The Problem with Being Thankful

I enjoyed celebrating Thanksgiving with my family. I’m thankful for the lives of my three daughters, for my husband; I’m thankful for my parents, my siblings, and my extended family through marriage.  This season, I was especially thankful that my husband and I are able to provide for our family, to meet our children’s needs, and be able to see them thrive. Yet even as I am grateful for these things, I feel a sense of unease in thanking God for these things as good gifts.

Part of this stems from the fact that I hurt alongside with the poor when I celebrate Thanksgiving.  Bryant Myers, in his book, Walking with the Poor (1999), writes:

Poverty is a result of relationships that do not work, that are not just, that are not for life, that are not     harmonious or enjoyable. Poverty is the absence of shalom in all its meanings.

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Social scientists often distinguish between absolute and relative poverty, because poverty is not just about material need.  One of the curses of poverty is the broken relationships that it entails.

Since becoming a mother, I often think more about what poverty means for parents, and the pain of not being able to provide for one’s children.  Sometimes when eating dinner with my pasta-loving children, I imagine what it would be like to have to tell them that I do not have food to feed them.  I watch them play, and celebrate the fact that they can live a life of childhood free from real scarcity or worry.  I rejoice in the fact that I have a job that gives me the time (and energy) to spend time just being and loving my children in person.  But I do not take these realities for granted.

While prosperity gospel is not the prevalent paradigm within Christian churches in the United States, many of us (Christians) still see our material resources as a gift from God.  And this is the belief I wrestled with this Thanksgiving.  While I fully believe in the sovereignty of God to give to some and not to others, that’s not my dominant explanation of why I have and others do not. Many of the blessings I celebrate are linked to my social location. Recently, The Economist ran an article on inequality in the United States, noting that inequality is on the rise.  But what they highlight as one of the central problems is that social mobility is declining, declaring that “Although the United States is seen as a world of opportunity, the reality may be different.”  This argument ran under the subtitle,

A long ladder is fine, but it must have rungs

Unfortunately, there are many people who want to climb the ladder; those who want to support their families. While I will continue to be thankful for the ability to give to my children, I believe simply being thankful is not only not enough.  It’s not the full story. It fails to see the way that our gifts are often not things that are ‘given by God,’ but rather are the result of a broken and unequal system. For me, that means needing to acknowledge that I benefit from a global economic system in a way that many do not, and to ask God what it means to be faithful with those resources that I have. As I think about what that means for my own life, I keep coming back to three things:

  • To make a conscious choice not to exploit others, either indirectly or directly.  This requires me to more actively ask questions and investigate how I am able to achieve the lifestyle (and the “blessings” I have). For some, this entails questions about ethical and sustainable consumerism.
  • To be committed to helping families thrive, and to help parents be able to support their own children.  I recognize that most parents want the best for the children, and being a good parent is largely (although not solely) about having certain resources.
  • To remember why I became a sociologist. One of my central research interests deals with the way relationships are structured by changes in the international political economy.  While I often investigate macro-level concerns, it is because of the pupusa vendor in El Salvador trying to feed her children that I became a sociologist.

I am thankful to God, the giver of life.  I am thankful that He loves all His children. And I am thankful for the opportunity to try and be a part of pursuing His heart for the world.  Of course, I will not deny that I am still thankful for my family and our resources, but even more thankful that God desires for all families to thrive.

The Right to Vote and Political Change

In my last post, I noted how much I’ve appreciated the chance to read through the American Girls series with my oldest daughter, in part because of the ways it has led to some wonderful conversations about class, race, and culture.  As I write this on the eve before Election Day, I cannot help but reflect on the questions of gendered inequality and political change.

Political change is rarely an easy or nice process.  In this election, I have a number of friends and family try to tell me that the election does not matter that much. Neither candidate is perfect.  Our trust should be in God. Good people support both candidates. I agree with Yancey’s recent post that the demonization of the other side is problematic. And yet while I agree with some  arguments offered by citizens uninterested in the election results, it does not negate the fact that the stakes are high.  I suspect during the era when women were fighting for the right to vote, or African-Americans fighting for changed laws during the Civil Rights movement, people also made similar arguments.

Political change can be a contentious process. Recently, a posting on Facebook alerted me to a set of political anti-suffrage images from about a century ago.  While the accompanying article was meant to highlight the ways that women are still treated with a lack of dignity in the media, it was the portrayal of the women in the images that caught my attention. The women are painted as ugly, lazy, hateful of their spouses, and indifferent towards their children (not all that unlike some of the more negative depictions of current feminists).

When my daughter reads about Samantha (an American Girl) and her discovery of the women’s suffrage movement, a very different portrait is presented than the images just referenced.  Samantha finds her beautiful aunt speaking at a rally; her aunt is able to convert her mother-in-law to seeing that change is good.  The story ends well. People see the light.  And maybe for a six-year old, that is an appropriate way to introduce the story.

But it’s not reality. In a world divided by partisan politics, my intent is not to suggest that we should stake our identity on political affiliation, or hold politics as the answer to all of life’s problems. But the implications of who wins matter. It matters for everyone. The marginalized are often the ones who know this the best.

I continue to love those friends and family members with whom I strongly disagree, and value the chance to dialogue with them about important issues, including (but not limited to) politics.  And I hope they continue to love me.  But the answer is not for me to pretend the election does not matter, and to turn to questions about the weather or Sunday’s football game.  During the suffrage movement, I’m sure many also wanted to move to ‘easier’ topics, to believe that women’s voting was no big deal. It was easy to portray the women who fought strongly for the right to vote as a bit overzealous or misguided.

To return back to the stories of the American Girls, I appreciate the ways that gender inequalities are presented, and the ways that readers are introduced to a wide variety of gendered norms that have existed throughout time and across culture.  In championing the ability of girls to do anything, the books show the strong spirits that the girls have; they show the ways that they challenge expectations that others have. The girls are portrayed as strong, capable, caring, and creative.

But within that, fighting inequality is often depicted as too easy.  As I take my three daughters into the voting booth with me early on November 6, I hope to also instill in them the importance of politics and policies when it comes to issues of inequality.  Yes, God is in control.  Yes, neither Romney nor Obama (nor any other elected official) will rid the world of sin. Yes, we can try to rise above our circumstances (to some degree).  But let us admit that we will start the day Wednesday affected by what happens at the polls.  It will impact America. It will impact the world.  We have acknowledged the important role that the women’s suffrage movement and Civil Rights legislation has had on the country.  Let us remember that so will our choices concerning immigration policy, welfare, corporate personhood, health care, and the dignity of life.

 

 

 

 

 

Parades and Protests

In cities across America, people marched in parades to celebrate Labor Day yesterday.  At the first Labor Day in 1882 (occurring a few years before Labor Day became an official holiday in 1894), a number of people marched through the streets of New York City.  The march 130 years ago would not have been confused with the marches yesterday, either in purpose or passion.

Walking through various neighborhoods yesterday, I saw flags hanging in front of people’s houses.  I smelled hamburgers and hotdogs cooking.  Online, I read a number of articles and other postings celebrating American workers.  For example, the US Census Bureau released this list of facts to celebrate the 155.2 million people currently participating the labor force.

For many, Labor Day is an important event, but the reasons are often very different than the reasons prompting its inclusion in the register of federal holidays. For some it marks the last day of summer before going back to school.  Many celebrate local workers (such as the fireman and police), and are thankful for the opportunities they personally have to labor in their own lives.  People often come together with family and friends. Without bemoaning these reasons for celebration, we have lost something by not remembering why Labor Day became an official American holiday.

Labor Day was originally founded in part because of class struggle.  Early organizers were concerned with two central goals:  building and inspiring the organized labor movement, and rallying the public to its cause.  In the 1930s, a number of workers were joining labor movements.  As Kazin and Ross argue (in their 1992 overview of the history of Labor Day in the United States), even with the variation across the nation in how the day was celebrated, since the 1950s, Labor Day has largely failed to evoke the raw emotions surrounding the contentious issues it once did.

It would be hard to argue that the environment towards organized labor today is a positive one.  Most will recall the events of Wisconsin in 2011, when the state—which was, ironically, the first to recognize the collective bargaining rights of workers back in 1959—scaled back such collective bargaining possibilities.  Labor movements do not have the strength they once did, although scholars of labor movements recognize the new ways that labor are involved in social movements today.

Organized labor has fewer numbers and fewer allies than it has had in the past.  Of the labor force, currently just under 12% are now affiliated with organized labor.  This chart, produced by the Bureau of Labor Statistics based on 2011 data, shows how union membership varies by occupation.

 

Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2012

 

What is it that we have lost, as parades down Main Street replace labor protests?

First, recent research by political scientists at Notre Dame and Texas A&M suggests that labor unions increase the “life satisfaction” of members—and non-members in areas where unions are present.  Perhaps especially important, they find that the impact of unions matters more for those with low incomes.  While I know readers of this blog will disagree about some of the current tactics and strategies used by unions, it is hard to deny the real effects that collective bargaining has had over the years.  They have been critically involved in championing changes to unemployment laws, fighting against discrimination of workers, and changing the working conditions and remuneration of members.

Second, Labor Day was not just a day where laborers worked for their goals and rallied members, but also a time when the general public was made aware of these voices (a point highlighted by Kazin and Ross).  Currently, many of those working in parallel jobs to the industries where unions abounded—many of the working poor and working middle class—do not have the same chances to have their voices heard.  Workers without economic capital and wealth are often absent from political debates about the economy (as witnessed by the current public rhetoric between democrats and republicans).

I believe that most of us want to be part of a society that provides a chance for all to participate in dignified work.  It is imperative that we not just recognize and celebrate all who labor, even as such an act is important.  We must also recognize the changes that organized labor have helped to bring about for many Americans, and the lack of power that many laborers continue to feel in our economy.

Family Friendly?

In the days leading up to Father’s Day this past Sunday, one could find a number of advertisements providing helpful suggestions on what to buy for Dad.  Home Depot, for example, suggested men really wanted to be fixing things and involved in construction—a task much easier accomplished with the help of their special “Man” gift card.  Just last month, diamond and flower companies were busy spending dollars encouraging families to give Mom the gifts she deserved.

These holidays remind many of us that the media presentations of family dynamics—and the women and men that make up these families—are often distorted. Educational institutions are increasingly teaching students to be critical in their consumption of many of the gendered images they see in the media. Miss Representation (2011), is but one recent example of a documentary aimed at increasing the awareness about the impacts of current media representations of men and women.

Whether it is stereotypes of men seeking power tools and women seeking diamonds or the hyper-sexualized images of males and females in the media, we need alternatives portraying men and women differently.  In this context, the idea of a family friendly outlet sounds promising.  As someone who listens occasionally to Christian music radio stations, I hear this claim often asserted, and acknowledge they do often offer positive messages.   That said, I often end up changing the dial, or turning off the radio completely, due to a lack of a family friendly encouraging message.

I have not analyzed the songs played on most Christian radio channels or those gracing the Billboard charts for their messages about families and gender.  Nor do I listen enough to pretend to know most of the messages emitted over their airwaves.  We do know that men dominate the industry. In an article available online penned about two years ago, Christianity Today brought attention to the fact that men performed 96% of the top 50 Christian songs of the decade (even as between one-fourth to one-third of Christian artists were women).

While a quick glance at a list of popular songs reveals that a majority do not describe different lived experiences for men and women, a significant amount do.  In one song, a woman is encouraged to find meaning in cleaning up Cheerios. Women are reminded that God is there when they are waiting up anxiously for their spouse to come home.  A girl struggling with her image is fulfilled by the notion that God sees her as beautiful.  I don’t object to the message in these songs. Caring and cleaning for one’s family can be an act of love.  Christian faith should speak into angst over appearances.  But these are not uniquely female issues.

Just as troublesome as the fact that only women are struggling with certain issues is that only men are struggling with others in the songs.  It is a man who is anxious about providing for his family. Men are encouraged to show more leadership in their families. And it is a man who is struggling to connect the dull moments in his work with the larger mission to which he has been called.  Taken together, the models of men and women portrayed in Christian songs promote a restrictive view of gendered roles.

When inspirational messages or short teaching messages about families are shared on the radio, messages are more direct and more normative.  Again, not all provide different teachings for men and women, but some do. One example that stands out is the notion that girls really want to be loved, and boys are competitive and want to succeed—a message even my six-year old sees as ridiculous. Such messages are not confined to Christian radio, but often asserted from pulpits as well.

As a sociologist who teaches on the family, I often remind my students that images of “traditional families” promoted by many evangelical churches (especially those that are largely white and middle/upper class) are not historically accurate. My students read a book written almost 20 years ago, Women Caught in the Conflict: The Culture War Between Traditionalism and Feminism by Rebecca Merrill Groothuis. In this book, she does an excellent job critiquing the notion that our evangelical models of families are in fact traditional. Some students are often surprised by what they read, and find it challenging to consider the ways culture is embedded in proclaimed Biblical models (progressive and conservative alike).

My observations on Christian radio are not a call to re-ignite mommy (or daddy) wars, or to argue against songs about God drying tears of insecurity, or comforting a lonely mother.  Central to the Christian faith is the idea that being loved by God should be core to our identity.  But I do want to argue against the implicit notion that not being pretty, or not being a good enough mother, are the central issues women care about.  As a parent of three girls, I want more for my daughters.  I want them to hear about women seeking to follow God by taking risks, women fighting injustice in the world, or women wrestling with intellectual and vocational questions.

Family friendly radio claims seem to be based in the fact that they do not air songs with profanity; lyrics are not too sexy; commentators do not make crass jokes. On all accounts, I support these aims. But it’s not enough. A claim of being family friendly should encourage all kinds of families through building them up and building up the members that make them. It should encourage both women and men to lead their families, and encourage them to explore and use their God-given gifts and talents.

At the moment, I have yet to find a station claiming a family friendly label that I would certify. For my family, turning off the station is sometimes the best way forward.


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