Today we are pleased to share the latest post in our weekly series, Beyond the Book. This month Christian Scharen reflects on issues of race and justice, and argues that theology does (and must!) have something to say about the pressing concerns of contemporary society.
Like most of America, a year ago in August of 2014 I was trying to make sense of the uprising in Ferguson Missouri. Tensions were high, with large groups of mostly African-American protesters in the streets each night and squads of mostly white militarized police seeking to keep control. Part of what was disturbing was, of course, recognition of a persistent pattern of disproportionate police violence towards African Americans. But also disturbing to me was the huge disparity between how my white friends and family viewed the police and how my African Americans friends and colleagues did.
At the time, a Pew survey reported, that overall Americans were split on whether Blacks and other minorities receive equal treatment in the criminal justice system. However, the Pew survey and other similar surveys found that when the population is broken down into white and non-white, the disparity is stark, with nearly 50% of whites agreeing Blacks and other minorities receive equal treatment but only 16% of non-whites agreeing to the same statement.
A friend of mine, Robert P. Jones of Public Religion Research Institute in Washington D.C., wrote a telling article in The Atlantic which he titled, “Self-Segregation: Why It Is So Hard for Whites to Understand Ferguson.” His basic answer, drawn from PRRI’s annual American Values Survey, reports that overall the social networks of white people are more than 90% white. A full three-quarters (75%) of whites have entirely white social networks. Thus, the perspectives and experiences of Black Americans remain opaque to many white Americans simply by virtue of their assumption that their privileged experience is in fact reality. Jones’ points out that one consequence is white people not ever hearing the litany of coaching and concern passed from parents to children in African American families.
To many readers of Fieldwork in Theology, chapter two on the French historian and philosopher of science Gaston Bachelard will be most unfamiliar. Yet his idea of the epistemological rupture or break has influenced many of the most important French intellectuals of the 20th century, including not only Pierre Bourdieu but also Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault. The concept, as Bachelard conceived of it, is simple. The fundamental move of scientific research ought to be to break with the illusion of immediate knowledge.
I connect the Christian concept of sin with the epistemological break to point out how our basic understanding is so often biased, blinded by the very real divides and divisions which split apart creation, humanity, and God. Without such a “break” in white everyday assumptions, it is very difficult to hear and make sense of African Americans’ negative perceptions of the criminal justice system. White people, like the priest and Levite in Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan, need to travel to the other side of the road if we are to learn the actual circumstances of our African American neighbor. Fieldwork in theology ought do no less.
Christian Scharen (PhD, Emory University) is vice president of applied research at Auburn Theological Seminary in New York City. He previously taught at Luther Seminary. He has authored a number of books, including One Step Closer and Faith as a Way of Life, and is the book review editor of Ecclesial Practices. An ordained pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Scharen has served congregations in California, Georgia, and Connecticut.