Friday, August 29, 2014

Some Thoughts on Ferguson

I've been wondering for awhile what I can add to the public discussion that has been generated by the recent events in Ferguson, MO: the police shooting of unarmed black teen Michael Brown, and the subsequent community protests. What light can I shed, a white man sitting comfortably here in Stillwater, OK?

And then I remembered something my daughter said earlier this summer. We were driving, and we passed a police vehicle. From her car seat in the back, my daughter waved to the police officer. I know this not because I saw her do it (I was watching the road), but because she promptly announced, "I waved to the police officer. I like to wave to the police. They're nice."

They're nice.

That is my daughter's experience of the police, and I'm not surprised. We have a relative, Uncle Rob, who's a police officer. I'm sure she thinks of him as a warm, intelligent, and charming gentleman--because he is all those things. For a few years, a police officer lived across the street from us. He and his family were good neighbors. We had them to our house for dinner. His wife helped my daughter acquire Charlotte, her American Girl doll. My daughter knew that if she ever needed to run to a neighbor for help, she should go to them.

The point is this: Police officers are members of my daughter's community. They're neighbors, like the teachers who live down the street, and the nurse around the corner, and the professor. They're family members. They have a job, and their job is to keep people safe and make sure everyone follows the law. It's an important job. It's good that some members of the community are doing it.

That's who the police are to my little girl. They're nice.

The job of a police officer is best served, I think, to the extent that they are what my daughter takes them to be: Members of the community that they serve, neighbors and friends and family members who identify with the people they meet on the street, who see their job as serving and protecting their own community.

Similarly, the job of a police officer is compromised to the extent that the line between officers and the community in which they work is a dividing line between us and them, between community members and strangers who enter it with power and authority. There is a fundamental difference between an occupying force--even one that sees its mission as keeping the peace--and the police. To the extent that this distinction evaporates, something has gone tragically wrong.

The police have a hard job, and as I learned a few years back from police officers at conference on criminal justice ethics, they operate day-to-day with a complex combination of enormous individual discretion and sometimes byzantine hierarchical oversight. On the beat, they have to make quick decisions with significant consequences largely on their own; but there is also a a world of procedure and regulation that they are responsible to. They are, as one officer put it, the only 24-hour social service agency. That is, they are expected to solve human problems in their community when others (whose official job it is) aren't available to do it--and at the same time, as their official job, they are to enforce the law and keep the peace.

In a world where guns are everywhere, they face significant danger to their very lives--because those who intend to break the laws will see the police as their enemy, as a threat to their aims, and they may be armed.

None of this can be easy. Given that rules need to be applied fairly and without favoritism, a police officer won't always be seen as "nice." But a police officer's job is so much better to the extent that neighborhood children think of the officer in positive terms. When there is a widespread sense of mutual belonging--when the officer thinks, "This is my community," and the citizen thinks, "That officer is my neighbor with an important and difficult job"--the work of the police officer becomes meaningful and appreciated in a way that can reduce some of the challenges and make other challenges worth it.

And the community is more likely to have the kind of relationship with local law enforcement that contributes to their quality of life. There is a world of difference between entrusting your safety to members of your community who have been carefully trained to protect and to serve--and living in the shadow of an occupying force.

Unfortunately, there are a range of forces that can push the relationship between police and the community in the direction of the latter.

Some arise from the inherent psychological pressures of the job. When your job leads you to seek out those who are likely to view you as an enemy--and who therefore pose a threat to you--the antagonistic us/them frame of thinking has the potential to bleed out across your psyche. Furthermore, the need to exercise authority in the enforcement of rules can make you hesitant to get too friendly. Your job calls for a kind of impartiality that may push you towards a degree of psychological distance from the community you serve.

A certain amount of suspicion and distance are probably essential to doing a police officer's job. But too much, and the police are no longer members of the community. Suspicion breeds suspicion. Distance breeds distance. In the worst cases, the police become a kind of occupying force.

In poor and socially marginalized communities, the risk of this is magnified by numerous additional factors. First, poverty and social marginalization breed crime, and this increases the psychological pressure in police to be increasingly suspicious and distant from the members of the community they serve. Second, police officers have jobs that pay well relative to the incomes of those in poor and marginalized communities, a fact which creates a kind of economic distance. It can also create physical distance: police officers are more likely to live in middle class neighborhoods. And because the job carries with it an important and recognized social role--one that you're unlikely to choose or manage to get if you are yourself too marginalized and disaffected--officers may have trouble identifying with the depth of marginalization that many in their community feel; and the most socially marginalized may, in turn, have trouble identifying with the police. The result is an increased risk of us/them thinking, a sense of disconnect that pushes policing in the direction of quasi-military occupation.

And I haven't even mentioned race.

Racial divisions can obviously play into the us/them thinking, especially if the demographic profile of the police force is too unlike that of the community population. But I think there is another issue related to race that may go under-appreciated, on linked to racial profiling. The issue is this: The natural desire of the police to form some sense of belonging within the community they serve is in tension with the suspicion and distance that the job sometimes brings. But if there are some members of the community who can be easily identified as "safe"--as non-threatening and law-abiding--the need for suspicion and distance can be loosened with respect to them. You can let down your guard enough, at least with those you can quickly identify as safe, to form the sense of kinship and connection that makes the job more meaningful.

There is therefore something seductive about the idea that profiling based on visible cues can pick out those who are likely to be dangerous law-breakers, marking them off from those one can form a sense of connection with. Race is one of the most visible cues of all. Combine that with a cultural history of racial stereotyping, and a demographic disconnect between the police force and the community--not to mention the fact that legacies of injustice have resulted in disproportionate numbers of blacks living in poverty and feeling marginalized--and what do you get?

You get Ferguson.

The community response we've been seeing in Ferguson does not arise from a single incident, no matter how tragic or terrible. It is the effect of a cumulative and long-standing problem, a disconnect between a community and the police so severe that mutual fear and opposition have largely displaced any sort of identification. In Ferguson, I doubt that little black girls see a police car and think, "You're nice." Too many of their brothers have come home indignant about being profiled, being treated as guilty until proven innocent...or, sometimes, not come home at all.

The question is how such alienation can be repaired.

Part of the answer may be demographic--seeking to encourage a police force that more closely resembles the community it serves. Part of the answer may be prioritizing the hiring of officers with deep personal ties to the community. But much of the answer may lie in deliberate programs designed to build bridges of understanding between the police and the community: opportunities for members of the community to share with the police their feelings and needs and experiences, and for police officers to do the same--facilitated to minimize accusation and blame and maximize mutual listening and understanding.

Give law enforcement officers the chance to gather with community members to share together what they fear, what they hope, what they need. Find ways to give each side a safe space to express their anger, their frustration, their hurt--and experience what it is like to be heard.

The people of Ferguson are in a better position to know what kinds of activities and programs will help the most. What I can say with confidence is this: The question of what will help overcome the alienation between police and community is intimately linked to a question of central importance to those in Ferguson who have taken to the streets, who are chanting "Hands up! Don't shoot!"

The question is this: What should they be asking for?

The most successful campaigns of the civil rights movement were organized around very concrete goals. Martin Luther King, Jr., insisted that when community action was taken to protest segregation practices, they be clear about what, specifically, they wanted from their opponents.

In Ferguson today, there is energy for change. Anger is energy, and it's spilling into the streets. If the people of Ferguson want to harness that energy in a way that has a chance of making a positive difference in their lives, they need unity and organization, and they need nonviolent direct action strategies that will call attention to the problems and the reasons for their outrage. But they also need a clear purpose. They need to ask for something--something specific that the police department is actually able to give.

Justice for Michael Brown is one goal, but it lies beyond the power of the police alone to give. The police can commit to approaching the Michael Brown shooting with transparency and integrity--but the outrage in Ferguson arises from a problem that runs much deeper than the shooting of one person. The anger in Ferguson is fueled by more than a single shooting, no matter how tragic. It is about a relationship between the community and the police that has broken down. Michael Brown's shooting and the response are symptoms of something deeper.

Here, then, is something the activists in Ferguson might ask for, which cuts to the heart of the deeper issue: They could ask for a concrete commitment by the police department and the local government, complete with action steps, to devise and implement a community program to overcome the alienation, the us/them ideology, that has overtaken the relationship between the Ferguson police and the community. Perhaps the result could serve as a model plan for building positive community connections with law enforcement in other communities across the country.

It isn't just community members who would prefer to live in a world where their young daughters see a police officer and, rather than feel a rush of fear, smile and wave. The police would much rather live in such a world, too. As such, the problem in Ferguson is a shared problem. And a demand for addressing the schism between community and police is a demand for something that everyone has motive to pursue.

The energy in Ferguson is more than just a powder keg. It is an opportunity--a moment when, if the forces can be aligned in the right way, significant positive change can happen. Let's pray that, in this moment in history, anger and wisdom can come together and move Ferguson--and maybe the rest of us with it--in the direction of something brighter.

Monday, August 25, 2014

From the Archives: The Paradox of the Stone and the Challenge of Defining "God"

Since I'm talking about the challenge of defining "God" in my philosophy of religion class this week, I thought I'd reprint this post, from an earlier occasion when I covered the same material.

This week in my philosophy of religion class we are talking about the concept of God. Since I have already expressed my views on how "God" should be defined in Is God a Delusion?, I don't intend to simply repeat myself here. But I do want to say a few words about some common challenges to the coherence of the traditional Western theological understanding of God--which, in the language I use in my book, is a "substantive definition" (one that defines God in terms of a set of properties) as opposed to an ostensive definition (which would define God by metaphorically "pointing," as Schleiermacher does when he defines God as the "Whence" of our feeling of absolute dependence) or a formal one (which sets out a procedure for arriving at divine properties, as Anselm does) or a functional one (which is what I tend to favor).

As I worded it in class, the dominant substantive definition of God in Western theology takes God to be "the omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent creator of the world who is transcendent, eternal, and self-existent."

One common challenge to God thus conceived targets the property of omnipotence, arguing that it is incoherent to attribute this property to anything. Another challenges the co-possibility of divine omniscience and creaturely freedom. Of course, the most historically important objection to theism is the argument from evil, which in some of its forms challenges the possibility of there existing a being characterized by omnipotence and omnibenevolence in a world with the amount and kind of evil we find in this one (I won't consider this challenge here, since I will be devoting considerable attention to it later in the semester).

The main thing I want to consider here is what significance such challenges have for the devoted religious believer. For this purpose, let me focus on the challenge to divine omnipotence. In its most common form, this challenge starts with the so-called Paradox of the Stone, which asks, "Can God create a stone so heavy that God cannot lift it?" The argument, roughly, is that however one answers this question one must reject divine omnipotence. Either God can create such a stone, in which case there is something He cannot do, namely lift said stone; or God cannot create such a stone, in which case there is again something God cannot do.

The traditional response to this argument is to define omnipotence in terms of the capacity to do whatever is logically possible--and then to note that it is not logically possible to create a stone so heavy that it cannot be lifted by a being that has the power to lift every possible stone. As such, on the assumption that God is omnipotent, God creating a stone God cannot lift is logically impossible--and since omnipotence is defined as the ability to do whatever is logically possible, the inability for God to create said stone is no restriction on God's omnipotence. It would be like saying that God cannot create a round square or make it true that two plus two equals seventeen.

Of course, if we define omnipotence as the capacity to do even what is logically impossible, then the paradox of the stone is a non-starter. If logical consistency is of no consequence to God, then God could do the logically impossible thing of creating a stone so heavy God could not lift it...and then lifting it (while it remaining true that God could not do so).

But while this solution to the Paradox of the Stone strikes me as sound insofar as it goes, it obscures what I find to be a deeper and more profound question raised by the paradox: Can an omnipotent being limit its power so that it ceases to be omnipotent? And if it can, would a God who did so thereby cease to be God?

How one answers these questions has some very interesting implications. First of all, it has implications for what one thinks about about the idea of "kenosis" that has been proposed (and vigorously debated) by some Christian theologians. "Kenosis" refers to a kind of divine "emptying" that some theologians invoked to help to make sense of the Christian doctrine of incarnation. The question at issue has to do with how Jesus' humanity is to be understood in relation to His divinity. If God is all-knowing, and if Jesus is God, does that mean the baby Jesus was born with a full knowledge of 21st Century string theory and could have explained it at three weeks of age to anyone who might have understood what He was saying?

Some theologians have thought that to answer "yes" to questions of this kind is to strip Jesus of his humanity. To be human involves living a human life--and to be born possessing all the infinite knowledge of the universe pretty much precludes that. Such a being would be a divine being wearing human skin, not a human being at all. But Jesus is supposed to be both fully human and fully God. Is there a way to make sense of this?

Some theologians, inspired in part by Phillipians 2:6-8, suggested that the solution was to suppose that in order to be truly human, the incarnate God "emptied" Himself of at least some divine attributes--in effect becoming limited in knowledge and power, etc. That is, in order to authentically share in the human condition and live in solidarity with God's finite creatures, God didn't just pretend to be a finite creature alongside us but actually took on real finitude.

This idea of kinosis took on different forms among its advocates. Some thought it involved a total abandonment of the divine nature while others distinguished among divine properties--distinguishing God's moral attributes from God's "physical" ones (such things as omnipotence, omniscience, and timelessness) and arguing that the incarnate God preserved the former while abandoning the latter.

What is important to note for my purposes here is that this kenotic theory has implications for how we are to understand divinity. Marilyn McCord Adams, in Christ and Horrors, puts the point in these terms:

If partial absolute kenosis (the theory that Jesus is emptied of God's "physical" attributes but not the moral ones) retains the traditional claim that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit could not exist without being God, it insists that not all the perfections formerly thought to be essential to Godhead were genuinely necessary to It. So-called physical attributes are allegedly the permanent but contingent possession of the Father and the Holy Spirit, and are contingently had, then abandoned, then repossessed by the Son. Thus, it seems, with respect to some perfections, Godhead essentially includes a capacity for them but not their actuality. (Italics in original)
Here we have a theology which, metaphorically speaking, maintains that God can create a stone so heavy that God cannot lift it--that, in other words, it is in the power of God to impose real limits on God's capacity to exercise power (as well as on God's knowledge, eternity, immunity from harm, etc.) but that the God so limited remains God.

Another variant of kenosis can be and has been posited apart from the uniquely Christian concern with making sense of the incarnation. Specifically, some have argued that the very act of creation is an act of the divine imposing limits on itself--that a divine withdrawal and abdication of power is essential for establishing the "otherness" of the created world, thus preserving its status as a reality distinct from God that can evolve on its own terms and eventually acquire (in accord with its own rules) the capacity to autonomously enter into a self-other relationship with God. This is an idea articulated, for example, in the kabbalistic notion of Tzimtzum, and it is also expressed in the writing of Simone Weil. Put simply, the idea is that the existence of a universe that isn't simply swallowed up into God requires the establishment of a kind of boundary or demarcation between God and the created world, one which implies limits on what God can do in relation to that world. On this view, in effect, the act of creating the universe is an act of creating a stone that God cannot lift.

The question then becomes, does God remain God after creation if the act of creation necessitates divine limitation? Or, perhaps better, do those who ascribe to theological views like Tzimtzum have to give up calling the object of their religious devotion God? I don't think so, but if not it makes little sense to insist that "God" just means what is expressed in the traditional substantive definition above. The fact is that people who believe in God can disagree about just how essential the various properties ascribed to God in this definition really are.

And someone who thinks God in fact possesses all of the properties identified in the traditional definition may well agree that these properties do not define God. For example, you might well think that my eyes are a particular shade of blue. But suppose someone demonstrated to you that it was physiologically impossible for human eyes to possess that specific shade, given the manner in which eye color arises. Would you conclude that I don't exist? Surely not--because, although you thought I possessed this specific property, it was never a property that you took to be definitive of me.

Likewise, there is presumably room to accept that a certain property you had formerly attributed to God is one you must give up on, without thereby being forced to give up on the claim that there is a God. But this raises in a new way the question of what, precisely, a theist is asserting when they assert that God exists. If someone ceases to be a theist--what, specifically, are they denying that they had once believed? And why is it that some undergo radical reconceptions in their beliefs while still professing to be theists? What is it that they still believe that warrants holding onto the "theist" label?

This is what I think a functional definition--a definition in terms of the role or function God fills in the life of the devoted theist--is helpful for. In class the other day, a student defined God, roughly, as that in which he could place his hope in times that otherwise would call for despair. This is a functional definition. Given this understanding of God, the believer might radically change their idea of God--but so long as God, thus characterized, could be a source of hope in the midst of despair for those who believed in it, it would still qualify as "God."

Monday, August 18, 2014

Fair People: A Confession

A bit over a week ago, while visiting my relatives in Buffalo, I took a trip to the Erie County fair. After eating some unhealthy food (and bypassing some really unhealthy food, such as deep fried Oreos and fried dough), we headed to one of the display buildings to see my sister's award-winning flower displays.

Unfortunately, food and drink weren't allowed in the building, and my kids weren't ready to relinquish their lemonades--so my wife and I took turns guarding the lemonades outside while the others took in the floral arrangements and used the restrooms.

That's how I found myself standing there, waiting, a sweating lemonade in each hand. And I did the only thing that made sense under the circumstances: I started people-watching.

I saw tattooed people who (apparently) were trying to expose every fold and flap of skin on which a favorite work of art had been inked.

I saw walking skeletons in Wrangler jeans and blue eye shadow.

I saw men of enormous girth whose mouths were greasy with the oils from the fried-whatever-on-a-stick they were clutching in their fists.

And I thought to myself, "Dear Lord, I may actually be one of the pretty people."

It was something of a jolting thought, and it made me laugh. You see, the week before that, my wife and I were in Boulder, CO, getting ready for her bid to complete a second Iron-distance triathlon (her bid was sadly derailed when she got swimming-induced pulmonary edema the moment she hit the water--but that's another story). While there, I spent a lot of time standing around waiting--and people-watching--while my wife got registered and otherwise ready for the race.

Waiting around in an Ironman Village, while triathletes trot by on every side, is a rather humbling experience. Even vigorously healthy people can start to feel, well, kind of dumpy.

But people-watching at the fair was a decidedly different experience. Glancing at my reflection in the glass doors, I found myself tempted to preen, cock my head, and say, "Hey there, me. You look mighty fine."

Well, not really. But you get the idea.

When I got home, I scrolled through my Facebook newsfeed to discover that a friend had posted a link to an article, "Deep-Fried America on a Stick." It featured portraits of some rather interesting fair-goers and an interview with the photographer, Bruce Gilden. Here's one of his portraits (click the link to see them all):

I stared at the photos. And then I promptly commented on my friend's post with the same glib thought that had entered my head as I was standing there guarding lemonade: I may actually be one of the pretty people.

Then I went to bed. But a day or so later, I found myself remembering something from Robert Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land. I don't recall much about the book (I read it a long time ago), but this bit stuck with me.

Valentine Michael Smith, the protagonist of the novel, was raised on Mars by Martians--and one of the more engaging features of the book is Smith's outsider view of human culture. Something that perplexes him is the human concept of beauty. Those that we find beautiful strike Smith as simply boring. In contrast, he is drawn to interesting faces: weathered, wrinkled ones, faces that say something about the character of the person within.

And as that tidbit from the novel drifted to the surface, I felt ashamed. Ashamed of how I'd been looking at the people at the fair.

I returned to the Deep-Fried America article. I looked anew at Bruce Gilden's portraits. I looked at them as Valentine Michael Smith might have looked at them. Or at least in a way that was nudged by his fictional spirit. And I imagined that Bruce Gilden, in his choice of models, was nudged by that spirit as well.

I saw interesting faces, faces full of personality. Most of all, they were faces that told stories.

I wondered what stories I would have seen walking past me at the fair if I hadn't been possessed by my glib little thought. I wondered why we are so prone to see beauty in the superficial way that so puzzled Valentine Smith. I wondered just how much we miss.

When I look at faces like the ones Bruce Gilden photographed and I laugh at them (even if only to myself), these other human beings becomes nothing but a way for me to see myself--a kind of foil. I'm not looking at them. I'm blind to the stories in their faces. Delight, empathy, and fascination are sacrificed to a moment of smug superficiality.

Fortunately, I have a chance to redeem myself. The Oklahoma State Fair is coming up in about a month. I plan to be there, and to do some people-watching. But when I do, I'll be thinking about Valentine Smith.