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Archive for August, 2010

Nestled within the 2nd part of The Spirit Level:  Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger, chapters 5 and 6 continue to substantiate the title of the book.  Mental Health is considered nationally and internationally and its rise is correlated with inequality in everyone except adult males.  The things that diminish mental health such as illegal drugs and lack of relationships were also strongly correlated to experiences of inequality. They cite the work of journalist, Oliver James and his coined term Affluenza which is defined as “a set of values which increase our vulnerability to emotional distress” (69).  The types of values for Affluenza are cultivated in a unequal society.  Incidentally,  Pickett and Wilkerson cite a shocking and awful study with macaque monkeys and cocaine.  There seem to be so many things wrong with the experiment that it seems in appropriate to use it to substantiate their claims.   

In chapter six they debunk a myth regarding the well being of children related to affluence.  Turns out that unless you are the child born into an affluent area – living in an unequal country actually puts you at greater risk than those countries that are less affluent but more equal.   Further,  they found “… that living in a more equal place benefited everybody, not just the poor.  It is worth repeating that health disparities are not simply a contrast between the ill health of the poor and the better health of everybody else.  Instead, they run right across society so that even the reasonably well-off have shorter lives than the very rich.” (84)  Chronic stress as evidenced in such things as the mobilization of glucose into the bloodstream (weight gain) or constriction of blood vessels (hypertension) may affect the human being’s ability to thrive. 

These chapters bring my mind to the local food pantry here in Osawatomie, Kansas.  There have been hard working people trying to provide more nutrition in the pantry with the addition of meat, fruits and vegetables to the usual non perishables.  It seems that this recent organization works to equalize the cupboards of Osawatomie.  Not only is the food more nutrious but there is the opportunity for reaching out and relationship as church members staff the food pantry.  Such relationality is the foundation to mental health.   As a church participates in the food pantry it can avoid being distracted by how effective it is at solving problems permanently.  Instead, they can with hope strive to keep equality alive for the wellbeing of a stratified society.

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Income inequality and mortality in 282 metropo...

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Hurricane Katrina opens this chapter as an example of how trust breaks down when there is income inequality.  The authors cite the coverage of New Orleans (a city they note has a great disparity of income) following the disaster “Television news screens showed desperate residents begging for help, for baby food, for medicine, and then switched to images of troops cruising the flooded streets in boats – no evacuting people, not bringing them supplies, but, fully armed with automatic weapons, looking for looters.” (49-50)  Similarly they cite the Chicago heat wave of 1995.  In areas where there was little trust, “…poor African Americans, living in areas with low levels of trust and high levels of crime, were too frightened to open their windows or doors, or leave their homes to go to local cooling centres established by city authorities.  Neighbours did not check on neighbours and hundreds of elderly and vulnerable people died.  In equally poor Hispanic neighbourhoods, characterized by high levels of trust and active community life, the risk of death was much lower.”(57)

According to to the General Social Survey a monitor for social change in the last quarter century, there is disparity between the states.  Among North Dakotans, 67 feel like they can trust others.  17% of Mississippians believe others can be trusted.  International and domestic data is congruent, low levels of trust and high income inequality are related.  The United States of America ranks in the top three countries for high income inequality.  Our company is Singapore and Portugal.

Where there is great income disparity, the status of women is lower and (before rising fuel prices) there was also a rise in the sale of SUV as if to offer some protection as one road down the street.   The authors declare trust to be an important “marker” that equality can contribute to a more cohesive society.

Congregational change and development can learn from the development of nations and states.  Trust hangs in the balance as pastoral leaders do their part to develop the program/ministry and relational infrastructure of the congregation.  Too often trust is eroded because church redevelopment efforts are not as intentional about relationships as they are about programmatic initiatives.   When church members are stratified and there is a unequal value put on their opinions, feedback and overall worth, the congregation itself begins to be an unequal environment.  Even as pastors must understand and respect people contextually,we must avoid any temtpation to stratify membership.  As one body of Christ, the whole messages through its individual members.   Our inclination to listen to those members who praise us and ignore those who criticize us may run contrary to the Spirit who invites us all forward.  The healthy congregational leader willdo well to receive all congregational messages without prejudice so that they might settle in like puzzle pieces into the heart and mind of the leader who is the holding environment (Ronald Heifitz) for the effects of congregational change. Pastoral leaders may be primary guardians of equality within their congregation.  The difference it will make will be the extent to which the congregation can rely upon and collaborate with one another in order to exercise the gospel in the world.

*The authors quote Alexis de Tocqueville “Prejudice is an imaginary inequality which is follows the real inequality produced by wealth and law” (pg. 400 of Democracy In America)

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The focus of chapter three is that there are individual sensitivities to inequality and those sensitivites offer an explanation for why  living in unequal societies can have such profound effects.  They assert that “Individual psychology and societal inequality relate to each other like lock and key” (33).  They make this argument by citing the effects of inequality and the relationship between them.  The effects of inequality can be found in our psychological state.   

1.  There is a rise in the anxiety levels of populations such as college students and children in the United States according to studies out of San Diego State University.

2.  There is, simultaneously, a rise in self esteem.  “So that despite increasing anxiety, people were taking an increasingly positive view of themselves” (36).  The key here is in the distinguishing of healthy and unhealthy self esteem.  “The healthier kind seemed to centre on a fairly well-founded sense of confidence and a resonably accurate view of one’s strengths in different situations and an ability to recognize one’s weaknesses.  The other seemed to be primarily defensive and involved a denial of weaknesses… People will insecure high self-esteem tend to be insensitive to others and to show an excessive preoccupation with themselves, with success, and with their image and appearance in the eyes of others.”(37).   Thus, there is really a rise in narcissism.

3. Both narcissism and anxiety find their source in social evaluative threat or those threats that created the possiblity for a loss of self esteem (38).

4.  How other people see us matters ultimately.  How others see us determine if we experience shame or pride.  Other people’s view of us determines our social status and if our social status is high we can become anxiety ridden in an effort to preserve the high status.  consumerism plays on this social status reality and consumption is part of the way that we set ourselves apart from others.  “Surveys have found that when choosing prospective marriage partners, people in more unequal countries put less emphasis on romantic considerations and more on criteria such as financial prospects, status and ambition, than do people in less unequal societies.”(44)

Some say that the church is struggling to be purposeful in our culture and society.   Relevance to our tradition and God’s people in society is at a premium in the life of  the church.  In the previous blog, I offered my opinion that churches can get caught up in striving to be “better than” another church or congregation.  If we take what the authors say at face value, it seems that the church has a continued opportunity for relevance. Some say that the nature of all cultures is inequality.  The church’s attempt to provide an environment in which communities can practice equality is a crucial response to the biblical and gospel message. 

But what do we mean when we say  equality?  The authors remind us that concerns about equality are at least as old as the French Revolution.  They cite the slogan of that revolution “liberty, equality, and fraternity” and note that ” ‘Liberty’ meant not being subservient or beholden to the feudal nobility and landed aristocracy.  ….Similarly, ‘fraternity’ reflects a desire for greater mutuality and reiprocity in social relations.  …’Equality’ comes into the picture as a precondition for getting ‘liberty’ and ‘fraternity’ right.”(45).  Said another way and using the language of persuasion and relationship from process theology, liberty requires persuasion and cannot survive coercion.  Fraternity emerges within a society that values mature relationality.  Equality as the prerequiste of both has yet to be defined by the author.  But process theology might invite us to understand equality more fully in an experience of wholeness and unity with the environments and creatures in whose midst we live.

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The graph is not from the authors but reflects detail which must be attended when considering issues of equality.

It may be the assumption that in an affluent there is an increased correlation between wealth and health/wellbeing.  However, the book, The Spirit Level:  Why Greater Equality Makes Stronger Societies asserts in its first chapter that this correlation is unfounded. Indeed as societies living standards rise, initially there is an immediate increase in life expetancy and happiness.  However, over time, as any given nation comes into the ranks of affluence, this correlation loses strength.   Very interesting, they note the trends in causes of death.  “It is the diseases of poverty which first decline as countries start to get richer.  The great infectious diseases – such as tuberculosis, cholera or measles – which are still common in the poorest countries today, gradually cease to be the most important causes of death.  As they disappear, we are lefw tiht eh so-called diseases of affluence – the degenerative cardiovascular diseases and cancers.  While the infectious diseases of poverty are particuarly common in childhood and freqently kill even in the prime of life, the diseases of affluence are very largely diseases of later life.” (10).   This observation gave me serious pause over my own sense of striving and my assumption that greater striving will create more happiness.  

How does this relate to congregational life?  Do congregations who have been in desperate circumstances find more immediate relief and sense of wellness in the early stages of recovery?  Is there a correlation between the notion of affluence in cultures and abunndance of people and resources in the lives of a congregation?

At the conclusion of chapter one the author’s ask a very suscinct question : “Do more and less equal societies suffer the same overall burden of health and social problems?”  In order to answer this question, they must first distinguish poverty from inequality. 

Research by UNICEF in  child wellbeing  indicates a strong correlation to inequality but not at all related to average income in a country.  This is but one study cited by the authors as they tease out the subtleties of inequality.  “We should perhaps regard the scale of material inequalities in a society as providing the skeleton or framework, round which class and cultural differences are formed.  Over time, crude differences in wealth gradually become overlaid by differences in clothing aesthetic taste, education, sense of self and all the other markers of class identity.” (28)   If material wealth is just the framework for inequality, is it possible to imagine as the authors say “…other ways of improving the quality of life?”(29). 

In congregational life, there is a tendency toward accumulating members and pledges in order to fund programs and mission. Even in the finest of places, such accumulation may be perceived as wealth.  If the authors are right – what if the long range benefits to congregations are not in the continual accumulation but in something else?  It is surely true that once congregations are redeveloped or established, they are very sensitive to slipping from their positions into a less than equal place with their peer churches.  (okay maybe only clergy are really concerned with this).   Process theology might remind us that there are trivial and more substantive experiences in life and relationality.  The extent to which we engage divergent and challenging circumstances is the extent to which we experience ourselves as part of God who is luring us into wholeness. 

 

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Upcoming book review on The Spirit Level:  Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger.   Particularly we will be looking at this book from the perspective of how congregations might consider issues of equality in their life and ministry.  Even more ambitiously, this blog will seek to put this book in dialogue with Process Theology’s concepts of harmony, noncoercive power, relationality and emergence.

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Clayton returns to challenge the overly physical or overly theistic interpreation of the human experience.  In this final chapter, he argues that emergence is an important middle ground both because it honors science as a profound effort to increase human knowledge. However, he seems to imply that there is no adequate emergent language in religious discourse.  Describing God as foundation of the world (which is common) is not in conflict with science and physicalism, however, describing God as active in the cosmos encroaches on what we have come to understand scientifically.  This gives rise to a dualism that Clayton has rejected throughout the five chapters of the book.

 Therefore, he asserts, it is not helpful to the religious person  to maintain religious beliefs that discount science or assume its falseness without an effort to improve the premise or finding of science.  Specifically, Clayton presents a traditional understanding of miracles as an example of religion’s blantant disregard for science except at the level of quantum possibilities.  Even if there is a suspension of these laws and God can do whatever God wants in the world, such anomoly prevents the human being’s beliefs from rising to the level of knowledge.   The traditional approach to miracles does not adequately solve the question of divine action (188).

Clayton then distinguishes human action from divine action.  He notes that there are no laws that “…determine the decision-making process.” (189)  The theory of emergence is again argued for.  While it honors the physics and biology of the brain, it does not reduce the explanation of the mind to those functions.

Then Clayton approaches his more challenging question -what is the divine influence on mental process.  (Remember mental processes are the inclination to take some action).  Reminding the reader that the human being is more than its chemical processes (i.e. hormones do not explain a human beings hunger for meaning in their life),  Clayton defines the integrated human being  as a combination of body, environment, relationships,  and overall mental state which includes social, cultural historical and religious context.   As such the “… integrated self or psychosocial agent-in-community, offers the appropriate level on which to introduce the possibility of divine agency.  Here and  perhaps here alone, a divine agency could be opeartive that could exercise downward causal influence without being reduced to a manipulator of physical particles or psychotropic neurotransmitters.  Only an influence that worked at the level of the person as such could influence the kinds of dimensions that are religiously significant without falling to the level of magic:…” (198).

After speculating on significant objections to his theory of emergence, Clayton ends by asking a most important question:  With all that science knows and reveals, does it really know all the levels that explain the phenomenon of the universe? (205)  he asserts that it cannot.  “Some levels of reality are suited for mathmatical deterministic explanations (macro-physics), others for explanations that are mathmatical but NOT deterministic (quantum physics), and others for explanations that focus on structure, function and development (the biological sciences from genetics to neurophysiology).  But at other levels laws play a more minimal role and idiosyncratic factors predominate;  hence narratives tend to replace measurements and prediction becomes difficult at best. It appears that much of the interior life of humans and whatever social interactions or creative expressions are based on this interiority, fall into this category.” (205).

Clayton is  a challenging but powerfully integrative read.  He offers emergence as a genuine and intellectual alternative to either an uncritical confidence in science or a  defensive rejection of it.  Again, I commend the subsequent book to this one, Adventures in the Spirit:  God World and Divine Action.

Most congregations would assert that God is working through their shared life.  Perhaps even that in them, divine action is being realized.  Clayton’s work asks congregations to explain themselves.  The question that Clayton might have for such assertions might sound like: Are congregational actions trivial and easy or more substantive and complex?  Clayton uses a term from process theology harmony to help folks like me answer the question.  Harmony is defined as “…a balance between some divergent factors.  …Factors external to the individual will play a curcial role in the account.” (195).  So the more congregations entertain the more challenging  external factors… the more they engage complex relationships and bring together diverse dimensions of life, the more prepared they are to be conduits of  divine action.  The integrated person (discussed above)  is the person who has engaged the challenges of harmony as defined above.  Perhaps we can expand Clayton’s notion of the integrated person to the integrated congregation.  The integrated congregation may have increased integrity when they declare God to be working through them.   But the call to harmony can wear a congregation out.  Perhaps their sustenance can be found in the observant leader who tells the story that emerges.  Well told stories have a great popensity to lead to reflection and action. 

Can pastors be provocative at one end and spiritual reporters on the other end?

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I have just read a most excellent edition of the Presbyterian Outlook (vol. 192) that focuses on Adventurous Leadership.  Alongside a wonderful article by Michael Jenkins about anxious leadership, there is also a great article by Harry Heintz entitled “How the Mighty Fall” taken from the book How the Mighty Fall by Jim Collins (2009).  Collins book focuses on how the business and corporations that have fallen from pinnacles of performance.  Heintz suggests that Collin’s work is transferrable to churches.  Here are the five steps. 

1.  Stage one:  Hubris born of Success

Ignoring signs of change or decline, leaders come to believe that great track records mean that they can do no wrong.  Early signs of decline are ignored or denied.

2.  Undisciplined Pursuit of More

Moving away from the areas of focus that gave them their success in the first place, leaders make “undisciplined leaps” into efforts where greatness is not possible.  It is noted that growth, in and of itself is not a legitimate goal.

3.  Denial of Risk and Peril

Very simply, leaders blame external events for limited success or failures rather than assuming a responsiblity and an intent to learn from the external environment.

4.  Grasping for Quick Fixes

Leaders that respond by stretching for silver bullets rather than engaging a process that allows God to work in people’s lives. 

5.   Capitulation to Irrelevance or Death

Financial strength and individual spirit can be eroded by failed silver bullets to the extent that hope runs out. 

An alternative to these five steps can be found in the call to adventure that is creatively articulated in Michael Jenkin’s article.  I commend the issue of Outlook to all who are interested in staying mindful of congregational life and leadership.

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