It can sometimes be difficult to believe that God loves you. You and I know ourselves too well, especially the ways we fall short of who God calls us to be. We may even wonder if God has given up on us.
Other times, it can be extremely difficult to believe that God loves that other person: the one who disagrees with you, makes your life difficult or appears to be so hate-filled.
Let's talk with the Rev. Dr. Traci West about God's love for you, your neighbor and humanity as a whole.
Guest: The Rev. Dr. Traci West
The Rev. Dr. Traci C. West is Professor of Christian Ethics and African American Studies at Drew University Theological School (Madison, NJ).
She received her BA from Yale University, (New Haven, CT), her MDiv. from Pacific School of Religion (Berkeley, CA), and her PhD from Union Theological Seminary (New York, NY). Traci is the author of Solidarity and Defiant Spirituality: Africana Lessons on Religion, Racism, and Ending Gender Violence (New York University Press, 2019), Disruptive Christian Ethics: When Racism and Women's Lives Matter (Westminster John Knox Press, 2006), Wounds of the Spirit: Black Women, Violence, and Resistance Ethics (New York University Press, 1999), and the editor of Our Family Values: Same-sex Marriage and Religion (Praeger, 2006). She has also published many articles and book chapters on sexual, gender, and racial justice, gender-based intimate violence, and clergy ethics.
She has served on the editorial board of Journal for the Society of Christian Ethics, as co-editor of the Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion, on the Society of Christian Ethics Professional Conduct Committee, and the editorial board of T&T Clark Studies in Social Ethics, Ethnography, and Theology.
Traci is an ordained elder in the New York Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church (UMC) who previously served in campus and parish ministry in the Hartford, Connecticut area. She has participated in United Methodists of Color for a Fully Inclusive Church (UMOC) and was a recipient of the UMC New York Annual Conference Methodist Federation for Social Action (MFSA)’s Gwen and C. Dale White Social Justice Award. She testified before the New Jersey state legislature in support of marriage equality, protested on behalf of lgbtq equality at the General Conference of the United Methodist Church, was interviewed in the documentary on violence against black women "NO!", received Auburn Seminary’s inaugural Walter Wink Scholar-Activist award and received CONNECT: Safe Families, Peaceful Communities, "Peace and Justice Award."
She was born and raised in Stamford, Connecticut and now resides in New Jersey.
Host: Dr. Ashley Boggan Dreff
Dr. Ashley Boggan Dreff is the General Secretary of the General Commission on Archives and History. Dreff earned her PhD from Drew Theological School’s Graduate Division of Religion, specializing in both Methodist/Wesleyan Studies and Women’s/Gender Studies. Dreff is a lay member of the Arkansas Annual Conference and the daughter of two ordained United Methodist ministers. She is the author of Nevertheless: American Methodists and Women's Rights (2020) and Entangled: A History of American Methodism, Politics, and Sexuality (2018).
Dr. Ashley Boggan Dreff: Hello, and welcome to another episode of Tuesdays at the Table. I'll be your guest host today. I'm Ashley Boggan Dreff. General Secretary of the General Commission of Archives and History.
Our question today is, “Does God love everyone? Do I have to?”
With us, we have Reverend Dr. Tracy C. West, who is a professor of Christian Ethics and African American studies at Drew University's Theological School. Traci is the author of Solidarity and Defiant Spirituality: Africana Lessons on Religion, Racism, and Ending Gender Violence, which was released in 2019. And she was the whole host of other works available as well. Traci's all also an ordained elder in the New York annual conference of the United Methodist church. Thank you so much, Tracy, for joining us. We truly appreciate it.
Dr. Tracy C. West: Thank you for having me. I'm delighted to be in conversation with you.
Dr. Dreff: Wonderful. Well, let's get started with a pretty broad question. Does God love everyone?
Dr. West: Oh, so that's easy to answer very briefly with an enthusiastic, wholehearted, yes. God loves all of creation. God loves human creation. God loves each of us. Yes. The harder question is, how do we know that? We can assert it, I can assert it, but how do we recognize the evidence of God's love. And given how culturally, and geographically and historically, and politically different, we are around the globe as human community, as a human race. How do we take a lens that is, of course, rooted in those particularities that enables us to see with the consistency and with a certainty that love of God. So I am absolutely clear that God loves all of us. The challenge is for us, in fact, to notice, acknowledge, and be able to articulate and respond to that love.
Dr. Dreff: It's quite powerful. Yes. I agree. I agree with you. And I do love starting with this question because I do think luckily, it is an easy answer. So as a Christian ethicist, how do understand the love of God?
Dr. West: Yes. Well, I want to say something personally and just start with my own journey and what I would say, faith walk, and my faith walk and my endeavor effort to respond to God's love just as I was just describing it. So there's an easy yes, but I'm complicating it with, but however, the difficulty is in, what does that mean? How do we actually, given how diverse we are, and also given how all the many, many ways that we enact harm and hate, how do we really have a sense that we understand God's love? So I want to say personally, it's important for me to acknowledge that for me, God's love is always experiential. It's never a theory in Christian ethics. There's a lot of conversation. There's a lot of writing about other regard, and it's not a theory for me personally, of other regard and how one regards the other and how God and how other regard reflects who God is, has an understanding of love.
It has to do with something that beckons. God's love calls. God's love is always creative, generative. It's never, for me in my personal faith work, walk, something that's captured, that's owned that is specified in a way that's finite. There's the First Corinthians chapter 13 chapter about love, that's often, unfortunately only used in weddings, and also there's a section of it that's almost never read, that's either skipped over when it's used in weddings about the ways in which there's all these definitions of love. And then it switches, almost oddly, to what it is to mature, to know as a child, and then to become more mature, how partial that we never really know or understand. And to me, I love that notion of, I never completely know what love is and what God's love is. And so I'm beckoned into this ongoing discovery.
The last thing I want to say, which is most important, is for those of us who are Christians. When I say it's experiential, where do we get an understanding of what that means? The gospel. It is always, always, always gospel based. Stories of Jesus and how Jesus interacted with people touched people's lives, how people touched Jesus' life, the kind of leadership, the kind of agrarian context, fishing stories, just the concrete lived ways in which embrace takes place in the gospel. And more specifically an agenda that has to do with liberating, those most, most marginalized and stigmatized. And those that you would think, why is Jesus spending time? And the disciples asked, why is Jesus spending time with her? Like, she's a nobody, right? Why is Jesus thinking about listening to this woman who's challenging him about receiving the crumbs under the table and Jesus is listening, right? So there's all of these, all of these understandings about those who are at the extreme margins that formulate the agenda of the lived experience of God's love, right?
So it's not this theoretical thing up here for Christians, it's lived. And where do we go to see what that experience looks like? We go to the gospel.
Dr. Dreff: I love the way that you capture that and give us that visualization. When, so often when I try to explain the experience of the love of God, it is such a hard thing to wrap words around because it varies from person to person, from place to place, from context to context. But what you're capturing is at the core, right? It is always almost this reciprocal relationship. You can't experience the love of God on your own. You have to, not only have kind of this reciprocal relationship with the love of God, but also of others, right? It has that, that outward component that when you feel and experience, God's love, you have to let it out. You have to share it with others. And especially those who are on the margins.
Dr. West: Yes. Yes. And I would even go so far as to say, because I'm, because you're describing sort of like this love of God and love of others. I'm a very, a person who uses their hands. So I'm like, yes. So there's a visual. So for me, I would even say that I experience God's love in relationship. And so the gospel leads us to say, okay, well, how do we recognize what the living out of God's love consists of?
It's in those relationships that Jesus is in, Jesus' mission, and ministry, and interaction. So the vertical for me is always in the horizontal. I don't know where this notion of God, that has nothing to do with how I treat you or experience you, I don't know where that, where that love, where that love might exist, what plane it might exist on. That has nothing to do with the ways in which I treat you, you treat me. So a deeply experiential understanding is really crucial for me.
Dr. Dreff: So how do United Methodist then understand the love of God?
Dr. West: Oh, okay. Well, I should be able to answer this question. I was sprinkled as an infant. I did Methodist and grew up with a really strongly devoted, dedicated Christian mom for whom we spent from the time I was very little, every single Sunday in church. And, and as much of the day as we could get in, as she could help us to get in, including sometimes going to worship twice and hearing the same sermon every single Sunday. So I really feel that United Methodists, again, I have to look at speaking from my context, because United Methodists are all over the globe.
So my context is a U.S., U.S.-American context. And so when I, when you ask me about United Methodists, I want to say United Methodists have understood the love of God as meaning that Africans and those of African descent are inferior pieces of property, and the love of God calls them to stand with enslaving those human bodies and understanding them as property. United Methodists have understood the love of God as being about the innate superiority of white people that entitles them to segregation. That entitles white people to be segregated from anyone who is black or brown and to maintain their innate superiority.
The Methodist Episcopal South strongly fought hard for a really long time - in fact, you can tell me better than I can tell you how long - fought hard for, that as an expression, a United Methodist expression of the love of God. United Methodists have fought hard and long, and most recently in the traditional plan to maintain that the reflection of the love of God is that heterosexuals are innately superior, innately superior, to those who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, asexual.
And so for those of us, especially those of us like myself who identifies as black and a woman, I have to understand that United Methodism, United Methodists, as individuals and collectively, institutionally, has really strongly tied itself to notions of innate superiority of certain groups of people and, including innate superiority of men, for a very long time.
And I want to say interpersonally, so institutional notions of superiority, it's very important to me that we understand that United Methodists individually in their intimate lives have interpreted the love of God as being expressed in abuse, in sexual violence, in the right of a husband to literally emotionally torture his wife, to literally sexually assault his daughter, his niece.
So, United Methodist understandings of how the love of God is expressed, is experienced; we have to tell the truth of those realities. And the consequences, in my view, of being silent about the deep hypocrisy, the consequences are just too costly. Too costly for those who are humiliated, and stigmatized, and devalued, and institutionally understood as devalued, as well as interpersonally understood as having innate lack of worth, unequal worth.
So United Methodist understanding of the love of God, also for some United Methodist has been a resource that in fact, enables a sense that God stands with those who are stigmatized, and humiliated. And that God really presses, the love of God presses for, as my colleague Mark Miller would say, drawing the circle wider and then drawing it wider still. So as an ethicist, you see, I'm always wanting to go specifically to the ways in which our understandings of the love and of God are lived out, but particularly to the harmful consequences.
What are the consequences? What are the ways in which we might pronounce love, announce love in our prayers, pray about God's love, give God thanks. White slave masters, every single Sunday gave thanks to God for God's love and how much God loved them. Even as, later in that day, they might rape their black woman slave.
So that kind of hypocrisy is a really important way in which we have to understand how crucial it is to think about how is the love of God lived out in ways that actually, actually the consequences, particularly for those who are most marginalized and stigmatized, are actually hate and actually hateful, destructive, destruction.
So that's a really broad response to your question, but it is one that I think allows us to be truthful about how United Methodists understand the love of God in our practices. And especially the ways in which we understand the love of God in practices that harm, as well as practices that support wellbeing and flourishing and equal human dignity and worth.
Dr. Dreff: Thank you for that, Traci. As a historian, this is where I love the overlap of our fields. I think that the primary job of a historian is to hold contemporary and future societies accountable to our history. And that is not making a shiny beacon out of our history and making ourselves look good for the sake of, of looking good, but holding ourselves accountable for the harm that we've done. Often times in the name of God.
Dr. West: Yes, yes, yes, yes. And, and just remind me how long potential jurisdiction and segregation, how long was that period? Again, the Central Jurisdiction was established in M.E South And M.E North, existed for quite a long period of time. Is that right?
Dr. Dreff: So the M.E South and the M.E.C North split in 1844, and they came back together in 1939. And that's when we see the creation of the central jurisdiction and it's not officially dissolved and its entirety unitl 1968.
Dr. West: 1968.
Dr. Dreff: Yeah, and The United Methodist Church.
Dr. West: So that's a considerable period of time of United Methodist commitment to segregation. Right? Wouldn't that be of really cons- and so for me to say United Methodist reflected the love of God in a way that erases that history, that really long period of time that was lived out at such great cost, such great cost to Black United Methodists, or what I'm calling United Methodist. I know that's historically an anachronism, that would be a lie. I'd be standing up here lying. And so that's why it's really helpful in fact, to me, to have you give some of that detail so that we can include that in the kinds of claims we're making about this ethical ideal of love.
Dr. Dreff: So, Traci, what if I don't agree with somebody? What if, what if I don't agree with their politics or their theology? How does that affect my ability to express the love of God towards them, or to understand the love of God kind of on my own, in my own experience?
Dr. West: Well, I think that what I want to focus on is not simply disagreement. In other words, you can say that the absolute best dessert is apple pie. And I can say the absolute best dessert is chocolate cake. And we can disagree about that, very passionately, perhaps. So it's not merely disagreement. In my view, what matters most is what are the ways in which I want to impose who I am on you in a way, in a way, that makes me more important to God and makes you less important? Right? So that's the piece that matters, right? So it's not only am I imposing, but I'm imposing in a way that says God, like the arguments with Jesus and the gospel about who's first, who's going to be sitting closest. Like look...I know I am the one sitting closest to Jesus, right? You're way, even if you're, if you're even at the table, you're way down there. I know that the love of God means me first because I am better. And so what I understand about who God is, is a reflection of me. So God's love is really just a mirror, and it's not just a mirror of how I look, and who I am, and what I have, and what I own, and what advantages I have. It reinforces my right to impose on you, that you are less than. You don't have the kind of moral worth and dignity. You're not entitled to God's love in the way in which I am. And that to me is the problem that we have to find a way to recognize the deep sin in my need to see myself as superior or your need to see yourself as superior, and then impose that with a divine imprimatur.
So you not only impose it, but you say, and God reflects my need to see you are less. God is encouraging me to make sure that we institutionalize that, that we in our intimate relationship live out your inferiority and my superiority, right? It's never just about humiliating or just about saying, there's a stigma attached to your identity, right? White people are interested in saying white people are superior, are smarter, have created more ideas in this world, are the central theologians. Their heritage from Europe is the most important, is classic, right? It's about superiority, right?
And the same in the struggle we're having right now over equality. Now, you thought I was going to say sexuality, I'm going to say over equality right now in the church that has to you with heterosexuals asserting that they're superior or those who understand themselves as cisgender, as their gender, that they understand that they have right now matching the gender they were assigned at birth. That means they're innately superior to those who are transgender. So, that's the place where I want to say the church then becomes an instrument, a weapon in the name of God. And in this case, in the name of God's love, of creating hierarchies that diminish and in fact, perpetuate hate. And at the same time, perpetuate a way that keeps in place an entitlement to have that hate continue through our practices, our practices in the church.
So that's where I would want to bring our attention. I would want to invite us to have attention, to have a way of transforming, transforming, because that is the tradition. That's the tradition of the church. As I was talking about in terms, slavery and segregation, that's the tradition of the church, but might we transform. Might we transform and let go of that traditional plan of perpetuating hate in the name of God's love.
Dr. Dreff: Well, thank you so much, Traci, for your wisdom and speaking your truth and letting us learn alongside you. And it's truly been an honor and a privilege. Thank you.
Dr. West: Thank you. It's truly been an honor and a privilege to be able to be in conversation with you, Ashley. Thank you for inviting me.