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.
Also, as part of this series we are giving away three copies of his book Fieldwork in Theology. The winners will be announced at the end of the month.
Seriously? I knew Minnesota struggles with racial equality in the schools, but I couldn’t believe it.
I was sitting in New Creation Church in North Minneapolis with my 17 year-old son, Isaiah. We were attending an evening meeting organized by faith leaders to address racial disparity in school expulsions, the first step in what some call the “school-to-prison pipeline.” The Minneapolis schools have roughly equal numbers of Black and white students, but 11 Black children are expelled from school for every 1 white kid. Last year, 3801 African American children were suspended or expelled, compared to only 328 whites. The situation has gotten bad enough that the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights has cited the school district for the troubling rates students of color experience the most damaging forms of discipline. In dialog with a panel of “school resource officers,” basically Minneapolis police assigned to patrol schools, the community struggled with potential restorative justice options instead of retributive justice now used as standard practice.
I wrote Fieldwork in Theology out of a conviction that Christian leaders today need research tools to see and get involved with God’s work of mercy and justice in the world. Christianity is in a new era of mission. As the dominant churches emerging from European history, like my own Lutheran tradition, are staggering out from under a millennia and a half of Christendom in the West, the rising churches of the global south are vital and increasingly setting the terms of the conversation about mission. Together, old and new traditions in the United States and Europe face cultures in deep need and yet who are increasingly skeptical about how Christian churches matter to them. At the heart of my book, I describe both Pierre Bourdieu’s social science and Rowan William’s theology as resources for gaining a truthful social, moral and theological understanding of real suffering, and through understanding, clarity about potential modes of response. Williams argues such understanding aids us in looking square in the face the “suffering of victims of racism and my own de facto involvement in and responsibility for this” (85).
The hashtag attendees were using at the meeting in North Minneapolis was #StayWoke. It challenged all of us in attendance, Black and white, not to accept the status quo. I heard in it the challenge of Jesus’ admonition to “stay awake” for “you do not know when the owner of the house will come back—whether in the evening, or at midnight, or when the rooster crows, or at dawn” (Mark 13:35). I hope Fieldwork in Theology will help the church “wake up” to the realities of the world, and how God is at work there.
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.