The Table Podcast
Patchwork Redemption: Suffering and Joy in Racial Perspective
“How can you know flourishing if you don’t understand loss? How can you know liberation if you don’t understand what it’s like to have your freedom taken away? So, I think that is the hermeneutical entry point for black people of faith, the role that suffering says that something has to be gotten from it or snatched from it.”
Given the fractured state of society, the church very much included, along racial and ethnic lines, we need to seek a deeper understanding of the question of redemptive suffering. That’s why we invited Stacey and Juan Floyd-Thomas to The Table. Stacey is Associate Professor of Ethics and Society, and Juan is Associate Professor of African American Religious History, both at Vanderbilt University’s Divinity School and College of Arts and Sciences. Stacey’s research and teaching interests lie at the intersection of ethics, feminism, womanism, black church studies, critical race theory, and postcolonial studies. Juan’s work focuses on the intersections of racial identity, religion, popular culture, and political activism in American society. We cover problems of consumerism, pop culture, how we can cure the loss of cultural memory, and a deeper dive into black and womanist perspectives on flourishing, suffering, and theodicy.
- 0:47—Can suffering be redemptive? (With the help of Ivan and Alyosha Karamazov)
- 5:45—The art of quilting. “That’s what we realize in our work, that it’s at those places that are life affirming, that spark cultural memory, and that transcend people out of what might be a miserable or a mundane stage to something that is larger than them, to something that gives them life.”
- 8:42—On consumerism in America. “Consumption is our worship. Consumption is our spiritual discipline as Americans. It doesn’t matter whether that is a super size McDonald’s Happy Meal that will kill us and not make us happy.”
- 11:50—St. Augustine, disordered loves, and people as property. “To find yourself in a situation that your standard of what it means to be successful, of what it means to be a human who flourishes at every extent is to covet what you assume other people want and to take ownership of that, losing yourself all the while.”
- 16:30—Stacey on art as a spiritual practice. “Art is about that utopia. It’s about that new world making. It’s about taking refuse and making something divine, using utility for the purpose of making stained glass where there aren’t even windows.”
- 23:05—Ad Break: “Charting a Course Through Grief” A free 8-week ecourse with a variety helpful resources on grief.
- 25:03—The thorny terrain of theodicy and the problem of redemptive suffering through the lens of black experience. “So where theodicy in the typical Christian constructed theological moment is the end of faith for most, it’s the beginning for black people.”
- 32:17—“The womanist entry point of suffering.”
- 34:07—Ad break: “Seeking Christian Wisdom for Life’s Biggest Questions” via Biola LEARN (15% off your next course)
- 35:38—Women’s resilience in the face of oppression and suffering.
- 37:36—“In many ways, the black church exists off of the suffering of black women because there’s this notion of black women, oftentimes single mothers, who are giving their all to the church… That kind of suffering becomes a virtue for black women, by which black women are kept subjugated and oppressed.”
- 38:06—Can suffering be redemptive? Exploitation, ignorance, re-victimization, and radical enemy love. “What happens when you turn a blind eye to the needs and the miseries of others, but then, to make matters worse, you make them have to relive over and over and over again that source of deepest pain or most awful and miserable state of being.”
- 43:36—Moral exemplars: redemptive suffering through prophetic witness. “It’s looking at those who have suffered the most not as property. Not as people without virtue or character or people without value or as problems, but looking at them as moral exemplars who can best diagnose our deficiencies.”
- 44:04—“Black people have been able to, through their suffering, because of their suffering, and seeing the backside and the underside of America, they’ve been able to clearly articulate the reality of our times, yet show us the promise of our ideals. Suffering is that conscience laden place of knowing the wickedness and depravity that you are presently facing, yet having a realistic hope, not that the art will just miraculously bend towards justice, but if I don’t bend it, or like Bree Newsome: if I don’t climb that pole to take down that flag, who will?”
- 46:17—“If we don’t exemplify, quite literally, what we believe and how deeply we believe these things to be true, who will ever understand or know what the capacity for human transformation really is in this world?”
- 47:50—The sin of not bearing witness and the need for inter-generational conversation. “The greatest sin that we’ve realized is when there aren’t those who are willing to bear witness… And there aren’t people who have the audacity or the courage to speak truth to power, or in the words of my grandmother, to tell the truth and shame the devil.”
- 49:28—“If we don’t have these intentional conversations, suffering will be for naught because we won’t allow for the reality of our situation to help better inform the possibility of our futures.”
- 49:50—“Patchwork redemption”: closing thoughts.
- Hosted and produced by Evan Rosa
- Resource of the Biola University Center for Christian Thought, which is sponsored by generous grants from the John Templeton Foundation, Templeton Religion Trust, and The Blankemeyer Foundation
- Theme music by The Brilliance
- Production and Engineering by the Narrativo Group. More info at Narrativogroup.com
- Edited and mixed by TJ Hester
- Production Assistance by Kaleb Cohen
- Follow: @EvanSubRosa / @BiolaCCT / cct.biola.edu
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Stacey Floyd‑Thomas: How can you know flourishing if you don’t understand loss? How can you know liberation if you don’t understand what it’s like to have your freedom taken away? So, I think that is the hermeneutical entry point for black people of faith, the role that suffering says that something has to be gotten from it or snatched from it.
ER: I’m Evan Rosa, and you’re listening to The Table Audio, a podcast about seeking Christian wisdom for life’s big questions.
I imagine that for as long as people have suffered, they’ve asked why God would allow it. I can also imagine that for about as long, people have tried to solve the problem of evil with some version of an appeal to the value of freedom for meaning in life, that freedom, leaving open the possibility of evil, or the justifiability of suffering, in light of how suffering can “make your soul.”
The soul‑making theodicy. Improve your character. Theodicy is an attempt at rational justification for God’s permission of evil. Vindicating God, you might say. Can suffering be redemptive? That’s a dangerous question. Do you see why it’s a dangerous question?
Just one reason is that for some people, for some of your neighbors, their reality is so characterized and expressive of sorrow and pain, that to suggest that their reality of suffering somehow makes them more virtuous, more pure, more sanctified more free, that sounds like betrayal, rebellion.
It sounds like the kind of betrayal that Ivan Karamazov was referring to, when he responded to God’s permission of horrifying evils with, “returning the ticket.”
ER: In one of the most famous passages of the Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoevsky has Ivan say, “I want to forgive. I want to embrace. I don’t want more suffering. And if the sufferings of children go to swell the sum of sufferings which was necessary to pay for truth, then I protest, that the truth is not worth such a price.”
“I don’t want harmony, from love for humanity. I don’t want it. I would rather be left with the unavenged suffering. I would rather remain with my unavenged suffering and unsatisfied indignation, even if I were wrong.”
“Besides, too high a price is asked for harmony. It’s beyond our means to pay so much to enter on it, and so I hasten to give back my entrance ticket. And if I’m an honest man, I am bound to give it back as soon as possible. And that, I am doing. It’s not God that I don’t accept, Alyosha. Only I most respectfully returning Him the ticket.”
ER: “Mm‑mm, that’s rebellion,” murmured Alyosha, looking down. “Rebellion? I’m sorry you call it that,” said Ivan earnestly. “One can hardly live in rebellion, and I want to live. Tell me yourself. I challenge you. Answer. Imagine that you are creating a fabric of human destiny, with the object of making men happy in the end.”
“Giving them peace and rest at last, but that it was essential and inevitable to tortured to death only one tiny creature. That baby beating its breasts with its fist for instance, and to found that edifice when it’s unavenged tears. Would you consent to be the architect on those conditions? Tell me and tell the truth.” “No, I wouldn’t consent,” said Alyosha, softly.
ER: Ivan goes on to recite his infamous poem, as he calls it, “The Grand Inquisitor.” That’s your homework, though. For now, what then can we say about suffering? Some are made worse, but some are made better, made resilient.
Given the fractured state of society, the church very much included, along racial and ethnic lines, we need to seek a deeper understanding of the question of redemptive suffering. That’s why I invited Stacey and Juan Floyd‑Thomas to do an interview.
Stacy is associate professor of Ethics in Society, and Juan is associate professor of African American Religious History, both at Vanderbilt University Divinity School and College of Arts and Sciences. They both joined us in 2017 for The Table Conference on resilience, growing stronger through struggle.
Stacey’s research and teaching interests lie at the intersection of ethics, feminism, womanism, black church studies, critical race theory, and postcolonial studies. Juan’s work focuses on the intersections of racial identity, religion, popular culture, and political activism in American society.
Along the way, we cover problems of consumerism, pop culture, how we can cure the loss of cultural memory, and a deeper dive into black and womanist perspectives on flourishing, suffering, and theodicy.
As I sat down with these two scholars, this married couple, Stacey the ethicist and Juan the historian, I had this image of each of them back to back, both equally concerned with looking backward to history and looking forward in ethics.
I loved hearing them work together, collaborating, even, in conversation, to make some important and lasting points about contemporary society. We started in on an unlikely topic, although not that unlikely given the breadth of this podcast, quilting.
Do you quilt?
SFT: I try. [laughs]
Juan Floyd‑Thomas: She excels, she truly does.
SFT: It’s fun.
ER: My mom had dabbled in quilting.
SFT: It’s become a part of my…really?
SFT: I actually quilted in order to reclaim some of my Nana’s, my maternal grandmother’s, expertise and mastery. It was actually part of a Wabash program for mid‑career faculty where the thought was if there was ever an art form that you yearned to do or you were learning to do, how might it restart your vocation as a teacher, as a theologian, as a minister?
It helped me in the way of cultural memory to be able to link back to my grandmother and something that she did in order to cultivate a sanctuary of our own, where all 14 of her children thought it was just about poverty, and distraction, and utility. While it was for utility, it was also for beauty.
Going through, learning a historical art form from a very modernistic approach of using expensive machines and expensive material in order to do it helped me approach how to teach predominately privileged students the moral wisdom of black women in particular. It allowed me to realize what might be missing in the gap that that yearning that can yet be fulfilled.
It created a little discipline for me to do that.
ER: How cool is that, even the metaphor of a quilt and what it represents? Bringing these pieces together and weaving something that is both beautiful…It’s comforting.
JFT: It has utility to it.
ER: There’s utility, but there’s…There’s genuine provision there. You are warming a body, but you’re…That’s beautiful.
SFT: That’s what we realize in our work, that it’s at those places that are life affirming, that spark cultural memory, and that transcend people out of what might be a miserable or a mundane stage to something that is larger than them, to something that gives them life.
We realize that in a Telychian sense, body and sex, politics, sports, all of those things become people’s ultimate concerns because it reaches them. It takes them places that they otherwise can’t go.
That’s the way in which we say in the text that people, instead of serving God, have found meaning in gods that service them. They’ve made temples rather than use as touchstones these actual popular phenomena.
ER: The interiority of the soul, when it strives for mere ownership, when it strives for the concept of property, when it strives for consuming the world as opposed to participating and connecting.
SFT: It’s the way in which civil religion or American exceptionalism used…Theologian Kelly Brown Douglas’ term. The way in which it has supplanted biblical religion or other religious freedoms. It has made America God.
If we go back to “Schoolhouse Rock,” where we learned about government, and bills, and preamble, the Declaration of Independence. When we think about the Declaration of Independence, that’s a touchstone that most Americans and citizens remember, that we have the unalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
When you flip that and you look at the 14th amendment which states that citizenship is an unalienable right of life, liberty, and property. How property, it is synonymous then with the pursuit of happiness.
Consumption is our worship. Consumption is our spiritual discipline as Americans. It doesn’t matter whether that is a super size McDonald’s Happy Meal that will kill us and not make us happy. Think about it, calling fast food Happy Meals for children.
JFT: Indoctrinating them early.
SFT: Indoctrinating them, or saying that, in some way, I will be super size. Super size me. There’s all of this coded language in anything that we can consume.
Women stereotypically talking about retail therapy.
JFT: But also, attached to this whole notion of a consumptive mentality that then leads us all astray. I take this back to when Stacey’s referring to her quilting as an act of, an art of recovery.
What we were finding, especially when we were dealing with our students, or just in more general interactions with folks around us, folks are hurtling from one thing to the next thing and never taking a moment to pause or to regroup and recalibrate and reflect, remember what came before.
For us to then take this opportunity to pause in a book like this and say, “We need to look back at, how did we get to this scenario, to this situation where folks…” In the recent debut of the latest iPhone, for instance.
There are folks who, because they’ve been wired now. They’ve been literally programmed as folks to say, “There’s a new iPhone. Even though the device I have, it meant the world to me when I got it, but now it’s obsolete.” Even though…
SFT: Because the device is no longer about its utility. It’s about its symbolism, its status.
JFT: But it’s also that, and I wrestle with this…Augustine is someone I hearken back to on numerous occasions. When Augustine talks about, for instance, the notion that there’s a God sized hole in each and every one of us waiting to be filled, that notion that until you find that missing piece, that missing part of yourself…
Since nature abhors a vacuum, a lot of stuff finds its way into that place. Oftentimes fleeting, ephemeral stuff that…The next, latest and greatest gadget or experiences, good, bad, and everything in‑between. Retail therapy or what have you.
Folks trying to find that missing part. When they come to the realization that yes, it is the divine that I was seeking all along, then hopefully they hadn’t done so much damage to themselves and those around them until they made that awakening, that kind of a solution.
SFT: It’s because the divine is no longer articulated in a way that it’s relevant. Many people are still property driven, even if property means people. By that, I’m not just talking about tribal slavery from American history or human trafficking that happens now, but the way in which marriage becomes property.
For women who say, “I want to enter marriage just to have a man legitimate me. Not because I love him, but because of what he can afford for me, or because this is what my parents want, or this means that I am a desirable woman.”
Or men to say, “Listen, I’m supposed to have a six‑figure job. I’m supposed to be able to buy an impressive engagement ring that’s three months of my salary. I need to have a car that every man could covet. With that, comes a trophy wife that every other man wants to have that will prove that I’m the man.”
To find yourself in a situation that your standard of what it means to be successful, of what it means to be a human who flourishes at every extent is to covet what you assume other people want and to take ownership of that, losing yourself all the while.
ER: There’s this core of desire and that desire’s misdirected toward…It’s based around a false sense of what will fulfill.
JFT: Once again, going back to Augustine, just for a second’s dalliance, is when Augustine talks about sin, and this always gets me to the quick, he talks about it in terms of disordered loves. This idea that somehow those things that we love in a way that’s not a healthy love, not agape, affirming kind of love.
The idea that folks who say that they seek promiscuity because they’ve given up on genuine love and commitment. They seek violence because they want to feel safe. They’ll give themselves over to their worst instincts and inclinations rather than say, “There is something better here.”
You have to hold out and hold on for that better thing rather than give into the rat race and the chase for materialism rather than contentment and personal satisfaction.
ER: Doesn’t Augustine, in “The Confessions,” talk about being in love with loving? Just the kind of empty…Just the fact of desire, which gets you into this cycle of consume and destroy.
JFT: It’s cheap emotion.
ER: Reconsume. It’s cheap.
I was thinking about the virtues of this kind of world that you’re describing, the virtues of this world are not the reflection, or the remembering, or the embodiment, or the human connection. It’s speed, novelty, control.
ER: Everything’s disposable, disposability. Move on to the next one. It’s ultimately going to foster that sense of…It’s perfectly American and its root of individualism and autonomy.
SFT: Where vice becomes virtue.
SFT: I just wrote a piece for this…I was interviewed for this magazine called “Quilt Folk.” In that magazine…
ER: Real quilts?
SFT: Real quilts.
JFT: I love quilt art. This is amazing.
SFT: He’s trying to fit me for a…
JFT: No, no, no.
SFT: He knows i would do that for him.
ER: What? Do you hear an accent?
SFT: Family culture.
ER: You’re a quilter?
SFT: Yeah. It was very difficult. That was one of the hardest confessions for me to make, was to call myself an artist. I am the granddaughter of a master quilter in the area of Gee’s Bend. My Nana was a fabulous quilter, and to know…
Of course, the quilters of her generation were discovered as great artists when all they were trying to do was to create sanctuaries for themselves, to make whole cloth out of scraps, to bring beauty into sharecrop, shotgun houses, and to give warmth to their children.
My grandmother had 14 children, 12 who were girls. My mother was the oldest of all of them. They’re all living. 35 grandchildren and even more great‑grand. They all hated quilting because it reminded them of poverty. It reminded them of the way in which she would steal away to do that, 14 kids who are used to having her always at their beck and call.
It was a thing that separated her, much in the same way women use kitchens as secret sororities when they didn’t have college education. It was only until I became a professor and got a Wabash grant for the artists, as theologian for mid‑career faculty, where we were told to find an art that we were interested in, or were curious about.
We might be able to empathize with our students, who are entering into discourses that they never knew. Like the gentleman back there said, “I’m in this room full of scholars and I don’t do this. I’m just trying to live.” We might be able to identify with our students, and we might be able to refine our expertise by learning something new.
I stitch in the ditch with machines and the way my grandmother did it by hand. It has ignited for me a sense of cultural memory, that I now possess even though she is gone. My grandmother died of complications with Alzheimer’s. When she was in her latter stages of Alzheimer’s, she didn’t know her children’s names.
She forgot even some bodily functions, obviously, but two things she recalled. She recognized her quilts. She would say that there’s a baby somewhere that wants me to teach her how to make these. I think it does go to your question of what the work of a Christian social ethicist might be.
Art is about that utopia. It’s about that new world making. It’s about taking refuse and making something divine, using utility for the purpose of making stained glass where there aren’t even windows. I realize that what upset my aunts, and uncles, and my cousins about my nana’s quilting was art allowed her to create a sanctuary for herself when she was otherwise laid open to their desires.
There’s a way in which, for me, the work of ethics is much like art. It cannot start with a divine will deontology that says, “Deal with it as it is, and that whatever your experience is, is how God ordained it.” No. I think it’s more of King’s, rational intuition deontology, that says we can look at this thing that says it’s this and make something new out of it.
For we have to reformat that Platonic and Aristotelian notions of forms to function for us, in ways that might otherwise never have been imagined. That is to tap on the God within us. That is to realize that God is not some removed entity but Emmanuel. God with us, and Imago Dei, God through us. Art is a wonderful spiritual practice for us as theologians.
That’s what we’re doing in our literary and biblical imagination, as we dare hand over to people the Word of God, morning by morning and Sunday by Sunday. Toni Morrison puts it this way. She said, “It is a sin and a travesty,” this is in her book Sula, “for a woman to exist with no art form because when people do not have art, they become dangerous.”
In other words, if we’re not constructing something, we’re always destroying something. He wants a quilt. [laughs]
Miroslav Volf: I’d love the idea.
ER: Stay tuned. After the break, we jump into that thorny terrain of theodicy, and the problem of redemptive suffering through the lens of black experience. Stay with us.
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In this world of consumption, where there’s so much popular culture to be consumed, there’s…and this is not to come down too hard on pop culture.
SFT: No. We all participate in it.
ER: It’s an amazing art…
JFT: As opposed to unpopular culture. I’m sure somewhere there’s that unpopular culture we won’t talk about.
SFT: It’s so true.
ER: Amidst all of this, amidst all the consumption, all the feel, we’re discovering we’re using that to cover up some serious pain, some serious vice, some serious wrongs done to one another. We’ve got these running concurrently, in the same swipe of the phone.
We’re traversing oppression, we’re traversing hatred, and then we’re clicking the button to buy, and we’re liking, and we’re following. Let’s get down to the level of our broad sense of, this is not the way things were meant to be. Let’s talk about suffering at the level of interpersonal relationships.
Specifically, what I’d like to discuss is suffering at the level of race, and just think through what new ways we have to talk about this, in a way that is going to be more transformative than what we’ve always seen already. What new imagination can be there to re‑envision a way forward, that addresses the problem of flourishing in pop culture, tech, in a society that is ultimately divided?
Where can we start? Where do you guys like to start to frame this conversation?
JFT: Let me put it this way. In my wife’s never‑ending attempt to try to turn a sow’s ear into a silk purse, she tries to get me cultured and all that stuff. [laughs] She gets me to listen to musicals, she takes me to shows, and all this stuff. In the classic musical South Pacific…I don’t really have much care for the whole musical. [laughs]
There’s this one song. It’s a short song, but I think it’s powerful. It’s called, “Carefully Taught.”
JFT: You must be carefully taught. If you’re to hate those that your people hate, you must be carefully taught. What happens when you have a culture, both in sacred and secular terms, that fails to address these critical concerns, where folks are getting these lessons?
They’re learning who’s acceptable and who’s not, who’s worthy of love, and affection, and attention, and who’s not, what the meaning of life is or is not.
ER: Who are the valuable people and who are not?
JFT: There you go. There you go.
JFT: Unfortunately, what we always have to reckon with is, what happens when that human side of us is so much more inclined to that point of negativity, that point of exclusion, that point of tolerating misery and pain of others? That’s the thorny terrain of theodicy.
This idea that we, maybe because of how we understand ourselves first…Charles Taylor territory. If we understand ourselves first. Oftentimes, humans commensurate over, why must the good suffer?
ER: It’s the question of Job.
JFT: Right, of course. The man from Uz. He’s always suffered.
SFT: The man from Uz. [laughs]
JFT: The man from Uz was. The problem then becomes, when the theologians and philosophers have wrestled with that, there was also the B side of that, which is why do the bad…
ER: Why do the bad flourish.
JFT: …or the wicked flourish?
SFT: I think right there, is where we see the world of difference between black faith formation as Christians and white faith formation. King makes his observation years ago, that the most segregated hour of a given week is the 11 o’clock Sunday worship hour.
Of course, the way it was pitched and the way it was discussed then, had everything to do with segregation. Even in the supposed desegregated moment, that still holds true. Why does that hold true? We find out though the name might be the same, black people and white people often worship different gods.
James Baldwin puts it this way. He says that the way in which white people come to the cross, they can take it or leave it. But black people come through Christianity because of the cross, through the cross. So where theodicy in the typical Christian constructed theological moment is the end of faith for most, it’s the beginning for black people.
To be clear, suffering in and of itself is not a good.
SFT: It is not a good. Sometimes, suffering’s just plain despicable, degrading, and dehumanizing. It’s that response to it that…
If you were to ask anyone to reflect on their life, regardless of privilege, regardless of social location, race, gender, they might quickly go through the checklist of this milestone, this birthday, this wedding, blah, blah, blah. This child’s birth.
Where they’ll pause, where they’ll spend the majority of their time are around the moments that they’ve suffered and the way in which those times have shaped their formation. Some to the extent of saying, “And that’s why I left the church.”
That’s what we see this present generation doing, because there’s no meaning there. Others, you’ll see that that’s where they made a turn to understand what faith is about, to know what flourishing is about, and find their purpose. That’s the role that suffering has played. I think those missing when people read James Cone’s black liberation theological renderings of redemptive suffering.
Not to say that there’s anything good, in and of itself, but how can you know flourishing if you don’t understand loss? How can you know liberation if you don’t understand what it’s like to have your freedom taken away?
I think that is the hermeneutical entry point for black people of faith, the role that suffering says that something has to be gotten from it or snatched from it.
ER: I wonder if you can help to think about these different angles of thinking about suffering. That’s the black entry point. That’s the entry point for black faith. I wonder if you could also, Stacey, untie what the womanist entry point is with respect to suffering and how can we distinguish that from a feminist perspective on suffering? How can we separate that from a white perspective on suffering?
SFT: The womanist entry point of suffering, M. Shawn Copeland puts it this way. She calls it wading through many sorrows. It’s living not only at the intersection, to use Kimberly Crenshaw’s critical race terminology, but it’s living in the crosshairs of everything that America hates.
If we were to do a power analysis, it’s to be on the underside based on your race. It’s to be on the underside based on your gender. It’s to be on the underside based on your class. It’s be on the underside based on your sexuality, which is assumed to be part of an exotic, erotic, perverse, or used for surrogacy.
It’s to be on the underside of educational development. It’s to be on the underside of what it means to be a person of faith. Patricia Bell Scott and some other black feminist put it this way. They said, “To be a black woman is to live in a world where all the women are white and all the blacks are men. The rest of us, to exist as black women, must be brave.”
ER: More from the Floyd‑Thomases in just a moment.
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Now, back to the show.
What is the feeling for a black woman when you hear that? Where is the space for you?
SFT: To be resilient. Absolutely, to be resilient. When we look at the Sojourner Truths, the Harriet Tubmans, the Shirley Chisholms, the Anna Julia Coopers, the Joy Reids of the world, people who…Even the Oprah Winfreys of the world, people who have been pushed to the margins. Many…
We’re talking about Oprah Winfrey and Maya Angelous, women who have been raped in modern times in a country and in a context where black women cannot be rapable. Black women can’t be raped. Black women are unrapable.
ER: For that to be true, it’s hard not to directly connect that to the origins of slavery and…
SFT: Oh, absolutely. We now see, with the spate of unarmed killings, that when we count the bodies the bodies that we count are black men’s body. When we talk about the prison industrial complex, we’re talking about black men.
To be truthful, of course, the actual members are black men for the most part. When we’re looking at the rise and percentage of the people who are dying of AIDS the fastest, the people who are being incarcerated at the fasted rate, and the people who are getting college degrees at the fastest rate are black women.
That goes missing. That goes missing not only in the American public, but that goes missing in those black sub alter and counter publics, as well. The black church is a black women’s movement. The only black women’s movement that’s ran by black men.
In many ways, the black church exists off of the suffering of black women because there’s this notion of black women, oftentimes single mothers, who are giving their all to the church.
ER: I keep thinking of Chanequa Walker‑Barnes and the strong black women.
SFT: Absolutely. That kind of suffering becomes a virtue for black women, by which black women are kept subjugated and oppressed.
ER: This is the kind of space, the tension that I…I’m glad we got here because this is where to call suffering redemptive is where we need to take a second look, because if there is any redemptive nature to suffering, it has been wielded for evil in so many ways. It has been wielded for oppression and injustice. It has been wielded for exploitation.
What I want to do is what can we do to identify and move beyond the use of redemptive suffering that can stand in the place of…that can be utilized for oppression and move to the kind of redemptive suffering that is genuinely for a human, personal unitive and connective good.
JFT: I think one of the issues that your statement hearkens in me, Evan, is this idea that sometimes, unfortunately, when we explain exploitation, that, in and of itself, is exploitative.
Oftentimes what happens when folks who have been perpetually marginalized, alienated, oppressed, victimized in a great many ways, as Stacey was mentioning, in terms of the multiple oppressions that black women have to confront, both within the black community and beyond the black community.
To constantly have to reach out, either to folks who should know better, in terms of black men or members of the community that they’re a part of, and then, also, then explaining to the larger society, “Why aren’t you listening to us?” or, “Why don’t you see what’s going on with us?”
That’s adding insult to injury, so to speak. We demand it of folks who are going through their marginal and oppressed status because otherwise those folks who don’t have to deal with this on a daily basis. We can operate in a kind of blithe ignorance. We can just be blissfully bopping along, much like…
Stacey and I, we were talking about, just today, with the recent hurricanes and earthquakes that have befallen. So many of the places that have been stricken, especially throughout the Caribbean and now in Mexico, these are places that most Americans only think of as vacation hot spots.
ER: We don’t think about the other side of the island.
JFT: Right, or we think about them in terms of vacations but not in terms of evacuations.
JFT: What happens when you turn a blind eye to the needs and the miseries of others, but then, to make matters worse, you make them have to relive over and over and over again that source of deepest pain or most awful and miserable state of being.
The conversation has to begin. I think that’s part of the paradox.
ER: What can we learn from, even in the articulation of it, when we say that we want to learn from black suffering? We’re already going in a direction of trying to…
ER: Victimizing and exploiting that. Now we’re going to make you go through suffering and we’re going to learn from it. Thanks again.
SFT: It would be better pitched. What could we learn from black people who have suffered at the hands of all of America’s mistakes? It is how you frame it.
ER: The framing’s important. That’s where I want to be sensitive even to that.
JFT: That could go full circle, back to the image of Dylann Roof and the Emanuel AME church shooting because what astonished me was when…Not just the fact that many of the family members of the fallen came forward and said, “We forgive you. We despise what you did but we forgave you.”
The nation as a whole was mystified by the idea of, these are folks who were deeply and fervently Christian. They are extending a level of Christian forgiveness and mercy to someone who had done this horrible and heinous act. They were showing…
ER: An open enemy. Even in the wake, it’s just that he remains an open enemy so it’s this kind of radical enemy love.
JFT: There’s no atonement, no repentance coming from him, even to this day. But still, we were challenged. We were called out of the depths of our being to extend forgiveness. As a society, many Americans couldn’t process this.
When you notice that when threats of terrorism or what have you happen to the nation as a whole, the nation responds not with forgiveness, not with mercy, but with threats of violence, fire and fury, things of that sort.
ER: Total destruction.
JFT: When, just as a sample group, as an example, when black people are asked or expected to extend forgiveness, kindness, against forces of evil and oppression, but then the nation, as a whole, is not even challenged or convinced that diplomacy, or decency, or civility is an appropriate response to things that we find unsuitable or unacceptable.
SFT: Harriet Tubman put it this way. She said that when people were saying, “I can’t believe you made that many trips. I can’t believe you saved that many people. She said, “I saved thousands,” she said, “but I could have saved so many more if they knew that they were actually slaves.”
Barack Obama said it on his race speech that he gave in Philadelphia years ago. We see that King did it in 1963 with his March on Washington. Black people have been able to, through their suffering, because of their suffering, and seeing the backside and the underside of America, they’ve been able to clearly articulate the reality of our times, yet show us the promise of our ideals. In our society, we’ve never dealt with that liminal space. What does it mean to name wrongs and strive for ideals? That’s what suffering is.
Suffering is that conscience laden place of knowing the wickedness and depravity that you are presently facing, yet having a realistic hope, not that the art will just miraculously bend towards justice, but if I don’t bend it, or like Bree Newsome: if I don’t climb that pole to take down that flag, who will?
It’s looking at those who have suffered the most not as property. Not as people without virtue or character or people without value.
JFT: Not as problems.
SFT: Or as problems, but looking at them as moral exemplars who can best diagnose our deficiencies.
ER: The concept of the exemplar is that they’re…When we talk about bearing witness, those exemplars are the witnesses.
SFT: They are the witnesses.
ER: They are the ones bearing witness. They’re the ones with the bravery to get on the stand, so to speak.
JFT: Even within our tradition within the faith, how you play with the notion of witness. The idea that both the passive and the active nature of it, that I’ve seen something and now I have to go back and tell what I saw, give some testimony or whatever.
Then, even what we’re suggesting here is the idea that the poet Langston Hughes said that folks would rather see a sermon than hear a sermon. If we don’t exemplify, quite literally, what we believe and how deeply we believe these things to be true, who will ever understand or know what the capacity for human transformation really is in this world?
That’s why, in so many ways over the centuries, whether it was the movement out from slavery to freedom, from segregation to greater justice and equality, to even now, what we’re going through as a people and a nation. The idea that nobody should have to go through this in order to reach the destination, to reach that ultimate goal that we all should have started from in the beginning.
The idea that now, by demonstrating, sometimes literally, sometimes figuratively, what it means to seek that which you deserve or demand that which is right and due you. Sometimes the only way to get to something is to go through something.
What I find fascinating now, even as we were talking about all our children being relatively the same age, is I wanted a much better world for our daughter. I know that. I’m sure you and anyone who loves their kids wanted a better world for them than what they see, but also thank God for the struggle because if they understand and really…
Ownership, once again, in a positive way. Lay claim and ownership to the fact that God made us just for a time such as this. We’ve got to know, seek after what God wants for this world.
SFT: The greatest sin that we’ve realized is when there aren’t those who are willing to bear witness. When you live in a society where people are censored, silenced, or where the news is called alternative facts. There aren’t people who have the audacity or the courage to speak truth to power, or in the words of my grandmother, to tell the truth and shame the devil.
People cannot imagine an alternative vision of justice. What they believe justice is is just what exists. Just what they see.
Our conversations about faith, about suffering, about regret, they have to be inter‑generational as we ascribe to American human flourishing, African Americans are just as guilty as white people on this. You don’t want your children to know that you were the first college graduate, or that, as a parent, you never even completed high school.
You want what your money can buy to also buy the ticket to cultural amnesia, which is how African Americans were underdeveloped to begin with. The same thing with whites.
You don’t want your children to know the history of your family, the way in which your fortune was built on the backs of enslavement or the way in which your demise or your background was tied to not being part of the planter class, but actually poor whites who were working alongside indentured and enslaved people of color.
SFT: If we don’t have these intentional conversations, suffering will be for naught because we won’t allow for the reality of our situation to help better inform the possibility of our futures.
ER: For many people, this conversation ends all to abruptly. Not nearly enough was said for the topic under consideration. For others, maybe it didn’t end soon enough, if they listened at all.
It’s either too painful, too charged, or too uncomfortable. Wherever you find yourself after hearing these reflections, remember that we humans are complex, strange concoctions of reason, will, emotion, and desire. We come to these conversations with histories. We don’t lose those complex histories when we make an effort to reason carefully.
I’m reminded of Soren Kierkegaard’s comment from Either/Or. “Philosophy is perfectly right in saying that life must be understood backwards,” but then one forgets the other clause, that it must be lived forwards.
I find in Juan and Stacey Floyd‑Thomas an honest and sober hopefulness. Maintaining such a vision is difficult these days, so I’m thankful for their light, their laughter, and their wisdom.
ER: That calls back to the image of the quilt and what you might call patchwork redemption to wrap things up here.
Quilts are often made from scraps, stuff you’d otherwise throw away. These scraps are intentionally sewn together, regardless of pattern, color, texture, and made into a tool for warmth, and connection, and protection.
We are the scraps, damaged and beaten up, maybe with no felt sense of purpose, maybe thrown in the mix with other broken fragments and leftovers that look nothing like us. So, let’s make a quilt.
Thanks for listening.
ER: The Table Audio is hosted and produced by me, Evan Rosa, and is a resource of the Biola University Center for Christian Thought, which is sponsored by generous grants from the John Templeton Foundation, Templeton Religion Trust and the Blankemeyer Foundation.
Theme music is by The Brilliance. Production and engineering by the Narrativo Group. More info at narrativogroup.com. Edited and mixed by TJ Hester. Production assistance by Laura Crane.
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