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Doing Justice, Loving Mercy, Walking Humbly

Doing Justice, Loving Mercy, Walking Humbly

Elaine A. Heath, Ph.D.

President, Neighborhood Seminary

May 17, 2020

It will soon be two years since I stepped down from my position as Dean of Duke Divinity School and then retired a short time later from my faculty post so that I could lead Neighborhood Seminary. As I approach that anniversary, I have been thinking a lot about the divine mandate for doing justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly with our God (Micah 6:8) as institutional leaders in a profoundly polarized society. I have been especially pondering this scripture in light of the appalling deaths of Ahmad Arbery and Breonna Taylor, and far too many others.

While I was at Duke the top priority for the university administration was for me to initiate and lead multiple interconnected processes to dismantle racism and develop institutional structures that would foster equity, not only for racial minorities, but for members of the LGBTQIA community and for women. I have long been committed to and actively engaged in working for racial and gender justice and equity for the LGBTQIA community. Yet in my new role I learned much about dismantling systemic racism and other sinful “isms” within institutions. I want to reflect briefly on three of those things.

First, working for institutional equity can be lonely, painful, and exhausting. The journey is riddled with a range of conflicting spoken and unspoken assumptions from the people we serve and within ourselves as leaders. Our own life histories, gender, race, class, sexual orientation, physical and mental health deeply affect how we experience the complexities of this work. Staying the course requires attentiveness to spiritual and psychological self-care and self-differentiation, physical self-care, and a small community of friends and loved ones who are with us and for us over the long haul.

In my case, as a highly educated, ordained, straight, white woman who grew up in poverty and violence, I bring a particular set of experiences, skills, and viewpoints from the various social locations I have occupied. All of those particulars affect how I lead, and how I am perceived. In a racist society my whiteness is both asset and liability in working to dismantle racism. As Racial Equity Institute demonstrates in its excellent programs, white women in general rank very low in the hierarchy of who can be trusted by minority women. This is true for several reasons. For a brief overview, see Kim McLarin’s article, “Can Black Women and White Women Be True Friends” in the Washington Post, at this link: White women leaders like myself need to know about this dynamic and work actively to keep showing up and doing the work despite the fact that some individuals may never be able to trust us because the hurt has run so deep.

On the other end of the spectrum, leaders—regardless of race or gender—who are working to dismantle racism must contend with white fragility, the defensive reaction of our white colleagues (and ourselves) who do not want to engage in conversation or action toward dismantling racism because it is uncomfortable and disturbing. For more about white fragility see Robin Deangelo, White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk about Racism.

In the face of the pain many racially minoritized people have experienced from white women, and in the face of white fragility, as white women leaders we must nevertheless keep choosing to do what is right even when the people we serve and support are unable to trust us, unable to believe we are committed to justice, and may actively undermine our efforts toward systemic justice. Some people will be grateful for our work. Some will not be. Others will be actively hostile. For women leaders who have already had to fight institutional sexism throughout their careers, this dynamic can be especially painful and disconcerting. Regardless of the response of the people we serve it is the right thing to do. Dismantling systemic oppression by doing justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly is a central feature of the gospel. Doing the right thing is not about the popularity of the leaders or getting “likes” on social media, but about guiding the whole community to participate in God’s work of making all things new (Rev. 21:5). This work is inherently self-emptying, or to use a theological word from Philippians 2:5-11, is kenotic.

The other thing about dismantling racism and other forms of systemic oppression, related to its kenotic nature, is that this work really does take a village. Lasting, healthy systemic change cannot happen through one autocrat ruling by fiat, nor can it happen because of one charismatic leader beguiling everyone into a new day. It will not happen through one small group rising to power then bullying opposing groups into doing justice. Lasting, healthy, systemic change takes a broad coalition of good-willed, committed, courageous people working together to get the job done and putting institutional systems into place to make it more likely that the culture remains equitable into the future.

One of the things I admire most about Dr. William Barber II is his skill in building coalitions across groups that experience systemic oppression but historically have not worked well together for justice for all. (For more about Dr. Barber’s work in fusion politics see The Third Reconstruction, co-authored with Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove. Dr. Barber helps us understand this fact: until every minoritized group in our society experiences equity, none of us are truly free. For this reason the advancement of equity for black and brown people must coincide with and support the advancement of dignity and equity for Asians (who for example are now suffering increased racial violence due to scapegoating over COVID-19), and for the LGBTQIA community, religiously minoritized groups, and immigrants in our society.

Because coalition building requires relationship building, risk, and the growth of trust, this work takes time, persistence, and teamwork that is centered with representation from the groups that are minoritized. Systems change never happens overnight or without leadership from the groups that have the most at stake in seeking equity. As we continue to develop Neighborhood Seminary which is now in its fourth year, we seek to cultivate these principles and actions through our board of directors who guide the work of NS; through the theological voices, faculty, and curriculum; and through our partnerships and network connections with other organizations, non-profits and groups. Building an equitable system from the start is easier than leading an institution toward equity after decades of systemic injustice. But in a society that is riddled with sinful “isms” and “phobias” this work is never easy, fast, or automatic.

Change requires action from all of us, which the prophet Micah summarized as: doing justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly before our God. Each of us can and must speak out and do all that we can when we witness injustice in our neighborhoods, on our streets, and in our institutions. Not only must we intervene during and after a crisis, but we must put our collective shoulders to the wheel to build new systems that are equitable and humane, and change the old systems that produce patterns of injustice, including but not limited to citizens and police targeting neighbors who are “guilty” of driving, walking, jogging, shopping, or worshipping while black, brown, Asian, gay, Muslim, or migrant.

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