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.


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.

The context of religion

I had the privilege to spend the last week at the 5th Latin American Conference on Evangelization (CLADE V in Spanish), sponsored by the Latin American Theological Fraternity (FTL). FTL is well known for its emphasis on integral mission, a Protestant response to many of the social, political, and economic problems occuring in Latin America during the 1960s and 70s.

Sociologists would classify most of the people at the event as conservative or evangelical Protestants.  The average participant reads the Bible regularly and takes a high view of its authority; she believes in  the power of the Holy Spirit to work in the world.  The group prioritizes the need to share ones faith and live the Gospel. Relationships are of central importance, both regarding one’s relation to God and neighbor.  Among the denominations represented were the Evangelical Free Church, Mennonites, Presbyterians, Anglicans, Assemblies of God, Christian Missionary Alliance, Baptists, the Christian Reformed Church and independent Pentecostals.

As studies of religion and political life reveal, theology often seems to matter inconsistently (or very little) when it comes to political and economic issues for the average person of faith.  Within the United States, for example, Kenneth Wald and Allison Calhoun-Brown (in Religion and Politics in the United States) show that socio-economic status (and history) are much more important that the theological beliefs of a group in predicting their political views on economic issues. In the United States, due in part to the upward mobility of this group, white evangelicals have tended to be more politically conservative regarding the economy (think of issues such as welfare or taxation policy). Yet among Black Protestants (also theologically conservative) and evangelicals across the Global South, this same connection is not present.  Increasingly, scholars are also separating Hispanic Catholics from other Catholics, as faith seems to matter in different ways for these different groups as well.

While social science data often seems to support the idea that theology and religious beliefs do not matter in any consistent ways when it comes to views of the economy, we should remember this does not mean theology is not important for the ways people engage and think about economic life.  As Hart found in the mid 1990s in his study of Christians in the United States (What Does the Lord Require? How American Christians Think About Economic Justice), people use their faith to develop ideas about economic life; yet people pull from different religious ideas, and those who worship together may arrive at contradictory conclusions. While many in the United States would still say theology doesn’t matter much when it comes to their economic views, for others, religious ideas are very important.

Sitting in a room with my Latin American sisters and brothers, I saw the social sciences played an important role, and I doubt few would have been surprised by any of the statements listed above.  However, they take such ideas a step further, arguing that theology itself is contextual.  So the issue may be less that one’s economic position takes precedence over one’s view of scripture in predicting certain political views, and more that economics has the power to deeply shape ones view of scripture and theology.

Many of the arguments I heard last week were uncontested, yet they were not ones you would hear at the typical megachurch in the United States. Access to water should not be bought and sold. No person is illegal. The high level of consumption many of us have is not a good use of the earth´s resources.  When abuse or exploitation happens, real justice demands responsibility for one´s actions.  These views are deeply theological, flowing from beliefs of most participants in the global South: that the image of God is in every person, that the Holy Spirit brings life where there is death, that solidarity with our sisters and brothers is a demand of the gospel, and that obedience to Christ is about a covenant with God and those around us.

Recognizing that context matters as it does should cause all people of faith to re-examine their own theologies and religious beliefs. Evangelicals of various political stripes in Latin America tend to see destruction caused by US mining efforts or manufacturing of weapons. Christians in the United States must at least seriously consider these claims (and our responsibility).  As I find in my own research, among Christians in the US who share some of these concerns, it is often those with connections with Christians abroad. That is, although their context is that of the global North, their perspective is shaped by those outside such a context. This seems to resonate with what Christian Smith and Michael Emerson (Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America) found over a decade ago when studying white evangelicals. It was those who were in networks with black Americans that were more likely to see systematic injustice– in this case, to recognize racism and discrimination as significant problems.

In an age of globalization, we have more chances than before to be a part of global networks, with those in different positions in the international system. How might we—here, I specifically mean people of faith within the United States—allow ourselves to think more critically about our own context and how it shapes our theology?  How might we think about issues like economic globalization (which tend to benefit many of us in the middle or upper class of the United States) as deeply theological ones? These are issues of life and death, as my brothers and sisters consistently confirmed last week. As people of faith, we can not afford to ignore the context of our own theologies.

Non-Christian Asian Americans and Religious Tolerance

In earlier posts I’ve shown how difficult it is to get a good survey of religion among Asian Americans, and I’ve shown what we sort of know about the actual religious prevalence of this racial group. The one group I have neglected to mention are the religiously-affiliated non-Christians. In the following pie charts I illustrate data using the Pew Religious Landscape Survey 2008 of the estimated distribution of major world religions for the entire sample and within the Asian American sample. As you recall this was only translated into Spanish so, the Asian American findings pertain to those who are comfortable answering a survey over the phone in English. [Read more…]