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.

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.

 

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?

 

Sexual Exploitation and Religious Advocacy

Anyone who has leafed through an airline travel magazine can probably name a number of ways that they stand out from other publications. Flying just this week, I saw many of the same messages I’ve seen in the past.  Multiple advertisements promise to help professional and ‘quality’ men find the ‘quality’ women they deserve.  Other marketing materials identify the best steakhouses, the best plastic surgeons, or the newest (expensive) sports equipment.

This time around, a particular advertisement caught my eye precisely because it did not fit as well with the others.  Still targeted towards an upper-class, internationally networked, professional male population, a child’s eyes took up the top quarter of the page.  Under the image was the following caption:

I’m not a tourist attraction.
It’s a crime to make me one.

Stop child sex tourism.
www.seekjustice.org

Although the audience was the same, this advertisement, sponsored by World Vision International (WVI), with support from U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, speaks a very different message.  It is part of a broader initiative to combat the growing problem of exploitation, enabled in part by the power this magazine’s audience holds.

Sex trafficking and forced sexual labor is a growing problem.  Along with other forms of forced labor, it is an issue that evangelicals and other faith-based organizations are increasingly protesting.  Recent statistics released last month from the International Labor Organization suggest that approximately 20.9 million people globally are victims of forced labor. 4.5 million of those are exploited for their sexual labor.  If we consider the millions of other sex workers who “voluntarily” chose the trade, often with little real choice, the numbers rise significantly. Evangelicals, alongside of feminist groups and other concerned about human rights, have worked together in coalitions (such as the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women) to support legislation and lead campaigns aimed at ending sex trafficking and forced sexual labor. The International Justice Mission is one organization that has galvanized attention in the evangelical community to this problem; they work to change structures, and hold accountable those committing and enabling the abuse.

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The location of this particular advertisement speaks to the larger context in which forced sexual labor occurs.  The audience for this magazine is the opposite of the image in the advertisement.  The picture is of a presumably non-Western girl.  We know that children and women who are predominantly the victims of trafficking; further, it is the ‘other,’ the foreigner, that is often trafficked. Although discussing the commercial sex industry more generally, Kevin Bales notes how power differentials play into the growth of sex trafficking, specifically in Thailand (“Because She Looks Like a Child” in Woman: Nannies, Maids, and Sex Workers in the New Economy, edited by Barbara Ehrenreich and Arlie Russell Hochschild, Harry Holt Publishers, 2002):

Commercial sex is a legitimate form of entertainment and release.  It is not just     acceptable: it is a clear statement of status and economic power.  Such attitudes reinforce the treatment of women as mere markers in a male game of status and  prestige (216).

I have been encouraged by religious actors’ responses to the devastating problem of forced sexual labor.  Teaching at Wheaton College, I see some of the consequences of this engagement: many of my students are committed to working for social change in this area.  They see the responsibility for the church to mourn with the victims of sexual violence, and to struggle for their justice.

At the same time, my hope continues to be that the issue of sex trafficking will also draw attention to the problem of sexual violence and sexual commodification committed in less egregious ways, but ones that still strip women (and children) around the world of their dignity.  Sexual violence is an issue that plagues the church.  While some religious communities give significant attention to these issues, many do not. Scholars consistently try to correct the myths surrounding the violence: that it exists only in certain communities, that victims are somehow responsible, that is is mainly due to alcohol or drug abuse.  Instead, they point to ways such violence is made possible through the power dynamics at work (as highlighted by Bales above).

The work of groups like WVI, IJM, and many others in the faith community to combat sex trafficking is important and necessary. There still remains, however, a need to reflect more on the norms that also contribute to a demand for human trafficking.

Women are for the consumption of men.

Sexuality is something to be taken, or something that can be bought and sold.

Those who are foreign, or racially and ethnically different, are less human.

Men are naturally sexually deviant.

While few might fully endorse the statements above, these norms are present are various levels throughout our culture–unfortunately, even in the church.  Continuing to address them is vital in struggles not just against sexual trafficking, but also other forms of sexual exploitation and violence.


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