Weekly Thoughts 4

The Appreciative Inquiry into Life

If you look back through my high school journals you will see a guy conflicted between being someone he thought he should be compared with the failure he thought he actually was. Perhaps this is typical of any male journaling their way throughout high school, but part of these sentiments and feelings came from the evangelical strand of Christianity.

Evangelicalism and the reformed brotherhood that has taken hold of its mainstream the last ten years is often spent discussing the comparison of who we are versus who Jesus wants us to be (answer: not who we are). This is even further emphasized by circles who firmly step their feet into the Calvinistic, totally depraved, sinners in the hands of an angry God camp. They spend their time quoting David’s ‘woe is me’ Psalms, Paul’s ‘why do I do what I hate‘ speech, and unleashing more self-hating poems than all the songs featured in Sunny Day Real Estate’s Diary.

This theology of deprivation is matched by a God who has chosen each of us, even though he hates us, and thus celebration is initiated. This celebration can be quite deep and some of these people are some of the most grateful people I know. However, some of this can lead to a deep sense of shame within people. We cannot believe that we won’t commit more of our lives to God even though He has done so much for us! (This actually leads to another unique discussion within evangelical circles where Christians feel as if they cannot take credit for any of their own talents, because they, being evil, cannot do any good. So all credit goes to God in everything, even being good at sports!)

With this, the Christian is constantly hounded by a constant pressure of living up to God’s standards (even though by theological grounds they literally cannot); this pressure is even exists in scenarios where people believe that they do not have to live up to God’s standards, but merely should want to – an easy way to lead to guilt accumulation. Small groups and spiritual discussions inevitably lead into this sort of talk where people confess that they haven’t spent enough time with God or that they have committed (insert sin here) lately.

To get to my point, I am going to talk about something else I’ve discussed here before – the idea of appreciative inquiry. Now appreciative inquiry (AI) is an idea meant for groups of people, supposed to spark creativity and new ideas, but I thought I would force it into a personal spiritual situation (if you want to read an academic overview and critique of AI, go here).

AI’s basic viewpoint is that rather than taking things from a negative angle, it is much more constructive to build off of the positive that already exists. Look for the places that are already producing instead of highlighting the deficits and from there you can make something greater. The underlying perspective is that in most communities there is already some sort of life force that is causing it to exist and stay afloat. By focusing on all that is wrong, negative results will come forth.

Before I continue I must say I am going to try to avoid making this a positive thinking piece, where all your problems will go away if you think about good things. I am certainly no Joel Osteen (I dwell in the sadness), but there is something to this. Wracked by guilt for so many years, it feels good to let go of the shame that constantly hounded me. Maybe I’m a character from Dr. Strangelove, letting go of worry of the atomic bomb as it’s about to strike, but being set free from the narrative of total depravity has been a blessing.

Narratives and how we inquire into those narratives affect how we perceive ourselves and our own story. When we continually see ourselves as depraved beings who will never measure up, what will come out of it? When we continually tell our children to pray prayers so that hell no longer hangs over them or exhort them with tales of them being incapable of choosing good, where are we leading them? (Sidenote: In a conflict class I took, we studied an almost completely non-violent society whose strategy of avoiding conflict was to insult their children so that they would not develop an ego, negating any sense of pride or indignation of being treated a certain way, because, well, they were entirely unimportant compared to the society as a whole. So I suppose there could be some merit to this way of parenting, but certainly to a Western mindset it sounds strange.)

Appreciative inquiry posits that when the little micro narratives we hold Рthat when combined make up our being  Рare changed, the macro narrative will also bend in that direction. When our micro narratives tell us we are incapable of good, generally not worthy of love, and are failures, our macro narrative shifts to one deeply sensitive about a lot of small things.

When are micro narratives begin to tell us that we are capable of good, of making beautiful things, and loving people, perhaps those characteristics will abound. When we become wrapped up in a larger story of mercy, justice, and love rather than one of shame and guilty pleasure our lives will expand into greater things.

I say this all while acknowledging that repentance and humility are two of the most important traits a person can have – we must recognize that we are not more important than other people and when we screw up we should seek reconciliation. But when we ask questions of ourselves, let’s look at the ways we are contributing to life, for we are beings wrapped up in a cosmic tale of love, grace, justice, and beauty. Let us not be overcome with shame at our failures.

Ferguson and Broken Windows Theory

(Note: This is a simplistic view of how things came to be and how the theory behind policing has changed over the years for better or worse. I hope it is informative, thought provoking and empathetic).

The Broken Windows Theory postulates that a community will live up to the way that a community is perceived. If there is a broken window in a building people will view their community as damaged or unsafe. In response to this they will either be less likely to contribute to their community positively or they will add to this negativity that they see. There is a snowball effect of crime that occurs when people view their community as being in “disorder”.

This theory, written by social scientists James Q. Wilson and George Kelling in 1982, held order as the key to lowering crime rates and theorized that if order was maintained then a community’s crime rate would drop as people would feel safe, thus leading to contributing positively to the community. They would be less likely to break the first window.

There is something really nice to this theory and in some personal cases it makes sense. When one considers going somewhere there is the question of safety; how nice someplace looks. A place that is well kept is more inviting and this feeling of safety probably contributes to a place being safe.

The Broken Windows Theory had a wide influence on the way that police work is done. After coming up with their idea, Wilson and Kelling offered solutions. They noted that police work was formerly about maintaining order, but now it was all about solving crimes. In the past crimes were solved by private institutions. This is where old noir films or detective stories like Sherlock Holmes and Monsieur Poirot came from. The Private Eye was the one who solved the crime, while police maintained the order.

Wilson and Kelling suggest that police should have the job of fixing broken windows rather than trying to solve every crime. By patrolling the streets they could get to know their communities; who belonged and who didn’t. They would make communities feel safer which would in turn make them safer, causing people to contribute and participate within their communities.

This ideology stuck, causing major reforms, particularly in New York City which cleaned up its streets and made a turn for the better.

But with this reform and change in policy came an added side effect. The stop and frisk policy was put into place, causing young black men to be targeted daily whilst walking through their own communities. Laws were put into place making it even more difficult for homeless men and women to get by.

Cleaning up broken windows is easy, but figuring out who is a broken window is hard, if not impossible.

Mistakes were made, prejudices that weren’t already there began to develop and to grow. Certain kinds of people – usually the poor and minorities – were profiled and had to deal with police interactions frequently. These interactions turned into enmity between both sides. People’s reactions grew louder as they continued in frequency, while the police’s questions turned into interrogations and later the verge of harassment.

We see the results of this in Ferguson where Mike Brown’s murder at the hands of a cop has incited riots, turning the city into a war zone. The community feels as if the police treat them unfairly based on skin color and economic status. The 18 year old’s death caused the town, state, and country to reach a boiling point in the relationship between a community and the police.

And this isn’t all about broken windows, there are hundreds of years worth of racist and discriminatory history wrapped up in it. Abuses of power and unjust laws that some feel have continued into our supposedly post-racist society.

And here we stand with the idea of order looking like men in riot gear – armed with batons and tear gas. Commands given harshly over loud speakers as a community deals with the death of one of its members, some more positively than others.

There was nothing wrong with the theory. Police becoming a part of the community and helping to maintain its order was a wonderful ideal. The problem hinges on deciding who is bad and who is good. Are the people we want out of our communities the ones that aren’t like us? Are they based in our biases?

The thing is, people are not broken windows. They cannot be fixed by sweeping them out of the way and replacing them with something new.

In my studies we looked at an idea called appreciative inquiry. This idea – originated in businesses and was enlarged to include urban planning and community development .¬† Instead of viewing a community from the perspective of their problems, the most effective way to incite change is to build on what the community has going for it. It says that we should view things positively, seeing all the good that is already there before trying to “fix” other things.

These two ideas seem to overlap, with Broken Windows Theory saying that people should have a feeling of safety; a feeling that where they live is a good place. Appreciative inquiry says that we should look for the ways that the community is already good. Both deal with the way we perceive community and cities and where we live. The latter insists that we look for the good in people. That we find the beauty in the broken glass, asking ourselves how we can come together to use what we have.

Obviously this is an optimist’s view of the world, the whole idea is to start from the positive and this doesn’t always work. There is evil in the world. People do bad things because of their circumstances and because, well, they are people. The law is necessary. Justice is necessary. I generally believe the police are a force for good, though my privilege shines through that statement.

Let’s widen our scope. Let’s look for alternative solutions; use our imaginations to discover a world that is better than the one we are currently seeing in Ferguson and other places where people have an unhealthy fear of the ones who are supposed to protect them.