Trendy approaches to Social Transformation

There are frequent moments when I find myself thinking about some social media rant of this or that friend, “You and I have the same goals. But I think we have different thoughts on what needs to be done to reach those goals. So what is needed is the wisdom and knowledge/experience to know which approaches will actually create a net gain in shalom for the people we are concerned about, and which approaches may seem promising [and popular] but will turn out to be at best less effective, and at worst, counterproductive and actually harmful to the people we are trying to help.”

The UN has run up against this reality time and again, trying to help and then realizing this or that approach has created unforeseen results counter to the goal, harmful in fact. There are many popular “fixes” being advocated today,  popular as in, it is trendy and hip to advocate those approaches, and young people -and perhaps even your leaders- will consider you enlightened and with-it if you advocate those ideas, but which, in reality, do not solve the problem, will not create a net gain in shalom, will harm those we are concerned about, and are “empty clouds that produce no rain”.

None of that is to say that nothing should change, nor that we should just do what we’ve always done.  No one who, in their mid-40s, spent the time and money on an expensive degree in International Development would ever suggest such a thing.  What I do suggest is that jumping on the bandwagon of our favorite political party and advocating,  without studying an issue carefully over time,  whatever trendy fix is in the news at the moment, is not “the work of mature wisdom”. What I do suggest is that at this present moment, many people in our society, and in my own denomination, are advocating trendy fixes which a bit of mature wisdom, experience, and understanding of economics and community development  should indicate are hollow approaches which will do more harm than good for the very people we love and want to bless.

3000 years ago a Jewish sage wrote “Zeal without knowledge is not good, and the one who acts hastily sins.”

There’s a lot of truth there.

Are our answers just Democrat or Republican instead of Christian?

This morning I was going to write some things about what is going on in country in these days, and how, to my sorrow and frustration, whenever I hear my Christian friends prescribe solutions, I am not hearing Christian solutions bubbling up out of the Gospel, I merely hear Democrat or Republican party solutions, dressed up with a few Bible verses for proof texts, if the person is feeling especially spiritual at the moment. This lack of Christian response, speaking a better Word than the world can offer, a Christian response that Christians are agreed upon (political party affiliation, right now, is a MUCH better predictor of what you will say about riots, racism, policing, Covid, or wildfires, than being Christian is) – the lack of this is alarming in the extreme. What a far cry from Paul’s admonition that “there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose” (1 Corinthians 1:10 NAB).

I was going to write my own thoughts about this, but instead, I will go with some comments from N.T. Wright from my morning reading, which I think will cover some ground vital, directive, and potentially life-giving. This is from his comments on 1 Corinthians 1’s opening. He begins by describing a phone call in which a friend of his went on and on about a young man she was falling for. It was obvious, he said, by what she talked about, what her passion was. “It doesn’t take long in someone’s company,” Wright says, “or even in a phone call, before you discover what’s really exciting them, what is at the centre of their waking thoughts.

Paul’s central concern, here and throughout his life and work, was quite simply Jesus. The name occurs eight times in these nine verses. Paul couldn’t stop talking about Jesus, because without Jesus nothing else he said or did made any sense. And what he wants the Corinthians to get hold of most of all is what it means to have Jesus at the middle of your story, your life, your thoughts, your imagination. If they can do that, all the other issues that rush to and fro through the letter will sort themselves out.

….he wants them to have Jesus at the centre of their understanding of the world and of history.

 …. (formerly pagans, they didn’t realize that) history, the story of the world, was going anywhere, or that their own lives might be part of that forward movement.

…they have been caught up into a great movement of the love and power of the one true God, the God of Israel…. from God’s point of view; it means that he has set people aside for special purposes; and the people in question are expected to co-operate with this.

they discover that they are part of a large and growing worldwide family, brothers and sisters of everyone who ‘calls on the name of our Lord King Jesus’. In fact, ‘calling on’ this name is the one and only sign of membership in this family, though people in Paul’s day and ever since have tried to introduce other signs of membership as well.

Wright, N.T.. Paul for Everyone: 1 Corinthians (The New Testament for Everyone) (p. 3). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.

Perhaps, as we prescribe solutions for the problems in our world, though we think deeply, informedly, and recognizing the complex nature of complex societal problems, Christians ought to revolve our thoughts and prescriptions around Jesus, rather than Republican or Democratic talking points.  I’m certain Paul, who lived in a complex, metropolitan society awhirl in races, political theories, philosophical perspectives, and movements, would tell us so.

Dwelling in a land securely

Situations afflicting people living in the inner cities do not exist in anything like isolation, they are a knotted up twine ball of separate, though inter-related and self-reinforcing issues, that bear upon one another in a tightening manner, and make pulling them apart extremely difficult, if even possible. We often think of affordable, assessable housing, medical care, education and food, plus job availability and public safety as some of the anchor points of a liveable community. But the breakdown of any one of these ‘securities’ creates the downward spiral/domino effect of the breakdown of them all.  Systems theory, as it is utilized in social work, is critically important here. [19th century attempts of the Dutch ‘knickerbocker’ families (well to do residents of East Coast cities such as Theodore Roosevelt’s father) to combat urban poverty and improve the living, working and social conditions of the city’s residents are one example of the realization that addressing one or two of these issues in isolation would not ‘fix’ the city.] Situations like incarcerated fathers, gang membership, drug trafficking, lack of economic opportunity, absence of affordable medical care, unsafe streets, terrible educational performance, and the accompanying despair (‘urban decay’ it has been called for around 200 years) are all direct results/fallout of each other, and self-reinforce.

All of this might seem completely obvious to virtually anyone, however the fact is we often attempt to mitigate suffering in urban centers by only addressing one of these issues at a time, and in isolation. So that, we say ‘we’ve got to do something about…’ (youth delinquency, drug addiction, gang culture, lack of economic opportunity, racial disparity, etc etc) when actually, these issues are so convolutedly intertwined that to attempt to address one without addressing all is a long slow drudge with continual set-backs, and an overall disappointing rate of success. Of course it is, gang culture is directly connected to incarceration of young men’s fathers, lack of job availability, crime rates pushing businesses to safer parts of the city, again, etc etc!

One of the difficulties herein is geographical place. Once an urban center has become a geographically large area of ‘decay’/extreme poverty/abandoned space, people become trapped in a spiderweb of issues due to the fact that they live there. There are actually plenty of jobs in other places, safe streets, social services, grocery stores (!!!), friendly neighbors – the kinds of places people walk home at night in the dark with no fear of crime or attack. There have been many occasions I have worked with this or that family in the midst of their difficulty, and thought to myself ‘if only I could get them to move to (fill in the blank).  Some of the HUD housing attempts I have lived next to in rural towns, trying to provide urban families with an escape, have unwittingly re-created the dangers of the big cities the families left, by grouping them together, and their children have re-created the cultures they were familiar with from where they grew up, even though the scarcities those gang-cultures grew out of were no longer in effect in the new place. Much better, I decided after conversations with families who succeeded in escaping blighted urban neighborhoods, would be to help individual families relocate to a better place, and not place them in an apartment complex that ended up merely being a microcosm of what they just left.

But there’s the problem, or one of them. Blighted urban neighborhoods may be blighted, but they are still places with cousins, aunts, uncles, grandchildren, grown brothers and sisters, three to five still-living generations deep. Who wants to move away from everyone they know and love? It may not be ideal, but it’s their place.

So the choice becomes to attempt to rehabilitate urban areas suffering crime, disparity, poverty and absence of basic things like grocery stores. And there are some winsome, delightful stories of success. But they are relatively few of those successes, or we wouldn’t be talking about urban poverty. And the reason successes are so few is that the interrelated nature of all of these issues creates a situation that while you are working on one or two of them, three other issues are undermining all your work, with very little net gain at the end of the funding cycle.

And so. More people should consider, and more government and private funding and initiatives should explore, helping people successfully start over somewhere else, somewhere better. This doesn’t need to be the only alternative, it doesn’t need to be forced on people, it doesn’t need to mean all areas of suffering are depopulated and given up on. But it should, in a reasonable collection of poverty alleviation tools, be something tried and funded far, far more than it is. It is the urban equivalent of something hundreds of millions of people do every yearimmigrate to a place with better opportunities and securities. It requires the same resolve that international immigration requires – leaving place and family and trying to give the next generation something better. I have known, and work with daily, many, many immigrant families who came from places experiencing the same suffering going on in our U.S. inner cities, and those families are thriving, flourishing, prospering, and happy. Organizations like World Vision do a great job, through partnerships with churches, helping refugee families get adjusted to a new life in the U.S., individual families adopting them and helping them with all the new  resources they need. Something similar is certainly possible with families relocating out of devastated urban areas. Alongside development and restoration of our inner cities, everything I’ve observed leads me to believe that it’s worth considering.

…remove the chains that bind people.
Share your food with the hungry,
    and give shelter to the homeless.
Give clothes to those who need them….

Some of you will rebuild the deserted ruins of your cities.
    Then you will be known as a rebuilder of walls
    and a restorer of homes.

Isaiah 58: 7, 12