A ‘Just Peace’ Activist in the Age of Religion

By Patrick O’Neill

During her senior year at Smith College, Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite M.Div.’74, Ph.D.’80 and other students were meeting in an auditorium discussing whether to go on strike in protest against the Vietnam War, when a student ran down the center aisle frantically screaming: “They’re shooting students at Kent State!”

In that moment, Thistlethwaite’s fear of being kicked out of college because of the proposed strike “paled before the fear of the National Guard shooting students.” The planned strike suddenly had the potential to become a life-or-death confrontation.

Photo by Scott Langley
Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite D’74 G’80, president of Chicago Theological Seminary, speaks about “Just Peacemaking” at United Church of Chapel Hill.

Fortunately, the strike was both peaceful and successful.

“We actually shut down the school,” Thistlethwaite says in a tone that reveals the long-term influence of her early activism. After classes were suspended, sympathetic professors taught in a “strike school” that she helped organize.

“The success of this nonviolent direct action has empowered me from that day to this,” she says. “I regard it as the most important learning of my life. I learned that I could resist in a nonviolent way and, in partnership with others, help bring a horrible conflict to an end.”

Today, Thistlethwaite, 58, has made her position as president of Chicago Theological Seminary (CTS) a platform for writing and speaking out against war, an institution she calls “one of the greatest moral evils on the face of the earth.”

One of just a handful of women in the United States heading a major seminary, Thistlethwaite grew up keenly aware of the consequences of war.

Her grandfather, Earl Jenkins, was seriously debilitated by mustard gas in World War I, and her father, Richard H. Brooks, became “very emotionally withdrawn” and “often very angry” after service in World War II.

“My father dropped dead of a heart attack at age 55,” she says. “My grandfather would just wake up in the middle of the night screaming. Sometimes he thought that shells were falling around him.”

In River Edge, N.J., a suburb tucked in the shadow of Manhattan, Thistlethwaite knew boys from River Dell High who never returned from Vietnam, and others who came back “shell-shocked.” As an adult, Thistlethwaite concluded that “War is just the farthest away from God you can get. People who experience war, even if they live through it, are never the same.”

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 (center right) 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 bookThe 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.

“Susan Thistlethwaite has never been afraid to tackle the most difficult issues in theology and society, from war and peace to gender, race and prostitution,” says Herzog. “The fact that she has reached the top of her profession is of enormous importance not only for women and for the academic world, but also for the church, especially since she is active in international ecumenical relations.”

Thistlethwaite is frequently asked questions about how she was able to succeed as a mother and a professional. In an interview for Working Mother Magazine, she rejected images of juggling and balancing family and career, which she noted are typically used to describe mothers, but not fathers, who work outside the home. She advocates building networks so that children have a solid and extended web of care from family and others.

Photo by Scott Langley
Thistlethwaite is the editor of
The Just Peace Church,
which advocates 10 practices for abolishing war.

It was her husband, Dr. James Richard Thistlethwaite, who urged her to accept the CTS presidency. “When I said I wasn’t sure I could do the job, he put his arms around me and he said, ‘Sure you can.’”

A professor of surgery and president of the medical staff at the University of Chicago Medical Center, Dick Thistlethwaite says that while he and his wife live in different professional worlds, “Our joint commitments to help those who are less fortunate and more vulnerable resound nicely.

“Sue has convinced me that peaceful solutions are always available if people are brave enough to seek them,” he says. “I’ve benefited greatly from these lessons since polarized opinions and conflict are not foreign to the field of medicine, especially in surgery.”

Her best preparation for the role of seminary president, said Thistlethwaite, came from motherhood and the local church. “Being a mother of toddlers teaches you to live with distractibility,” she said. “You just can’t get from A to B to C because you’re always interrupted, and that’s the same now. I just cannot get from the beginning of the day to the end following any particular plan.”

As president, Thistlethwaite also serves as pastor-in-residence to her seminary’s board of trustees. In July, she went to visit a life trustee in the hospital. She arrived just after he had died, and she stayed with him, praying, while his family was notified. Afterward she felt a profound sense of her role in relationship to the students, faculty, staff and trustees of CTS. “We are an academic institution, but we are also really a church as well,” she says. “The transition to president was more like going back to the local church than anything else.”

Thistlethwaite has devoted much of her career to addressing cultural stereotypes, the exclusion of women in traditional church structures, and a more equitable church for the 21st century, including 15 years translating Scripture into inclusive language. She worked on two translations: The Inclusive Language Lectionary (Pilgrim) and The New Testament and Psalms: An Inclusive Version (Oxford).

“I think language shapes our perceptions of reality in the most profound way possible, and therefore inclusive language both about humans and the divine is critical,” she says.

Women’s ordination, which has been a UCC practice for more than a century, is normative for her, says Thistlethwaite. “I won’t say there isn’t discrimination, certainly, but it has not been a big part of my experience of the ministry, of being an academic in religion, nor of being CTS president.”

But Thistlethwaite cautions that political power for women may not translate into a more compassionate society: “I don’t hold a particularly sentimental view that women are the be all and end all of human salvation. Women are human beings, which means they are conservative human beings; they are liberal human beings; they are stupid human beings; they are smart human beings; they are compassionate; they are cruel.”

Excluding others—whether women, gays or people of color—is bad for human communities, says Thistlethwaite. The sin of exclusion is fundamentally corrupting to churches and communities: they are not experiencing the full breadth of human gifts and human liabilities that come through inclusiveness.

Photo by Dick Fish/Smith College
Strike banner calling for “power to the people” in front of Mary Ellen Chase House.

The Age of Religion

Although political observers 25 years ago predicted that religion would disappear almost completely in the 21st century, Thistlethwaite contends that this is the “age of religion.”

Religious fervor and religion have increased significantly as forces in local, regional and world politics, especially in the last decade, in the United States and other countries.

The effect on theological education, she says, will force more change in the next decade than at any time since the Reformation.

Seminaries, especially the mainline institutions, are “singularly unprepared to deal with the new place of religion and its relationship to broad social and political forces,” says Thistlethwaite.

Mainline institutions tend to be insular and preoccupied with each one’s own narrow niche in religion, she says. “The net result is that most seminaries are preparing pastors for a church that is disappearing in a world that is bleeding from a lack of visionary religious leadership. These institutions will either need to change to respond to the need for a different kind of religious leader for the 21st century or they will wither with irrelevance.”

Although she disagrees with the focus of evangelical and fundamentalist Christian seminaries, Thistlethwaite says “These institutions are more often seriously taking stock of the global and interfaith implications of theological education today.

“I think it is also the role of seminaries in the mainline to step up to providing lay education for this emerging world and to foster imaginative responses among lay people in their own church leadership.

“It is imperative for seminaries to educate laity in the deep truths of the Gospel to help them resist manipulation by crass political strategists who want to use the churches to ‘get out the vote’ for a particular candidate or party.”

Next year, after two five-year terms as president, Thistlethwaite plans to step down from her post as president and return to the classroom, where she taught for 16 years at CTS prior to becoming president.

“Ten years is enough,” she says. “It’s an incredibly difficult job. People who have not sat in these chairs have no idea how difficult it is to be a seminary president today.”

Patrick O’Neill is a freelance writer who lives in Garner, N.C.