Thursday, July 26, 2012

An Asymmetrical Critque

Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ. 22Wives, be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord. . . . Husbands should love their wives as they do their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. 29For no one ever hates his own body, but he nourishes and tenderly cares for it, just as Christ does for the church, 30because we are members of his body. 31“For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” 32This is a great mystery, and I am applying it to Christ and the church. 33Each of you, however, should love his wife as himself, and a wife should respect her husband.
Ephesians 5:21,28-33

In a recent blog post called “Religion Lies about Women,” Paula Kirby took issue with a statement by former President Jimmy Carter that criticized the role of religion in perpectuating gender discrimination. Her point was that such discrimination was not a distortion of authentic religious teaching; it is a foundational element.

As evidence, she quotes Ephesians 5:22-24, “Wives, be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord. 23For the husband is the head of the wife just as Christ is the head of the church, the body of which he is the Savior. 24Just as the church is subject to Christ, so also wives ought to be, in everything, to their husbands.” She dismisses the claims of many modern Christians that the admonition to wives is softened by the verses about a husband loving the wife as he loves his own body. And she skips over the first part of the passage, which calls on husbands and wives to “be subject to one another.”

The real meaning of the passage, she says, is clear in the larger context of teachings about slaves submitting to their masters and children submitting to parents. “Only religion could attempt to present such a loathsome idea” as slavery, “as though it were not a blot on the dignity of humankind, and the requirement for women always to submit to their menfolk is no less repugnant.” She calls such teaching “cynical” and “wicked.”

Clearly, such teaching is both cynical and wicked. But what about her larger point, that the subservience of women is not just an aberration or a misinterpretation; it is a foundational element of Christianity?

First, as any serious student of the Bible knows, Ephesians was not written by the Apostle Paul. Interestingly, one of the ways we know that Paul didn’t write it is for the very reason that Kirby condemns it. Paul was committed to Jesus’ radically egalitarian vision of the Kingdom of God, which is at odds with the acceptance of slavery and the subjection of women found in Ephesians. Even after we add back the introductory sentence often omitted by critics, that we should “Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ,” the Fifth chapter of Ephesians still falls short of the radically egalitarian nature of the Kingdom of God as proclaimed by Jesus and by Paul.

Second, biblical writings on the place of women need to be judged in historical context. The question is not how biblical views of women compare to our western democratic vision, but how they compared to the views of other ancient writers and civilizations. The Bible was written in a patriarchal culture. Given its historical context, the biblical witness can be read as an empowering document. Relative to the surrounding culture, the early church elevated the status of women. If we look at the biblical trajectory, rather than reading it as a static document, we get a very different picture.

Finally, we don’t judge the present value of any other realm of human endeavor based on what people in that same endeavor said or did two or three thousand years ago. We don’t judge the value of modern science or medicine by what ancient practitioners said or did thousands of years ago.

This asymmetrical critique makes sense if the criticism is aimed at biblical literalists. For those Christians who read the Bible as if it were a textbook of science, history and sociology, the critique Kirby presents is completely valid. For the rest of us, it is simply absurd.

Christians have a lot to answer for over the past two thousand years. We have often been less than faithful disciples. Even when many Christians were bending the arc of justice ahead of the historical curve, we were not far enough in front. And other times, as in the matter of gay rights, many of us have lagged behind. And we have to answer for those failings. But it is unfair to judge the Christians of today based on how a critic chooses to interpret a two thousand year old text.

Monday, July 23, 2012

The Parable of the Extra Cookie

When you have eaten your fill and have built fine houses and live in them, and when your herds and flocks have multiplied, and your silver and gold is multiplied, and all that you have is multiplied, then do not exalt yourself, forgetting the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, who led you through the great and terrible wilderness, an arid wasteland with poisonous snakes and scorpions. He made water flow for you from flint rock, and fed you in the wilderness with manna that your ancestors did not know, to humble you and to test you, and in the end to do you good. Do not say to yourself, “My power and the might of my own hand have gotten me this wealth.” 
 Deuteronomy 8:12-17

Bestselling author Michael Lewis gave a remarkably self-effacing and genuinely humble speech to the graduating class at Princeton last month.

His speech was titled, “Don’t Eat Fortune’s Cookie.” It was in many ways the antithesis of the traditional graduation speech. He did not outline his keys to success or exhort the graduates to set high goals, or talk about discipline and hard work. What he told them was that success was more about luck than hard work. Successful people have to work hard. They have to be disciplined and focused. But lots of people work very hard and are very focused and still achieve much less.

As individuals and as a society, we don’t want to see it that way. We want to believe that what we have achieved is entirely the result of our own efforts.

He tells the story of his own lucky break this way, “One night I was invited to a dinner, where I sat next to the wife of a big shot at a giant Wall Street investment bank, called Salomon Brothers. She more or less forced her husband to give me a job. I knew next to nothing about Salomon Brothers. But Salomon Brothers happened to be where Wall Street was being reinvented—into the place we have all come to know and love. When I got there I was assigned, almost arbitrarily, to the very best job in which to observe the growing madness: they turned me into the house expert on derivatives. A year and a half later Salomon Brothers was handing me a check for hundreds of thousands of dollars to give advice about derivatives to professional investors.”

For Lewis, the money was really beside the point. He didn’t want to be a Wall Street executive, he wanted to be a writer. The critical thing was that now he had something to write about, “Wall Street had become so unhinged that it was paying recent Princeton graduates who knew nothing about money small fortunes to pretend to be experts about money.”

He went on, “The book I wrote was called ‘Liar’s Poker.’ It sold a million copies. I was 28 years old. I had a career, a little fame, a small fortune and a new life narrative. All of a sudden people were telling me I was born to be a writer. This was absurd. Even I could see there was another, truer narrative, with luck as its theme. What were the odds of being seated at that dinner next to that Salomon Brothers lady? Of landing inside the best Wall Street firm from which to write the story of an age? Of landing in the seat with the best view of the business? Of having parents who didn't disinherit me but instead sighed and said ‘do it if you must?’ Of having had that sense of must kindled inside me by a professor of art history at Princeton? Of having been let into Princeton in the first place?”

He talked about his writing, and then he told a story which is also a parable.

Researchers at Berkley recruited undergraduates to particpate in an experiment. They segregated them into three person teams. Each team had either trhee males or three females. Then they arbitraritly chose a person to be the group “leader,” who would report back to the larger session. The “leaders” were each given a special T-shirt to wear, identifying him or her as the “leader.” And each group was given a moral dilemma to solve, like reducing campus drinking or academic cheating.

After thirty minutes, the researcher interrupted each of the groups and offered them a plate of cookies. Each plate had four cookies. There was one for each participant and one extra. This might have been the source of some awkward negotiation, but it wasn’t. The fourth cookie was almost always consumed by the “leader,” who “Not only ate it, but ate it with gusto: lips smacking, mouth open, drool at the corners of their mouths. In the end all that was left of the extra cookie were crumbs on the leader's shirt.”

Lewis observed, “This leader had performed no special task. He had no special virtue. He'd been chosen at random, 30 minutes earlier. His status was nothing but luck. But it still left him with the sense that the cookie should be his.”

The experiment, he said, helps to explain Wall Street bonuses and CEO pay and lots of other human behavior. And then he explained the meaning of the parable in specific reference to Princeton graduates, “In a general sort of way you have been appointed the leader of the group. Your appointment may not be entirely arbitrary. But you must sense its arbitrary aspect: you are the lucky few. Lucky in your parents, lucky in your country, lucky that a place like Princeton exists that can take in lucky people, introduce them to other lucky people, and increase their chances of becoming even luckier. Lucky that you live in the richest society the world has ever seen, in a time when no one actually expects you to sacrifice your interests to anything.” 

All of you have been faced with the extra cookie. All of you will be faced with many more of them. In time you will find it easy to assume that you deserve the extra cookie. For all I know, you may. But you'll be happier, and the world will be better off, if you at least pretend that you don't.”

And then he urged them never to forget the Princeton motto: “In the nation's service. In the service of all nations.”

We do live in the richest society the world has ever seen at a time when no one actually expects us to sacrifice our own interests for anyone else. We will be tempted to “eat the extra cookie.” In some cases we will be tempted to eat the extra cookie even when we know that outside of our group there may be others with no cookies at all.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Opportunity Is Not Equal

Happy are those who find wisdom,
and those who get understanding,

for her income is better than silver,
and her revenue better than gold.

She is more precious than jewels,
and nothing you desire can compare with her.

Long life is in her right hand;
in her left hand are riches and honor.

Her ways are ways of pleasantness,
and all her paths are peace.

She is a tree of life to those who lay hold of her;
those who hold her fast are called happy.
Proverbs 3:13-18

My friend Keith Sanzen posted a CNN essay on education on his Facebook page. The article was titled, “For Poor Children, Trying Hard Is Not Enough.” It was written by Trina R. Shanks, an associate professor of social work at the University of Michigan and a Rhodes Scholar.

Shanks, who is black, notes that she is the granddaughter of an elementary school cook and a woman who cleaned other people’s homes. Her grandmothers never had much money, but they worked hard and encouraged their children to get an education. In spite of their difficult economic circumstances, both of her parents earned college degrees and were able to raise Shanks and her siblings in a middle class lifestyle. And now she, their daughter, “went on to receive a Ph.D.”

Her point in the essay is that the story she lived, of upward mobility, is increasingly difficult to achieve. She cites studies showing that income level and educational opportunity are linked. And points out that the effects are dramatic: the highest achieving students from poor families are less likely to complete college than the lowest achieving students of affluent families. In terms of completing a college degree, income is a greater determinate than ability or effort. We are not just wasting the lives of individual children, though that would be bad enough, we are losing precious intellectual resources that could benefit our whole society.

The article was interesting and appalling. But it did not break new ground. Anyone who has been concerned about upward social mobility in the United States already knows that we now lag far behind many other western countries.

To me, the comments following the article were more interesting than the article itself.

The negative responses followed a pattern: “I was poor and I worked hard and I succeeded. Everyone can succeed if they work hard enough.”

We won’t question how “poor” the writers actually were, or how hard they worked. I applaud the effort and the achievement, but I am appalled by the reasoning. The point that Shanks and many others are making is not that it is impossible for a poor child to overcome his or her circumstances, but that such success is so very rare. 

This is not about individual success or failure; it is about broad social patterns.Among poor children, even those with great gifts and determination face daunting odds. Some will succeed, but too many will fail. The individual struggles are poignant, but the social costs are staggering.

As a child, when I learned about the American Dream, I was taught that education was the foundation and the great equalizer. Regardless of race or class, everyone had the opportunity to learn and, therefore, the opportunity to succeed. In my idyllic Cape Cod childhood, I understood success to mean a home, a family and a satisfying occupation that contributed to the greater good. That modest dream is increasingly out of reach for children growing up in low income families. As one researcher ironically observed, the best way to insure success is to choose wisely when selecting your parents.