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

Resurrection and our World

To those of you who are Christians working in the complex tangle that is International Development (the primary audience for whom I created this blog in the first place!), friends, I’m so proud of you. As we approach Easter, I wonder if the image of resurrection might be a powerful driver in your work.  N.T. Wright has written, perhaps more than anyone else in the last 30 years, regarding the robust meanings of resurrection. Below, is a short quote from him.

“…the Eastern Orthodox churches have always emphasized, when Jesus rose again God’s whole new creation emerged from the tomb, introducing a world full of new potential and possibility ….When Jesus emerged from the tomb, justice, spirituality, relationship, and beauty rose with him. Something has happened in and through Jesus…”

“Indeed, precisely because part of that new possibility is for human beings to be revived and renewed, the resurrection of Jesus doesn’t leave us as passive, helpless spectators. We find ourselves lifted up, set on our feet, given new breath in our lungs, and commissioned to go and make new creation happen in the world….  The music he wrote must now be performed.” (N.T. Wright, Simply Christian: 2006).

So I wonder if you might find resurrection to be a theme to characterize what you do. Resurrection/ new creation is a template for reconciliation, restoration, redemption, healing, things being put right and brought to their intended wholeness.

Saint Paul: “If anyone is in Christ – new creation!” (2 Corinthians 5: 17)

May new creation in us make His Way and Goal (Omega) credible to the world around.

“We must go through many hardships…” Really?

Acts 14: 22 Paul and Barnabas encouraged the believers to continue in the faith, reminding them that we must suffer many hardships to enter the Kingdom of God.

I have often heard this verse discussed as if Paul meant that in order to get to heaven, we would have to endure hard many difficulties and trials in life, as if what Jesus did on the cross isn’t enough to provide the way for us to enter heaven when we die. (By the way, that’s outrageous heresy – as far back as the Apostles’ Creed Christians would decry that kind of thought, not to mention Paul’s epistles themselves). Some translations make it out explicitly like that: “We must suffer a lot to enter the kingdom of God” (Names of God translation,) or “We have to suffer a lot before we can get into God’s kingdom” (Contemporary English Version).

There’s an unspoken (but sometimes spoken) theology-of-the-masses in contemporary Christianity that it will be hard to be a Christian and it is set up that way to see if we are worthy, blah blah blah.

I think there’s some very bad, unhealthy theology in there. “We MUST go through MANY hardships” to simply come home to where we were made for? What kind of Father would that make God? Certainly not the one in the story of the Prodigal Son! That Father (whom Jesus clearly means to be seen as a metaphor for God Himself)  is much more loving than that – he doesn’t require the Son to go through all kinds of stuff once he has been accepted and forgiven! When people experience hardship, they may comfort themselves with this verse, but I think that creates a warped view of what kind of god God is. I think there is a much better way to understand this verse.

Take it like this:  to cause God’s kingdom to happen on earth (something Jesus talked continually about), it will take effort and difficulty to push through and cause change. It’s long, slow, sometimes difficult work – just like gardening or farming, both images Jesus used for the Kingdom often. Gardening is sometimes easy and natural processes are rolling; other times, if you are going to succeed, you need to put some real effort into it… not give up if it gets strenuous. Like giving birth, – some of it happens once things get going, and other parts require hard pushing through. To work for the flowering of the Kingdom on earth, the leaven working its way through the whole batch of dough, we will sometimes face resistance and even counter-attack by systems and unjust social constructs, not to mention the people and philosophies entrenched in them, reflective even of the real presence of evil. But the quintessential Christian methods of love, mercy, forgiveness, and prayer (to mention some of the biggies) are the tools we reach for in the patient, sometimes difficult, working for God’s will being done on earth as it is in heaven. And we know that God works through these methods to bring about change and new life. (And, thank God, sometimes it isn’t terribly hard, and people embrace the Kingdom with joy).