Tuesday, July 24, 2007

The Not So Simple Way

NOTE: While this blog refers to the Simple Way Community, I shold note that they are still recovering from the terrible fire that destroyed the space where their ministry has occurred. They have organized their neighborhood to have the building that burned into a park for children. For more see www.thesimpleway.org.

Recently, I read Shane Claiborne's book, The Irresistible Revolution, as well as Schools of Conversion, which has been put together by some of the folks involved in the new monasticism movement. As I read these books, I found myself resonating with their call to a simple lifestyle, centered on the way of Jesus in community with the poor and oppressed. At the same time I found myself looking around at my way of life and all of my stuff, and wondering "How did I stray so far from the path laid out by The Simple Way and groups like them?"

When I was in my twenties I espoused and sought to live out the same values of simplicity, honesty, faithfulness and solidarity with the poor that Claiborne talks about in his book. While I did not live in intentional Christian community, there were several other folks around me who were traveling a similar path. Furthermore, there were plenty of examples such as the Sojourners in Washington, D.C., Jubilee Fellowship in Philadelphia, Reba Place in Evanston and many others outlined in the books like Living Together in A World Falling Apart and The Mustard Seed Conspiracy. There were even a few intentional Christian communities in our Boston neighborhood, even though they all disbanded for one reason or another after a short period of time.

When Cynthia and I got married, we continued to espouse those values, even fasting once a week as both a spiritual discipline, and a reminder of the hunger in the world. We lived simply not only because we had to, but because we felt it to be our calling. We interacted regularly with folks our age who shared the same visions and passions.

However, when I graduated from seminary and became a pastor we lost that sense of interdependent community. Living in church-owned parsonages, we found ourselves in the position of being financially dependent on folks who were not dependent on us. It was an uneven and uneasy kind of community. Furthermore, while we tried to continue our focus on the simplicity and justice, most folks in our congregations espoused a Christian faith that was materialistic and nationalistic. We found ourselves as lone voices in churches and communities in lockstep with the government's drumbeat toward war (the CIA-inspired wars in Central America, Panama, Grenada, and Desert Storm). While there was some solace I could take in being “prophetic,” I see now that we were being shaped nonetheless.

Giving birth to three daughters added another dimension that forced decisions about health care, safety and educational opportunity. When our first daughter was born, we lived in Jersey City, NJ, which was located in an area known as “cancer alley”, so named because the air quality was so toxic that there is a significantly higher cancer rate than elsewhere across the country. The schools were in receivership and homelessness and drug abuse were rampant. A toxic waste dump burned less than a mile from our home. Several times we found homeless people sleeping under our front porch. Both Cynthia and I were involved in work to address these problems, but the birth of a child gave us a responsibility beyond ourselves. Could we subject her to such an environment? We chose to move to a rural community in southern Minnesota where the air and water were still clean, and the streets were safe. Two more children were born. After 5 years we found that environment too sterile and decided to move to the Philadelphia area, in large part because of greater educational and cultural opportunities for our kids.

When I finally left the pastorate in 1997 and we no longer lived in parsonages, we entered the world of homeownership, mortgages, real estate taxes and suburban life. We chose to stay in the same community because at the time it was the least disruptive for our kids. So our kids grew up in suburbia. We did the suburban thing with park league sports, band, and so on. Along the way we accumulated a pile of material things: books, clothes, furniture, gadgets, even a swimming pool that came with our house. The pressure and expectation of providing our kids with the same things and opportunities as their upper middle class friends was tremendous and many times we capitulated.

But if the issue was just about “stuff,” that would be easy enough to deal with. What I realize is that slowly and imperceptibly we have become acclimated to the way of privilege. What I realize is that not only is this lifestyle costly in terms of money, but also in terms of time driving, taking care of my lawn, and generally taking care of all the stuff. Moreover, even if I was to rid myself of all my material things, I could not remove the sense of cultural entitlement that comes from being educated, white and middle class. I don’t begrudge the opportunities I have had, or those that I have provided my children, but I do recognize my racial-cultural-economic standing allows me to make choices that sets me apart and cuts me off from the vast majority of the world’s population.

So we continue to grapple. Cynthia and I have tried to be conscious of our buying habits: we recycle, we spend our money judiciously, and try to live out our commitments in both our personal and professional lives. We have joined an urban church. Cynthia serves the poor as a social worker and I teach students from Philadelphia. We talk about down sizing and possibly moving into the city.

Ironically, throughout this entire time, we have sought to be careful and conscientious, and strive for a life centered on faith, compassion, generosity and justice. We have not been blind to the forces that were shaping us, and yet it happened any way. I take responsibility for my part in the whole process. I am not going to blame the government, the media, other people, or the churches we were part of. Nor am I prone to wallow in guilt.

Yet I find myself wondering would we have made these same decisions had we been surrounded by a like-minded Christian community? Moreover, I wonder what it will take to live out the vision evidenced by the leaders of the new monasticism. Untangling myself from all the material, social and spiritual suburban trappings is not without cost. I run the risk of alienating some of the people closest to me in my search for a life clearly embodying the values and principles of Jesus. I am not complaining, as much as I am expressing an ongoing quandary.

Through it all, the simple way does not seem so simple.

Monday, July 02, 2007

A Re-newed Civil Rights Challenge

On Friday, June 29, the Philadelphia Inquirer had a disturbing juxtaposition of headlines. At the top of the page were the words “Justices limit race-based school plans,” referring to Thursday’s Supreme Court Ruling invalidating programs in Seattle and Louisville that were designed to maintain racial balance by regulating transfers to schools on the basis of race. Right below was the headline “Immigration Bill Crushed,” referring to the vote in the U.S. Senate that defeated Pres. Bush’s second attempt at passing an immigration bill. While referring to different issues, both events seem to point to a new challenge in the civil rights struggle.

In the Supreme Court Case, from all appearances the decision reverses the intent of the 1954 Brown vs. the Board of Education of Topeka, KS case, which called for the racial desegregation of schools. Yet, Chief Justice Roberts used the 1954 decision to justify the recent court’s decision, saying it was “more faithful to the heritage of Brown.” He went on to say that the U.S. Constitution is “color blind when it comes to race.” What Constitution is he referring to? Is this the Constitution that mandated that African slaves be counted as 3/5 of a person in 1787? Or the one that made slavery legal until 1806? Or the Constitution that was used to justify Jim Crow laws and mandated “separate but equal” (they maintained the separate but not equal part of that)? Is this the Constitution that had to be challenged in the 1954 decision and the 1963 Civil Rights legislation? Now true all of these laws have been changed or repealed, but my point is that the U. S. Constitution has repeatedly been used to justify all sorts of prejudicial and discriminatory actions against people of color. Did Judge Roberts consult the NAACP, the Urban League or the any number of civil rights organizations whose mission it is to monitor the progress of laws like Brown? To suggest that the Constitution has not been used to support white privilege and white power is to deny history, and to not be vigilant to insidious ways racism creeps into our thinking.

Which brings me to the immigration debate. As I have said on this blog, I am no fan of the current immigration legislation. I think any bill that is currently being debated ignores the larger regional issues creating the current situation. However, conservative opponents referred to the proposed guest worker program as “amnesty.” The proposed guest worker program required that undocumented immigrants to pay hefty fines and reapply every two years. I thought “amnesty” was when you got off without penalty, when there were no repercussions for one’s crimes? Paying fines with money you don’t have (especially when you are being paid substandard wages to start with) and being forced to leave the country to reapply, sounds pretty punitive to me.

Now granted, the bill was opposed by both liberals and conservatives, and had many problems with it. But I think there is something deeper going on in this use of the word “amnesty.” Senator Ted Kennedy who supported the bill, along with a number of people across the political spectrum, compared the current immigration debate to the civil rights struggle of the 1950’s and 1960’s. I think Senator Kennedy is on target.

Herein lies the connection between the Supreme Court case and the Senate vote. Even as a certain element of our society seeks to roll back the gains of civil rights, we are facing another civil rights challenge. While most whites in this country like to think we have “put racism behind us” (a contention most people of color would dispute), for some reason we keep tripping over the fact that our society does not treat people of different races equally. For example, in a side bar to the article on the court case, the Inquirer said the court decision would have “little impact” on the Philadelphia region, because we have “residential segregation.” That’s a euphemistic way of saying Philadelphia proper is overwhelmingly poor and people of color, while the suburbs are overwhelmingly white and middle class. We’ve made integration darn near impossible because the kids are in separate, but very unequal, school districts. Racism, legally supported is alive and well.

I wish I had some solutions to these civil rights challenges; like many I keep seeking and listening. In particular I am willing to listen when people of color and civil rights organizations who tell me that any progress we have made in this area is being reversed. Furthermore, I suspect the challenges we face in the current immigration issue are of the same magnitude as the Brown vs. Board of Education case was in 1954. With the way current events have gone, it appears we have cycled back around and haven’t made as much progress as those of us who are white would like to think we have.