As protests erupt across the globe in the middle of a pandemic, one scholar says a “crack in time itself” must be used to see “hidden corners of our social landscape” and find new ways to bring God’s vision into the world.
This was the challenge posed to more than one hundred theologians by Stephanie Coontz, director of research and public education for the Council on Contemporary Families, during her opening address on May 28 at the 2020 College Theology Society (CTS) annual meeting, which took place online for the first time in CTS’s 66-year history.
Participants gathered in Zoom rooms for keynotes and papers, dropped into a virtual lobby to replicate the informal conversations that usually occur between sessions, and participated in a Vespers service with a Canadian Dominican community via livestream.
Drawing from Stephen Vincent Benét’s 1928 poem John Brown’s Body, which speaks of “an unfathomed force that suddenly will not have it any more” that moves against “an image that has stood so long it seems implanted as the polar star,” Coontz kicked off the conference by urging theologians to rise to meet a pivotal moment marked by COVID-19, deepening wealth gaps, and racism and immigration crises.
Noting the “extraordinary poverty of moral discourse in this country,” Coontz warned of the human tendency to allow consciences to be “lulled back to quiet” in the face of inequalities if those inequalities benefit oneself or one’s family, a dynamic she argued cuts against the “radical way the Gospels demote family loyalties.”
The two-day conference was called “Human Families: Identities, Relationships, and Responsibilities.”
Victor Carmona, assistant professor of theology and religious studies at the University of San Diego, took his colleagues through what he later described to Crux as a “theological-ethical reflection that is true to the despair that many undocumented immigrants and their families have been living with for decades” during his May 30 keynote address.
“Their despair is reasonable,” he added. “Our country’s relationship with immigrants is broken.”
Having laid out America’s long, sordid history when it comes to immigration policy, Carmona urged his colleagues to take concrete action steps to be agents of healing and solidarity.
“In your classrooms, teach our immigration history, even if briefly; in your writing, challenge our false narratives; in your ministry, open hearts to friendship with undocumented immigrants and their families,” he said, noting that while “conversion is not assured in our lifetime,” he still has hope because “it’s possible in God’s time.”
For Mary Doak, president of CTS, Carmona’s address exemplified the weekend’s recurring theme. “Coming up over and over,” she told Crux, “were the ways our teaching can either embody or interrupt injustices, inequalities, exclusions, and oppression.”
“As a professional society,” she continued, “we want to commit ourselves to continuing to focus on how we can be more responsible in dealing with exclusions and structural support for the injustices we decry.”
Sister LaReine-Marie Mosely, an associate professor at Notre Dame of Maryland University and CTS board member, told Crux that the virtual gathering and the days that followed were an experience of the racial solidarity that Father Bryan Massingale has called for in his book, Racial Justice and the Catholic Church.
“It was a grace for me to be among friends as we faced the reality of the wanton disregard for black life,” Mosely said in reference to the timing of the conference, which unfolded as communities took to the streets in cities across the United States in protests over the death of George Floyd after a police office had knelt on his neck for over 8 minutes.
Organizers added a last-minute open discussion on race to the event’s agenda, drawing more than fifty theologians for frank conversation about their role in the struggle against racial injustice.
Some theologians even slipped away from their computers at times during the weekend to attend local protests. Kelly Johnson, the Father William J. Ferree Chair of Social Justice at the University of Dayton, told Crux that following a morning conference presentation on Howard Thurman, she “grabbed up a mask, a water bottle, and my Black Lives Matter sign” and joined some of her colleagues for a protest in Dayton.
Later that same night, Johnson was back on Zoom for the conference’s final social event. “My professional network makes me a better scholar and teacher,” she explained. “But it is a privilege that I get to choose to network with them and to reflect on the complexities of racial injustice and social change, while a mile away people are in the streets, in fear and pain and anger, trying to demand their right to breathe.”
The leadership of CTS issued a statement on U.S. racism that Mosely described to Crux as a challenge for theologians to “work for racial justice and to name and engage white supremacy in all its forms.”
The statement said members of CTS “stand in solidarity with victims of systemic racial injustice in the United States” and acknowledged their “professional and moral responsibility to expose and reform Christian theology that supports and justifies white supremacy.”
Confessing that “white privilege has been operative” in their professional society, CTS pledged to increase its efforts to “become more inclusive of persons of color” and announced the themes of its next two annual gatherings as steps in that direction.
In 2021, CTS theologians will tackle theological anthropology as they debate “The Human in a Dehumanizing World.” The following year, they will gather to analyze “Racism and the Church.”