Notes from WATERtalks: Feminist Conversations in Religion Series

“Intersectional Theology: An Introductory Guide”

with Grace Ji-Sun Kim and Susan Shaw

April 28, 2020

Mary E. Hunt: Like all of WATER’s efforts, our purpose today is social change as well as intellectual stimulation. Susan and Grace’s book is a good example of engaged scholarship. As the many dimensions of the Covid-19 pandemic demonstrate, we are not all in the same boat whatsoever. Rather, the many socio-economic and cultural factors that shape our reality in which some are privileged and others oppressed are playing out worldwide. More people will die of hunger this season than from the Coronavirus; communities of color and those who are poor are paying the highest price while many of us continue apace int comfort of our own homes. So these intersectional matters require our attention, hence the choice of this book and these colleagues for today’s session.

Our focus today is a book I think many people will find useful moving forward as we try to understand and change the conditions of inequality that we see playing out in relief with the pandemic. Intersectional Theology: An Introductory Guide (Fortress Press, 2018) is a good way to help yourself and your students, your parishioners, your community members move into the complex needs of our time.

Grace Ji-Sun Kim is Professor of Theology at Earlham School of Religion. She is an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (USA). She writes prolifically in many media, and is the author of Mother Daughters Speak (2017). Among other topics, she writes about the experience of Korean immigrant women to North America, paralleling her own experience of early life in Korea, a move as a child to Canada, and eventually to the US where she now lives in Pennsylvania.

Susan M. Shaw is Professor of Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies at Oregon State University. She is the author of Reflective Faith: A Theological Toolbox for Women (2014). Susan grew up and was educated the Southern Baptist radiation. She is now an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ. Her research interests have included women and HIV/AIDS, as well as women in rock music. She is the general editor of a new encyclopedia on women, and she blogs for Huffington Post.

WATER blurbed the book as follows: “How life experiences influence understandings of the divine is a critical question when using intersectionality as a theological method. The authors describe the origins of intersectionality and connect it to the wisdom of liberation theologians. They point out the important tension that comes with honoring multiple perspectives, leading readers to embrace nuance as crucial, humanity as complex, and the importance of social location in theological studies– not a simple task.”

This is an exciting way to move into the post-pandemic time with resources galore for the challenges ahead. Thank you for joining us Grace and Susan.


Susan Shaw: Years ago, I was teaching a course on feminist theologies at Oregon State University and had selected Grace’s book on Sophia as one of the textbooks. One of my colleagues suggested that we bring Grace to campus as a speaker, and we hit it off. We spent the next several years thinking about a project that we could do together. We started talking and hit on the notion of intersectionality – which in Women, Gender, and Sexuality studies we’ve been talking about for a while, but not so much in theology. We didn’t find anything that was addressing intersectionality seriously as an analytical tool to move forward the work of theology. Over a year and a half we wrote this book and published it.

Grace Ji-Sun Kim:We are so excited about this book. The book came out in 2018, and since then I can’t stop quoting this book! I think that all roads lead to intersectionality.

I gave a talk for the Presbyterian church on climate justice, and I couldn’t stop referencing intersectionality. Whatever justice issue we are dealing with today will lead to some form of intersectionality. Today, we don’t live on an island by ourselves – we never did – and we recognize that everything intersects. We, as man, woman, queer, trans, straight, whoever we are, there is this intersectionality.

As Susan mentioned, Gender and Sexuality studies has been using the lens of intersectionality for a long time. We recognize that in theology, we have not been using this tool. As a liberation theologian, I have been looking at the rise of liberation theology and feminist theology in the 1960s, and we’ve been using different tools to works towards liberation and justice. I was at a crossroads where it wasn’t taking into consideration all of who I am, and all of who everyone is, whether it be gender, sexuality, economic status, education, ableism, and all aspects of what make us who we are.

Using the gender studies’ tool on intersectionality and the work of Kimberlee Crenshaw, who began using this term, helps to understand how we understand ourselves and situations, and how we can move forward to work towards social justice.

SS: One of the things Grace and I tried to highlight in intersectionality is what it is that emerged from Black Feminism. I think there is this pop culture understanding of intersectionality as simply identity. But, intersectionality is how those identities come together within structures of power. It’s not only the understanding of my own race, gender, sexuality, etc. but the intersections of the systems of racism, sexism, heterosexism, classism, ableism, and so forth. So when we think of intersectionality as an analytical tool, we’re looking at the phenomena in front of us and asking how those systems of power are at play in different ways because of those intersecting identities.

One of the important pieces in the book is the importance of narrative, and we start off with telling our stories side by side so you can see how our identities played out and were affected by the systems of oppression in which they were located. Then we were able to start asking those questions of theology. Mostly, theology has been done by educated, privileged, straight, white men. And it’s been done as if they can speak for everybody. What Grace and I wanted to do was to bring those tools of theology the recognition that each of us, from our own social locations, has something to contribute to the theological conversation that is just as valid as that long history of what straight white men have told us.

GK: I think the power that Susan is mentioning is crucial to how we understand intersectional theology. Looking at who holds power, and how power can be misused.

So an outline of the contents of the book:

Introduction to intersectionality.

Biography – understanding who we are is so important. I always identified as an Asian-American theologian, but the feminist, woman part is so important, the educational, socioeconomic status, ability, age.

SS: We begin by tracing the origins of intersectionality within black feminism, acknowledging that this idea emerged from the lived experience of a particular group of people who articulated it. Its application has been broader, but it always needs to be rooted in back feminism.

Then we talk about biography as intersectional theology and we put our stories side by side–Grace as a straight, Asian women, I as a white, lesbian from the South. Both of us grew up in working class homes where class played an important role. Putting our stories side by side, you begin to see how systems of power made a difference for us, how we had different experiences of similar phenomena based on our identities within those systems of power.

Then we talk about intersectionality as theological method. We take the work of Vivian May, Patricia Hill Collins, and Ange Hancock, and we take the questions they used to outline intersectionality and we apply them to theology.

Then we apply intersectionality to the Bible and use it as a lens for biblical interpretation.

Finally we turn our lens to practical theology and think about what this means for the church itself. We try to develop intersectional ecclesiology in the last chapter.

We issue a call to theologians, professional and lay, to include intersectionality as a primary theological method and quit acting as if I can theologize for others from my social locations as if our social locations don’t matter.

GK: I think understanding our identities is crucial in how we do theology. I think theology is biography and biography is theology. We understand God from understanding ourselves, our lives, and our experiences.

In my intro to theology class, I ask students to do a theological reflection from their own experience. When we study two thousand years of Christian theology, it is mostly written by straight white men. And people will argue with me saying they were not written from within their experience. In reading Augustine and Anselm, we realized that they wrote from their own particular experience as a white male. We know people understand God from their own experience and context. And that is the only way we understand God.

God is infinite and we are finite and have limited language. Language defines how we think and forms our thoughts, and theology is a bunch of words. As theologians, and people of faith, it’s our experiences and words. Introducing intersectionality to our theological discourse opens our thoughts and imagination. It’s a lens that opens analysis and gives new ways of talking about theology.

We talk about multi-axis. For a long time theologians had a single axis of doing theology, but intersectionality opens it to multiple ways and lenses that help us understand God and how God acts in our lives. I think for so long theologians have excluded women’s voices, particularly women of colour. The more voices that come – queer, trans, women of colour who’ve been excluded – the more we understand our experiences of who we are and how we imagine God. The more voices and more language. By opening, we come to a better understanding of ourselves, better understanding of people of faith and a better understanding of who God is in our lives.

SS: One of the critiques of intersectionality is that by focusing on individual experiences, it divides us into ever smaller units of people till we’re down to the individual. However, I see that as one of its strengths. Because each of us has a different piece, we need all the pieces. There’s a humility that come with intersectionality – we need to recognize that I only have one piece, important, but only mine. When we’re missing the perspectives of others, we’re missing insights into who the Divine is.

Two concepts that are important to intersectionality are the notions of ambiguity and simultaneity. We’re asking people to live in ambiguity and all this complexity is happening at the same time. We can’t simply focus on gender or race or sexuality – which is what a lot of historical theology has done. Womanist theology was the first to look at these together. Intersectionality demands multi-axis thinking.

I explain to my students we’re not talking about discrete categories -gender doesn’t exist apart from race, and sexuality. I use the analogy of paint. You have red paint, and blue paint and when you pour them together you have purple paint, which is neither red nor blue and more than the sum of red and blue. Intersectionality helps us understand that it’s not additive, but in coming together it shapes something new. Vivian May invites us to ask both and, which sometimes requires holding competing ideas at the same time, without invalidating any of them.

GK: Theology is messy. The more you do this work, the messier it becomes. Ambiguity can make us feel unsafe, but that’s an okay place to be.

Western Christianity has a dualistic way of thinking and theology, which has done a big disservice. Man/woman, heaven/earth, matter/spirit. The both and is an important way of doing theology. The spirit and matter was very problematic to me. Matter and body are bad. And this is why it’s so hard to talk about sexuality, because it has to do with body and matter. This dualism is so harmful because we can’t recognize that body, matter and spirit are intertwined and part of who we are. Recognizing intersectionality, churches would be able to change their approach in questions of sexuality.

The language of Chi has us recognize that spirit is in us – it’s not a dualistic split, which is what intersectionality invites us to.

In the church, people are migrating, and when cultures are coming together we need to reimagine church. Understanding intersectionality is crucial in how we become church today and in the future.

I’m hoping this book will be a good tool for faith leaders helping to reimagine how to be a new body of Christ, or faith body and how we can come together as interfaith people fighting racism, sexism and climate change. The tools in this book will help us imagine how we can go forward. Things are clashing, ambiguity exists, theology is messy and this both/and must exist as we’re doing theology.


 Question: What do you think of the 1992 work of Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza on Kyriarchy, which she names as interconnected structures of lordship? Kyrie – Lord – includes of racism, sexism, classism, xenophobia, etc.

GK: Before the book came out, I knew I was thinking in terms of structures, and people have been using these concepts. Bringing the term intersectionality helps to open the discussion. There are many feminist theology thinkers who have been talking about this in different ways and forms. I find that theology is a little slow – post-colonial theology came decades after post-colonial studies. This is a helpful term to bring to theology, as it is being used in many fields.

SS: One of the things I’ve appreciated about Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza is her ability to be reflective of the places she wasn’t aware of how issues of race, sexuality or empire have shaped her thinking. I think she was an early feminist writer, writing from post-colonial perspectives. Part of what we have to attend to is the history of empire and ongoing project of imperialism.

Question: Could you give a brief definition of intersectionality? I was intrigued by your comments of ageism and intersectionality.

SS: The definition for the book is: “Intersectionality is a tool for analysis that takes into account the simultaneously experienced multiple social  locations, identities and institutions, that shape individual and collective experience within hierarchically structured systems of power and privilege.” (p.2)

What that means is that it’s something that we use to examine phenomena. We’re looking for the ways systems are operating to maintain hierarchies. Intersectionality is always oriented towards social justice – It is analysis to move us towards a more just world.

Question: When you encounter students who are suspicious about entering into this space, what are strategies you use to disarm them? I’m also thinking about churches and faith communities.

GK: I begin by assuring them that this is something they’ve been doing, but not concretely recognizing. People realize that climate change, political justice and racial justice are intertwined, but to give this language is helpful. You can push them in saying they’ve been doing this, and the book can give language to what the church has already been doing.

SS: One of the best pieces of advice I received was “let them discover it for themselves.” I begin with activities that let them discover the theory.

Q: There is a difference between the Euro-focused church and the lived experience of people in their communities. When we talk about intersectionality, we tend to focus on race, gender, class and sexuality, but there is also the historic context – colonized people and colonizer.

GK: Intersectionality needs to take into context colonialism. In America, white settlers had taken over Native Americans, and genocide happened. In 2020, we are the colonizers and are building the empire. We need to take into account political, social, gender, race dynamics as understanding the power dynamics is crucial.

Q: I did a study of immigrant women and language in relation to sexuality and spirituality. Biography is essential to understanding human beings from all perspectives.

Q: Could you confirm or clarify your comments that intersectional theology is derived from womanist theology?

SS: Womanist theology was one of the earliest theologies to begin doing intersectional work. It has continued to evolve and now there are womanist theologians who are examining sexuality.

GK: There is a close connection, but it is not derived. It is black thinkers that we use, such as  Kimberle Crenshaw, because they brought this way of thinking into the public sphere.

Q: I was wondering if anything is being done with intersectionality and survivors of sexual and domestic violence, as so many have had horrible experiences in church.

SS: That’s our next book!

GK: Understanding the #ChurchToo movement and what leads to sexual crimes is a part of intersectionality.

Q: As a tool of analysis, when we approach work we have certain embedded assumptions. What were your assumption? What do you believe about the human being?

SS: I think that our assumptions were that we are broken people in a broken system, and the system keeps reproducing itself and breaking all of us. Within that there is hope for redemption. Just because it’s been this way doesn’t mean it has to continue this way, but there has to be intervention and restructuring. The pandemic has made this so clear – the systems are broken and have to be changed to address inequalities that keep reproducing our brokenness. Intersectionality is the tool that helps me unravel the pieces of what’s broken, why it’s broken and how we redeem it.

GK: We had to do a lot of deconstruction and self-examination as we were writing to see what assumptions we were bringing. I think of theology as this imaginative, creative task. There are all these assumptions that try to push us down, particularly women of color, so we want to work towards a meaningful way of rethinking theology.

Q: Visually and biologically this reminds me of something Sister Carol Coston says which is: “Life is found in the margins. You can be by a strip of mown grass and think that’s the reality of the world, and yet you’re missing so much. What’s happening in the unmown meadow beside the strip of grass is where all life is flourishing and that is the future.”

Thank you to Susan and Grace again for this very useful book INTERSECTIONAL THEOLOGY: AN INTRODUCTORY GUIDE published in 2018 by Fortress Press.