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DMin, Leadership and Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Am I Blind? I think I Might Be Blind! Yeah…I’m Blind.

Written by: on October 29, 2019

Critical theory is a body of scholarship that examines how societies and cultures work.  Differing from a descriptive approach, Stuart Sim and Borin Van Loon, in Introducing Critical Theory: A Graphic Guide, explain how critical theory gets beneath the surface of culture and literature to unmask the largely invisible and unquestioned ideologies that shape them (p. 21).  Yet, the purpose of critical theory is not merely to expose the ideologies, but to transform them (p. 5).

In order to illustrate the power of hidden systems to impact culture, the authors move swiftly from the grand-narrative approach of Karl Marx to Antonio Gramsci who explored oppressive ideologies like hegemony.  In their book Is Everyone Really Equal? An Introduction to Key Concepts in Social Justice Education, critical social theorists Özlem Sensoy and Robin DiAngelo define hegemony as “the control of the ideology of society” and expose how “the dominant group maintains power by imposing their ideology on everyone” (Sensoy & DiAngelo, p. 73). Gramsci would agree with Sensoy and DiAngelo’s definition while highlighting how the success of ideologies such as hegemony depends on the extent to which they can make themselves invisible. Writes Gramsci, “This is the trick of hegemony… to persuade the whole of society that a prevailing ideology – the very one which…[is produced by and] protects the dominant class – is really the only natural and normal way of thinking” (Sim & Van Loon, p. 37).

In conversation with one another, both texts offer additional forms of ideologies that have been made “unrecognizable” (Sim & Van Loon, p. 37) within culture and throughout literature yet are surfaced through critical theory. They include patriarchy, racism, whiteness, and white supremacy just to name a few.

Patriarchy is “the belief in the inherent superiority of men and the creation of institutions based on that belief.” (Sensoy & DiAngelo, p. 103) Sensoy and DiAngelo cite global examples of generally accepted and, therefore, largely unrecognizable forms of patriarchy such as the “male[ness] of god; the father as the head of the household; males as authority in all social realms such as law, government, religion and culture; [and] women as inherently inferior to…and property of men.” (p. 103)

Racism is “a systemic relationship of unequal power between white people and peoples of color” (Sensoy & DiAngelo, p. 142) that is invisibly “embedded into all aspects of society.” (p. 103) In order to engage racism, Sensoy and DiAngelo believe that “we must challenge the dominant conceptualization of racism as individual acts that only some bad individuals do” and, instead, understand it as “a system in which we all are implicated.” (p. 142).

Whiteness is a socially constructed ideology that “refers to the specific dimensions of racism that elevates white people over peoples of color.” (Sensoy & DiAngelo, p. 142) Whiteness, along with the accumulation, protection, and utilization of power generates white supremacy. Rather than identifying white supremacy with the more overt expressions of hate-based racism typified by the Ku Klux Klan, Sensoy and DiAngelo use the term to capture the camouflaged “pervasiveness, magnitude, and normalcy of white privilege, [white] dominance, and assumed [white] superiority.” (p. 143).

While all four authors do well to expose the necessity of critical theory to uncover and transform oppressive ideologies and while each asserts that every person is impacted by these ideologies, both books beg the question: Who is blind to these ideologies and who is not?

In 2017 the answer to this question surfaced in a devastating way.  In May of that year, I was joined by a dear friend who is a Muslim Sheikh in the Old City of Jerusalem. Alongside a delegation of white and black faith leaders from the United States, he and I were facilitating a conversation about how faith traditions can become disarmed.  Just as we were inviting the learning community toward a radical return to the nonviolent essence of Islam and Christianity, we heard several loud pops.  The sound was unsettling and very close to where we sat.

A white faith leader looked around and asked, “What was that? It sounded like firecrackers.  Is there a religious celebration today?”  Assuming he was correct, he smiled, shrugged it off, and leaned back into the conversation at hand.  So too did his white colleagues. My black colleagues responded not with curiosity, but with silent looks of anguish.  They were familiar with the sound of gunfire and didn’t need to wonder about what they had just heard.  The Sheikh?  His eyes were closed and, as he rocked back and forth, I could just barely hear the words of his prayers.  My minoritized friends were able to see something insidious at work that my dominant culture friends were blind to.

A day later, two contrasting stories of what had transpired emerged in the tabloids. The first was the dominant cultural narrative and it went like this: Due to the increase in stabbing attempts of Israeli soldiers by Palestinian teenagers, the soldiers were on high alert. A young, well-trained soldier was vigilant and self-controlled as he and his platoon made their way through the maze of the Old City. Despite the density of the crowds, the soldier identified a female Palestinian teenager approaching him with a knife and preparing to stab him.  Rather than wait to be injured, he opened fire and “neutralized the threat.”

The second story, the narrative of the oppressed, went like this: It was true that there had been an increase in stabbings in the months leading up to that moment.  But these stabbings were not isolated, unprovoked events.  They were, instead, a restless response to the systemic racism that rejected the possibility for baseline human rights for the dark-skinned Palestinians by the lighter-skinned Israelis. The stabbings were in response to the institutionalized racism that manifests in acts of terror like midnight raids of Palestinian homes, unlawful long-term incarceration of Palestinian children, and dehumanizing harassment of Palestinian women at checkpoints.

On the day when shots rang out, it was observed that this particular young solider was especially on edge and, in the hours leading up to the assault, had been antagonizing Palestinian teenagers who sought to access the Old City by way of the Damascus Gate.  While his platoon navigated the impacted streets of the Muslim Quarter, someone called out “Knife!”  Without hesitation, the soldier identified an innocent Palestinian teenager and unloaded over thirty bullets, cutting the body of 16-year-old Fatima Abdel Rahman Hjeiji in half.  It was undetermined if a knife was found on her person.

Interestingly, but not surprisingly, my white colleagues accepted the dominant-culture narrative at face value.  They had been groomed within a system of privilege where their safety was all but guaranteed by white, militarized bodies whose job it was to contain the violence of darker-skinned persons.  From their perspective, law enforcement was understood as the ultimate authority and was believed to be trustworthy.

While disturbed that a death had occurred within a stone’s throw of them, the dominant-culture story was consumed affirmatively. No questions were asked and they were relieved to know that their safety was being prioritized by highly trained soldiers with assault rifles.  As far as my white colleagues were concerned, the system had worked and order had been restored.  Because they had forever benefitted from the oppressive ideologies of patriarchy, racism, whiteness, and white supremacy, they remained blind to the rushing currents of injustice that were drowning their black colleagues and were, therefore, ready to move on.

From the perspective of the black faith leaders, Fatima’s execution represented just another in a long line of dark-skinned lives prematurely extinguished by strangely familiar oppressive ideologies. While they found truth in the narrative of the oppressed, they didn’t need this latter story to surface in order for them to understand that the same demons of white supremacy that hunt them in the streets of their neighborhoods were present and active in the streets of Jerusalem.

As far as my black colleagues were concerned, the system had done exactly what the system had been designed to do. Because they had forever suffered at the hands of patriarchy, racism, whiteness, and white supremacy, they were in solidarity with Fatima’s family and with one another.  Rather than moving on, they were ready to lament.

In light of this story, I return to my question: who is blind to oppressive ideologies and who is not? Based on the aforementioned experience, the more proximate one is to power, the blinder he seems to be to the oppressive ideologies that lurk just below the surface of culture and literature.  He doesn’t see them because his life does not depend on understanding them.  Alternatively, the further one is from power, the more likely she is to see, understand, lament, and respond to those same ideologies. She sees the system because her survival demands it.

So how does a dominant-culture leader begin to see more clearly and read more critically so that we can collaborate more constructively, and influence more restoratively?

  1. Begin with the knowledge that “the societal default is oppression” (Sensoy & DiAngelo, p. 203) and that the dominant-culture narrative is self-serving. Position oneself in trusting proximity to those who see the matrix of oppressive ideologies and invite them to help you see more clearly.
  2. Recognize that knowledge is not neutral, is subjective, and likely influenced by oppressive ideologies. Diversify your library away from white, male thought leadership to include non-dominant culture authors who critique the very systems that we have benefitted from.

About the Author

mm

Jer Swigart

15 responses to “Am I Blind? I think I Might Be Blind! Yeah…I’m Blind.”

  1. mm Dylan Branson says:

    Powerful story, Jer.

    One of the things I’ve been reflecting on with other expat friends of mine in Hong Kong is the fact that we will always be outsiders. What’s more, how do we as outsiders act as a presence of peace in the midst of the chaos around us when there are so many intricacies we miss?

    When I was studying at Asbury, one of our required courses was on the theology of John Wesley. What struck me about his theology was his insistent call that Christians NEED to be in close proximity with the poor and oppressed. He charged Christians to not simply donate money to organizations that aid the poor, but rather to be the ones who are actively working with them. If we are not actively involved with poor and oppressed, we cannot appreciate the struggle that they are going through.

    This past Sunday, I was walking home with a friend after church. When we reached the MTR station, we found a large crowd of people protesting, police outfitted in riot gear, and the station exit closed. We decided to walk further down the street to a different station, but as we walked we passed by the police station of that district. My friend (who’s fluent in Cantonese) was translating for me as voices came over a loudspeaker saying that the situation was getting precarious and that the police would be firing tear gas soon. As I looked around, the area itself did not have many people and I was thinking to myself, “Where is this ‘precarious situation’ you’re speaking of?” We made our way out of the area and came to a crosswalk to find a convoy of police vehicles and an armored jeep stretching down the road with more police standing at the corner. We eventually got through the crowd and onto a side street before any of the tear gas was shot off.

    But that being said, toward the beginning of the protests there was a mantra going around that equated to “you aren’t a true Hong Konger until you’ve tasted tear gas.” The last few months has been a battle of narratives: The narratives of the empowered and those of the oppressed. When we have a more distant connection to the problems in society, it’s easy to identify with the empowered. When we are closer to the heart of those who are oppressed, we see and feel the pain that they see and feel.

    • mm Jer Swigart says:

      My Palestinian friends say that you don’t understand the occupation until your home has been raided and you’ve found yourself in hours-long interrogations. They continue that it’s only once you understand occupation experientially that you’re ready to fight it.

      My black friends refer to incarceration as their baptism into the freedom fighting movement. They continue that it’s only after experiencing the brokenness of the criminal justice system that you have no other choice but to fight for the hopeful alternative.

      My migrant friends say that you don’t understand the injustice of our draconian immigration policies until you feel the trauma caused by red/blue lights in your review mirror, have to navigate the perilous walk from your car to the county courthouse, or try to soothe your children who are terrified that you might not come home. They continue that it’s only after experiencing the trauma that they’re ready to fight for a just future.

      There is a deep connection between proximity and perspective. Yet even those closest to the pain take it a step further, pointing out that its not just the nearness that’s important, but the physical experience of oppression. I’m humbled by this as it demands that I ask the question: “What am I willing to sacrifice, not only order to get a more accurate perspective but so that I’m baptized into the movement?”

  2. Darcy Hansen says:

    Jer,
    Thank you for sharing that experience with us. It sounds like a profound and transformational moment in your life. I wonder how you envision moving dominant culture individuals into a posture the knowledge that “the societal default is oppression” (Sensoy & DiAngelo, p. 203) and that the dominant-culture narrative is self-serving.” The release of power, position, platform, and privilege is something that doesn’t happen easily. When I meet with the pastor of my previous church, he had no interest in even considering my perspectives. the system had always worked for him; surely if I was called, “then opportunities would simply arise” for me, too.

    In your contexts, what strategies have you found to be effective in moving dominant culture individuals closer toward those they consider as “other”? It seems to me a huge heart shift has to happen, or some type of “pain” must be experienced in their life that serves as a “wake up call.” Thoughts?

    • mm Jer Swigart says:

      From my perspective, this is the question of our time: What will it take in order for dominant culture faith leaders to (1) recognize their privilege and how the systems of that they perpetuate are oppressive in that they benefit them and crush others; (2) understand that the theology that they have been given encourages their position/profit at the expense of others; (3) be willing to explore a more spacious theology; (4) lament the distance between their theology and expressions of leadership and that of Jesus; (5) learn to have grace with themselves throughout the process; (6) repent; and (7) choose to enter a transformational pilgrimage?

      Based on the work that we’re doing, we’ve discovered that a carefully curated experience of immersion is the only catalyst that awakens dominant culture faith leaders to who they are, the implications of their theology and leadership, and the essential question: “Who must I become?” Dominant culture faith leaders must find themselves displaced into spaces where they are confronted with the tangible, human implications of their theology and leadership. With wisdom and intentionality, we have to immerse them into these spaces where they come to recognize that they are the projects to be undone and remade. These are spaces where they have no power and no answers.

      As I mentioned, the immersion experience is not the transformational pilgrimage. It’s simply the spark into a better, more difficult, and far more hopeful journey.

  3. Nancy Blackman says:

    Jer,
    Thanks for sharing that account. As with every story similar to that, I always hope for a different ending.

    You stated that your black colleagues were ready to lament. What do you think needs to happen for your white colleagues and white churches to enter into lament?

    • mm Jer Swigart says:

      I am giving my life to stories like these no longer being lived, much less told.

      See my comments above to Darcy to get a glimpse of what we’re doing with dominant culture faith leaders. Over time, we’ve been so conditioned to notice, diagnose, solve, and walk away congratulating ourselves that we’ve never had to truly get close to the pain. We have to invite dominant culture faith leaders to get closer, not just spacially, but relationally, to the pain of impacted communities. While there, we need to learn how to listen longer and allow ourselves to be changed by what we’ve heard.

      • Nancy Blackman says:

        Jer,
        Great work you are doing! I can’t wait to hear about this as you continue.

        Did you meet Kristin Hamilton from LGP7? She was
        at the London Advance helping the administration team behind the scenes.

        Her dissertation is about how white churches need to and can learn to lament.

        I wonder if there is a collaboration to be had?

  4. mm Greg Reich says:

    Jer,
    Throughout history we have seen the dominant cultural ideas of whiteness, patriarchy, and racism in many forms come and go in one way or another. People in power abuse power and when power shifts it is still often abused. There is a level of truth in the saying that “power corrupts.” I never asked to be born white and a male. I do recognize that as a white male I have been given curtain advantages that my daughters and my minority friends were not given, On the hand my minority friends raised in America would acknowledge as well that they were born into benefits that minorities of other countries don’t have.

    Is blindness to these facts really a case of cultural blindness or a reflection of a lack of cultural awareness? Are people truly born blind to this reality or is this blindness trained? How many of us choose blindness because the reality is uncomfortable and reminds us of our brokenness as a society?

    • mm Jer Swigart says:

      Greg.

      I wonder about your thought that the many forms of whiteness, racism, patriarchy, white supremacy “come and go.” I agree with the “come” but don’t know that I agree with the “go.” The power of these ideologies is that they evolve…constantly. So insidious are they that just when society thinks they’ve gotten on top of it (see Reconstruction of the Civil Rights Act) the ideologies evolve and manifest in equally dangerous and destructive ways.

      To your point, recognizing that we are born with access to all of the privilege is important. Understanding when to leverage it and when to lay it down is the learning curve for us.

  5. mm John McLarty says:

    I think I’ll just steal this post and preach it this Sunday! I totally would, except that those who admit their own blindness and then invite others to consider the reality are often invited to find alternative employment! Seems like I heard someone say something once about removing obstacles that impair one’s vision. Easy to say, hard to do. In your work, what has been effective in opening the eyes of those who are learning to become more culturally intelligent that keeps them open to the process even when it becomes uncomfortable?

    • mm Jer Swigart says:

      Preach away, my friend. Employment is overrated. 😉

      See my response to Darcy for a longer explanation of some of what we’re doing/learning. But in short form, we have discovered that one of the most necessary ingredients to the transformation of dominant culture Christians who are rooted in evangelicalism is immersion. We have to carefully guide them into spaces of displacement where they have to power and no answers and then demonstrate for them what it means to listen longer than feels comfortable and allow oneself to be changed by what we’ve heard.

      Put another way, a first step in helping white male faith leaders to learn to see is inviting them into spaces where they are no longer learning about something/someone but are learning from them. Again…this is just a start.

  6. mm Shawn Cramer says:

    Jer, what is your exposure level and opinion on liberation theology? It would be an interesting to survey different theological perspectives developed by oppressed people: the exile, (Negro) spirituals, and theological frameworks finding their origin in the global south.

    • mm Jer Swigart says:

      Theologians from the margins have been my primary guides and mentors throughout this past decade. I’ve discovered so much richness and deepened authenticity to our faith as I’ve learned from and with them. I lament how preferential the musings of dead white theologians have been to US American seminaries. The nearsighted preference for authority to be located within the white patriarchy has left the soul of the US American church significantly underdeveloped. We (white male faith leaders) have to discover the role we must play in de-centering ourselves and our theologies and our methodologies.

  7. mm Steve Wingate says:

    You asked, “So how does a dominant-culture leader begin to see more clearly and read more critically so that we can collaborate more constructively, and influence more restoratively?” I am just guessing here, could it be that the learned and/ or dominant cultural leaders need to go investigate the efficacy of their views and policies affect those at the bottom, so to speak? It’s kind of like asking how do we raise the credit score of the homeless- they could care less about credit score, at least on the whole!

    • mm Jer Swigart says:

      I like the idea of investigating the efficacy of their views. Even more, I prefer the idea of going to the margins and inviting our views to be interrogated by those impacted by our presence/practice/postures/policies.

      In order for transformation to occur for white male faith leaders, my sense is that our approaches to understanding/research have to be submitted to the authority of impacted colleagues.

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