Disruptive Christian Ethics: When Racism and Women’s Lives Matter (WJK Press, 2006)

[1] Disruption has a negative connotation in a culture that wants to be orderly and efficient. Society should run smoothly, so the belief goes, with minimal disruption to its political, economic and social order. In such a society, everyone benefits. But do they? Is it possible, even probable, that what we see as social order is just a façade that allows some people the privilege of an easier life while other people suffer oppression and marginalization behind the façade? Is it possible that the social ideas and practices used to maintain the façade are the very things that deny some people the privileges that a healthy society should provide?

[2] Traci West answers these questions with a resounding “yes!” In her book, West develops an approach to Christian Social Ethics that is designed to disrupt the Christian church’s actions in contemporary U.S. social structure so that Christians can tear back the curtain behind which the privileged in the United States hide to expose those who have been victimized by the façade of order. In this short but dense book, she offers a primer on what she calls liberative Christian Social Ethics so as to “discover less brutalizing and demeaning ways of building just and compassionate relationships within and across differing communities.” (xi) Christian ethics, she argues, has a constructive role in this communal building process across social boundaries. She contends that the liberative Christian Social Ethics approach is the most helpful method in achieving her goal of disrupting contemporary social orders and creating strategies for “radically social-order-changing engagement” among people. (xii)

[3] Throughout this book, West focuses her attention on three primary social disorders: sexism, racism, and heterosexism. Using powerful real life experiences of women, people of color (especially black women) and gay and lesbian persons, as well as ethical and social theory and practice from Christian and secular scholarship, she establishes a dialogical approach that puts context and text into rich conversation. Such an approach trains Christians who are doing social ethics to have deep conversations across boundaries, to pay attention to the daily conditions that affect marginalized people, and to consider multiple layers of assumptions in the social order that effect marginalization. Both theory and particular social practices are crucial to this approach, as is context, though she does allow a scrutinized place for the universal in her ethical method. With this method, West hopes to hone in her readers the ability to recognize and oppose racism and sexism in ways traditional Christian ethics has been unable to do.

[4] After an introduction that describes the basic foundations of her liberative Christian Social Ethic, West guides her reader through several layers of how she uses this ethic to confront certain disorders of society. Each layer is articulated through a conversation between text (theory) and context (particular experiences of subjugation by a marginalized group). Chapters one and two focus on ideas and concepts while the last three chapters study practices.

[5] In Chapter One, West places ideas from Reinhold Niebuhr’s social ethics in conversation with the experiences and practices of activist African American women who lived during Niebuhr’s time. Her purpose is to broaden the sources of ethical knowledge; instead of allowing the elite individualized “great thinker” to be the primary universalized voice that pronounces ethical claims from on-high, she demands the inclusion of contextual thinkers and doers as equal partners in the conversation. Here the African American women of the 1930’s who are struggling for respect and dignity are able to make ethical claims against the racist society they live in and challenge Niebuhr’s ideas as much as Niebuhr is allowed to speak from an “objective” distance as an elite ethicist. For West, the universalizing assertions of all “great thinkers” should be scrutinized and changed as they come into contact with the lives of actual marginalized persons.

[6] In Chapter Two, West reinterprets concepts and terms assumed in Christian social ethics by listening to the contextual experiences of women who have been sexually assaulted such as urban sex workers, female prisoners, and those women marginalized due to their race, class, and sexual identity. She argues that ethical concepts such as autonomy, justice, and violence take on new or deeper meanings when applied to specific women’s lives and experiences. For example, the definition of sexual assault should include women’s emotional and intuitive perceptions of sexual violation as valid ethical knowledge in challenging a social order that only accepts the so-called “objective” male definition as its official criteria. This broader understanding of terms and concepts aids in discovering criteria and practices for struggling against the dehumanizing sexual assaults of marginalized women.

[7] Chapter Three places Mary’s song (the Magnificat) in conversation with the bigger issue of U.S. social welfare policy developed in the 1990’s to evaluate and subvert social values concerning poverty and race. Here the Bible, and particularly a woman’s voice from the scriptural narrative, becomes a tool of social challenge instead of being used to affirm the existing social order. West’s analysis portrays a social welfare system that needs to be resisted, disrupted and reversed, even if it means (as she suggests with only some irony) developing policies that regulate the personal behavior of the elite the same way a poor person’s behavior is controlled by the welfare policy.

[8] In Chapter Four, West looks at worship practices and experiences of white privilege in the Christian Church. Worship, she contends, is a space in which Christians are “enabled to publically rehearse” (112) their moral values and as such, worship practices should be designed to break social values that marginalize people. Using what she calls, “provocative and speculative questioning (113),” West attempts to deconstruct and disrupt existing worship practices that maintain white privilege. However, the abundance of speculation and too few specific examples of worship practices that actually construct and protect white privilege make this the least helpful chapter in West’s otherwise useful book.

[9] West’s book concludes with contemporary testimonies from black female ministers and activists who are working to disrupt heterosexism. From these testimonies, West gleans general ideas for courageously confronting and subverting the oppression of GLBT people and creating alternative models of ministry and outreach that ease their suffering. As powerful and enlightening as these testimonies are, however, West neglects to take the reader into a needed final chapter that would proactively imagine in greater detail the fruitful ideas and practices for building the healthy social relationships that she wants to encourage through her ethical method.​

[10] To those safely ensconced in a social order centered on the white, male, heterosexual privileged person, this book is indeed a disruptive force. If taken seriously and studied closely, West’s book provides rich analysis and useful ideas and tools for those students and ethically trained readers who care about disrupting the current social disorder in search for a healthier society that privileges everyone. Perhaps one limit to this text and thus West’s project overall is that it does not go far enough; rather it seems trapped in language and practice of disruption, deconstruction and resistance, leaving the seeker of real change wanting more ethical ideas and practices for actually reconstructing a racist, sexist and heterosexist society. While there are glimpses of such reconstruction throughout West’s book, movement beyond merely disrupting the status quo is needed. There are some people, including those who stand on the more privileged end of the social spectrum, who are willing and waiting to hear the specific dreams, ideas, and possibilities for constructing a better social order from the voices of those who are marginalized so that together we can find ways to “share power rather than hoard it” (xxi) and transform unjust interaction into healthy, wholesome and blessed relationships that benefit each person equally.

Laurie A. Jungling

Laurie A. Jungling, Ph.D, was an Associate Professor of Religion and Ethics at Augustana College in Sioux Falls, South Dakota and is in the process of returning to parish ministry.