The Very Rev. Kelly Brown Douglas: ‘There is no health or well-being that can come from trauma’
by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service
LOUISVILLE — The Very Rev. Kelly Brown Douglas, the recipient of the 2023 Grawemeyer Award in Religion, explained to a large crowd gathered in Caldwell Chapel at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary Thursday why hope is so urgently needed today as the United States struggles to escape from what the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. called “the quicksands of racial injustice.”
Douglas, Dean of the Episcopal Divinity School at Union Theological Seminary, Professor of Theology at the seminary and Canon Theologian at the Washington National Cathedral, won the $100,000 prize following the 2021 publication of her book, “Resurrection Hope: A Future Where Black Lives Matter.” The award is made jointly by LPTS and the University of Louisville and features an address by the honoree, who said she wrote her book to answer questions her son kept asking her: How do we really know God cares when Black people are still being killed? How long do we have to wait for God’s justice?
Watch the 75-minute event here. The program is here.
“I will never forget an incident that took place during my son’s middle school years,” Douglas said. A white girl at the school accused him of “abusing her with language I doubt he knew,” she said. Two Black teachers said it didn’t happen, but her son faced suspension anyway, and Brown was called to the school. The girl’s mother said she thought Brown’s son was being truthful, and he was not suspended, although there was no apology made and no consequences for the girl. She was permitted “to falsely accuse a Black boy of something knowing she could probably get away with it, and she almost did. This type of incident is not unusual,” Douglas said, noting that courtrooms have a long history of Black people’s testimony “not being taken seriously or invalidated, especially if countered by a white person’s testimony.”
There’s no denying the “prevailing white gaze,” which “sets the standard for whose knowledge is accepted, the normative story, the privileged gaze through which all public knowledge is to be assessed, whose truth is to be believed,” Douglas said. To Douglas, there’s no better example than The New York Times’ 1619 Project, which “placed Blackness at the center of the story. It was attacked as racist propaganda and caricatured as un-American, unpatriotic and even treasonous.”
Beyond the moral harm that white gaze inflicts, “I have noticed similar harm to empathetic capacity,” Douglas said. How, she asks herself, can people not see Breonna Taylor and Tyree Smith as someone’s beloved child, that Black people “have dreams that need to be fulfilled. The lack of empathy was for me incomprehensible. I found it hard to comprehend how human beings could treat children with utter disregard, just because they are Black.”
Diminished empathy has “nullified the Golden Rule from being applied to Black people,” Douglas said. “It is an atrophy of empathy.”
The urgency of hope is even more pressing for religious leaders and scholars and for those who claim to be religious, according to Douglas. Is there more to life than “this finite understanding of justice and freedom?” To be identified as religious, the answer is yes, she said. “We are accountable to ‘the more,’ the more that is God’s freedom, justice and promised future. We are not to be gatekeepers to an unjust status quo.”
Rather than “passive wishful thinking,” hope is “concrete, active and formative,” Douglas said. “Hope is found in moments when the just future breaks into our practices,” and affirming Jesus is the Christ “is to recognize him as the bearer of God’s rule.”
“For us, to hope is to work to repair the breach between our unjust present and God’s just future,” Douglas said. “Hope shows up when we show up, standing against that which God opposes and standing up for that which God promises. It’s not about our intentions. It’s about our actions and commitments.”
‘There is no soil more fertile in which stereotypes can grow than the soil of separation and division.’
There is “nothing more urgent than to act when moral harm is being perpetuated on our children,” Douglas said, comparing modern efforts in several states to legislate what’s now acceptable curriculum with the work of the United Daughters of the Confederacy following the Civil War “to create living monuments to keep the Confederate cause alive” by distributing educational materials describing the “Lost Cause” interpretation of the Civil War.
Attacking and expunging the 1619 Project “is the 21st century version of what the UDC educational program was trying to do: perpetuate an anti-Black white gaze, which morally harms our children,” Douglas said. As long as the story passed along through generations remains “the same old story, it becomes virtually impossible to chart a different course for the future.”
“As much as there is movement in schools and in society to maintain the white gaze, it is up to religious leaders to stand in the breach,” Douglas said, “bringing those subjugated and marginalized stories to the forefront.”
By centering those voices, “we expand our empathetic capacity,” Douglas said. “There is no soil more fertile in which stereotypes can grow than the soil of separation and division. Where there is isolation, fear and prejudice take root, and one’s empathetic capacity is eroded.”
Jesus’ death on the cross was in solidarity with the crucified class of the day, Douglas said. “It reveals Jesus’ deep understanding and identity with their suffering and pain.” For this reason, Black people could sing with compassion hymns including, “Were You There.”
Douglas said she’s frequently asked where she finds hope. She tells people the same story she told her son, about her great-great grandmother, known as “Mama Mary,” who was born into slavery and died when Douglas was about 6. Those who came before Mama Mary “never drew a free breath, and yet they fought for freedom anyhow, a freedom they knew they would never see, but still believed it would one day become reality. It’s the freedom that is the promise of God’s just future.”
“I find hope in the actions of others, creating a future where Black lives will matter,” Douglas said.
During a question-and-answer time following her address, Douglas offered thanks to her friend and mentor, the Rev. Dr. James Cone, who opened the door to the Society for the Study of Black Religion for her. She remembers Cone, a fellow winner of the Grawemeyer Award in Religion for his classic book, “The Cross and the Lynching Tree,” telling her to “find your own voice. He never let that go,” Douglas said.
In response to a question about getting congregations to develop an active political critique of society, Douglas said even calling ourselves church “is aspirational. We need to live into what it means to be church. We need to live into what it means to be people of faith, not about doctrine or dogma. It is to really believe in the promise of God’s just future, and so you partner with God to make that future a possibility. That’s faith.”
The Christian church “has the doggone crucifix at the center, and we need to start acting like it,” Douglas said. “Jesus wasn’t crucified because he prayed too much … I don’t even know how you can claim to be church and not be political,” she said to applause. “Remind your church about the cross. That’s the center of our faith.”
In addition, “We need to make sure we aren’t with the folks saying, ‘Crucify him,’ but with Jesus on the cross in solidarity with those being crucified,” Douglas said, commending Cone’s book to anyone who’s not yet read it.
“The first step to helping anyone through their trauma is recognizing it and getting to the root of it,” Douglas said, noting that “more and more people” are now talking about racialized trauma. A Harvard study published last month by the American Journal of Psychiatry highlights how structural racism may affect brain development and psychiatric disease in Black and white children.
“Churches need to realize there is this legacy of racialized trauma,” Douglas said. “Also, we have to recognize there is no health or well-being that can come from trauma. Suffering brings trauma. We have to name that and know that.”
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Categories: Racial Justice, Seminaries
Tags: 2023 grawemeyer award in religion, episcopal divinity school at union theological seminary, louisville presbyterian theological seminary, rev. dr. james cone, very rev. kelly brown douglas
Tags: 2023 grawemeyer award, 2023 grawemeyer award in religion, award in religion, black, black people, brown douglas, douglas, empathetic capacity, empathetic capacity douglas, grawemeyer award, grawemeyer award in religion, health or well-being, kelly brown, kelly brown douglas, louisville presbyterian theological, louisville presbyterian theological seminary, presbyterian theological seminary, soil of separation and division, theological seminary, white gaze
Ministries: Theological Education, Gender, Racial and Intercultural Justice