A Womanist Theologian Confronts White Privilege and Sex/Gender Bigotry: Pamela Lightsey’s Our Lives Matter
by Pamela R. Lightsey
Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2015
Paperback, 104 pages
A Review Essay by Virginia R. Mollenkott, Ph.D., D.Min. (hon.)
Just as our nation is reeling under protests of police brutality and counter-protests of brutality against police, with many horrible revelations of the murdering of Black and LGBTQ people (especially Black transgender women), this book arrives to shock and shake Christian churches into action.
Lightsey could not be more perfectly qualified. She is an associate dean and professor of contextual practice at Boston School of Theology; a military veteran; mother of a Black man who has served in Iraq; a contributor to the Black Theology Journal; and the only “out” African American queer elder ordained by the United Methodist Church. To my mind, Lightsey’s credentials say one thing and say it loudly: LISTEN UP!
And so I did listen up, and here is some of what I heard: that Black people have every right to be even angrier than they are, and to respond with acts of civil disobedience, protest, and even riots (p. 61). That Black clergy and Black families must discard the notion that only men are capable of being good leaders (p. 91). That the American public must raise an insistent outcry against the “new racial system” (p. 93), in which white people like myself still have a “disproportionate share of American power and benefits” (p. 95).
Accordingly, Lightsey calls for Black and queer people to work constantly on disrupting the systems of oppression. But she asks us to practice that continuous subversion without becoming hate-filled and bitter. That’s a delicate spiritual balance, but a necessary one if we are to achieve justice for all.
Lightsey explains that womanist theologians pin their hopes for universal wellbeing on the doctrine of Creation, “God as the first cause” (p. 60). I have often wondered where people get the nerve to claim that God created only heterosexual males and females or that God created white folks superior to Blacks. The Bible claims that God created everyone in Her/His image and found those creations “very good.” The Bible even warns that it is highly dangerous to try to correct God about what She has created. Because I have never seen these points sufficiently emphasized, I want to deal with them here.
Created in God’s image
First, God created everyone of every conceivable differentiation, certainly including skin color and sexual orientation and gender identity. The Bible asserts this fact repeatedly. Acts 17:29 is only one of many such assertions: “God…made the world and all things therein…We are the offspring of God.” Dozens of Old and New Testament passages make similar assertions.
Second, God was pleased with Her creative results. Genesis 1:31 is only the first of many statements to that effect: “God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good.” The initial “very good” creation included the making of Adam, an earth creature who was intersexual—both male and female—until God divided the creature into two beings who could keep each other company (Genesis 2:18-23). Therefore, according to most Hebrew scholars, the very first human being was created transgender! Why then do people dare to tell LGBTQ people that God has no use for people who are gender or sexually different?
Third, many passages pronounce or imply judgment against people who try to tell the Creator that She created wrongly. Here especially I have never seen this fact emphasized sufficiently, so I will give several examples. When King Nebuchadnezzar comes to his senses, he acknowledges that the Most High “does as he wills,” and “none can stay his hand, or say unto him, what doest thou” (Daniel 4:35). Likewise, the prophet Isaiah warns that because human beings are like pots, made by the Divine Potter, we had better reserve our judgments: “Shall the work say of him that made it, He made me not? or shall the thing framed say of him that framed it, He hath no understanding?” (Isaiah 29:16).
In Romans 11:34-36, Paul reminds us that nobody can possibly be God’s counselor, because “of him, and through him, and to him, are all things.” And in I Cor. 2:16 Paul tells us we’d better learn to think with Christ’s mind, because otherwise, “who hath known the mind of the Lord, that he may instruct him?” Yet thousands of church leaders have felt free to tell LGBTQ people that God never created us as we know ourselves to be, or that as I was told in my “Christian” high school, “God has no use for people like you.” Currently the Vatican is telling transgender people that they do not and cannot truthfully exist, because God would know better than to create them. (How then did we get here?)
Similarly, Black people have been instructed to accept less than full human status because the Divine Potter chose to make their skin darker rather than lighter. But if God formed all of us (Deut 32:18), how could any of us be inferior to others of us, when God’s work is “perfect” (Deut 32:4). So: enough nonsense about the superiority of heterosexuals, cisgender people, or white people! As God’s perfect creations, it is our job to accept and welcome what God’s creation presents to us, never to tell God what She should have created instead!
Back to the book
Returning to Pamela Lightsey: she correctly asserts that despite oppressive Sunday morning sermons, Black and queer Christians can nevertheless be confident that our wellbeing is “not dependent on human hands but the providential care of God our Creator” (p. 60). It follows then that any church (including Lightsey’s own United Methodist Church) that believes all persons have sacred worth “behaves disingenuously when it prohibits those very persons from living” fully human lives, including enacting their sexuality. Lightsey rightly labels those prohibitions as “evidence of a lack of faith and an example of the will to control” (p.85).
For those unacquainted with womanist theology or deconstructionism or even identity politics, Lightsey provides swift and emphatic introductions and critiques. Some white readers might need Lightsey’s introduction to the work of Kelly Brown Douglas, M. Shawn Copeland, Irene Monroe, and the life of Pauli Murray. And all Christians could profit from her emphasis on the power of eroticism as opposed to current demands that queer people must live celibate lives. This latter demand is not loving, because sexual expression is “a healthy expression of what it means to be human” (p. 11). In this connection I hope Lightsey’s book will be lifted up by the Incarnation Institute for Sex and Faith, recently founded by Dr. Beverly Dale.
I don’t agree with every biblical interpretation offered by Dr. Lightsey, such as the traditional teaching that God “created the world ex nihilo (“out of nothing,” p. 37). In fact, Lightsey immediately contradicts her own statement by saying that “God revealed God’s Self through the work of Creation” (p. 37). If creation indeed reveals God’s Self, as Scripture makes clear it does, then God created out of His/Her divine essence, extending Herself into many forms containing that essence. This is the very fact that makes oppressing certain people, while respecting others, to be totally insane. But even here, my disagreement with Lightsey is minor compared to my lifelong commitment to the universal justice she calls for.
When I was in 8th grade in Philadelphia during the era of big-city race riots, I was hideously beaten by my all-Black classmates who saw me—a solitary white girl suddenly among them because my father had abandoned the family—as the symbol of white privilege. Even then, I understood that they saw me as embodying the whiteness that had elevated itself and marginalized them. I still bear in my body the damage from that beating. But one of my first published articles was in Christianity Today and was a defense of the Black viewpoint in the Watts Riots. You cannot rightfully harbor grievances against other people for resenting their own marginalization, even if their methods sometimes go astray.
Lightsey calls for all of us, especially Black and LGBTQ people but all others as well, to turn inward and affirm the spiritual center that unites us all. Will we listen? Will we act on what we hear? Will we build systems that guarantee justice for Black lives, queer lives, all lives?
Let’s read and circulate Lightsey’s book. And listen. And act!
Virginia Mollenkott is a transgender lesbian Christian feminist, an activist for more than fifty years.
© 2016 by Christian Feminism Today