It has been over two decades now, but I still remember being assigned A Feminist Ethic of Risk as an undergraduate political science major. I did not know at the time how profoundly my ethical worldview was about to be shaped by a Unitarian Universalist theologian (…or even what Unitarian Universalism was). Now I am a Unitarian Universalist minister, turning back to the wisdom found in those pages for this moment.
Ethicist Sharon Welch, Provost of Meadville Lombard Theological Seminary, has written extensively about to the complexity of social justice and how the overwhelming nature of that complexity can lead to despair, especially on the part of those who move with some privilege within systems, about every resolving it.
She calls it “a middle-class failure of nerve, defined as the inability to persist in resistance when the problems are seen in their full magnitude.” Sometimes this results in cynicism and despair in the affluent, who can detach from the day-to-day issues of oppression. Distance, be it physical or emotional, allows us to build up resistance to participating in the struggle for collective liberation.
Welch writes, “It is easier to give up on long-term social change when one is comfortable in the present—when it is possible to have challenging work, excellent health care and housing, and access to fine arts. When the good life is present or within reach, it is tempting to despair of its ever being in reach for others and resort merely to enjoying it for oneself and one’s family.”
To the many beloved people suddenly less comfortable in the present, newly awake to a the need to organize, to mobilize, to challenge structures of oppression, I offer you Welch’s standard:
“Responsible action does not mean the certain achievement of desired ends but the creation of a matrix in which further actions are possible, the creation of the conditions of possibility for desired changes.”
Moving toward collective liberation, choosing “to care and to act although there are no guarantees of success” is an ethical stance. If you have to know that you are going to win before you will engage, these are the times that will bring you despair indeed.
Spiritual director Nancy Bieber offers, “We can be thoroughly unhappy with a situation, and still be afraid to change it. A familiar unhappy situation often feels much safer than the unknown. … The old self-understanding feels safer than the unknown. All change brings loss, and we might grieve the loss of old self-limiting stories even as we begin to recognize that they have limited us. It can be hard at first to appreciate the new freedom of growing into who we can become.”
Beloveds, an ethic of risk demands our willingness to show up as we are and be willing to be changed.
At the Center for Ethical Living and Social Justice Renewal, we are struggling to educate ourselves and everyone we encounter about how power is arranged, the structures of oppressive systems in our culture. We are working to understand our own positionality of power in these systems and how to advocate and organize accountably – and we are inviting all y’all to commit to this faithful call with us.
SO much is possible. We are charged by our faith to resist a culture that denies the dignity and worth of all creation.
We must risk the loss, the messiness and grief of struggle. It may actually be the pathway to love and justice for all. In a complex and nuanced world, there is faithfulness in choosing to side with the oppressed no matter what.
Beloveds, in the encouraging words of Nancy Bieber, “the only step you need to take is the next one.”
Collective liberation is for all of us or none of us. Let us commit and recommit, risking together a faithful journey toward beloved community.