Deliver Us From Evil

There have been a number of tragedies recently in our world.  In Nairobi, Kenya recent attacks at the upscale Westgate mall by terrorist group Al-Shabaab injured close to 200 people and 67 were reported murdered.  In Peshawar, Pakistan, at least 60 Christians were killed outside a church by suicide bombers this past Sunday. In Washington, D.C., a U.S. citizen and former navy reservist murdered twelve people at the Navy Yard.

The United States is considering military actions towards Syria after the use chemical warfare by the government; the nerve agent sarin was used near Damascus, and left at least 1300 dead and 3600 people displaying neurological symptoms. This attack comes after two years of a civil war that has left around 100,000 dead in the country.  Here, the perpetrators are both “legitimate” government actors and rebel forces.

One of the goals of those perpetuating the violence—whether an individual, a terrorist group, or a government—was to invoke fear.  One response of those in power has been to try and take away the power these violent actors have.  One of the central premises that Gary Haugen argues in The Good News about Injustice (InterVarsity Press, 1999) is that those perpetrating injustice have to be stopped, and if they continue to have power, the abuse will also continue.

However, another response in these instances mentioned above has been to characterize the perpetrators as a special kind of evil.  The incidents above are clearly horrific, as are a number of “normal” events that occur habitually—the marrying off of young girls in forced marriages, the shooting and deaths of young people in many U.S cities, and forced human trafficking that occurs around the world.  Yet recognizing the evil in these acts, and the need to stop those perpetrating evil, is different than categorizing these actors as human outliers in their capacity for evil.

The cause of these horrific events is more complex that evil people triumphing over good people. In Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland (Harper Collins, 1998), Christopher Browning considers why Nazi soldiers were involved in the killing and bloodshed of the Holocaust.  In seeing the “normal” character of many of these men (whose interviews he consults), one of the book’s disturbing conclusions is the evil that “normal” people can commit and rationalize.

I’ve been rereading Seymour Lipset’s Continental Divide: The Values and Institutions of the United States and Canada (Routledge, 1990).  Even as this book is 23 years old, he makes some assessments about the U.S. ideology that still prove useful, and helpful to me in understanding a national tendency to want to see people as evil or good.

 The American Protestant religious ethos has assumed, in practice if not in theology, the perfectibility of humanity and an obligation to avoid sin, while the churches whose followers have predominated in Europe, Canada, and Australia have accepted the inherent weakness of people, their inability to escape sin and error, and the need for the church to be forgiving and protecting (79)

Since Lipset wrote this book, America waged a war where the talk of the “axis of evil” became prominent in national rhetoric.  In contrast to “evil,” stands those who are on the side of what is good and just.  As Lipset writes a couple of pages earlier, “Protestant propensity for moralistic crusades has been expressed in various efforts to reform the rest of the world by war” (77); these wars are often framed as good guys against bad guys.

What does it look like to see the evil in these atrocities, to fight for justice and to stop abuse and violence, yet to also recognize the complexity of why people commit these crimes? These incidents are connected to larger societal stories about political power and alliances, provision of the state, and beliefs about the value of different people based on demographics.

What does it mean to be a part of the fight against evil in this world (a desire, I suspect, many of us have)? As I reflect upon this, I realize I have more questions than answers. As Christians, I believe it requires recognizing that all of us are sinners and capable of great evil.  It calls us to be a Church that walks with those who are suffering, and offers healing to those who are mourning. It means protecting those who are being exploited or abused. It challenges us to serve as a prophetic voice against injustice—not only obvious violent acts, but also the ways systems are also part of that violence.

 

Trying for a Boy?

When people find out my husband and I have three girls, they offer a variety of responses.  Most of these are not positive and uplifting.

Three girls. I bet you’re still trying for a boy.

Poor Dad. You’re really outnumbered, huh?

They must have their daddy wrapped around their fingers.

Usually these comments are from people I do not know well, making the decisions about how to respond all the more difficult for me. I understand that many times people are joking, but there are disturbing beliefs often behind these sarcastic statements.

Daughters are radically different than boys.

Fathers can’t bond with girls as well as they can with boys.

Life is more complete, for mothers and fathers, when they have a son.  

In the United States, the ideal for families is often to have a daughter and a son, while in other places, we know that having boys is viewed as more preferable to having girls. For example, the film It’s a Girl, released last year, documents the killing of baby girls in South Asia.  The following clip below, the official trailer for the film, touches upon some of the reasons and consequences of this reality.

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Some of the same anti-female bias that drives the reality of infanticide and abandonment of female children exists in the United States.  Women and men, boys and girls, are valued in different ways, and we attach different potential to each of them.  And while I  assume that very few of the people encouraging me to have a boy would explicitly agree that females are worth less than males, they often see their potential as more limited than that of boys.  They see boys and girls as more different than they are similar.

However, when people bring girls into their families, we see that attitudes change. My current research project examines women leaders in the evangelical world.  Anecdotally, it’s clear that for many men who encourage women in leadership within the Church, it is the stories of their mothers and their daughters that make them passionate about gender issues. Seeing their potential limited can make men more passionate about issues of gender justice. On a larger scale, past social science evidence affirms that especially for men, having daughters seems to create more feminist views.  (Interestingly enough, some of this effect is found when men only have daughters.)  A 2008 article by Ebonya Washington, “Female Socialization: How Daughters Affect Their Legislator Fathers’ Voting on Women’s Issues,” includes a good review of the literature regarding what we know about dads and daughters. She further finds that having daughters actually causes male legislators (in the United States) to take a more liberal stance when it comes to women’s issues.

In my own life, I can also point to multiple ways that having three daughters has challenged some ways I think about gender.  Even as I study gender and the social construction of gendered roles, my daughters have expanded my own understandings of what it means to be female–and ways we might think differently about that as a society. In the differences that exist among my daughters, they illustrate that there is not one model of dress, behavior, or preferred activities for girls.  They illustrate some of the breadth of what it means to be female.

In socializing my first daughter, I was very intentional to let her know that she could do whatever she wanted, and be whatever she wanted to be.  Yet in making sure she did not feel confined by what others characterized as ‘feminine,’ I believe I sometimes unintentionally devalued some of those stereotypical qualities we think of as feminine. What does it mean to have her celebrate the fact that she was created female?  I want this child who loves soccer to see that using the strength of her body through sport is a feminine act. At the same time, I also want to affirm in another daughter her flair for fashion, and interest in drama.

So no, I’m not still trying for a boy.  Rather, I am thankful that my husband and I have three daughters.  In a world that often does not value girls for who they are and what they can be, I appreciate the chance to tell them a different story. I love watching them be sisters to one another. And my relationship with them has spurred me to continue to research gender related issues, with a hope that all families will celebrate their female children, and encourage them to live out their full potential.

 

 

Theology, Silence, and Action

I recently returned from a two-week seminar in Brazil with the Nagel Institute and Calvin College, where I spent time in Rio, Brasilia, and Manaus (Amazon) with a number of Brazilian scholars, as well as Christian college professors from the USA.  Given this opportunity, I hope to be able to spend some time in future blogs sharing some of this experience.

As in the United States, evangelicals can be found supporting a number of political causes across the spectrum.  We had the opportunity to talk with evangelicals playing a key role in different political parties (social democrats, the labor party, communist groups), some involved in women’s movements, and others who were committed community activists.  I was struck by how connected theology was with activism for these leaders, as well as my peers in the seminar.

As a sociologist, I was also intrigued by the role of the sociologist within society, and within the church.  Let’s just say the situation in Brazil is different than the United States. Sociology was seen as important and relevant for society (and the church). Several of the Christians I I met were sociologists and pastors, or sociologists and activists.  Former President Lula de Silva was a sociologist. As I commented on last year (after attending CLADE V, the FTL conference in Costa Rica), evangelicals seem to use the social sciences in interaction with theology in more integrated ways than we do in the United States.  Sociology shapes the way that they make sense of their context.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

While in Brazil, I was reading Katongole’s book, The Sacrifice of Africa: A Political Theology for Africa (Eerdmans, 2010).  Katongole is a priest from Uganda who has been integral with reconciliation programs at both Duke and Notre Dame.  One thesis in The Sacrifice of Africa is that political institutions and most of the ‘modern’ states in Africa were created out of a foundation of violence, and violence is part of their core.  He enunciates the theology that was (and is) at play:

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 African, 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? (p.17)

For many Christians around the world, theology is recognized to be contextual. There is a recognition that theology must speak to the social issues and society in which it is embedded; to be silent is also a form of speech.  One of the favorite songs of our Brazilian group was “Xote da Vitoria,” which speaks of the violence that will not win within society; of a God who will overcome, and of people who join with God in that march.

The words of Katongole continue to occupy my mind as I ask myself about what it means for US evangelicals (myself included) to think more critically about the context of our theologies. As I read and re-read his thoughts about the sacrificing of African lives and the casualness with which it is accepted by society, I cannot help but think about how our society continues to accept the loss of young African-American lives with casualness as well.  While the Trayvon Martin case has garnered much attention, there are far too many cases where similarities exist.  I leave for Florida tomorrow to visit my family, thinking about Trayvon and the case of Roy Middleton – an African-American man shot at his own car, who was apparently mistaken as a burglar by neighbors.  I think of the case of Jordan Davis, a teen who was shot in his car at a gas station. As I sit here in Chicago, I reflect of the number of youth, many African-American, who die to gun violence, and the families who have lost multiple children to gun violence, and the lack of serious attention and outrage at this situation.  I think of the Chicago Public Schools, which continues to be under resourced.

As a church, what does it mean to speak out on the devaluing of life that much of US society has accepted?  In response to the Trayvon Martin verdict, as well as the recent Supreme Court verdict on the Voting Rights Act, Lisa Sharon Harper wrote an excellent blog at Sojourners about the ways we are moving backwards, legally, when it comes to civil rights for non-whites in our society.  It is outrageous.

Both Jerry Park and George Yancey have offered some thoughts on this site about how we engage in talks about racism and recent events, especially within the church.  We need to ask what these cases (and our responses) reveal about our underlying theologies about the value of all life.  What theology exists in our own churches when we fail to proclaim (in word and action and presence) the dignity, the sacredness, and the preciousness of all lives—whether those in our neighborhood, in places throughout the United States, or countries across an ocean?  What theology do I profess when I remain silent when violence takes life? What would it mean to truly proclaim that dignity?

 

The Church, Immigration, and Advocacy

As I also wrote about last summer, August 15th marked an important change in immigration policy, when young adults without official documentation were able to apply for two-year stays in the country, without fear of deportation. Today we also face the possibility of a significant change to the system.  A bipartisan “Gang of 8” proposal for immigration reform was approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee. This bill, which heads to the Senate next week, will provide a path to legalization and citizenship for a number of immigrants living in the country, as well as tighten security.

Immigration is an issue where most in the United States see a need to act. A recent Pew Report reveals that almost ¾ of U.S citizens polled think there should be legal options for those without legal status to stay.  Most identify it as a key issue facing the country.  At this time when significant reforms could be enacted, the voices of religious leaders are especially important.

The video above was produced by the Evangelical Immigration Table, a group of evangelicals and other religious activists. They  have received some recent attention in the news for their calls (and prayers) for bipartisan reform.  While I’m quite disappointed by the fact that the heads of the coalition are all male, there is a diversity of political leanings and racial make-up of the actors and organizations behind the movement.    Yet even as evangelicals are now engaged, other religious leaders have long been active in efforts to support immigrants in the United States. I’m particularly excited to read Grace Yukich’s forthcoming book, One Family Under God (Oxford University Press), which focuses on more progressive religious activities who are often not profiled. While white evangelicals tend to be noticeably absent from the activists she studies, many of the religious concepts these actors use could resonate with many in the evangelical population.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I increasingly encounter evangelicals considering (or involved in the process of) international adoption.  A majority of my students—mostly evangelical—have been abroad and involved with mission trips. As Christians continue to go around the world to love our neighbors, it’s imperative that we also more seriously consider what it means to love neighbors here in the United State. As this group that increasingly includes immigrants (documented and undocumented), the issue of immigration reform will impact the lives of millions.  Even for the most politically uninterested, this is an issue that demands our attention, prayers, and action.


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