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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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solidarity

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.

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.

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