The Way of the Cross in the Ordinary: Ethnographic Attention to the Good as Invitational Ethics

In: Ecclesial Practices
Sara A. WilliamsAssistant Professor of Community-Based Learning, Ethics, and Society, Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, Evanston, IL, USA,

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This essay develops the idea of ‘invitational ethics,’ engagement with ethnographic description as normative praxis. I argue that by attending to ways in which people exercise practical wisdom in ordinary moments, the ethnographer and reader alike are invited to engage their own processes of ethical self-making. I draw on ethnographic fieldwork with the Way of the Cross for Justice, an annual Good Friday public liturgy in Cincinnati, Ohio, as a site for invitational ethics in the frame of what anthropologist Joel Robbins has called an ‘anthropology of the good.’ I conclude by reflecting on how this invited me to engage my own ethical self-making.


This essay develops the idea of ‘invitational ethics,’ engagement with ethnographic description as normative praxis. I argue that by attending to ways in which people exercise practical wisdom in ordinary moments, the ethnographer and reader alike are invited to engage their own processes of ethical self-making. I draw on ethnographic fieldwork with the Way of the Cross for Justice, an annual Good Friday public liturgy in Cincinnati, Ohio, as a site for invitational ethics in the frame of what anthropologist Joel Robbins has called an ‘anthropology of the good.’ I conclude by reflecting on how this invited me to engage my own ethical self-making.

1 Introduction

The weather felt liturgically correct for Good Friday. A drizzling rain fell as we stood shivering in a sea of umbrellas in Washington Park, an expansive greenspace central to Cincinnati’s ‘revitalization’ of the Over-the-Rhine neighborhood just north of downtown. The crowd of a hundred or so were gathered for the Way of the Cross for Justice, an annual public liturgy with a nearly forty-year history in Cincinnati. From the platform of the park’s gazebo, Sr. Leslie1 welcomed us:

Wherever there is sorrow, injustice, and pain, there is the broken body of Christ. And we, like all those who have loved Christ, are present to that suffering. We pray for an end to injustice as we work toward that end. And we hope in resurrection because we know that rising is always part of and always follows the crucifixion.

A local Presbyterian pastor perched on a stool strummed her guitar as she began to sing ‘My People, My People,’ a signal to process around the gazebo. Local Catholic high school students led us carrying poles draped with ribbons in Lenten liturgical colors. Our procession ended back in front of the gazebo as the first ‘presentation’2 began: a meditation on how Mark 14:55, in which the chief priests and Sanhedrin can find no fault with Jesus, relates to the ‘trumped up’ charges Black and Brown people face daily.

Under the theme ‘What Does Love Look Like in the Face of Violence?’ we moved through an abbreviated liturgy consisting of five presentations: The New Freedom (related to mass incarceration and distributive justice), Poverty and Abundance, Immigration, Women’s Empowerment and Equality, and Violence and Burden within the Church (referencing sexual abuse). Theological engagement with themes related to suffering and injustice stand in a long tradition of liberation theologies and their embodied practices, including myriad Way of the Cross liturgies similar to this one. In fact, that human suffering caused by structural injustice is not at all rare is what makes the identification of the incarnate God with all ‘crucified people’3 such radically good news. From this perspective, the Way of the Cross for Justice is merely a rehearsal of familiar theological landscapes. It has little new to offer. It is ordinary.

I propose, however, that we take the ordinary as our starting point. The Way of the Cross for Justice may not offer a novel theological reading of Jesus’ death and resurrection, nor a unique liturgical rendering of the Stations of the Cross. But the mundane details of the practice’s history and planning processes contain rich insights for ethical reflection. Small judgment calls organizers make are embedded in complex moral questions around race and class relations in the gentrifying Over-the-Rhine neighborhood. Because emerging community power arrangements and shifting neighborhood demographics constrain organizers’ ability to apply their liberationist theological vision of the good without compromise, even minor logistical decisions often require the exercise of practical wisdom. Organizers’ racial and class identities influence these moral deliberations. The 2019 planning team consisted of seven consistently active organizers, all of whom share progressive Christian commitments: Allison, Daniel H., Daniel P., Sr. Leslie, Mary Anne, Marci, and Pat. Six were white educated middle-class professionals; Daniel H., a local Black Methodist pastor, was the only person of color. The lack of persons with marginalized social identities on the planning committee has throughout the liturgy’s history contributed to uncertainty as to how to be in solidarity with marginalized residents of Over-the-Rhine. Is white presence in communities of color irredeemably a gaze, even if that presence is intended as allyship? How do we practice radical critique while also meeting white folks where they are to raise critical consciousness?

Attention to moments of practical wisdom around such questions is its own kind of ethical practice. By attending to ways people exercise practical wisdom in the interstitial space between description and norm – ordinary moments in which people of faith seek to enact theological commitments – ethnography can bid us not merely to analyze ordinary moments of practical wisdom at remove. Rather, it can create space for invitational ethics: the ethnographer and reader’s engagement with ethnography as a technology of the self,4 a method by which one engages her process of ethical self-making. Reader and ethnographer place ordinary moments in which ‘similar others’ grapple with moral questions in conversation with their own everyday deliberations around those questions, thereby contributing to the formation of their moral character. As a white educated middle-class professional like most Way of the Cross for Justice organizers, the questions with which organizers grappled were resonant with my own moral deliberations around how to place myself in right relationship with marginalized persons. Attending to their processes of practical reasoning when ordinary planning decisions were laden with moral implications drew me into deeper engagement with analogous questions arising in the everyday spaces of my own life.

In this essay I develop the idea of ‘invitational ethics’ in conversation with my ethnographic fieldwork with the Way of the Cross for Justice. I begin by grounding ‘invitational ethics’ in the anthropology of ethics, particularly in calls for an ‘anthropology of the good.’ I then situate the Way of the Cross for Justice in theological and liturgical context and the dynamics of class and racial politics in Cincinnati’s Over-the-Rhine and downtown neighborhoods. Finally, I turn to two ethnographic examples that draw out how decisions marked by moral ambiguity opened space for organizers to exercise practical wisdom in the context of theological visions of the good. I conclude with a reflection on how this invited me to more deeply engage my own process of ethical self-making.

2 Invitational Ethics

The call for ‘everyday ethics’ echoes that of theologian Michael Banner, himself following emerging conversations in anthropology regarding ethics as ‘basic to the human condition.’5 Banner urges moral theology to move from the ethics of ‘hard cases’ to an ethics of ‘the practice of the Christian life.’6 This call for an ethnographic approach to theological reflection is similar to that of scholars involved in the development of ‘ethnographic theology.’7 Banner, however, draws in new conversation partners that frame the agency/structure problem differently than the practice theory of Pierre Bourdieu and Loïc Wacquant, the two dominant sociological interlocutors in ethnographic theology.

Recent engagement with ethics in anthropology recognizes that we are deeply beholden to social structures, but opens space for everyday moral actions to be taken seriously on their own terms. Michael Lambek draws out tensions between ‘underdeterminism’ and ‘unfreedom’ to describe how our actions are neither fully determined nor radically free. This tension ‘sits in an interesting place between what is and what ought to be’ as must ‘any realistic vision of the good life.’ Thick ethnographic description of these messy everyday realities has the capacity to flesh out the ‘productive tension’ in moments between is and ought that prompt the exercise of practical wisdom.8 Attending to how Way of the Cross for Justice organizers negotiate such moments gives us a nuanced picture of ways people negotiate visions of the good when presented with incommensurable goods, ‘least bad’ options, and constraining power arrangements.9

Anthropologist Joel Robbins set the agenda for this kind of ethnographic attention to the good. He contends the attention to suffering that has dominated cultural anthropology since the 1980s has produced ethnographic accounts that confidently endorse their ‘already widely accepted models of the good’ rather than pushing us to learn from the way others conceive of the good in negotiating the gaps between what is and what they believe ought to be.10 James Laidlaw takes up this idea when he contends, ‘the anthropological study of ethics is capable of being itself a form of ethical practice.’11 Laidlaw argues that ethnography as ‘a mode of comparison and contrast’ with other societies ‘makes it possible for writer and reader to place themselves in a pedagogic relationship to the ethnography…genuinely to open themselves to learning from and modifying their own thought and conduct in light of it.’12 In short, ‘there is, on this view, no tension between judgment and description: description is judgment.’13

I build my notion of invitational ethics on the work of Lambek, Robbins, Laidlaw, and others in the anthropology of ethics who seek to locate ethical praxis in the interstitial space between description and norm.14 While the inflection in these proposals has been on ways in which attention to difference can spark our moral imagination, however, I seek to move into more familiar cultural territory. Cultural difference is not the only register in which we might be moved to self-evaluation. Similarity can have a comparable effect. Attending to ways people with whom we bear social resemblance negotiate visions of the good when faced with competing values and structural constraints places the ethnographer and the reader in a kind of third person relationship with themselves. It invites us to imagine ourselves in the place of the ‘similar other’ not only for the sake of ethnographic description, but also so that we might emerge with deepened reflexivity regarding our own comparable moral questions.

3 The Way of the Cross for Justice in Theological and Historical Perspective

3.1 The Way of the Cross Liturgy as Social and Political Critique

Perhaps more than any other Christian liturgy, the Way of the Cross has been adapted as a ritual reflection on political injustice. Latin American liberation theologian Leonardo Boff’s extended meditation on the Way of the Cross lays theological groundwork for such creative mobilizations of the liturgy:

‘Today the passion of the mystical Christ, embodied in the lives of those who are sacrificed for the cause of justice, preserves the same structure as the passion of the historical Jesus….The resurrection of the crucified Jesus proves that the sacrifice of one’s life out of love for the downtrodden and abused is not meaningless.’15

From the liberationist perspective, the passion narrative and its liturgical embodiment are particularly relevant to myriad contexts of injustice globally. For example, Way of the Cross liturgies are performed by residents of Philadelphia to protest gun violence,16 Palestinian Christians contesting the Israeli occupation,17 and in solidarity with migrants.18 Progressive Catholic groups regularly publish Way of the Cross liturgies addressing a range of social justice concerns for congregational use.19

In some cases, members of marginalized groups themselves create and/or perform these liturgies. As the examples above indicate, however, more often privileged groups wishing to express solidarity with marginalized populations write and perform the liturgies. Though the intention of organizers is to amplify concerns of marginalized groups, there is inherent power in speaking for that risks reproduction of the very logics of whiteness organizers want to contest.20 Cincinnati’s Way of the Cross for Justice stands in the lineage of Way of the Cross liturgies seeking to embody liberationist theological ideals as a vision of the good. It also inherits the risks that emerge when privileged individuals organize such a practice.

3.2 The Way of the Cross for Justice in Historical Context

The Way of the Cross for Justice21 was born in 1983 at the Pax Christi USA National Assembly held at Cincinnati’s Mount St. Joseph University. Sr. Alice Gerdeman, one of the liturgy’s original organizers, recalls:

The first year we thought we were going to have twenty people and we figured we could name all of them, and we probably had a hundred…And the next year we had more, and the next year we had more. Until we got to a point where we had several thousand people who would come out.22

In the earliest years of the liturgy, organizers followed the fourteen stations in the traditional St. Alphonsus Liguori text adapted to address ‘the issues of the time.’ By 1988 they had abbreviated these to nine ‘more biblical’ stations because of time constraints and to appeal to an ecumenical audience Figure 1. The route of the liturgy from 1988 to 2006 began at Fountain Square, a downtown Cincinnati landmark, and ended in Over-the-Rhine’s Washington Park, widely perceived during this period as a ‘gathering place for the city’s homeless and drug users’.23

Figure 1
Figure 1

1988 Way of the Cross, Way of Justice Flyer detailing the liturgy’s route through Cincinnati’s Downtown and Over-the-Rhine communities.

Citation: Ecclesial Practices 8, 1 (2021) ; 10.1163/22144471-bja10024

image from the university of notre dame archives.used with permission.

To understand Washington Park’s reputation during this period, it is important to place Over-the-Rhine in historical context. By the 1960s, waves of migration by white Appalachian industrial workers and displaced African Americans had turned Over-the-Rhine into a dense community of the urban poor. Community residents lived in crowded apartments, historic buildings with European-style architecture refitted to maximize the number of low-income units. City disinvestment through the 1970s exacerbated crime rates and substandard living conditions.24 In response to these conditions and emerging city plans to gentrify Over-the-Rhine, in the 1980s neighborhood residents organized what came to be known as the ‘Over-the-Rhine People’s Movement.’25 The primary concern of the People’s Movement was (and still is) the displacement of vulnerable populations due to rising rents. Throughout the 1980s and 90s, the People’s Movement advocated for just and equitable development in Over-the-Rhine and for representation on task forces devoted to creating development plans.26 Their efforts were met with hostility by opponents. Those who championed development with little regard for affordable housing deployed racist rhetoric that reinforced links in the public imagination between African Americans, poverty, and criminality and disorder. For instance, former City Council member Jim Tarbell railed against the neighborhood as ‘a predominately black enclave of poverty and despair.’ He made thinly veiled racist arguments for gentrification, such as his notorious remark that if middle and upper-income whites were to move into Over-the-Rhine, current residents would benefit from ‘day-to-day examples of alternative ways of thinking and living.’27

In 1992 Sr. Alice became Coordinator of the Intercommunity Justice and Peace Center (ijpc), a nonprofit originally founded to coordinate advocacy work for five orders of Catholic women religious. ijpc resultantly became the coordinating body for the Way of the Cross for Justice. At its peak in the late 1990s, the practice drew a crowd of several thousand. At each stop on the route, organizers made connections between the station and a social issue related to the place. Sr. Alice describes this time:

We would stand in front of P&G [Proctor and Gamble corporate headquarters] and we would talk about corporate responsibility…We went to the jail…and we’d talk about the death penalty…The concept was we would go from the public square [Fountain Square downtown] into the poorer area [Washington Park in Over-the-Rhine]…so that people who walked and came in from the suburbs, many of them had never been in Over-the-Rhine for anything but a quick rush-through. Because people were frightened…But here when you’re walking with a thousand people, you can do that.28

By adapting the Way of the Cross to contest dominant public discourse about downtown and Over-the-Rhine, organizers attempted to create ‘moral geographies:’ articulations of a place that critique the way political and economic forces have produced space, over time altering the moral valence of a place.29 Organizers designed the liturgy to reorient the way participants read the city. They wanted to challenge narratives of criminality and dereliction, and to demonstrate how city policies privileged wealthy corporations while systematically marginalizing poor people of color. This raises an important point: historically, the primary audience for the liturgy has been white, middle class Catholics attracted to progressive articulations of the faith but with limited exposure to places racially and socioeconomically different from their own experience. One of the primary goods of the liturgy has always been to expose participants to readings of their city grounded in liberation theology and Catholic Social Teaching. Accommodating this audience remains a salient factor in planning processes. As we will see, it presents a value that can make it challenging for organizers to align logistical decisions with their theological ideals.

A turning point for Over-the-Rhine and the Way of the Cross for Justice occurred on April 7, 2001 when white Cincinnati police officer Stephen Roach fatally shot unarmed black teenager Timothy Thomas in an Over-the-Rhine alleyway. In the ensuing days, crowds of outraged protesters were confronted by police in riot gear using tear gas and rubber bullets. Sr. Alice said the Way of the Cross for Justice was never the same after that: ‘It never got back to its peak…The whole dynamic of the city, and all the forms you had to get and all of those things, was changing.’ Some of these new barriers may have had to do with changes in the city’s approach to development in Over-the-Rhine. Fearing Cincinnati would become known for violence and disorder, the city decided to take more aggressive measures to gentrify the neighborhood. In 2003 Mayor Charles Luken announced the creation of the Cincinnati Center City Development Corporation (3cdc) chaired by Procter & Gamble ceo A.G. Lafley.30 3cdc is a nonprofit entity dedicated to ‘strengthen[ing] the core assets of downtown by revitalizing and connecting the Central Business District and Over-the-Rhine.’31 It operates under an exclusive ‘public-private partnership’ with the city that includes ‘various tax incentives and access to federal community development grants’ and huge infusions of capital from the Cincinnati business community, which in 2003 granted it $17 million in start-up funds.32

Since 2003, 3cdc has led the gentrification of Over-the-Rhine through its strategy of buying up buildings block-by-block, which are then turned into high-end condos and rental space for businesses catering to white urban professionals. Over-the-Rhine is now one of the most expensive neighborhoods in which to rent in Cincinnati. The southern portion of the neighborhood closest to downtown has become majority white with a rapidly declining number of Black residents.33 In the crucible of these fraught class and race relations, Way of the Cross for Justice organizers attempt to realize liberationist theological visions of the good.

4 ‘It’s Kind of Like You’re in Bed with the Devil’

On a February day, Way of the Cross for Justice organizers gathered around the long glossy wood meeting table in the ijpc office. The mood was warm and jocular as we moved through the agenda in the one-room office, a converted elementary school classroom now filled with desks, books, and office supplies, its walls covered with buttons and posters containing phrases like ‘Cut Corporate Welfare.’ As we discussed volunteer recruitment, Pat stepped out to take a call from the liaison at 3cdc. Since 3cdc now manages virtually all public spaces in downtown and Over-the-Rhine, the 2019 Washington Park location required that the committee pay them for the space, sound equipment, a site manager, and chairs. When Pat returned, she seemed exasperated. ‘Everything goes up, right?’ she said sarcastically. ‘The chairs are no longer $1 apiece, they are $3 apiece.’ The group made collective noises of dismay. Allison joked, ‘Are they new chairs?’ and then more seriously said she would challenge the pricing change. One organizer playfully suggested a lack of chairs due to raised prices could be the subject of the ‘poverty and abundance’ presentation. Through this kind of ‘serious joking’ organizers signaled to one another their deep ambivalence about renting from 3cdc. Jokes about 3cdc functioned as a way to regain a sense of moral agency in a situation where organizers felt compelled to pay an entity opposed to their values.

Figure 2
Figure 2

2019 Way of the Cross for Justice in Washington Park

Citation: Ecclesial Practices 8, 1 (2021) ; 10.1163/22144471-bja10024

photo by author

Organizers were quick to express their ambivalence about working with 3cdc more directly during interviews. Pat told me, ‘We have such mixed feelings about 3cdc…it’s kind of like you’re in bed with the devil.’34 Yet most organizers also expressed feelings of powerlessness. 3cdc’s monopoly on space in downtown and Over-the-Rhine left them little choice but to compromise. Mary Anne commented, ‘I’ve certainly heard enough from the people who work at the nonprofits downtown…to know that 3cdc has had a very negative impact on poor people [and] people of color, so it is kind of unsettling to give money to those people…[but] they own it all, there’s nothing we can do about it.’35

Embedded in this grappling is the practical wisdom organizers employ within constrained possibilities for acting according to their theological ideals. Most organizers expressed a conviction that the practice itself is such an important act of social witness that the compromise to pay 3cdc is worth it if it ensures the liturgy can take place in an accessible public space. Daniel H., the only organizer of color, expressed a different perspective: ‘I don’t agree that we have to be in bed with [3cdc].… I’d much rather pay some marginal group money to be in their space.…If you don’t want to be with them, then let’s do this thing differently.’36 For Daniel H., remaining true to the radical critique emerging from liberationist theological ideals outweighed the location’s accessibility. This would mean perhaps locating the practice in a community at the beginning of its gentrification battle where the majority of residents were still experiencing marginalization. Daniel H.’s analysis raises important questions with which organizers contended: To whom should this practice be accessible? Who is it for?

5 ‘Is Our Location Supposed to be Meaningful?’

In mid-May 2019, Way of the Cross for Justice organizers again gathered at the ijpc office, this time to evaluate the event and plan for 2020.37 The discussion turned to venue. Organizers brought up factors like sound quality and accessibility of parking as they adjudicated between Fountain Square and Washington Park. A prolonged pause followed as people weighed these considerations. After a few moments Daniel P. broke the silence: ‘Is our location supposed to be meaningful?’ He continued:

I think way in the past we were walking through downtown and Washington Park because of the neighborhood, and I feel both locations…have transitioned to a point where I no longer feel like I’m in the center of what we’re…talking about at times….I would be open in the future to saying, “Is there another neighborhood that maybe makes more sense now?”

Marci responded, ‘But is there a plus…to being the visible presence to the people who, as opposed to people who are experiencing the difficulties,…are blind eyeing?’ Mary Anne added, ‘I thought part of it…was being in proximity to all the people that are downtown working that might take their lunches [and watch].’ This exchange captures a key tension between radical critique and accessibility to privileged publics for the sake of consciousness-raising. Is the Way of the Cross for Justice a practice of solidarity with marginalized persons? Or is it an advocacy tool that seeks to attract a largely privileged audience?

Part of the reason this tension is so difficult for organizers is that the liturgy has tried to be both of these things in the past. Marci called this ‘identity ambivalence.’ She recognized that organizers spoke about the liturgy’s historical identity in different registers. Sometimes its evangelical nature was emphasized, which makes a crowded public place integral. At other times organizers talked about the liturgy as a theological statement about particular places, which makes it vital to hold the practice in those places. And sometimes organizers made location decisions simply based on convenience to typical attendees, in which case accessibility to privileged white audiences becomes tantamount.38 Marci’s analysis offers a helpful heuristic. Yet there is also a moral valence her observation does not capture. The question with which organizers contended did not seem to be so much ‘What is this liturgy?’ but rather ‘What should this liturgy be?’

The practical wisdom organizers exercised when addressing this question was deeply related to their subject positions. My conversation with Daniel P., a middle-aged white professional, drew this out:

dp: I love going down and spending time…in Over-the-Rhine, but…I do realize that when you’re sitting there at Washington Park you are sitting in a place that is controlled by 3cdc…and that feels like if we’re in their space and we’re not talking about the fact that…we’re in a space that used to be different, that some of who controls this is actually part of the problem…then I wonder if we’re in the right space. It’s like, we keep talking about what would make things comfortable…but part of me is like, no we should make [attendees] really uncomfortable. We should probably be standing in the street somewhere and maybe give the police notice or something that we’re all going to be in the street and we’ll move off it when you come.

S: I resonate with that. [My spouse] and I go down to Over-the-Rhine and we’ll enjoy a meal, and I always feel a tinge of guilt doing that…Is this black space or is this white space? And where do I belong in that?39

The question of whether ethical action requires the liturgy to perform radical critique becomes complex when those organizing and performing that critique are predominately white and middle class.

Pat, too, grappled with these questions. She recalls feeling deeply uncomfortable when in the 90s the liturgy moved through a less gentrified Over-the-Rhine:

We…walked through Over-the-Rhine [and]…there were no African Americans walking with us…So it just felt like we were intruding in their neighborhood…if we’re gonna do this, we need to have them with us so it doesn’t feel like we were here, “Oh, look at them”, kind of thing.40

Pat’s conclusion flipped the script on Daniel P.’s:

If I had my druthers [we would begin at] Fountain Square to be present to the urban core…and walk to the Freedom Center to say here’s who we can be…I love that symbolism. I’m not as happy in Washington Park to be honest with you. I feel bad about Washington Park. I’m so conflicted about being there because we’ve taken over that neighborhood from the people who it was their neighborhood, and now it’s not anymore.41

For Daniel P., white discomfort in Black space (or formerly Black space) made him conclude the liturgy should challenge attendees to be more radical. This same discomfort led Pat to conclude that a more symbolic act downtown would be better, because she felt her presence in Over-the-Rhine as a middle-class white woman reinforced, rather than challenged, the ideologies of whiteness that had turned the community into a white space.

These reflections raise ways in which the question of identity is morally complex for white organizers. An even deeper set of questions emerges, however, when one begins to question how the whiteness of organizers structures the practice itself. Daniel H. pointed out that the nature of the practice as a one-off annual event inevitably leads to the kind of white intrusion Pat described when performing the liturgy in Over-the-Rhine in the 90s when it was still a majority Black community. Yet he was also skeptical that doing the event in privileged spaces is better. While Daniel H. didn’t think it was actively harmful to hold the liturgy in a white space, it also ‘doesn’t move the needle.’ It subtly upholds norms of whiteness. Daniel H. did not think the liturgy had to be this way if it was part of a sustained partnership to organize with a marginalized community around the injustices the liturgy addresses. This would be both a radical critique and a powerful witness. From Daniel H.’s perspective, however, the practice is currently living into neither.

6 ‘I Just Call That Monday’

Daniel H.’s conclusion to our discussion on the whiteness of the Way of the Cross for Justice was simply, ‘I just call that Monday.’ When I shared with him that, after months of research, I began to notice an unexamined ideology among organizers that white attendees ought to feel safe, he responded as if this was the most obvious conclusion I could have drawn. ‘Yeah,’ he shrugged, ‘but I always assume that when it comes to white folk…that’s the dominant value.’42 I felt like Dorothy at the end of The Wizard of Oz, learning she had gone on a long journey when the answer had been there all along. It is not new information to me that white safety is important to white people. But while Daniel assumes that is the case, it always seems to sneak up on me in regard to progressive white Christians and, as a progressive white Christian, in regard to myself. I too had missed this deeper interrogation of the practice. Daniel H.’s critique points back to the vision of the good that inspired the Way of the Cross for Justice liturgy in the first place. If the good emerges from Christ’s presence in the crucified people, then in the midst of the complex ordinary that telos ought to be our North Star.

Organizers attempted to implement norms related to a liberationist theological vision of the good, such as solidarity with marginalized persons (the ought), within constraints presented by the contingent details of their situation (the is). A thick description of these particularities was vital to understanding the nuances of their choices and deliberations. Yet what is most important for our purposes is not the particular norms of this community nor the situational details they were negotiating. It is the process of moral deliberation emerging from the lack of total alignment between the ought and the is. In this “interstitial space” between norm and description, organizers grappled with tensions, questions, and competing goods, and exercised practical wisdom in ways often constrained by how their own subject positions shaped their perspectives. Particularly for white readers of privilege, attention to this process invites us to interrogate our own presence in analogous communities and, more broadly, to consider our complicity in whiteness and structural racism in light of the organizers’ decisions and reflections. Even if one’s vision of the good is informed by sources other than liberation theology, attending to the way organizers deliberated and acted in response to moral questions of common importance can prompt us to reflect on how we might have acted differently based on our own vision for the good. This kind of engagement with ethnographic material is what I am calling “invitational ethics.”

I approached my own ethnographic engagement with the Way of the Cross for Justice in this mode of invitational ethics. In terms of the Way of the Cross for Justice itself, I emerged from this process with feelings of deep ambivalence. While I still sympathize with organizers’ desire to reach a white Christian audience that may not ordinarily engage questions of justice, I question whether the practice’s location and form actually undercut the critique organizers are trying to make. Beyond assessment of the practice, however, organizers’ deliberations about right relationship to Over-the-Rhine functioned as a difficult look in the mirror for me. As I commented to Daniel P., I occasionally enjoy dinner or drinks in Over-the-Rhine without regard for the restaurant’s own relationship to the community. My ethical concerns about the number of new businesses catering primarily to middle-class white professionals in the neighborhood sit in direct conflict with my desires as one of those middle-class white professionals. Is such ‘hypocritical dining’ incompatible with solidarity? If so, is Pat’s solution simply to move to a white space without the same problematic racial history sufficient? Or is patronizing a business complicit in producing white space always morally problematic? These questions have resonance that move beyond the particularities of Over-the-Rhine to the ethics of gentrification and race more generally.

7 Conclusion

Ethnography as invitational ethics bids the ethnographer and reader to reflexively engage ways ‘similar others’ exercise practical wisdom in the interstitial space between ought and is, in the gaps between visions of the good and constraining power arrangements that make the ‘pure’ application of those visions unattainable. Such reflexive engagement draws us to description as judgment. It invites ethnographer and reader to evaluate themselves as implicated in the moral questions their research participants face. As I have tried to demonstrate here, such a practice requires the ethnographer to risk vulnerability. Invitational ethics cannot be practiced outside of the ethnographer’s rather public examination of how her own subject position shapes her engagement with moral questions at hand. The ethnographer risks such exposure because it is integral to her own ethical self-becoming, and because it bids the reader to engage the ethnographic material in similar fashion.


Research for this article was conducted with irb approval. I use organizers’ real names with their consent.


Organizers’ use of ‘presentations’ rather than ‘stations’ reflects an ecumenical intention to avoid language they believe will not resonate with Protestants.


Ignacio Ellacuria, ‘The Crucified People,’ in Systematic Theology: Perspectives from Liberation Theology, eds. Jon Sobrino and Ignacio Ellacuria (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1998), pp. 257–278.


Michel Foucault, ‘Technologies of the Self,’ in Technologies of the Self: A Seminar with Michel Foucault, eds. Luther H. Martin, Huck Gutman, and Patrick H. Hutton, pp. 16–49. (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1988), p. 18.


Michael Lambek, ‘Introduction,’ in Ordinary Ethics: Anthropology, Language, and Action, ed. Michael Lambek, pp. 1–36 (New York: Fordham University Press, 2010), p. 2.


Michael Banner, The Ethics of Everyday Life: Moral Theology, Social Anthropology, and the Imagination of the Human (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016) pp. 4, 28.


Christian Scharen and Aana Marie Vigen, eds., Ethnography as Christian Theology and Ethics. (New York: Continuum, 2011); Natalie Wigg-Stevenson, Ethnographic Theology: An Inquiry into the Production of Theological Knowledge (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016).


Lambek 2015, pp. 2–6.


Michael Lambek, The Ethical Condition: Essays on Action, Person, and Value (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015), pp. 13–17.


Joel Robbins, ‘Beyond the Suffering Subject: Toward an Anthropology of the Good,’ Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 19, no. 3 (2013): 447–62, p. 456.


James Laidlaw, The Subject of Virtue: An Anthropology of Ethics and Freedom (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014), p. 45.


Ibid., p. 216.


Patrick McKearney, ‘The Genre of Judgment: Description and Difficulty in the Anthropology of Ethics,’ Journal of Religious Ethics 44, no. 3 (2016): 544–73, p. 565.


While the anthropology of ethics has laid out the most extensive version of the framework that grounds my notion of ‘invitational ethics,’ proposals have emerged from other disciplinary corners that resonate with these ideas. See Luke Bretherton, ‘Coming to Judgment: Methodological Reflections on the Relationship Between Ecclesiology, Ethnography and Political Theory,’ Modern Theology 28, no. 2 (2012): 167–96, pp. 186–190; Robert Orsi, Between Heaven and Earth: The Religious Worlds People Make and the Scholars Who Study Them (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005), pp. 198–199; Ted Smith, ‘Troeltschian Questions for ‘Ethnography as Christian Theology and Ethics,’ Practical Matters, no. 6 (Spring 2013): 1–9, p. 7.


Leonardo Boff, Way of the Cross--Way of Justice, trans. John Drury (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1980), ix.


Molly Farneth, ‘Toward an Ethics of Social Practice,’ in Everyday Ethics: Moral Theology and the Practices of Ordinary Life, eds. Michael Lamb and Brian A. Williams, 19–27 (Washington, D.C: Georgetown University Press, 2019).


Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center, Contemporary Way of the Cross: A Liturgical Journey along the Palestinian Via Dolorosa (Jerusalem: Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center, 2011).


Simon C. Kim, ed. The Migrant’s Way of the Cross (Liguori, MO: Liguori Publications, 2013).


e.g. Catholic Relief Services, The Stations of the Cross (Baltimore, MD: Catholic Relief Services, 2017); Bill Purcell, Way of the Cross: Toward Justice and Peace (Washington, D.C.: United States Catholic Conference, 1998).


Wayne Ashley, ‘The Stations of the Cross: Christ, Politics, and Processions on New York City’s Lower East Side,’ in Gods of the City: Religion and the American Urban Landscape, edited by Robert A. Orsi, 341–66 (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1999).


Until the 2010s the liturgy was called the ‘Way of the Cross, Way of Justice.’ For the sake of clarity, I reference the liturgy by its current name, the ‘Way of the Cross for Justice.’


Sr. Alice Gerdeman, Interview with the author, July 1, 2019.


Colin Woodard, ‘How Cincinnati Salvaged the Nation’s Most Dangerous Neighborhood,’ Politico Magazine, June 16, 2016, accessed December 18, 2019,


Jonathan Diskin and Thomas Dutton, ‘Nightmare on Vine Street,’ CityBeat, June 6, 2002, accessed December 20, 2019,


Zane Miller and Bruce Tucker, Changing Plans for America’s Inner Cities: Cincinnati’s Over-the-Rhine and Twentieth Century Urbanism (Columbus, OH: The Ohio State University Press, 1999), pp. 96–110.




Ibid., pp. 154–159.


Sr. Alice Gerdeman, Interview with the author, July 1, 2019.


Lawrence Taylor, ‘Moral Entrepreneurs and Moral Geographies on the US/Mexico Border,’ Social & Legal Studies 19, no. 3 (September 1, 2010): 299–310.




3cdc, ‘Background,’ n.d., accessed December 20, 2019,




U.S. Census Bureau, ‘American Community Survey 5-Year Estimates Subject Tables for 2011 and 2016,’ accessed December 20, 2019,


Pat, Interview with the author, July 8, 2019.


Mary Anne, Interview with the author, June 24, 2019.


Daniel H., Interview with the author, July 18, 2019.


The 2020 event was, in the end, moved to a virtual format because of the covid-19 pandemic.


Marci, Interview with the author, July 8, 2019.


Daniel P, Interview with the author, June 1, 2019.


Pat, Interview with the author, July 8, 2019.


Pat, Interview with the author, July 8, 2019.


Daniel H., Interview with the author, July 18, 2019.

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