Archives for posts with tag: rendering the Other

Ferguson was supposed to be a turning point. It was the unflinching reveal of systemic violence that routinely plays out on black and brown bodies. It was supposed to be a metanoia moment for the rest of society. Instead, it became a line in the sand between Black Lives Matter and All Lives Matter; between those who must navigate the realities of daily dehumanization, along with some white allies, and those who wish to maintain a corrupted facade of ‘universality’ that is the mechanism of dehumanization. Ferguson revealed how little ground has been ceded by the powers that be, and how bloodied.

And now, Charlottesville.

A white life has been killed while standing in defiance of a colorless vision of the US–a vision that is wholly without merit, though not without precedent. This colorless vision is easy to refute when presented as a high contrast image, like the events in Charlottesville, but not as obvious in its grainier daily forms. Since last weekend I have seen many posts on social media decrying the hatred and provenance of the ideologies behind ‘unite the right’, and admonitions among the white community to stop racism at first sight in any form. I have also seen pushback from people of color who are sick of hearing the defensive response, ‘but I’m not like those people’. Both responses point to a critical piece that we, my fellow white folk, must contemplate. We have so swallowed and ingested the doctrine of individuality that it seems inconceivable we might be confused for one who looks like me but is not-me. We don’t like to be labeled (because no one likes to be labeled), and refuse to consider the subtleties of racism–because I am not ‘racist’. Not like them.

But here is one label that I am willing to guarantee: all humans are assholes.

This is also known as the doctrine of sin, or hamartiology, to get fancy. And right now we are having a serious Come to Jesus moment with communities of color.

Perhaps you’re right to say that you are not like those tiki torch carrying white men. Congratulations. So now, let’s take a look at that knapsack of privilege. When I open mine I see an above average K-12 education, childhood in an affluent and unpolluted community, which meant that I grew up with a sense of security outside the home. My parents divorced when I was young, so other people’s homes became my safe havens, as did school. College was expected, not an option. I’m blonde and blue-eyed, so no issues with fitting into the larger society. Somewhere along the way I learned to listen to the stories of others, and to take them seriously. James Baldwin, Sherman Alexie, bell hooks, and Japanese American internment survivors have all been my teachers. You could say my knapsack is adorned with the classic white, liberal badge of honor (or a Canadian flag). But all that is the easy part to identify.

Privilege likes to hide out in tide pools and shadow. It emerges in our gut reactions to something that impacts our daily routine, or sense of fairness. It feeds off particularities of perspective, the way ‘common sense’ is shaped. We see this when a white college student sues a university for not admitting her, blaming Affirmative Action for ruining her future. What seems straightforward–admitting the best and the brightest–takes a detour. The algorithms of society are usually in our favor. When something gets coded differently, suddenly it appears as unfair. There are moments when I see my Latinx and Black colleagues involved in grant-funded initiatives and think, wait, where is my opportunity? The job market is doubly bleak for us theologians. So, with churches dying and schools not hiring, why must my spouse and I bear more of a financial burden for graduate school? It isn’t fair. But when I take a step back, reframe the picture, some other factors emerge. What are the chances I will be able to work past age 60, or perhaps even 70? Good? Better than average? What about my colleagues who may or may not receive the same level of health care? Whose voices are more urgent for the church today? Mine, or the prophetic witness of my colleagues, many of whose lives bear the undue burdens of our society?

Privilege’s partner is exceptionality, also known as not-me. This is perhaps the most insidious manifestation of the doctrine of individuality. We are seldom aware of how we categorize, prejudge, and stereotype others, but we bristle when others do that to us. How dare he assume that I’m like that… Who does she think she is… Together, privilege and exceptionalism provide a filter for walking through the world. We fail to recognize all the visual cues, social patterns, and unspoken expectations that perpetuate white power.

Schoolgirls, Fort Spokane Indian School, n.d. Photo from the UW library archives.

As one of my conversation partners often likes to remind me, white people are not the only assholes on this planet–just look at history. The Huns, Aztecs, Pharoahs, and Hutus have all done their fair share of conquering, killing, and destruction. ‘They’re no different from us.’ True though that may appear, those are not the societies in which we currently live. And we do have a responsibility to be aware of how we, in this time and in this place, are being assholes to others.

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Oh, Hobby Lobby. What have you done?

Having lived in Seattle for much of the past dozen or so years, I was oblivious to the corporate entity until the 2014 healthcare case. At the time I assumed it was, quite literally, a conservative lobby group that was fighting the ACA and claiming exemption from their responsibility to female employees. So, it was a bit surprising to hear that it was actually a retail chain. Now, here they are again in the news. This recent development for the company is both shocking and yet not surprising at all.

One may be excused for thinking that a business purporting Evangelical Christian values–that has gained legal ground on such a basis–would employ staunch ethics. However, given the moral universe inhabited by many corporate families, the fact that they can both withhold birth control from their employees and import stolen artifacts from the Bible lands is actually very consistent. It has to do with their theological anthropology, among other things.

Theological anthropology is a fancy way of talking about a biblical view of the person. It usually begins with Genesis 1:

Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.’ So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. (Gen. 1.26-27)

This rendition of the creation narrative usually takes precedence over the second (yes, there are two) creation story, Genesis 2.4-25, in which God uses dirt to make the first human: adam (human) from adamah (soil). In the first creation narrative both human parties are there from the beginning, male and female. It is designed to be hierarchical with humanity atop the rest of creation. As Lynn White identified in his 1967 article (as in, fifty years ago), “The Historical Roots of our Ecological Crisis,” it is this hierarchical view of humans over creation that fundamentally shifted and shaped human ecology, the relationship between us and nature. He traces it in particular to the emergence of Frankish (religious) culture and calendars that narrate man’s dominance while providing a linear trajectory from creation to apocalypse. This is the time in history when Christianity percolates throughout Europe, gaining power in various ways. According to White’s analysis, when humanity no longer sees themselves bound to the soil along with the rest of nature, but breaks out of the cycle of seasons because God has other plans, then nature merely exists for the benefit of humankind. In other words, when we read dominion with too heavy an accent, it forms an ‘arrogant eye’ (Sally McFague, Super, Natural Christians, 1997).

What does dominion over the earth have to do with denying women contraception? Well, after a while the arrogant eye takes a rather liberal interpretation of ‘dominion’. Going back to the creation narratives, the first sets up a hierarchy, while the second introduces “Adam” before “Eve” and thereby furthers the hierarchy. As White summarizes, “Finally, God had created Adam and, as an afterthought, Eve to keep man from being lonely. Man named all the animals, thus establishing his dominance over them.” (1205) So, here we have an interpretation of total superiority over the rest of creation, starting with women, that informs relationships between men and women in conservative Christian anthropologies.

The turn to Iraqi artifacts may seem a little less obvious, but do not underestimate the powerful gaze of the arrogant eye. It reaches into jungles and deserts, mountains and wadis. 

In terms of theological anthropology, a sociocultural element intersects gender hierarchy such that anyone deemed Other is relegated to a lesser level. (This is the realm of Orientalism, and postcolonial theory.) The rhetorical focus on the Bible allows for the objects of interest to be placed in a kind of metaphorical time capsule, uprooted from contemporary persons and places. Such an obsession with material things of the Bible is endemic to evangelical Christianity, and therefore unsurprising in the Hobby Lobby owners. Objects deemed “historical” are dislocated from their place of origin, the people who created it, and anyone since then who has interacted with it. In this way a bizarre duality emerges that permits fetishizing ancient cultures while simultaneously denying connectivity between cultures, peoples, and religious beliefs. The Bible Lands are valued, but not the people inhabiting them. Material evidence of Bible texts are necessary for ‘proving’ superiority over others, but the message of scripture to be humble and love one’s enemies is never heeded. Jesus himself becomes wiped of any Jewish Palestinian provenance, just as the objects themselves cannot be faithfully traced.

In a worldview that normalizes the secondary place of other persons, and treasures clay shards over the ground from which they came, it is no wonder that the company’s acquisition of material objects is unethical. They have made it clear that the Bible is their number one priority but not the Spirit and the message it communicates.

 

I have nearly finished reading the Hunger Games in three days. There’s nothing quite like a dystopian narrative to start the new year just right. And there are any number to choose from these days.

My husband and I recently watched the film Divergent: also with a post-cataclysmic setting, segregated society, and female protagonist. Those three elements I find particularly intriguing. In both Divergent and the Hunger Games, the main characters’ self-understanding is closely linked with a connection to others. In the former, she is part of a naturally occurring subset of humanity that encompasses all the personality types and who cannot be categorized, which is also to say, contained. In the latter, she is always aware that survival requires strategic partnerships, and she exists indebted to the knowledge, kindness, and sacrifice of others. This connection to others hearkens back (oddly enough) to the film that initiated our zombie craze of recent years, Night of the Living Dead. In 1968, George Romero used religious lore to construct a horror film about race relations. For the living, staying together means staying alive regardless of where the person next to you originally came from or the color of their skin. In film, extreme situations burn off the superfluous like dross leaving “what really matters” exposed and purified for the viewer to see.

The uptick in post-apocalyptic and post-cataclysmic storylines makes me wonder: what is it our society is trying to burn off, and for whose eyes to see?

2014 was among the most turbulent in terms of social unrest that we’ve seen in a while. Lines on graphs display a growing discrepancy between the household incomes of CEOs and corporate stakeholders, and those who either make their money for them or consume their goods. As our society becomes further polarized, the class system that seemed to offer some stability and cache to the dream of Horatio Algers, is beginning to falter. In our present setting, narratives like Divergent and the Hunger Games are attempting to cast a vision for a way out–but, for whom? Those who are truly Other (as in Divergent), or those who are oppressed by the ruling center? What makes them different?

Before I can begin to address any of these questions, I feel the need to read more, to see how the authors resolve the narratives. There is a lot going on, both in the stories themselves, and the resonances held in our present situation–and then there is the not unbiased mediator of film. I will attempt in future posts to address questions individually, even as they interrelate and inform one another. I hear echoes of a prophetic voice in these post-cataclysmic narratives, and I hope to find out if there is a vision of hope that lies underneath, or if these are simply the first blaze of warning signals.

To be continued…