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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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ethics

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.

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.

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