Intersectional Theology: An Introductory Guide by Grace Ji-Sun Kim and Susan Shaw
There is lots of conversation right now about Critical Theory especially as it is related to the more recent development of Critical Race Theory. I am far from a scholar about either, but I have done long form reading and a lot of short-form, podcast, and video learning, and to my untrained eye, Intersectionality is the most helpful and arguably the most misunderstood aspect of Critical Race Theory (CRT).
I am not going to fully explicate this book. I would need to read it again to do a better job at that. But I do have 50 highlights or notes that are public from the book. One of the aspects of discussing Intersectionality that is difficult is that there is a lot of particular languages that have different uses depending on the section. The implication of that is that it is rare for there to be pithy quotes, not just because of the jargon or technical language, but because internally to many quotes, there has to be the nuanced explication of what is and is not being said at any point. I found myself often highlighting not just whole paragraphs, but often whole pages to make sure I had enough to make sense of the idea later when I want to look back.
A good example of this is the following quote that sets up the book:
For most of Christian history, written theology has been the purview of educated, heterosexual, white, Western men. Challenges to the homogeneity of Christian theology arose in the mid-twentieth century through theologies of liberation that gave historical and social context to those doing the theologizing. Latin American, feminist, minjung, womanist, mujerista, and queer theologies emerged to contest the assumed neutrality and objectivity of white, male theologies. Recognizing the importance of social location for how theology is done and its contents, these theologies centered the marginalized and articulated theologies from below. While the center shifted to diverse identities, these theologies still tended to be mono-focused, or what feminist scholar Vivian May calls “gender-first” or “race-first,” an approach that gives priority to one facet of identity as explanatory for experiences of oppression. And so, white feminists often wrote about gender as if it were a monolithic category, overlooking or minimizing the ways race and sexuality shape individuals’ experiences of gender. Latin American liberationists wrote within a context of struggle in Central and South America but did not address the role of gender in the ethnic and class struggles of Latin America…Rather than applying “single-axis” thinking, intersectional analysis relies on “both/and,” an analytical lens that allows for the complexities and contradictions of holding positions of dominance and subordination at the same time and having those concurrent locations mold and fashion experiences that are not race or gender or race plus gender but are rather the confluence of race and gender into something that is both and neither.
The concept of intersectional theology is not going to be easy to achieve as this quote points out:
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
Intersectional theology is not an academic exercise, but one that is activist-oriented:
…intersectionality is a lens for understanding how gender, race, social class, sexual identity, and other forms of difference work concurrently to shape people and social institutions within multiple relationships of power. It is kaleidoscopic, constantly rendering shifting patterns of power visible. It is confluent, a juncture point where identities, locations, institutions, and power flow together creating something new. It is a praxis—an ongoing loop of action-reflection-action—that integrates social justice–oriented theory with activism toward social justice on the ground so that theory informs practice and practice informs theory.
There are six aspects to intersectionality in the book (these are all direct quotes)
- Social inequality: Intersectionality recognizes the simultaneous and multiple factors that contribute to social inequality.
- Power: Power is constructed, maintained, and distributed in the interactions of gender, race, nation, and other forms of difference within interlocking systems of oppression.
- Relationality: Relationality demands a both/and approach rather than an either/or approach.
- Social context: All power relations occur within a context, and so intersectional thinking requires we consider the historical, social, intellectual, political, and religious contexts that give shape to our analysis.
- Complexity: By refusing a single-axis analysis, intersectionality creates space for complexity, fluidity, and even contradiction in our understandings of power, privilege, inequality, and resistance.
- Social justice: Intersectionality, as May has argued, is biased toward social justice.
Intersectional analysis, then, functions with its bias toward justice to uncover and restructure power relations by dismantling oppressive ideologies, practices, and institutions.
One of the more common misconceptions of intersectionality is that it is a type of game where people add up all of their ‘oppression points’ and whoever has the most gets to ‘win’. But central to the concept of intersectionality is privilege, all people both have both aspects of their lives that privilege and oppression. The point is not who has the most oppression points, but that we pay attention to how different issues of power or social location act differently. That should not work toward dividing us, but, “intersectionality is also a coalitional politics; it challenges us to work together across differences to create change toward social justice in such a way that we do not fragment ourselves or deny any aspect of ourselves.”
In trying to construct a theology that is intersectional, there are four commitments: (again long)
“Honor and foster intersectionality’s antisubordination orientation.” Because it is biased toward justice, intersectionality rejects the subordination of individuals or groups. For theology, this suggests focused attention toward constructing theologies that purposefully destabilize structures of power and facilitate inclusion and equity.
“Draw on intersectionality’s matrix approach to meaningfully engage with heterogeneity, enmeshment, and divergence.” May encourages us to keep on center differences within categories so we don’t negate in-group differences and ignore the impact of, for example, the intersection of race with gender.
“Take up intersectionality’s invitation to follow opacities and to read against the grain.” Reading against the grain invites us to approach traditional theological notions with skepticism and to make visible the workings of power in our usual way of thinking about theological doctrines and practices. It encourages us to move the voices of the marginalized to the center of our theologizing and recognize theological sources outside the typical norms of traditional theologies.
“Set aside norm emulation as a philosophical/political/research/policy [and we would add ‘/theological’] strategy.” Intersectionality invites theology to challenge its own disciplinary norms and to embrace imaginative, challenging, and disruptive ways of doing theology that resist hierarchy and work toward justice. An intersectional approach demands that we rethink our ways of doing theology and formulate theological methods that embed an intersectional lens.
The importance of intersectional theology is that is better reflects our actual world.
…intersectionality is a critical back-and-forth between individual persons and the collective political identities in which people find themselves within systems of domination and subordination. One’s identity is not monolithic but rather multidimensional, complex, and intersectional, situated within interlocking structures of power. One’s identity includes and is not limited to ethnicity, class, race, sexuality, gender, and ability, which all intersect and are interdependent. Our lives are complex and our multiple identities are not mutually exclusive. Therefore the axes of classism, racism, homophobia, ableism, and other issues play a role in characterizing ourselves and how we engage in the struggle for social justice. Audre Lorde states, “There is no such thing as a single-issue struggle, because we do not live single-issue lives.”
These two quotes sum up the book well:
Central to intersectional theology is a focused and humble cognizance of how one’s own social location affects how one does theology. In other words, intersectional theology begins in a recognition that all theologies are contextualized and that contextualization matters.
In particular, intersectional theology investigates the roles of structures and power in theologizing and directs theologizing toward social justice. Intersectional theology recognizes that all people exist in different relations to social, economic, political, and religious power within the matrix of domination and that theologies from these various locations will offer us new, unexpected, and necessary viewpoints to move us toward a greater collective knowledge of God and work toward justice.