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Awe About Shock

It seems that an external review into complaints from former and current employees at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg has uncovered “pervasive and systemic racism” and a “toxic culture.” A rather awkward finding for an institution devoted to, well, human rights. One might expect that if any workplace was to be characterized by equality, compassion, dignity, fairness, etc., it would be the CMHR. One’s expectations would, it seems, be rather too optimistic.

The CMHR is, of course already in full-blown damage control mode. On their website, there is a solemn vow to take “immediate action to build an anti-racist and anti-discriminatory workplace.” Diversity and inclusion committees have been struck. Anti-racism, anti-oppression, unconscious bias and cultural competency training will be rolled out (one puzzles over how such training wouldn’t be embedded in an organization like the CMHR’s DNA). Recommendations regarding screening and accountability will be implemented and minority groups will be consulted. To borrow from Christian vocabulary, repentance has been proffered and penance will now be served.

This is a familiar narrative by now, even if the source may seem somewhat surprising. But my attention was drawn to the last section of CBC’s report on this story. Both Pauline Rafferty (the CMHR’s board chair) and Julie Jai (the chair of the inclusion committee) expressed their “shock” at the surfacing of these stories. There’s no doubt a bit of self-interest behind these expressions of “shock” (professed ignorance and outrage are the surest ways to establish moral distance from sinners) but let’s take them at face value. Those in leadership are “shocked” that members of their organization display precisely the behaviours their organization exists to combat. Should they be?

Well, I suppose it would depend on who you asked. If you are persuaded that human nature is steadily progressing in a laudable moral direction, that evolution and education are conspiring to produce ever less self-protective creatures that are increasingly eager to embrace difference, that human beings are basically good and just need a bit of encouragement to be better, that people who say all the right things about inclusivity and tolerance would obviously live up to these words, then, well, yes, you will be shocked. If you think that human nature has a few more stable components to it, a bit more instinctive and intractable selfishness, a few more unsavoury tendencies and proclivities, a capacity for both incredible good and deplorable evil? If you think that there is often a yawning chasm between moral rhetoric and reality? In this case, no, you would not be shocked to discover that the workplace even of the CMHR has some toxicity to it. It is, after all, staffed by human beings.

Long-time readers of this blog no doubt tire of hearing me say that our cultural moment is in desperate need of a more realistic and coherent anthropology. But I think it bears repeating as long as we are furnished with evidence of its absence. We simply are the sorts of creatures who consistently fall short of our professed ideals, whether due to ignorance or weakness or deliberate and culpable transgression (or, more likely, all of the above). What is true of the pedophile priest, is true of the Hollywood mogul exploiting women, is true of the CEO of the global brand using sweatshop labour, is true of the evangelical mega-pastor dipping into the piggybank, is true of… Well, the list could go on and on and depressingly on.

And it should be obvious given the article under discussion, but probably requires stating, that this isn’t a “conservative” or “liberal” thing but a human thing. Just last week I saw a story out of Madison, WI where two women protesting police violence in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder employed, well, violence in beating the hell out of one Tim Carpenter (a state senator who happens to be gay, a Democrat, and a Black Lives Matter supporter) for recording video of them on his phone. The propensity to act in ways that are inconsistent with one’s stated ideals transcends colour, creed, politics, and ideology. This capacity is lodged deep within each one of us.

One of the deep ironies of our post-Christian cultural moment is that we are as morally zealous as we have ever been, yet we have the fewest conceptual resources to explain either our moral fervour or our inability to live up to it. Christianity has always taught that human beings are both saint and sinner at the same time. We bear the image of God and carry the legacy of Cain. We soar to heights of love and beauty while we betray a lust for violence and depravity. We’re a conflicted mess. At its best, this theology of human nature ought to make us a bit more humble and less willing to throw stones because we see ourselves in the failings of others.

But that’s just a bunch of useless dusty old theology, right? Little more than a ideological relic or a tool of oppression and manipulation. And yet, without an anthropology like this, it increasingly seems we can explain neither our most exalted heights nor the most depressing depths to which we descend. We become mysteries to ourselves. We have little to offer but “shock” when we fall short, even if we shouldn’t be shocked at all.

In the seventh chapter of his letter to the Romans, Paul penned perhaps one of the most trenchant analyses and descriptions of human moral psychology that the world has ever seen:

I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.

So I find this law at work: Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death?

Who will rescue me? Who will rescue us from the cavernous gap between our moral ideals and our actual performance? Well, with all due respect, it’s probably not more inclusivity and unconscious bias training. We are in need of stronger stuff than that.

4 Comments Post a comment
  1. If you hope to help, leave the politics alone. Preach the Gospel.

    August 7, 2020
  2. Kevin K #

    Hi Ryan,

    Thanks for this insightful reflection on the present moment. I heartily agree with your diagnosis of the current climate of moral zealousness, and to be honest, in a weird way it gives me hope.

    Our world needs theological language and the tools that come with it, now — more than ever. As the church we’re uniquely positioned to help others in that way, and I think it’s an important and necessary thing to offer.

    But where are the spaces to offer it in our day and age? The institutional baggage of organized religion certainly stops many from walking through the door, but even as we take the conversation “out there” is there actually any spaces where the kind of relational give and take for transformative conversation can take place? (I’m too shy to do it in person with any level of regularity, and all social media offers up is polarities and echo chambers to far too often remove me from a conversation with my actual neighbor).

    I have no doubt that if someone stumbled into the dusty back pew of an out of the way church they might be surprised and blessed, and discover in many ways, not only a realistic and coherent anthropology, but such concepts as mercy, grace, kindness and gentleness, truth telling and hope sharing–Things we all desperately need however we’ve arrived at our particular brand of moral zealousness.

    It’s just, people don’t go out of their way to find themselves in dusty pews, and the evangelical language of “mission or evangelism” is tired and burdensome, and relies far to heavily on the mass marketing tricks of our consumer culture.

    Do we simply plant seeds in obscurity and pray for a harvest? Is that good enough?

    August 7, 2020
    • Whew, these are good and important questions, Kevin. I wish I had a magic bullet response, but I’m struggling with them, too. I do think that there is value in diagnosing how religious and morally zealous our culture is (enthusiastic protestations, notwithstanding), about how we are engaged in the project of meaning-making, about how the gospel corresponds to these irreducible human needs. But you’re right, people aren’t exactly lining up to have their anthropologies (or anything else) recalibrated.

      I do think it is our task to plant seeds pray for a harvest? Jesus says hopeful things about seeds and small things. There are stories in Scripture about lonely voices persisting during barren times. Is it a good enough approach? I don’t know. I pray that it’s faithful, but sometimes it doesn’t feel like much.

      August 8, 2020
      • Kevin K #

        Thanks Ryan. Appreciated your response. All that we are able to do certainly doesn’t feel like much, for sure. I think we can take some comfort in the fact that I don’t know if there’s ever been a time in human history where people are “…lining up to have their anthropologies (or anything else) recalibrated.”

        And I suppose it’s also comforting, in a way, to know that this kingdom of heaven business has always been patient work.

        Thanks again for your reflections here. More often than not, this blog has been one of those spaces where I know I’ve evaluated my own anthropology, and I know that’s been true of many more than just me. I continue appreciate your reflections, and the way they spawn my own “recalibrations” Thank-you!

        August 11, 2020

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