Contesting the Good News

This summer, I have the opportunity to travel to Brazil with Calvin College’s Nagel Institute, for a seminar focused on understanding how Pentecostals are interacting with and shaping globalization forces.  This question of how religious actors around the world understand and conceive of economic life—and in particular, aspects of increasing economic liberalization—is a central focus of my research.

I’ve recently finished Jill DeTemple’s 2012 book, Cement, Earthworms, and Cheese Factories: Religion and Community Development in Rural Ecuador (University of Notre Dame Press).  It’s one of the most recent books to look at a question that is growing in importance to a number of development scholars: How religion and development are intertwined and interconnected.

In discussing  historical trajectory of development, she makes a convincing argument that many of the colonizing impulses behind ‘economic development’ and Christian proselytization in the West are similar.

 Progress in its broadest sense—spiritual, cultural, technological—became the optimal way to achieve salvation’s ends (28).

Spreading the Gospel–the Good News–is a term some might use to talk about the message of God’s salvation in Christ, or the message of growth and progress for the world.  For some, mantras of growth and economic development are the true message that must be shared for the world to succeed today.

I’ve written on this question of the aims of development before. DeTemple’s work focuses more on the ways that religious and development goals get intertwined in specific places and contexts, and the lack of distinct boundaries between the two. But in telling the stories of communities, she shows that many times the goals and assumptions of development workers and ‘those being developed’ are not the same. The ends of development are re imagined.

One of the foundational aspects of development for many in the industry is economic growth (which I recently addressed).  So how are religious actors engaging with this largely uncontested belief?  In my book manuscript, I focus on how religious actors discuss and frame free trade and economic globalization.  What’s fascinating to me is the way that across a number of Christian traditions, religious voices continue to raise questions about the real goals of development and growth, almost universally critiquing our emphasis on economic individualism and a lack of concern about responsibility and relationship with neighbor.  And just as fascinating to me is that even as there seems to be much agreement among religious leaders, these voices are largely muted in public economic debates.

In understanding how Pentecostals in Brazil are engaging with globalization, I look forward to seeing the ways that actors on the ground—those engaging with poverty reduction and interacting with development programs—are part of a larger religious conversation about the value of growth and development.  As I continue to engage further in dialogues on religion and development, I’d love to hear other examples you may have of how religious actors are challenging global values and structures of current globalization paradigms in their micro-level efforts.

Being Honest about Inequality

Last week, my daughter brought home a class worksheet where she had noted that Barack Obama was colorblind.  “What does that mean?” I asked her, only to be informed that it meant he thought people were equal, regardless of the color of their skin.  I told her that’s not exactly what being colorblind meant: that seeing people as equal does not mean ignoring race.  The topic then shifted to soccer and birthday parties.

Yesterday morning we had another interesting exchange before school, continuing on with this idea of people being treated equally, regardless of gender or race. She was making a statement regarding the past when people were not treated equally.

“People are still not treated equally.  Many people still treat boys better than girls, and white people better than black people.” I decided to limit some of the specifics, such as differential conviction rates, job call-backs, media portrayals, or pay inequality.

“But in North America, we treat one another equally?”

I shook my head no.

“In Illinois?” No.
In Wheaton?” No.
“On our street?” Sad laugh.

I suspect this moment was similar to those that many sociologists (and others) have had with their children, where they feel a responsibility to discuss things as they really are, despite a sort of innocence that seems to be destroyed. But we have to admit and teach our children that in the United States, people are not treated equally. Not simply in spite of the fact that such a reality is awful, but precisely because it is awful.  Pretending that we are viewing and treating each other equally only makes the situation worse.

As a Christian, I yearn to see the Church standing out for our opposition to the sexism and racism in our society.  However, given the fact I study issues of gender and religion, I’m almost reminded daily that my hopes don’t match reality.

Let me just note two recent statistics on gendered realities in the Christian community, recognizing that it’s not a monolithic community.

  • Within colleges that are members of the CCCU (Christian Coalition of Colleges and Universities), 6 out of 111 college presidents are female.  The data for this chart comes from recent efforts & research of the CCCU examining these gender discrepancies.

 

 

 

 

 

 

  • A blog post yesterday on Patheos listed the top 50 influential pastors on twitter.  While I won’t argue it should be the key measure of who holds influence in the Christian community, it’s still an interesting list.  (Impossible) Challenge: Find one female on the list.  (The author, Adrian Warnock, followed up the list with the top 20 female Christian bloggers, but none of these were senior pastors).

If we aren’t honest with our children, we do more harm than good. When my daughter (or someone’s son) sees the chart above, or hears her friends talking about those influential blogging pastors, it communicates something.  She sees that those with the most power, those leading and making decisions, and those heralded for their wisdom are predominantly male and white.  If she and other children believe in a meritocracy, such information suggests that men must be smarter or better at these things that women, or that white people are more competent and qualified than non-whites. That’s not true.

Some days it’s hard to move from one disappointing fact to another.  This morning, I followed the discussion with my daughter to one where we talked about abuse in families during my morning class, and the failure of churches to engage in structural justice efforts in my afternoon class.  Students probably left both of those feeling a bit deflated, much like my daughter appeared as she ate her cheerios.  I agree with Margarita Mooney’s blog post noting that sociologists can often concentrate on the negative, and that “describing social problems is not the equivalent of describing the conditions that promote human flourishing or foster the common good.”  Clearly, most of my day was not engaged in such a project.

But to move towards change, we have to be aware of what’s wrong.  And it’s never too early to help kids to see it. I believe that many in the world, and within the evangelical community, can often undervalue women for the ways that they might be involved in God’s radical mission for the world. But this is not the end of the story. As my daughter looked at me sadly when I explained the prevalence of inequality today, I did engage in some positive perspective.  I reminded her that God doesn’t view us that way.  Thanks to a class I took as an undergraduate with Dr. Robert Kiely on early Christian literature, I was also able to tell her that some of the earliest Christians drew the attention of others as they broke gendered norms in worship, following messages of gender equality that Christ preached.  As I saw her eyes twinkle, I smiled. I witnessed her hope for a broken world, a hope much more valuable than a childish innocence of sin.

CS Lewis, Lent and Bodies

Tomorrow is Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent.  Although many Protestants do not celebrate this 40-day season, many churches do celebrate this period as a way to prepare for Easter.

We’ve been rereading The Screwtape Letters with our Bible Study group this year. These letters by C.S. Lewis document an exchange between an older demon, Screwtape, and his younger nephew, Wormwood.   While C.S. Lewis would hardly qualify as a social scientist, I appreciate the ways that he recognizes the importance of context when it comes to theology and belief.

 

 

 

 

There are two lessons that have been especially helpful for me to think about as I prepare for the season of Lent.

For they [people] constantly forget, what you must always remember, that they are animals and that whatever their bodies do affects their souls. (Letter IV, Screwtape Letters)

Over the years, I’ve frequently remembered C.S. Lewis’ admonition that our physical posture matters when we talk to God. Although many Christians–including myself–sometimes see religion as largely about belief, our practices matter.  Sociologists of religion rarely just use doctrine to characterize people; our spiritual practices, the communities that we belong to, and our background all shape religious identity.

Keep his mind off the most elementary duties by directing it to the most advanced and spiritual ones (Letter III)

As a sociologist, I tend to think about the big picture. Poverty is largely a product of unjust social structures, which create broken relationships among people.  Sexism and racism, even as they manifest themselves in individual lives, are fed by larger societal beliefs and norms about gendered and racial and ethnic differences, and an unequal allocation of power and resources.

Yet in thinking at the macro-level, I am guilty of not seeing my role and place in society, and unfortunately can start to frame problems at a more distant level.  I am reminded that just thinking more justly (or researching and teaching to that end) is not enough.  For me, the practice of spiritual discipline is a way to remember that the day-to-day, the most “elementary duties,” are core to who we are, and they affect our relationships with one another.

As I celebrate Mardi Gras with friends tonight, I look forward to taking the words of Lewis–and my physical nature–more seriously.

 

When Growth is Bad

The Hastert Center for Economics, Government, And Public Policy  at Wheaton College hosted an event last Thursday on the morality of economic growth, co-sponsored by the American Enterprise Institute.  The central speaker, Dr. Smith of Gordon College, argued that economic growth should be a moral imperative for Christians, especially if we are concerned about poverty.

As a person engaged in economic sociology (and a respondent at the event), I appreciated the fact this conversation was taking place. We need more dialogue on the moral character of market life. What does it mean to live ethical economic lives—as individuals, communities, and societies?

However, in a world where it seems that governments and policy-makers often just assume that growth is good, I’d like to suggest that growth in itself is not good. I recognize the great strides we have made in lowering infant mortality (and the rise in other development indicators) in the last two centuries. However, I think we should ask, “When is growth good?” or “How do we promote ethical economic growth?”

Some reasons why I think growth is sometimes not good:

1.Poverty and inequality are related.  Many people will focus on absolute poverty as the central issue.  Clearly, issues of absolute poverty are important.  As Christians, we should be invested in anti-poverty efforts that ensure people have enough to eat and a place to live.  But relative poverty is also important—a concept that considers one’s wealth and resources in relationship to others in society.  Relative poverty can negatively impact one’s social networks, employment, educational opportunities, and political involvement. Growing inequality is often linked with increased social isolation (that is, the poor living with the poor, and the wealthy with the wealthy).   In a world where the wealthy have more than enough, ethical growth must be measured in terms of how the poor fare—not only in absolute terms, but also relative to the wealthy.

2. Value creation matters.  While the ends of growth are important, the means by which growth is received and earned is also important.  How is economic growth achieved?  Is it through individuals having more creative power to exercise?  Is it through business being able to get more out of workers and manage the process more effectively?  In an economic marketplace where businesses have more power than individuals, and the poor are at the bottom of commodity chain processes, ethical growth demands attention to increasing the capacity of the poor to be involved in more active and significant ways in the economy. It should increase the potential of those at the bottom to be involved in value-creation activities.

3. Relationships are central.  The rise of a free-market system is connected in some ways to a more depersonalized market.  Most of us do not know the people that we are involved with in economic transactions.  But this does not mean those relationships do not exist.  Many assessing economic growth center on the individual as the basic unit of analysis, and maximizing individual (or the sum of individual) well-being as the end goal.  But as Christians, why should we assume the individual is the central variable of analysis?  In my study of religious communities engaging in debates over international trade, I find that they all prioritize right relationships and community as a central goal of economic life.  What would it mean to demand ethical and life-affirming relationships as a basis for market transactions?

Although economic issues are often considered distinct from moral issues, many voices (religious and otherwise) are challenging this assumption.  As a sociologist, I recognize that markets are social constructions, and values are embedded within them.  As a Christian, I want to live in right relationships (with others, with God, with the earth).  For me, this means asking how engage in more ethical relationships within a depersonalized market, and how to promote policies that prioritize (more) healthy relationships within the marketplace.

 

 


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