Cui Bono?

This week I am teaching one of my favorite topics to discuss–the death penalty.  We begin the chapter by watching Dead Man Walking and then get into the moral arguments and the practical realities of the death penalty in America.  This chapter comes near the end of a year long morality class, so we’ve been practicing all year how to identify and analyze moral arguments.  As we discussed some statistics about prisons and the justice system, we started talking about the why.  Why are American prisons beset with recidivism? Why is the greatest concentration of crime found in predominantly black neighborhoods? Why are the conditions in American prisons so terrible and how did they get to be so corrupt?    While my students are becoming adept at parsing moral issues, the questions they ask aren’t usually about morality–they are usually about power.  

As you might imagine, discussing a topic as sensitive as death penalty with teenage girls is difficult, but not because it is too serious or potentially political (though it certainly is).  It is difficult because they don’t quite know how to analyze power yet.  We got into a contentious discussion yesterday about voting rights for incarcerated and convicted felons.  Most of the conversation revolved around how unfair it is that a felon who has served his/her sentence can’t vote–which is great.  Having a student voice frustration around an injustice means that she’s successfully understood the justice concerns and may have emotionally invested in the issue.  But I tried to push them into deeper analysis of the issue by asking–who do you benefits if convicted felons don’t vote?  Crickets.  Blank faces.  You could hear a pin drop.

However, I can’t blame my students.  Asking who benefits is actually just asking–who holds all the power in this circumstance?  And who is trying to hold onto their power?  I’m not surprised they first, don’t know how to analyze power, and second, don’t know that they *have to* analyze power.  I don’t think I really understood politics or how to analyze power until well into college or graduate school.  Even now, compared to my more politically engaged friends, I don’t always immediately see the political ramifications of new laws or alliances, and I find shows like The West Wing and House of Cards stressful because I constantly have to be pointedly thinking…cui bono?  But this conversation with my students really struck me because I left the classroom thinking–they should be able to do this, and I should be able to teach it to them.  And it definitely belongs in a religion class.

What I think I was lacking in my conversation with my students was a solid, faith based explanation of power.  I can explain political power, or economic power to a group of students.  But the nexus of faith and power is trickier.  Essentially, the Church needs a theology of power.*  Power is intricately related to how we behave in the world and what our lives are like.  Power can be economic, social, political, moral, structural, intellectual–it affects nearly every area of our lives.  So it is only natural to conclude that power impacts our faith lives.  So my basic questions that lead me to consider a theology of power are:  how does the fact that we profess a faith in Jesus affect how we see power?  And conversely, how does the way we use power affect our faith?  Christianity has pretty clear articulations on justice and how to act justly in the world.  But what about power?  Power, quite often, is the foundation of justice–power used appropriately brings about justice, and used inappropriately, it perpetuates injustice.

Now, I am not one of those theologians who believes that we need A Theology of Everything (a theology of sitting!  a theology of 15th century women poets!  a theology of that one time you saw God in a grilled cheese!)  God can indeed be found everywhere and every created good does point back to the reality of God, so a good theologian could write a theology of everything.  But, good theology doesn’t just ask and answer theoretical, academic questions.  Good theology advances our understanding of God in the world.  So  when I say “we need a theology of power” I am not trying to say “here, theologians.  You’re probably bored–write this theology.”  I really do think that attempting to understand how power works in the world can say something about God, and looking at how God works in the world can tell us something about power.

I learned the phrase “cui bono” through my studies in feminist theology.  Feminist theology does a really great job of asking–who benefits from women’s oppression?  Whose power increases when women’s power decreases?  Similarly, black liberation theology asks those questions of racism and racial prejudice.  But what I’m asking for is a look at power as a whole.  Feminists have already written extensively on structural power and its damaging effects.  But power isn’t always oppressive, and a theology of power wouldn’t necessarily conclude that the exercise of power is always negative.  Indeed, the fact that God acts in the world powerfully and exercises power on behalf of God’s people (i.e.: the Exodus story, the destruction of Jericho, the “power of God” that is the cross, as referenced in 1 Corinthians 1:22, etc) is already an indication that when God acts powerfully, the results can be confusing.  It’s definitely good, for example, that God freed the Israelites from Egyptian slavery…is it good that God intervened so that Israelites could murder Canaanites in the Battle of Jericho?  Maybe not.  So I think we need to take a step back and look more critically and power as a whole, not just examples of oppressive power or power over someone, structurally or otherwise.

I think because of the breadth and depth of this topic, this will not be the last I write about a theology of power, but rather, a beginning to the conversation.  My goal in trying to articulate a theology of power is two fold: first, to understand something about God and about power, and second, to be able to explain to my students what power and God have to do with one another.  I’m driven to this discussion because, if it deals with justice, it influences how we can live out our Christian commitment to love our sisters and brothers.  And if it confuses my students, then it matters to people of faith, people trying to understand how to live according to our faith.  I’m not sure there are two better reasons for a theological reflection than those.

 

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*If you know of a good theology of power that has been written already, do share!

Intellectual love

A classics teacher I have never met blew my mind today.  I was meandering around on the internet, and a few clicks into a mindless browse, I came across a teacher’s musings, where he asked, “how can I get students to love dead languages?”  On its face, it’s a simple question.  It’s what most teachers strive for.  But I have never framed my pedagogy this way.  How can I get a student to love theology?

I am showing the movie Romero in my classes next week.  Whenever I show this movie, I have to check myself a little bit, because it is a movie that I really value personally; now that I look back, I can see that the first time I watched was one of my steps towards understanding and loving liberation theology.  So I have to remind myself that not everyone is going to have a LIFE CHANGING EXPERIENCE while watching this movie in my classroom.  But the question above is the perfect way to reframe the issue.  How can I get a student to love Oscar Romero?

In case you’re not familiar with Romero, let me give a little bit of background.  Oscar Romero was a priest in El Salvador in the 1970s, at the outset of the brutal Salvadoran Civil War.  As a minister, he initially opposed any kind of Church intervention in politics, explaining that his call was to serve his people’s spiritual needs and not to organize a revolution.  He felt that his fellow priests were misguided in their attempts to change the social order (like poverty or disenfranchisement) because it resulted in sympathizing with or embracing socialism/Marxism.  Because of this “non-involvement” stance, he was appointed Archbishop of San Salvador, a strategic move for the Church who, at the time, was desperate to stem the tide of communism in South America.  But soon after his appointment Romero’s close friend Fr. Rutilio Grande was assassinated simply for urging his parish to organize against the conservative government and vote in democratic elections.  Inspired by his friend’s life and death, he began to understand the central concept of liberation theology—it is not enough just to serve a person’s spiritual needs if her/his physical needs are not being met.  He began to see that in order to serve God and his people, in the context of 1970s El Salvador, he had to care about the political situation, because Salvadorans were being kidnapped, tortured, raped, murdered, and oppressed by their own government.  Through his position as archbishop, he began to speak out against this oppression and came to embody a true Christian solidarity by struggling alongside of the poor and oppressed of El Salvador.  This solidarity and opposition to oppression took him all the way to his death.  He was assassinated in 1980 while saying mass.

I first learned about Oscar Romero in my religion class junior year of high school; we watched Romero and I was changed.  After learning about what Romero did and what El Salvador went through, I couldn’t think about anything in the same way anymore.  The movie got under my skin like a splinter, making me rethink how I thought about justice and what commitment I had made with my life towards living a life of Christian solidarity.

So how did I grow to love Oscar?  Well what I loved learning about him was that he changed his mind.  He wasn’t born a martyr.  His conversion from “non-involvement” to fearless solidarity is what I find both heroic and understandable—Romero lived in a terrible situation and reevaluated what he believed in the pursuit of being a better Christian.  He wasn’t perfect, of course, but his life serves as a model of holiness.  He faced real “persecution for righteousness sake” and his fearlessness and commitment to justice are inspiring.

If I had to answer the above question, I would say that I get students to love something by showing them why I love it.  I can show them why I love Oscar Romero, and I think that will go a long way for some students, particularly students who already like theology or are engaged in my class.  But what keeps me up at night is how to reach the student who doesn’t perceive any commonality between me and her, who refuses to even try to see why what I have to teach her might be cool.  How can I get her to love Oscar Romero?

 

 

 

Let’s not blame the teenagers

Yesterday, a colleague in the religion department sent along a link for David Brooks’ most recent New York Times column, “If It Feels Right…”  In it, Brooks discusses the results of a sociological study done of American teenagers and moral decision making.  Brooks is pretty pessimistic about the future of American teenagers and their capacity to make moral decisions; he bluntly calls the study’s findings “depressing.”  But as someone who talks to teenagers everyday about morality, I am more optimistic.  Frankly, I find the study a little unfair and an indictment of American adults, not teens.

It must be noted first that while I am surrounded by teenagers (a fact that I am reminded of daily as I hear Justin Bieber belted out in the hallways), I teach a small subset of that population: I teach at a private, college prep high school of students who have had years of religion classes.  These facts alone will distinguish my students from the average American teen.  But from what I see and hear from my students when they aren’t being careful to impress their religion teacher, their opinions and decisions are not all that atypical.  They still are teenagers, and are not exempt from the pressures of their age or culture, despite their educational background.

To begin, Brooks and the sociologists he cites are correct in the first assessment: students find it difficult to identify a moral issue.  I completely agree.  I assigned a morality research paper at the end of last year (after 8 months of morality class) that asked students simply to ask a moral question and answer it.  I can’t tell you how many papers I got back that questioned the legality of gay marriage, abortion, or the death penalty.  My students, even with all their privileges, could not write a moral question that did not primarily ask about law (but they could identify which were the hot moral issues debated in the public sphere and formulated vague questions about them).  However, this skill can be taught–it is what we practiced in my morality class this week.  Parsing out the abstract legal, scientific, medical, religious, or personal issues present in a moral question is difficult, and I am not surprised that most of American teens can’t do it–most American teens are not enrolled in a class that asks them to practice this skill.  Is it really fair to judge students as morally illiterate if we don’t teach them what morality is?

The second thing to say is: yes, the siren song of relativism is particularly compelling to youths subject to peer pressure.  It’s hard to be morally stringent in an age group/maturity level that so values social standing.  And I suspect it will only become more compelling to them as they advance to higher education and learn about cultural differences that form the cornerstone of what relativism values.  But again, this issue is one that can be taught.  My class is covering relativism today and tomorrow.  (Sidenote: we teach this lesson through the lens of female genital mutilation.  It’s a bit sensationalistic to go to one of the MOST EXTREME moral quandaries, but it’s also really interesting to gauge their reactions to it.)  And for the most part, students can see the intellectual inconsistencies with relativism.  They struggle with it, but they can see why relativism is impractical or unrealistic.

What I find over and over again is that students *know* what is moral.  They can give me the “religion teacher” answer they think I want to hear.  They are smart enough to know what is expected of them, or at least, how to please an authority figure.  What is less clear or compelling to them is *why* they should do the moral thing.  They haven’t been given a compelling enough reason not to always act out of (usually short term) self interest.  The problem isn’t moral illiteracy, it’s moral laziness.  But this is because moral courage is harder to inculcate.  In this regard, they are not all that different from most adults I know.  And that is what I see as the particular challenge–not to show them what’s moral, necessarily, but to demonstrate what benefit there is in being moral in an attempt to draw out that courage.  Some of the hardest questions I have received in the classroom have been to ask me why I personally subscribe to a particular belief where the benefit is not as obvious to a teenager (example: how to explain my commitment to fair trade coffee).

My point is: let’s not blame the teenagers.  Let’s not get all depressed about the moral state of American youths before we really consider what we can do to teach moral decision making.  Brooks is right when he says that this study says “more about adult America than teen America.”–if the teens are morally illiterate or lazy, it’s because we haven’t taught them any other way to be.  I’d say this study is a clear indication that a class on ethics is not beyond the jurisdiction of a public school education.  Of course, it can’t espouse a particular belief set, but understanding different approaches to ethics and exactly what goes into a decision is a skill that does not need a prescribed belief set.  My students love morality class if only for the opportunity to give their own opinions about “what would you do?” scenarios and argue with their classmates.  We should give all teenagers that opportunity to examine their own decisions and learn about ways others do the same.  Before we go lamenting the future of America, we should give teenagers the chance to develop their own moral sensibilities and understand why moral courage is a positive virtue to attain.

What to teach?

In the comment section of my last post, Mary asked me these questions:

In a world where you were totally in charge of religious education (and what a glorious world that would be), would you teach Catholic and non-Catholic students differently in your school? Is there a core of religious education that everyone should have, and if so, where would you draw those lines?

I’ve been mulling over this for the past few days, as I have been lesson planning for my current classes.  I teach juniors a yearlong course called Morality (which is so fun to teach) and seniors a semester course called Social Justice (which is also fun, but the students find it personally and academically challenging).  But this week, I also gave a presentation to freshmen religion classes on the school’s service learning program and why we do service, so I spent way more time than I usually do with our first year students; all of these facts together have certainly influenced my ideas in this post.

The first thing to say is that I would under no circumstances teach Catholic and non-Catholic students differently from one another.  What is challenging about teaching both demographics isn’t lack of familiarity (Catholic students are often just as ignorant about the intricacies of doctrine as non-Catholic students are) or even diversity (I enjoy hearing about what diverse faith traditions my students uphold; often the discussions we have where a non-Catholic speaks up gives a great opportunity to dig into the point deeper, a clear case for the fruitfulness of ecumenical/interfaith dialogue!).  What is challenging is that I simply have to pretend that I teach all Catholics.  In my last post, I pointed to this problem, as my department is a religion department and such a department seeks to make “better Catholics.”  It seems to me that the best way to avoid this issue is to opt for the “theology” model of teaching, rather than the “catechetical” model.  It would not solve the issue entirely, but catechesis attempts to demonstrate truth, rather than search for it, and it is that “I already have the truth, you just need to accept it” presumption that makes it difficult to teach non-Catholics.

The second thing to say is yes, there is a core of religious education all students should have; ideally, a well formed high school curriculum should prepare a student to speak intelligently on the Catholic faith tradition.  The questions that remain then are: what is the essential material necessary for a clear understanding of the Catholic faith? And more importantly: how can that information be presented in age-appropriate fashion?

My basic idea is as follows:

First year–Liturgy: Sacraments and Saints
Sophomore year—Bible: Old Testament and Jesus
Junior year—Morality: Fundamental theological topics and Moral Decision Making
Senior year–World Religions and Catholic Systematic Theology

I’ll start with Junior year.  Junior year is absolutely the perfect time to teach Morality; the topics discussed are incredibly necessary for today’s teenagers.  Students are just about 15 or 16 years old and beginning to face serious moral decisions; as a result, they enjoy the class a lot and delve into the issues deeply.  Additionally, I found last year that the first few months of Morality are the perfect time for a short overview (about one quarter’s length) of fundamental theological topics as they relate to Morality: Jesus as a moral teacher, the Church as a moral guide, sin, anthropology and conscience, etc.

Sophomore year, as a precursor to Morality, is an excellent time to teach Bible.  One year is obviously not enough time to teach the Bible (I’m sorry, Mary), but I think it’s a time when they are growing a little more serious and are capable of understanding things like biblical criticism and myth in a more sophisticated way.  I also think ending the sophomore year on Jesus is a good set up to Morality.

Senior year is really interesting; students are willing and able to handle more depth.  I think it’s incredibly important to teach World Religions during the senior year, as the students head off to college and beyond.  But I think senior year is also the perfect time to teach a genuine theology class, preferably a class that does theological method and a run through of Catholic Systematics.  I say this because a lot schools opt to teach a yearlong Catholic doctrine course to freshmen.  It is understood as a primer that sets all students, Catholic or non-Catholic, on a level playing field of Catholic literacy.  However, I think this idea is not entirely age appropriate; freshmen are not ready for intricacies of Catholic doctrine.  I think a class that seeks to educate on Catholicism would yield far richer fruit when taught to seniors.

So, then, what are freshmen ready for?  Given especially that all students won’t be Catholic, how can a freshmen year course in a Catholic religious education department capture their attention?  To answer this question, I had to reflect personally and ask: what spoke to me in high school, and made me think that being Catholic was something I ought to consider?  The answer is definitely not “doctrine” or even “theology.”  The answer is definitely liturgy.  Most people are not interested in faith because they checked a Bible out of the library and read it cover to cover; most people are interested in faith because of an experience, a community, or a ritual that spoke to them on a deeper level.  Saints and sacraments are two of the most compelling and interesting aspects of Catholicism and they are ideas that can be taught with great ease to a variety of grade levels.  If the goal of a freshmen year religion course is to get students to engage with their faith in a deeper way and to start a conversation about what makes Catholicism interesting or special, liturgy seems like the perfect entry into that discussion.

As I conclude this post, I am painfully aware that I have been teaching for less than 2 years, and I teach only two of the 4 classes offered by my department.  I don’t presume to think that the curriculum I’ve outlined here is superior for any reason, but they are my ideas for what I would like to see taught (and to teach) in high schools.

Identity Issues

For my first post, I thought I might talk a little bit about my job as a high school teacher and how it relates to my graduate theological education.  I have never thought of myself as  a teacher.  I didn’t grow up thinking I would teach, and I couldn’t have guessed even a few years ago that my first job would be as a high school teacher.  But now that I am a teacher and have taught for a year now, it feels like a really good use of my talents and passion.  But I still struggle a lot with what exactly I am trying to accomplish.

If you are familiar with Catholic high schools, you might notice that some identify the faith related departments as “Theology,” some as “Religion,” or “Religious Studies.”  Given the amount of time I spent in graduate school studying theological method and terminology, the distinctions being made here are immensely important.  The school where I teach identifies our department as “Religion,” and my job title is technically, “Religion Teacher.”  The argument that corresponds to this selection is that the purpose of such a department is to make a student more religious.  A Catholic school takes responsibility for its students’ spiritual and religious development, and it assumes a Catholic faith tradition as its starting point.  Quite simply, a department that labels itself as “Religion” aims to make its students better Catholics.

A smaller number of Catholic schools have a “Theology Department.”  (I find a larger number of Jesuit schools make this identification; the coincidience is not lost on me).  In my job search last year, I found descriptions on the websites of “Theology Departments” usually possess the phrase “theological study” or some equivalent.  These descriptions put their departments solidly in the Christian history of “faith seeking understanding,” the Anselmian description that marries faith and reason.  These departments identify spiritual and religious development as an explicit goal of their teaching, but what they add is the idea that faith is a topic to be studied, to be analyzed and parsed with the fullest range of one’s intellect, rather than something to be transmitted from the teacher to the student, like a math equation or an historical fact.

At the crux of these terms is the important difference between theology and catechetics.  Catechetics is the teaching of faith; it explains what exactly the doctrine states and attempts to demonstrate the truth of that doctrine.  A Catholic catechesis program entails teaching the content of Scripture and Tradition.  Theology, however, presumes a starting point of faith commitment (and a deep knowledge of its contents) but seeks a deeper level of understanding.  Theology applies one’s intellect to the contents of faith, pushing its boundaries and perhaps critiquing its conclusions in the committed search for truth.  While it seems obvious to me that part of my job is catechesis (even my Catholic students are largely ignorant on the contents of the Catholic faith), it is even more obvious that the outcome of my teaching is more closely aligned with the intellectual goals of a Theology Deparment rather than the religious ones a Religion Department.

One of the reasons for this difference is that at least half of my students are not Catholic.  Most are non-Catholic Christians: Methodists, Baptists, Presbyterians, etc.  How, then, can I teach students who are not Catholic how to be more religious in a religion they do not profess?  And to be honest, I find the term “Religion Teacher” very flat.  It lacks the richness and depth of the term “theology,” a word that evokes the wisdom of the Church fathers, the diligence of medieval monastic scholarship, and the faithful criticism of modern academics.

What I feel is a more accurate description of what I do is teach the contents of Catholic faith so that students can intellectually grapple with their conclusions and evaluate their own faith life in light of those conclusions.  For Catholic students, the results often compel students to grow in religiosity.  For non-Catholic students, those evaluations infrequently result in any formal conversion to Catholicism, but they might grow in the faith life of their particular tradition (organized or not).  It feels like a misnomer to call this process catechesis or even religious education, but rather a combination of theology, religious education, and religious studies (studying a religion from outside that particular tradition).

Most of my contention with the term “religious education” and the goal of “making better Catholics” comes from an experience I had during at the end of my second semester teaching.  In a formal setting, a diocesan official asked me if I thought of myself as an evangelizer, and my classroom as a locus for evangelization. Given that he knew the demographics of my school, he was referring specifically to the fact that most of my students are Christian but not Catholic.  Evangelization is a complicated issue I will pick up in another post, but the overwhelming conclusion I gained from this interaction is that I could not answer “yes, I do understand myself as a Catholic evangelizer, seeking to defend the faith and convert non-Catholics.”  But I could not answer “no, not at all” as that could not have been the appropriate answer for a “religion teacher.”   And that is the duality I am trying to grapple with here, the interplay between theology, religion, and catechesis, bearing in mind the audience I teach and the stated goals of my department.  I’m not sure how that should translate into a job title, but “Religion Teacher” does not seem accurate.