By Rev. Dr. Linda E. Thomas,
This has been a difficult week for me. I noticed a distinct change in my mood after the Presidential debate on Sunday night. I knew that something was very wrong with what I witnessed. I knew it intellectually and the clearest signal that something was extraordinarily out of alignment was when my body began to “speak.” Memories flooded my mind.
I have been ordained for thirty-five years and in that time, whether it was during the time I worked with youth, single young adults, or married women, the fact is that assault – sexual, verbal, physical, emotional – was a significant part of a narrative I heard and responded to pastorally.
It was also a narrative to which I could speak personally.
So, when I heard my friend Michelle Obama say, “(This has) shaken me to my core in a way that I couldn’t have predicted,” during her impassioned speech, I felt a congruence with that statement. Michelle said what I knew but did not yet have words for. Something within me asked, “Who will speak to what has happened from a perspective of faith?”
When it comes to asking that sort of question, we are all shaped by a number of factors. On the Meyers-Briggs Inventory, I am an Introvert (close to an E because my role as professor/pastor/prophet calls me to act like an Extrovert); and also N/S, that is, I am Intuitive when I feel safe, and Sensate when I believe I have to be guarded (usually around issues of safety in my immediate environment). I am solidly a T-Thinking and J-Judging, meaning that I am inclined towards assessing situations, doing analysis and evaluation. I give this background because, like Moses, I did not and do not want to speak to “this” issue of sexual assault but I feel called to say a FEW words, as much as my introvert self would like to eschew that responsibility. Pain compels me to speak.
First, people of faith – whether rostered or lay – need to be culturally competent around issues of sexual assault. Sexual assault breeds a culture that normalizes women being objectified, demeaned, and unsafe at the pleasure of men. It is a violation beyond imagination that ruptures if not shatters a woman’s body and spirit.
Depending on the person’s constitution and the power dynamics between the victim and the abuser, one may be forced to cut off a part of herself or himself in order to function. This is much more then splitting oneself. It is a survival mechanism that numbs one’s spirit and may interfere and/or block one’s potential. In sum, sexual assault as well as other assaults is similar to cutting off a part of one’s being while that person still has to function, but with a sense of loss that deadens emotional nerves. Needless to say, it can also dramatically inhibit or damage someone’s ability to enjoy the good gifts of sexuality as God’s good creation.
Because “good people often minimize these experiences” one learns to suppress feelings which, in turn, often causes an ongoing disorienting trauma; yet, the victim must press on with day-to-day living. So, when Trump’s words from the Howard Stern tape as well as the “Access Hollywood” video were played repeatedly for many women, children, and men [or people who may or may not identify with these identities], may have felt something that had been dormant begin to stir within. I wrote elsewhere, “What the mind forgets, the body remembers,” and for many those memories stored in the deep freezer of our bodies began to thaw.
That’s what happened to me, and it became worse as the week progressed. I was a wreck—not being able to focus or process clearly, having my sleep interrupted. Sometimes I would just contemplate in utter disbelief of what Donald Trump’s words unleashed in our public discourse. It was evil and vile. I wanted to close my daughter’s ears as well as my own. I was angry, absolutely livid–the one emotion that my superego keeps “under control” lest people experience me as an “angry black woman” and call the police, which as we all know can result in my being put in jail, or shot.
Intersectionality creeps in and I don’t know which one to process. All I know is that I cannot get angry, but God damn it (and I mean that quite literally and in full awareness of the theological implications) I am outraged, because sexual assault is violating God’s body and that’s what Donald Trump did and boasted about.God help this man, yes, this child of God who in my mind has no functioning superego and is mostly id gone wild. Even with all of this craziness, I return to the promises of my faith, “God cannot be trumped.” I, along with others, may flourish given time and safe space.
What are ministerial leaders called to do in such a time as this? We can use the methods employed in the Public Church curriculum at LSTC.
First, we need to listen to Narratives, understanding the macro-narratives that are dominant in our culture and society because of power. Be mindful to listen for what people whose personal agency is unrealized and therefore may not express themselves with words but rather with body movement, facial expressions, and mood swings are speaking in the depths of these actions and signs. Check in with yourself—what is your narrative? Do you hold a story that someone told you about being sexually or otherwise assaulted? Did you witness the violation of a loved one as a child? (I did).
Second, do some simple ethnography—notice what’s going on around you. Most importantly, read the emotional landscape. That is, read the culture to which you are most closely connected at home, at church, at work, in your daily comings and goings. Third, consider being involved in Congregationally Based Community Organizing that deals with deeply embedded with layers that support racism, sexism, classism and are lodged in institutions that are patriarchal and often fully misogynistic. We witnessed the institution of a candidate for the presidency of the United States of America on a public stage attempt to humiliate the first woman nominated for the presidency of the US, and we also witnessed this woman have to answer for her husband’s behavior, be called “the devil,” be threatened to be imprisoned, and be told that she should be ashamed of herself for her actions towards three women who committed adultery with her husband.
This was shameless and, yes, it was the assault of a woman on a global stage. I just want to weep as Jesus did as he entered Jerusalem.
Things will change when we organize. Don’t think that Donald Trumps’ behavior is normative – call it out for what it is. But recognize too that, while it might not be normal, it does reflect deeply embedded patterns of patriarchy and systems in our country. As Lutheran theologian Robert Saler puts it, “He is the lump that signals the cancer in the body politic that the collective mind of that body would prefer to deny.” Support women who are telling their stories from 35 years ago. Offer them the gift of listening and think of ways you can join others to serve the interests of the vulnerable.
Finally, know that forgiveness is the last step.
Yes, that is what I said.
Premature forgiveness is like cheap grace—it is harmful and oversteps the process of restorative justice. Let yourself and help others to work through feelings. Give yourself and others the space to get through actions that occurred decades ago. And know that intersectionality complexifies things for women of color who are the descendants of enslaved people, or historically dominated people as well as marginalized folks who do not identity with their birth-gender. These children of God are violated often and brutally. Support people in getting help for themselves and, most importantly, be loving toward yourself and those with rekindled painful memories. Presence is sometimes more important then offering words that may be more harmful then helpful.
Thank you for listening to my narrative. May your life and those you love flourish!
Dr. Linda E. Thomas has engaged students, scholars and communities as a scholar for thirty-one years. She studies, researches, writes, speaks and teaches about the intersection and mutual influence of culture and religion. Her work is rooted intransitively in a Womanist perspective. An ordained Methodist pastor for 35 years with a Ph.D. in Anthropology from The American University in Washington D.C. and a Master of Divinity from Union Theological Seminary in New York City, Dr. Thomas’s work has taken her to South Africa, Peru, Cuba and Russia. She has been recognized as an Association of Theological Schools Faculty Fellow as well as a Pew Charitable Trust Scholar.
Donald Trump tells Billy Bush about trying to have sex with a married womanin a video obtained by the Washington Post. Trump said it was ‘locker room’ banter.
Saturday Night Live gives a comedic spoof of the Bobby Bush/Trump video.
BuzzFeed has rounded up audio of Trump speaking out about various women through the years – and he doesn’t hold back.
Within days of the video, other women have come forward sharing their storiesof being harassed by Trump.
And still more women come forward.
Donald Trump calls these newer allegations against him “False smears” – from the NY Times.
A New York Times article about how deflecting and gaslighting cause problems for women seeking acknowledgment of having been sexually assaulted.
 Womanist Theology, Epistemology, and a New Anthropological Paradigm,” Cross Currents, Summer 1998, Vol. 48 Issue 4.
 Otis Moss III sermon, “stay woke,” September 4, 2016.
 Robert Saler, personal communication, 14 October 2016.
 Forgiveness: The Last Step by Marie M. Fortune in Carol J. Adams & Marie M. Fortune, Eds. Violence against Women and Children: A Christian Theological Sourcebook (Continuum 1995) pp. 201-206