January 23 2018

Intersectionality and Theological Education

by Nancy Ramsay, Brite Divinity School

Image: Plate XXX (Byzantine No. 3), The Grammar of Ornament by Owens Jones (1868; scanned from the 1910 reprint) London: Bernard Quaritch, via http://digital.library.wisc.edu/1711.dl/DLDecArts.GramOrnJones.

As a theologian with particular interest in the public dimensions of pastoral theology, much of my scholarship, writing, and teaching focuses on ways to discern, analyze, and resist forms of difference treated oppressively in church and culture such as race, gender, sexuality, and class. My participation in programs sponsored by the Wabash Center provided me with opportunities to collaborate with colleagues in theological education to identify and develop pedagogical resources that enhance the effectiveness of our teaching. These pedagogies help faculty and students to recognize, resist, and transform interlocking systems of advantage that give rise to marginalizing practices. However, until recently, the theoretical grounding for those resources was shaped by modernist understandings of social identities as additive rather than simultaneous. This additive approach limited any analysis of the constructivist and intersecting nature of identity shaped by asymmetries of power. While we could name these interlocking inequities, identifying how they arise and are reproduced was more elusive. The consequences have limited the depth of analysis and possibilities for effective change.

In the last several years, I have embraced intersectionality as a theory that helps students and faculty better understand and engage with the complex, constructed, and intersecting simultaneity of identity and its entanglement with asymmetries of power. The theory helps us out of the quagmire of identity politics that was built on modernist approaches to social identity as additive, essential, and inevitably vulnerable to debates about hierarchical arrangements of oppression. It refuses such divisive hierarchies even as it insists on the analysis of the simultaneity of oppressive forces of intersecting asymmetries of power.

Intersectionality provides a far more adequate frame than earlier modernist models for equipping students for effective practice and richer analysis. I am convinced that it can also foster constructive theological engagement in areas such as theological anthropology and ethics. For example, my students and I find it opens up new possibilities for considering concepts such as embodiment, the tragic, sin, agency, and the imago dei.

It is important briefly to locate this theory historically, for although today it has wide use, it originated in the protest of African American women who insisted on the integrity of their social identities. Intersectional theory emerged in the post-Civil Rights era when Black feminists insisted that their social identities were neither divisible nor hierarchical, but co-constructed. Kimberlé Crenshaw (1989), a legal scholar, was the first to use the term to point out the legal consequences of simultaneous identities for Black women who were otherwise invisible in policies that addressed protections for men of color and women. Womanist scholars, international feminists, queer theorists, scholars of social work, social psychologists, gender and women’s studies experts, and others have refined this insight and applied this analysis to other fields (Weber 2010, Collins 2000, Holvino 2010, Crenshaw 1989). Theologians benefit from the intersectional commitments of womanist theologians whose work points the way toward the value of this theoretical approach for ministry and religious scholarship (see, for example, Copeland 2010 and Townes 2006). True to its origins, this dynamic theory continues to be shaped by the voices of those whose social identities are marginalized by dominant cultures in the United States and Northern Europe.

Although there is considerable variation in intersectional theory, some key elements characterize most proposals. Briefly, I want to explore the way these assertions cohere to give the theory its intellectual and strategic force and how these descriptions form a “fit” with contemporary theological education.

Constructivist: Intersectional theorists maintain that each aspect of social identity (sexuality, race, class, gender, age, and so forth) is constructed by dynamic negotiation between individual agents and their social contexts. Identities are neither universally nor ahistorically defined.

Co-constructed: Not only are such aspects of identity constructed; they co-construct each other so that, for example, as one claims a gendered identity, that choice implies the gendered identity of others.

Intersecting or simultaneous rather than additive and hierarchical: These co-constructed features of identity are inseparable and interdependent. It is impossible to calculate the influence of one of them in the dynamism of identity. The performance of identity reveals the fluid simultaneity of social identity and the complexity involved in discerning which features are more salient in particular moments. It is not possible to arrange these simultaneous dimensions hierarchically. It is also important to note that in any given moment, one or more features of identity will be more prominent and likely shape strategic responses.

Geographically and historically variable: As a co-constructed reality, our social identities are invariably and deeply influenced by geographical and historical contexts. For example, this is demonstrated by the dynamic character of gender rules and roles for women across time and region in the United States. Even in the same historical period, normative expectations in regions of a single cultural context vary—as women and African Americans will attest.

Insinuated by interlocking domains of power: Because interlocking systems of advantage function best when obscured from view, an especially valuable aspect of intersectional theory is the importance it gives to naming power. It analyzes three interdependent power domains that shape identity: ideological, political, and economic. These domains create and extend rationales and practices that normalize treating forms of difference oppressively or as advantage. The ideological domain relies on the rhetoric of sources such as religion, media, and education. The political domain operates at a less visible level through the regimes of public policy established by local, state, and national legislatures. Deeply held ideologies that enact and reproduce systemic advantage and oppression easily become embedded in the outcomes of legislation regardless of its explicit language as famously demonstrated by the GI Bill following World War II. The economic domain designates how power insinuates itself in local, regional, and international economic practices such as those played out in mortgage rates, health care premiums, “fair trade,” and international monetary policies.

Animated by social justice as telos: Though the theory is not shaped by any religious claims, intersectional theorists posit social justice as its primary goal. In other words, intersectionality is intentionally transformative in its vision and practice.

Theories of change: Some theorists describe dual strategies of individual and group conscientization of agency in a politicized context to leverage influence and disrupt the balances of power.

In my experience, intersectionality is a constructively, pedagogically, and strategically rich resource for theological education for both masters and doctoral students. Students find it accessible and engage it productively. In a doctoral seminar that focuses on issues of sexuality, gender, race, and class, this theory has deepened students’ abilities to recognize the complexity of social identities deeply insinuated by asymmetries of power. I often begin with the students themselves. Intersectional analysis reveals the balances of advantage and oppression in their own social identities. They begin to recognize the complexity of enacting such identities simultaneously in different contexts where the salience of differences shifts. The theory helps students appreciate the accrued effect of domains of power either as advantage or oppressive marginalization. Intersectionality helps students lift the veil of obliviousness to the systemic advantages and patterns of oppression created and sustained by the domains of power. In my experience, this allows the theory to deconstruct the resistance of students who embrace the myth of meritocracy and support students who know the accrued force of oppressive marginalization from experience. Finally, it helps students think strategically about transformative change. In a master’s level course, we were readily able to use the theory to inform the complex situations they encounter in ministry and particularly to shape responses to these challenges. Because intersectionality provides depth for understanding the complexity of human being and the pervasive ways asymmetries of power weave themselves into individual and relational life, I am introducing it as a resource in courses as diverse as Introduction to Pastoral Care; Responses to Experiences of Aging, Grief, and Loss; and Postcolonial Themes in Pastoral Care.

In a recent doctoral seminar on theological anthropology, students and I were intrigued by the ways intersectionality opened up constructive  possibilities for deepening current scholarship around aspects of human being such as freedom and agency, imago dei, sin, the tragic, love, and justice. For example, we found the theory helped us imagine the complexity of identity and appreciate the challenge of exercising agency. We came to appreciate the difficulty of resisting the influence of domains of power and recognized in them ways sin amplifies brokenness at individual, relational, and structural levels. The tragic dimensions of accrued oppression were in sharper relief.

Given my enthusiasm, a word of caution is in order. While the intellectual power of this theory is compelling pragmatically, teaching it is not simple. For example, while simultaneity is readily apparent, trying to weigh the salience of various aspects of identity in a particular context quickly demonstrates that there are no shortcuts to doing one’s homework. Effective practice presumes competence in scaffolding the particular narratives of harm that marginalize various forms of difference treated oppressively. It means recognizing the markers of privilege and tracing these advantages across centuries through domains of power. Students and I found literature and film were particularly useful media for practicing intersectional analysis. Case studies also helped students recognize the multiple evidences of differences constructed as advantage or oppression and their asymmetrical interactions.

While the theory clearly provides important advances for theological education, it is important to remember Gregory Bateson’s caution that theories are only maps and not the territory. This theory remains dynamic; its construction is ongoing and revision is lively. There are at least two ways in which theological educators can contribute to the theory’s development. It is widely critiqued for devoting limited attention to enacting the theory. Social ethicists and pastoral and practical theologians are accustomed to generating theory in the mix of lived experience, and our contributions in this area can be significant. Further, it is clear that religious identity is not benign. It shapes social identity as marginalization and privilege. The theological academy can make an important and timely contribution to discerning and responding to this aspect of identity and social justice.

I look forward to the ways this theory will enrich our theological imaginations and provide strategic resources for engaging the complexity of difference. It can help us explore the mystery and wonder of identity as the salience of features such as sexuality, race, gender, and class dynamically shift within asymmetries of advantage and marginalization. Because intersectionality foregrounds domains of power for closer analysis, hopefully it will promote more informed resistance.


Copeland, Mary Shawn. 2010. Enfleshing Freedom: Body, Race, and Being. Minneapolis: Fortress Press.

Crenshaw, Kimberlé. 1989. "Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics." University of Chicago Legal Forum: 139–67.

Collins, Patricia Hill. 2000. "Gender, Black Feminism, and Black Political Economy." Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 568: 41–53.

Holvino, Evangelina. 2010. "Intersections: The Simultaneity of Race, Gender, and Class in Organization Studies." Gender, Work, and Organization 17 (3): 248–77.

Townes, Emilie M. 2006. Womanist Ethics and the Cultural Production of Evil. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Weber, Lynn. 2010. Understanding Race, Class, Gender, and Sexuality: A Conceptual Framework. New York: Oxford University Press.

Nancy RamsayNancy Ramsay is professor of pastoral theology and pastoral care at Brite Divinity School where she previously served as executive vice president and dean from June 2005 through May 2012. Previously she taught at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary and served as the Harrison Ray Anderson Professor of Pastoral Theology. She is ordained in the Presbyterian Church (USA). Her most recent publications include "Intersectionality: A Model for Addressing the Complexity of Oppression and Privilege," in Pastoral Psychology (August 2014); “Faculty Colleagues as Allies in Resisting Racism,” in Teaching for Diversity and Justice, Eleazar Fernandez, ed. (Wipf & Stock, 2013); and “Theological Education in a Secular Age: Challenges and Possibilities,” in The Theologically Formed Heart, Warner Bailey, Lee Barrett, and James Duke, eds. (Pickwick, 2014). 

Image: Plate XXX (Byzantine No. 3), The Grammar of Ornament by Owens Jones (1868; scanned from the 1910 reprint) London: Bernard Quaritch, via http://digital.library.wisc.edu/1711.dl/DLDecArts.GramOrnJones.