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I/We - Intersectionality

By Rev. Dr. Fritz Ritsch

Jan 12, 2020

Recently, I heard the man who facilitated the Fort Worth Race & Culture Commission, Estrus Tucker, give a talk about intersectionality. What is intersectionality, you ask? Estrus defines intersectionality as the ways that humans who are otherwise different from one another, connect in other shared commonalities. For instance, our society has created stratifications by which we identify one another and often also identify ourselves. We are white, black, Asian, or another ethnic or racial identity. We are rich, poor, or middle class, with various sub-categories within those economic identities. We are Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Sikh, humanist, other, or no religion at all. When we take surveys or tests, they will ask us which of those pre-set categories we fit into. We often think of ourselves that way, and view others through that lens.

But the truth is that each of us, as individuals, are far more than that. I remember one of my parishioners at my church in Maryland telling me how frustrating he found it that there were so many people who simply saw him as gay and assumed that said everything about him that they needed to know. “I am a Christian, I am a musician, I am a government employee, I am an actor. I love dogs and I don’t like to cook. I vote republican more often than not. My mother is dying and I am heartbroken. My sexuality is maybe 5% of who I am, but to so many people that’s all I am!”

This, says Estrus, is the key to intersectionality. It is the diversity within each of us. We are all so much more than the societal labels we often stratify ourselves by. We see it here in the church, for instance. We have different political views, live in different zip codes, are in different economic strata, are different races, sexes, and genders. We run the gamut of ages and family arrangements. We have very different theological views from one another. By society’s balkanized standards, it would be mystifying that we all not only interact together, but like one another, pray for one another, support one another in crisis, celebrate with one another in joy, and listen to and respect one another’s opinions when we make decisions. But this is because our lives have intersected in this church. Something about St. Stephen has created common ground for us. I’m not even going to say that what binds us together is that we are Christians, because within these walls we have a wide variety of differing beliefs about God and Jesus and people who are still trying to decide what they believe; they just feel like St. Stephen is a safe place to work all that out.

Intersectionality, says Estrus, is a key way we overcome the tensions and stratifications that separate us and cause us to suspect, fear, distrust, and even hate one another. We intersect over all sorts of things—hobbies, careers, shared experiences. Estrus’ fellow presenter talked about the importance of intersectionality in the workplace, how research has shown that having a diverse team creates far more success for the company you work for because it allows you to hear ideas and opinions you would never have heard otherwise and so you can more effectively market your services to a diverse market. That’s one of the great benefits of intersectionality—it enables us to understand better people, opinions, and ideas different from our own and to respect those differences.

Intersectionality is the way the complexity of who we are as individuals can overcome the over-simplicity of the way that society tries to define us. Intersectionality helps us understand that actually we share a lot of things in common. Even suffering—maybe especially suffering—can become an intersectional event. My friend I mentioned earlier pointed out that his mother was dying. All of us have lost loved ones. Suffering and loss can bond us to one another in ways that overcome all differences and connect us at our very soul.

Christians believe in a kind of theological intersectionality. What we believe is that just as each of us has something in us that bonds us to the many despite our differences, so it is that in Jesus, God made human, there is something that despite all our differences with God, nonetheless binds us to God. That same thing has the ability to overcome all our differences with one another.

Our passage from Isaiah is one of the “suffering servant” passages; a lot of us are familiar with them from Handel’s Messiah. In this particular passage we are told of an individual who will be God’s righteous servant.

Here is my servant, whom I uphold,
    my chosen, in whom my soul delights;
I have put my spirit upon him;
    he will bring forth justice to the nations.
He will not cry or lift up his voice,
    or make it heard in the street;
a bruised reed he will not break,
    and a dimly burning wick he will not quench;
    he will faithfully bring forth justice.
He will not grow faint or be crushed
    until he has established justice in the earth…

Ah, we think, some great individual, some messianic figure will come along and straighten everything out in God’s name! But then almost immediately our assumption is turned on its head, because we realize that these words aren’t to an individual: they’re to a nation. God is talking to God’s people, Israel, who are called to be a light to the other nations of the world. These are words spoken to a people divided from one another by fear and resentment; scarred by war, defeat, and exile; and alienated from God by prior faithlessness. For us Christians, this is often taken as a passage about Jesus: about Jesus being the righteous servant who will bring forth justice. But in the context it was written some seven hundred years before Jesus, and to Jews today, this isn’t about an individual, but about a nation, a people, who have by the grace of God overcome their differences with God and one another so that they can unite toward a common goal—a goal of establishing God’s justice on earth and shining a light to all the nations. For us Christians, this is about the Holy Spirit, who unifies us into the Body of Christ, bringing God’s redemption to a needy world.

This passage blurs the distinction between the individual and the corporate, between the “I” and the “we,” between “me” and “us.” This is what intersectionality does—it blurs the distinction between “I” and “we” and helps us to find ways to be at one and the same time, unique individuals who are complex and many-faceted but also to have a sense of a corporate identity that is larger than any simple category. The great thing about intersectionality is that each of us has something in common with literally everybody on earth. What we are challenged to do is focus on what we have in common, rather than what makes us different.

Now of course a problem immediately arises. People will say, then why do certain groups, especially minority groups, self-identify a certain way and demand rights and change? Well, in the first place, intersectionality isn’t about pretending you aren’t different from other people. A person’s race, religion, sexuality, nationality, political opinion and so forth are also part of who they are, so of course we shouldn’t be surprised when we—and all of us do it—group ourselves in those ways.

But in addition to that, these groups are pushing back against a society that sees them only through the lens of stereotypes of that particular race, ethnicity, sexual identity, or other category. They are saying, “See us as more than the stereotypes you have cast us as.” They’re protesting the way society has cast them as second-class citizens because of those characteristics; the way society often stubbornly refuses to see their human complexity and not only does not give them the respect they deserve, it often victimizes them because of it. It’s about justice.

Our Isaiah passage tells us something important about that bridge of intersectionality that God has created. When we find that intersectionality with one another, when we find the ways that we can be at once unique and part of the larger corporate whole, we become by the grace of God also empowered to bring about God’s justice in the world. In other words, when we find our corporate common ground, then our individual differences actually make us stronger. Community organizers talk about this a lot. Societal change happens a lot better, and with far more permanence, if it is pushed forward by a diverse group of people rather than a monolithic group of people.

Years ago in Maryland, my church was part of a group that was trying to get the school system to adopt all-day kindergarten in poorer neighborhoods. Efforts had been made many times in the past and good intentions abounded but ultimately nothing seemed to stick. As we thought about it, we realized that it wasn’t just poor folks who wanted all-day K—everybody wanted all-day K! Rich, poor, every creed, color, culture and zip code—everybody wanted all-day K. So we changed the conversation so that now it was about universal all-day kindergarten. We got parents and groups from every part of the county to support it. That diverse constituency accomplished what had failed so often in the past: it provided all-day kindergarten for the poor because it provided all-day kindergarten for everybody. Our similarities united us, but our differences were what made us strong.

This is Baptism Sunday. It’s the day we remember that we here are all mysteriously and graciously bound together, despite all that could divide us, by our intersectionality as the people of God redeemed by Jesus Christ. Our corporate identity as God’s people honors our individual uniqueness even as it binds us all together as one. That corporate identity as God’s people is made stronger by the fact that we are otherwise so different and diverse. If people so different can be united by this shared bond, that adds strength to the case we make about God’s transcendent love shown us in Jesus Christ. That in turn is a powerful witness to the world that what we believe can bring healing and wholeness to the world.

Our similarities unite us; our differences make us strong. A whole lot of healing could happen in the world if people everywhere could only remember that.

Isaiah 42: 1-7  

Matthew 3: 13-17