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Speaking of Intersectionality

Never had thought about this before, but the Canaanite Woman (Matthew 15:21-28) would be an example of “intersectionality.”

Our pastor pointed this out last week.

OK, more precisely, an example of “someone in an intersectional position.”

Because the Canaanite Woman is, obviously, a woman. This meant something in the first century Mediterranean world – in particular, we think, that there would have been social distance between her and any men, certainly men who weren’t her family members. AND she’s a Canaanite, which would mean one thing to other Canaanites, presumably, and something different to Jewish people – like Jesus, and his disciples. AND she has a daughter who’s possessed by a demon.

Our pastor thought that having a daughter possessed by a demon would have added to the distance established between the Canaanite Woman and Jesus and the disciples. It would have made her all the more unclean and off limits.

I wonder about that, though. It seems to me that, true to the whole point of the basic concept of intersectionality, the “having a demon-possessed daughter” condition might have overridden her ethnicity a little. There’s some Biblical ground for thinking this, too. In the story of the ten lepers (Luke 17:11-19), we learn that little group’s common condition of leprosy overrode its members’ ethnicity differences; nine Jewish lepers were palling around with a Samaritan. Assuming we can take Luke’s account as socio-historical evidence in this regard.

So, maybe Jesus and the disciples would have had a little more sympathy for this particular Canaanite woman than they otherwise would have – although, as the story goes, not enough more to make them want to pay attention to her at first.

AND she’s smart, in addition to being desperate. There’s some intersectionality for you.

As I used to tell our daughter, “it’s never a bad thing to be smart.” Granted, sometimes people will penalize you for it. But when that happens, you’ll have the wit to figure out how to deal with the situation.

As the Canaanite Woman does.

Because of that, she becomes someone who reveals something, to the human Jesus, about the possibilities for faith and about the scope of his mission.
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Intersectionality talk happens at church these days, since “intersectionality,” the term, has made it out of the classroom and into ordinary language.

Predictably, that means it’s taking on new and colloquial meanings, making it more and more useless for basic communication.

I learned “intersectionality” as a word to describe a phenomenon of the social world. As a way to refer qualitatively to what in quantitative terms would be an interaction term in a regression equation. From that perspective, it makes about as much sense to say “intersectionality is incompatible with Christianity” as it does to say “zip codes are incompatible with Christianity.” Which is to say, no sense at all.

People say that now, though; for them “intersectionality” clearly means something different, something much bigger, more like a whole worldview, with associated implications and demands, almost like a political platform.

I learned this week, in fact, that a good deal of energy has already gone into establishing that understanding of the term “intersectionality.” A good deal of Christian energy.

I would call it “misrepresentation.” Mainly because it bothers me to lose a good word for describing something that it would be helpful to be able to talk about.

That is, I would call it that, but for the unfortunate implication of that term.

“Misrepresentation” makes it sound like someone is purposely trying to obscure the truth. “Misrepresentation” makes it sound like someone is actually trying to make it hard for different Christians to communicate with one another. “Misrepresentation” makes it sound like someone might actually be trying to sow seeds of misunderstanding in the Church.

But who on earth would do a thing like that?
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Technically, “intersectionality” – my kind, I mean, the purely-descriptive-of-some-factual-condition kind – applies in spades to the Christian world these days. What a person means specifically, concretely, by “I’m a Christian” will differ, a lot, depending on … well, intersecting or interacting factors, like where they live, what church they go to (Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant-Mainline, Protestant-Evangelical, Other …), the usual demographic suspects of genderraceandclass, political affiliation, sexual orientation, etc. etc. etc.

At some point all those intersections cease to be helpful, of course. If you take that kind of intersectionality to its limit, it boils down to individuality.  

Which is a real thing.

But the reality of individuality ought not to blind us to the fact that in many ways each of us is like some others, in ways that we are unlike some other others. And that we identify with some groups and disidentify with other groups. And that some groups accept us more, and some accept us less, or not at all. In that way, the whole world really is like middle school: there are cliques, and not every part of the cafeteria is equally hospitable to everyone.

Sometimes my students will write in their papers – usually, it seems, when they can’t think of a good concluding paragraph – that “everyone has a different opinion about that.” That’s rarely true, if ever. There are fewer than 350 million different opinions about most things in the United States, and fewer than 7 billion different opinions about most things in the world.

Lots of people think alike. Have shared perspectives. Shared experiences.

All of that – group identification, belonging, sharing – seems to be part of being human. And as many people, including most Christians, like to say, “we’re all human.”

Which is what makes “intersectionality” – my kind, I mean, the purely-descriptive-of-some-socially-significant-condition kind – useful for thinking and talking about reality. In that middle range, somewhere between “we’re all human” and “we’re each unique.” That middle range, where there are nation states and world religions and political parties and NFL football teams and things like that.
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It would be strange, and disturbing, if describing and thinking and talking about reality were actually incompatible with Christianity.

Or if concepts that help us do that were actually off limits at church.

Fortunately for us, they’re not. As our pastor demonstrated by bringing up “intersectionality” that way in church last week.
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One of the slogans of the Protestant Reformation, and of the Renaissance humanism that was one of its parents, was ad fontes – “back to the sources.”

The source when it comes to “intersectionality” is:

Crenshaw, Kimberle (1989) “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics,” University of Chicago Legal Forum: Vol. 1989, Article 8.
Available at:
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