In this lively conversation, be prepared to be challenged and changed as the Rev. Janet Wolf, a public theologian, joins Bishop Easterling in confronting some of our traditional beliefs about church and what it means to live as followers of Christ. Christian charity, Wolf says, may be doing more harm than good. What is needed is to be boldly authentic, proximate, and engaged in profound relationship.
Janet Wolf has worked as a poverty rights organizer, a United Methodist pastor with urban and rural congregations, college and seminary professor, community mediator, a learner, teacher, and a participant in prison circles. Her focus is on public theology, transformative justice and nonviolent action to disrupt and dismantle the cradle to prison pipeline by living in partnership with those who are caged. She is a member of the Coordinating Committee of the National Council of Elders and on the Board of the James Lawson Institute for the Research and Study of Nonviolent Movements. She is the author of Practicing Resurrection: The Gospel of Mark and Radical Discipleship. Janet and her husband, Bill Haley, have five sons and seven grandchildren.
Questions for Reflection and Extending the Conversation
Bishop Easterling: Beloved, I am so excited today to be at the table with the Rev. Dr. Janet Wolf, who has worked as a poverty rights organizer, United Methodist pastor with urban and rural congregations, college and seminary professor, community mediator, learner, and teacher. She focuses on public theology, transformative justice, and non-violent direct action to disrupt things like the cradle-to-prison pipeline.
She's a member of the coordinating committee of the National Council of Elders and on the board of the James Lawson Institute for Research and Study of Non-violent Movements. She's the author of Practicing Resurrection: The Gospel of Mark and Radical Discipleship. Janet and her husband, Bill, have five sons and seven grandchildren. Welcome, Janet, to the table.
Janet Wolf: Thank you so much. It's a great gift to be with you.
Bishop Easterling: It's my honor. It's my honor to have you join us today. Now there are a couple of things that I like to ask at the beginning. I think they're really deep and important questions. That is, do you drink coffee or tea?
Bishop Easterling: Both.
Janet: First thing in the morning, coffee, dark roast coffee, thick coffee.
Bishop Easterling: Amen. I was going to ask if you take it cream, sugar, or straight up and you've already answered that question. You like it bold and dark in the morning.
Janet: I like it bold and dark, a little tiny bit of non-dairy creamer helps me out every now and then. In the afternoon, probably tea. If it's cold outside, hot tea. If it's hot outside, cold tea.
Bishop Easterling: Excellent. You're a both/and person.
Janet: I'm a both/and.
Bishop Easterling: I love that. I like the bot/and. I also try to have, during our conversation at the table, a mug that for me speaks to the individual that I'm going to be in conversation with and the topics that we'll be covering. The mug that I couldn't get beyond when I thought about our time together was this: “Lord, I offer my prayer as my work and my work as my prayer.” For me, that resonates with who you are and the work that you do.
Janet: Thank you so much.
Bishop Easterling: Absolutely. I first encountered you, Janet, in person during the United Women of Faith Assembly in Orlando Florida last year. Your words were both inspiring and convicting. I wanted to converse with you since that conference. Now let us get to the deepest things we know. I learned there, and as I read your book and did some more listening to your sermons, that you are a fierce advocate of radical discipleship.
You minced no words in calling yourself and the church to account on matters of exclusion and dominance. Where did your passion for justice begin? Tell us a little bit about your story and how that conviction grew within you.
Janet: I think my parents -- we grew up in a rural Delaware community, Milltown, right near the mushroom capital of the world. Then, when I was in the fifth grade, we moved to Atlanta Georgia, which was an entirely foreign world. This was 1958. Lester Maddox is in the streets selling ax handles and Dr. King is speaking. We attended a downtown Lutheran Church. It was for me the first time that state took on flesh. It was more than showing up for church. I remember when the integration team sent notes to the churches that they would be coming.
We were downtown at Peachtree and 4th. The church had a big debate. What shall we do? Oh, my. This is going to happen. In the end, we put out this little, tiny sign that said, "All who want to worship are welcome here." Not exactly a revolutionary statement but something. The integration team comes and they walked down to the front and they are part of the service and people greet them and then they leave and people are like, "Oh, okay." We go outside and across the street is the Southern Baptist Church and they have surrounded their property so that no one can get on it.
The larger men in the congregation are threatening the civil rights workers and pushing them and making sure they don't cross the line. It was, for me, the first time a sermon came out of the pulpit and walked into the streets. It was the first time I understood that there is no neutral ground -- that not to decide is to decide, to fault with those in power. SNCC, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, came and spoke to our youth group. It was a time when the whole world opened up differently for me and called me into accountability. I think after that, there were a lot of different pieces.
For me, the next big step is, I'm trying to decide what the next big step is. The next big step is that I got married to my high school sweetheart. We had two children. Our rings said, “one in God.” I believed that. Then he left. Suddenly, I was a single mom of two little boys with three part-time jobs. I had been in the church my whole life. I had never met anybody who was divorced. I didn't even tell anybody except my sister for six months that he was gone. I just kept saying he was busy with work.
Bishop Easterling: Oh, goodness.
Janet: Because I didn't know what to do. Finally, I went to my pastor. I had taught adult Sunday school. I was part of the youth group leadership. I was on the decision-making council. I was part of a national hunger action team. When I went to my pastor hoping for consolation and comfort, he said, "Well, Janet, you're always welcome to worship here, but you're no longer an acceptable role model, so you'll need to resign from all your leadership positions."
He put into words what I was already feeling, which is even God thinks I'm not good enough. I'll never measure up. I'm not okay as I am. That was a huge moment for me. After that, I was angry with God. I was angry with all male human beings except my two children. I was angry with the church. We went to a little tiny house church that met in the garage, inside a housing project and the largest concentration of poverty in the city.
Because I had worked with the pastor, and we had taken kids who did not have dress-up clothes there because she could wear jeans and t-shirts and be noisy. They loved us back into life. They put flesh on grace. I was difficult and prickly, and they just never gave up on me.
Bishop Easterling: Those are two--
Janet: There are four stories, but I think those are two huge pieces for me.
Bishop Easterling: Absolutely. Again, you were in the crucible of either the church living the Gospel or the church living Empire. In both of those, to my mind, what you encountered when you came out of that church and saw the other gentleman across the street forming a human fence to say, "You will not come into our sanctuary." We will not be integrated in this way by this integration team. Then, also the rejection that you receive from a pastor at a church where you were providing leadership, at a church where you were a member and contributing, to then have that rejection. I can understand.
I think now that might help me understand, I was going to ask you about this quote that you opened your book with from Brueggemann. There are three quotes, actually, all of them are provocative. The one I was most intrigued with is from Walter Brueggemann. It says, "It is likely that our theological problem in the church is that our gospel is a story believed, shaped, and transmitted by the dispossessed. We are now a church of possession for which the rhetoric of the dispossessed is offensive." Again, I think that what you've shared with us already helps to answer the question of why you chose that as one of the three quotes to open the book. Would you expound upon that just a little more?
Janet: There's another piece to that, which is then, I go to this little house church, they love me, they're putting up with me, they're supporting us, and then they announce that Christmas Eve services are always inside the prison. I have gone to a large suburban church. This is not my idea of Christmas Eve, but the pastor is insistent that we cannot hear the radicality of the gospel. Even though we're in the middle of the housing project, we cannot hear it without being in a place where life is threatened. We're into the middle of the harshest systems that are battering people day after day.
It comes with this extraordinary good news, and it takes on flesh and it disrupts everything else, so I'm not thinking this is a good idea, but this is a church that loves me. I go with my two little boys, and when we get to the prison, it's on lockdown. Something has happened. I don't know what. We're stuck in the parking lot. We are a handful of people in the parking lot. I'm convinced nobody inside even knows we're there, and then even though it's Nashville, Tennessee, it starts smelling, and now we are a handful of people and we're huddled around and I'm figuring what I'm going to get out of this.
I'm going to get kids with sore throats and earaches. They're going to have to go to the doctor. I'm going to miss work. This is not my idea of Christmas Eve. I remember poinsettias, candlelight, trumpets, little kids dressed up for the pageant. Huge choirs walking in, and at one time we had a live donkey, but I'm there with the kids and we lean in to try to get the Christ candle lit and somebody hands me the Bible and says, read this, Isaiah, "The people who sat in darkness, upon them has light shined." I'm still feeling grumpy, and then one of my kids pulls on my coat and says, Mama, look, and I turn, and you can tell this is 1975. I see that in floor after floor, and cell after cell, the prison people are holding out matches and lighters to the window, so that by the time we sing Silent Night, I forget there's a chorus -- inside and out.
Bishop Easterling: Oh my God.
Janet: It was for me another moment of conversion, where I recognized both the need for community that helps me turn, to see what God is doing in the world when I would never have anticipated that, and also the power of social location. Just where we are, who we see, who we listen to, and how that shapes our hearing and our response to the Gospel. I have been going to the prison since and have found that the most profound and powerful theology happens inside prison bars because the discussion about liberation, or salvation, or forgiveness, or redemption is not theoretical. It's life and death.
Bishop Easterling: You take me now to a video that I watched of you. It's a video where you are talking about the problem with charity, and there's a part of that where you talk about your prison ministry, and how faith communities have cooperated in naming people unclean and how we scandalize people.
Janet: A fundamental failure, it seems to me, of faith communities is that we have cooperated in naming people unclean. Then the scandal becomes the folks who are in prison, or the kids who are dropping out of school, or the teens who are disconnected and hanging out there on the streets. But biblically, the scandal is the systems and the structures that relentlessly push people towards death. The scandal is not unclean. People, biblically, there's no such thing as unclean people. The scandal is the theologies that collaborate with this system of domination that renders so many human beings disposable.
Walter Wink says, we got to push and figure out how we have become kept chaplains of an unjust order. We got this shift, the standup for unclean people to the unclean systems and theologies, and ask what it is that distances us. Less than 20 percent of the people inside of prison ever get a visit from an outside person. Where's the church? What is it that we are caught up in doing if we are not hanging out with folks? I got a short amount of time, so let me hustle on, because I think there's another shift, that goes along with it, and it is the shift from charity to justice.
It is remembering what Howard Thurman said, that charity is one of the greatest forms of violence because in charity, we rob people of their identity and their vocation. In charity, my identity is someone who needs something, and my vocation is to be thankful and measure up to your needy measures. But every human being made in the image of the divine is defined as an identity as a child of God. Our vocation for each and every human being is to join God in the repair of the world. Pamela Couture would argue that when we do charity instead of justice, we simply making ourselves feel good while propping up the very systems that are killing off the folks we trying to do something about.
That's the third shift. The third shift is we got to quit thinking up programs and develop, no kidding, authentic long-term partnerships. Because those of us who have never been incarcerated will always get it wrong when we are creating programs if we are not allowing the voices of those who are hardest hit to be the loudest, most decisive voices in our decision-making.
I met Ndume [Olatushani] in Riverbend because he was a part of our graduate theology classes, and we argue that every seminary in this country ought to have at least one class that takes place behind prison bars, where half the students are folks who cannot leave at the end of the class. Some of the most powerful theology happens behind prison walls. If you want to talk about forgiveness, freedom, liberation, if you want to begin to understand redemption, go someplace where that question is urgent, not where it's theoretical, optional, or irrelevant.
Bishop Easterling: Talk to us about how you came to that understanding of the way we've misappropriated. We have misinterpreted the Gospel, scandalizing the wrong thing and sanitizing that which should be scandal.
Janet: It's really pretty stunning that we as Christians follow one who was actually criminalized, arrested on trumped up charges by a mob, beaten and caged, and then executed in a state-sanctioned murder, and yet we are absent from the prisons unless we think we are coming in to save somebody. We are not there as learners or partners in doing theology and changing the systems. One of my friends, a brilliant artist, Ndume Olatushani, spent 20 years on Tennessee's death row for a crime he did not commit.
Bishop Easterling: My Lord.
Janet: He often said, "All those years church folks coming in trying to save my soul, hell, I didn't need anybody to save my soul. I need somebody to save my hands."
Bishop Easterling: My God.
Janet: I think that charity comforts us while we prop up the very systems we think we are doing something about. We offer backpacks to public school kids, but we don't change the public education system, which is re-segregated, which depends upon harsh punishments. Particularly if you are Black or brown, or don't speak English as your mother tongue, or have some kind of variability. Two things. Vincent Harding and Howard Thurman talk about, Jesus is born at the wall, and this is the community of wall-bruised people. When we are here, we hear the radicality of the Gospel.
But when we are over here, we become theological justifiers for the very systems that are pushing people with their backs against the wall, and I think that's right. Look at the Christmas story. The Christmas story is a radical upset of the way things are. It's not good news for the folks in power. They start killing people, and yet most of our Christmas celebrations are -- We may give charity gifts to kids in poverty, but we don't change the fundamental system that is perpetuating the poverty. John Wesley argued that it is better for the salvation of our souls to hang out with the people on the streets, with people who are impoverished than it is for us to show up in church on a Sunday morning for Communion.
He also said, "Don't build big buildings, because if you build big buildings, you will be dependent upon people with wealth." Then he says, "There goes the Gospel." Vincent Harding would argue, and Howard Thurman as well, that charity is a form of violence. It robs people of their identity and vocation instead of being a child of God, whose vocation is to join God in the repair of the world. They suddenly become someone who needs to meet our definition of needy and their vocation is to be grateful to us for whatever we have decided they need without any consultation with them.
Bishop Easterling: Theological justifiers, I love that term. Theological justifiers. One of the things that you do in the book, I believe, is to test us, to pull us out of this misshapen, misinterpreted understanding of the Gospel. You do that first by using a she pronoun for the author of the Gospel of Mark, for many that would be seen as heretical to think that a woman authored one of the Gospels, any book in the Bible perhaps, but certainly one of the Gospel books that we so rely upon that opened up this New Testament to us.
You talk about doing that because women have been silenced, dismissed, and made invisible, both in Scripture and in the world. Talk to us again about how we need to be reintroduced to the Gospel to really be able to hear what it's saying to us instead of these theological justifiers.
Janet: It's interesting when you reread the Gospel, or for me anyway, it's clear that it's directed to the church. It's not directed to non-believers; it's directed to the church. It is a reminder of how quickly we abandon our calling. Then a calling back into community so we can live into and out of this kingdom that is already among us. I think of the Methodist baptismal vow, which I love. Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil and injustice in whatever forms they present themselves? For me, that's a get-up in the morning and say yes all over again moment, because that's not easy.
Think about what we do with Easter, buying hats and new clothes and maybe having an Easter parade and Easter egg hunt. Easter is a revolutionary moment. That's frightening, it's terrifying. I don't think I realized that the women were central to the Easter story until I went to seminary. How could that happen? Having been in church my whole life, how could I not know that? Because those voices have been dismissed. I don't think I paid attention to the Matthew 15 story, and it's repeated in Mark, the story of the Canaanite Samaritan woman who changes Jesus’ theology.
She is a theologian arguing with Jesus in the street. She's a womanist. She will not be silent, she will not be sent away, and she will not give up. She will use the language of oppression to come right back and insist that what Jesus is saying is not God's will. It's this incredibly powerful example of the world around the church hollering at us, that we have fallen in short, that we have narrowed God. Twice in Matthew, Jesus is going to say, go nowhere among the Gentiles. He is never going to say that again after his encounter with this woman.
Bishop Easterling: Now you realize, you just said something again, very radical. Individuals have been brought up on charges. I mean this sincerely. This is factual. Individuals have been brought up on charges because they said that Jesus changed his theology, that this encounter with this woman caused Jesus to change. Why does that scare us so much?
Janet: I do participatory Bible study. Everybody occupies a place in the story. Not everybody can be Jesus. Not everybody can be a disciple. When I do this story with people and people sit in the place of the woman, and the only thing they can do for the first five to ten minutes is think about who am I? Why do I do what I do, say what I say? What's going on in my head, in my heart? What scares me? What gives me hope? What brings me joy? When they sit with that woman, no matter what group I work with, they hear the transformation.
The Jesus people are over there saying, “ah, I think he was just testing her faith.” Then the women come by and say, ''That wasn't what that felt like.'' He threw those words at us, spit those words at us. They were harsh, they hurt, they wounded, but I didn't give up because I know that's not God's will for my child to be outside the covenant people, outside the community of faith. It's a whole other thing, which may be too long, but I did not go to seminary to become a pastor.
I went because I was a community organizer working for justice and trying to figure out how churches could read the Bible and not do justice, not change systems, not be in poverty, not be in prisons dismantling that system. And then, somewhere along the line in seminary, when people would say, “we can't have that church,” I said, ''I've been to that church. You can't have that kind.'' It's a base Christian community, a Jesus church. I felt called to ordained ministry so that I could experiment. Is that possible? Yes, it's possible.
Bishop Easterling: Not only possible, necessary. It was necessary then, and it's necessary now. You remind me of other feminist and womanist theologians, people like Elizabeth Johnson and Joanne Terrell, who also talked about--
Janet: Oh, thank you. That’s good company to hang out with.
Bishop Easterling: Amen. You do.
Janet: I'm honored to be with you.
Bishop Easterling: Oh, thank you.
Janet: I was going to thank you for your creative courage and persistence and passion and wit and wisdom and large heart and healing hope. There are not a whole lot of bishops that I have found kinship with. I am so honored to sit with you and to say thank you for your witness. I'm grateful you have gifted my life.
Bishop Easterling: Now, it would not be appropriate for me to sit here and have to cry on this podcast, but that's what you're about to make me do. I am humbled, I'm humbled by your words, but you really do remind me of these feminists and womanist theologians because they talk about this kenosis of patriarchy, or the self-emptying of the male dominating power in favor of a new humanity, of compassionate service and mutual empowerment. Again, they talk about how we've gotten, as you said, the Easter story, the cross so wrong; that when we see that as God ordaining that kind of violence.
That kind of sacrifice is the only way we might be saved. We miss the opportunity to see it as really the culmination of Jesus' life and what empire did to him because he came with this kind of embodied counter-cultural, turn-the-world-upside-down message. That's what I see and hear in both your book, Practicing Resurrection, but also every time you speak. Tell me about how important it is, and I ask this question a lot and I'm going to keep asking it because I don't think that we've brought enough voices into our exegesis of Scripture, into our preaching. I think that's why we're, again, these justifiers of theology that you talk about: How do we need to widen the circle of voices that help us interpret Scripture?
Janet: I am convinced again that participatory Bible study helps. One of the things that I've experienced is working with the Luke 6 text. “Blessed are you who are poor for yours is now today the kingdom of God. Woe unto you who are wealthy for you have received your consolation.” If I go into any group and we have, I say let's have four churches, we'll have one very wealthy, very large, so many staff people, you got everything you need, congregation. You've got one classic Methodist congregation: not big, not little, tiny, but you know, right there and getting by but not wildly successful in either growing numbers or money.
Then you've got a storefront mission version: they're meeting maybe in a community center or something and they got a part-time pastor that also gets money from some other church. Then, you got folks just hanging out in the parking lot, harassing with this text. The task they have is to come up with three points for their sermon and a title for their sermon and a song of invitation. Inevitably, the first group, the wealthy big church group, spends so much time like, "How are we going to not alienate people? This is a really hard text." I tell them, "You cannot substitute the text. You must use these verses. You cannot put anything else in."
They want to refer to other texts, poor in spirit. It's everybody. It's not about economics. Clearly, it's about economics. When they give their report, one person comes from their group, does it fairly quickly and does it almost as an apology. We know this is hard, but okay, so here's what we're going to do. The hymn of invitation is something soft. Everybody's invited. There's no big challenge. It goes downscale. As you move down to the parking lot group, people get louder and more rowdy and it's more communal and it's more radical. Often the parking lot group starts infiltrating the other group and say, "Hey, have you read this text? This is some stuff right here." Banging on the door. Say, "Hey, hey, hey if you believe this stuff, we got to change."
The fact that that can happen in any congregation with any group of people says that even the minimal thinking about a change in social location can help us hear the Gospel -- then you magnify that by having prison ministry be redefined by people on the inside. It is not us taking anything. It is going to discover and hear the Gospel inside the prison, in circles that are led by, facilitated by, people who are caged. That changes it, or in a battered women's shelter, or in a juvenile detention center, or at a food stamp office, or out in the streets, anywhere you can find proximity and partnership. Ministry with not any version of two or four. I think the Church has substituted programs for proximity and partnership. That has nothing to do, in my mind, with the Gospel.
Bishop Easterling: Again, referring back to that video that I watched where you have the people on their feet, and you bring them to almost shouting with what you offer. You talk about that the church needs to get away from programs and get into some deep, long-term partnerships with those that they claim to want to be in ministry with. Again, often it's more like charity. It's more like, we'll write the check, we'll send the socks, as you said, we'll send the backpacks. Why do you think we resist that long-term deep partnership?
Janet: Because it would require change in systems and change in our theology. Kelly Brown Douglas, in her book, Resurrection Hope: A Future Where Black Lives Matter , talks about this as white supremacy. It hasn't disappeared, neither has the theology that props it up, created it, perpetuates it. I think so many of us, and I was one and I continue to stumble, want to find the Gospel as simply comforting, just make me feel better because everybody's got misery in their life, without the challenge. It's a challenge -- over and over again. It's an invitation to abundant life, to live fully. We think it's less, but it's more. I think for me, that requires community.
I won't remember that. I won't honor that. I won't say yes to that every day. Unless I have a community, Bishop Kenneth Carter says this, "that will hold me and hold me accountable." That will push me and prop me up on every leaning side when things go wrong. I think Ted Myers and Walter Wink argue that every healing in the gospel is a shifting of the scandal from the person labeled unclean, unworthy, unvalued, un-whatever, to the systems.
Bishop Easterling: The system.
It's not the kids who are flunking out of school, it is the public education system that insists on one way of measuring what is of worth and limits what learning looks like. It's not folks labeled illegal aliens. Nobody is illegal.
Bishop Easterling: Amen.
Janet: It is a country that has stolen land from Mexico, and as Jim Lawson says, created this plantation capitalism that depends on low wages and workers. It's not the folks in the prison. It's a nation that has less than 5 percent of the world's population and cages more than 25 percent of the world's prisoners. You can go on and on and on, right? It's not 16,000 people a month coming home from being caged. It's congregations who have no open doors, and if they do have an open door, often they have a litmus test about how someone measures success, what success looks like to them without ever understanding what it was like to be caged.
Again, I've been going in since '75 and I always get it wrong. I remember sitting in one of our circles one day, and Frederick, who had been moved from death row to the low side. Somebody says, the prompt is one thing you're grateful for, and he says, "Grass." I'm like, "We have had a two-hour thick discussion and you're going to give thanks for dope?"
Janet: I said, "Would you like to say more?" He says, "Yes." Because when you're in this little cage on death row, and if you're lucky, they let you out for an hour a day and the floor is concrete and the wall on the top is barbed wire and everybody tries to stick their hand out through the wires to touch the grass. You can't do it, but I don't know nobody who doesn’t try.
Bishop Easterling: Who doesn't try.
Janet: Then several weeks later, Devin is on death row and he's moved to the low side, and the officers know more than I know, and they let him roll in the grass. He just laughs and he stuffs it in his mouth and in his pockets. All those years, time to touch the grass, and there it is. I just think I am broken open,, over and over again and called to account by people for whom this story is loud, raucous hope, really, really good news. For me, maybe over and over again, a challenge and an invitation to live more fully.
Bishop Easterling: First of all, I love your terminology. You continue to not call it a cell, which sounds a bit nicer. You keep calling it a cage. You remind us of what it really is, but also this notion that we can learn from the caged, that we can learn from the dispossessed, that we can learn from aspects of society that most of us, if we're honest, feel better than. I love how you talk about, again, turning the academy, if you will, upside down and saying, we can become the students and those that we would often look down our noses at, become the teachers.
Janet: Because I think that's the Gospel, right? One time I was teaching a course on evangelism, and I asked people to spend seven hours in a place where they could listen to. Where they had to have no power, weren't offering any service. They were just listening to people who were struggling to get by day after day. Like you go to a bus station, you can go to a food stamp office. This is an intensive course, and they come in the first class, and I would say that probably 35 percent of the students had completed the assignment. Why? Because church -- it's a lot to do.
I'm so overwhelmed by all the things that church requires of me. Then we read the four Gospels together, and we say, "Who did Jesus talk with? Listen to? Hang out with? Where did he spend most of his time?" The contradiction is clear between what the church spends time on, where we spend time, who we listen to, who we learn with, and who we do theology with. Jesus constantly, story after story, being with folks for whom this is life-giving, to find someone who wants to make the first last and the last first.
Bishop Easterling: This notion of time and where it's important to spend our time makes me think about the story you tell in the book about your trip to Nicaragua and your eyes were opened. The difference between working with a community rather than, again, a disembodied charity to a community. You talk about taking this long trip in a truck and by the time you got there, you all could barely walk because you'd been over such bumpy roads and in this cramped position. You said you all went from house to house. Listen, let me let you tell the rest of that story what it meant to you in terms, over again, of our capitalistic approach of just going and drop something off. Can you tell us about that?
Janet: Sure. We're going to a community that wants to build a well. They have no running water. There's a river, but it's way down the hill, and they have to carry buckets up. We go house to house. It is raining. We're in the mountains and in each house, we sit and we just listen and we drink some more coffee. I am thinking to myself, this is so ineffective. I'm trying to learn from folks in Nicaragua. Eventually people from all the houses stand around the place where the well will be. We're in the rain and we have a lot of silence and a lot of storytelling and a lot of just short, this is what I'm thinking about.
Again, I'm thinking, where's this going? Come on, we got to get things done. We go back down the mountain. Nothing has happened. We don't have a well. There's nothing that got dug and we go back down the mountain. I'm trying to figure out in this truck how to ask the question of, "Really?" We just dragged five, six people up mountain, negotiated with the congress to get through this thing, listened in the rain. As a person from the United States, I know how to get things done. They've said to me when I asked some light version of that, then who would care for the well?
Because if the well belonged to the people from the outside, if we were the ones who decided where to put it, or even gave them the right to decide where to put it, but we built it, who would care for it? We would leave. Again, this is my ongoing conversion, it happens daily. I'm confronted with the ways in which empire thinking occupies me so that I don't even imagine a different approach, even though I think I'm trying to.
I tell the story, too, about the first time I saw base Christian community and I totally missed it. I had studied it, I'd read about it. I hosted folks from base Christian communities, and I still missed when I saw it for the first time. Maybe other people are faster learners, but I find that every single day I need to be held and held accountable by folks for whom having the first last, and the last first, is really good news.
Bishop Easterling: I don't think you're a slow learner at all. I think you open yourself to learning that many in the church don't even see as necessary, don't even see as a part of our discipleship. And again, you call us to such radical discipleship. I was struck the other day by a quote from Miroslav Volf who says, "There's something deeply hypocritical about praying for a problem that you are unwilling to solve."
It seems like a lot of your life's work has been about not just sitting in the comfort of a stained-glass enclosed sanctuary, but actually getting out into the streets, getting your hands dirty, getting your feet embedded in the soil to actually make a difference to help solve some of these problems that are all around us. Why do you think that so many in the church are pacified and satisfied with offering thoughts and prayers to things like gun violence right now? That I would--
Janet: I was with the 7,000 high school and college students yesterday at the Tennessee capital. Was it yesterday? Yes. Again, because I think that doesn't require much from us. Right? We can believe that we are supportive without actually doing anything to change the system. I go back to 1975, when I'm a single mom, had three part-time jobs and two children. And, a community organizing group, largely impoverished women, invited me to testify before the Tennessee legislature on an AFDC bill. They were going to cut aid to families with dependent children.
I remember standing up and saying, "I don't think you should do that, because I don't think you should do that, because I think it's a really bad idea," and then I sat down. The women said to me, "That was so brave that you came today. Thank you, and come to the meeting on Saturday. We have childcare, it'll be great." They, like that little church, loved me into a different place. That's really where I found my voice and my vocation. It's where I understood that I had value and purpose. I think there's a hunger in our congregation for that same thing, although we don't know it.
When we're in the settled places, when we're in the places without much challenge, where we can just slide by and things are comfortable, and our worship and our Bible study and our reading keeps us in this quiet, non-threatening, non-challenging version of faith, then we just continue on that, because there's no reason to disrupt it. I think something in all of us, even when we're in that place, is hungry to find the kind of grace that explodes our imaginations, the kind of grace that transforms us. I love your vision of your conference: "Transformed Lives Transform Lives," absolutely.
I think we know the difference between a softened, cheap grace, as they say, and this loud, raucous, rowdy, shaking up the world, manifesto grace. I think another piece of that, I have one tattoo, and it's dayenu, the Hebrew word for "more than enough," part of the Passover liturgy, which people will say tonight. We'll remember as if we were the folks who were taught in oppression, who were enslaved, just as if we were, because we are. We have been liberated, that we're on this journey, and that we are, just as we are, more than enough, because God has provided more than enough.
It's a theology of abundance instead of scarcity. Many of our churches live in this theology of scarcity. There's not enough, so we've got to hold on to what we got. There's not enough, so it can't be those people, it can only be our people. There's not enough. When we are in this theology of abundance, you just keep dancing at the welcome table, because there's room for everybody. Everybody.
Bishop Easterling: Amen.
Janet: That's the good news.
Bishop Easterling: That is good news.
Janet: Do you know Dorothee Sölle? She's a German theologian. She's dead now, but I met her in Nicaragua. She said, "Every day we have to practice amazement, because the world seeks to numb us, to catch us in amnesia so we don't remember." We practice awe, very concrete awe, spiderweb-holding-raindrops awe.
Bishop Easterling: I love that.
Janet: We have to unlearn and let go, because every day we've got something that's stuck in our heads, our hearts, bodies that we need to unlearn and let go. We have to resist in order to heal, and heal in order to resist, both as individuals and communities. We resist the powers of death so that we can heal, and we heal so that we can resist, so we can remember who we are, so we can live into and out of this invitation from God about the truth about creation and all of it. Sorry, I think I--
Bishop Easterling: No, please don't be sorry. That's beautiful. Again, the imagery of dancing, the invitation to find awe, to be seekers of awe. That is so important because -- You lead me to what I was going to ask you next, as one who then has been in the trenches of this kind of justice and work toward liberation, how do you care for your soul? How do you care for yourself so that you are not overwhelmed or overcome by what you've experienced seeing people in cages, knowing individuals who have been incarcerated on false charges, children in abject poverty. Again, you've worked with Marian Wright Edelman. Talk to me about how you've cared for yourself and your soul as you are so deeply involved in this work.
Janet: I think there's two directions to that. One is, I do things like walking. When I walk, I usually have a mantra of connecting with creation and beauty and body and gratitude and just do it over and over again. Oh, creation and beauty, body still works. I'll be 75 next month.
Bishop Easterling: Amen. Amen.
Janet: Gratitude. Just deep gratitude for life. Walking, connecting with the outdoors, being in the woods by water. All of those things. Listening to music. Also, it's the circles inside the prison and people who have been informally caged. I often talk about-- I go into the prison and I'm usually grumpy because I don't have time, it's going to take forever, there might be a new guard at checkpoint, he is going to have some new rule, the folks won't be able to get out of their cages or -- The circle, blah, blah, blah. I always come out laughing and hopeful.
We have a circle on death row. We have members who have been executed. We have one member who was even served the last meal and then was not executed. One other person who went within six hours. Anyway, we have this circle. We do Thich Nhat Hanh meditation. When we sit in that circle and we offer, let us enjoy our breathing together. The power in that space changes. It shifts.
You can feel this different spirit. To be with people who bet everything on love in a world that has consigned them to death, that has said they are not worthy of life, we've trained 12 mediators on death row. We have a mediation process that's approved by the prison system so that the folks the state has condemned to death are seen as conflict transformers, mediators. They in that belly of the beast. They are who God created them to be. They're all of them. That's just such thick hope. Such fierce faith. I'm taken over and over again.
Bishop Easterling: Well, I was going to ask you where you find hope and you just told me. In the margins, in the places that again most of us don't want to go. In the places where we send those that we have scandalized. In the places that we don't even want to imagine. They're removed from our sight. Those are the places where you just said you find hope. That's amazing.
Janet: I think everyone would. I just did a retreat for Methodist churches in North Carolina and they invited me to do a retreat. I said, "Well, I don't do retreats on my own. I could bring some of my partners with me." I brought Raheem Buford, who went in at 18 and spent 26 years in a cage for an accidental shooting. I took Eric Alexander, who went at 16 and was caged for 11 years. It shifted the conversation. Meaning if you do the Mark, you can do any text but one of the most startling texts for folks is to do the Mark 5 texts. We still call it the Gerasene Demoniac even though he is no longer possessed.
It's the one where the man is freed, liberated after the community has chained him up time and time again. When he breaks free, they rechain him. It's the community that asked Jesus to leave because he's so upsetting. It's the community that's afraid of the man when he's clothed and in his right mind. You do that with someone who is set caged for 26 years, and your hearing will change. Even if you're on the outside.
Bishop Easterling: Amen.
Janet: You just imagine that voice. It will change.
Bishop Easterling: Again, your hope is in actually embodying the Gospel and making it alive for us today.
Janet: I do meditation. Sometimes in meditation, I have images. I had this one image where I was on the beach. I had chains all over me. I was all bent over and this Rastafarian guy comes marching down the beach. He's going pretty fast. He turns and looks at me and says, "Come." I'm like, "Look, I got chains. How can you just leave? I got chains." He continues to go out and then turns around and says, "Let go." I realize I'm holding on to these chains. If I let go, they fall off.
Bishop Easterling: My God.
Janet: That's a permanent one for me. I hold on to things that prevent me from embodying discipleship, that prevent me from living out of faith. You can see here, which is why I need a community that keeps saying to me, "Hey, let go."
Bishop Easterling: “Let go.” Amen. I'd like to close our time together. Again, it has been fascinating.
Janet: Oh no, that's so sad for me.
Bishop Easterling: I know. Me too. Because this has been, again, an enriching and a wonderful conversation, but as they say, all good things must come to an end. I'd like to close our time together the same way you close your book. To those who are listening to this, if you don't have a copy of it, I ask you to try to find a copy of Practicing Resurrection, The Gospel of Mark, and Radical Discipleship. You close the book quoting Dr. Emily Towns, who is herself a social ethicist, theologian, poet, and Dean of Vanderbilt Divinity School, who offers this blessing and benediction of hope and freedom.
"Hope reminds us that we cannot accept the death-dealing and life-denying ways in which we have often structured our existences. All who hope in Christ have accepted a gift that will always challenge and always change us. We are set free to serve and free others with full hearts. We can do this." This conversation with you today and your life reminds us, Dr. Wolf, that we can do this. Thank you and God bless you.