By Dr. Pamela Lightsey
In the all too few quiet moments of my day, I am spending more and more time reflecting on what it means to be human. What does it mean to be a human being? What does it mean to be human with unique identities living on a living Earth? I know it may seem far too esoteric for some. A journey down a philosophical rabbit hole. Yet, though I have reached no perfect answer, my ruminations, the act of thinking about inexhaustible questions, more often than not leaves me with a sense of humility about my life and my work.
The questions also remind me of the value of human relationships. Specifically, that being human is being shaped in relationship with other human beings. Despite the temptation to individualism, no one human being can do the work of becoming by themselves. Scientist Albert Einstein conveyed this sensibility beautifully in his letter of consolation to Robert Marcus on the occasion of the death of Marcus’ son.
A human being is part of the whole called by us the “Universe,” a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest – a kind of optical delusion of consciousness. The striving to free oneself from this delusion is the one issue of true religion. Not to nourish the delusion but to try to overcome it is the way to reach the attainable measure of peace of mind. (Albert Einstein, 1950) (1)
Though we may experience ourselves as “separated from the rest” – as Einstein noted – this experience is not the reality of the world in which we “live, move and have our being” to use words from sacred text. Religion, “true religion” as Einstein put it, ought to be about the business of helping persons free themselves from the delusion of the separated self. Let me go a step further and assert that at its best, Christianity helps individual believers recognize their worth is deeply connected to the worth and wellbeing of other human beings. As a liberationist, I understand this to mean as Fannie Lou Hamer once said, “Your freedom is shackled and chained to mine! And until I’m free, you are not free either!” (2)
During the most recent gathering of the Episcopal-UMC Dialogue Group (3), I began to ponder the possible separation/schism of The United Methodist Church in terms of our shared existential connections and quest for freedom. The circumstances and indeed the responsibility for resolution of this crisis is often placed on the shoulders of LGBTQ persons. That responsibility often sounds like, “Well, if we could just get beyond this LGBTQ argument, the denomination would be fine.” Sometimes it sounds like, “Why stay in a denomination that does not welcome you?” From well-meaning persons, it sounds like, “Well, my church has already accepted LGBTQ persons, come on over here!” The idea is that the crisis stems solely from the struggle for LGBTQ rights within our churches. An idea that completely overlooks the truly perennial human dilemma of separating ourselves from one another by the constant devaluing of another. The LGBTQ community nor any people should be made to bear the burden of eradicating discrimination.
In truth, no one church has “arrived” simply on the basis of being open and affirming of the LGBTQ community. As a Black queer lesbian, I understand this with every fiber of my being. There is no true liberation to be found in the LGBTQ community as long as racism exists. There is no denomination that can identify as fully inclusive as long as racism, sexism, classism or ableism, inter alia, exists. At best all denominations can only currently identify as progressive, denoting a kind of ongoing work.
This is a truth that the Episcopal-United Methodist Dialogue Group has accepted as we consider what the future may hold for our two denominations and our hope for full-communion (4) between us. Both our traditions are – at the same time – working towards a goal that has not yet been realized: a fellowship of kindred hearts that is not sullied by the sin of oppression.
The fellowship we seek, is not dependent on the work of human hands or theological presuppositions though these are beneficial to our cause. Instead, we have – at every gathering – yielded ourselves to a kind of mysterium found in the wonder-working, mysterious and ever-fascinating move of the Holy Spirit. It is the Spirit that illumines our hearts and has directed on this journey towards that true religion among those who seek justice, peace, love and liberation. It is not ours to do alone nor ours to bear alone. In truth, this is the work of God for all of Creation. Let it be so done.
(1) Alice Calaprice, The New Quotable Einstein, (Princeton University Press, 2005), p.206.
(2) Fannie Lou Hamer, untitled speech delivered at University of Wisconsin, January 1971. Internet accessed, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S0Kk3s12ZYg, 15:00.
(3) Since 2002 the Episcopal-United Methodist Dialogue has been meeting. The group exists to foster cooperative ministry between the two denominations and to work towards an agreement for full communion.
(4) Here is a short definition for what we mean by full communion. “We understand full communion to be a relation between distinct churches in which each recognizes the other as a catholic and apostolic church holding the essentials of the Christian faith. Within this new relation, churches become interdependent while remaining autonomous…Diversity is preserved, but this diversity is not static. Neither church seeks to remake the other in its own image, but each is open to the gifts of the other as it seeks to be faithful to Christ and his mission. They are together committed to a visible unity in the church’s mission to proclaim the Word and administer the Sacraments.” Accessed at https://www.episcopalchurch.org/full-communion-partners. The draft of the current full communion proposal between The United Methodist Church and The Episcopal Church entitled “A Gift to the World: Co-Laborers for the Healing of Brokenness” can be accessed here: https://www.episcopalchurch.org/library/document/gift-world-co-laborers-healing-brokenness.
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Dr. Pamela Lightsey has a stellar history as a senior administrator and scholar in higher education. She currently serves as Vice President for Academic Affairs at Meadville Lombard Theological School and Associate Professor of Constructive Theology. Before her appointment at Meadville, she was Associate Dean at Boston University School of Theology. She is also an ordained elder in the Northern Illinois Conference of the United Methodist Church.
Dr. Lightsey is a womanist theologian who has lectured at schools within and outside the continental United States. She has served as co-chair of the American Academy of Religion’s Womanist Approaches to Religion and Society Group. She is currently a member of the Workgroup on Constructive Theology. Dr. Lightsey is an honorably discharged veteran of the United States Army. She served as a member of the original executive committee for the Soul Repair Project, which studies the role of moral injury in military veterans.
As an activist, ordained clergy and scholar, Dr. Lightsey has worked to eradicate homophobia, transphobia, racism, and sexism. She is among the leading voices fighting for LGBTQ rights in the United Methodist Church.
Pamela’s several publications include the full manuscript, “Our Lives Matter: A Womanist Queer Theology” (Wipf and Stock, 2015), Transforming Service: Reflections of Student Services Professionals in Theological Education. Editors Shonda R. Jones & Pamela R. Lightsey. (Wipf and Stock, 2020) and, “Blinking Red: The Escalation of a Militarized Police Force and Its Challenges to Black Communities” (Lexington Books, 2019).