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The Table Video

Stacey Floyd-Thomas

That We May Dare to Suffer: The Moral & Theological Urgency of Flourishing - Stacey Floyd-Thomas

Associate Professor of Ethics and Society, Vanderbilt University Divinity School
March 25, 2019

That We May Dare to Suffer: The Moral Muster and Theological Urgency of Human Flourishing

Suffering is the conscious laden experience of realizing that we exist in the realm of the already and the not yet. Nowhere is that clearer than in the formation of American aspirations for the good life, or what we may now call “human flourishing.” Since the time of chattel slavery, there have been two underlying principles that have maintained the moral muster and theological urgency of human flourishing while simultaneously creating the gap between the promise of our ideals and the reality of our times: white hate and black hope. This paper argues that suffering—as a theological reality and warring virtue and vice—has its moral reasoning rooted in the manifestation of hate and hope in America across racial lines. We will briefly explore the connectedness of suffering to the racialized reasoning of American Christianity (as evidenced in what Martin Luther King, Jr. called “11 o’clock on Sundays, our most segregated hour of the week”) and how we can be empowered to work to dismantle its structural roots. Ultimately, I will chart the possibilities and offer a challenge that calls the descendants of white privilege and the inheritors of Black persecution into an unknown community in a way in which sacred rhetoric or political correctness are not enough but only truly responding with our actions can we reconcile and resurrect that which has troubled our souls and compromised our lives as people of faith in America.


Good evening. I’m from a black Baptist tradition, so call and response is really necessary. [audience laughs] In order to establish some sense of protocol, I want to give sincere thanks and appreciation to Evan Rosa and to Laura, for just showing the face of God by being so very hospitable, as well as providing me the privilege to be with some sharp thinkers who provide fire and iron for my work, and the new lessons and challenges that I have received from my co-presenters, and of course to our last presenter, Marisol Fouth, who has introduced me to this larger Templeton family: thank you. But more importantly to you, the gathered audience, whose engagement has been so palpable. Though our insights and our stories have challenged you, the fact that you yet remain, [audience laughs] shows that indeed two or three, when we are gathered on one accord and we are on many accords in this room. So we see, the many face presence of God, I thank you and ask you that you stay in that spirit.

As an African American female follower of Jesus Christ, there is an ever stinging irony that I embody. As one who’s very dasein, to use Heidegger’s words, or being, or to use womanist Emily Town’s words, isness, is the amalgamation of having African blood, being a descendant of American enslavement and a water and fire baptized Christian who as a black woman, is either scorned, shunned, set aside, sentenced, or silenced by any normative reflection of myself in society or scripture. To use Zora Neale Hurston’s words, “to be such a being is to live “and cook in sorrow’s kitchen “and lick all the pots clean.” In her novel, The Color Purple, Alice Walker offers a salient example of such irony, and what I deemed as a convergence of perspective, perception and divine purpose found within suffering. This hermeneutic of suspicion and discovery can be found in the epistles of Celie, her protagonist. Here, the reader can tell that Celie, the black share-cropping, marital property of a cruel, unfaithful husband, and the incestuous victim of a low-down step-pa. She is punished by him to only speak of her suffering to God.

And so she discloses in her epistles that she is a confused Christian, who was taught to worship and follow the lead of a God that is a big, white, old, bearded, bare-footed man with blueish-gray eyes. Unquote. And due to her dissonance, she finds herself wanting more, and ends up disavowing a God to whom she once bared her soul, submitted her will and suffered her abuse in silence and shame, in a letter, instead of God, but to her sister Neely- Netty, she writes. “I don’t write to God no more. “I write you. “What happened to God?, ast Shug. “Who that? I say. She look at me real serious. “Big a devil as you is, I say, you ain’t worried “about no God, surely. “She say. wait a minute. “Hold on just a minute here. “Just because us don’t harass it like some people us know, “don’t mean I an’t got no religion. “What God do for me? I ast. “She say, Celie! Like she shocked. “He gave you life, good health- “Yeah, I say, and he gave me a lynched daddy, “a crazy mamma, a low-down dog of a step-pa and his sister “I probably won’t ever see again. “Anyhow, I say, the God I been praying “and writing to is a man. “And act just like all the other mens I know. “Trifling, forgetful, and low-down. “She say, Celie you betta hush! “God might hear you Let him hear me, I say. “If he ever listened to poor colored women, “the world would be a different place.” The world of difference that exists between Celie and her perception of a Eurocentric, anthropomorphic, and sexist image of God, is made all the more injurious because he is found not only to be alien in nature, but more importantly, alienating by disposition. And we know all too well how and why this alien and alienating God came into her consciousness; to keep her inured to suffering while forever separating her from a liberating salvation.

This God she came to know was probably most manifested through an oppressive slave theology, or a racist, misogynist, Bible-dumping, demonizing-preaching, illustrated in the hard work of preachers, patriarchs, and their pitiful female partners in crime, who stand vigilantly silent in the face of death-dealing social oppression. Within Celie’s poignant description of material suffering and soul murder, dealt at the hands of a Carmelite colonizing religion. There is a moment for the first time in her life, Celie, America’s poster child of suffering, is able to articulate her cognitive dissonance regarding her lifelong relationship with God. During the course of this intimate disclosure to her sister, Celie professes the abundant faith she has always demonstrated, the miserable return which has always met her spiritual investment, and her realization that the world would be a better place if God could only see it through her eyes. Here the voice of Celie represents a story that is well known, but never told. The more wisdom yet spiritual angst of those who have been rendered silent and invisible by the lack of ethics and proof texting, postilizing, or poor patriarchal biblical teaching and preaching. Such teachings and preachings, as many of you know, is a major if not social vehicle through which many black people have come to imagine God. For those of us who are descendants of enslaved Africans, it was the spoken word that enslaved and liberated us. And it is the spoken word today that still enslaves and/or liberates those, like Celie, who are triply cursed because of their race, gender, and class.

As literary theorist Hortense Spillers says, “When you look at me, let’s face it. “I am a marked woman, but not everybody knows my name. “Peaches, Brown Sugar, Sapphire, “Earth Mother, Auntie, Granny, “God’s Holy Fool, Miss Ebony First, “or The Black Woman at the Podium. “I’ve described a locust of confounded identities, “a meeting of investments and privations “in the National Treasury of rhetorical wealth. “My country needs me,” Spiller says, “and if I were not here, it would have invented me.” Unquote. you can imagine her as a modern day Eve, Ham, and Hagar, rolled up into one. Those like Celie who are deemed little more than three fifths human, are never afforded the status of being a responsible self in the normative ethical gazes of H. Richard Niebuhrs of the world. As you may recall, Niebuhr presumes that the responsible self is a moral agent, who has the power and autonomy to exercise freedom in relation to God and neighbor. Of course, this represents a type of agency unavailable to Celie, because she has neither the power nor social regard with which she can engage man or God.

Her experience of what it means to be human is thus denied. Celie’s experience of what it means to be an embodied person exposes John Rawls’s classic theory of justice as an absurdity, because it disregards envisioning a justice for human beings who are actually embodied people. This moral reflective weakness is not exclusive to scholars alone. Even those like Celie are mystified by every day, well-intentioned and God-fearing white people, or black preaching men, who claim to see the humanity in everyone, ignore or are still befuddled by the interlocking nature of gender, class, and race. So they suffer because we live in a world, as Patricia Bell-Scott reminds us, where all the women are white, and all the blacks are men. But some of us are brave. So what do we do with the Celies of our world who we either see in our pews, have run out of our churches, don’t allow in our schools, or who we would never allow to enter our unwelcoming gates? How can we de-center ourselves from our privileged positions of preacherly comfort, while simultaneously placing at the center of our sermons teachings, thoughts, and actions, the constructive envisioning offered to us by the most marginalized amongst us. Herein lies the crux of my paramount concern as a Christian scholar and activist, and what I hope are urgent questions for those of us who dare cultivate an ethic of informed faith about suffering in the world today. But the heart of the problem that we face in this regard is not preaching about an aesthetic, or idealed image of God, per se, making God a raced, sexed, embodied entity.

But rather seeing in those to whom we preach, regardless of their race, gender, sex, and class, a voice and presence of a suffering God that needs to be understood and felt. Instead, the moral crisis of identity within both the church and society, occasioned by the unending violence of discrimination, poverty, hatred, and terror, is expressed by the fear that it is we, as religious leaders and believers, who have not only merely carved out, but may have embodied through our Christian witness, a strange God who is blind to gender, class, and color, and neither shares nor sees our interests, concerns, and thoughts. Religious scholars and religious folks must come to realize that it’s within the scholarly tones of the written word, and the oral tradition of the preached word, that the face of God is less like Charleston Heston … but can more likely be found in the suffering faces of those who are truly just a sister away, if we are ready and willing and able to just look for her.

Those women who, like the Mother Mary, Mary Magdeline, or Martha, or Mary of Jesus’ day, cause Jesus to pause, reconsider the course of events, and perform miracles, hand over the gospel, or weep when challenged by ordinary women who had extraordinary faith that ventured beyond their expectations. These biblical women, like Celie, her allies, and heirs, like me, realize that surviving shame and suffering is dependent upon knowing the difference between God, and men who imagine themselves to be Gods. And discerning this difference is the only thing that we must dare to suffer through because it’s the only way we may save our own souls without losing our minds and lives in the process.

But even if we shift our focus from a figure as humble and beset upon as Celie, to one of our nation’s most celebrated and acclaimed icons, though he was hated when he was living. We recognize suffering in the lives of black people, does not change much at all. Here we can consider others like Martin Luther King Junior, who preached sermons and penned prophecies from jail cells so we might know, in the midst of our suffering, how to discern the difference between the God of the oppressed, and the false gods of this yet to be United States. When Martin Luther King delivered his 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech, on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, he didn’t wax poetic about the commercialized utopian images of racial harmony that now get incorrectly projected on to him, of black children experiencing joy and gaining equity by the mere proximity and touch of white children, nor by a melting pot of people gathered around a smorgasbord to break bread together. Rather, he invoked the metaphor of bad business and banking, when he talked about a bad cheque America had written. And talking of the United States as a moral skinflint, compelling it’s blacks to suffer injustice in silence, he opened, quote: “In a sense we’ve come to our nation’s “capital to cash a cheque. “It is obvious today that America has defaulted “on this promissory note, in so far as her citizens “of color are concerned.” Unquote. Now many historians remind us that this part of the speech has been mostly forgotten if you even heard it at all.

Swamped in collective memory by the passionate rhetoric of kings oration, or passionate prose of a preacher, even when initial renderings for the new Martin Luther King Junior Nation Memorial were first unveiled, they included a prominent place for the promissory note metaphor. But, as the project went forward, and funds needed to be raised, it was deemed too confrontational and dropped from the final design. And I can imagine many this evening thinking that this painted picture is part of our past, yet when we consider the spate of unarmed shootings, including the Charleston Nine, along with the history of childhood slavery that has loomed large and manifested itself in the leasing and lynchings of black bodies, racial segregation, racial profiling, police brutality, the prison industrial complex, forced sterilization and sex trafficking, it has been made poignantly clear in the public square that black lives do not matter, making the metaphor of bounced cheques seem comedic. And so at this crucial moment, instead of our eyes watching God, our churches shrink, our best scholars shudder, and our millennial generation wonders whether God is in fact playing hide and seek. Or even worse, is God a white racist after all? As William R. Jones queried in the title of his classic text.

This evening I would like to appeal to each of you as thinking people of faith. In order the examine and evaluate the manner in which our hermeneutics of suffering produces meaning for those blackened by blood, history, and faith, by showing how sacred narratives, whether Celie’s or King’s, the Children of Israel or Hagar, Mary or Martha, Job or Lazarus, serve not only as religious means of survival, but also as modes of religious response to their ongoing suffering that forges human flourishing as what womanists have often referred to as “the hope that remains in the holler”. Here we must heed carefully to womanist theologian, in Shawn Copeland’s words, that quote, “The suffering disclosed in these stories are neither “pedagogically motivated, nor is it some form “of spiritual beneficial aestheticism. “For when suffering is done to people, it is a lynching. “It is meant to break and not temper the spirit.” Unquote. Suffering, whether it’s a crucifixion or a lynching, or being prostituted by the lots of this world who pose as fathers, yet are truly pimps who traffic and terrorize women they claim to love and vow to protect … Such actions and such representations of suffering are evil, simply put. But it’s our responses to suffering that may redeem us, but never does it redeem the evil act of suffering.

All you have to do is ask anyone who has truly suffered. So, suffering, nonetheless, as we just learned in our liturgy, does signify something within us, whether it be a rationalized result of a bad happening, or denial of statistics and instead an aspiration to want more than is considered good or possible to have. The moral condition of those who have survived the underside of history, have done so that we may dare to suffer. Not for piety or pies in the sky, but to expose the false gods who have honed a structural reality that keep many of us from destroying the power it has over us. In her excursions to what’s faith got to do with it, womanist theologian Kelly Brown Douglas pressures this issue by stating, and I quote: “What is it about Christianity? “Is there something about Christianity itself “that suggests a disreputable, dehumanizing legacy? “Christianity, a closed monotheistic religion, “is defined by a christological paradox,” she says. “and Christianity is a religion with a violent crucifixion at it’s very center. “Each of these theological characteristics “has greatly contributed to Christianity’s implicit “and explicit participation in acts of human terror.” Unquote. Now, before you think me blasphemous, let me remind you.

One, I am a Christian. But two, the power of my faith is generated not because of Christ’s dividic lineage, or heir to an internal empire, but from the fact that a righteous man from Uz, who suffered, did not do so in silence but implored God in God’s perfection that his suffering necessitated an advocate that foreshadowed the coming of a single teenage mother, who suffered shame to present to the world a living sacrifice, revealed through God’s lowering of God’s self into the form of a man who was despised in his own hometown, betrayed by his own friends, and lynched on a tree carried by a slave, because he was that kind of God who preached that the spirit was upon him, because he could set free those who suffer. My faith therefor is formed not in the genealogies of Christian empire, but through the actions of a historical Jesus, who literally lived, flesh and blood, wept, was tempted, betrayed, and murdered at the hands of an evil empire that cannot be redeemed, no matter how many crosses we wear around our necks … But that the work and witness he suffered through must serve as a moral exemplar for us to cultivate the moral muster and theological urgency to wrest human flourishing from the empire that seeks to terrorize us in the name of God. As historian of religion Charles Long reminds us in his seminal work, Significations: Signs, Symbols and Images in the Interpretation of Religion, quote: “The oppressed must deal with both the fictive truth “of their present status, as expressed by their oppressors, “that is, their second creation, “and the discovery of their own autonomy and truth, “their real God-given first creation. “the locust for this structure is a mythic consciousness “which de-historicizes the relationship for the sake “of creating a new form of humanity.” Unquote.

That we dare to suffer is not to call enduring brutality a virtue. On the contrary, that we must dare to suffer is that we will not take shelter in the false sanctity of suffering, but rather in endowing ourselves with a conscious-laden experience of realizing that we exist in the realm of the already and the not yet. Or as Barack Obama put it, “Between the promise of our ideals and the reality of our time.” That we dare suffer, insists that we have life and have it more abundantly, so we may reconcile ourselves to Jesus’s intention for our lives. That we dare suffer is never to wait idly by accepting abuse in silence and shame, but that we, like Celie, whose lives do not exist in a context, where all the women are white and all the blacks are men, that we know that the true God is one in whose image we too are fearfully and wonderfully made. And thus we dare to suffer to be brave enough to not only press our way through crowds, to bypass all the H.I.M.s, but to touch the H.E.M.s of divine healing.

And brave enough to activate the divinity in a hesitant boy to turn water into wine to save the face of our girlfriend on her wedding day. And brave enough to stop a Messiah on his holiday to insist that he heal a child, in spite of the fact that he calls us a dog. That we may dare suffer to be modern day Moses’s that create underground railroads to set at liberty those who are captive. Cash in on constitutions and cheques that were never written with us in mind. That we dare suffer to climb poles, not to strip, but to tear down flags. To cellphone recorded Facebook posts and Snapchat livestream injustice via cellphones and social media, screaming Black Lives Matter in the face of these yet to be United States. Suffering for all of it’s hell mustn’t stamp out our opposing it for the evil that it is. My prayer and purpose and clarion call, for those of us who claim both God and the gospel, who know both the whitened hate and the blackened hope that has shaped this nation, is that in order for the art to bend towards justice, we must be the ones who bend it. That we may dare to suffer is to flourish by having the moral muster and theological urgency to realize that we are the ones we’ve been waiting for after all, because God is already living within us, and her name is not suffering, but resilience. [applause]