Recharting Our Course

Sojourners is a national Christian organization committed to faith in action for social justice. In their February 2015 magazine, Lisa Caton reviews How Maps Change Thing, capturing more in a few short paragraphs than I might have thought possible. Sojourners has granted permission to use the full article here.

Recharting Our Course
by Lisa Caton

USERS OF MAPS—that’s all of us—may suppose that what we see is factual, accurate, bias-free. Of course location, distance, elevation, and comparative importance are reliably shown! Not so fast, says social activist and pastor Ward L. Kaiser. A map may be “right” in some ways but still dangerous to the way we live in the world.

Why? Because maps are layered with meaning. Surprisingly, their most important messages may lie beneath the surface. In his full-color book How Maps Change Things, Kaiser helps the reader to dig in and discover some of those hidden, mind-bending messages. As a college chaplain I am acutely, sometimes painfully, aware of the often-hidden narratives and symbols that define us as individuals and as a culture. This book has helped me analyze how maps—an increasingly pervasive form of symbolic messaging and storytelling in our time—connect us to power and privilege or consign us to society’s also-rans.

Examples make the case: An intriguing regional map developed for schools in Cuba raises the question of how this image contributes to that nation’s distorted view of the U.S. A secret map of Iraq drawn up in Washington so shifted our perception of that country that it lubricated the decision by the U.S. and other Western powers to go to war there. Several of the most popular maps of the world support a Eurocentric or North America-centered worldview, aggrandizing “our” place in the world and downplaying the importance of developing nations.

Kaiser’s point: Maps are always selective, often biased, constantly nudging us to see, think, and behave in particular ways. We shape maps; equally important, they shape us. Like the faith we hold, maps powerfully influence how we live in the world. And maps may work with our faith or against it.

Kaiser compares the most widely recognized world map, the Mercator, to the Peters Projection, one of several equal-area projections (he published the first English language version of the Peters map in North America in 1983). A map like the Peters, by replacing Northern Hemisphere self-importance and undervalued tropics with a more-accurate presentation of relative size, offers us far more than minor cartographic modification: It shifts our human mindset in the direction of fairness toward the whole human race.

How Maps Change Things, then, takes us well beyond squiggles on a screen or sheet of paper. As the subtitle suggests, it points us toward seeking “the world we want.” Kaiser, who has wide experience in church leadership in the U.S., Canada, and overseas, is passionate about the faith-and-ethics dimension of mapping. “We dare not let this be seen as just a technical issue,” Kaiser commented in an interview. “It’s at heart an issue of justice. It’s a question that now confronts Christians everywhere as we seek to live out God’s call to faithfulness and fairness.”

I encourage anyone committed to the ways of peace and of justice to get a copy of this book, read and enjoy it, and even, using the group guidance provided, set up a study and action program. It can only help us all. 

Lisa Caton, an Episcopal priest in the diocese of New Jersey, is chaplain at The College of New Jersey and chair of the Diocesan Millennium Development Goals Task Force.