Every so often, a certain word or concept takes on bogeyman-level status, usually as the result of misunderstanding, misrepresentation, or both. When that happens, people react irrationally when the concept is mentioned, even if they don’t actually know what it means. “Intersectionality” is one such concept. The frenzy among some prominent conservative Christians over the idea of intersectionality in recent times has reached fever pitch. Anyone who mentions the word in a positive manner is automatically relegated to the status of a “cultural Marxist.” One influential conservative Christian apologist has gone so far as to say that “all intersectionality denies the faith.”[1] In this post, I will attempt to demystify the concept and demonstrate that instead of an idea on par with apostasy, it can actually be a useful tool for analyzing and explaining certain realities in society. We’ll begin with a brief look at the history and definition the word, and then we’ll look at a story in the Bible for which the concept actually provides a helpful analytical lens.

What is “Intersectionality”
The word “intersectionality” was coined by Kimberle Williams Crenshaw, a lawyer, civil rights advocate, and scholar, as a result of her studies in various forms of discrimination in the late 1980s. It shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone reading this that both gender-based discrimination and race-based discrimination have been problems in American history. What Crenshaw’s work demonstrated was that there was in America a “tendency to treat race and gender as mutually exclusive categories of experience and analysis” in anti-discrimination lawsuits and that this tendency created unique problems for Black women in particular.[2] In other words, while Black men often experienced racial discrimination and white women often experienced gender discrimination, Black women experienced a compounded form of discrimination at the intersection of race and gender.

In the years following Crenshaw’s initial work, the concept has been expanded to include more categories beyond race and gender as well as to include more categories than just discrimination lawsuits. The term has actually made its way into mainstream dictionaries; Merriam-Webster defines it as

The complex, cumulative way in which the effects of multiple forms of discrimination combine, overlap, or intersect in the experiences of marginalized individuals or groups.[3]

As a basic concept, this is relatively straightforward and well-documented and should, in my opinion, be rather uncontroversial. That is not to say that it hasn’t been misused or overused by some people, but that misuse and overuse does not render the idea useless as a tool for analyzing and explaining people’s lived experiences. Why anyone would say that “all intersectionality is a denial of the faith” is beyond me, especially when this concept can actually help explain at least one biblical account.

Intersectionality in the Bible?
The Acts of the Apostles is an ancient Christian document included in the New Testament of the Bible that tells of the initial growth and development of the Jesus movement in the years following the death and resurrection of Jesus. The first few chapters of Acts document the explosive numerical growth of the movement in the city of Jerusalem. With this growth came some growing pains. As the author of Acts describes it, “During those days, when the disciples were increasing in number, the Hellenists complained against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution of food,” (Acts 6:1, NRSV). What we have here is actually a problem of intersectionality. Let me explain.

In the ancient world, a world characterized by patriarchy, widows were a vulnerable, marginalized group. The culture was such that women in general were often financially and materially dependent on the men in their lives. As New Testament scholar Lynn Cohick states, if ancient women “lacked funds and found themselves widowed, they were at the mercy of their children.”[4] New Testament scholar N.T. Wright, commenting on the situation described in Acts 6 explains, “Normally, widows would be taken care of among their own blood-relations, but those family ties appear to have been cut when people joined the new [Jesus] movement.”[5] In other words, women who converted this new movement very well may have been cut-off from whatever financial support they had from their families. This fledgling Christian community had apparently responded by developing a system to provide for the material needs of this vulnerable group.

As the passage from Acts makes clear, though, there was diversity among this group of widows. Specifically, there were both Hellenistic widows as well as Hebrew widows. Most commentators seem to agree the Hellenists were Greek-speaking Jews who probably came from outside of region of Palestine while the Hebrews were Aramaic-speaking Jews who came from Jerusalem and the surrounding Palestinian region, both of whom had joined the new Jesus movement in Jerusalem. At the very minimum, there was a difference in primary language, but there were almost certainly differences in culture and ethnicity between the two groups as well. The Hellenists were, in a sense, like immigrants in the region, and there seems to have been at least some degree of prejudice and animosity between the them and the Hebrews. All of this, combined with the fact that the Hellenists were almost certainly a minority in the Jesus movement, provides a plausible explanation for why the Hellenistic widows were neglected in the daily distribution of food.

So how is this an example of intersectionality? Just like the Black women in Crenshaw’s studies in the 1980’s, these Hellenistic widows existed at the intersection of two vulnerable and marginalized groups of people. Both widows and Hellenistic Jews in Jerusalem experienced unique challenges and forms of “discrimination,” and those challenges were compounded for those women who were both widows and Hellenistic Jews in Jerusalem.

 While the author of Acts didn’t use the word “intersectionality” to describe the problem, we can see how the concept gives us helpful language to describe what was going on. The Bible doesn’t use words like “racism,” or “sexism” or “ethnocentricity” either, but those words can be helpful for describing concepts and situations we find in the Bible. There’s no need to be afraid any of these words when remember that they are simply tools to help us analyze and describe reality in helpful ways.

The Importance of Representation
The early Christian leaders’ solution to the problem of the neglect Hellenistic widows is enlightening. First, it’s enlightening to note what they did not do. They did not say “these social issues are just a distraction, if they simply believe the gospel everything will work itself out.” Neither did they accuse the Hellenistic Christians of being divisive for expressing concern over the disparity. They didn’t call the Hellenists “cultural Marxists” or anything else. So what did they do?

They addressed the problem head on. Here’s how the author of Acts recounts it:

And the twelve called together the whole community of the disciples and said, “It is not right that we should neglect the word of God in order to wait on tables. Therefore, friends, select from among yourselves seven men of good standing, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may appoint to this task, while we, for our part, will devote ourselves to prayer and to serving the word.” What they said pleased the whole community, and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit, together with Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch. They had these men stand before the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them.

Acts 6:2-6

It appears that up until this point, the twelve apostles themselves had direct oversight over the distribution of food. Recognizing that the movement had grown beyond their ability to manage every aspect themselves, they instructed the community to identify capable leaders who would step up and oversee the “charity arm” of the organization.

What’s particularly interesting here, however, is who was chosen to oversee the work. As many commentators have noted, the men who were chosen all had Greek names, suggesting that these men may have actually been Hellenists themselves. N.T. Wright states it well when he says, “it made sense to include in the work, front and centre, people who shared the background of those who had felt they were being treated as second-class citizens.”[6] The word for this is “representation.” The neglected subgroup was given representation in the leadership body of the entire group. Of course, in hindsight, it probably would have been even better to have Hebrew and Hellenistic widows themselves represented, but the early church’s choice of representatives from the neglected group was actually rather progressive for its time.

So there you have it. “Intersectionality” need not be a bogeyman, and there’s no basis at all for saying that “all intersectionality is a denial of the faith.” Instead, intersectionality as an analytical tool can help us to identify with greater precision people and groups experiencing unique challenges and discrimination and then to give those people and groups greater representation in our various leadership bodies in order to better care and provide for all people who are made in the image of God.

[1] https://twitter.com/DrOakley1689/status/1095694351705956352

[2] Kimberly Crenshaw, “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics,” University of Chicago Legal Forum, Volume 1989, Issue 1, 139.

[3] Merriam-Webster Dictionary, s.v. “Intersectionality.”

[4] Lynn Cohick, Women in the World of the Earliest Christians: Illuminating Ancient Ways of Life Baker Publishing Group, p. 156, Kindle Edition.

[5] Tom Wright, Acts for Everyone, Part 1: Chapters 1-12 (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2008), 98.

[6] Wright, Acts for Everyone, 99.

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