Credit to Béatrice de Géa

Release Date

December 29th, 2021

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Reverend Doctor Jacqui Lewis is Senior Minister at Middle Church in New York City and author of a remarkable new book, Fierce Love: A Bold Path to Ferocious Courage and Rule-Breaking Kindness That Can Heal the World. Rev. Dr. Lewis joins Zainab to discuss how these ideas are rooted in her own fierce journey, one that has challenged her to find grace in healing and forgiveness—and truly develop a willingness to embrace new beginnings.

“To look at ourselves through the lens of love is also to not pretend we’re not messy.”

INSPIRATION

TRANSCRIPT

Zainab Salbi (Host):

Redefined is hosted by me, Zainab Salbi, and brought to you by FindCenter, a search engine for your soul. Part library, part temple, FindCenter presents a world of wisdom, organized. Check it out today at www.findcenter.com and please subscribe to Redefined for free on Apple Podcasts and Spotify.

[introductory piano music]

What’s most important about life? What is the essence of life? Is it what we do, how much we earn, how many social media followers we have? Or is it, do we live our lives in kindness to ourselves and to others? Do we live our lives in love to ourselves and to others? In nearly losing my life, I was confronted with these questions and it led me to the conversations that make up Redefined, about how we draw our inner maps and the pursuit of meaningful personal change.

My guest today is somebody who embodies so much of what we’ve been talking about on Redefined. Reverend Doctor Jacqui Lewis is senior minister at Middle Church in New York City. An author of a remarkable new book, Fierce Love: A Bold Path to Ferocious Courage and Rule-Breaking Kindness That Can Heal the World. That title doesn’t just apply to the book. Those are also words Jacqui lives by and aspires to. As she and I discuss, those words and ideas are rooted in a fierce journey that has challenged Jacqui to embrace hard truths and find grace and healing in forgiveness. Our conversation straddles the personal, the political, and the communal as Jacqui’s message of fierce love extends to her anti-racist and social justice work. The love and resilience she’s looking to create in this world offers radical hope, absolutely radical hope. Jacqui’s words feel like the perfect ending to a year that leaves us all needing even more love and more of a willingness to truly embrace new beginnings. Join us.

[piano music fades]

So here are the things, Jacqui. I mean, you’ve been with me as I hear your voice and reading your book the last week or so and I find myself tearing up. The words that came to me is, “Oh my God, she’s a soul sister.” I find myself in awe of your courage and beauty and vulnerability. And it’s really beautiful, really, really beautiful what you wrote. I mean, I’m tearing up just thinking about it right now, honestly. And I want to start by asking the question of what does it mean to own the messiness of becoming? It’s a line in your book, “We need to own the messiness of becoming.” Can you go there? What does that mean for you?

Jacqui Lewis:

That’s such a good question. I mean, I experience it every day and I know you do too. And I think if we bring it to our consciousness, we can claim that we are birthing a new self every day almost like a reptile might shed a skin. Maybe we’re sloughing off the things that don’t work anymore, or stepping out of behaviors that used to work and don’t anymore really seem appropriate. Or maybe we are stepping out of woundings that have happened to us. And yes, the scar is there, but the scar is healing and we are watching it heal and watching the muscle that was weak get strong and watching the scar fade. And maybe we are, in our minds, rehearsing a story that happened to us and turning it upside down and saying, “Oh, actually, here’s another way to look at that.”

And that way to look at it gives us more healing, more joy. It’s so messy, like the menstruation that we went through as young women, where the inside of a lining of our womb is coming off and leaving so there can be life later. I just had a messy experience these last couple of days and I want to be really real about. I’m a work in progress and a woman I’m in a relationship with and I are having just a small tiff about fixing a shared bill, let’s say. It’s so small. It’s technical. It really is technical and easy, but it’s loaded in a dynamic from our childhood and it’s so messy, and it doesn’t have to be. And I think a few years ago, the way have dealt with this moment is to just sort of demand that she catch up to me, where I am at or something, but I find myself just saying, “No, love. It’s okay. Let’s just take a breath together. We can do this together. It’s going to be okay.” 

It’s messy to change ourselves. It’s messy to make more grace for other people. It’s messy to try new things, but it’s our job.

Zainab Salbi (Host):

Beautiful, beautiful. And what’s coming to me is that the messiness makes us more compassionate to others as we deal with them. And most particularly those who are irritating us or anybody, but compassion because it’s messy. Our lives are messy. Our own process is messy. So is theirs.

Jacqui Lewis:

That’s right. If we look at ourselves through a lens of love, which I’m advocating for in this book, that I think this love of ourselves is so important, Zainab, to whatever else we’re going to do, but to look at ourselves through a lens of love is also to not pretend we are not messy. “Good morning. I am messy today. I’m having a bad day. I’m making a mistake here. This catches me off guard. This really hurts my feelings. I’m angry about that.” The hurting places won’t heal if we don’t look at them straight on and tell the truth about them. And if we can tell the truth about our own unfinished business and our own imperfections, or, I would say, Zainab, love the strange part of ourselves, the part of ourselves that we like least, that’s a rehearsal for loving the strange part of the other.

Zainab Salbi (Host):

Completely agree, completely. I have a million and one questions. I mean, first of all, let’s talk about love because you embody love. Your sermons are all about love. All your gatherings are about love. You initiated friends’ weddings in the most beautiful initiation in ever and it’s all love. So the basic question I have about love is what have you gotten wrong about love in the past? And how was that corrected? What is love for you now?

Jacqui Lewis:

Oh, that’s a good question. Our friends celebrated their wedding anniversary yesterday. I’m so proud of them, happy for them, but let me just take a stab at saying what I think love is, and then how I got it wrong. I love this definition that came from my professor, Jim Loader. He’s this a really smart guy, died about twenty years ago. “Love is the non-possessive delight in the unique particularity of the other.” The non-possessive delight in the unique particularity of the other. Wow. As a therapist-type, counseling-type person and been in therapy forever, our therapists often think that they’re going to have an unconditional regard for us. That’s Carl Rogers. And I think this is the same kind of notion that I can’t demand anything from you or of you if I love you. You are an open book, Zainab, a text for me to discover. Let me just see what this is. What is this human like? And can I just delight in it?

Delight in their foibles, delight in their quirks, delight in their superpowers, delight in their struggles, delight in them. I think that’s true. And in the past, I’ve neither had that unconditional regard for me or for others. I’ve been hard on myself. First, just a child who felt that unless I got it all right or hit every note or showed up exactly perfectly right, then maybe I wasn’t worthy to be in a room. Maybe I wasn’t worthy to be in a room. I had had a childhood bad touch molestation situation that both caused me to cut myself off from parts of myself, but also made me mobilize a mask that would be shiny and perfect so that no one could see that I wasn’t.

So you talk about bringing tears to eyes, I don’t write this story in the book, but it is true that one time I, who can’t swim, went on vacation with a boy and took scuba diving lessons and then got in the ocean with my not knowing how to swim self, okay? Because I can. I can do that. And I got so terrified under the water that I ended up kicking myself to the surface and taking my mask off. That was the beginning of loving me, for me. So I got that wrong before about my own self and wasn’t always showing my best true self because I was hiding. And if you’re hiding, you hide both your flaws and your superpowers. And sometimes they’re the same thing. And in terms of just relationships, I think I would pick people who would seem to love the persona of me, but I wouldn’t show them all of me.

So then they weren’t showing themselves all to me. And then the relationship is in a tentative zone of fake and fraught in a way. And honestly, I broke up with people on the way to finding my husband, John, because in the end, a relationship based not on truth won’t last. So the definition of love as a non-possessive delight, I would say, and a boldly truthful ability to see the lover. The beloved and the lover have to have candor and honesty and transparency and truth between them for it to flourish. And I didn’t always get that right. But I’ve got it right now.

Zainab Salbi (Host):

Oh, so beautiful. Honestly, it’s so, so beautiful. Now you go about it with, and correct me if I got this wrong, it’s almost like the first act is to tell the truth and you tell the truth in this book, Jacqui.

Jacqui Lewis:

Yes. Yes, I do.

Zainab Salbi (Host):

I mean, its unbelievable. You go there. You go and talk about the story of a pivotal moment when you’re eighteen and your dad’s violence in that day. And you talk about, as you mentioned earlier, your molestation and you talk about your intimate relationship with your former husband, unbelievable, very raw, very real, and very reflective. And that’s really the one that just called me. I was like, “I’m with you.” I was with you in every minute. And so the question for me is what led you to tell that truth? Because a lot of people are afraid to tell the truth to themselves, let alone to their colleagues, in which case you did to your own congregation and let alone to the whole world, in which case we’re talking here about it in a podcast. What led you to decide, “I am going to have to tell that truth?”

Jacqui Lewis:

I was working on this book for nine years off and on, in different iterations of, “Why is religion so toxic and why are people so wounded by it?” And I realized over time that I really wasn’t talking about religion. I was talking about life and I was talking about how to be a human. And I honestly think, and this might be the first time I’ve said this out loud, Zainab, that I think it was my mom’s dying. I think it was my mom’s dying that—

Zainab Salbi (Host):

Well, what about her dying? What was it?

Jacqui Lewis:

She just finished birthing me. In the space where we were spending dying time, after her eightieth birthday and kind of in the last two weeks of her life, I think she waited to die till she got to eighty. She’d been fighting lung cancer for eight years. And those times in the hospital room, I write about the blue lights and looking up at her and she’s staring at me and I’m staring back and we’re just making love with each other. You know what I mean, right, when I say that? “I love you. I love you, too. Oh, you’re so beautiful. Oh, I don’t want to miss what your face looks like.” She’d say, “I’m afraid. I don’t want to die.” And I felt both that we got something straight between us. We were always loving and close and tender with each other, but the one place of just her not knowing what had happened to me in my childhood and when she knew, didn’t really know what to do with it and how I think she needed me to forgive her for not knowing and I needed her to tell me, though I knew it in every way, that it wasn’t my fault, like how you need a mother’s benediction.

She was so special and so gorgeous in those moments of just giving me exactly what I needed. And it what it felt like, as a girl child, Zainab, that place where I became even more of a woman in her womb, in the womb of her love, in the context of her grace. I felt like she was saying, “Jacqui, you are just wonderful exactly as you are.” And compelling me to pull out any of the last persona, any of the last remnants of not going to be just exactly what I am. She was like, “Go do it, go do it. Cut the umbilical cord and be yourself.”

And it was such a powerful experience. I wanted other people to go on that journey. There’s nothing in it for me to tell everybody my truth. It’s kind of scary. I read the audiobook to myself and I was like, “What is wrong with you? Why did you do that?” But I want everyone who reached the book, who hears your podcast, to go on a journey that doesn’t require your mother to die. It does not. But it might require the death of your child that’s afraid. It might require the death of your fear. It might require the death of your facade. Go on a journey of telling the truth to yourself about yourself, to be in truth with your friends, to take the risk, Zainab, to have the conflict, to say, “This doesn’t work for me. I don’t like this. Let’s do this better.” Because what else do we have? You’re going to die with the lie or you live with the truth. I think we should live with the truth and that love requires that.

Zainab Salbi (Host):

I’ve got to tell you, I always said to my mom who died when she was fifty-two years old, I always said that she gave me the best gift of her life in the process of her dying because she gave me the truth. She gave me my truth. Her truth set me free.

Jacqui Lewis:

Yes, yes, exactly that. And my mom set me free with her truth and with hearing mine. There is liberation in the truth. There’s peace in the truth. And Zainab, there is no reconciliation without the truth. I mean, I have a really beautiful family and there are six kids and we really love each other. And my mom and dad really loved us. But also there are full-on ways where we love each other by not doing the conflict because the conflict is scary, and it is scary. It wasn’t like we were always, “Well, it sounds like you’re mad at me.” The conflict can be bristly and prickly and loud, and some of us do it better than others. And so all of us tiptoe around hard things sometimes in our relationships and our lives.

And I think my book is an invitation to my siblings, too, to everyone to say, “What do we have of to lose by being honest?” And honest can be done . . . You’re not going to cuss everybody out with honest. That’s not what it means. But to find language to say, “I yearn to be in right relationship with you so let’s do it together. Let’s be honest and get there.” Less violent conversation, but more truthful conversation. It might help us in the political sector to think, “That person with whom I totally disagree is also a human and maybe they’re heartbroken and maybe they’re sad. And maybe that’s why they’re being so weird and crazy.” But I think truth and curiosity and acknowledging that we are inextricably connected to one another, that thing I write in Ubuntu, that we are connected to each other, I think these are world-healing, revolutionary ideas.

Zainab Salbi (Host):

It reminds me of, I go to this teacher every week that I learn meditation from. And she always says, “We are all one. When one is harmed, all is harmed. When one is well, all are well.” And I hear the same line, not the same line exactly, but the same theme in your book, that we are all part of one so when we each do our journey of telling our truth, we actually help others. And when we all are liberated, the liberation becomes of others. Am I getting it correctly?

Jacqui Lewis:

Yes. That’s exactly right. And I love that you go to a meditation to hear that amazing reminder every week. There is this sense that we are one organism, the human family, and maybe even all the creation is one, but the wellness of the world is interconnected to the wellness of each individual person.

Zainab Salbi (Host):

I really love what you said about the children in the book. Perhaps for me, it was one of the most profound, strongest argument about violence against children. Because you use your own example with your father and I really love how you connected, because there’s a million treaties to end violence against children. There are countries who signed UN resolutions to end that. There’s a lot of effort and yet it’s still happening. And you present it in a different way that I’ve never thought about it this way. I always thought about it intellectually. “We must end the violence against children because they’re vulnerable.” You presented it through the lens of love, that when we do not see them, when we don’t see them in love, basically, and when we hit them or speak cruelly to them, then we are getting in their way of seeing themselves in love. And that then impacts the process of love in the world. I would love for you to talk more about it actually because that’s what I took from it. It was like, “That’s what the UN should talk about frankly, as they present all these treaties on ending violence against children.”

Jacqui Lewis:

I’m so glad that captured your imagination. I had so much more on that in the book, and I was like “Another book! Another book just on children.” But yeah, I think there are so many traditions that teach parents about how to discipline their children in a strident way, that spanking or violence or yelling or whatever and the whole idea is you’re going to shape a person by disciplining them, but to discipline is to teach. So everything we do, the children are watching. They’re watching how we watch TV. They’re watching what we watch. They’re watching how we respond to what we watch. What do we say about them? How do we say it? How are we polemic in a football contest on television? “Go, go, go. Run, run, run.” That’s one thing. But also the news we consume and the television shows.

I learned how to be a human, like all of us did, watching the elders in our lives and we can teach them by example—take soup to old people who are sick—and we can teach them by setting an extra place at the table, some things mom and dad did. But also we can teach them by hitting them and then telling them don’t hit the other child. How do children understand that? “I’m going to whack you because you whacked a kid but don’t whack people.” If the solutions that we teach children about how to do conflict or navigate our world is violent, then they will be violent. They cannot help it. They don’t have enough resources to not take in what we give them. Sondheim got that with “Children Will Listen.” So I’m thinking about the kind of generational trauma. Think of all those Indigenous children who were raised by Indigenous children who were raised by Indigenous children who were kidnapped from their homes or sent to boarding schools to “get the Indian out,” traumatized, violated, raped, beaten. Those parents are traumatized children going up to raise children.

Think about all the Black children who watched Black children, Black children, generations snatched from their families, backs flayed because you don’t obey, deprived of well-being. Those traumatized children go up to be adults raising traumatized children. So also with Muslims and Jews. And so also with Appalachian poor. Every child who doesn’t grow up in a good enough container where they feel loved and sheltered can go up to perpetuate that. And we have generations of traumatized people, broken people, ruling the world. Right, Zainab? Making laws out of anger, making court decisions out of anger, making boardroom decisions, teaching classes, burning books—all of this because there’s woundedness at the core of that adult making that decision and that violence often happened to them as a child. We could stop it. We could stop it by changing the way we think about cultivating, curating children’s lives. We’re in an emergency!

Zainab Salbi (Host):

Well, what you’re triggering in me is two things. One, is not judging others. In other words, you can say, “Oh, those Indigenous people. Look how violent they are. Look how much alcoholism is there. Oh, look at how corrupt they are.” Or you can say, “Well, actually they came from generations of abuse by the system. No, they are not like that. But abuse leads to abuse, leads to abuse”. So the fact that this is happening, and by the way, this could happen in any culture, as you said, Black, Muslims, Jewish, anybody. You can say, “Oh, look at them,” or you can say, “Oh, look at that pain.” And that pain is leading to that behavior and not judge the entire community of, “They are like this,” but really be compassionate about why and what has led them to that and how can one support in a constructive way.

And the other thing that you’re making me think is actually, in the talk of police brutality in this country, I don’t remember where I heard in some interview, that the police are also trained to fight, on violence. They are trained on how to use the weapon. There is zero training about dealing with their emotional injuries, the violent child in them, that one individual, what he has done, what he has faced in his childhood. And I thought it’s actually brilliant discussion because it’s not only about teaching how to use a gun. It’s about healing the very police officer from their own wounds and their own injuries in order for them to become more effective law enforcement, basically.

Jacqui Lewis:

I think that’s right. And I think these complicated situations need complicated solutions. So wouldn’t it be wonderful if we had communities in which police officer training included deescalating violent conversation? I’m not talking in an hour. Let me step it back further. What if recruiting police officers just on this issue included psychological screening and included a battery of exams? As a clergy, I can’t just pop up in there, be a clergy. “Do you think you’re Jesus?” We ask good questions about that. What’s the psychological evaluation, what’s the training? How do we suss out where there has been trauma and damage to someone and not put them on the police force? Where do we do ongoing conversations among, across police and community members and clergy and teachers so we create a whole laboratory of becoming better humans together and see what kind of results that yields?

I mean, we cannot fix what’s broken about a human relating in silos. We can’t do it, I think, in segregated silos around race, ethnicity, gender, class, nor can we do it in discipline silos. We need psychologists working with police, working with educators, working with lawyers. A whole community saying, “What do we want our neighborhoods to be like? And what kind of assets do we have to make it this way?” And then by any means necessary, let’s get the yoga coach in there and let’s get exercise and let’s eat well and let’s talk well and let’s play well. Let’s have joy and let’s connect with our higher power, if we have one. And put all of these resources in relationship to each other so that little people, I’m just thinking about the next generation, can change the dynamics that are going to destroy all of us if we don’t get better.

Zainab Salbi (Host):

Beautiful. I’m loving the conversation, but also the book, because by telling your own story, Jacqui, you also open the door for where the political and the personal is in flow. It’s not separated. And on that, I have a couple of questions. Your father, because it is obviously reading throughout the book, it’s a tumultuous relationship that is loving.

Jacqui Lewis:

Yes.

Zainab Salbi (Host):

There’s love. There is no question about the love and there’s—

Jacqui Lewis:

Tumult.

Zainab Salbi (Host):

Exactly, right? [laughs]

Jacqui Lewis:

Yeah. [laughs]

Zainab Salbi (Host):

I’m curious about the story of your deciding to tell the truth and reconcile with him, the truth and reconciliation. And I’m just curious about what do you think the process was, for him? Because that is informative for the larger collective.

Jacqui Lewis:

Yeah. Thank you, Zainab. That’s a great question. I dedicate this book to Mom and Dad, this Fierce Love book to Mom and Dad. And I’ll just tell a quick story to get at this truth and reconciliation thing. I told you I felt that I had to, if I was going to write the book, tell the truth. And my friend, Paul Tough, who was one of my readers, really encouraged me to pull these stories in the book—so thank you, Paul, if you ever hear this. My dad and mom taught us to tell the truth. So sorry, Mom and Dad. Lying was not a project that we could get away with in that house. So we were always told, “If you tell the truth, you won’t get in trouble.” I really believed them and tell the truth often about everything from hiding vegetables under my plate to “Yes, I did try to smoke that cigarette,” whatever it was.

I read this book out loud for the audiobook and I went home to visit my dad right the week the book dropped for his eighty-seventh birthday. And I was like, “Oh, okay, I’m shaking in my boots right now.” Because he knows the book. He knows it got some truth in it, but he doesn’t know all the truth. So I read him a couple of the stories and he was like, “I love that. Love the way you’re such a beautiful writer.” And then I said, “Daddy, there’s some bumpy stories in this book though.” And my brothers laughed like, “‘Bumpy’s’ euphemism for what?” You know what it is. But some bumpy stories, and he read the book cover to cover.

Zainab Salbi (Host):

Wow. Wow.

Jacqui Lewis:

Read the cover to cover. And this is my fourth book and he’s not even read my children’s book cover to cover, which is only thirteen pages. He said, “I am so proud of you. I am so proud of you. And I’m so proud of this book because you told the stories you told so other people will get well. And I’m so proud to be a part of that.” And I was like, “Is this an alien where my dad was or is this my dad?” Yeah, he’s so proud of it.

Zainab Salbi (Host):

Wow.

Jacqui Lewis:

And I don’t know what to say except he went on the journey with me. What I’m saying is we went on this journey together. So he’s not surprised at the journey. And he knows the outcome. I’m there in Chicago and I’m doing a podcast. And I come out of my childhood room and there’s my dad has set a table before me of my favorite fried chicken, thighs—not breasts—and coleslaw and potato salad and a glass of rosé, because he loves me. He loves me and he wants to take care of me. And so we sat and talked about the book and we talked about how I wrote it. And we talked about he’s going to find bumpy stories and then he read it. And then he called and said, “I love you. I see.”

It is true that he is a boy who was wounded. It is true that he is the boy who learned how to discipline people in tough, violent ways. And it is true that at eighty-seven he’s a softer, gentler guy. It is true that he loves my husband, John. Yes. That they are friends. He sees his truth here. And what could he say? He could have said, “I’m mad at you for writing it.” But he said, instead, “I’m proud of you for writing it.” And I think he sees how heroic he is. The story has a beginning, “Dad is my hero. Teach me how to be an actress.” In the middle, whoo, bumpy. And in the end, my dad is my friend and I love him and he loves me. And he’s so proud of the book.

Zainab Salbi (Host):

I’m tearing up.

Jacqui Lewis:

I mean it’s crazy town. It is—

Zainab Salbi (Host):

It’s so beautiful.

Jacqui Lewis:

It’s like, ”Daddy, can you come on TV with me?”

Zainab Salbi (Host):

It’s so beautiful.

Jacqui Lewis:

It’s amazing. It’s a miracle, actually.

Zainab Salbi (Host):

Yeah. Yeah.

Jacqui Lewis:

It’s miracle.

Zainab Salbi (Host):

And that explains for me the part of your subtitle, “Rule-breaking kindness that can heal the world.” And in this case, the rule-breaking kindness is that you are telling your truth and that healed that relationship and thus, it can heal the larger collective of that dialogue. And I think not everyone who tells the truth can get that response from their father or their mother or whoever they have, but that there’s a good chance that they would and that good chance is important.

Jacqui Lewis:

What’s choosing that is there’s a good chance that you won’t get the desired outcome if you tell the truth. But if you don’t tell the truth, the outcome will be a false relationship. So if I see the truth and I say the truth, maybe you are invited to come in the truth. Maybe you won’t be ready. Maybe you can’t, maybe someone’s going to get mad. Maybe someone’s going to stop talking to you, but what do you want most? Fragile pretend relationships or real ones? I want real, and that’s ferocious courage. It takes ferocious courage to be honest, maybe it takes more courage to confront, to tell the truth, to go to the tough place with the people we’re closest to. But they’re the ones who deserve your best self most. So let’s just try it. It’s worth it, I think.

Zainab Salbi (Host):

Right. Now, talk about love because the title is Fierce Love. Not any love, it’s just fierce love. And the one love—I mean, I feel it, you have it so fiercely, and I tear up going there—is the love of God. Because I hear your love. I see your love. I feel your love. It is so profoundly beautiful. And I was surprised actually, in the book, when you said in your twenties, you had more doubt than faith about God. How did you go about that transformation and landing in love?

Jacqui Lewis:

Love of God. Yeah. I had to break up with the God that I had created for myself. That’s how I say it. Nobody meant to do that, but the God that I had been given to believe in, with the well-meaning folks, pastors in the world and books and all the things . . . The first thing was, my mom says, “God will always love you and God will never leave you.” That’s first image of God, this God who will never leave me and will always love me. But over time it becomes the God who will love you if you do all the right things, the God who’ll hate you if you have sex before you get married. The God will disown you if it turns out you’re queer. The God who will despise you if you get pregnant outside of marriage.

All of these no’s, mostly around human sexuality, but also around gender and the rules you keep to make sure that God stays on your side and those rules can exclude people. The only way to God is this path. The only truth is this truth. The only way is this way. I just was like, “Wow,” so much so that when I had a car accident that almost killed me, I told myself that the God I loved had caused the car accident just because I had had sex with my husband two weeks before we got married. Now that is so crazy. Let me just say that again. I told myself that the car flipped over in the highway as punishment for premarital sex between two engaged people two weeks before the marriage. That God had to go. I had to get rid of that God. That’s too much. And even though that’s laughable today, it was so clear to me that I was at fault and God had punished me.

Wow. Think about all the queer teens who are told that they are going to go to hell and then they commit suicide because God hates them or all of the women who stay in a battered relationship because they have to stay or God will hate them. Or the people who don’t choose to terminate a pregnancy that might even kill them because God will hate them or people who won’t make relationships across faith, Zainab, because God will hate them, because God hates them. How crazy is that? That was my twenty-year-old God. It was. Ultimately, by the time I got to my belongings burning up in a fire and me wondering if that was God—that was the last bad God test. That is so not what it is. And I just went on a journey of reading and discovery and that ultimately took me to seminary and fulfilling my calling to ministry.

That’s not God, that’s just the unleashed stuff in the universe. Stuff happens. Stuff happens. I can’t love a God who causes AIDS because people are gay, causes COVID because we’re out, causes tsunamis to punish the Haitians. We create that, Zainab. This loving presence, this loving God who is just all generosity and all kindness and all goodness and all partnership and wants to walk with us through life and be a resource to us through life, God who has so much power, but who withholds that power so we can find for ourselves a way to be, this God is the God I love and the God I preach. And I’m right in the middle of a love relationship, a ferocious love relationship with the God that is love.

And I just think everyone could benefit from that transformation of identity to acknowledge that humans don’t know enough about God to know fully what God is. It’s a mystery, but in the space of mystery, our holy imagination could fill it with violence and destruction and warring. Or we can say the very best of us, loving, compassion, kindness, generosity, that’s what God is like. I go with the latter and preach love often all the time. And I want to convert everybody to that religion, y’all, everybody to a religion that is just simply love.

Zainab Salbi (Host):

So beautiful. Honestly, it’s so, so beautiful. I want to talk now . . . We talked about the personal and the religion, the spiritual, I want to talk, to take one on social justice. Go to that, because how can we use love—again, back to the title of your book, fierce love—how can we lead that transformation with love? And the balance between calling the injustices out in a very clear way and between inviting the others that we are disagreeing with to come into a journey of self-reflection and healing? And I honestly don’t think we have gotten it as a society. We have not figured out that balance between calling them, forgive my curse, but calling the bullshit out here, and between really saying, “And there is an invitation to come and converse and reflect and heal.” So what do you think about that? How does love place in social justice and particularly in the anti-racism movement?

Jacqui Lewis:

Yeah. That is a really important takeaway from the book, I hope, and also room for more conversations and more writing, quite frankly, the next book on this. I think it really relates to Ubuntu, this idea that I am connected to you and you’re connected to me. So that a way to be talking to our opponents, if you will, our political enemies about this whole, “What are we going to do with the world?” has to be something like, “What is the world we all want?” So can we be talking about the issue without demonizing the person, just to be straight up? Because the issue is bullshit. I mean, you’re not going to take inoculations, I’ll join you there. You’re not going to take inoculations and some baby is going to get sick because you won’t take a shot and some toddler’s going to get sick.

So I want to be saying not to the person, “You’re stupid,” or, “I’m judging you for that.” I want to be instead going, “What is that for you? Tell me why you are against vaccines. Do you take measles vaccines? Do you take polio vaccines?” Facts are a good way to have that kind of conversation because facts are not demonizing. “Here’s the statistic on that,” is a good way to have that conversation. Also though, to invite the visioning together. The last chapter in the book is talking about learning how to see. Can we learn to see together a world that is better for all of us? So I’m wanting to be this kind of person now, Zainab. Here’s what I see. I see that though it is inconvenient for me to wear a mask, I think I’m wearing a mask for the toddler on the train. What about you?

Now who can argue with that really? The toddler on the train. Do you care about the toddler on the train? Let’s talk about the toddler on the train. What happens to the toddler on the train that gets sick because we don’t wear our masks? What happens to that family? How do they go to work? So the implications of it for humankind, not, “I think you’re stupid,” or, “I think you’re bad because you’re a Republican.” It just feels to me this is less about the person, it’s about the issue and it is about the vision we have for a shared, healed world. Can we talk about it that way?

Zainab Salbi (Host):

Beautiful. And I know we are at the end of our time, so I’ll ask you a quick question. And before I end completely, I want to thank you for not only the love you convey, but the joy you convey, honestly. I think everyone has the stereotype of religious people or clergymen or pastors. They have to be serious. And here you are in your bright colors and I love your makeup and you’re talking about joy and dance and even drinking. “And I like this martini” and “I like this wine” and I love that. I love that because you made being a pastor, being in a position of power, real and human, rather than on a pedestal and we all have this projection on that. And the more you strip yourself and you show it in that joyful way, the more it becomes so inspiring and it becomes like a magnet, truly. So thank you. No, thank you for that.

And few last questions. So what are movies that really stayed with you and you go to them all the time? I know you talked about one in the book, but I wonder. I mean, maybe that’s the one.

Jacqui Lewis:

I would say a couple, two. One, I’ll say West Side Story, which just got re-released again, as we’re talking, by Steven Spielberg. Even though there were problems with that film, like white people playing Latinx people, this “us versus them” is such a ubiquitous drama that we live in the human family. And of course, it’s Romeo and Juliet. So the boy and the girl fall in love across ethnicity, across class. And I think it somehow makes me think of a dream that I have that we’ll fall in love with each other across class, across difference. And we’ll have great dancing and great music while we do it. But this idea of love wins is just so important to me about West Side Story.

Zainab Salbi (Host):

And that’s your story by the way, with John, your current husband.

Jacqui Lewis:

That’s my story.

Zainab Salbi (Host):

That love wins.

Jacqui Lewis:

Love wins, love won. He’s the best thing ever. He’s the best thing ever. And The Equalizer, I think might be the name of this movie, but there’s a couple of these Denzel Washington movies, and even Liam Neeson in Taken, but especially Denzel. These movies where a strong human—Regina King in a movie also—but the strong human rescues you, no matter what. I think that’s a little bit about our God image being projected in movies. “God will come get me, no matter what.” I don’t love the violence of those movies, but I do have this feeling that all of us want to think that there is a holy, loving Other that will defeat the bad guys.

And the reason I like those movies is because I think we are the holy, loving Other that can defeat the bad guys, that we can do that together. That we can be the one who snatches the one back out of kidnapping, snatches the one out of the lion’s den, snatches the kid out of the water, saves the elder from drowning in the river, gets up on a helicopter and gets the people off the roof. All of those stories are archetype imagination that we can be good enough, Zainab, fierce enough, to defeat evil.

Zainab Salbi (Host):

That’s beautiful. It reminds me of one of my favorite movie, The Fifth Element-

Jacqui Lewis:

Oh, yeah.

Zainab Salbi (Host):

The person who saves Earth from evil is a woman.

Jacqui Lewis:

Yeah.

Zainab Salbi (Host):

And the pivotal moment where she decides to do it, to save Earth, is love. There’s so many aspects of, I think, you as that woman. That woman is in you, the one who comes and with love makes a change. How about piece of music that you always go to? There’s a lot of music in your life, in your church. Is there any favorite music you go to always?

Jacqui Lewis:

Yeah, boy, these are great questions. Over and over again, I would play Marvin Gaye’s Greatest Hits and over and over again, I would play Supreme’s Greatest Hits. Maybe these are like female Motown and male Motown love songs that make me think of my childhood, because that’s when I was first hearing them. I mean, Berry Gordy was a genius about kind of positive messages that you can snap your fingers to. So Smokey Robinson writing lyrics and Diana Ross and the Supremes singing and Marvin Gaye singing, the Temptations singing, all of those Motown songs, I couldn’t pick one out, but they’re like, I can dance, and the message is positive, that we are going to get through this together.

Zainab Salbi (Host):

I love it. A book, a poem, a place that you always go to for reflection, that you always land on that same knowledge?

Jacqui Lewis:

I read Beloved, maybe every other year. Tony Morrison’s Beloved. And then off years, I read Alice Walker’s The Color Purple. And even though we can watch them on film, these women, the writing is just so beautiful. So it inspires me actually to read good writing, inspires me to write sermons, I think, with more kind of lyric—yeah.

Zainab Salbi (Host):

Beautiful, beautiful. And last but not least, what is joy means for you?

Jacqui Lewis:

Joy is a river. I mean, I do quote Rumi in there. “When you do something from your soul, it’s a river, it’s a joy.” I quote Rumi in my book because it so resonated. I mean, joy is bounce back. It’s reckless abandon. It’s the taste of a grape bursting in my mouth. It’s dancing with John to the Eagles or to Earth, Wind & Fire. It’s marching down the street with my church singing “This Little Light of Mine, I’m Going to Let It Shine.” It is actually head tossed back laughter sometimes. And sometimes it’s just contentment.

[closing piano music]

Zainab Salbi (Host):

That was Reverend Doctor Jacqui Lewis. Please visit jacquilewis.com to learn more about her work, her podcast, and her new book, Fierce Love. And if you want to learn more about my work with FindCenter and get the transcripts of this episode and others, please visit www.findcenter.com/redefined. Do subscribe to this podcast, it’s free and your subscription and perhaps your comments is all I ask of you. Thank you very much. I’m going to take off in the coming two weeks and we’ll be back on January 12 for what I promise to be a breathtaking new episode. Until then, you have my best wishes for a loving, healthy, and safe New Year. All my love to you, all of it. Redefined is produced by me, Zainab Salbi, along with my wonderful producers, Rob Corso, Casey Kahn, and Howie Kahn at FreeTime Media. Our music is by John Palmer. Special thanks to Ellen Matlach, Lindsey Kennedy, Neal Goldman, Caroline Pincus, and Sherra Johnston. Looking forward to seeing you in the new year. Happy New Year.