Privilege, Risk, and Solidarity

Understanding Undocumented Immigration through Feminist Christian Ethics

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Libby Mae Grammer
  • Eugene, OR: 
    Wipf & Stock Publishers
    , February
     2017.
     134 pages.
     $18.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9781532606823.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Intersecting the problematic issues surrounding undocumented immigration with feminist and womanist theological ethics, this book highlights the enormous challenges faced by migrants who make it across the border into United States territory without a legal right to be here and who are marked by further marginalization on account of race, gender, and poverty. Libby Mae Grammer argues for an ethics of solidarity with all oppressed people, migrants included, which calls for white American Christians to understand their privileged social location, build genuine relationships across lines of human difference, and work toward structural change. She assumes a theological anthropology of interconnected humanity that can only thrive when mutual love permeates social relations and all people have access to possibilities of flourishing. Migrants’ pathway to “the good life” is, however, blocked by multiple obstacles ranging from unjust laws to inadequate resources and to a culture of white supremacy that criminalizes outsiders.

The book is a short text comprised of several chapter-length vignettes, each zeroing in on a different dimension of its broad thesis. After a chapter that reports key facts in the history of American immigration and the abysmal state of affairs brought about by the current administration—and the oppression of immigrants has become even more severe since the book’s publication—the following chapter moves on to narrate biblical stories of migration gleaned from both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament. Grammer uses these stories to showcase that the experience of being an alien and stranger is central to the history of the Hebrew people and the early church alike. Hospitality toward migrants therefore is the paradigmatic disposition and practice found in scripture that ought to also characterize Christians today. In the subsequent chapter, Grammer responds to Tracy West’s argument for the significance of the particular in womanist ethics and to Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz’s accent on the lo coditiano in mujerista theology by focusing on the life stories of contemporary undocumented immigrants. These stories convey not just the individual migrants’ complex difficulties but, more importantly, the structural evil that belies the American legal system which privileges white US citizens only. The book’s next chapter problematizes the white supremacist culture that gives rise to this oppressive legal structure under which immigrants suffer multi-layered harms. Drawing heavily from Emily Townes’s work, Grammer describes the culturally-produced evil of racism and suggests that dismantling it requires experiencing the lives of those who are racially different—notably of Black people—through their own stories, not from the social location of whiteness. This ought to be a process occurring religiously, in churches, which have a society-shaping role to play in changing the current social hegemony. The final chapter preceding a succinct conclusion extends the imagery of change by implying that the wellbeing of migrants ought to be envisioned along the lines of Martha Nussbaum’s functional capabilities approach to human rights and human flourishing. In order to change the systemic troubles of immigrants’ legal and cultural oppression, Grammer thinks that the ethics of solidarity developed by Rebecca Todd Peters is helpful. Her logic of structural change is rooted in practices of relating to others who do not share one’s social location with awareness of one’s racial and citizenship privileges. Grammer brings her argument to a close by referring to Sharon D. Welch’s description of the risk that accompanies the work of social transformation: we may fail, and societal problems may not be solvable in a single generation’s time. Yet, we should relinquish the desire to control the outcome and relate in mutual love to those who are different, knowing that fighting against systems of oppression is ultimately an eschatologically-aimed effort. As we press on for social justice, we may escape the danger of burnout when we embrace an ethic of small steps that participate in God’s power, which is relational rather than absolute. We may therefore embody it in relations of compassion toward strangers and are emboldened to rage against all that injures human dignity.

Privilege, Risk, and Solidarity brings together critical elements needed in a theological and ethical account of human migration onto American soil. Feminist Christian ethics clearly provides a core framework of justice and compassion for immigrants that renders Grammer’s justification for its use somewhat superfluous. As the book’s argument progresses, however, Grammer is in fact leaning much more on womanist theological and ethical reflections than on feminism, which deepens and complexifies the categories through which she conceptualizes migration. That said, while race is analyzed with a degree of attention, gender, sexuality, class, and even ethnicity are comparatively less scrutinized in the book’s vignettes. A careful consideration of existential intersectionality is necessary for understanding the multiple angles of oppression and marginalization that undocumented migrants encounter. 

While heralding a Christian ethics paradigm, the book includes just three brief theological moments toward its end. First, Grammer claims that Jesus’s incarnation transforms human lives so as to redirect them from participating in systemic evil to engaging in love toward others, though she does not develop a theological argument about how this occurs. Secondly, she affirms that a ubiquitous divine immanence generates grace in the human community, yet neither God’s immanence nor grace are further discussed. Thirdly, she gestures toward the concept of a relational divinity—perhaps in the vein of process thought?—and suggests that it could be supported by trinitarian theology, without problematizing such a parallel. While Grammer does not ground her call for solidarity with migrants in a theology of divine solidarity with human beings, even though such a theological construction might fortify her argument, the question remains: Is solidarity enough? Is solidarity a sufficiently robust category to produce a systemic revolution that brings justice to immigrants?

About the Reviewer(s): 

Natalia Marandiuc is Assistant Professor of Systematic Theology at Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University.

Date of Review: 
September 17, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Libby Mae Grammer is an ordained minister in the moderate Baptist tradition serving as a minister on staff at River Road Church, Baptist in Richmond, Virginia. She is a doctoral student at McAfee School of Theology at Mercer University and has almost a decade of experience as an Immigration Legal Assistant at a large law firm in the Southeast. She holds a Master of Arts degree in Theology, Ethics, and Culture from the University of Virginia and a Master of Divinity degree from McAfee School of Theology.

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