The struggle for justice.
JUSTICE IN THE MAKING IS A RETrospective collection of essays and reviews by Beverly Wildung Harrison, interspersed by interviews with her. This collection was put together by her former graduate students and advisees who wanted to publish some of Harrison's unpublished work as well as some of her less well-known essays as a tribute to her on her retirement. Both Harrison and the editors also wanted a compilation of essays which could serve as an introductory text for social ethics. Beverly Harrison was the Carolyn Beaird Professor of Christian Ethics at Union Theological Seminary in New York where she taught for more than 30 years. [Full disclosure: While earning my Masters in theology at St. John's University in Jamaica, NY, I attended several workshops in which Harrison was a participant. After I started teaching religious studies at St. John's Prep in Astoria, NY, where I taught ethics to high school juniors, Harrison invited me to become part of the Northeast Feminist Ethics Consultation, of which she was a founder and member for more than 20 years until her retirement. Some of this history is mentioned in her introduction to the collection.]
Harrison is, perhaps, best known for her book Our Right to Choose: Toward a New Ethic of Abortion (1983), a major and "indispensable contribution to contemporary ethical thought about abortion" to quote Rosemary Radford Ruether's blurb from the book jacket of that book. The roots to Our Right to Choose can be seen in Justice in the Making. As with any scholarly life, there is a process and development that occurs over the life course. Justice in the Making allows us insight into that process. Along with the interviews, Harrison reveals her evolution in moral and social ethics as she wrote and taught on these issues. And for Harrison, writing and teaching are intimately linked. She sees her work with her former students, now scholars and teachers in their own right, as a collaboration that is "grace-filled beyond belief" (p. x). So this life-long process is also an intergenerational one where we see Harrison's work bearing fruit in others.
The book is divided into three parts reflecting Harrison's ethical interests: i) Liberatory Feminist Ethics, ii) Working with Protestant Traditions and iii) Christian Ethical Praxis and Political Economy. Although separate, each part is related to Harrison's vision of ethics which is feminist and rooted in Protestant Christianity. Part One, I think, is most revealing both of Harrison herself and her journey into feminism. A quote at the very beginning of Part One lays out her vision:
It is no secret that I am one who works from a perspective of liberation theology and, therefore, aspires to a social ethic (all ethics being social) aimed to challenge not merely unjust acts, but structures and institutional patterns of power and their attendant structures of privilege (p. 1).
The essays in Part One take on sexism, heterosexism and the pervasive sex negativity in many religious traditions but especially Christianity, which according to Harrison, do great harm to women's and men's lives by legitimating a "negative antisexual, antifemale, antisensuality heritage" in western culture (p. 55). She makes the connections between this heritage and the present struggle for reproductive rights and justice. This section alone makes the book an excellent resource for people working in the related areas of gender and sexuality.
For Roman Catholics, Harrison's dialogue in Part Two with Protestant Liberalism and theologians such as Reinhold Niebuhr and Paul Tillich gives us insight into what we share and how we differ in doing ethics. She also takes up a discussion with feminist thea(o)logies and the ongoing tensions with post-modern academic culture that seem to undermine a feminist stance for social justice. Referring to Mary Daly, a post-Christian feminist, Harrison makes an excellent case about why feminists stay and fight from within their religious traditions as opposed to leaving them. Doing ethics from an oppositional standpoint on the margins is not easy, but Harrison's life demonstrates that it can be done and, in the process, "broaden concrete participation in the work of constructing and expanding women's theological 'knowledge'" (p. 116). I would add that Harrison's work and through her students the continued work on and about feminist ethics has expanded the field of ethics itself in many religious traditions.
WHAT, I THINK, HAS MADE Harrison's work so important is her insistence on connecting the ethical project with political economy. One of her insights made in Our Right to Choose, reinforced in a later collection of essays, Making the Connections: Essays in Feminist Social Ethics, edited by Carol S. Robb (1985), and emphatically restated in Justice in the Making, is that ethics cannot be done, theorized about, or applied in a vacuum. People's lives, especially women's, are lived within social structures that can be oppressive and constraining. Choices made within these conditions are, many times, not the optimal ones we would choose. Harrison's point brings into play sociological and psychological dimensions that theologians and ethicists have long neglected. She points out where Catholic and Protestant traditions have failed to make these connections but she also shows where each has strengths with insights into such issues as poverty and the economy and where Catholics and Protestant Christians could enhance their ethical teachings by learning from each other. Harrison states emphatically that religious social ethics must take into account that "racism, sexism, and cultural imperialism are intrinsic systemic dimensions of our political economy. That the wealth ... of the world is controlled by rich, white, male Europeans and North Americans, and a very limited number of confreres in East Asia and elsewhere" and that these facts need "to become explicit in our theology, morality, and social theory" (p. 171). In another essay, Harrison pushes further and shows that Christian feminism also needs to do better in explaining social class to the women and men in the pews. Connections need to be made between reproductive rights and economic rights.
A final interview with former student Pamela Brubaker, now a professor of religion, gives voice to how Harrison envisions "living in resistance." How does a feminist ethicist continue to live and work while struggling with that family of oppressions: sexism, racism, classism, heterosexism and imperialism? Ever the teacher, Harrison maintains hope in finding openings for "truth telling and education" and that, although difficult, "living in resistance to lies and half-truths is more fun and more interesting than pretending that everything is just hunky-dory" (p. 216). At the end of the book, the editors give brief summaries of how they resist and work towards justice because of Beverly Harrison's influence on and presence in their lives. I think Traci West speaks best when she talks about "justice making even when you don't feel like it." Her solution learned from her mentor is that you can't do it alone. Each of these women urges that we join in community to struggle for justice's sake. Beverly Harrison has been key in creating and supporting a variety of these communities through her teaching, her writing and her participation. This collection of essays should inspire us to continue our work for reproductive justice.
SUSAN A. FARRELL, PH.D. is professor of Sociology and Women's Studies at Kingsborough Community College and co-editor with Victoria Lee Erickson of the forthcoming Still Believing: Jewish, Christian, and Muslim Women Affirm Their Faith (Orbis Press, 2005).
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|Title Annotation:||book by Beverly Wildung Harrison|
|Author:||Farrell, Susan A.|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2005|
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