Racial Justice Series: “Religion in America's Story of Racial Justice” SwatTalk
with Shreena Gandhi ’01, professor of religious studies at Michigan State University, and Cheryl Sanders ’74, professor of Christian ethics at Howard University and senior pastor of the Third Street Church of God in Washington, D.C.
Recorded on Monday, March 29, 2021
Dina Zingaro So, hello, everyone. Thank you so much for coming. My name is Dina Zingaro, I'm in the class of 2013 and I'm a member of the Alumni Council. SwatTalks, for those of you who aren't too familiar is one of our Alumni Council initiatives. We have a team who organizes the talks, which is made up of me, Joseph Becker, BoHee Yoon, and Lisa Schaefer. So thank you to the team. So welcome to tonight's SwatTalk, Religion in America Story of Racial Justice. This will be our final talk in our month's long Racial Justice Series. As someone who majored in Religion at Swarthmore, I feel like religion is a really fine way to end this series which began in October. And for those of you who missed on some of those talks along the way, you can find them on our webpage. They cover anything from art and activism, census, health, equity and education. Tonight, we are honored to have Dr. Cheryl Sanders, who is a member of the class of 1974, and Dr. Shreena Gandhi, who is a member of the class of 2001. Dr. Sanders is a professor of Christian Ethics at Howard University School of Divinity where she teaches courses in Christian ethics, pastoral ethics, and African-American spirituality. Her current research is looking at theological responses to the problem of anti-blackness. Professor Sanders has also been the senior pastor of the Third Street Church of God in Washington, D.C. since 1997. She is also the president of the American Theological Society. Interestingly, Dr. Sanders majored in mathematics at Swarthmore before later taking a black theology class at Harvard University after graduating from Swarthmore and later pursued a master of divinity and doctor of theology at Harvard Divinity School. Dr. Shreena Gandhi is our second speaker tonight. She's a cultural historian of religion with expertise in religion, race, the Americas and Hinduism. Trained that Swarthmore in religious studies and later Harvard Divinity School and University of Florida. Professor Gandhi currently teaches at Michigan State University. Her research and public scholarship are on the history of yoga in the US. And she is revising a manuscript on this using the framework of white supremacy and cultural appropriation. Professor Gandhi is also a member of the Feminist Critical Hindu Studies Collective which encourages a reoriented approach to Hindu studies which takes into consideration white supremacy and caste supremacy for monarchical patriarchy. So our first half hour tonight will be a discussion amongst the three of us. I'll just be simply asking questions. The second half will be dedicated to our usual question and answers. So everyone please feel free to use the chat function to submit your questions. We probably won't be able to get to all of them but I will try my best to get to as many as I can. And please include your name and your class year when you submit your question. So right off the bat, we've had quite a year, COVID has had a disproportionate impact on minority communities. We saw mass Black Lives Matter demonstrations over the summer and into the fall. And then that was followed by the election and the attack on the Capitol. So in the description of this talk, I describe religion as an oppressive but also redemptive force. So overall, this is a question for both of you. What role do you see religion playing when you consider what we've been through in the last year?
Cheryl Sanders Well, I'll start. First, by expressing my appreciation for the opportunity to be a part of this very important conversation. I think that we see in the events of the past year and ongoing and heightened confrontation between these two dimensions within religious communities and especially within Christianity. There are, shall we say Christians on both sides? And the people who are pushing for justice. for racial justice for voter registration on a broader basis, people who are attentive to the disparities that have been revealed by the COVID-19 pandemic. They're progressively minded people of faith who are on that side and the opposite extreme as we are aware, we were horrified, I live in Washington, D.C. We were horrified to see Christian flags and crosses alongside the Confederate flag as the symbols that people carried with them in the attack on the Capitol. So obviously you have these extremes of, shall we say social ethics and politics. And I think some of the conversation going forward is gonna have to be Christian apologetics. We're gonna have to say to people across the aisle, but within the faith community, what's up and who we're contending for the faith on the ground, in the context of political and economic, shall we say challenges?
Shreena Gandhi You gave me a lot to think about Dr. Sanders. As someone who's not particularly religious and is constantly thinking about not identifying with a particular faith. I tend to see religion a little bit more structurally as a system. I think oftentimes you have these progressive and these more conservative elements intention within a particular community, and you have different sex that uphold different values. And that can be in one religion. This contradiction is constantly maintained though because there's this impetus step, uphold the status quo and the power of that particular system. And the other thing is I feel like people live one way and write another way. So they'll say religion, that they're progressive in terms of religion and their faith, but then they'll do something else. And so the example I'll give you are actually Hindus, my own community that I was born into, you have Hindus here in the United States that were very anti-Trump, are pro Black Lives Matter, saying all the right things, but then when it comes to saying something against Modi and his very anecdotal anti-Muslim policies in what is increasingly become a fascist India, they won't say anything. In fact, they love him. So these contradictions are constantly intentioned with each other. And people live those contradictions quite often easily and willfully.
Dina Zingaro Your word contradiction brings me pretty naturally to my next question, which is for Dr. Sanders, but Dr. Gandhi, please feel free to jump in. Dr. Sanders, you've written about the African-American spiritual, growing there, which challenges one to consider what it would be like to be an eyewitness to the crucifixion. And you've written a bit about this spiritual. Could you talk a bit about the significance of that song today in our current moment?
Cheryl Sanders Thank you for the question. I think it's a really important and urgent question. I'm a pastor, this is Holy week. These are the times, this is the week to ask the question, were you there? And it's one of the best love spirituals, were you there when they crucified my Lord? Oh, sometimes it causes me to tremble, were you there. And so it's a traditional Negro spiritual, but the song forces you to consider the cross up close. That's what this song does. And for me, the African-American experience, it's a miracle historically consider, that anybody black ever became a Christian. Because Christians were the ones who enslaved, kidnapped, tortured, raped, stole the labor, exploited African-Americans. And so how does anybody black become a Christian? They become a Christian because they have some experience of solidarity with the suffering of Christ. And so crucifixion is not just a concept for suffering people. It's, to see Jesus on the cross, is to say Jesus is identified with our suffering. Now, the other piece of that, which is one I really want to push in Holy week and these conversations we need to have toward reconciliation is how do you claim salvation from a man who died on the cross and then turn around and put other people on the cross. You can't have it both ways. You can't be a crucifier and claim the grace of salvation or a substitutionary atonement or whatever, so. I don't see a contradiction African-American religion. What I see is getting a clear message that the suffering of Jesus Christ at the hands of the Empire, is our encouragement to live in our position and to advance the cause of justice and do all of that within a frame of reference that's consistent with our faith and the will of God.
Dina Zingaro Before we get too far away from our conversation that we sort of touched on about January 6th, I do want to just take a moment to talk about how religion played out that day. We saw crosses erected, we saw in our news, erected nearby that, nearby the cross. How do both of you see religion, white supremacy, sort of all out there that day at the Capitol? And also as a follow to that, how do we then once acknowledging that, how can religion perhaps give us a framework to move forward from that moment as a country?
Cheryl Sanders Well, I can answer. January 6, shows how white supremacy, and I'll say a certain variant of Christianity are intertwined. And the most amazing thing that we are still talking about in Washington, D.C., is that you have a violent onslaught against the nation's Capitol, against the Capitol Building, breaking windows, bearing weapons and, it's like, it's not a problem. Whereas, from the moment it was occurring, it's like if these had been black people, they'd have dropped a bomb on us. but it's almost like, well, boys will be boys. It was white people who did it, It's not that big of a deal and that helps to account for the very confused and slow response by various layers of law enforcement. So it's like, what if white people do it, if white people believe it, white people have certain privileges including the privilege of protest. And so I have to push back on that on the ground of faith and to say, that's not my religion. And the Confederate flag is not my symbol, but we are horrified by the behavior but we, it reveals a clear double standard in law enforcement and how people are even regarded and feared as threats. And even when we take a threatening posture.
Shreena Gandhi Yeah, I would agree. It was a horrifying day and I feel like the entire day I was on an instant message group chat with fellow squaddies just in kind of disbelief over what was going on. And, but for those of us who have studied the history of white supremacy and white Christianity, it also wasn't the biggest surprise. This kind of activity has been going on and I'm here in Michigan, and so I see it every day and fear it every day. The other thing I'd like to bring up about January 6th is, I don't think you can ignore QAnon and in particular, the QAnon Shaman that was there. I don't know if you guys saw him with a buffalo top, if you will. He basically was dressed up like a cut and paste version of what he imagined indigenous Americans to wear. And we have a history in this country of dawning, wearing indigenous dress while systematically committing genocide against those communities through war, through land seizure, through commodification. I'll give you two quick examples, one, the Boston Tea Party. They put perfectly good tea into the Bay but they weren't, how do you say, confident enough to do it just on their own as white men protesting actually a lowering of taxes but they dressed up as native Americans all while kicking native Americans off their land in what is now Massachusetts. And then I also think of Coachella and how people will go around wearing head dresses, not realizing that some of these are sacred symbols of the very communities that they're appropriating. What are they giving back? Nothing. So we have this long history that was also intertwined and inter kind of braided into what was going on on January 6th, that kind of exposes so many of the facets of white supremacy beyond just abject violence and disregard for human life.
Dina Zingaro On the subject of sort of the violence of appropriating another culture, another religion, Dr. Gandhi, you've written a lot about the appropriation of yoga. And I would imagine that a lot of people might sort of be surprised and sort of haven't given the appropriate thought to the history of yoga. And so I want to turn it over to you to sort of give that history and sort of give us a picture of that work that you've done.
Shreena Gandhi Well, I don't know that I can give you, kind of a big overview of the history of yoga in the United States. I've written a book that I'm revising on that and trying to cut out so much because you have a word limit that you have to work with. But what I, yoga is a part of it, the history of cultural appropriation in this country. And cultural appropriation is linked with the processes of becoming white and white supremacy. As you know not every group in the US gets to become white. And there is a process by which you have this exchange, one of culture for power, so culture and readiness for power. And I think what happens is, to make up for that loss, you have white communities that turn to white nationalism like we saw on January 6th. You have some that turn to kind of an embrace of what they imagine their ethnic identity to be. I think a great example of this is Italians turning to Christopher Columbus as a symbol of their culture. When there wasn't even in Italy when he crossed over the Atlantic and committed all sorts of atrocities in the Caribbean. And then you also have figures like Henry David Thoreau and what Ralph Waldo Emerson through today of people turning to either Eastern or what they imagine as exotic cultures often colonized cultures for that rootedness and yoga is one example of what people turn to to feel kind of a connection that they lost through the process of becoming white. It's not just yoga, it's things like the martial arts, food, contemplative practices. Those are all kind of turned to, to kind of give people a sense of history, a sense of spirituality. But what really kind of bothers me in this moment about that is that oftentimes people will be okay with appropriating the culture but they don't want the people. And that is problematic. And to me indicative of a lot, of the larger issue of white supremacy. And, in this age of anti-Asian, anti-black violence, anti-indigenous violence, I don't think it's okay to appropriate the culture but then be violent towards the people. There's a part of me that wants to say, then you can't have our culture. I know that's not possible, but especially over the past week with all the grieving that I've witnessed and been a part of, it is definitely frustrating.
Dina Zingaro Dr. Sanders, I wasn't sure if you wanted to add anything 'cause you were unmuted but I will keep going. Dr. Sanders, a lot of your work, and we were just chatting earlier, before we started, you were sharing about, some of the work that looks at the Holiness and Pentecostal traditions and sort of the ways that they deviate from the Protestant norm in ways that sort of give you hope about the way that they've worked around social justice. Can you talk a little bit about what you've learned from those or gleaned from those traditions?
Cheryl Sanders Well, I've been formed by the traditions. So the gleaning that I've done has come from all kinds of places and memories and experiences in addition to the traditional sources of research. I do believe that what you get in the Holiness and the Pentecostal tradition is a practice of religion that at least lends itself to solidarity and connections just based on the commonality of experiences. It's a certain kind of even interfaith dimension that I've experienced from people who, they're convinced that the supernatural exists. And you can't, you don't have the same view of the supernatural across the spectrum of Christianity even. High church, low church, ecstatic praise, quiet praise, society of friends, you have a very strong theology of spirit but the liturgy is very quiet and reflective. Whereas in the Holiness and Pentecostal tradition, you tend to have exuberant worship. You tend to have an emphasis upon performance but that energy of performance is not just contained in worship. It also is manifested in the public square. And so an a paper I did recently, and I will be including this in my forthcoming book, I talk about a person who was very well-known in D.C. His name was Bishop Smallwood Williams. He was the pastor and founder of a very large Pentecostal Church, Apostolic Church in Washington. But if you even just look at portrayals of him, he's very aggressive and vocal in the public square, praying and preaching and bold. And so that Holy boldness is not just being spiritual. It's not just channeled into winning souls and getting people to be converted. There's also energy that gets translated into pushing for change, pushing for justice. And if you go all the way back to Church of God in Christ, is a major denomination, there were women leaders back in the days of Mary McLeod Bethune who were active in the Black Women's Club Movement. They're protesting, they're in the street, they're showing up at the White House, they're doing all kinds of things, bringing that energy and that dignity to the pursuit of justice. So that story needs to be told. They're not necessarily the exceptions, they're not necessarily exceptional, but what I want to talk about is the connection between the energy of liturgy and the push for justice and equality.
Dina Zingaro It's like fascinating work. So given that today was the first day of Derek Chauvin's trial, I don't want our conversation to end without talking about George Floyd and what we saw last summer with the mass demonstrations for Black Lives Matter. As you were watching over the summer and into the fall, the Black Lives Matter movement, are there ways that you're seeing sort of faith-based social justice work, offering something different? Is there sort of a characteristic or something that is capable of that, is distinctive?
Cheryl Sanders I'm not sure, I've seen a variety of responses, but I think for me the captivating outcomes so far, because we're right at the beginning of this trial, and I'm not sure, I mean, if things go the way they've gone in the past, there's gonna be an acquittal, there's gonna be eruption of outrage and we'll go from there. I cannot say what's going to happen. But going back to the initial airing of the video, and the initial protest, several funerals and the tremendous global outpouring of outrage. One thing that I saw very clearly, over the past several months is, there was some kind of shift in the atmosphere. The Confederate monuments started coming down. Confederate flags, people were contesting and coming to voice in the church and in the public square. One of the signal moments for me was, I believe it was the 1st of June when the former president marched from the White House, had the people tear gassed, the Black Lives Matter people tear gassed, and he held up a Bible and stood in front of the Episcopal Church. And that was so outrageous. And then within the next day or two, the mayor of Washington ordered the large letters Black Lives Matter were painted. So basically his address was changed from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue to 1600 Black Lives Matter Plaza. And so, it's just a little symbolic gesture but many of my colleagues in ministry after that, they were ready to march. They were ready to come out. And so what I'm trying to say is something shifted with the death and the response to the George Lloyd case, and it's not ended yet. It's not a unified thing, but it's very broad. And there have been so many places where it's like, there's an opening, there's an opportunity for change. And I just don't wanna miss the moment. And that would be my advice. It's not that there has to be a particular group organizing or leading, but we just need to stay in the conversation. We need to stay in the mix because there's things that are happening, there's change that's coming. The pandemic, the COVID-19 pandemic sort of, as a whole another layer of complexity to that. But this has been a periodic moment for churches this past year. And church is not gonna be the same going forward. Let us hope that there'll be some of that disentangling of the racism and the structural elements going forward so that we can look forward to a better way of relating to one another.
Shreena Gandhi I guess I'm just slightly more pessimistic than you, Dr. Sanders. After, this entire summer, I feel like in religious studies, in various South Asian communities, there was a questioning or reckoning of our role in white supremacy. South Asians have a long history of anti-blackness that needs to be confronted and eradicated. But what I saw were a lot of reading lists going around. This is what you should read about white supremacy. This is what you should read to understand race in this country. What I didn't see a lot of from white folks in general and some Asian folks is action. What steps are you going to take to make sure that we don't see another Breonna Taylor incident, or another Tamir Rice incident? What are you doing in your communities to hold the police accountable? I just heard New York City got rid of qualified immunity. That's the first step. But I don't know how much people are willing to let go of their power, for this change to occur because white supremacy is all about power. And I think people are really comfortable in their lives for the most part in the United States. And I just don't know how, or if people are willing to kind of cede that for the greater good. So like Dr. Sanders said, this is a watching moment, too. This is all kind of in process. I have, it's kind of one of those moments where I'm hoping for the best, but preparing myself for the worst.
Dina Zingaro So I see questions are coming in already. So I'll get to those in a moment but I do wanna make sure that we have a moment to talk about the shooting a few weeks ago in Georgia, women, six of them, Asian American, who were brutally killed and to the anti-Asian, the rise in anti-Asian hate crimes. And what's particular interesting is that you have in the aftermath, I read a number of Asian American church leaders were calling for, demanding action beyond prayer. You have the shooter coming from, had the name of his church, the Crabapple First Baptist Church, predominantly white community. What I could read, they seem a bit conservative. So, to put it lightly. So, I mean, there's just, there's so much to unpack here but have either of you been sort of watching what has happened in the aftermath and the reaction of religious communities on the ground or Dr. Gandhi, I feel like this question might be aimed more to your work.
Shreena Gandhi Well, I've seen definitely East Asian churches organizing around this. I haven't seen so much other churches, but Dr. Sanders, you probably know more about what's going on in the black church. Again, what I've seen a lot at my university and in various departments in my university on various corporate websites are statements saying that they are against anti-Asian hate. And let me just be specific, right now this is a moment where my East Asian siblings are experiencing the hate crimes. Just like after 9/11, South Asians were often targeted by hate crime doers. I don't know how exactly to say that. But so, you know, it's a tough thing understanding, or coming to terms with personally being violated, being attacked for just how you look. And so my heart goes out to especially my East Asian students who are just, they're reeling right now. Again, what I said before, I'm seeing a lot of these statements, I'm seeing a lot of people say, like, what book should I read to know more about Asian history in the United States or Asian religion in the United States? I'm not seeing a lot of action. So what policies are you going to enact in your department to hold accountable those faculty or those church members or your coworkers when they say something anti-Asian or make certain gestures that are anti Eastasians. How are you gonna hold them accountable? Are you going to fire them? Are you gonna give them a dock in pay? What are the tangible material consequences of racism and what I feel like we're at a moment right now where being called racist is seen as worse as actually doing racist things because there's no accountability. So that's where we have to move back to. To a place where we can say you did this, that is racist, these are your material consequences. And if we can't get back to that moment, then again, we're just playing with empty words.
Cheryl Sanders I just want to add that all of what Dr. Gandhi is speaking about, the response of the black churches that we've been having this conversation and they've experienced all the time. We had just now for the first time I think, I might be wrong, but for the first time, I heard the president of the United States, use the term domestic terrorism. And domestic terrorism has been our lives. It's been our experience and so exactly what you're saying. What are the consequences? How are people held accountable? How many times have black people said that and tried to structure that? So, yes, we are ready, we stand ready to participate in that conversation. I think about Swarthmore College and the FBI back in the day. Even before I went to Swarthmore, you can imagine ancient history before my time there. But putting students, black students at Swarthmore under surveillance, okay. So the FBI, this domestic terrorist, people were being killed and bombed and assassinated. And what's the response of the government? What's the response of the FBI? Well, let's put these black people under surveillance. So what I'm saying is now is the time for us to bring everybody into the conversation and call it what it is. Domestic terrorism. And so it just really annoys me when I hear on the news reports, oh, they're investigating whether or not this is a hate crime. It's such a joke, how do you, okay, investigate, no, it's not a hate crime. Where on the face of it, it's a hate crime. Okay, so we're ready for the conversation. We're ready to be better organized and positioned locally, nationally in a consistent way. I think the January 6 event pulled the cover off of how law enforcement responds to the color of the terrorists. We pulled the cover off that, so let's fix it.
Dina Zingaro Great answer. I think with that, we will move into the questions that have come in from our audience. So first one is from Rebecca Alexander, class of 1986. Religion can be divisive as well as a force of cohesion. There are lots of people who are spiritual but not religious. Spirituality that is separate from religion may not be as divisive, but it also does not have the energy to push towards social justice. Okay. How can we use religion/spirituality as a moral compass that takes us in the right direction without the divisiveness. And I guess they mean the right direction towards social justice. But I'm guessing but thank you, Rebecca.
Cheryl Sanders I think that's very important question. The sort of dichotomy between religiosity and spirituality, seems to be a permanent part of our culture, especially for younger people who don't seem to need a whole lot of reasons to not go to church or to not embrace any particular religion. What I want to say is, what we need is a religion or a spirituality that we can build solidarity and community around. The problem with spirituality if it's just an individual sort of intellectual experience, there's no liturgy or community to build around it. The problem with when you build community sometimes you bring in a kind of structuring that stands against change. But I think the challenge going forward is to find ways to build liturgy and community to create sustainable advocacy. That's what I think religion can offer.
Shreena Gandhi Yeah, in religious studies, there are so many people looking closer at this phenomenon that my colleagues call religious nones, the rise of the religious nones, N-O-N-E-S. And that, especially among the Millennials and Generation Z, that group is exponentially growing because they're not seeing any purpose or positives in organized religion. I know a lot of people in my generation of Gen X have found that they couldn't necessarily trust some of the religious organizations, especially around these issues of Catholic child abuse. And now we're learning about, Southern Baptists. And it's again, like I talked about that contradiction that people see around issues of maintaining power in religious institutions. So I would agree with Dr. Sanders that, if we can create something where there is a common kind of ritual, a community because we can't exist as individuals. That's not sustainable, it's not necessarily healthy. And what I'm noticing is that's why I see a lot of younger folks, even in my generation, turning to yoga and turning to yoga, not only for their health but also you've seen in the last like five to 10 years, a growing community of yoga and social justice work that I think is really interesting and powerful and confronting these issues head on of white supremacy. I talk at quite a few yoga studios about this and it's always really receptive. And on the other hand I've also gotten death threats and rape threats for my work.So it can go either way. But I think we have this tension in the United States of always trending or attempting to trend towards individual desires, individual forms of understanding spirituality, but society is successful when we have community. And I think a lot of this has to do with capitalism. Capitalism celebrates the individual and individual choices and the ability to own anything as an individual whether it's land or culture and people don't like being told, no, you can't own this or you can't have this. And so when people go towards spirituality, they're often told yes, a little bit more too. So I see the reasons why people are turning away from religion, but it's also to me, an inherently American move that celebrates individuality.
Dina Zingaro It seems like our audience is right on point because we have an alum Laura McKee who wrote in about 10 minutes ago with the question. Gallup just came out with a poll showing that less than 50% of Americans belong to a religious community. What does that portend for any positive impact of religion on our future as a nation? So she was right on point with that. Do either of you want to address that further? I feel like we kind of covered it.
Cheryl Sanders Well, I think the challenge, there has been a huge challenge in the past year to organize religion, imposed by the pandemic, the COVID 19 pandemic. So whether you have a little tiny church on a hill or a big cathedral or a modern mega church, chances are the pews are empty, okay, because of the pandemic which means that the churches have been required to go online and to use technology for their messaging, for their recruitment, for fundraising and also for encouraging people or connecting with people in terms of service projects. Now, in my experience, sometimes you can get people to participate in a service project if they don't participate in anything else. And so I think that it's kind of wide open now, the curve is flattening and we will, some of us anyway, we'll eventually go back into numbers and worship but we're going to have to do church differently. And the way we do church, the way we build community, I think is forever gonna be changed, it's gonna be different. Now it's discouraging, it's sort of like the glass, is the glass half full or half empty, that 50%. I think that the challenge is to think beyond the four walls of the church and the Corona virus has done us a favor by forcing the issue.
Dina Zingaro Hmm, that's so interesting. Dr. Gandhi, is there anything else you wanted to say before I move on to the next one?
Shreena Gandhi No, thank you.
Dina Zingaro Okay. This next question comes from BoHee Yoon, class of 2001. How can we help eliminate misogyny in religion as we fight for racial justice?
Cheryl Sanders Great question. I'm a woman pastor, so obviously I'm operating in a community that is at least open to women's leadership but I think women's leadership is the key to addressing misogyny. Not that all women leaders are positioned to oppose it, but some misogyny is based on ignorance and doubt about women's participation, women's belonging, women's equality. And so we just need women to come to voice, to show up, to be in the room, to lean in as Sheryl Sandberg would say, at the tables where decisions are made, where policy is set and where people are being held accountable. So I think, I'll be careful with this, the churches where women have authority and access and equality, I think at least have more to draw on in addressing misogyny obviously than the churches that silence women and exclude them from process of decision-making and leadership.
Shreena Gandhi Yeah, I think where I come from, this is how I teach. And not only are Black and Brown story so important to center and start from when teaching about religion in the United States or religion in general. The same for women. But I think what we have to examine is how the very discipline in which I teach in, the very institution where I teach in, is mired in patriarchy. And so addressing the patriarchal roots, the white supremacist roots, the imperial roots of my field, is something that I try to do in every class, so the students can see how their very lives are complicit in these oppressive systems. And once they start to see that, once they start to see you know, that feminism is not just getting rid of men, but it's eradicating patriarchy. That they see that racism is not just saying something like I see no color, that it's part of a larger system that privileges certain groups over others that gives them certain advantages over others. Or in the case of my own religion that I was partly raised in that a lot of Hindus will say things like I don't see caste or caste is not a problem, but it is still a problem. A big percentage of Dalit women and men in this country say that they've been discriminated against by upper caste Hindus. That's a problem. There is a rape crisis, I can't speak, sorry, there's a rape crisis in India right now. And the majority of people who are targeted by gang rapes are Dalit women. So understanding these different oppressions intersectionality and I think is incredibly important to teach and not just to teach kind of a celebratory narrative but one that kind of exposes the ways in which different oppressions, I'm just gonna use this word again intersect with each other and starting to at least think about how we can eliminate some of those structural impediments to full liberation for everyone.
Dina Zingaro I come from a Greek Orthodox background. And just the thinking about this question, I mean, just language, like we never hear the pronoun, she, and in terms of describing God, it's always him. And that just makes such a difference for young women, just language. And, we don't, we're not allowed to have female priests. And so when you think about how, the sermon, and the lack of female interpretation that exists in our tradition, it's just such a shame. And Dr. Sanders, to your point about the importance of having a woman at the table and also in the alter, it's just so important as like a first step. Okay, so I'm working my way through these questions here. So this is from Felix Vergel, I'm sorry, I don't have a class here, but is there a more pessimism about the possibility of equality for blacks today than there was 30 or 40 years ago or has pessimism always been the reality of black lives?
Cheryl Sanders That's a tough question. I think the answer is, yes. There's some more pessimism now than 30 or 40 years ago but the pessimism has always been there and it's actually kind of solidified into a thing, a movement, an intellectual trajectory. But for me, it's important for me as a Christian who is wired for hope to have the courage to engage honestly in conversations with the pessimists. Because the pessimists is governed by a different perspective, a different point of view but it doesn't help to deny it. But I still think that hope will give you a better shot at sustaining protests than pessimism because the pessimism bears a certain amount of transparency and candor that may be the optimist doesn't have. But still my whole focus is sustainability, sustainability of the effort. And so if the pessimists get organized, the community around pessimism have at it. But I'm going to put my money on the community of hope and then engage and embrace the pessimist as we go forward.
Shreena Gandhi I would never think to talk for the African-American or black community. I will just say really quickly, one of the kind of inspirations that I find in the black church is the kind of centering of the book of Exodus and in the book of Exodus, it is a book of hope. And so, yeah, I'd love to be more hopeful, Dr. Sanders. I'm gonna take that inspiration from you.
Cheryl Sanders That's good.
Dina Zingaro So another question from Peter Klocky, sorry if I mispronounced your name. So his question is, Christians like myself and those with whom I worship, abhor racial segregation, yet Christian churches, even in the most progressive areas of the United States are often racially segregated. What should predominantly black and white congregations do to adjust this situation?
Cheryl Sanders I have a simple solution to that problem. And my simple solution is to proclaim the open door. My reading of book of Revelation says that when John had this vision of heaven, the first thing he saw was open door. Door, that is standing open, okay. There's no Saint Peter at the gate, there is no policing and there's no documentation. It's just an open door. So if we can proclaim that, then we have to implement that in our churches. And so in the church, the practical dimension of the open door means anybody who comes to my church is welcome. You're welcome to worship, you're welcome to stay, we will embrace you. We won't question your color or any other aspect of your being. But you embody for us an opportunity for hospitality. It's a different ethos than many of our churches have had whose churches just reflect the racism of the society. But if we're going to embrace this, I'll just say a renewed reading of our mandate and scripture, I say the open door and I can really go with that electronically in terms of our digital outreach, to make it attractive to as broad a spectrum of people as we can, because it is not in our best interest to only have people like us. We want our messaging and our community, we want to work and be intentional about diversity. But the rationale for it is what's lacking. And I think that as time goes on, we get more, I see more and more reasons to have welcoming. The worst stories are the churches where, you show up at that church, it's a white church, and they were like, oh, you didn't mean to come here, you meant to go to the church around the corner. So if we could get to a place where our door is open and welcoming to people, we'll be good.
Shreena Gandhi I'll say I've done quite a few anti-racism trainings. And one of the things that we do in these trainings is we caucus. That means we caucus with people of our own background. Sometimes there are not enough people of color to do like or to do like a South Asian or black folks, Latin X folks group. So we all kind of congregate together and then you have white people caucus. And a lot of people don't like that because they feel like they're segregating. But I think it has this one and I don't necessarily think it's as good for the church, but I, again, I'm not a Christian, so I can't really speak for that. But what I will say is that in our own communities, we have a lot of work to do. I can speak for the South Asian community, we have a lot of work to do when it comes to some of our biases regarding caste, regarding anti-blackness, regarding the myth of meritocracy, when it comes to immigration. And sometimes it's good to have that conversation. And from what I can observe is that white folks have a lot of work to do. So sometimes meeting on your own and talking to your own about racism, about whitesupremacy is more effective than me doing that. That's not gonna work. They're not going to listen to me in the same way they'll listen to you. So what I'm asking white folks to do right now, is to be that, is to do that work. Is to have those uncomfortable moments, those uncomfortable conversations and that confrontation of racist, white supremacist history that we like to kind of gloss over or iced over with American exceptionalism. But one of my favorite theologians, what, not theologian, sorry, theories of Religion said that, we have this rot in this country. We keep putting on different hats to hide the rot, but the rot is still there. And so right now that moment, we have this moment right now and I'd like to see more people kind of taking the reins and talking to their own.
Dina Zingaro And do you think that, sorry, I'm inserting my own question here, but to have those conversation, do you see religious spaces and sort of, whether they be churches or synagogues or whatever religious spaces we're talking about, sort of being ideal spaces to have those really uncomfortable conversations? I mean, for some people uncomfortable.
Cheryl Sanders Yes, yes, yes. I mean, at wherever and we can do it and online and conversations just like this. Or we can do it in our actual spaces but they're uncomfortable conversations. But see, I always wanna add some kind of reference to our mandate and our whole sense of identity, who we are. And can we authentically be who we are and who we claim to be as followers of Jesus Christ and not engage in the kinds of conversations, then raise the hard questions and weep the tears. Then we can walk in truthfulness, we can talk about the complicity of the church and the past history. And we can cast a vision for a future where there's justice and equality and where it's the kind of community that we think we're going to see in heaven. 'Cause there's a song that slaves had, they used to sing and say, everybody's talking about heaven, ain't going there. So there's an accountability that is pushing us to have those tough conversations whether it's at the dinner table, 'cause some of them had to be at the dinner table. Whether it's in the church or whether it's in the public square or online, where we can again, through out, keep the door open and broaden the connection.
Shreena Gandhi I've been to my local Hindu temple to talk about some of these issues, but I'd also say to people who are not necessarily religious, the classroom and in particular, the K through 12 classroom, is a good space to kind of start these conversations. So go to your local school board and advocate for this type of education, anti-racist education to your school boards.
Cheryl Sanders Great, I like that.
Dina Zingaro Well, thank you both so much. I'm sorry, alum audience, we didn't get to all of your questions. People are still adding comments. So thank you. Thank you both so much Dr. Sanders, Dr. Gandhi for such a wonderful conversation. And everyone be well. And thank you so much for tuning in to this SwatTalk.
Shreena Gandhi Thank you.
Cheryl Sanders Good night.
Dina Zingaro Bye guys.