Re-Imaging Redemption: The Shaw Center At Its Best!

March 25, 2015   the Rev. Dr. June C. Goudey

Thank you for asking me to participate in this 30 year celebration of the Anna Howard Shaw Center’s ministry to Women. Let me begin by saying how thankful I am that I was offered the opportunity by Margaret Wiborg and Mary Lou Greenwood Boice to be the first Anna Howard Shaw Scholar in 1987. I was privileged to work closely with Margaret for the next six years overseeing many Women and the Word events as well as share my own research on Re-Imaging Communion in 1994. I was also profoundly influenced by the Center’s 1989 Re-Imaging Redemption Symposium.  The Christian Century marked the importance of this effort by devoting the cover of their July 11, 1990 issue to my article “Theologians Re-Imaging Redemption”.

In the following issue three letters to the editor  decried this symposium as nothing more than a new age phenomenon presenting the patriarchal male as the devil incarnate and bordering on idolatry: all this because the symposium suggested that women were looking for “alternative ways of understanding the power that saves and heals us”.

Because we were living then in an era that sought to “depatriachalize” the Bible, The Christian Century’s cover presented 8 panels representing the fading out of a male angel and the emerging of a female angel: a not so subtle reference to the role that re-imaging was coming to play in feminist and womanist theologies. To be clear, The Re-Imaging Redemption Symposium was not breaking new ground; it was taking seriously the work already being done by thoughtful and articulate women!

In 1973 Phyllis Trible’s “Depatriarchalizing in Biblical Interpretation” appeared in the Journal of the American Academy of Religion. In 1974 Beacon press published Mary Daly’s groundbreaking book Beyond God the Father: Toward a Philosophy of Women’s Liberation. In 1978 Phyllis Trible’s God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality challenged patriarchal readings that diminished the role of women, particularly Genesis 2-3.  At the same time psychologists were redefining women’s experience.

The self-in-relation research of the Stone Center at Wellesley College was empowered by Jean Baker Miller’s 1976 book, Toward a New Psychology of Women. This critical work transformed our understanding of ourselves as separate and independent beings. As women reclaimed their voices from the long-imposed silence of internalized oppression the stage was set for a new wave of research that would transform notions of redemption and atonement and shake the foundations of Christianity far more than Paul Tillich could ever have imagined.

Indeed Carter Heyward’s 1982 publication of her Doctoral dissertation The Redemption of God relied heavily on the power of relation.  In Heyward’s words, to worship a messianic figure is to lose touch with our power in relation and ultimately distance ourselves from God.

In 1982 Carole Gilligan’s In a Different Voice revolutionized women’s experience by allowing women’s voices to have their own integrity. Her work was followed in 1987 by Mary Field Belenky’s Women’s Ways of Knowing. This “knowing” by women took seriously the role that Christianity played in the continued domination of women and the undermining of women’s well-being.

I’m sure any one of you could name a number of authors that influenced your own maturation on these issues; but for me the1989 publication of Christianity, Patriarchy, and Abuse edited by Joanne Carlson Brown and STH’s own Carole Bohn offered a major life-line of clarity for my own concerns regarding the Eucharist. The first essay, “For God so Loved the World” written By Rebecca Parker and Joanne Carlson Brown allowed me to postulate my own feminist critique of atonement imagery that ultimately became my doctoral dissertation. As you can see the context for our Re-imaging Redemption Symposium was well-established and building momentum even as we gathered.

The six presenters at the symposium appealed to art and imagination to “challenge old assumptions about human life, divine power and Jesus Christ as the only true redeemer.” Artist and United Church of Christ pastor Barbara Gerlach was moved by the poet Muriel Rukeyser to demonstrate her own courage by sharing through art the story of her own recovery from childhood abuse. Rukeyser once wrote: “What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life? The world would split open.” Gerlach encouraged those present to acknowledge and utilize their own painful memories and experiences and then to work out their own salvation “in fear and trembling.” In this symposium and in the years to follow women were indeed empowered to tell the truth about their lives using their own ethnic lenses to challenge all variations of oppression.

Carter Heyward, professor of theology at the Episcopal Divinity School broadened the concept of divine redemption by suggesting that redemption is in part our mutual responsibility. Through right-relation with one another, she argued, “we can and must lay claim to the christic power inherent in our humanity.” Rita Nakashima Brock, professor at Pacific Lutheran University, used the insights of her 1988 Journeys by Heart: A Christology of Erotic Power to express her understanding of the Christa community.  Brock challenged the “eraser theory” of male theologizing that “rubs women out of the picture,” even when the Gospels herald their perseverance and faithfulness. In her own words, Brock argued: “We cannot rely on one past event to save our future.” Instead it takes each and every one of us to appreciate the “fragile, resilient interconnections” that we share with others to empower us in the face of suffering and pain. New Testament scholar Gail Paterson Corrington documented the ways that the female image has been excluded from the personae of the deity in Christianity and found her images of redemption in pre-Christian figures such as Isis and Sophia.

Womanist Theologians Jacquelyn Grant of The International Theological center in Atlanta and Delores Williams of Drew University Divinity School, challenged their feminist sisters not to allow their own anti-sexist critiques to ignore the injustices borne by women and men of color.  Grant took the notion of servanthood to task by saying that black people know all too well that “some are more servants than others.” Redemption, she argues, “happens wherever the struggle for liberation is” present. Delores Williams explored the painful ambiguity of coerced and voluntary surrogacy as a structure of domination in black women’s lives. Williams focused on the role of “mammy” whereby black women stood in the place of the slave owner’s wife and were given considerable authority in domestic matters by their owners.  And yet Williams reminded us Mammy  remained a captive. To re-image redemption, Williams offered this ruling principle: “To re-image redemption is to re-image creation and to re-image creation is to re-image relation.”

This insight into the power of relation was hardly a new concept. An ancient African Proverb proclaims, “I am because you are.” What was new, though, was women’s ability to give voice to their own experience and to have women scholars in positions of power to make a difference in the collective consciousness of women.

Our Symposium ruffled feathers. But ours was an academic exercise. Ritual, with the exception of a closing spiral dance, was absent. To that extent we were spared the venomous reactions that followed Re-Imagining, the 1993 global interfaith conference that gathered twenty two hundred clergy, laypeople, and feminist theologians in Minneapolis in response to the World Council of Churches’ Ecumenical Decade: Churches in Solidarity with Women 1988–1998. The repercussions of this event were felt far and wide as conservative groups such as the Confessing Christ movement in the UCC and the Good News people in the Methodist tradition vilified anyone who dared to challenge traditional views of salvation through sacrificial atonement. The suggestion that female metaphors for God allowed women to experience Christianity anew seemed to rally the forces of opposition even as inclusive language became a means of grace for women and men alike.

Some 26 years later, the power unleashed by women who dared to tell the truth of their own story has indeed split open the world. These women, joined by women and men who experienced sexual abuse in the Roman Catholic Church, have moved the church to the margins of spirituality where it resides to this day. It remains to be seen if the institutional church can recover from its self-inflicted wounds or whether the power of relation and the power of re-imaging will be able to transform  the nature of ministry handed down to us. There will always be tradionalists who cling to constricted images of the divine and humanity itself; but re-imaging is the genie in the bottle that can never be put back.

Women and the World, its predecessor Women and the Word, and the Re-Imaging Redemption Symposium of 1989 played a key role in the breaking open of numerous oppressive worlds.  For this critically important work I heartily acknowledge the courage of Anna Howard Shaw and the women who seek to make her legacy as relevant as ever to people of faith everywhere. For this I say, “Deo Gratias!

Dr. Goudey received her Th.D in Feminist Theology and Worship from BUSTH in 1993. She is the author of The Feast of Our Lives: Re-Imaging Communion published in 2002 by the Pilgrim Press. Recently retired after 35 years as a pastor and teacher in the United Church of Christ, Dr. Goudey lives in Northern California with her wife of thirty years.

Gritty Hope

Gritty Hope

My take on the nature of hope

Advent, 2014 Nov30
(with gratitude to Krista Tippett and songwriter Carrie Newcomer)

The poet called it gritty!
The nature of hope, she said, is its willingness

To hang in for the long haul;

To cross thresholds of fear, disappointment, and regret
and still persist in offering the world a kinder vision of itself.

Day after day, disappointment after disappointment, to stay the course.
This indeed is hope!

Yes, wishful thinking plays a part, but gritty hope demands a certain courage.
A determination if you will that your hope counts.
That it will not fall silent, that it too will make a difference, as long as you stay faithful to possibilities not yet created.

This is the hope I strive for; a hope that clings to life for the sheer joy of it. A hope that will make something of itself and in that making, return to the world a light once lost; now eternally viewable.

Communion is like breathing….to live is to commune!

Rev. June C. Goudey Th.D
For much of my life I have had a love affair with the sacrament of Holy Communion. Bread and cup are powerful symbols of acceptance, deep communion and worthiness. As with all love affairs, however, there are moments that test our resolve. Whenever this rite is celebrated with an air of exclusion or tempered by somber self-assessment I experience a heart wrenching dissonance. This dissonance heightened my resolve to understand the role of atonement as it shapes communion imagery. In 2002 Pilgrim Press published my book: The Feast of Our Lives: Re-Imaging Communion
My sensitivity to the funereal dimensions of Holy Communion and my desire to embrace the imagery of feasting emerged from my experience as a child growing up in a funeral home listening to funeral dirges. As I listened to the language of joy used in Communion celebrations I found little joy in the practice itself. I often felt I had wandered into a funeral not a feast.
I was also highly sensitized to the theology of sin and suffering after I spent 14 months in a TB sanitarium at the age of 4. Because I was quarantined from my family and friends, without the benefit of fully understanding why, much of my adult life has been devoted to undoing the emotional suffering that ensued. The notion that Jesus had died for my sins, but had not been able to alleviate my suffering created an unbridgeable crevasse in my ability to consider Jesus as my Lord and Savior. It is from this vantage point that I share with you today.
Despite a steady shift towards a more progressive understanding of this sacrament its enactment often demonstrates a lingering attachment to a medieval cosmology that favors sacred food over sacred fellowship and individual salvation over communal well-being. Despite the recovery of meal imagery related to the image of a messianic banquet, this imagery remains exclusionary as only those worthy enough to be saved are actually invited. The proclamation: “Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again” references an apocalyptic end time where Jesus returns to judge and destroy. To truly celebrate the resurrection of Jesus and eliminate apocalyptic imagery I suggest we say: Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ is with us now.
My multi-disciplinary research reveals that far from being a Passover meal, the communion rite is rooted in the table fellowship of Jesus. This welcome table theology is closely aligned with Dominic Crossan’s understanding of open commensality- the celebration of a meal that breaks social barriers by excluding no one.
The writings of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John as well as the Apostle Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians clearly demonstrate that liturgical diversity has always been the mark of Christian practice. Thus I believe that the continued liturgical enactment of medieval imagery cannot be supported as normative either historically or theologically.

The role of imagination in human becoming teaches us that symbols, however strongly perceived, eventually break. We have seen this with the cross as well as the bread and cup.
The Protestant Reformation failed to question images of Jesus’ death as sacrificial because the reformers were driven by apocalyptic imagery and the fear of eternal damnation. Those who claim the mantel of reformation today, whether they call them themselves emergent or progressive, must come to terms with this legacy and the consequences it occasions.
Examining the images we use liturgically in order to understand how they shape our congregational life– for better or worse– remains key to the future well-being of our communion celebrations and our Sunday gatherings. Because each of us is shaped by a vast array of experiences we see and interpret the world differently. These varying interpretations shape our interactions. To the extent that love orders our imaginations- inclusivity and openness order our connections. To the extent that fear orders our imaginations, exclusion and isolation rule.
Amos Wilder’s insight on the role of imagination is crucial: “Imagination is a necessary component of all profound knowing and celebration, all remembering, realizing and anticipating, all faith, hope, and love. When Imagination Fails doctrines become ossified, witness and proclamation wooden, doxologies and litanies empty, consolations hollow and ethics legalistic”
Because we are meaning-making beings who thrive when our sense of safety and selfhood is strong we suffer most when our imaginations become constricted. Ellen Langer’s research on mindfulness versus mindlessness demonstrates this in profound ways. The fruit of postmodern scholarship calls into question a monotheistic template for understanding our relationship to God and one another. Because our understanding of cosmology has broadened and our evolutionary knowledge has deepened we can no longer rely on a binary view of life that forces us to imagine ourselves separate from one another. Einstein called this state of mind “an optical delusion of consciousness.”
On the contrary we are relational selves not separate selves, we are the universe conscious of itself and we have learned that shame based religions bring shame on us all. For these reasons and more Brené Brown calls us to consciously loosen the power of shame and live wholeheartedly. Brown’s research on shame leads her to offer this insight: “Connection is why we’re here; it is what gives purpose and meaning to our lives. The power that connection holds in our lives was confirmed when the main concern about connection emerged as the fear of disconnection; the fear that something we have done or failed to do, something about who we are or where we come from, has made us unlovable and unworthy of connection.”
Listen again as I substitute communion for connection “Communion is why we’re here; it is what gives purpose and meaning to our lives. The power that communion holds in our lives was confirmed when the main concern about communion emerged as the fear of excommunication; the fear that something we have done or failed to do, something about who we are or where we come from, has made us unlovable and unworthy of communion.” The day the church overturned Jesus’ welcome table and embraced excommunication, I believe Christianity made shame its underlying message. Again in Brown’s words “Worthiness doesn’t have prerequisites.” This is why I believe that the confession of sin has no place at our communion tables.
Let me conclude by sharing with you the Welcome Table Philosophy of the United Church of Christ in Simi Valley, where I recently retired as pastor after celebrating a Welcome table communion from 2005 to 2014.

We teach that all of life is sacramental. God is present in all things, but no one thing is God. Every Sunday with our children, we sing: “The Spirit in Me greets the Spirit in You” By this we understand that our nature is both divine and human. In the manner of Jesus, we seek to be Icons of God’s Generosity. We strive to have our lives be windows into a divine love that seeks communal salvation not individual salvation. No one is excluded from God’s love. Period! Therefore we invite everyone to the table, whether baptized or not.

While some seek salvation for themselves in a heavenly afterlife; we seek salvation for all through acts of justice in this life. The word salvation in both the Greek and Hebrew language is rooted in well-being in this life. What lies beyond death, none of us knows for certain. Thus we follow Jesus’ advice “be not anxious” and trust that all will be well, in this life and whatever life is to come.

We teach that Holy Communion is not a sacrifice or a proclamation of Jesus’ sacrifice “once for all.” We believe we are saved by Jesus’ life and teachings not his death; and we honor the expansive table fellowship of Jesus. Jesus was accused of being a glutton and a drunkard and a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ (Matthew 11:9) To those who say, Jesus ate with all manner of sinners, we say, “guilty as charged” and thank God!

Even though the early church fathers overturned Jesus’ table fellowship and ex-communicated sinners, Jesus did otherwise and so do we. We understand that all human beings are imperfect. Through the grace of radical acceptance received in Holy Communion, all of us open ourselves to be better human beings and better Christians. We celebrate the living presence of God and the resurrected Christ in word and sacrament as well as in community.

Our celebration of Communion is not a memorial but a fully participatory expression of divine light and love—a force field of grace that transforms our hearts and minds when we are open to becoming more fully human. To partake of the bread of life and the cup of blessing in fellowship with one another is to commune with all of life and all that is holy. For this we say: “Thanks be to God!”

Delivered at the Disciples Seminary Foundation, Claremont CA, October 2, 2014