Thistlethwaite, who raised three sons while moving through the academic ranks, is an ordained United Church of Christ minister, a popular anti-war speaker, and a prolific writer. Whether addressing a congressional committee or a church group, she says speaking out is an integral part of her work. She negotiated with CTS trustees to continue her activism, as long as what she says is consistent with the seminary’s vision, mission and commitment statement.

“There are very few seminary presidents who are visible and active in the public square,” she says, “but I am one of them.”

Photo by Dick Fish/Smith College
Mass meeting on Davis Center lawn, May 5, 1970, at Smith College, where senior Susan Brooks joined fellow students in organizing a strike that shut down the campus after President Nixon’s decision to invade Cambodia and the shooting of four students at Kent State.

Although she is an outspoken critic of the Iraq war, Thistlethwaite favors a careful withdrawal.

“Will [the war] end wisely is the question,” she says. “I think regional, diplomatic and political coalitions need to be in place or you will make it worse. I think we will see many, many more deaths before that transition can occur.”

Walking away would be “incredibly unwise, because nature and politics abhor a vacuum.”

Thistlethwaite describes herself as a “just peace activist,” and is the editor of the book The Just Peace Church, which advocates 10 practices for abolishing war.

“I think there are times when at least containing evil is necessary,” she says, adding that governments worldwide must do a better job of training peacekeeping forces.

The application of just war theory is flawed, she says: “It is supposed to be a restraint on violence, [but] it is most often used as a justification for violence.”

The Herzog Leap

At Duke, Thistlethwaite found a mentor in the late Frederick Herzog, a professor of systematic theology who is best known for his work in the field of liberation theology.

She describes Herzog, who died in 1995 at age 69, as “the greatest influence on my academic life, on my approach to theology, and certainly on what it means to be a principled person of faith. Fred taught me how to think in a committed and passionate way about changing the world.”

One of her favorite memories is when, to drive home his point during a lecture on Protestant theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher, Herzog got up on a chair and jumped out a first-floor classroom window.

“This of course stuck in our minds in a very vivid way,” Thistlethwaite says.

On the day that Herzog died, she happened to be lecturing on Schleiermacher on the first floor of CTS.

“I decided to honor Fred by reenacting this, and so I climbed up on a chair and I got one foot over the window sill. Then I looked down and I thought ‘God, I’m going to break my foot.’ So I gave the rest of the lecture straddling the window sill, but I never actually jumped. The thing about Fred was, he actually jumped.”

Thistlethwaite stays in touch with Herzog’s widow, Kristin Herzog, an independent scholar who holds a graduate degree in English from Duke.

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