Friday, March 29, 2013

Affirmative Action

In a leadership class I took for my Master's of Divinity degree, we used a book entitled "Leadership: Theory and Practice" by Peter Northouse. Based upon its price on Amazon, I would guess that it's a typical textbook for business classes, describing varying approaches and models of leadership.

One of the chapters towards the end of the book is all about women and leadership. As I read through the chapter, my mind constantly wandered to what I really think about this topic. It's somewhat of a volatile issue to me and has the potential for getting people on both sides of a debate fairly worked up.

I was raised with a mom who was very much the typical 1950's mom. Her family was the most important thing in the world and she did whatever she could to ensure that the kids would be all right and Dad could keep working. She eventually went to work in the public school system as a teacher's aide for over 20 years, but she never really outgrew the gender roles that had been defined by her in her past. I certainly would not consider to have been a "doormat." She had a voice and was willing to allow it to be heard, but she had some strong opinions about the role of women in leadership.

As I began to explore options other than the ones that my parents had conveyed to me, my parents and I developed a healthy and loving debate over the issue of women in leadership, primarily when it came to the church. My parents adhered to the "women should be silent in church" mentality, believing that men should hold the primary roles of leadership within the church. While all of this deeply impacted my ideology and thinking, it certainly did not cause me to make decisions without having thought them through myself.

When I left my engineering career to follow after God's call on my life and enter into full-time vocational ministry, I served in a church where this was not an issue. Their ideology was much the same as that of my parents: women had no real place in the leadership of the church other than as Sunday school teachers and nursery workers. It was during this time that I really began to ask myself some questions that began to get me into hot water. The ironic thing is that I had not even formulated an opinion, I was simply asking the questions.

Now, I've always been one to play the devil's advocate. It's part of my personality. If controversy doesn't exist, I may be the one to create some just to liven things up a little bit. After all, who doesn't enjoy some good old fashioned passionate debates once in a while? Friends have referred to it as the social equivalent of throwing a grenade into a crowded building. While that might be a little extreme, I can't deny that I have, on more than one occasion, thrown the figurative "grenade" into a crowd and sat back to watch and enjoy the chaos that ensued. I started this in high school and haven't really stopped since. After a personality analysis, I was labeled a stabilizer/de-stabilizer. Can you guess which one I tend towards?

Anyway, as I moved through high school and then college, the time grew nearer to when I would need to look for a full-time job. As that time approached, I began to realize that I fell into a difficult place as an educated white, protestant male. Unlike today, there were more jobs out there, but there was this thing called affirmative action and equal opportunity that mandated a certain number of positions to those who were considered minorities.

I eventually got a job and the idea fell out of my conscious mind because it just wasn't something that I faced on a regular basis. Recently, it has surfaced again, in no small part due to this leadership class. At the same time, it has been a hot button topic for many of the denominations in whose circles I run.
A while back, I read a book by Malcolm Gladwell called "Blink." I blogged about it not too long ago here, so you can read what I wrote. Many of the stories within the book fascinated me, but one that stood out to me above the others was about a woman who had become a member of the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra as a trombonist. Auditions were held behind screens and the members of the committee who selected the musicians were shocked and astounded when they realized that they had selected a female. They thought that there had been some mistake, but the screen had forced them to listen with their ears rather than their eyes.

As I read the story, I was intrigued to think about what the equivalent of a screen might be when it came to jobs. How could a search process be done with applicants "behind a screen?" Was it possible for people to analyze applicants for a position based upon the things that matter rather than the things that don't? Wouldn't that be so much more effective than mandating the number of positions required to be filled by females or certain ethnicities? But how could it be done?

I used to argue with a pastor who I worked with that morality could not be legislated. We both came down on different sides of that argument and finally agreed to disagree. When we attempt to legislate morality, people may have a tendency to resent that morality and all who subscribe to it. In the same way, when we legislate who should be hired, do we not endanger ourselves from doing the same thing? But what is the alternative?

As I mentioned before, I have never fallen into the category of a minority, though I someday may. If I did, I would much rather know that I had gotten a job because I was the best person for the job, not because someone had to fill a quota. I would much rather know that out of all of the qualified candidates out there, I was the one that was chosen because someone thought that I was the best person for the job.
As I think through this, I can't help but think about Jesus' approach towards people. He broke cultural and gender barriers, which were a bigger deal during his time than they are for us now. He saw past the stereotypes and saw the value of the underlying human being. Legislate it or not, the only way that we can even come close to "behind the screen" decisions is to allow ourselves to be changed to be more like Jesus. If we want to see things less tainted and skewed, we need to exchange our view for the view that Jesus has.

I certainly haven't figured this all out, and I am not so sure that I ever will. I do know that I always want to be in a place where I am working with people who are there because they are the best people for the job that they are doing. I can only hope and pray that my eyes might see more the way that Christ sees than the way that my flawed and sinful self sees. When I begin to see as Christ does, I will begin to impact the world in much the same way that Christ did and still does.

It's been pointed out to me that this is an oversimplification of the concept of affirmative action, and I am beginning to understand that more and more.  There have been major injustices done in our country that we are still trying to live down and make right.  Unfortunately, it's not an overnight event to right these wrongs, but a process and I believe that affirmative action can be helpful for us to rethink the way that we have made decisions in the past.  While an oversimplification and extreme approach to it could suggest filling a quota, the broader sweeping view of it is that it keeps us in check and helps to prevent us from making some of the major mistakes that we have made in the past.

This post is really addressing the extreme view of it and a desire to see people be given a chance because we look past color of skin, gender, physical limitations, etc. and look to abilities, skills, talents, and qualifications.  We could all use a "screen" sometimes when we make decisions as our own preconceived notions and assumptions color our view of situations and people.  May we all work towards looking at people as creatures made in the image of God.  That alone will add value to everyone we look at, seeing them as God sees them.


  1. Jon,
    i appreciate you and understand your comments, but you vastly oversimplify Affirmative Action! Is it not the same as "quotas." It is a myth that Black people are hired "just because they are Black." But it is NOT a myth that white people have typically been hired because they are white. Race is a factor--always has been and may likely always be. The fact that white people, on the whole, have benefited from slave labor and discrimination cannot be denied even if one's own family has a "hard knock" story and doesn't feel that benefit directly. it doesn't change the reality.
    Society is not colorblind, and neither is God. God made us different and celebrates it. Humans have a legacy of domination and sadly, that is true in the USA as every non-White group has been discriminated against. Affirmative Action requires our society to take that seriously.

  2. Thanks for your thoughts, Dennis. Appreciate the insights and wisdom.

  3. Jon- let's talk sometime about my experiences with LCF as a woman "in authority over men".

    I would agree with Dennis. There are ways we as white people have stacked the deck over and against others in big ways and small ways that make it incredibly difficult (not impossible) for other voices to be heard and other people to be represented. Read Soong Chan-Rah's works (a former colleague in InterVarsity) to get a feel for how he sees these dynamics play out in the evangelical world. Affirmative action may not be applied perfectly, but it takes someone in power to invite someone not in power in as an equal in order to begin to change the workplace, the church, and society in the end.

  4. Jon,
    thanks for the post script. If you haven't already, a good read is my friend Soong-Chan Rah's book, "The Next Evangelicalism: Freeing the Church from Western Cultural Captivity." It is not a book about affirmative action, per se, but about the broader questions of the "lenses" through which we christians perceive the world and others in it. that is really my more basic issue

  5. Hi Jon, I would like to invite closer focus on the premise that Jesus chose and would choose the best man for the job. He chose 12 disciples. One can argue that they were not all superstars on their hire date.

    I have not read Peter Northouse's book but I believe one of the many fundamental requirements of leadership is human development. By this I mean that quality leadership takes human material in the raw and creates a masterpiece. You hire some people not so much because they are superstars but because as a leader you see strong potential in them. Leadership is using your skills, the talent, willingness and ability of the employee with training, exposure and development to create the expert that you saw in the employee's future. To contextualize, Jesus called Peter, a fisherman and made him a fisher of men.

    I think if we see affirmative action in that light, it changes the vitriolic nature of the discussion in our society. If we see is as an enabler of better human resources rather than a quota process, which I agree with Dr. Edwards is a trivialization and gross denial of historical reality.

  6. So its ok pass over the lower class white kid based on the color of his skin because somehow that will equal out past injustices based on skin color. The rich white kid is elevated out of any issues with affirmative action due to connections, family legacies, etc. that both whites or non-whites who are not members of the privileged class do not enjoy. Power isn't in the color of your skin, but the color of the paper in your wallet.