Intersectional Theology: A Prophetic Call for Change

Intersectional Theology: A Prophetic Call for Change
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You’ve probably seen the photos: In one, a half dozen powerful white men flank the president while he signs the global gag order that prevents international organizations from receiving US aid funds if they so much as mention the word “abortion;” in the other, the president and vice president are surrounded by powerful white men from the congressional Freedom Caucus to talk about removing requirements for insurance coverage for maternity care. Nary a woman is in sight for either photo... or for the discussions about women’s health at the center of these photo ops.

On the other hand, every day the news, Facebook, and Twitter bombard us with stories about the next law, policy, or executive order issued by the Trump administration that targets women, people of color, LGBTQ people, immigrants, and the poor. Taken together, those photos and these policies highlight an intentional and concerted effort to enhance the fortunes of the already privileged and further marginalize those outside this “mythical norm”—white, male, heterosexual, able-bodied, native-born, young to middle aged, and Christian.

And the further from the norm, the greater the marginalization. This marginalization, however, is not simply additive, but rather social categories of gender, race, class, and other forms of difference interact with and shape one another within interconnected systems of oppression. These systems of oppression—sexism, racism, colonialism, classism, ableism, nativism, and ageism—work within social institutions such as education, work, religion, and the family (what Black feminist theorist Patricia Hill Collins calls “the matrix of domination”) to structure our experiences and relationships in such a way that we participate in reproducing dominance and subordination without even realizing it.

These systems teach us how to see the world, how to evaluate each other, and how to treat one another based on our differences. In a larger sense, these systems shape society in ways that reinforce the dominance of men over women, whites over people of color, heterosexuals over LGBTQ people, and so on. Even more complicating are the intersections of difference that create, for example, different experiences of sexism for white women than for women of color or different experiences of racism for Black women than for Black men. Law professor Kimberlé Crenshaw calls this phenomenon “intersectionality.”

Crenshaw explains intersectionality through this story from the courts. In DeGraffenreid v General Motors, a group of Black women sued the company alleging discrimination against Black women in the company’s seniority system. The court found against the women. Because General Motors could show that it had hired women (white women), the plaintiffs could not show that the company had discriminated on the basis of gender. The court recommended the women join another case alleging racial discrimination, but the plaintiffs refused because this recommendation overlooked that their claim alleged both race and sex discrimination. The court, nonetheless, refused to acknowledge Black women as a special class.

Intersectionality recognizes how power works across multiple forms of difference and acknowledges that oppressive powers cannot be isolated or examined separately from one other. Rather, intersectionality pays attention to the ways social differences give shape to one another and demands that remedies to discrimination and oppression also attend to these intersections.

Religion as a social institution is not exempt from the effects of intersectionality. As a part of the matrix of domination, religion plays a role in maintaining hierarchies of power. Christianity specifically has been a key player in reproducing systems of oppression throughout history through its support for the domination of women, imperialism, capitalism, slavery, segregation, and anti-LGBTQ legislation. In recent years, Christians have misused scripture and theology to maintain social inequality, and, most recently, many Christians have supported the anti-woman, anti-immigrant, anti-people of color, anti-LGBTQ, anti-poor rantings and policies of the Trump administration.

Even among progressive Christians, often the tendency has been to develop theologies of liberation focused on one’s own oppression without accounting for one’s privilege and attending to the intersections of difference at work, even in liberatory theologies.

The time has come for progressive Christianity to center intersectionality in its biblical interpretations, theologies, and church practices. We cannot develop feminist theologies without attending to race, sexual identity, social class, ability, gender identity, and age. We cannot develop queer theologies that do not account for race and class, for age and ability. We cannot develop racial/ethnic theologies that do not attend to gender and sexual identity. When we create a singular identity as normative for any liberatory theology, we marginalize the intersections of diverse people within a group, who experience oppressions in varying ways because of the intersections.

We propose an Intersectional Theology, a theology that begins in the intersections and moves toward liberation and justice for all people inclusive of all their differences. We propose an intersectional hermeneutic that begins with examinations of the biblical text’s imperial history and highlights the intersectional lives of biblical characters—Jesus, a Jewish man of the working class living under a colonial power; Paul, a character full of challenges and contradictions as a Jewish man and Christian convert with Roman citizenship; the Samaritan woman, the hemorrhaging woman, the Canaanite women, the Ethiopian eunuch, Peter and Cornelius.

We propose an Intersectional Theology that leaves no one out, that leaves no one’s experience unconsidered in exploring and expanding our ideas of God, sin, redemption, and the church, and that leaves no one’s oppression unchallenged and no system of oppression intact.

In our present political climate, we desperately need an Intersectional Theology to offer a prophetic call to the church to engage theologically and socially in resistance to the institutions and ideologies that perpetuate oppression. In centering intersectionality, we answer the call of the “least of these,” and we position the church, not as a complicit institution, but as a leader in a vision toward God’s kin-dom that welcomes, affirms, encourages, and supports all of God’s children in all of their God-given complexity.

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