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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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hope

Returning to the Classics in Difficult Times

Jennifer Harvey, Drake University

I spend less time in the classroom these days than I do working with students of color. As the Faculty Director of the Crew Scholars Program most of my hours in a given week are devoted to supporting community-building among a relatively small group of young people, and in countless one-on-one dialogues with these students.

Professionally, then, I’ve experienced the current political climate through this context: immersed in the devastating implications of this election for students who are already underrepresented on a predominantly white college campus. My campus has seen the same increase in public expressions of hate as have many other campus communities across the nation.

That context has been incredibly clarifying. For the stakes and impact of these times are manifest in the lives of students with whom I am and have been on a long and intense journey.

So, how to teach since November 8th is not an abstract pedagogical question. I realized as I sat to write this reflection that I spend far less time worrying about how to “get through” to my relatively class-privileged white students than I used to. And, my focus has become even clearer since the election. Students of color, Muslim students, immigrant students, queer students are my priority. It’s that simple, that easy, that difficult.

To that end, I have found solace in teaching “the classics.” The work of James Cone has been a particular spiritual and emotional go to. I’ve taught Cone’s work many times over the years—but here’s what I love about his work right now (especially about: Black Theology and Black Power).

First, Cone’s work is a reminder. As horrifying as things are right now and as violent as the climate has become, the reality is that the horror and violence is not new. Perhaps it has been unveiled and nationally sanctioned (in an election) in a new-ish way.

Perhaps.

But, it just isn’t fundamentally new.

Why is this a comfort? I’m not sure I can put it into words. Please know it has nothing to do with downplaying the severity of political realities right now. But it does have to do with the acknowledgment and even insistence that, in fact, these times are not unprecedented.

It’s obviously critical to acknowledge this so we don’t render invisible the lived experience of many communities for whom this violence was already day-to-day life. But it’s also to recognize that we have all been living in this kind of violence for a long time. That doesn’t mean anything about the future is guaranteed—I am as frightened as anyone. But it does mean the wisdom of so many who have given us the gifts of their witness, lives, writing, poetry, and activism are there, are here, for us to draw on. That is a comfort.

Second, I love Cone’s ability to make almost any white student squirm. I always find that Cone’s prophetic words create an environment where I can say to my white students, “Can you notice what you are feeling? Can you see how we are spending so much energy trying to figure out if his vision of justice and salvation include you? Do you feel how stressed your body is?” When they nod, I point out that they are (like me) reading something that wasn’t written for them, nor to address their questions or fix their worries. I point out that they are having an experience that for many students of color at Drake is a daily one—encounters with books and teachers not written and not teaching for and to them, nor to address their questions or fix their worries.

I tell my white students what a rare gift this is in higher education. And it’s especially a gift right now.

And at the same time, Cone flips the script of so much of higher education’s “normal” experience, that his work creates a radically new point of departure for students of color. Whether they agree with Cone’s analysis or not, the lived experience of being made the touchstone and the center is a sacred and powerful gift he gives to them.

In these times, when violence is literally knocking on the door of students in my classes who are DACAmented or undocumented, of Black students, of Muslim students, Cone’s word of righteous prophetic outrage is a gift we all need. His refusal to “make it better” or pretend the United States of America is anything other than what it has always been is spiritual fuel.

And, I find myself needing this fuel. I am taking great comfort in it as I seek to sustain my ability to be present for and with my students, and to continue to move forward when I have no sense of what the future holds.


Jennifer Harvey is Professor of Religion at Drake University. She is the author of Dear White Christians: For Those Still Longing for Racial Reconciliation and Whiteness and Morality: Pursuing Racial Justice Through Reparations and Sovereignty. See also Harvey’s March 14, 2017 op-ed in the New York Times, “Are We Raising Racists?”

 

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.”

 

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