Letty Russell and our theological enemies

Posted on September 1, 2007 by

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Letty Russell died recently. She was a radical feminist professor at Yale Divinity School — the sort of theologian who makes your standard-issue liberal protestant look like a dowdy stick-in-the-mud. In other words, she was not the sort of person I would normally be attracted to! But many years ago fate led our paths to cross, and as a result I feel a twinge of loss at her death.

Back circa 1983-84, while I was a student at YDS, I fell into the clutches of the Professional Studies Committee — the academic enforcers of Yale’s standards. (I’ll spare you the gruesome details of how that state of affairs came to be.) “Letty” (as she was universally known) served on the committee that year. After my term in academic purgatory, I met with the committee to restore my good standing, and was grilled about how I landed in purgatory in the first place.

It was not a comfortable discussion.

But Letty, whom I had never previously met and who had no reason to know me as anything other than a name on a list, was the one member of the committee who showed any concern about me as a person, and not just a potential academic embarrassment to Yale. In other words, despite being my theological polar opposite, something of the love of Christ shone through her. And for that, despite her being so wrong on so many other levels, I bless her memory.

That encounter has stayed with me through the years, over the course of many unpleasant skirmishes in the ongoing intramural war that has characterized world Anglicanism. It’s often easy to see those on the other side of the barricade in strictly political terms, but we don’t get off that easily. In the sermon on the mount, Jesus says:

You have heard that it was said, `You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you salute only your brethren, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

And St. Paul says something similar when he says,

No, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals upon his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

However sorely provoked we may think ourselves to be, we are never excused from the command to love!

Postscript: Yale has lost two other major figures in the past several months, with the deaths of Father Aidan Kavanagh and Professor Brevard Childs. Both deserve to have more said about them. Check back in a bit…

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Posted in: Theology