Antonietta Potente: “From Exile to inclusion, from waiting to participation: … and we will remain voluntarily in exile”

Presentation by Antonietta Potente, theologian and Dominican Italian nun based in Boliviafor “The ways of Love”, an International Conference towards pastoral care with homosexual and trans people (Rome, Italy, October 3, 2014)

We re-read the long history of exclusion; we collect together the unique stories of those who have, with their dreams, broken through the cultural and religious walls built by the collective imagination concerning gender. Today, for a change, we participate in a way of recovery and dignity; however, even so, we will continue to tread the paths of exile, if this is what Gospel boldness and life in the Spirit means in the socio-political circumstances in which our faith comes into play.

I’d like to start by letting off some flashes. Rather than these being lights to dazzle our eyes, I’d rather they were blasts for our ears, or pounding concerns for our reflections and our consciences. When all’s said and done, we know that there are words which not only make sounds, but which open up a vision of something totally new. Words which arouse sight, and facts which awaken hearing.

Moreover, given that I must choose a language in order to communicate something that is really close to my heart, I choose the language of mystics and poets, the one which everyone knows, because it does not belong to the learned, the dogmaticians, or the lawyers but to the anima-animus, and to what is essential to nature.

If by chance one of you should find it difficult, or thinks that it serves no purpose, don’t go away, but rather, as if it were an ascetic demand, stay and take a little time to reflect. If you do this, you will discover that this language, which at first seems difficult, is in fact well known to you. But may they also do the same who think they have understood it all straight off: remain in silence.

A Way In

Now I shall start by trying to get those flashes to dazzle and blast. I haven’t invented these sounds or symbolic images myself; rather I’ve taken them from an ancient tradition which is also part of Christian tradition, and I would say, not only Christian, but simply human.
I’m drawing these from the prophetic texts of the story of the Prophet Ezekiel. The written text to which I am referring, without reading it all, is Ezekiel 12, 1-12. But here I’m bringing out only some elements from this mystical and poetic composition, at the same time demanding and of very great beauty, which tells us of the Prophet’s experience.

“The word of the LORD came to me: “Mortal, you are living in the midst of a rebellious house, who have eyes to see but do not see, who have ears to hear but do not hear; for they are a rebellious house. Therefore, mortal, prepare for yourself an exile’s baggage, and go into exile by day in their sight; you shall go like an exile from your place to another place in their sight… You shall bring out your baggage by day in their sight, as baggage for exile; and you shall go out yourself at evening in their sight, as those do who go into exile… for I have made you a sign for the house of Israel.” I did just as I was commanded. I brought out my baggage by day, as baggage for exile, and in the evening I dug through the wall with my own hands; I brought it out in the dark, carrying it on my shoulder in their sight. In the morning the word of the LORD came to me: “Mortal, has not the house of Israel, the rebellious house, said to you, “What are you doing?” Say to them, “I am a sign for you…””

Soon I will seek to retranslate what this narrative means for me, but let us leave, just there, for a moment, these words or flashes.

Throughout the length of history, it would seem that there is a movement, like that of the sea which we can see when standing on the shore. A movement of coming and going; indeed, history is full of attempts, of seeking, of projects some of which are carried out, and others not.

I think that there are so many people at this point in history who would like to say that their stories have moved from ones of exclusion to ones of inclusion; others who would like to tell us how they did it, how many martyrs there have been on the journey; how many “disappeared” sons and daughters, how many houses left behind, how many deserts crossed. But also, how many “sit ins” in public squares, how many marches, how many roadblocks, hunger strikes and on and on.

Processes which today seem to be finished, but in fact have not, since there are still big breakers crashing on the shore, as if to remind us that we still have need for daring.

Exclusion is indeed like a shadow which threatens the possibility of life together, together with other women and men, together with one’s own people and with different peoples, together with the environment; together with ourselves, with our conscience and our responsibility, two dimensions which can’t be sold, because unable to be reached by blackmail.

There are still too many people, groups of humans, social realities, who continue to undergo processes of exclusion. But exclusion always generates more absence: millions and millions of excluded women and men, for whom it is as if they no longer existed; even if we see, every day, their faces in the newspapers, in the virtual world of the internet, and on the monotonous television news shows. Exclusion only generates absence.

We all know who is behind the processes of exclusion and the multitude of displaced persons. The Fundamentalists of both East and West; the groups behind World Finance; the countries which manage the UN; mafias which manage every kind of illegality; those who are behind Big Pharma, who in their turn manage viruses, bacteria, and consequently, the vaccines. And let us not even bother to talk about our “little big” political lobbies, which are the most striking examples of what it means to think and act in such a way as to keep the majority of people far removed from participation; or those religious lobbies which, even though today they have put Francis, the Bishop of Rome, in the front line, are always waiting in ambush so as not to lose their absurd powers, and when all’s said and done, do not allow great transformations to take place.

Now, someone will say that I was invited to make a theological contribution, but this, begging your pardon, is my theology; the theology of anamnesis, of remembrance, of memory and “I am astonished, as I draw the veil off things with words, how much, how infinitely more than I can say, I have observed.” as Virginia Woolf wrote.

Because, if you want to make requests, if you want to become protagonists, you must never reach by yourselves the places in which you are given recognition. You must always arrive there with someone else: that is Christian theology.

It is History, notwithstanding these extremely painful moments, that is the place of Divine Epiphany. No one has ever seen God (cf John 1,18); God is beyond words, invisible and sacrosanct, and it is just because God is beyond words, invisible and sacrosanct that the person who does theology, who is a believer, has a solemn duty to remember that that Ineffability, Invisibility and sense of the sacrosanct belong to the whole of humanity and the whole universe.

Wars, deliberately programmed poverty, and everything that is designed to exclude, creates millions and millions of unmentionable, invisible and sacrosanct people. I must remember them day and night; I must grow up, and educate my sons and my daughters so that when they grow up they know that they can’t leave anyone behind, or they too will be complicit in this story of exclusions.

It is a little like the ancient Biblical imperative (if you will excuse me paraphrasing freely from the text of Deuteronomy 6): “You will remember them, you will call them to mind when you are seated at home, when you lie down, when you rise up; you will write them everywhere, before your eyes, you will repeat them before your sons and daughters, you will remind your animals of them, in your fields, as you journey, and among the things of your house.”

Exclusion is, therefore, too great a wound in the history of all times, and even in our own time, today. We women know this well; those of every type of gender who have disobeyed the established paradigms know this well; non-conformists and those who are in love with the Invisible know this well.
Now the solution seems very easy: we must fight against every type of exclusion. Yes indeed, certainly! But that is not enough. While we are seeking to overcome every sort of exclusion we will continue to tread the paths of exile, because that is what Gospel boldness and the life of the Spirit mean.


Interpreting the text

And this is where the text from the Prophet Ezekiel, which I quoted before, comes into its own. We need to keep on the watch; having gained entry into the city as an official space or place where we are given some recognition, does not mean abandoning our way of being, of standing up, in history.
Probably all of us will have to continue to dig a hole in the city walls, we will have, with our hands, to open a fissure, a door, always, wherever we are. Carrying on with our journey with awareness of being exiles: “prepare for yourself an exile’s baggage, and go into exile by day in their sight; you shall go like an exile from your place to another place in their sight…” It is a matter of being aware of how utterly insufficient is everything for which we justly clamour, and even of how utterly insufficient is every one of our beautiful and satisfying successes. Because we do not wish find ourselves women and men who achieve recognition, so as then to go on and perpetuate the status quo, to repeat the same old story again and again.

“I did just as I was commanded. I brought out my baggage by day, as baggage for exile, and in the evening I dug through the wall with my own hands”. The symbolism is pregnant with reality: I dug through the wall with my own hands…it is an effort that is aware of what it is doing; not merely a mental effort, but physical also. The prophet prefers the condition of an exile – prepares his own baggage.

But what does it mean for us, today: not to want to acquire a position of being recognised so that we just continue on with the patterns of yesteryear. It means not betraying our difference. Every condition that has been found again, discovered, reincorporated into our existence, is never to be forgotten, never sold, never betrayed.

Sexual difference is not to be betrayed; the difference of your most humane humanity is not to be betrayed; the difference made by your sensitivity is not to be betrayed. Don’t fall into the horse-trading of the classic roles: man, woman, father, mother, husband, wife, and so on. That would be to fall back into the old system of exclusion.

The rights of citizenship have been justly acquired, and there are still more to be won. But don’t let this take us away from our task of being, even so, sculptresses, sculptors of breached walls, so as not to be assimilated within the very parameters which we had, for years, contested and rejected.

In all probability our position will never be accepted, beyond the questions of rights and laws. No one will ask us “what are you doing?”. Just as it was for the prophet: … In the morning the word of the LORD came to me: “Mortal, has not the house of Israel, the rebellious house, said to you, “What are you doing?” Say to them, “I am a sign for you…”

This is a totally gratuitous condition. It belongs to the logic of the Spirit. It doesn’t enter into rectilinear human reasoning; it doesn’t enter into what we normally expect. That well-defined sensibility of those who live towards the future as if it were already known: “like father, like son” (strangely enough the phrase “like mother, like daughter” doesn’t ring a bell).

Everything follows the “norm” exactly, and remains within the “norm”. What a pity that the “norm” is not the law of the Spirit, but rather that of finitude and human demarcation! “You do not know where the Spirit comes from, or where it goes” as John writes beautifully for his community (cf John 3, 8): a sort of principle of Indeterminacy.

The Spirit has, from the beginning, smashed human and religious schemes. Only through Jesus did we come to perceive who God is, but then Jesus, like the prophet, opened up another fissure, and went out, and left us the Spirit. The Spirit isn’t characterized by the norm. Rather it disorders it, destabilizes it, throws it into disarray.

Only a theology of Jesus according to the Spirit can stimulate further steps in our life as Church. Not the theology of a dogmatic or moralistic Jesus. I wonder whether it isn’t the case that today, the question of Gender has become that of a new principle of indeterminacy in the face of the sort of human being that is so comfortably imagined by the old hierarchies of life. Hierarchies that are truly closed to the unforeseen, and therefore also closed to the Ineffable, the Invisible, the Sacrosanct. Yes, because God probably does have a name, but only reveals it at the opportune moment, with all the resonances of the unpronounceable Biblical Tetragrammaton: I will be who I will be; I will manifest myself as I will manifest myself (Exodus 3, 14)

What is demanded from us? To remain complicit in the human-cosmic desire. To be found in “a coming and going, a continuous being poured out, hither and thither” as the Spanish philosopher Maria Zambrano would say, in order to avoid tightening ambiguous certainties which in their turn will only cultivate exclusions.

The fissure, the crack, must remain open… “Say to them, “I am a sign for you…”” That´s what the text says. Not a model, but simply a sign. And that means that your choices should seek their source in the divine life, the life of the Spirit.

Drawing close to the fissure

At this stage, I can dare to say something about the draft of your Document for the Synod. If I were in your shoes, I wouldn’t ask the Ecclesial Community for much. Other than that they should admit their obtuseness and their innumerable blameworthy acts in relation to this issue. Their abuses towards the living flesh of people; their false power, which has blocked the creativeness of what is good in the lives of women and men who are quite simply human.

Just so, you should be opposed to a concept of family that has done so much harm, and you should not be seeking to reproduce it. This I say as a woman, unmarried by choice, but who lives with bonds which go beyond those of the family. Indeed, I prefer to live as an exile, rather than belong to a way of understanding the world that has led to so much injustice.

I would ask the community of believers: create a real space in order to contribute to theological reflection. You LGBT believers should not ask only to be accompanied, or for understanding, because otherwise the Church will do what it has done for centuries with people considered poor. You should not tolerate these relations of fake benevolence, or let the Church get away with them.

None of you is a “someone to be pitied”; each one of us in God’s gathering should stand up and speak boldly and with frankness. That will be her authority, his authority, helping us all to understand, alongside others whose choices are different, how to take full responsibility for history.

Don’t draw attention to yourselves, just shift it to where it should be focused. You should remind the community of believers that where two or three come together “in My Name” then “I Am” dwells in the midst of them, and “Those who listen to God’s Word and put it into practice” become the Temple of God.

These are the principles that should be of concern to the Church. I’m aware that this reflection of mine is simply a fissure, and what is more, an open fissure. Now indeed: I can leave. It’s up to you to be faithful to your beautiful difference.


* Antonietta Potente
, theologian. Born close to the Ligurian Sea in 1958, after studies she entered into the way of mendicant spirituality in which she has lived up until the present, by becoming a Dominican Sister. In 1989, in Rome, she completed her Doctorate in Moral Theology, teaching until 1993 in Rome and Florence, in Universities and Centres of Study. Contact with other geographical realities, above all those of Latin America and Africa, nudged her into leaving Italy.
She lived from 1994 until 2012 in Bolivia, teaching at the Catholic University in Cochabamba, and other Latin American theological Centres, and accompanying the process of progressive liberation lived by the Bolivian population, and especially some groups of women in Cochabamba’s periphery. Her theology enters into daily dialogue with culture and with other disciplines, leaving behind more classical models. Currently she collaborates with various Italian University Centres.
Her mystico-political passion is the gateway to a constant quest for a theological thought and praxis that is not divorced from reality, so that theology doesn’t become the property of a small élite. She loves the art of writing. From among her many books, we mention only the last two: Un bene fragile: riflessioni sull’etica, Mondadori, 2011 and Umano più Umano, Ed. Le Piagge, 2013.