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.

Unethical Wealth

Last week, the Pew Research Center released a report showing wealth has dropped for the bottom 93% of Americans, but for those with wealth levels over about $890,000, wealth has risen by an average of 28% in the last two years.  As the economy starts to recover, it’s clear who is winning and who is losing ground.

Globally, inequality between countries seems to be decreasing, although it’s increasing within countries—and overall.  And one of the biggest drivers of the growth of inequality is the growth in wealth of those with the highest incomes.

Elsewhere I’ve blogged about some of the problems with inequality in terms of social and economic outcomes. An opinion piece by Sean Reardon in the NYT shows that educational outcomes are becoming more divergent for the upper and lower classes, within the United States. While school funding is not the key issue he highlights, it’s part of the story.  In Philadelphia, public schools are looking at cuts of 25%—this translates into the removal of counselors and programs, and increasing class sizes above 30.

In the classes I teach on social change and globalization, students leave class discouraged many days. We spent one session focused on the conditions and power held by many workers involved in different commodities around the world.  We discussed coffee (John Talbot,’s Grounds for Agreement), maize (Elizabeth Fitting’s The Struggle for Maize), tomatoes (Deborah Bardnt’s Tangled Routes), and cotton (Koray Caliskan’s Market Threads). The story of the lack of power held by workers in each of these commodity trades is a consistent theme, and one that can be a struggle to engage.

Sometimes I hear students talking about ethical business or business as mission.  I’d love to see these conversations intersect more with those on issues of inequality. Many conceptions of ethical business often revolve around principles like giving back, not cheating, or refusing to actively exploit others. Yet we rarely think about the distribution of profits, or how businesses and actors are contributing (or challenging) the growing inequality in power held by people around the world.

While many are not thinking in those terms, others area, and I want to highlight one of those cases. I recently had an article published in Latin American Research Review, where I describe the ways some Central American coffee actors think about ethical business practices.  They had both a broader view of what ethical commitments mean, as well as a more integrated understanding of how issues of power and the Gospel are intertwined.

While these evangelicals gave money to their community, and volunteered time to mentoring youth, that was not the central way they practiced social responsibility. They prioritized increasing the value-added nature of work done by coffee farmers.  They did this through agricultural training, but also by challenging some current market structures and dynamics. As one of the leaders suggested, the way they demonstrated their faith was to “introduce values—Christian values, Christian ethics, transparency, and stewardship.”  For them, this meant recognizing that current business practices accepted in the coffee sector had to be challenged.

Giving to those in need may just exacerbate high power and wealth differentials. It’s no surprise that these same actors I interviewed in Central America were critical of US Christian responses to give aid to farmers instead of simply paying higher prices for a product.  For them, to be ethical meant to think about transforming the ways business worked. In my next research project, I’m gathering data to look at how the over $2.3 billion per year from U.S. religious humanitarian organizations is spent in dealing with poverty, and how common (or uncommon) this example from Central America is.  As inequality levels continue to rise, and power becomes more concentrated in the hands of a few, Christians need to be thinking more critically about what it means to engage in ethical practices in our economy.

Egalitarian Men and Working Fathers

In my last post, I suggested that as a society, we should be more encouraging of men who are trying to combine work and family. The problem that women confront in the workplace is about both about gender and a principle of devotion to work.  Many of the challenges that women face in balancing family and work are those also faced by men.

I am especially concerned with the working fathers who are serving as equal co-parents in their children’s lives, and fathers who are involved in relatively equivalent amounts (or more) of domestic work as their partners.   I’m not talking about fathers who make sure to make it home for dinner—I’m talking about fathers who are often making dinner. I recognize that there are a number of men without children who still struggle to balance work/family demands, but will focus this post more on working fathers. I also refer to these men as egalitarian men; this is not meant to be a theological statement regarding their beliefs about women in the church, but rather, a statement about their family practices and beliefs that reveal relatively equal roles in their families with their partners.  A blog by Dr. Scott Behson on Fathers, Work, and Family, provides an example of this population I’m considering (and also raises many of the same concerns addressed here – I suggest checking it out).

This population of working fathers is significant. Just last month, Pew Research Center released a report on the roles of moms and dads, with attention to how they spend their time and think about issues of work and family. While 56% of working mothers note it is very or somewhat difficult to balance work/family, 50% of men report the same thing.  Fathers are also more likely than mothers to feel that they spend too little time with their children (46% to 23%).  But perhaps most important for the topic of this post, I was interested in this chart reflecting who does more at home.

About 5% of women and men argue that men do more childcare; while close to half report that men and women are equally involved in childcare.  Further, when it comes to household chores, a majority of men (and almost half of women) say that fathers do as much or more than mothers.  While fathers and mothers both tend to see themselves as working more than their partners might, a large percentage of men are doing a lot at home.  Yes, there is a gender gap.  But when we concentrate on the median and mean, we can fail to recognize than in many families, this gender gap may not exist, while in others, it’s actually larger than the macro-level data reveals.

Challenges for Men

(1) In the last blog, I highlighted that these men are often paid less than men with traditional attitudes.  Compared to more traditional men, egalitarian men with significant commitments to family can both face significant obstacles in being hired and promoted.  Gillian Ranson, a sociologist at the University of Calgary, profiles a number of these working fathers in his article, “Men, Paid Employment, and Family Responsibilities: Conceptualizing the ‘Working Father.’”  These men often need to leave the office early, or desire not to work every day. They are not always on call, and rarely have a partner at home who manages domestic responsibilities.  The study from Cornell University (by Judge and Livingston) also suggested than egalitarian men may also be less aggressive in wage negotiations than more traditional men, and so suffer further economic penalties.

Such men may also be restricted (compared with traditional men) in the jobs that they are able to take. Families cannot easily move to support men in their careers.  Egalitarian men are more likely than other men to prioritize their spouse’s career; this may sometimes entail moving for their partner, which could accompany a downward career move.  They are often being compared with men who have a spouse who is dedicated primarily to the family; this is rarely something noted on their CV. While I have not seen longitudinal data, I would hypothesize that these men have less successful career trajectories than men with similar demographics and more traditional gender role attitudes.

(2) For fathers who are trying to be invested in their families, we often find that there are fewer supports for them than women. This is both an institutional and a cultural problem.  In some places, women are offered more flexibility than men when it comes to balancing work and family.   Second, even when paternity leave may technically be available for men, it may be discouraged. Ranson finds, for example, that mothers are still much more likely to take advantage of family-friendly initiatives.

(3) These men are also often lumped together as being ‘men’ who do not deal with the same challenges as women.  Increasingly in sociology we talk about intersectionality: the idea that gender cannot be understood outside its dynamics with class and race.  A recent article in the Journal of Marriage and Family by sociologists Rebecca Glauber and Kristi Gozjolko looks precisely at how issues of intersectionality can shed light on how men deal with work-family tensions.

 We found that fatherhood was associated with an increase in married White men’s time spent in paid work. The increase was more than twice as strong for traditional White men than for egalitarian White men. In contrast, both egalitarian and traditional African American men did not work more when they became fathers.  These findings suggest that African American men may express gender traditionalism but adopt more egalitarian work-family arrangements (“Do Traditional Fathers Always Work More? Gender, Ideology, Race, and Parenthood,” p.1133)

What I find interesting about their study is two-fold.  One, the story of working fathers cannot be separated from race, as the ‘traditional’ model often heralded is one predominantly adopted by whites.  Although not tested, this would lead me to suspect that some part of the wage gap between white and black men is in part due to their different family dynamics and work-family balance.  Second, it suggests that just as race is important in understanding the wages men receive, so are the attitudes that men have towards gender roles and family.

At the end of the day, I found more scholars investigating these issues than I had previously known about; however, I also found a real lack of empirical data regarding the challenges and costs that these fathers face.   And in our pursuits to decrease gender inequality and break down gendered stereotypes, it’s vital that such working fathers are supported.


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X