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!

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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.