This week was the annual Focus series here at Spring Arbor. Our theme was “What is a person?” There were no classes on Wednesday and there were extra speakers all week. Christian Smith came from Notre Dame and Cherith Fee Nordling came from Northern Seminary. In addition to the keynoters, several of us gave workshops.
My talk built on some things I’d been writing last fall trying to make sense of our responses to issues of Ferguson, Staten Island, Dayton, and Cleveland.
I was trying to wrestle with the question of why it’s been so hard for us to have meaningful conversations about the challenges of race, inequality, law enforcement, and culture.
The week before I attended a community meeting here in Jackson. The panel (12 participants) included representatives from four law enforcement jurisdictions, lawyers and judges, and community leaders. There were calls for improved relationship and deepened trust. But it’s still a hard conversation.
Conrad Hacket from the Pew Research Center shared a graphic he shown earlier in the year. It contrasted Ferguson news coverage on the cable networks with what was happening on social media during that week in August.
The top chart shows new coverage in minutes. The bottom shows the number of mentions on twitter. Before the first half hour of news coverage, there had been one million tweets. By the end of the week, the total hit eight million.
I shared two slides on books about Baltimore. The first comes from a trio of sociologists at Johns Hopkins. It followed a group of first graders through their growing up years (think Boyhood if the characters lived in lower class Baltimore). If the reality of this inequality is so stark, why do we not address it?
The other Baltimore book was The Other Wes Moore. It tells the life of Wes Moore, Rhodes scholar and intern to Condileeza Rice. It also tells the story of Wes Moore, who grows up a few blocks away in Baltimore and winds up in prison for armed robbery. What makes the stories so remarkable is that there were a few inflection points where their stories could have gone in opposite directions.
As I was organizing my thoughts for the workshop, my social media feeds kept providing further examples of the struggles we face in addressing issues of injustice. The week before my talk, the Equal Justice Initiative released their report on lynchings in America between 1874 and 1950. There were nearly 4000 during those 76 years, which comes out to about one per week if you do the math.
As I reflected on our anger, our silence, and our inability to move forward, I came to this recognition:
That realization took me back to earlier posts (see here and here) on Anthony Giddens and the sociology of “structuration”. His argument is that structures are both experienced and reproduced through interaction. One key mediating variable in this is language.
So if we are to move forward, maybe language is the key. Maybe instead of so much talk about culture or values or crime or fatherlessness or thugs, we need to find new ways of talking.
A key element of a new and profoundly Christian discourse is to really grasp what it means for others to be created in the image of God. As I’ve written before, I was decidedly impacted by Andy Crouch’s Playing God, which puts Image Bearing front and center.
Crouch argues that our work as image bearers is to recognize and nurture the image of God being borne in those we meet. To fail to do so allows structures and powers to nullify that image. He writes of parents who have sold their children into labor or sex slavery and seems to echo the point that Antony Giddens would make about power and interactions.
Beginning with a search for the Imago Dei in the other puts us in a very different position from a lot of folks. Where they would rather go along with a crowd, someone has to stand up and refuse. But as Brian Zahnd argues in A Farewell to Mars, that can be risky.
To illustrate, I showed a clip from To Kill a Mockingbird (which had been on my mind). The night before Tom Robinson’s trial, the sheriff moves him back to the county jail. Some townsfolk show up to where Atticus Finch is guarding the door. The YouTube clips only start with the childrens’ arrival and what I wanted was when the men first show up. They tell Atticus to “get away from the door” because “you know what we’re here for”. It’s interesting to me that they never say what they want. The scene ends with Scout rehumanizing Mr. Cunningham (by seeing the Imago Dei in him) and the crowd disperses.
I returned to Mockingbird to illustrate how Atticus Finch’s closing statement is an attempt to re-humanize Tom Robinson, to celebrate the Image of God present in him. But even the great Atticus affirms Tom’s image bearing by demolishing the image bearing of Tom and Mayella Ewell.
We take Atticus’ intentions and go one step further. We recognize that all others we interact with are bearing the image of God, however effaced or buried. Not just the victims of injustice. Not just those whose hands are clean. But everyone.
As we adopt image-bearing language about others, we may begin to weaken the structures in which we operate. We may find that the paths to new conversations. Real conversations on important topics. Conversations that may reshape the very social structures we seek to address.