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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.

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feminism

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.

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.”

 

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. 

On “Becoming Ugly” and the Insult of Being a Woman

MT Dávila, Andover Newton Theological School

Madeleine Davies’ “Becoming Ugly” (Jezebel, 12/29/16) is NOT an apologetics for radical feminism in the years of Trump. She grounds her comments not so much on the suffering of others, as I’m used to doing, but on the insult to womanhood, the painful scarring insults that are the daily bread of being a woman today:

What we as women are forced to carry—because we’re vulnerable and because we are strong—goes beyond the natural disorder of things. Our suffering is not natural; it’s calculated and insidious—the passing of a bill, the protests of a college football team, the success of an actor, and verdict of a judge.

Or, more glaringly, a man who’s bragged about sexually assaulting women being elected to the highest office in the U.S.—not in spite of his vicious misogyny, but partly because of it.”

It might seem to many that the difference here is too subtle to matter. What is the real difference between “suffering” and being “insulted”??

When I read Davies’ piece I once again swim against wave after wave of assaults on my personhood by virtue of nothing else than being female. While, yes, there is suffering in that, there is a deeper form of insult that at its core wishes that I accept my disposability, my inhumanity, my lack of rationality, my strict identification with my ovaries and uterus, and the standards of beauty that seem to only hinge on a spectrum that measures a woman’s worth based on whether the male of the species would find me attractive enough to violently take my sex at his pleasure, or not. Davies’ observations reminds all that misogyny is an insult to humanity, and while it is behind much suffering and violence, it bears analyzing as different from the suffering and violence brought on by civil war, failed states, or gang violence. Remember that in all those situations violence against women is used as insult to the other side: rape as a war crime, or the feminicide that often accompanies getting even with or insulting a warring gang.

In “becoming ugly,” Davies reminds us that as long as we remain acquiescent to the insult of being a woman, we are spared the literal insults of “bitch,” “c**t,” “ugly,” or “hag” often tossed at so many of us who yell “STOP” at the many other metaphorical insults to our bodily and mental integrity. She describes her current state as one of perpetual rage:

For the first time, I don’t know how to move past my boiling anger or laugh it away. Also for the first time, I have no desire to. Preferable, I now think, is to stop laughing, to become as repulsive as I can in an insult to these men—so many men—who hate women and the women who adulate them. Vanity keeps me from throwing away my makeup and sanity keeps me from, as I often feel the repugnant urge, breaking the mirror with the surface of my own face and leaving us both cracked open. But I also can’t deny my current impulse to become as ugly and unlikeable as I can, merely to serve as constant reminder of the ugliness inflicted upon us. 

Oftentimes in theological and ethical reflection we resort to an almost surgical precision – and distance – to describe women’s suffering through the lenses of queer, womanist, or mujerista theology. We use these hard-won tools to reflect on what salvation and liberation might look like in advancing the cause of women’s ordination, same-sex marriage, women’s health care, women’s rights, and so many other important issues. Davies’ reflection is a reminder that our very stance when reflecting on women’s issues should almost always be the rage of one who bears the insult and scars of a world bent on continually reminding us of our lesser state. To that world Davies screams,

We’ve been told time and time again that prettiness and likability will protect us from harm, that to be good women, we must play by these rules, but this is a lie. Nothing will protect us except for ourselves—and what’s more fortifying than a defensive exterior? There are days when all I want is to become a human road sign, a blinking hazard to any man misfortunate enough to cross my path: “I WANT TO OFFEND YOUR SIGHT. I WANT TO OFFEND YOUR EVERYTHING.”

Davies reminds me that my classroom sometimes ought to be “offensive,” or decidedly lose perspective on the current challenges facing women and girls in the US and globally. In particular, Davies reminds me that the stance of my current president toward me is one of insult: grabbing, name-calling, demeaning, erasing, bullying. Becoming ugly, then, is the resistance of insulting back, exposing the hypocrisy of less-than-half-attempts at equality, freedom, and justice.


MT Dávila is a lay woman in the Roman Catholic tradition. She completed her doctorate at Boston College with a dissertation titled A Liberation Ethic for the One Third World: The Preferential Option for the Poor and Challenges to Middle-Class Christianity in the United States. She is currently writing on the option for the poor as a resource to interrupt and transgress the culture wars and polarization among U.S. Christians.

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