Hanging with Christian Ethicists (not as boring as you might think)

by Sarah Withrow King

Today's special at the bakery is scruples.

cartoon by andrewgenn / iStockphoto.com

I hate conferences, as a rule. So many of them tend to be expensive gatherings of people who agree with one another bloviating and jockeying for approval from their peers. Even activism conferences can tend towards the theoretical, leaving folks with new knowledge and no way to apply it to the daily work of making the world a little bit better. The food can also be really bad. No. Thank. You.

But for two consecutive years, I have dragged myself north in the bitter winter to attend the Society of Christian Ethics meetings. And I'll go back again next year.

I'm a bit of an outsider at SCE. I don't have a PhD and am not a professor. I spent 10 years working for PETA. I'm a relatively young female. But as I walked through the halls this year, I felt a profound sense of belonging and warmth. It's a place where you can walk up to a theologian you admire (or disagree with) and strike up a meaningful conversation. A place where a stranger like me can sit down at a table with three theological lions and be welcome to listen, ask questions, and share. A place where you can walk into a presentation a little bit late, ask a random dude to move his program so you can sit in the chair next to him, and then realize that's Stanley Hauerwas and now you'd really better pay attention, and when you introduce yourself afterwards, he'll be very gracious.

That's not to say that SCE doesn't have issues. It's a space that is still predominantly male and white. There seems to be a struggle between those who want to practice "pure scholarship" and those who lean towards scholar-activist methodologies. As a super newbie, I'm not in a position to claim to know much about SCE's history or future. But I do know my experience.

This year, I learned that more and more seminary programs are eliminating the requirement for Christian ethics courses from their graduate degree programs. I was reminded that people of color and women are dramatically underrepresented in graduate theological schools. Dramatically. Criminally. My experience at Palmer Seminary, where I was taught theology from the margins, where my classmates and professors truly represented the diversity of the Kingdom of God, and where the first class I took was in ethics, is apparently far from the norm in theological education.

Sure, there's a fair share of high-theory presentations on offer at SCE. But there is also an amazing number of presentations that take ethics out of the classroom and into the living rooms and lives of people who need pastors and professors who articulate a clear call for Spirit-empowered, Jesus-led peace and justice that promotes flourishing for the whole world. And in this time of extraordinary conflict and division, the church needs these folks more than ever. What does the church have to offer to people devastated and displaced by war, and how will the church respond when political and religious leaders want to close the door to those in need? What does Christianity have to say to families displaced by flooding and other environmental disasters caused by climate change? What does the church have to say to children in Flint, Michigan, and other communities where being poor is life-threatening? How will the church act in the face of mass incarceration of black and brown bodies? It can be easy to look around the world and feel totally helpless, unsure of where to begin to deal with these overwhelming questions.

But some of my friends at SCE know just where to start. They're speaking up. And I'm listening.

So, see you in New Orleans to talk about these questions and more, awesome theology nerds.

Sarah Withrow King is the Deputy Director of the Sider Center and the author of two forthcoming books, Animals Are Not Ours (No Really, They're Not): An Evangelical Animal Liberation Theology. (Wipf & Stock) and Vegangelical: How Caring for Animals Can Shape Your Faith (Zondervan).

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