Notes from WATERtalks: Feminist Conversations in Religion Series

“Feminist Theology as Performance Art: Confronting White Supremacy Through Fiction”

An hour-long Zoom call with Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite

Wednesday, September 16, 2020

Listen to the recording here.

Mary E. Hunt:

 We welcome you to the Sept. 2020 WATERtalk, picking up where we left off in July since August is always vacation month here. I keep thinking of that famous Latin phrase from Cicero, “O Termpora! O Mores!” “What times, what customs” as we move through these difficult months.

Like all of WATER’s efforts, our purpose today is social change as well as intellectual stimulation. Susan’s book, When Demons Float (Resource Publications, 2019) is a vivid exposition of today’s big agenda: racism and white supremacy, hatred of all things Muslim, weaponized misogyny, and the impact of the cyber world especially on weak, white men who are preyed upon, enlisted and eventually coaxed into violence, the likes of which we are witnessing this election season. WATER seeks to bring feminist religious insights into the work of social change. Susan does that with style. And this season I am sure she joins me in urging everyone in the US, no matter what else you do, even before you read this book, VOTE!

Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite was with us in April 2016 when she spoke about her book Women’s Bodies As A Battleground: Christian Theology And The Global War Of Women (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015). She is no stranger to WATER, long participating in the Feminist Liberation Theologians’ Network. We have been friends and colleagues for more years than either of us can count. I look to Susan as someone whose smarts are hard-earned and whose wisdom is deep and always focused on justice.

Susan is Professor Emerita and President Emerita at Chicago Theological Seminary where she taught for twenty years before serving as the 11th president from 1998-2008.  Prior to the Presidency, she was also director of the Ph.D. Center for five years. She has a Ph.D., from Duke University, a Masters of Divinity from Duke Divinity School, and a B.A. from Smith College.

An ordained minister of the United Church of Christ since 1974, she is the author or editor of at least 16 books. In retirement, she maintains an active presence on blogs like Huntington Post, in newspapers, on-line, and now as a writer of the Kristen Ginelli Mystery series, including Where Drowned Things Live (2017) and Every Wickedness (2017), followed by this third volume, When Demons Float (2019) which we will discuss today.

She is the editor and a contributing author of the popular resource Interfaith JustPeacemaking: Jewish, Christian, and Muslim Perspectives on the New Paradigm of Peace and War (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), a multi-author volume with thirty contributors and advisors. She has also published #OccupytheBible: What Jesus Really Said (and Did) About Money and Power. In 1999, Orbis Press published the tenth-anniversary edition of Lift Every Voice: Constructing Christian Theologies from the Underside, a work Thistlethwaite edited with Mary Potter Engel. It is one of the most widely used textbooks in the U.S. to teach theology.

She is one of the founders and a former trustee of Faith in Public Life. She has been on the Advisory Committee of the American Academy of Religion Section on Religion and Politics, a section she helped found. She is also consulted for the Carter Center “Scholars in Action” and the Women, Religion, Violence, and Power program.

Susan is not new to any of the issues she explores in the book. She has been working as a white woman on anti-racism and against white supremacy before many of us knew what it was. She has explored violence against women from every ghastly angle. And she has taught theology and ethics with a deep commitment to remaking the world—environment, social relations, the relation between religion and politics. I welcome Susan, a voice of rage at injustice, a voice of reason for creating new ways of being, and now, as she shows herself as a mystery writer, an artist who uses her mighty pen to bring about a world fit for her beloved grandchildren.

Here is how I blurbed Susan’s book: “Susan Thistlethwaite’s third of a murder mystery trilogy is the best yet. Characters come into full bloom, the story is compelling, all too timely, full of twists and turns that make it a page-turner. Stark resemblance to contemporary life sends an extra chill up the reader’s spine. No escapist fiction here. White racism, police corruption, and other fascist elements in a culture riven with hatred and marbled with the blood of innocents emerge in demonic relief.” You will want to read it, right after you vote.

Welcome, Susan. Now tell us about “Feminist Theology as Performance Art: Confronting White Supremacy Through Fiction.”

Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite:

I started teaching part-time a few years after I had stepped down as president at Chicago Theological Seminary. This “Phased Retirement” policy worked well for me and for CTS (and has worked well for others). I had always wanted to write fiction. And I thought, if not now, when? So, I started writing. And it was just so bad. Everyone was me, and we all lectured each other. So, I went to the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, and I got better. And one thing that they emphasized at this workshop is “don’t tell, show.”

In my first novel, I wanted my detective to be brave, but she is also a little crazy about being brave. So, in the first book, I wrote a scene where, while at a construction site, she repels down an elevator shaft to save a woman who has been pushed in. There’s a short exchange with the man with my detective who tells her, “let me do it,” though he has not repelled before. She tells him she has, though, and there she goes. She saves the woman. Because of that scene, the readers conclude she’s very brave, but she really jumps into things. That was an example of “don’t tell, show” writing.

The detective, Kristin, is a young feminist religion and philosophy professor, also a former Chicago cop, who left the force due to corruption and sexual harassment.

Sexual harassment is the context of the first novel, and having been a professor for a long time, I really wanted to show her frustration with the administration and their failure to take seriously how a young woman on campus is being sexually harassed and abused. The second novel is on prostitution and how young women get pulled into prostitution.

The context of the third book is white supremacy, and I decided on that when I saw the faces of those young white men in Charlottesville. It made me wonder, “Where do they come from?” And I learned that white supremacists are recruiting young men online through violent video games. I had my son snoop around on these games, and I learned of people very deliberately searching out young white males to be involved in white supremacy. These are dangerous people. I did research, going online, and found it to be actually far worse than I thought.

But the heart of the novel is feminist theology as performance. There is a relationship between my white protagonist, Kristin, and Alice, who’s African American and a campus cop. Kristin consults with Alice on these white supremacists. The impact of the white supremacists on Kristin and on Alice is quite different.

A challenge to me and to white feminist theology is to get inside of our own racism. I wrote a book Sex, Race, and God: Christian Feminism in Black and White (1989) basically to answer the question of whom I am addressing as I consult white women’s experience. Lots of white privilege comes along with the gender/sexual orientation work that we do.

The first event in the novel When Demons Float is a noose is hung on a tree on the central campus, and Alice has one reaction to it, and Kristin has another. Kristin stands by the noose, and looks at the surrounding buildings, looking at the windows where young men are probably filming the scene, and she shakes her fist at the windows. Alice confronts her afterwards, telling Kristin, “You know that stunt you pulled? Me? If I’d done it, I’d be dead today…You wanna be brave…but you brave enough to walk around in a black woman’s skin? You brave enough for that? They want us purely dead, Kristin. Every damn day’” (44).

As a theologian, I decided that the best theological category to deal with white supremacy is the demonic. How these white supremacists lure people in, using weak personalities, finding them, recruiting them. I found Thomas Aquinas to be quite helpful. He has pages and pages in his work on how demons tempt people away from doing what they know they should do. We are tempted to push back, to look away. Who wants to look closer at this? But Kristin decides that she has to move closer. She has to look at what she and these white supremacists have in common.

I’ve done a lot of book groups with these books, and to see the performance of patriarchy, to see the white supremacy and then how as feminist and womanist actors we can engage them. Kristin works full time, is a single Mom and deals with so much of what is involved in women’s lives. But to me, this fiction writing started out as a hobby, but now it is not a hobby. It has become a vocation, a way to try to show how feminist theology can engage in the world while also taking the log out of our own eye.


Q:  Your hero is a white, cisgender woman with a lot of money. Her heroism seems to be how she discreetly spends her privilege despite her own losses (she is widowed; she’s been injured several times).  She’s a ready learner, unlearning her white racism and leaving no doubt about her prowess. But another hero is her friend Alice, a tough policewoman with a very different background, and I’m so glad you mentioned her and her experience. How does this friendship reveal Kristin’s understanding of white supremacy and her own privilege?

A: This is a relationship that has developed over three books. Kristin and Alice have trouble with trust-building, and Kristin makes a lot of mistakes. She thinks she’s in charge all the time, and throughout the third novel, she tries to shut up, and it isn’t easy for her. So, I want to problematize that word “friendship.” You’ve got to step up. Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz, a much-beloved “mujerista” feminist theologian who has gone to the ancestors and friend of mine, once answered in response to the question, “Can you trust white women?” with “I trust white women who cover my back.” So, that’s the deal: don’t look for friendship, look for what in you facilitates whiteness and step up at personal cost to yourself.

Q: How is feminist theology performative and how has that performance changed how you engage with feminist theology?

A: I’m finding that it is so much easier to get feminist theology into churches and people can get it and interact with it better when they see it acted out in fiction. People respond well to Kristin, an attractive character, who learns to look inward, not outward at her whiteness.

Another thing is that I will not use the words these awful white supremacists use. I will not use the n-word, the c-word. I will assert my moral authority and not help the spread of this. The words they use are designed to hurt people, and I will not contribute to that.

Q: I love the idea of taking something that is fiction and allowing it to engage with some of the more difficult issues we are surrounded by. I’m trying to imagine how some readers would respond to being invited into engaging with the wide range of diversity of your characters.

A: There are characters, like Mama and Papa Ginelli, that I put in specifically for those readers who are unsure of engaging with such diversity. I’ve created these characters that make bridges to readers. I specifically made Kristin an attractive character so that readers could identify with her.

But if you’re trying to get people to read this, sell it by telling them that their own grandchildren are getting recruited. It’s a serious problem.

Comment: I often think of white supremacy as a problem only in, say, the Evangelical church, but it’s also becoming clear it’s a problem everywhere, including in the Catholic church.

Q: As part of an anti-racism network here in Ireland, we engage with social media companies, trying to get them to take responsibility in promoting what is going on. When you said you won’t use certain language, there is a dilemma between not perpetuating and exposing it or that when you don’t expose how horrendous that language is, possibly giving white supremacists a whole new domain of their kind of language that people start to accept as normal.

A: I indicate the words with n***** or c***, so I am trying to navigate that dilemma that you mentioned. But I made the decision that I will not collaborate with them, using these words that are designed to hurt people.

Q: What about white women and white supremacy? Again, we don’t hear as much or see as many toting guns in open carry states, but what do you know about this?

A: In my exploration, white women aren’t gamers, for the most part. The misogyny within these communities, while they are out to specifically valorize racial attacks and sexual assault, lead to women not being recruited. Young women are vulnerable to other things, but in this particular niche of white supremacist targeting, they are not.

WATER thanks Susan Thistlethwaite for this wonderful presentation and wishes her well on her next book. Eager readers await.