VDS Voices

VDS Welcomes New Assistant Dean

Welcome, Laura!

We are delighted to share that The Reverend Laura Mariko Cheifetz (pronouns: she/her) is joining the Vanderbilt Divinity Staff as Assistant Dean for Admissions, Vocation, and Stewardship. Laura’s first day will be August 15, 2019.

Laura (center) walking the beach after the Progressive Asian American Christians conference with Ophelia Hu Kinney (right), of the Reconciling Ministries Project, and the Reverend Tuhina Rasche (left), Minister of Small Groups at University AME Zion Church

Laura (center) walking the beach after the Progressive Asian American Christians conference with Ophelia Hu Kinney (left), of the Reconciling Ministries Project, and the Reverend Tuhina Rasche (right), Minister of Small Groups at University AME Zion Church

Laura is currently the Campaign Manager for “Flint: The Poisoning of an American City,” a feature-length documentary, and adjunct staff for Montreat Conference Center’s 2019 Women’s Connection conference.

She served as the Deputy Director of Systems & Sustainability of the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum, a national organization whose work in immigrant rights, economic justice, and reproductive rights & health is done through a reproductive justice framework, and was responsible for development, grants administration, operations, and human resources, including spinning off from a fiscal sponsor and becoming an independent non-profit organization. Before that, Laura was Vice President of Church and Public Relations at the Presbyterian Publishing Corporation (PPC) in Louisville, KY. She helped provide strategic leadership in publishing, edited a quarterly devotional with a circulation of over 80,000, engaged with regional and national church bodies on behalf of PPC, and served as a spokesperson for the organization.

Prior to PPC, Laura served as Director of Strategic Partnerships at the Forum for Theological Exploration (formerly the Fund for Theological Education) in Atlanta, GA, working with new pastors and partner institutions and organizations committed to developing the next generation of Christian leadership. Before that, she was director of the Common Ground Project (formerly the Asian American Discipleship for Vocational Exploration, Nurture, and Transformation Project, or AADVENT Project), expanding a program for Asian Pacific American young adult Christians and pastors to include Latinx and black/African American young adults and pastors in engaging vocational discernment and mentoring for the next generation of diverse Christian leadership. She also served at a bilingual urban church (Mission Presbyterian Church) in San Francisco, and as an intern at the Presbyterian United Nations Office, coordinated the Presbyterian Church (USA)’s participation in the United Nations World Conference Against Racism, Racial Intolerance, Xenophobia, and Related Intolerance.

She is a contributing editor to Inheritance, a magazine amplifying the stories of Asian American and Pacific Islander Christian faith. She is the co-author and editor of “Church on Purpose: Reinventing Discipleship, Community, & Justice” (Judson Press) and contributor to “Race in a Post Obama America: The Church Responds” (Westminster John Knox Press), “Leading Wisdom: Asian and Asian North American Women Leaders” (WJK), “Here I Am: Faith Stories of Korean American Clergywomen” (Judson), and “Streams Run Uphill: Conversations with Young Clergywomen of Color” (Judson). She is co-author of the “Forming Asian Leaders for North American Churches” entry in the “Religious Leadership” reference handbook (SAGE Publishing). An occasional contributor to various blogs, her piece “Race Gives Me Poetry” for “Unbound: An Interactive Journal of Christian Social Justice” won the Associated Church Press 2016 Award of Excellence – Reporting and Writing: Personal Experience/1st Person Account (long format).

Laura is multiracial Asian American of Japanese and white Jewish descent. She was the fourth generation of her family to be born in California, and grew up in eastern Oregon and western Washington. Laura has a B.A. in Sociology with a minor in Spanish from Western Washington University, an M.Div. from McCormick Theological Seminary, and an MBA from North Park University. She is an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), and has served on various boards, national and international ecumenical bodies, and has been president of two homeowners associations. She is currently the co-moderator of the Special Committee on Per Capita-Based Funding & National Church Financial Sustainability for the Presbyterian Church (USA). As you might imagine, she is well-versed in people and politics.

Laura and her partner, Jessica Vazquez Torres, the National Program Manager for Crossroads Antiracism Organizing & Training, currently live in Decatur, GA with two rescued Shih Tzus. They enjoy all their nieces and nephews, and hope to be such fabulous aunties that the kids smuggle good booze to them in their retirement home. In their free time, Jessica bakes and Laura delivers the baked goods to friends and neighbors.

Posted by on July 26, 2019 in Feature, ,

2019 Distinguished Alumni Awardees

2018-19 Vanderbilt Divinity School and Graduate Department of Religion

Distinguished Alumni Award recipients


Divinity School Recipient: Dr. James A. Sanders

Claremont, CA

Vanderbilt Divinity School, Nashville, TN B.D.’51

Vanderbilt University, Nashville, TN .   B.A. ‘48 

James A. Sanders was professor of intertestamental and biblical studies at the Claremont School of Theology (CST) from 1977 to 1997, while concurrently professor of religion at the Claremont Graduate School. Prior to going to Claremont Sanders was professor of Old Testament first at Colgate Rochester Divinity School in Rochester NY (1954-65) and then at Union Theological Seminary and Columbia University in New York City (1965-77). After formal retirement in Claremont in 1997 he was visiting professor of Old Testament at Union Theological Seminary/Columbia University in New York City for the year 1997-98 and adjunct professor of Old Testament at Yale University Divinity School the spring semester of 1998. He served also as visiting professor at Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City in the spring of 2001.

Sanders founded the Ancient Biblical Manuscript Center in Claremont in 1977, the year he moved from New York to Claremont. Under his direction the Ancient Biblical Manuscript Center houses the most complete and best preserved collection of archival quality films of the Dead Sea Scrolls in the world; museums in Jerusalem and elsewhere in the world have ordered films of the Scrolls from the Center.

He has overseen the publication of The Dead Sea Scrolls Catalogue and Index used by scholars around the world, and with West Semitic Research at the University of Southern California has published a diplomatic edition of films of Leningradensis (Eerdmans, 1998), the oldest complete Hebrew Bible in the world taken by the Center’s photographers in Leningrad/St Petersburg in 1990. He became president emeritus of the Center in 2003.

Sanders has been presented with three volumes of essays (Festschriften) published in his honor: A Gift of God in Due Season, ed. by Richard Weis and David Carr (Sheffield, 1996); In Quest of Meaning in Context and Intertextuality, ed. by Craig Evans and Shemaryahu Talmon (Brill, 1997); and a Special Tribute Edition of The Folio: The Bulletin of the Ancient Biblical Manuscript Center for Preservation and Research 15/1 (fall 1998), continued in 16/1 (summer 1999).

Sanders’ scholarly interests bridge the testaments of Christian Scripture with focus on the Prophets, the literature of Early or pre-Rabbinic Judaism, including the Dead Sea Scrolls, and the New Testament. He has authored or edited twenty-nine books, and over 300 scholarly articles. He co-authored and co-edited The Canon Debate (Hendrickson Press, 2002). With Dominique Barthélemy of the Université de Fribourg he is co-editor of the (so-far) four volumes of Critique textuelle de l’Ancien Testament (Vandenhoeck&Ruprecht, 1982–).

Sanders is past president of the Society of Biblical Literature, a member of Studiorum Novi Testamenti Societas, the International Organization for Septuagint and Cognate Studies, the International Organization for Targumic and Cognate Studies, as well as other scholarly societies. He is the only American member of the United Bible Society’s Hebrew Old Testament Text Critical Project, which has so far published nine volumes of work done since 1969. That work has led to the current international preparation of Biblia Hebraica Quinta, the fifth edition of the scholarly Hebrew Bible that will be used for study and translations throughout the world in the 21st century. In 1961 in Jerusalem he unrolled the large Scroll of Psalms from Qumran Cave 11 (eleven) and published it in two volumes in 1965 and 1967. Sanders has served on the editorial boards of the Journal of Biblical Literature, Interpretation, Journal for the Study of Judaism, and Biblical Theology Bulletin, among others. His book Torah and Canon (still in print) launched in 1972 a new subdiscipline of biblical study called Canonical Criticism.

Sanders has lectured, taught, and preached at colleges, seminaries, churches, and pastors’ schools (Protestant, Catholic and Jewish) around the country and Canada. He was Alexander Robertson professor of biblical studies at Glasgow University in 1990-91, and has lectured several times at the Université de Fribourg en Suisse. He recently has lectured by invitation at the Universität Heidelberg in Germany and the University of Michigan, and read a paper in 1999 at the first-ever symposium inside the Vatican sponsored by The Holy Office, on the function of Scripture in the Church–the only non-Roman Catholic so invited. In 2002 he lectured to seminary presidents and deans from around the country at the Getty Center in Los Angeles.

He has over the years received fellowships and grants from the Fulbright Scholarship Program, the Rockefeller Foundation (twice), the Guggenheim Foundation (twice), and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

He has served as annual professor at the American School of Oriental Research in Jerusalem (now The Albright Institute) and twice was senior fellow at the Ecumenical Institute for Advanced Theological Study at Tantur south of Jerusalem (1972-73 and 1 985).

Sanders holds the B.A. degree, magna cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa, and the B.D. degree, with distinction, from Vanderbilt University; a Ph.D. from Hebrew Union College, a Litt.D. from Acadia University, an S.T.D. from Glasgow University, D.H.L.s from Coe College, California Lutheran University and Hebrew Union College, and was nominated for an honorary doctorate by the Université de Fribourg en Suisse.

Graduate Department of Religion Recipient: Dr. Sharon Welch

Chicago, IL 


Vanderbilt University, Nashville, TN M.A. ’77, Ph.D. ’82 (Theology)

Graceland College, Lamoni, IA .

B.A. ’75, Religion and Psychology (summa cum laude)

Michigan State University, East Lansing, MI, 1971-72

Dr. Welch is a Senior Fellow of the Institute for Humanist Studies and a member of the Unitarian Universalist Peace Ministry Network.

She served as Provost and Professor of Religion and Society at Meadville Lombard for ten years.

She has held positions as Professor and Chair of Religious Studies, Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies and Adjunct Professor of Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis at the University of Missouri from 1991-2007. She was assistant and then associate professor of Theology and Religion and Society at Harvard Divinity School from 1982 to 1991.

While at the University of Missouri, Welch was a Senior Fellow in the Center for Religion, the Professions, and the Public, a project leader of the Ford-sponsored Difficult Dialogues Program, and co-chair of the MU Committee for the Scholarship of Multicultural Teaching and Learning.

Dr. Welch is the author of five books: Real Peace, Real Security: The challenges of global citizenship, After Empire: The Art and Ethos of Enduring PeaceA Feminist Ethic of RiskSweet Dreams in America: Making Ethics and Spirituality Work, and Communities of Resistance and Solidarity. Dr. Welch is also a regular contributor to Tikkun magazine, and is the author of many articles.

Dr. Welch is the recipient of numerous awards, many of which recognize her excellence in teaching.  Among these are the Internationalizing the Curriculum Course Development Award (2002) and the College of Education, High Flyer Teaching Award (several years).  She also received the Annual Gustavus Myers Award: Honorable Mention for her 1999 book, Sweet Dreams in America: Making Ethics and Spirituality Work (Routledge). She was awarded the honorary degree of Doctor of Sacred Theology by Starr King School of the Ministry in May 2007.

About the award

Vanderbilt Divinity School and the Graduate Department of Religion recognize distinguished alumni/ae whose accomplishments and contributions have had a broad impact and positive effect in various forms of ministry and scholarship.

The faculty has approved the following criteria for the two awards:

  • The Divinity School award is given to someone who has demonstrated excellence and distinction in justice making through their work in congregational ministry, religious institutions, ecumenical organizations, community –based organizations, government, or other social institutions.
  • The Graduate Department of Religion award is given to someone whose scholarship, teaching, or research has advanced the understanding of religion and its formative impact in the world.

Previous recipients of the award


Divinity School Award: Rabbi Stephen Lewis Fuchs, D.Min.’92

Graduate Department of Religion Award: Reverend Dr. Chandra Taylor Smith, B.A.’83, Ph.D.’01


Divinity School Award: Representative Harold M. Love, Jr., M.T.S.’98

Graduate Department of Religion Award: Reverend Edward A. Malloy, C.S.C., Ph.D.’75


Divinity School Award: The Reverend Kenneth S. Robinson, M.D., M.Div.’86

Graduate Department of Religion Award: Dr. James L. Crenshaw, Ph.D.’64


Divinity School Award (two awards were given out this year):

  • Bishop Joseph A. Johnson Jr., B.Div.’54, Ph.D.’58 (awarded posthumously)
  • Becca Stevens, M.Div.’90

Graduate Department of Religion Award: Rev. Dr. Thomas W. Ogletree, Ph.D.’63


  • Charlotte Hotopp Zachary, Oberlin B.D.’57


  • Dr. Gardner C. Taylor, Oberlin B.D.’40


  • Dr. Fred Craddock, Ph.D.’64


  • Dr. James Lawson, D.’60


Posted by on February 1, 2019 in Feature,

On Becoming Human

photo of star out of focus against a black background, and the words: on becoming human.By: Katherine H. Smith

Jeremiah 33:14-16
The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. And this is the name by which it will be called: “The Lord is our righteousness.”

The other night, I read my daughters “Yertle the Turtle,” the famous Dr. Seuss story of an autocratic ectotherm whose thirst for power is built – literally and figuratively – on the backs of those beneath him. On his insatiable quest to rule the world, only one creature is bold enough to speak up. Way down at the bottom of the pile, a plain little turtle named Mack declares,

Your Majesty, please…I don’t like to complain,

But down here below, we are feeling great pain.

I know, up on top you are seeing great sights,

But down at the bottom we, too, should have rights.

Even at such a young age, my children were horrified. How could a community allow its members to be treated in such an exploitative way? Why did no one else speak up?

Later in the evening, house adorned in holiday glow, I found myself reflecting on a recent lecture I’d heard by Michael Gerson, a Washington Post columnist and former presidential speechwriter. Speaking at a conference of theologians, Gerson spoke passionately about the impact of polarization, confirmation bias, and dehumanization in our time. We are witnessing a moment, he argues, in which systematic dehumanization of the other is unfolding in ways that make socially acceptable practices which would once have been unthinkable. “This is my honest fear,” he said, “that a new and lesser ideal will take hold, that the strong matter more than the weak, that the winners are superior to the losers, that human dignity stops at certain groups, and certain borders, and certain religions. I am afraid this ideal will invade our laws and our hearts and change us.”

We are in the season of Advent, in which the Christian Church looks with awe and wonder to the God who chooses to become human, who puts on vulnerable flesh and ties his fate to ours. This incarnational theology requires a very particular anthropology, one that depends upon a transcendent understanding of human dignity and worth. We have value because we are known and loved by God, not as a single race or class or religious group, but as a beloved, universal community created in God’s very image.

The Advent text reveals the prophet Jeremiah, declaring that even as God’s people are forced into exile at the hands of those who will profit from their misfortune, God is preparing to raise up one who will bring God’s righteousness. It is a justice that will come in the form of human flesh and human action.

Our resistance to dehumanizing rhetoric is humanization. We participate in the radical act of God’s incarnating love when we decry cruelty and bullying in all its forms, that which Gershon calls “cosmic crimes.” We amplify the voices of those who power seeks to silence. We resist the broad grip of white supremacy, bigotry, and nationalistic xenophobia by listening deeply and holding open our hands to learning a different way. We counter division and degradation, imitating the incarnational God by caring for the neighbor beyond our border just as much as the one across our doorstep.

As we celebrate, in this season of Advent, the great inversion – that God comes not in power but as a vulnerable child – may we embody the transformative power of empathy, love, and solidarity. And may we join with wee Mack, and with bold Jeremiah, in summoning forth the courage to disrupt the status quo to call forth a new, more compassionate, more human vision for God’s beloved world.

A native of Nashville, Tennessee and ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (USA), Katherine has worked in theological education since 2007. Prior to arriving at Vanderbilt, Katherine served as Director of the Duke Youth Academy for Christian Formation in Durham, NC, a youth theology initiative funded by the Lilly Endowment, Inc. in partnership with Leadership Education at Duke Divinity. She also served as Managing Director of Princeton Project 55, Inc. (now AlumniCorps) in Princeton, NJ, a non-profit organization that seeks to construct social change and cultivate civic leaders by mobilizing people, organizations, and networks for the public good.

Posted by on December 21, 2018 in News, , ,

vote your conscience

blue and red hands raised

monthly message from emilie m. townes, vanderbilt divinity school dean

One of the most exciting things I did as a youth was to vote in my first election. I asked my folks and other adults over and over again what they actually did behind that curtain. The idea that I would soon be behind that curtain marked, for me, not only a rite of passage, but the act of assuming responsibilities for my right to vote.And we learned the importance of studying the issues. Our teachers recited as mantra the importance of being informed, knowing the issues, not letting others tell you what to do with your vote, studying the issues and the candidates and listening to others as they discussed the issues. There was no hint of spin in the air, but we did learn the power of what has come to be known as dirty tricks. Intimidation at polling places, broken machines and too close electioneering were stock-in-trade in Black and poor white precincts even then. My education included the stories of Black folk going to town hall to register to vote and being turned away by the local police.

In spite of, or perhaps because of these realities, we were told, and I deeply believe, that a strong democracy rests on an informed and voting electorate. So, when I entered the voting both for the first time on Nov. 6, 1973, I was proud to be one of the 1,687 registered voters in my precinct and one of the 767 votes cast from our precinct in our municipal election. And I was not the odd kid among my peers. We were all proud to be voting and some of us even dressed up to do so—like folks used to do to travel by plane.  

You may not dress up to vote these days, but it important to vote your conscience as a citizen of this republic. Please vote—a vibrant democracy depends on it.

Posted by on November 5, 2018 in Dean Townes

Convocation Address from SGA President


What is community? I am standing here as the representative of our communal body to invite you all into our shared adventure, and as I attempted to write this speech I kept asking myself multiple questions. What did I need to hear as a first year? How do I imagine and reimagine this community? And how do I even propose that vision? But out of the many meditations on what an invitation to community looked like, I was reminded of the fact that questions are what brought me to the divinity school in the first place. Questions called me out of what I thought I’d be doing and brought me to the admissions office. And when I finally arrived into the building as a first-year seeker, what I continued to find in these walls were more questions. And in this new 2018-19 year we have not stopped asking: Questioning how we will be transformed and informed by new beginnings, new architecture, new curriculums, and more changes still on the horizon.

This is a questioning community. We bring our experiences, our doubts, and our certainties and put them through the wringer with the hope that we will find not always answers, but better questions. Positions that bring us closer and closer to the immeasurable and the unanswerable.

So, to this new community, what I have for you as a way of invitation is questions: What do you seek to find here? What do you hope to build? Who do you hope to be? Do you want to be a first year rep?

I hope that in these first few days and next few years you open yourself up to the vulnerability and the boldness that questioning requires, and invite you into a space where we know the work of questioning does not end just in two or three year. We are searchers, theologians, workers, builders, activists, and fighters now pulled together and tasked with creating a community together, and my ask to you all is that you embrace this work of questioning.

So then again, what is this new community?

That is a question for you all.


Julia McCorvey
President: 2018-19 Vanderbilt Divinity School Student Government Association
M.Div, 2020

Posted by on September 7, 2018 in News

There is no peace


Photo: Reuters

A statement from Emilie M. Townes, dean of Vanderbilt Divinity School, regarding the recent events in Gaza.

I was shocked into speechlessness and a growing sense of horror, sorrow, and mourning when I opened up my Facebook feed on Monday morning. As the death toll and injury count of Palestinian protestors rose throughout the day, I realized once again that land, freedom, protest, sovereignty, and violence joined to create the deadly imbalance of heavily armed soldiers firing on mostly unarmed demonstrators who were trying to breach the fence.

There are no simple solutions in the Middle East where the re-formation of Israel and the loss of Palestinians’ homes sit side-by-side.  But the death of unarmed protestors, now numbering 60 by some accounts and the injuring of thousands more is not a solution, it is a tragedy.  Each side has contributed to the violence, each side blames the other for it.  The move of the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem has only exacerbated the situation and the notion of peace is left wanting.  The sad reality is that the parties—Hamas, the Israeli government, and now the U.S.—are resorting to deadly force and retaliation rather than negotiation and listening.  The Palestinian Authority looks reactive and ineffectual.  And families and friends are left to mourn their dead and there is no peace.

Posted by on May 16, 2018 in Feature, News

Charge to the Graduates of 2018


Delivered by Emilie M. Townes, dean of Vanderbilt Divinity School on May 11, 2018 to the 2018 graduating class.

i have no new words for you that you do not already know

that you have not already heard

that you not already seen or tried to live,

if only occasionally sometimes

so instead, i will remind you of some things and wish you well as you go

i’m on airplanes a good bit

one of the things that the flight attendants always do is some form of the safety check with the passengers

i am always struck when this part of the check is given: in the event of loss of cabin pressure, an oxygen mask will drop from above. Tighten the mask by pulling on the straps like this. If you are traveling with a child, place your mask on first before assisting them…in other words: save yourself so you can save others!

graduates, there has been a loss of pressure and your masks have dropped

the world we live in that we both help create and try to survive

in, is spinning toward crisis in so many areas of our lives

our religious communities

if we are fortunate enough to find one that is that marvelous blend of being welcoming and also holding us accountable

our neighborhoods

that may be more like enclaves, though we hope there are places where we learn how to get proximate with one another

our schools

that we hope do more than indoctrinate, but help us learn how to learn, ask questions, keep growing, and never settle for what we see and feel now as God’s final word in creation

our homes

if we have them, we hope for a place that gives us respite for the journey rather than force us into narrow casings of being-ness

you came here looking for something

and it was not a uniform something

so, with all that you know right now, i want to encourage you hold on to these 4 things:

first, get the right amount of wrong in your lives

i encourage you to perfect the fine art of being a holified pest in the halls of hatred and sorrow and fear-mongering

we have reached a time in this country where it’s become acceptable to hate people and call doing this faithfulness

don’t believe and don’t live it

please, please remember that what the world needs is love and compassion with a good mess of orneriness thrown in to help us stick to the things we know to be true and right about growing God’s good creation

second, do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief

this means, don’t be tempted into being or becoming a lone ranger

doing the work of faithfulness, whatever that may mean for you, requires friends and allies

friends to remind us that we are human

and allies to call us into account as we build strategies for justice, hope, and love in the worlds we live in

yes, see the grief and do not ignore it

but remember that heavy burdens should be shared and you can’t handle the vastness of grief in our world with a weak-willed dyspeptic alleluia

third, do not live your faithfulness in the abstract

active faith cannot be lived in a silo of saintliness

or a sideshow of intellectual religious fa la la

these things tend to lead us down the pathway to annihilation and building religious communities of complete, if not total, irrelevance

the new Jerusalem does not come in a compartmentalized people who disdain one another and sit in the hollows of their fears

your job is to read the times, call out injustice, suspect spirituality, and  dubious intellectual gibberish in clear voices with sass and swag

finally, do not let anyone or anything convince you that hope is a trivial or trite thing to help guide your way

it’s hard out there

and it’s far too easy to fall into cynicism, doubt, nihilism, and despair

so i remind you that living on the wrong side of the tracks of hope does not grow pesky holy people, citadels of welcoming communities, or vibrant tomorrows

who speak out against the sewage drain of injustices we have roiling around us and in us in these days

for all that you have learned about deconstruction

i urge you to hold fast to being folks who build for you are not being called to be the poster children of the status quo of despair

or to practice an over-religified, solipsistic matterhorn

surrounded by the chants of inept kumbayas and sashaying alleluias

your ministry, whatever its character, matters and we need you

your humor

your passion and compassion

your intellect

your faults and your strengths

your love

your faith

your hope and more

the mask has dropped…

Posted by on May 14, 2018 in News,

Read This Book: April 2018

Rows of prison cells, prison interior.

Each month, we ask a member of the Vanderbilt Divinity School faculty or administration to recommend a book they are currently reading. Our March recommendation is offered by Graham Reside, Executive Director of the Cal Turner Program in Moral Leadership for the Professions, and Assistant Professor at Vanderbilt University Divinity School. Graham recommendsI, “Inferno: The Anatomy of American Punishment” by Robert A Ferguson (Harvard University Press, 2014).

One of the ironies of the America experience is that while the national myth focuses on the themes of freedom and liberty, the nation stands as the global leader in incarceration. Today, the United States incarcerates over 2.3 million of its citizens. And in the land of the free, another five  million people are under state supervision, either on probation or parole. This means that one out of 35 adults are under state supervision of one sort or another.  At 326 million, the United States represents only five percent of the world’s population. Yet its 2.3 million prisoners represent 25% of the world’s prisoners.  Our rate of incarceration is extraordinary: five times that of Canada, seven times that of France, and 14 times that of Japan. No other nation compares to the United States when it comes to either the rate of incarceration nor the length of sentencing.

The costs of this penchant for incarceration are profound. In fiscal terms, the United States spends $80 billion annually on incarceration. Today, one of every nine government employees works in corrections. Beyond the immediate financial burdens, there are dramatic costs borne by the incarcerated themselves – they are often disenfranchised, they suffer violence and indignities while incarcerated, and upon release find themselves social pariahs, often unable to find meaningful employment, access to public services and too often alienated from their communities and families.  The families of the incarcerated suffer as well. Prisons disrupt relationships.  Children go without parents, spouses go without partners, parents despair the losses of their sons and daughters, and bear the guilt and shame of incarceration as much as those who are incarcerated. Finally, communities suffer the loss of their young men especially. And since poor communities of color are especially susceptible to arrest and confinement, the communities with the least resources for managing these losses are the ones that bear them most profoundly.  Incarceration is a highly disruptive social fact.

And because of both the high rate and high costs of incarceration in the United States, as well as the lengthy prison sentences – almost 10 percent of inmates are serving life sentences – prison life is often characterized by overcrowding, squalor, misery and violence.  For example, gang violence is rife.  1 out of 20 prisoners report being raped.  It is estimated that 50,000 are subjected to solitary confinement, which has many deleterious effects upon the mind and body, and many suffer from poor health outcomes.

These facts underlie Columbia Law Professor, Robert Ferguson’s book, Inferno: The Anatomy of American Punishment. In this imaginative and insightful study, Ferguson explores the American way of punishment through philosophical reflection, literary analysis, and legal criticism.  The book describes carefully what it means to be imprisoned in the United States. Using literary and first-person accounts, Ferguson offers a thick description of prison life. He goes further, however, asking the question, “how did we get here?”

Borrowing from Dante’s Divine Comedy, Ferguson turns to the metaphor of Dante’ Inferno to describe where here is. Recall, the Divine Comedy is composed of three parts, the Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradisio. For Ferguson, prison in the United States is akin to Dante’s inferno. It is a place of hopelessness, violence and despair.  It is hell, guarded by devils.  Ferguson marshals abundant evidence to support this claim. He is not against punishment, per se. Indeed, no society can exist without some response to violence and violation. Yet, Ferguson despairs that the system in the United States has become so draconian and punitive that it is serving little positive purpose. Indeed, prison is criminogenic, as the recidivism rate (67%) indicates. Prisons make those who pass through them more likely to commit crime, not less. Prisons are where we send so many of our young men and women, and yet what goes on in prisons remains hidden from us. Ferguson writes: “the suffering of the convicted is carefully arranged to place out of sight.”

So, for 2.3 million of our fellow Americans, here is hell.

Ferguson makes important observations to explain the path that got us here. One is organizational. The division of roles and authority in our justice system means that there is a perverse incentive structure at work. As Ferguson reminds us, legislators are the ones who make the laws that determine the criminal code and sentencing guidelines. Yet, legislators are the furthest removed from the realities of the situation. The offender is almost always an abstraction to them, and the realities of their confinement are virtually unknown to them. Yet the political rewards of being “tough are crime” are significant. At the other end are the corrections officers, who are trained not as social workers but as confiners. They seek to impose order in a bureaucratic institution that is often overcrowded and understaffed. The incarcerated can be bored, suffer from poor psychological health, and prone to violence. The correctional officers are seduced to view their charges as animals to be controlled rather than human beings to be helped. Meanwhile, the police patrol communities and see the effects of crime on victims, and they too tend to see the criminal as an antagonist first. Once arrested, the prosecutor strives for conviction because their value is measured in wins and losses, and not to the degree they bring justice to bear. Finally, the judges – who almost all come from the prosecutorial side – are constrained in applying their practical wisdom through mandatory sentencing laws. They are also inclined to become callous to the effects of sentences due to the nearly inevitable dehumanization that takes effect due to the sheer churn and volume of people through their courtrooms. Certainly, those who violate the law should take responsibility for their actions, but they do not forfeit their humanity because they have committed a crime. Yet, the system is currently set up to veil their humanity from sight. This is true for victims, too, who overwhelmingly report feeling invisible within a criminal justice system that neglects their needs and desires. Ferguson notes that juries are often the best chance for humanization of the process, but 90 percent of cases are pled out, and less that 5 percent of criminal cases ever get to a jury. As a consequence of the organization of the criminal justice system, Ferguson notes, “everyone in the process of punishing has the courage of someone else’s convictions to fall back on.” No one but the prisoner bears any responsibility for the sentence imposed. No wonder our prisons are overcrowded and our prisoners over-charged and over-incarcerated.

Beyond this organizational impetus for punishment, however, Ferguson also notes the cultural dimensions of the American way of punishment. Here, Ferguson notes that the myth of American individualism has had consequences for how we think about the criminal. In this national narrative, America is the land of opportunity, where anybody who is willing to work hard can get ahead. In this context, those who fail have no one to blame but themselves. And those who would cheat and steal should be handled harshly. Here, punishment is not merely a mechanism to deter or incapacitate. It is also a means to express our outrage. Of course, this notion of a level playing field and a land of equal opportunity that only requires hard work for success is belied by the structural conditions of inequality and the constraints of racism that exist in our nation. The fact that 90 percent of people caught up in the criminal justice system are poor makes a mockery of this mythic construal of the criminal as merely a moral reprobate.  It is the poor and dispossessed who fill our prisons, not the willfully wicked.

A second cultural dimension of the American way of punishment is the racialized divisions in our nation that make it easier to see the criminal as “other than us.” Mexicans, we are told, are “rapists and murderers.” Black youth are “thugs and superpredators.” For Ferguson, there is no true understanding of the punitive impulse inscribed in our polity without an appreciation of the deep divisions along racial and class lines that render some outsiders to us. The “Other” deserves hell. But when the one who commits a crime is our son or our daughter, our mother or father, our neighbor or friend, it changes the way we think about punishment in a fundamental way. In another important book on the topic of criminal justice in the United States, Just Mercy, Bryan Stevenson emphasizes the importance of “getting proximate with others,” to overcome the over-incarceration in the United States. When others, including those who offend, are strangers to us, we find it harder to extend empathy towards them. Or put in the negative, those we do not know we are quicker to hurt. Those we know, we are willing to correct. The Gospel of Matthew instructs us to visit the poor, the sick, and those in prison.  In the language of Stevenson, the gospel encourages us to get proximate to others so that we might recognize God in them. This impetus for proximity is also at work in Ferguson’s book as well.  oward the end of the book, he asks us to turn from the Inferno toward Purgatorio as the imaginative locale for punishment.  Purgatorio, you will remember, is the place that sinners go after death, to prepare them, through suffering, for Paradise. They are not ready for God’s holy presence, but they are not banished to hell. Ferguson is not opposed to painful punishment.   Indeed, it is hard to imagine punishment without pain. But for him, as for Dante, punishment should serve a positive function. And so he recommends prisons as places of purgatory rather than places of hell. Purgatory is hard, but it need not be lonely. It is painful, but not hopeless.  And it is not the locale for the stranger who has hurt us, but for the friend who has caused harm. Ferguson distinguishes purgatorial suffering from the Inferno:

Punishment through pain … works differently in purgatory. It prevents sin, or unlawfulness, from taking place by breaking the habit of it. The goal is correction; pain is the by-product that makes it possible…. The damned struggle alone in hell except when they are fighting or hurting one another. Nothing like that ever occurs in purgatory. Instead of screams of pain, we now have welcoming embraces. The setting is noticeably like regular society in its casual conviviality…. The souls in purgatory have sinned through misdirected love, basically selfishness. The antidote, correct love, manifests itself through kindness and mutuality.

In other words, in purgatory, the offender suffers, but this time with a purpose. And note, too, that in the tradition of purgatory, loved ones – family and friends – continue to love and pray for those in limbo. It is a space set aside, but it is not a space outside of society. There is both punishment as corrective and mutuality and kindness.

Ferguson does not claim to be a religious thinker in this book. Yet, his study of punishment in America leads him to religious categories of redemptive suffering and conviviality. Like St. Matthew, Dante, and Bryan Stevenson, Ferguson calls us to get close to those we would punish.  We must know not only what we are doing, but to whom.  Without Proximity and Mercy, punishment can only lead to hell.

Posted by on April 20, 2018 in Read This Book

Read This Book: Emergent Strategy


Each month, we ask a member of the Vanderbilt Divinity School faculty or administration to recommend a book they are currently reading. Our March recommendation is offered by Lyndsey Godwin, Assistant Director of the Carpenter Program in Religion, Gender, and Sexuality. Lyndsey recommends Emergent Strategy” by adrienne maree brown (AK Press, 2017).

“Trust the community” is one of the lived practices and ongoing mantras of the Rev. Diane Faires, and something I learned from her firsthand when we were both students at VDS. When the anxiety was high and our tendencies toward perfectionism and individualism were running rampant, Faires would act and speak out of this core tenet, no matter the context: group projects, international travel, community organizing, or hosting collaborative events. It continues to be one of the most salient takeaways from my time as a student, as an aspiration—to build trustable, accountable communities; and an action to perpetually practice.

While it is a continual journey to learn ways to “trust the community”, adrienne maree brown’s Emergent Strategy feels like a handbook full of possibilities and tools for developing these practices and to help us dismantle “the oppression of supremacy” and build a transformative and transforming world where all can thrive (142). brown is a healer, facilitator and doula of social justice, and writes Emergent Strategy not as a set of dictates or expert positions, but tools and ideas to test and adapt. It reminds us that we are still in the beginning of co-creating a new world, and that if we can give ourselves and each other grace, then together we can build resilience. If we can remember that growth is not linear, but iterative, then we can always be ready to change and adapt. And if we can if we can practice reflection and radical honesty, then we can see that “nothing is wasted, or a failure. Emergence is a system that makes use of everything in the iterative process. It is all data” (14-15).

brown invites us into being more deeply human through community, through examples that reconnect us to the fact that we are part of the natural world, a world that is inherently interdependent [as illustrated in the book through the wisdom of geese, starlings, oak trees, and mushrooms (84-5)]. And by inviting each of us to claim our right to write ourselves into the future using the visionary possibilities of science fiction, particularly the ever-creative and vital insights of Afro-Futurism.

It is our right and responsibility to write ourselves into the future. All organizing is science fiction. If you are shaping the future, you are a futurist. And visionary fiction is a way to practice the future in our minds, alone and together (197, emphasis mine).

Right now we are living inside the results of other people’s imaginations—people who couldn’t imagine Black people being free, fat girls being sexy, disabled people being leaders. People who could only imagine their own power and dominance. When more people imagine together, and then step from imagining into thinking through the structures and protocols of a society together, then more needs are attended to (248-9).

As the assistant director of the Carpenter Program, my work and the work of our program is to be a conduit for skills, tools, and knowledge that allow communities to have deeper, more impactful conversations about the complex intersections of religion, gender, and sexuality. This also includes naming and wrestling with the realities of white supremacy, ableism, classism and more. At its core, our work is about developing communities and leaders who are seeking to build a world of dignity and justice. Work that often requires a little holy trouble, a whole lot of radically honest self-reflection, and deep dedication to building accountable relationships amongst difference. If you are curious about this work or you see yourself in this work, then definitely read this book.

Emergent Strategy is the invitation you have been waiting for to find your path, your way of being, in building the world we all want to live in. “Uprisings and resistance and mass movement require a tolerance of messiness, a tolerance of many, many paths being walked at once” (119).

Posted by on March 18, 2018 in Read This Book, , , , , ,

Religion in the Arts students create projects of community interest

With Commencement on the horizon, students in the Religion in the Arts and Contemporary Culture (RACC) program at Vanderbilt Divinity School have been preparing final projects to complete the requirements for the program’s certificate.  Four of 2018’s certificate recipients are extending their creative reach beyond the Divinity School community to the larger university community and the general public.

Desire-RACC-FlyerWhile pursuing his Master of Divinity degree, Luther Young has undertaken research at the intersection of race, sexuality, and theology. An extension of the M.Div. Senior Project entitled “Pimps and Sissies: Gay Men, the Black Church, and Liberation Theology,” Desire: An Evening of Musical Reflection uses song and narration to illustrate how gay black men of faith maintain their relationship with God, either within or without the Black Church. Luther along with members of the community will perform musical selections to guide reflections about the experiences of gay black men in religious contexts. Desire will be held Thursday, April 5th in the Divinity School Arts Room (G-20) at 6 p.m. The event is free and open to the public.

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_4dd2Julia Liden, a master of theological studies candidate, has worked as a research assistant in the area of Syriac studies with David Michelson, assistant professor of the history of Christianity.  As exhibition curator, Julia is overseeing a presentation of large-scale photographic reproductions of Byzantine iconography.  Her exhibition, “Eikon: a Triple Encounter” will open the afternoon of April 5 in G-20 on the ground floor of the Divinity School. In conjunction with the exhibit, Jelena Bogdanovic, MA’05, will lecture on “The Canopy and the Byzantine Church” April 14 at 3 p.m. Bogdanovic is associate professor of architecture at Iowa State and a leading historian of Serbian medieval art.  The exhibit, which is free and open to the public, runs through April 22. Gallery days and hours will be posted on the RACC website.

WetheHiddArmando Guerrero Estrada fine-tuned his poetic voice while a student in the master of theological studies curriculum. His final project will feature not only his own poems, but also a public performance of them.  As he began planning his event, Estrada reached out to other student poets and invited them to present their works as well.  Going forward under the title “We the Hidden People,” this group-poetry and spoken-word reading will take place March 20 in the Divinity School Reading Room.  The event will begin with a reception at 6:30 PM.  Following the readings of featured poets, there will an “open mic” opportunity when a limited number of unscheduled poets can read. Estrada writes, “For the poet of color, daily life often involves times of conflict and struggle.  Poetry, then, often becomes a form of resistance.”  Estrada’s final project offers an opportunity in which “poets of color can come together to share their life story through their poems or spoken word.” Joining Estrada will be students from NATIVE (Native Americans in Tennessee Interacting at Vanderbilt), the Latinx Seminarians, and other campus groups.  “We the Hidden People” is free and open to the community.

STEVE-ARTSteve Stone has continued his work as a practicing visual artist while pursuing the master of divinity. During his time at the Divinity School, Stone has brought his creativity to the service of community life.  As leader of Poiesis, the student arts collective, and as a facilitator of student arts events, Stone helped keep the arts in the foreground of theological discourse among his fellow students.  Stone’s final project takes the form of several large-scale photographs—images of fellow students—which currently hang in the hallways of the Divinity School.  Stone says that his project is informed by one of the framing concepts of his master’s thesis: “Art is essential to theological education in that it pushes people towards holistic being.”

The use of black and white photos coupled with chalk inscriptions contributed by viewers helps to illustrate the idea that identity, although often co-opted and distorted by cultural constructions and biases, is a communal and deeply relational process.  Stone hopes that the size of his photographs (6’ x 8’)—each one a close-up portrait—will promote deep encounters with “authentic being” rather than simple experiences with photographs.  “Art offers an encounter, an experience, a moment of revelation. My ultimate hope is for the viewer to encounter, in some way, part of each of these folks’ being, their own being, and Ultimate Being while interacting with these photographs,” he said.

For more information, email Dave Perkins, associate director of RACC.


Posted by on March 13, 2018 in News,


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