Tag: Ferguson

On Maintaining Ideological Purity: Thomas Sowell, Ferguson, Baltimore, and McKinney

SowellI used to have a lot of respect for Thomas Sowell. I didn’t agree with him but I felt he was consistent with the framework of his economic argument.

My social media feed has been directing me to articles Sowell wrote for the National Review Online that speak to the unrest in Ferguson, Baltimore, and elsewhere over the past ten months. When I carefully read those articles, I don’t see argument based on conservative economic principles. What I see is distortion and misrepresentation of the circumstances on the ground in service of a dominant ideology.

It seems that maintaining ideological purity in the face of difficult social situations requires cherry picking and reinterpreting circumstances. This saddens me for two reasons: it fails to advance needed conversations as a society and it shows what extreme partisanship does to academics.

The positions Sowell espouses are supported by some isolated statistics which gives them the air of academic strength. But they are far too careless with details, as just a little research would show.

Consider the article titled The “Disparate Impact” Racket written in March after the Department of Justice released their reports on Ferguson.  The first report showed that there was no evidence that Michael Brown had been shot in the back or had his hands raised when shot. While that report didn’t “clear” Darren Wilson, it did show that original eyewitness testimony had been wrong (and there has been interesting commentary from social psychologists why this happens in bystander testimony). If you know a little about criminal justice, this isn’t surprising.

Why, then, is it necessary to ascribe negative motives to what is essentially a cognition problem? Sowell writes:

The bottom line is that all this hard evidence, and more, shows what a complete lie was behind all the stories of Michael Brown’s being shot in the back or while raising his hands in surrender. Yet that lie was repeated, and dramatized in demonstrations and riots, from coast to coast, as well as in the media and even in the halls of Congress.

Sowell’s choice of the word LIE acribes something duplicitous in those concerned with the shooting. It also detracts the reader’s attention from the tragedy of the shooting to the “hands up don’t shoot” claim. As if finding that the latter was false means that the former is as well.

The second report from the Department of Justice was about the actions of the Ferguson authorities in terms of “disparate intent” — the ways that traffic stops and minor arrests were a source of the frustrations underlying the protests in Ferguson.

Like many other uses of “disparate impact” statistics, the Justice Department’s evidence against the Ferguson police department consists of numbers showing that the percentage of people stopped by police or fined in court who are black is larger than the percentage of blacks in the local population.

The implicit assumption is that without “discriminatory intent,” these statistics would reflect the percentages of people in the population. But no matter how plausible that outcome might seem on the surface, it is seldom found in real life, and those who use this standard are seldom, if ever, asked to produce hard evidence that it is factually correct, as distinct from politically correct.

The DOJ report focused on the ways in which Ferguson used traffic stops, warrants, and fines to operate the city budget. This relied disproportionately on those who had the most difficulty making it to court, paying fines, keeping their car up to date on license and inspections. Sowell’s use of air quotes around disparate impact serves to minimize and even ridicule the claims.

While on the road this weekend, we listened to a Ferguson town hall meeting hosted by NPR’s Michel Martin two weeks after the Brown shooting.  It was clear from the comments and questions that three issues were central to the audience: disparate impact, leaving Brown’s body on the ground for 4.5 hours, and why the mayor didn’t take responsibility for the escalation from law enforcement (which, he claimed, was not from Ferguson officers).

I don’t expect Sowell to adopt an anti-Ferguson demeanor or start attaching #blacklivesmatter to every tweet. But I think it is reasonable to expect him to deal with the substance of the issues in Ferguson and not dismiss them. You can still make your claims about cultural impact without denying structural factors.

In this post-Baltimore piece last month titled The Inconvenient Truth About Ghetto Communities Social Breakdown, Sowell begins in the same place he was two month earlier:

Among the many painful ironies in the current racial turmoil is that communities scattered across the country were disrupted by riots and looting because of the demonstrable lie that Michael Brown was shot in the back by a white policeman in Missouri — but there was not nearly as much turmoil created by the demonstrable fact that a fleeing black man was shot dead by a white policeman in South Carolina.

Again, to represent issues in Baltimore as riots and not protests (followed by vandalism) is to mis-tell the story. And it’s not clear how the Brown shooting was related or that everything was about the act of shooting. The issues remain about ongoing structural discrimination.

But Sowell recasts the concerns about ongoing structural discrimination as a “legacy of slavery”:

The “legacy of slavery” argument is not just an excuse for inexcusable behavior in the ghettos. In a larger sense, it is an evasion of responsibility for the disastrous consequences of the prevailing social vision of our times, and the political policies based on that vision, over the past half century.

Anyone who is serious about evidence need only compare black communities as they evolved in the first 100 years after slavery with black communities as they evolved in the first 50 years after the explosive growth of the welfare state, beginning in the 1960s.

To sustain this argument, we need to ignore all of the post-Baltimore stories that focused on covenant agreements in 1910 up to subprime loans in 2005. The structural discrimination concern isn’t about feeling bad over slavery but about ongoing issues in the fabric of society itself. We need to ignore the data suggesting that blacks paid $16,000 more than whites for equivalent mortgages during the housing crisis.

We must also ignore the work of Michelle Alexander and Heather Thompson, who have been demonstrating the structural contributions to our heavily incarcerated society that limits job prospects, damages family structures, and impacts our politics. On the road trip I listened to a speech Michelle gave summarizing The New Jim Crow. I also listened to a lecture from Heather Thompson on how incarceration impacts voting practice. (Shocking finding: incarcerated inmates are counted in the census figures and impact district lines based on where they are incarcerated while they are barred from voting in the place where they actually live.)

Furthermore, to blame the welfare state as an alternative to institutional racism requires a standard slight of hand move: that racism existed in past days but the welfare state was expected to fix this.

I don’t know why this is a standard conservative pundit move. As a sociologist, I expect that the injustices within the society will get written into the bureaucratic rules of our institutional structures. Therefore, the structural inequality evidenced in housing and criminal justice will also be evident in welfare and food stamp policies. A more robust vision of the forces we’re up against is necessary if we are to make progress.

This month, in a piece titled The Steep Cost of Politicians Scapegoating the Police Sowell offers up a defense of law enforcement:

Baltimore is now paying the price for irresponsible words and actions, not only by young thugs in the streets, but also by its mayor and the state prosecutor, both of whom threw the police to the wolves, in order to curry favor with local voters.

He argues that black leaders, including the justice department, have been drumming up angst. The result, he claims, is “anti-police mob rampages from coast to coast that the media sanitize as ‘protests’.”

He goes on to argue that the Department of Justice “presume the police to be guilty…even after grand juries have gone over all the facts and acquitted the police.” First of all, he must be talking about Ferguson because there was a grand jury indictment in both Baltimore and South Carolina. Second, grand juries don’t acquit — they decide not to charge. It’s an important distinction.

This isn’t nitpicking. It’s central to the argument. An academic, even writing in partisan press, has a responsibility for nuance and care in looking at the complexities involved. Public figures should play a role in illumining the key questions before us as a society.

Unless they are being partisan figures first and foremost. I can agree with Sowell on this point, one he’d do well to revisit:

Racial demagoguery gains votes for politicians, money for race-hustling lawyers, and a combination of money, power, and notoriety for armies of professional activists, ideologues, and shakedown artists.

In light of yesterday’s events in McKinney, Texas, we simply can’t afford such one-sided refusal to deal with real issues confronting us in racially contested society. It’s possible to argue that this “wasn’t about race” but only if you can ignore the sight of the police having African-American kids sit on the grass and be treated as suspects while everyone else milled around. To focus on the alleged wrongdoing of some does not excuse the behavior that followed — which brings us back to the source of the protest and media outrage.

To be fair, I haven’t seen Sowell write anything yet about McKinney. But I’m not optimistic.

It’s not about “the lie” that someone intentionally did something.  It’s about the ways the aftermath illustrated that something is clearly wrong. Demagoguery only makes things worse.

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.

Slide01

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.

Slide02

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.

Slide03

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.

Slide04

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?

Slide05

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.

Slide06

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.

Slide08

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

Slide09

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.

Slide10

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.

Slide11

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.

Slide15

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.

Slide17

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.

Slide19 Slide20

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

Deconstructing Choice, Culture, and Structure: Campus Sexual Assault, Ferguson, and Staten Island

As I’ve followed the news over recent weeks and seen it dissected in social media, I’ve become aware of the way in which we continually shift our understandings of circumstances. Some people see everything as a matter of individual choice and want to mete out “just desserts” to the offender (for example, “if you don’t want to get shot, obey the police”). Others like to make cultural arguments that focus on a deficit of values as the driving force (for example, “it’s the absence of father figures in the black community that is to blame”). Still fewer want to couch the argument in terms of the more sociological structural dynamics of power and inequality (for example, “there has been a systematic school to prison pipeline that traps urban young men”).

Two observations arise from this. First, people in options one and three don’t seem to be able to talk to each other. I have seen countless Facebook treads where someone tries to articulate option three and a friend (hopefully still a friend) takes offense that we are either excusing individual behavior or calling the speaker a racist. Second, we’re not consistent in the application of the options across situations. I’ve seen social media posts from people blaming Ferguson on the cultural dynamics of inadequate socialization (fathers again) who simultaneously think the campus sexual assault is a matter of poor choices by isolated individuals (both the man and the woman) and that notion of a broader “rape culture” is a media creation (looking at you, George Will!).

The sociological reality is that these three levels of analysis are interdependent. I’m not a fan of Talcott Parsons, but this was the insight of his first major work, The Structure of Social Action (1939). He attempted to show how voluntary choice was shaped by cultural values as well as by the structures of society (his later work focused only on the latter). Choosing to focus on one aspect of the broader system didn’t negate the impacts of the others.

There are individual level choices that distinguish between those who break the law and those who don’t. I was reminded Wes Mooreof this recently, when a Facebook friend commented on The Other Wes Moore. That book tells the story about two kids named Wes Moore who grew up in Baltimore. One becomes a Rhodes Scholar and the other is serving a life sentence in prison. But change a couple of “inflection points” and their situations reverse. If the author hadn’t moved in with his aunt, he would have stayed on the street and bad things would likely result. If the “other Wes” had been able to stay with the job corps, he might not have fallen back in with his brother.

There are also cultural factors in play. Certain tropes are held up in society as models of success, masculinity, or prestige.Die Hard For example, in Habits of the Heart, Robert Bellah and his colleagues argued that the “hard-boiled detective” was the prototypic character in American Rugged Individualism. Culture is much more complex than that, but it will serve as an indicator for now. If John McClane is an image of what it means to solve problems, it’s not hard to understand how this translates into militarized police strategy or “enhanced interrogation techniques” (read “torture”).

Finally, we have larger structural variables, primarily associated with issues of economics, power, and institutional control. In general, these structural inequities arise not from someone’s conspiratorial decisions but because of “natural” change over time. The patterns we see there are the result of actions taken and not taken over literally decades.

Consider for example this report the Pew Research Center FT_14.12.11_wealthGap2released yesterday on wealth inequality (wealth is a measure of total net worth — assets minus liabilities — and far more critical to inequality than simple income). The Pew folks were trying to show how racial/ethnic differences played out in post-financial crisis statistics. But what caught my attention was that the “most equitable” measure of white to black or hispanic net wealth favored whites by a factor of six. There are all kinds of historic and contemporary reasons for these differences: owning rather than renting, savings rates, retirement plans, incarceration rates, residential segregation, and so on. The fact is that the middle white household (that’s the median) is in a far better position than the middle black or hispanic household.

These three types of variables — individual, cultural, and structural — all come into play in our contemporary discussions. I’ll try to illustrate using campus sexual assault and the situations in Ferguson and Staten Island. One could make a similar argument around the release of the terrorism report, but I’ll save that for another day.

College Rape Culture: The last couple of weeks showed us something of the complexity of the issues involved in responding to issues of sexual assault. Rolling Stone published a harrowing first person account of how Jackie had been gang-raped by some fraternity members at the University of Virginia. The president of UVA (a sociologist, by the way) suspended all UVA fraternity events, because she wanted an exploration of the cultural dynamics that made such events possible. Over the last ten days, the Washington Post investigated Rolling Stone’s reporting techniques (or lack thereof) that called the original story into question and caused RS to apologize. As a result, many have decided that Jackie must have made up her story (read her roommate’s statement that disputes that claim).

But to understand and respond to campus rape culture, we have to pay far more attention to variables beyond the individual level (here’s an excellent piece that appeared in Christianity Today this week). At the cultural level, the allure of a party culture is primary. One can find lots of concerned stories about binge drinking on college campuses, but our concerns can quickly be contrasted with our common social expectations. Let’s look again at media tropes to get a glimpseAnimal House of the value set that sets the context for an incident. Show the picture to the right to just about anyone over 15 and they’ll recognize the kingpin of Delta Tau Chi. Images of toga parties, hook-ups, and outrageous behavior will quickly come to mind. That’s not to suggest that all of Greek life looks like Animal House — I knew some guys at “Farm House” at Purdue and it was one of the most straight-laced, studious group of guys you could fine — but nobody makes movies about a group of fraternity brothers living together, pursuing their studies, and forming community.

It’s not just party expectations that are involved. The status of women in the broader society is another part of the story. The differential power structures that can result in male entitlement runs throughout our thinking about rape culture. First, the woman is at a disadvantage when going to the party. Second, how we respond to her story of assault is conditioned by assumptions of personal responsibility (for her, not for them). Third, we seem overly worried about men being “wrongfully accused” — why is it so hard to believe that an overly masculine social setting, fueled by alcohol and hormones, would be seriously vulnerable to abusive behavior?

The higher the patriarchy in the culture, the harder it is to respond to sexual assault. Consider the GRACE report on assault at Bob Jones University that was released on Thursday. One of the most telling pieces of the 300+ page report is in this graph (highlight is mine):

Bob Jones report

Over half the respondents in the sample felt “blamed and disparaged” after reporting their sexual assault with another quarter reporting an indifferent response. This is institutional in character, as the recommendations section of the report makes clear.

It’s true that campus sexual assault happens because of bad actors. But that’s an incomplete story without considering our cultural expectations of campus social life and the larger issues of sexism and access to power within the institution and the broader society.

Ferguson and Staten Island: Much has been written about the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, so I’ll skim the surface a little bit. From the individual level, we can think about how Brown and Garner got into the situation they were in. They bear personal responsibility for their choices but the choices weren’t unusual — it was the response that was unusual. Other teens shoplift. Other adults traffic in black market goods. It doesn’t result in death. They aren’t seen as threatening figures that must be subdued by authorities. If we stay at the individual level we are left with unanswerable questions, why were these men different? What was in the minds of the officers who respond? We’re left to build post-hoc explanations of what they were thinking or what actions potentially meant.

The cultural level informs the individual choices. Consider the two pictures to the left. One of these is Gangstersfrom the film Menace II Society and shows a young gang of black men. The other is Denzell Washington in American Gangster (the story of a heroin kingpin). I’d argue that law enforcement would think very differently about the guys on the left than the guy on the right. It’s intriguing to think about how a Denzell figure might be more of a “menace to society” but we’ll approve of his fine clothes and family values. It doesn’t take much imagination to recognize how John McClane would respond to the young toughs — because our movies and television are full of those images.

The drug connection takes us to the societal level. The economic instability mentioned above makes the underground drug industry a rational response to lack of opportunity. This was one of the primary insights of Robert Merton’s strain theory of deviance, which arose out of Parson’s analysis.

The “other” Wes Moore starts as a drug lookout at a young age because it allowed him access to a nice stereo and good shoes when there were few other opportunities (and his brother was already connected). For all of those who question “what about black on black crime?”, we should be asking “why is the drug trade a major avenue to economic advancement, even though it is fraught with intergroup violence?” and “what can we do to develop real economic opportunities in the inner city?”

Context

The answer to these questions is tied up in the history of segregation, denial of opportunity, school inequality, social policy, and a host of other issues at the structural level. We can talk all day about the individual motivations or cultural expectations but until we begin to address the structural concerns we will continue to be frustrated as a society.

A Voice In Ramah: Power, Protest, and Presence

A voice was heard in Ramah,
weeping and much grieving.
Rachel weeping for her children,
and she did not want to be comforted,
because they were no more.

(Matthew 2:18)

Brooklyn_Museum_-_The_Magi_Journeying_(Les_rois_mages_en_voyage)_-_James_Tissot_-_overallThis passage from Matthew is a response to horrific injustice. King Herod, learning from the Wise Men that the King had been born, is unable to locate the specific child that represented a threat to his Power. So to play it safe, he draws a circle on his map around Bethlehem and uses the legitimate authority of his government to execute all boys under two within that circle.

It’s understandable that Christmas pageants end with the arrival of the Wise Men. It makes a nice conclusion to the story. Very Important People “traverse afar” to acknowledge the King and humble themselves before Him. Clearly, power bends in the face of the Incarnate God.

But that’s not the whole story. Power is also used to exterminate innocents. Undeserving others who happened to be born in the wrong neck of the woods. Who couldn’t have possibly have been born just six months earlier so that they’d be over two when that horrific order came down.

Thursday night we finished my “Spirituality, Faith, and Justice” class. The students recognized that power and our response to it was a central theme to all of our readings. (They also rightly pointed out that I probably intended that since I picked the books and ordered the readings.) By the end of all of our books, a quest for power had given way to something else. Michael Sandel was calling for a communitarian response to the common good. Christena Cleveland calls us to a broader circle of identity and a commitment to serve others in response to Christ’s model. David Fitch and Geoff Holsclaw call us to practice Incarnational Pluralism, where we engage the communities in which we live to bear witness to the Kingdom.

Walter Brueggemann provides the best deconstruction of the role of power. He sees that Truth undermines power in remarkable and unpredictable ways; not of our acting but because God is already intervening in pursuit of Justice. Here are some passages from the last few pages of When Truth Speaks to Power:

I have no wish, mutatis mutandis, to draw too close an analogue to our own time or to overstate the totalizing aspects of the present American system. Except to notice that the present concentration of power and wealth among us, the collusion of much of the media, and the alliance of the courts make it possible to think that totalizing is ready at hand among us. Those of us who attend to and mean to adhere to the testimony of truth in the biblical tradition are left with the quite practical question concerning the performance of truth that concerns emancipation and transformation in a context that does not intend any emancipation from dominant ideology and that intends transformation only inside that system. The wonderment among us is that there are agents of truth who find daring, risky ways out beyond the totalism. Sometimes (many times?) the church colludes with the totalism and blesses it, to its own considerable benefit. But sometimes the church— in feeble or in daring ways, in conventional or in imaginative ways—has an alternative say….It is finally the God of all truth who breaks the grip of totalism, who confounds the imperial governor, and who makes all things new … here and there … now and then.

A society that has lost its way may indeed be ready for serious discipleship that informs citizenship. Such deep obedience to the truth that marks discipleship does not aim, in citizenship, to transpose the body politic into the church or into a theocracy. It aims rather to insist that the holy truth voices gifts and commands that matter in a society that depends too much on greed against neighbor, that practices too much denial about the crisis in the neighborhood, and that ends too much in despair.

It occurs to me that the situation of the church in our society, perhaps the church everywhere always, is entrusted with a truth that is inimical to present power arrangements. … The truth that is variously enacted by such agents is not an idea or a proposition. It is rather a habit of life that simply (!) refuses the totalizing claims of power.

Naturally, all of this thinking about issues of power leads me to reflect on Ferguson and Staten Island. How can grand juries fail to indict bad behavior? If we think about the totalizing aspects of power, it would be naive to expect an indictment. That would require the entities of power ruling against the agents of power. Sure, we can find cases where “bad apples” are isolated and removed, but that does little to disrupt the power involved.

The protests in the streets across the nation has been a fascinating display that people think “something is wrong”. But some of those protests have been designed to compete within power domains. Perhaps, they seem to suggest, if we disrupt shopping malls or traffic patterns, then change will come. But often that simply turns into an invitation for contesting power that plays into the hands of those who wield it most effectively and who have more structural resources upon which to draw.

So where does that leave us? If power is not the coin of the Kingdom, how do we nurture change and justice? Again, it’s worth reflecting on what happens in the midst of lament. As I’ve noted before, Brueggemann suggests that when the Israelite slaves cry out in their Egyptian oppression, God acts — even though they don’t ask God for deliverance. Our presence and participation in the pain of others is more of a testament to Truth than dozens of organizations or twitter hashtags.

God is also present in the suffering. In Pastrix, Nadia Bolz-Weber reflects on the perrennial question of theodicy: where is God in suffering? Her answer is remarkably simple: he is on the cross. He is incarnationally present in the midst of the pain.

One of my favorite parts of Frederick Buechner’s Wishful Thinking comes as he’s discussing Job’s suffering. Buechner suggests that we often want explanations of how these bad things happen. Who is to blame? What is the point? He also suggests that God is simply present in the pain.

Understanding in terms of the divine economy why his children had to die, Job would still have to face their empty chairs at breakfast every morning. Carrying in his pocket straight from the horse’s mouth a complete theological justification of his boils, he would still have to scratch and burn.

God doesn’t reveal his grand design. He reveals himself. He doesn’t show why things are as they are. He shows his face. And Job says, “I had heard of thee by the hearing of the ear, but now my eyes see thee” (Job 42:5). Even covered with sores and ashes, he looks oddly like a man who has asked for a crust and been given the whole loaf.

The Truth is that God’s Presence is there in the midst of the crowds in Ferguson and Staten Island and everywhere else. He has not abandoned the world. And we in the church, acting as the Body of Christ, are similarly present. We are vicariously suffering the loss of lives and the pain of incredulity that such things happen.

It’s worth looking back at the Jeremiah passage that Matthew quotes following the Slaughter of the Innocents. The very next verses, Jeremiah 31: 16-17 say that God is aware of the suffering and that things will soon be different.

The Lord proclaims:
Keep your voice from crying
    and your eyes from weeping,
    because your endurance will be rewarded,
        declares the Lord.
    They will return from the land of their enemy!
17 There’s hope for your future,
    declares the Lord.
        Your children will return home!

Maybe we need to include Herod in the Christmas pageants somehow. Maybe it would let us stay aware that we’re not about trusting in power, even when it’s ours to exercise. Maybe it’s worth reminding ourselves every year that Truth is playing on a very different level than simple Power.

I’ve often wanted a different ending to the second chapter of Matthew. The Wise Men are “warned in a dream” not to return to Herod. I kind of want them to go back and then refuse to tell where they find the Child. It would have cost them, but maybe would have saved those children.

But it’s not my story to write. It’s God’s. And as one of his ambassadors, maybe it’s enough for me to live in the tension and pain of loss. To suggest that there is another way. That one day, hopefully soon, we will all be returning home from the totalizing power of Empire into the reward of the Kingdom of God.

On Being “Faithfully Present”: Social Change and Thoughts about Ferguson

www.amazon.com
http://www.amazon.com

My “Religion, Self, and Society” class just finished four days immersed in James Davison Hunter’s To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World (2010, Oxford University Press). It was a great read and the students said it was their favorite book of the semester. As I worked through my daily summaries, I was struck with the timeliness of Hunter’s argument and the vibrancy of his critique of how the church (and, I would add, the larger culture) have misunderstood the dynamics of social change.

Hunter begins the book examining the ways in which evangelicals have attempted to change the world over the years. This approach has focused heavily on “Values” and working to get people to believe “right things”. The popular evangelical focus on Christian Worldview is a good example of this strategy. Citing writings from Chuck Colson and a dozen other evangelical figures, he shows how this inside-out sense of change is articulated. If we can change individuals, we can change the world.

The problem, as Hunter clearly demonstrates, is that such a view is based on a remarkably naive view of social structure, power, and culture. Such an effort has created subcultural dynamics in which evangelicals have worked in small-scale cultural creation that mimics the larger culture but with evangelical focus. The result is an insularity from broader culture which makes social change harder to achieve. Furthermore, power is embedded in institutional forms that call for Christians to engage in political activity not as voting blocks but as those attentive to the levers that can create change.

Hunter reviews and critiques efforts by the Christian Right, the Christian Left, and the Neo-Anabaptists for being insufficiently distrusting of Constantinian forms of power. The Right, acting in a stance he calls “Defensive Against”, attempts to gain the state levers of power to bring about moral change. Moral outrage and a sense of victimization (which he calls “ressentiment”) is central to the moral challenge. The Left, “Relevant To”, attempts to organize legal frameworks to eliminate suffering and inequality. The Neo-Anabaptists (in his telling — I’m reserving judgment) want to maintain “Purity From” power but in that negation they allow power to be exercised in normal institutional ways.

Instead of these limited approaches, Hunter calls for a new approach, which he calls “Faithful Presence Within”. Building upon a theology of creation and incarnation, he argues that we should be present “to each other”, “to our tasks”, and “within our spheres of influence”. At the heart of this is a specific understanding of engagement:

[F]aithful presence is a theology of commitment and promise. The commitment is “covenantal.” It is a binding obligation manifested in the relationships we have, in the work we do, and in the social worlds we inhabit, and it is all oriented toward the flourishing of the world around us (261).

Beyond being a good in its own right, there are at least two reasons why Christians must move in this direction. The first is a political reason: Christians cannot demand for themselves what they would deny others…The second is a cultural reason: the very plausibility and persuasiveness of the Christian faith depend on a cultural context in which meaning, purpose, beauty, and belonging are possible (263).

This is an older wisdom, but in the situation in which Christians find themselves today, it holds the markings of a new paradigm. A theology of faithful presence calls Christians to enact the shalom of God in the circumstances in which God has placed them and to actively seek it on behalf of others. This is a vision for the entire church (278).

Finishing the discussion of Hunter’s book while awaiting the grand jury announcement in Missouri was pretty surreal. It got even more surreal as I started seeing social media posts following the announcement. As I’ve written, I wasn’t expecting an indictment for all kinds of reasons having to do with burden of proof, demonstration of intent, and a systemic bias in favor of law enforcement.

I’m still trying to make sense of things a day later. I’m somewhat disconcerted by the attitudes and complexities involved in a situation like Ferguson. So all I can do at this point is ask some questions.

1. How can we affirm the reality of black distrust of law enforcement without people assuming we’re supporting lawbreakers? There are real, demonstrable, and indisputable facts regarding patterns of traffic stops, searches, and arrests that put African Americans at a disproportionate risk of negative law enforcement contact. Comments about “black on black” crime are insensitive and distancing and are not involved in Faithful Presence.

2. What does it mean to be faithfully present with law enforcement officials? It may be too soon to go here and there are a number of serious questions raised by Officer Wilson’s released testimony. But faithful presence seems to mean that we’d put ourselves in the space of the officer in an uncertain situation. Maybe it means that we’d not leave isolated individuals to make snap judgments on their own but use the nature of collective wisdom to recast situations. Rather than rush to the side of an officer involved in a shooting and looking for rationales from a distance, we need to enter into the ambiguous space. That might mitigate against the situations where every toy gun is seen as an immediately threat.

3. How can the church maintain covenantal relationship with those it has deemed to be “other”? It is telling that our congregations are too white, too middle-class, too law-abiding. We have communicated that “right believers” belong inside the church (conversion stories accepted) and then there is “the world”. Engagement requires physical presence and personal engagement. In short, Incarnation. I’m the first to confess that I have not turned this commitment into action. I working on repenting, on changing my practices.

4. How can we focus our witness on the Imago Dei of all participants? There aren’t bad apples or racist cops or thugs or looters. There are children of God and our call is to be invested in their flourishing, especially when they don’t look and act like “my people”. This requires us to avoid the crass categorizations that are the substance of both cable news coverage and social media feeds. The one thing that the prosecutor got right last night was that there was a tragic event that cost a young man his life. We should all feel that pain, whether he stole cigarillos or not.

 

In the end, we approach a situation like Ferguson as an opportunity to be with people who hurt, to do good work in their midst, to seek their flourishing, and to represent God’s Kingdom breaking in their midst. It’s not about protecting our values or simply making political changes (even if those are needed). It’s being in relationship representing God’s work in His world.

Here is Hunter’s last paragraph:

Against the present realities of our historical moment, it is impossible to say what can actually be accomplished. There are intractable uncertainties that cannot be avoided. Certainly Christians, at their best, will neither create a perfect world nor one that is altogether new; but by enacting shalom and seeking it on behalf of all others through the practice of faithful presence, it is possible, just possible, that they will help make the world a little bit better (286).

 

My Proposal for a Bigot Moratorium

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But it’s not a completely free pass…

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

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).

http://www.pewresearch.org/files/2013/08/FT-racial-fairness-02.png
http://www.pewresearch.org/files/2013/08/FT-racial-fairness-02.png

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.