Friday, June 14, 2013

White Privilege Is Not in the Bible...or...Why White Christians Need to Pay Attention to Sociology

A few weeks ago, blogger and fellow Southsider, Kenneth Pruitt asked me to answer the question: What form of privilege do you personally feel is most urgent for the church to wrestle with in order to be the community Christ calls it to be? 

This was a great moment for me to stop and synthesize what I have been thinking and writing about for about a year now. I wrote:

"White Christians need to develop a “sociological imagination. 

Sociologists are able to see the world in ways that are supremely helpful to understanding our experience.  Along with anthropologists, they are the ones who describe how “race” is not a biological or cultural reality, but is social constructed.  Going all the way back to W.E.B. Dubois, they are the people who talk about a system of “White privilege,” which is the other side of institutionalized racism.  

White Christians mostly don’t know about these concepts, because to be brutally honest, White churches were helping to maintain Jim Crow laws and racial segregation on Sunday morning and every other day of the week for much of this time.  We absolutely have to listen to what sociologists, anthropologists, psychologists are saying about "race," racial identity, privilege and oppression, because we as White Christians have not been developing a capacity to think about these topics.  If we can listen with discernment, we will begin to understand why it is so critical to be aware of the society in which we live." 

The rest of the post can be found on Kenneth's blog, which I recommend checking out at 

I am still hoping for some dialogue around this topic, so maybe I can give another go at engaging people.  

1)  What form of privilege do you think we most need to engage in the church?

2)  Are the sociological concepts of "privilege" and "oppression" useful for Christians?  If not, are there similar themes in the Bible that might help Christians theorize about "race" and racial inequality?   

3) Other thoughts, opinions, or critiques?  

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Reasons not to be a Christian

I grew up in a White, non-denominational Christian tradition.  Yes, it is a tradition, even though the founders of this particular branch of the church were anti-establishment, ex-hippies.  "Ex" because after you became a Christian you were meant to stop smoking pot, drinking, put on some shoes and cut your hair, and you were convinced you needed to start voting Republican.  So that put a little bit of a damper on the "anti-establishment" bit, as well, only slightly more than if they had all been convinced to vote Democrat. Anyway, that's my version of how it all went down.  I wouldn't really know since I hadn't been born yet.

But these forefathers and fore-mothers were determined to at least not bring the establishment into church by establishing a recognizable liturgy.  I know that for a few reasons.  For example, I didn't know the word "liturgy" until I was in my 20s.  I grew up hearing that we weren't like those other stodgy churches.  The pastor would preach about how much better off we were than those other "dead" churches, because we had "the Spirit" and we sang worship songs for at least an hour, and also, we had electric guitars by the time the 90s hit.  It came as a shock when I realized that by the 90s, even the Methodists and Catholics had drum cages (because it's church, keep them in a cage, for God's sake) and electric guitars.  So we didn't have that going for us anymore.

Of course, I later realized that we did have a liturgy.  Just sometimes it was interrupted by the Holy Spirit, who is, according to this tradition, not at all interested in the order of worship, time, or the children's workers, who are stuck in the back rooms wishing, dear God, just someone come and get these kids, it's almost 1 p.m. And the more often we sang songs for almost two hours, the more we were convinced that God really like our type of Christianity best. 

Also, I realized that our liturgy was actually quite shallow and a little slip-shoddy when it came to theology since we had thrown out hundreds of years of church tradition in favor of an attempt at Christianized, Jewish dance songs.  If not for John Wimber and Delirious, we might still be hopping around, pretending to be Jewish. And somewhere in that time line, someone thought it was cool again to sing old hymns (with an electric guitar and drums, of course). 

If you are ready to string me up and burn me at stake so I won't receive a glorified body in the resurrection, please realize that this is a loving roast of my tradition (Ha! Pun!).  What I'm really trying to get at is the essence of why I believe what I believe.  Or why I don't believe all of the things I used to believe. 

I have read a few blogs recently that try to analyze why people do or do not want to be a Christian.  I don't know if I can relate to all of them, but I started to compile a mental list of all the "reasons you should be Christian" that I gained from over 30 years in the aforementioned tradition. I am getting to a place where I need to start parsing out the reasons I strongly reject many of these ideas, so this is an attempt at a list.  Also, I just read about negative theology, or defining what things are not in order to come to an understanding of what they truly are, so I think I'll give it a go. I'm just going to number the reasons and see where I get. 

*Note: I realize that the term "non-Christian" can be an exclusionary term, but it's the quickest way for me to proceed with the critique, so I hope you'll excuse it.  I don't think people who are not Christians are inferior to those who are.  

I am not a Christian because:

1.  "Christians are more moral than non-Christians."  

I have met too many people who are way kinder and more moral than many Christians I know, including myself.  Also, I personally know that Christians do all sorts of immoral things.  However, to this day I hear this type of logic, like "aren't you glad we are in this nice group of people instead of out there with those pagans who just don't know any better."  Anyway, the idea that "they don't know any better" or that non-Christians don't have any sense of morality isn't even consistent with Christian doctrine (if you know which book of the Bible this is in, then you don't need me to reference it here). And it's not fair to say that all those immoral Christians are not "really Christians," because who put you in the place of God, first of all.  And secondly, I could probably give you a few examples of people who you would say are "really Christians" and then also show you lots of immoral things they do.  Don't get me started.  If you become a Christian, you may or may not become a moral person. 

2.  "Once you get saved, all your problems will be resolved."

This one is especially attractive for middle-class Christians, and especially White middle-class Christians, because as it turns out, if you are middle-class, and you get involved in church, it's likely that you will experience an increase in your standard of living.  This happens for a lot of "nonspiritual" reasons.  For example, a concentration of a bunch of middle-class folks necessarily means that the wealth also concentrates, which means that people can help each other out in a pinch.  A church is the equivalent of a social club, which results in networking, and therefore, jobs.  And if you are White and middle-class a lot of other things just "magically" go well for you in life because of the color of your skin, not because of divine intervention. Bottom line--problems do not go away just because you become a Christian. Sometimes they go away because you are privileged. 

3.  "Christians are happier than non-Christians."  

I have been a Christian for a long time and I am not always happy.  In fact, I have lived through long periods where I was clinically depressed.  I know many Christians that are super miserable with their lives, and they're even more miserable because they believe that Christians are supposed to be happy all the time, so they feel like a failure.  So I say, it's either always true, or it's false. Christians are not generally happier than non-Christians.  But if you look at again "nonspiritual" psychological evidence, there might be a case to say that people who belong to a church (or another social club) are more likely to have a better outlook on life due to extended social ties and regular interaction with other people.  Additionally, I do believe to some extent in the power of positive thinking, so if your local church promotes this in any way, it's likely to improve your general outlook on life.  Unless you're also dwelling on what an evil sinner you are.  So it could go either way. 

4.  "Christians are going to heaven and non-Christians are going to hell."

This one is the big one.  Even though I have heard a handful of pastor-type people critique the "fire insurance" view of the Christian faith (as in, the ticket to escape the the fiery judgement), I still feel like this becomes the major argument for being "saved" and getting other people "saved."  We preach the gospel because "people are going to hell."  When life gets bad, "at least we aren't going to hell."  When someone dies, "at least we will see them in heaven... except if they're in hell, in which case you'll never see them again."  Okay, no one actually ever says that last line, because that would just be mean, but I think that it wouldn't be a stretch to say that's what many people are thinking.

At this point in my life, I don't know who is actually getting into heaven. I'm not sure I understand what we mean when we say "heaven," to begin with.   And there are some parables that Jesus told that indicate that we might not have a good grasp on who is ultimately "in" and who is eternally "out."  There are also parables that indicate that everyone might get in at the last minute (which is sometimes more disturbing to Christians than the idea that the whole world might be going to hell).  In any case, since I don't really know, this is not really a convincing motivation for me anymore.

At this point, many Christians will say that I am not a Christian, and so therefore, they shouldn't listen to me.  That is their prerogative.  But if you will hear me out, I think you will understand that I am saying that the "fire insurance" theory falls tremendously short of the mark.  To steal a line from all those sermons I've heard, "If we only got saved to escape hell, we might as well kill ourselves right now."  Seriously.  You either believe that or you don't.  Please don't kill yourself.

So what is my motivation to "be saved" and from what am I "being saved" if I just take hell out of the picture?  (And isn't that such a relief to be able to do?  Realizing the fact that my belief  about hell doesn't change whether or not it exists?) So moving forward, I have to engage in the exercise of deciding why I still call myself a Christian and why I would recommend it to someone else regardless of what I believe about eternal punishment.  

I am a Christian because... 

1.  The idea of heaven on earth is... there are no words to describe it, actually.  We need peace, love, and joy in our world so badly, and Jesus made some promises about heaven looking like that.  And then he said that the kingdom of heaven he was talking about, the one with love, joy and peace, was actually among us.  What the world needs now is love, sweet love.  Well, here it is.

2. Jesus Christ blessed the poor and condemned the rich.  Even if I am the rich person that he condemns, something about that makes me want to hear that rebuke and repent to enter into the blessing.  His good news had everything to do with a new kingdom and a new king, not about imagining a more compassionate version of upward mobility.  It is fundamentally a social gospel, but it's about the creation of a new kind of society that we may not have seen before. 

3. Forgiveness is nothing short of amazing.  I will admit that this might be the one area where Christianity could corner the market.  Jesus Christ demonstrated a type of love and sacrifice rivaled by few. Even Ghandi gave props to Christ.  It was the Christians that he didn't admire, most likely because they were not showing love and forgiveness.

4.  I can't shake the feeling that there is a God, he is good, and he likes all the people and the world he created.  I know I said all that stuff about becoming a Christian not being a guarantee of wealth, but I do think there is something to the idea that God provides for people.  I think I have examples in my life, and anyway, I know there are plenty of examples among the poor of the earth to indicate that this is not a middle-class person phenomenon.  In fact, I instinctively feel that the blessing to the poor is partially about miraculous provision.  This is something that the wealthy may not be able to experience, including myself many times. 

That's all I've got for now.

What are your thoughts about why you are or are not a Christian?  What do you think of my reasons?

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Urban Education: The messages, myths, and realities

“[Urban schools] tend to be places governed by an overarching sense of futility and pessimism; where colleagues may distrust their supervisors and perhaps one another; where there can be a certain harshness in the way children and parents are dealt with; where many children seem to be disengage much of the time, but not necessarily more so than the teachers; where the levels of human capital are at their lowest; where instruction is uncoordinated and uninspiring; where there are too few resources, and those few are often badly use; where the curriculum is narrow, boring, and frequently changing; where teachers have profound skepticism about “program”; where there is a general feeling of instability—personnel come and go, students come and go, programs come and go—all of it presided over by a dysfunctional bureaucracy” (Payne, 2008, p. 23).
This quote comes from Charles Payne's (2008) book So much reform, so little change: The persistence of failure in urban schools.  In no way is he blaming any one particular player in this scenario, least of all the students or their families, but his analysis is supremely useful in that it presents the complicated and complex situation that is "the urban school."  

This past semester, as I went through a course called "Foundations of Urban Education," I was  struggling to put my finger on the solution for urban education.  This is not only slightly na├»ve, given that I have never taught in a public school, but it also reveals that I have bought into the prevalent ideology that there is a panacea for our educational system.   

I held off posting anything from the course on my blog because I wanted to be able to offer the answer.  But I’m starting to see that’s precisely the point—there is no one-size-fits-all solution.  And typically, any attempt at the next big solution creates more issues than it resolved. As a society, we have a long way to go before we have sufficiently delved into understanding the problems before we start passing more legislation.  

If the problems are complex, then the answers cannot be simplistic. 

This kind of post is fraught with other potential pitfalls. This “problem” of urban education, or education in “at risk” schools, is weighty and controversial at the same time. Works like Payne's help to deconstruct some of the biased messages that are promoted by the media and politicians regarding students in urban schools.  As we examine the factors that maintain socioeconomic and racial inequalities, it should become more difficult to “blame the victim” or oversimplify the issues. 

However, Payne paints a fairly grim picture of urban education.  And as he does, I can’t help thinking about some of my friends who teach in various schools around the metropolitan area who talk about the very kinds of problems that he discusses.  In any case, it seems that I cannot completely discredit what he says.  And therein I see at least one very sticky problem—how can I write about some of the realities in some urban schools, without perpetuating stereotypes? 

For example, I hear people complain about St. Louis Public School District, asking, "Where does all that money go?" implying that "those people" are just wasting time and money, that "they" are incompetent or corrupt.  I now see, however, there could be layers of bureaucracy, accompanied by flagging morale among faculty and staff, which leads to institutional failure.  In this kind of environment, people with strong personalities can take over and contribute to a culture of fear and mistrust. In this downward spin, efficient management goes out the window and the people inside just focus on day-to-day survival. In addition (and this is not frequently cited by the media) schools that serve communities living in poverty need more money than schools in affluent areas to begin with. 

So, again, the situation is far more complicated that anyone knows.

I am convinced that there is some hope in the idea of creating authentic community in schools as a way of breaking the cycle of social reproduction and truly caring for the needs of others.  I also believe that the more we find out what the real problems are--not the problems we think exist or the problems that the media emphasizes--the more we will be able to come up with real, grass-roots solutions.


Payne, C. M. (2008). So much reform, so little change: The persistence of failure in urban schools. Harvard Education Press. 

What are some of the messages you have heard about urban schools?  Are these messages based in reality?  How do you know?