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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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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.”

 

If They Didn’t Give Up Then, We Can’t Give Up Now

Ali Lutz, Vanderbilt University

The words of poet Nikky Finney—in two addresses available on YouTube—have had a profound influence on my speaking, teaching, and writing in the past several months. Because she is a poet, Finney’s words make the work of activism and intellect accessible to the grassroots and also plain to the academy: you do not need an advanced degree to perceive the nuanced narrative of resistance Finney tells; and you cannot dissect her stories for abstract analysis severed from an embodied call to action. Because she writes from the perspective of a black woman poet growing up in the U.S. south, Finney draws on the power of counter-narrative to reclaim the agency of people who in dominant national narratives are cast as objects and not agents of history.

In her 5-minute acceptance speech for the 2011 National Book Award for Poetry, Nikky Finney situates her work as a poet in the context of her ancestors’ resistance to the laws of her home state of South Carolina that made it illegal for people who were enslaved to learn to read or write. Finney’s words hearten me that acts of teaching, learning, and writing, however small, that are born in courage and offered for the struggle for freedom, self-determination, and justice constitute resistance, now and to come.

Finney’s 2015 Cole Lecture at Vanderbilt Divinity School weaves history, poetry, and “Christian revolutionary action theology” in an hour-long meditation on hope and activism. Finney begins with a reflection on the dark matter and dark energy of astrophysics—the unknown that makes up most of the universe—to set the stage of her telling of the story of Bree Newsome, the 30-year-old black activist who, ten days after the murderous act of white supremacist terror that took the lives of nine people at Charleston’s Emmanuel AME Church in June 2015, climbed a flagpole to remove the confederate flag that flew over the South Carolina statehouse. Finney’s talk richly rewards anyone who takes a precious hour in these turbulent times to listen to her full address. Her lecture expands and inspires me from the opening epigraphs by Fannie Lou Hamer and Ella Baker to its closing lines: “Whenever we step forward to be larger than our fears, freer than our unjust laws, and more loving than polite and mannerable, then a brand new galaxy has been discovered, and it is the first one that has everything each of us needs to live.”

Finney’s deep influence on my thinking and writing found expression in a sermon I preached on the Sunday after the presidential inauguration. I wanted to show that if we pay attention to history, we should not be surprised that the two terms of the United States’ first black president have been followed by the inauguration of a white president who used explicitly racist appeals to win on the premise of taking America back. I asked the congregation to consider the history of racial justice in the United States—in particular, the movement from the promise of Reconstruction to the horrors of Jim Crow in the aftermath of the Civil War. Because of Finney’s influence, I took time to learn and tell the story of one person in Nashville, where I live and work. I told my congregation the story of Thomas Sykes.

Thomas Sykes, a black man who began his life under enslavement in North Carolina, came to Nashville in 1872 to take a prestigious position at what is today the Internal Revenue Service. Sykes was elected to represent Nashville in the state legislature from 1881-1882. And then the laws that had made this possible for him as a black man were undone, overturned, taken back, reversed. By 1890, after the enactment of the “Black Codes” that eroded black Americans’ ability to exercise their right to vote and to participate freely and equally in public life, the best job Thomas Sykes could get was as an elevator operator in the same Federal Customs House where he had begun his career as a high-level civil servant. In the face of such cruel injustices, black Nashvillians and their allies did not stop fighting for justice and freedom. They taught their children to fight with courage and love. And their children’s children found the love and courage in 1960 to sit at Nashville’s lunch counters facing violence and abuse in order to overturn the city’s segregation laws.

If they didn’t give up then, we can’t give up now. This for me is the essence of Nikky Finney’s speeches, and it is why I return to them and share them.


Ali Lutz is a PhD student in Vanderbilt University’s Department of Religion focusing on Ethics and Society. Ali’s doctoral research explores the ethical assumptions that drive humanitarian aid and service missions, in particular the issues of control and imbalances of power that beset many well-intentioned efforts to relieve global poverty.

Light for a New Day

Erin Lothes, College of St. Elizabeth, NJ

I’m a faith-based environmentalist. This is a hard place to stand these days. Lately my theme song has been “And She Was,” by The Talking Heads. “Missing enough to feel all right” keeps running through my head as I try be conscious enough to know how bad the news is, and missing enough to feel all right.

Then a new media shock hits, and my anger and stress rebuild. Consciousness seems to be a battle between reacting to the series of shocks (outrageous government appointments, dismantled legislation, and vanishing webpages) and submitting to numbness under this onslaught of insults to reasonable and prudential care for the earth, her people, and living communities. And yet, submerged under this numbing tide, hiding from the anger, I find that it is the heartfelt witness of those already suffering the desecration of climate change that makes me cry in a way that absolves me from anger and draws me into decision. It is the resolve of those relentlessly forging new lifeways that makes me take heart.

Recently, I re-read a series of energy ethics essays I had the privilege to edit. The series, called Light For a New Day, was convened by GreenFaith and myself, and published for presentation at the November UNFCCC climate treaty conference in Marrakech, COP 22. Its fifteen authors represent the world’s major faith traditions and geographic regions, and they address diverse and particular energy issues. All of the essays powerfully illustrate the nexus of climate, policy, suffering, and ethics, providing a spiritual and religious lens upon the crisis and its solutions.

Here’s an editor’s guide to this symposium of solidarity, which I think sets forth equal opportunities for encounter, outrage, inspiration, hopefulness, research, and most of all, new spiritual and moral paradigms for framing our outlook on energy.

The concrete details about local struggles, like the explosive conflicts in the oil fields of Nigeria recounted by Fr. Edward Osang Obi, are excellent for classroom use as well as impetus for our further research. Rabbi Yonatan Neril and Daniel Weber share Sabbath wisdom that teaches humanity to moderate its mastery of the world, and urge Jewish communities to advocate for wise energy policies. Pankaj Jain reveals the massive levels of hidden emissions from the meat industry and calls for a mandate for transparent, governmental-level documentation of all emissions. Which energy policies are needed, in which concrete form, for which community? An excellent question for classes, parishes, seminaries, and community groups.

When the unreality that the titan of economic investment in fossil fuel extraction was confirmed as the captain of the ship of state hits me in the gut again, returning me to a now-familiar breathlessness, I recall the advice, “don’t mourn; organize.” Here are passionate and intelligent calls for divestment from Buddhist philosopher David Loy and South African Anglican activist Ncumisa Ukeweva Magadla. A profound exploration of Islamic scholarship and environmental leadership by Imam Saffet Catovic is worth careful attention. This study articulates the moral resolve and intellectual foundations that led to the statement of divestment by the Islamic Society of North America.

Three of the essays that move me the most are direct witnesses to the losses that their people are experiencing. Beata Tsosie-Pena implores all to recover the reverence for mother earth and preserves the earth and the waters that give life. Pausa Kaio Thompson witnesses to the pleas of a sinking Oceania, sharing the prayers of “Sa-Moana” theology for a worldwide response of faith and conversion to the way of living that will sustain our earth. And Henrik Grape speaks for the Arctic peoples, sharing their appeal to halt the melting of the Arctic, to draw on our transcendent sources for inspiration and change.

Creative theological interpretations from diverse traditions are here. Buddhist David R. Loy also awakens our consciousness to the reality of social dukkha: suffering that is caused by institutional structures. Hindu writer Mat McDermot conceives asteya, theft, as actions that rob others of the ecological conditions for wellbeing. Luis Aránguiz Kahn advances Latin American Pentecostal eco-theology, calling for “ecological political holiness” that invites Pentecostals to acknowledge their power in the Spirit and power in society to protest environmental exploitation. Teresia Hinga articulates the impact of energy on food and water access in Africa, calling for an Afro-theo-ethics and a social ministry of the granary. Rev. Claudio de Oliveira Ribeiro’s pastoral reflections on ecological spirituality connect powerfully with a critique of societies like his native Brazil, marked by individualism, exclusion, and conflict.

Through this collection, I experience an amazing linking of arms with activists, theologians, and religious thinkers of all traditions, an ongoing memory of the power of being in Marrakech with so many passionate leaders resolved to frame implementation mechanisms for a hard-fought global treaty. I’m encouraged by the clarity of their witness, a united front of resistance thrown up against the mendacity of climate change denial and its ecocidal policies.

Newly inspired, I investigated my TIAA CREF retirement fund and found that since I last checked, a fossil free fund was created. Light in the darkness! Perhaps if we cannot always sing as we go, as Pope Francis urges, at least we can choke on our tears and set our teeth and resolve to imitate those who are building new ways forward. We can look at the energy cooperatives in Mexico built on fair trade principles that insist on ownership rights for the indigenous whose land hosts the wind farms, as described by entrepreneur Paulette Laurent Caire; the Japanese temples run on renewable energy, as described by Rev. Hidehito Okochi; the protest movements for divestment; the resistance of indigenous leaders everywhere: we can join them. We can draw inspiration, solidarity, and grit from their work. Their reflections cast a bit of light ahead through the wilderness we are still, still fighting through on the way to a renewed future.


Erin Lothes is an Earth Institute Fellow at Columbia University, in addition to being an assistant professor of Theology at the College of St. Elizabeth, NJ. She is the recent author of Inspired Sustainability: Planting Seeds for Action (Orbis, 2016).

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.

Guides for Activism

Heike Peckruhn, Daemen College

I find the following resources useful to identify concrete political and social ways of engaging for social change.

Written by congressional staffers, “Indivisible: A Practical Guide for Resisting the Trump Agenda” analyses the strategies of the Tea Party and the lessons to be learned for grassroots organizing (while noting important differences of political objectives). For action items, short-term and long-term, on how to hold members of Congress accountable and move them into desired action, this guide is a great resource. The website itself now offers more than just the actual guide (in English and Spanish), it offers a way to connect with local groups to tap into existing work done, or register a new group in an area, as well as a calendar for action items/events (national, regional, and local).

Another specific and action oriented general publication is “26 Ways to Be in the Struggle Beyond the Streets” (download possible after signing up for a free account with the website). Connected to the Black Lives Matter movement, it takes an intersectional framework when articulating strategies for resistance. I find it useful particularly because it counters an ableist (physical, mental, and emotional) image of activism, and lists various ways of being engaged in social justice efforts.

Both of these resources are already written from a certain political stance. The first may explicitly name resisting “the Trump agenda,” though it is broader than that in terms of joining a progressive political movement. The second one takes an intersectional, progressive stance for granted as well.

Depending on student demographics or course objectives, these may or may not be useful resources. I have used the “Action Continuum” in civic engagement courses towards the end of the semester – after learning about terms like privilege, justice, fairness, oppression, etc. When discussing “how to get involved” (no matter what the social or political stance of the student might be), the first image that most often comes to students’ minds when discussing advocacy or engaging in solidarity with someone else’s struggle is “protesting.” The Action Continuum casts many positions as “actions.” I have found it useful in the classroom since it casts silence or being a bystander as an action itself on a spectrum and posits us all already as actors in various situations of oppression-resistance, in different capacities and different positions. It demystifies political and social engagement while encouraging students to look for and identify the many groups and communities that are already engaging in social change work. I have also found that it lowers the perceived risk or energy needed when seeking social change.


Heike Peckruhn completed her doctorate at Iliff School of Theology with her dissertation, Sense-Making Bodies: Feminist Materiality and Phenomenology in Constructive Body Theologies. She describes herself as shaped by anabaptist theology and postcolonial theory. How we make meaning in embodied ways and how we engage in communal action towards increased social justice are at the heart of her research.

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