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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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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.

Perhaps.

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.

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