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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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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.

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.

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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