Our guest for the episode “Respecting Differences” is Lutheran pastor, public theologian and author of New York Times’ best-selling books Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner and Saint, Accidental Saints: Finding God in All the Wrong People and Shameless: A Sexual Reformation. The bishops speak with Bolz-Weber about honoring differences and calling the Church back to the work of transformation. This episode invites listeners to embrace humility, let go of fear and have the hard conversations necessary to build the beloved community God calls us to build. Bolz-Weber’s unique and uncensored approach to living out the Gospel and building community is rooted in respecting difference with humility, grace and forgiveness.
Bishop LaTrelle…: Welcome to the Unfinished Church.
Bishop Gregory …: I’m Gregory Palmer.
Bishop Mike McK…: I’m Mike McKee.
Bishop LaTrelle…: And I’m LaTrelle Miller Easterling. The Unfinished Church is a place for brave conversations, to build a world in which racial prejudice has no power. God is not finished with us.
Beloved, I am excited about the vulnerability, the authenticity, and the clarity that Nadia brought to this conversation around anti-racism and about calling the Church back to who she is supposed to be for the real work of transformation.
Bishop Gregory …: I think because it models laying bare our imperfection around race, among many other places where, as persons and as the institution of the Church, where clearly we have not always hit the mark and maybe missed it more than we’ve ever hit it. And until we allow that to be laid bare, the wound can’t even approach healing.
Bishop Mike McK…: This conversation is helpful because I think we begin to understand the importance of authenticity. A word that is often misused or used too often, but we have authenticity embodied in this conversation with Nadia Bolz-Weber. And I so appreciate about her honesty, not only about herself, but about the church that we all dearly love.
Bishop LaTrelle…: And I think that Nadia invites us to let go of the fear, that to engage in this conversation, to recognize where all of us hold some bias, some preconceived notion, all of us fall short of the glory of God that, that doesn’t mean that we need to hate ourselves. That doesn’t mean we need to be afraid to enter into the conversation.
From vocabulary, to clothing, to hairstyles, to the nature and content of what is being protested. God’s creation is diverse. Today’s conversation is about respecting these beautiful human differences even if we don’t prefer them or understand them. Respecting different forms of expression requires an understanding that we may not really know what is going on. As the theologian Aretha Franklin reminds us, R-E-S-P-E-C-T find out what it means to me. Our baptismal vows and communal practices of baptism bathes this practice in grace, mystery and connection across time, all ages, nations, and races.
We are thrilled to be joined today by author, speaker, activist and public theologian, Reverend Nadia Bolz-Weber. She writes and speaks about personal failings, recovery, grace, faith and whatever else she wants to. Nadia’s unique and uncensored approach to living out the Gospel and building community is rooted in respecting difference with humility, grace, and forgiveness. It is great to be with you again, Nadia; welcome to the Unfinished Church.
Nadia Bolz-Web…: Thank you so much, Bishop. I’m delighted to be joining you guys.
Bishop LaTrelle…: Excellent. Let us embark upon this rich conversation. The gospel of Matthew includes the scripture “don’t judge, so that you won’t be judged. You’ll receive the same judgment you give.” Yet Christians seem to be judging others quite a bit. I mean, the society that we’re living in is becoming more of a vituperative by the day. And a lot of that vitriol seems to be centered in race. Where have we failed in our spiritual formation?
Nadia Bolz-Web…: Oh, where have we failed in our spiritual formation? I think that in terms of Christianity, I feel like there really has so seldom been a deep commitment to humility. And sometimes people teach humility, but it’s as a way of being able to abuse people easier. So that’s not what I’m saying, but it feels like in all sectors of the church, there isn’t this sort of spiritual humility, intellectual humility, religious humility, to say every single one of us is not really going to get any of this completely right. Like the scripture says, maybe we shouldn’t judge how far everyone else is off the mark continually when we ourselves are probably off the mark and don’t even realize it.
So I feel like both in the liberal and the conservative church, there’s an enormous amount of hubris. So often our psyches have a hard time withstanding any kind of criticism, any kind of inclination that we might not be getting something right. Because when somebody actually has a lot of maturity, when they have a sort of solid, healthy ego, criticism isn’t threatening. So I think that we haven’t done a lot in the church to sort of become these really integrated people that can actually withstand a little bit of pressure, a little bit of criticism. It’s interesting that judge not lest ye be judged.
I have a friend who is one of these people who their online presence was really one of calling other people out a lot, like piling on. Somebody made an error of some kind, and she was the first to call them out and to get other people on their side and to pile on. And she’s in this moment of repentance from that. I’m like, man, you live by the call out, you die by the call out. If that is your brand, if that’s going to be your brand, God bless you, but it’s a matter of time.
My friend Jacob Smith is an Episcopal priest in New York and he goes, “Look, we’re all three bad days away from being in an internet scandal, and most of us are already on day two. Everyone needs to relax.” So one of the things I see in our conversations with race and where people get very defensive and they don’t want to take in any kind of new information, is that most people are so wrecked with insecurity and have such a lack of spiritual maturity, that they put all their energy into preserving this idea that they have of themselves that they’re right. This is what we do. I think that we are in so much more danger of harming ourselves and other people when we’re certain we’re good, when we’re certain we’re bright, that when we think we’re being virtuous, than we ever do when we’re certainly acting out of our vices.
So I think sometimes this need to like, I have to maintain a self-understanding that I am good. Now, if somebody’s going to be giving me information that says, “Actually you know what, as an overeducated privileged white lady, there’s a bunch of stuff you don’t understand yet.” Well, if my self-understanding is I already know stuff, I’m going to get really defensive. If my self-understanding is solid enough and my psyche and my maturity is solid enough, I’m not threatened by that. I want to know, oh, I wonder, I could have curiosity. What is it? This was hard for me as well. It’s hard for a lot of us. I thought I know stuff about race and then when I was confronted more and more with things I didn’t know, I had to fight through a little resistance to go, what do I want more? Do I want the truth more or do I want to be right more.
Bishop LaTrelle…: Right.
Nadia Bolz-Web…: Because so seldom are these going to be the same thing.
Bishop LaTrelle…: Exactly. Well, it sounds like you’re describing the difference between convicted humility and a facade of humility, or even humility as a weapon. And God knows we weaponize scripture and the like enough.
I’d also like to ask you about the violent that pervades our society. It seems particularly predicated on othering and a righteous indignation, that some believe gives them license to actually act out violently. How do we then reframe our discipleship to recognize that Christ comes as the Prince of Peace, and to bring reconciliation and healing?
Nadia Bolz-Web…: I do a lot of speaking in other countries, and if you’re in other, what are called Western developed countries, the ones that we have the most in common with, and you’re an American, you will eventually get the questions. I mean, I swear to God, every time I’m over there, after a while people would be like, “Look, we got an American. We got to ask her these questions.” And the questions they always want to ask me about, they’re like, “Look, there’s so many similarities between our cultures. Can you help us with some things that are very difficult to understand in America?” They want to know about, you can probably guess it, gun laws, mass incarceration, the percentage of our citizens that are incarcerated, and relatedly, the death penalty. These three things, as they’re lived out in the United States of America, are madness to other Western developed.
They cannot understand them. So they’re like, “Nadia, can you help us?” And my answer, and this has been for the last 10 years I’ve been getting these questions when I travel abroad, my answer is like, “You cannot understand these spiritual maladies in our country, unless you’re willing to look at white supremacy. You can’t understand. It is baffling. It is madness. The only way to trace back how in the world are we in a point where we preserve and protect these three things, it always goes back to the unconfessed original sins of our country.”
Bishop Mike McK…: Right.
Nadia Bolz-Web…: The spiritual malady in this country has to do with the fact that we’ve never done our work. There’s never been a truth and reconciliation commission.
Bishop Mike McK…: Right.
Nadia Bolz-Web…: And so on some level, that whole thing of, “We have to protect ourselves,” that instinct of like, somebody’s going to come and get us, we have the right to protect all our shit, all of that, that is rooted in the fact that we never did our work around the enslavement of human beings and around the land theft and genocide of human beings.
Bishop Mike McK…: Right.
Nadia Bolz-Web…: And we know that we live in a castle that we kind of got through some unseemly and unethical needs. On some level, we might not admit it, but we know and it’s that truth underneath there, that fuels this fat, well, we better be able to arm ourselves. We better be able to kill anyone we find at all threatening that we think is going to come and take our stuff. And then we have to be able to incarcerate as many of them as possible, and if we want to, we need to be able to kill them. So to me, it’s all rooted in that.
And you know what? I say that as somebody who right now, I’m writing a book about forgiveness, and I have my assistant doing some research for me about Stand Your Ground laws; about the castle doctrine. Because my nephew, at the end of August, had a mental break. When he’s like me, young addict alcoholic, in and out of treatment centers, 23-years-old. He was in detox again and he had a mental break and he thought, “Oh, there’s demons and I got to get out.” He was disassociated. And he goes to a house in the neighbor. He gets out of the detox, goes to a house in the neighborhood, banging on the door, saying, “It’s Henry, it’s your cousin, let me in,” thinking it’s a family home. He just needs some help. He needs some mental health help. And he gets inside this house and the man shot and killed him.
And so I am trying to go, where does this come from? Where does it come from, this idea? Because I went and walked the Camino de Santiago to grieve my nephew. I had to just get out. I was like, I cannot be Nadia Bolz-Weber for anyone right now. And I went and I walked the Camino, and I told that story of how Henry died to maybe five or six people who were from other countries. And they’re all like, “Well, how long will this man be in prison?” I’m like, “Oh, no, no. I’m sorry. No, no. That’s legal here.” And sister, they were horrified, horrified at the idea-someone gets into your house, you can kill them, point blank and no questions asked frankly.
And so I’m trying to go back and go, where does it come from? What is the sickness that causes a situation? And while I’m looking at that, I also have compassion for how terrifying it would be for somebody who is not in their right mind to get into your house. And then the reason that I think that we have to change our gun laws, this is where I want to be clear, it’s not because I’m nonviolent, it’s because I am violent. I should not have access to a handgun, you know why? If someone got into my house, I think I would kill them.
We have created a situation with these guns in our country, where in a split second, we think they might have a gun, so we better kill them first. So all of this feeling of being threatened all the time that we have, creates so much death, and creates so much violence, and I wonder what would happen in this country if we actually sat down as a people and did our work and just told some truths man, just told some truths about stuff. We’ve never done that.
Bishop LaTrelle…: Well, first let me say that I am so sorry for the loss of your nephew and that you and your family are having to experience that grief. I simply can’t imagine.
The Chapel, your online community, when we talk about sitting down, you talk about just doing that work. You ask hosts and all members to respect and keep to nine commandments. The stated purpose is to keep everyone in right relationship with each other. Honoring difference is one of those commitments. Why was that important enough to you to make it one of the nine, and what have you learned about creating environments where this is the foundational thread of your relationship?
Nadia Bolz-Web…: Well, the reason is because people behave poorly towards each other online because they can. We have no covenant with each other. I actually have met Monica Lewinsky a couple times. And she said to me, because I asked her, I said, “How do people treat you?” She goes, “Honestly Nadia, I could count on one hand the number of times that somebody’s been awful to me in person. Every day of my life, people have been awful to me online since I was 21.” Why? Because we have no covenant for how to treat each other and there’s that anonymity.
And so the importance to me was going, look, also when we have daily prayer, we say in The Chapel, you’re going to hear some theological language and maybe there’ll be a type of prayer that you’re not comfortable with. You’ll be okay. We’re all going to take turns being uncomfortable. It’s really important to us. So I think that we can create these little bubbles of comfort in our lives where we need to make sure there’s no ideas we’re not comfortable with, there aren’t people around we’re not comfortable with; we can just create these little bubbles, and we’re pruning down the ability for us to grow as spiritual beings when we do that. It is only by encountering difference that we ever can actually know who we are. It’s the only way.
So I think that… And the funny thing is, as I’m answering this, I’m realizing I’m answering this question on both sides ideologically. I think that what I see in liberal circles online too, is a complete lack of being willing to look at subtlety, of being able to actually listen to any kind of critical thinking. There’s just so much reactivity without any listening and people are terrified of any heterodox ideas. You know?
Bishop Gregory …: Yeah. I wonder if I could just follow up on a bit of how you’ve responded to Bishop Easterling’s question. She initially talked about and you responded to the question about, how is the way we’ve gotten sideways about difference, connected deeply to not being well-formed spiritually. And then the Lewinsky illustration of in person nobody’s ever really been that harsh or unkind to me, I think I’m paraphrasing, but online. What’s the connection between this spiritual malformation, my words, and virtual courage that people don’t seem to have when they’re in physical proximity?
Nadia Bolz-Web…: I’m not sure, but I can say for my own experience, that if I’m going to be honest, the majority of my spiritual formation happened in the basement of churches and not the sanctuaries of churches. I’ve gone to AA meetings and church basements for 30 years, and people there are able to speak honestly, honestly about their lives and connect to God and to one another. And I see it a lot more often in a church basement than I do in a church sanctuary. And I think one of the reasons is because the starting point of 12 step work is not seeking righteousness actually. It’s not becoming better disciples. It’s not progressive sanctification. The starting point is failure. The starting point is humility. The starting point is to go, I admit I’m an alcoholic and I actually on my own will and power, am hopeless. And I have to rely on a power greater than myself. I have to admit I can’t do this by myself. I have to rely on God. I have to be really honest about my failings. I have to clean up my side of the street. I have to try to be of service to others. And to me, I’ve seen that kind of formation in people through that process in a way that I think the church could really take note of.
Bishop Gregory …: Thank you.
Bishop LaTrelle…: Absolutely. And also what I hear you describing, Nadia, is a vulnerability, that unfortunately it seems like what is presently now pervasive in too many Christian communities is not about a vulnerability, because what you just described in that 12 Step Program really should be our understanding of our baptism. We don’t need baptism because we’re perfect. We need baptism because we are not perfect. So again, why have we lost this notion of vulnerability and the beauty and the sacredness that comes through that vulnerability?
Nadia Bolz-Web…: Yeah. Well, because the world breaks your heart. I mean, so many of us have experienced a world that is harsh and has broken our heart and where we have been hurt. So it is, as Brené Brown says, it does take some bravery. But as it pertains to conversations around race, I think on one end, I see a lack of humility in people who are trying to preserve an idea that they’re already good. So why are you trying to tell me I’m racist? I have a black grandchild. I can’t be racist. There’s that nonsense, trying to preserve that sense of self.
And then on the other end, you have people who spend so much time calling out other people as a way of deflecting what might be going on for them, or they’ll do a lot of… Once they sort of learn some of this stuff, we end up doing some performative stuff so that people can see we’re good. We’re posting the right stuff online. We’re trying to co-opt our black friends into like saying, we’re the good white people. I mean, do you know what I mean?
Bishop Mike McK…: Yes.
Nadia Bolz-Web…: There’s just so much nonsense. And both of these things I think when we are doing them are really rooted in a deep insecurity. So I think this is why the conversations around anti-racism that I feel the most drawn to are ones where the foundational principle is your belovedness. All of this, no matter who it is, and that we can go back to that. Instead of the foundational thing about you, is that you have white supremacy that you haven’t dealt with. That’s not going to be the foundational part of you. It really is a belovedness. And when the conversation can go back to that, we can actually have grace for each other as we’re facing these challenges. It’s a thing I see absent in these conversations a lot. Because it’s so important, we think it’s a betrayal of the cause to show grace to anyone. I think it’s actually a place that people can actually land if they know that there’s some grace to it, they’re more apt to keep walking that path.
Bishop Mike McK…: Nadia, I want to follow up on something you said, and that was that the world breaks your heart. I’m of the opinion that the church has broken too many hearts as well. So as you talk about humility and being open to anything, how do we create a church, a body believers, a beloved community that really respects people, and is so very open to people bringing their pain or their stuff or whatever that I want to be a part of a community like this? What would you say to the church?
Nadia Bolz-Web…: The most important thing is to start with as much honesty as you can, because unless we do that, we’re just going to be what I call redecorating the phone booth. It’s like in the sense of you can go, we don’t have phone booths everywhere like we used to and then you can then think, oh, well that means that nobody cares about communicating with other people on phones anymore. Of course, we don’t know that’s true. You can say people aren’t going to church as much, oh so they aren’t as interested in spiritual formation and prayer. It’s not true. So the church ends up saying, “Hey, let’s redecorate the phone booth rather than being honest enough.” And one of the things I feel like I’d love for us to do more, is to be as honest as we can about what is our deepest value, not what does our website say our values are, but based in what we do, based on how we spend money, based on what we talk about the most, what are our deepest values?
And one of the examples I like to give is like look, if everybody in the congregation hates the fake flowers that are on the altar, but nobody will ever say anything. You have to do the work of, “Well, why would that be?” Oh, maybe it’s because Agnes puts them there, and in a super codependent way, Agnes over functions at church and does a lot of the work nobody else wants to sign up for. So what that means is our highest value is keeping Agnes happy at all cost. And that’s why we will suffer through ugly paraments or fake flowers, because we need to keep Agnes happy so that we aren’t the ones who have to do the bookkeeping or do whatever she’s doing.
So to do really honest work about what do our practices say about our values, not what does our website say about our values. Because so often churches are confused about the difference between being friendly and being welcoming. So often we have these very friendly churches that cannot see all the ways that they’re not welcoming. God bless them. So they’re like, “We were so friendly when people visited, why aren’t they coming back?” Well, there’s a million ways like a worship service can be unwelcoming, and you don’t see it because you’ve been in it and you’re so familiar with it for so long. So even inviting people who aren’t even churchgoers to come and say as honestly as they can, what did they not understand? What felt uncomfortable to them? What did everyone around them seem to understand and they didn’t?
I mean, the first time I went to a Lutheran service, they gave me a red hymnal and then a green hymnal, and then they gave me a worship book, a little folder thing that then had code in it. It said like LBW42. I don’t know what the hell any of this means. And everybody around me did. And then there’s an insert that has the readings, and that’s different. I mean, it was impossible to break through code, and they were so friendly, and I felt the whole time like I didn’t belong.
Bishop LaTrelle…: Well Nadia, we are asking all of our guests two questions. So if you would, I’d like to ask you those questions now. How do you talk with people about racial justice who don’t think, act, or look like you?
Nadia Bolz-Web…: I don’t think I do. (Laughter) I don’t think I do, do that.
Bishop LaTrelle…: That’s honest.
Nadia Bolz-Web…: If I’m honest. I’m trying to think when have I done that? I can say that I try to tell my own story as much as I can. I try to talk about my own struggles, and at different points when I learn things and things that are hard, and I try to keep it in that, because I’m not an expert in this. It’s not like I’m going to do a keynote on this stuff. To me, it’s personal. It has to do with the relationships that I’ve had over the last 10 years and the ways that those have changed me. It has to do with the fact that when something happens in the news cycle and I react to it differently than my friend Theresa reacts to it, I have to ask myself, “Oh, why is that?” It is a constant work like that of seeing things and hopefully once you see them, you can’t unsee them. But talking about being a beginner with this stuff and being willing to talk about that, that’s all I really have to offer because I’m not like an expert in any way.
Bishop LaTrelle…: Well, I think you are offering far more than you are giving yourself credit for.
The next question I would ask you is, how do you care for your soul in the midst of anti-racism work or any work that is trying to bring about transformation and change?
Nadia Bolz-Web…: I publish essays every week or so on my, it’s called The Corners, it’s my Substack. And the one that I published that got the most, that half a million people read, it had the most reads of anything I wrote. It was around bandwidth, because I don’t know that our psyches were developed to be able to hold, respond to, and care about every form of human suffering and injustice and natural disaster and violence that happens to every person throughout the whole planet every minute of the day.
Bishop LaTrelle…: Right.
Nadia Bolz-Web…: Our psyches were developed to be able to hold and respond to and care about the injustice and the violence and the stuff that happens in our village. And so, so many of us are experiencing this, the fact that we have this older wiring, but we have this modern stimulus of things clamoring for our attention. And it’s hard. It’s like, oh my gosh, I have to do something about immigration, and I have to do some anti-racism work, and what about the environment? And now there’s this other thing asking and to go…
My friend Suzanne taught me these discernment questions of like, what’s mine to do and what’s not mine to do? What’s mine to say, and what’s not mine to say? What’s mine to care about, which is harder, and what’s not mine to care about? That’s not to say, it’s not worthy to be cared about by someone. But I think understanding our capacity and what is ours to do, and to bless the fact that other things will be cared about and done by other people. So it’s not like putting our heads in the sand, it’s actually being effective. Because we can have that discernment, what’s mine to do. And then to bless and support others and what’s theirs to do. And I think having that clarity really helps the overwhelm.
Bishop LaTrelle…: Amen.
Well Nadia, thank you for being you, first of all, and for creating bold spaces of belonging for saints and sinners. And now I would ask my brother bishops, what would you highlight from today’s conversation? What’s going to continue to resonate with you?
Bishop Gregory …: I’ll be haunted by this question, created by something that Nadia said, the world breaks your heart. And then Bishop McKee questioned-asserted that sometimes the church breaks our heart. And just that dichotomy, the question that’s haunting me and I would say in a good way, to do good work I hope about it is, has the church become too conformed to this world? sort of a Romans 12 piece- are we cut so much after the pattern of the world, and as I’ve said from time to time, did we particularly in American Protestantism, did we campaign for the job of becoming the chaplain to the white middle class and we got the job?
Nadia Bolz-Web…: One of the things that breaks my heart is going, is the way the church has just seems to have bought into a set of values and judges itself according to those values and feels like it’s always coming up lacking and maybe those weren’t the standards we were supposed to be needing to begin with.
Bishop Mike McK…: One of the things that resonates with me is something that is deep inside anyway, and that is about our work to do. I cannot change the world. I think sometimes many clergy and lay people as well, I would say do overreach and that they think I can take on this prophetic stance for the whole world when there’s so many injustices or challenges in local communities that really need our attention and our work. And I’m just reminded of that by this conversation today. I want to thank you Nadia for giving that to us today again, as a reminder to me.
Nadia Bolz-Web…: That was my problem with this thing my denomination was so in love with years ago called, and forgive me if you guys like it, but natural church development. It was this process by which people in your parish would rank how your church is doing in these 10 categories. And then whatever you suck at, that’s been what you’re supposed to really focus on. And the consultant would show you a water barrel with the wooden slats, and one is lower than the rest, and your barrel can only hold as much water as the lowest slat. And everyone’s convicted going, “Yeah, let’s do this.” And I’m like, “Hold on. If my church is excellent at a few things, but not at others, I bet the church down the block is excellent at those. Who says we have to be good at all the things? Come on.”
Bishop LaTrelle…: Amen.
Bishop Gregory …: Absolutely. Thank you.
Bishop Mike McK…: Amen.
Bishop LaTrelle…: Well you certainly make me think about the quote, “When the gospel has become bad news to the poor, to the oppressed, to the brokenhearted and the imprisoned and good news to the proud, self-righteous and privileged instead, it is no longer the gospel of Jesus Christ.” So Nadia, again, just want to thank you for being with us today, for sharing your heart, for calling us all into a covenant of vulnerability, and for just bringing so much resonance to the Unfinished Church podcast.
Beloved, please tune in next time when we connect with Eboo Patel, about examining our perceptions.
Bishop Mike McK…: Episodes are available on Apple podcast, Spotify, or wherever you listen to podcasts.
Bishop Gregory …: Connect with us and find related resources on our website, the unfinishedchurch.org. The Unfinished Church- Conversations that transform.
Listening is an important first step in the work of antiracism. Are you ready to do more? Here are some helpful resources to help you dig in deeper to the topics discussed in this episode.