Thinking Clearly, or not, about Football, War and Bell Towers

(Blogger note:  This blog has fallen into a period of inactivity lately.  Last semester was a particularly heavy semester for me and something had to give.  That something was the blog.  But I’m going to try to get it up and running again.)

It is hard to think clearly when one feels threatened, angry or anxious.  Some of the stupidest things I’ve said in my life have come in the midst of Notre Dame football games. Consider, also, what war does to our thinking.

During the Civil War, it was common to find sermons like that from a northern evangelical minister who proclaimed that the conflict was between “the rebellion of a proud, luxurious, lascivious, unprincipled, murderous Absalom, against his noble, unsuspecting, too affectionate and over-indulgent father, David.”  For their side, southern ministers preached messages such as, “the fall of Sumter…was a signal gun from the battlements of heaven, announcing from God to every Southern State this cause is mine.”  Yep.  Ministers were pretty clear about what God was up to, weren’t they?

Germans.  A threat to the American home since the 3rd century.

Germans. A threat to the American home since the 3rd century.

During World War I, Americans did not simply shun German culture by changing the names of “frankfurters” to “liberty sausages” or towns (like mine) from “New Berlin” to “North Canton.”  War anxiety also led Americans into darker behaviors.  A German immigrant in St. Louis was lynched.  The US government depicted the Germans (these people who had produced Beethoven, Kant, and Einstein, to name a few) as barbaric “Huns” who were out to destroy civilization. Americans also eliminated German language instruction from thousands of schools because, apparently, if kids learn to speak German they’ll develop an irresistible urge to invade Belgium.

Of course, we all know that during World War II Americans became so anxious and fearful of Japanese-Americans that they were placed in internment camps.  As a governmental official in California explained in justifying this policy, “the very fact that no sabotage has taken place to date is a disturbing and confirming indication that such action will be taken.”  Right.  And the fact that Ecuador has not invaded us to date is disturbing confirmation that they will.

We need to understand this about ourselves.  Anxiety, fear and anger lead us to think in muddled ways that then lead to damaging behavior.

This is just as true today, when we feel anxiety, fear and anger over the recent terrorist attacks in Paris.  Radical Islamists pose a real threat, of course.  But just as Americans made sweeping stereotypes of enemies in the Civil War, WWI and WWII that led to unjust actions, we need to remember that we can do the same.

That is why I bring up the comments of fellow evangelical, Franklin Graham.  Now, Graham does great work with Samaritan’s Purse and elsewhere, but I’m concerned about recent proclamation he has made.

They grew from a dispute at Duke University, when the institution decided to broadcast the Muslim call to prayer from the campus bell tower.  There is a valid issue about whether or not it was wise or good for an occasionally Christian chapel at a formerly Christian university to do this. A healthy discussion could be given on that, but that is not what I am concerned about here.

Franklin Graham said this: “As Christianity is being excluded from the public square and followers of Islam are raping, butchering, and beheading Christians, Jews, and anyone who doesn’t submit to their Sharia Islamic law, Duke is promoting this in the name of religious pluralism.”

Here is the problem:  Graham lumped millions upon millions of Muslims into one category of “raping, butchering and beheading.”  The overwhelming majority of Muslims around the world (and in the United States) are not radical extremists.  Most Muslims believe, theologically, that these terrorists are not true Muslims and that Osama bin Laden is in hell right now.  It is true that most segments of Islam have a problem with the modern idea of religious freedom, and that is worth discussing.  But to lump all Muslims together with terrorist groups because these groups claim to speak for Allah is the same as lumping all white Christians together with the Ku Klux Klan because they claimed to be defending the Bible and burn crosses in people’s yards.

This calls for clearer thinking and a more humble approach to this difficult and complicated situation.  I understand that many Americans do not understand Islam very well, meaning it is easy to draw hasty conclusions from news bites and media stereotypes.  It’s a problem for many Americans and many Christians.  I’m saddened that Graham has fallen into this line of thinking.

Graham, I’m guessing, feels threatened from two directions.  Like many evangelicals, he probably feels threatened by those who would like to sweep the public square of any religious references or who would like to try to relativize all religions in such a way as to depict them as essentially the same.  Those are valid points.  Like many people in the US, Europe and the Middle East, he probably also feels threatened by the horrendous actions of the extremist Islamic terrorist groups.  That is a valid threat as well.

The really difficult part?  Christians are commanded, by the grace of God, to love those they disagree with and those they consider their enemies.  Prejudicial stereotyping comes from the anxious and sinful parts of our nature (a nature I share as well) not from the grace that has been given to us.

Realize also that I am not saying Islam and Christianity are the same.  I would like to see Muslims come to Christ, just as I would like to see all people in the world come to a deep, full union with Christ.  But the practice of lumping all Muslims together as terrorists is not only a really, really bad way to evangelize, it makes the work of evangelicals working with Muslims much more difficult.  Unfortunately, statements like those made by Franklin Graham work against the evangelistic goals that his father represented in his life.

So, let us start by asking God to give us the grace to love better.  The first step in loving somebody who is unfamiliar to us is to try to get to understand them better, which includes trying to see matters from their shoes.  The Muslims I know about in northeast Ohio feel threatened and besieged and misunderstood in the aftermath of every terrorist attack that hits the news.  Evangelicals ought to know what it feels like to be misrepresented in the media.  From there, we might be able to better figure out what to do about such a complicated issue as Islamic prayers in the Duke bell tower.

Ebola, the Media and Christianity

A little analysis from our favorite media giant with the Big Religious Blind Spot, The New York Times, from an article on October 10:

“The first to respond to the Ebola crisis in West Africa, Doctors Without Borders remains the primary international medical aid group battling the disease there.  As local health systems have all but collapsed and most outside institutions, including the United States military, have yet to fulfill all their pledges of help, the charity has erected six treatment centers in West Africa, with plans for more.”

So, Doctors Without Borders was the first organization to respond the Ebola crisis.

Uh, not quite.  When Doctors Without Borders arrived in Liberia to battle Ebola they collaborated with Samaritan’s Purse, an evangelical missionary agency.  Samaritan’s Purse has had medical care in Liberia since 2010, so they were right there when Ebola first broke out.  They were, in fact, trying to alert the world to the Ebola problem before it became a big news item in the West.  In July, an official of Samaritan’s Purse declared:

“We need them all to help us in the fight against this dreadful disease…I call on the international community and the donor governments of the world, particularly in Europe and the United States, to step in and recognize the very limited capacities of the ministries of health in West Africa and to help them contain this disease.”

And where does one find this declaration from Samaritan’s Purse, an organization fighting Ebola in Liberia along with Doctor’s Without Borders?

A New York Times blog.

Don’t these reporters read their own paper?

A picture from the Times in July, showing Kent Brantly treating Ebola patients in Liberia.  Any further comments I would make at this point about this would be way too snarky and disrespectful.

A picture from the Times in July, showing Kent Brantly treating Ebola patients in Liberia. Any further comments I would make at this point about this would be way too snarky and disrespectful.

That article even carried a picture of Kent Brantly working on Ebola patients.  Brantly, as you may know, is the doctor from Samaritan’s Purse who later made international news as the first American to contract Ebola.

So why does The New York Times say that Doctors Without Borders (which is an excellent organization, by the way) was pretty much the only organization in West Africa working on this?  Why do they fail to mention the work of an organization like Samaritan’s Purse?

Another blind spot.  And it is a blind spot connected to the reality that missionary organizations make some secular people uncomfortable.

You don’t have to take my word for it.  Slate writer, Brian Palmer, who declares himself to be an atheist, makes the very point that missionaries are overlooked in the whole Ebola crisis.  Palmer explains how he was recently at an international conference discussing Ebola and the control of infectious diseases and somebody made the point that Doctors Without Borders were the “only group on the ground” dealing with this problem.

Palmer, however, wrote in the Slate article (he doesn’t mention whether he said anything at the conference) that missionaries have long been on the ground dealing with these issues.  He also indicated that missionary doctors and nurses actually have long-term commitments, don’t just parachute in during a crisis, and do not profit economically from their work.

Of course, this is not news to any of us who are familiar with missionaries.

But it is news – uncomfortable news – for certain kinds of secular Americans. Palmer gives reasons why secular people are uncomfortable with missionaries — and why he himself, in fact, is uncomfortable with them.  (The subtitle of his article is  “Should we worry that so many of the doctors treating Ebola in Africa are missionaries?”)  There’s nothing new there — those arguments he gives have been around for more than a century, as Palmer points out himself.

I give Palmer a great deal of credit, however, for bringing to light the good work done by a group with which he has serious disagreements.  That is a difficult step to take.  It is so difficult that The New York Times can’t seem to pull it off.

Now before I end up out of line in my snarky comments about the Times, (I might already have crossed that line, actually) I better point out that I am often not able to pull that off, either.  We Christians, who ought to know something about humility, respect, and loving those with whom we disagree, ought to be able to regularly point out good work done by people with whom we have serious disagreements.

Do we?


(My thanks to my friend and colleague, Scott Waalkes, who brought the Slate article to my attention and understands evangelicals and missionaries, even though he grew up amidst Calvinists in Grand Rapids.)


NPR Has Discovered Christians in Hong Kong, and Boy, Are They Surprised

Maybe there is a little progress being made on the religion in the news media thing.  NPR, which in my estimation has had something of a blind spot for religion, has reported that the Christian faith is an important part of the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong — as well as some Christians who are voicing criticism.

NPRNPR is surprised by this, but I’m not surprised they are surprised.

Will The New York Times finally start to see what others are seeing?  There is still no sign that the light is dawning there.  They did mention the Catholic church and other “non-governmental organizations” like Amnesty International in a story about groups that Chinese officials are worried about.  The Chinese government is worried about Catholics?  Hmm.  Why would that be?  (Hint.  Hint.)

(My thanks go out to my daughter Brenna, who tipped me off to the NPR story.  You might might be interested in reading her blog – she’s a better writer than I am — about her work in Egypt.  She is serving in a one-year program established by the Mennonite Central Committee that places Christians in service work with other Christians around the world.  She’s working at a retreat center run by the Coptic Church.)



Is this News to You? The New York Times has a Blind Spot with Religion.

In the last couple of weeks, pro-democracy protests have been surging through Hong Kong.  Evangelical Christians are playing a significant role in the organization and leadership of the Umbrella Movement leading the protests.

Yet, in its extensive coverage of these developments, the New York Times doesn’t  discuss religion.

Are you surprised by this?

I am not.

An example:  The Times ran a front page story last week (October 2) about Joshua Wong, who is leading the pro-democracy student protests.  The paper ran the headline, “At 17, Leading Protests That Rattle Hong Kong.”  Several pages later the story continued with a second headline, “Student at Forefront of Hong Kong Democracy Movement is Unlikely Agitator.”

Joshua Wong

Joshua Wong

What makes him unlikely?  Well, he is young.  We find out that Wong started protests of government curriculum in his school three years ago.  And we learn that he represents an idealistic culture of protest.  We also learn that his university entrance exam scores were middling.

What else is unlikely?  It would be unlikely for the Times to recognize that Joshua Wong has been shaped by evangelical Christianity.  The article did mention that Wong’s parents were “Protestants who kindled a concern for social justice,” but that is the only mention of religion in any of the articles the Times reported.

It is not just Wong.  A disproportionate number of protesters in Hong Kong’s Umbrella Movement are Christian.  The same goes for the Scholarism movement that Wong founded several years ago.  Two of the three leaders of the Occupy Central with Love and Peace movement are Christian.   And interestingly, some of the criticism of the movement, as well, comes from Christian leaders.  One of the most vocal critics in Hong Kong is an Anglican bishop.  The Times does not mention any of this.

I’m not surprised because, as I mentioned in my last post, the Times has a blind spot when it comes to religion.  Now, I should mention that I subscribe to The New York Times.  It’s a good way for me to get relatively deep coverage of world events.  That is, the coverage is good unless religion (particularly Christianity) is a significant factor in the story.  It appears to me that the people in power at that newspaper just don’t understand religion or have a good sense for how it could motivate modern people, particularly in public ways.

The Times is not alone in that regard.  A lot of the news media has a blind spot when it comes to religion, Christianity and evangelicalism.  Much of the rest of our news media is just like the Times in this regard.  That is one reason why many American Christians argue that there is a liberal bias in the media.

But the problem of blind spots is not just with “liberal media.”  The “conservative media” has its own blind spots.  (See Bill O’Reilly on race, for instance).

The problem with blind spots is us.  By “us” I mean those individuals who breathe and think and have desires, a demographic that covers a remarkably high percentage of people.

I have blind spots.  So do you.  We don’t know what they are, because we are “blind” to them.  Get it?

Every now and then, our eyes are opened, at least a little bit.  That was the point of my embarrassing story about my exchange with the post-modern feminist on my dissertation committee.  You might recall that she asked rather pointedly how I could claim to provide a solid analysis of the evangelical missionary movement and not consider women, since women made up a majority of missionaries.

I wonder, then, what would happen if were able to ask the editors of The New York Times how they could claim to be investigating the causes of this pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong and not consider the role Christianity plays, since Christians make up a good deal of the leadership?  Of course, people like me don’t have the ear of the Times editors.  And even when our blind spots are pointed out, we often don’t truly believe that they exist.  So we don’t see them.  I doubt I could convince the Times editors that they have a blind spot.

But the point here is not to tweak the noses of The New York Times.  (Well, OK, I have to confess that I do actually want to tweak the noses of The New York Times.)

My point is that we need to realize that all of us have blind spots and we need to be aware that they exist, even if we don’t know what, exactly, they are.

An Embarrassing Story and a Point about American Culture

I have a somewhat embarrassing story to tell about myself.  Many of you may be a bit intrigued by this prospect because you have a sort of morbid fascination in the embarrassment of others.  But I should point out that you may not grasp the full weight of my embarrassment unless you are an academic.  You see, this is a story about graduate school, which is not the stuff from which exciting stories are often made.  I apologize if I have now dampened your anticipation.

A little context.  Most Ph.D. programs have two stages.  A grad student spends a couple of years doing coursework before advancing to the second stage, which is doing the research that results in the dissertation.  When one finishes the first stage, at least in the discipline of history, one then presents a research proposal to four scholars and asks if they would serve on a committee that would evaluate and give final approval to the dissertation.

The dissertation committee, then, is quite important.  The Ph.D. degree depends upon it.  One should choose scholars who will have high standards, but one also hopes that these academics, who sometimes come equipped with eccentric, cantankerous or quarrelsome personalities, will not throw up unnecessary obstacles in the process.

I had decided to write a dissertation on American evangelical missionaries.  I was a bit worried about how some scholars might receive that topic, given that many academics believe that missionaries are inherently oppressive, imperialistic busybodies who have created great problems, if not outright injustices in the world.  As a former missionary, I did not exactly share this scholarly perspective.

I secured the approval of three historians — two who studied evangelicalism and were evangelicals themselves.  The third was a historian of American history who was quite affable.  For the fourth position, I thought I ought to get someone who could bring a different perspective than mine, because I was told that this is often helpful as one tries to get a full perspective on things.  After all, one should want to know if one has missed a gaping hole in one’s research, sticking out right there in chapter three, causing all the world to avert their eyes and blush slightly.

So I gave my proposal to a historian whom I thought fit the bill.  She was not an evangelical or a Christian — she came from a Jewish background and I gathered that she was probably an agnostic.  She taught women’s history at Notre Dame and I knew she had written a piece for the Radical History Review.  She certainly would have a different perspective.  But she also was a respected scholar who studied cultural issues in nineteenth century America, which was important for my research.  And from what I knew of her, she seemed like a person of goodwill who encouraged grad students while still asking challenging questions.

Still, I was a little nervous about her reaction.

After reading my proposal she sent me back a rather long response, in which she wrote many gracious and helpful things.  But she also raised a serious concern.  I had written that I wanted to look at variations among evangelical missionaries by examining them from a range of angles, including denomination, race, region, and educational attainment.  If I really wanted to examine evangelical missionaries from many different angles, she asked rather pointedly, why did I not even mention gender in my proposal?  After all, she pointed out, nearly sixty percent of all evangelical missionaries by 1900 were women.

Oh.  Yeah.

She was, of course, correct.  If I really wanted to get a good handle on evangelical missionaries, I really needed to give careful consideration to women missionaries and issues of gender.

But here is the part that caused me to slap my forehead with the palm of my hand.  (I’m almost sure I literally did that when I read her response.)  I had been worried that she might find flaws and holes in my research proposal and it never occurred to me that THE WOMEN’S HISTORY PROFESSOR JUST MIGHT WANT ME TO CONSIDER WOMEN IN MY RESEARCH!  What in the name of Susan B. Anthony did I think she would say when she read my proposal?

That was the embarrassing part.

There are some deeper questions here.  Why, for instance, did I miss this?  After all, I considered myself to be a somewhat intelligent person.  I got pretty good GRE scores. I had earned a Masters degree and passed my comprehensive exams.  I could say “I am a birthday cake” in five different languages.

And yet I could also be stupid.  Maybe “dense” is a better word.

Was this thick-headedness just a problem with me?

Let me venture to suggest here that there was more at work than my own dim-witted personality (though one would not want to discount or minimize that very real factor).  The other reality is that I had a blind spot when it came to gender.   Many things fed that blind spot, including the reality that, even though I had met several females in my life and had even talked to some of them (like my wife, for instance), I had not been compelled very often to think about many aspects of the world from a female perspective.  You see, there are still many ways in which being a male in our culture means you can view the world through a male lens without having a female question or challenge your thinking.  Even if your wife is often quite helpful in this regard.  In other words, thick-headedness is also a cultural problem.


Hmm. You won’t find any “news fit to print” on Catholicism, Buddhism, Pentecostalism, world Christianity, Islam, theology, or spirituality in the September 6, 2014 online edition of the New York Times, but there is this life-changing article on meals you can get in Portland, Oregon for $8 or under!

Now before you accuse me of promoting anti-male, anti-white political correctness, let me say that the blind spot problem is a problem for everyone, including liberals, academics, and those who drive Volvos.  The New York Times, for instance, which is read by a lot of vegans and pointy-headed intellectuals, has a huge blind spot when it comes to religion.  The Times, which has long proclaimed that it gives us “all the news that is fit to print,” has regular sections of the paper devoted to politics (U.S. and world), business, technology, science, health, sports, arts, fashion & style (fashion & style, I say!), automobiles, home & garden, travel and movies.  It has no regular section on religion.  Is there any better empirical evidence of a cultural blind spot about religion than that?

The blind-spot problem is not one of politics.  It is not one of intelligence. It is a problem of human nature.  As such, it is aggravated by cultural forces.  I would venture to say, in fact, that American culture has a blind spot about blind spots.

There are two particularly strong cultural forces that have aggravated the problem for us for at least half a century:  our beliefs about science and our beliefs about individual autonomy. There are reasons why we, especially if we are Christians, should think about this problem.  And so, I plan to discuss this more in my next post.

My Family and the BBQ Place

A few weeks ago, my extended family took a little vacation together in southern Kentucky.  We had met in a small town and the decision was made to go out to eat together at a local BBQ place on the outskirts of town.  It looked interesting.  It was a low-lying wood structure painted in bright orange and black with a gravel parking lot.   You know what I mean — the type of place that probably had some unique local flavor, in both the food and the atmosphere.

As my brother’s family pulled into the BBQ joint, my twelve year-old niece turned to her mother and said, “Mom, you do know we’re black, don’t you?”

Oh.  I should point out that my brother married an African-American woman and has three bi-racial daughters.

My niece was half-joking and half-serious.  But because of her race, she felt a bit uncomfortable about entering this unknown place.  And I can’t say I blame her.  If you were black, would you have second thoughts about entering a local eatery in a small town in southern Kentucky?

As it turned out, they ate at the place and there was no problem, other than a few strange stares.

It is a very small incident, but it illustrates a couple of subtle but complicated dimensions to the way race works in our culture.

First of all, this little incident exemplifies one kind of white privilege.  My nieces and my sister-in-law automatically have to go through a series of calculations in a situation like this:  Am I going to be welcome? Am I going to be treated differently because of how people perceive me?  How should I respond if I am?  There are very few places where I, as a white person in America, have to make those calculations.  My sister-in-law, and nieces, (and brother, by association) have to make those kinds of calculations fairly regularly.

This particular incident isn’t exactly a question of great injustice.  There was not a question of the denial of economic opportunity, or whether rights would be violated, or whether my relatives would face violence, though the unknown can produce anxieties about such things.  But it does mean that it can be difficult for person of color to feel fully at ease in many places in American society.

However, it still raises questions of injustice.  If blacks still have to make calculations about how they will be treated (and due to the experiences they have, many and perhaps most African-Americans still do have to make these calculations), then we still have serious racial issues to face and address in our society.  Beyond being uncomfortable in restaurants, there are still complicated racial questions about how hiring processes, law enforcement, housing patterns, and a host of other issues that we still need to face and figure out.

There is yet another rather complicated issue here that pertains to all of us.  Should we try to be color-blind?  Is that the best way to resolve these issues?

Here is how it usually plays out (it seems to me) in my extended family:  most of the time we are color-blind. My sister-in-law is black.  My nieces are mixed-race.  My adopted sister (born in Korea) is Asian-American.  The rest of us are white.  We get together for holidays, vacations and other family events and we don’t think much about race.  We largely see each individual as unique people that we love.  We talk about what we do at our different places of work or school.  We see personality quirks.  We know what kinds of things each person likes for Christmas gifts.  We know what kinds of flaws we all tend to be guilty of.  We tell funny stories about each other at birthday celebrations.

The color-blind ideal, right?

Hmm.  Here is the problem:  in our color-blind way of thinking, those of us who are white sometimes forget the calculations that other members of the family have to make.  So, we gather for vacation and we need to eat.  Somebody says, “Hey, let’s try out that very interesting-looking BBQ joint,” and most of the rest of us agree, because we are not used to considering whether or not we will be welcome at an unknown place like this.  And as several of our family cars pull into the gravel parking lot, only one vehicle contains somebody who is asking, “You do know we are black, don’t you?”  The rest of us have forgotten.

Being color-blind, however, can also mean we have a blind spot.  We fail to consider how things might look while standing in somebody else’s shoes.

Now, I don’t know how things would have played out differently if we considered race at that moment.  It is quite likely that if somebody had asked the black members of the family if they would enjoy eating there, my sister-in-law would have said, “Hey, it’s OK, let’s try it out,” because she is used to these calculations and she’s tough.   Or maybe she would want the rest of us to be comfortable and happy.  But we never found out how she would have reacted because we were behaving in our usually color-blind way.

I would have more faith in the color-blind ideal if all Americans knew and loved one another to the extent that members of my family know and love one another.  But the reality?  It is only possible to know, on this level, a small minority of people we come in contact with on a regular basis.  Furthermore, love takes work, even with people we know very well.  Even if they believe in the color-blind ideal, I just don’t trust people to uphold it simply because it is a good idea.  Shoot, I don’t trust myself on this matter.

What do you know about this guy?  Nothing.  But your mind will guess a few things....

What do you know about this guy? Nothing. But your mind will guess a few things….

On top of that, as my cognitive psychologist friend tells me, our brains are hard-wired to organize the world into categories.  So we distinguish among mammals and trees and birds.  We make distinctions among genres of music, TV shows and sports.  As we drive down the road, we unconsciously note the difference among stop signs, stoplights and billboards.  We assume certain things about people who are enthusiastic about NASCAR, or yoga, or Star Trek, or hedge funds.  It doesn’t mean we get it right, but our brains have to organize the world into categories, or the world will just be a mass of chaos to us.

....and do the same with these folks.

….and do the same with these folks.

It is unavoidable.  My friend Linda told me that a couple of decades ago, when she was living in New Orleans, her 2 or 3 year-old son asked her why all garbage men were black.  It was an innocent question that illustrates the point:  from the earliest stages of our lives humans make categories and connections to try to figure out the world.

Our culture has spent the last five centuries organizing people according to race.  Those categories are not going to go away easily, or any time soon.  We live with those categories and associations on a conscious and unconscious level.  Picture a wide-receiver.  Picture a CEO.  Now try to do it without race as a category.  You are probably able to picture either one as white or black, but I’m willing to bet that a black man popped up first in your mind for the wide-receiver and a white man popped up for the CEO.  And you probably didn’t think about a female for either.  Or a Latino.

So the color-blind goal?  If being color-blind makes it easier for us to ignore our blind spots, then we need to find a different way.


What Bill O’Reilly Ought to Argue

I hesitate to make suggestions for anybody (liberal or conservative) who appear on TV news shows.  Why encourage them?  That format usually promotes oversimplification and rarely encourages deeper understanding.

But I have a suggestion for conservatives.  And liberals, actually.

I argued in an earlier post that Bill O’Reilly doesn’t really understand what white privilege is.  He doesn’t get that he actually has benefited from being white, even if he grew up somewhat poor. And I have to confess that I found it hard to find any of Bill O’Reilly’s comments that I agreed with in his segment, aside from the fact that he probably does get sun-burned if he is out too long in the sun in Hawaii.

However, I think there is a valid objection to be made by some people who are critical of the idea of privilege.  On the O’Reilly segment, Stuart Varney argued that you don’t right wrongs by “guilting” the present.  Varney oversimplifies a complex issue, (see, there it is – oversimplification as a TV news epidemic), but I think he is correct that the concept of “privilege” is sometimes (often?) presented in such a way that feeling guilty is the only response whites can make. In other words, privilege is often framed as a situation that stems solely from past injustices.

Have you given thanks for the good that was built up in our society through the agonizing work done by schoolchildren (and their teachers) in generations past?

A shout-out to schoolchildren (and their teachers) in generations past: Thanks.


But that, also, is an oversimplification.  It is true that much of the privilege I enjoy as a white person is a result of past injustices.  But much is also the result of the efforts of people in the past who have worked against injustice or who have worked to empower non-elites.  I am not descended from an elite or aristocratic family lineage (how many of us in the U.S. are, actually?) but I have benefited from an education that was not conditioned on my family’s wealth or status.  This is thanks to the efforts of many Puritans, Yankees and other Americans from the past who worked to ensure the all ordinary children would receive an education.

I am also privileged because there are principles embedded in the Bill of Rights that have allowed my ancestors and me to flourish. We only need to examine how the poor are abused by the rich and powerful in places like Peru, the Philippines, India, and Kenya (just to name a few somewhat random nations) to help us to appreciate the privilege we enjoy of a law enforcement and legal system that does not only work primarily for the interests of the rich and powerful.  So, even though the founders and many after them upheld systems of injustice that reinforced the privileges of white males (slavery, patriarchy), they also promoted principles checked and limited what the most powerful in our society can do.  Later generations built on those systems, and I’m thankful for those efforts to establish justice.

I am also privileged because I was born into a stable (though imperfect) family, with parents who, among other things, instructed me in ethical principles, filled my life with books, instilled in me habits of self-denial, and sent me to church to encounter God.   That took a lot of hard work on their part, and I did not always learn my lessons well. (See: Failure to Properly Respect Others or Adequately Apologize for Sins Committed in the Great Dodgeball Uprising of 1972).  However, I know that many people are born into family situations in which they did not receive as many blessings as I did growing up. I could name more.

The point is that influences on my life as disparate as public education, a working legal system, and a stable family were all given to me, through no fault, action or decision on my own part.  Those are privileges I have been given, due to the good and just things done by people in the past. I have been granted a position of privilege that is based both on terrible injustices and admirable work for good done by many people in the past.

It is important we understand both sides of this coin.  And we can’t fully understand both sides of this coin if we do not deeply engage history.  (Yes, this is a shameless plug for history, but only because I’m right).  In the O’Reilly segment, Stuart Varney saw it is a problem that we were “always looking to the past.”  His solution, presumably, is to forget the past when it comes to issues of race.  This is an extremely bad suggestion (for any issue, actually).

My guess is, though, Varney would be quite happy if we looked at America’s past to note its accomplishments.  Many conservatives fall into this tendency — to describe American society today by lauding past accomplishments and downplaying its injustices.

Many liberals, however, fall into the opposite tendency — to describe American society today by highlighting past injustices, while downplaying its accomplishments.

A fully formed sense of history will deeply engage both sides.  This means we need to take part in careful discussions in which we listen carefully to issues, respect those with whom we disagree, and search for illumination rather than ammunition.

Perhaps we can start that process by turning off TV news shows.

Surprise:  More Evidence that College Does Not Really Cost More Than It Did Two Decades Ago

(I have another post coming on “privilege,” but first, this news about college costs.)

Staggering student debt from college……is mostly a myth.

What?  Hasn’t a college education (especially at private colleges) become outrageously expensive in recent years?

Not really.  What actually may be going on is that our our culture has bought into perceptions that just aren’t accurate.

If you care about the Christian faith, you should care about this.  Many Christian colleges (and non-Christian private colleges) are facing financial challenges because fewer students are going to these kinds of colleges.  I think that a major factor here (although I don’t have hard evidence for this) is that many Christian students and parents are steering away from Christian colleges because they believe the financial costs have become unbearable. So, the thinking often goes, better to go to a public university or a community college.  College grads going to a private institution will be drowning in debt for years,   Right?

Wrong — at least for the majority of students.

I’ve supplied evidence on this issue before, but now we have more.  The problem is that anecdotes and simple images (the story of the college grad with $80,000 dollars of debt, for instance) gets lots of media play and the hard evidence does not.  The Brookings Institute has released a study showing that the Staggering Student Debt cliche is actually a perception that has taken on the status of myth.  They don’t phrase it quite like that, but that is the upshot.

If you don’t want to read the whole article, here are a few highlights:

– Average tuition at private colleges (non-profit private colleges, that is) has not increased any faster than inflation over the past decade, once you consider financial aid.  (My commentary:  the standard tuition price you see really does not tell you how much you will pay.  You have to receive a financial aid package to know what you will actually pay. It’s dumb, but that’s how the system works).

– Tuition really has increased at public institutions, by more than fifty percent.

– The amount of income the average grad has to devote to student debt is about the same today as it was in 1992 and it is actually lower than it was in 1998.  How can that be?  Average student debt has actually risen in the past two decades, but so has the average income of college grads.

Ha, ha, this is funny.  But do you think we do better in trusting a cartoon or a evidence from the Brookings Institute?

Ha, ha, this is funny. But do you think we do better in trusting a cartoon or a evidence from the Brookings Institute?

– Large student debts are uncommon.  58% of all grads have less than $10,000 worth of college debt.  Those with Staggering College Debt are outliers — only 7% have more than $50,000.

– Students from financially well-off families are paying more for college.  Students from middle and lower income families are not.

– The real problem comes for those students who drop out of college without a degree.  Their debt has doubled over the last decade.

My thoughts:

1) Compare student debt to the average debt from buying a new car, and suddenly the costs of college do not look as scary.  Consider this:  last year the average amount Americans borrowed to buy a car was $27,000.  But most grads have student loan debts of less than $10,000.  We Americans are going into much more debt for new cars than for college!  Where is all the hand-wringing about the staggering load of our car debts?  A college education is a much better investment, even if you only thinking in crass economic terms.

2) Students need to stay in college and see it through.  For some students, that is a real challenge, for a variety of reasons.  It is a challenge for those of us in higher education who are trying to help them persevere.

3)   Secular colleges and universities present a particular kind of education, framed by secular assumptions, questions and goals.  This can be helpful, though it does not often require students to think about important questions in life.  Christian colleges do more.  They frame their education by the assumptions, questions and goals of the Christian faith.  That is a different kind of education.  It is not interchangeable with the kind of education you get at a public education.

So if you know of a Christian who is considering college, bring up the issue of misperceptions about student debt.  And raise the question about what a Christian education does differently than a secular education.