“Side of the Angels Statement” by Natalie Weaver


As a feminist, I have learned how important it is to limit the scope of my claims to a reasonable space, demarcated by some genuine historical or current investment, connection, or participation.  There are many things in this world about which I passingly feel or think something.  And, even if I think about something quite a bit, if I have nothing but opinion, even an informed one, I find it best to keep to myself.  I therefore tread lightly here.  Nevertheless, I do have some opinions born out of years of studying the relationship between Christianity and slavery, professional risk in dealing with these subjects, and my own different, but very real, history of abuse by which I analogically understand some measure of pain and exploitation.

I am dismayed by the overuse of written, right-side statements of position in times of crisis.  I really feel as though they serve to say something like, “Hey, Everyone, We, the __________  (Church, School, Charity, Business), are on the side of the angels.  We have the right attitude about this thing, and we’re putting it out there publicly so that everyone knows we’re legitimate.  Keep trusting us.”

I noticed this aversion in myself first when the rash of statements came out by Catholic entities at the time of the 2018 Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report, which exposed the 301 priests accused of abusing over 1000 children in six dioceses.  Various statements I read quite offended me, and I had to search myself for the reason.  It came down to the fact that the statements actually preempted conversation, skipped over rage, and controlled the frame for 1) naming the problem and 2) steering solutions.  The rhetoric of what I will here call the “Side of the Angels Statement” is a tool of the institutionally empowered to perpetuate self-credibility in the face of crisis.  There is no admission in such statements that the very institutions that proffer them have lost credibility and forfeited the right to name, lead, and control both conversations and outcomes.  The magnitude of the subterfuge of this rhetoric increases correlatively to an institution’s or organization’s degree of power and influence. 

The maddeningly hollow words about racism today are an outrage, as are the maddening appropriations of cultural suffering that we are witnessing in all of their permutations.  Here, I think we are seeing something that we might call “race tourism.”  I am not suggesting that people of different origins cannot enter into each other’s experiences in a stance toward solidarity.   I am, rather, suggesting that we dig deep into lessons we have learned over fifty years of feminist dialogue, and recognize that our methodology for solidarity must begin with an ethic of limit and space – limit to self and space for other.

The Big Institutions need to make space and quit talking.  This includes deeply 1) the Church and 2) all institutions that are born of American Christo-Slavery (by which, I mean, pretty much anything touched by American Christianity).  The profoundest reckoning is upon us.  As happened with the base ecclesial communities in Latin America, our present-day crisis necessitates a new kind of conversation about what it means to even suggest the ideas of holiness, or communion, or salvation. 

I have ideas about ways forward, but they extend too far beyond my spheres of influence and participation to share.  I do know, however, these things:

  1. Institutions of oppression cannot be trusted to liberate;
  2. Oppressed people must organize and speak for their own liberation;
  3. It is time to be honest with ourselves about what we believe, what we’re committed to, and whether we really want true change.  

As for me, as a person of faith, I land on the side of hope, which is not hope for some specific thing, but hope as a disposition toward life.  As a Christian, I feel a disposition toward community, but it is a community that we have never seen yet, maybe never conceived yet. Yet, if there be God worthy of the Name, surely this must be the plan.  And, if there be nothing but our cobbled intelligences, surely this must also be the plan.  It has been a while, but I find myself praying again.

 

Natalie Kertes Weaver, Ph.D.is Chair and Professor of Religious Studies at Ursuline College in Pepper Pike, Ohio. Natalie’s academic books includeMarriage and Family: A Christian Theological Foundation (Anselm, 2009); Christian Thought and Practice: A Primer (Anselm, 2012); and The Theology of Suffering and Death: An Introduction for Caregivers (Routledge, 2013)Natalie’s most recent book is Made in the Image of God: Intersex and the Revisioning of Theological Anthropology (Wipf & Stock, 2014).  Natalie has also authored two art books: Interior Design: Rooms of a Half-Life and Baby’s First Latin.  Natalie’s areas of interest and expertise include: feminist theology; theology of suffering; theology of the family; religion and violence; and (inter)sex and theology.  Natalie is a married mother of two sons, Valentine and Nathan.  For pleasure, Natalie studies classical Hebrew, poetry, piano, and voice.



Categories: Ethics, Feminist Ethics, In the News, Women's Voices

Tags: , ,

5 replies

  1. Thank you, Natalie, for this essay. There is SO much material contained here in seed form, I would love to see you expand on your ideas–perhaps through several installations here on FAR. I fundamentally agree with your statement “Institutions of oppression cannot be trusted to liberate.” Do you think it’s within the “nature” of institutions to oppress? Meaning that once a community/society institutionalizes its “services” (for lack of a better word), the institution begins to live and breathe in ways that sustains and furthers itself–voices of dissent be damned? Is there a way to conceive of a society without institutions? Probably so. Would love to explore what that would look like. I also fundamentally agree with your statement “Oppressed people must organize and speak for their own liberation.” However, there are people unable to speak up, let alone organize, for their own liberation. Who can justly speak for such folks? Or, perhaps those who are able need to learn to listen to the voices of those who cannot speak? So much to consider……

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  2. Esther, you picked up on all the points that I would have responded to including the questions… Indeed Natalie this post is food for thought – thank you.

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  3. This post is a very thoughtful one and provokes a lot of interesting thoughts as Sara and Esther pointed out above. I really love that you said a lot of what we think of as Christianity today has a direct link back – that would be another post worth exploring. Also, why do you think it is that institutions have stayed silent on these matters? I remember the Catholic Church in particular staying silent, but in Islam, we have had so many people commit horrible atrocities in our name – which is completely contrary to our beliefs as well. Do you think it’s an act of self-preservation or it’s willfull ignorance? That I cannot tell on my own.

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  4. It’s been a while since i”ve heard “we’re on the side of angels”, but I’ve always hated that statement. Means about as much as “thoughts and prayers” after a shooting or tornado or other crisis–it’s hollow and a distraction.

    I think you nailed why it bugged me for so long: “perpetuate self-credibility in the face of crisis.” That is the best way I’ve heard it described. It’s a soundbyte for the public who believes in the hope that it’ll calm things down for some reason. I watched the Enron documentary again a few days ago and during the California crisis, Jeff Skilling used that phrase when asked “are you the good guys?”by the interviewer (which they weren’t, of course). Every time I’ve heard that phrase, my answer to it has been “uh-huh…and?”

    (Now that I think about it, I don’t think I’ve heard or seen the phrase “thoughts and prayers” in regard to Mr. Floyd’s death. Of course, so much has gone on since then, but it makes me wonder…hmm…)

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  5. Thanks for elucidating why I feel uncomfortable with every organization whose list I’m on (some by choice, some not) even the ones I most respect and support, having to make an “on the side of the angels” statement. And yes, more of your thoughts are welcome!

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