Tuesday, December 3, 2013

A Suburban Wake-Up Call

I find myself regularly challenging suburbanite Christians to think about the possibility of moving back into the urban context -- as necessary to their own salvation. I do so not because I really want people to return to the city (at the deepest level, I suspect cities are ecologically unsustainable). Rather the rhetoric is pedagogical. I am very close to arguing anymore -- as a kind of hermeneutic strategy of trying to occasion conversion by way of "shock" -- that I don't think it is possible to live in the suburbs (or their commuter-friendly equivalent of gentrified and gated "enclosures" inside the city itself) and be Christian. At least, not to live "peacefully" in the suburbs and try to make sense of being a disciple only on its own terms...But simply to live in a suburb "neutrally" is merely to participate in -- and perpetuate -- a quintessential American fiction of innocence. The suburb is not, and has not ever been, a neutral entity. Neither is it innocent.
Jim Perkinson, "Theology And The City: Learning To Cry, Struggling To See" (2001)

...when we who claim to know God become aware that any of God’s children are caught in webs of oppression of mind, body, or spirit, it is our divine duty to struggle for the liberation and deliverance of our suffering neighbors in the same way that we would struggle for our own. In this sense, the only true evidence of one’s love for God—and the only true evidence of real spirituality—lies not in retreating to a private prayer closet, although it is important to go there to gather strength and guidance by communing with God undistracted. The only authentic evidence of spirituality is that we have personally sought and struggled for the health, wholeness, and freedom of others.
Obery Hendricks, The Politics of Jesus (2007)
A couple nights ago, in the aftermath of Thanksgiving and Black Friday, I read from Ched Myers' Who Will Roll Away The Stone (1994). Towards the conclusion of this mighty & vastly underrated theological work, Myers' asks:

Where is the presence of Jesus most reliably encountered in the world?

His answer, at the tail-end of a deeply critical engagement with the Gospel of Mark, is that Jesus comes to us, most clearly & consistently, (1) in the storms of life as we attempt "to cross over to the other side" (dropping our ethnic & class privileges) in our journey of radical Christian discipleship (Mark 4:35-41; 6:45-52) and (2) in the trials (sometimes, literally, before a judge) with our confrontation with the Powers-that-Be as we provoke conscience & provide witness for another Way. The only two episodes where Jesus (anointed the Suffering-Servant-King at his baptism: Mark 1:14 = Psalm 2 + Isaiah 42) invokes the I AM of the exodus God (Exodus 3:4) in Mark's Gospel are in the storm and while on trial (6:50 & 14:62).

I read from a place of privilege, a 40-year-old white male, sitting at a desk in Capistrano Beach, CA with an ocean view. My social location provides a serious tension for my Christian faith. It is a suburban bubble, difficult to observe that we "will always have the poor with us" (Mark 14: 7). In fact, I just learned that our city council recently mandated a 10-bed limit for homeless shelters and the shelter at a local church had to shut her doors last year as a result (our homeless population is somewhere between 50-150 at any given time during the year). Here in South Orange County, city councils out-rival each other, strategically moralizing (citing crime, alcoholism and drug abuse) the crisis of homelessness while creating more obstacles to establishing soup kitchens and shelters so that these folks move to other, more accepting cities (like Fullerton & Laguna Beach).

The stressfulness of jobs, the busyness of the social calendar, the passionate embrace of sports teams, the passive entertainment of TV & movies, the demands of relationship and family and the pressure to post it all on social media, combine to distract us from the real storms and trials of an authentic Christian vocation. In this milieu, like the disciples in Mark's Gospel at Gethsemane, it is difficult to "stay awake" long enough to discern what the Abba God is up to, let alone to actively participate in the Way of Jesus, which consistently winds us down the road towards storms and trials.

The boasts of suburbanites notwithstanding, this land of cul-de-sacs and malls and Evangelical churches has all been built on the backs of the poor and oppressed. As Martin Luther King proclaimed to those with ears to hear in the last couple of years on earth, capitalism necessitates poverty. Those who build these homes and care for these lawns and harvest this food and clean these toilets and pave these roads are, overwhelmingly born on the other side of the border.

But a deeper, more apocalyptic analysis reveals that these celebrated corporations and businesses that "create jobs," that provide for executive and management salaries, are sustained by "profitable" practices (celebrated at Ivy League Business Schools!) that pollute the earth, that (with the help of U.S. government subsidies and tax policy) out-compete foreign farms and companies, that exploit foreign land & labor & animals, that feed off the fear and violence of the American military-industrial-complex (all while ironically demonizing Big Government), that pay non-living wages with reduced hours for domestic labor. Meanwhile, suburbanites cash in as housing & stock prices escalate while consumer goods remain "affordable."

But behind the bubble, the foundations of suburban life are imploding. Too many college grads trickling down into $9/hour shifts at Starbucks and Trader Joe's, still living at home with the parents. Too many parents caught up in a dragnet of debt to keep up with the latest fads. Too many families haunted with divorce, abuse and unspoken secrets & dysfunction. Too many disabled by mental illness and addiction (to phones, to substance, to gaming, to porn). And the Land. The Land is responding to decades of devastating development.

Various forms of Christian Fundamentalism offer very little help for young jaded suburban dwellers. These white male charismatic pastors have refused to offer social analysis, remaining neutral on "political" issues. They can offer a middle-class Jesus who wants a personal relationship with believers while extending a key to heaven in the afterlife. Their Jesus takes boat rides with his disciples to show off supernatural powers (not to get to "the other side" to address race & class) and is arrested, on trial and crucified as a divine plan to magically deal with sin (not because he confronts the power and corruption of the System).

Meanwhile, the blue-eyed, grey-ponytailed Christian theologian Jim Perkinson speaks out from the city. That city. Detroit. Here's what it might look like for born-and-bred suburban followers of Jesus to be faithful:

If one lives there and regularly raises issue with who is being excluded from there, that is a different story. If one advocates for low-income housing, or homeless shelters, or HIV-treatment centers, and tries to make apparent the way a "suburb" constitutes a kind of simultaneous realization of economic appropriation (of resources from elsewhere) and social exclusion (of people whose class position and racial affiliation make them "suspect"), then that is a serious form of witness.

Even if Perkinson and his fellow activists and artists and agricultural bandits can't change the structures over night he is thoroughly committed to Detroit, a city rendered virtually helpless by white families & corporations fearfully fleeing & chasing their own self-interest into the suburbs. He is convinced that Detroit will save white people, not the other way around, citing his own experience of being "rearranged" by black culture decades ago, a process he would say continues to this day.

Jim and his marriage partner Lily Mendoza (a scholar and activist in her own right) see their urban vocation as courageously exposing the deep ongoing effects of colonialism and capitalism, and the catastrophe of unacknowledged white privilege. Without this deeper systemic analysis it's just too damn easy to go on living a "nice" existence while unmindfully living on the side of the conquistadors (or on the side of Pharoah, as Myers consistently reminds us in his works).

As James Baldwin once wrote:

People who shut their eyes to reality simply invite their own destruction, and anyone who insists on remaining in a state of innocence long after that innocence is dead turns himself into a monster.

Living faithfully in the suburbs (at least for the time being) means we must somehow remain wide awake, consistently acknowledging the monstrous temptation to soak in the comfort & convenience of daily life. We must take rigorous personal inventory about where we are indicted in the suburban project. We have a choice every day: to be an activist or an inactivist. We must dwell in the rather inconvenient space of learning and growing. But our learning must lead to growth & maturity. Not denial or justification. That is the primary challenge of radical Christian discipleship in the suburbs.

And then, we must roll up our sleeves and roll down our status and privilege and fight like hell for those who are excluded from the table of suburbia: the homeless, the undocumented, people of color, gays and lesbians, the working poor and the precious Land. This is the task. And it is urgent. But, first, we must wake up.

1 comment:

  1. I like in the first line/quote, "I find myself regularly challenging suburbanite Christians to think about the possibility of moving back into the urban context -- as necessary to their own salvation."
    My response would be thus; “The church is a whore and she is my mother.” St. Agustin. Just leave the church, read the Bible if you want, but be good person, which by the way, you do not need the Bible to be a good person.