Theology & Practice

Quarantined: A Prophet’s Message of Hope to a People on Lockdown

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My Kaqchikel neighbor, Brenda, in Antigua (2020)

As the coronavirus sweeps across the planet, infecting thousands, taking lives and wrecking economies, I find myself stuck in Antigua, Guatemala, while my wife is stuck in Albania. Initially, I came here to recover from a mental health breakdown. My wife, on the other hand, went to Albania for a research project, sponsored by Fuller Theological Seminary. We had planned to reunite with friends in the UK in April, but in March, airports began shutting down around the world and many nations were put on quarantine, including the UK, Albania, and Guatemala. We had to cancel.

There is nothing more frightening than to be separated from the ones you love during a global crisis. Thank God my wife is safe and far from the city. I am, however, at risk and my imagination fixates on the worst possibilities: Will this crisis go longer than expected? Will I get infected or, despite the statistics, possibly die alone in a facility full of military troops and medical staff? Will I ever see my wife again? And most importantly: Will I get to hear my wife say “I love you” before having to say “goodbye”? Of course, there are no answers; only questions that can’t be resolved. I am learning, however, that there is one thing we can do in the face of this kind of fear and uncertainty … and that is to hope in God in the same way that Jeremiah the prophet called the people of Jerusalem to do while they were on lockdown.

THE LOCKDOWN

The Lord is my portion, says my soul, Therefore I have hope in him. The Lord is good to those who wait for him, to the one who seeks him. It is good that [we wait] silently for the salvation of the Lord (Lamentations 3:24 – 26).

Jeremiah, to whom tradition credits this text, spoke these words after being trapped in a town during a catastrophic crisis. More specifically, he was in Jerusalem, incarcerated for about two years in a jail that was inside the king’s palace (Jeremiah 32:2-3). The politicians didn’t like the prophet’s criticism of power, so they locked him up. During those two years, Jerusalem was also confined. It was under siege by the forces of the Babylonian king, Nebudchanezzer (39:1 – 2). Nobody was able to enter or exit Jerusalem. Some folks managed to flee to Egypt for refuge before the siege, but many remained in Jerusalem, stuck, without the ordinary rhythms of public life. Instead, the people experienced an escalation of disease, famine, and violence (21:7). In fact, the famine became so cruel in Jerusalem, it affected other places outside the city (52:6). Impact ripples! And the only thing Jeremiah could do was watch his world crumble before him.

I find a lot of similarities here with the quarantines we are experiencing in cities across the world. Sure, coronavirus is not a military entity seeking to pillage our towns, but like the Babylonian forces, it is a deadly force that seeks to destroy human life. Moreover, like the forces of Babylon, the coronavirus’ intrusion into the human community has compelled authorities around the world to put their cities on lockdown. In both scenarios, the general public is stuck within the bounds of its city while surrounded by a deadly threat from the outside. Call it what you want — besiegement, blockade, or quarantine — but in both cases, you have lockdowns happening. And lockdowns come with dier social, economic, and health related consequences.

ECONOMIC CRISIS

Antigua is an artsy town, known for its colonial streets and architecture, its beautiful indigenous people, and the gigantic volcanoes that surround the area. Only a few weeks ago, the town was full of tourists, traffic, and nightlife. Now on quarantine, with a curfew from 4 pm to 4 am, the town has become quiet and empty. No more tourists or traffic, only locals and an unfamiliar scene of lonely streets. My neighbors worry about the coronavirus spreading rapidly throughout the town, even though the statistics for this country of 18 million people aren’t shocking at this point: 70 cases of infection, 14 recoveries, and 3 deaths (still increasing). But my neighbors know that at any time, this virus can escalate and overwhelm the town, especially economically. It already is.

Antigua highly depends on tourism for its revenue, especially the revenue that comes in during Holy Week. Hundreds of thousands of tourists from around the country and the world visit Antigua during this week for the festivals. Locals look forward to it because it is the time when they can recuperate from debt or deficit. Others see this as a time to rack up money for the rest of the year. In biblical terms, this week is a type of economic Jubilee — people are freed from economic hardship for the year. But this Jubilee will not be happening this year. Holy Week has been cancelled. The people are now not only worried about possible infection or death, but also about economic collapse.

Officers are posted on every other block, while some patrol the streets. People caught outside of their homes are fined, put in jail, or made to run laps while chanting, “I will not violate the rules.” Folks who follow the rules, however, don’t worry about the officers, but they do worry about their families, employment, and food. One of my neighbors is concerned about the street dogs. They are growing skinnier by the day because there is no trash to eat. He puts out a little bit of dog food outside for them every morning. Now, if the street dogs are starving, can you imagine the homeless and the poor who live day by day? The struggle is real.

FEAR & SOCIAL CHAOS

According to scripture, the people of Jerusalem had grown calloused toward evil, even before the siege. You would think that the Babylonian invasion and Jerusalem’s containment would have provoked Jerusalem’s people and leaders to abandon their ways of oppression and corruption, but they didn’t. Instead, the crisis exacerbated their negative behavior. Jeremiah says he wished he lived in the desert so he could be far away from his people because they tended to be treacherous and evil toward each other (9:2-8). Surely, not every person behaved corruptly, just like many today are doing their best to help others. It is, however, reasonable to say that the conditions spawned by the besiegement — fear, scarcity, and disease — intensified, on a mass scale, antisocial behavior, like panic, greed, and chaos.

But isn’t this the way common people respond to social crisis, especially when leaders fail them? Jeremiah knew this, and for this reason, he continually advised the king during the containment to “administer justice every morning” (21:12) and not mistreat “the [immigrant], the orphan, or the widow”, nor “shed innocent blood” (22:3). But the king didn’t listen. On one occasion, the king obeyed Jeremiah and commanded slave owners to free their slaves. Slaves were liberated but were quickly taken back (34:8-11). Again, we cannot expect people to treat each other fairly in times of crisis when the leaders themselves are unreliable for justice. When leaders fail this task, people will do what is right in their own eyes, even if it’s wrong. No justice, no peace! Yes, the religious leaders and prophets could’ve been helpful here, but alas, instead of guiding the people, they supported the political leaders while calming the people’s consciences with illusions of safety (23:16-17).

When the coronavirus came on the global stage, many of us weren’t sure how this was going to impact our lives or our behavior. Then our cities shutdown and like the people of Jerusalem, we began to change. Within that first week of shutdown, we were bombarded by endless media coverage on television and hilarious memes that filled our social media outlets. Others panicked and flooded super markets to stalk up on food, supplies, and especially toilet paper. The shoppers weren’t always nice. Many stormed stores like it was Black Friday, greedily grabbing items and aggressively competing with other shoppers. The following week, we witnessed hospitals get overwhelmed with cases, the general public wearing surgical masks on a large scale, and authorities setting strict curfews. As the weeks continued, businesses began shutting down and unemployment rates began skyrocketing. Public tensions grew as leaders scrambled to halt a complete escalation of the virus in their cities and prevent their economies from crashing. Some leaders, however, remained stuck in their ways. In the U.S., we see many entities (human and structural) that are owed money not showing mercy to their indigent debtors; the president fixated on battling journalists in order to defend his image, claiming “total authority”; and religious leaders refusing to close churches, putting congregants at risk, some promising immunity “in Jesus name.” Outright chaos and unstable leadership! So what do the people do? They fear and panic. No wonder there’s a surge in gun sales these days. “We got to protect our families from those who might rob us,” a friend texted me, with a photo of his new gun.

The fear is real because the threat and lock down are real. And with this kind of experience, it’s absolutely appropriate to wrestle with the questions that confront most of us: Will this virus get me and my family? Will I lose my job and sink in poverty? Will will this crisis end, or will it get worse? While we may not be at the level of catastrophe that Jerusalem was in during its siege, the emotions we are wrestling with are serious. It’s okay to feel powerless, and it’s okay to cry with the prophet, “Panic and pitfall have befallen us, devastation and destruction. My eyes run down with streams of water … My eyes pour down unceasingly, without stopping” (Lam. 3:47 – 48).

HOW SHOULD WE RESPOND?

There is so much more to say about Jerusalem’s besiegement and the pandemic that holds us hostage. But I want to narrow our focus on Jeremiah’s message to those stuck in the city. While most of the pages in the book of Jeremiah are devoted to critiquing nations and kings, many pages contain words with positive direction for the people of God, words that can benefit us today.

I have gathered these words and summed them up into five points. First, the prophet calls for deep reflection: What is happening? What idols need to be forsaken that would otherwise distract us from discovering truth? What does this crisis and the encroaching new world mean for the people of God? Good reflection helps us discover ourselves and our roles in the midst of crisis. Second, Jeremiah calls for honest lamentation for pain and loss. I say “honest” because people often hesitate to express their real feelings to God and don’t like to admit their powerlessness. But Jeremiah, who’s a pro at lamenting, assures us that God desires to hear our cries and isn’t offended at strong emotion (ex: anger). Third, Jeremiah calls for repentance, that is, to feel remorse for wrongs committed against God and others, and to intentionally make matters right. These wrongs include interpersonal offenses, as well as participation in the injustices embedded in the structures of society. Fourth, the prophet calls for grace. In times like these, everyone is under pressure. What people need the most is encouragement and help. It’s good for us to be giving and encouraging to our families, but the prophet calls us to be especially gracious to neighbors, strangers, and rivals. Lastly, fifth, Jeremiah calls the people of Jerusalem to hope in God.

I think these points are very helpful. They can help guide us in our personal growth, sense of humanness, and living out kinship with others. But when one is confronted with fear and death, none of these points can recharge your courage-batteries like hoping in God! Why? Because only God has the power to resurrect bodies from our cemeteries. This power was demonstrated when God raised Jesus of Nazareth from the dead! When your hope is set on this kind of God, you’ll find the courage to face the angel of death and say, “Oh death, where is your victory” (Hosea 13:14)? Courage is good, but courage spawned by this kind of hope is much more powerful. This is important because, while we are called to hope, God doesn’t always rescue. I don’t know why. In fact, many in Jerusalem hoped for God’s rescue, but it never came. They died under lockdown. Others similarly hoped but died when the walls were torn down and the city leveled. Remarkably, Jeremiah survived and although the city was annihilated, he continued to hope in God. And from this hope, he drew courage, weaponizing it against fear, saying:

This I recall to my mind, therefore I have hope. The Lord’s lovingkindnesses indeed never cease, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning. Great is your faithfulness. The Lord is my portion,” says my soul, “Therefore I have hope in him.” The Lord is good to those who wait for him , to the person who seeks him. It is good that he waits silently for the salvation of the Lord (Lamentations 3:24 – 26).

I may or may not get infected, nor see death. But if I it happens, I know I have to come to grips with the possibility that I may not see my wife again. The thought depresses me. Nevertheless, I am reminded of the fact that God loves me endlessly, even if I’m not perfect; that God is compassionate to me and others everyday, even though we often fail to see it or show it to others.

CONCLUSION

I don’t know why this pandemic is happening. I don’t know if God unleashed it or if God is punishing us with it. I highly doubt both. But I do know this: The Divine presence is eager to hear our cries, to be with us in our pain, and to join us in our suffering in the same way that the Creator suffered with Jesus on the cross. Personally, I try to remember the many dangers God delivered me from. This helps me wait for the Creator to deliver me again. But even if it doesn’t happen and I have to die, at least I know that God will be with me in my deathbed, and I find this comforting. I will not suffer alone. I will not die alone. I will , therefore, wait silently for the salvation of the Lord and embrace the Divine presence because I know that if the Lord is willing to join us in our suffering and death, God will also be willing to resurrect us on the last day. The Lord will not forget us, for God’s love, indeed, is forever.

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Theology & Practice

Evaluating Isasi-Diaz’s Mujerista Theology

 

In her work En La Lucha, Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz provides one of the clearest sketches on the two-decade old development of Mujerista theology, which is an attempt to give voice to marginalized Latinas living in the U.S. The term La lucha (“the struggle”), according to Isasi-Diaz, refers to the daily fight Latinas are engaged in against various forms of oppressi51H6BS5H75L._AA160_on, viz.  racism, sexism, cultural suppression, and poverty, in the context of the media, the church, academia, or society. As a Latina feminist-liberation theology, Mujerista theology analyzes Latina’s socio-economic situation and their struggle in light of liberative-praxis, utilizing sociological and ethnographical frameworks for personal stories, having as a goal a kind of liberation that gives Latinas consciousness of their spiritual-cultural assets with the space to contribute theologically.

I love Mujerista theology.

Isasi-Diaz’s contextual theology is helpful in three ways. One, her model for liberative-praxis is innovative and crucial for the biblical vision of denouncing the powers of oppression and exposing its injustice. Two, she has personal liberation as her teleological enterprise. Three, she not only critically deconstructs the external context of the Latina community but also the oppressive patterns within, created by a woman’s insecurity.  Finally, four, she affirms Mestizaje as a type of eschatological confrontation to a pluralistic world that is trying to figure out how to materialize the idea of “unity-in-diversity” (33). But what I really love the most is how she synthesizes life, praxis, and reflection in her theology, describing it as an organic activity engaged by Latinos in general and Latinas in particular (177).

Ay Isasi, porque? There are some things, however, that I need to question, maybe critique..

Isasi-Diaz’s theological conclusions are definitely insightful. However, I believe that her methodological process is intentionally reductionistic and narrow. In page 5 she states the process of her method as follows:

After establishing our goal as liberation-fullness of life, we begin to delineate the means needed to achieve it. And the starting point for considering the goal is the reality of Latinas: our daily experiences. Using experiences as a basis we begin to create spaces, process, and institutions where we can operate in accord with our goal (5).

Like a person on a journey who looks toward a predetermined destination in the distant horizon, then looks at his or her own feet, and then begins carving the path toward that horizon, Isasi-Diaz engages the theological journey by setting the goal first and then looking at the starting point which is “Latina’s daily experiences” and moving forward. In other words, rather than allowing experiences to become premises, which will then shape the conclusion, Isasi-Diaz first sets the goal–or conclusion–which then shapes her lenses–or the premises which will shape her perception of the world and her experience of it–then she moves toward the goal and creates “spaces, process, and institutions.” The problem, I find, is that by setting the conclusion of the theological task first (liberation) and then moving toward it with its premise (experiences) already determined by the goal does not create more space but rather reduces that space specifically for the agenda of the one theologizing–a very narrow approach. The only space it will create will be for others who have similar experiences and conclusions about what the goal should be. Her method is thus not inclusive but too narrow and exclusive.

Isasi-Diaz’s pre-commitments in her method are evident but building on them theologically requires a word of caution. Her pre-commitments are especially clear in page 167 where she does not hesitate to indicate what they are:

From the very beginning of our attempts to articulate a mujerista theology, the centrality of praxis has been clear… based on an analysis of historical reality perceived through the lens of an option for and commitment to the liberation of Latinas (Isasi-Diaz).

While her pre-commitments are definitely respectable, my question is how can one develop a theology properly with their goal already set as their premise? Or how can one begin theologizing biblically using contextual presuppositions?

I am sure that Isasi-Diaz would reply by saying, “Everyone does it, I just happen to be straight forward about it instead of keeping my agenda hidden or locked in unconsciousness.” True. There is truth to this, but apart from it, I think that by applying her method seriously in the religious context at the expense of a biblical christology produces a model that can become instrumentally dangerous in the hands of the wrong people. This makes it easy for some body to use this framework to support an unblical and oppressive agenda. For example, if my experience as a Latino male is one by which I feel my North American context has (1) siphoned all worth from my culture by appropriating it for economic gain, (2) suppressed my leadership because it is not White, and (3) set my wife’s authority in the household over mine in the name of modern egalitarianism (which contradicts my indigenous warrior roots), then I can easily take Isasi-Diaz’s method and create an indigenous theology, or more preferably a Machismo theology, that would ultimately uphold machismo while it oppresses Latinas … against Isasi-Diaz’s wishes! My cultural identity would experience liberation from modernity, but my female friends would still continue to suffer.

Lastly, is Isasi-Diaz’s theological method even biblical? Is it irreducibly cultural or is it consistent with scripture?

It is very evident that her contextual theology is an integrative theology using both anthropology and the social sciences, and in this sense, it’s difficult to determine whether or not Mujerista theology is biblical. This doesn’t mean that it would be unbiblical in the detrimental sense. Apart from experience and praxis, however, ethnographic tools are Isasi-Diaz’s primary tools. She uses them to develop her convictions and thoughts. I don’t find this expanding the optional possibilities that help create a new history and a more inclusive theology. I see her mostly explaining her thoughts redundantly. I believe this is because the circle of logic she uses is self-reinforcing, narrowly skewed, and limited as a framework that cannot go outside of itself to explore other ways of attaining her teleological mark even though she wants to advocate for inclusivity. I believe that if Isasi-Diaz was to rearrange her thesis for the liberation of Latinas within a Christological framework, not only would she get some of the same conclusions she is already pressing, if not better ones, but her methodological process would become more biblically based, unquestionably Christological, and more safeguarded from others who may want to use it for selfish or oppressive endeavors.

Where do we go from here?

I have been noticing the direction that liberation theology is going. I am concerned. As a liberation theology proponent I strongly believe that a gospel “lived out” is not only more important than a gospel exclusively “thought out.” However, if we do not put an effort in really “thinking out” what “living out” looks like specifically in the narrative of God’s redemption for his people and particularly in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ and the narrative he pioneered for us, we will find ourselves developing theology upon sandy ground and cultural constructs that will together with the changing times fade away.

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Theology & Practice

The Myth of Ontological Sinfulness: How the notion of inherent sinfulness contributes to the scapegoating of ethnic minorities.

(This is an essay presented by Ivan Paz at the American Academy of Religion [Western Region] in February 2017)


Introduction

A culture of conflict generally exists in the U.S. between the criminal justice system and people of color, especially those who live in economically disadvantaged inner-city neighborhoods—who I will, for the sake of brevity, call “the urban poor”. This conflict has been graphically illustrated by the series of demonstrations for racial justice that have been occurring across the nation for the past few years. Concerned about the role of religion within this particular setting, this paper addresses the following question: instead of functioning as a prophetic voice and engaging in peace-building between the two, why is there a tendency among evangelical Protestants to side with the criminal justice system and support the institutional mistreatment of the urban poor?

While this tendency can be traced to the racial imagination that American Protestantism is rooted in, this paper focuses on the subtle fusion between two perspectives: the concept of ontological human sinfulness —i.e. the notion that humans are inherently sinful—and the assumption that crime is primarily an urban-poverty phenomenon. Drawing from Rene Girard’s scapegoat theory, this paper argues that this theological concept of the human functions as a powerful myth in evangelical-Protestant theology and that this myth is ideologically bound to the structural categories of criminality that have historically oppressed social minorities. To answer the question above, this bind compels the religious proponents of the myth to perceive the urban poor not only as sinners in a spiritual sense but as a kind of criminal-sinner whose suppression seems necessary for the establishment of order/justice in society.

Girardian Framework: Myth and Scapegoating

A common view in the field of anthropology is that myths are traditional narratives that engender cultural identity by explaining a community’s origins and sacred mission.[1]  According to Sigurd N. Skirbekk, myths generally (1) provide existential meaning to community members; (2) interpret complex social-struggles as conflicts between two cosmic forces; (3) incite members to participate in the culture of the community; (4) offer symbols that help members interpret social experiences; and (5) mobilize members toward specific social agendas.[2]

Girard agrees: myths are foundational narratives for culture and society. But in terms of how they are constructed, Girard argues that myths are transfigured accounts of collective violence against “a scapegoat”: that is, a person or a group of people who are regarded as the primary source for the problems that threaten a community’s wellbeing and whose expulsion seems to be a necessary step toward establishing order and peace.[3] Girard contends that behind the narrative of nearly every myth lies a true story of bloodshed but because the story is retold inter-generationally from the perspective of the persecutor, the story develops a seemingly innocent character of its own.

A basic understanding of Girard’s scapegoat theory is helpful here. According to Girard, humans are fundamentally imitative in nature: they have an instinctual tendency to imitate each other and a desire for others to imitate them. As the imitative relationship evolves, competition and rivalry ensues, creating conflict between those who are involved in the relationship. Girard calls this a mimetic crisis, at which point conflict escalates and becomes violent. The violence then spirals out of control, the community grows increasingly exhausted, and in its desperation for tranquility, the community dynamically converges upon an innocent victim who is blamed for the problems the community is experiencing. Assuming that the expulsion of the perceived culprit means the removal of the problems in the community, the victim is punished by exile or death. The perceived tranquility after the expulsion is interpreted as the result of a supernatural act and the scapegoat as type of divine messenger who sacrificed self for the community. The scapegoat becomes a sacred symbol of the community’s cultural unity and the story becomes the foundational myth for an emerging society, a myth that offers socio-structural precedents that supposedly will help prevent future crises.[4]

If Girard is correct, then myths are never innocent stories; they are full of violence. They not only contain hidden accounts of bloodshed, but they also have the power to reinforce patterns of institutional scapegoating across multiple generations because myths, Girard argues, function as texts of persecution: i.e. narratives that incite violence on vulnerable social outcasts. When a society experiences cultural challenges, the imagination of the myth often compels the members of that society to resolve the crisis in ways that correspond with the principles that they have inherited from the myth. Desiring order, a society blames and sacrifices those whose presence is incongruous with the dominant culture—a culture that was shaped by its founding myth. Unfortunately, many do not think critically about the perspectives that are handed to them. Such is the case with many evangelicals in the U.S. They have blindly accepted a theological framework that is grounded in an erroneous myth about an inherently sinful, human nature, a myth that conceals an ideological scheme of domination that tends to target communities of color.

Ontological Sinfulness is a Dangerous Myth

The evangelical concept of ontological human sinfulness—or OHS for brevity—is a myth. Just as a myth provides a foundational narrative for a community, the concept of OHS provides a foundational narrative about human origins and the problem of evil (Adam and Eve sinned and transmitted a sinful nature to humanity). As a myth, it also identifies a problem (sinful humans liable to divine punishment) while presenting a solution (surrogate punishment through Christ’s body). In these ways, the concept of OHS functions as a myth, engendering a religious imagination that nurtures evangelical identity and incites Christian participation in a projected drama of redemption. This religious imagination, however, has a tendency to be co-opted by state powers that have an invested interest in social control.

Consider the Protestant connection to manifest destiny, the early American notion that the U.S. would lead the world in human progress. Manifest destiny assumed that white Americans were a superior race, ordained by God to populate the new world and establish order. These assumptions, however, were driven by an ideological interest in westward expansion. Along with the pioneers of this expansionist project, many of the revivalists, the predecessors of evangelical Protestants, were inspired to expand Christianity westward by “preaching salvation” to the non-Christian natives.

Proselytizing may seem like a pious undertaking to many Christians, but the truth is that land was coveted, slave-labor was needed, and the natives were regarded nuisance. Since human beings were considered depraved and divinely condemned by most early American Protestants, and since the cultural and physical characteristics of Native American, Mexican, and African peoples seemed non-Christian, these ethnic groups were regarded as deserving of God’s wrath. They became perfect targets for larceny, violence, and repression. A hierarchy of racial categories was developed and a racist illusion—buttressed by law and Protestant thought—was brought forth, resulting in the plundering of land from Native Americans, as well as the taking of freedom from Blacks.[5]

This mechanism of domination and violence continues to be active in American institutions of justice today, and social minorities are the most vulnerable. When society experiences social challenges, social minorities are quickly blamed and scapegoated because they are typically seen as a nuisance to the prevailing order.

My Experience with Fresno’s Cease Fire Program

In 2010, I participated in a gang intervention forum called Fresno Cease Fire. This forum, which took place in a church facility, was a collaborative effort between evangelical ministry leaders and local government, intending to confront gang-members for their street violence.[6] Having been ordered by probation and parole, gang-members arrived.[7] The men were asked to sit in a group and face a panel of officers. Behind the panel hung a large backdrop, displaying the mugshots of several gang-members with details of their criminal convictions. Officers began the session by delivering a message to them: “leave the gang or face the full force of the criminal justice system.”[8] When the officers finished speaking, they left the building. Then it was the ministers’ turn to approach the gang-members with resources and “the gospel”.

As the ministers approached the men, I approached “Wicked,” the one who seemed to be the most influential among the gang-members. Having come from the same background, I assumed that I would easily connect with him. I was wrong. Before I uttered my first word, Wicked said, “Look dog… You ain’t here for us. You are here for the cops. In fact, you are one with them, so fuck you! You ain’t nothing but a sell-out.”[9] I was discouraged! We were only trying to help them, I thought. When I shared what Wicked had said to me with one of the other ministers who had been present, his response was, “Ivan, these criminals are sinners. They need to accept the gospel and change their ways, otherwise they will suffer the consequences of God’s justice.”

Protestant evangelicals who embrace the myth of OHS are not always aware of how their perspective of human nature is bound to notions of criminality. Yet the reality is that the two intersect quite often. This carries serious implications for the ways in which one understands the urban context. If crime is understood as a direct result of ontological sinfulness and there tends to be a preponderance of crime in urban neighborhoods, will it not be logical to assume that a preponderance of sinfulness exists there as well? Indeed this is often the assumption. Just ask ordinary, evangelical folks, “Where is the bad side of town?” Watch them point their finger toward the inner-city. Then ask them, “Where do you see human depravity the most in your city?” Watch their finger point in the same direction again. They may claim that all sins are equally evil and that all humans are equally sinful, yet the concentration of criminal reports connected to these types of neighborhoods and the evangelical tendency to associate crime with sin compels these folks to associate depravity with the inner-city at a much higher level than economically affluent areas. In theory, all people are sinful but in practice, the urban poor are the ones who are treated as sinners. They seem spiritually lost, more dangerous, intimidating, and in even greater need of “the transformative power of the gospel”.

Two Lenses and The Illusion of the Criminal-Sinner

The tendency to perceive the urban poor in terms of sinfulness and criminality results from the subtle fusion of two perspectives: the myth of OHS and the notion of urban criminality—that is, the host of criminal stereotypes associated with disenfranchised inner-city neighborhoods as a result of the illusion cast by the criminal justice system and mass media. While OHS is fundamentally a theological perspective maintained by many Christians, the notion of urban criminality is generally a secular perspective held by a large portion of the American population, Christian and non-Christian alike. Analogous to the way that two lenses on a set of 3D glasses function together to produce powerful and life-like illusions out of certain medium, these two perspectives tend to merge together, creating for many evangelicals an image of depravity when they consider the urban poor.

Let me delineate this a bit further. One lens, the myth of OHS, creates the perception that human nature is totally depraved and that all humans are equally sinful. The other lens, the notion of urban criminality, associates crime with the urban context. If the two views are like lenses on a set of 3D glasses, then the concept of divine right is like the bridge between a pair of glasses, the piece that holds the lenses together. The Protestant concept of divine right hybridizes notions of sin and crime, and through this hybridity, notions of criminality and sinfulness intersect. On the one hand, the notion of urban criminality compels the perspective of OHS to direct its theological focus on the concreteness of the urban context and apply its interpretation of human nature on the urban poor. On the other hand, the perspective of OHS ascribes a spiritual dimension to the perspective of urban criminality, so that criminal behavior begins to look more like the outworking of human depravity rather than the result of social and economic inequity. As a result of this conceptual synthesis, people of color—esp. from poor urban neighborhoods—are perceived not only as sinners but as criminally inclined sinners.

The Fusion of the Two Perspectives

Evangelicals should not assume that they are somehow uniquely shielded from the influence of the criminal justice system and the media, nor that they are blameless from stereotyping the urban poor. If there is anything unique about evangelicals, it is that they add another dimension to the stereotypes, a dimension that is spiritual in nature. Like the two lenses on the set of 3D glasses, the lens of urban criminality works together with the lens of OHS to create for the Christian a sinister image of the urban poor. The former lens obscures from their perception any innocence the poor may have had, while the latter supplants the biblical claim that the poor bear the image of God. When the perception of the two lenses fuse into one, the religious imagination of evangelicals incorporates the ideological dimensions connected to notions of urban criminality, producing the illusion that the urban poor are culprits responsible for the problems threaten the social order. Evangelicals wearing these set of lenses find the illusion powerful and irresistible because it seems to stand on truth.[10]

The two perspectives, urban criminality and OHS, easily combine in the mind of the Christian. I identify three reasons for this. The first reason is that both perspectives pay special attention to deviant behavior. The perspective of urban criminality, influenced mostly by the criminal justice system, pays special attention to illegal behavior in an effort to identify crime. The myth of OHS focuses on all human behavior and interprets it as rooted in selfishness and depraved desire. The main difference between the two is that the latter locates malevolence inside of the human’s being while the former identifies it in the acts themselves, or in places where these acts often take place. Nonetheless, notions of urban criminality, like the religious view, also absolutize evil in humans by labeling offenders as criminals.

Second, both perspectives hold human beings responsible for evil in one form or another. The myth of OHS presumes that all humans are guilty of lawlessness because they have broken God’s law and are born with a nature that is offensive to divine standards. The perspective of urban criminality assumes that people are guilty when legal authorities and the data they provide declare it. Both perspectives follow a pattern of legality yet the religious one seems to be more rigid and less merciful because, according to its logic, one cannot be absolved from wrongful acts unless blood is spilled. Nevertheless, both perspectives use similar concepts of legality to hold humans responsible for evil and, as a result, the two almost inevitably combine. This was evident in the collaboration between the church ministers and Fresno police officers as they attempted to confront and hold the gang-members accountable for their violence.

Finally, both perspectives interact in a complimentary way. Notions of urban criminality reinforce the concept of ontological sinfulness by supplying it with empirical evidence. Apart from observable or measurable phenomena, the claim that sinfulness resides inside of the human is an untenable idea—for on what empirical grounds can one make such a claim? But people holding the myth of OHS usually capitalize on data depicting evil and interpret it as evidence of inherent sinfulness. For example, one pastor, referring to the Ferguson protests, said, “When the men and women and young people were rioting… they were manifesting the natural depravity of their hearts.”[11] In turn, notions of urban criminality gain religious adherents and the criminal justice system gains moral validation, especially in their institutional suppression of criminalized people.

Conclusion

People who wear glasses typically view the world around them without consciously paying attention to the lenses they are wearing, nor do they critically assess how their lenses shape the way they view the world. They just observe. Likewise, evangelicals are not always aware that they view the world through certain perspectives and they are not always keen to assess the ways in which their lenses affect the way they perceive the world. They simply observe. In regard to the myth of OHS and the notion of urban criminality, evangelicals are generally oblivious to the fact that together these two lenses create the kind of perception which make the urban poor not only vulnerable to institutional scapegoating. They do not immediately sense the ideological dynamics at work because the myth of OHS absorbs notions of urban criminality into its own mythical narrative of sin and redemption. Thus when police interrogate, beat, or kill a person of color from the urban context or when the courts incarcerate or execute them in overwhelming amounts, evangelicals do not usually look at the criminal justice system with suspicion. Instead, they tend to respond indifferently or support the system. They may see themselves as “a voice” in the urban wilderness, calling people to salvation, but as soon as Wicked knocks their lenses off with his words, as he did to me, they will discover that they seem more like the religious voice of a lynch mob, calling the urban poor to recant or suffer institutional punishment.

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Theology & Practice

An Effective Community Organizing Framework for Empowering Self-Sustainable, Neighborhood Leadership

Healthy grassroots, community organizing empowers people to create self-sustainable leadership around the issues they want to address without subjecting them to the control, direction, or agenda of outside organizations. This type of self-sustainability, however, is challenging work and there is no cookie cutter model. Every neighborhood contains unique networks of relationships and specific patterns of social interactions. Some neighborhoods have active resident associations, others don’t have any associations at all, and still some have community groups facilitated by community institutions. For this reason, it is important for the community organizer to recognize that outreach strategies should be engaged contextually with a high degree of flexibility. This certainly does not mean that he/she should engage neighborhoods without a plan. Community organizers should engage neighborhoods with a plan, especially a community organizing framework that is contextually adaptable.

The Community Organizing Spiral

As a basic framework for organizing resident leaders, I have adopted the Community Organizing Cycle (see image on the right)–taken from page 106 of Mike Green’s ABCD: When People Care Enough to Act. rrrrrrThis technique is rooted in Asset-Based Community Development (ABCD) principles. ABCD is a theory of social change premised on the idea that effective community development work and problem solving starts with the assets and strengths that already exist in a particular community. Following the steps in the cycle of this framework has been an effective part of my community organizing strategy to help residents catalyze their own self-sustainable, neighborhood associations.

Step 1: Learning Conversations. The most effective way to discover a community’s assets is to engage the first step of the spiral—i.e. learning conversations. These are usually one-on-one conversations that help the organizer discover assets, common concerns, and key leaders within a particular community. Having a set of strategic questions to help the organizer discover components of neighborhood leadership is wise—“Tell me a little about yourself … What do you love the most about your area? What do you like the least? What would you change and how will you change it? Who will you change it with? When do you want to start?” Through the course of the conversation, these questions can help facilitate the discovery of a person’s skills, experience, pain, passion, networks, and capacity to engage community work.

But how does the organizer find the right people to have learning conversations with?

I usually asset map the area that I am focused on. Asset mapping is a way of accessing existing data (online/phone calls/etc.) for each neighborhood in order to inform canvassing activities–e.g. scouting the area to make direct contact with residents for the purpose of conducting learning conversations with them and to identify potential leaders who care enough about their neighborhood to act (there is never a shortage of these folks; sometimes they just need to be energized). I usually ask myself: “Where are the activity centers/spots (community center, schools, parks, shops, etc.) in the area?” Then I enter those spaces to make connections and I engage people in learning conversations. Sometimes, an organization that is part of my social network is already active in the community life of the neighborhood. When this is the case, I make a request to that organization to help me connect with the community that they are already working with by creating space for me to present what I am trying to do (find those who care enough to act to provide them with community organizing coaching) and ask them what they are already doing. If these kinds of opportunities to connect are not available or these kinds of communities are not interested in self-sustainable organizing, the other options for me are to try to connect with home/property owners in the area or to participate in neighborhood block parties.

Step 2: Form Leadership Groups. Once discoveries of assets, common concerns, and potential leaders (people who care enough to act) are made, the organizer can bring people together to form Connector-Leadership Groups. Usually, I gather key people (4 to 10) from a particular neighborhood to facilitate a collective version of the learning conversation model. As the group engages this conversation, they not only develop relationships and trust with each other but they begin to grow conscious of the common feelings they share and the issues they want to address. This exercise usually helps residents form a strong bond and shared vision for their community.

In one neighborhood, I had engaged dozens of learning conversations by the end of the summer of 2016. Having sensed a common concern for neighborhood safety—there were several acts of violence that occurred in that area during the summer—I invited key residents to a community meeting to talk about what a healthier and safer neighborhood may look like for that area. During the meeting, I facilitated a collective version of the learning conversations and immediately residents expressed excitement about feeling like what was lacking in the neighborhood was trust. After the learning-conversations exercise, most expressed that they could begin trusting each other, and they decided to meet several times thereafter.

The excitement that emerges among residents as they make these discoveries should immediately be met with a challenge to practice learning conversations with more residents. Usually, I help leadership groups re-imagine what could emerge if each engaged in a certain amount of learning conversations with neighbors by a particular time.

Step 3: Select an Issue for Action. After engaging learning conversations with several residents, leadership groups should debrief what they have heard and then identify common issues that the community wants to address. The organizer should facilitate this without imposing their own agenda (if they have one). This leads leadership groups into the next step, which is to choose a primary Issue for Action, or a problem the group wants to resolve. In the community mentioned above, residents decided that they wanted to see violent crime in the area decrease and engage in activities that would contribute to this goal.

Step 4: Research the Issue. After selecting an issue for action, the leadership group should then research the issue. This can be done in a variety of ways, from researching on the internet, having meetings with institutional representatives, asset mapping, to engaging areas as a group with cameras and taking photos.

In another neighborhood, the leadership group that I had been working with chose to engage in a park clean up. During the cleanup, a child playing in the playground’s wood chips was stung by a syringe needle. The leadership group decided something needed to be done to remove those chips. In the span of about two weeks, leaders visited other parks across town and discovered that other playgrounds usually use rubber matting and not wood chips. Through some of their research they also discovered that a quarter-mile away from the park there is a methadone clinic that treats patients who suffer from severe heroin addiction, and that many of the patients hangout in the park to consume their drugs. Because there are only two benches in the park and both are located right in front of the playground, patients usually sit on those benches to consume their drugs and toss their drug paraphilia into the playground, along with a lot of trash. That paraphernalia usually becomes hidden in the wood chips. Resident leaders have taken this research and are connecting the dots to form a strategy for change.

Again, the organizer should facilitate this research work by giving direction to neighborhood leaders. Residents don’t always know where to start. In regard to connecting residents with civic leaders, organizers should avoid gate-keeping networks of power or acting as representatives of the community. They should, instead, create spaces for residents to assert themselves. Otherwise, the organizer will dis-empower the resident leaders and make them dependent on him/her for institutional connections.

Step 5: Plan for Action. After a good amount of research, the group should construct a plan of action and do so with the gifts, assets, and resources that they have at their disposal.

In the neighborhood mentioned above, neighborhood leaders crafted a case, or plan of action, for replacing the wood chips in the playground: get city / park officials to replace the playground’s wood chips with rubber matting, especially since there is a methadone clinic down the street, drug use is taking place on the playground, and a child has been injured by a syringe needle.

Step 6: Take Action and Debrief. The next step is to take action, and after action is taken, the group should debrief their experience, evaluate the quality of their action plan, and either try again or celebrate their success. In the neighborhood above, where residents are advocating to rearrange the park’s playground, resident leaders are now setting up meetings with public / park officials to address this request.

After every meeting, I debrief with the leaders by asking the following questions: “What worked? What didn’t work? How can you make your action plan better? What is the next move?” In this way, residents are continually learning and contextualizing their work. Sometimes the victory is instant and a success, at which point, resident leaders are encouraged to put together some form of celebration to honor themselves and to recite the story of the work and mission they have engaged in. Celebration helps residents not get trapped in considering community work as only more tasks on a list, but something that is collectively meaningful, something that is part of a collective struggle. Reciting the story helps residents create a narrative for the community, even a story of redemption that adds a little bit of drama and inspiration to what they are doing.

Step 7: Repeat. After all of this, the group repeats the cycle, increasing their organizational competence to effect positive change in their community.

Conclusion

While this framework has been very effective in my line of work–equipping residents to develop the kind of neighborhood associations that will assert themselves and pursue the change they want to see in their community–I am certain that it will benefit the work of others: church ministers, college campus workers, social activists, community developers, etc. Try it out! You will not be disappointed!

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Theology & Practice

“They must increase; I must decrease!” A paradigm for Leadership Development

Leadership development is exciting work, especially in the area of community development and Christian ministry. But over the years, I have grown increasingly convinced that if you are committed to leadership development in the context of this kind of work and the people whose leadership you have been cultivating aren’t now leading you–even after several years of investing in them–you have more than likely failed in your commitment. Again, if your student/mentee/community is still following your drumbeat after ten years or more and you have not yet got behind their leadership with a sincere sense of needing to learn from them, you are probably not as committed to leadership development as you thought you were.

Maybe you tend to focus more on your personal success than you do on the success of others. Perhaps you struggle with an addiction to power and control and don’t know how to create space for others to lead. Or maybe I’m being too presumptious–you probably mean well. You’ve just never been provoked to think about this stuff and in the fast-paced tendency of work life, you’ve grown accustomed to lead with an almost exclusive focus on your own work’s mission and not on the leadership development of those you lead. Whatever the case may be, my challenge is valid: if you’re committed to leadership development but are not intentionally setting yourself up to follow the leaders you helped cultivate, you need to re-evaluate your paradigm.

By definition, leadership development indicates progress. This means that there should be a sequence of positive growth between your leadership and the leadership of those you lead, especially as it relates to the mission/vision of the work you share with them. If you are in youth ministry, the young person you invested in the most over the years–who is now done with high school–should be leading the youth group or helping you lead it more effectively. If you are engaged in community development work, the board or advisory committee you helped create for a particular neighborhood you serve shouldn’t just reflect the demographics of that neighborhood but should consist of people who are personally part of that neighborhood. As a leader, you are called to catalyze new heroes for the mission, not successors of your legacy; innovators for the cause, not technicians for your projects; leaders you will follow, not advocates who can get others to follow you. Being a successful leadership developer means that you are wholeheartedly committed to creating spaces where you diminish in the shadows of your pupils.

jesus-came-to-john-the-baptist-richard-hubal

Artwork by Richard Hubal (2009)

John the Baptist is a perfect example of this paradigm. Though controversial, John was a popular leader in Israel during his time. He was radical in his faith and had a large following. When his younger cousin, Jesus, began to emerge as a new leader in Israel, John’s disciples worried that they would be forced to recede into Jesus’ shadow. But this didn’t bother John. Instead, John replied, “He must increase; I must decrease” (John 3:3). In other words, “I was just a precursor. Jesus is the next level. Let us get behind him and follow him.” And if you think that Jesus considered himself the end of the mission, just listen to what he tells his disciples during his last supper with them, before his departure: “Truly, truly, I say to you, he who believes in Me, the works that I do, he will do also; and greater works than these he will do; because I go to the Father” (John 14:12). Wow! What humility is in Jesus: he elevates his disciples’ leadership over his own, even though it is nearly impossible for anyone to draw a comparison with him!

John and Jesus’ leadership development paradigm is in clear opposition to the kind of leadership development paradigm that I am challenging: You know–the kind that seeks to maintain the spotlight, the control, and the glory; the kind that, together with the mission, begins to die when the established leader or his/her popularity fades away; and the kind that wages war with the next generation of leaders because, like Cain, it is determined to resist being cast into another’s shadow. 

If we are to take Jesus seriously at all, then shouldn’t we take his paradigm in leadership development seriously? Shouldn’t we, like him, also be willing to practice humility and tell ourselves, as we invest in others, “They must increase; I must decrease”?

Yes, of course we should! And to be honest, this is a much better paradigm for leadership development than what we have known.

 

 

 

 

 

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Theology & Practice

A Discussion on Theology, Policing, and Restorative Justice Pt. 2

The following video is the second part of a two-part series discussion on the theological connections/implications of racialized policing and restorative justice. The show was hosted by Jim Grant, Director of Social Justice for Roman Catholic Diocese of Fresno, and published on October 18, 2016.

(Click on image to watch. For part 1, click here)

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CATHOLIC SOCIAL TEACHING 101: #14 Restorative Justice (Part 2 of 2)

Channel KNXT1

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Theology & Practice

A Discussion on Theology, Policing, and Restorative Justice Pt.1

The following video is the first part of a two-part series discussion on the theological connections/implications of racialized policing and restorative justice. The show was hosted by Jim Grant, Director of Social Justice for Roman Catholic Diocese of Fresno, and published on October 13, 2016.

(Click on image to watch. For part 2, click here)

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CATHOLIC SOCIAL TEACHING 101: #13 Restorative Justice (Part 1 of 2)

Channel KNXT1

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