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.
“No justice, No peace!” the crowd shouted. This past January, my daughter Grace and I joined the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day march through St. Paul ending at the state capitol downtown.
The march was organized and led by young leaders in the #BlackLivesMatter movement. This movement began after the 2013 acquittal of George Zimmerman in the Florida shooting death of Trayvon Martin, and has reignited dramatically in the months since the acquittals of officers in Ferguson MO and New York NY for the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner.
It was eye-opening for us to learn that a Black man, woman, or child is killed by police or vigilante law enforcement literally almost every day (technically: every 28 hours). The power of the police was visceral as hundreds of armed state troopers stood blocking our march from access to Interstate 94. Yet as we held a die-in of thousands, and neared the capitol singing the South African freedom song, “We Are Marching in the Light of God,” we experienced the power of joining together to actively resist the de-humanization of African Americans.
I finished writing Fieldwork in Theology during the summer of 2014, when Ferguson MO was engulfed in protests over the acquittal of a white police officer, Darren Wilson, in the shooting of an African American teenager named Michael Brown. At the time, I was finishing chapter five which focuses on the work of Pierre Bourdieu’s most well-known student, Loïc Wacquant, now a professor of sociology at U.C. Berkeley.
It struck me how important it was to highlight Wacquant’s efforts to correct the misunderstanding of Bourdieu as a conservative and as a social determinist who points out the dynamics of domination and oppression but without articulating pathways of liberation. Bourdieu does point to subtler dynamics, such as the ways “the dominated always contribute to their own domination,” which is, he says, a result of the forces of domination inhabiting the bodies of the dominated (28).
Yet as Wacquant points out, Bourdieu was deeply committed to social justice, and to the plight of the most marginalized. Their major work, The Weight of the World (in French: La Misére du Mondé), is rooted in an ethic of listening carefully to the lives of those most marginalized in French society for the sake of understanding their plight and thereby clarifying where change needs to come. The book was an unlikely bestseller and helped produce major social reforms in France.
Some white people wish to move to the hashtag #AllLivesMatter, but through the practice of listening to African Americans, in this MLK Jr. Day march and beyond, I have come to understand it is through the particularity of claiming #BlackLivesMatter that we can work towards a society in which all lives matter. Such wisdom emerges from not simply accepting my own assumptions but rather trying to listen, as God does again and again in the Psalms, to the cries of those who are suffering. I hope Fieldwork in Theology will help the church hold its tongue and open its ears, hearing carefully those inside and outside its walls and responding with love.
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.