Singing Canaries: Why the Church Needs Millennials

Canaries

The “millennials and church” conversation continues. That’s a good thing. But it’s not an easy matter to work through.

If, somehow,  you haven’t been aware of  this discussion, ten days ago Rachel Held Evans wrote a piece titled “Why Millennials are Leaving the Church” on CNN’s Belief Blog. It summarized recent data on religious affiliations (or lack thereof) among today’s under-30 population. While what she summarized wasn’t new (this data has been around for several years), her post seemed to focus attention in new ways. I lost track of the number of people who jumped into the fray from various perspectives. I was one of those and was grateful that a number of people found last week’s post helpful. Thanks to Rachel in particular for sharing the post with her readers.

My argument was that the disaffection of millennials with organized religion will portend how the church interacts with society in the coming decades. The millennials are, I argued, the “canary in the mine” that lets miners know the air is bad and they are in danger.

This weekend, Rachel posted a follow-up on CNN’s page. This one is called “Why Millenials Need the Church” It’s a nice addition to the first piece and points to the ways in which congregational participation, particularly in celebrating the sacraments, can counter some of the angst and excess of the millennial life.

When this weekend’s piece came out, I suggested to Rachel that there was a logical third piece for her to write: Why the church needs millennials. She agreed but said that people might be tired of the topic by then. She may well be right. But I couldn’t get the idea out of my mind. I hope she writes her piece. In the meantime, here’s mine.

So my metaphor last week was about the canary in the mine. Kind of a sad story. We need to keep watch and if the canary dies, then we had all run away.

But most of the time canaries don’t live in mines. They live where birds live — in the wild or in a nice cage in someone’s house. And they can be trained to sing. If you don’t know canary song, here’s a handy YouTube video .

If I’m going to think of Millennials as canaries, I have to listen to their song. It’s just possible that what they are “singing” is something that will strengthen the church in the coming decades rather than weaken it. If we listen.

In the midst of all the “what about millennials?” dialogue this week, I got a tweet from Zack Hunt (check his stuff out at http://theamericanjesus.net/ — it’s really good). Zack was announcing that the movie Saved! was now streaming on Netflix. I had watched it years ago, but thought it would be a good time for  a repeat.

SavedThe movie, made in 2004, is set at American Eagle Christian School (love the overlap with patriotism or consumerism, whichever you prefer). The students at this evangelical school are good, well-meaning Christian kids. Most of them, anyway. There’s the jewish girl who attends because she was thrown out of everywhere else and the wheelchair bound slacker who isn’t sure what he believes.

The story revolves around two girls: Hillary Fay and Mary. Hillary Faye is the top-notch girl who overChristianizes everything — it’s Mean Girls in Christian school. Mary is your average kid, part of HF’s band (literally) who gets pregnant (because she was trying to cure her gay boyfriend). The movie revolves around issues of judgmentalism, hypocrisy, mistakes, forgiveness, grace. There’s is a clueless mother,  over-eager principal Skip, and Skip’s son back from his missionary tour in skateboard ministries.

Here’s the surprising thing. The movie never makes fun of Christianity. It does point out Hillary Faye’s control issues (which stem from past trauma) and Skip’s temptations. But those characters are seen as evangelicals who don’t quite get it. They are sympathetic and you hope they learned from their experiences.

Mary doesn’t abandon her faith or her friends and she has a baby at the end of the movie. Everyone seems happy, mostly.

I realized that Saved! is the early version of the Millenials and church story. While the authors of the screenplay are too old, they capture the contrast between issues of a complex world and the controlled environment of AECS. The movie got me thinking more about what millennials bring to church that my generation needs to hear. (There are blogs I’ve read in recent weeks that illustrate all these points, but many are far too personal to simply link to).

1.  Millennials know that family situations are complicated. I’m continually amazed at how commonplace it is to learn that one of my Christian university students is dealing with a parental divorce. Or managing the two-families that resulted from the earlier divorce. Or have dealt with some form of abuse at the hands of loved ones. As much as the church wants to “family-friendly”, we know that the broader culture isn’t. Millenials can help the church learn to deal with the complexity of family life in addition to happy couple study groups.

2. Millennials know people who struggle with tough issues in life: drugs and alcohol abuse, depression, ostracism, homelessness, poverty, suicidal thoughts. Because they are such a digital group, they remain connected to people my generation lost along the way. When we talk about abstractions like substance abuse, they know people’s stories. We need to hear those stories, as painful as they are. It helps our theology.

Because they’ve grown up in an era where all those issues are out in the open rather than talked about in hushed tones (or, like Hillary Faye, under the guise of prayer concerns) they can help us deal with the reality of the situation instead of how we might imagine things to be.

3. They’re culturally aware. I confess that I didn’t see Saved! when it first came out. I assumed it was attacking religion. But today’s generation sees beyond the reactionary elements of popular culture and finds the moral story within. The Christianity Today film reviews by folks like Alissa Wilkinson (this one is a good example) are able to sort through complex stories and find the important messages influencing modern society. Millenials will help us navigate a rapidly changing cultural landscape in which subcultural isolation is unsustainable.

4. They are politically and socially diverse. They see a range of viewpoints on many issues. Some are more narrowly defined (abortion, for example), But others reflect a breadth of perspectives. Embracing that breadth can help the church avoid assuming everyone fits in narrow categories.

5. They are searching for a theology that works. Even if that means dealing with issues we’ve been avoiding (see #1). They aren’t anti-Bible. They want the Bible to inform their lives in the midst of a complicated world. They could help churches reaching out to a religiously ambiguous society find value in God’s story without proof-texting everything to death.

6. They bring a social compassion that is unmatched. They expect to change the world. We need them doing so in our circles, helping us learn about sex trafficking, invisible children, inner-city poverty, violence and hopelessness. That’s not an addition to our Sunday worship — it’s directly connected to Kingdom thinking.

Since getting involved in the whole “what about millennials” discussion, I’ve been aware that there are those voices who say that this is simply a natural sociological trend of 20-somethings breaking from institutional religion until their families get settled. Others have observed that the losses among evangelicals are fairly low (at least so far). I can give my reasons for why I don’t think that’ the case but I won’t do so here. Maybe another day. It may take a decade to know who’s right anyway.

What I do know is that today’s generation has a great deal to offer today’s church. I’m much rather engage them in meaningful ways that simply wait to see if they come back in 2023.

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Millennial Canaries

Canary

If you’ve been anywhere near the internet this week, you know that the topic of the week (other than Reza Aslan’s new book) is about millenials leaving the church. Rachel Held Evans wrote a nice summary of work by David Kinnaman and others. Combining that research with her own reflections, she attempted to clarify the issues: attitudes toward homosexuals, combativeness, unwilling to address doubt. She summarizes a nice piece that documented how young evangelicals are attracted to liturgical churches. Part of Rachel’s concern was that too many in the religious sphere have responded to millennial concerns as the need for better marketing or hipper bands. Maybe we need more 60 year old pastors preaching in skinny jeans and hipster glasses.

The response has been somewhat surprising. Mainliners said that Rachel’s issues were only true for evangelicals and that what she called for was present in the Methodist church. Other evangelicals responded that millenials needed to listen to their elders and recognize that the church isn’t supposed to deal with a narcissistic group of twenty-somethings who grew up thinking they were special.

Jonathan Fitzgerald wrote a clever piece today on how the real question is about involvement. How do millenials find places of connection within the local congregation? The question of involvement raises the questions that Michelle Van Loon has been exploring — that 40-somethings show lower levels of engagement in their local churches than was true a decade ago. Michele summarized her thinking in this podcast.

Here’s what I’m thinking. Millenials are the canary in the coal mine of modern protestantism. As part of the entire RHE flurry, Chris Morton posted this interesting piece about what would characterize a millennial church.  But when I read Chris’ piece, I realized THAT’S WHAT I WANT IN A CHURCH. Last week I read this wonderful piece by Jamie (the Very Worst Missionary) reporting on a church she’d attended in Central America. Called “Doing it Wrong”, Jamie critiques our assumptions about modern American worship services. And again I said, THAT’S WHAT I WANT IN A CHURCH.

What this tells me is that the issues millenials are raising are not about them. They’re about the spectator elements of modern worship: music done FOR you, auditorium seating, anonymity, lack of engagement in questions of faith. I’ve felt this before. Slightly disconnected from a congregation. So what’s different with my generation? Why didn’t we respond like the millenials?

We didn’t do that because it was assumed you’d stay loyal to a local congregation. Maybe this is a holdover from geographically based parish life or ethnically identified denominations. We stuck it out, not because it was okay but because we didn’t want to be deviant.

Today things are different. The percentage of adults who are non-religious (not affiliating, not attending, not caring) is higher than it’s ever been. Questions about the legitimacy of religion in modern life are regularly raised not just by Dawkins but by folks writing comments on any  webpage that barely mentions religion.

The world is changing. We may not be in a post-Christian society, But it’s clear that we’re entering a period where being Christian is not the default assumption. It’s a time where we will need to engage in far more dialogue and do much less arguing. I’ve been reading Ed Cyzewski’s Coffeehouse Theology. He addresses the implications of postmodernity for today’s church. The same sentiments were raised by Nate Pyle a couple of days ago. Nate nails it: “unless we want a new wineskin, we don’t want something new.”

The conversation begun by David Kinnaman, Gabe Lyons, Christian Smith, Diana Butler Bass, and others dovetails with the changing trends in religious participation in America. We may wish things were the way they used to be, but that’s not coming back.

We need to pay attention to the millennial concerns. Not because they’re spoiled kids who need to grow up. Not because the church needs to be hip. But because they grew up in postmodern culture. Engaging postmodern religion through the lens of the millenials will help the church of 2020 proclaim the Gospel to a complex and confusing world.

The millenials are the canary in the religious mine. We can ignore them and call them spoiled. But if we do that, we lose our ability to engage future generations. These demographic changes aren’ going to change and we need to respond with faith, compassion, intelligence, and authenticity. We need the millenials to insure the future quality of the church. In the end, it’s the church I want to be a part of.

On Drawing Lines in the Sand

[My August submission to the American Evangelicals dialogue at http://www.respectfulconversation.net. This month’s topic is on Morality.]

We like to draw lines in the sand. It shows that we’re serious. We have expectations. Beside, we argue, didn’t Dean Kelley say that conservative churches grow because they place expectations on their members? Shouldn’t we be avoiding Bonheoffer’s “cheap grace”?

There’s a big problem with sand. It doesn’t stay where you left it.

The wind blows across the dune and leaves no track of your footprints. The waves come into shore and obliterate the nice trench you just dug. Over time, water saturates the sand so that it turns to slush and the sandcastle falls down.

sand

What then do we do with our lines in the sand? One option is to reinforce them. After drawing the line, we can build little Maginot lines to make sure the trench doesn’t collapse. A second option is to build little zones of protection around the line. We won’t actually deal with the moral challenge of the line, but will substitute other moral positions. A third option is to adopt the lines of those around us. Another option is to stop drawing lines altogether. Since they can’t be maintained, why even bother?

Exploring the questions of morality within evangelical culture is difficult because there are a host of prior questions that are unexplored. In the early 1980s, I presented data on Christian college students’ behaviors in areas like alcohol, drugs, and premarital sex (and other stuff as well). The first question was “Why are these the important measures? What about poverty, race, the arms race?” I really didn’t have a good answer beyond “That’s not what the sponsors asked about”. What I should have said was, “Much of evangelical discussion on morality is individual and pietistic. We may not like it, but there it is.”

It’s hard to draw lines in the sand in meaningful ways. In its early days, my denomination couched its moral stands (alcohol, circuses, and the like) as “Guides and Helps for Holy Living.” Twenty years later, the same section of the denominational standards was called “General and Special Rules”, the violation of which constituted “peril to your soul and the witness of the church.”

Here is a sociological question I’ve pondered throughout my career: How does a voluntary association like a religious organization pursue conformity to moral expectations?

If the organization is voluntary, then one has little risk of being forced out. Not so the situation of a state church with a monopoly on access to the means of grace, where failure to adhere meant denial of religious participation.

If one is ruled “out of compliance” in a local congregation, what is the penalty? Leaving this congregation for another than doesn’t hold out the same requirements? Giving up on religious practice in favor of a privatized spirituality?

It is with these lenses that I come to the question of evangelical morality. I suggest that there are some modern moral questions around which the evangelical church has built Maginot lines: abortion, homosexuality, creation (becomes a moral issue because “evolutionists” are seen as denying all morality). We are unable to examine these questions because we have built an infrastructure around the line in the sand. We can’t even get close to the real line.

There are other modern questions of morality that take the second form I suggested: creating demilitarized zones around the line, so we never run the risk of crossing over. Here I’m thinking of attitudes toward premarital sex. We’ve created entire subcultures about purity pledges and modesty norms to keep us far away from the real question. There are some remarkable things being written by young evangelicals right now about the damage created by these demilitarized zones. Purity pledges and modesty norms put great pressure on young women to keep their menfolk away from the line in the sand.

The third image I had of the sand involved outside forces (like the surf) crashing over the line. This relates to the primacy of individual morality over social morality. We can’t talk about broad issues like inequality, racism, the environment, immigration, the common good – moral questions all. The broader cultural and political dynamics have overrun our biblical and spiritual sensibilities. This is how “social justice” gets a bad name in political discourse.

Finally, the line just gets absorbed into the surrounding sand. For too long, evangelical morality had an identity component: “we’re not like them”. So dancing was out, as was social drinking, divorce, premarital sex, pornography, and so on. But the supposed separatism quickly gave way to an understanding of diverse social patterns. We met people who drank socially. We found that those folks in second marriages were pretty cool. The identity separation was overrun. That’s why Ron Sider can write such a scathing book in The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience, documenting that the gaps between evangelical Christian behavior and that of the rest of society is distressingly small.

So, to use a phrase evangelicals have liked a lot over the years, “How Should We Then Live?” What is the basis for Christian morality in this diverse, busy, loud, postmodern age?

First, what it is not: it is not about identity politics from any perspective. It is not about being forced to hold a certain position of morality because that’s what our folks believe. It is certainly not about “liking” some random picture on Facebook.

We need morality framed in the discipleship of Christian community. We struggle together with questions in their complexity. We have to talk about sexual abstinence as a goal for young people while still recognizing the power of biology. We need to talk about the appropriate role of alcohol (that goes beyond the requirement of beer companies to tag “drink responsibly” at the end of the wild party commercial). We need to talk about the complexities of same-sex relationships. We need to consider what Justice looks like in a world of such inequality.

The scriptures provide us with guidance of general principle here but not specific answers. They suggest that the answer is “somewhere in that general direction” without drawing the line in the sand. We listen to the leading of the Spirit as we honestly strive together to engage in Holy Living.

The internet has been ringing this week with echoes of Rachel Held Evans CNN piece on millenials and faith (it’s getting almost as much play as Reza Aslan’s Fox Interview!). But millenials recognize that we live in a complex world. One in which simple answers that sell books in Christian bookstores won’t address.

I believe the evangelical church has much to offer the broader culture in terms of a human morality that is based in community and looking for the greater good. Doing so will require us to engage those different than ourselves in honesty and humility. It will call us to listen more than speak. It will mean that we have to tolerate ambiguity in a complex world. It will mean leaning toward shades of gray and not seeing things as black and white. It will mean being Christlike.

Mainlines and Evangelicals: Developing Hypotheses

Has the institutional church had it? Is it on the way out?

You don’t have to look far to see questions about the health of the institutional church. From the growth of the religious “Nones” among the under 30 population to David Kinnaman’s You Lost Me to Rachel Held Evans post on CNN yesterday, the story seems to be that young people have issues with religion, especially in more rigid evangelical churches. The younger generation’s concerns are important because they fill slots in the church created by normal demographic change (that’s sociologist for “people died”). If there are not enough new people in the church willing to commit, what happens to all these churches?

I took my first sociology of religion class in 1977. At that time, two recent books were shaping religious discussion. One was Jeffrey Hadden’s The Gathering Storm in the Churches.  The other was Dean Kelley’s Why Conservative Churches are Growing.

Hadden’s book detailed a study he’d done of mainline churches as they engaged issues of civil rights and social justice. He had found that there were two very different visions of religion between mainline clergy and their laity. The storm that was gathering was a result of conflict over the role of religion. The clergy wanted to push for justice and the laity wanted safe comfortable sermons. The mismatch risked driving people away, presenting survival challenges for mainline churches. The quote above is actually the first two lines of a newpaper story from Spartanburg, SC on Hadden written when the book came out (thanks Google!).

Kelley’s book suggested that conservative churches were growing because they demanded more of their members. Rather than an easy, country-club existence, he suggested that churches with stances against drinking or who expected high levels of participation would grow because the heightened requirements meant that people would draw greater meaning from belonging. It’s based on some decent social psychology as far as it goes. (The Presbyterians just released some interesting findings about growth at the congregational level and strictness, but I’m suspicious about correlates with region and rural location.)

The combination of these books painted a disturbing picture of mainline churches. They would prefer a culturally affirming connection to society and simply enjoyed coffee together. Because they didn’t demand a lot, their young people weren’t involved and the church was a bunch of blue-hairs quickly dying off.

Meanwhile, evangelicalism was the hot new thing. We had a born-again president. Roe v. Wade formed a rallying point for evangelical churches and Jerry Falwell formed the Moral Majority. The growth of a suburban middle class fueled the rise of family-friendly evangelical congregations. Sociologists set out to explain religious growth and decline (which proved much more complicated than Kelley’s thesis would suggest).

University of Connecticut sociologist Bradley Wright has been exploring various issues about evangelicals. He recently analyzed General Social Survey data to examine how many evangelicals there actually are in America. He compiled this graph:

Wright Evangels-in-USThe blue line estimate the percentage of Americans who fit Wright’s definition of evangelical. From 20% of the population in 1970, the percentage peaks at about 28% in 1990 and starts back down again. Current data puts the percentage of evangelicals about where it was in 1975. What accounts for the decline?

I have three developing hypotheses. I’m hoping some of my religious and sociological readers will push back on these.

First, we failed to understand the resilience of the mainline church. While there are some overly culturally-affirming segments of the church, there are many more that are attempting to engage an intelligent, theologically grounded, critique of culture. These are not, as one critic suggested in this piece on the Christian left by  Jonathan Merritt, “deader than Henry VIII”. Mainline religion may still be managing the demographic transition of a generation unhappy with Hadden’s pastors. But they are being replaced with a very different kind of young adult. While the numbers of members continue to decline, the strength of the mainline church may be better than ever.

We need more careful examination of these trends. My experience with mainline churches finds them populated by people of faith who are mortified that they’ll sound like religious zealots. You have to listen harder to hear their faith perspective, but it may be deeper than you’d first think. Roger Olson had some interesting reflections this week on the mainline (which he’d rather call “old-line”). While I think some of his prescriptions (e.g., worship teams) miss the mark, his call for living spiritual experiences is what I’m seeing within the leading edge of mainline leadership.

Here’s the second hypothesis. I’m thinking that the rise in evangelical popularity in the 80s and 90s is an aberration and not a trend. It’s not that people are turning away from evangelical faith but that there was a temporary surge in popularity. Some of this is suburbanization and media narrative. Some may be reaction against the stereotypes about mainline religion happening at the time.

Sociologists and Religion Writers may make too much of distinctions between evangelicals and mainlines. According to my summary of data from the National Council of Churches Yearbook, there were just under 22.5 million members of evangelical denominations (70% of those are Southern Baptists) and  18.4 million members of mainline denominations. Both groups are showing signs of numerical decline (with some outliers) and are losing ground relative to population growth.

If the decline in mainline churches historically was due to demographic issues, it would make sense that we’d see large demographic differences between religious traditions. But the differences are fairly small. Data from the Pew Forum on Religion provide breakdowns by age groups:

Pew ForumThe percentage of mainline churches over 65 and under 29 differ slightly from the evangelical churches but neither of those percentages are that far off the total across religious traditions (the contrast with the unaffiliated is striking). This suggests that if evangelical churches find more difficulty in holding on to the young, their demographic issues are serious indeed.

The third hypothesis is that Hadden’s analysis of Mainline churches in the late 60s has an analog in Evangelical churches 40 years later. Just as activist voices on the left found separation between mainline pastors and laity, so activist voices on the right may be doing the same in evangelical churches. This is part of Putnam and Campbell’s argument in American Grace and it’s hard to dispute it. This is what prompts so many young evangelical leaders to find alternative ways of engaging “faithful presence”, to use James Hunter’s phrase.

As Young Evangelicals are looking for authenticity, they’re being careful about where they look for it. They don’t see a separation between evangelical and mainline churches as impermeable. That’s why posts like this one by Rebecca VanDoodewaard resonate with so many.

Hadden’s question about the future of the institutional church is an important one. But no one group has a monopoly on where the answer will be found. More attention to those churches which combine theological grounding with authentic community and service to others will lead us all to better conversations.

A Single Shade of Grey: Thinking about Race

The seven days since the George Zimmerman verdict have been characterized by frequent discussions of criminal justice and race. Surprisingly, some of the most analytical pieces I’ve read this week showed up on Facebook. Thanks to friends Chris Attaway, Geoffrey Mason-Gordon, and T.C. Moore for not only trying to explore a complicated issue while keeping their friends who prefer simple answers. All three forced me to clarify some of my own sociological perspectives. I’m using this space to attempt to coordinate those various thoughts.

The title of today’s post comes from comments made by Dr. Reece J. McGee, distinguished professor of sociology and Master Teacher at Purdue. I had the pure joy of being Reece’s TA for four semesters. Reece’s Intro to Sociology class had about 600 students per section, but it was still a warm and engaging space. Every semester, he would make the startling claim that he could solve the problem of racism is two generations. Simply adopt a policy that said that you could marry whomever you wanted, but if you wanted to have children you had to marry someone of another race. In two generations, he argued, the gene-pool would be so confused that race wouldn’t have the same explanatory power it currently has.

I always loved the argument, but now I’m not as optimistic. It’s not just that people draw cues from skin color. It’s that they seem somehow insistent on seeing things in black and white. Taking an issue as complex and emotional as race and converting it to talking points is absurd. The arguments only work if you completely abstract them from real life or if you generalize from single egregious cases. We seem to have a national fascination with polarizing the argument.

It is true that society is moving in the direction Reece was describing, even without a formal policy. The Census department reported in May that the percentage of marriages that were interracial or interethnic grew from 7% to 10% during the first decade of the 21st century. The story goes on to report that the percentage of unmarried couples who are interracial/interethnic now constitute 18% of all unmarried couples. These are significant steps in moving us toward a post-racial society.

And yet.

And yet we’re reminded that we still live in a society where the children of those marriages will still be seen as racially identified. Barack Obama is the first president with African ancestry (as far as we know), but we don’t often talk about him as a mixed race president of Kansas stock who grew up in multicultural Hawaii. He’s the First Black President. One of the interesting side-stories in Charlie LeDuff’s Detroit book is his discovery that his mixed race great-grandfather had declared himself white when moving from Louisiana to Detroit.

In a social psychological sense, Obama IS black and Charlie’s ancestor IS white. The treatment they received within the broader society was based on their physical markers. It’s how Obama recounted being watched by department store security guards (or even, in this amazing piece, mistaken for the help!). It’s how Charlie’s ancestor avoided the significant mortgage covenants and apprenticeship barriers that allowed to raise his family in a home he built in middle-class Detroit.

In his remarks yesterday, Obama echoed Martin Luther King’s “not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character” line. I always tell my students that you have to take the “I Have a Dream” speech in its entirety. The first half of the speech outlines the injustice that social institutions had foisted on blacks and talks of how the promise of “all men are created equal and endowed with inalienable rights” had been sent back marked “insufficient funds“. Then the second half holds out The Dream. We don’t get to choose half the speech. It’s not some smorgasbord of picking up ideas we like. We mix the black and white perspective and come up with a single shade of grey.

What does grey mean in the Martin-Zimmerman situation? It means that Zimmerman’s perception of what Martin may have been up to was impacted by the meme of a young black man after hours. It means that Martin believed that fighting back was the  option he chose in light of a general pattern of racial profiling (it’s why he didn’t go quietly). It means that Zimmerman’s perception of threat was high even before the altercation began. It means that Martin could be an aggressor AND a victim at the same time.

Acknowledging Grey means that we embrace the complexity that surround race in America. Comments like “what about the murder rate in Chicago?” miss the point. Accusing people of outright bigotry is unfounded. But there are issues related to black on black violence and drug trafficking. Not all residents of the inner-city are connected to those issues, however. My Detroit area students attest to that. So do many of the people described in LeDuff’s Detroit. Not all people concerned about affirmative action are racists. Some simply hold a high view of equality as defined in the 14th amendment.

We must learn to see the complexity that is present all around us. This is somehow hard for cable news, being so committed to black and white, sound bite, 140 character answers. (The twitter feeds following the president’s remarks were indicative as were the op-ed pieces). That’s where I find the blogosphere helpful. I keep finding people who are asking hard questions while grappling with grey-ness.

Christena Cleveland’s reflections in Christianity Today does a wonderful job of affirming differing perceptions while calling on those who experience the privilege of structural advantage to find solidarity with those who lack that same privilege. It is an expression of the Kenosis principle in Philippians 2.

Jonathan Merritt wrote on Thursday that Christians have a special role to play. He ended with this:

Post-racial America is not yet a reality, but I believe it is possible. May we—both Americans in general and Christians specifically—redouble our efforts to work towards justice and reconciliation. While the pundits and politicians will continue to take advantage of this controversy, let’s instead have serious conversations about education, the criminal justice system, racial profiling, voting rights, and civil discourse. Let us press on toward the world we desire but have not yet achieved.

The story of race in America has chapters about structural barriers of the past that stretch their tentacles into the present. It has chapters about personal tragedy and bad choices. It has chapters about overcoming obstacles. It has chapters about criminal laws that treat inner-city drug use differently than suburban drug use. It has chapters about an economics that favors the suburbs over the cities. It has chapters about generations of dependency.

If you put all these chapters in a blender and turn in on, what comes out is grey. Our only way toward a post-racial society is to embrace that reality and then work as if we really believe Galatians 3:28: There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

The Kingdom of God is decorated in hues of grey.

We’re All Detroiters Now

The big news this afternoon is that the Emergency Manager of Detroit, Kevin Orr, has received authorization from Governor Snyder to pursue a Chapter 9 bankruptcy filing (the most recent story from the Detroit News is here.) Orr has been EM since March 1 and has been trying to restructure Detroit’s debts with limited success.

Chapter 9 only applies to municipalities. It’s similar to other forms of bankruptcy. It puts creditors’ claims on hold while working out some unusual plans to restructure the organization. According to Wikipedia, in Chapter 9

Municipalities’ ability to re-write collective bargaining agreements is much greater than in a corporate Chapter 11 bankruptcy and can trump state labor protections, allowing cities to renegotiate unsustainable pension or other benefits packages negotiated in flush times.

This is a key factor. The story in the News includes the following:

Unsecured creditors could take the biggest hit in bankruptcy court. Orr wants them to share a $2 billion payout on approximately $11.5 billion worth of debt, which includes an estimated $9.2 billion in health and pension benefits and $530 million in general-obligation bonds.

The story describes how some corporate creditors have agreed to take 75 cents on the dollar for what they are owed. That’s a significantly better deal than the 17 cents on the dollar the unsecured creditors may face.

Yesterday, driving from Kansas City to Indianapolis, we listened to Charlie LeDuff’s Detroit: An American Autopsy. It’s a tough story. My wife was asking hard questions about why it’s so depressing to teach social problems. LeDuff looks at Detroit through the lens of someone who grew up in the city proper and not in the affluent suburbs. He recounts difficulties with economics, lack of support for the above-mentioned civil servants who depend upon collective bargaining, corruption among civic leaders too often replaced by other corrupt civil leaders, drug culture, decline of the manufacturing base, white flight to the suburbs, corporate decision making (or lack thereof), and the failure of the press to address any of these issues. Many of these issues are explored through the vantage point of LeDuff’s family or his reporting, but he still touches on all the right issues. While he observes that the city motto speaks to “rising from the ashes”, the litany of concerns raises questions about how that will occur this time.

LeDuff spends a great deal of time on the story of a particular fire station. Underfunded, they make do with equipment that doesn’t work (the alarm has been jerry-rigged for when calls come in). They are mostly ignored by department bureaucrats and are disciplined when it’s learned that they described their situation to a reporter. But when one dies in an arson fire in one of the hundreds of houses they deal with, he is a hero. No recognition at all of the neglect that contributed to the firefighter’s death.

Charlie also does a good job of unpacking the city’s growth and eventual decline. The growth comes from Ford’s $5 per day minimum wage, the Great Migration  of the Southern blacks and Appalachian whites, and the dominance of the auto industry. But the seeds of difficulty were already there: Long term racial issues, corporate economics, the impact of the auto on urban sprawl and resulting suburbanization, and government corruption. The suburbanization of the late 60s, helped by white flight response to the 67 riots (meticulously kept as an urban problem within the Detroit city limits), is followed by the construction of McMansion suburbs far removed from Detroit’s urban challenges (which still benefit from the limited cultural and economic life).

Last year, on another drive, I listened to the audiobook of Charles Murray’s Coming Apart. I didn’t like it, as I explained here. Murray, the author of such gems as The Bell Curve and Losing Ground. He follows his normal libertarian stance but part of his argument is worth attention. He observes that the richest segments of society are becoming increasingly separate from the poor. He mistakenly puts too much emphasis on value deficits of the poor while failing to examine the structural correlates of those issues. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that the residential and cultural segmentation of the upper and middle classes lead directly to a declining tax base and reduced civic services. Those left behind in this new migration are those with limited options in terms of jobs, family, mobility, and even grocery stores. Let’s call it the Great Abandonment.

Two years ago, I wrote this piece the day Newt Gingrich announced he was running for president. As part of his announcement, he said this: “I know how to get the whole country to resemble Texas,” he said. “President Obama knows how to get the whole country to resemble Detroit.”  As I wrote at the time, Texas was seeing purported economic growth by driving down wages, lessening safety net supports, and limited educational programming.

While Detroit’s crisis is real, it’s the natural outgrowth of poor economic planning, residential segregation, political gerrymandering, and an inability to address issues of racial inequality.

Sound familiar? All of these issues remain the real issues confronting America in the 21st century. I wish I had an example of a major metropolitan area that could be our model going forward, but nothing comes to mind.

Over the last 35 years, sociologist William Julius Wilson has been arguing that we need to address the concerns of the underclass. Outmigration would increase economic isolation, the black middle class would abandon their extended families, economic opportunities would drive up, and a group of people would give up on the American dream. I worry that Detroit is the proverbial canary in the coal mine.

If it is that canary, we can expect more problems at firehouses, more fights over pensions, more inner city crime. As I’ve been writing this, Christianity Today has posted a story about Christians working in Detroit. I haven’t read it yet but I appreciate their efforts. Identification with the problem is better than finger-pointing. Because we’ve all got an interest in Detroit. It might just be our national future.

Sociological Ruminations on a Certain Trial in Florida

I have made a point not to watch any of the George Zimmerman trial, even though it’s been all over the media. I’m not a Trayvon Martin apologist. I don’t wish ill for Zimmerman. As others have suggested in the last eighteen hours, a not guilty verdict doesn’t mean there was no guilt present. It means that there was not sufficient evidence to meet the burden of proof written into our judicial system. There are only two people who really know what happened that night in February and one of them is dead. Everyone else is guessing.

There is still much for a sociologist to reflect upon. So here, in no particular order, are my reflections.

1. This was a local story. It’s a tragedy, of course. Regardless of the narrative that saw Trayvon as an aggressor or the one that saw George as a vigilante, it was an event in a small town in northern Florida. It never deserved to be the latest source of our national fascination with crime. It used to be that to avoid such exaggerations, I just had to avoid Nancy Grace. Now I can’t watch television or use the internet.

2. The story that should have been covered by the media involves the implications of Stand Your Ground laws. While the racial backdrop of the story is real (more below), the context of a bad law creates the context for the encounter. It’s worth looking at the actual wording of the Florida statute, even if Zimmerman used a self-defense strategy rather than SYG. Here’s the relevant passage for the Florida criminal code:

A person who is not engaged in an unlawful activity and who is attacked in any other place where he or she has a right to be has no duty to retreat and has the right to stand his or her ground and meet force with force, including deadly force if he or she reasonably believes it is necessary to do so to prevent death or great bodily harm to himself or herself or another or to prevent the commission of a forcible felony.

This law is pretty much the model the conservative group ALEC has been providing to state legislators. But it’s bad law — not just because it deals with SYG but because there’s so much inference necessary in its implementation. When I first taught criminology, I told my students that good law had to be specific. Instead, we have a statute dependent upon what the actor “reasonably believes” about “himself or herself or another or to prevent a felony”. Who determines reasonable belief? Who evaluates whether necessity exists? What is the deal with “death or great bodily harm”? Where are those lines?

3. The social psychology of perception is the centerpiece of the case. Both Martin and Zimmerman had to take in a series of environmental cues (race is a key one) to determine a definition of the situation that would then frame potential courses of action. As W.I. Thomas wrote in the 1920s, “if  a [person] defines a situation as real it is real in its consequences”. The Thomas Theorem helps explain why Zimmerman would assume a young black man was a threat. It can explain why Martin felt force was necessary in striking back. There are far too many stimuli in an ambiguous situation allowing people to misread the situation. This was consistently shown in the innovative bystander intervention studies social psychologists conducted in the 1970s. Ambiguity is the enemy of rational action. Of course, SYG legislation raises the stakes in this otherwise uncertain situation.

4. The Criminal Justice system is not good at moral evaluation. This piece by Andrew Cohen from today’s Atlantic makes the case brilliantly. When one considers the structure of the adversarial system, the limitations on evidence, and the difficulty of demonstrating clear intent on the part of the accused, it’s hard to make a clear case. Restorative Justice advocates like Howard Zehr observe that the victim (in this case Martin’s family) has little role in the criminal justice process. Their needs are irrelevant to the back-and-forth of the two teams of advocates (the defendant is also a curious bystander encouraged to show no reaction at all during months of trial). Victimizing the victim is a legitimate defense strategy used when the goal is to introduce reasonable doubt.

5. The cable news networks  damaged the ability to explore the moral dynamics of the case. The unnecessary wall-to-wall coverage with their pet legal scholars failed in the essential task to inform. It was a blatant attempt at ratings manipulation — first in the discussions of whether charges should be filed and then in the day-to-day coverage of the trial itself. Their focus seemed on propelling a narrative more than exploring what happened. In the last two days, I heard Fox commentators denying that race is a factor in American Criminal Justice and complaining about politicization of the arraignment process (“Did you ever bring charges as a result of political pressure?”). CNN folks brought back Marcia Clark from the OJ trial (apparently without disclaimers regarding her expertise in sensational cases). They brought on racial experts to talk about assumptions about black youth. They brought on others to dispute that claim. Never did they explore the realities of a complex case with lots of moving parts. During the prosecution’s case, they piled on Zimmerman. During the defense, they picked holes in the prosecution’s case. Like sportscasters, they reported on which team had momentum without addressing what they talked about last week.

6. An unexplored component of this story is our fascination with guns. In spite of good evidence about victimization, we still celebrate the “heroic” effort of someone who used a firearm to stop the bad guy. It’s not surprising given our fascination with the tough guy image in entertainment culture. Try counting up the damage and dead bodies in an average hour of crime television (NCIS Los Angeles is my best illustration — they run about 6-8 dead bad guys a week). Even the Lone Ranger killed the bad guys (which he didn’t do on television).

7. We used this local story as a lens through which to identify our national inability to deal adequately with the complexities of age, race, and class. Too much time was spent picking winners and losers. Martin was an innocent or a thug. Zimmerman was a hero or a police-wannabe infatuated with his own supposed authority. The world is complex. As long as our discussions involve the choices of a) calling people racist who act on racist motives and b) declaring that we’re now in a post-racial society, we will never begin to deal honestly with what it means to live in a racially and ethnically diverse society. There are byproducts of privilege (check out Christena Cleveland’s excellent piece here) and its opposite that filter throughout the social fabric. That’s part of this story but not all the story is about.

When stories like the Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman case polarize the nation, we should be exploring why people come down in such different places. If we’d spend time on Facebook, Twitter, and Cable News exploring the reasons for these different views, we’d make progress. If all we do is to nod at our own folks and call others names, we can expect more of the same.