“During times of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act.” George Orwell

Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Christian social constructions

Are we a reflection of what social constructions say we are? At times we may desire to be a reflection of social constructions, at other times, not. For the Christian, we have been givein this archetype construction of who a person should be in the form of Jesus. Any Christian worth his salt will say that his greatest aspiration is to be like Jesus. The social construction of a "follower of Jesus" is something that was new at the time of Jesus, but has developed over time as Christians continue to grow in their understanding of who Jesus was and is. Douglas (1970) states that social construction theory explains a process whereby a reality is developed through the creation of knowledge. To the Christian, the reality is being a "Christ follower" which is built upon the knowledge which comes from revelation, wisdom and faith. If we truly understand this knowledge, we are able to look upon an individual and have some notion of how that individual lines up with the plumb line of "Christ follower."

There are those who would say that people are much more than a reflection of social constructions, whatever they may be, but for the Christian, the desire is to reflect the social construction in significant ways. For example, Jesus modeled ways in which a person would love his neighbor, love his enemy, and love and worship God. Christians themselves might mimic the ways in which Jesus prayed, by repeating the Lord's Prayer, making it their own. Christians might mimic Jesus' dedication by devoting daily time for prayer, Bible reading and reflection. Christians might also look at specific behaviors and language that Jesus used in reference to a particular life issue he confronted. For example, one might study Jesus' interactions with persons with disability in order to reflect the language and behaviors Jesus used in reference to persons with disability. The example of this interaction provides a knowledge set basic to a social construction of who persons with disability are, what disability is, and what the responsibilities of persons in the world toward both disability and those who have "disabilities." Jesus' life and teachings might be said to be the basis for a Christian social construction of disability.

For Christians, the degree to which they represent this social construction of disability, reflects the degree to which they emulate Jesus in this particular area of life. If they do not represent this social construction in this particular area, they do not represent Jesus. The Christian social construction is prescriptive in a slightly different way than the typical social constructions.
As we are socialized as people, we come to believe particular things about how the world works. Some notions are ingrained in our psyche. Every American child knows to "look both ways before crossing the street" or "don't pet a strange dog." But also built into that psyche deliberately or otherwise are "there but for the grace of God go I" or "don't stare" or "they can't help the way they are" or "they are God's special angels" or "they have a poor quality of life." These perceptions are communicated just as clearly as others although not perhaps as consciously.

For Christians, a whole series of behavioral social constructions are built into members of succeeding generations biologically and spiritually. Much of this "knowledge based reality" is indeed knowledge based. However, much of it is not and when examined shocks the person who had carried such a misperception all of his life.

I once went backpacking with some so-called friends. One of the group put a large rock in my backpack just before our decent down the mountain. Imagine my surprise to find that I had been carrying that rock for 8 miles. Upon recognizing that I had the rock in my pack, I promptly removed it and tossed it aside. We shouldn't press this metaphor too far, however, I was surprised because I had examined the things which found their way into the pack. I was surprised because something had gotten by my observation. In a life immersed in culture, we should not be surprised what notions, what ideas about reality, what social constructions fill our minds. It is only when we sit down and open our packs, when we engage in reflection in the light of what we know about our faith, that we see the incongruity of the rock in the backpack. But to recognize that a rock doesn't belong in a backpack, I need to know what does belong in a backpack. I don't throw out my dry socks, or my matches, but I definitely throw out the rock.

Over the centuries, Christians haven't been examining the contents of their backpacks, as least as they relate to persons with disability. If they had, they would have found that not only were they carrying rocks, they had neglected to pack dry socks and matches. How do we know this? It is because of the prescriptive nature of the Christian social construction of disability which points us to the knowledge which can be gained from studying the revelation of the life of Jesus, the wisdom which can be gained from life among people with "disability" and the understanding of one's own faith, who is invited to faith, and what the requirements of faith are.

Douglas, J.D. (1970). Understanding everyday life. In J.D. Douglas (Ed.), Understanding everyday life: Toward the resonstruciton of sociological knowledge (pp. 3-43). Chicago: Aldine.


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