Q&A with Monica Coleman
Throughout the year, SPU invites many diverse voices and viewpoints to our campus to talk with students, faculty, and staff about contemporary issues. Professor of Africana Studies Monica A. Coleman teaches at the University of Delaware and is an ordained elder in the African Methodist Episcopal Church. She spoke to the Seattle Pacific community earlier in the academic year. We are pleased to share excerpts this month from an interview she granted during her visit to our campus.
Christians work hard at having it all together, or at least presenting that appearance. Why do you think Christians are so reluctant to acknowledge brokenness?
I don’t think it’s just Christians. I think it is also true for people who are coming from marginalized communities … people of color, immigrant communities. There’s a sense that if you show weakness, then it will be exploited even more than the ways in which you’re already experiencing bias, discrimination, or oppression. There’s definitely that sense of “Never let them see you sweat” that we hold onto culturally in many communities.
For Christians, there is an overlay on top of that — this sense that because we are saved, we should be happy Christians, and we should always have it all together because Jesus saved us, and so we’re going to go to heaven. We’ve got to model for other people that this is the life we’re inviting them into.
This is a very evangelical thing, right? Sharing our faith is showing how good our lives are because we’re Christians. And if you were a Christian, your life would be good, too.
It’s the idea that if Jesus is in your life, and if you pray enough, if you pray right, if you’ve done your Christianity right, everything should be good. It doesn’t take a whole lot of deep thinking to see the converse, and say, “Well, if everything isn’t good, is it because I haven’t done my faith right? Is it because I’m not saved?”
We want to make it seem as if everything is good even when it’s not. It’s a way we deal with theological dissonance: “If my theology says this is how I should be but my experience is different, then I’m going to pretend my experience matches my theology,” as compared to maybe changing your beliefs.
When evangelicals come to their faith that way and then something bad happens, what then?
The philosopher Alfred North Whitehead says, “All religious dogma is shipwrecked on the problem of evil.” Deep suffering and the problem of evil are where the rubber meets the theological road. If our theology hasn’t given us the tools to really manage that, a couple of things happen.
People try to fake the funk. They pretend they’re OK when they’re not. People lose faith: “Well, I want none of this.” Or people change what they believe.
We, as faith communities, don’t give people the tools for managing what really happens along their spiritual journey. We don’t give people tools for changing their faith. We’re like, “This is how you’re supposed to believe.” As if the belief you had when you were 5 is the same belief you should have when you’re 25.
We don’t say that faith evolves or changes. We don’t teach people that, not only does it change, but you can also lose your faith — that it actually can be part of the spiritual journey. Who hasn’t lost their faith at times if they’re really honest about it?
We make all the things that are very human and normal parts of our spiritual journey into things that don’t happen. “Losing your faith is bad,” “Doubting your faith is bad,” as compared to, “No, that’s normal. It’s human. It’s part of the spiritual journey.”
When people don’t have the tools to manage that … that’s where I like to come in. “Hey! I’m a theologian. There are different ways to be faithful. There are different ways to be a Christian.” Most of us just only know one way, the way we inherited, the way we’ve been taught.
There are other ways that validate and liberate me in the issues that I’m dealing with.
What can communities of faith do when they have deep philosophical differences? We’re all reading out of the same Bible but coming to different conclusions.
I think it depends on the level of disagreement. I’ll give you the analogy of being in a marriage. The first time you argue over the dishes, you’ve made a commitment and so you try to work it out like, “Well, can we come up with a chore chart?” But we also know that if you’re in a marriage and there’s abuse, well, maybe that can’t be worked out. Maybe that’s not a safe place to be.
When the disagreements reach the level of, “I’m denying your humanity here. I don’t see you as valuable,” we just can’t rock together. This is not healthy. Does it mean you’re a bad person when you can’t agree? Probably not. Does it mean God doesn’t love you? No. But it means maybe we shouldn’t be in relationship if we have such deep divisions that we cannot treat each other well, with dignity, with respect, where there is just a fundamentally different way of seeing not only how the world operates or how God operates, but some fundamental differences about how we should treat each other. So, break away.
If we think about communities like the United Church of Christ, they broke. Then they reunited 100, 150 years later. Some people didn’t get to see the reunion in their lifetime. They didn’t know groups would reunite. They didn’t know people’s minds would change. Maybe a generation had to die.
Some things repair in time, but they don’t just magically repair. There are people who are working on it: communicating, dialoging, and staying in relationship amidst these differences. Society changes. People’s consciousness changes. Awareness of different things change.
I think of things even in my lifetime, like how scary AIDS was. Or, when I teach my college students about women in Christianity, they can’t imagine there not being women clergy. I never saw women clergy when I was growing up. It was this huge struggle, but to my students, women clergy are just normal.
Maybe that took 20, 30 years to happen, but it’s also because a lot of people were fighting, protesting, arguing, and splitting for 100 years before that, for my students to now say, “Of course women can be clergy. Of course we’ve seen women ministers.” So, some of it might be time.
If we say, “We’re committed to not breaking,” it might mean we have to do some major restructuring, which means we might have to change who’s in power. Maybe we have to change the leadership. Maybe we have to change where we put our money and what our priorities are.
What advice do you have for students who are activists, who are motivated for change, and by their very age, very interested in seeing things change and turn over?
Man, protest away! So many amazing movements come out of student protests. Historically, we’ve created entire academic disciplines when students mobilized. My field of Black studies comes from student protests from 1968. Same with women’s studies. We think about all the anti-war movements, anti-apartheid movements. These came from students.
Usually, it’s because they had one or two faculty members somewhere who taught them something that made them go, “Hey! Wait a minute.” We talk to them about politics. We raise their consciousness around different issues, and then go, “Hey, protest.” Try to get your homework done, but this is what students and young adults do, and they do it well. They don’t need as much sleep!
Do you ever tell students to temper their expectations so they’re not disillusioned?
I hope they run with the idealism! I mean, they’re going to be disillusioned, but why tell people about it? People have to have their optimism and idealism. That’s how change happens. We have enough realists who are going to come in and say, “Ah! But the budget!” And then people have to say, “But this is what we’re called to do.”
There’s an eschatological ideal that we call the “Kin-dom of God.” We know we’re not going to see it in its fullness here, but we’re supposed to fight to see glimpses of it, as much as we can, to see pockets of it, to see places where we can live into those ideals. And even if we fail, we’re still supposed to be striving for it. Not that older people can’t do it. Most certainly, they can. But young people do it great. And if this is what they’re feeling, they should.
In a lot of your writing, you’ve touched on topics that have been rather taboo topics for the Christian community: mental health, sexual and domestic violence, religious diversity. What’s that been like?
There were plenty of negative things that people said about me in the communities in which I was doing these kinds of ministry. Luckily, I didn’t know it all at the time. I knew some of it. And it hurt, especially when they’re people you respect, or elders of your community.
There has always been some level of negative judgment about it. This is why people don’t speak out. For me, there was always just enough more affirmation that I was on the right path, or just because I knew, “Well, this person got to see something differently,” or “This person got to have a different experience of faith or of God because they heard me say something.” That would keep me going.
As I’ve gotten older and kept doing this work, I found people who are like, “I know it’s important, and I’m not in a position to say this, so I’m going to ask you to come say it to my community.” I can be the person who starts that conversation in a community, and thereby maybe empower local communities to have more conversations.
When I did my book tour for Bipolar Faith, I wanted to go to large Black churches because communities of color struggle with talk about mental health, more so than white communities. Black churches have been a place where people bring all their problems, even ones that churches can’t help, so it’s also been a good to get churches to partner with local mental health advocacy organizations and the therapists and social workers in their communities. I was very insistent: “We can’t just break open the topic and then leave people. We’ve got to make sure they have a place to get resources.”
As you’ve gone to these churches, have people shared their testimonies with you?
Yes, it’s really an amazing privilege and a joy to be the bearer of other people’s stories. Some of them have been very harrowing, especially stories I’ve heard from adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse and what they have experienced, particularly at the hands of their own family members. Those are hard to hear. I’ve also been told, “I’ve had this experience, and I’ve never heard anyone talk about it before, and now I have.” Or, “I know this is not something I have to hide anymore.” And those very much stick with me.
(This interview has been condensed for space and brevity.)
Monica A. Coleman spoke at the University’s 20th annual Day of Common Learning on Oct. 7, 2021. In her keynote address, “Unbreakable: Unifying Principles of Long-Lasting Communities,” she described how we can form resilient communities by learning to live amidst broken pieces, how we repair, and how we become stronger at our fissures.
She focuses on the role of faith in addressing critical social and philosophical issues and believes spiritual activism leads to social activism. and shares principles for growth and liberation to help change the world to be a more just place.
She is a Harvard graduate and holds a master of divinity degree from Vanderbilt and masters and doctoral degrees from Claremont Graduate University. She spent over 10 years in graduate theological education at Claremont School of Theology and Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago.
Coleman is the author or editor of six books, including Bipolar Faith and Making a Way Out of No Way. Her books are required reading at leading theological schools across the U.S. She speaks widely on navigating change, religious diversity, mental wellness, and surviving sexual and domestic violence.
The Day of Common Learning is a campuswide event in which students, faculty, and staff have the opportunity to engage in deep thought and conversation around a topic of interest and concern.