Recently, while perusing Facebook for no reason in particular, I noticed a comment on a friend and pastoral colleague’s post: “You’re such a pit stirrer!” As a theologian, I found the original post clarifying rather than controversial, but the inspiration for this writing is not the content of the original post. It is the accusation itself: a pot stirrer. Whether this particular commenter intended a more jovial or exasperated tone, I know not; yet all too often pot stirrers receive negative glances and condemnatory attitudes. I wonder why this is?
I don’t really wonder, though. I have something more than suspicions, though admittedly less than absolute knowledge. People fear pot stirrers because stirring the pot upsets the status quo. Stability, stasis, standards, staying put seem to be the ultimate pursuit for so many in our society. At least, so many with power and privilege. Indeed, one online dictionary refers to pot stirrers as those who "cause unrest." The logic goes something like this: We need no movement because the present context is sufficient. Why would we upset the relative calm we experience and live with unnecessary trouble? So it goes for those critics of pot stirrers.
What happened the last time you left a pot on the stove unstirred? Even on low heat, left unattended, an unstirred pot will eventually sear on bottom. Unstirred pasta clumps. Unstirred oatmeal burns. Even when the top looks normal (so to speak), whatever is at the bottom of an unstirred pot suffers the direst of consequences. What seems like unnecessary trouble for the top layers distorts and destroys those on the bottom. Without pot stirring, there’s always a loss. To vamp on the above definition, there's always unrest. The status quo causes unrest to those on the bottom, exposed constantly to the most extreme life situations. Pot stirrers ensure that such forces don't become destructive for anyone. Pot stirrers, then, don't cause unrest. They expose the disturbing realities of life to the entire pot, especially those at rest on top who do not, and perhaps refuse to, notice the disturbances below them.
As I see it, pot stirrers in the kitchen care about the entire meal. It will take longer to cook if you keep stirring but it will distribute the heat evenly to all the contents. Those who stir the pots of society care about more than the current status of the social pot because they understand the appearance of stability is not, in fact, peace. Pot stirrers attend to all the food in the pot, and as such, societal pot stirrers try to attend to all people in society.
I just spent three invigorating days on site with Concordia College and their team of people developing interreligious relationships, programming, and academics. They are, the lot of them, a blessed bunch of pot stirrers, because they’re attending to people who have not often received significant attention in the academy or in faith-based (read: Christian) college contexts. I was fortunate that two colleagues, Craig Burgdoff and Sally Stamper, accompanied me. Each brought a legacy of profound teaching and purposeful pot stirring with them. We learned much about the development of a minor in Interfaith Studies, the development of a program for undergraduate Interfaith Scholars, creation of student programming that accompanies people of diverse faith backgrounds and pursues equitable justice for all, and development of a President’s Interfaith Advisory Council, among many other things. I learned much from our hosts, including Dr. Jaqueline Bussie, who is the Director of the Forum on Faith and Life, as well as my Capital colleagues as we decompressed the data and explored new and renewed relationships.
What struck me most consistently, throughout the entire process, was this: changes happened, small and large, because people were willing to risk stirring the pot. One student, a wheelchair user, talked about her issues around religious life and accessibility. She stirred the pot and made positive changes for herself and her peers. We heard of an administration that allocated over a hundred thousand dollars in program funding to support diverse spiritual expression at Concordia, which stirred up new faith knowledge and religious practices in the community’s consciousness. We met with faculty who include religious diversity into their courses across the curriculum, from communication to psychology to business, upsetting the standard expectations for what’s necessary knowledge for success in those fields. None of this was status quo. It all required pot stirrers.
And the result of that pot stirring? Enriched community. Some people we met with felt more enfranchised, while others felt more willing to vocalize their disenfranchisement. Notice that both of these responses represent progress. The former has found safer space, while the latter finds confidence that their voice matters and can make a difference. Of course, we didn’t discover a perfect community; rather, we discovered a community more authentically acknowledging the spiritualities and religious practices brought by the people within, as we well as a cultural commitment to raising the profile of religion and spirituality in the priorities of university life.
I have to admit, I want to be a pot stirrer. We need to stir the pots of religion, faith, and spirituality to ensure all people are seen and known. We need to stir the pots of social justice to attend to the needs of people of color, of the LGBTQIA+ community, of women, of native populations, of immigrants, of ethnic minorities, and a whole of other marginalized folx. Though in my privilege I benefit from the relative calm of the status quo, I am not satisfied with the current status of the pot because the appearance of stability is not, in fact, peace.
If you feel this too, don’t be afraid to stir the pot. Find colleagues and friends who will take up a spoon and stir with you.
If you are afraid of stirring the pot, but want it to happen, find ways to support those willing to lead. Use your money, your time, and your voice to support their work.
If you don’t want the pot stirred at all, try two things: 1st, ask yourself honestly why you’re satisfied with the way things are, and then read the work of people like Austen Channing Brown, Drew Hart, Nadia Bolz Weber, James Cone, and Austen Hartke, who will present some arguments about why the pot needs stirred.
If nothing else, the next time you hear someone accuse another of being a pot stirrer, or you find an impetus within yourself to call someone a pot stirrer, ask yourself this question: What’s so bad about that, after all?
Simultaneously a sinner and a saint.