Growing up in the suburbs of Philadelphia, the heartland of American independence, I developed a deep appreciation for fireworks, parades, and the national ideals celebrated there: liberty and justice for all. From the perspective of my privileged, white, middle-class upbringing these ideals seemed clear and accessible. But as I grow into adulthood, I find that the layered realities of our national independence story bring me to a deeper reckoning with what liberty and justice truly mean. While these truths have been dawning on me for decades, the past few years have called me to truly account for the ways that I choose to embody these ideals.
On January 21, 2017, following the inauguration of Donald Trump as the forty-fifth president of the United States, I was one of the millions of Americans (estimations range from 3.3 to 4.6 million) who marched in protest across the country; this first annual Women’s March was the largest single day of protest in US history. And while it was a historic day for our nation, the march was profoundly impactful for me personally, as I wrestled—and now continue to wrestle—with my own personhood, my awareness of privilege, and my understanding of the nature of authority. My lifelong celebration of American independence is now being tempered by ongoing cries for justice and the deepening conviction that we who identify as the body of Christ have much work do to.
The presidential race leading to Donald Trump’s election was one characterized by extremes. On one hand was Mr. Trump himself. The slogan at the heart of his campaign struck a chord with a white majority that shares his ideals: Make America Great Again. His is a backward-looking stance, proclaiming that where our nation has been is better than where it has been going. To that end, since his election, President Trump’s main concerns have been to proclaim his own authority, to undo much of what had been done by President Obama, and to reestablish power and privilege for a certain kind of American.
Meanwhile, presidential candidate Hilary Clinton presented herself as the exact opposite. Her slogan, Stronger Together, called for a future of shared privilege; the word together signaled both difference and cooperation. Clinton’s orientation was forward-looking, toward where we are going and how we are growing as a nation rather than where we have been. Although she too was a controversial figure, for many voters, Clinton’s candidacy represented the hope of much-needed change and advancement. By virtue of her gender, she represented a shift in systemic power such that after hundreds of years American women and men might truly be considered equal.
The well-known phrase created equal has been a key refrain for reformers throughout our nation’s history, starting, of course, with the Declaration of Independence. Like the toll of our nation’s Liberty Bell, which is itself inscribed with the charge to “proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof,” the words created equal ring with a deep and profound gravitas. This gravitas is due in particular to the work of Martin Luther King Jr., a man whose prophetic leadership during the civil rights era helped both to reframe the life of the church in his day and to turn the tide of our collective consciousness toward a more just conversation about racial equality in America. It was during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom on August 28, 1963, that King delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech with the phrase created equal as a focal point. He was among a myriad of people of color who had fought for generations, marched countless miles, and told the truth of their experience again and again and again in the face of individual, collective, and systematic indifference, contempt, and violence.
Significant strides were made during the civil rights era toward a more just society, and these victories should be celebrated. One such victory was the passing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. This act addressed the de facto discrimination that had continued to operate at the state and local level after the Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution was passed in 1870; the act rendered illegal any remaining barriers placed upon African American men’s right to vote. In a democratic country, the opportunity for free and equal representation is essential in paving the way to true equality, yet our American systems still do not fully account for the African American experience. Violence, discrimination, and racism still frame the lives of countless Americans of color. Atrocities are ongoing, and yet many of us refuse to reckon with the truth of how we play a role in such harm.
The milestone represented by the Voting Rights Act brings to mind another important, complex, and intersecting story, that of women’s suffrage. Before 1920, not all American women could vote in local, state, and federal elections. Female suffragists at the turn of the century marched, protested, and petitioned for equal representation. They won, but their fight and their victory were highly particular—the achievement of these rights was realized primarily for white women. That is, the chief beneficiaries of the early twentieth-century fight for women’s suffrage were those who already enjoyed profound social and economic privilege.
This reality returns me to the present-day controversies surrounding President Trump. Much to my own surprise and chagrin, exit polls following Trump’s election indicated that a majority of white women had voted for him rather than for Clinton—when presented with our first opportunity to elect a fellow woman to the presidency, we voted instead for Donald Trump. We did so despite the countless occasions before (and after) he was elected president that Trump has demonstrated callous, careless, vulgar, and demeaning language and behavior toward women.
After Trump’s election, as I began to come to terms with what had happened and to read the statistics about white women’s voting trends, I noticed alarming realities that have lived inside my own body. I am now a white, middle-class American woman in my early thirties, the first and only woman in my family thus far to be living in my adulthood as an unmarried professional. I live with a great deal of privilege. And, though I had not voted for Donald Trump, I could feel the depth of my complicity within my story of privilege.
It was a strange feeling to see myself in those white women who voted for Trump, to imagine their thought processes and to observe how those same processes might be reflected in me. Living in fear, defending ideals, and perpetuating power for some at the expense of others—dynamics I observed in these women’s choice—was all too familiar. I was accustomed, I realized, to feeling less thanothers, to feeling powerless and internalizing messages of shame and responsibility. I had lived desperately trying to hold things together, to compensate for what appeared to me to be missing or absent, and by my participation within deeply embedded power structures, I had agreed that life could only be maintained at my own expense.
When Donald Trump was elected president, I heard my own need for liberation in the rallying cries of others. The time had come for me to step into my own power, to tell the truth, to own my own failures, and to give back responsibility that was not mine. I began to realize that I could be my own advocate and that I am called to steward my privilege on behalf of others whose voices the system has silenced completely. By joining the Women’s March, I chose to renounce narratives that silence any person’s suffering, to reclaim my voice, to fully inhabit my own body and personhood, and to grow better attuned to others as they do the same. In marching that day, I was profoundly impacted by the power that exists within an embodied and integrated human experience.
There is unfathomable diversity among the personalities within our American context. Our collective story is vast and ever changing, and our shared understanding of gender, politics, technology, religion, and every other aspect of our many intersecting cultures becomes richer the deeper we go into relationship with ourselves and with one another. This complexity also presents many challenges as we work toward agreements about who we are and what progress means for our nation. Religious scholar Phyllis Tickle explains how “cables of meaning” are held in a common story, a shared history by which people know themselves and others, and a common agreement “about how the world works.” Given the diversity of perspectives within American history, we have not yet arrived upon a common agreement. Collectively, we continue to wrestle with the true nature of personal independence, authority, and equality.
Perhaps more than ever before given the staggering number of people who participated, the Women’s March represented a new kind of agreement, representing not one kind of person but a much broader shared humanity. Unlike the marches of the past, the organizers of this march chose to embrace intersectionality, a concept of the utmost importance as we consider the challenges that remain before us.
Intersectionality is a term that was first conceived in the 1980s by Kimberlé Crenshaw, an African American professor of law. She introduced the concept in order to capture the ways that human systems like gender and race overlap for women of color in particular, contributing to their experience of discrimination and ongoing systemic injustice. A Huffington Post article tells the story of how, in the early stages of planning, the white women organizing the Women’s March named it the Million Women’s March, taking a name used by black activists in the mid-1990s. Given that white marches of the past have not always advocated for the rights of people of color, the taking of such a name was insensitive, to say the least. Again, systems of gender and race were interacting in such a way as to render black women’s experience invisible. However, some women of color stepped in to help shape the conversation in such a way as to include those who had been marginalized. Thus, guided by intersectionality, the Women’s March became a platform for advocacy on a much larger scale, bringing people from countless backgrounds into contact with one another, moving, literally, into a broader trajectory for change.
As a concept and a call, intersectionalityraises the stakes of empowerment. Living intersectionally calls me as a privileged white woman to recognize the ways that my experience is both similar to and different from that of other women, particularly that of women of color and others marginalized within American systems of power. Intersectional living acknowledges that there is not one human experience but countless human experiences interacting with one another to shape a more complete and shared experience. To be led by the principle of intersectionalityrequires mutuality and respect, the willingness to both inhabit my own experience and to remain open to listen to and learn from the experiences of others. Intersectionality thus shifts the dynamics of power out of competition and defensiveness and into vulnerability and cooperation.
As a way of being, intersectionality offers the church a window into what love actually looks like. Our sacred text, the Bible, is itself a document representing many intersections. It is a story told from approximately forty different perspectives (or authors) over hundreds of years and in many different places. The process of maintaining the canon has involved many choices, some of which may seem to limit its scope and possibility for impact. For example, the text often mirrors the patriarchal systems in which the stories were lived and recorded, privileging male perspectives and overlooking and/or omitting the female experience from its narratives. However, a single story remains at the heart of the text, one that I have known to be truly salvific given its deep and comprehensive intersectionality: the story of Jesus—Emmanuel, God with us, the love of God incarnate. The biblical narrative tells how Jesus inhabited human flesh and bone and was thus able to see, feel, taste, touch, hear, and heal within that human body.
Jesus’s relationship with his own power illustrates humility, fearlessness, and vulnerability, all of which are definitive for authority that is shaped by intersectionality. In his Letter to the Philippians, the Apostle Paul charged his contemporaries in this way:
Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Phil. 2:5–11 ESV)
Although all authority belonged to him, Christ “emptied himself,” as Paul writes. He willingly surrendered his title and his privilege as he took on the fullness of human embodiment and personhood. Although he had every right to stop it, to say no to the suffering projected onto him, and thus to leave humanity in our chosen state of defensiveness, fear, and alienation, Christ chose faithfulness, which meant remaining present in relationship with us, embodying the love of God for us as we proceeded to accuse, condemn, crucify, and disown him.
Too often, in an effort to remain faithful to Christ, Christians have insisted on telling one story about him. We have been determined to talk about one way that faith in Jesus can change you, one kind of relationship that is required for any person to be unified in him. In telling this one story, we have not held postures that are open to diversity and difference. We have not remained open to being impacted and moved by others’ dignity and suffering. The relationships we have cultivated in Jesus’s name have required those with whom we identify to be a certain kind of person, to agree with one view of Jesus, resulting from one particular way of reading the Bible, thereby perpetuating dynamics of false power and privilege. Our lens has become narrow, requiring us to sacrifice our own stories and the depth and complexity of our own experiences in order to maintain the story we are determined to tell. When we live with such a narrow lens, afraid of losing what we have, our own power and privilege will always be maintained at another’s expense.
However, the intersectionalityembodied by Jesus in the Bible stories enacts a direct reversal of such exclusive and defensive postures of power. Through Christ’s life and ministry of “emptying himself,” God honors and makes room for all those who are marginalized, bereft, and wrongly accused. His death on the cross and his resurrection three days later show us that he is the one who holds all power and bears the expense of all relationship, the costliness of remaining and bringing full liberation and equality to bear amidst all pain and injustice. Although Christ “empties himself” he always has more to give. True power is thus made evident in his full embodiment of love.
Jesus’s presence is the only sufficient source of the healing and forgiveness that every one of us so desperately needs. By Christ’s embodiment of love for us, God made infinite room for difference. Accepting both his authority to see what is true and his capacity to identify with us in the particularity of our suffering frees us from the binds that operate within human abuses of power. Remaining in Christ’s love, we are liberated from both judgment and fear, restored to our truest selves, and rendered free to tell the truth of our own experience while remaining in relationship with others as they do the same.
Meanwhile, the access that any one of us has to God’s love is not contingent on anyone else’s choices. God gives each of us ownership of our ability to see, to hear, to taste, and to touch what is true. In Christ, we thus find the utmost independence in dependence on him alone. We have choice in the kind of power we do or do not give others to impact us or to inform our experiences. Though we may choose poorly at times, no failure defines what is most true of us, nor what remains possible. That authority belongs only to Christ.
Jesus’s death and resurrection reveal an authority that has no fear and no limit, an authority established in love, with nothing to lose, that offers freedom and flourishing for all. The cross is thus the ultimate intersection, the perfect mirror for every human interaction, reflecting both the fullness of our failure to love and the truth that we are fully loved. Remaining in Christ grows our capacity to remain present in our own skin, to listen to one another, and to live within the beauty of our true equality. By heeding intersectionality’s call into a faithful reckoning with the incredible complexity of our time, we will become Christ’s body, living and active for a world that desperately needs him.