What Traci West Taught Me about Dominant and Excluded Voices by Elise M. Edwards


Elise EdwardsIn my previous post, I mentioned a book I am writing about how theological and ethical considerations in architectural design can define good architecture.  In that post and in ones to follow, I am acknowledging the feminists and womanists and mujeristas who have influenced me while also opening up the dialogue to the feminists in this community who continue to inspire and guide me to do my best work.

But today, instead of talking about creativity or architecture, I want to discuss how I arrived at the conviction that community decisions about how we ought to live—whether those are decisions about laws, institutional policies, religious practices or architectural buildings—need to include the voices of the diverse people they directly and indirectly influence.

The question of who is excluded and silenced in our communities is so present for me.  I teach at Baylor University, and we are in the midst of responding to reports of sexual violence and their mishandling. A few days after news broke of changes in the university’s administration and recommendations in response to the sexual violence that has occurred, a blog post about sexism in Baptist communities circulated widely among my social networks, arguing that feminists trying to address this concern have been widely ignored.

It’s a difficult, painful time to be part of my university community.  My heart breaks for victims who have been wounded by individuals and our university.  As faculty, I must figure out how I can be a part of positive transformation at my school. As a feminist, I have to ask if what I’ve done in my classes and other spaces of dialogue has been enough.

And so to find my way forward as a black feminist thinker, I return to those who have been resisting the violence and silence around it for years.  The ethicist whose work first challenged me to face the pervasiveness of sexual violence and its racial and class-based implications is  Traci C. West, author of Disruptive Christian Ethics: When Racism and Women’s Lives Matter.

Perhaps the most profound thing that Dr. West taught me was in the title of her book.  Christian ethics must be disruptive if racism and women’s lives matter.  The way Christian ethics has been done for much of its history silences the voices, the concerns, and the spiritual insights of those on the margins of society.  Explaining that we often detach great theorists from their historical contexts and ignore the moral contributions of ordinary people adversely affected by social problems, West argues:

“Our tendency to designate certain individuals as great thinkers and then detach them from societal influences allows us to maintain false boundaries between the ‘great thinkers’ and the ‘everyday people’—especially those who are commonly identified as problem communities… A more helpful response is to incorporate ideas from a range of community sources together with those of individual great thinkers to comprehensively analyze the destructive realities in our society.”[1]

The exclusion of some voices is not a random, natural force, but it occurs within human societies and institutions that systemically prioritize some people groups over others.  Racism, sexism, and heterosexism exist not only in the conscious actions that sincere people of faith are often willing to address, but in hidden, unconscious patterns and systems that operate without being examined.

If racism and women’s lives matter, we cannot afford to talk about instances of sexual assault, rape, or interpersonal violence as the isolated actions of a few “bad eggs” or “thugs.”  Without a doubt, perpetrators of violence must be held personally accountable.  Those that actively seek to discourage victims from speaking out must be held accountable, too.  But the frequency in which interpersonal violence occurs should let us know that we have a systemic problem.  If the problems are exacerbated–or worse, perpetuated—by our cultures and institutions, all of us within them need to implement solutions.

Unless our culture and our institutions are willing to be more transparent about how pervasive sexual violence is, victims will continue to be shamed into silence or persuaded that the best way to move past it is to deny or ignore what has occurred.  So Christians need to ask whether our teachings on sexuality and purity shame victims of abuse and violence.  When we acknowledge that they do, we should reform our teachings and practices to be consistent with the love, healing, and reconciliation that Jesus the Christ offers.

Unless we are willing to seek out those who have been victimized, we will not be able to sufficiently address sexual and interpersonal violence.  Victims should be allowed to retain their privacy, especially since much of the audience who consumes their stories does so to assuage their own guilt, assign more blame to the victims, or satisfy a morbid curiosity.  But when victims are willing to speak out and when we actively seek ways to protect their dignity and worth as they reveal their stories, we recognize the victims’ power to shape our moral sensibilities.  Their particular concerns must be joined with universal concepts about sin and violence and sexuality to fully address the situation.  West writes,” To identify moral concerns surfaced by a woman’s experience of sexual violation, one must carefully consider that particular context and gather the sources of information embedded there as well as the broader social context.”[2]

Disruptive Christian Ethics was published in 2006, but Traci West continues to call other ethicists to be accountable for the stories of violation that we are happy not to hear.  At an annual conference I attend for an organization of Christian ethicists, the professional conduct committee routinely makes a report at the business meeting that there have been no allegations made in the previous year and that “No news is good news.”  One year, I distinctly remember Dr. West emphatically saying to other attendees after the meeting that we have to stop promoting that line of thinking.  In all of our institutions–even Christian ones, even professional ones–no news of wrongdoing does not mean harm is not occurring.  It means the harm is not being reported.  That is not good news.

[1] Disruptive Christian Ethics, p. 4

[2] Disruptive Christian Ethics, p. 43.

 

Elise M. Edwards, PhD is a Lecturer in Christian Ethics at Baylor University and a graduate of Claremont Graduate University. She is also a registered architect in the State of Florida. Her interdisciplinary work examines issues of civic engagement and how beliefs and commitments are expressed publicly. As a black feminist, she primarily focuses on cultural expressions by, for, and about women and marginalized communities. Follow her on twitter, google+ or academia.edu.

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Categories: abuse, Academy, Activism, Black Feminism, Body, Christianity, Church Doctrine, college, Community, Domestic Violence, Embodiment, Ethics, Feminism, Feminism and Religion, Feminist Ethics, Feminist Theology, Gender and Sexuality, God, Healing, In the News, Justice, Major Feminist Thinkers in Religion, Power relations, Racism, Rape, Rape Culture, Reform, Sexism, Sexual Ethics, Sexual Violence, Social Justice, Theology, Violence, Violence Against Women, Women's Agency, Women's Voices

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6 replies

  1. Thank you for this essay. Most sexual violence is incestuous in nature, yet I’ve never heard the topic addressed from the pulpit. I suspect it’s because the very mention of its pervasiveness threatens Christian teachings of gender complementarism.

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    • It makes me so sad to think that such a shallow reason would be used to justify a lack of openness about such a serious form of abuse. But I suspect you may be right, Diane.

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  2. If I was a victim at Baylor, Elise, I would be so glad you are there. I think you must bring a voice the is healing to victims and challenging to others.

    In so many areas we tend to ignore those on the margins, even as decisions are made that effect them. Whether it’s assault, housing, poverty, etc. so often those trying to “fix” the problem don’t consult those who are living with it. But I believe that consultation is important for dignity, and success.

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    • Thank you Barbara! I don’t know that we have a clear and consistent way of signaling safe spaces for students. I certainly hope I’m one of many people who will try to increase dialogue that focuses on learning from victims.

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  3. Great post, Elise. From my own personal experience as a rape survivor, the sentence that resonated most for me was: “So Christians need to ask whether our teachings on sexuality and purity shame victims of abuse and violence.” I was a naive 20-year-old when raped. Just weeks before I had consensual sex with the man who became my husband. Having been brought up to be a “good Christian girl” (i.e. non-sexual until marriage), I instantly repressed the rape. If I had not, I would have felt that God was punishing me for being sexual outside of marriage.

    I never acknowledged that I had been raped until the night before leading discussions of rape as a TA for Women’s Studies 101 at the University of Wisconsin-Madison seven years later. It’s a good thing I finally reopened that wound, because the next day there were women in each of my sections who talked openly about being raped. Rape is endemic, and finally almost 50 years later, we as a culture are STARTING to deal with it.

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    • Thank you so much for sharing that, Nancy. I’m so troubled by the implicit or explicit teaching that God uses rape to punish people for “bad” behaviors. Hopefully, by starting to be more open about this (50 years later!) we can create better support systems and preventative measures.

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