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Theology Slam winner considers roots of compassion

19 March 2021

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Imogen Ball delivers the winning talk at the third Theology Slam final, on Thursday evening

Imogen Ball delivers the winning talk at the third Theology Slam final, on Thursday evening

AN EXPLORATION of the relationship between compassion and the womb was declared the winning talk at the third Theology Slam final, on Thursday evening.

It was given by Imogen Ball, who is a final-year ordinand and MA student at Trinity College, Bristol. For a second year running, the final took place online.

The Theology Slam — a competition to find engaging young voices who think theologically about the contemporary world — was organised jointly by the Church Times, SCM Press, and the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity (LICC).

In her talk, Ms Ball noted that the Hebrew words racham (to have compassion), rachum (compassionate), and rachamim (compassion) all share the same three root words as rechem: R-H-M. “Rechem is uniquely reserved for the female reproductive organ, the womb.”

She continued: “Now, just because these words share the same three foundational letters does not mean they have the same meaning. But there is something that catches my attention, a depth of meaning to be mined, when we mirror these strangely related terms. By mirroring the womb and compassion, we reveal glimpses of creative compassion.”

“Creative compassion” was from God, she said, and could be seen in Jesus feeding the crowd with five loaves and two fish. “Jesus was in a desert place, a barren space, a wasteland of nothingness, and into that place he created, multiplying bread and fish, sustaining and nurturing this great crowd with physical and spiritual food. Jesus, the embodied and enwombed one, had compassion. This is our God, the embodied and compassionate creator. By mirroring the womb and compassion, we inspire creative compassion from God.”

Creative compassion was not reserved for women who were mothers, she said, but “for all, because all are made in the image of God”.

Furthermore, creative compassion was “for now”, in a world caught up in “the chaos of pandemic”. “Creative compassion builds relationships beyond a one-off handout: it invites people in rather than transferring a tenner. Creative compassion is active imagining; it is envisaging and enacting a future that is better.”

Ms Ball wins £250 to spend at Church House Bookshop, and her talk will be published in the Church Times next week, in print and online. She will also preach a sermon on Radio 4’s Sunday Worship on Palm Sunday.

After Ms Ball spoke, the online audience heard from Joshua House, a recent theology graduate from the University of Leeds who is now a trainee RE teacher. He spoke on “Community in a Time of Pandemic”.

The pandemic, he said, had “compounded those pre-existing injustices in our society”, and he suggested that “we use the lens of trauma to understand that, trauma which focuses on the imprint of pain. . .

“To use Christian terminology, trauma is ‘the suffering that remains’, it is the imprint of suffering. But it doesn’t just end on us: it passes on intergenerationally throughout communities.”

How should Christians bear witness in such circumstances, Mr House asked. When Christ rises on the third day, “the wounds remain; Christ bears the trauma of the cross”. We should not “rush to redemption”, but “pause in that middle day”, Holy Saturday, and, sit, with the disciples “in that liminal space between life and death, and death and life — a space which doesn’t rush to triumphant redemption, because it cannot”.

Attentiveness to the reality of trauma disrupted our theology, he said. “It disrupts narratives of suffering, our triumphant narratives of redemption, our ideas of sin, of love, and, most importantly, that of self-love and self-acceptance. Because when we are attentive to the reality of trauma, we become regrounded, recentred in the essentials of Jesus’s message and the reality of God — that of love. Not some lofty, theoretical, banal love, but one which bears witness by remaining, and is potentially restorative.”

The final speaker was Flo O’Taylor, a Ph.D. student at Durham University, who is researching women’s experiences of addiction through the lens of political theology. Her topic was “Justice in a Time of Pandemic”, which considered the multiple systemic injustices exposed by the pandemic.

“While the pandemic has been a collective experience, it has not been an equitable one,” she said. “Rather, it has exposed and exacerbated fault-lines of inequality along the lines of class and race in our society.”

Politics, she argued, was primarily “a practice of the imagination”, which “tells a story about how people relate to one another and forms the structure of our societies. Theologically, this matters because it affects God’s children and reflects how we see each other.”

She continued: “The current political imagination has clapped for NHS heroes, while refusing to give nurses — or carers — a real term pay rise, while private companies profit from faulty PPE and failing to track and trace.”

Simone Weil, Ms O’Taylor said, “invites us to follow Jesus in attending to affliction, in order to develop a political imagination capable of justice. Because this cannot go on.”

The judging panel on the night comprised the secretary for Ecumenical Relations and Theology and theological adviser to the House of Bishops, Prebendary Isabelle Hamley; the director of the think tank Theos, Elizabeth Oldfield; the director of the Centre for Culture and Discipleship at the LICC, Dave Benson; and the winner of Theology Slam 2020, Augustine Tanner-Ihm (News, 26 June 2020; Comment, 3 July 2020).

Listen to the finalists’ talks on the Church Times Podcast or watch them here

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