Christian Ethics at the Boundary: Feminism and Theologies of Public Life by Karen V. Guth

Journal of the Society of Christian Ethics 38 (2):196-197 (2018)
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In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:Reviewed by:Christian Ethics at the Boundary: Feminism and Theologies of Public Life by Karen V. GuthJulie Hanlon RubioChristian Ethics at the Boundary: Feminism and Theologies of Public Life Karen V. Guth MINNEAPOLIS: FORTRESS PRESS, 2015. 231 pp. $39.00In her promising first book, Karen Guth does "ethics at the boundary," reading the central figures of Martin Luther King Jr., John Howard Yoder, and Reinhold Niebuhr with an uncommon generosity that allows for synthesis and opens up new potential for collective action. She challenges the Christian realists, witness theologians, and liberationists in contemporary Christian ethics to see overlap in their theologies, hear the questions that others bring to their work, and join together in bringing theology to the public square.This moment in politics and political theology seems to call for the kind of argument that Guth wants to make. Polarization in the academy mirrors that of the church and society, and potential for moving beyond it seems more elusive than ever.The key contribution of the book is shedding light on what is often overlooked in three key figures who continue to influence Christian ethics. At the "boundaries" or edges of their work, Guth retrieves Niebuhr's attention to ecclesiology as an essential part of his realist ethic; Yoder's willingness to learn from liberalism and translate theology for a diverse audience; and King's liberation theology of the streets, which enacted transcendence of the witness/realist divide.Equally significant is attention to overlooked feminist themes in all three thinkers. Guth argues that Yoder has the most developed feminist theology (especially evident in unpublished memos, 138–40), whereas King and Niebuhr, though often rightly criticized by feminist thinkers, have in their writings and sermons significant overlap with central feminist themes. By reading King and Niebuhr alongside feminist thinkers, we can begin to see King's "'feminist' and 'womanist' politics of love," which inspires a view of "churches as potential sites of divine creation" (183), and Niebuhr's call for the church to "confess its complicity with the world" for its failures, which coheres with feminist insistence that the church must "confess its complicity in women's [End Page 196] oppression" (111). In retrieving feminist themes, Guth offers a corrective to political theology's frequent lack of attention to sexism.Guth is careful to note that, in their personal lives, all three theologians failed to live up to their professed concern for gender justice. Despite this qualification, it is particularly difficult to read of Yoder's professed feminism in light of the overwhelming allegations of sexual abuse against him by over one hundred women. His perverse theological justification of the abuse and the ongoing tension among Christian ethicists about how to respond compound the problem. In 2017, SCE members held a prayer service to honor the testimony of Yoder's victims and to address the SCE's complicity in the harm done by him. Guth's response is that it is now even more important to correct misperceptions and uphold feminist themes in Yoder's work. However, it seems all but impossible to redeem his thought in this area. Yoder justified his abuse by melding together themes from scripture and liberalism. In light of what we know now, his justification of "revolutionary subordination" (even in the 1994 version of Politics of Jesus) is even more troubling. In these times, silence about Yoder may be the more appropriate way to honor his victims.Still, Guth's emphasis on intellectual charity, her articulation of the desire for beloved community as essential to the ethicist's task, and her willingness to risk standing at the boundary in order to illuminate the common concerns of those who see themselves as opponents are great gifts to Christian ethics. By complicating the reader's location of Yoder, Niebhur, and King, Guth makes a strong case that ethicists can form a better "community of argument" (190). In a course on social ethics, or in public or political theology, reading Guth would provide a way for students to synthesize the contributions of key thinkers, grapple with both personal and theoretical limitations, and think creatively about how to do their work with generosity and humility.Julie...

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