Saving the Market: Harry Potter, Churches, and Globalization

Harry Potter fans made the news recently for their political victory. Due to four years of advocacy work, all Harry Potter chocolates produced by Warner Brothers are guaranteed to be fairly traded or ethically produced. As I have mentioned in an earlier blog, chocolate is commodity where how its traded  makes a difference, with significant amount of the chocolate sold by popular vendors being linked to child slavery, especially in parts of West Africa. This line sums up the key argument of the Washington Post article:

But Warner Bros.’ commitment to new standards for cocoa production grew out of pressure from and dialogue with “Harry Potter” devotees who wanted to see the franchise live up to the ideals their fictional hero fought for.

Having read the entire Harry Potter series this summer with my daughter, I’m pretty sure that the ethical consumption of chocolate isn’t a key issue—or really, an issue at all—in the books. However, Harry Potter fans are making connections between economic decisions and the values of “their fictional hero.” I’ve argued that these very connections are, lamentably, often lacking for Christians. Last month, Cambridge University Press release my first book, Free Trade and Faithful Globalization: Saving the Market. In it, I profile three Christian communities: a Canadian ecumenical group, Kairos; the Presbyterian Church (USA); and the Catholic Church in Costa Rica. While the topic of my book is their engagement with international free trade policies, I more generally investigate the ways that religious actors interact with economic life. I find that although these groups vary in their criticisms of  current globalization dynamics, they all agree that the economy, and trade, are topics of moral concern. The book reveals the values that they bring to bear on economic policies, their specific policy aims and objectives, and the varied strategies they employ to influence and shape trade policies.

 In the final chapter of the book, “Encouraging Religious Communities to Promote the Common Good,” I note that one of the key challenges faith communities face is convincing their members that markets are a moral issue. Others (like Steensland in The Quiet Hand of God: Faith-Based Activism and the Public Role of Mainline Protestantism) have argued that it is a central task of churches to raise moral questions about the market; I assert that it is the job of religious communities to “make the market part of one’s religious consciousness.”  But this is a connection that takes work.  After analyzing the values, political goals, and strategies of different groups, I end with three suggestions for ways religious actors can help people make connections between their faith and economics. First, we have to talk more about what it means to live in community and practice community.  Lots of Christian and non-Christian groups focus on the importance of community over the individual.  But especially in the consumer-driven environment of the West, that isn’t easy.  Helping people understand how to prioritize community is an important task of religious leaders.  Second, religious authorities need to use their moral voices to speak into economic life.  With the rise of the ‘religious right’ in the 80s, many progressive religious actors have been wary to bring religious perspectives into political debates.  But studies of more justice-oriented and progressive political movements have shown that these movements sometimes lack strong ethical and religious voices.  Finally, I argue that many Christians are overwhelmed by discussions about economic policies or the international political economy.  Connecting such macro-level issues with personal experiences is essential. My hope is that as Christians, we might actually become more like Harry Potter fans, willing to engage in political action, as we recognize that a host of economic policies impact our ability to live in true community and right relationship with others.

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.