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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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Art as Essential to an Ethic of Love Supreme

Benae Beamon, Boston University

Wading through the complexity of my emotions after the 2016 election, I found myself in need of a resource that would not simply refute the tragedy and pain or forsake the possibilities of joy and justice but own the value and reality of both. The womanist and mujerista traditions believe in the expansiveness of the ethical canon with the lived experiences of women of color acting as ethical lessons, and even Marcella Althaus-Reid took ethical and theological example from women lemon vendors in Buenos Aires. There are profound cultural resources that offer ethical insight, empowering and teaching individuals about ethical possibilities and how to ignite one’s own ethical imagination.

Favianna Rodriguez, an artist and activist, talks about the unique capacity of art. Rodriguez notes that art is distinctive in its ability to deliver “potent, powerful, and empathetic content.” Art exposes the true capacity and depth of human beings as well as the heights of our moral imagination. Rodriguez refers to art as cultural strategy, an agenda that is intrinsically political but speaks to something beyond the political in the individual. She touches, here, on art as cathartic because it reflects sheer humanity, in both its seemingly impetuous hopes and its perilous ills.

I’m interested in the indefatigable ability of art to speak to all of these realities simultaneously without disposing of the ethical certainty that the universe bends towards justice. Beyond that, I am moved and inspired by this capacity as it speaks to the resilience of the human spirit. The blues sits in pain unapologetically; poetry maintains that even complexity has a rhythm; and jazz speaks to the spontaneous capacity of the individual to create joy without abandoning even the most troubled baseline.

After the election of Donald Trump, and the inhumane and/or nonsensical executive orders and press conferences that followed, I was determined to acknowledge how lucky I am to live in the presence of beautiful, brown bodies that lift one another that thrive, survive, and love in community. As a black, queer, woman born from the South, I contemplated all of the ways in which I carry my ancestors and their strength with me and take solace in the voices and arms of people that I love. I, also, heard the universe’s admonition of Trump and his white, cisheteropatriarchal, neoliberal capitalist excuses for prejudice and propagation of evil as Nina Simone sang “so you’re living high and mighty/rich off the fat of the land/just don’t dispose of your natural soul/ ‘cause you know darn well/that you’ll go to Hell.” While I do not necessarily want to encourage the dichotomous and binarist notions of Heaven and Hell, I connect deeply to Simone’s call never to abandon one’s humanity as a connection to one’s sense of justice, morality, and truth. Simone nearly makes one’s humanity sound unimpeachable while reflecting back the tragedy in its loss; she reminds me to trust myself and my internal moral compass as innately bent towards justice and right. coverMeanwhile, Rapsody laments “all my people growing tired/mamas fighting with they babies/they the ones to start the revolution, shit crazy/the media portray me with lies/wanna justify how my Black folk die/they don’t wanna hear our cries.” Rapsody registers current horrors, unjust and undue death and violence, without losing sight of the revolutionary love that combats it.

Jazz musicians Max Roach and John Coltrane fill me with joy through some of their most powerful, sociocultural exchanges, We Insist! and A Love Supreme, respectively. Both of these albums were released during and intentional responses to Apartheid and injustice in the Civil Rights Movement. Roach’s track “All Africa” asserts that “the beat has a rich and magnificent history/full of adventure, excitement, and mystery/some of it bitter, and some of it sweet/but all of it part of the beat.” Roach embraces the complication of human emotion and holds firm to the power and pertinence of historical memory. Roach and Coltrane create consistency and a semblance of order but don’t let it outweigh the power and freedom of chaos and spontaneity. The music of Roach and Coltrane provides lessons on elegance, balance, and the ethical value of simplicity. Coltrane plays impassioned flourishes, creates space for every individual voice, never loses that of the collective, and maintains direction; he does all of this and leaves the listener with one phrase “a love supreme,” his guiding principle.20170217_163620

The voices and artistic expression of Simone, Rapsody, Roach, Coltrane, and more teach me about the ethical capacity of the individual and the ways in which it proves inseparable from emotion. Injustice, hierarchy, and hegemony produce anger, frustration, veracity, hope, joy, and more, and inspire my understanding of the expansiveness of ethical possibilities and examples. More importantly, these artists teach me about ethical possibilities by envisioning more welcoming and open moral possibilities with their music. It is this pushing of the moral imagination, which those oppressed and burdened by hegemonic leanings do everyday, that I find most uplifting about art: its uncovering of the potential for a love supreme.


Benae Beamon is a PhD candidate in the Graduate Division of Religious Studies in the Religion and Society track at Boston University. She focuses on black queer ethics, folding the study of black churches and philosophical hermeneutics into sexual ethics discourse, and the title of her dissertation is Black Religious Ethics and Black Transwomen’s Bodies.

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.

On Remembering and Surviving

Thelathia “Nikki” Young, Bucknell University

Every single breath we take is a miracle

We were not meant to survive

We were meant to die, to be buried, to be trampled underfoot

Every heartbeat is a miracle

We were not meant to survive

We were meant to disappear, to wither into nothing in the soil

Every brain wave is a miracle

We were not meant to survive

We were meant to see only devastation, to bind ourselves with the shackles of someone else’s vision

Every muscle response is a miracle

We were meant to evaporate from history, to never have existed in the first place

We were not meant to survive.

But we did.


That we – people who are marginalized in America – have the audacity and the unction to continue in existence makes people question reality. Constant efforts to snuff out our lives with acute and massive violence, to squelch our spirits with demoralizing policies and laws, to render us hypervisible invisible entities, to dilute our cosmological imaginings with watered down notions of divinity… all this effort means that our survival makes no sense. And yet, even as some among us die, we must remind one another that we are surviving.

When I walked into my Race and Sexuality class on November 9, my students looked downtrodden and demoralized. For some of them, the election was the first realization that we do, in fact, live in a national context where racism, sexism, classism, heterosexism, and xenophobia are substantiated by violence and threats of further violence. For others in the class, nothing new happened on election night; the country simply confirmed and punctuated its own history of social and political oppression. In both cases, students struggled to articulate their feelings and floundered in the face of the country’s undeniable callous disregard for (social) justice.

I wanted a way to remind them of our collective survival. I needed a way to re-teach them about the power in our resilience, so I reminded them that my people – black people – have been living miraculous lives for a long time. That is, we have persisted in our existence, despite social, political, religious, and economic efforts to eviscerate us. I reminded them that we are science fiction, that our ancestors imagined us into being.

Our job, I suggested, is to remember, analyze, and take note of truths that can be erased, of experiences that can be dismissed, of subjectivities that can be denied, of lives that can be ignored. We have to remember. And in remembering, in recognizing, we have to face the tough complexity that emerges.

After explaining this process of remembering to the students, I led a discussion of Audre Lorde’s “A Litany for Survival.” Students read the poem aloud and reflected on what it would mean for them to break their own silence, lift their own voices of protest and/or rage, in response to social and political realities that they would not longer accept or ignore. We also engaged a slightly altered version of the activity below, which I used during a workshop at a DignityUSA conference.

Out of our Own Mouths – Exercise for Remembering

  1. Have workshop participants do a 2-minute free-write. Ask them to jot down a memory of a time when homophobia/transphobia/heterosexism in the church had informed or shaped their relationship with religion and with their own sexual and gender identities.  (Note: this could also be used for other social identity markers, and it does not have to be connected to religion.)
  1. Then pair participants, preferably with someone they do not know or with whom they are not extremely close. Make one a listener and the other a teller (after having explained the value/virtue in the roles of listening and telling).
  1. Invite the teller to share their story for 2 minutes. Invite the listener to listen actively but silently. Note: it is not a conversation; rather, it is a compassionate communication.
  1. Now, ask them to switch roles for the next 2 minutes.
  1. Now ask each person to share (2 min. each) how this experience affected their sense of self, how it actually impacted their notion of them selves as a sexualized being.
  1. After a moment of break – allow folks to breathe! – ask the first listener to think about how they SURVIVED that experience. That is, what allowed them to get to where they are today? Note: this still works if the experience was not physically traumatic. Get the participants to think about their own capacity for resistance/resilience. (Consider providing an example.) Allow the listener to speak for 2 minutes. Then, invite them two switch roles.
  1. Ask for volunteers to share experiences, retelling the stories from the perspective of their survival/resistance/resilience.
  1. Debrief:
  • What did you notice in one another’s stories? What stood out to you about the stories?
  • How did it feel to share this experience? How did it feel to listen to someone else talk about this?
  • In what way did this exchange impact your own sense of sexuality, etc.?
  • What did the example of resilience/resistance teach you about your own capacity?
  • Why is it important to reframe this story?

Nikki Young teaches undergraduate students about intersectionality, queerness, race, and social justice. Her research focuses on black queer values, particularly in relation to constructions of kinship networks and constructions of liberation. Black Queer Ethics, Family, and Philosophical Imagination (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016) is her first book. She is currently writing a new book, Home Free: A Transnational Ethics of Black Queer Liberation.

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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