Perception Problem: Buying into Cultural Narratives

On Tuesdays and Thursdays YOUR VOICE features political commentary from students and young professionals.

Did you know that in the United States, 24 percent of single parent households are headed by the father?  Would you have guessed the number was that high?

I certainly wouldn’t have.

Yet the Pew Research Center recently outlined the statistics and broke them down clearly.  For many, the statistic comes as a surprise.  The point of highlighting that number is to counter our public consciousness that so often paints a strong and powerful image of the single mother, not father.  From charities and politicians to churches and advocates, we hear about the mother, abandoned by a ruthless father and left to the charity of the state, her family, or local community.  Some craft the narrative to say this single mother is hard-working, faithful and needs government help.  Some paint her as a cunning parasite in society.  But she is always a mother, a female. 

But this isn’t the case.  And so a full quarter of the story is lost.  And that quarter looks very different from the dominant narrative. According to the Pew report, the  proportion of father-led single parent homes has dramatically increased and those households have greater financial security than their female equivalents.  I believe that Christians should grieve the public failure to do justice to realities like this.

When Helping Hurts is the wonderfully provocative title of Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert’s book with the subtitle, How to Alleviate Poverty without Hurting the Poor and Yourself.  The book has practically become standard reading for a generation that is concerned not only with trying to do charity, but doing it well.  And the title itself is so helpful for beginning this conversation.  It encourages me that so many people involved in the pursuit of justice today are venturing beyond the question “how can I give to charity?” to deeper questions like, “how can we do justice?”, “what types of programs and assistance actually make the biggest sustainable impact?” and “how can we help the vulnerable in our communities while treating them with the dignity that the image of God requires?”

This deeper thinking requires something that is a constant challenge – true perception.  True perception requires vigilance and even courage to ask “how can I serve others not in the way I think they need, but in the way that they actually need?”  It takes vigilance because our assumptions need to be regularly challenged.  And it takes courage because it will often require us to alter our paradigms and admit we were wrong.  Radically changing course and asking forgiveness are real and likely outcomes of seeking true perception. 

"When we talk about 'the poor', or single parent homes, or the victims of human trafficking, does our language fit reality?"

"When we talk about 'the poor', or single parent homes, or the victims of human trafficking, does our language fit reality?"

Nothing I am saying is new to this website,  in fact, it is central to other recent articles on Shared Justice.  Read them and see how clear the theme is.  The theme, which is also a warning, is let’s be careful to actually know whom we’re serving.  Or who exactly we’re even talking about.  The point was made strongly regarding human trafficking.  It was made about those in poverty.  It affects how we give charity, make policy, and talk about groups of people (or not).   

When we talk about “the poor”, or single parent homes, or the victims of human trafficking, does our language fit reality?  Our policies and pursuit of public justice desperately need to fit reality.  Too often our public conversations disintegrate into our sentiments, or marketing, or assumptions.   In order to be leaders in shaping cultural conversations, we, as Christians, need to be the first to respect the image of God in the individual by not making sweeping statements about whole groups of people, or reducing a national issue to a sound bite, or allowing the power of a marketing image to steer us away from true perception.  This discipline is a vital necessity in our national policy-making and discourse.

The point is our perception.  If we are going to pursue public justice, then we will have to look at broad research and sweeping trends and common good policies. But the goal is not to only make good policy, the goal is to promote human flourishing and to see individuals and communities thrive.  We need to promote the discipline of holding ourselves and our public servants accountable to an accurate perception of reality.  

As a pastor, I am passionate about this because it is also an issue of our heart.  We need to be people who can cultivate compassion for the scruffy sailor trapped on a Thai fishing boat, rather than just the sweet-faced child.  We should be the first to make room in our policies and political discourse for the stories of broken, struggling single fathers as well as mothers.  We should be those who defend the cause of the vulnerable because we know the vulnerable. 

Did you see the nuances in Pew’s research?  They form an intricate web of social status, broken homes, race, as well as changing demographics and cultural norms. Single fathers make up one-quarter of single parent households. But when we only buy into the dominant cultural narratives, we lose much more than one-quarter of the truth.  Let us be lovers of the truth.    

-Dan Carter is a husband, father, neighbor, reader, runner, and Senior Pastor of Calvary on 8th St. located in Holland, MI.