Article Jun 8, 2015

How to give social exegesis a try

These days, there seems to be an unending drama between some white police officers and some members of the black community. With the abundance of cell phone cameras and now body cameras on some police officers, Americans will continue to see a proliferation of controversial and sometimes hard-to-watch videos thrust upon us with regularity. Naturally, we are all left with the task of interpreting what we're watching even though the story is still unfolding.

Depending upon our lens on life, many of us will jump to conclusions and make judgement calls based on what we initially see. Some of us will defend the police, whereas others of us will defend the ones being policed. And yet, when the smoke clears, we'll be left further divided as a nation.

How can we better interpret these tragic episodes? How can we remain passionate while becoming more objective, regardless of what door we may enter into the discussion (or debate) through? And for Christians in particular who have common-unity in Jesus, how can we find common-unity in these perplexing social ills that dominate the media and often fuel our fears?

In perilous times like these, I recommend what I call social exegesis.

Social exegesis is the ability to see objectively and interpret soundly the complex pieces of society that create the whole. Rather than doing social eisegesis, which is the misstep of reading into a situation our personal beliefs, biases, and agendas, we must try our best, with the help of God, to do social exegesis. As with biblical exegesis, it is incumbent upon the interpreter to let the context speak for itself.

Here are four principles to use for the next social disturbance we'll encounter on the pages of life:

1. Ask questions

Through initial observation, ask yourself: What happened? What is it that I see plainly? What is it that I don't see so plainly? What is the immediate context of this occurrence? What is the surrounding context? What smaller events led up to this main event? What sources am I relying on to give me my information? What are the counter views? Is there any validity to those perspectives? Like the Ethiopian Eunuch needed help from Philip to interpret the Bible (Acts 8:26-40), who can help me from the black community and the police community with my initial questions?

2. Dig deeper

What are the invisible yet very real factors that had bearings on this matter? Go below the surface of this potentially divisive event and run it through the grid of each of these seven tenants:

  • Historical- What is the overall history of the town? What is the immediate history between cops and civilians? What is this town or vicinity known for? How does this episode align with America's proven history of discrimination towards minorities?
  • Racial- How do we deal with the race issue without making race the issue? Statistically, what people groups dominate places of power and what people groups have been targeted and impacted the most by community policing? If race isn't a factor for this case in your opinion, what instance would you point to where race was a factor? What makes these two situations different? To either deny race or blame everything on race is irresponsible.
  • Economical- What is the local economy like? What role does wealth and poverty play in this episode? How are the disenfranchised looked upon? Are the neighborhoods overwhelmingly divided by race and class? Do you feel most people are poor solely because they are lazy or made bad choices? What role does systemic inequality play in your understanding of poverty?
  • Educational- Is there a disparity of quality between the local schools and their respective districts? If so, why is that? Would you send your children to "that" school? If not, why?
  • Judicial- Are just people in office who care about the whole of the community and not just certain segments? How would you know this? Have there been any recently recorded instances of racial profiling, police brutality, or misuse of authority by governing officials? What are the arrest results between whites and non-whites? How is the city's representation of power disbursed between people groups?
  • Cultural- What factors make some police appear combative? What factors make some citizens resist the police and not trust them? Who determines which idioms, expressions, and activities are right and wrong? What underlying factors help influence behavior?
  • Spiritual- What is the spiritual temperature of the community? Do religious people have a private faith or one that manifests in the public sector? How does politics influence which social ills are deemed appropriate for the religious community to confront? Is the religious community divided by race and class? If so, why? How is Satan at work?

As social observers, we must get below the surface of the iceberg in order to see the biggest and often unseen parts of the problem.

3. Be honest

We all have biases because we all have imperfections. If we're honest, we'll admit them. None of us are perfectly objective and due to our experiences and relationships we bring partiality to the table of brotherhood. Regardless of who you may happen to be, are you aware of your implicit biases towards Whites, Blacks, and Browns? What about your prejudices towards the elderly, young people, men, women, police, politicians and the media? What human, social, and cultural limitations do you admit to having in regards to interpreting this event in a fair manner? What is it that you don't know? How have you committed social eisegesis by reading into the altercation things that aren't there based on an agenda? Sometimes our agenda is that we have to always be right even when we're wrong. It's called pride and we all have it.

4. Do something

Now that we have more knowledge, what should we do with it? Awareness should lead us to action. In the Bible, the tribe of Issachar understood the times and knew what Israel should do (I Chronicles 12:32). Besides praying, how can you be a force for good? What can you do in your community to keep this kind of situation from occurring? In what ways can you be a change agent? A bridge builder? A peace maker? A reconciler? A restorer of the breach? How can you use your platform and sphere of influence to encourage healing, hope, accountability, and unity? What can you say to your people that they may take heed to simply because you said it? How can you change unjust systems and not just blinded minds? What can you say or promote on social media that is educational, inclusive, and compassionate? How can you put water on this fire and not gasoline? How can you use this as a teachable moment with your children?

Why not give these four steps of social exegesis a try? It's very likely that tomorrow will produce another tragedy. We can't change what will happen, but we can change how we interpret it.