Click here to read my review of Michael Northcott’s new book titled, A Political Theology of Climate Change in The Christian Century.
Saturday, I led a Women’s Retreat at a local Baptist church. Our theme was “living the good life with our neighbors” and we focused on the question of how to develop relationships of solidarity with neighbors in our community across lines of difference (race, class, education, etc.).
For people with privilege (and most folks in the US have some sort of privilege) developing an ethic of solidarity requires that we start by thinking about the various forms of privilege that shape our lives. This is often hard because privilege gets a bad wrap in popular culture. This is understandable when privilege functions in ways that actively harm others – like, say white privilege. As a result of this, many people feel guilty about their privilege or simply uncomfortable about acknowledging and discussing their various forms of privilege.
This disdain of privilege is warranted when it is associated with categories of our identity – like race, class, religion, or sexual orientation. When these deeply personal aspects of our identity function as a source of privilege in society, that means that there are other people who are being discriminated against or even hurt based on similar aspects of their identity. White privilege is wrong, not because there is anything wrong about begin white, but because the privilege associate with whiteness is the result of conscious and unconscious racism in our society that “privileges” white people over against people of color. These privileges are a witness to the injustice in society and the danger associated with prejudice and bias.
North Carolina has the dubious honor of leading the nation in the increase of people living in high-poverty areas. We are one of the most food insecure states in the country with over 650,000 people (17%) struggling to find enough food to eat and more than 1 in 4 our of children at risk of persistent hunger.
Ten years ago, John Edwards returned to North Carolina to start a new center at the UNC School of Law to address the persistent problems of poverty in our state. Working with Gene Nichol, then dean of the law school, they started the Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity, whose stated mission is to “advocate for proposals, policies and services to mitigate poverty in North Carolina.” Shortly after Nichol assumed leadership of the center in 2008, the state legislature cut public funding for its work. The center carried on its work supported by private funding sources.
My third grader is a white child in a Title I school in our town. She’s writing a report on Harriet Tubman for her Black History month project and has spent the week devouring information about Tubman and proudly sharing stories and facts about her life with our whole family. “Mom, did you know Harriet Tubman was a spy during the Civil War!” We have spent the week talking together about Tubman, slavery, and the history of racism in the South. As a white mother of two white daughters, I spend a lot of time thinking about how to educate my children about history and slavery and how each of these continue to shape the racism in our communities and in our lives.
It is imperative that I teach my children that their white skin is a privilege in a country where brown people are discriminated against in both conscious and unconscious ways. But, talking about privilege is hard, and not just for parents. For most people with privilege, talking about it makes us uncomfortable. Admitting that we have privilege seems unseemly at best, but worse than that, for many of us, it feels arrogant. The fact that people have difficulty even recognizing their own privilege is well documented and one of the reasons that privilege is so hard to address as a cultural phenomenon. For starters, how do I teach my children about social privilege without reinforcing social privilege? Well, its not easy, but it certainly won’t happen if we ignore it or pretend like we don’t have it.
A history professor at Northeastern University in Boston has just developed a tool to search the ubiquitous student rankings found at “Rate My Professor.” For those of you who don’t know ratemyprofessor, it is an online site where college students can go and “rate” their professors on a range of factors, some related to their teaching (and to student learning) and others, not so much (students can assign a hot chili pepper to those professors that the students find, well, “hot”). Because this rating system is voluntary, and not administered to all students in a given course, it tends to disproportionately draw students who either love or hate particular professors.
As a female professor, I have had my share of caustic student comments (on university evaluations as well as ratemyprofessor) that have taken on a gendered tone. But as a tenured, full professor, I have less concern for myself than for the deeply unsettling insight that this data exposes about how sexism is working in the classroom (for an example of this put the terms “smart” and “intelligent” in the search engine and check out the results). My concern is both for the learning environment and how students’ own sexism is negatively impacting the students in question as well as for the junior female professors who struggle with questions of their classroom persona, their teaching authority, and how best to embody what it means to be a smart, intelligent, and respected teacher and scholar in a world where those categories are still, too often, defined by male norms. A good friend and colleague is currently writing a piece on how women professors decide how to dress in the classroom for a teaching website, a question that, I suspect, is far more challenging for women professors than our male colleagues.
I am a Christian social ethicist by training and by vocation. In a highly secular world people often wonder what that means. Am I the church police, there to tell people how to behave? Am I the wise counselor, there to offer advice on how to live morally? Or, am I, simply there to make Christians feel guilty about engaging in behavior they already know is morally wrong?
Well, thankfully, my job is none of those things. When I explain that my work is focused on questions of social ethics and contemporary society, questions related to economics, the environmental crisis, globalization, poverty, and women’s access to reproductive health care – people often wonder why I bother with the Christian part. I mean, after all, aren’t those social questions matters for public debate in a public forum, a place where the church should keep its nose out? Certainly it is true, there is nothing particularly “Christian” about any of these social issues or about how we as a society should seek to address them.
In my book Solidarity Ethics, I explore the richness, depth, and challenge that a theology of solidarity offers as the foundation for economic and social relationships as opposed to the guiding principles of individualism, profit, and wealth accumulation that currently drive the economic structures of human society. The ethic of solidarity that flows from a theology of solidarity is both a model for first-world Christians for how to live faithfully in the midst of a globalizing world (personal complicity and behavior) as well as a framework for a new way of imagining our political economy and our social networks and interactions (structural analysis and accountability).
Solidarity ethics asks people to risk, change, and act. To risk examining our various privileges and disadvantages in order to see how these factors have shaped us and how we can leverage our power for the work of justice. To change the way we see the world by developing relationships with people who inhabit different worlds than we do, we can learn to see the world in new ways, ways that may help us to move from despair to action as we learn how to ask political and social questions that proceed from justice. To act in ways that change the shape of globalization toward justice and respect for human dignity and the integrity of creation.
Kristopher Norris just wrote a review for the Political Theology blog.
So, you have found your way to this site. Welcome, and thank you for poking around here. You already know from a previous post that I am a scholar and professor. I teach social ethics at Elon University in NC and my scholarly and professional life is focused on questions of social justice. From poverty, inequality, racism, sexism, and classism to housing, homelessness, living wages, and reproductive justice – my work and my life is focused on understanding the structural factors that shape injustice and helping to educate broader publics about how to engage in social change.
I am on sabbatical this year (2014-15) and one of my sabbatical goals was to experiment with social media and develop an online presence. I’d love to hear from you about issues of social injustice, social change, solidarity, and transformation.
Hey dear readers! I believe there are four of you right now. Amazing since I just started this blog 30 minutes ago. I thank you and look forward to hearing from you.
I’m curious to know – why do you read blogs? What are looking for? Do you find it?
Like all of us, my life is shaped and formed by the many different roles I carry in my life – teacher, preacher, scholar, wife, mother, friend, professor, colleague, daughter, sister, among others. Though people may see me through many different lens as they approach me in these various roles, there is only one me inside. Whether I am acting in my role as mother, teacher, preacher or friend – to my core, to my bone, in my heart of hearts, my life and my work is about doing justice, loving kindness, and seeking to walk humbly with my god.
This blog is my invitation to any who are interested, to join me as I seek to discern with you and others, how it is we can live with integrity and faithfulness in the places where we find ourselves.