September 11, 2008

Paradigm-a-Dozen: The Integration of Faith and Social Action

The first 3 weeks of part-time grad school have been a whirlwind of study and discovery. Today, I turned in my first writing assignment: a paradigm self-analysis paper for my Human Behavior in the Social Environment class (SW 659). The instructions were to describe a central paradigm that has guided your approach to social work practice and "engage in self-reflection about the ways in which our worldviews and paradigms influence not only how we think about people, but social problems, their solutions, and our place in society both personally and professionally."

Before you read what I wrote, I wish to offer one caveat. Unlike my friends and family who regularly visit this blog, it's safe to assume that the UH School of Social Work faculty tends to fall on the far left of the American political spectrum (not to be confused with the diverse but much narrower political spectrum within evangelical Christianity). Because of this reality, I tried to contextualize my biblical convictions in their postmodern frame of reference.

Thanks to the glaring absence of Christianese (my native tongue), you will probably notice that I wrote this for a more secular and pluralistic audience. I debated whether to adapt/revise/tweak my paper so that it would work better as a blog post, but in the end, I've decided to offer you the raw and uncut version in all of its glory. Please rest assured that I have not abandoned my commitment to traditional Christian orthodoxy.

Now that I've scared you away from the social work profession, here is the unabridged text of my paper:

A central paradigm that has guided my approach to social work practice is the integration of faith and action. My deep personal concern for social and economic justice cannot be separated from my underlying religious worldview that fuels this passion. I believe that poverty, oppression and inequality are not merely political or sociological challenges. They are also profoundly moral issues of spiritual significance.

My belief in the inherent dignity and worth of all human beings stems from a conviction that people of every race, color, national origin, age, sex, religion, disability and sexual orientation have been purposefully created by an infinitely loving and just God who defends the weak, comforts the afflicted and lifts up the oppressed. I’m not sure I could detach my values of justice and diversity from my understanding of God any more than I could separate the practice of reading bedtime stories to my son from my philosophy of parental love and responsibility. In short, I am pursuing the social work vocation because of my Christian faith.

I recognize that my values, religious or otherwise, have not been formed in a vacuum. I won’t dispute anyone who contends that my worldview is largely the product of an upbringing in the home of economically stable, well-educated, American, Christian parents who loved me unconditionally. My interest in social services is likely due to the paradigms they passed down to me.

My mother’s dinner table stories describing at-risk youth from her career as a school counselor have shaped my understanding of how factors like substance abuse, domestic violence, neglect and divorce undeniably scar too many children through no fault of their own. My father’s career as an international dentist and public health advocate caused me spend over 10 years of my childhood in 4 foreign countries (Canada, Congo, Nepal and the Philippines) on 3 continents. This unique upbringing enabled me to observe third-world poverty and inequality on an everyday basis. From an early age, I was instilled with a sense of global awareness and responsibility toward those who lack access to the many privileges of American citizenship.

Not only was I taught the value of helping those in need, I also learned that every culture has something to teach me. It is difficult to spend any significant amount of time immersed in a foreign culture without recognizing that the learning process works both ways. My parents modeled for me the balance of being open to new perspectives and value systems while still remaining grounded in their Christian faith, a faith that demanded action. It was this kind of faith that led them to take dramatic pay cuts and move their 3 kids across the globe and become medical missionaries in the first place.

I also recognize that Christianity has been a dominant paradigm in western civilization for centuries, often with oppressive, racist and violent outcomes. I understand that Protestant males like myself have had an overriding influence on American political and social history, notoriously using a twisted interpretation of the scriptures to justify slavery, sexism, racism, militarism and the genocide of Native Americans. I fully acknowledge that Christianity, like any other religion, can be prone to fundamentalist extremism when leaders have too much power, dissenters are silenced, minds are closed and hearts are numbed to the point where impenetrable walls of isolation, prejudice and exploitation are erected at great human cost.

At the same time, I would also contend that these systemic sociological problems have strong moral and spiritual dimensions to them. My theologically traditional, but politically progressive views have sometimes caused me to feel like a square peg in a round hole, neither dogmatic enough for the right nor secular enough for the left. There have also been times when the very core of my faith in God has been shaken by the atrocities committed against humanity in the name of religion. It disturbs me when the vocabulary of faith and spirituality is hijacked for political gain. I often feel pulled in opposite directions by the community of faith on one side and advocates for social change on the other. Still, the example of my parents has taught me that this is a false dichotomy. Faith and action work best as an integrated whole.

Due to the strong political influence of the “religious right” in recent decades, many people are understandably antagonistic toward religious language in general and have assumed that faith is the enemy of social change. Consequently, many on the “secular left” have downplayed the central roles played by people of faith in the great progressive social movements of the last two centuries. Abolitionists like William Wilberforce, feminists like Sojourner Truth and Lucretia Mott as well as non-violent resisters including Ghandi, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King and Desmond Tutu have all drawn deeply on their faith in speaking truth to power. Like them, I see the pursuit of justice and equality as a natural implication of my moral beliefs. Social transformation and inner transformation go hand in hand.

Another continuing challenge for my paradigm of integrated faith and action is the postmodern tendency to deconstruct or dismiss traditional ways of thinking in order to be sensitive to marginalized voices. In light of this reality, I am learning to continually hold my ideas with open hands, recognizing that I have much to learn from paradigms different from my own. The mystery of faith is a work in progress. If there is any group of people who should be morally compelled and expected to give voice to the perspectives of vulnerable and exploited populations, it should be people of faith. Without going into a theological rationale, it is sufficient to say that the basic assumptions and goals of social work practice are consistent with my Christian faith.

At the same time, the connotations of the word “Christian” can be highly polarizing and unhelpful unless the abstract baggage of this label can also be deconstructed and left open to subjective understanding and hermeneutics. For this reason, I am continually searching for the balance between speech and silence when it comes to the values that drive me to pursue peace, promote justice and value diversity. Even though my faith is what gives me meaning and purpose as a social work practitioner, I have had to concede that it is sometimes better to be partially understood than fully misunderstood because of Christianity’s reputation as a closed-minded, right-wing, anti-diversity worldview. If I want to hold on to my paradigm of faith as a catalyst for social change, I’ll have to live with both sides of the coin.

Finally, I have learned that my personal set of values, strongly held as it may be, is but one perspective among many. In today’s increasingly pluralistic context, it is vital that religious freedom be protected as a basic human right. Belief in a god is not a requirement for the pursuit of peace and justice, nor should religious faith (or the lack thereof) be a rationale for passing judgment on any client or fellow social worker. Since religious beliefs have the potential to be either tremendously helpful or exceedingly harmful, they must be handled with a great deal of sensitivity and care. Value differences are inevitable and must be respected. My competence as a social worker hinges on a willingness to recognize and appreciate a diversity of perspectives. My faith demands nothing less.

1 comment:

SunnyC said...

Christianese.. nice =) If that was a language offered at KCC I would totally be the first to sign up! Simply put, Great paper, way to stick to your values! This paper will get an "A" for sure.(unless your professor is a Satanist..or something like that..)XD