A Redemptive, Empowering Voice

October 3, 2018
Professor Karen King
Professor Karen King. Photo by HDS.

Karen King, Hollis Professor of Divinity at HDS, delivered the following remarks at Morning Prayers in Harvard's Memorial Church on October 2, 2018.



The reading today is excerpts from a collection of ancient oracles.

Hear the voice of Thunder Perfect Mind:

I was sent from the Power
And I have come to those who reflect upon me.
And I was found among those who seek after me.
Look at me, you who reflect upon me;
And you hearers, hear me!
You who are waiting for me, take me to yourselves.
And do not banish me from your vision.
And do not make your voice hate me, nor your hearing.
Do not be ignorant of me at any place or any time.
Be on guard!

For I am the first and the last.
I am the honored and the scorned,
I am the harlot and the holy one.
I am the wife and the virgin.
I am the m[oth]er and the daughter.

I am the barren one and many are her children.
I am the one with many marriages and I have not taken a husband.
I am the midwife and she who does not give birth.
I am the comforting of my labor pains.
I am the bride and the bridegroom.
I am the mother of my father and the sister of my husband.
And he is my offspring.

I am the staff of his power in his youth and he is the rod of my old age.

I am the incomprehensible silence and the oft-remembered thought.

You who hate me, why do you love me
And hate those who love me?

You who speak the truth about me, tell lies about me,
And you who have told lies about me, speak the truth about me.
You who know me, become ignorant of me; and may those who have been ignorant of me come to know me.
For I am knowledge and ignorance.

I am shame and boldness.
I am unashamed, I am ashamed.
I am strength and I am fear.
I am compassionate and I am cruel.

I am the disgraced and the exalted one.

Give heed to my poverty and my wealth.
Do not be haughty to me when I am discarded upon ... the garbage heap...,
And you will find me in the kingdoms.

Do not forsake me,
And do not be afraid of my power.

Do not despise my fear
And curse my pride.

I am she who exists in all fears and boldness in trembling.
I am she who is weak, and I am well in a delightful place.

I am foolish and I am wise

I am godless and I am she whose God is numerous.

I am uneducated, and it is from me they learn.

Receive me to yourselves out of understanding [and] pain.

Come forward to childhood and do not despise it because it is little and small.

You have wounded and you have had mercy.

I am peace and because of me war has come to be.
I am an alien and a citizen.

I am a non-speaking mute and great is the multitude of my utterances.

Hear me in softness and learn from me in harshness.
(The translation here draws on and modifies translations by Anne McGuire and George W. MacRae).

Thunder Perfect Mind is known to us from a single papyrus manuscript nearly 1,500 years old found in Egypt in 1945. Its voice, I suggest, is that of a woman prophet, and these are a collection of her oracles. She speaks in the first person as the voice of the divine. Her poem is meant to be read aloud, so that her voice becomes our voice, our divine voices.

Her voice incites us to name our own paradoxes, our own transgressions, our own complexities and frailties and strengths. The insistent demanding voice acknowledges selves and souls who are shaped in the gaze of multiple audiences, both within and without—all those voices and roles that tell us who we are or ought to be or shouldn't be but might have been or yet become. "Come forward to childhood" she tells us. Do not despise what is small and little. She requires that we acknowledge the workings of power, of race and class, including our own complicities and complacencies, our own struggles and hopes, shame and bold speech. "Give heed to my poverty and my wealth. Do not be haughty to me when I am discarded upon the earth. You will find me in the Kingdoms." "I am strength and I am fear; I am war and I am peace." "Why then have you hated me you Greeks?" she asks. "Because I am a barbarian among barbarians? For I am the Wisdom of the Greeks and the Knowledge of the barbarians. I am judgement for Greeks and barbarians." Thunder Perfect Mind is a redemptive voice, an empowering voice, and through the poem, it becomes our voice. "I am," she says, "the hearing that is acceptable in every matter; I am the utterance that cannot be restrained. I am the name of the voice and the voice of the name. I am the sign of writing and the manifestation of difference."

Her speech lets us, as hearers and speakers, transverse the distance between political exploitation and empowerment, between the experience of degradation and the knowledge of infinite self-worth, between despair and peace. The fragmentation that rips our selves, our souls and bodies and worlds, is overcome by naming—all of it. And all in the divine voice. “Be on guard!” she admonishes, “Do not be ignorant of me!”

We are living now in time of relentless divisiveness, oppositions, irreconcilable absolutes, when truth and lies are all decried as shadowed conspiracies of fake news and bad faith. Thunder Perfect Mind asks that we speak into this din, that we refuse the facile enticing power wrapped in empty diatribes or unseasonable comforts; that instead we name all the truth that can be spoken, bare-naked, bald, bold; that we cry all the tears, laugh all the joy, tremble in all the fears, shout in all the pride, keep silence, cherish quiet, become a riot.

So the prayer today, addressed each to whom prayer is given: Let us go out with the voice of Thunder Perfect Mind ringing and speak all the truth—and all the ignorance and all the shame and all the pain and fear, and feel all the joy, all the tremendous ugliness—or is there beauty there?—, the divine everywhere. Amen.