Tag: Anthony Giddens

The Central Role of Imago Dei: My SAU Workshop on Race Relations

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

Slide07The day before my talk, Baylor announced that they were holding a symposium on the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide, where 1.5 million Christians were killed or exiled.

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As I reflected on our anger, our silence, and our inability to move forward, I came to this recognition:

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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.

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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.

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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.

Slide12 Slide13Crouch 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.

Slide14Beginning 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.

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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.

Slide16 Andy Crouch makes clear that the soul of justice isn’t simply improved living conditions but the restoration of the Imago Dei in the other.

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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.

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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.

Focus Workshop

Illustrating “Recursive Discourse”: How Our Stories Solidify Racial and Class Structures

When I was working on my previous blog post about how Sir Anthony Gidden’s Theory of Structuration helped me link individual and structural sin, I ran a draft past my friend Ryan Thomas Neace. He had asked me (along with others) to read an early draft of his post about what it means to be in one’s debt (you can read the final here). So as I was putting my thoughts together, I sent a copy to Ryan. His response didn’t come until after I had published (I got impatient) but one comment of his really struck home. Ryan liked the post but thought I needed to do much more with a technical concept like “Recursive Discourse”.

What Giddens means by Recursive Discourse is that we are aware of how we are using language to construct social understandings. That language arises from prior social understandings and comes already freighted with meaning. When we use the language we’ve inherited about issues like class or race or gender, we are aware that we are incorporating structural conditions into our definition of the world around us. The Discourse is the focus on story. The Recursive is about the ways in which we are simultaneously creating and being created by the story. That’s the image I was trying capture with the hair salon mirrors (repeated to the right).Recursivenss

So while I was thinking about how to explain this complicated concept, two blog posts related to the Ferguson conversations appeared which give me the handle I was looking for.

The first was another marvelous post by Thabiti Anyabwile at The Gospel Coalition. Thabiti’s post shares significant details of his upbringing: family circumstances, a brush with the law as a teen, some issues with illegal substances, pictures in a hoodie showing “dueces”. All features that the media might have used to show him as a thug if he’d been the one shot.

He also talks of being an excellent student. He has two degrees from North Carolina State. And yet the stories he tells of being suspected of suspicious behavior just because he met the profile wind up reinforcing how others see him and cause him to respond accordingly. When the campus police hold him so that an assault victim could see if he was her assailant even though he had been playing basketball with faculty members, it reinforces that large black men are likely assailants and that police officers will take advantage of their power in the face of your relative powerlessness. Just in recounting this story, Thabiti no doubt relived the structural sin that was present in that moment.

When I shared Thabiti’s piece on Twitter, I got a response from Christine Scheller. She shared this piece she wrote last week, painfully titled “Thanksgiving Thoughts on the Eve of My Late Black Son’s 30th Birthday”. She told of how she and the family had moved out of their racist town because of the comments that were already coming to her third grade son (told he should put a white mask on his face). She tells of how life developed in a more stable environment in New Jersey until her son enrolled at Wheaton College. At the point he faced a barrage of racial jokes and accusations. Wheaton is not responsible for his suicide but it was part of the contributing factors.

How does a young black man learn to manage in an environment that allows marginalization of his very identity, whether in third grade or as a freshman in college? How do jokes and comments, video images, or people crossing the street with you approach on the sidewalk become part of your story? In every encounter, the structured inequality is reproduced and performed in speech.

Christine goes on to share some remarkable parts of her own upbringing. Of how she had her own troubles with the law, arising out of some family circumstances and reckless behavior. But her story does not completely reproduce structure because she’s a white woman, educated, and has a blog.

Nevertheless, the very telling of the stories she shares whether of her or her son seem to reimage racial and social class disparity. Just as Thabithi’s stories reproduce structures. In the moment of telling, he’s in the back of that police car. In sharing, she is reproducing her childhood social status.

If this is true for Thabithi and Christine, who have moved far beyond their original circumstances, it’s not a stretch to suggest that Michael Brown and his friends relived these structural inequalities in the midst of daily interactions. It became part of their story and reminded them of their powerlessness every day.

Yes, Brown bears a degree of responsibility for his actions on the day in August. But that’s not the full telling.

Thabiit closes his post correctly arguing that the real structural sin is not racism or police abuse of authority but the failure to recognize the Image of God as being present in the Other. I fully agree and would only add that restructuring our discourse to creating justice makes seeing the Imago Dei in the Other a truly sacrificial act. One that might just break the narrative structures that are so common in the air around us.

If we have the courage to tell a different story. One that affirms God’s creative and redemptive acts in our midst and the indwelling of His Spirit to birth the Kingdom of God. Just imagine the recursive power of that story!

The Sociology of Institutional Repentance

This idea has been kicking around in my head for about half a year. I first raised the question of institutional or structural apologies in a post last October I called Sorry About That . I wrote:

This got me wondering if our inability to apologize for past institutional action is related to a number of problems in contemporary society. Is it possible that the disaffection of millennials from the established church is, at least in part, because they are longing for the church to take responsibility for her past insensitivity and judgmentalism? Is the anger of the Tea Party due, at least in part, to an inability of the Congress over the last 30 years to take responsibility for its lack of long-range thinking? Is our economic crisis in part a reaction to the inability of the mortgage lenders to own up to the fact that they gamed the system and almost destroyed the economy?

I’ve raised the issue of institutional confession and repentance with several theology or biblical studies colleagues. In general, people have said that it’s an interesting question that needs exploration. I look forward to hearing from those who can help me work through the question.

For now, I’ll simply use some sociological tools to explore why the idea of institutional repentance is so important. This week has provided four critical examples where institutional repentance is the only feasible response: Ta-Neisi Coates’ Atlantic article, the unfolding saga at Sovereign Grace Ministries (#IStandwithSGMVictims), new revelations about “normal life” at Mars Hill in Seattle, and the aftermath of the UCSB mass shooting (#YesAllWomen).

GiddensSir Anthony Giddens is one of my favorite sociological theorists. I was struck by his insights the first time I heard him in 1983. Shortly thereafter, he wrote The Constitution of Society, the first overarching explication of his theoretical perspective. The theory revolves around a remarkable idea — social structures and personal action form a duality. Each reproduces the other.

The structures that we live within impact the way we think and how we talk about our options. When we discuss potential actions and motivations, we react to the structural arrangements in which we’re located. But our actions also create fractures in the structures. The choices we make and the explanations we use can shape the structures for the future. But that depends upon a critical sociological and political variable: Power.

One of the ways power is exercised is in the definition of appropriate behavior and, by contrast, inappropriate behavior. As the “powers that be” define behavior, they can reshape understandings away from structural power toward individual choice.

This is the primary takeaway from Ta-Neisi Coates’ excellent article. While it is titled “The Case for Reparations“, it really makes the argument that structural arrangements favored an array of economic and political relationships that defined African Americans as not only having limited choices, but as feeling trapped by those choices. The legitimate structural arrangements of society shaped outcomes for individuals. Those same structural arrangements prefer a cultural argument to explain the presence of economic inequality. Coates argues, using both historic and modern examples, that the myriad ways in which African American outcomes are shaped is a direct result from the structural dynamics of the society. After a detailed description of confiscatory practices of redlining, predatory contract practices, and subprime mortgages, he suggests that there was a conscious attempt to deny African Americans of the assets associated with home ownership. And the pattern continues:

In 2009, half the properties in Baltimore whose owners had been granted loans by Wells Fargo between 2005 and 2008 were vacant; 71 percent of these properties were in predominantly black neighborhoods.

Too many commentators simultaneously do two things that perpetuate these outcomes. First, the decry claims of racism by assuming that “the race card” is an accusation of personal bigotry to which they take great offense. Then, they claim that we shouldn’t pay attention to race (as recent Supreme Court decisions attest). So there is no particular means to address the existing structural inequality.

In his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, Martin Luther King talks of being given a check marked “insufficient funds“. The reference is fascinating: the promises made in the Declaration of Independence were not fulfilled. There are echoes of reparations in that very speech. For us to focus only on the visionary closing of the speech is to perpetuate the structural inequality. Where were the people who would say, “that’s right, we did that“. Who calls out intentional practices of segregation? (Incidentally, Randall Balmer had a fascinating piece in Politico today about the relationship between segregation and rise of the religious right.)

Somewhere, we need to acknowledge the sinfulness of the structural arrangements. We need to find ways of structurally repenting. This may not be reparations, but it must be something. At the very least, it is to tell the truth about wrongs (dare I say sins?).

It’s hard for us to think about collective repentance. It’s so ingrained in religious culture to focus on personal responsibility, individual appropriation of Christ’s sacrifice, and personal reordering of priorities. But since reading the Brueggemann book I referenced in my last post, I’ve been focused more on the history of Ancient Israel. I have come to realize that the instructions given to the people from the prophets or from The Lord are societal instructions. Repentance isn’t just a matter of a collection of individuals who turn from bad practices. It’s the fabric of society  — not that they were very good at it, which is actually part of my point.

What’s disturbing about the Sovereign Grace story is the idea that we would protect religious leaders from accusation and demonize accusers. What is problematic about Mars Hill is the elevation of loyalty above conscience. What’s upsetting about the UCSB shootings is the twin assumptions of male acquisition and female vulnerability within the broader society.

These patterns are not simply the poor choices of bad actors. They reflect the systems of expectations, rewards, power maintenance, and ideologies that are woven into our institutional patterns. We can isolate the bad actor but that doesn’t bring about institutional repentance.

Institutional Repentance will require us to name our practices, to turn from our past patterns (especially if we feel individually blameless), and to imagine new forms that allow us to “go and sin no more“.