SCE Women's Caucus

We must learn what we are to know of love from immersion in the struggle for justice.

Blog of Myself

Kate Blanchard, Alma College 

I’m not gonna lie: my semester is over and I am toast.

I’ve dragged myself into the office most weekdays since turning in my final grades, but all I can seem to manage so far is showing up to various committee meetings (or piddling tasks related to said meetings), responding to emails, and emptying my office candy bowl of everything my students didn’t finish during the semester. I have not yet managed a serious start on a syllabus, an article, or a book proposal—much less figured out how to resist despair over the everyday horrors of America in 2017.

Like many of you, I imagine, I am emotionally exhausted. When my mind gets started on the myriad injustices in the world, or the countless things I could/should be doing, it bounces around like a pinball. It cannot settle on one particular horror but ricochets off of racist police killings onto health care, from climate change to economic inequality, from Russian-flavored dictators to anti-Muslim violence, from corporate theft to mass incarceration. (Admittedly it is my privilege that life has not thrust one particular issue upon me.) During the semester I am able to find daily inspiration for resistance in many of “the classics” that I read alongside my students, but once the term is over, how am I to prioritize the many sources of outrage and grief that demand my attention? And all this is to say nothing of the pinball of personal obligations that I’m currently failing at: mothering, exercising, responsibly consuming, partnering, volunteering, lobbying, befriending…you get the picture.

Sadly, when I need a path to detox from outrage and grief overload, I tend to look elsewhere than Christianity. At least as I have known it, Christianity is terrific at outrage but terrible at self-care. (How my gut recoils at the term “self-care”!) Even the Beverly Harrison quote on this blog suggests that self-care might be problematic for true feminism or genuine social justice. But the truth is we—or at least I—sometimes have to “absent ourselves” from what is going on in the world, if only to remember who we are and what we care most about.

When I want to come back to myself, I gravitate toward Buddhist teachings, mostly as interpreted by Western practitioners. (I wish I didn’t have to feel guilty about heresy, or worse, cultural appropriation, but there it is. I comfort myself knowing the Buddha himself had an evangelistic impulse.) A very helpful source is Sounds True, which offers free podcasts as well as some paid subscriptions. I’m currently participating in one year-long workshop to practice mindfulness. Some days I do very brief sitting meditations to bring my monkey mind back to my body; a simple moment to feel my feet on the ground, or feel how my facial muscles are clenched, is an important reminder of my finitude, my small everyday-ness. It is such a gift to be able to pause, even if only for a couple of seconds, and to be exactly where I am and who I am. Sometimes there’s a lecture, such as one by this Zen priestess, who talks about the necessity of individual contemplation, and of claiming the space one’s body takes up, as paths to social peace. And recently I read a new-agey book that reminded me that I want to love people—I really do!—to love them rather than judge or merely tolerate them. For some reason this message coming from an unfamiliar source hits home more deeply than once more repeating “love your neighbor” or “love your enemies” from the gospels.

Christianity does of course offer plenty of “intellectual, pedagogical, spiritual, and moral resources” that are “valuable in resistance to hatred, indifference, and injustice.” But if at some point you find that these resources ring hollow, that they do nothing for you except make you feel more fatigued and less inspired, then I suggest exploring a different path that might speak to you anew. It is not that these alternate spiritual resources replace Christian teaching, but that they shift my perspective in a way that lets me return to familiar traditions with fresh eyes.

So here are some paradoxes: In order to flourish in Christian ethics, explore other traditions. And in order to reach out to other people in love, first come home to yourself. Navel-gazing probably doesn’t come naturally to many of us; women scholars tend to be do-ers and not just thinkers or feelers. But I, for one, am in desperate need of centering, and what better place to start than my own body, mind, and breath, which are always right here waiting for me?

Kate Blanchard is Professor of Religious Studies at Alma College. She is currently thinking about abortion, about the relationship between economics and environmentalism, and about the relationship between theology/ethics and the academic study of religion.


Not Waiting for Love

Yvonne C. Zimmerman, Methodist Theological School in Ohio

This year I’ve used the short essay “I Cannot Speak of Love to You Today” by Regina Shands Stoltzfus in my Introduction to Christian Ethics class when I teach the unit on virtue ethics, pairing it with Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz’s “Solidarity: Love of Neighbor in the 1980s” on which Kathy Lilla Cox has already so wonderfully written for this blog and Ilsup Ahn’s “Virtue Ethics” in Asian American Christian Ethics: Voices, Methods, Issues. “I Cannot Speak” responds to the shooting death of 32-year old Philando Castile by Minneapolis police on July 6, 2016. Believing that Castile and the passenger in his car, girlfriend Diamond Reynolds, “just look like people that were involved in a robbery,” the officer pulled over Castile under the pretext of driving a vehicle with a broken tail light. When stopped, Castile disclosed to the officer that he had a gun permit and was carrying a weapon. He was reaching for his ID when the officer shot him—seven times, to be exact.

Today in America not only can a burned out tail light “be a death sentence for a black man” like Shands Stoltzfus’s 20-year old son, so too can failure (real or alleged) to signal a lane change be fatal for a black woman. It is from the standpoint of this terrorizing reality that Shands Stoltzfus challenges the popular and widely held idea that the key to eradicating racism is a process of developing interracial relationships that cultivate in white people love for black and brown-skinned people. The central point of her critique is that “the systemic nature of oppression means that oppression functions despite the good will, intentions and yes, love, of many, many people.”

Love is frequently identified as the pinnacle of Christian theological virtue, complete in itself while also encapsulating the best and most important parts of all the other virtues. Consequently, speaking honestly about love’s strengths and weaknesses isn’t popular. Of all the virtues one can practice and the values one can hold, love seems to stand above critique. But the truth is that human beings are notoriously fickle in loving. We are selective, partial, and inconsistent rather than generous, indiscriminate, and extravagant. Moreover, while it is possible to grow in love, such growth takes concerted effort and time. Herein lies the heart of the issue: “if my son gets stopped for a traffic violation, I can’t hope that the officer who stops him loves someone who looks like him,” Shands Stoltzfus writes. This is honest talk about the actual, documented performance history of the virtue of love in the struggle for racial justice as applied to black and brown people’s lives. In a word, it’s dismal.

Love has a ghosting problem. In situations where it is needed the most, love tends to arrive late. Repeatedly, it has failed to show up at all.

Ghosted by love (at least) one too many times, Shands Stoltzfus proposes that the struggle against racist oppression can be advanced in a more reliable manner by the value of justice. Justice is premised on a recognition of others’ “humanity and…right to exist,” quite apart from any particular feelings. She explains the pragmatic value of the virtue of justice in the context of America’s volatile and violent racialized climate in which people of color fundamentally are not safe like this: “Those of you who don’t yet love me or just don’t—you don’t have to. But you can still co-create a world with me that reeks of justice instead of despair.” In other words, love does not need to show up for justice to pertain.

Of course, the biblical command to love is more profound than the way it’s been sentimentalized in dominant U.S.-American culture to mean warm feelings expressed through kindness to others—Shands Stoltzfus acknowledges this. However, justice is also a biblical command. Moreover, unlike love, justice has not been subject to such intense and thorough sentimentalization. Framing the struggle against racist oppression as a process of justice makes an end run around the repeatedly demonstrated tendency of love-based models of social change to capitulate to racist oppression whenever the feelings associated with love show up late on the scene. Justice issues a non-sentimentalized moral mandate to participate in the work, starting with the directive, “Learn our racialized history.”

The value I find in this essay for teaching virtue ethics is, first, the frank acknowledgement that love is neither the only, nor only important, Christian virtue; and, second, the clarity that the goals of the struggle against racist oppression—recognition, respect as equal citizens, basic safety, the opportunity to live with dignity—don’t actually require love. It is not necessary to wait for a dramatic infusion of love to engage meaningfully in this work that defines the present time.

Yvonne C. Zimmerman is author of Other Dreams of Freedom: Religion, Sex, and Human Trafficking.

Quick Midterm Break

Amy and Nikki are taking a quick midterm break to finish grading and catch breath.  Stay tuned for more posts in early May.  In the meantime, do you have ideas?  Let us know, and we’ll get you on our list.  Shameless self-promotion is encouraged!

Returning to the Classics in Difficult Times

Jennifer Harvey, Drake University

I spend less time in the classroom these days than I do working with students of color. As the Faculty Director of the Crew Scholars Program most of my hours in a given week are devoted to supporting community-building among a relatively small group of young people, and in countless one-on-one dialogues with these students.

Professionally, then, I’ve experienced the current political climate through this context: immersed in the devastating implications of this election for students who are already underrepresented on a predominantly white college campus. My campus has seen the same increase in public expressions of hate as have many other campus communities across the nation.

That context has been incredibly clarifying. For the stakes and impact of these times are manifest in the lives of students with whom I am and have been on a long and intense journey.

So, how to teach since November 8th is not an abstract pedagogical question. I realized as I sat to write this reflection that I spend far less time worrying about how to “get through” to my relatively class-privileged white students than I used to. And, my focus has become even clearer since the election. Students of color, Muslim students, immigrant students, queer students are my priority. It’s that simple, that easy, that difficult.

To that end, I have found solace in teaching “the classics.” The work of James Cone has been a particular spiritual and emotional go to. I’ve taught Cone’s work many times over the years—but here’s what I love about his work right now (especially about: Black Theology and Black Power).

First, Cone’s work is a reminder. As horrifying as things are right now and as violent as the climate has become, the reality is that the horror and violence is not new. Perhaps it has been unveiled and nationally sanctioned (in an election) in a new-ish way.


But, it just isn’t fundamentally new.

Why is this a comfort? I’m not sure I can put it into words. Please know it has nothing to do with downplaying the severity of political realities right now. But it does have to do with the acknowledgment and even insistence that, in fact, these times are not unprecedented.

It’s obviously critical to acknowledge this so we don’t render invisible the lived experience of many communities for whom this violence was already day-to-day life. But it’s also to recognize that we have all been living in this kind of violence for a long time. That doesn’t mean anything about the future is guaranteed—I am as frightened as anyone. But it does mean the wisdom of so many who have given us the gifts of their witness, lives, writing, poetry, and activism are there, are here, for us to draw on. That is a comfort.

Second, I love Cone’s ability to make almost any white student squirm. I always find that Cone’s prophetic words create an environment where I can say to my white students, “Can you notice what you are feeling? Can you see how we are spending so much energy trying to figure out if his vision of justice and salvation include you? Do you feel how stressed your body is?” When they nod, I point out that they are (like me) reading something that wasn’t written for them, nor to address their questions or fix their worries. I point out that they are having an experience that for many students of color at Drake is a daily one—encounters with books and teachers not written and not teaching for and to them, nor to address their questions or fix their worries.

I tell my white students what a rare gift this is in higher education. And it’s especially a gift right now.

And at the same time, Cone flips the script of so much of higher education’s “normal” experience, that his work creates a radically new point of departure for students of color. Whether they agree with Cone’s analysis or not, the lived experience of being made the touchstone and the center is a sacred and powerful gift he gives to them.

In these times, when violence is literally knocking on the door of students in my classes who are DACAmented or undocumented, of Black students, of Muslim students, Cone’s word of righteous prophetic outrage is a gift we all need. His refusal to “make it better” or pretend the United States of America is anything other than what it has always been is spiritual fuel.

And, I find myself needing this fuel. I am taking great comfort in it as I seek to sustain my ability to be present for and with my students, and to continue to move forward when I have no sense of what the future holds.

Jennifer Harvey is Professor of Religion at Drake University. She is the author of Dear White Christians: For Those Still Longing for Racial Reconciliation and Whiteness and Morality: Pursuing Racial Justice Through Reparations and Sovereignty. See also Harvey’s March 14, 2017 op-ed in the New York Times, “Are We Raising Racists?”


Writing Everyday Ethics, Sparking Change

Kate Ott, Drew University

Academics often muse about audience. For those of us with explicit social justice commitments, we often live in a shame cycle waffling between how much time we devote to writing for campus-wide tenure committees, the guild, lay folks, public communities, or even policy makers.

We have a tradition at our institution that has led me to reflect on this question of audience. Faculty members upon returning from sabbatical give the Matriculation Address which is set in the context of a worship service and both welcomes new students and evidences for colleagues sabbatical research. The audience of the address is theological school students and families, faculty and staff, and University administrators.

The process of crafting my Matriculation Address helped me wrestle with looming questions of audience and my justice commitments. I share my reflections as one approach among many and an attempt to push back on the presumed hierarchy of publishing formats.

A central question animates all of my work: “How do we educate for moral formation in the face of structural or systemic barriers that create oppressive conditions limiting or deforming moral imagination?” For me, all writing has a pedagogical purpose. In our current cultural and historical context we face paralyzing ethical issues related to ecological degradation, global wars, racism, epidemics of sexual violence, and so on. We desperately need to consider this question as we respond to these issues.

In my matriculation address, I used the Hebrew scriptures in the book of Habakkuk (2: 1-3) to articulate my approach to social ethics as an opportunity to name, create, or propose shifts in moral vision. I suggest that small shifts in moral vision bring new understandings – sparks of change – to subvert or shed the grand scale systemic stuckness of our current circumstances that suppress human flourishing. These small shifts arise in and develop out of everyday ethics.

Write the vision;
   make it plain on tablets,
   so that a runner may read it.

Habbakuk 2:2, NRSV

Ultimately, what I argue for in all of my writing, and hopefully my living, is that our everyday actions matter to how current moral crises will continue or subside. I have seen a new moral vision sparked by a 140-character tweet as well as a 250-page book. Thus, I know my scholarship needs many audiences if it is to have an impact beyond my own job security. I write for my colleagues in academic journals, for the church through curricula and books, and for a justice-seeking public on blogs and social media outlets.

I will admit that I do not consider my peer-reviewed research contributions my primary success. Rather, my acumen at translating ethical scholarship across audiences and publishing in a wide variety of styles and outlets impacts a diversity of individuals and communities who are seeking new moral visions. As an activist-scholar, my commitments require new forms of publication, like popular Christian magazines, blogging, and curricular development, reaching broader audiences in addition to historic modes of publishing.

For me, no singular approach to teaching and scholarship is adequate when seeking partnership with communities of accountability. For example, I want my work related to sexual ethics to impact the children and youth for whom I claim to speak. That means I cannot only write for their parents (Sex + Faith book) or Christian leadership and the academy (chapters and articles that address the moral obligation for sexuality education in churches, revisioning concepts of moral agency and children, theological renewals of sexual ethics). I also write curricula that will be used directly in youth programming and test it out with kids I meet all over the United States. I am at work using a similar process to address moral imagination and digital ethics.

This process of writing in different styles for different audiences yields creative and integrative knowledge production. For me, cultivating such a professional life is a vocational stance that responds to a call to seek justice in our world and to bring about communities more closely resembling the common good.

Others may choose to create partnerships, where a few individuals with various writing specialties translate material for various audiences. No matter how we go about expanding our audiences. A variety of publication styles should be valued in the academy, and we need to do more to teach emerging scholars how to write in different media and mediums. 

Kate Ott is an Assistant Professor of Christian Social Ethics and University Scholar in Everyday Ethics at Drew University. She publishes on issues of sexuality (including reproductive issues), children and moral agency, technology and feminism in religion – and she writes for many audiences.

Finding Hope in the Dark

Christine E. McCarthy, Fordham University

Today, Rebecca Solnit’s Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities is an apt and necessary meditation on time, activism, and cultivating a spiritual orientation of hope and possibility. It is no wonder that Solnit released the 2016 revised third edition of her 2004 text as a free e-book the day following the historic 2016 U.S. presidential election. Not even two months into the current administration—one in which no shortage of people remark that a question not infrequently posed to oneself upon waking is ,“What fresh hell awaits us today?”—Solnit’s meditations help to anchor her particular audience of activists in the historical space and energy of creation.

Solnit excels at narrating an alternative history in which the work of creation, of resistance and hope, is the necessary praxis of humanity in the face of defeatism. I admit that such a narrative is one I (desperately) need as much as an educator as a person making sense of these interesting and challenging moments of history. My undergraduate students at Fordham reflect a diversity of political, ethnic, and religious perspectives that collectively seem to want new ways of looking for paths forward, regardless of how they voted or what policies they voice preference for. In line with my course objectives, I stress that one of the primary foci of the course lies in the individual students’ construction of her or his own theological (and ethical) voice. In many ways and on many topics, Solnit’s voice can act as one of their clearest, most provocative, and most prophetic interlocutors, speaking to causes and concerns they share in today. In a slim volume of twenty-five brief essays, it is easy to work parts or all of the text into any undergraduate introductory or ethics course, particularly on the themes of history, activism, and hope.

Solnit retrieves lost histories. By looking to “The Angel of Alternate History,” she argues that we remind ourselves that our present circumstances could always be (could always have been) worse. In reading the presented narrative of the new hopeful, creative millennium, marked by Solnit’s own personal history in the moments of the fall of Berlin Wall on November 9, 1989, the rise of the Zapatistas on New Year’s Day 1994, the November 1999 Seattle WTO protests, 9/11/2001, and the massive protests against the Iraq War on February 15, 2003, it cannot but sting in the present to consider how greatly the tides seem to have turned in the last four months. Yet, Solnit presents, it is in the darkness of this uncertainty that a hopeful future can arise.

In “Changing the Imagination of Change,” Solnit reminds her audience that activism does not seek a final, fixed status quo of peace and justice. Rather, drawing on the analogy of successes within environmental activism, there is never a final success, never a feeling of being settled at home after certain victories, never anything that really be saved:

Saving suggests a laying up where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt; it imagines an extraction from the dangerous, unstable, ever-changing process called life on earth. But life is never so tidy and final.

The only real home, she suggests, is activism itself. In “Getting the Hell out of Paradise,” she writes,

Activism … is not only a toolbox to change things, but a home in which to take of residence and live according to your beliefs, even if it’s a temporary and local place, this paradise of participating, this vale where souls get made.

In “After Ideology, Or Alterations in Time,” Solnit writes,

the goal [of revolution] is not so much to go on and create the world as to live in that time of creation…. The revolutionary days I have been outlining are days in which hope is no longer fixed on the future: it becomes an electrifying force in the present.

Knit together, Solnit’s insights flesh out in new ways the “inner life to politics” that runs parallel to and draws out so much of the content of what one wants any student of theological ethics to understand. Her work is an apt companion to liberative systematic or moral theology. Reading with Solnit, one can comprehend more readily Ignacio Ellacuría’s noetic, ethical, and praxical method for comprehending the real or Elizabeth Johnson’s call to speak of the divine in language that facilitates the “praxis of hope and resistance,” ways seen “only through a mirror dimly,” spoken “with broken words.” In the face of so much of what Solnit would describe as “easy despair,” it would be all too lazy to see Solnit’s work as a mere digestif for our present crises. The gift of Solnit’s work is the transformation of our present anxiety into excitement for and participation in creating a hopeful future. At least it has done as much for me.

Christine E. McCarthy is a teaching associate and doctoral candidate in systematics and ethics at Fordham University’s Department of Theology. Her academic interests live at the intersection of Catholic social thought, health, peacebuilding, and gender. Her dissertation is entitled, “The End of Family Planning?: Renewing the Church’s Authoritative Teaching Practice Through a Catholic Social Ethic of Care.”


Resisting Complacency by Being Present, Learning to be Brave, and Embracing Discomfort Together

Kathy Lilla Cox, College of St. Benedict and St. John’s University

How do we talk with each other when we disagree? Can we get out of our echo chambers and work together to foster needed and necessary change?  What does it look like to help young adults in college talk with each other without divisive rhetoric?

As I have pondered these questions recently I have reflected upon an early teaching experience with college students. Spring 2007 in the Bronx and the classroom had erupted. Raised voices, cross-talking, crackling energy, emotions high.  The students politely and quietly had been discussing Ada María Isasi-Díaz’s piece “Solidarity: Love of Neighbor in the Twenty-first Century,” and her definitions of solidarity and charity. Then my question – “What would it mean to take down the iron-rod fence between the University and the neighborhood? What does solidarity look like here, in the Bronx, with our neighbors?” Fear, challenge, and pain emerged in student responses:  “We can’t take down the fence.” “Why not?” “The neighborhood is unsafe.” “That’s my neighborhood; I live there.” This experience is still sharp a decade later. Through periodic contemplation of that day, I have realized more deeply that amidst the highly charged responses, students took risks, were courageous, and willing to challenge each other by entering into a space of discomfort and conflict.

There are no-iron rod fences surrounding the campuses from neighbors in central MN where I have taught for almost a decade. Rather, the fences are frequently of a different sort. One is particularly challenging for a theological ethicist, the desire by students to be nice. As a result, students can often see disagreement and conflict as rude.  Therefore, reading the book chapter “From Safe Spaces to Brave Spaces” by Brian Arao and Kristi Clemens helps me better understand what happened in 2007 and provides a still needed framework for engaging the desire by my current students to be nice.

Arao and Clemens are student affairs educators who realized in their work that students often equated “safety with comfort” and had trouble when conversations moved “from polite to provocative.” To all who teach controversial or tough subjects they pose the question, are we inadvertently “hindering our own efforts by relying on the traditional language of safe space?” In turn, Arao and Clemens analyze five common ground rules for discussion: 1) agree to disagree, 2) don’t take things personally, 3) challenge by choice, 4) respect, and 5) no attacks. In looking at these five common ground rules for dialogue, they deconstruct the language of “safe space” providing rationale, frameworks, and tools to encourage a “brave space” for learning about social justice and other types of ethical concerns.

While my plan had been to implement several pedagogical changes based upon their work this academic year and to build on the changes next year, events in recent months necessitated a more rapid implementation of pedagogical adjustments. National, local, and campus events have created an atmospheric mix not limited to but including protest, trepidation, fear, activism, dismay, uncertainty, anger, compassion, courage, withdrawal, and disengagement. In this environment, Arao and Clemens help me more intentionally shape and critically analyze some assumptions about discussion guidelines with students. I repeatedly state explicitly that in theological ethics conflict cannot be ruled out; rather we learn from it. Students and I have discussed together why “agreeing to disagree” halts a conversation and often falls short of understanding another person’s argument or ethical stance. We have talked about how understanding why we disagree is hard work because it requires staying in a conversation and listening deeply to another person from a stance of curiosity rather than debate. I have named that with conversations about difficult topics we cannot expect immediate resolution or consensus.

My students have told me that to enter a brave space they desire and need to know something about each other. Therefore, we invest time each week getting to know each other by talking about movies, our responses to the weather, telling stories about our lives, or naming our favorite color. I remind them we do this because they want to know each other as they practice each week creating a “brave space” for conversation, dialogue, and discussion. We revisit our collaboratively decided conversation guidelines, revising as needed before entering into the week’s ethical topic. Several months into the semester, these changes have helped my students and me as we learn to resist complacency by being present to each other in our discomfort as we name injustices, confront each other’s assumptions, disagree with each other as we study, have hard conversations about various ethical issues, and make decisions about our own ethical actions. In so doing, my students give me hope.

Kathy Lilla Cox is an Associate Professor at the College of St. Benedict and St. John’s University in central MN where she teaches theological ethics.  She is the author of Water Shaping Stone: Faith, Relationships, and Conscience Formation.

Turning Down the Heat in the Abortion Debate

Elise M. Edwards, Baylor University

I teach undergraduate religion courses in the heart of Texas. Each semester, I have taught courses on Christian Ethics or Bioethics that include controversial topics. In Fall 2016, facilitating conversations in my introductory Christian Ethics course about abortion, immigration, and sexual assault was more difficult than before due to the heated rhetoric of the election year. Public discourse was divisive not only because of opposing policies and positions, but because they were being stated and defended with inflammatory language and insults.

To counter the polemical discourse from debates, speeches, and news programs, I chose course readings for the beginning of the semester to set a tone for course discussions that prioritized open inquiry, theological humility, charitable listening, reading, and moral ambiguity. One of the primary objectives in my class is that students learn to define and articulate their own positions on moral issues, but do so with sensitivity, engagement, and respect for Christians who disagree. After a few weeks of contemplating how we would engage moral issues, we jumped into the issues themselves using Patricia Beattie Jung and Shannon Jung’s textbook Moral Issues & Christian Responses. Chapter 13 addresses abortion.

I was encouraged to see students adopting charity alongside critical reflection in their writings and discussions as the semester progressed. What concerned me, though, was that beyond the walls of my classroom, abortion was being used as the defining issue for many Christians in the presidential election. Some students’ churches were instructing their parishioners to vote for the Republican candidate because of his support for a pro-life agenda. While I was trying to guide students to recognize the complex web of issues concerning abortion (the contested definitions of beginning of life and personhood, the role of law, varied types of crisis pregnancies, etc.), I seemed to be speaking against religious authorities that reduced the debate to being for or against “killing babies.”

Two essays from Chapter 13 were particularly helpful to resist this oversimplification and call attention to misogynist rhetoric: “Theology and Morality of Procreative Choice” by Beverly Wildung Harrison with Shirley Cloyes (excerpted from Making The Connections: Essays in Feminist Social Ethics) and “What Actually Works?: The Right Supports Can Reduce Abortion Rates” by Glen Stassen, excerpted from a 2009 article in Sojourners.

Harrison questions the disproportionate concern over abortion in the church and political activity above other issues of life and death (e.g., war), where decisions are primarily made by men, and she argues that procreative choice affirms life by honoring women’s full humanity. Stassen’s essay provides readers with an example of a program that helped reduce the number of abortions by providing access to childcare and education for pregnant teens. Together, the two essays allowed students to ask questions about why laws (and especially ones that seemed excessively punitive to women seeking abortions) are the primary strategy for reducing the number of abortions sought and performed. Students who remained emphatically against abortion were able to question the rhetoric and tactics of the contemporary debate without seeming “pro-abortion,” and this opened up dialogue in the classroom. The chapter also includes an essay called “Abortion and the Sexual Agenda,” by pro-life feminist Sidney Callahan, which expanded students’ understanding of feminism.

We discussed these essays in the days immediately following the election. While the atmosphere in the class was initially tense, these readings helped students with diverse views articulate their concerns and promote mutual understanding.

Elise Edwards focuses her research on cultural expressions by, for, and about women and marginalized communities. She is developing writing projects on pedagogy and a theological, ethical, and feminist approach to architecture. 

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Art as Essential to an Ethic of Love Supreme

Benae Beamon, Boston University

Wading through the complexity of my emotions after the 2016 election, I found myself in need of a resource that would not simply refute the tragedy and pain or forsake the possibilities of joy and justice but own the value and reality of both. The womanist and mujerista traditions believe in the expansiveness of the ethical canon with the lived experiences of women of color acting as ethical lessons, and even Marcella Althaus-Reid took ethical and theological example from women lemon vendors in Buenos Aires. There are profound cultural resources that offer ethical insight, empowering and teaching individuals about ethical possibilities and how to ignite one’s own ethical imagination.

Favianna Rodriguez, an artist and activist, talks about the unique capacity of art. Rodriguez notes that art is distinctive in its ability to deliver “potent, powerful, and empathetic content.” Art exposes the true capacity and depth of human beings as well as the heights of our moral imagination. Rodriguez refers to art as cultural strategy, an agenda that is intrinsically political but speaks to something beyond the political in the individual. She touches, here, on art as cathartic because it reflects sheer humanity, in both its seemingly impetuous hopes and its perilous ills.

I’m interested in the indefatigable ability of art to speak to all of these realities simultaneously without disposing of the ethical certainty that the universe bends towards justice. Beyond that, I am moved and inspired by this capacity as it speaks to the resilience of the human spirit. The blues sits in pain unapologetically; poetry maintains that even complexity has a rhythm; and jazz speaks to the spontaneous capacity of the individual to create joy without abandoning even the most troubled baseline.

After the election of Donald Trump, and the inhumane and/or nonsensical executive orders and press conferences that followed, I was determined to acknowledge how lucky I am to live in the presence of beautiful, brown bodies that lift one another that thrive, survive, and love in community. As a black, queer, woman born from the South, I contemplated all of the ways in which I carry my ancestors and their strength with me and take solace in the voices and arms of people that I love. I, also, heard the universe’s admonition of Trump and his white, cisheteropatriarchal, neoliberal capitalist excuses for prejudice and propagation of evil as Nina Simone sang “so you’re living high and mighty/rich off the fat of the land/just don’t dispose of your natural soul/ ‘cause you know darn well/that you’ll go to Hell.” While I do not necessarily want to encourage the dichotomous and binarist notions of Heaven and Hell, I connect deeply to Simone’s call never to abandon one’s humanity as a connection to one’s sense of justice, morality, and truth. Simone nearly makes one’s humanity sound unimpeachable while reflecting back the tragedy in its loss; she reminds me to trust myself and my internal moral compass as innately bent towards justice and right. coverMeanwhile, Rapsody laments “all my people growing tired/mamas fighting with they babies/they the ones to start the revolution, shit crazy/the media portray me with lies/wanna justify how my Black folk die/they don’t wanna hear our cries.” Rapsody registers current horrors, unjust and undue death and violence, without losing sight of the revolutionary love that combats it.

Jazz musicians Max Roach and John Coltrane fill me with joy through some of their most powerful, sociocultural exchanges, We Insist! and A Love Supreme, respectively. Both of these albums were released during and intentional responses to Apartheid and injustice in the Civil Rights Movement. Roach’s track “All Africa” asserts that “the beat has a rich and magnificent history/full of adventure, excitement, and mystery/some of it bitter, and some of it sweet/but all of it part of the beat.” Roach embraces the complication of human emotion and holds firm to the power and pertinence of historical memory. Roach and Coltrane create consistency and a semblance of order but don’t let it outweigh the power and freedom of chaos and spontaneity. The music of Roach and Coltrane provides lessons on elegance, balance, and the ethical value of simplicity. Coltrane plays impassioned flourishes, creates space for every individual voice, never loses that of the collective, and maintains direction; he does all of this and leaves the listener with one phrase “a love supreme,” his guiding principle.20170217_163620

The voices and artistic expression of Simone, Rapsody, Roach, Coltrane, and more teach me about the ethical capacity of the individual and the ways in which it proves inseparable from emotion. Injustice, hierarchy, and hegemony produce anger, frustration, veracity, hope, joy, and more, and inspire my understanding of the expansiveness of ethical possibilities and examples. More importantly, these artists teach me about ethical possibilities by envisioning more welcoming and open moral possibilities with their music. It is this pushing of the moral imagination, which those oppressed and burdened by hegemonic leanings do everyday, that I find most uplifting about art: its uncovering of the potential for a love supreme.

Benae Beamon is a PhD candidate in the Graduate Division of Religious Studies in the Religion and Society track at Boston University. She focuses on black queer ethics, folding the study of black churches and philosophical hermeneutics into sexual ethics discourse, and the title of her dissertation is Black Religious Ethics and Black Transwomen’s Bodies.

If They Didn’t Give Up Then, We Can’t Give Up Now

Ali Lutz, Vanderbilt University

The words of poet Nikky Finney—in two addresses available on YouTube—have had a profound influence on my speaking, teaching, and writing in the past several months. Because she is a poet, Finney’s words make the work of activism and intellect accessible to the grassroots and also plain to the academy: you do not need an advanced degree to perceive the nuanced narrative of resistance Finney tells; and you cannot dissect her stories for abstract analysis severed from an embodied call to action. Because she writes from the perspective of a black woman poet growing up in the U.S. south, Finney draws on the power of counter-narrative to reclaim the agency of people who in dominant national narratives are cast as objects and not agents of history.

In her 5-minute acceptance speech for the 2011 National Book Award for Poetry, Nikky Finney situates her work as a poet in the context of her ancestors’ resistance to the laws of her home state of South Carolina that made it illegal for people who were enslaved to learn to read or write. Finney’s words hearten me that acts of teaching, learning, and writing, however small, that are born in courage and offered for the struggle for freedom, self-determination, and justice constitute resistance, now and to come.

Finney’s 2015 Cole Lecture at Vanderbilt Divinity School weaves history, poetry, and “Christian revolutionary action theology” in an hour-long meditation on hope and activism. Finney begins with a reflection on the dark matter and dark energy of astrophysics—the unknown that makes up most of the universe—to set the stage of her telling of the story of Bree Newsome, the 30-year-old black activist who, ten days after the murderous act of white supremacist terror that took the lives of nine people at Charleston’s Emmanuel AME Church in June 2015, climbed a flagpole to remove the confederate flag that flew over the South Carolina statehouse. Finney’s talk richly rewards anyone who takes a precious hour in these turbulent times to listen to her full address. Her lecture expands and inspires me from the opening epigraphs by Fannie Lou Hamer and Ella Baker to its closing lines: “Whenever we step forward to be larger than our fears, freer than our unjust laws, and more loving than polite and mannerable, then a brand new galaxy has been discovered, and it is the first one that has everything each of us needs to live.”

Finney’s deep influence on my thinking and writing found expression in a sermon I preached on the Sunday after the presidential inauguration. I wanted to show that if we pay attention to history, we should not be surprised that the two terms of the United States’ first black president have been followed by the inauguration of a white president who used explicitly racist appeals to win on the premise of taking America back. I asked the congregation to consider the history of racial justice in the United States—in particular, the movement from the promise of Reconstruction to the horrors of Jim Crow in the aftermath of the Civil War. Because of Finney’s influence, I took time to learn and tell the story of one person in Nashville, where I live and work. I told my congregation the story of Thomas Sykes.

Thomas Sykes, a black man who began his life under enslavement in North Carolina, came to Nashville in 1872 to take a prestigious position at what is today the Internal Revenue Service. Sykes was elected to represent Nashville in the state legislature from 1881-1882. And then the laws that had made this possible for him as a black man were undone, overturned, taken back, reversed. By 1890, after the enactment of the “Black Codes” that eroded black Americans’ ability to exercise their right to vote and to participate freely and equally in public life, the best job Thomas Sykes could get was as an elevator operator in the same Federal Customs House where he had begun his career as a high-level civil servant. In the face of such cruel injustices, black Nashvillians and their allies did not stop fighting for justice and freedom. They taught their children to fight with courage and love. And their children’s children found the love and courage in 1960 to sit at Nashville’s lunch counters facing violence and abuse in order to overturn the city’s segregation laws.

If they didn’t give up then, we can’t give up now. This for me is the essence of Nikky Finney’s speeches, and it is why I return to them and share them.

Ali Lutz is a PhD student in Vanderbilt University’s Department of Religion focusing on Ethics and Society. Ali’s doctoral research explores the ethical assumptions that drive humanitarian aid and service missions, in particular the issues of control and imbalances of power that beset many well-intentioned efforts to relieve global poverty.

Light for a New Day

Erin Lothes, College of St. Elizabeth, NJ

I’m a faith-based environmentalist. This is a hard place to stand these days. Lately my theme song has been “And She Was,” by The Talking Heads. “Missing enough to feel all right” keeps running through my head as I try be conscious enough to know how bad the news is, and missing enough to feel all right.

Then a new media shock hits, and my anger and stress rebuild. Consciousness seems to be a battle between reacting to the series of shocks (outrageous government appointments, dismantled legislation, and vanishing webpages) and submitting to numbness under this onslaught of insults to reasonable and prudential care for the earth, her people, and living communities. And yet, submerged under this numbing tide, hiding from the anger, I find that it is the heartfelt witness of those already suffering the desecration of climate change that makes me cry in a way that absolves me from anger and draws me into decision. It is the resolve of those relentlessly forging new lifeways that makes me take heart.

Recently, I re-read a series of energy ethics essays I had the privilege to edit. The series, called Light For a New Day, was convened by GreenFaith and myself, and published for presentation at the November UNFCCC climate treaty conference in Marrakech, COP 22. Its fifteen authors represent the world’s major faith traditions and geographic regions, and they address diverse and particular energy issues. All of the essays powerfully illustrate the nexus of climate, policy, suffering, and ethics, providing a spiritual and religious lens upon the crisis and its solutions.

Here’s an editor’s guide to this symposium of solidarity, which I think sets forth equal opportunities for encounter, outrage, inspiration, hopefulness, research, and most of all, new spiritual and moral paradigms for framing our outlook on energy.

The concrete details about local struggles, like the explosive conflicts in the oil fields of Nigeria recounted by Fr. Edward Osang Obi, are excellent for classroom use as well as impetus for our further research. Rabbi Yonatan Neril and Daniel Weber share Sabbath wisdom that teaches humanity to moderate its mastery of the world, and urge Jewish communities to advocate for wise energy policies. Pankaj Jain reveals the massive levels of hidden emissions from the meat industry and calls for a mandate for transparent, governmental-level documentation of all emissions. Which energy policies are needed, in which concrete form, for which community? An excellent question for classes, parishes, seminaries, and community groups.

When the unreality that the titan of economic investment in fossil fuel extraction was confirmed as the captain of the ship of state hits me in the gut again, returning me to a now-familiar breathlessness, I recall the advice, “don’t mourn; organize.” Here are passionate and intelligent calls for divestment from Buddhist philosopher David Loy and South African Anglican activist Ncumisa Ukeweva Magadla. A profound exploration of Islamic scholarship and environmental leadership by Imam Saffet Catovic is worth careful attention. This study articulates the moral resolve and intellectual foundations that led to the statement of divestment by the Islamic Society of North America.

Three of the essays that move me the most are direct witnesses to the losses that their people are experiencing. Beata Tsosie-Pena implores all to recover the reverence for mother earth and preserves the earth and the waters that give life. Pausa Kaio Thompson witnesses to the pleas of a sinking Oceania, sharing the prayers of “Sa-Moana” theology for a worldwide response of faith and conversion to the way of living that will sustain our earth. And Henrik Grape speaks for the Arctic peoples, sharing their appeal to halt the melting of the Arctic, to draw on our transcendent sources for inspiration and change.

Creative theological interpretations from diverse traditions are here. Buddhist David R. Loy also awakens our consciousness to the reality of social dukkha: suffering that is caused by institutional structures. Hindu writer Mat McDermot conceives asteya, theft, as actions that rob others of the ecological conditions for wellbeing. Luis Aránguiz Kahn advances Latin American Pentecostal eco-theology, calling for “ecological political holiness” that invites Pentecostals to acknowledge their power in the Spirit and power in society to protest environmental exploitation. Teresia Hinga articulates the impact of energy on food and water access in Africa, calling for an Afro-theo-ethics and a social ministry of the granary. Rev. Claudio de Oliveira Ribeiro’s pastoral reflections on ecological spirituality connect powerfully with a critique of societies like his native Brazil, marked by individualism, exclusion, and conflict.

Through this collection, I experience an amazing linking of arms with activists, theologians, and religious thinkers of all traditions, an ongoing memory of the power of being in Marrakech with so many passionate leaders resolved to frame implementation mechanisms for a hard-fought global treaty. I’m encouraged by the clarity of their witness, a united front of resistance thrown up against the mendacity of climate change denial and its ecocidal policies.

Newly inspired, I investigated my TIAA CREF retirement fund and found that since I last checked, a fossil free fund was created. Light in the darkness! Perhaps if we cannot always sing as we go, as Pope Francis urges, at least we can choke on our tears and set our teeth and resolve to imitate those who are building new ways forward. We can look at the energy cooperatives in Mexico built on fair trade principles that insist on ownership rights for the indigenous whose land hosts the wind farms, as described by entrepreneur Paulette Laurent Caire; the Japanese temples run on renewable energy, as described by Rev. Hidehito Okochi; the protest movements for divestment; the resistance of indigenous leaders everywhere: we can join them. We can draw inspiration, solidarity, and grit from their work. Their reflections cast a bit of light ahead through the wilderness we are still, still fighting through on the way to a renewed future.

Erin Lothes is an Earth Institute Fellow at Columbia University, in addition to being an assistant professor of Theology at the College of St. Elizabeth, NJ. She is the recent author of Inspired Sustainability: Planting Seeds for Action (Orbis, 2016).

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