prisons, cultural lag, and the church

Early definitions of cultural lag focused specifically on industry and society. In Marxian terms it refers to how the substructure (production, relations to production,etc) advances in its use of technology, while the superstructure (philosophy, art, religion, family) falls behind this advancement. A simple example in today’s world would be who can purchase certain products, such as an iPad, which costs $500. Much of the general public cannot purchase such a commodity, but if in 15 years our society finds it to be necessary, then it will be affordable.

Hence cultural lag.

New definitions have been constructed, one of the famous theorist who worked on this theory was William Ogburn. He wrote,

“A cultural lag occurs when one of two parts of culture which are correlated changes before or in greater degree than the other part does, thereby causing less adjustment between the two parts that existed previously” (1957).

Ogburn broadened the original Marxian definition which only was concerned with economics and broaden it to any two parts of culture. Biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann hit the nail on the head, with concern to culture in the US, when he wrote,”Our consumer culture is organized against history. There is a depreciation of memory and a ridicule of hope, which means everything must be held in the now, either an urgent now or an eternal now”(1).* We create ourselves through purchasing, it is what gives us hope and gives us a short attention span. These consequences include one to not be concerned with community, long-term friendships, investing in the future of the Earth, cooking food, etc. Even more so, one no longer needs to be concerned with social issues: racism, sexism, mistreatment of the LGBTQI+ community, colonialism, and other injustices in our world. This drags us down a road of Tolerance, which accepts everyone, but still allows hate without confrontation. Thus, many of the institutions focus on this tolerance and have no concern for anything else other than money. Unfortunately, these kinds of ideas have bled into the church.

One churched person, who happens to also be a theologian, has kept the social injustices that penetrate US at the forefront of their theology. This person is none other than black liberation theologian James Cone.

God of the Oppressed, which James Cone wrote, hit the bookshelves in the late 1960’s. It sought to systemically summarize and demonstrate Black Liberation theology. This was a tough experiment during that era. Blatant racism occurred openly in our institutions, not that it still does not happen today, but that it was more in your face about it. One section of his book I found particularly interesting was how he placed certain white prominent theologians during slavery times in the US into different categories with their approach to the social ill of slavery.

First, there are those who ignored slavery all together. These theologians constructed theologies separate from anything social or political. For Cone, these are the worst kind of theologians since they do not understand that knowledge is historically situated in a particular place and time.

Second, there were white theologians who taught that slavery was a good and godly act. Several theologians like George Whitfield used Scriptural passages to keep slaves in their “rightful place,” as an owner person.

Lastly, there were theologians who were part of the abolitionist movements. They actively promoted that those who were enslaved to be released. (One problem that Cone has with these theologians is that they were still constructing theology from a prestigious point of view, e.g. slaves should be be free because it would be better for society, instead of from the point of view of those who are enslaved are people and deserve the right to be free. I certainly agree with Cone on this position.)

These kinds of theologians still haunt us today. We have those who are oblivious to social structures to the point of distrust and have a theology that they believe to apply to all, thus a kind of white-orthodoxy. Then there are those who lift up institutions like the State, believing that they are absolutely God-given, this probably could only be applied to those who live in the US. Then there are those who want more out of social institutions, pushing them to move beyond themselves. Yet, at the same time believe that justice does not equate to Law.

Modernizing Conian thoughts about the cultural lag in the church, I have been thinking what the modern church ignored in relation with social issues. The first thing that came to my mind was the the prison-industrial complex. First, I have never heard these words in church. The only prison ministries that they do in church in the areas that I know of are ones that they are concerned with the spiritual lives of the prisoners. I never hear people ask why so many people are in prison or that it is so hard for people to get a job once they come out of prison. This aspect is totally ignored by the church, or at least many of the churches that I have attended.

Paul Krugman, a classic liberal commentator, wrote an opinion piece in the NY Times that concerned the prison-industrial complex. It was well written attempt to simplify the complexity of economics that concern this issue. The problem with this article is that there is nothing written against those who are unjustly placed in prison, as are many of our African-American sisters and brothers. This certainly falls under the Conian critique.

The church has been in a cultural lag for most of modernity. It was not always this way. From the beginning, it was a source of the prophetic. In many respects, we have lost that prophetic voice and thus are not inventors and critics of important aspects of culture, but allow culture to be and condemn only immoral individualistic ethical decisions. We need voices from the church who are concerned about  people who are being treated unjustly, especially those in prison.

The church must educate, organize, and act for justice for all people!

Here are some statistics from ProPublica about For-Profit Prisons in the US.

* Prophetic Imagination published for the second time in 2001.