The Mother of Christian Feminist Ethics, Beverly Wildung Harrison: 1932–2012

“There has been an objective gain in the quality of women’s lives for those fortunate enough to have access to procreative choice. That millions upon millions of women as yet do not possess even the rudimentary conditions—moral or physical—for such choice is obvious. Our moral goal should be to struggle against those real barriers—poverty, racism, and anti-female cultural oppression—that prevent authentic choice from being a reality for every woman.”

—Beverly Harrison, from Making the Connections

On December 15, 2012, we lost a giant in the field of intellectual reflection on religion and social justice. I speak of Beverly Wildung Harrison, a professor of social ethics and feminist theory at Union Theological Seminary in New York City who retired in 1999 after 34 years of teaching.

Others can speak with more detail and authority about Bev’s career. A fine obituary, put together by people who knew her better than I, is available here and my goal is not to reproduce it.

Rather, I want to use her passing as an occasion to reflect, first, about how her intellectual power and influence as a mentor extended far beyond her circle of students at Union, and second about the legacy of her work within the configuration of power and priority that structures academia and political culture today.

The ethics program at Union was considered in the mid-20th century to be among the world’s preeminent—at least if we speak of a world of liberal Protestantism (which before 1970 was more nearly hegemonic than it is today). This was the program built by Reinhold Niebuhr and colleagues like Harry Ward and John Coleman Bennett, and linked intimately with theologians such as Paul Tillich and Robert McAfee Brown, as well as the nearby headquarters of the National and World Councils of Churches.

By around 1970, Union had become deeply committed (probably more than any other major center of graduate education in the U.S.) to the broad paradigm of liberation theologies. Although neoconservatives and centrists bemoaned this as a decline in Union’s cachet, for those who wished to extend and deepen work in this paradigm, the seminary’s reputation held steady. Indeed it may have increased, with faculty such as James Cone, Dorothee Soelle, Larry Rasmussen, and Gary Dorrien—and most recently Cornel West.

Amid this latter cohort, Beverly Harrison’s personal and intellectual stature was second to none. In this context, she taught and mentored many of the best from a whole generation of young scholars committed to extending the traditions of the Protestant left.

Compared to those scholars whose names might be better known, Bev was an intellectual’s intellectual. Scholars xeroxed, cited, and assigned her brilliant essays like “The Power of Anger in the Work of Love” and “The Role of Social Theory in Religious Ethics.” Eventually her students helped her collect these essays in one of the best books ever published in feminist religious thought, Making the Connections.

Many chapters from these books warrant book-length treatment, but she published just one such monograph: Our Right to Choose: Toward a New Ethic of Abortion.

Although Bev’s interests ranged widely, this book is a good example of how she taught her students to frame issues—to think concretely about what is going on, using the best social theory and evidence from history, public policy, medicine, law and so on—and then to clarify from whose perspective, and with what particular groups exercising agency based on what set of priorities, a course of action is being proposed. Guided by this method, she became one of the most important people in the world for forging alliances among various branches of liberationist Christianity.

Writing in 2002, Bev recalled why she had chosen to work in the field of social ethics. Entering graduate work in the 1960s, academic theology struck her as too insular, with little interesting reinterpretation emerging and rank-and-file Christians largely ignoring the results. In this context:

[I] opted to give priority to ongoing social analysis, thereby shifting the focus of my work away from theology as such… [This] enable[d] me to address living social ills in ways that would not depend on the persuasiveness of particular theological claims… To address the tangible and growing social suffering and growing social problems deserved priority. My own vocation was to the continuing moral formation of communities that called themselves Christian.

What Bev here articulated as the role of social ethics within the wider study of religious thought is also a fitting way to describe the role of her mode of doing ethics within a larger field of religious ethics.

A Committed Mentor

A personal example may be useful at this point. When I was a young scholar seeking a Ph.D. program, I had a fairly clear idea for my research: the study of transformations in left-liberal Protestantism (both its social thought and its concrete relationships to social movements and historical trends) focused through analyzing the rise of liberation approaches in Christianity and Crisis magazine. I nearly wrote this book under Bev’s direction, although in the end I opted to do it in the American Studies Program at Minnesota.

This story is not important in its own right, but rather to dramatize two points. First, what I would have concretely read and written with Bev, pursuing a Ph.D. in social ethics, would have been approximately the same as what I studied to attain a Ph.D. in American Studies—that is, roughly, in interdisciplinary cultural history. True, there would have been differences worth considering in some other context. But the point to accent is the overlap in sources/methods, as well as that either way Bev’s articles would have been key foundation stones.

Second, even though I decided not to study in New York, Bev became an extremely helpful and generous supporter. Although I was not part of her inner circle of mentees, nevertheless her support meant a great deal. I mention this to underline something I have heard over and over from Bev’s students and colleagues in many places—her exemplary work as a role model, advisor, and ally far beyond Union.

Although this should go without saying, I also intend this story to underline the point that feminist social ethics is by no means relevant solely for women. Nor is it useful solely for “theological” or “ethical” projects narrowly conceived. At its best, as practiced by people like Bev, it is a powerful resource for anyone concerned to think straight about religion and the pursuit of social justice.

The legacy of Bev Harrison seems to me precarious. Union Seminary has struggled financially ever since its left turn in the 1960s, due largely to a drop-off in support from deep-pocket backers—and this is typical of similar institutions. Religious Studies programs, especially in public universities, are increasingly allergic to teaching either ethics or Christian thought as a priority. The pursuit of “global pluralism”—all-too-often in abstract forms that depoliticize cultural differences and flatten out power relations—crowds out a more concrete contextual focus on what Bev liked to call the “first emergencies” deserving attention: that is, the most pressing issues of social justice impinging on life in a particular time and place.

However her legacy unfolds, one thing we can learn from Bev is that mere popularity and power are not to be confused with success, value, or positive influence. On these latter three fronts, Bev Harrison was a giant. Her passing is momentous. Rest in peace, Bev.