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A Militant Public Theology for the Agonistic City
The meanings of living in suburb and city are discussed in the context of the life of Jesus, the prophetic heritage of Israel, and global capitalism.
By James W. Perkinson
Editor's Note: The article below was published in a fine magazine called Cross Currents which is strongly recommended to readers. We are adding the article to this website since it presents a powerful interpretation and understanding of life in the city today and can be particularly helpful for urban pastors.
Theology in the postcolonial context of global capitalism is necessarily "urban" theology even when it is not explicitly identified as such. As we shall discuss more fully below, the driving dynamism of modernity -- beginning in the high middle ages and continuing up through the present -- has been the centripetal force of urbanization. Concentration of wealth and power in city centers has characterized the social organization of Western culture from the very beginning of its modern takeover of the rest of the globe. Analytically, this urban concentration is the social form of the drive to accumulation that constitutes capitalism. By definition, a city represents a masked structure of dependence on various "elsewheres:" no city is able to grow its necessary foodstuffs and fabrics inside of its own borders or mine its needed metals and minerals from under its own feet. It rather represents an appropriation of "carrying capacity" -- the ecologically determined limit to population a defined habitat can support over time without sustaining permanent damage to its ecosystem -- from beyond its own boundaries (Rasmussen, 120-21). Cities live off of ecologies at a distance from their own visible architectures. In our contemporary context, that "distance" is the planet itself. The postcolonial metropole is the "center" around which multiple "peripheries" are made to dance and die. A city, in this sense, is a large mouth, consuming an ever-growing torrent of resources and energies forcibly harvested from their points of "natural" origin elsewhere. And city "culture" is the set of perceptual habits and practical patterns that encode that life as "meaningful."
It is tempting to argue, when we think this way, that a city is not natural. But the exact meaning of nature remains in dispute in contemporary cosmology: human beings, after all, are part of the mysterious creativity of "what is" (Rasmussen, 35). But so is cancer. Theologically, the issue here cannot be adequately framed in terms of a division between nature and culture, with urban efflorescence viewed as a kind of terminal disease lately afflicting the life-web of the planet. Rather, the artificial distinction between the activities of humankind and "otherkind" is itself a problem of human thinking (Rasmussen, 33). Cities may or may not represent a kind of aberration in the organization of the biosphere. But even if they are comprehended as both a cause and an effect of human "nature," they do constitute an economic and cultural conundrum. Nature itself, of course, deals in both "economic organization" and "cultural codification" -- and can do so in modalities that simultaneously tickle and titillate. For instance,
1. In the kalahari desert, there is a beetle that lives by means of fog. It crawls up to high ridges a mile or so from the ocean when a heavy front rolls in, places its rear end up in the air and tucks its mouth tight against its thorax and waits for the mist to condense on its fanny, trickle down its body and into its thirsty little jaws. The original trickle-down economics! -- organizing a natural resource flow from raw material "extraction" to final product for consumption by way of a very efficient instrumentalizing of the act of physical intervention.And certainly, what has to be said about "theology and the city" deals especially with the intersection of these two phenomena -- of "consumption" and "enculturation" -- and how they relate to our sense of the sacred. But the city remains a complex riddle of "nature" that may have no easy resolution in satisfied wonderment. It may indeed become the source of ultimate regret.
However that may be "ultimately," urban complexity should not be allowed to obliterate the larger truth of who is really dependent upon whom. In the focus that will follow here -- on dollars and difference, class and color, profits and pleasure, production and consumption, generativity and gender -- sheer intricacy does not eliminate a basic fact of the food chain. A city is a vast contingency. Neither the urban economy of rapacious consumption nor urbane innovations of rhythmic code (like that found, for instance, in Coltranesque jazz or Ice-Cubed rhyme) are necessary to the biosphere. Beetles on the dunes and beats on the eye would continue even if ballparks and barrooms did not. Indeed, from the point of view of other life forms, human ingenuity articulated in the forms of "metropolitan metabolism" and "sophisticated eloquence" would probably best be abolished as too dangerous an evolutionary experiment to be allowed to continue.
The Paradox of Struggle and Trust
Before leaping into a theological evaluation of the intersection of political economy and cultural hegemony that is the postindustrial city, however, it is important to clarify a basic conviction. I believe reality is essentially constituted in rhythmic structures that appear contradictory. "Being" is "paradox." Light is both wave and particle. In physics, the most elementary structures of the universe cannot simultaneously be both identified and located -- we either know what a particle is or where it is, but never both at once. When we climb up out of the strange world of subatomic exploration into the realm of living organisms, we find that life itself is really a compound of both life and death. Indeed, as human beings, we "live" only because we metabolize the "death" of other life forms, and because, every second, bacteria are doing battle with invaders in each of our bodies and dying in that combat at the rate of some 200 billion per day per person. We are living battlefields, walking war zones, ambient incarnations of the arch of desire in its blind groping towards destiny and mobile cemeteries of simpler lives that have given up their forms for the sake of that more complex "ache for more."
Using the imagery of "agonistic effort" as I shall in what follows, then, does not by itself indicate simple capitulation to our contemporary economies of war. It does highlight conflict as a basic starting point for thought and action. In complex, globally interdependent societies like those we now live in, theology that is not simply ideology requires a kind of militancy. It must enter a fray that is neither gentle nor innocent. But it has not ever been different for Christian "God talk." In the first centuries of the church's life, for instance, the early meaning of paganism was both "rural-dweller" and "noncombatant." To become a believer in the early church meant to enlist. In the Roman imperial order, a sacramentum was an oath of loyalty taken by a soldier to Caesar. For Christians living under that imperial regime, celebrating "sacraments" like the Eucharist was a practice of political resistance in a struggle that engaged war-making as its nonviolent, but combative opposite. From the beginning, Christianity has been about spiritual warfare, when it has not forgotten its calling. And Christian theology in the mix is the articulation of where God is most likely to be encountered in the ongoing conflict.
The other side of this basic stance is that paradoxically (!) everything is also already "whole." Julian of Norwich once said, "All will be well and all will be well and all manner of thing will be well" (Julian, 15). At the same time that the reality of this world is tremendously conflicted, the creation we find ourselves inhabiting -- and being inhabited by -- is profoundly graced with beauty and bounty and extraordinary marvels that seem never to cease, in spite of all the blood and betrayal. War does not (so far -- although nuclear war could change this) eliminate sunrises and sunsets. Theology is not only about the fight to realize a form of human existence that is more just. It is also about the contemplation of the astonishing "fullness" that already is. While acting as if the fate of everything depended on the quality of my own effort, I also believe that I must surrender my action as if everything is already just as it should be, "whole," "saved," complete somehow in the mysterious potency of divinity. Human responsibility -- and human identity itself -- is negotiated on the razor's edge of that simultaneous labor and surrender. In what follows, I will emphasize the active side of this double posture. But it should not be allowed to eclipse the ever-present need for trusting surrender in the midst of ever-renewed struggle.
One other preliminary observation flows from this focus on paradox. Given the primordial importance of polyrhythmic patterning in the very structure of reality, it might be imperative to rethink "theology" (urban and otherwise) in the key of syncopation. "God talk" is ultimately a matter of articulating a certain kind of rhythmic code ("language") about rhythmic code in general and rhythmic proliferation in particular. To keep theology from sinking into a deadening "repetition complex" in which it merely reiterates the cultural preferences it is already informed by, it might be necessary to cross-cut the codes of the tongue with those of the body. Indigenous religions that have remained less bionic in their relationship with "nature" give higher priority to ritual inscriptions of the body-in-motion than to confessions with the mouth or beliefs in the brain. Perhaps a primary training focus for our theological schools in the future should be "dance."
Indeed, we could go further and specify that some of that training should perhaps be "African" dance, since all human beings are ultimately, as best we understand, genetically "from" Africa and all human cultures thus derivative of African culture. It is no surprise when art historian Robert Farris Thompson argues that one of the primary unintended consequences of the history of modern slavery is that the whole Westernizing world now rocks to an African beat (Thompson, xiii-xiv). Even those of us who are Euro-heritage recognize "home" when it touches the percussive structure of memory that we carry underneath our skin. Returning to the cultural codes and rhythmic patterns closest to our beginning may have a profound role to play in conditioning the human spirit to "resonate" with its environment in ways that are sustainable over time. And this may be one of the axes along which theology needs to think in probing what a city is spiritually. What is a city from the point of view of rhythm: an evolutionary innovation or an ecological dead end? Or is it perhaps an intensification of the mysterious "edge" where one form of energy "dies" into, and gives birth to, another?
Theology and the City
If "politics" is, as has sometimes been said, "war by other means," then the "polis" (from which the Western notion of politics derives) could be said to be "violence in structural form" (as we shall see below). A theology of the polis that is not mere docetism would then have to articulate the stance of faith in relationship to that conflict. In a 1992 interview in the Faces on Faith series, black theologian James Cone talked about faith in a way that I find especially relevant to such a demand. Faith, for him, is a matter of being "aroused to struggle against injustice." Justice is about right relationship and the fundamental problem of evil in the world is a matter of broken relationships. For Cone, the fundamental theodicy issue is not something to be found inside a thing called an "individual." It is rather about a fracture between things -- between human beings and human groups, and between human beings and our environment. Faith is about a quality of relationship that fights against what is wrong in those relationships. Asked where he gets his hope, Cone will say that the powers of injustice and exploitation and domination are indeed greater now than they have ever been in history, but so are the powers of resistance. Having been privileged to travel all around the world, Cone says that he sees people struggling, all around the world, against injustice -- people who are not only Christian, but Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, practitioners of traditional religions, and practitioners of no religion -- and that this spirit of struggle is what gives him hope. Faith for him is a matter of struggle and hope is something gathered from those who do struggle. He does not necessarily expect to succeed, but he is profoundly exercised to "go down fighting," and do so with robust joy! Joy is the product of fierce struggle!
Such a vision well expresses my own basic theological posture. The Christian tradition that underwrites the theology elaborated here offers -- as its primary icon of "how" and "where "God is present in the world and "who" God is in the world -- an image of a human being hanging on an instrument of state torture, crying out to God, against God (Mark 15:34). That God is not ripped down miraculously from that piece of wood (Mark 15:29-30). That God does not make it into comfy old age. While still alive "in the flesh," that God did not always have a full belly (Matt. 12:1-4), did not live in the posh quarters of the city (Luke 9:58), was not greeted with acclaim by the movers and shakers of his day (John 7:45-52), did not have a good retirement policy. "He" regularly angered the foundations like the Sanhedrin or the Herodian Temple Corporation that would otherwise have funded his ministry (Mark 3:11-6). He publicly blessed the welfare queens, hookers, day laborers and beggars, and other assorted "rabble" who had been downsized out of legitimate livelihoods (Luke 6:20-23). He publicly cursed the banquet-givers (Luke 6:24-26), and conference-goers, and upright, uptight stalwart citizens, who, as the pillars of their community, continuously expropriated land from the "people" by means of the debt-code in order to reemploy them as tenant farmers on their own lands (Matt. 20:1-16; see Herzog, 1994, 79-97). He loudly and loquaciously denounced the lifestyle supported by such exploitative practices and labeled "abomination" what the elites claimed as "God's blessing" (Herzog, 1994, 53-73; 2000, 90-108; Myers, 1997, 125). He openly charged the scribal ideologues and their judicial patrons with privately wrestling widows' last pennies away from them (Mark 12:38-44) even as they were publicly encouraging the sons to give their mothers' estates away "to God" through the Temple apparatus called "corban" (that, in effect, transferred such endowments from the marginalized elderly to the Temple's rapacious high-priestly high-livers) (Mark 7:5-13).
My understanding of that God "of incarnation" is not that his death was primarily a cosmic plan, all worked out up front, as a "done deal" from before the beginning of time based on "insider information," satisfying the debt-plus-interest owed by every human being ever created. Nor is it my view that in his resurrection, he now stands meekly calling at the threshold like a good little shepherd talking to the good little "sheep" in sheep-talk who will then themselves forever after stay quietly in the nice cosy suburban "corral," surrounded by state-of-the-art security systems, "bleating" over hi-tech sound systems, pooping in all the right places, and "giving wool" at the right hour.
My understanding is that, initially, this incarnate God spoke loud and long as a prophet (Luke 7:16-17, Matt. 21;11; Rev. 3:14), immersed in the harsh everyday world of tenant farmers and tax collectors and wage laborers and HIV-leprosy sufferers and guerrilla fighters and poverty hustlers and dolled up, street-walkers. He learned his message from bombastic, uppity women who would not keep quiet in the courtroom (Luke 18:1-8), would not take "no" for an answer when he was "underground" and trying to hide from the authorities up near the city of Tyre (Mark 7:24-30), would not refrain from wiping him with their hair at hoity-toity dinner parties (Luke 7:36-50) or contaminating him with uncleanness by touching him in the marketplace (Mark 5:24-34), would not even consult their husbands when deciding to "have" him, as a baby, by somebody else! (Matt. 1:18-24; Luke 1:26-38). This God continued to speak even when he was no longer invited to read the bible in nice, respectable "churches" (John 7:11; Luke 4:16-30; John 11:54), pray for the nice sick daughters of the wealthy or their nice dying servants (Mark 5:21-24, 35-43; Luke 7:1-10), or give nice opinions on local events (Luke 13:1-5), because so much of what he had to say did not sound so nice to well-washed and perfumed ears (Matt. 23:1-39; Luke 11:37-54). He spoke even when accompanied by crowds who smelled (John 11:39), who were presumed to be thieves (Luke 19:1-10; John 12:4-6; Mark 11:17, see Herzog, 2000, 139-42), who organized parades on pretenses (Mark 11:1-10; Luke 19:39) and misunderstood everything except that their own exploiters and oppressors were getting a public comeuppance in this guy's words (Mark 12:37). He spoke even when the CIA lurked (Mark 7:1),when the FBI jerked his chain (Mark 3:6; Matt. 12:14), when the spin-meisters sought to catch him in damming sound-bites (Mark 12:13; Luke 11:53-54), when the police threatened arrest after a day-long takeover of the national shrine (Mark 11:18; Luke 19:47-48). He only ceased speaking when the kangaroo court demanded that he speak (Mark 14:60- 61).
Then, in the final moment, far from a quiet, complacent passing on, in full control of pain and pathos like some god-in-human-drag, "slumming," for a brief season, among such poor wayward creatures, this God yelled, yowled, cursed, swore, cried out, groaned, moaned, made it plain this blood-letting was a divine abomination, and even, like Job, finally dared put God "himself" at issue, if such doings as this were "the father's will" (Mark 15:33-39). That is to say, I understand this death not to have been primarily or in the first place substitutionary, but solidary. It did not so much go bail for us, so we would not have to suffer that way, as it did invite any who would be followers -- even recalcitrant and frightened and absent ones, like most of his male friends -- to join in the same mission (Mark 8:31-35; John 15:18-27; Matt. 10:24-39). Those "trepid ones" were (and are) invited to join the spirit of resurrection in confronting injustice, unmasking the powers' mimicry of divinity, confronting the theological "common sense" of the day as just another name for complicity with the oppression (Matt. 10:5-39). And they are to expect the same treatment and the same end as himself (John 12:10; 16:1-4)
That is not to say the idea of Jesus having come expressly to die for the sins of the world is wrong. It is to say rather that such an idea is recuperative -- a way of bringing deep meaning out of deep tragedy, after the fact (Acts 3:17-26; 10:34-43). It is a theological move that is retrospective. The gospels present a depiction of Jesus' ministry as sharply prophetic and part of a long line of such pointed prophetic challenges to concentrated wealth and power, and his death as deplorable and damnable and part of a long line of prophetic perishing at the hands of the well-to-do and rapacious (Matt. 23:1-39; Luke 11:42-52). In this prophetic scenario, the perishing is not God's intent for either the prophets themselves or for the people who pillory them (Luke 13:31-35). To love oppressors in particular, or sinful human beings in general, is to have continual hope for them that they will stop their oppressing and sinning before they do harm to others and to themselves. To understand Jesus' death too quickly as part of a divine plan worked out totally in advance is, in fact, to give up too quickly on the potential for responsibility on the part of those who are the most powerful, or really on the part of any of us.
Theology and the City
So, theology and city. What is Jesus' response in the gospels? The prophet weeps over Jerusalem (Luke 19:41-44). Perhaps our primary task today remains that of learning to weep, since we inhabit a culture that inhibits such "unprofitable" activity. It is perhaps a good test -- the last time we cried, what did we cry for? What do we usually cry for? Do we cry? Biblically, it is not clear that it is possible to fulfill the prophetic mission if we cannot -- a very quick commentary, perhaps, on which gender is better suited to speak the prophetic word in our culture. But assuming that we do weep -- that mourning and crying are, in fact, an integral part of our spirituality and prayer life and experience of community and family -- then what? What is the relationship of theology to the city and vice versa?
Here we do well to take a long view for a moment. For the Judeo-Christian tradition, cities are irreducibly "theological" even when they are secular. Historian of religions Charles Long traces the way cities probably began, in human history, as centers for sacral shrines that, almost by definition, implied a concentration of power and resources in the hands of a few specialized priestly elites, living off of a surrounding peasantry who supported the city-center with their crops and their compliance (Long, 68-74; 97-107). The shrine-keepers fashioned the "ideology of sacrality" necessary to underwrite the appropriation and exploitation. Inevitably their God "blessed" the peasant sacrifice for priestly sustenance. So did the king.
By way of contrast, it is instructive to remember that early Israel, emerging in the urbanized land of ancient Canaan, did not originally organize itself in cities (Gottwald, 1-20). Following the experience of a new kind of divine-action-for-deliverance in history, Moses' rag-tag band of Exodus people entered that small buffer state between Egypt and Assyria, bearing witness to an unheard of kind of God, who listens to the cry (saaq) not primarily of the kings and rulers but of slaves and sojourners and oppressed little people (Exod. 2:23-24; 3:7-9). According to the books of Joshua and Judges, that band did not only fight the inhabitants of the land, but also quickly joined forces with certain small villages of those already trying to create a new form of social existence there. These latter were (according to Canaanite correspondence to Egypt seeking help against such) 'apiru or outlaw folk -- former laborers in the Canaanite city-state systems dotting the Mediterranean seaboard who had already begun revolting against those city-state structures before Moses' band arrived (Pixley, 18). Iron technology had just been introduced in the area -- for the first time in the history of that ecosystem, permitting cultivation of the rocky soils inland (Pixley, 18). Apparently a growing tide of farmers had begun exiting their peasant-status in the urban-centered systems on the coast and going up into the mountainous interior to set up shop on their own.
The settlement of Joshua and company in this context was both by battle and by treaty. One way of understanding the situation as it now appears in the biblical accounts is that "Canaan" came to be the cipher for the hierarchical urban polities along the fertile coastal plain. Each of these "Canaanite" urban centers was dominated by a local god like Baal or Astarte or El, embodied in a local king surrounded by his city courtiers and scribes, supported, under duress, by the peasantry who were powerless to combat the expropriation of most of their crop for consumption in the city. "Israel," on the other hand, came to stand for a loose federation of tribes, clans and families, each one of which was understood to have rights to a certain plot of land, offered in perpetuity to that subgroup by the ultimate owner, Yahweh (Davids, 19; Pixley, 19). Access to and use of such plots was guaranteed (as expressed in later Israelite law codes) at least every fifty years, when a ram's horn or jovel trumpet (jubilee trumpet) would be blown, signaling release of all debts, land liens, and indentured labor that may have emerged in the interim years due to differing fortunes and disparate abilities (Lev. 25:1-55). These two very different worldviews and socioeconomic-religious polities fought, with the new visionary federation winning control of much of the interior and the older system retaining some control on the seaboard.
The new system enshrined its worldview in the typical political contract of its day called a "covenant" (Exod. 20:2-17). It was distinctive not so much in form, as in structure, positing this new kind of God as the major party initiating the covenant and itself as the subject people, living out the new priorities. In its law-codes, spelling out the meaning of this covenant for everyday life, it enshrined both the basic economic vision of roughly equal access to land and control of resources and the basic political vision of roughly equal voice in decision-making and adjudication of grievances. The former was secured in the jovel provisions, enjoining keeping of the regular sabbath and jubilee releases of land, workers and animals, whenever the cry of the ram's horn was heard (Deut. 15:1-11; Myers, 1998, 26). And the latter was secured in the saaq provisions, warning that the cries of widows, orphans, sojourners, and poor people against any oppression visited upon them would call in question the destiny of the entire national project (Exod. 22:21-24).
Of course, the "kingdom of Yahweh" as it was apparently known, in which God alone was understood to the have the monopoly on the functions of both policing and war-making, was a fragile experiment in the world of ancient near eastern realpolitik. Not surprisingly, after more than two hundred years of living out of such an ad hoc political structure, relying on good faith response on the part of all the tribes to any show of threat, some of the people clamored for a monarchical establishment like the nations around (Brueggemann, 13). They were granted such, as a kind of concession according to the Samuel texts, with the warning that they would come to rue the day of such a decision (1 Sam. 8:4-22). Prophetic realism served clear notice to the people of the logic of their choice: their "chosen" kings would forcibly conscript the labor of their sons to build the requisite palatial estates, and forcibly gather their daughters into the royal harem, and in general precipitate a social structure of vast inequity and oppressive stratification. No surprise that the heretofore avoided urban enclosure of Jerusalem quickly became the center of such a development. Only three kings down the line, the new arrangement split apart, amid growing bitterness. And within another generation or so, a new social force emerged as the political counterpoint to urban-based monarchy.
Early Israelite prophetism did not emerge simply as a succession of lone-ranger voices in the wilderness, decrying injustice. It rather represented a kind of incipient counter-cultural "movement," asserting combative public critique of the royal ideology and its institutional infrastructure whenever the ongoing social crisis threatened to intensify into a national catastrophe. The prophets functioned largely as covenant-mediators, invoking the Exodus-beginnings of the polity, when the astonishingly nonviolent "liberation" of slaves found its motive force, its lynchpin, not in the autonomous will of Yahweh to act with compassion, but in the desperate will of an enslaved people to cry out, albeit inarticulately, against their oppression (Exod. 2:23). It is that cry, the texts tell us, that first moved Yahweh to descend and become intimate with the people and start organizing a delivering response. Exodus began with a moan. And it resulted in a people charged with the responsibility of living, ever after in history, with one ear painstakingly cocked toward the least in their own midst, who, in the economy of a justice-loving God, are the ultimate arbiters of the fate of everyone.
Attentiveness to the mumbled cries of the poor and the silent cries of the land was to be the hallmark of this new historical experiment in community. And when that touchstone of the national identity was eclipsed in the rapacious drive for power, privilege and deep pockets, it is prophetism that is called into being, to sound the ancient warning. The warning it sounds is simply the promise of disintegration that the lawcodes had originally invoked if Israel's own way of life began to provoke the cries of the vulnerable because they could not get justice. By the ninth century B.C.E., however, the hierarchical delineation of power had gotten so far out of hand that such cries could not even be heard anymore, in the halls of power, given the remove of privilege from the reality of poverty (1 Kings 1-29). From this point of view, prophecy is the eruption of a social volcano: molten lava that has been bubbling in the bowels of the social order finally finds a channel of expression to the top. Functionally, the prophets are bearers of the pathos and pain of the silenced, bringing the inexpressible groan that lies at the heart of repressed suffering to the expression of language in the ears of leadership. They do not speak in their own name; they speak, brimming over with the tears of the Exodus-God, who is above all the God of those who groan.
It is this kind of "hermeneutics against hoarding" that sets the tone for a (Judeo-Christian) theology of the city. From this angle, Israelite monarchy was a choice for a concentration of wealth and power that was virtually synonymous with the urban organization of social space. Almost by definition, such a concentration implies the centripetal force that is the city: a focused appropriation of regional production for the consumption of the urban elite, a determined enervation of political voice so the system is not challenged, and a subtle habituation of religious and cultural perception, so the peasants are invited to comply with the system that gobbles up 3/5-4/5ths of their crop and not organize a revolt. In such a context, prophetism emerged as a living critique of the injustice structurally embodied in the city. Indeed -- it is impossible, as Jesus said, for the prophet to perish away from "Jerusalem" (Luke 13:33). That is the concrete thing that materializes the violence that gives rise to the voice.
It is equally important to say that the Christian tradition bears clear witness -- the prophet did perish in Jerusalem! Yes, technically just outside of it, but as its living contradiction -- in a sense, "spit out of its mouth." The immediate cause of that particular perishing by crucifixion (according to the texts) was a somewhat unruly street-demonstration accompanied by chants threatening takeover of the city by a new David, followed, indeed, by a nonviolent takeover for a day of the central socio-economic institution of the urban center (Mark 11:1-11, 15-19, 27-33).
Theology, the City, and "Us"
This leaves us today in a somewhat ironic hermeneutic situation that requires careful unpacking. When I give talks about "the city" (as I do with some frequency) or teach classes on "Urban Ministry," 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. 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. 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. It is, in our time, the new meaning of the city -- while the old city centers are increasingly becoming one of the two kinds of periphery that characterizes this country (or really, any country today).
In 1992, according to labor historian Michael Davis, the United States emerged clearly for the first time in its history as a suburban nation with a double periphery of city and countryside (Davis, 55). The economic and political center of this show is now the suburb, or more accurately the "gated community of affluence" -- whether part of our widening zones of sprawl or a gentrified preserve close to the older urban center. It is constituted in consumption, animated by ardent upward mobility, surrounded by state of the art security technologies, and peopled by the symbol-managers of our society, trading in knowledge-commodities and information-flows, sharing more in common with similarly enclaved elites elsewhere around the globe than they do with those just outside the gates of their own enclosures (Rifkin, 88; Bellah, 71-75). Much of the international trade-agreement infrastructure facilitates this interlinkage -- whether in the form of what Noam Chomsky calls "investor rights agreements" such as NAFTA and GATT that increasingly remove economic decision-making from any public forum of accountability or of institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund that enforce conformity to the economic priorities of the developed world (Chomsky, 7).
In the large picture, transnational corporate interests continue apace to gerrymander the state to further their own interests through an ideology of political democracy that actually serves to mask the real deal. The much touted "free-market" is enforced as a ruthless discipline for the majority, using immobile national work forces against one another with a "whipsaw" effect across national boundaries, on the one hand (Chomsky, 1, 7). On the other, various permutations and combinations of competitive and monopolistic "oligarchy" remain the true state of affairs among the large firms and the governments they control, continuously undercutting market discipline and democratic vision with a fluid form of nearly totalitarian domination (Chomsky, 6, 7). In this latter region of high-tech, high-finance "virtual reality," the analogue to the carefully controlled corporate board room is the residential cloister of enclosed affluence (Dumm, 178).
The watchword of such enclosures is "normativity" -- a set of commodified markers of conformity to an upwardly mobile lifestyle that serve as the badges of belonging in such spaces (Dumm, 189). The permissible range of style in clothes, cars and computers, wine, watches, and tableware is broad but overbearing. Any deviation beyond the currently acceptable range readily results in suspicion and can end up in ostracism. The governing norm at the heart of such a space is white, heterosexual, and upper middle class. "Others" can be admitted, but only if they offset the immediate "drawback" of their skin color or "inappropriate orientation" by the requisite signs of conformance in dress, demeanor, speech, hair style, house decoration, mode of transportation, and form of recreation. The spaces themselves are increasingly controlled at the points of ingress and egress by the technologies of "monitoring," cameras that track not so much individual presence as generic "fit" (Dumm, 189). Of course, "the more melanin the more suspicion," and the more suspicion the more likely the security intervention. The mall and the suburb are the spatial analogues of this video eye that enforces the current regime of what I would call, borrowing a bit from womanist critic bell hooks, "the principality of white supremacist capitalist patriarchy" (hooks and West, 160). What is new here is the technological morphology of the powers of domination; the spirits themselves are old and "familiar."
This new metropolitan concentration of wealth and power also creates a new wilderness "frontier" -- today, increasingly, everywhere else. Neither the urban "underclassed" nor the rural "outclassed" find themselves able to survive autonomously. And where the old problem was one of social exclusion and stratification operating on top of economic inclusion and appropriation, today the growing problem is utter redundancy. Latin American liberation theologian Enrique Dussel speaks, for instance, of the growing Latin American populations that consider "exploitation" to be a privilege (Dussel, 207, n. 46). Earlier in the century, to have a job, even though most of the value created by it was being appropriated by the owners of the means of production, at least allowed survival. No longer. Given the advance of automation, moving toward a global social order in which the primary form of labor around is its "dead" form as "machinery," most people will not be able to rely on the commercial sector for livelihood. Renegotiation of the primary social contract, figuring out how to allocate more broadly the continuing increase in productivity, stands as the political conundrum of the day (Rifkin, xvii, 88). It is now the voluntary sector, according to the likes of futurists like Jeremy Rifkin or Stanley Aronowitz, that must creatively forge structures of mutuality and reciprocal bartering of skills and goods that will serve survival.
The alternative is a nightmare world of violently Hobbesian competition for those who do not have the wherewithal to hole up in an enclave. This "other" terrain, especially in the urban interiors populated primarily by "subaltern" classes of color, is increasingly managed by a contradictory combination of advanced surveillance technologies and violent policing tactics (Dumm, 178). The former keep tabs on individual "criminals" while the latter indiscriminately target the official "profiles of criminality" irrespective of individual culpability. When considered in connection with the mad scramble to privatize the prison system, making local economies dependent upon "flourishing" cell-blocks providing both jobs and cheap labor, the vision is draconian (Schlosser, 51-79). And everything relates to everything else, of course. Roll-backs of affirmative action mean fewer people of color occupying roles of judging or defending, thus ramifying the tendency of the system to settle overburdened caseloads by way of "play the statistics" plea-bargains, whose calculations of the percentages are directly correlated with perceptions of class and race, thus also ensuring the social production of a continuing stream of (now) economically necessary "criminals of color." No surprise that the prison industry is now the largest employer in the country. Crime does pay -- but very differently than we have been led to believe.
Theology, the City, and "Me"
But the one other thing that must be said here is that the city is also, for me personally, one of the greatest places of hope. My polemics have been profoundly shaped by onsite experience. After more than fifteen years (in the 1970s and '80s) of living as part of an activist Christian community in a low-income African American neighborhood on the near east side of Detroit, I can say the urban interior has also been my greatest instructor. During those years, that community organized its common life in inter-racial extended family households, shared a poverty level budget, struggled to open the local Episcopal church liturgy to a charismatic spirituality and then to an African American sensibility, initiated co-operative enterprises facilitating low-income "takeovers" of their own rental units, and worked extensively with energetic younger people and hungry older people to develop relevant programs for their needs. Over those years, I was privileged personally by friendships with numerous developmentally and mentally challenged foster-care adults living on the same street as the church, by companionship with Champ and Magic and New York and Junior on the basketball court, and by tutorship into a bit of rap idiom and hustle rhythm at local parties.
I continually witnessed people in my neighborhood fighting against the odds, struggling against the levels of everyday violence our social order projects onto such environments, and frequently being pushed to confront the reality of death more graphically and immediately and regularly than most of the rest of society. Often -- not always and certainly not automatically, but often -- many of those people exhibited hints of resurrection power that were astonishing. The quality of humor, the sense of kinship and willingness to share meager resources, the capacity to celebrate everyday life, the story-telling facility about characters in the neighborhood that would outdo any sit-com ever shown, the ability to fabricate mundane expression into sublime stylization, the drive to syncopate poverty into the kind of vital potency that even Madison Avenue cannot ignore, the entire continuum of improvisational genius regularly exhibited -- all these hard wrought "arts of survival" taught me most of what I know about the God of life reigning in the midst of death. As one wag put it once, the city is beautiful like a panther. Yes, obviously urban neighborhoods, too, have increasingly been taken over in recent decades by the market imperatives of accumulation and commodification. But they also remain a terrain of desperation that often generates gestures of a different kind of humanity -- one that is richer, more complex, more vital than the K-Mart version we are usually offered in the media and settle for in middle class practice.
In more recent years -- while living back in the same neighborhood after graduate studies away from Detroit -- I have focused my involvement in teaching at a city college and in participation in an indigenous arts community centered on spoken-word poetry and jazz performance. I now read my own poetic productions all around the metropolitan area of Detroit (suburbs as well as city center). But I continually find that my easiest reads, by far, are those that take place in the "rawest" contexts. The performances where I can cut loose with the greatest freedom and audience resonance are in Mariner's Inn and Sobriety House, residential programs for the homeless and substance abusers, respectively. The people there -- by and large not well-educated and very battle-scarred -- understand about life in this country at a profound level. Their understanding is not necessarily conceptual (although often enough I do meet folk there with remarkable analytical breakdowns of what is going on). But addressed in the code of percussive rhythm, they grasp meanings and connections immediately and sharply. They know viscerally the depth of the agony this country was founded upon and is sustained by. The problem is, they have been more brutally tranquilized and effectively controlled by our program of "social management through addictive substances" than the softer versions targeting the suburbs. And that more aggressive chemical invasion is difficult to reverse without a new environment. . . or a new country.
So. Theology and the city. Obviously, this writing has not offered solutions. Actually, for this piece of work, I have not understood that as my job. The concern has rather been to provide perspective. For me, the first theological question in such an over-determined context as the contemporary North American city concerns "vision." How do we gain and keep perspective on the real effects of policies and institutions in an environment of information overkill and dumbed-down politics and how do we identify strategic points of intervention and confrontation? The ongoing challenge of the Judeo-Christian tradition is the prophetic conviction that says the cost of real social change is probably the equivalent of "crucifixion."
The issue here is how to act in ways that bring about real redress for imposed forms of suffering without ceasing to address a clear and clarifying "No!" to the principalities and powers in their vast structural aspect. The danger is always one of exorcising one spirit from a public space only to have seven more spirits immediately rush in to claim the spoils. To some degree, for instance, I think the post-Civil Rights era represents something like that kind of recuperation on the racial front -- real gain achieved, but not real conversion accomplished in the white community in particular or in the country at large. So the result is now a reinfestation of the principality of white supremacy at an even more covert level of culture and practice in North America. It promises serious violence on the part of an increasingly beleaguered white right, ready, at the first show of significant downturn in the economy, to blame the government for "losing the country" in its supposed "turn to color" and (as already witnessed in Oklahoma City) to blow up anybody who looks like an accomplice to such.
But faith that matters is inevitably a matter of struggle and "struggle" is a disciplined practice, animated by a question, rooted in a groan. Paul's vision is that everything in creation is groaning (Rom. 8:18-27). How much more so those of us who are awake to the presence of the spirit whose primary mode of presence in history is groaning!? The task of faith is to use one's belief to dare to look injustice in the eye, gradually learn to confront one's own peculiar set of fears, get down to the level of one's own inchoate groaning, and, in a process of discernment carried out in dialogue with and accountable to others who share one's commitment, articulate that groan into a question and a project that is bigger than one's own life. Frances Moore Lappé, author of Diet for a Small Planet and crusader against world hunger, once said, "If you are working on a question that can be solved in your lifetime, you are probably wasting your life." Faith, in this compass, is not primarily about "finding out answers" but about "living out questions." How does one get so involved with a "question that matters" that one can carry it for a lifetime and act on it without giving up?
At the end of his life, Jesus, according to the earliest witnesses, marched into the city, confronted its principality, wept over its savagery, and then, under torture, cried out the question that animated his life (Mark 15:34). If we understand him as God incarnate, in the gospel vision (especially in Mark) we would have to say that "what" he incarnated, finally, was the cry of his people. He became the cry. Do we see that? We are trained by our imperial North American, Western scientific, objectively rational, socially reasonable, religious ideology that goes by the name of "Christianity" to identify Jesus primarily as the "Big Answer" to life. In fact, biblically, he is the big question. He sits inside the poor and abandoned and oppressed and suffering of our day and screams loudly or silently, "Eloi, Eloi, lama sabbachtani," "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" But it is you and I who hear. Will we -- too terrified to respond -- leave him alone where he is? Or will we join him, by finding the precise version of our own cry that embodies some aspect of the suffering of our context, and let it carry us to a similar place of destiny?
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Jim Perkinson is Associate Professor of Ethics at Ecumenical Theological Seminary of Religious Studies/Philosophy at Marygrove College. Copyright of Cross Currents is the property of Association for Religion & Intellectual Life and its content may not be copied without the copyright holder's express written permission except for the print or download capabilities of the retrieval software used for access. This content is intended solely for the use of the individual user. Source: Cross Currents, Spring 2001, Vol. 51, No 1.
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