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SCE Women's Caucus

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

Month

May 2017

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.

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