What’s Going on With Aboriginal Youth in Australia?

This week in Australia, Four Corners screened a program called “Australia’s shame”. It confirmed what Aboriginal elders and leaders had been telling our nation for many years. They had stated over and over again that Australia’s juvenile detention program was costing them the next generation. But, sadly, the government doesn’t tend to listen to black Australian leaders.

No. It took an ABC hour-long episode to break open the case, and make it visible to conscious citizens.

And the footage we saw is astounding. Let’s just say, it’s way worse than the miniseries Orange is the New Black. But the critical word here is “juvenile” detention. Meaning everyone is under eighteen.

At the Dondale Youth Detention Centre, children were locked up in solitary confinement for twenty three hours a day, weeks at a time. They were housed in tiny dark, human excrement smeared holes without running water in hot environments. When accidentally freed from his cell one fateful night in 2014, the footage shows an inmate unscrewing a light fitting, and enact his pent-up rage against the walls that held him. The response? Eight minutes of tear gas exposure on all the boys in solitary confinement.

But the various events that led to this night were also outlined. Kids acting out. Violent retributions from the guards. How we are treating our most damaged children is basically by sending them to war.

In contrast, Sydney has various juvenile detention centres where children finish school, eat three meals a day and learn life skills in a relatively stable environment. It’s not Disneyland, but it’s definitely not Dondale.

Our federal government responded immediately, with the Prime Minister calling for a Royal Commission. And, John Elferink, the Northern Territory’s Correction Minister was sacked (by that, it means he retained his portfolios for Health, Children, Families and Mental Health).

But many people may be wondering what the fuss is about. So while the nation is open to listening, I want to outline some reasons that people working within the sector are spamming Australians with information, and hoping they will call their local member of parliament and add momentum while we can.

  1. Few Australians understand this, but Australia has two populations: a first world, and a developing nation one.

Within the literature, this phenomenon is called “The Aboriginal Disadvantage of Social Exclusion”, or “the gap”. Which tends to infer that the situation is created through exclusion. And, if you were thinking that, you’d pretty much be right.

This situation emerges not only out of British invasion of the land, but also from what’s called “White Australia Policy”. This  was entrenched in the first law that Australia passed in 1901 and was the big idea behind the federation of the states.

Through various laws and failure of approaches to this issue, we’ve managed to now get to a point where there actual clear difference in life expectancy. That means that on average, Aboriginal people live 10.6 years less than their non-Indigenous counterparts. But it’s often closer to 20, and in some places, maybe 30 years difference. The quality of life for Aboriginal people in Australia is also entirely different in many, many ways.

Now you might think here “oh that’s lefty propaganda”. Which would be rude, of course, but I guarantee that’s happening here. Well, my friend, Aboriginal leaders from both the left and right unanimously unite on the issue of “the gap” and how it has occurred. They may not unite on an appropriate response. But where we are at is entirely fact.

2.There are, however, many reasons for youth juvenile detention. Nobody is saying the boys are blameless. They have stolen property, damaged cars, and even in some instances, assaulted people.

And thus, there is no doubt the state needed to intervene. But how it does so with juveniles is crucially important. What these boys learn in prison will go on to form the rest of their lives. Here’s a little more information:

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This might sound super depressing. But, I see it this way – if we can stop the cycle now, and if Aboriginal elders and leaders can work with the state to create new ways of helping angry, delinquent boys channel their strength into positive outcomes, then we are literally reversing “the gap”.

It’s too important a moment to miss out on.

I’m sure you’re asking here: what can I do?

At Common Grace, our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Justice team has been working furiously to figure out what an appropriate response could be. Most of our members are Christian, and their interest is in promoting Jesus-like love in Australian society.

And that helps because 73% of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people self identify as Christian. 

So this seems like an opportunity. And, we wanted to figure out how to resource our peeps to do something really tangible.

  1. We’ve joined with an organization named “Change the Record” who are calling upon the government to make this a state-wide, independent commission. It calls for targets to be set in regards to youth detention.

In my view, collaboration in Australia is important. We have a history of various Christian denominations working separately, and even sometimes against each other. This means that many initiatives weren’t accountable, and we didn’t promote best practice across the board. But “honour where honour is due”.

Change the Record has a long, brilliant history of engagement in this issue, and we’re calling upon all Christians to promote and support this initiative.

Let’s be clear, our action is not secretly motivated by evangelism or building churches. The church in Australia has certainly been guilty of this in the past. (And did I mention that 73% of Aboriginal people are Christian? That’s more than the general population at 61%).

This is about praying and acting to see “thy kingdom come”, in the Amos 5 sense of “let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!”

2. And, Brooke Prentis, Common Grace spokesperson and Waka Waka woman has put out a statement calling churches to ready themselves to act on this issue.

I would love you to read her statement and pray about how you and your church can respond. Her words definitely ring true for me, after having interviewed 88 people in five cities who attend churches with Aboriginal senior pastors, and spending my time talking with many Christians about this issue.

“In community we know these stories – heartbreaking, sad and real stories… My heart and call is still for the churches to wake up to where Jesus is calling us. And to act. The churches continue to reduce funding to Aboriginal ministries, close down our churches, have us operating in derelict buildings, do not fully employ Aboriginal pastors, Aboriginal youth pastors, Aboriginal prison chaplains, Aboriginal court chaplains, and not support Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Christian Leadership development. Sometimes churches don’t do anything at all.”

She also says this:

You can stand with us by contacting your own church pastor, head of church, minister or denominational leader and asking them to make a public stand for justice for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, in response to the Four Corners report. 

These are her specific asks:

  • Will they commit to standing up to racism inside and outside the church?
  • Are they open to listening and learning from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander brothers and sisters on how we can work together towards justice?
  • Could your church potentially fundraise to resource Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander ministries, churches, prison chaplains, court chaplains, and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Christian Leadership Development?
  • Could your church look into grassroots efforts led by First Nations peoples that they could partner with and/or support?
  • How can your church continue to open its members’ minds in support of the ongoing struggle for minority and First Nations people achieving justice?
  • How can your church make opportunities for Christians to engage biblically with topics that are often put to one side, such as material issues of land rights, prisons, law and the distribution of wealth in Australia.

 

If we can’t talk about this stuff inside church, well, I don’t know where we can talk about it. If your church wants to move from singing about justice to actually doing it, Australians, this is your opportunity.

Sign up for more Common Grace updates here (at the bottom of this page).

x Tanya

Religious Truth, Criticism and Holding it All Together

Today the journalist Jonathan Merritt released a much-reposted piece about Christians and criticism. More specifically, The Gospel Coalition and criticism. His point was that while the common thread of their posts is an “air of rebuke”, many in this group of evangelical Christian leaders are bad at receiving criticism. And while they happily accept the preaching platform, as well as Christian people’s admiration and trust, they don’t respond well to correction from the same people who give them authority, even when their teaching is harmful, and criticism may prevent them hurting others.

There’s plenty of questions in there about what builds a church platform, who has authority to speak on behalf of God, and various other issues. But I’m most interested in the notion of criticism, and how it can either destroy us or make us better.

I’m not removed from the game of criticism. I read this sitting at a desk with many projects on it. To be precise, there’s a PhD, a book, a chapter, a peer reviewed article, a teaching contract, and two media pieces. It’s like I’m waiting for projects to hatch.

But I honestly didn’t intend for it to be like this. In fact, I had high hopes I could finish my dissertation writing phase by working insanely hard on it last year, when … well, life happened.

… And I was left with a group of jagged, fragmented sentences that outlined the shape of my body on the pavement. It was a caricature of me, but it wasn’t breathing. A loud gang of personal, and existential criticisms questioned whether I could write, whether I would pass this course, and whether I should pursue a scholarly career at all. After four years of Seminary.

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I added these words to an imaginary folder of “critique” I’d collected during the PhD program. And, to be honest, from time in ministry before that as well. In this folder were small pieces I needed to remember. Some warned me when my writing style was too scholarly, while others reminded me it was not scholarly enough. If I flick through the imaginary pile, I recount the times it’s been said I lack logic, probably because I’m creative. And inferences that I’m not very creative really, considering I’m a songwriter! There are notes reminding me not to be unrealistic. And little encouragements to push hard for my career because boys will be assertive and take the first teaching positions, whether qualified or not. Comments in there caution me not to be elitist with colleagues. Still, these notes write, you don’t have an Ivy League education, so you don’t have full access to all the ideas. And, of course, the clincher: ministry is not about the money.

Although the notes barely fit into their folder, I can normally close them up and store them away until I figure out what to do next… they help me in many ways.

But in December the folder flung open, and just wouldn’t close.

This took the gloss off my newly minted “All But Dissertation” status, and I had to remove my friend’s “Congratulations!!” card from the windowsill. I knew I deserved this title along with other candidates in my course, particularly considering I had 100 extra compulsory exam books allocated during the ridiculous gymnastics of changing PhD disciplines.

There were many good reasons I was in this situation, but knowing them didn’t help. I cried many tears over discouraging words that wouldn’t go away. I would be sitting at my desk normally, and then I’d be crying, and only realize when the computer screen became blurry.

If this is depression, I thought, it’s situational depression, because I can point to the place where the dam wall collapsed.

But that didn’t make it go away either…

And, unfortunately I’d already bought a plane ticket to California a week earlier, when I thought I could put a date on my dissertation defense – or at least, the final stages of editing the PhD. So, this date came, and I got on the plane, but with a deep sense of dread. The last place I wanted to go was back on campus.

But, of course, this was the best medicine. And I acted as though I had never cried a tear, not even one. I turned up for all my meetings, and I stilled my racing heart, and I listened to all the new criticisms, and I put them in their little folder, and I closed it somehow and I went off to the conference to present as if I was a professional, not a known fraud wearing high heels and a suit jacket.

At the conference I reconnected with Australian scholars who knew all my flaws but who were ecstatic to see me, and I finally admitted out loud where I was really at. I lamented the comments in the folder, and this helped remind me that I wasn’t actually dead, but being inducted into a community of scholars, and that this was the entry fee.

And, at the conference I met some new sister-friends. A beautiful new friend, Joy, picked me up every day and we talked very honestly and even wept a little. And then I found myself in a lounge with some girls laughing before our scholars dinner, and we talked about crazily unhelpful feedback, and infertility, and teaching young men in the Bible belt. And that night one of us won the conference book prize, and I felt as proud as if I’d done it. Because she’d admitted that she also had a little folder in her heart, and she’d worked slowly through each note, and she’d used those words to create something profoundly world-changing.

I know that criticism can be absolutely and completely unnerving. But somehow the Christian church has to get better at speaking about what is real. Without the barbed wire existential destructive bent. And it also has to get better at receiving comments and applying them within some kind of spiritual process that helps us get better, not bitter.

Why did it take me six months to admit that I wasn’t on top of these criticisms? How did I lose this much precious time?

Well, first I had nobody to tell. There were too few friends willing to stand with me while I gingerly took out the words and read them aloud like bad fortune cookies. When I am around other Christian friends, I have to be really careful. I have battle wounds, and I assume that everyone knows what that’s like. They don’t.

I’m not saying that people’s every day lives aren’t hard. As in, maybe the mundane actually forms a parallel to criticism in shaping our soul. But it seems like some women sit around and plan making pink frosted cupcakes all day. They could be blown over by a feather of opinion. Meanwhile, other parts of the church are like a war-zone. And there’s not a lot of in-between spaces.

I honestly have no idea how it happened, or how I failed to keep my junk together for six whole months, but I think we need to think about turning Christian conversations into places of deep nourishing moments of spirituality.

If someone’s asking, we need more resources for that.

This makes me slightly uncomfortable, but I’ve decided to get around it all by thinking about scholarship as just one role I play. Another is that I might be the friend you call if you want to work through deep existential pain (after your therapist!).

I’m honestly not judging but please forgive me if I vague out while sitting at a women’s ministry event and you’re talking about your six year old’s birthday party and which colour of bunting you like best. It’s just not one of the roles I play.

I’m trying really hard. I’m not always able to pull off the disconnect. I’d like to think I’m piecing together all the ferocious, terrible words for your daughters and grand-daughters, and I’m trying to work out how to make something that we can hand them.

So in that sense I guess, it’s really same-same, right? Some of us nourish the next generation of the church while rocking babies late at night and singing lullabies. Some of us are tracing out the lines of the conversation that build the pastors of tomorrow.

But I’ll admit I’m struggling to hold the spaces together. And at the moment this role idea is the only way I can work it out without becoming really angry and lashing out at everyone and everything around me.

So, today I’m feeling more empathy for the Gospel Coalition leaders than I care to admit. Sometimes, you just want a block button for all the pieces of the world that you don’t know how to deal with yet.

Brand “Christian” Challenges Part #1: Parable and Myth

I’ve decided to start up a new series that includes some straight talk for Christian leaders in urban Western contexts trying to build the church. These summarize challenges  Christians face in negotiating our changing world, recognizing cultural Christianity, and keeping a commitment to living out the Bible story in the twenty first century.

The first brand “Christian” challenge is the importance of truth – meaning both parable and myth.

You see, Often, Christians use the word “truth” with the word “judgement” in reference to calling out sin. But Jesus mostly judged the religious leaders of the day, including the Pharisees and Sadducees.

Evangelicals are really concerned with “truth”. But there are two types of truth we need to account for within the church, not just one.

Let me explain. Yesterday I was sitting in a service in which my husband informed a relatively wealthy majority white congregation that they were seated within two blocks of sixteen known illegal brothels. And I want to say they took the news quite well, which seems ridiculous, really, when you think about it. We should be able to state a fact about the community without too much angst*.

Before they can act towards the good of their neighborhood, Christians have to be made aware of their community. And there’s the catch. Many people in the church are in a state of deep unconsciousness, and even denial about our world. And so, telling certain truths can be a shock.

In their book Mighty Stories Dangerous Rituals, Herbert Anderson and Edward Foley diagnose this challenge as directly related to our liturgy, or worship.

Many Christians don’t deal well with the truth of parable, because they prefer the truth of myth.

A myth presents an ideal which we can agree upon. It makes us feel united, linked in our togetherness.

There are so many myths we ascribe to: national, family, sports myths. So it’s not unique to religion. Atheists have myths. We all do. They help us decide what we’d like our lives to look like in the future.

In conversation with an Aboriginal leader recently, she confessed to me why she wouldn’t be attending an upcoming Christian conference. “They want us there to tell a good story, but they aren’t willing to sit in our pain and brokenness as we navigate our actual lives”.

She was telling me this church wanted a future of a reconciled community so much they were willing to deny ways they were not reconciled, or things weren’t perfect, or there wasn’t a solution. What was happening now.

This sounds like half friendship, doesn’t it, if we as Christians amplify a “good story” from the platform, but are unwilling to publicly weep when people are suffering, hurting, and need help? … If a girlfriend did this to me, I would call her “superficial”. And yet, that’s often what Christians do to marginalized groups.

I think a good question to ask is, how does this fit with the redeeming symbol of the cross, which clearly recognizes public suffering and pain as the path to God’s triumphant victory?

Bono recently identified something like this in Fuller Studio‘s newly released documentary “The Psalms“. He said,

“The psalmist is brutally honest about the explosive joy that he’s feeling and the deep sorrow or confusion… And I often think, ‘Gosh, well, why isn’t church music more like that?”

Sure, there is deep solidarity in the laments of the psalmists, that resonances within the Beatitudes and other parables of Jesus. But, if we’re honest about it, Bono probably doesn’t listen to Christian music (or attend church) often. Because over the years there’s quite a few “explosive joy” songs out there, right?

What we’re not singing is passages such as these:

“No one who practices deceit
will dwell in my house:
no one who speaks falsely
will stand in my presence” – Psalm 101: 7

or

“Do not put your trust in princes
in human beings, who cannot save
When their spirit departs, they return to the ground:
on that very day, their plans come to nothing – Psalm 146:3-4

or

“But as for me, I am poor and needy:
come quickly to me, O God
You are my help and my deliverer:
LORD, do not delay” – Psalm 70:5

There are certain words and phrases in the psalmody embraced by the church today, while others aren’t, and the best way to get at this is the word “parable”. Anderson and Foley explain it this way:

“… Parable … is about contradiction. Parables challenge our expectations of a world without blemish. In the parables of Jesus, the last are first, and the meek inherit the earth. The parabolic perspective creates contradiction in both narrative and ritual in order to reveal a truth that is otherwise hidden.” (1998, Kindle Loc 81)

Parable causes a rupture in the way we see the world.

Parable is hidden in the words of a court jester who announces the emperor has no clothes, or in the brush strokes of the artist who paints the blind leading the blind…

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Parable of the Blind Leading the Blind, Pieter Bruegel the Elder

And, it is found in the image of Jesus hanging on a cross, having given the religious leaders one last chance to save him, but knowing they would chose the criminal Barabbas.

The Christian Bible uses truth in the form both of parable and myth. It presents an ideal, and then it tells us how we really measure up.

Ironically, this second truth is common language used by secular poets such as Bono, many of whom reject the church, and trade-off their participation in the industry for personal reputation among Christians. And yet faith serves as content for much of their lyrics. Interesting much?

We should be able to sing about the brokenness of humanity in a Christian gathering, even if it divides “us” in various ways.

If Trump’s U.S. Presidency campaign has taught us anything, the church needs better language for “politics” in this moment. We need language for intersections between faith and power. Because God is with the poor and needy while they await his help, even if we aren’t singing about their life experiences.

We need to reclaim parable as Christian language.

Our brand problem that the good news is supposed to be proclaimed to the poor, the prisoners, the blind, the oppressed. Because they are the ones that can see straight through our myth making. We need both types of truth, but this news requires more truth in the form of parable.

——-
*I deleted this section from the post after comments. It wasn’t so helpful because I equated ‘illegal’ with ‘trafficked’. But I think some Christians will still want it said, particularly those who know the context. So here it is.

While historical memory of the New Atheists does not attend this far, Christians publicly and actively fought human slavery since 1789 with abolitionist William Wilberforce. Once a congregation is made aware of its neighborhood, it can get involved. Involvement in this case wasn’t to judge people’s sin or out of an emotional need to rescue anyone, but to communicate God’s love to the women this figure represented, and to commit to support police efforts in prosecuting traffickers – if and when that was needed.

Worship Leading in Every Season

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One of the strangest things for worship leaders is a long season off the platform. If you’ve been really involved in church, it feels uncomfortable, like wearing a onesie to a formal wedding.Many women worship leaders tell me that they struggle in times of their lives when they are forced to take a break. This could be due to pregnancy or having children. It could be due to sickness, or study. Or, it could be due to discouragement from others that leads to a musical silence of the soul… More tragically still, it could be because you no longer look the part, or your church wants to take a new direction in sound, or promote younger people on the platform.

Some reasons are hard to bear, and may even feel like failure.

But I’ve learned that keeping one’s heart singing in the night seasons is the journey of every worship leader. We see this in the life of David, who worshiped God at all times in his life both good and bad. And he is described as “a man after God’s own heart” (Acts 13:22). Making a decision to worship in and out of season is what makes a long and effective ministry, compared to a bright star that soon fizzles.

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Here are five ways to worship lead off the platform.

1.Decide to be first to enter joyfully into the Lord’s presence in every single service you attend.

You are not only a worship leader on the platform. You can be one behind the sound desk. You can even be one from the floor. Present your voice, body, and soul to God and sing out with the utmost of your depths. Inspire your team and your congregation to do the same.2. Find a female worship pastor to encourage.

I remember when I was one of the only female worship pastors in my city. I was overseeing eighty volunteers, many of them men. I had so many questions about myself. Was I too bossy? Had I said the right thing? Should I apologize for the standards I was setting for the team?

This month I was able to sit and encourage a worship pastor in the same position. All she needed to hear was a clear voice saying, “Great decision. You’ve definitely got this my friend.” That’s all. And she was soaring again. What a joy to see her bring that strength to the platform, and into worship. It wasn’t mine, it was hers. But I got to share in her joy. It’s easy to worship lead via encouragement

3. Continue to worship at home.

At the end of the day, it’s not about getting onto the platform. It’s actually about you and your God. All the hosts of heaven are waiting for you to pick up your instrument and worship. God is waiting. So make it a priority to lift up praise even when you’re not seen by your church. This is the power of unseen moments.

4. Give into smaller churches and ministries. 

You might not have space and time to be involved at a high level capacity, but I guarantee  if you open your heart to God and say ‘yes’, God will make a way. Smaller churches, and midweek ministries are often desperate for help. This is such a beautiful way to show that we are all a part of the body. And hey, it doesn’t hurt to get us back into shape for the main church services, either! Say yes to something you would usually say no to!

5. Lift the standard in your discipline of worship. 

There are times when God draws us into a secret place. And ultimately, worship is not just about the music. It is about our lives. In Romans 12, it talks about worship not as music, but as a personal discipline.

“Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God — this is your true and proper worship.” 

Having space and time to work on your life’s sacrifice of worship is a gift. This is also what will make your musical worship ring authentically true to the church when you stand before them, encouraging them to lift their own hearts to God. Don’t forget the battle for your own heart is worth it.

And if all else fails, then put on Brooke Ligertwood’s ‘Desert Song’ and remind your heart by singing at the top of your voice:

All of my life
In every season
You are still God
I have a reason to sing
I have a reason to worship…

xx Tanya.

I’d love you to share this piece from this link: http://www.projectwow.org/conversation/2016/4/7/worship-leading-in-every-season

Am I Oppressed? A Handy Guide for Christians

In this day and age, it seems genuinely difficult to know if you’re oppressed or not. And fair enough too. The world has changed, and we need a quick rule of thumb to evaluate the  claims of marginalization many groups now make. This post intends to help all those wondering, “Am I oppressed?”

Oppression is not unique to one society or people group. It’s human nature to form groups, and work towards collective aims. In doing so, other groups are excluded, whether intentionally or not. As Aristotle said, “Man is by nature a social animal” … And by that he meant, of course, that both men and women were social animals, but at that time women were excluded in both language and society… case in point, really.

Western civilization promoted strong social coherence or unity by depicting an ideal, and encouraging members to adhere to it. During colonialism, encouragement for “natives” was mainly via force. The model was forged in Europe’s heartlands, within a crucible of religious, political and cultural encounters, resulting in the modern nation-state.

Strength of society, it was argued, came through people attributing authority and power to the King, and receiving various benefits from him in return – usually security or peace. This ensured people could get on with their very ordinary lives. It resulted in the elevation of one great man…. versus the rest.

So, the characteristics associated with Europe’s ideal King (white, male, Christian, physically strong warrior, sexually virile and thus able to produce enough heirs to withstand plagues and famine, wealthy, educated and well-spoken) were upheld as aspirational. But of course, not everybody could be King.

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Frederick II and his subjects, Biblioteca Capitolare, Salerno.

The ideal survived various revisions throughout the centuries. At times no King was available, and so a Queen was instated. Eventually, authority associated with a monarch was conferred upon representative elected leaders, in parliaments. And, despite the breaking down of Christendom, some power was retained by religious leadership. Over time, it was also attributed to the heads of other organizations and business leaders, as our world globalized.

Some enclave communities manged to continue to believe in authoritarianism, or the divine right of God conferred upon the ruling authorities via religious priests, and to assert the role of the man as head of the household. These traditional, hierarchical ideas are usually associated with the more “conservative” end of the political spectrum.

But there is no doubt that this type of society is now directly under pressure through “the politics of difference”. In successive waves, we have seen women, people of colour and those holding various alternative sexual identities assert loudly that they are not served by this status quo. We have seen groups organize, forcing change upon society as they enact their freedoms.

And as the once-marginalized ‘others’ begin to gain economic and cultural space, they assert themselves into the Western narrative as its leaders, rather than subjects. While MLK dreamed of a Black U.S. President, we now cite Barack Obama as reality, with presumably more Black Presidents to come. We will potentially soon have a female in this role, and thus, the term POTUS will no longer evoke its once-dominant image of raw masculine power.

In government, business, and religious institutions there are now multiple ideals in leadership, and no single overarching story to which we all adhere. This is at times frightening for conservatives who want retain the dominant narratives, but are forced to accept comparative losses of power, at the expense of ‘the others’.

Some resent that their right to dominate in boardrooms is limited due to affirmative action legislation promoting women. Some disagree with state involvement in the family via divorce settlements, or feel disgruntled at the amount of minorities coming through universities. They may vehemently disagree with same-sex marriage introduced by states. Many feel angry at even having to change their language that once felt so natural, but is now disputed.

The result is that some vocal white male evangelical religious leaders in the US and Australia have likened themselves to the German Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, under the Nazi regime. Speaking out against the oppression of the Jews, Bonhoeffer suffered and ultimately died for his convictions. For most, it is a far-fetched analogy. Still, some older, white leaders do indeed feel a very real rage resulting from their loss of power. And some white communities have even announced, “I think we’re being oppressed!”

Let’s be honest, there are limits to this declaration. But it’s hard to know where they are. So, the social theory of oppression is used by researchers to work out who is actually “oppressed”. And I hope mapping out a definition used by many researchers helps you too.

1. First, understanding stereotyping is very important in how we make groups.

The first aspect of this definition relates to the way our brains organize information. Humans are predisposed to short cuts when it comes to identifying groups, and we often condense a group’s aggregate information and place it on an individual. This is called “stereotyping”, caused by a “schema” of associations.

In other words, we are simply unable to remember individual characteristics for every person we meet. So, we rely upon a stereotype to condense the information. We use it to decide whether we share interests, or are threatened by them. We categorize all people into groupings: we assume Italians enjoy tomatoes and make passionate lovers; while Germans are neat, orderly people who prefer beer.

But even if this stereotyping function gives us the right information about the group, it can give us completely wrong information about individuals. It is possible to have an Italian who is allergic to tomatoes, or a German person who is disastrously messy.

2. Increasing interaction with groups means stronger stereotypes

The more cross-cultural engagement we have in society, say via social media, the more our stereotyping function goes into hyper drive. We continue to associate groups with their preferences and actions, and an individual member who does not share these is still “tarred with the same brush”. This is not always fair, but it is not necessarily oppression.

3. Voluntary groups are more fair. 

Some stereotypes we make for ourselves. We may enjoy crafts and therefore become known amongst friends as ‘a knitter’. This might cause people to associate you curling up with a book by the fire. Or, someone might think of Mrs Molly Weasley from Harry Potter, or assume you have ten cats. These are unfortunate associations, and may be untrue, but they are not oppression.

Neither are associations which produce negative reactions because of actions groups can and should be held responsible for. For example if you state, “I’m a biker”, and people assume you are selling illicit weapons or drugs and you dislike this, you have two options. The first is to brand your biker gang as different from other biker gangs that do illegal activities, or the second is to leave the biker life altogether. You can do this at any time.

4. Non-voluntary groups are less fair. 

But some associations cannot be dropped very easily. And therefore, it is harder to prevent the consequences. These are stereotypes that come from characteristics we can’t or that we find difficult to change.  For example, where you are born, the colour of your skin, your gender, and some aspects of culture.

This ability once assisted survival. For example, stereotyping was highly useful if you were standing on the English coastline in medieval times and you saw a Viking ship. The assumption could be made that the big man wearing a Viking helmet wanted to pillage your city. And even if this particular Viking had no interest in looting but sought a quality conversation on a Spring evening and perhaps a tour of the castle library, villagers would still have an instant rush of adrenaline at the sight of him. And, should the innocent Viking receive the blunt edge of the village army, he might feel oppressed, but would not actually be oppressed by the villager’s assumptions about him. Many other ships had come before, and pilaged. We could however, say that the reponse was unfortunate. And, we could even say it was unjust.

Where it is particularly unjust is when a stereotype is associated with a group is entirely false, and they cannot un-identify with it. A person with Down Syndrome may find it difficult to change stranger’s impressions about their abilities, which link them due to their appearance. If the assumptions are true for most Downs Syndrome people, but are untrue for this Downs Syndrome person, we can call still this unjust.

5. Oppression is a “fundamental injustice”.

The social scientist Ann Cudd in her book Analyzing Oppression defines oppression as the “fundamental injustice of social institutions” (Cudd 2006, 26). She identifies four necessary conditions to qualify as “oppression”:

1) actual harm must have occurred either physically or emotionally
2) to a clearly defined social group (the oppressed)
2) while another gains privilege over them (the oppressors);
3) this privileged group must use coercion to maintain power (Cudd 2006, 35).

So if a group was trafficked as slaves, sold to plantation owners and whipped mercilessly, that would be actual harm. Say we identified that group as “African Americans”. Then, we linked certain privileges that people with white skin received, as opposed to this group. And, say police were still killing Black men on the streets, gunning them down without a fair trial – well, we could say definitively, yes, that African Americans in the USA are oppressed.

So, when asking yourself “Am I oppressed?” you can now ask four questions:

Q: what real harm has occurred?
Q: to what group has this harm been incurred?
Q: what privilege has been gained by the group which has caused this?
Q: How do the group use coercion to maintain their power?

In the case of a conservative Christian white male, we can say with quite a lot of certainty that no real harm has occurred to this group. Some privilege or advantage has been lost. Sure, certain individuals may point to an experience of real harm, and maybe even have been martyred for the faith. But there is no one group that wields coercive power over white conservative Christian males. They still, on average, hold more power than any other group in the Western world.

Phew! So you can breathe a sigh of relief.

If you’re a white Christian male religious leader, you’re not oppressed.

And this means we can also let go of any correlations with Bonhoeffer, who by standing with an oppressed group (the Jews) and rejecting their treatment at the hands of the Nazis, suffered an unjust death…. Unless of course, you’re standing with an oppressed people group against an oppressive force. In that instance, sure, you may have a case.