‘Around the Way’ Ethics: Have you felt the clash of dominant cultural sensibilities?

The Church is filled with divisions. For the most part people have simply accepted this as a given and an inevitable reality. Hardly do people find themselves with enough Christian instincts to be deeply troubled with what’s going on. Even more rare than that, it is almost impossible to find followers of Jesus committed to doing the hard work of having honest and hard conversations in hopes of discerning a more truthful way.

I’ve been glad to find some communities and networks that are trying to do just that. These Christians are not doing the liberal ecumenism which ignores differences for the sake of unity, or conservative ecumenism, which sees its only faithful role as conquering ‘the other’ in debate. Instead, I have witnessed genuine attempts at true dialogue; speaking honestly and listening attentively in a manner that often (though not always) results in clarified disagreement and demonstrable growth in common understanding and renewed solidarity. This only happens through perseverance and ‘stick-with-it-ness’ because our one faith, one Spirit, and one baptism that we belong to under the One Lord, Jesus Christ. Many of these conversations are not for those that desire to avoid conflict (fake peace) at every turn, but instead demands vulnerability and a desire to pursue truth while guided by the Spirit. I can personally say that I have learned and grown much from many of them.

What is particularly interesting is that this group is able to discuss politics, atonement theory, racism, sexuality, gender, and a whole range of social concerns, always with people present coming from different perspectives and experiences on all of these concerns. That conservative, moderate, liberal, progressive, and marginalized perspectives can come together in pursuit of mutuality despite at times having varying theological commitments and diverse experiences is a great testament to the possibilities latent in the Church that are scarcely attempted.

However, things aren’t all roses. Certainly any number of concerns could be brought up, however, I believe that one important factor that often does not get taken into consideration is the “around the way” factor. While race is spoken of often, it does not always expose the power-dynamics of cultural logics at work that often set the rules and norms of engagement. Because of this, there is constantly an unfair burden for folks from “around the way” to utilize their “code-switching” skills while operating in these 2nd cultures that they have been forced to learn, but never seeing reciprocity. The result is that dominant cultural logics (which are predisposed to accept civility only by its own definition and terms) hegemonically shape and limit the nature of the conversation, and hence forth its outcome. This is not because it limits the topics being discussed, but because it dismisses the validity of “around the way” ethics, considering it as inferior to the dominant culture’s sensibilities.

More clarity is most likely needed here. Many middle class and suburban (in formation, not necessarily current geographical residence) Christians that engage in dialogue on race or class, for example, tend to only engage “bi-cultural” code switchers. That is people that have been formed “around the way” (aka the hood), yet also by necessity have learned how to embody dominant cultural norms in speech and behavior when necessary as a strategy and tool for gaining access. These folks move back and forth into various cultural communities engaging fluently on the terms of both their original communities that formed them culturally as well as the dominant cultural space they had to learn. They are, in a manner, bi-lingual. The middle class and suburban Christian engaged in “reconciliation” work, often in reality, only engages with people on their own suburban and middle class terms. What seems to be lacking is any effort from those brought up in dominant culture to become fluent and formed by “around the way” ethics and norms. When will “Peter and Jane” so to speak, who claim to want “reconciliation”, begin to immerse themselves (not just physically but in cultural logics) in the poor urban centers, which would demand that they also code-switch and embody a different set of norms? It is one thing to converse with someone like me, whom has been conditioned to play by the behavior rules and speech norms of dominant culture when I occupy those spaces, and it is something else for Peter to do “life together” with ‘Jamal, Puddin’ & dem’ on the block. If someone is intimidated dialoging and listening to me (who is committed to doing it in truth and love because of my faith and code-switches culturally), how will you engage my neighbor who doesn’t want to have anything to do with white people because of the way this country has treated him?

The truth is that both the ethics on the corner as well as majority and mainstream sensibilities are culturally and contextually biased norms. Neither are better examples of civility than the other. The only reason so many unconsciously assume otherwise is because they have bought into a dominant cultural framework rooted in American Civil Religion. From there, dominant culture is universalized and moralized as right. No longer recognized as a cultural expression it is deemed sacred and holy culture. (Western European civilization has always been erroneously conflated with being Christian culture, which explains western colonization practices historically).

In relation to the specificity of the Incarnation of God found in the birth, life, teachings, death, and resurrection of Jesus the Messiah, the universal claims of civility in American dominant culture are exposed as false, and instead we are forced to re-situate it beside every other cultural context including all its societal norms and ethical claims. By fixing our eyes on Jesus (of scripture and present among us) we can keep sight of all false claims of universality that our society tries to disciple us into rather than after the particularity of Jesus’ life, which is the only full revelation of God. EVERYTHING that we assume and take for granted, especially our “common sense” values, outside of the revelation of Jesus is speculative. Jesus is the Truth that entered in our finite historical moment so that we could see the Universal God. And yet, this type of discipleship that subversively follows Jesus, is never done in a social and cultural vacuum. Just like Jesus participated in custom and engaged concrete Jewish practices, so too must we embody our ‘followership’ in varying geographical & cultural spaces that are always accompanied with power dynamics that are not being named. One unique practice of Jesus, that I believe helped forge true Kingdom solidarity was his habit of entering into people’s own spaces and then speaking to them on their terms. Whether living water for the woman at the well, a word of liberation to an oppressed people, or utilizing shepherd language to communities that understood about grazing sheep, Jesus’ engagement was ‘fluent’ and adaptable because of his willingness to occupy marginal spaces and their modes of being.

I have briefly named “around the way” ethics and dominant cultural sensibilities in still very broad terms. Hopefully, at the very minimum, I have helped to begin to name and unveil an existing problem that is rarely addressed. True Christian solidarity and ‘togetherness’ in Christ is fragile and cannot be controlled. And yet as followers of Jesus it always remains “at hand” when we yield to the Spirit and reorient our lives through constant immersion into the only honest story, the good news of Jesus as Lord and Messiah, and as we open our eyes to the truth about our societies violent and oppressive history and current state. In response, when we collectively repent and join the Messianic struggle for liberation and shalom, committed to truth and love, Christian solidarity is not only “at hand”, but it can be experienced “among you” as well.

Published by Drew G. I. Hart, PhD

Drew G. I. Hart is a theology professor in the Biblical & Religious Studies department at Messiah College with ten years of pastoral experience. Hart majored in Biblical Studies at Messiah College as an undergraduate student, he attained his M.Div. with an urban concentration from Missio Seminary in Philadelphia, and he received his Ph.D. in theology and ethics from Lutheran Theological Seminary-Philadelphia. Drew was born and raised in Norristown, Pa and has lived extensively in Philadelphia and Harrisburg, PA as well. Dr. Hart’s dissertation research explored how Christian discipleship, as framed by Black theologies and contemporary Anabaptist theologies, gesture the Church towards untangling the forces of white supremacy and the inertia of western Christendom which have plagued its witness in society for too long. As two traditions that emerged from the underside of violent and oppressive western Christian societies, he found Black theology and Anabaptism each repeatedly turning to the particularity of Jesus in the gospel narratives. From that arises an ethic of solidarity with the oppressed and pursuing liberation in Black theology and an ethic of radical peacemaking and ecclesial nonconformity in the Anabaptist tradition. Each challenge the violent and oppressive logics of mainstream western Christianity and salvage the call to follow the way of Christ. Together in dialogue they deepen our analysis of the churches failures and the need for Jesus-shaped repentance. His work beyond teaching and writing has included pastoring in Harrisburg and Philadelphia, working for an inner-city afterschool program for black and brown middle school boys, delivering lectures and leading anti-racism workshops, collaborating with local faith-based organizers and activists in his city, and doing a broad range of public theology. He is also a co-leader for a local Harrisburg faith-based relational network called FREE Together which has collaborated with POWER Interfaith, MILPA, the Shut Down Berks Detention Center movement, and a little with the Poor People’s Campaign. Trouble I’ve Seen: Changing the Way the Church Views Racism by Drew Hart, has received great reviews by Publisher’s Weekly and Englewood Review of Books. Endorsing this resource, Shane Claiborne said, “This book is a gift from the heart of one of the sharpest young theologians in the United States. Hold it carefully, and allow it to transform you--and our blood-stained streets.” As a text, Trouble I’ve Seen utilizes personal and everyday stories, Jesus-shaped theological ethics, and anti-racism frameworks to transform the church’s understanding and social witness. Trouble I’ve Seen focuses on white supremacy as an overarching framework for understanding racism, with careful attention to its systemic and socializing dimensions. However, unlike sociology textbooks on the subject Dr. Hart also considers the subversive vocation of Jesus and the nonviolent yet revolutionary implications his life ought to have for his followers today. His newest book project is entitled Who Will Be a Witness?: Igniting Activism for God’s Justice, Love, and Deliverance and will be published September 1, 2020. Who Will Be A Witness? invites the church to liberate its centuries long captivity to supremacist practices, and to expand its restricted political imagination in view of Jesus’ messianic reign. The book guides disciples of Jesus into joining God’s delivering presence through scriptural reasoning, historical reflection, practical theology for congregational life, social change theory, and the Christian call to love our neighbor. It is written for congregations, leaders, and students that understand that pursuing God’s justice goes way beyond waiting around for electoral seasons to come around. It is about the ongoing vocation of the Church right now, at the grassroots level, seeking after the wellbeing of their neighbors through faithful, strategic, and concrete action. Drew recently joined the Inverse Podcast team serving as a cohost along with Australian peace activist Jarrod Mckenna. Together they interview interesting people and explore how scripture can turn our ethical imagination and the violent and unjust systems of our world upside-down, which contrasts with interpreting the Bible as a tool for the status quo. Dr. Drew Hart was the recipient of bcmPEACE’s 2017 Peacemaker Award, a 2019 W.E.B. Dubois Award from a Disciples of Christ congregation, and in October 2019, Dr. Hart was chosen as Elizabethtown College’s 2019 Peace Fellow. Each award recognized him for his local and national justice work and public theology. You can find Drew Hart on Twitter and Facebook, or you can catch him as he travels and speaks regularly across the country to colleges, conferences, and churches. Drew and Renee, and their three boys (Micah, Dietrich, and Vincent) live in Harrisburg, PA and attend Harrisburg First Church of the Brethren.

17 thoughts on “‘Around the Way’ Ethics: Have you felt the clash of dominant cultural sensibilities?

  1. Interesting post, and timely for me considering that I was just discussing something similar with some colleague friends last night. At our white dominated Christian college we have a steadily growing population of students of color, yet we continue to engage them through the lens of “white as norm.” We expect them to talk, look, and act like part of the white, middle class, adult culture. Some of us recognize this expectation of behavioral change as necessary code switching, while others see it as simply acting in an “acceptable” way in public spaces. In any case, no one is considering, as you put it, “entering into people’s own spaces and then speaking to them on their terms.” I plan to share your post with my colleagues. Thanks.

    1. Thanks Marianne. And yeah, I still remember my own experience as an undergraduate on a Christian college campus, so I know exactly what you mean. Thanks for persistently engaging with your colleagues on these topics, its needed. And thanks for passing the post on. Always good to hear from you.

  2. I’m trying to wrap my head around what this would look like. It feels like it would be offensive if all of a sudden I started learning……..I don’t even know what it should be called. Ebonics? (that word was always spoken with distaste so I don’t know if that’s an offensive term. o_O) Wouldn’t white people just be called out for appropriation? Although, I have noticed it a little bit with white people who grow up in the inner-cities, but that’s usually attributed to poor education, not race. I just remember a highly offensive word being thrown around when I was a kid when white kids would try and emulate or pick up on black culture things.

    Part of why I’m so uncomfortable about entering racial discussions is because I’ve been taught that black people are offended by white people entering their space. It feels like there is a line between learning about a culture and appropriating the culture, or between talking about and speaking for, and because it’s such a personal topic, my instinct is to veer away from that line, to be quiet and not offensive, instead of speaking up and stepping on black toes, and so the thought of learning to ‘speak Black’ throws me.

    1. Caris, thanks for the comment. Just to clarify, which might make more sense to you, my primary concern isn’t primarily about vocabulary and grammer, but rather about a different way of engaging and exploring the world, a different vantage point and value system. Now, of course, you can never separate the particularities of a people’s language from their culture, which is why language must be taken seriously in this process. But the focus isn’t just adopting new phrases, but trying to enter into a community slowly and authentically, seeking to understand the world from that perspective. If it is done patiently and organically, rather than quickly appropriating cultural particularities (which I agree with you is problematic), then you will find not only acceptance but will be welcomed among many (not all) racialized communities that have been historically excluded from dominant culture. I do want to push beyond people merely learning about my culture, and instead to incarnate and dwell in it. Folks from dominant culture need to immerse themselves in, in this case “around the way ethics”. Does that make more sense? Thanks for commenting and your honesty on the subject!

      1. Yeah that makes sense. When we moved down south last year, we moved to a mixed neighborhood (probably 65/35 black/white) and so I’m trying to really get a hold of what it looks like to be incarnational in a different culture without being offensive. I occasionaly listen to an urban station when I’m in the car (only time I listen to the radio), and maybe all these thoughts I have in my head are from the racist ways I was raised, but I just imagine people staring at me wondering why in the hell this super pale woman is listening to rap. And maybe I’m just supposed to sit in that awkwardness and do it anyway.

        It feels like all the ways to dwell in a different culture are the small things, like choosing the public gym instead of the Y, and choosing the local grocery stores instead of the white ones, etc….but it feels like that’s not accomplishing anything. It seems like there should be an end goal in mind, instead of just living life in my neighborhood, but that’s probably what incarnation is all about, right?

      2. Yeah, I think the bulk of dwelling is in the everyday life. Awkwardness is fine. It just means you are not ignoring the alienation that has always been there, and which folks from dominant culture can easily pretend doesn’t exist. But keep pushing. Awkwardness is good. An open mind and a teachable spirit is key, which it seems like you have. And when the opportunity for solidarity beyond the ordinary, something extraordinary, comes along, you will already be moving in a direction of increased solidarity and will have slowly been developing a new set of eyes. And by the way, this doesn’t mean that everything in black culture is right and true (for example misogyny in pop rap, though that could be argued to be more a dominant culture production, but that is a whole other blog post), but it does mean that you can’t trust dominant cultural sensibilities to discern what is and isn’t right. A new filter, from below, must be developed as you follow Jesus alongside a stigmatized community. So yeah, keep taking new risks and embracing the awkwardness of entering into the particularities of another community. It is actually a gift.

  3. oh man. such an important topic. i feel this doubly (triple-y?) as i live in an African-American/Native-American neighborhood and teach English to East African refugees. I struggle with the ESOL stuff due to much of what you have outlined here; the pragmatic side of me realizes how it will make their life easier, however (on MY terms).

    A question I have is in regards to how we approach reconciliation work. I hear so much from church planters, who are so confident in their efforts. But I hear little to none from the average person who desires to cross huge relational divides in their own communities. I hear little about the awkwardness, the failure, the need for “follower-ship”. So much about urban church planting/missional communities seems to be dominant culture language in disguise. In fact, the parts of me that most identify with people from generational poverty have been labelled as a liability in a Christian organization. I can only begin to imagine what others experience.

    1. Thanks for commenting. Just so you know, I am not against ESOL work. Like you said it is “pragmatic” when living in a new culture. The problem occurs when, and it has occurred way to often, western cultures equate their way as the (morally and ethically) right way. Those blinders are so common. Of course, probably the most hospitable thing we can do for those learning a new culture is to allow it to be a mutual exchange, in which we both learn and grow in the process, rather than “converting” people into white America. And yeah, you are on to something about the confidence of church planters. It is the same mission impulse that drove colonization and mission work from western society into majority world countries for centuries. How different things might be if the savior complex was renounced and vulnerable, awkward, and dignity affirming encounters were realized as actual concrete opportunities to actually dwell with and for others. Anyway, thanks for sharing. Embrace those so-called “liabilities”! 🙂

    2. “But I hear little to none from the average person who desires to cross huge relational divides in their own communities. I hear little about the awkwardness, the failure, the need for “follower-ship”.” ^^^^^^^^^^^ yes. I honestly would love to find some kind of support group for that kind of thing. It’s really hard swimming mostly alone on this.

  4. Thanks for keeping us on our toes, Drew. This is an awesome post. Whatever (always incomplete) formation I have in “Around the Way” ethics has come by way of the basketball court. In that space, often overlooked by suburbanites who increasingly sign their kids up for lacrosse, I have witnessed with the most clarity and authenticity what you are calling for here. I honestly can’t imagine entering a serious work of racial liberation, as the deconstruction of white supremacy, without having weekly experiences, over decades, of sharing the court with a multiplicity of bodies – and having experiences of being the only white guy in the park. I’ve learned the most about myself, my white male body and what those particularities of my identity signify, during those runs. Maybe the next post is, ‘Above the Rim’ Ethics?

  5. I love it John!!! And having played a significant amount of ball in different settings, I would contend that you can learn a lot about a community by the way it plays ball too. Too often, dominant ethics in basketball looks down on bball as performed around the way. “Too flashy”, “what’s with all the unnecessary stuff?” And of course, “proper” basketball is devoid of all improvisation, creativity, and personalization. That’s just one topic among many that could be addressed in ‘above the rim’ ethics! Maybe you should work on a guest post??? Thanks for commenting.

  6. Great post Drew. This reminds me of the classic “Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria” by Beverly Daniel Tatum. She helped me understand how important it is that there be room for black caucusing. I think it helps communities to support a more mutual “us” so there’s less of a takeover happening.

    1. Thanks, Art. Interesting connection. I had read that book once a while back, and yeah, that makes sense to make that connection. What would be interesting is what it might mean and look like for white folks to learn how to actually “black caucus” without taking over, but authentically engaging in a new thought pattern and perspective, on the terms of the oppressed minority group. There are a handful of white folks that I have known that have been able to do this w/o disrupting the environment, too often people from dominant culture demand for the conversation to be had on their terms and by their norms. Thanks for the connection w/ Tatum’s work, I am sure it is still a mandatory read for teachers (or at least should be).

      1. Yeah I wouldn’t recommend that white folk participate IN black caucuses at all, that would defeat the purpose. Rather, dominant groups hear FROM a caucus. There

  7. Right, I didn’t think you were suggesting that. I guess what I am saying is that in the ideal world, a white person would learn how to “see things from below” and operate in those cultural particularities, to the degree that if they were to be a part of black cauceses, it wouldn’t be noticed or disruptive. I guess the whole reason for the black caucus is precisely because space for subversive & marginal ways of being, thinking, and speaking isn’t available within dominant culture. Maybe I’m idealistic at times, but I would love to see white people that, through a spirit of kenosis, knew how to enter into that type of space without changing the dynamics. Obviously that person would have to have earned the trust from everyone from the beginning, otherwise their mere presence, regardless of their way of being, would probably be disruptive. Anyway, just dreaming about the possibilities of “life together” and “beloved community”. 🙂 I think in general, that is impractical and unwise to try to implement, but sometimes I don’t want to be so realistic, you know?

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