our collective survival. I needed a way to re-teach them about the power in our resilience, so I reminded them that my people – black people – have been living miraculous lives for a long time. That is, we have persisted in our existence, despite social, political, religious, and economic efforts to eviscerate us. I reminded them that we are science fiction, that our ancestors imagined us into being.

Our job, I suggested, is to remember, analyze, and take note of truths that can be erased, of experiences that can be dismissed, of subjectivities that can be denied, of lives that can be ignored. We have to remember. And in remembering, in recognizing, we have to face the tough complexity that emerges.

After explaining this process of remembering to the students, I led a discussion of Audre Lorde’s “A Litany for Survival.” Students read the poem aloud and reflected on what it would mean for them to break their own silence, lift their own voices of protest and/or rage, in response to social and political realities that they would not longer accept or ignore. We also engaged a slightly altered version of the activity below, which I used during a workshop at a DignityUSA conference.

Out of our Own Mouths – Exercise for Remembering

  1. Have workshop participants do a 2-minute free-write. Ask them to jot down a memory of a time when homophobia/transphobia/heterosexism in the church had informed or shaped their relationship with religion and with their own sexual and gender identities.  (Note: this could also be used for other social identity markers, and it does not have to be connected to religion.)
  1. Then pair participants, preferably with someone they do not know or with whom they are not extremely close. Make one a listener and the other a teller (after having explained the value/virtue in the roles of listening and telling).
  1. Invite the teller to share their story for 2 minutes. Invite the listener to listen actively but silently. Note: it is not a conversation; rather, it is a compassionate communication.
  1. Now, ask them to switch roles for the next 2 minutes.
  1. Now ask each person to share (2 min. each) how this experience affected their sense of self, how it actually impacted their notion of them selves as a sexualized being.
  1. After a moment of break – allow folks to breathe! – ask the first listener to think about how they SURVIVED that experience. That is, what allowed them to get to where they are today? Note: this still works if the experience was not physically traumatic. Get the participants to think about their own capacity for resistance/resilience. (Consider providing an example.) Allow the listener to speak for 2 minutes. Then, invite them two switch roles.
  1. Ask for volunteers to share experiences, retelling the stories from the perspective of their survival/resistance/resilience.
  1. Debrief:
  • What did you notice in one another’s stories? What stood out to you about the stories?
  • How did it feel to share this experience? How did it feel to listen to someone else talk about this?
  • In what way did this exchange impact your own sense of sexuality, etc.?
  • What did the example of resilience/resistance teach you about your own capacity?
  • Why is it important to reframe this story?

Nikki Young teaches undergraduate students about intersectionality, queerness, race, and social justice. Her research focuses on black queer values, particularly in relation to constructions of kinship networks and constructions of liberation. Black Queer Ethics, Family, and Philosophical Imagination (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016) is her first book. She is currently writing a new book, Home Free: A Transnational Ethics of Black Queer Liberation.

On “Becoming Ugly” and the Insult of Being a Woman

MT Dávila, Andover Newton Theological School

Madeleine Davies’ “Becoming Ugly” (Jezebel, 12/29/16) is NOT an apologetics for radical feminism in the years of Trump. She grounds her comments not so much on the suffering of others, as I’m used to doing, but on the insult to womanhood, the painful scarring insults that are the daily bread of being a woman today:

What we as women are forced to carry—because we’re vulnerable and because we are strong—goes beyond the natural disorder of things. Our suffering is not natural; it’s calculated and insidious—the passing of a bill, the protests of a college football team, the success of an actor, and verdict of a judge.

Or, more glaringly, a man who’s bragged about sexually assaulting women being elected to the highest office in the U.S.—not in spite of his vicious misogyny, but partly because of it.”

It might seem to many that the difference here is too subtle to matter. What is the real difference between “suffering” and being “insulted”??

When I read Davies’ piece I once again swim against wave after wave of assaults on my personhood by virtue of nothing else than being female. While, yes, there is suffering in that, there is a deeper form of insult that at its core wishes that I accept my disposability, my inhumanity, my lack of rationality, my strict identification with my ovaries and uterus, and the standards of beauty that seem to only hinge on a spectrum that measures a woman’s worth based on whether the male of the species would find me attractive enough to violently take my sex at his pleasure, or not. Davies’ observations reminds all that misogyny is an insult to humanity, and while it is behind much suffering and violence, it bears analyzing as different from the suffering and violence brought on by civil war, failed states, or gang violence. Remember that in all those situations violence against women is used as insult to the other side: rape as a war crime, or the feminicide that often accompanies getting even with or insulting a warring gang.

In “becoming ugly,” Davies reminds us that as long as we remain acquiescent to the insult of being a woman, we are spared the literal insults of “bitch,” “c**t,” “ugly,” or “hag” often tossed at so many of us who yell “STOP” at the many other metaphorical insults to our bodily and mental integrity. She describes her current state as one of perpetual rage:

For the first time, I don’t know how to move past my boiling anger or laugh it away. Also for the first time, I have no desire to. Preferable, I now think, is to stop laughing, to become as repulsive as I can in an insult to these men—so many men—who hate women and the women who adulate them. Vanity keeps me from throwing away my makeup and sanity keeps me from, as I often feel the repugnant urge, breaking the mirror with the surface of my own face and leaving us both cracked open. But I also can’t deny my current impulse to become as ugly and unlikeable as I can, merely to serve as constant reminder of the ugliness inflicted upon us. 

Oftentimes in theological and ethical reflection we resort to an almost surgical precision – and distance – to describe women’s suffering through the lenses of queer, womanist, or mujerista theology. We use these hard-won tools to reflect on what salvation and liberation might look like in advancing the cause of women’s ordination, same-sex marriage, women’s health care, women’s rights, and so many other important issues. Davies’ reflection is a reminder that our very stance when reflecting on women’s issues should almost always be the rage of one who bears the insult and scars of a world bent on continually reminding us of our lesser state. To that world Davies screams,

We’ve been told time and time again that prettiness and likability will protect us from harm, that to be good women, we must play by these rules, but this is a lie. Nothing will protect us except for ourselves—and what’s more fortifying than a defensive exterior? There are days when all I want is to become a human road sign, a blinking hazard to any man misfortunate enough to cross my path: “I WANT TO OFFEND YOUR SIGHT. I WANT TO OFFEND YOUR EVERYTHING.”

Davies reminds me that my classroom sometimes ought to be “offensive,” or decidedly lose perspective on the current challenges facing women and girls in the US and globally. In particular, Davies reminds me that the stance of my current president toward me is one of insult: grabbing, name-calling, demeaning, erasing, bullying. Becoming ugly, then, is the resistance of insulting back, exposing the hypocrisy of less-than-half-attempts at equality, freedom, and justice.


MT Dávila is a lay woman in the Roman Catholic tradition. She completed her doctorate at Boston College with a dissertation titled A Liberation Ethic for the One Third World: The Preferential Option for the Poor and Challenges to Middle-Class Christianity in the United States. She is currently writing on the option for the poor as a resource to interrupt and transgress the culture wars and polarization among U.S. Christians.

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