I’m trying to get an early start on reading my seminary books (which I’m still trying to purchase–thank you so much to all who have helped out!). I’m currently enjoying Mark Gornik’s To Live in Peace: Biblical Faith & the Changing Inner City. I’ve read similar books before, and expected more of the same, but this really is a much higher level-analysis of urban policy than I thought it would be. He is writing from the context of the inner city community of Sandtown, in West Baltimore. I’m really liking it and encourage you to check it out yourself.
I wanted to devote my entire post today to a series of excerpts from his section going through the historical and theological roots of urban and racial difficulties. In light of recent comments–especially by conservatives–demonizing those who live at this level and at these places in the world (or demonizing the government policies that serve them), I found this appropriate in offering us some perspective.
On a side note, for newer readers: I do not ascribe to a particular party and I actively speak out against both of the main ones wherever I see injustice, hypocrisy, and absurdity. This just happens to be an area of policy where Republicans are far more guilty. Here are the excerpts (the bold-faced lines are my emphases).
In summary, the inner city in the post-industrial period was not created by the character flaws of the people who live there or by the welfare system, but by the searing dynamics of economy, place, and race. The result was a community in economic depression, isolated and excluded from opportunity. Life in its fullness was more deeply diminished….
In Baltimore, like every other city, most good jobs in the new economy require a highly developed set of knowledge-based skills for which Sandtown residents have not been trained. Current public policies and resources do not suggest this will become a priority. So the jobs being created for the poor are low-wage jobs in areas such as cleaning, food service, and maintenance. The city needs these jobs to keep the sectors producing higher wages operating. A new class division is therefore becoming deeply embedded in the urban landscape. This means a steady stream of low-paying jobs for the “right kind of person” from Sandtown, but usually without health benefits, retirement plans, job security, or potential for long-term advancement. Mixed in with these factors is the reality of the end of welfare and a decreasing social safety net. The new economy has “demanded” this….
In the end, far too many young men in Sandtown have found the period of the new economy to be only a growth era of incarceration. It is a shattering reality that so many African-American men are caught up in the criminal justice system. Economic redundancy married to globalization has resulted in social control as the dominant urban policy. When “peace” really means order, not public safety, then the global inner city becomes the incarcerating inner city. This is not the final word on the global inner city, on Baltimore or Sandtown. But it returns the neighborhood to where it started – working hard with a constricted horizon and being, in Roderick Ryon’s words, “restricted, controlled, watched over.”
THEOLOGICAL REFLECTIONS ON THE CREATION OF URBAN SPACE
What accounts for the high rates of joblessness, the concentrated poverty, the racial segregation, and the discouragement that form the inner city? No one should doubt that there is profound brokenness in many families, homes, and lives. Yet, by the power of the gospel, women, men, children, and families can, on an everyday basis, begin again in their lives and their relationships. Following Jesus, walking in the Spirit, and being transformed from the inside out does renew and restore people. That such a process is, by the word of the gospel, both progressive in nature and universal in requirement is typically overlooked. Equally neglected is the understanding that such change is, on Christian terms, a matter of grace, not moral determination.
Having said this, I also want to point out that the source of collective inner-city struggle is not due in any way to personal failings, the force of nature, a lack of collective activity by the community, the presence of neighborhood “pathology,” a lifestyle of sin, or any deficiencies in character or moral behavior. A lack of personal responsibility did not build the inner city. Instead, a historically accurate understanding of the inner city requires us to see inner-city neighborhoods as created by institutionalized racism, economic exclusion, and adverse political determinations. A theologically serious approach to the inner city requires us also to draw on the biblical categories of injustice, structural sin, and the powers that be.
Structures of Sin and Injustice
Because urban exclusion, poverty, and misery are bound up with larger and perverse social, economic, and political actions and priorities, a coalition of “institutions and intentions,” one of the requirements of biblical faith is to name such wronging as injustice and in so doing to take account of its urban character. At stake is not merely the distribution of goods but all of life, and in focus is not only the individual but also groups….
Injustice as the cause of social sorrow and the restriction of life is a basic biblical category, and is essential for comprehending our urban world….
I also think the ideology of the underclass, so prominent in the past two decades, is a significant part of this exclusion. “Underclass” is a label of moral deficiency rooted in a discourse of Otherness. Specifically, “underclass” refers to lazy and immoral individuals whose sorrows of extreme poverty are self-inflicted. It means the poor are poor in the inner city because of social pathology. By the ideology of the underclass, women – especially single mothers – are demonized, and men are criminalized. Our study of Sandtown’s development finds more than sufficient reason to reject this ideology, and gives great reason to be concerned when it is used to develop public policy or shape public opinion. Moreover, the ethics of the kingdom shifts the issues of what counts as right living rather dramatically….
Conversion and spiritual rebirth are central to the transformation of the inner city, not because the sins of the poor caused the sorrows of the inner city (they did not), but because these transformative experiences free all who have been “captive” for participation in God’s liberating order. A change of heart is necessary because it is the way to enter the kingdom which Jesus proclaimed and through which he is changing the world.