Rankin File

Ruminations, fulminations, and cogitations on the spiritual life

The Clumsiness of Categories

Today, I worry about  sounding downright ungenerous and small-souled.  Even more, I worry because the topic I’m about to join cuts a little too close to the bone for me personally.  I’m going to try to use parts of my life experience as a means of illustrating a problem in our church (United Methodist) that looms ever larger.  Doing so touches a nerve.

Having attended two annual conferences, as well as following tweets, blogs and news pieces on General Conference, I have noticed how much we talk about people by reference to the categories they fit – or don’t.  My category: a 57 year old, well-educated, white male, who enjoys a comfortable income.  White, male, 50s, middle class.  Privileged.  Too many of my type still holding power.

Race, gender, age: these are the categories of reference most often put to use in our opinion-making about how things go in the church.  (Notice how they come from social science and not from theology or the language of the church.  But that thought will have to wait for another time.)

I have long understood the subtleties of race bias even when overt racism has curtailed some.  I remember a former colleague – African-American woman, a professional in higher education with a Ph.D. from an Ivy League university – once telling me how she had been shadowed in the local iteration of a national discount store.  She had been working in the yard and was in her grubbies and looking a little scruffy.  African-American, a little dirty (it was a sweaty summer day) and voila, you just might be a shoplifter.  So an employee, pretending to be a shopper, hangs around and watches you.    When I think of her experience, I remember why we need to continue to pay attention to race.

Likewise with the category of age.  I work with university students.  I love talking to them, listening to them, hanging out with them, mentoring them, teaching them.  I am an advocate for young people in the church.  But I’m starting to worry and even, I admit, feel a little resentful.  During these recent conference sessions near and far, I have heard both old and young make repeated reference to how we don’t listen to young people, it’s time to listen to young people, it’s time for some of us old folk to get out of the way and make room for young people.  Older people are hogging the power and clogging the church’s vitality with worn-out, dull, irrelevant ideas and concerns.

I want to make clear, my problem is not with young people.  In fact, I have made my own criticisms of how we treat young people in the church.  The problem lies not with young people or old people.  The problem lies in the way we think and talk – in categories!  In the heat of trying to get things done and make things better, we United Methodists lapse into “category-think,” a version of “group-think.”

And so, by way of personal illustration, I want to show why I worry about over-using categories, why I don’t like categories so much.  Here is what the categories don’t tell you about me.

I’m well-educated and live comfortably now, but I grew up poor.  Not destitute poor, just always tight, going-without, worried-about-money poor.  We always had plenty to eat, but partly that depended on good church folks “pounding” the preacher (my dad), or a local farmer butchering a steer or hog and sharing some meat with us.  I also always had decent, clean clothes to wear, but from the bargain rack.  We didn’t buy if it wasn’t on sale.  No shame in that, but, as a kid, I lived with that constant feeling of financial tightness.  And of not being able to do what others were doing.  Of being different.  I know how it feels to be different.

After chasing one job after another, my father finally said yes to a call to preach that he had felt for a long time.  At age 50 and with only a high school diploma, he entered (then) Methodist pastoral ministry.  His first year in this role (1962), he made $2,700.  For the whole year.  The church provided housing, of course, so $2,700 could stretch a little further, but not much.  Median household income at that time approached $6,000.  According to 1962 standards, we lived right at the poverty level.

I also grew up a transient.  Back then, Dad would go off to annual conference in September (after the school year started) and we would not know till he came home whether we were moving or staying.  I remember the announcement, “We’re moving,” and in a matter of a couple of weeks, we’d be packed up and gone to the new appointment.  We moved 4 times in 4 years during the middle school phase of my childhood.  The longest I ever lived in one place – before going off to college – was 3 years.  I went to two high schools.  I was always “the new kid” where new kids stood out.  And I knew we’d be leaving soon.

Was my life as transient as some of the field workers picking cotton in Texas or vegetables on truck farms in Colorado?  Of course not.  But it was more like their life than you could ever imagine if you look at me only through the category I now fit.  And that’s the problem with categories.  Categories hide people.

I thus have two strong and offsetting opinions about the categories we use over-much in the United Methodist Church.  I am very sympathetic to people who find themselves disadvantaged, on the margins.  I have some sense of what it’s like to be in that condition.  But on the other hand, I feel more resentment than I’d like to admit when people stick me in a category and make easy, breezy generalizations about me.  And I’ve heard a few over the years.  (I once was called a “pretty little white boy” by a seminary classmate.)  They distort and hide as much as they reveal.

Some of the big troubles we are now facing in the United Methodist Church stem precisely from thinking too much in categories.  They work well when we are generalizing and they are far too clumsy when we need to pay attention to on-the-ground circumstances.  When we use them wrongly, we are like a surgeon wearing boxing gloves while trying to perform a delicate operation.

Categories tell us something we need to know, but, honestly, they don’t tell us much.  Especially in the church, we should be very careful how we use them.

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June 7, 2012 Posted by | Christian Spirituality, emerging adults, Ministry, Religion, The Church, United Methodism | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

On the Civil Rights Pilgrimage

Just time for a quick one.  I hope you friends and colleagues who attended the Wesleyan Theological Society meeting had a most edifying experience (Kevin, I hope your paper went well!).

I’m in Montgomery, AL, at the beginning of a Spring Break Civil Rights Pilgrimage.  SMU has been taking this trip each year for several years, so I’m playing catch-up.  The bus left Friday afternoon, but I could not leave until Saturday evening.  Flew into Montgomery last night.

As I prayed with the group Friday afternoon, I spoke about how this trip will challenge us in particular ways.  I had shared with the class earlier that, because I was a boy of 13 when Dr. King was murdered, I grew up watching the Civil Rights movement on television.  I lived in rural, racially homogenous Kansas.  Actually, not true.  Part of that time I lived in Texas and it was not racially homogenous.  Pete Chapa (Mexican) was one of my boyhood baseball teammates and friends.  Paul and Manuel (Mexican) were friends to me during a very lonely 5th grade year in a new town. Later, in junior high, it was Oscar Guerra the star running back and Leonard White (African American) the star on our basketball team.  Still, the Civil Rights movement was something psychologically remote for me.

It was not until years later, as a man with children of my own, that I read “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”  Dr. King wrote it in response to clergy in Alabama who wanted him not to engage in direct – even if peaceful – action.  His reply, written on anything that could be used (toilet paper, margins of newspapers), is nothing short of agonizingly eloquent.  He asked his clergy colleagues to consider how it felt to be the man who had to tell his young daughter that she could not go to the local amusement park because it was not open to black children; how if felt to watch the dark clouds of racial prejudice hang over his kids and to witness how it was shaping their young mental worlds.  That letter put a human face on the Civil Rights movement for me.

Over the years, of course, partly because of interest and partly because of my work, I’ve studied, at least in superficial ways, parts of the story.  This trip will be rough in some ways.  The church was on both sides of things (as it often is) back in the 50s and 60s.  Some of the story is just plain ugly.  But some of it is glorious.

I have a feeling I’ll learn a lot on this trip.  I’m going to try to blog each evening during the week, if you’re interested.

March 7, 2010 Posted by | Ministry, Religion, The Church | , , , , | Leave a comment

Affirm People, Acknowledge Diversity

Working on a college campus puts one in the position of hearing lots of talk about diversity: racial diversity, national and ethnic diversity, cultural diversity, religious diversity, gender diversity.  These are among the standard referents for folk in higher education.

In a chapter on the importance of student affairs programs for developing college students’ spirituality, Jennifer Capeheart-Meninghall writes, “Programs and services that offer activities that affirm diversity (emphasis added), establish and hold students accountable for conduct, celebrate campus traditions, and join various constitutencies together will help build community,” (Spirituality in Higher Education, p. 35).  For all the value and importance of her aim at building community and developing spirituality (an aim I completely support), I’m stuck on the difficult notion of affirming diversity.  Who sets the criteria to determine that diversity has been affirmed?

As much as I appreciate the sentiment, I think it is ultimately misdirected.  I think what we should affirm is people.  People are diverse.  Because we are diverse racially, ethnically, socio-economically, culturally, and so on, we should affirm people as they demonstrate a wide range of characteristics and qualities.  We affirm people and, in doing so, acknowledge that we’re different, diverse.

Some people might consider my point nothing more than pious cant, a clever-sounding rhetorical sleight-of-hand.  (Some may find it completely obvious and not clever at all!)  In the current climate, am I just one more white, male, middle-class traditional/conservative complaining about losing power?  I don’t think so.  I hope not.

Maybe I’m splitting hairs.  Maybe “affirm” and “acknowledge” mean the same.  A quick check of the dictionary suggests the contrary.  To affirm something is to state it positively, to validate it or legitimate it and, furthermore, to “express dedication” (Webster’s 9th New Collegiate Dictionary) to whatever is being affirmed.  To acknowledge is to recognize, to own up to (Ibid).

Because all people are created in God’s image, we value them.  We value their characteristics, cultural and otherwise.  We affirm them.  We recognize that we come from a wide range of nations, backgrounds, worldviews and religious commitments.  We accept our diversity, but we value people and we commit ourselves to living together in peace.

Why does my distinction matter?  Well, in my little mind, it seems to be a step in the right direction of disentangling us from some of the political animosities that infect Christians.  It’s too easy to come up with the grocery list of qualities that “proves” one “affirms diversity.”  (By the way, how diverse is the group making that list?)  Then people can make preemptive judgments: if you don’t accept the list, you don’t accept diversity and you’re disqualified from the conversation.  If, on the other hand, we affirm people while acknowledging diversity, then we don’t prematurely disqualify.  We listen with compassion and generosity – and take their ideas seriously.

“Diversity,” sadly, is a politically loaded term.  It shouldn’t be.  We are a nation of diverse peoples.  That’s an uncontroversial fact.  What we value is people, who always bring with them their cultural, ethnic, and other (diverse) qualities.  We don’t ignore diversity.  We acknowledge it; accept it.  But we affirm people.

September 23, 2009 Posted by | Christian Spirituality, General, Higher and Theological Education | , , , , , , , | 2 Comments