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A Kaleidoscopic Deity: Matthew Paul Turner’s Our Great Big American God

Yesterday I finished Matthew Paul Turner’s new book, Our Great Big American God. It purports to be a biography of God in America. Through most of the book, one gets the idea that God is a taken-for-granted character supporting those around whom the story revolves. The character that seems to be behind everything but always interpreted by others, like Nick Fury to the Avengers.kaleidoscope

So in reality, God is only visible in the book through the explanations of the main characters, who themselves only got a quick glimpse  of God that fit their understanding of their world at the time. It’s like looking though the kaleidoscope I had as a child. You look through the tube and see an interesting design. A simple turn of the little lens at the end shifted the image and gave rise to an entirely different design. There is little coherence between one and another. So it appears to be with America’s understanding of God.

Turner picks up astutely on the ways in which Americans from William Bradford to Walter Rauschenbusch to Jerry Falwell read God into their work. It’s not that they were using God, exactly. They just only saw one pattern. And that pattern seemed to remarkably fit where their own interests lie. Abraham Lincoln’s caution that we should try to find ourselves on God’s side rather than wanting God on our side was lost on many American religious leaders throughout history.

OGBAGThe Puritans had a harsh God that was impossible to please, which was okay as long as you were one of the elect in spite of your depravity. The kaleidoscope shifts and we begin to focus on a God that speaks directly to people (even women!). Then a great awakening comes to America and Jesus moves to the forefront. Methodism likes the kaleidoscope pattern that best relates to westward expansion and circuit riding preachers. There are different patterns in North and South during the civil war (and for decades afterward). The Fundamentalists tried to hold their pattern in place against a shifting civil society. The Pentecostals brought a new patterns, introducing spectacle and celebrity. The political evangelicalism of the of the 1980s through recent years read a pattern that called for them to act because God needed their help.

There is great history in the book. If you read the endnotes, you’ll find citations from some of the best religious historians around: George Marsden, Thomas Kidd, Mark Noll, Stephen Prothero. In the last year I’ve read Robert McKenzie’s The First Thanksgiving, Molly Worthen’s Apostles of Reason (on the rise of evangelicalism), and Randall Balmer’s biography of Jimmy Carter, Redeemer. All of these books, plus others I’ve read tell similar stories to what Turner shares in this little book. In other words, his history is solid even if understandably abbreviated.

The writing style is a combination of Sarah Vowell and Kurt Vonnegut; wry, slightly irreverent, managing social commentary while quietly admiring the intent of the actors in the story (for the most part). It made me miss the days when I faithfully read The Wittenberg Door.

What’s surprising about the book is that it’s more than a funny read of issues in American religion. Pay attention and you find a deep analysis of the dangers of syncretism and civil religion. It’s what happens when we pay more attention to ourselves and our own religious systems that we do to the God who is acting in our midst.

The book also provides something of an atlas to the contemporary issues in American Evangelicalism. The kaleidoscope patterns that defined early groups can still be found in today’s expression. While Turner helps connect those dots along the way, it’s pretty easy to see how the varied strands of religious expression continue to take shape.

Yes, the book is a light-hearted look at the way we think about God in America. But more than that, it’s about how people wrestle to make sense of the incomprehensibility of the Creator and Sustainer of the Universe. It calls out those who would reduce that God to a product to be managed (which he characterizes as GOD®) and requires us to maintain an appropriate intellectual humility.

Maybe then we can understand the story that God is actually writing rather than the patterns we think we see.

 

 

A Quick Note about Cal State’s “De-recognition of InterVarsity”

I’ve been trying to make sense of the various “de-recognition of InterVarsity” stories, especially the one this weekend involving Cal State.

I see critics of the decision asking “would they require the vegetarian group to allow a carnivore to run for president?” Others have suggested that these decisions were knee-jerk reaction to run off Christians who hold to their beliefs.

Yesterday’s story in Religion News Service was one of the better stories, partly because it included comments from Mike Uhlenkamp, CSU director of public affairs. He was given the permission to share his position alongside the concerns raised by InterVarsity leaders. But even that story didn’t seem to get deep enough.

So I decided to just write Mr. Uhlenkamp and ask him some questions. I wanted to know if the ban applied to all student groups and what explained the timing. He wrote back about five minutes later.

He confirmed that “the cheerleader group cannot require members or leaders to be cheerleaders“. He also sent me a copy of the CSU executive order (1068) from December 2011 that was CSU’s response to the Hastings School of Law Supreme Court Decision from 2010. The changes were to have been implemented by the 2012-2013 school year, so it seems student groups were given an extra year to comply.

Here is the heart of the executive order issued by Charles Reed, CSU Chancellor:

“No campus shall recognize any fraternity, sorority, living group, honor society, or other student organization that discriminates on the basis of race, religion, national origin, ethnicity, color, age, gender, marital status, citizenship, sexual orientation, or disability. The prohibition on membership policies that discriminate on the basis of gender does not apply to social fraternities or sororities or other university living groups. Student organizations shall deliver to the vice president for student affairs or his/her designee a statement signed by the president or similar officer of the local student organization attesting that the organization has no rules or policies that discriminate on the basis of race, religion, national origin, ethnicity, color, age, gender, marital status, citizenship, sexual orientation, or disability. This statement shall be renewed annually.

No campus shall recognize any fraternity, sorority, living group, honor society, or other student organization unless its membership and leadership are open to all currently enrolled students at that campus, except that a social fraternity or sorority or other university living group may impose a gender limitation as permitted by Title 5, California Code of Regulations, Section 41500. Student organizations may require applicants for leadership positions to have been members for a specified period of time, and may require officers to compete for those positions in elections of the membership (emphasis mine).

The only exemption that is allowed is for single-sex living arrangements which may maintain those limitations. The bold-faced sentence seems to provide a safeguard for groups against external parties who would show up the night of an election to attempt to disrupt the organization.

There are reasons why Christians may be unhappy that InterVarsity cannot continue its past practice of operating as a student organization instead of a campus ministry group. But on the surface, it sure looks like the CSU system is following the demands of California State Law as interpreted by the Supreme Court.

Incarnation and Cultural Engagement

When I wrote last month’s post on “pro-choice” evangelicals, some commenters on Facebook claimed I was arguing that Christians shouldn’t make moral choices but instead adopt an “anything goes” mentality to get along in pluralistic society. I tried to explain in comments and e-mails that I was arguing that we have had a tendency to oversimplify our rhetoric which makes moral positions harder to explain. The problem was not moral choice but how that choice gets characterized by listeners we are trying to influence.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the dynamics of moral argument in a complex, diverse, post-modern, post-Christendom culture. It’s been one of the overarching themes of my blogging over the last six months. I’ve written before about the impact of James Davison Hunter’s To Change the World (which I’m using in my social science of religion class this semester). Hunter, who had written earlier pieces on Culture Wars (1992) now suggests that we evangelicals have been too concerned about leveraging power to create cultural change. In the newer book, he calls for what he labels Faithful Presence.

While discussing the difficulties of cultural engagement with a colleague this week, I was suddenly struck with an image from my childhood: Brer Rabbit and the Tar Baby. It became a way of explaining the problem with conflict-based cultural engagement that has characterized so much of the Culture War debates.

If you ever saw Disney’s Song of the South (known for introducing “Zippity-Do-Dah” to the American songbook), you know it’s way too close to a minstrel show. The happy slave Uncle Remus tells stories in broken dialect to the owner’s young son. The Tar Baby is characterized in the stories and by Disney animators as an insolent black child. But there is a lesson for us in the story valuable enough to make me repeat part of the tale (I found a version without the dialect). In the story, Brer Fox places a Tar Baby in the road as a way to trick Brer Rabbit. The Rabbit greets the Tar Baby who says nothing (being a bunch of Tar shaped like a person).

Brer_Rabbit_and_the_Tar_BabyBrer Rabbit frowned. This strange creature was not very polite. It was beginning to make him mad. “Ahem!” said Brer Rabbit loudly, wondering if the Tar Baby were deaf. “I said ‘HOW ARE YOU THIS MORNING?” The Tar Baby said nothing. Brer Fox curled up into a ball to hide his laugher. His plan was working perfectly! “Are you deaf or just rude?” demanded Brer Rabbit, losing his temper. “I can’t stand folks that are stuck up! You take off that hat and say ‘Howdy-do’ or I’m going to give you such a lickin’!” The Tar Baby just sat in the middle of the road looking as cute as a button and saying nothing at all. Brer Fox rolled over and over under the bushes, fit to bust because he didn’t dare laugh out loud. “I’ll learn ya!” Brer Rabbit yelled. He took a swing at the cute little Tar Baby and his paw got stuck in the tar. “Lemme go or I’ll hit you again,” shouted Brer Rabbit. The Tar Baby, she said nothing. “Fine! Be that way,” said Brer Rabbit, swinging at the Tar Baby with his free paw. Now both his paws were stuck in the tar, and Brer Fox danced with glee behind the bushes. “I’m gonna kick the stuffin’ out of you,” Brer Rabbit said and pounced on the Tar Baby with both feet. They sank deep into the Tar Baby. Brer Rabbit was so furious he head-butted the cute little creature until he was completely covered with tar and unable to move.

Here’s my takeaway about Culture Warriors. The more one punches at the opposition, the more one gets ensnared in the debate. Regardless of what other good is done, including the desire to reach others for Christ, the tar remains. The culture warrior gets stuck in all the mess and seems unable to move in any way at all. And whatever he or she does, the tar remains behind. Just to name one example among many possible, even though Gordon College has attempted to explain the purpose of the Executive Order letter this summer, groups continue to separate from them (this week it was a school district). The tar is stickier than we imagine.

The difficulty, as Hunter tells us, is that power is a fickle weapon. It’s always dependent upon someone else exerting power from another side. Walter Brueggemann reminds us that power within empire always has a strong element of fear of scarcity. The power must be exercised to protect one against loss.

I was reviewing Brueggemann’s argument in class Thursday night. I had a chart on the board illustrating the connection between Empire, Pharaoh, and Pilate (see chapter one of Truth Speaks to Power). The center of my Empire column was Power. Then, using Brueggemann’s analysis, I contrasted that with the Kingdom of God. What Yahweh, Moses, Jesus all share is a different starting point — a negation of power. We explored what would be in the center of that column. Students suggested Love, Grace, Sacrifice.

I told them that my word in the center is Kenosis. It is the emptying act of the Incarnation that establishes all of Kingdom thinking. As the Philippians passages tell us, this is the concept that was in Christ’s mind that is also to be in ours.

KenosisIf we begin mirroring the Incarnation, we don’t strike out at others. We try instead to enter their space and see things from their perspective. By showing sacrificial love from within that authentic place, we have the opportunity to demonstrate Faithful Presence.

I had two friends illustrate exactly this form of incarnational living in the past few days. Both of them happened into it accidentally, but quickly discovered what it means to incarnate another’s place. My colleague Eric told a story of how he had gone running on a warm Michigan day and had tied up his slightly longish (yet fashionable) hair in what he calls a “snork-like” pony-tail. When completing his run, a car of young men come up behind him and gave a catcall (thinking they were dealing with a woman). In that quick moment before the men realized their mistake, Eric knew the evil of sexism. He had occupied that space with others.

My friend Karen was asked to be on a radio program to discuss Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. What she didn’t know was that the show was organized around calling out all whites for the evils of racism (which the host called “White Supremacy”). A white woman from Virginia got to try to identify with structural racism for a couple of hours. Having listened to the interview, I can say she did a great job under the circumstances. She wasn’t defensive and when she couldn’t fully identify with the host or a caller, she said so. She validated their experiences, fears, and concerns while being clear in her own place as a white Christian academic. That she spoke so consistently of the evils of structural racism and why it must be exposed was as incarnational as I think one could be under the circumstances.

On Friday, Alastair Roberts wrote a fabulous piece for Christ and Pop Culture. Titled “Evangelicalism’s Poor Form“, it analyzed some of the cultural challenges of evangelicals in the postmodern age. But it ended in a hopeful place; one that I think aligns well with an Incarnational Faithful Presence within the culture:

 Among this wisdom is the recognition that, treated in the right manner, the external forms of our faith need not distract from our core evangelical commitments but can serve and strengthen them, forming the people of God within them and establishing us in the skills with which we can improvise a Christian culture that is robust and deep. My hope is that, through a recovery of the importance of these formative “externals” of our culture, we will once more be able to cast our core evangelical and Christian convictions in the sharpest of reliefs, living out an evangelicalism in which our evangelical culture neither distracts nor detracts from our evangelical faith.

To New Freshmen at Christian Universities

[Adapted from the talk I gave to the incoming Freshmen at Northwest Nazarene University August 27, 2014]

You are in the midst of the second of four major life transitions. As a sociologist, I think about things like transitions and rights of passage. I’m going to look quickly at four such transitions. Today marks the start of the second transition but I’m going to push your focus to the fourth.

Many of you had the first transition at least 13 years ago right about now. If you went to kindergarten, there was a time when your parents explained that you were about to go to this thing called “school”. School is a place where somebody else controls your time, people evaluate your achievement, and someone not your parents has authority to tell you what to do. If you went to pre-school, you got an early introduction to these lessons. If you were homeschooled, you’re jamming the first two transitions into one big change.

You just came through orientation, so I don’t need to spend a lot of time on the second transition. Still, this is a huge transition. You don’t have parents checking up on you, you get to meet folks you’ve never met before, you become responsible for your learning. There is a tremendous tension between your newfound freedom and the discipline necessary to be successful. Remember, everyone else who started with you is on a steep learning curve. If they seem to have it together, they’re just better at pretending.

The third transition is the other bookend to what you are currently going through. For most of you, in three years and nine months, you’ll put on gowns and celebrate your launch into the world beyond college. It’s not “the real world”. This is all real. But it is a matter of moving from a supportive community where you are known and people have your back to a world where you will make your own way. You’ll find a job (the first of many) and begin to sort out what real adulthood looks like (which may take another 6-8 years).

The fourth transition is one that we don’t talk a lot about because it doesn’t have the same defining markers as the others. There is no special recognition and no ceremony. You won’t put pictures on whatever social media is by then. But it is the point where you have fully grasped your sense of calling and purpose. This may not come until you are between 35 and 50. But it is the point when you’re contribution to the larger world is established. Frederick Buechner calls it “the place where your great gladness meets the world’s deepest need.”

The Christian University Journey is aimed at the fourth transition. This is the heart of Christian liberal arts education. We are concerned with not just what you can do but with who you are when doing it. We want you not just to know how to do a job but how to process what to do when the rules of the game change. We want you not just to tell people you love Jesus but to see your understanding of what it means to be a Disciple to be the plumb line that gives you stability in a changing world.

It is tempting to focus on what needs to happen to meet graduation requirements. We in Higher Education worry far too much about checklists and majors and requirements. If there’s a bad guy in my book, this is it. To blindly follow the checklists, make sure you check the right boxes, but not to take away important lessons from the experiences you have is to waste a lot of time and a bunch of money. If you focus on checking off the boxes, it means that you only need to get C grades and do minimums. If you are really committed to what college offers you and stay in communication with others, you’ll cover the checklists along the way.

Over the last decade in Christian Higher Education, we’ve had many more conversation about jobs. This is something your parents were concerned about. They certainly don’t want you to spend all this money for college and then move home to live in their basement and play video games. Actually, that image of you in the basement is highly offensive and doesn’t do justice to either you or your school. The stories of unemployed college graduates are largely overblown and based on anecdote. It may not be the career job, but people in your generation are willing to be patient while looking for the “right” position. The actual data shows that you not only will find work but that you will make over $800,000 more than someone who didn’t go to college. Some of that is because the economy has tanked for those with only a HS diploma. But it’s also because you develop valuable skills and orientations. The job canard is just like the degree one. Focus your attention on your own growth and learn how to explain that to others and jobs will follow.

Instead, take an active stance toward your learning. Let me give you a hint about laptops and cell phones. Your professors know when you are taking notes and when you aren’t. Classes have a natural rhythm and points are evenly spaced. When you are looking at your screen and clicking away out of rhythm, it’s clear that you’re on the internet. But the more general issue is to bring all of your attention to class. Seriously try to do the reading before class. Even if you didn’t get all of it, familiarize yourself. Ask yourself questions. Make mental connections to other things you’ve read. Talk to your faculty member after class. In short, invest your time in your classes and it will pay dividends. Even classes you aren’t crazy about will be the source of connections you’ll use later in other classes or papers.

When you look at your educational experience as something that’s preparing you for the long term, you take a different approach. You may not keep all of your textbooks (they are expensive, after all). But the ones that were especially meaningful should be part of your ongoing library. You’ll find yourself returning to them in future years. Think about what you learn in each of your classes that you want to hang on to. Connect the dots as if you had strands of yarn that show the significant linkages discovered along the way. If you can practice describing those linkages and what they meant to you, graduation and jobs are a natural byproduct.

You are key to the future of Christian Colleges. The world is changing and your generation is key to what’s going on. So while you are on a journey, so is the rest of Christian Higher Education. If you follow the news and check on the internet, you know that we’ve entered a Post-Christian period. No longer are we in a culture that presumes Christian guideposts as the default position.

David Kinnaman, president of the Barna Group, has said that your generation is “discontinuously different” from earlier generations. There are many sources in sociology that confirm his data. Your generation is constantly connected, keeps friends from diverse backgrounds, has grown up with values of tolerance, and is frustrated with business as usual. You have remarkably potent hypocrisy detectors.

You look for authenticity and community while struggling with your own personal identity questions. You’ve grown up in a world very different than the one I grew up in. These are hard questions for your grandparents and maybe your parents. But much less hard for you.

In spite of all the challenges of the economy, jobs, government, the church, and culture, your generation is remarkably optimistic. Far more so than earlier generations. You see the culture as improving and opportunities as expanding .

All of that gives you insights into what is going on that your Christian University needs to hear. As I’ve written before, you are the canaries in the coal mine of our culture. You represent modes of thinking that will be dominant over the next twenty years. Christian colleges need to hear from you but recognize that they will change far slower than you might want. Resist the temptation to disengage. Have honest conversations with school leaders recognizing that change can be hard for everyone. It’s critically important.

We are all part of the tapestry of God’s Kingdom. So what does it mean for all of us, students and professors alike, to be pursuing God’s leading in our lives academically, socially, and spiritually? It means that we aren’t alone. We impact each other. That’s why settling for box-checking or job-hunting is so disappointing. It’s not just you that get’s shortchanged. It’s all of us.

Toy StoryThink about the Toy Story movies, for example. Woody and Buzz may look like the stars, but they are all influence by each other. And that influence means that they are all responsible for what happens to each one. That’s the heart of Christian Liberal Arts education. While working on your own stuff, you are bringing others along. You are figuratively holding hands, just like at the end of Toy Story 3.

That means that God’s Kingdom is built by people being obedient to the Holy Spirit’s leading as we engage each other’s stories in order to help them become what God has implanted. Together we are working on God’s behalf, not only to pursue our own goals and dreams, but to advance his Kingdom wherever we find it.

Welcome to the first step in this exciting journey we call Christian Liberal Arts. You’re in for a wonderful ride!

 

 

 

To my friends who don’t get why Ferguson matters..

I’ve been following the stories out of Ferguson, MO closely over the last two weeks since Michael Brown was shot by officer Darren Wilson. There have been many articles written about racial profiling, justice, “White privilege”, and the militarization of police. The cable news media eventually decided there were stories to tell and devoted hours of first-person coverage (which, as Conrad Hackett observes was three days after the shooting and after one million tweets had crossed the internet).

ferguson_dog_ap_imgThe Pew Research Center asked if the Ferguson story was “raising important issues about race” or that “race was getting too much attention”. They found that nearly half of whites (47%) thought that race was getting too much attention (with just over a third opting for “raising issues”). Conversely, 80% of blacks said that these were important issues compared to 18% saying “too much attention”. My social media feed reflects these sentiments fairly well, although it probably skews a little more toward the issues side. As I’ve read comment threads on Facebook, I find that many commenters are struggling to understand what the issues are and may in some ways be misreading the issues. So I decided to write this letter.

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Dear Friends:

I’ve been paying attention to the comments you’ve made about the events in Ferguson, pondered the questions you’ve raised, and thought quite a bit about how to respond in ways that don’t sound like name-calling. We have way too much of that as it is.

I’ve heard you refute claims that Officer Darren Wilson is a racist. I think it is quite probable that he isn’t a racist. In fact, that is the problem.

If Officer Wilson were a racist (apparently like his colleague who pushed CNN’s Don Lemon), we could chalk it up to a bad actor, have a conduct hearing, and remove him from the force. If he went out of his way to brutally attack an 18-year-old young man, there would be clear cause for disciplinary action (the civil rights investigation will likely focus on the disproportionality of his response). But Officer Wilson was doing his job. That is the source of the frustration.

When a regular part of his serve and protect duty requires him to see a jaywalking black young man as a potential threat, there is a problem. When an altercation ensues with the hotheaded young man, it is seen as potentially life-threatening for the officer who may then respond with a resort to deadly force. It’s not the deadly force that is the problem, it’s the combination of factors that made that seem like the right option to pursue.

When you refer to Michael Brown as “a thug”, because that’s the label we use for young men who get in trouble with the police, that is part of the problem. Because we wind up generalizing from sketchy evidence and presuming guilt. It leads us to the presumption that somehow his bad behavior meant that deserved to be shot six times. It’s not that he’s an innocent. It’s that he reinforces images from entertainment media and allows us to use them as self-justifying descriptions of what went on. That’s why it’s so hard to hear stories like those of Pastor Leonce Crump (shared by Ed Stetzer here and here): they don’t align with our preconceptions. Why is it that a minister of the gospel has been stopped by police while walking or driving almost annually since he was 15. At 34, that’s over half his life. But there are factors that cause us to associate violent crime with large black men, so the stereotype is justified.The police officers who pulled Rev. Crump over were probably not racist. And that is the problem.

The protests in Ferguson were seen as a source of threat to the newly militarized police force. Concern over looters (who some have suggested “deserve to be shot”) creates a situation where the police mobilized with the worse case scenario in mind. Their concern over individual agitators might be rational but the vast majority of the protestors were exactly that, protestors . There was no way to isolate the troublemakers from the regular protestors. So everyone faced MRAPs, flash bangs, and tear gas. And that is the problem.

Some of you have suggested that we focus on white on black violence without being concerned about black on black violence. We should be trying to curb violent responses in any situation but instead we try to figure out who’s situation is worse (here’s a hint: it’s white on white). Our entertainment media celebrates street violence with bigger and bigger weapons. Our political establishment is so concerned about infringement of second amendment rights that it blocks any reasoned attempt at limiting firepower. Is it any wonder that police departments see value in larger and more effective military weaponry? But the problem isn’t white on black violence — it’s power on powerless violence. The concern in Ferguson may be worse because it was a white officer who did the shooting, but the issue would still be there had the officer been black.

Some have focused on opportunists who see turmoil as an avenue for anarchy or for looting business or for celebrity grandstanding. There is certainly some of that. But our interaction with cultures other than our own, especially in light of increasing residential segregation, feeds those possibilities. Philadelphia police commissioner Charles Ramsey spoke to the issue of assumptions about neighborhoods on NPR this week. He described why he insists his officers walk the beat in the neighborhood.

All of the recruits that graduate from our police academy start off on foot patrol in areas of our city that have a high concentration of crime being committed in public space. Now it does a couple things. One, it does have an impact on crime. Temple University did a study here that showed a 22 percent decline in crime in the areas where we establish foot patrol. But more important than that, it teaches them at a very early age that there are more decent law-abiding citizens living in that challenged neighborhood than there are criminals or people causing problems. You don’t get that when you’re driving 30 miles an hour in a Crown Vic down a street. You do get it when you’re walking down a street and you have a chance to interact with everyday people on a positive note (emphasis mine).

Some have argued that the real problems among urban blacks is one of culture. Quoting libertarian social economists like Thomas Sowell, they pick up the “culture of dependency”, or “lack of male role models” or gang culture in general. As Commissioner Ramsey points out, one can find evidence of these factors but not everywhere. There are far more supportive black families in the city than we might believe. That we so easily think otherwise, whether by wanting them to clean up their neighborhood or by passing liberal policies based on deprivation models, is part of the problem.

Over sixty years ago, sociologist Robert Merton constructed a typology using the relationship between prejudice and discrimination. It’s summarized in the follow chart.

Image from freebooks.uva.edu

Image from freebooks.uva.edu

 I don’t like the terms “bigot” and “liberal” in the typology, but that’s what Merton called them. But his typology is still helpful. I’m not really concerned about the cell in the upper left. Such folks are deserving recipients of social disapproval. Their comments (like those after the Miss America selection) are rightfully denounced by others. The upper right category is what we see pop up on Facebook, Twitter, or Comment sections of articles. People who wouldn’t say anything prejudicial in public feel free to do so with the relative anonymity of the internet.

It’s the bottom left category that is interesting to me. That is where people live their lives in ways that perpetuate discriminatory practice.

Not by intention but by inattention. Failing to see how their lives differ from others makes it easier to see their lives as “normal” and let systems perpetuate themselves. I’m honestly not sure there’s anybody in the bottom right category.

My friend Karen Swallow Prior has been encouraging people to read Maya Angelou’s first autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Karen argues that this book does an excellent job of demonstrating the structural issues involved with race, the ways that people’s lives are influenced by the color of their skin and the discriminatory practices that accompanied that distinction.

As it happens, I finished Caged Bird the day before Michael Brown was shot. We were reading it for a book group I was part of in Portland. The early part of the book takes place in the late 1930s in cotton country Arkansas. But the structural difference between what whitefolks (as she put it) could do and blackfolks could do was gut wrenching. That was 20 years before Brown v. Board and 30 years before the voting rights act. But lay Angelou’s book from the 30s and 40s alongside Ta-Nehisi Coates article on reparations in The Atlantic and you see a stunning consistency over time.

This is the real issue with Ferguson. It’s that patterns of structure in which people find themselves create the kinds of animosities and cognitive assumptions that take a confrontation between a young man and a public service officer and make them symbols of everything that has constrained part of the population for literally generations. We talk about “white privilege” but that privilege is really the freedom not to worry about these larger structural concerns. Many of the folks in Ferguson and neighborhoods like it don’t have that freedom.

I apologize for those who have called you insensitive or bigots. I understand that you want to wait on the complexity of the situation to be resolved. But at the end of the day, the folks in Ferguson need you to acknowledge that their situation is different than yours. Not because they’re deviant but because of things beyond their control and beyond yours and beyond mine. The only solution to moving outside the lower left quadrant of Merton’s typology is to acknowledge the discrimination that is experienced and work to alleviate it.

Finally, let me acknowledge that I’ve spent far too much time in the lower-left quadrant myself. As a sociologist, I know what the stakes are but don’t do enough to change those structural dynamics I do control. After Ferguson and New York City and St. Louis and LA, that must change. For me and for all of us.

So what can we do? Consider these words yesterday from the President of the Evangelical Covenant Church (see full statement here):

I thank God for gracious, courageous, and persevering friends. The letter is a call to all of us to join God in seeking redemptive purposes out of the pain of Ferguson. We begin with prayer:  for Michael Brown’s family; for police officer Darren Wilson and family; for the witness and intervention of churches in Ferguson; for normalcy in the streets and progress in community reform; for Covenant churches in the region ministering through the complexities. But going forward we will best be God’s agents as our hearts remain pliable to seeing things more clearly, feeling things more deeply, and acting more resolutely. That happens when we continue to call out the best in one another and walk with one another into the harsh realities of a fallen world . Yes, we’re in it together.

Yours,

John

 

Thoughts on Ferguson: Living the Nightmare

I was in Canada when the news of Michael Brown’s shooting in Ferguson broke on my media feed. I was aware of the rough outlines of the story, thanks to updates and retweets by many friends on twitter. I haven’t actually watched any mainstream media coverage as it tends to make me pull my hair out. So my information comes inductively from the internet, primarily from progressive and POC friends. Other voices seemed silent.

I’m not the only one to notice this pattern. Yesterday, my friend Ryan Thomas Neace wrote “From One Middle-Class White Person to Another: Why We Struggle to Get It.”  He talks of the isolation we have from those different than ourselves. More importantly, he describes the differing realities the issues of race and class construct in American Society:

As a middle-class, white person, the fact that I have to try to imagine what it would’ve been like if a police officer rolled through my neighborhood and shot me or one of my teenage friends is telling in itself.  It means I do not have a frame of reference or standard of comparison from which I can draw to construct Mike Brown’s story in my own life.

As Ryan argues, we’re far more likely to expect Officer Friendly to come visit our classrooms than to see an Officer as Potential Threat.

As I reflected on Ryan’s post, I found myself thinking of Alan Noble’s Atlantic article on Evangelical Persecution. Alan’s thoughts are further elaborated in an interview he gave with American Baptist Press (along with others). It’s evident that American Christians do not know persecution when compared with Christians in other countries like Iraq. (By the way, we should be as concerned about Shia on Sunni violence as we are Isis on Christian — we don’t just root for our team when it comes to justice.)

Still, the persecution mythology is alive in many quarters. A little bit of internet research finds cases where local police departments come and arrest pastors “in front of terrified church congregants”. The story explains that the arrests were staged and that the pastors were arrested for “defending the faith”. They would then be put on trial and have to prove they were REAL Christians. Add to this the fear that the state would FORCE pastors to marry same-sex couples. Or that THEY want to take away our rights to worship as we please. Then there are all the isolated stories of uninformed school teachers or principals who put limits on student expression or the local zoning commission who interferes with a house church.

In all these cases, it is secular authorities set against the religious faithful. The religious faithful must remain true to God regardless of circumstances and in spite of the fact that they no longer believe in the legitimacy of the state apparatus.

To pick up Ryan’s question, “we fail to get it” on one level because we have to try to imagine scenarios where we’re oppressed by officials of the state. But for those worried about religious persecution from secularism, we have imagined it all too well.

The people protesting in Ferguson have been living the imagined persecution scenario for a long time. 

They know what it’s like to be arbitrarily picked out and subject to intrusive questioning with an assumption of “guilty until we determine otherwise”. This is the reality behind Driving While Black, New York’s Stop and Frisk practice, differential drug sentencing, and the like. Not for everyone, of course. But for enough friends and relatives for everyone to have the knowledge of the possibility.

Fifty YearsThis picture from the Huffington Post shows the striking and disturbing parallels between riot police lines in 1963 and those in Ferguson last week.

I have never seen a line like this. But folks in the protests in Ferguson received training in how to stand non-provocatively. Not all got the message. Some isolated shots were fired. Stores were looted. But the overwhelming majority of protestors in Ferguson did none of those things. They stood for justice. The expressed their rights to freedom of assembly and freedom of speech. They cleaned up storefronts that had been damaged the night before.

They did these things precisely because they have doubts about the legitimacy and altruism of the police force and the state government. They know that the scales are tipped against them and that self-control is essential when confronting that imbalance.

A year ago, the Pew Research Center did a study of attitudes toward institutional arenas when it came to issues of race. Blacks and Whites in urban, suburban, and rural areas were asked if certain institutions were less fair toward Blacks than Whites. Institutional arenas were from police, courts, work, stores, schools, health care, and voting. The chart below summarizes the perceptions across all institutional arenas (scores range from zero institutions discriminating to seven).

Only 1 in 10 urban Blacks thought there was no institutional discrimination compared to nearly half of all suburban Whites.

This, as Ryan observes, is what we don’t get. For us, the institutions work as intended. For “them”, they cannot begin with such assumptions — the world is just too dangerous.

We like to imagine scenarios that have the state calling us out for our faith as a badge of our faithfulness. The citizens of Ferguson know too well that the state calls people out regardless of their motives or their faith but because of their race, class, and neighborhood.

Too often, the coverage of events like Ferguson seems to be looking for ways of justifying the legitimacy of the state’s action. That’s why news sources post troubling photos (check out the hashtag #IfIWasGunnedDown to see how this happens) and use words like “thugs” to make sure that we have good cops acting against bad actors.

As I was finishing this post, Christena Cleveland added this remarkable piece: The Cross and The Molotov Cocktail. Here’s a paragraph that puts the Pew data in its visceral context:

As someone who has walked alongside black men, witnessed their suffering firsthand, lamented with them and fought for justice with them, I can see why black men who have lived under the oppressive boot of society for their entire lives would decide to stop turning the other cheek, to refuse to see the police as anything other than the Red Coats, and to reject “respectability.”

If we were to face serious persecution as evangelicals (as unlikely as that is in our contemporary environment), you can be sure that there wouldn’t be pictures of happy families accompanying the roundups. You can be sure that we would be called names and marginalized in hundreds of ways. It is certain that we’d have little recourse against the power of the state with all of its hardware and assumed legitimacy.

Maybe we need to identify with the protestors in Ferguson to see what it means to stand for justice.

When Evangelicals are “Pro-Choice”

This is not a post about abortion. It’s really about the way in which evangelicals often frame their arguments and the ways in which those can become reductionistic and oversimplified. Too often, our rhetoric suggests that we’re focused on Monty Hall’s Let’s Make a Deal: Is the answer behind Door #1 or Door #2?

Make a Deal

I’ve been somewhat disconnected from the internet while on vacation, but I’ve still seen this pattern play out when checking Facebook or Twitter. In response to the suicide death of Robin Williams this week, blogger Matt Walsh argued that we shouldn’t focus so much on tragedy or depression but on the fact that Robin Williams made a choice to kill himself. I’m pleased that much of the Christian blogosphere quickly called out such a callous claim (including some quite conservative voices). I don’t need to add my name to the list, but Walsh’s argument struck a chord.

We see similar arguments made when evangelicals discuss the complicated issue of transgendered persons. Critics who haven’t looked into the psychology and physiology of the transgendered community will talk of people who have “chosen” to be a certain gender, sometimes with a suspicion that the individual will someday “choose” to switch back.

Or take Ann Coulter’s reprehensible article about missionary doctors who contracted the Ebola virus while trying to treat infected populations. They made a “choice” to go to a part of the world where disease was more prevalent so they are responsible for any illness they incur.

Read evangelical articles about homosexuality and there will be those arguing that gay people have simply “chosen” a lifestyle and they could be helped to choose the normative one. The apologies of groups like Exodus Road have helped to combat this thinking but it’s still fairly prevalent. This BBC interview with Christian musician and theology student Vicky Beeching (who recently announced she was gay) contrasts with the choice language of Scott Lively (I have to grant Scott’s point that the set-up piece before the exchange made an actual conversation impossible).

I’m sure there are some people who will treat the situation of Mike Brown in Ferguson, MO as a case where he “chose” a behavior that resulted in his death. It’s hard to get those folks to accept notions of power imbalances, latent racism, or profiling because each case involves an individual who “chose”.

Even the abortion argument is based on assumptions that a woman “chooses” to have an abortion. This is why abortion protestors stand outside clinics yelling about the poor “choice” she is making.

Why is it that evangelicals are more likely to see things in dichotomous terms? Why are ideas of structural inequality or biochemical factors or impinging contingencies of life so hard to grapple with?

As Scot McKnight and many others have observed, it is in part due to a soteriological focus. Much of evangelicalism has been shaped more by wanting people to “make a decision for Jesus” than to “take up a cross and follow”. We’re better at Manichean spiritual warfare language imagery than powers and principalities. If I’ve made a decision for Christ I’m in the heaven-bound set and not in the hell-bent set.

There’s also a linkage between rugged individualism and our thoughts about decision making. Rational Choice theory enjoyed favor in both criminology and the sociology of religion. Building from an economic metaphor, the idea is that people make choices based on perceived costs and benefits. The is the basis behind deterrence theory and was a dominant explanation for why people switch denominations. The problem is that far fewer of our choices are rationally considered door #1 or door #2 situations. Life is more complicated than that.

Maybe it’s time for evangelicals to worry less about simple choices and think more about navigating complexity. What happens if we begin our conversations understanding that the work is a difficult place?

Nate Silver’s The Signal and The Noise has some great chapters about Bayesian Probability. When you make a decision tree outlining all the factors that impinge on a particular action, you get a better sense of what’s going on than looking at a simple coin flip.

Of course Robin Williams made a choice to take his life. But there were a variety of factors that influenced the yes/no choice he made. The question we should be asking about Robin Williams’ suicide, along with those of the sons of Rick Warren and Ergun Caner, is “what combination of factors made this choice seem like the only one possible?”

When we look at a transgendered acquaintance, we have to consider the complexity of circumstances leading up to the conclusion that one is “in the wrong body”. This is not a lifestyle preference but the result of years of struggle. (Does anyone really think people go through sex reassignment surgery to see what it’s like?)

When a black man becomes the victim of police extremism, we have to ask why this keeps happening. Why are there circumstances where the response is so disproportionate? What leads to police suspicion or fear, to black men being singled out, to a culture of distrust?

When a Christian comes out as gay, we have to look at the pain involved in years and years of struggle. This is not a decision that is made lightly by anyone. In most cases, it’s not a “decision” at all.

We need a more robust understanding of both the human condition and of the Kingdom God is building around us. There really aren’t two doors that people are choosing between. It’s a spider-web of forces that impinge on their reality. That spider-web is part of the reality of God’s now-and-not-yet Kingdom.

It calls us to offer to others the very Grace we’ve received. As one social media friend reminded us, this is the story of the seventh and eighth chapters of Romans. Paul recognized the complexity in our lives (as do we all) and we should extend that possibility to others as well.

In another place Paul said that there is another way that depends on faith, hope, and charity. And the greatest of these is charity.

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