Faith CoLab: Tapestry of Faith: What We Choose: An Adult Program on Ethics for Unitarian Universalists

Handout 1: Sharon Welch and an Ethic of Risk

Part of What We Choose

Sharon Welch was raised in a small farming community in West Texas, the daughter of two social gospel ministers. She writes of her parents:

They lived lives of service but with no sense of guilt, duty, or sacrifice. They acknowledged defeat, but with no sense of fallenness or original sin. They focused on the direction of the Spirit, the ways in which they were being led to new horizons of creativity and service. . . . The heart of their life and work was clear: building the kingdom of God on earth. (After Empire)

Welch, a Unitarian Universalist, taught theology and religion and society at Harvard from 1982 to 1991. She taught religious studies and women's and gender studies at the University of Missouri from 1991 until 2007, when she became Provost of Meadville Lombard Theological School. She is the author of several books, including the ground-breaking Toward a Feminist Ethic of Risk (1990). Her book, After Empire: The Art and Ethos of Enduring Peace (2004), reflects her long-standing work in developing a philosophy of peacemaking. She was one of the members of the core team that crafted the "Creating Peace" Statement of Conscience passed by the 2010 General Assembly, and continues to serve as a core member of the Peace Ministry Network.

Welch's "feminist ethic of risk" was born of her experiences in the feminist movement and her observation that those who engage in justice struggles always do so from a position of incomplete understanding and limited perspective. In the feminist movement she learned that it is impossible to control or guarantee the outcome or success of a particular action. She asked: "How does a movement persist in the face of partial victories and continued defeats?"

She answered that one must take "responsible action within the limits of bounded power . . . and name the resources that evoke persistent defiance and resistance in the face of repeated defeats"—an ethic of risk.

Welch states that the complexity of social problems and the inability to perceive how they might be resolved often results in a middle-class failure of nerve, defined as "the inability to persist in resistance when the problems are seen in their full magnitude." The resulting cynicism and despair is a privilege of the affluent, who can detach from the day-to-day issues of oppression. She writes:

It is easier to give up on long-term social change when one is comfortable in the present—when it is possible to have challenging work, excellent health care and housing, and access to fine arts. When the good life is present or within reach, it is tempting to despair of its ever being in reach for others and resort merely to enjoying it for oneself and one's family.

Welch learned from the stories and literature of oppressed people, particularly women of color, as she pondered the ability of oppressed communities to continue to resist generation after generation. She writes:

The ethic of risk is characterized by three elements, each of which is essential to maintain resistance in the face of overwhelming odds: a redefinition of responsible action, grounding in community, and strategic risk-taking.

She continues: "Responsible action does not mean the certain achievement of desired ends but the creation of a matrix in which further actions are possible, the creation of the conditions of possibility for desired changes." It is found in taking steps toward a desired goal, and focusing on possibilities, rather than outcomes, choosing "to care and to act although there are no guarantees of success."

Welch's ethic of risk is firmly grounded in community—not just present community, but also the communities of memory and hope represented by the stories a community tells about its past and its future. She says quite simply that we cannot be moral alone because all perspectives are partial and that we must seek engagement and interaction with other communities in order both to determine the what actions we choose and also to sustain us through inevitable failure and defeat. She writes:

Material interactions between multiple communities with divergent principles, norms, and mores [are] essential for foundational moral critique. . . . Morally transformative interaction requires far more than conversation between different groups and peoples . . . "genuine" conversation presupposes prior material interaction, either political conflict or coalition, or life-sustaining work.

She goes on to say:

Pluralism is required, not for its own sake, but for the sake of enlarging our moral vision.

The third element of Welch's ethic of risk is interwoven with the first two. She argues that we must choose acts of resistance to oppression based on a social critique which is grounded in communities where multiple perspectives are named, expressed, and respected. Such communities of resistance are themselves born in acts of resistance—in effect, a circular process of critique to action and back to critique that strengthens and sustains in the struggle for liberation. In Sweet Dreams in America: Making Ethics and Spirituality Work (1999), she describes the moral strength found in "the courage and humor of a community that continues to learn, to love, to acknowledge our capacity for harm—and from that acknowledgement, to find together the balm for the journey, presence and witness to the struggles and joys of life."