Tag: Ryan Thomas Neace

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!

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.

Two Modes of Evangelicalism: Industry Evangelicalism

This is a follow-up piece on last week’s post that connected Thomas Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions to the changing nature of American Evangelicalism. It also builds off of the post I wrote for the Respectful Conversations dialogue on the future of evangelicalism. Finally, it’s informed by my reading of Molly Worthen’s Apostles of Reason on the early years of evangelical establishment.

To be fair, this is still a work in progress (isn’t that what blogs are for?). I’m trying to wrestle with some distinctions that can align with some of what we’re seeing in a number of areas in both the sociology of religion and contemporary evangelicalism. I want to contrast two forms of evangelical expression: Industry Evangelicalism and Testimonial Evangelicalism.

WeberFrom a purely sociological perspective, I’m using what Max Weber called “ideal types”. These are ideal only in the sense that they don’t exist in real life. In fact, the differentiation between the forms may exaggerate characteristics in ways that border on caricature. But that’s still useful from a theoretical standpoint. Weber was able to contrast real-world situations with his ideal types to understand the social dynamics in operation. Two of his most famous analyses based on idea types are his examination of economic systems (the Protestant Ethnic and the Spirit of Capitalism) and his church-sect typology.

As I’m conceptualizing it, Industry Evangelicalism is concerned with maintaining a following. This requires a media platform, organizational structure, and easily identifiable leadership (with an equally identifiable set of followers and defenders). Its power is dependent upon separation from other organizations, a sense of being persecuted and misunderstood, and a publishing or broadcasting infrastructure.

On the other hand, Testimonial Evangelicalism is based on the authentic sharing of story. It is based on interpersonal relationships. Any power that is involved is the social psychological power of personal story. The story is authentic because it rings true. It avoids pat answers and mischaracterization. It is willing to risk holding contradictory positions and tolerating ambiguity. In short, it is best expressed in John 9:25: when asked how Jesus had healed him, the blind man said “I don’t know: what I do know is that once I was blind and now I see.

What I am suggesting is that we’re seeing a shift from Industry Evangelicalism to Testimonial Evangelicalism. This is an important distinction. What many see as a decline in Christian commitment within society is not a decline but is a transformation. This is always the way God’s church has remained fresh and vital in the midst of a society prone to the syncretism of combining religious perspectives and affirmation of distinctive cultural values.

I’ll unpack the theoretical implications of Testimonial Evangelicalism in my next post. First, it’s necessary to explore Industry Evangelicalism.

In American Grace, Robert Putnam and David Campbell argued that one of the contributing factors for the growth of religious “nones” is the dogmatism and harsh stances of evangelical leaders. Younger generations found public comments and harsh tones to be a bridge too far, essentially saying “if this is what it means to be evangelical, I don’t want it.” This pattern is replicated in work on millennial questions about evangelicalism. I’d also suggest that the gulf between evangelical churches and mainline churches is as much this matter of tone and dogmatism as it is about theology.

There are a host of examples of Industry Evangelicalism. I’ll ignore the Duck Dynasty controversy here because I’ve already addressed it except to wonder who put out those Facebook pages about “standing with Phil Robertson“. Were these put up by some individual DD viewer? Probably not. It is far more likely that organizations that search for religious conflict put together these Facebook pages and asked Christians to “like” them. If I were really cynical, I’d think that “liking” got you on some mailing list. I’m sure that happens in the political arena and fear that the same models are being used in Industry Evangelicalism.

This week offered some concrete examples of the ideal type. I don’t have all the details behind these examples, which is where Weber’s approach is useful. They offer some indicators even if they aren’t perfect matches to the ideal type.

A group of Baptist college and seminary presidents raised concerns over the role of biblical inerrancy espoused (or not espoused) by their faculty. In the process, they raised concerns about academic freedom as generally understood within the academy. Peter Enns, reflecting on the article today, suggests “There is no hope here of reasoned, learned, discourse. Only circling the wagon and protecting turf.” Circling wagons and protecting the institutional turf reflects the prioritization of “our position” above all else.

Christianity Today had an interesting article this week on changing ties between Christian colleges and their sponsoring denominations. It’s a good piece and reflects the tensions present between attempting to build an inclusive enrollment (the article connects to C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity) while the alumni and trustees are denominationally connected. The article observes that denominational giving is down compared to years past. While Union University president David Dockery does a good job of connecting these changes to non-denominationalism, he’s quoted at the end of the article expressing concern that loss of denominational structure “will likely lead to a weakening of the college’s Christian identity.” There is a presumption that it is organizational form and control that protects identity and that a college’s ethos (and the commitment of its faculty) is not strong enough to maintain identity. The impression this gives, while softer than the Baptist presidents above, still privileges institutional form above exploration and authentic dialogue.

Also this week Robert Jeffress, pastor of First Baptist Church in Dallas and seen on thousands of television screens each week, released advanced information from his new book in which he says that President Obama is setting the stage for the Antichrist. It may be progress that he doesn’t think the president IS the antichrist but it still reflects a conflictual style that takes a legitimate disagreement (same-sex marriage) and puts it in the starkest possible context. It will sell books for sure. More importantly, to be called out in the Huffington Post is exactly what Industry Evangelicalism needs for success. The HP folks will ridicule the position taken by Pastor Jefress and he (and his folks) will take great solace in being disliked and misunderstood by HP. It’s good for the “brand”. (The similarity between this strategy and political structures is particularly disconcerting).

Yesterday Mark Driscoll, pastor of Mars Hill church in Seattle (and subject of lots of questions about the originality of his books) tweeted “If you aren’t a Christian, you’re going to hell. It’s not unkind to say that. It’s unkind not to say that.” I’m not really trying to explore the theology of universalism. I was really trying to figure out what prompted the tweet in the first place. Driscoll’s followers wouldn’t be surprised at the tweet. His detractors would be outraged. Was he hoping for push back on what he saw as unquestionably Christian orthodoxy? Or, as my friend Ryan Thomas Neace wondered, is it about the need to present a simply constructed worldview where answers are easy and uncomplicated?  Again, I’d argue that the tweet operates to keep the organizational position consistent in the face of complexity.

A consistent theme in Apostles of Reason is the development of evangelical infrastructures against supposed critics and pitfalls from outside. While there are major stories of accommodation to cultural changes (I just finished the chapter about Christian colleges pursing secular accreditation), those are always seen as pragmatic moves that must be watched closely to protect the institution from outside interference.

In short, then, I’d offer three keys to knowing if we’re dealing with Industry Evangelicalism: 1) is maintaining the status quo necessary to protect institutional power; 2) is there money to be made or followers to be developed through the immediate controversy; and 3) do the players hyperbolize their position and exaggerate their victimhood?

As I’ll argue in my next post, Testimonial Evangelicalism offers an entirely different set of characteristics that are more reflective of life in a complex, postmodern, messy, diverse culture. It’s not less Christian. It’s a different expression of the Truth of the Gospel.