Intersectional Theology: An Introductory Guide, Grace Ji-Sun Kim and Susan M. Shaw. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2018.
Summary: An introduction to the application of intersectional analysis to theology, understanding how identities and social locations within systems of power might both challenge and shape our theological understanding and praxis.
I would like to begin by thanking one of the authors (Grace Ji-Sun Kim) for affording me the opportunity to review this book. Typically, white, cisgendered heterosexual males, who are aging boomers, who self-identify as evangelical tend not to embrace conversations about intersectionality. I appreciate the trust extended to be included in that conversation!
Actually, my self-description illustrates the basic idea of intersectionality. There are multiple axes that make up who I am–age, race, gender and sexual identity, physical abilities or disabilities, religious identifications, family background, marital status, education, income and social class. In my case, these axes have afforded “an invisible package of unearned assets” that some would call “privilege.” I’ve only ever been stopped by a police officer for violating speed laws, and invariably treated with courtesy. I’ve never had difficulty securing credit or a loan. I’ve never been mocked or excluded because of my sexual orientation or marital status. In one church, I had to accept a male co-teacher even though my first choice was a woman who was better qualified. I’ve worked in an organization whose funding model works best for white men, less so for women and persons of color. Especially so for those who may be women and persons of color. It has shaped how I read the Bible. For example, it has not been until relatively recently that I fully grasped that both the people of Israel and the early Christians were subject peoples to imperial powers for much of their history and that much of scripture is God’s word to enslaved or subject peoples, including prophecies against the unjust use of power by those who do not fear God.
Intersectionality as an idea arose out black feminism as black women understood that it was not enough to understand the differentials of power and the effects of oppression that came from being a black, or being a woman. These identities come together to shape people and institutions and the power relations between them. Also, as an analysis that arises on the receiving end of unjust uses of power, it is constantly connecting theory and praxis–reflection and action to pursue justice.
In this work, subtitled “An Introductory Guide,” the authors apply this approach to doing theology. They contend that much of the church’s theological scholarship has been done by white, male, Euro-Americans (people like me!) and reflects our social location. Furthermore, some of the theological work that has been done in resistance to this culturally dominant group, like liberation theology, or feminist theology, often is along a single axis of ethnicity, or gender, and is not cognizant of the multiple ways different aspects of identity are shaped by power relations.
The authors introduce us to this approach first by giving some of the history that I touched on above of the development of intersectional analysis. They then illustrate intersectionality as it relates to theological ideas with their own narratives. Grace Ji-Sun Kim describes her experiences as a Korean-American immigrant, a woman, heterosexual, being raised in both a Korean Presybterian context and American schools. Susan M. Shaw describes growing up in a Southern Baptist tradition, wanting to engage in ministry but being barred, first because she is a woman, and then even more, as she comes to terms with her lesbian orientation, leading her to become a member of the United Church of Christ.
The third chapter then describes what it means to do intersectional theology. One of the key proposals here is that intersectional theology is a “theology of indeterminacy” rather than one that articulates absolute truth claims. Practicing intersectional theology involves “bracketing” our own understanding to enter into the logic of others’ frameworks. It recognizes that theological work is done in a context and asks how our own interpretive community has influenced our interpretations. It forces one to examine whether one is using a single axis of one’s identity and muting others. Oriented toward justice, intersectional theology looks at how a theology either supports or challenges inequities.
Chapter four explores reading the Bible intersectionally, and this I found quite helpful. They use the example of the book of Ruth, looking at the different identities of Ruth, the widowed Moabite woman immigrant, Naomi, the bereft Jewish mother unable of her own to assert her inheritance rights with no male offspring, and Boaz, the male, Jewish landowner. They note for example, that we think of Galatians 3:28 as separate, rather than intersecting identities (e.g.. male, Gentile, and slave).
Chapter five turns to the practice of intersectionality, both in terms of the pursuit of justice, and fostering the intersectional church. They advocate for a church that is fully intersectional and inclusive along all the axes of identity discussed including age, race, sexual identity and orientation, economic status and more.
There is much here that I appreciate. First is the recognition that we do not do our theological work in a vacuum but that it may well reflect one’s various axes of identity. Listening to those who are reading scripture who are not white, not male, not Western has opened my eyes to things in the biblical text to which I’ve been oblivious because of my own social location. Recognizing the complexity of the intersections of race, gender, orientation, and other aspects of our identity and how the mix reflects our experience of power and how we hear scripture, challenges the assumptions I make and my awareness of who “we” are together as the global body of Christ. Learning to “bracket” and incarnationally enter into the lived experience and theological frameworks of others seems crucial to developing the capacity to move beyond our identities to reflect what it means truly to be the body of Christ. The questions for reflection at the end of each chapter are among the most probing and thought-provoking I’ve seen, going far beyond the obligatory “reflection questions” I find in many books.
At the same time, I do find myself with some questions as I consider this proposal. One has to do with the authors’ comments about Karl Barth (p. 14). They are critical of Barth’s focus on the Bible alone and de-valuing context and social location. Yet it seems that it is precisely Barth’s understanding of the Bible that enables him to forcefully challenge and resist the social location of the Third Reich and the Christian nationalism of the German church in the formulation of the Declaration of Barmen, even though this was the context and social location out of which he theologized. Do we not read, and keep reading the Bible, and do so with the whole church, so that the Word of God might challenge the idolatries and injustices in all our social locations and contexts, be they places of power, or places of the oppressed?
I also wrestle with the language of a “theology of indeterminacy” which sounds like another way of speaking of the “pervasive interpretive pluralism” that Christian Smith has observed in his critique of “biblicist” Protestant Christianity. At times, intersectionality seems to hold out hope for different communities recognizing more truly the manifold revelation of God in Christ, and reflecting that in the mosaic of identities reconciled in Christ. Yet, the question arises of what we do when we have opposing interpretations, even when interpreters from different communities have bracketed, carefully listened, and still at the end of the day differ. What if we have examined our context and social location and believe our interpretations are not simply a function of our interpretive community? Still, it does seem that the sensitivity of intersectionality to justice means that it eschews moves that assimilate others into one’s own theological constructions or moving from the oppressed to the oppressor.
You can see from the length of this review that I found this a thought-provoking work. While I cannot embrace every conclusion or praxis advanced in this work, it does make me both more reflective about how my own context and various aspects of my identity shape how I read scripture and do theology. It made me want to listen more to voices outside my own social context. This is no small thing!
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.