The Personal and the Political: Violence in our World

In talking about one of the recent crises in our world, a friend commented that he/she was trying to refrain from being too political in analysis. Since that time about a week ago, the feminist refrain, “the personal is political,” has been consistently on my mind. When feminists discussed the personal being political, part of the argument is that sexism isn’t just something people (especially women) experience in personal relationships – it’s about the political structures we are a part of shaping all of our relationships. That’s something that’s true for both those who benefit and those who lose.

I’m very aware that as a white, middle-class, well-educated woman living in the United States, too often I have the privilege of allowing myself to think in personal, versus political terms much of the time. When I think about the start of the new school year for my daughters [only two days away!], I can focus on such things about what they will learn or which talents I want to help them develop. I can think about what will make them thrive, the question almost all parents want to think about for their children. Even when I engage with political issues, I can think about the personal…. How will they choose to engage with diversity? How can I constructively teach them about racism today? How can I help them to become better at understanding the perspectives of others?

I am also aware what I DO NOT have to think about, because of my white privilege. Every story of violence, happening in the US Midwest, at the US border, or in Iraq, reminds me of this reality. I don’t wonder if my daughters will be shot out of fear, will be unwelcome because of their immigration status, or will be tortured because of their Christianity. Living in a system where my daughters are largely protected by the state means I can focus on their thriving versus their protection.

Those questions of thriving, while cast as personal, are very political. For white Christians living in the United States, our privilege can blind us to the ways that personal lives are shaped by political realities. For the most part (and I recognize this is not true all the time for everyone), we are materially “safe” from political decisions that are made. My physical life, and those of my children, are usually not threatened by a political policy. Yet the fact that my children benefit from an unequal (and yes, racist) society is just as political as the realities of children being denied their human dignity because of their race or immigration status or religion.

If I am honest, when I engage in causes for justice, it is something I often feel I can pick up (and drop) when I like. I can forget, for an instant, that black men’s lives are not valued when I play with my white daughters. I can forget, for an instant, that praising Jesus doesn’t come with a threat of bodily harm. I can forget, for an instant, about the thousands of Central American children, separated from their families, who are being denied dignity as my daughters are welcomed in their schools and neighborhoods. When in the company of other people, I also find there is even the expectation that I should forget these things… to just relax, to have fun, to enjoy life.

Even as I know that my life and life chances are undeniably intertwined with those of others around me, I can chose to forget this. Here is a list of things I commit to doing — some I’ve mentioned before — to not obscure that reality:

1. Voting and advocating for political change. Police forces, for example, need to have better training, and match the racial demographics of their communities. Immigration law needs to change. Foreign policy needs to take more seriously non-“American” lives. These are often not the single-issue topics that grasp the attention of the public in the United States, but they shape the lives of families everywhere.

2. Acknowledge that the oppression and violence directed towards others is linked with the benefits and protection I receive… that racism doesn’t just affect the lives of Black Americans, but of White Americans. Michael Brown’s death is about both the fact that the lives of Black Americans are undervalued AND that white Americans lives are valued more. Talk with that about my daughters, my students. Many people, for example, don’t believe that we still deal with much institutional racism in our society, which is one of the first steps towards changing it. Education and discussion are important.

3. Use my wealth in ways to support positive and healthy relationships, especially in regards to issues of race, nationality. In this blog, I mention the importance of our purchases.

4. Be critical towards my consumption of media and other public information. In another blog last year, I mentioned why this is so important in shaping stereotypes and how we think about others. One statement made in defense of Darren Wilson (the officer who shot Michael Brown six times) is that he was scared.

5. Pray and Worship and engage in Bible Study. In the gospel of Luke (3:10-14), John the Baptist calls for those repenting and turning to God to be in right relationship with others, especially those who are marginalized. When the crowd asks what to do to repent, he tells them to share your clothes and food with those who have none. When the tax collectors ask what to do, he tells them to not take more money than they must. When the soldiers ask what to do, he tells them to be just with people and to not extort money. I am thankful to serve a God who sees those right relationships with others as central to what it means to believe and repent. I want to join with God in God’s mission for the world. I do not think we should be obedient to God in the name of pursuing justice; we should be obedient because we are called too. However, better understanding God’s heart can help us to live more justly.

Women in Leadership National Study: A First Glance

In the past few years, a number of different empirical studies have come out highlighting how well women are represented in leadership across a variety of sectors (for example, the 2009 White House Project Report: Benchmarking Women’s Leadership and the 2013 follow-up Benchmarking Women’s Leadership report from Colorado Women’s College).  These studies look at a plethora of fields to assess how well women are represented in the highest levels of leadership across sectors.  While these studies are quite impressive in their scope, there is little attention to the ways that religion matters.  As the 2009 report notes,

Gauging the current status and progress of women in religious leadership is more difficult than in any other business and professional sector studied in this report. With such a multitude of faiths, little or no universality in definitions of leadership, and a marked absence of data to work with, analyzing women’s leadership in religion presents a significant challenge. during the preparation of this report, it was immediately clear that there is a dire need for increased and standardized data collection on the status of women in this field. While historical information is available, there is a dearth of hard numbers.

Since the fall of 2012, I have been involved with a mixed methods, multi-stage research project investigating women in leadership within evangelical organizations.  This study is one of the first to study women in leadership in religious settings outside the church.  As has been well-documented, the non-profit sector is filled with many religious organizations. Our study is comprised of 1500 organizations. This list is largely made up of members of the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability, alongside those who are a part of  the Coalition of Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, the Accord Network, and the Christian Community Development Association. Although the study is on-going, I wanted to post some of the results that we have so far, as the first phase of data collection has been completed.

Supported by the Imago Dei Fund (under the leadership of Emily Nielson Jones), Dr. Janel Curry (Provost, Gordon College) and I serve as the co-PIs for this project;  Neil Carlson and the Center for Social Research at Calvin College have been responsible for collecting most of the data. Although there will be an official presentation and release of the data at the Religious Newswriters Association Conference this coming September, the results from our first phase of the study are now available (thanks to the team at CSR for the tableau interactive below!)

A few key findings (more information is also available at the study’s website):

1. Evangelicals have fewer women in leadership than secular counterparts. While this is not surprising, it is important to address.  This isn’t just about the people in top leadership positions — this is about those who are the top paid leaders, and it’s true about the board.  Of our sample of 1500 organizations, 1300 have complete data regarding their paid leaders and board members  who have list paid leaders and boards on tax-forms, 16% of the top leaders, 21% of the board, and 23% of the highest paid employees/leaders are female.  Compare this to the non-profit world more generally, where women make up 43% of the board and 40% of CEOS (Benchmarking Womens Leadership, 2013).

2. Our lack of gender diversity in leadership is tied to a lack of racial diversity. Among women who do serve on boards and in top leadership positions, white women are over-represented. Again, this is not surprising. But we also notice that religious institutions (as noted in their own reports and strategic plans) may often treat a lack of racial and gender diversity as very separate.  They are not.

3. Although we often discuss how bad evangelical institutions do at having men and women serving and leading alongside one another, one of the most interesting results for me has been the variation within evangelical institutions.  Scholars of religion know that orthodox faiths are often painted with broad brush strokes, and assumed to be bad for women.  For example, nearly a quarter of the organizations (24%) have no women serving on their boards, while a slightly smaller percentage (17%) have at least 40% women on their boards.  Some denominations seem to do especially well at promoting both men and women into all positions, while others do not.  One of the ultimate goals of the study is to uncover what factors predict more shared leadership among men and women, and the ways institutions foster more positive gender climates.

 

Economic Choices, the Media, and Racism

At the end of 2013, I wrote a blog post entitled, “The Problem with Giving Tuesday,” where I suggested that we have a responsibility and Christian mandate to more seriously reflect on our economic purchases and decisions.  I also noted that I was changing my consumption behavior when it came to chocolate – a decision that continues to prove challenging.This is a follow-up blog.

As we study about systems (like the chocolate trade), we learn the problems are bigger than we individually can solve.  It is important to be involved in political and social action, to demand greater regulations from both the state and from businesses themselves. Sin is individual and social; we are accountable for the sins of systems in which we participate and support in some way.

But that doesn’t negate the need for individual changes.  In calling us to hold ourselves accountable for what we buy, I’m not suggesting that our individual economic purchases are the most important way to fight injustice and exploitation in the economic system. But it acknowledges the link between the personal and the structural.  As a wise colleague noted to me recently, this means we often may feel that any decision we make will involve some level of sin, because of the society we are embedded within.

As I continue my commitment to not buying chocolate where the source is unknown, my second commitment is to change the media I consume. A number of racist and sexist stereotypes are promoted by much of the media, and the persisting racism and sexism in our society is shaped in part by media. First, I want to encourage and support more media with intentionally different messages about race and gender.  Related, I want to change the messages that I willingly consume, and that impact my own perceptions and stereotypes (of myself and others).

The Structural Problem

As many have written about more eloquently than I could, this past week was a bad week for the United States (and Florida in particular).  Yet another African-American murdered youth, Jordan Davis, died without justice from our legal system.  Michael Dunn, the white man who killed Jordan Davis, was considered not guilty for the murder.

While I would agree that Michael Dunn performed a heinous act, what is more disturbing is that our society accepted that act. Sociologists talk a lot about the issues of structural racism that persist in our society today, and that even as we may want to point to individuals who do “racist things,” the actions of those individuals are shaped by their culture, and allowed by the legal system that they live within. Michelle Alexander, a lawyer, scholar, and activist, recently wrote The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (New Press, 2010). It provides great examples and analysis of the ways our criminal justice system contributes to a racial caste system in the United States (and can also help illustrate what it means to live in a society that promotes structural racism).

Culture and structure are often linked together, and the negative and racist stereotypes and attitudes that continue to exist in our society are closely linked to these structural realities.  Given that we continue to live in a racially segregated society, for many, media plays a crucial role in perpetuating racist stereotypes. Artist Jonathan Edwards has beautifully (and provocatively) depicted the “white vision” glasses that many from the majority racial group (and some who are not part of the majority) have towards African-American teenage men.

As Christians, this should be totally unacceptable to us.  For those who grew up in predominantly white contexts, we should be asking how we challenge these stereotypes that continue to be perpetuated and accepted, even if they are “rejected” explicitly in theory or discourse. In an earlier post this summer, I provided a quotation from Emmanuel Katongole, a Ugandan priest who wrote The Sacrifice of Africa: A Political Theology for Africa (Eerdmans, 2010). I want to repeat here the same quotation, because I think this characterization of African politics is not that different from what recent acquittals for Michael Dunn and George Zimmerman communicate today about how the United States values the lives of African-Americans:

 That these [African lives] are not unique, precious sacred lives; these are Africans, mere bodies to be used, mere masses to be exploited. That this theological claim has come to be widely assumed is obvious from the casualness with which the wastage of African lives is accepted. For a new future to take shape in Africa, the wanton sacrificing of African lives would have to be confronted-no, interrupted-by a different story and its accompanying practices in which the sacredness, the preciousness, the unviability, and the dignity of African lives are foregrounded? (17, bold-emphasis mine)

Individual Economic Behavior as One Source of Action

Given these steps backwards for racial justice in the United States, clearly social and political action is needed.  But on an individual level, I want to also ask how my economic choices matter, given my attention in the blog this year to our economic behaviors of consumption. As a result, I commit to being more proactive in the media I watch/read. While I already reject racist/sexist media as much as possible, I want to be more proactive in consuming media with the messages currently lacking in our society. While I do not think media alone changes our perceptions of others (we need to be living in more diverse communities, and learning about our history and current contextual realities), we cannot deny the role it plays in perpetuating stereotypes.

The film Miss Representation  highlights that women are underrepresented on screen and in the media, and that this is especially true for women of color. I should add that there is great lack of representation of positive images for men of color as well.  White male characters are often still the stars of mainstream films, television shows, and children’s cartoons. Unfortunately, this means that people of color are often depicted with stereotypes, given their limited representation (The Geena Davis Institute on Gender and Media provides some great statistics and analysis on issues surrounding gender, and interactions of race and gender, in the media)

 Right now, Doc McStuffins is an example of a show I want to support. Doc is a six-year old girl who wants to be a doctor, and serves as a doctor to her stuffed animals.  Her mom is a doctor, and she has a caring father; she is a good older sister to her younger brother.  She is friends with boys and girls.  She is an African-American girl who is the star, and not the sidekick.

I’d love to hear from readers on what you think are good films and/or television shows where racial diversity exists, and writers avoid relying on racial and gendered stereotypes.

 

 

 

In Search of Male Role Models

During the Christmas and New Years season, I end up reflecting more than normal about some of the choices I make in my life.  In celebrating with family and reflecting on the birth of Christ, I’m reminded of many of the relational blessings in my life.  Although I’m not one to make New Year’s Resolutions, in starting a new year (and new semester), I’m often challenged to be more intentional in the choices I make.  It’s also a good time for me to reflect together with my husband about where we want our life to be headed, and what directions we feel will help us live most in line with God’s passions and vision.

With the end of the semester also comes the grading of tests and papers, where I ask students to reflect on how their gender (and other’s gendered assumptions) has impacted their own trajectories.  I am immersed in the literature on challenges faced by evangelical women (as women), so many of the responses from my female students are often not surprising.  As a woman myself, I also relate personally to many of their experiences. I am reminded that there are few models of strong women providing leadership in evangelical institutions.  The project I’m currently working on alongside Janel Curry at Gordon College and the Center for Social Research at Calvin College is focused on understanding some of the structural, cultural, and theological factors at play.

In her book Evangelical Christian Women: War Stories in the Gender Battles (NYU Press, 2003), Julie Ingersoll finds that for the married women who do succeed in being in positions of power in the evangelical world, having the support of their husbands is incredibly important. For myself, I’m incredibly thankful to work together as part of a team with my husband, as we jointly think about what it means to live faithfully.  (I do not think all people need to be married, and agree with the arguments made by Christine Colon and Bonnie Field in Singled Out: Why Celibacy Must Be Reinvented in Today’s Church (Brazos Press, 2010)) that the church needs to find more ways to support and encourage single people.)

As I’m mentioned in previous posts (Why We Should Support Men and Egalitarian Men and Working Fathers), the problem of women’s underrepresentation in leadership and decision-making roles is not just about women.  Men who are committed to more egalitarian relationships face many of the same work/life challenges; they also face challenges and pay-gaps in the job market. As I read some of the reflections from my male students, I’m struck by the fact that they also lack a plethora of strong role models to follow.  That is, for those men committed to living in egalitarian relationships in their pursuit of Christ, it can also be hard to find good examples to emulate. We need more examples and role models of strong men, working alongside strong women.

I want to highlight three of those models – strong men, working together alongside strong women – that have been influential in my own life.  They are models that my husband and I look to together of the type of people we want to be like.  Catherine and Andy Crouch, Ruth and James Padilla DeBorst, and Sandra and Paul Joireman.  Each of these couples has also traveled extensively as part of their vocation, be it spending time abroad or traveling regularly for speaking engagements.  For each of these six individuals, his or her career accomplishments alone make him or her a person I would seek guidance from. Yet it is through watching them do the dishes, answer their child’s question, lead worship, teach a Bible study, provide mentoring, and live in community, that they challenge me in my own journey.

I first met the Crouches as an undergraduate at Harvard, where I was part of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship.  Andy was working as a staff worked with IV (and serving as the editor of re:generation quarterly). Catherine was a post-doctoral student in the physics department at Harvard.  Today, Andy is a senior editor at Christianity Today, and a popular author/speaker. (Andy has written a great piece on the need for churches to better deal with scientists, which to me exemplifies some of the ways the two of them live in mission together). Catherine is a tenured professor at Swarthmore. They invested deeply in the lives of the students at Harvard; they’ve prioritized their children in their decisions. I was able to witness the way they co-parented young children at a critical juncture in their careers. They’ve been committed to specific religious bodies, and the lives of their children, and institutional structures within the church.

A few years later, while I was in El Salvador with World Relief, I had the privilege to meet Ruth and Jim Padilla DeBorst. They were working with the Christian Reformed World Missions. They began the Seeds of New Creation network in EL Salvador. Ruth has served as the general secretary of the FTL (Latin American Theological Fraternity), spoke at the last Lausanne Congress and currently works for World Vision. Jim provides leadership to the Centre for Interdisciplinary Theological Studies (CETI), has worked in development for over 20 years, and teaches and researches on international development. Jim and Ruth have six kids in their family, and currently live in Casa Adobe in Costa Rica, where they are invested deeply in the local community of Heredia. They are leaders in the global and local church, committed to ideas of integral mission. They frequently are asked to speak at conferences around the world. Yet in their quest, they have supported each other and their children. They are one of the best examples of a couple who provide global leadership through their local commitments.

Most recently, we’ve been able to be part of Lombard Mennonite Church as we live in Wheaton, where we’ve been inspired by the example of Paul and Sandra Joireman.  Sandra was a political science professor at Wheaton College, but is currently the Weinstein Chair of International Studies at the University of Richmond. She is also the current chair of the Board of Directors of Bread for the World.  Paul works as an Advanced Developer at VG Bioinformatics.  He previously worked at Fermilab, and has been a chemistry professor at various universities.  They are deeply invested in the community of our small church, from children’s ministries to adult education. They have two children, who they have parented together (sometimes from different countries).  We’ve seen them deal with some of the same questions we ask regarding dual career households, and their advice and example has been especially important to us in this life stage.

As a woman, I’m really thankful for the different models that Catherine, Ruth, and Sandra have been, usually in ways they do not even know.  It’s the ordinary way that they live their lives. As a woman, I also really appreciate Andy, Jim, and Paul. None of them are leaders in the feminist movement (to my knowledge). But they support strong women, and encourage them to succeed. They are committed to their families, sometimes at personal cost to their career.  They invest in building community with their spouses.

Given the gendered norms and inequalities that still exist in the evangelical world, we should recognize that it’s not just women struggling to find strong role models, but also men as well.  I realize that some reading this post may not want egalitarian role models, but for men and women who do, they have to be intentional about those to whom they look to for wisdom. I want to especially encourage young men committed to greater gender equality and shared partnership with women to look for strong male models such as those mentioned; to look for mentors who not only pursue Christ in their vocations, but alongside commitments to church community, and who encourage their partners to exercise their full potential.

 


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