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Evangelism in Post-Christian Culture

MLCLast weekend I drove to the Chicago area to participate in the Missio Alliance Missional Learning Commons in Westmont, IL. The theme this year was on evangelism and brought together pastors, parachurch leaders, theologians, and ministry professors. I’m pretty sure I was the only sociologist in attendance. I was curious to see how the nature of evangelism might be shifting in the context of a post-Christendom culture and whether my ideas about Identity Evangelicalism would resonate at all.

While it’s tempting to explore the differing rhetorical and analytical styles between pastors, theologians, and sociologists, I’ll leave that one alone (feel free to write me for my comments!). I’m really most interested in aligning what I heard with what we think we know about coming to faith and sustaining it within an ambivalent culture.

Friday night’s session featured James Chambers from InterVarsity. His perspective was closest to what I would consider as classical evangelism: the need to show the Gospel in word, deed, and signs. He was quick to admit that the culture is not receptive to the message but still called for confident action on the part of believers to share their faith wherever possible. Saturday morning opened with David Fitch (theologian at Northern Seminary), who suggested that our post-secular culture has shifted power dynamics. David’s focus was on the importance of Presence, Proclamation, and Power (the order is very important). It is when we are present with others that we can share the claims of the Gospel and then rely on the Spirit’s power to make change. Rick Richardson, professor of evangelism at Wheaton, did a great job of summarizing the sociological literature on millennials and faith (while dampening some of the extremist language). He said that we often over-react to previous models of ministry and we need to be careful not to jump ship “just because”. Still, he affirmed that belonging seems to be preceding believing so that it’s important to hear other people’s story in the midst of actual engagement. Rather than seeing evangelism as being about individual we look to build connections with “people of peace” and allow the Spirit to work through them. Jason Smith is a Vineyard pastor from Ohio and told of the ways in which he has found opportunity to engage others in the everyday work of the life of the church. His premise is that asking to pray for others while expecting the movement of the spirit is what brings about life change. Tim Catchim of the V3 Movement spoke last. He constructed a two dimensional model: the horizontal axis contrasted  process change (Road to Emmaus) with crisis change (Road to Damascus)  while the vertical access moved up from Presence to Proclamation. He suggested that our traditional model of evangelism could be found most often in the upper right corner (Crisis Proclamation) but that many other options exist that often get ignored.

As I listened to the presentations, I found myself thinking a lot about John Lofland and Rodney Stark’s model of conversion. This work, based on studies of the Unification Church before it was famous, provides a model of how people convert to deviant religious groups. But it also applies to non-deviant groups. In fact, James’ presentation Friday night had a slide remarkably similar to the Lofland/Stark model (I took a bad picture or I’d share).

Here’s what Lofland came up with in analyzing the Moonies:

Lofland

 

 

The model begins with persons feeling a sense of tension in daily life. Lots of people sense tension but don’t move further than counseling. But those with a religious problem solving perspective turn toward spirituality in search of solutions for the tensions. If they feel comfortable beyond just dabbling, they adopt a form of seekership, which makes them open to new ideas or worldviews. Following a sense of crisis, they turn more seriously toward the religious group. The religious group embraces the new initiate with what Lofland called “love bombing” — massive interaction at a retreat far away. Over time, the new group becomes the “in-group” while family and friends represent a past way of life. Once the member is inside, the intensive interaction continues, keeping the new group member committed.

The Lofland/Stark model faces some challenges in contemporary society.

First, people aren’t really sensing existential tension. Given the general nature of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism in society, a generalized belief in being “a good person” dilutes a sense of potential crisis.

Second, in post-Christendom society, people may be much less likely to be looking to religious worldviews for solutions. The old “if you were to die tonight, do you know you’d go to Heaven?” question works if people believe that there is a heaven and that there is a serious risk that they wouldn’t be going there. The nature of apologetics becomes problematic because it may be providing answers to questions that people don’t have.

And yet, it still makes sense to look at the model.

I’d suggest that we start with Lofland’s third step. We have people in the midst of challenge. And in the midst of that challenge, other people come alongside that represent support that is not dependent upon first solving the challenge. This is what David Fitch means by “presence”. It’s why Rick Richardson goes to Burning Man (one of the stereotype-exploding facts of the weekend!). It’s why Jason Smith lets the homeless guy down the block mow his grass. Out of the engagement within challenge, the person senses that someone actually cares. That belonging is real.

Such a modified model of evangelism leads us back to the presence and process model described by Tim Catchim. As he says, it’s not that there aren’t people impacted by other strategies. But evangelism in a post-Christendom, post-modern, complex culture may take on a very different form. We’d still want converts to maintain past connections as long as they are still involved in the discipling process that comes with ongoing meaningful interactions.

Belonging lies at the heart of the post-modern search and will open the door through which the Holy Spirit will do his work.

Identity Evangelicalism: Addie Zierman’s When We Were On Fire

I’ve been away from the blog for a couple of weeks as I was wrapping up my paper for this weekend’s meeting of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion in Indianapolis. I’m presenting on the idea I’ve been exploring for the last year: how evangelicalism is changing form from one based on Industry Evangelicalism to one based on Identity Evangelicalism. I’ll try to summarize the paper in another blog post once I see how things go on Friday.

After laying out some of the conceptual arguments I’ve presented here before, I contrast two memoirs. The first, Mark Driscoll’s take on the building of Mars Hill (Reflections of a Reformission Rev), contains many indicators of evangelical structure, separation from others, authority and charisma, and internal control. To say it was hard to read is an understatement. It’s more accurate to say that I suffered through it and felt relief when I was done in the same way one feels when you stop hitting yourself with a hammer (that’s a Driscollish subtle turn of phrase).

On FireThen I got to read Addie Zierman’s When We Were On Fire. I had decided that I wanted to read a memoir from a millennial evangelical as my Identity example and had several to choose from, but honestly felt led to go with Addie’s.

I’m so glad I did.

Addie tells the story of what it was like to grow up immersed in evangelical subculture in the Chicago area in the 1990s and 2000s. There is much that is familiar to other evangelicals: See You At The Pole, What Would Jesus Do, True Love Wait, Missionary Zeal, Rock Music will ruin your soul, Three Minute Testimony, Summer Missions, Controlling Authorities.

In short, she grew up in the world that Mark Driscoll wanted to establish. And yet something wasn’t quite right.

One of my favorite passages has her with her mother right after Amy Grant came out with her crossover hit “Baby, Baby” which ran shivers through the evangelical community of the day.

She shook her head at the silliness of the whole thing, but you stared out the window, silent, thoughtful. You were born to a world within a world, and suddenly you could see the marked boundaries. You could see that there was an in here and there was an out there and between them, there was a yawning chasm. You could see that it was big enough to swallow you whole (20).

There’s so much in that one passage. The world in here and the world out there and the chasm between. The book reflects her search for self that can navigate that contested space. She is surrounded by a subculture that has clear definitions of reality (even when she knows that there are other perspectives) and people who have put a priority on maintaining those definitions (the tightly structure missions trip and those who work for it seem to revel in extreme and draconian stances).

Wherever she goes, whether to a good Christian college or to teach in a mission school, she seems surrounded by people playing along. She finds it difficult to be herself, expressing doubts, asking questions, living life. Where many others just quietly drift away from the evangelical world, Addie tries to find her faith in ways that don’t stifle her identity. It’s not easy and there are some dark periods of the book, but it’s clear that she’s never that far from what she believed “when she was on fire”.

Where Driscoll plays with ridicule and a forced certainty, Addie asks questions. She tells her story even with the dark moments because that’s the reality (while he still claims to be victimized by others).

As I finished Addie’s book, I found myself very hopeful about millennial evangelicals. They aren’t abandoning the faith, they are trying to live it honestly. It’s just that Industry Evangelicalism makes it so hard to do so.

The takeaway question for me, the one that I’ve been wrestling with over the last week or so, isn’t about millennials at all.

It’s about people like me. Why is it that my generation thought so little of prioritizing evangelical cultural expectations over an authentic sense of self? Why did conformity to rules and standards limit the ability to recognize grey areas? Why did we go along with structures that sometimes bordered on the repressive? And what are the lingering obstacles to healthy Christian discipleship that result from all that?

And yet Addie reminds me that I can’t just think of the past. New things are happening and it’s exciting to be part of it. Here’s the closing of her book:

Christ is not static or an end result. You are not suspended in grace above the fray of life. You are looking at God through a kaleidoscope. Your life moves, and the beads shift, and something new emerges. You are defining. Redefining. Figuring it out all over again. You are in motion, in transit, in flux. You will be sad. You will be happy. You will love and doubt and cry and rage, and all of it matters. You are human, and you are beloved, and this is what it is to be Alive (239).

Nothing I can add except a hearty Amen.

Gordon College Will Not Lose Its Accreditation

Gordon SealGordon College burst into the news last June when President Michael Lindsey was a signatory to a letter to President Obama requesting religious exception for his upcoming Executive Order (he didn’t grant the request). Suddenly, media stories appeared asking about Gordon’s policy toward LGBT students even though Gordon College had nothing to do with the executive order. City agencies and school systems started saying that Gordon couldn’t use their facilities.

Then word came that the New England Association of Schools and Colleges, Gordon’s accrediting body, was putting the college on the agenda for the September commission meeting. The NEASC made clear that the accreditation wasn’t at risk in the September meeting, but at the meeting they requested that Gordon provide a report reviewing their policies on sexuality to insure that they didn’t violate commission standards due in September of 2015.

News of the commission’s letter sparked reaction from social commenters. A couple of the most reasoned responses were by Collin Hansen from The Gospel Coalition and from Andrew Sullivan in The Dish; two people writing from very different positions on the political spectrum. A google search found lots of more vociferous responses (including some references to “Gay Brown Shirts“, whatever those are) that I left unread.  Then there are the predictable bloggers who use the Gordon story as the latest illustration of “what the world is coming to” or arguing about “driving traditional Christians out of the public square.”

Reading the news from Wenham, Massachusetts through the lens of secularization and culture wars significantly misunderstands both Christian colleges and the way regional accreditation works. Having had significant experience in both over recent decades, it is clear to me that Gordon’s accreditation is in no danger at all, as they make clear on their webpage:

Contrary to recent media reports, Gordon’s accreditation is not in jeopardy, as its admission and employment policies have always been in full compliance with the NEASC Standards for Accreditation and with nondiscrimination employment law, which has been in place in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts since 1989.

I have served as a regional accreditation evaluator in both the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities (NWCCU) and the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC). I have been trained as an evaluator for the Higher Learning Commission (formerly North Central Association). I have been part of four full-scale visits, three focused visits, and served on a program review council. I have written numerous reports to accreditation agencies and two full scale self-studies. Needless to say, I’ve developed a fairly good read on the logic of regional accreditation.

Accreditation  is a peer-review process. The “standards” are developed by representatives of the various educational sectors in the region and every school has the opportunity to advise and consent on new policy standards. When evaluators come to the school, they tend to represent like institutions (I always went to private special interest, usually faith based, institutions). This does get confusing when regional accreditation is the gateway to the Title IV financial aid funds but it’s an indirect linkage between institutional accreditation and the DOE.

More importantly, the central driver of regional accreditation is the unique mission of the institution. In the regions where I’ve served, it’s the very first standard to meet. You make clear who you are as an institution, the ways in which that is distinctive, and the mechanisms the administration and board use to prevent “mission drift”. Every other standard or policy is read through the lens of that mission/identity. The standards set general guidelines (“school has an appropriate student life office“) but the specifics of what that means is left to the institution to describe in ways that flow from its unique mission.

Sometimes, events arise that result in a question being raised by the accrediting body. The question in asked in the spirit of “how have you ensured that this situation doesn’t fall outside standards within the context of institutional identity“. It then falls on the institution to do an internal quality assurance review and respond to the question.

I had an example that reminded me of the Gordon College situation. As an evaluator, I pledged to protect the confidentiality of the schools I visited, so I’ll paint with broad strokes. This school had a distinct religious mission. It also had experienced a conflict between faculty and administrators over a particular matter that put issues of intellectual inquiry and religious mission in tension, a conflict that spilled out into the local newspaper. As we were preparing to visit the institution, we were told of these circumstances and that it was likely that they’d come up in our meetings with campus personnel. We worked hard not to take sides in the matter, but used the opportunity to suggest that the institution review its policy on intellectual inquiry within the context of its religious mission.

This is exactly how Gordon is responding, as the statement from the NEASC makes institutional identity very clear.

At its meeting on September 18, 2014, the Commission on Institutions of Higher Education, NEASC, considered whether Gordon College’s traditional inclusion of ‘homosexual practice’ as a forbidden activity in its Statement on Life and Conduct was contrary to the Commission’s Standards for Accreditation.Gordon College President D. Michael Lindsay earlier submitted information about Gordon College, its mission as a Christian institution, its evangelical Christian identity, and its history of respectful self-critique and of dialogue with individuals of diverse backgrounds. The Commission found the information submitted by the College to be thorough and pertinent. It commends Gordon College for undertaking a period of discernment over the next twelve to eighteen months.The process will involve convening a working group of 20 representative trustees, faculty, administrators, staff and students to study the matter and conducting a series of robust discussions among a variety of Gordon constituencies to learn from them. Any change in Gordon’s current policy is a responsibility of its Board of Trustees. The Commission has asked the College to submit a report for consideration at the Commission’s September 2015 meeting describing the process and its outcomes, to ensure that the College’s policies and procedures are non-discriminatory and that it ensures its ability to foster an atmosphere that respects and supports people of diverse characteristics and backgrounds, consistent with the Commission’s Standards for Accreditation.

As I review the NEASC standards, the standard that most aligns with the bolded section in the statement above shows up in the “Integrity” standard:

11.5  The institution adheres to non-discriminatory policies and practices in recruitment, admissions, employment, evaluation, disciplinary action, and advancement. It fosters an atmosphere within the institutional community that respects and supports people of diverse characteristics and backgrounds.

Like everyone else, I have my suggestions on how they could go about ensuring non-discrimination within the context of institutional identity. But that’s not my job nor the job of any blogger nor the job of the NEAC (as they observe). It’s Gordon’s task as an expression of their commitment to mission.

Gordon will be able to respond to the questions within the context of their mission with little difficulty (beyond a few more committee meetings). Moreover, they will be stronger for having done so as they revisit practices and policies in the context of institutional identity. Gordon will continue to be a distinctly Christian institution accredited by the NEAC for years to come.

What Worries You? The Hiding Place and Ebola

PRRI

Last week, the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) released their American Values Survey. They collected data on about 4,500 subjects. One of the questions focused on the tensions present in the religion clauses in the First Amendment. In what we call a “forced choice” question respondents were asked “What Worries You More?” with two options: Government Interference in Religion or Special Rights given to religious groups. When they presented the data, they provided data for all respondents and then examined the impact of different religious affiliation. Their publication included the following bar chart.

PRRI RelRight away, I noticed the contrast between responses of the total sample and those of the White Evangelical subgroup. As you can see, the sample overall split exactly evenly at 46% for each option (with a small number saying both or refusing to answer). The results for white evangelicals were very different. It wasn’t possible to really explore the data with simple percentages, so I wrote the PRRI folks for subgroup sizes. I am grateful for the quick cooperation of Dan Cox, research director at PRRI who gave me the data.

Turns out that there were just under 900 white evangelicals in the survey choosing one of the two options or about 21% of the total sample. The sample sizes let me compare the responses of White Evangelicals to everyone else in the sample.

What I found was exactly what my statistical instincts told me about the initial data.

As the chart at the top of this post shows, while evangelicals are concerned about government interference by more than two to one (I left out the “both” and “no answer” options), a majority of the rest of the sample is more worried about religious groups gaining special privilege. The latter data may be a response to the Hobby Lobby decision or recent news about Title IX exemptions at Christian Colleges. If you put the contrast in the chart into a two-by-two table and run the statistics, the data is wildly statistically significant.

But the data is also aligning with what we see in the media. The end of the week saw a story break about Corrie ten Boom’s The Hiding Place being banned from a Charter School in Southern California. The director ostensibly removed the book from the “state-authorized lending shelves” because she believed there was a ban on “sectarian materials”. At least that’s the story told by the Pacific Justice Institute, a religious rights group. Alan Noble wrote this follow-up explaining that things were not as nefarious as first suggested, and that the Charter School issue had more to do with the nature of the “library” and what books can be purchased with state funds (as opposed to private donations). Even this explanation remains suspect to those who raised the concern (read the two updates in this story to see how suspicion wins over attempts at explanation, however unclear.)

This is completely consistent with the PRRI data on how white evangelicals see the “What Worries You?” question.

Consider two other examples from recent news. On Saturday, the site Raw Story re-released a story from last month. Right Wing Watch reported on remarks made by religious broadcaster Rick Wiles in which Wiles said “Ebola could solve America’s problems with atheism, homosexuality, sexual promiscuity, pornography, and abortion.” Or consider the reaction last week in Arvada, Colorado to a conservative school board promoted a social studies curriculum that promoted “partriotism, respect for authority, and free enterprise”. Students launched a protest, which included a twitter hashtag (#JeffcoSchoolBoardHistory) of fake history accounts (e.g., “Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle is a great American story of capitalism and savory meat products.“).

I don’t think I’m stretching the facts to argue that these two examples fit the “religious groups worry me” side of the equation.

But there’s still a puzzle here. Why are we so eager to grab a bad news story out of the mix and run with it? Is a Charter School in California indicative of major cultural shifts (the Cal State/InterVarsity issue was far more important). Is a random religious broadcaster I’d never heard of someone who speaks for evangelicals? (Given the number of hours broadcaster have to fill, it’s almost guaranteed that something outrageous will spill out over the airwaves.)

I can think of at least three reasons why folks are so willing to gravitate toward these examples: the data narrative, specialized organizations, and group dynamics.

1. There is a sense in which the data listed above serves as both an independent variable and a dependent variable. In other words, the belief that either government or religious groups are a source of concern shapes what one looks for in terms of news. The fear of government infringement or religious particularism encourages one to be on the lookout for examples. Examples that probably don’t deserve to be on anyone’s radar. At the same time, finding those examples and sharing them in social media solidifies the separation shown in the chart above. Every indicator, however isolated, is another case of “I told you so”.

2. These stories don’t occur on their own. Groups like the Pacific Justice Institute exist to be on the lookout for infringement examples and to push back on those. People are employed to do this and spread the word to others. Similarly, Raw Story and Right Wing Watch (along with the Southern Poverty Law Center) are established to watch out for outrageous actions on the conservative side. When we subsequently become outraged and share stories on social media, we are doing exactly what those organizations hoped would happen.

3. My Spirituality, Faith, and Justice class is reading Christena Cleveland’s Disunity in Christ. As I’ve written before, this is an excellent application of social psychological research to issues confronting the Body of Christ. Early in the book, Christena titles a section “We Are Unique; They Are the Same“. Because we have contact with people like us, we’re aware of the great degree of diversity of thought present in our groups. Because we don’t have contact with others, we find we can easily categorize them. So I can read a comment from a religious broadcaster and immediately dismiss him as being a fringe voice that doesn’t represent evangelicals I know (even those I disagree with). But someone outside the evangelical fold will see him as representative (or fear that he is). If I don’t know public educators, I can easily dismiss them as all being secularists who are engaged in Christianaphobia. But even secular educators often jump the gun and might be rebuked by their secular colleagues.

We do not have to play into the dichotomies represented in the PRRI data. But it will require a much more developed sense of general patterns and outliers. It will require a willingness to give people the benefit of the doubt before hitting “Share” on Facebook. It will require actually thinking of others as well-intentioned, even if misguided.

It will require us to listen to the other and learn something.

 

Dismantling Rape Culture on College Campuses

This past Friday (9/19), the White House rolled out a new pubic service campaign designed to reduce the incidence of rape on college campuses.

Called “It’s On Us“, it encourages all students but especially males to take responsibility for their peers. Encouraging people to report suspicious behavior, to watch alcohol consumption, to intervene if a situation looks predatory, and to never blame the victim. You can spread awareness by watching the celebrity videos or by buying the pictured t-shirt.

This, of course, is but the latest in a string of stories involving universities, even Christian ones, who have done a remarkably poor job of investigating cultures of abuse and exploitations on their campuses. For example, this (very long) story summarizes the protest of Columbia University student Emma Sulkowitz (she carries her mattress around campus) regarding the university’s lax treatment of her case. Senators McCaskill and Gillibrand introduced legislation raising stiff penalties for institutions that do not properly investigate rape accusations or take pro-active steps to clarify expectations of safe behavior.

Last month, California became the first state to officially adopt a “yes means yes” law. It changes the legal rape threshold from requiring the victim to have clearly stated “no” to requiring someone to give affirmation before consensual sex is assumed. Other college campuses have adopted similar standards on their own.

These attempts, as commendable as they are, seem such a minor challenge to a culture that sees hooking up as a natural part of the college experience. Where Rush Limbaugh can say “no means yes when you know how to spot it“. Where we have national outrage at athletes who beat their fiancees or children. Where alcohol is the major source of entertainment (check out the retrograde Miller Lite commercials now showing on your favorite football game).

Christian colleges deal with these situations as well. Thankfully, they are more rare but are just as challenging to respond to. The institution needs to act quickly to deal with the victim’s situation while protecting the due process rights and reputation of the accused. It’s hard to find the right balance when we’re responding after the fact and trying to maintain a sense of belonging within the community.

Trying to deal with rape culture without dealing with the underlying dynamics of relationships, sex, and alcohol is likely to fail. It’s equivalent to trying to eradicate drunk driving by primarily focusing on enforcement or well-meaning “designated driver” campaigns.

We need to change the culture of relationships.

That’s why I’ve been encouraged by a series of blog posts that Dan Brennan has been crafting. Stemming from his book, Sacred Unions, Sacred Passions: Engaging the Mystery of Friendship Between Men and Women, Dan has been exploring the nature of cross-gender friendship. In a recent post, Dan wrote the following:

One of the deepest attractions toward God’s presence in what I am calling a differentiated openness is the call for men and women to share the fullness of relational life in deep, resilient, authentic connection yet remain their distinct individual selves.

Differentiation does not diminish the full dignity, uniqueness, and responsibility of each individual; nor does it diminish the profound togetherness of significant and important people who are closest to us. That’s precisely why a differentiated openness provides such hope and deep healing in a big picture kind of way for friendship beyond sexual attraction.

One of the critical dynamics of university life is the development of personal relationships. Not for utilitarian reasons or even discovering potential mates, but to build true community.

Christian colleges have their own challenges on this front. There are too many conversations, even if light-hearted, about finding one’s mate during freshman orientation, about MRS degrees, about pairing up (which is tough with 60 females for every 40 males). This isn’t just something from years long ago, as this piece about “Dateship” illustrates.

Add to this the lingering effects of purity/modesty culture within the evangelical church. There are many excellent reflections by bloggers describing the way these teachings can actually raise the focus on sexuality (this piece by Rachel Marie Stone as a good example.). By trying to protect our young people from sexual temptation, we may inadvertently be raising relationship building to a higher level than necessary.

Somehow, the culture of Christian colleges needs to mirror what Dan Brennan is calling for and avoid settling for a toned down version of the hook up dynamics of popular culture.

And so I was encouraged this month to read the Welcome Freshmen issue of the Spring Arbor Pulse (the student paper). In an article of good guidelines written by Tania Parsons (who had been a freshman student in my Intro to Soc class), freshmen were encouraged NOT TO DATE during the freshman year. Why? In order to actually get to know classmates as real people not as potential mates. To learn to treat each other as God’s creations who are pursuing a particular path of obedience to God’s leading. Here’s what she wrote:

This is your time to get to know people and make friends, not concentrate on finding your soulmate. You’re starting off on your own. Get to know yourself and your interests, passions and needs before you get to know another person. And no, you are not the exception.

As I wrote back in June, seeing ourselves as part of another person’s story prevents us from seeing them as a potential conquest or even a lifelong mate. We’d see them first as fellow members of the community.

Rape culture cannot survive in a community committed to seeing all individuals pursue God’s full vision for their future.

 

 

My Proposal for a Bigot Moratorium

It’s been six weeks since Officer Darren Wilson shot Michael Brown, Jr. in Ferguson, Missouri. The intervening weeks have told us much about issues of race in America, little of it good. Media coverage of the protests were mixed at best and not able to get to real grievances (perhaps because the media wound up in the middle of the story for awhile). Autopsies were performed, eyewitness testimony was reviewed, and a grand jury has been established. For a variety of reasons common to situations like Ferguson, it’s fairly unlikely that there will be any outcome that will satisfy those following the story.

I keep following the stories. They are heartbreaking on many levels. They’ve also provided excellent teaching material. I opened my Spirituality, Faith, and Justice class two weeks ago reflecting on Ferguson. I divided the story into three levels: the shooting, the protests, and the larger structural backdrop.

Freedom RidersThis past week we celebrated Constitution Day at Spring Arbor by showing the documentary Freedom Riders (you can watch the whole thing on the PBS website here). It’s the story of a group of students: black and white, male and female, who decided to ride interstate buses (Greyhound and Trailways) into the deep south in 1961. My American History colleague Mark Edwards debriefed the film and talked about the significance of the 14th amendment extending the bill of rights to the state (as well as guaranteeing due process) regardless of race, gender, or religion. I talked about the Bill of Rights and how aspects of the Ferguson situation appeared to infringe on at least half of those 10 amendments (first, fourth, fifth, sixth, and eighth).

But the movie underscored something I’ve been pondering for awhile: our focus on individual racism continually distracts us from institutional racism.

The Riders were going in to the South specifically to engage in civil disobedience against Jim Crow laws. At the time, bus station waiting areas were segregated with clear signage stipulating white waiting areas from colored waiting areas. A Supreme Court decision declared segregated buses unconstitutional but the decision had been ignored in the south. The riders would also sit in restaurants with blacks and whites at the same table. Their task was to expose the institutional racism that was rampant in the deep South.

When they get to Anniston, AL, one of the buses is surrounded by an angry mob who then firebomb the bus. The other bus gets to Birmingham and there is a violent attack with men and women beaten with fists, bats, and chains. The anger and racial animosity from the attackers is overwhelming. The media is outraged (there’s a remarkable newsreel from Russia condemning America complicity) and the Kennedy administration reluctantly gets involved.

After the violence, the original bus riders return home. But they are replaced by a new group from Nashville. Their story is even more fascinating as they are first trapped in a church in Montgomery, and then are arrested in Jackson, MS and immediately put into prison. More and more people come to Jackson just to be arrested and imprisoned to point out the lack of legal recourse and thereby force change.

The most vivid images are those of angry bigots and self-serving political figures “protecting their culture”. It’s harder to see the legal system that was bent to protect their interests.

Which brings me back to Ferguson. As I have written, we seem to fixate on the motives of individuals. Was Officer Wilson reasonably responding or singling out Michael Brown? Was Brown a thug who didn’t respect authority? Can you trust the eyewitnesses? Are the prosecutor’s motives in question?

This is also the dynamic when we interact about Ferguson on social media. Share the Facebook post raising questions about the distance between Wilson and Brown or the video of the construction workers, and there’s a chance your grandmother will post on your wall that Wilson acted honorably and you should be ashamed of suggesting he was a racist.

Then you get the standard meme of someone misquoting Martin Luther King’s Dream speech by suggesting that we should all just judge people on the content of their character. Or the person who asks the inevitable black-on-black crime question. Or the one who starts talking about challenges in black families.

Point out that these are the wrong questions and the speaker will act like you’ve called them a bigot. They will get defensive and shift blame to something else. And if you push back, you’ll get a response that they aren’t racist but simply refuse to be politically correct.

So I have a proposal. Nobody is a racist or a bigot for the next five years.

Ask any question you want. Make any statement you want. I will not raise doubts about your commitment to racial harmony. I won’t police your language or tell you that I don’t appreciate your joke. Have at it.

You aren’t a racist — at least until 2019.

But it’s not a completely free pass…

For the next five years we will only talk about institutional racism.

We will talk about the kinds of structural inequities that Ta-Nehisi Coates described in The Case For Reparations. We will talk about Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow and the impact of non-representative incarceration. We will talk about the issues of educational quality raised in the sociological study The Long Shadow (that I just started) which shows the barriers to advancement experienced by a sample of school children in Baltimore as they grow to adulthood. We will talk of political representation and equal opportunity to cast ballots in elections. We will talk about differential enforcement of laws and police departments treating neighborhoods as militarized zones. We will talk about a shifting economy that leaves behind segments of the population. We will talk about the linkages between suburbanization and urban decline. We will talk about government programs that do harm to black communities in the guise of providing assistance. We will talk about gangs and drugs and the challenge of local neighborhoods.

As I’ve written before, King’s Dream speech has a tremendous laundry list of institutional wrongs. It was only as those were addressed that we get to the children holding hands and singing Free at Last.

Like the Freedom Riders, we need to pay attention to the important things: legal structures, legitimated practices, economic incentives and disincentives. Maybe if we pay attention to these issues for five years we can begin to make some change without seeking to charge people with prejudice or bigotry. Maybe, just maybe, if those folks really understand the difference institutional racism makes, they will be less likely to hold on to their judgmental attitudes.

 

 

 

 

 

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