Search

SCE Women's Caucus

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

Tag

virtue

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.

ISAIAH: Repairing the Breach

Amy Levad, University of St. Thomas, MN

I do not take naturally to activism.  In a classroom, I feel like I’m in my element; it seems natural to me.  It feels right.  Holding a sign at a rally, speaking to an elected official, testifying at the State Capitol: my heart pounds, and not in a good way.

Over the past year, as part of a sabbatical, I have had the good fortune, however, to research an organization that cultivates community leaders by helping them to understand how their personal stories relate to public life and by fostering risk-taking in service of the common good.  ISAIAH, a federation of the PICO National Network, “is a vehicle for congregations, clergy, and people of faith to act collectively and powerfully towards racial and economic equity in the state of Minnesota.” In learning about ISAIAH, I have begun to feel more comfortable with activism, or preferably, community organizing, as this organization has enabled me to own more fully as mine the role of scholar-activist.

One thing that has struck me over the last year is how committed ISAIAH is to formation of community leaders through practicing the habits and virtues of civic engagement (very broadly understood). This realization was crystallized for me last spring at a leaders’ retreat.

The gathering, in a suburban parish on a quiet spring Saturday, followed an action at the State Capitol, in which ISAIAH, along with partner organizations, disrupted a public hearing in opposition to the leasing of a shuttered private prison in rural Minnesota by the state.  The action was ultimately successful as it led Governor Dayton to vow a veto of the measure, but for many people there, it was unsettling.  At the retreat a few weeks later, the day began with a sermon on Jesus’s turning of the tables in the Temple (Matthew 21), continued with singing of “God’s troubling the waters,” and at one point, an invitation to throw a chair across the room, practicing disruption for future events (the “invitation” took the form of a pastor unexpectedly standing up during a liturgy and flipping the chair over, then encouraging others to do likewise). As I watched very nice Minnesotans toss around this chair, I could see them become more comfortable with disruption. Many reflected after the end of this exercise that where disruption had frightened them, they now considered it a valuable tool within their repertoire for social action.  They were disruptive in a low-stakes setting; perhaps they could be more comfortable with disruption – and just a bit braver – when the stakes might be higher.  Practicing disruption helped form a habit in the group, habit is the bedrock of forming virtues, and at this historical moment, throwing some chairs (maybe figurative chairs) around in the service of equity, love, and justice seems pretty virtuous.

dsc_8357In the spirit of fostering habits and virtues that serve these commitments within myself, of owning my role as scholar-activist, I am committing to 100 days of resistance in communion with ISAIAH.  The idea isn’t mine.  At a gathering this past Saturday, “For Such a Time as This: Building Our Prophetic Resistance,” over 2,000 people committed (in the spirit of the prophet Isaiah who calls us to be “repairers of the breach” in our communities) to rejecting complicity in violence and dehumanization. In a handy folder, we each received a 100-day calendar and color-coded stickers, along with lists of acts of resistance from prayer to petitions, tweets to testimonies.  For each day that we complete such an act, we get a sticker.  With two small children in my house, I’m a sucker for a sticker chart.  The calendar ends on my birthday, a fitting time for someone seeking to grow into herself, perhaps a slightly new self, in the coming days, weeks, and months.

Resistance is a habit, and habits need to be tended to become virtues.  For at least the next 100 days, I’ll be tending this habit, along with at least 2,000 other people.  In some ways, this plan feels small, individualistic, personal.  In other ways, it feels as if it is binding me to a community, a tradition, a history of upholding the dignity of all people and opposing the indignities thrust upon particular groups of people in very particular ways. We were reminded on Saturday that each of us may only be carrying out 100 small acts.  Together, though, we are carrying out 200,000.  And that feels big.  It feels right.  It calms my heart.

dsc_8358

(Note the circled item in this picture.  It says, “Read from the selected bibliography (in process).”  Which means it needs to be written.  Of course, I have ideas, but if you also have ideas – please send them on to me.)


Amy Levad teaches Christian ethics to undergraduates in Minnesota.  Her research focuses on mass incarceration, particularly Christian responses to it through community organizing, education, and ministry.  Redeeming a Prison Society: A Liturgical and Sacramental Response to Mass Incarceration (Fortress Press, 2014) is her most recent book.

Create a website or blog at WordPress.com

Up ↑