“Audre Lorde’s Unfinished Business: Working Through Religious Resistance to Cancer
Treatment” by Pamela Yetunde
I, as a pastoral counselor and theologian, have had the privilege of reading through Black lesbian poet Audre Lorde’s journals and diaries archived at Spelman College in Atlanta, GA. Many people are acquainted with Lorde (1934-1992) through some of her more famous rally cry-quotes like, “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house,” or “We were never meant to survive.” Here is just one quote of many I would like to offer, demonstrating Lorde as a lay psychologist:
In order to be whole, we must recognize the despair oppression plants within each of us – that thin persistent voice that says our efforts are useless, it will never change, so why bother, accept it. And we must fight at that inserted piece of self-destruction that lives and flourishes like a poison inside of us, unexamined until it makes us turn upon ourselves in each other… (“Learning from the 60s” in Lorde’s Sister Outsider, p. 142.)
In addition to being a lay psychologist, Lorde was also a lay theologian. She grew up Catholic, deconstructed hope in Catholicism and the Catholic god of her youth through poetry, had positive encounters with I Ching, African spirituality, secularized Buddhism and Taoism, and integrated them all proclaiming that one should change their religion if it was not supporting their will to live. Ancient and unreformed religious traditions in contemporary contexts tend to harm women’s self-actualization.
Lorde’s unfinished business is bringing humanist-feminist-womanist psychology and theology, pastoral theology, together for the welfare of women whose religious orientation prohibits them from seeking cancer treatment. In order to continue Lorde’s psycho-spiritual work for helping women work through intrapsychic religious resistance to cancer treatment, here are a few considerations:
As a patient facing cancer, consider the historical context of your religious tradition and discern whether any of the contemporary sciences help you understand what your religion can and cannot provide. If your religious tradition is anti-science, consider whether your tradition really values truth-seeking.
If a woman’s religious heritage is male-dominated and male-centric, engage in a thorough critique of that tradition to determine if and how the tradition subjugates women. Externalize the critique through writing.
For those of us attending to and caring for people with cancer, remember to ask them what is important to them before we place our cultural norms on them.
When there is a gap in treatment for patients who want to live and are also objecting to treatment on religious grounds, they may lose their religious/spiritual leader as a resource. They cannot access the hospital chaplain if they are not hospitalized, and unless their medical doctor refers them to a pastoral counselor, they may not get their religious resistance worked through. Medical doctors should be willing to refer their religiously-resistant patient to a pastoral counselor for a collaborative treatment effort.
Deep compassion calls us to continue Lorde’s unfinished pastoral theological business of helping women work through religious resistance to cancer treatment.
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Pamela Yetunde Artist Statement:
Pamela Ayo Yetunde, J.D., Th.D., is a pastoral counselor in private practice and a professor of
pastoral care. Ayo has worked as a chaplain in hospital and hospice settings, and as a pastoral
counselor in mental health settings. She is a graduate of Columbia Theological Seminary, Holy
Names University, and Indiana University School of Law-Bloomington.