The Power of God-with-Us

by Carter Heyward

Carter Heyward, one of the first eleven women ordained Episcopal priests in 1974, teaches theology at Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Mass. A contributing editor of Christianity & Crisis, she is author of Speaking of Christ: A Lesbian Feminist Voice and Touching Our Strength: The Erotic as Power and the Love of God.

This article is one in a series from the Christian Century magazine: “How My Mind Has Changed.” Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation, used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This article was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


In these last years scarred by AIDS, by the dominant culture of greed and violence, and by personal loss and pain, the author has come to see more distinctly the vital link between the healing process (traditionally the prerogative of religious and medical traditions) and the work of liberation (assumed to be the business of revolutionary movements for justice).

1980: The dawn of Nicaragua libre and the impending U.S. presidency of Reagan, its ardent foe. A time in which the pernicious AIDS virus was moving among us, and we were unaware. Three years before the invasion of Grenada and six before the falls of Marcos and Duvalier. Before the emergence of glasnost and of Gorbachev. Just before the beginning of death-dealing cutbacks in already-small measures of care for people of color, women, children, others marginalized and animals, plants and minerals of many sorts in the U.S. The outset of a high-tech boom that would threaten further to diminish our senses of ourselves as co-subjects in the sensual work and play of creation. In this context, I was studying black, feminist and Latin American liberation theologies and was becoming convinced that a justice-making church could make a difference in the world.

Winding up a dissertation on a "theology of mutual relation" would, ironically, provide my fare into the security of a profession not well known for the mutuality of its practices or its theories. But, at age 35, I would be officially out of school for the first time in 30 years, and I leaped into the decade with a blessing in my pocket worth more than the Ph.D. -- unbounded enthusiasm for the theological vocation. Amid ups and downs, delights and sufferings, deaths and births, burnout and rekindling, I have been carried by the past decade more fully into an appreciation of honest theological work. I have been learning to recognize it, at its root, as a spiritual passion that we need in the world and that the world needs in us.

Let me back up a little. Though I was a graduate student, full- or part-time, for over a decade, my studies had not done much to deliver me from life. Working at Union Seminary in New York and in the city itself, in parishes, hospitals and shelters, I was learning as much about human life as about its divine source and resource.

I remember sitting under a tree in the summer of 1980 with United Methodist minister Michael Collins (who later would die of AIDS) and several other members of the minuscule gay-lesbian caucus of the Theologies in the Americas "Detroit II" conference. We spoke of how grateful we were to be learning with our theological "elders" that the sacred spirit of life can be experienced as the power moving us in the making of justice with compassion and of peace with justice.

I was sure that, sooner or later, the church would get it. Surely the liberal christian communities would come to see the rightness of the theologies of liberation being generated globally by christians and others struggling for bread and dignity.( Using the lowercase "c" with reference to "christianity" is a spiritual discipline for me as a member of a religious tradition so arrogant and abusive in its exercise of power over women, lesbians and gays, indigenous people, Jews, Muslims and members of nonchristian religions and cultures.) The basis of my optimism was, I believe, no facile "liberalism." In the company of discerning teachers and learners, my education was being shaped out of certain assumptions that had as much to do with living life as with thinking about it: that we are "in relation" whatever we may think of that fact, that the most basic human unit is not therefore "the self but rather "the relation"; and that this intrinsic mutuality demands -- and should be the foundation of -- our ethics, politics, pastoral care and theologies.

Drawing on the existential theology and social philosophy of Martin Buber, I wrote in my thesis that God is our "power in relation" and that justice, the actualization of love among us, is the making of right, or mutual, relation. Without realizing it I was trying to articulate a relational ontology as a companion piece to the profoundly moral motives and commitments of liberation theology.

My graduate studies had sparked my interest in human life as a relational matrix in which God is born. (The coming decade would stretch my imagination toward an intense interest in the connectedness of all life.) I felt a certain euphoria upon graduation. Happily donning a yellow button on my academic gown that read, "Better Gay than Grumpy," I stepped into the '80s and the ranks of professional theology as an active, indignant and optimistic teacher and priest with a ragged-edged commitment to justice for all oppressed people.

The past ten years have brought me to some new places -- more exactly, I suppose, into new ways of standing in old commitments and values. It is not simply that "my mind" has changed. My mind -- how I think theologically -- would have to have been put on ice not to be changing in some degree of conformity with its relational matrix.

Maybe as it grays, every theological generation loses some of its youthful idealism. But if, in changing (as we must to stay well), we do not hold stubbornly to the roots of this idealism, we will be sucked into a funnel through which our theological vision will narrow and, in time, become rigid and false. I am disappointed in my generational peers who look back upon "the '60s" with patronizing scorn, as if we ought to be a little embarrassed for having dreamed those dreams. I am learning that I do not trust those whose dreams become less daring with time.

I am not as busy as I was ten or 20 years ago. There's still much to do and I may be better able to do some of it, but I am doing less. I am not as optimistic as I was that organized religion will make much headway in creating a more just and compassionate world. I now understand better the conservative character and structure of the church, having been working within it (or at its edges) as a priest for about 16 years. I am less idealistic. I do not expect that many who hold authority in the church or other dominant institutions of our lives will be converted, en masse or as individuals, to the serious work of justice-making with compassion and good humor as their top priority. But I'm not cynical. My faith in the power of God-with-us -- our creative, liberating power with one another -- is secure, and my hope for the world is being radicalized. My companions in living, working and visioning; the claims of justice; and the urgings of the spirit are pushing me closer to the roots of the idealism and enthusiasm I embraced ten years ago. I am beginning to imagine the implications of the connectedness of all life, my own and that of other humans and creatures. I see more completely the importance of living in such a way as to celebrate the struggle for mutuality (the actual dynamic of justice-making) not only as an ethical ideal but as the very essence of who we are in the world -- the basis of our survival. I am learning that, in this sense, our we-ness literally creates my I-ness and that this is a very great good. It is the foundation of what it means to be human, what it means to be "in the image of God."

My learning has been partially the result of a via negativa, recognizing not only the absence of mutuality and justice but an active opposition to it in the doctrines of selfishness and domination incarnate in Reagan-Bush. I am at least as indignant today as ever and no less hesitant to say so. I am angry that a culture of alienation and despair, of greed and violence, is being constructed for profit on the bodies of the poor, the elderly, the young, women, blacks, browns, gays, lesbians and other people in the U.S., and is being masked as "kindliness" and "gentleness" by those who have learned to believe their own lies. Beverly Wildung Harrison, my beloved friend and companion through the past decade, reminds me of "the power of anger in the work of love."

If good humor is, at heart, a sense of perspective, I think I am maintaining it by enjoying being alive in the world. I delight in my friends, my students, my niece and nephew, movies and music, my animal companions, and our little bit of land and home on the Maine coast. I love walking and dancing and singing and laughing.

Still, I suspect that those who do not care for pushy broads, feminist priests, happy dykes and faggots, and irreverent references to the god of heterosexist, racist patriarchy, are likely to find me every bit as ornery as before. Recent years have dipped me into the wisdom of sages like feminist theorist Judith McDaniel who warn that trying to be "nice" on terms set by those who hold the power in place is to "sell ourselves short."

Specifically, then, what am I learning? I am learning that, without some serenity, I could not continue in the struggle for justice. Like that of many U.S. citizens visiting in Nicaragua during the '80s, my time there, in 1983 and 1984, was an unexpected blessing. I did not go seeking a gift. I went to be educated and to show solidarity with those struggling against the contras. In fact, my traveling companions and I were given a glimpse into the life of a people fighting enormous odds for the chance to live together in a just and peaceful society. Scores of Nicaraguan christians and others met us with what seemed unflappable confidence in themselves and in their spiritual or moral vocation to struggle for justice.

Not until I had been back in the U.S. for several months did it dawn on me that I had experienced a profound sense of serenity in these people and, through them, had glimpsed my own confidence and inner strength, elusive through much of my life as a white christian in the U.S.

I have wondered why so many white people have learned in Nicaragua what we well might have learned here at home -- in active, ongoing solidarity with, for example, black sisters and brothers or Native Americans. Has it been easier to go to a faraway land to see what has been happening right before our eyes? Easier because it felt safer, less intimate, or because we did not know how significantly our lives would be touched until it was too late to stop the transformation?

Nicaragua shook my foundations. As the experience grew in me, I found my commitments stronger than ever and, at the same time, I knew that I could not, in the words of womanist ethicist Katie Cannon, "keep on keepin' on." I was outraged about U.S. imperialism; hurt and angry about how women and gay and lesbian people are treated everywhere, especially in the church; horrified by the blatantly racist practices of the Reagan administration; immensely saddened by the death of my father; frightened by a breast cancer scare; working too hard in a seminary that drains its feminist professors to meet the demands of increasing numbers of women students; and just plain tired.

It took me several years to see that, in the early '80s, my faith was in serious crisis. As I left for Nicaragua, I was burning out. Had I ever, really, believed in resurrection? Had it ever occurred to me, deep in my soul, that it is a relational movement, the revolutionary carrying-on of a spirit of love and justice that does not and will not die? Had I ever truly believed that the Spirit needs us to do her work in the world, to move as slowly as we must in order to build this world together as a common home? Had I seen fully that we are never called to come forth alone but always to answer the Spirit's call with one another, drawing for strength and wisdom from what womanist theologian Delores Williams calls our "lines of continuity"?

This trust in the foundations of one's life has roots in the experience of right, mutual relationship. Thus at the core of our faith we know that, in the beginning and in the end, we are not alone. In our living and in our dying, we are not separate from one another. Reminiscent of Jesus, Martin Luther King, Jr., and others who have seen this, Archbishop Oscar Romero prophetically voiced this confidence when he promised, "If they kill me, I will rise again in the Salvadorean people.... My hope is that my blood will be like a seed of liberty."

In the strength of such faith, an inner peace can begin to form. Perhaps this incipient confidence enabled me in 1985 to speak to a friend, a former student, about my "drinking problem" and to hear his response: "It troubles me that someone who teaches and writes so much about mutuality is so resistant to seeing that you need help with this. You can't stop drinking alone. Why don't you take your own theology seriously?" A theophany, this encounter.

The next morning, with another friend, I attended my first meeting with other alcoholics and began recovering, one day at a time. In the spirit of the Nicaragua pilgrimage, this process is opening me to the real presence of others and myself to them. It is opening us to the power released among us in a vulnerability that, because it is authentic, common and shared, is sacred.

I don't believe any more now than before that we must participate in organized religion to be involved in the work of justice. But I know today that all of us need a shared sense of a spiritual or moral basis upon which to build our lives and commitments.

I am learning the critical necessity of approaching our theological work the same way we do any authentic spirituality: through the particularities of our lives-in-relation. A hermeneutic of particularity involves studying ways in which our differences contribute to how we experience and think about human and divine life.

In a racist society, a black god/ess is not at all the same as a white god/ess. In a hetero/sexist situation, a goddess is different from a god. In a sex-negative culture, an erotically empowering spirit is utterly distinct from an asexual and erotophobic god who needs no friends.

Through the work primarily of feminist christians, I have been led to Sophia/Wisdom, to "Christa/community," to Hagar the slave woman, to Jephthah's daughter and those who fight back on her behalf: images that are redemptive because they are dark, images of black or marginalized women, vilified, trivialized, rejected, silenced -- and resisting their oppression and that of their sisters. As our historical imaginations unfold, we may begin to recognize in these images a call to struggle against injustice and to celebrate our woman-lives.

A goddess whose tender, outraged presence heals and strengthens abused women is entirely different from the God in whose name troubled fathers and priests sometimes rape girls and boys. I have been taught this less by my feminist professional colleagues than by the students who have attended my classes on passes from hospitals or after therapy sessions, in which they are being treated for wounds inflicted by men (and sometimes women) who abused them as children or as adults. Their stories often suggest the appalling extent to which the church tends not simply to ignore sexual, physical, emotional and spiritual violence against women and children as a major crisis, but actually to provide theological justification for this violence in its teachings about male headship, women's subordination, and the sinful character of sexuality. The sex-as-sin obsession which characterizes christianity has produced a repressive, guilt-inducing sexual ethic which, in turn, generates a pornographic culture of eruptive sexual violence.

I am learning that I cannot teach christian theology constructively unless I am aware that, historically, the church has done much to damage women, Jews, people of color and the whole inhabited earth; and unless, as a christian, I am learning how our doctrine, discipline and worship continue to reflect and contribute to this abuse of power.

I also have become clearer during this violent decade that it matters a great deal what god-images we use in our worship. I am becoming increasingly resistant to participating in, much less leading, liturgy from which dark, erotically empowering, woman-loving images of God are absent or concealed. The election and consecration of Barbara Harris as an Episcopal bishop signaled hope for many of us. This was not because either the Episcopal Church or one powerful, capable woman, black and beautiful and prophetic, will move mountains. It was rather because the choosing of such a bishop -- by the-Republican-Party-at-prayer-church of George Bush and Sandra Day O'Connor -- conveyed the kind of lovely, unexpected contradiction that christians love to call "paradox." Bishop Harris is a living, breathing reminder that just about anything can happen when two or three are gathered in the spirit of justice.

During these ten years, my understanding of God has been, to quote radical feminist Mary Daly, "gyn/ecologized." I believe that God is indeed our power in mutual relation. I see more vividly than before that our redemption requires that this power come to us, and through us, in healing and liberation, advocacy and friendship, love and sisterliness, in the most badly broken and frightening places of our life together and as individuals. In a racist, heterosexist, class-injured world, God is likely to meet us often in images associated with children, poor women, black, brown, yellow and red women, lesbian women, battered women, bleeding women and women learning to fight back. Dark images. Like Mary's poor little boy, God is seldom welcome in reputable places. The story is not a nice one. Good theology is not respectable.

I am learning that, as a process of liberation from either injustice or despair, healing is a process of finding -- if need be, creating -- redemption in suffering. The AIDS crisis has been teaching me this, as did my father's nine-year bout with cancer, which resulted in his death in 1984. More recently, the sickness and death of a young friend, and a devastating relational rupture that left me badly hurt and in need of healing, have required me to struggle with the meaning of suffering.

As we move into the '90s with an economic structure that is killing poor people, a "war against drugs" that is a racist war against the urban poor, an unapologetic "post-feminist" contempt for women and girls and a mounting ecological crisis, we will need as much as ever to be able to create liberation in the midst of suffering.

I have never believed in "redemptive suffering" as a means of justifying either pain or God. I still do not. There is no theological excuse for the pain inflicted upon human and other creatures by human beings. There is no justification, no spiritual reason, why forces of nature such as hurricanes and viruses hurt us or why some of us get hit by cars or lost when planes crash. The death of my life-loving father was not good, nor was death of my friend Dianna, nor the agony of her spouse and family. From a theological perspective, whether pastoral or ethical, suffering is not good for us.

Although the sacred Spirit in no way "wills" or sets us up for suffering, all living creatures do suffer. In these last years, scarred by AIDS, by the dominant culture of greed and violence, and by personal loss and pain, I have come to see more distinctly the vital link between the healing process (traditionally the prerogative of religious and medical traditions) and the work of liberation (assumed to be the business of revolutionary movements for justice).

The link is in the commitment of those who suffer and of those in solidarity with them to make no peace with whatever injustice or abuse is causing or contributing to their suffering, and in their commitment to celebrate the goodness and power in our relationships with one another -- especially, in these moments, with those who suffer. To struggle against the conditions that make for or exacerbate suffering, and to do so with compassion -- "suffering with" one another -- is how we find redemption in suffering. To realize the sacred power in our relationships with one another, and to contend against the forces that threaten to damage and destroy us, bears luminous witness to the goodness and power of God. In the midst of suffering, we weave our redemption out of solidarity and compassion, struggle and hope. In this way, we participate in the redemption of God.