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Bordering Mysteries

I am delighted to respond to Dr. Ernst Conradie, Professor of Theology at The University of the Western Cape, as I prepare to join the faculty at Columbia Theological Seminary. As a practical theologian whose area of research resides at intersections between pastoral care, ethics, and postcolonial theories, I share Dr. Conradie’s concerns for theologies and practices oriented toward justice. In this reply, I review Dr. Conradie’s rich contribution, describe my standpoint, and then raise some questions about bordering mystery. First, consider this image.


Just Sinned and Just Sinned Against: Which is Which?

A group of students and I traveled around Southern Arizona and northern Sonora, Mexico. Our purpose was to wrestle with our theological commitments in conversation with people who live in these present-day borderlands. We sought encounters with as many life experiences and opinions as possible. We traveled as readers of living texts; our task was to read well by listening deeply. In five years of leading this trip, everyone I’ve encountered from the most progressive to the most conservative agrees that present-day immigration policies are not working. What to do instead is where students and I have heard such a wide difference of opinion. The most difficult person to encounter is also one of the most vulnerable whose wisdom is especially valuable: the active migrant, the very person so prominent in the national discourse, the person walking across the US-Mexico border. Except for once.

While driving in a large white van, we came across a man walking alongside the road, covered in thorns. We stopped the van. This stranger was out of food and water, walking in the desert. It was illegal for us to provide a map or a ride. We could easily reach out and place our hands in pierced flesh just shy of death. “Which way to Phoenix?” he asked. Someone nodded 100 miles that way. One student gave her own backpack. We pooled food and water. “If you get thirsty again,” someone else said, “sit roadside and border patrol will come. You will be deported, but you will live.” We wanted to believe in life. We got back in the van. He disappeared in the landscape. We drove away. We went to dinner. We remembered him while we drank fresh, clean water. We witnessed thirst. ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? When did we see you as a stranger and welcome you? (Matthew 25). What just happened? Where was suffering and salvation? Which is which, the just sinned and the just sinned against?


Systematizing Sin

In “The Gospel: Just for Sinners or Just for the Sinned Against?” Professor Ernst Conradie calls all persons of Christian faith to give an account of the role of the Gospels in both beliefs and responses to sin, suffering, and salvation. Within this broad set of concerns, Dr. Conradie considers consequences for practices of interpersonal and systemic relationships in relation to a belief that all persons share equally in a universality of sin. Accounting for one’s beliefs about implications of sin, suffering, and salvation in lived experiences is an important exercise for all who consider the Gospel sacred text, motivating a life of faith shaped by ethical norms such as neighbor love. If sin is universal, embedded in all persons, relationships, and systems, then how might we understand mutual accountability or responsible practices on the part of individuated persons or discrete faith communities? What, then, does conversion from sin to salvation look like in practice? What about forgiveness? Justice?

Dr. Conradie provides a landscape of responses identifying possibilities and problems within four different understandings of the conundrum of universal sin in relation to individual experiences of suffering, confession, and responsibility: (1) The Gospel has two intended audiences: the sinner and the sinned against. Here Dr. Conradie suggests that if the distinction can hold across various life and institutional configurations, then salvation rests on confession and conversion of the sinner. (2) There is a hierarchy of sins: some worse and some better. Here, Dr. Conradie objects that focus on an individual act obscures social and structural sins. (3) Learn of sin through a truth-telling model akin to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in post-apartheid South Africa and then instituted in many places and contexts. Speaking from his South African context, Dr. Conradie highlights the promise of this model in terms of structural sin, but points to limits of legal technicalities of asylum that make room for addressing egregious crimes while masking insidious microaggressive relationships that linger from generation to generation.

(4) Envision sin as universal, but guilt as conditional. Detangling sin and guilt, argues Dr. Conradie, would become a “spiritually bankrupt” practice. I’d love to hear more about what Dr. Conradie means here, especially in relation to the differences between guilt and shame in a model of universally embodied sin. Rejecting all four models as deficient, Dr. Conradie concludes with a call for engagement in God’s mystery for the sake of “justice, peace, and the integrity of creation.” Just when the article ends, I hunger for elaboration of what this last suggestion would look like in practice.
Standpoint and Sin

Dr. Conradie’s systemic approach invites readers to taste tangible variations of bigger-than-life words: salvation, suffering, sin, justice. It is, after all, the work of all theologians to connect sacred texts and interpretations to religious beliefs. As a practical theologian, I connect theological claims, religious beliefs, and practices of faith. Both systematic and practical theologians must also probe the tools we use to weave connections, including careful examination of ourselves as agents of connection. When it comes to sin, theologian Valerie Saiving’s classic 1960 article “The Human Situation: A Feminine View” suggests that any theology of sin needs to be situated within the standpoint of the author and intended audiences.

I read Dr. Conradie’s work from my standpoint as a white, educated, cis-gendered woman who grew up in Atlanta but has spent more than half my life living at the intersection of various borders and boundaries. As a Peace Corps volunteer in Suriname, South America, I deeply encountered experiences of crossing borders to live and learn in an immersive community shaped by colonial interactions generations before me. As a medical ethicist, I study suffering and healing at the intersection of theology, philosophy, law, and medicine. As an academic theologian, I study suffering and healing at the intersection of ethics, theology, ethnography, and postcolonial studies.
As a postcolonial pastoral theologian, my starting point is to attend to experiences of suffering for the sake of transformative change or participation in healing. This involves negotiating and forming healthy boundaries within human communities. My postcolonial commitments involve examining the deeply lingering effects of geopolitical borders that have been used to justify the violence of dehumanization that build impermeable borders within identity and belonging. Postcolonial pastoral transformation necessarily involves creating healthy boundaries and dismantling harmful borders. Thus, I am drawn to practices of learning and listening in borderlands.


Mysterious Landscape

In a sense, religious practice and accompanying theological reflection is driven by a lifelong yearning to embody the universally mysterious sacred in particular bodies, times, spaces, and geopolitical contexts, bordering mysteries with words, doctrines, and beliefs of what causes long suffering and what contributes to a life of deep transformative faith that makes a difference in the world. Knowing his work in ecotheology, I yearned to read more about the landscape, itself, undergirding a review of four options, institutionalized responses constructed side by side as neighbors at risk of war. What knits together this mysterious neighborhood of multiple possibilities and multiple potential problems? To what does the earth itself bear witness? What paths are hewn in-between sinners and sinned against? How do friends and enemies alike find safe passage through multiple border crossings? Who and what accounts for casualties—mini deaths along a life and great absences of beloved neighbors and lands—along the way?

Dr. Conradie refers to some theological perspectives beyond ecotheology which are also concerned with broad landscapes, such as feminist, black, Minjung, postcolonial, and liberation theologies. What these diverse perspectives share, he argues, is a claim that extends particularity from theological standpoint to also infuse theological doctrine, including the doctrine of sin, distinguishing perpetrator and survivor of sin. Dr. Conradie emphasizes physical and psychological violence of sin, providing examples of enslavement and sexualized violence. Both of these examples, however, are not only specific to individual bodies, but also to systems such as those that use sexualized violence as a weapon of war and enslavement as a political and economic institution with ongoing implications.
Many scholars recall the lasting importance of Valerie Saiving’s work for the church, claiming that “we develop our patterns of sinfulness interdependently” and warning against getting too certain about how sin works because “…sin is especially well-served when we try to pin it down in a single definition.” Sin works through human communities, intergenerationally, across times and places. At the same time, theologian Beverly Mitchell reminds us, “social structures and systems may be demonic or diabolical in the way in which they deface people, but these systems and structures are created [and maintained] by human beings.” Sin, suffering, and salvation mysteriously cross borders.


Bordering Mysteries

I recently read theologian Kelly Brown Douglas’s Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God with students in a seminar course. I needed to read this challenging text in the company of learners who requested extending the discussion of the text over three weeks of the course to engage the book more deeply. I was drawn to Dr. Brown Douglas’s description of the following seven aspects of sin: experiencing alienation from God, active refraining from empathy, encouraging not belonging, embracing a preferential option of place over a preferential option for sacred mystery, promoting a culture of death, advocating exceptionalism in relation to others, and promoting a cycle of violence. In contrast to acts of sin I imagined while reading Dr. Conradie’s article, I read Dr. Brown Douglas defining sin as a participatory process in which all people are caught, albeit in different ways depending on one’s standpoint. Or as pastoral theologian James Poling writes, salvation enrolls humans in networks of creativity at the intersection of sin and evil in persons and systems. I agree with both Dr. Conradie and Dr. Brown Douglas that to speak of sin requires radical truth telling about power accountable to histories, political claims, and theologies.

When my students and I encountered a thirsty migrant neighbor with flesh covered with thorns, immigration ceased to be an issue and suddenly resided in an interaction among human beings created in the image and likeness of God. Moral conflicts of law and Gospel were alive before us and had to be negotiated quickly, given the various circumstances at hand. For a moment, borders that prevent interpersonal encounter dissolved and we had an opportunity to confront our responsibility as persons committed to learning, listening, and living together a life of faith. Encounters across human-made borders open tiny glimpses into the haunting and beautiful mysteries of life together that reveal moving intersections and to which theologies of sin, suffering, and salvation, need to be accountable. “For we all are the…overlay of paths,” writes artist Kathryn Ferguson, “ally and enemy, we are the intersections…so let us throw up our flags of truce, light the fires, stir kinship into the cauldron, and break bread together.”

1 In Womanspirit Rising, Ed. Carol P. Christ and Judith Plaskow, San Francisco: Harper, 1979.

2 For example, see Kathryn Ferguson, The Haunting of the Mexican Border, Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico Press, 2015; Susan Brooks Thistlewaite, Women’s Bodies as Battlefield: Christian Theology and the Global War on Women, Palgrave, 2015; Brock, Rita Nakashima, and Gabriella Lettini, Soul Repair: Recovering from Moral Injury after War. Boston, Massachusetts: Beacon Press, 2012.

3 For one example, see Kelly Brown Douglas, Stand your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God, Orbis Books, 2015.

4 Case, Patricia R., “Talking about Sin, One Expert to Another,” The Living Pulpit October-December 1999, p. 20.
ibid, p. 21.

5 Mitchell, Beverly Eileen, Plantations and Death Camps, Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2009, p. 125 n. 16.

6 Brown Douglas, Stand Your Ground, p. 194-198.

7 Poling, James Newton, Rethinking Faith: A Constructive Practical Theology, Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2011.

8 Ferguson, Haunting, p. 223.