Tag: Staten Island

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.