Edit Magazine

The Edit opinion piece: What does liberty look like now?

Edinburgh graduate and Chair of Latin American Studies and Professor of Religion at Gustavus Adolphus College, Minnesota, USA, Thia Cooper shares her ideas on justice, freedom, privilege and gender, while recalling Edinburgh educator Marcella Althaus-Reid.

Marcela Althaus-Reid portrait
Portrait of Marcela Althaus-Reid by acclaimed Scottish artist David Martin, who graduated from the University of Edinburgh in 2000 with an MA in Fine Art. The painting hangs in Rainy Hall, New College.

Confession: I hate conflict. However, in our current society, if I stay quiet, I support the hateful speech and work of a powerful minority. I refuse to enable hate.

Professor Marcella Althaus-Reid, former Professor and Chair of Contextual Theology at the University of Edinburgh, taught me to speak up. Because of her teaching, I became a liberation theologian and professor of religion. Today, I challenge you to speak out against the injustice you see around you. 

In order to work towards justice in this difficult global climate, we need two things. First, we need to understand the intersections of privilege and oppression. Second, we need to prioritise those people who have been most marginalised.

Understanding privilege and oppression

I live in Minnesota, USA, two miles from a dairy that employs mainly Latina/o workers. However, my tiny township is predominantly white. Somali and Latina/o migrants to the area face regular abuse, though the earlier Scandinavian migrants came to escape marginalisation elsewhere. We tend to notice when we are being oppressed, but fail to notice when we have gained privilege and others are oppressed.

As a liberation theologian, I argue religion should free people, not oppress them. Yet, here I live, in a town, a country, which is racist, sexist, heterosexist, and classist. Racism, sexism, classism, religionism, nationalism, and other ‘isms’ extend far beyond the US borders. Recent elections in European countries show us how pervasive and persuasive the elite can be. The elite persuade many of us to vote for them against our own interests. We harm ourselves and others.

We often fail to recognise the complexity of privilege and oppression. As a white woman, I have less privilege than a white man. However, I can access more opportunities than a black woman. If I advocate for a policy to help my community, do I ask if it will help people of varying religions, races, and sexes, particularly those most excluded? Or will the policy just help people like me?

Marcella focused on the excluded, examining the intersections of privilege and oppression. She, herself, was both privileged and marginalised, depending on the context. In her native Argentina, she experienced periods of poverty and rejection from theological study as a woman. She worked with the homeless, the poor and those considered to be outside the norms of society. Her education gave her privilege, yet, she was still chased out of churches for her ‘radical theology’. On the other hand, she was celebrated for her work, becoming the first female Chair in Theology at the University of Edinburgh and only the second in Scotland. However, this chair was only installed in 2006, embarrassingly recently.

Education can empower people of all races, classes and sexes to work towards just structures. However, education can also disempower people.

Marcella’s intersectionality of privilege and oppression is common to under-represented groups more broadly. Under-represented scholars face marginalisation regularly. If they manage to get hired, it is often to teach a so-called niche subject, rather than a traditional or core subject. For example, the label of contextual theology is given to black, feminist and other theologies. Yet, all theology is contextual. We just don’t label ‘white male European theology’. This labelling is true in other fields too. Race, gender, and so forth, are add-ons or niches to a ‘core’. We tend to use these labels for people as well. Any other than a white heterosexual able-bodied Christian male is outside the norm, and thus labelled disabled, black, gay, and so forth.

I work as the Faculty Associate for Diversity at Gustavus, aiming to fully include under-represented people on our campus. Many of our under-represented colleagues are tolerated – but not included. By inclusion, I mean two things. First, there will be more than one token woman or person of colour in our sphere. Second, inclusion means our communities will change, which we tend to forget. We tend to be welcoming as long as the person joining will be ‘like us’. Yet, the ‘us’ is often a small homogeneous group with privilege.

Liberation theologians look for the elephant in the room. Who are we sidelining? What perspectives are we ignoring? Marcella asked how race, class, sex and sexuality affected each other. She worked in poor communities with eyes wide open to see who people are, which led her to queer theology. Queer theology includes queering theology itself. Her two books, 'Indecent Theology' and 'The Queer God' asked who God is, beginning with the excluded: poor, sexually active and queer. Queer is anyone considered outside the norm, whatever the norm may be. Her queering of theology included working against theology’s capitalist economic assumptions and its heterosexual assumptions. She articulated a theology that would include people rather than exclude them.

Empowerment through teaching

Teaching was also critical to her activism. Education can empower people of all races, classes and sexes to work towards just structures. However, education can also disempower people. If I teach about the traditions of old white European men, excluding other knowledge, I am disempowering. If I teach facts rather than teaching students to ask questions, I am disempowering. If I fail to teach at the intersections, I am disempowering. Unfortunately, education is still a privilege rather than a right. As learners we need to take privilege seriously; our learning can either educate us towards justice or work against it.

I teach in religion and direct the Latin American Studies programme at a small liberal arts college, aiming to empower undergraduates to be active citizens. After numerous conversations with my mostly Christian students about sex and religion, I realised students had no tools for developing a sexual ethic. All these students heard was ‘no sex before marriage’, in their Christian context. Christianity appeared to say nothing regarding healthy sexual relationships. At the same time, I saw a divide between the white students and the students of colour. While my students shared many experiences, the students of colour were aware of white privilege while the white students did not understand their privilege. Again, Christianity seemed to say nothing about white privilege.

We tend to notice when we are being oppressed, but fail to notice when we have gained privilege and others are oppressed.

In response to my students’ needs, I developed a class called Sex, Race, Money, God and wrote a book 'Liberating Sex'. These themes differ from my original area of research into Latin American liberation theology and my first book, 'Controversies in Political Theology'. This was an unexpected change of subject, but it was what my students needed. The first question asked by liberationists is always ‘who is being marginalised and how?’.

The elite have used theology to exclude others but theology can also liberate and include. This is true of any field or subject. Our work either includes or excludes others. We all need to know who is marginalised, how we marginalise them, and how we can work to fully include every human being.

Look around at your work colleagues, at the people you interact with in your community. How many varying religions, abilities, races, sexes and genders are represented? How could you work towards inclusion? How are you currently excluding others?

If we want to work towards justice, we need to ask how our own fields perpetuate injustice and whether our fields can work towards justice. This question leads us to broader research and action than our degrees taught us to expect. We need to ask two questions:

  1. What did we learn? 
  2. What was excluded from our learning?

Each of us, whatever our field of work, can either perpetuate injustice, or we can work towards justice. Which path will you choose?

About Marcella Althaus-Reid

Marcella Althaus-Reid joined the School of Divinity staff in 2006. She remained in post until her death in 2009, aged 52. After working with the most marginalised people in Argentina, Marcella moved to Scotland and worked with the poorest groups in and around Perth, Dundee and Edinburgh.

She taught at New College, carried out her research and played a vibrant role on the international conference circuit. She attracted great crowds of academics and students, whenever she spoke, and even had a fan-base who wore T-shirts emblazoned with a photograph of her own smiling face, and key messages from her conference talks.

About Thia Cooper

Thia Cooper undertook her Master of Theology at Edinburgh’s New College in 1999 and completed her PhD in 2005, under Professor Althaus-Reid. Professor Cooper’s background lies in development studies as well as theology, and she teaches and researches across a broad range of areas at Gustavus Adolphus College, Minnesota.

She regularly presents scholarly papers in the US and UK and is published by SCM Press and Palgrave MacMillan the UK and Fortress Press in the US.