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November 05, 2021
Unholier Than Thou

In This Episode

And now for something a little different. This week, Phill is joined by a panel of great thinkers, writers, and theologians to tackle a big question: What role does Christianity have in an increasingly secular America? Do we need it? Does it leave room for those of marginalized identities? Does it welcome those who might have left and want to come back? Can it eschew its imperial past and embrace those it has harmed? It sounds heavy, but you’d never know it from the all the laughter.



Jacqui Lewis

Meggan Watterson

Darnell Moore

Erica Williams




Jacqui Lewis: So I would say I’m post-Christian, but I’m still Jesus. Because until Christian stops meaning white hegemonic, white supremacy, leave church lynch the people, stone the queers, hate the women, rape the women, send the children back and to be molest—when Christian stops being that, I might reclaim it. But I’m post-Christian, and I’m still a Jesus follower.


Phillip Picardi: From Crooked Media, this is Unholier Than Thou. I’m your host, Phillip Picardi. So one thing about being at Harvard is that they make us read a lot, and it’s not exactly a fun kind of reading. We’re reading Marx, honey, we’re reading Freud, we’re reading some guy named Schleiermacher. And there are explorations into things like secularism or colonialism, and many usages of really pretentious words like ontological and hegemony—which I mispronounced in front of like 100 people as “hege-mony”—and the ultimate div school professor’s favorite word, which is: normative. And the entire time I’ve been preparing for divinity school, I’ve been sharing that Jeff of Elle Woods like a little shit, you know, the one where she’s like, what? Like, it’s hard. And it turns out actually, it us. It is really hard. And I would curse, but I’m around reverends, so I will not curse in front of holy people. The good thing about hard work, though, and of course, the privilege of going to school as an adult, specifically in a school that is about answering life’s bigger questions, is that it really does make you think. And one of the things I keep thinking about, especially because I came here to divinity school to reclaim God for myself, is what role does Jesus play in all of this? What role does Christianity play in all of this? And this is relevant because Christianity, despite people leaving the pews year after year, is still the most dominant religion in the world. And how it got there is a complicated story. But let’s just say Christianity wouldn’t hold the power it still holds in society without being caught up in, and in many cases itself being a white, patriarchal power structure. So in school, we’re taught or we’re being taught to make the connections from Christian thought to colonialism, which in turn entangles Christianity with things like the transatlantic slave trade, which then entangles it with policing, which then entangles it with harmful governance around queer and feminine bodies and more. And it seems that year after year, more people are connecting Christianity with all the bad things in the world. Some people say that that’s because white supremacist and right-wing Christians have given Christ a bad name. Others say Christianity was rotten at its core to begin with. And these are intense blanket moral judgments to grapple with, but they are increasingly becoming at least a cultural reality that, at least in my eyes, modern Christianity has trouble grappling with in a meaningful and dynamic way. All the while, conservative Christianity continues to grip America, an America that imagines itself a secular. And we can just look at the Supreme Court’s recent ruling on abortion for evidence that secularism is indeed a myth of American society. So there’s this Audre Lorde essay from Sister Outsider that we had to read for our first week of Divinity School, and Lorde says the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. And I immediately thought, if this is true—and for the record, I do believe it to be true—then what does that say about all of us fighting to give Christianity a good name? In other words, in a more modern parlance, and a more Elle Woods kind of parlance, is Jesus still the vibe? So to help me grapple with this very big and very dangerous question, I’ve invited some of the people I respect the most in the faith space to hash it out with me. First, we have my fellow Harvard Divinity School, Masters of Religion and Public Life colleague the Reverend Erica Williams. Erica is doing incredible work with the Poor People’s Campaign, and uses her faith and womanist theology to achieve justice in the world for all.


Phillip Picardi: Welcome, Erica.


Erica Williams: Thank you. So honored to be here.


Phillip Picardi: Next up, my dear friend, the celebrated author of the groundbreaking memoir “No Ashes in the Fire” and a sought after speaker and intellectual, who also happens to look incredible in head to toe Prada: Darnell Moore. Hi, Darnell!


Darnell Moore: Hi. It is good to see you. I can’t stand you.


Phillip Picardi: I’m also honored to welcome Reverend Jacqui Lewis, a feminist theologian and the senior minister at New York’s Middle Church. Her newest book is “Fierce Love: A Bold Path to Ferocious Courage and Rule-Breaking Kindness That Can Heal the World.” Welcome, Reverend Jacqui.


Jacqui Lewis: Hey. Good to be with you.


Phillip Picardi: Thank you. And finally, a woman I’m deeply indebted to who we are welcoming back to Unholier Than Thou. Her Wall Street Journal-best selling book “Mary Magdalene Revealed” helped inspire me to start this journey at Divinity School. Her feminist vision of Christianity and the justice she seeks for Mary Magdalene and other rebels in Christian history are endlessly inspiring. Welcome Meggan Watterson.


Meggan Watterson: Thank you for having me. I’m honored.


Phillip Picardi: OK, so big questions today. We have a little bit of time to answer some very complicated questions, so I want to dive right in and I want to start by offering this to the group, whoever feels comfortable answering. And I want to start here because I think it’s important to start from a vulnerable place. So my question is, have any of you, similarly to me, lost faith in Jesus or Christianity at any point along your spiritual journey, or are any of you grappling with this feeling right now? And what did that feel like for you?


Darnell Moore: When I was at Princeton Theological Seminary, you know, I was warned, I was warned by some professors like, you’re going to go there, you’re going to like, lose your faith. And what I discovered while a seminary student, which is also a point in which I was really reconciling the, I like to call them the “theologies that kill” with “theologies that heal” particularly as it related to my personhood and my coming into myself as a Black queer person of faith who had been taught for so long that the God that they loved, the God that they sought, the God that they helped other people connect to, hated him, right? It was in seminary where I left the institutional church. Actually, I was suspended from my ministerial preparation, not because of my queerness, but because the church at the time said pretty much I was given too much attention—here it it—to my seminary studies, then I was to the church. I know, I know. Yeah. But it is a point where I left the institutional church, partly because I needed to heal myself. And it called, I called into question a whole bunch of things, not only sort of my relationship to Jesus, who I thought historical Jesus is, was, my relationship to Christian faith, and the  complicated questions I had asked and the complicated answers that I had found about it. And still, to this day, I find, I always say I’m spiritual and I ground myself as a church boy—I’m in some ways recuperating church boy—and so much of what I know to be good about the story of Christ in that I understand Christ as an example of someone who offers us radical possibility and what it might mean to sort of undo empire. All right? That, for me has been at the sort of, been a grounding for my own theology making and my own understanding of Christianity, in the same spirit in which Black folk within the context of the US empire has always queer theology, right, and queer by virtue of like deconstructing, raising it, developing new ways of thinking. So and I guess I’m answering the, and what did that feel like? It felt like—the borrow from the Bible stories, right, OK, fine preaching a little bit—but when we talk about the children of God, the Israelites in Old Testament stories who at some points felt the separation from, when God is absent, quote unquote, there’s this sort of feeling of this deathly experience of abandonment of isolation. And I experienced that when I left both the institutional church, meaning I left my entire community behind, and also a distancing between myself and the God that others had created for me. And that was like a funeralizing, mourning, grieving period that still have resonances today. But I feel much more like, after most funerals part of burying the thing is about becoming into a new sense of self and a new way of being. And in so many ways it’s been transformative.


Jacqui Lewis: I would love to to dive in the tail end of what Darnell shared, particularly the word queered, really resonates for me—a straight, mostly straight, I think—Black married woman who feels like I’ve been queered in my theological journey, particularly in New York. Yeah, I grew up as a Christian in the womb of the mother. Like, you didn’t have a choice. There were Southern Baptists. You drop into this family who become Presbyterian. I get it, that the Baptist Church and the Presbyterian Church are different, that there’s grace. I get it at seven when I take communion and I’m like, Oh my God, my mom says this bread means God will always love you. This cup means God will never leave you. And then I’m in search of that theology for decades. But that’s simple I love you, I won’t leave you—that’s not what you get, right? Especially as a girl child, you get: keep your panties up. You get, you know, don’t have sex. You get it: don’t, all the don’t know mo. And if you’re [unclear] you’re in the don’t know mos, you’re good and you’re Christian and you’re holy. No talk about justice really in the church. But my history, my great uncle George marched with Fannie Lou Hamer to register voters. Like my story, you know, James Chaney is buried in my father’s cemetery in Meridian, so that was in the blood. But like, I didn’t get it in church, radical love, revolutionary love. I didn’t get it in church. The love your neighbor means lay down on the ground and die in. I didn’t get it in the church, that you’re queer siblings are absolutely made in the image of God and beautiful and fierce, and love them. So I went on a journey in which I was able to keep Jesus. I don’t know if that makes sense. I got clear that Jesus was Black, Palestinian, poor, marginalized and really, my friend, like, save—friend. Yes. Like what a friend we have in Jesus. I got that young. So I was able to keep Jesus with me. Darnell, I was pushing and shoving outside of the box and trying to create a theology for myself that could work for me so I could authentically preach, authentically lead my community. So I would say I’m post-Christian, but I’m still Jesus. Because until Christian stops meaning white hegemonic, white supremacy, leave church lynch the people, you know, stone the queers, hate the women, rape the women, send the children back into molest—when Christian stops being that, I might reclaim it. But I’m post-Christian, and I’m still a Jesus follower.


Darnell Moore: I’m about to run around my house.


Jacqui Lewis: You know what’s with a shiny white baby on the Christmas card? No, hell no. No. Give me, give me Jesus. Fix me Jesus. Give me Jesus. Give me the one who rocked my great grandmother to sleep when she was, had been beaten by her master. Like, I’m with that Jesus and I’m post the other.


Erica Williams: Yes, Lord. The Saints done stirred me up in this place so I got to get in here now. And so at the end of the day, I’m exactly where you are all so this train is slowing and I’mma get on it and go. And so at the end of the day, I am exactly where you are. Reverend Jacqui, in terms of my view of the white, blue-eyed Jesus that my grandmother had in her bedroom, that version of Jesus died. But then I resurrected, as you said, that brown-skinned brother who I call him, Yeshua, he arose in me, and I began to search for him through the lens of my African spirituality context. And so I began to see that Jesus was an ancestor. As Reverend Dr. Melvin Sampson talks about how he was somebody who came back through a lineage of freedom fighters, who came into the world to bring this message of liberation. And so that resurrected for me when I hit a low, a low place in my life, when I almost wanted to commit suicide a few years ago. And I was like, I’m going to church every Sunday here preaching and teaching, but this shit ain’t doing nothing for me because I’m going back home still saying, how am I going to get free? How am I going to live a life that I believe Christ came in this Earth for all people to live? And so when I understood that Christ was connected to that African spirituality that I’m connected to, then I saw, OK, let me holler at these ancestors who came in my own lineage and be able to tap into their power and how they survived. Because I believe Jesus showed us when he said, excuse me, when he went to the mount of transfiguration, when Elijah and Moses showed up for him, he let us know my ancestors got my back. And so that’s what made for me the clear, clear distinction of that is what we have to see—Jesus was an ancestor. He was the African brother who knew that he had the power because of his lineage. And so that’s when I began to see Jesus in a different way. I began to see Jesus was a part of my lineage. And he was my ancestor. And that I had the power to go out and do the exact same work that he did.


Meggan Watterson: I’d like to say that, you know, for me, I was reluctant. I was, I never wanted to be, that church terrified me, seeing a cross was scary for me. I was raised by a flaming feminist and I had a beloved gay brother who, you know, was going through a lot of trauma in trying to come out. And so the idea of ever being Christian wasn’t, it wasn’t even something that I was, you know—well, I wasn’t even really allowed. I mean, my mom is a feminist. We were marching for women’s rights, you know, when I was just a teen and, but it was the body for me. It was what I felt. It wasn’t something I ever asked for or wanted. It was something that happened to me that I could feel. It wasn’t words. It wasn’t, it wasn’t even liturgy. It was being overcome. And listening to what I felt when I heard the truth, like when, when I experienced a love that was something, I mean, we talk about love, but it’s this is, that’s not it. This is this is radical, radical love. Love. And so for me, as a young girl with a history of sexual assault, to be in my body, to trust my body, to listen to my body, even when I didn’t want anything to do with what was happening to me, when you know, I would hear a, you know, a song about Christ or like when I would, you know, encounter something that would bring me into that state of Christ, I had to listen. And that, so to me, this path of knowing Christ had everything to do with learning how to actually be in my body and to trust my body, because the body never lies for me. And so it eventually led to scholarship because I wanted to figure out what was this Christ that was going on inside of me versus the Christ I met with when I went into a church. And the Christ I met with, you know, in the Christian right who had grabbed the microphone for what Christ was. And so I had to reconcile those two Christs. You know, the the blond Jesus and the Christ that was telling me we have to work and work and work at bringing this love that is the truths into humanity into, you know, bring it in a way that it has never been seen before, never been shown before. Like, and what I found, which was so you know, so powerful and unbelievable was that when I pieced back together the scripture that wasn’t included in the compilation of the canon in the fourth century, you know, scripture like the acts of Paul and Thekla, where you learn about Thekla who was ministering right alongside Paul. Everyone knows about Paul, but no one knows about Thekla. When you piece back together those scriptures, the gospel of Mary Magdalene, the Gospel of Philip, the gospel of Thomas, you see that, you know, rather than this blond-haired, blue-eyed Christ telling women what they can and cannot do with their bodies, Christ is this radical Middle Eastern man liberating all of us from the illusion that anyone outside of us could ever dictate our worth. And there was a power in that, that to this day inspires me and leads me and guides me and is what I’m here for, is that, you know, reconciliation of the Christ that’s presented by those who would like to hold power vs. the Christ that is a power that exists within every one of us, and it is called love.


Phillip Picardi: That’s a beautiful articulation. And thank you all so much for sharing and being vulnerable and sharing your stories. To bring it back to the Lorde quote, which was about the master’s tools not being able to dismantle the master’s house—but I feel like I’m hearing from everyone is that the church is the master’s house and y’all are not talking about using the master’s tools in that sense. That using what Christ originally taught is not actually what the church implemented and what the church is about. Am I hearing that right? So if we are following Christ, we can use Christ tools to dismantle the master’s house , which is this patriarchal institution of the church as it stands. Is that, is that fair?


Jacqui Lewis: I think it’s fair. And I think there’s other tools we’re talking about, too, right. I think, you know, when I hear Erica talk about, you know, through her African spirituality, I know Darnell’s story, I’m really just meeting Meggan, but I’ve read her work, I understand—so there’s other tools. And I think maybe what happens, love, is that we don’t feel liberated. We Christians don’t feel liberated to use other tools to give back to Jesus. Right? So this conversation, so Meggan says, you know, I ended up in scholarship. I think, I think we would say all of us did in a way. And so the tools were psychology, and the tools was narrative, and the tools was womanist writing, the tools was Katie Cannon and you know, Delores Williams. I mean, the tools were people who weren’t afraid to ask the questions. And then I find a tool called really Yeshua, really the Jewish rabbi. And I find him sometimes in Israel with rabbis, right? Like I find, I find him in extra-canonical books. So I’m going to say education is a tool that dismantles the parts of Christianity that a bad and, spirit is a tool and protest as a tool, and exploration is a tool, and rule-breaking is a tool, and radical love is a tool—that helps us to dismantle what has been erected in the name of Jesus.


Phillip Picardi: Erica, I’m wondering, as a reverend who’s working with the Poor People’s Campaign how obviously your goal and the goal of the Poor People’s Campaign is to help elevate, and also, I guess, help to liberate folks, especially folks who are living in poverty. Can you talk about how you’ve taken and you’ve learned what the church needs for someone who’s ordained, but then you’re living it in this way that is perhaps untraditional for a lot of folks who are in ministry?


Erica Williams: Yeah. So I yes, I’m grateful for the journey that I have had with the Poor People’s Campaign because, you know, I am truly in belief that the work of ending poverty is so critical. Like, that’s what Christ came to do. But I’m going in a route now. I’m preparing to launch this ministry call Set It Off Ministry. And so when I say, Set It Off, I hope all of you have seen the movie Set It Off that came out in 1996. This year is actually the 25th anniversary of the film. And so you see in that movie four Black women who were impacted by being low-wage workers, they were impacted by living in shitty housing, they were impacted by their sexuality being questioned and they being challenged. They had mental health crises that they were going through. They couldn’t afford to take care of their children. So here you got four Black women on display really showing exactly what was happening at that time. And I will still say happening at this time. And so not one time did F. Gary Gray in that movie show any emphasis of faith. I didn’t find. If anybody can find it, you come back and let me see it. He didn’t mention faith one time. No, no questions of religion or anything. And so I was like, it’s interesting that this movie Set It Off came out and not one emphasis on faith was put forth on the table. And so I began to think about something. I said, well, wait a minute, I believe when Yeshua was stepped on the scene, he said: the spirit of the Lord is upon me, for he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor, to the protocols, to the House of Bethany, those made poor by society, to heal the broken-hearted, to set the captive free, and to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord now—which met the Jubilee, the canceling of debt—and then he said, look here, the scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing today. They say, well, only the Messiah could say that. He basically said, looka here, looka here: I am he. And he went on [unclear] that thing off all throughout the towns and the regions. And so I put the parallels together. I said, Yeshua, that ancestor of mine along with these sisters from Set It Off, they got the revelation, they got the revelation, I believe brother Malcolm also got when he said: by any means necessary. And so that’s what I began to see, like, OK, these tools, they not going to come from being in a church. That’s what Fannie Lou Hamer, she said: Christianity ain’t about sitting up in the walls, it’s about being in the streets with the people. That’s where Jesus was. And so that’s why I’m on this mission now. We got to set some shit off, excuse me, preachers and teachers and theologians. We got to set some shit off in these streets because we’ve been too passive and the church has had too many people trying to be chaplains of the Empire and not prophets of God. And so we’ve got to sunderstand in this hour, it is clear, it is so clear—and I’m a Black queer woman, I take it real serious—I know that the church ain’t going to be the one to come along and save me, it’s going to be them sisters that set it off, like in that movie. It’s going to be folks like Fannie Lou Hamer. It’s going to be folks like, Prathia Hall. It’s going to be folks, like Jarena Lee. It’s going to be folks like Katie Geneva Cannon. It’s going to be folks like Reverend Dr. Jacqui Lewis, because that’s my blueprint from Black women. That’s what I’m following. And that is what I’m on my path of trying to use the tools Black women have used all along, making ways out of no ways to set this shit off.


Jacqui Lewis: I just want to come over there right now and sign up.


Darnell Moore: Sign me up too.


Phillip Picardi: Erica does this in class every day. It is—


Darnell Moore: I’m joining that ministry, stat.


Jacqui Lewis: Immediately. Put that stuff in your chat right now.


Phillip Picardi: Amen.


Jacqui Lewis: —you out, that’s powerful, sister.


Phillip Picardi: And I like it because what we’re talking about is sort of carving a new path for Christianity. And I think imagining the Christian future and what the Christian imagination can look like is the only place I’ve been able to find any sort of solace because as much as I wanted to come here and abandon Christianity and find a new faith to prescribe to and a new community to join or whatever—I’m like taking this class about Teresa of Avila, and I’m just like, shit, this is so cool. You know, like, I thought I was going to leave Christianity behind, and now Harvard has me rethinking that entirely. Like the fabric of my being is being really questioned here. And so I love thinking of what the Christian imagination is. I want to get to that, but first, I want to talk about, and I think it’s most important to talk about what accountability looks like for Christianity because we’re talking about a whole host of things. Christianity’s ties to Manifest Destiny also tie it to ecocide, right? Christianity is tied to the forced conversions of indigenous folks and other peoples all over the world, which is cultural erasure and cultural violence, right? Christianity is meddling in international politics to this day to enforce a Christian agenda that has curbed LGBTQ rights and women’s bodily autonomy. I mean, the list could go on and on as as all of you now. So in one way, I do want to talk about the future and what the future looks like in all of your eyes, your brilliant, beautiful eyes, but first, I want to say, or I want to really pose the question: what does Christianity need to do in order to help right the wrongs it has been a part, it has been a part of. And how do we, as individual actors or as communities, hold Christianity accountable? Because it seems like an impossible thing.


Darnell Moore: I guess I can jump in and say that I’ve been meditating a lot on a notion of an abolitionist theology, which to me ties both the use of the radical imagination to collectively think about future with the reckoning that one must do, that we must do, with all of the ways that we’ve come complicit, the church has been complicit in the maintenance of white supremacist, hetero-patriarchal, culture, politics, legislation, ways of being, for some time. So what I mean, and let me just name something and it’s been a thread in what I’ve been hearing: big shout out to the Black feminist and Black women Mariame Kaba and Ruthie Wilson Gilmore and Angela Davis and you can go back all the way to sort of like, you know, Frederick Douglass and so many other ancestors. W.E.B. Dubois, for whom abolitionism, you know, the grounds for how we think about an abolitionist politic right now we owe to so many people who have gifted us this. But one of the things that Ruthie Wilson Gilmore says about abolition and we can think about this in terms of an abolitionist theology is this, like abolition is not about just a destroying of the things that don’t work for us, right? It’s not just about, a lot of focus on like let’s get rid of the shit that ain’t working. Abolitionism really is about a re-imagining of what needs to go in the place of the things that have harmed us. Now, if that is not a type of—isn’t that faith? I always say abolitionist theology is a faith work. It is a imagining of what needs to be in the place of the systems and institutions that have done this harm. And if the church is at the center of that, right, it means we have to look at the church and reckon with this complicities. And not just complicities, but with its direct actions, and reckoning ties to sort of costly love and grace, which deals with accountability. And it means that we gotta eras the things that’s not working and collectively reimagine what needs to be in its place, what Robin Cully calls like using our radical imagination or our freedom dream to build it. So there work to be done there, and I think, I claim an abolitionist theology or an abolitionist approach or practice to sort of what we’re calling Christianity because it means inevitably, if we’re going to become a better version or a new version of what we need to be, we’ve got to do away with all of the things that have brought us to be, brought to bear and harmed folk and brought us to where we are right now.


Jacqui Lewis: I’m, I’m struggling with, I’m struggling with the word Christianity. I just want to say that again, not because I don’t believe in Christ. I do, absolutely. But I do wonder if we’re ever going to be able to get to the abolitionist theology to a real womanist ethic, to a real freedom liberation, liberative theology, to fierce love, which is the theology that I’m trying to be with, which is about dismantling and reconstructing. It is about critiquing, it is about disavowing, it is about confession. It is about being honest, honest, honest. And I’m not a linguist, I’m a theologian, and a psychologist, but words really matter. And so if we keep saying Christian and we don’t actually have a moment to pause and say what we mean by that and what we don’t mean by that, I just want to offer that for all of us as how to, what else could we do? What else could we call it? I just, I”m scared of us continuing to use that word, and I don’t know what the new one would be, but I would say, I would say that requires a holy imagination. I just would think it would require imagination to describe the thing better that we do want to cause, you know, to have happen, to give birth to. The last chapter of this book, I end up going like, I am trying to convert you. I am trying to proselytize you. I am coming for you. I am. Don’t let me pretend like I’m not. Love is the way, the truth and the life. And no one comes unto God except through love. So I don’t, like if my tribe are Jewish people get it. If my tribe is Muslim people who get it. If my tribe is atheists or Buddhists who get it, I’m good with them being in my tribe. I’m good with that. I’m good with who knows how to love fiercely the way Erica and Darnell and Meggan do. Wo knows how to do that? Sign up. Let’s all be in that, that house. Please don’t fire me in my church.


Darnell Moore: No. Can I just say like, I love that so much? And for me, I’m so glad you said it, because I often say Christianity is plural, because is there is that Christianity that you name. But there’s also the Christianity of like Howard Thurman and like Black queer women, like, you know, so there are Christianity. And which version are we trying to get rid of and we re-imagine,


Erica Williams: Whoo, I just Fannie Lou Hamer is my patron saint. And I’m reading this book right now, The Revolutionary Practices of Fannie Lou Hamer. And I think about her. You know who she was a sharecropper down there in Ruleville, Mississippi. And she, you know, just, I mean, had it rough. I mean, we can even talk about how she was sterilized. You know how Black women down in the south, like their reproductive rights were taken. So just so many things. But Fannie Lou Hamer, you know, at the age of 43, came into this work of the movement when they did a mass meeting down there in Mississippi. And Fannie, who ain’t never went to, nobody’s, you know, seminary, she ain’t had no education, but Fannie Lou Hamer was very clear. She, she could preach better than any of the preachers. I mean, and I, and I struggle with Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, who I know we all love, but he also, you know, had some challenges. She wasn’t, well-learned in all that. So that’s a whole conversation about how patriarchy is just done so much in the name of Christianity. But however, Fannie Lou Hamer, the one who said I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired, she loved her Jesus. That woman stood flat-footed in her faith. And that’s what was allowed her to do the work that we don’t often talk about. Now, I’m so grateful for scholars like Keisha Blain and even, you know, Rev. Dr. Karen Crozier, who was bringing her story to the forefront because folks like that, we have got to hear that Jesus that followed. Like, I don’t want to get all into the politics of all of what it was, but I know it was something, as the song say: there something inside so strong—that made Fannie Lou Hamer stand flat-footed against America. I said to you last night Phillip, when she spoke at the Democratic National Convention, Lyndon Baines Johnson didn’t cut King off. He cut Fannie Lou Hamer off. Because he didn’t want America to hear this Black woman telling about how they were living down in the South because she got on there and said, is this America, the home of the free? Well, we have to cut our phones off because we can’t get any respite or any help down. I’m paraphrasing, but I say all that to say there was something in the power of Christ—and I don’t like the term Christianity—but there is something in that Christ that has enabled our ancestors to fight on, and to challenge this nation. So, so, so even the white folks have claimed it and they have taken it and used it as a as a form of oppression, damn it, it’s some Black folk who have survived and stood in the power of that revolutionary Christ and said to America: be what the hell you said you would be, and if you don’t, we coming for you, through the power of Christ.


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Phillip Picardi: Meggan, I wanted to also just offer the floor to you because a lot of what you’ve done in the wake of the publishing of Mary Magdalene Revealed is set up convenings for folks who connected with the book but who may not connect with so-called Christianity, right? And I was one of those people. I did not get a chance to go to the retreat that you organized, but there was a lot of people who are interested in the concept of the divine feminine, of serving justice to women who have been scorned by biblical or Christian theology. And a lot of that is central to your work of kind of rebuilding or challenging the imagination or creating a new imagination. So I wanted to hear your thoughts on this so-called Christian, or maybe not Christian, but ‘of Christ’ imagination


Meggan Watterson: That, that word, I was really moved with the, you know, that struggle with that word, ‘Christian’ and you know, for me, I’ve been called Christian, but I’ve never called myself Christian. I’ve always struggled with it because when I did do the research, when I did immerse myself in the Christ that I felt coming from within me or reaching me from within me, I really encountered a system, a radical system of belief that for the first four centuries, if you called yourself a Christian, you were killed. That’s how radical it was. Because you were such a threat to empire. You were such a threat to the whole idea of what it meant to be human. The Roman hierarchy was very entrenched in terms of who you were and then what your existence was worth, you know, and so that hierarchy with Caesar up there greater than God, there was no one greater or had more power than Caesar. And then slaves and women with their, no rights, no power down at the bottom. And for me, the Christ I was encountering in the scripture that had been considered, you know, non-canonical, apocryphal, you know, heretical—that Christ wanted to turn that hierarchy on its head and say, you know: the first is last and the last is first. That was the Christ I felt that I knew by heart. And when I had the scripture as well, I felt this sense of really believing that we actually haven’t tried Christianity out yet. Christianity was co-opted by empire when Constantine wanted, you know, this radical radical religion to be made into the empire’s religion. And then it changed, you know, then it became about power. So for me, I felt like, well, we haven’t really, in terms of an institution, witnessed that form of radical love. You know, the love that Perpetua, for example, was killed for by calling Felicitous the slave her sister. You know, and they were killed together for calling themselves Christians. And this was a form of belief, a form of knowing in Christ or moving where to love another person is to say that I have as much worth, as much rights, as much power, as that person and anyone who’s going to take that power away from me or my sister or my brother, you know, that is me. You know that is me. I cannot separate myself from that person. That, to me, is what I believe in. So I teared up when Reverend Lewis was struggling with that word because for me, it has been really real, because I am that, I am that, that would die in the name of that Christ. I am that. But to align myself in any way with the Christianity I encounter that, you know, practices the exact opposite of that, would be antithesis to, you know, it would contradict everything, every fiber of what I feel inside of me. So it’s a real struggle for me that I live. And this to me is, is worship, though. This to me, this conversation, what I’m experiencing in hearing each of you share, that to me is, it’s bringing that into life. It is making that manifest. It’s showing that it, you know, nothing good can ever be lost. You know?


Phillip Picardi: I loved the notion of abolitionist theology because it hits in a funny way on something that I was thinking about, which was how do you abolish the police and support abolishing the police, but also go to church on Sunday into a Christian environment, right? Like how do we want to topple the patriarchy but then worship a god, the father, right, or worship a male-centered religion? And these are just tensions that, you know, I think a lot of young people especially are feeling really innately, especially because for young people, the stakes feel really raised, right? We are going to inherit an Earth that is imploding upon us as we speak. We are maybe uniquely feeling some of the ramifications of just general existentialism. And I think that’s another reason why young folks are feeling a disconnect, or like this inability to walk into church or a connection to the church experience. And so it was kind of those things I had in mind when I was thinking about Middle Church too, right, and Reverend Lewis, what you’re doing at Middle Church. Because it’s such a radically different experience. And it does, similarly to Meggan, it does make me emotional because it’s like if I had met you when I was a kid, maybe I wouldn’t have left faith or spirituality, you know? Like, maybe I wouldn’t have left the pew. But obviously, you’re still part of the church, right? So even as you’re struggling with Christianity as a word, right, even as you’re nodding, your head as Darnell is talking about abolitionist theology, you’re still in the church, right? So, so how do you, how do you do it, right? Like how does it exist and what are you doing differently or what, what do you want to do differently? What are you working towards differently?


Phillip Picardi: Middle Church and I together make Middle Church. Like, I inherited this community from this white Dutch bell-bottom wearing professional clown named Gordon Dragt, who was the senior minister. He was all like, you know, very straight but totally LGBTQI loving and friendly and opened the doors to the church during the AIDS crisis and really just opened the door so everybody could come and everybody came. Everybody came. And then a guy named Jerriese Johnson, a Black actor, started the gospel choir. It was like Jerriese and the Pips: him and three white ladies singing. But they grew into this gospel choir. So I mean, what I’m saying ism it is Middle Church that has queered me, and it is Middle Church that has liberated me. It is Middle Church that has helped me find my theological center and voice and what I don’t do and what I do do, and what I feel and what I claim and what I keep. And if I could call it Middle something besides church, I would. So that it would not communicate at all a barrier to people. And so I do believe that our preaching and our teaching is very universalist, very multi-culty, very genderfluid, very like you like, Sunday, we sing is a Luther Vandross is, Homecoming Sunday. And one of my best baritones is singing “A house is not a home where there’s no”—I mean, we will bring you some Broadway, we will bring you some, you know, some African drums, we’ll bring you some dance and I’m not talking about hair flowing around, I’m talking tap, ballet. I mean, so art and justice and love meets each other at the Middle. And to create a radical welcome that if I could stay there for the rest of my life, I would never leave. And that I believe in. I believe in all of that. I just do. And they make it. They make it. The people who journey there and try to figure it out together, our young people in the pulpit loving each other, like, so, and it’s a movement right? 400 people joined us honey, curing COVID, from all over the world, Japan, Ireland, because people want that. So that’s what you want. That’s what I want. We want to feel safe,[unclear] we want to make a difference. We want everyone to have enough. We want everyone to be liberated. We want to abolish all the crap. That’s what we want, and if we got to call that church because we don’t have a better word, OK. But it’s community. And what’s the religion? The religion is the religion of Yeshua Ben Joseph. That’s the religion. But not only him, it’s also the religion of the Buddha, right? It just is. It’s not that we have a monopoly on goodness and love. So how do we do that together?


Phillip Picardi: Yes, I think that’s so important, right? And I love what you’re pointing to also. The initial question I asked in the Elle Woods voice was, is Jesus the vibe? And it’s funny because I think one thing we’re kind of hinting at or maybe getting at—and correct me if I’m wrong—is that it’s not that Jesus isn’t an answer and isn’t part of the solution, it’s just that maybe it’s not the whole solution. Maybe we need all of our collective wisdoms from all of our collective cultures and ancestry and upbringings to come together and find, and find the answer to the problems that we’re dealing with. And Christianity has felt essentialist and absolutist in its, in its way, right?


Jacqui Lewis: Not always.


Darnell Moore: Not always.


Jacqui Lewis: Right? So Jesus is the vibe, but also Ubuntu’s the vibe.


Darnell Moore: Yes.


Erica Williams: I am, because we are is the vibe. Deeply embedded in all of the world’s religions is “love your neighbor as you love yourself.” Do unto others as you’d have them do unto you. Don’t withhold from your neighbor what you want for yourself. One religion says, just don’t break anybody’s heart. We’re all African and this is African deep spirituality. That I am because you are. That’s what it is. And whoever that vibes, I think that’s how we’re going heal each other.


Erica Williams: I gotta get in here, Phillip. I’m sorry. [unclear] we can’t say African spirituality. I have to say this because Reverend Jacqui, you tapped this. Because, like even how I see was Set It Off is that it’s nontraditional. Like we going to, like our theme song for Set It Off is “Spirit” by Beyonce. Because that is symbolic nature of what we’re seeking to bring forward, like what’s inside of us to bring that power. You know, the emblem for it is a lioness, like it’s time for us lionesses to roar. And it was funny, I went to Kenya a few weeks ago and I went to the Nairobi National Park and I saw four lionesses. I knew that that was nothing but spirit saying to me, this is Cleo and Frankie and come on somebody, y’all know the folks in Set It Off. So connecting that. But I also say, I’ve got to bring in Oshun and I wear ocean around my neck because see, when I was at my lowest point in 2018 and I was like, really not knowing where the next day was going to come, because I was such in a deep depression, it was when I began to follow the name of Olodumare and calling on the name of Oshun that I began to tap into my own spirituality and own nature and was able to resurrect myself. And so that is why I’m so clear. Like when, when, when we do these church spaces, we you know, I love Middle Church, I love Middle Church for all the creativity you bring. But it’s so clear in this hour we’re now as we are, you know, in a new world, a whole new world. We can’t go back to business as usual. I don’t even know what people keep talking about normal. Leave that alone. We’ve got to tap back into some traditional practices. And so for Set It Off, that’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to have Bible studies, where we bring in the conversation of Audre Lorde, you know what I mean? And bring in the conversation, you know, of a Set It Off and let people see the film and see that and talk about political economy. It’s not going to be just we bring in and just talk about what the scriptures said because, you know, the scripture said it, but also Buddha might have said it, also Allah might have said it. Hell, also, your grandma might have said it because I see grandma as a primary source. And my grandma said a lot of stuff. I always tell people she had a 8th-grade education, but a Ph.D. in common sense. So at the end of the day, I’m going to bring in all the text so people can see. And it may be Cardi B one day, because Cardi sent a whole bunch of songs that have liberated me from my dark place and in my pit. So I think we have to re-envision it and see that there are primary sources all over that can get us to our liberation.


Jacqui Lewis: That’s very womanist. That is womanist. That’s what we’ve learned from our womanist, is that the texts that liberate us are everywhere: in our stories, in our music, in our art, and in our ancestors. And by the way, Ubuntu—and I’m going to shut up—I see you. You exist. That expression Sawubona [unclear]. When the Zulu people say, I see you, Sawubona, they don’t mean I. They mean, I, we. We, my ancestors? We are my people, we my angels, we my deities. All of this community sees you and your community. It’s not even singular in the vision, it’s plural right there.


Phillip Picardi: That’s really beautiful. There’s um, Erica and I are in a class together with Professor Jacob Olupona at Harvard, and it’s an African spirituality and the challenges of modern times class. And one of the things that we just visited this week in class was the concept of how nature and ecology is an essential part of spirituality. And this belief that many African traditions have that if you harm the Earth, that it’s going to cause a ripple effect, right? And it’s interesting to think that Christians once came to colonize and looked at that as heretical, right, and now we are living in a world of climate change. We are seeing that humans have made ripple effects that are causing global catastrophe, right? And so this wisdom was always right, right? And they always warned us and we never listened, right? And so it’s just it’s interesting to think about those things and to make those connections that when we invite other people to learn from their traditions and to share their traditions rather than forcibly convert them or see only from our way, we improve all of our vision, right? We we create a bigger and broader imagination. I want to end on a last question because we have five minutes left and I really do want this to be there. A lot of folks who listen to this show who message me that they haven’t been to church in decades or years, they’ve turned away from religion altogether, a lot of folks who listen who are atheist or agnostic at best. Obviously, that is their business if that works for them, I’m very happy for them. But I think they’re listening to the show because they’re curious about what it might mean to be spiritual in a sense that feels aligned with their politics, the way they exist in the world and who they are in the world. Would any of you like to share any words of wisdom for those folks? Any words of comfort in these times?


Darnell Moore: I’ll say that in my in my darkest hour, when I was most disconnected from the church and very much from notions of Christianity, I found, I found resolve and strength in the writings of Black feminist, Black lesbian feminists. I mean, I remember [[unclear] collective statement and how that really grounded me. The words of Joan Jordan, the words and mentorship of Cheryl Clark. I found spirit in Black gay clubs, where house music is playing in the projects of Newark, New Jersey, and spirit was present, present as bodies were moving, as people were sweating together. And I guess what I would say is spirit, you know, God don’t stop talking at revelations, in the sort of Christian sense. You know, the word of God, quote unquote, doesn’t stop right in this 66th Book of the Bible. Like God continues to speak, its spirit continues to speak. Our ancestors continue to speak and are present in so many ways, present in Black feminism or womanism, present in the Black queer political practices that have been and movements that have been on the street. And spirit is still moving. And even if spirit is—sometimes you don’t even find spirit in some of the four walls of the institutional church. And thre have been many churches that have been closed to the possibility of radical movement. We walked down streets and processing on streets and where you have the churches with the doors closed, but spirit was out in the streets. So I would say we don’t always have to search for it in a place that we think it is, partly when so many of those spaces are themselves in search of spirit, and you can, you can grab hold of spirit in so many other ways. And some of the work that we are all engaged in, spirit’s present in that too


Jacqui Lewis: That’s so beautiful, Darnell.


Erica Williams: And I agree with everything everyone said. I will also offer to you all, find you a song. In my lowest point when I just really, I was like, I feel like Miss Celie was feeling might low, I was feeling mighty bad, I heard Jasmine Sullivan’s song Masterpiece. And that song really helped to let me understand that in spite of it all, that I am yet a masterpiece. So I would encourage you to find a song that speaks to your spirit. And I don’t give a damn about the secular and the sacred because it’s all spirit. And get you a song and you play it and know that the very spirit, as Alice Walker talks about, somebody in your lineage wanted you to survive, so know that song will minister to you from those who loved you here in the physical and even beyond. And you play that song until the words that you hear become manifested in your spirit. That is why I know I’m here at Harvard Divinity today, because I never would have imagined. I felt mighty low about myself, but as I heard the words of Jasmine Sullivan, I began to understand that I am a Masterpiece, and that gave me the strength to go forward. So I admonish you to find a song. Sing it, live by it, and know that you are a Masterpiece,


Phillip Picardi: Beautiful, beautiful. All of you, thank you so much, Mr. Darnell Moore, Reverend Jacqui Lewis, Reverend Erica Williams, the lovely Meggan Waterson—I really appreciate you coming with open hearts and open minds and of course, your beautiful spirits to have this conversation with me.


Darnell Moore: Thank you so much for having me.


Meggan Watterson: Thank you.


Jacqui Lewis: Thank you Phillip.


Phillip Picardi: OK. That’s all we have for our show today. I hope you enjoyed it and make sure you tune in next week—same time, same place—for more unholy goodness. Unholier Than Thou is a Crooked Media production. Our executive producer is me, Phillip Piccardi. Our producer is Lesley Martin, and Brian Semel is our associate producer. Our editors are Kareem [unclear], David Greenbaum, and Sarah Gibble-Laska. The theme music is by Taka Yasuzawa.