What’s Changed? by Elise M. Edwards

An image of Elise Edwards smiling outdoorsFriends, it has been a few months since I’ve posted in this community.  I’m amazed at how much our world has changed since then.  Here in the northern hemisphere, spring came and went.  It felt like a tide of turmoil rolled in, leaving debris all along the shore and now we are trying to clean it up while keeping our eyes on the sea for more dangerous waves that are coming.

The issues we now face began before March, but for many of us, that was when the COVID-19 pandemic began to alter our patterns of daily existence. In-person instruction at my university and most schools was suspended and spring semester courses shifted online.  In March and April, we quarantined, self-isolated, and sheltered in place.  While a gradual re-opening of businesses and services has occurred in the months since then, I don’t know anyone who has resumed daily life as it was before. The virus continues to spread and the death toll rises.

The month of March brought us other tragedies, too.  Breonna Taylor was killed on March 13, and although the Say Her Name movement and Black Lives Matter movement are not new, these, too, gained more attention in the past few months. I have to admit that I have been ambivalent about the growing acceptance of Black Lives Matter.  I’m encouraged by the number of individuals and groups who are finally addressing their racist histories and practices.  I’m hopeful that so many people seem ready to listen and do something about the disregard for black life that is evident not only in police shootings, but also in law, education, labor, religion, and numerous other oppressive contexts.

And yet I worry about how enduring or transformative these recent shifts will be.  I’m concerned that violence against black women and non-gender conforming people doesn’t seem to garner the media attention or outrage it should.  I’m saddened that so many objections about Black Lives Matter come back to conservative concerns about abortion, the family, and liberal or Marxist ideologies.  All this has me wondering what’s really changed.

As I typically do at this time of year, I am turning my attention to the classes that I will teach in the fall.  What a strange historical moment to return to the classroom!  I’m planning to return to campus to teach in-person courses in Christian ethics and feminist theology.  I have taught these classes before, but so much is new. When I teach the classes this year, I will address the pandemic, the anti-racist agenda many people have adopted, and the 2020 US presidential election.

Obviously, there will be changes to my teaching style this fall, too, as I adapt to a socially-distanced classroom and the challenges of lecturing and guiding discussion through face coverings. The external changes to campus life are fairly clear: new teaching modalities, new cleaning and hygiene practices, new schedules, and new policies about attendance, meetings, and student conduct.  But I wonder:  What inner changes have my students, colleagues, and I experienced since we left campus in March?

An existential sense of fear seems so much more present to those of us who previously took our good health for granted.  We are afraid to touch surfaces and afraid to touch each other. Our social gatherings put us at risk.  Every cough, dry throat, sneeze, or headache that would have been attributed to common, minor ailments is now potentially a harbinger of a deadly disease.  Some of my students may have contracted coronavirus and recovered, but they will continue to worry long-term effects of coronavirus.  Others are likely dealing with grief and loss.  I imagine that when my ethics class addresses death, dying, and end-of-life decision making, the topics will have a poignancy and relevance previously unknown to most of my young adult students.

How has the new wave of interest in Black Lives Matter changed my students?  Will they be more open to learning about the real disparities and inequities that exist? Will they be more committed to pursuing justice or will they be wary of it all?  In trying times like this, religion can help us navigate uncertainties and challenges.  If it is not practiced with a sense of justice and compassion, though, religion can easily stoke the fires of divisiveness.  And so I take my task as an educator, a scholar, and a person of faith quite seriously. In my feminist theology course, we’ll explore issues of gender, feminism, and theology from an intersectional approach, using Intersectional Theology: An Introductory Guide by Grace Ji-Sun Kim and Susan M. Shaw as our guide.

As the book’s description explains, “Intersectionality is a tool for analysis, developed primarily by black feminists, to examine the causes and consequences of converging social identities (gender, race, class, sexual identity, age, ability, nation, religion) within interlocking systems of power and privilege (sexism, racism, classism, heterosexism, ableism, ageism, nativism) and to foster engaged, activist work toward social justice. Applied to theology, intersectionality demands attention to the Christian thinker’s own identities and location within systems of power and the value of deep consideration of complementary, competing, and even conflicting points of view that arise from the experiences and understandings of diverse people.”

This course will ask all of us in the class to interrogate our own norms and assumptions of how the world works and to deeply consider the experiences and views of those who are different from us. Can I reasonably hope that this semester, we are ready to be more empathetic and compassionate? Or will these months have sharpened our senses of self-interest and hardened our sensitivities to others’ need?

While I do not know how prepared my students are to dive into the difficult topics this semester offers, I know I have been preparing myself, renewing my heart and soul with conviction and purpose.  Although I haven’t been active in this community for a few months, I’ve continued to pursue a path of healing with like-minded feminists and women of color.  I have felt your support and grace.  I’ve been resting, working through grief, strengthening my physical body, unrooting some sexist and racist narratives that I’ve internalized, writing, and reconnecting with my creative abilities.  In the coming months, I’ll unpack some of that work and the insights it yielded.

What has changed for you?

Elise M. Edwards, PhD is an Assistant Professor of 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 or academia.edu.

Categories: Academics, Activism, Books, Death and Dying, Education, Feminism, Feminism and Religion, Feminist Ethics, Feminist Theology, Grief, intersectionality, Loss, Politics, Sexism, Social Justice, Theology, Women's Voices

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7 replies

  1. How has the new wave of interest in Black Lives Matter changed my students? Will they be more open to learning about the real disparities and inequities that exist? Will they be more committed to pursuing justice or will they be wary of it all?

    Probably some of both, but you will be a good teacher at this critical time!

    Liked by 2 people

  2. How wonderful to see you post again! I’ve missed reading your insightful thoughts. What has changed for me? Until a few weeks ago, I worked in a social services agency in a small town. We had to change everything about how we worked – increase outreach because many of the people who had just been making it would now need our help after losing jobs, move all our counseling and other services to phone or Zoom, including support groups, find ways to have safe in-person interactions because you really don’t know what’s happening with someone if you only speak by phone for months… but at the same time watching the community come together to support those in need, creating closer relationships with colleagues as we tried to figure out what to close and what to keep open, and experiencing that we can indeed make fundamental change quickly when we need to, all important lessons!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for welcoming me back so warmly! It sounds like this has been a time of challenge and growth for you! I really appreciate the work you’ve done, as social services are even more critical right now.


  3. “and yet I worry about how enduring or transformative these recent shifts will be” Of course Black Lives Matter – but I remember Martin Luther King…. how much has changed? We are more openly racist today than ever before, and unlike others who say this is a good thing – I say no, racism has been normalized. When I think of the “forgotten ones” the Indigenous peoples of this land that rarely enter the conversation I feel despair. These People lived in this country long before the Europeans and to this day we have not even begun to own what we have done to them. Don’t these people matter too? Every other race came to this country from somewhere else. Native peoples have always lived here and we continue to ignore and refuse to take responsibility for how we treated them. Ironically, oh so ironically these people also hold the key to living sustainably while the rest of the words zooms on at a frantic pace trying to prop up their collapsing empire…

    Liked by 1 person

    • I hear you! I’ve been hearing more discussions of the racism towards and destruction of indigenous communities and their ways of life. In just a few months, I’ve seen BIPOC (black, indigenous, people of color) in common usage. It’s a small change, but I think language is crucial for reframing racist actions and imagining new ways forward. Like I said, I am deeply ambivalent about all this – I see reasons to hope for change, and reasons to worry that not enough is happening. I think what your comment reminds us, is that racism has always been normalized in the Americas since European colonization begin.


  4. Glad to see you posting again, Elise. It’s a VERY hard time for all of us who believe in justice and want to see it come about in our incredibly divided country. In Waco, TX you will probably see both sides of that division, but hopefully when you’re teaching ethics, you’ll have a place where compassion and love are more significant than the hate that is being preached in our land. The value foundations of left and right are different (see Haiedt’s _The Righteous Mind_), but I believe that they overlap enough to at least have a civil conversation. Understanding one another “across the aisle” is the first step to creating change that works for the common good. At least I hope that’s true.


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