A Feminist Ethic of Risk

September 1, 2000
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Sharon D. Welch (Fortress Press, 180 pages, $18.00, 2000)

“Risk” is not just about specific actions fraught with danger. Sharon Welch’s “ethic of risk” is captured beautifully by the Adrienne Rich poem “Natural Resources” which appears in her book: it means seeing all that needs to be repaired, acting without the illusion of certainty or victory, joining in solidarity and community with others, working without waiting for (or necessarily wanting) conventional political power, always moving forward in bravery and commitment. Welch wants us to ask ourselves “What improbable task, with which unpredictable results, shall we undertake today?” She urges us toward not a chain of singular unrelated actions, but rather toward an ethics of the long haul, that inspires us to reject both despair and complacency.

What is broken and needs fixing, she argues, is not just deep-seated societal problems, but Western constructions of what constitutes ethical responsibility and what counts as goodness. She argues against a (Euro-American middle-class) cynicism which, in the face of complexity, too often leads to a paralysis of will, sanctions doing nothing, all but ignores our obligation to work on structural, long-term issues, and serves to preserve gross societal inequities and problems.

Welch offers her own definition of maturity: a recognition of the depth of evil in the world (and thus the need to act), and an acceptance that barriers to justice will not be removed by any one group or one generation (and thus the need to accept the world of limits). She calls for a “communicative ethics” of responsible action in which one is always engaged in collective reflection and action, including “mutually self-critical engagement” and accountability, in order to build the conditions for the pursuit of justice and peace,and sustain moral action and political activism.

Her own reliance on teachings drawn from female African-American novelists embodies this very approach. She draws on “womanist” writings (a term preferred over “feminist” among many African-American women) “[n]ot because [theirs] is the only ‘true’ voice, but because these voices disclose a knowledge of ethical responses and strategies [including “narratives of engaged goodness”] that is critical of my social location and [visions] of the possibilities for social change.”

Better editing might have made this book less dense, or shorter and less ambitious. But its powerful rendering of a joyful and passionate path towards justice, even while acknowledging our limitations, is well worth the effort.

Jews and Judaism as such are virtually invisible from this book, as are our multi-layered positions in relationship to the critique of “Euro-American” approaches and the consequent valuing of non-dominant voices.

One Jewish critique of (and thus contribution to) Welch’s approach: a theology of a transcendent God with absolute power can make human beings always fall short and feel powerless in the face of the work to be done. It presents a model of the good (i.e. absolute power) that is often unattainable for those working for justice, while also reinforcing human pursuits of absolute power in the name of God.

Yet the passionate Jewish commitment to a covenantal partnership with God, to our obligation to act in imitation of God’s own ways‹performing acts of caring, healing, and justice‹can offer a “both/and” approach to reconciling a transcendent God-notion with the ethics of risk, and with new definitions of responsible action in the world.

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