Cultivating a Counter-Cultural Mindset

johonna-mccants_portraitby Johonna McCants

“So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an archdefender[sic] of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s silent–and often even vocal–sanction of things as they are.

But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If today’s church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century. Every day I meet young people whose disappointment with the church has turned into outright disgust.

Perhaps I have once again been too optimistic. Is organized religion too inextricably bound to the status quo to save our nation and the world?”

 – Dr.  Martin Luther King, Jr.  “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” April 16, 1965.

Many progressive social movements promote the idea of being the change we want to see in the world — creating counter-cultural communities that experiment with and practice the values and ways of being we desire for society-at-large. This vision of counter-cultural community is fundamentally Biblical and was modeled by the early church. How many of our local congregations exist as such laboratories of love– teaching and modeling how we are to hold one another accountable for harms, address the root causes of violence and injustice, and seek deep healing and transformation within ourselves and with our neighbors? I once thought that formal programs were instrumental to developing these models. However, I am learning that transformation can simply begin with a change in our mindsets.

I currently teach at a large high school in Washington, D.C. The school is located in a neighborhood with a rich history of collective activism and Black self-determination as well as high rates of material poverty, physical violence and incarceration. I spent my Christmas break reflecting on restorative justice and how I could apply it within my classroom. While an organizer and educator in community-based organizations, I loved working with young people so much that I primarily did it for free. However, as an educator working from the space of a public high school, I started to lose my zeal for urban youth work. Increasingly, I began to focus more on whether my students followed classroom and school rules (set entirely by adults) than on the quality of our relationships

When I returned to my classroom this January, however, I shifted my focus from “rules” to “harms” and from “regulating” my students to “relating” with them. For instance, before correcting my students, I began to ask myself about the harm they were doing and frame corrections, if necessary, within that context. I also began praying for God to help me move more slowly, speak less and listen more.  These small efforts to creating a restorative classroom have been restorative for me as a teacher. They reflect my values and commitments as a social justice educator and allow me to teach with integrity. They also suggest how we as a church can move closer toward the Beloved Community, the already-but-not-yet Kingdom of God on earth, that we have been called to be:

“Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect.”- Romans 12:2, New Living Translation.

By moving from a focus on crimes to harms and regulation to relationship, the church can help to challenge the increasing criminalization of marginalized groups — particularly young people, people of color, and the materially poor. Moreover, we can be vessels of God’s healing justice.

Johonna McCants is a member of Peace Fellowship Church in Washington, D.C. An educator, cultural worker and scholar, she has taught American studies and African American studies courses at the University of Maryland, provided training and program development services to community organizing and advocacy groups, and served as a Soros Justice Fellow with the Open Society Institute.

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2 responses to “Cultivating a Counter-Cultural Mindset

  1. A teacher changing responses to students from regulating to relating is a very sensible action. Thanks for a provocative writing. I am a retired teacher, volunteering at IGH in DC. I lift you up as you teach high ideals to kids and to fellow instructors. Larry Miller

  2. Thanks so much for your encouraging response, Larry. Since writing this piece, I’ve moved to a new school where I am teaching much younger children. I’ve found that building relationships with young people more than regulating their behavior is as relevant and much-needed in my new context as it was with my high school students. Congratulations on retiring from an impactful and fulfilling career!

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