The comment thread in Fred’s TF post last week got me thinking again about the ways in which the Slacktivist/Slacktiverse community has come to feel like a virtual “safe(r) space” for me, and how much it can bother me when people invade that space with hurtful language. When addressing some people whose comments were hostile toward those with mental illness, I stated my observation that “this comment section tends to be a place where greater consideration is given to people who have experienced marginalization or who are more vulnerable due to any number of factors relating to their identity.”
After I wrote that I realized that what I was articulating was a version of something called the preferential option. Given my personal spirituality and formal religious education, I tend to think in theological categories, and the preferential option is a theological term that has a lot of significance for me. It’s probably the single most important concept I learned during my years of studying theology in terms of what has shaped my personal ethics. It’s become a primary lens through which I look at the world, and it’s helped me time and again to answer the question posed by the old labor song: “Which side are you on?”
The values underlying the preferential option are as old as scripture, but its modern articulation came about in large part due to the work of Catholic Latin American religious leaders in the mid to late 20th century. The convening of the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s led to the Catholic Church acknowledging that it needed to be more engaged with the modern world. But that engagement had a decidedly Eurocentric vision (such as addressing an emerging post-modern atheism), so the bishops of Latin America convened their own regional conferences so that they could try to articulate a vision of reform that would be relevant to their context. They drew on work that was already being done at the grassroots level, where religious communities were attempting to address widespread poverty and political repression. This theology of liberation that was being practiced in small Christian base communities began to be formally articulated and written down by people like Gustavo Gutiérrez. The concept of the preferential option became part of this articulation of a new contextual theology.
Liberation theology, broadly defined, is grounded in a vision of a God who desires fullness of life (John 10:10) for humanity, and a belief that God has a particular concern for those who experience oppression and marginalization. As followers of the God of Life, Christians (and all people of good will) are invited to live life in a way that prioritizes the lived experiences of the oppressed, and to make moral decisions that will ultimately lead to an end of that oppression and suffering. This is where the preferential option comes in: it is choosing to act so that “the last shall be first.” It’s about beginning to build the kin-dom* of God during our time on earth, and it’s a rejection of the kind of theology that silences the oppressed by telling them that they must patiently suffer in this life in order to be rewarded in the life to come. By listening to (and prioritizing) the experiences of those on the margins of society, moral action is shaped by a desire to alleviate that suffering, often by attempting to find the root cause of that suffering and to dismantle it at its source. (This is where liberation theology gets criticized as being “too political” because it envisions taking concrete action in the world: to paraphrase the late Bishop Hélder Câmara, not to merely feed the poor, but to ask the hard question of why the poor do not have food.**)
I realize that not everyone at The Slacktiverse or Slacktivist blog is a Christian, or even religious, and even if they are they may not consider the preferential option as part of their moral framework. Still, I see the principles of the preferential option at work in this little corner of the Internets, and it makes me happy. For example, I see it at work when commenters are called out for using offensive or triggering language. When the offenders then claim that it’s only fair that they be able to say whatever’s on their mind, or that it’s a matter of free speech, there is typically a swift and overwhelming response that demonstrates a key tenet of the preferential option. There is often a difference between what is fair and what is just, and when the two are at odds, the preferential option teaches that we must strive to opt for what is just. In this example, it would certainly be fair to let the offending commenters continue to use their hurtful terminology, but because of an overriding concern for the feelings of and larger history of oppression faced by those who are hurt by those words, many people choose to take a stand and made it clear to the offending commenters that their words are not welcome. This kind of solidarity and willingness to look out for the needs of someone who may not have the spoons** to deal with a flame war is something that keeps me coming back to the Slactiverse.
I’m interested in hearing from others who have been a part of making The Slacktiverse/Slacktivist blogs a safe(r) space. Does the preferential option resonate with you? What are the ethical frameworks or moral guidelines that you rely on for guidance in how to deal with a situation of oppression? How do you decide which side you are on? When, if ever, is it OK to remain neutral?
* The phrase “kin-dom of God” was coined by theologian Ada María Isasi-Diaz, who states that the word kingdom “is obviously a sexist word that presumes that God is male. Second, the concept of kingdom in our world today is both hierarchal and elitist…The word kin-dom makes it clear that when the fullness of God becomes a day-to-day reality in the world at large, we will all be sisters and brothers--kin to each other."
**Câmara’s famous quote: “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why are they poor, they call me a communist.”
*** The story of the spoon theory can be found here.
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