The hard job of being a white male

When I lived in South Africa, I was often confounded by the role of men in Itipini, the shantytown community I worked in: unemployed, uneducated, with little prospects for the future, they seemed to be more of a burden on the community than an aid. Four and a half years ago, I wrote:

On my drive in to Itipini, I see a few young men pushing carts into town, hoping to make a few rand (for beer) that way. They are only 18 or 20 and I wonder how they would reply if they were asked – as I was at that age – “where do you see yourself in 10 years?” I realize future-thinking is a luxury of the financially secure but it is hard for me to see how the path they are on is a positive one. They have little education and few employable skills. Having something to look forward to, I’ve realized, is a great gift. What do they have?

Women keep on keepin’ on it seems. As men spiral into nothingness, women still keep the household running by whatever means they can. In so doing, they are building up their own skills and their own reservoir of power. Men don’t realize it now but they’re going to look up some day and realize any social status they once had has completely dissipated.

These thoughts were greatly expanded and developed into a chapter in my book, Grace at the Garbage Dump. I’ve also thought about these issues of masculinity in relation to Alaska Natives.

After the mass shooting in Aurora, Colorado in July, I read this interesting blog post: “What’s Wrong with White Men?”

Why is no one asking what’s wrong with White Men in the United States?

With the newest mass shooting in Aurora, CO captivating the nation, it seems someone should ask the question.  After all, if we had a pattern of Women walking into public places, heavily armed, and killing everyone possible, you can guarantee the headlines would read, “What’s wrong with American Women!?”

Now, after the shooting in Newtown, the same things are being raised, this time in the New York Times:

I come from a small town near Fort Worth, Texas. In this region, like many others across the United States, young men are having a very hard time of it. When I consider how all of the people I knew there are faring, including my own family members, the women have come out considerably better than the men. While many of the women were pregnant in high school and have struggled with abusive relationships, financial hardships and addictions, they’ve often found ways to make their lives work, at least provisionally, and to live with their children if not provide for them in more substantial ways.

The same cannot be said for many young men in the region, who are often absent fathers of multiple children by multiple women, unemployed or underemployed, sullen and full of rage. While every woman in my family has done O.K. in the end, every man on one side of my family except for my grandfather has spent time in jail, abused drugs or alcohol, suffered from acute depression, or all of the above. Furthermore, pervasive methamphetamine use, alcoholism, physical and psychological abuse and severe depression have swept not only my hometown and my region but large segments of the United States. If this pattern is not familiar to you personally, I am certain it is the lived experience of someone you know.

So perhaps it’s time for a serious conversation about white masculinity in the United States of the twenty-first century, especially lower-class white masculinity. What role can the church play in this conversation? What is the vision of masculinity (of personhood) presented in the Bible? Jesus said, “I have come that they may have life and have it to the full.” (John 10:10) How can we ensure this fullness of life for those who are losing out on the way the world is structured?

KNOM Memories

It’s August, travel time for lots of people, including me. Even my blogging has been traveling. I was asked to contribute a guest post to the Alaska Radio Mission blog.

When I worked at KNOM and people asked me what I did, I’d often say, “I tell stories.”

The great virtue of being a news reporter is that you can call people up and ask them what’s going on. That’s what I loved doing in the two years I worked in the KNOM newsroom. I interviewed governors, lawmakers, senators, candidates for office, and, on one memorable occasion, then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. In one way or another, they were telling stories—and KNOM was molding, shaping, and challenging how those stories were presented to our listeners.

Haven’t heard of KNOM? Check it out. It’s the best little radio station anywhere on this continent and might just be the place you want to spend a few years.

Church structure reform: now the work really begins

For decades, Alaskan politicians have been looking for a way to develop the state’s natural gas resources on the North Slope. In 2007, the state legislature passed a piece of legislation called AGIA (the Alaska Gasline Inducement Act) that, it was believed, would at last lead to the building of the gas pipeline to transport the gas to market.

I can’t remember if I was in the legislative gallery at the time or not (I think not) but I do remember the palpable sense of excitement and enthusiasm that surrounded AGIA. Of the 60 lawmakers in the House and Senate, exactly one voted in opposition.

I’ve been thinking about AGIA in the wake of the General Convention’s unanimous approval of a resolution that creates a committee to overhaul the structure of the church. There is that same sense of excitement and enthusiasm that I remember from AGIA. People want change and they are pinning their hopes on this committee to bring it.

So perhaps it is time for a dose of reality: the way ahead for this super committee is hugely difficult. Committee members (whomever they may end up being) have a huge amount of work to do. They have to learn the ins and outs of the current governance structure to figure out what to change or whether and how to start over. It surely makes sense that committee members also explore how other denominations govern themselves. They’ll need to think and dream about what is needed from a national church structure in the twenty-first century. And they have to do all this (and much more) in just under two years, with uncertain staff support and while all of them have jobs and lives elsewhere that are competing for their attention.

At the same time, the hundreds of deputies who passed this resolution will be headed home. The enthusiasm will naturally dissipate as they re-engage with the work of ministry in their local contexts. When actual changes begin to be proposed, there will no doubt be stout opposition from defenders of the status quo. This could be difficult to overcome if people are no longer paying close attention.

Moreover, we can’t “save” the church simply by changing its structure. We need church members who are continually open to the transforming work of God in Christ upon them, people who are agents of God’s mission in the world, people open to following in the sacrificial way of Christ. If we don’t have that—and we don’t take our focus off it—the work of the super-committee will be moot.

All of this is to say that the resolution passed by this General Convention is not the end of anything: it is the beginning of what I hope is a process that transforms the church. While leadership of that process is about to be passed to a super-committee, the process itself  needs the continued care, support, and guidance of the whole church. That’s why a group like Acts 8 is so interesting. At their meeting last night, they talked about ways to spread this passion for church reform to all levels of the church.

All that enthusiasm for AGIA? It soon passed. Before too many months, those who had voted for it were running for office against it. Mutual recrimination followed. Alaska is no closer to a natural gas pipeline than it was before AGIA passed.

Let’s make sure the same thing doesn’t happen with this resolution. Let’s stay interested and engaged in this process, in the hope that the holy way of doing business so clearly exemplified by this Convention can be carried into the important work of the next three years.