Statistics and Peacemaking

Talking today about race is polarizing, to say the least. And I enter the fray with caution. There have been many valid points, from over-criminalization to the over-militarization of police, from the high rates of lead poisoning in Baltimore to the meditations on dreams deferred.

But there’s one point that I haven’t heard, that I think could help explain part of the chasm between the two sides on this issue, and I hope that highlighting its role can help explain why our perceptions differ so much. This could then serve as a starting point for agreement in a place where compromise seems difficult.*

If racism is a poison, it is more like nuclear radiation than lead: even a small dose of it causes serious, immediate harm, and its effects last generations. Or, to use a more old-fashioned metaphor, a little bit of leaven leavens the whole lump.

Take an incident at Harvard in 2007 in which police came to check on an activity hosted by black students during reading period. They had been called – whether because of a “noise disturbance complaint” or because some residents thought that certain “students looked like they didn’t belong” – and left after the organizers showed them their permit to host the event. There was an email thread – to which I am not privy – that shared similar concerns. I honestly don’t know enough to say whether it was racially-motivated or not, but that’s not my point in this post.

Let’s assume it was racially motivated. It takes just 1 call to the police (maybe 5 emails from students) for dozens of black students to experience racism. There are over 360 people in Cabot House. Even if less than 2% of those people are racist, dozens of people will experience racism.

That’s not to justify the racism, or to suggest that it’s not a problem. Take another problem facing a smaller portion of our society: homelessness. A lot of people think that homelessness works like a bell curve. Most people might be homeless for a few weeks, but most will find a home within a week or within a few months. This perception is totally wrong. The real graph looks more like this**:

Days of Homelessness

The actual curve is actually more like a hockey stick. Most people who are homeless are homeless for a very short period of time, with a small but significant portion staying homeless for a long time. The cost of homelessness actually looks like a hockey stick in the opposite direction. Under a bell curve, you would expect that most costs would go toward paying for people near the mean. Instead, most costs go toward paying for the small number of chronically homeless people.

Cost to the State

Even though the area under the curves is similar (meaning they would cost the state approximately the same), the source of the cost is totally different. Under a bell curve, most of the cost comes from individuals equally distributed. Under a hockey stick curve, most of the cost comes from a few chronically homeless individuals. This is why solutions like the one proposed in Utah, which seek to house the chronically homeless, have proven cost-effective: it’s cheaper to give each one a caseworker and an apartment than to keep shuttling them in and out of the hospital.

Saying that the source of the cost is actually a smaller number of people is not to minimize the very real cost of homelessness to our society, but it is to come one step closer to finding a solution.

I suspect people are so polarized because when they think about problems like this, they imagine that they follow a typical bell curve. We think that if 50% of black people assert that they’ve had a racist experience with a cop, then they’re saying roughly 50% of cops are racist. This doesn’t match with the white experience, so we’re inclined to reject it out of hand. But if it’s a hockey stick instead of a bell, that means that it could take only 2% of cops being racist for 50% of blacks to experience racism first or second-hand at the hands of the police. A small number of bad cops cause a disproportionate number of racist incidents.

Imagine that the curve is like this instead:

Disproportionate ImpactThe areas under the curve are similar: a large number of people experience racism. But in one, the racism is widespread and equally distributed. In the other, a small percentage of bad cops have a hugely disproportionate impact in creating lots of racist encounters.

Malcolm Gladwell says that research discovered the same thing in investigations of the LAPD after Rodney King: “People thought it was a kind of institution-wide problem. Until you look very closely at the incidents of complaints against officers. And what you discover is a small number of officers account for an overwhelming percentage of the complaints against the LAPD. The average cop in the LAPD is fine.”

It may seem callous in a time when so many are hurting, when thousands are marching and looting, to talk about statistics. Yet I think in these statistics could lie our hope for a form of reconciliation.

In these numbers, we see how both perspectives can be right at the same time. Blacks are right that they are disproportionately being singled out by police and are regularly experiencing racism. Yet whites are also right that many people are not racist and many police officers are respectable, upstanding members of society. Both sides are probably mis-estimating – either on the number of bad cops (or bad departments) or on the amount of racism actually experienced.

Many of my white peers are loathe to start prosecuting police more, because they recognize how difficult it is to be a police officer and they respect that imperfect decisions can be made in the heat of a life-threatening situation. If the situation in Baltimore and Ferguson is anything like the situation in Los Angeles, however, greater accountability of the police will not lead to significant changes for most police officers. It will simply mean a weeding out of the few bad apples who are causing most of the problems.

___

* I know from my friends that many will say that this doesn’t go far enough. It doesn’t deal with the real forms of institutionalized racism, aesthetic stigma, or historical racism that can only have amends made via reparations. And I’m willing to listen to those conversations. But we’re so polarized that I doubt either side would simply consent to the demands of the other. I’m trying to stake out here something that I think both sides could easily agree on.

** I am not a statistician. If you have any suggestions for how to explain this better, or a better way to title the graphs, please let me know. If you are a statistician, I would encourage you to do real research on this! My numbers are, admittedly, a back of the envelope estimation. Getting real numbers here would help.

Today, I experimented on my kids…

After some great opening lessons at the start of the semester, I was trying to figure out what lesson I should do with my high school youth group on Sunday morning. I was going to teach them about an experiment that has taught me a great deal about how to best live out my faith, but then I realized: they’d learn the lesson better if they did it themselves. So today, I ran the experiment on them.

Back in 1973, Darley and Batson performed a psychology experiment at Princeton Theological Seminary, in which they asked a group of students to prepare a sermon on either the Parable of the Good Samaritan or on Christian vocation. These students were then instructed to deliver the sermon in another building across campus. They were put into three conditions: high hurry (in which they were told they were running late), medium hurry (in which they were told to get there quickly), and low hurry (in which they had plenty of time). Along the path to the other building, there was a “victim” lying in an alleyway. The real experiment was designed to see how many people would, like the Good Samaritan, stop to help the victim.

good-samaritan

An illustration of the parable from the Chinese artist He Qi.

Interestingly, being primed by reading the Good Samaritan didn’t improve your odds. Nor did your level of religiosity. The most important factor was simply: were you in a rush? In low hurry situations, 63% helped, in medium hurry situations 45% helped, and in the high hurry situation only 10% helped. To me, it’s a lesson that no matter how much scripture we read (or ethical philosophy for that matter!), if we are always in a rush and consumed with our own tasks, we will fail to implement it. Since Irvine kids tend to be pretty consumed with their homework, extracurriculars, and test prep, I thought it would be an important lesson for them to grow as disciples of Jesus.

I gathered them all into the room, and told them we’d be doing a special activity today. Our church has a large Chinese ministry high school group, but I work with the English students. So I told them we were going to start a “penpal” group with the other ministry, in order to help teach them English. They were to write a letter on the parable of the Good Samaritan, and then they would go one by one over to another room to deliver it to a student there, with whom they would chat. Interestingly, many of them were instantly reticent – what if my English isn’t good enough? What if I make a mistake? What if I make them worse. (This may suggest a whole different lesson on self-confidence, considering how genuinely talented and brilliant most of them are.) But I cajoled them into it, and left the room to place my “plants.” I borrowed a 2nd grader from the children’s ministry and put her along the path. She leaned against a wall, grabbed her stomach, coughed loudly, and generally looked sickly and in need of help.

After about ten minutes, I started taking students one by one. Each time, I told them either “We’re behind schedule! Please hurry over!” or “There’s no rush. Just meander on over.” The breakdown was better than the group in the original study: 100% of our non-rushed students stopped to offer help, and 40% of those in the rushed group stopped as well. But the 60% difference was striking to the students, as was the discussion afterward. (It was also interesting to watch the students from afar, as a number of them walked just a bit past her, and then double backed a few steps away to check on her when she kept coughing.)

The three students who didn’t stop all gave their reasons, which I think are actually illustrative of the reasons why we miss the needs of others when we’re always in a rush. One said that he didn’t even notice her as he passed by (let those who have eyes to see see!). Another said that he saw her, but that there was another woman in a wheel chair passing by, so he just didn’t pay much attention. The last one – the actual sister of the fake victim! – said that she saw her, but was distracted when our pastor walked by at the same time. (Whether it was pure distraction or that she thought he would help because he’s an authority figure who would help was unclear.) In all three cases, I emphasized that the lesson to take away is not that these three students are bad people, but rather that any of us can miss out on the needs of others when we’re too consumed by our own perceived needs.

Sometimes what we need is not simply to learn the scriptures better, but rather to not let our anxiety distract us from the world around us. Only then can we follow the model of the Samaritan and truly love our neighbor as ourselves.

Sermon – The Kingdom & All the Birds of the Air

I gave my first sermon this past Sunday. It was pretty exciting for me, and it was seemingly well-received. I wish that I had had a bit more time to practice it. (I find a speech is a bit like a shoe – it must be worn in a bit before it gets comfortable.) But I did feel that it was, at the very least, well-researched and thoughtful, which is the best I could do at this point.

young-birds-1256865-m

I do wonder what my old pastor would have said about it. Actually, I don’t really. I suspect he would have said, as he did of the last talk I sent him, “this sounds more like a lesson and less like a sermon.” But fire and brimstone sermons have a way of rolling off hearts like raindrops on wax. I’d rather try to tell the truth, and tell it slant – to explain the word of God and let the Holy Spirit do the rest. I’m sure the kingdom needs both the preachers and the teachers.

I’m including the full text below.

Continue reading

Slavery, Christianity, and Religious Illiteracy

I have a piece up over at Fare Forward on slavery, Christianity, Jim Crow, and the President’s remarks at the Prayer Breakfast. In it, I discuss the distinction between a Christian (or a Muslim) using a religious justification for something and that justification actually being Christian or not.

Three additional thoughts that wouldn’t have fit with the flow of the FF piece:

  1. In case it wasn’t totally clear, I do believe that Jim Crow and slavery in the American south were unequivocally evil. I’m not in the business of whitewashing history or making Christians simply look good. But I also think it’s important to distinguish between what a religion actually teaches and what it’s adherents end up practicing. So I can condemn slavery as malicious, cruel, and evil, without thinking that Christianity is malicious, cruel, and evil. The problem is not with Christ’s teachings, the problem was with his supposed followers who seem to have missed the point.
  2. What this makes me wonder is where the church today has missed the point, where we might be unaware of the ways we oppress the poor and powerless or of the ways in which our entire economic structure is built on oppression. What would the Christians from 150 years from now look back and condemn us about? My first thoughts: probably the ways we let credit-card and other companies lure the poor into inescapable debt, probably the American criminal justice system which incarcerates people more than any other country in the world does and in which rape is simply a punchline to jokes rather than a problem to be solved, probably the consumeristic mentality which says that we can’t be satisfied until we have the latest gadget, the closet full of clothes, the nicest cars – even if that comes at the cost of quality of life for others around the world. I am powerless to erase the evils done under slavery, but I do have the power to think about and change the problems that do exist in our world today. And I think Christianity has the power to address some of those issues more than any other body or philosophy or idea.
  3. It’s an open-question whether groups like ISIS are relying on Islam itself or whether they are simply using religious reasons coached in the language of Islam. Answering that question would take more research than I can truly commit right now. But I will say this: it’s worth noting that once slavery was finally eradicated and condemned, the orthodox have almost universally stood opposed to it. The breakdown never became between literalists who support slavery and the liberals who condemn it. (Not like the breakdown in Judaism over bacon, for example.) That is, Christianity deployed its theological resources to reform orthodox opinion and practice almost universally. The question I have for Islam is this: does it have the internal resources to truly condemn and to reform the deplorable behavior of ISIS and the like? Or will its break down be between fundamentalists who interpret literally vs. reformers who interpret liberally?
MLK priests

Martin Luther King Jr. linking arms with priests in the fight for equal civil rights. Religion played a key role in motivating these reformers.

The Atlantic has a fabulous article that addresses ISIS and its religious roots up right now. If you read it, you’ll probably have a good guess as to where my sympathies lie for the question above, based on what knowledge I do have. But I’m also open to changing my mind, if I heard a compelling case.

Teaching on the Trinity

Again, all of my attempts at writing are failing. (That’s false. I’m actually 50 pgs deep into my book project, and I just wrote something for Fare Forward to be published. But all of my regular attempts at blogging have been stymied again – by travel and illness and other projects.)

In January, I joined my high schoolers mid-way into a series on the Trinity. I decided that I wanted to do three things you probably won’t see in most youth groups:

1. Not dumbing down anything.

2. Actually asking them to analyze scripture thoroughly by themselves.

3. Giving them worksheets.

I’m not sure how they feel about the third one. Obviously it’s still much easier than a class in school, since much of it is fill-in-the-blank. But it’s more “work” than the standard listen-to-a-feel-good sermon. I’m making them actually write stuff down for two reasons (a) I’m trying to eliminate the fluff, so actually all of the ideas I want them to record are theologically significant / powerful and (b) they’ll remember better if they actually take notes and have to find the ideas in the text for themselves.

I’m including my two worksheets for anyone else seeking decent resources. (They aren’t perfect, but I found them personally more helpful than anything else I found. If you want to rework it for your own, I’m happy to send you the google doc directly if you email me or send me a message through this site.) There are answers in red included on the second set.

Here’s the one on the Holy Spirit. Here’s the one on the The Humanity of Christ. (Don’t worry! They covered his divinity already! I promise I’m not a heretic.)

They seemed to handle these two lessons well, and especially enjoyed the Narnia reference in the latter. There was also a very promising moment…

One of my students declared, during our sharing of how God has worked in our lives, that nothing had happened and God hadn’t worked at all. I gave him “a homework assignment” to try during the next week to live out his faith and to be more diligent in trying to see God at work. He reported back the following week that he decided to stand up when another kid was being picked on. To his frustration, this caused him to be punched. But – he didn’t fight back! He turned the other cheek! I prayed as we closed that we might all follow this student’s example of non-violence to become more like Christ. I said how proud I was of him, and I hope that more good stories like this will soon follow.

New Year, New Job

2014 was a very unusual year, and I neglected my blog as I adjusted to many big changes. I’m not one for new year’s resolutions, but one of my goals for this year is to start writing more reflections on this blog.

Life update: I had been working with the children’s group at a local church, but they caught on fairly quickly that my gifts might lie elsewhere. Last week, I started working with the Friday night college ministry, and with their afternoon Sunday school for their high school students.

One of the most challenging things for me is that I’m facing a group of students who, by and large, have grown up in the church. Given my background, I’m much better at talking to atheists. I get where they are coming from; I know how to talk to them about God. Most of the time, the God they don’t believe in is a God I don’t believe in either! They don’t believe in a God who delights in torture, who defies any logic, who allots salvation like Willy Wonka apportioned golden tickets – utterly at random – and neither do I. We have something in common.

Talking to Christian students is much more challenging, because instead of not believing in a bad God, they tend to believe the wrong things about the right God. And even if they believe the right things about God, those right things often get left at the church doors on the way out. I’m honestly a little intimidated by the prospective of figuring out how to help these students grow.

As I’ve gotten to know this church, I’ve learned a couple of things that worry me. First of all, it’s a church mostly of immigrants, which sometimes signals that members’ sense of belonging to the church may be less focused on faith in Christ and more on finding ways to preserve their culture. Secondly, I surveyed the middle schoolers and found that many (though not all) of the students do not feel God’s presence in the church. That is, for them, the primary experience they have at church is of a community revolving around a particular culture (Chinese) and obligation (my parents will be upset with me if I don’t come). Thirdly, the college students who had a connection to another Christian group (like Intervarsity) seemed on average more invested / spiritually mature than the ones who were only attached to the church. Of course, it was one of those Intervarsity guys who – when asked what book of the Bible he would like to discuss – chose Song of Songs. So maybe my judgments are entirely off-base.

One of the groups would sometimes do an activity called “highs” and “lows” in which they would share a high point and a low point of their week. I think all church groups should have moments like this – times in which we collectively share what’s going on in our lives so that we can stay in touch and offer support during more challenging periods. But after my first “high” and “low,” I realized that it’s a great exercise to build community generally, but not necessarily a great exercise to build a distinctly Christian community. (I think my high was that I started playing Clash of Clans with my family, which bought me street cred with the middle schoolers until they realized I was playing the old version. So I’ll be the first to admit that I failed at spiritualizing this exercise.)

I decided for both the college and high school groups, I’m going to replace “highs” and “lows” with something similar, but different. I’m asking each person to share something that God did in their lives in the previous week. I want to help them develop a sacramental vision to see that God lies beyond the doors of our church, that what they do in the daily rhythm of their lives matters to God, and that if they truly believe what they sing on Sunday mornings, it should offer them comfort and guidance throughout their week.

The first exercise with the high schoolers illuminated the variations in maturity. A couple of the older, more mature students were very insightful (God showed them the importance of helping their grandmother, inspired them with gratitude, or challenged them). One boy said frankly, “all I did last week was sleep, eat, and play video games.” About half the answers were a weekly recap without reference to God. But I hope as we practice this new exercise, they start to develop the vision that lets them see God’s fingerprints in the world around them.

As for me? Well, on the drive to church in the morning, I had settled that I would share about how a talk with two non-Christian friends reminded me that I need to (a) get over my obsession with being “right” about politics and listen better to move conversation to deeper things and (b) spend more time rethinking my political views in light of Christ. I had intended it to be a reminder that God works through everyone – even those who have different religious beliefs from us.

God had another plan. After the morning service, my church offered a morning class on marriage from an older couple I’d gotten to know on my first visit. They seem like a lovely family, and I seemed to get along with the wife as well as the husband (finally!). At the class, the wife shared some of the struggles they had gone through during their 39 years of marriage. She and I shared some uncanny similarities, and I talked to her afterward. It turns out that we processed in very similar ways, and she gave me some advice that will help me figure out how to resolve conflicts in my current relationship better. This came the morning after my boyfriend and I had gotten into an argument of sorts, and it was clear that something needed to change. It brought tears to my eyes to talk to this woman who shared my struggles but had persevered through them. She helped me to see the ways that I need to change, helped me to remain humble, and served as the sign I had prayed for the night before.

eckleberg

Some would say, of course, that it was mere coincidence. I can’t prove that it wasn’t. But with sacramental vision, we can see God’s handiwork in even the most ordinary of things. I pray that God will help grow in my students the eyes to see and the ears to hear.

Lessons in Humility

A letter to a good friend, who is struggling to manage coworkers without getting angry at them for being “stupid.”

Dear Theophilus,

When I was in the 7th grade, my history teacher made us write poems on the virtues as part of a medieval-style morality play. If I remember correctly, I was assigned humility. Needless to say, I didn’t get it. I don’t think this would surprise any of my friends who knew me during those early years.

But during that transition period during my freshman year of college, C.S. Lewis taught me that one of my biggest vices was pride. In fact, he said “pride leads to every other vice.” If I wanted to develop character, I needed to cultivate the virtue of humility. The problem is, of course, that it’s rather difficult to “work on” humility. As soon as you start succeeding, you think “I’m so proud of myself for having become more humble” – at which point, you must start the process over again.

One of the most helpful changes I made to improve my humility was influenced by psychology research. Psychologists use a term called attribution bias to describe how we’re inclined to attribute blame for others’ behavior on themselves or their character, while we attribute blame for our own behavior to our environment or circumstances. That sounds a little bit convoluted; the examples are more obvious.

“That person didn’t know this because they’re an idiot!” = attribution to person

“That person didn’t know this because they weren’t taught it in a good way” = attribution to situation

Most people have a self-serving bias, that is, they attribute negative qualities to others based on being a bad person, while attributing negative qualities or actions of oneself to the situation. “They lost the game because they sucked” vs. “I lost the game because the ref made a bad call.” And our bias for positive qualities is equally self-serving. We take the exact opposite with good qualities – for ourselves, we attribute good things to positive character while for others we attribute good things to their environment. We’re more likely to say, “I scored well on that test because I’m a hard-worker who studied hard” rather than, “I scored well on that test because my dad taught me to value education.” For others, we often will say, “she’s just nice because she doesn’t have to deal with all the idiots I have to deal with” instead of saying, “she’s nice because she is just a nice person.”

I think it’s interesting to note that the more we like a person, the more willing we are to attribute positive things to their character. Maybe that’s why the adage goes “love others as you love yourself.” When we love other people, we treat them more like we treat ourselves. We offer up a them-serving bias just like our self-serving one.

Part of my process of learning humility involved deliberately trying to acknowledge what other factors might be in play in the behavior of others, and what parts of my own behavior were caused by lapses of character and not merely situations. This is why I’m sympathetic to a lot of the conversation about privilege – because it acknowledges the untold ways my situation has benefited me – and hostile toward one aspect of it – the part which also feels wrongly deterministic, making all outcomes caused by situations rather than people.

When I recognize all the manifold ways I have benefited from my situation (good parents, good grandparents, decent money, an incredible set of friends, a rich library), it forces me to be grateful for all the blessings I’ve been given instead of taking pride in my own character. When I confront situations where I’ve performed negatively, I try to acknowledge my own character lapses rather than simply attempting to shift blame to my situation. This doesn’t have to be 100% – so many situations are part character and part environment. (Like that other situation we were in – it was partly because I was tired and partly out of a good intention, but also partly because I lacked self-control and have needed to work on that element of my character more for a while now.) But I find that mentally trying to reverse the order of attribution helps me to have a less self-serving bias. It gives me the eyes to see what I need to see about myself so that I can change when I need to change.

Similarly, when I work with others, I try to assume that they have been influenced by their situation more. That person who hurt my feelings didn’t learn about the virtue of charity that I learned. That student who struggles with logical reasoning didn’t have a philosophy professor as a father like me. Or even – that person who should know this mathematical concept just doesn’t have as good of brain for these types of things. (Again, maybe they didn’t have a dad teaching them the wonder of mathematics!) That way, when I teach something to someone, I’m not mad at them for being stupid. I just assume there is another explanation (or I attribute their stupidity to worse genes). Then I don’t feel better about myself when I have to explain something to them, or to teach them something. It all just becomes about “paying forward” the advantages that I’ve been giving, about becoming a part of a good environment to help them become their best self. And that challenges me more than it challenges them.

I hope this helps you with your situation at work. But don’t tell me if you think you’re getting better at humility; remember it was just because you got a really somewhat helpful letter from a friend.

Grace and peace,
Jordan