SCE Women's Caucus

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



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.


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.


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?”


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.

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.”


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.

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. 

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