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

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activism

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.”

 

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.

Solidarity as a Foundation for Social Change

Rebecca Todd Peters, Elon University

As a feminist scholar-activist, I find that the rhythms of my life are an intersection of teaching, loving, lecturing, friending, struggling, parenting, preaching, and (as an introvert) sometimes hiding! None of these activities are discreet and separate tasks – I am not a mother at home, a teacher at my university and a minister when I’m at church. I am always all of these identities simultaneously – personally and professionally.

Sometimes, however, one or another of my responsibilities takes precedence in my life. In the days and weeks since the election, I have found my time increasingly filled with activities bent on helping to understand, educate, and mobilize in opposition to the threats to human dignity, personal safety, and democratic rule that are embodied in the person of Donald Trump and in the increasingly autocratic and authoritarian administration he is assembling. My own work on solidarity and justice has proved enormously helpful for me in this moment and I hope that it might be of use to others as well. While my book, Solidarity Ethics: Transformation in a Globalized World, was written for first-world Christians seeking ways to live with integrity in the midst of a global economic order set up to privilege and enrich countries in the global North at the expense of countries in the global South – it offers much potential for our current situation.

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I will highlight four ways the logic and argument of the book can be useful in classroom, in churches, and in broader facets of community organizing to help students and broader publics address the threats that currently face our country and the world. First, since the book is written for first-world Christians, it is approachable and accessible. While the ethical claims are rooted in Christian tradition, it is not an exclusivist position and is written to invite broader conversation. This makes it useful both in the classroom as well as with churches and community groups. More importantly, the approach to social change laid out in the book emphasizes the necessity of both working for change as individuals in our personal lives AND in recognizing the structural nature of social problems and urging readers to find ways to engage in larger avenues of structural change that offer the chance of more effective long-term transformation. In short, I argue that personal change is necessary but insufficient for large-scale social change and that people must join together in collective actions that can bring about the kind of social change that will lead us toward justice.

Second, one of the goals of the book is to help readers recognize that the task of solidarity is not merely symbolic but that it requires work, investment, and commitment. One way of demonstrating the rigorous expectations of solidarity is to present a continuum of moral agency that ranges from sympathy to responsibility to mutuality – with the claim that authentic solidarity can only be forged from a position of mutuality. By encouraging readers to think about whether their actions are rooted in sympathy, responsibility, or mutuality – chapter two pushes readers to think more deeply and critically about how they are positioned vis-a-vis the work of charity, justice, service, mission (whatever they call it) that they do. Challenging readers to ask what mutuality requires can be a helpful tool for self-examination.

Third, critical self-examination is an important aspect of Solidarity Ethics and while it begins with the task of working to create relationships of mutuality across lines of difference, I also argue that people must examine and attend to the meaning of their various forms of privilege before they can expect to be able to create relationships of mutuality – much less relationships of solidarity. Chapter four helps guide discussions about privilege and how privilege functions in ways that allow readers to engage in critical self-examination in productive ways that promote structural analysis rather than devolving into guilt and shame.

Fourth, while solidarity is a broad and familiar concept in the public sphere, the idea of solidarity has also been coopted in ways that downplay the challenge of what true solidarity requires as well as the potential it offers for promoting deep democratic engagement rooted in Christian values of community, cooperation, hospitality, and the common good. By offering four concrete steps – metanoia, honoring difference, accountability, and action – that solidarity requires (chapter three), the book outlines criteria for helping to think about solidarity. These criteria can help individuals and communities think about how to shape social action that is socially responsible and deeply informed by the principle of social justice.

This book is not an action guide that tells people what to do but rather a theoretical framework that helps privileged readers think about how to root the tasks of social justice and social change in a radical mutuality that rejects social hierarchies (racism, classism, sexism, heterosexism, ableism, etc.) and the prejudices and sins that accompany them.

I wrote this book because I needed a book to use with students and church people who asked me what they could/ought do after I had helped to open their eyes to the problems of social injustice and inequality in the world. I have taught it with undergrads, seminary students, and in many local churches. I hope that others will also find it useful in helping guide discussions about how we ought to respond to the world in which we live.


Rebecca Todd Peters is a feminist social ethicist and Professor of Religious Studies at Elon University in North Carolina. Her latest book is Solidarity Ethics: Transformation in a Globalized World, and she is completing a book on abortion and reproductive justice that will be published next January with Beacon Press.

Guides for Activism

Heike Peckruhn, Daemen College

I find the following resources useful to identify concrete political and social ways of engaging for social change.

Written by congressional staffers, “Indivisible: A Practical Guide for Resisting the Trump Agenda” analyses the strategies of the Tea Party and the lessons to be learned for grassroots organizing (while noting important differences of political objectives). For action items, short-term and long-term, on how to hold members of Congress accountable and move them into desired action, this guide is a great resource. The website itself now offers more than just the actual guide (in English and Spanish), it offers a way to connect with local groups to tap into existing work done, or register a new group in an area, as well as a calendar for action items/events (national, regional, and local).

Another specific and action oriented general publication is “26 Ways to Be in the Struggle Beyond the Streets” (download possible after signing up for a free account with the website). Connected to the Black Lives Matter movement, it takes an intersectional framework when articulating strategies for resistance. I find it useful particularly because it counters an ableist (physical, mental, and emotional) image of activism, and lists various ways of being engaged in social justice efforts.

Both of these resources are already written from a certain political stance. The first may explicitly name resisting “the Trump agenda,” though it is broader than that in terms of joining a progressive political movement. The second one takes an intersectional, progressive stance for granted as well.

Depending on student demographics or course objectives, these may or may not be useful resources. I have used the “Action Continuum” in civic engagement courses towards the end of the semester – after learning about terms like privilege, justice, fairness, oppression, etc. When discussing “how to get involved” (no matter what the social or political stance of the student might be), the first image that most often comes to students’ minds when discussing advocacy or engaging in solidarity with someone else’s struggle is “protesting.” The Action Continuum casts many positions as “actions.” I have found it useful in the classroom since it casts silence or being a bystander as an action itself on a spectrum and posits us all already as actors in various situations of oppression-resistance, in different capacities and different positions. It demystifies political and social engagement while encouraging students to look for and identify the many groups and communities that are already engaging in social change work. I have also found that it lowers the perceived risk or energy needed when seeking social change.


Heike Peckruhn completed her doctorate at Iliff School of Theology with her dissertation, Sense-Making Bodies: Feminist Materiality and Phenomenology in Constructive Body Theologies. She describes herself as shaped by anabaptist theology and postcolonial theory. How we make meaning in embodied ways and how we engage in communal action towards increased social justice are at the heart of her research.

ISAIAH: Repairing the Breach

Amy Levad, University of St. Thomas, MN

I do not take naturally to activism.  In a classroom, I feel like I’m in my element; it seems natural to me.  It feels right.  Holding a sign at a rally, speaking to an elected official, testifying at the State Capitol: my heart pounds, and not in a good way.

Over the past year, as part of a sabbatical, I have had the good fortune, however, to research an organization that cultivates community leaders by helping them to understand how their personal stories relate to public life and by fostering risk-taking in service of the common good.  ISAIAH, a federation of the PICO National Network, “is a vehicle for congregations, clergy, and people of faith to act collectively and powerfully towards racial and economic equity in the state of Minnesota.” In learning about ISAIAH, I have begun to feel more comfortable with activism, or preferably, community organizing, as this organization has enabled me to own more fully as mine the role of scholar-activist.

One thing that has struck me over the last year is how committed ISAIAH is to formation of community leaders through practicing the habits and virtues of civic engagement (very broadly understood). This realization was crystallized for me last spring at a leaders’ retreat.

The gathering, in a suburban parish on a quiet spring Saturday, followed an action at the State Capitol, in which ISAIAH, along with partner organizations, disrupted a public hearing in opposition to the leasing of a shuttered private prison in rural Minnesota by the state.  The action was ultimately successful as it led Governor Dayton to vow a veto of the measure, but for many people there, it was unsettling.  At the retreat a few weeks later, the day began with a sermon on Jesus’s turning of the tables in the Temple (Matthew 21), continued with singing of “God’s troubling the waters,” and at one point, an invitation to throw a chair across the room, practicing disruption for future events (the “invitation” took the form of a pastor unexpectedly standing up during a liturgy and flipping the chair over, then encouraging others to do likewise). As I watched very nice Minnesotans toss around this chair, I could see them become more comfortable with disruption. Many reflected after the end of this exercise that where disruption had frightened them, they now considered it a valuable tool within their repertoire for social action.  They were disruptive in a low-stakes setting; perhaps they could be more comfortable with disruption – and just a bit braver – when the stakes might be higher.  Practicing disruption helped form a habit in the group, habit is the bedrock of forming virtues, and at this historical moment, throwing some chairs (maybe figurative chairs) around in the service of equity, love, and justice seems pretty virtuous.

dsc_8357In the spirit of fostering habits and virtues that serve these commitments within myself, of owning my role as scholar-activist, I am committing to 100 days of resistance in communion with ISAIAH.  The idea isn’t mine.  At a gathering this past Saturday, “For Such a Time as This: Building Our Prophetic Resistance,” over 2,000 people committed (in the spirit of the prophet Isaiah who calls us to be “repairers of the breach” in our communities) to rejecting complicity in violence and dehumanization. In a handy folder, we each received a 100-day calendar and color-coded stickers, along with lists of acts of resistance from prayer to petitions, tweets to testimonies.  For each day that we complete such an act, we get a sticker.  With two small children in my house, I’m a sucker for a sticker chart.  The calendar ends on my birthday, a fitting time for someone seeking to grow into herself, perhaps a slightly new self, in the coming days, weeks, and months.

Resistance is a habit, and habits need to be tended to become virtues.  For at least the next 100 days, I’ll be tending this habit, along with at least 2,000 other people.  In some ways, this plan feels small, individualistic, personal.  In other ways, it feels as if it is binding me to a community, a tradition, a history of upholding the dignity of all people and opposing the indignities thrust upon particular groups of people in very particular ways. We were reminded on Saturday that each of us may only be carrying out 100 small acts.  Together, though, we are carrying out 200,000.  And that feels big.  It feels right.  It calms my heart.

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(Note the circled item in this picture.  It says, “Read from the selected bibliography (in process).”  Which means it needs to be written.  Of course, I have ideas, but if you also have ideas – please send them on to me.)


Amy Levad teaches Christian ethics to undergraduates in Minnesota.  Her research focuses on mass incarceration, particularly Christian responses to it through community organizing, education, and ministry.  Redeeming a Prison Society: A Liturgical and Sacramental Response to Mass Incarceration (Fortress Press, 2014) is her most recent book.

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