“A New Circularity of Emotions” Convocation Address at Union Theological Seminary, 2016

Convocation – “A New Circularity of Emotions”

Union Theological Seminary in New York, September 07, 2016

Cláudio Carvalhaes

Readings: Wisdom 7:22-30 and Galatians 5:22-25



Ayayayay Canta y No llores

Porque cantando se alegran Cielito Lindo Los Corazones


Good evening. I greet you with a greeting from Don Pedro Casaldaliga, a pastor of the poor in Latin America:  Where you say peace, justice and love, I say God! Where you say God I say peace, justice and love. I want to honor the indigenous people who first lived in this land and ask permission for all the Spirits to inhabit this place.


Couple weeks ago, when my friend Marcos asked my mother how she was feeling here in New York with her son, she used the words of the Psalm 126: “we are like those who dream. Our mouth is filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy.” That is how I am feeling here today as well. I am a son of this place. Union  changed my life in so many ways. A shoe shining boy from the streets of São Paulo received his PhD from this precious school.


I am deeply honored and blessed to be back, now with this gift of being a teacher, teaching along with my teachers, my mentors and my friends. Thank you president Serene Jones, dean Mary Boys, precious faculty, staff, board of trustees and students for this immense gift. I left Union alone in 2007. Now I return with my family, the most fascinating gift God has ever given to me: Katie my partner, Libby, Cici and Ike. My in-laws Bruce and Rethea are here as well and I am grateful.


I come all fired up and eager to continue the important intellectual, religious and social justice work legacy of this unique institution. In times of national and global rampant challenges of all kinds, we need Union’s presence, in this country and Union’s voice in the wide world.


We all know the complex mix of problems that creates the conditions in which we are living: the present neo-liberal economic model is the engine of the empire and is pushing every single institution everywhere to very different forms of being, taking over the realms of religion and politics, turning nation-states into hostages of a violent economic model of global control. This merciless economic model of savaged development is eating up the very bare bones of ecological systems that are fundamental to our living.


This model, based on inequality and the reduction of human dignity feeds racisms, patriarchy, sexism and military structures that together threaten whole populations around the globe, from indigenous populations to the Palestinians and black people be it in Brazil or US and many other places, putting minorities on the road to disappearance.


In this scenario, fascist political vultures and religious fundamentalisms thrive in hotbeds of anti-intellectualism and fear, fostering new forms of coloniality that heightens our emotions.  One of the most fundamental feelings of our time is fear. The philosopher Hobbes says that fear is a fundamental tool to organize societies and one of the least challenged. Surely one of the most unexamined tool of Empire.


We need not to look far for examples. The current presidential race is deeply marked by fear. On the one side those who fear the Muslims, immigrants, blacks and other minorities are voting for Trump. On the other side, those voting for Hillary find dreadful what Trump is proposing. In all of this, symbols are very important. For instance, some of us who spot this symbol are immediately terrified. (Put on Trump’s wig). That symbol scares many of us to death!


Fear is a central feeling that organizes the social political religious scene. The philosopher Spinoza says that fear needs a binary and hope is the feeling that lives in tandem and in opposition to fear. “There is no fear without hope and no hope without fear.”  Lacan would even say that to live without hope is to live without fear.[1]


We often tend to respond to fear with hope or anger but these feelings are very much a part of the paradox of fear. A certain kind of hope feeds the very fear it wants to make it disappear. Without knowing it, we are caught into a system of emotions that feeds a certain circularity of feelings that ends up defining a lot of our theologies, sermons, writings and relations.


It is hard to respond to this circle of emotions for fear is everywhere, not only as a dreadful feeling when one sees a certain president candidate but also in forms of complacency, avoidance and lack of agency when facing systems of injustice and economic systems of death. Latent feelings of fear continue to shape our colonized minds.


Social violence, class struggle, social inequality, loss of social capital, gentrification, fear of losing jobs or jobs that do not pay our bills, evictions and ongoing uprootedness, growing personal debts, the loss of worker’s rights, the state against the people, police and military forces everywhere, feelings of detachment, dis-connectivity and insecurity are just some of the fears that take over our daily life.


Moreover, the celebration of the individual in this country is also its demise. The disenfranchising of the individual from groups, communities and institutions leaves the individual on her own. Very seldom actions or emotions are marked by communal living. Instead, we live in the age of sheer voluntarism.


The Ubuntu notion of “I am because we are and we are because I am” becomes, in our neoliberal times something like: “I am because I crushed you! I am exactly because I don’t depend on you for anything.” This form of living erodes the social threads of commonality, the necessary patience to deal with difference and conflict, the sense that I cannot survive without my peers, compassion to people’s limitations and views, the love for a group we are committed even if radically different than my own. We become fearful beings ready to attack anyone who gets near us or does not hold a mirror to our own privatized selves and personal beliefs.


It is against this larger system that we have to offer alternatives, a new liturgical theological circularity of emotions. We need to put Descartes and Antonio Damasio together: We think and we feel, therefore we are! We need theologies that feel and feelings that think. We need worship spaces with deep liberating thinking and expansive feelings.


Perhaps, if we look at some oppressed communities, we can see a very different circularity of thinking-feeling, with a different sense of hope, of desires, of social commitment, of self-discovery, of theological reasoning, of forms of resistance and communal living.


For instance, if we look at the hymnody of the Blues and Spirituals in the African American communities, we see that it does not have in any way a falsified sense of hope garnished in fear. “Nobody loves me, but my mother, And she could be jivin` too,” says the blues.  “Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen… Sometimes I’m almost to the ground…”  says the spirituals. There is nothing like “all is going to be fine” here. There are no easy ways out. There is no cheap hope to mask and deny the density of oppression and suffering in life. Instead, this singing gives to life a much better assessment of what life is and how we are living it. These songs create and are created by a bare sense of abandonment and strength.

No desires attached to transient things but rather, desires grounded in the depth of humanness: desires for freedom! Freedom! Even if after this life! No theology of providence! as Europeans formulated it, at least not as a reflection of power and agency.


There are however, other forms of reflections of power and agency in the mighty songs of freedom. Songs created and sang when there was nothing to hope for! … However, there was an eschatological hope that sustained life! In the midst of death, when singing was the only thing that was not taken away, those songs created a sense of hope against hope, hope that kept them going, hope that expanded their lungs and bodies and hearts and minds to keep on singing, and going.  “If you get there before I do, Tell all-a my friends I’m coming to Heaven!” Right there, living in the midst of a foreign land with no feelings of mercy or compassion: right there, we could find neither cheap fear nor cheap hope.


But some of us could say: what can come out of such abandonment and despair, of such strange hope? … Ohh, so much! And I will just limit myself to theology. Out of this musical source of no cheap hope and no cheap grace came out the powerful Black God in black theology! Neither a fearful God nor a God of cheap hope! A God drenched in the lives of its people!

And it was also from this same community, from this same hymnody that came the absolutely powerful sense of hopelessness and powerlessness in the womanist theology that created the conditions for Hagar to wait for death by the side of her dying thirsty son in the midday of a scorching sun. She was almost done, but she kept going! A mighty powerlessness!


And it is from this same community that we hear Kendrick Lamar singing the song ‘Alright.” Lamar’s very sense of being alright is only possible in the midst of fight, fight and death: let us hear just few second of this song. Please forgive the strong language.


Alls my life I has to fight, nigga

Alls my life I…

Hard times like yah

Bad trips like “God!”

Nazareth, I’m fucked up

Homie you fucked up

But if God got us then we gon’ be alright


But if God got us then we gon’ be alright


In a very different way we can also see the same threads of feelings within the Latino/a communities. The song we sang at the beginning of this talk says something like this: “Lovely Sweet One, sing and don’t cry because when you sing hearts find happiness.”  This lovely advice to sing and find happiness does not come from a naïve sense of life. Instead, it comes from a life drenched in sadness and death. And the sadness is such that it can consume our lives. Too much death and hardships and limitations and no way out can make your heart sink in sadness and numbness.


Thus this advice to sing in the midst of sadness is not to hope for a cheap bright future or a life that will be alright. No! This advice is to restitute to the heart the very conditions of the possibilities to actually face the sadness and keep on singing, and going. There is something about the Latino/a spirituality that is always marked by death and life, mixed with this stubborn joy in living. The day of the dead for the Mexicans are to be celebrated with food and dancing. Death and resurrection in both the food and the dancing, until we meet again. For the Latino/a community, one can only face life if in deep connection with death. Because life is hell!


The same history of Hagar can be related to the undocumented women in our world. Ask Elena from El Salvador who had her nose cut from her face.

In the midst of disasters pilling up sometimes all we have left is our singing: “Ay ay ay ay canta y no llores. Porque cantando se alegram Cielito lindo los corazones.”  That is why worship celebrating the death and the resurrection of Jesus Christ is always a fiesta! It is the only way to survive.


From this community and these songs came liberation theologies and Latino/a theologies. Theologies so much aware of its weary task that one of its most important claims is that theology can only be done if en conjunto, if by being together, belonging to one other and to God. “Sea que vivamos o que morimos, Somos del Senor.” In our living and our dying, we belong to God.


But from these communities we also hear Calle 13, a Puerto Rican band from the singer Residente. We will listen to a snapshot of a song called Latinoamerica: (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DkFJE8ZdeG8 4:10-5:00)


I work like a brute but with pride,

Here we share,

What’s mine is yours.

We keep waking

Here we breath the struggle


let’s walk forward

In here we breathe the struggle

I sing because we will be heard

Here we stand upright
For these two communities, resilience is not as a choice, but a condition! Faith is not a choice but a demand! No fake hope but stubbornness! No cheap grace but costly graced! No fluffy feelings but sustained emotions that carry the world for others! Not a micromanaged God, not confusing faith with search for private desires! No avoiding abandonment and loss but embracing it as a way to find life and God.  No God as an idea but a God pulsing in our skin, drenched in our daily life!  A God who is offering us a sense of hope beyond hope. We are destroyed but if God got us then, we are going to be alright. They walk and they keep standing!


They are, using the words of theologian John Casanas, making a case for God to exist! A God who appears in a certain circularity of reasoning and emotions composed by many spirits, ancestors, blood, happiness, sweat, sadness, disasters, unorthodox beliefs, compassion, pain, singing, humor, struggle, abandonment, stubbornness, singing, powerlessness, resistance, wisdom, death and life.


The empire and its neoliberal system won’t go away easily. Coloniality is spread everywhere in its most nuanced and perverse forms. We must continue to fight with a variety of strategies, keeping a most fundamental commitment with the poor and oppressed so that we can be true to our own humanity, our religion and our Gods.


We are challenged to respond right here to our local, national and global situations.


My prayer is that we respond by being a school with thinkers and feelers and doers that will engage in theologies and liturgies


that will be drenched in materiality and class struggle, that will work against all forms of capitalisms, and propose a biodiversity that will include the wellbeing of the poor and the most vulnerable, as well as the earth, the water systems and the seeds.


theologies and liturgies that will heal our eyes so we can see! That will deviate our gaze and our desire from the luring’s of accumulation and self-satisfaction and turn our desire to God and our gaze to the poor


theologies and liturgies that will teach us not to be afraid or to offer poor hope but to be bold and fierce and radical in the work we have ahead of us.

theologies and liturgies that will look for sources and feelings in other groups for our common living


theologies and liturgies that will help us see that this system is pitching us against each other so we can destroy one another and offer no collective resistance


theologies and liturgies that will never preach cheap hope in this chapel as not to feed on our own fears


theologies and liturgies that will learn to feel and think and pray and sing through differences in our classrooms and in our chapel, offering life in fullness with a generous spirit


theologies and liturgies that will help us have compassion with one another as we plow through this hard life


theologies and liturgies that will invite us to come to worship looking for the wellbeing of somebody else and not only our own


theologies and liturgies that will teach us about the difference between personal untreated anger from past events and anger that creates power and provides collective agency


theologies and liturgies that will help us create a new world possible! As Richard Shaull said, theologies of revolution that “have the capacity to liberate old images, symbols and concepts and create new ones that can perform this task,”[2] Including a new circularity of emotions.


theologies and liturgies that will give us patience in our walking together as we wait for people’s different paces, histories and places in life


theologies and liturgies that will make us laugh and have humor so we become able to cry together


theologies and liturgies that will help us remind each other that this city is for the poor and we will continue to repeat what the Statue of Liberty says:


“Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”


And finally….


theologies and liturgies that will have courage to delve deeply together into many forms of death so we can discover collective resurrection.


May we learn to be free my friends

May we learn to circulate new sustained forms of feelings

May we learn to keep on singing so we can keep on going


Let us continue this journey by singing again a song of a graced community that knows way too well what death and life together is all about.
Let us sing:

Ayayayay Canta y No llores

Porque cantando se alegran Cielito Lindo Los Corazones


[1] See Vladimir Saflate, O Circuito dos Afetos (São Paulo: Autêntica Editora, 2016).

[2] SHAULL, R. The revolutionary challenge to church and theology. The Princeton Seminary Bulletin, v. 60, n. 1, 1966, p. 25-32. Available: <http://scdc.library.ptsem.edu/mets/mets. aspx?src=PSB1966601&div=7>. Accessed: 09/01/2016.

Picture by Jorge Juan Rodriguez V