Lesson in Framing


Decades ago, I listened as a seminary professor discussed a famous argument between two theologians, Karl Barth and Emil Brunner. The professor told us Barth won the argument (in his famous reply, “Nein!”) even though Brunner was “right.” Brunner, he said, lost because he accepted too many of Barth’s “givens” and so let himself be trapped into Barth’s conclusions.

The trick to such effective argument is to make one’s assumptions seem like givens, even though they are really elements of the argument itself. If my opponent accepts too many of my assumptions as givens, then I have put her/him into a “can’t get there from here” situation. I have framed the issue my way.

Saturday evening it dawned anew on me that understanding the concept of framing can enable us to do more than win arguments or political campaigns. It can also help us understand people whose context for life and experiences of life’s struggles differ significantly from our own.

Where was I Saturday evening? I was in a very evangelical (in its American sense) prayer and praise service that brought together the local Salvation Army, a mostly black congregation, a mostly white evangelical congregation, a Hispanic (mostly Mexican) congregation, and one progressive Presbyterian minister (me). The service was not my style in form or content, but like the others gathered, I was there to participate not endure, to appreciate not criticize or merely tolerate, and to share in the work of constructing bridges of understanding as well as extending welcome to newcomers in our community.

The hymns sung focused almost exclusively on the power and dominion of God, and so belonged in my view to the triumphalism I thoroughly believe the churches need to escape and leave behind. The biblical model is to speak of God’s supreme power and sovereignty, not to dominate, but to encourage the weak and disheartened, enabling faith in God’s promise of deliverance and so inspiring hope and courage in people resistant to both because of their years of deprivation and disadvantage (see Isaiah, chapters 40-55). Wait a minute! Is that not the very frame of reference into which I had stepped?

Within my mainline Protestant context, the need is for humility and service. We need to learn to minister to people from a position of mutual respect instead of dictating and excluding or being benevolent from above them.

But I had stepped into a different frame, a different world of life and experience, where power and privilege were not present realities, not assumptions from which daily life could be planned and scheduled. People were singing of power they didn’t have. In their frame of reference, humility is not something put on over abundance or practiced as a virtue but a condition of life forced upon them. Los pobres (poor people) and los campesinos (field workers) do not need to surrender power and privilege. Theirs is the context Jesus spoke to when he taught. To people whose lives were framed by poverty, anonymity, and day labor, he spoke of hope, dignity, empowerment, and salvation. In our culturally established churches, we must have explained to us what Jesus means by praying, “Give us this day our daily bread,” and mostly we spiritualize it because day labor and living “from hand to mouth” are experiences outside our frame of reference. What is daily bread to people who feast so regularly they don’t even know they’re feasting?

I still don’t like triumphalism, which Martin Luther called the theology of glory in contrast with the theology of the cross, but it matters greatly where we stand in life. Telling highly vulnerable people to learn humility and service is like lecturing starving people on the spiritual benefits of fasting. Yet, I am sure the message of power, of poder as we sang it in Spanish, is not that people denied power and dignity should become as the privileged have been for too long. Rather, we need to find mutuality. After all, we don’t want to offer anyone a gospel of power and glory that diminishes the soul as it inflates the ego. But, then, we are not the ones doing the offering. We need to step down from our pretense to superiority and find mutuality.