No Innocent Bystanders
Becoming an Ally in the Struggle for Justice
- ISBN: 9780664262624
- Published By: Westminster John Knox Press
- Published: October 2017
The first sentence of No Innocent Bystanderscaptures our troubled context well: “Another video is in the news today” (1). Shannon Craigo-Snell and Christopher Doucot were writing about a 2016 video of a police officer violently disciplining a student at a South Carolina school. As I read in 2018, the video on my mind concerned two black men arrested while waiting for a friend in a Pennsylvania coffee shop. By the time you read this, it will likely be something else, but I fear there will be a troubling video capturing the prejudice and violence of our society.
This book is a vital and important “road map” for white Christians who feel called to action by such videos, and by all the other daily evidence of injustice in our world. The book is thoughtfully and clearly organized, presenting first a historical account of the struggles for LGBTQ equality and racial justice, then a theological framing of these issues in terms of sin and guilt, and then a series of practical tools and examples from contemporary activists and inspirational exemplars.
No Innocent Bystanders creates a dialogue between LGBTQ and racial issues that sheds genuine light on both while also paying careful attention to the distinctions between them. The authors present race and sexual orientation as social constructs creating oppression, but also emphasize that these challenges and the movements in response to them have different histories. A particular emphasis is the fact that “gender identity and sexual orientation pertain to individuals while race is socially constructed as pertaining to families” (47). This means that those of us who are white and straight are more likely to have LGBTQ people than non-white people close to us or in our families, and that economic and systemic injustices become more intergenerationally linked to race than to sexuality. Thus, it is easier and more straightforward for a straight person to be an ally to the LGBTQ community than for a white person to be an ally on racial justice.
This leads to the challenge of white guilt, a problem for which Craigo-Snell and Doucot offer helpful theological context. They steer the issue away from simplistic questions of guilt (which imply the possibility of innocence) by focusing on racial prejudice as a key case of the theological doctrine of original sin. “Oppression and inequality—the very problems we’ve been examining throughout this book—were already in place when we were born. . . . we have created societies that are messed up at every level” (60). This then leads to the book’s empowering thesis, based on the idea of grace: faith that God loves human beings even though we are complicit in sin calls Christians to the work of justice and makes that work possible. In other words, a deep belief that our complicity in injustice is forgiven can help privileged peoples to find the courage and the resources to be allies to those who struggle with oppression.
Building on this history and theology, the second half of the book offers specific tools for becoming an ally to movements for social justice. A very helpful chapter uses the insights of twelve “activist advisors” interviewed for the book to explain the importance of humility, patience, and a range of other virtues in social justice work. A chapter on concrete steps combines very practical advice with the stories of how activists begin their work. The final chapter tells the stories of four historical guides: Myles Horton, Annie Braden, Jeane Manford, and Katrina Browne.
This is not a book for everyone. I doubt it would convince a reader who begins with the belief that heterosexuality should be normative for all people, or that racial injustice is not an urgent problem in our society. Even readers who support LGBTQ equality and racial justice, if they come from faiths other than Christianity or no faith tradition, might find the theological assumptions and arguments too central. This is a book written to Christians who are convinced that they should be struggling for social justice, giving them tools and vocabulary to act more thoughtfully and effectively. It is well-informed by contemporary scholarly literature, but uses it to develop an accessible and activist argument rather than delving into current debates. For example, it explains that the term “ally” is “imperfect and problematic” for reifying certain categories and power dynamics, but moves on quickly, saying “This is the vocabulary at hand. The question is, How to be an ally in the struggle?” (3).
Even within the limits of a focused project, no book can be perfect. My most recurring question was why the authors did not spend more time on the revolutionary ideas of queer theory and the gay liberation movement. I applaud their willingness to thoughtfully compare the struggle for LGBTQ justice with the struggle for racial justice, and I agree with them that racial issues present a history and a complexity that make allyship much more complicated and difficult. But I nevertheless think it is important to hear the voices in the LGBTQ movement who insist that their struggle has just begun, that true liberation will require serious changes to the ways we all understand not only gender and sexuality but also community, economics, and identity.
The virtue of this book, though, is that it does not try to do everything. As such, it is approachable, comprehensible, and difficult to dismiss. Christians who want to understand how their faith connects to contemporary social movements should read this book. Scholars and teachers who want to explain that connection better to students should draw on it as well. And then, as the authors insist, we should take action.
Kevin J. O'Brien is the Dean of Humanities at Pacific Lutheran University.Kevin O'BrienDate Of Review:May 3, 2018