Watering Weeds

Kudzu (an invasive plant introduced from Asia) has completely enveloped a barn in Tennessee. (Image HT)

Congruity

Life in 2017 has been interesting, to say the least. Our efforts to “get small” so we can follow Jesus from “under,” not “over,” is well documented on this blog. A word I’ve been using to describe all this of late is congruent. I’m sure you know that congruent means “in agreement or harmony,” but I really like the geometric meaning: “(of figures) identical in form; coinciding exactly when superimposed.” I’m talking about integrity of course, about living a life in which one’s stated values, beliefs, goals, and desires match up with how one actually lives. In many ways, this has been lacking in our lives for far too long, and while we’re nowhere close to the way we live our life “coinciding exactly when superimposed” over the way we say we want live our life, I’m grateful that we’re probably closer to that being true than we’ve ever been. Remembering that we’re trying to “get small” so that we can better be in solidarity with those we’re called to love, serve, and learn from- those on the margins of U.S. empire- and remembering that solidarity requires proximity, this is then what we’ve been aiming for- proximity. We want to be close to those who again are “on the margins” of the dominant society. In all honesty of course we’re not there yet, but hopefully we’re on our way.

We moved from an outer ‘burb in Coon Rapids to northeast Minneapolis. It’s true that this area is gentrifying and you can see pockets where “trendy” shops, restaurants, and people with means are displacing whatever and whoever was there before. One anecdotal way to look at this is through the lens of educational attainment. For example, according to City Data, where we live now 90% of folks have a high school diploma and 43% have a bachelor’s degree vs. 94% with a high school diploma and only 28% with a bachelor’s degree in Coon Rapids. However, data for racial diversity tells another tale. Here’s a comparison of three zip codes courtesy of this very helpful site. Moving from right to left, the first column is our former zip code in Coon Rapids, the second is our current zip code in NE Mpls., and the far left is a nearby zip code in North Minneapolis:

Racial makeup of our former zip code in Coon Rapids (55448), our current one in NE Mpls. (55413), and a nearby one in North Minneapolis (55412)

What this tells us is that compared to our zip code in Coon Rapids, our little part of NE Mpls. is proportionally far more racially diverse, though not nearly as diverse yet as nearby north Minneapolis. Ironically, perhaps, unemployment in Coon Rapids is a little higher at 6.9% vs. 5.6% in NE Mpls., but there’s a fairly stark difference in household income:

Income data for the same zip codes as above

While a few more people might qualify as “middle class” according to USAmerican standards in our part of NE Mpls. vs. Coon Rapids, a lot more people are undoubtedly poor (again according to USAmerican standards- with household income of $30,000 or less), and a lot fewer are among the very wealthy ($100,000 or more). Taken together, where we came from in Coon Rapids about 30% of households earn $50,000 or less. Where we are now, it’s 53%. I could go on. There’s a wealth of super interesting data over at the sites I linked to above, but you get the point. Where we now live in NE Mpls. is not “the ‘hood” by any means, but if we desire to be proximate to those on the margins, we’ve taken a step in the right direction, considering where we came from. Lord willing, more such steps will follow.

We chose NE Mpls. because that’s where our faith community is rooted, and it was through our faith community that we had the opportunity to move here in the first place. Taking that leap of faith proved to be a key that has opened up a lot of other doors. It meant the kids changed schools, and I took a job just 2.6 miles away- by bike- meaning I could bike to work. I’ve been doing that for over a month now, which has meant we could give away one of the cars we had, which we did. Let me again be clear, I know that in no way have we “arrived.” We aren’t yet where Jesus is probably leading us, but we hope we’re a little further down the road, and we know the key again is proximity. We have to stay close to Jesus of course, and we know we do so much better when we stay close to those on the margins.

Incongruities

Despite all this, there are still incongruities in my life that trouble me. Two big ones come specifically to mind- my work for my employer, and my work to raise money for clean water in Africa through Team World Vision. Let’s talk about my job first. Again, let me be clear, I love my new employer. I now work for a non-profit social service agency operated by a larger faith-based organization. That larger organization does a ton of great work in the community. They’re a leader in institutional anti-racism efforts. They say their mission is to serve those “no one else will.” They work to promote healthy habits among their employees, and they strive to make sure their employees find meaning in the work they do to serve others. I’m thrilled to be a part of the organization. My particular case management type role now, though, is a little less “hands-on” than others I’ve had, which is to say that I don’t often see the folks I hopefully am helping, and most of what I do is behind the scenes of the services the people I serve receive. I do financial work, basically, in my new role, working to ensure that funds allocated to help people experiencing a disability to live independently in the community are properly channeled to where they need to go. I actually tend to like Excel spreadsheets; so in some ways this is a good fit, but larger questions remain.

Toxic Asset-Based Community Development

The largest question is posed to the entire social service “industry,” and it simply is this: to what degree do all of our efforts to help actually do harm? I chose those words intentionally, because as I’ve written previously I am not a proponent of the approach taken by Robert Lupton is his book Toxic Charity or by Corbett and Fikkert in their book When Helping Hurts. I think I get what they’re trying to do/say- and I appreciate Lupton’s emphasis that helping should “do no harm.” However, I think in too many cases “do no harm” winds up becoming do no help, and I think the approach of these folks and others in the Asset-Based Community Development (ABCD) “movement” is only a half-step, and I fear it’s a half-step in the wrong direction. Before getting to that, however, I should simply say that I think ABCD is right to regard poor communities (by USAmerican standards) as having not just “deficits” in the form of needs that need to be met but also “assets” in the form of gifts, talent, and local associations and institutions that might be utilized to better contribute to their own development.

Even more, there is a critique of social service underneath what ABCD tries to accomplish that is spot on, and it’s one I’ve been aware of for a while. Lupton wants us to “do no harm” because there is a very real sense in which all of our efforts to address systemic racism and poverty with systemic social service only perpetuates the former and makes permanent the need for the latter. There’s a yin and a yang here. Systemic, generational poverty, driven in no small part by systemic racism, seems to require a systemic response, but the very real help that social service is able to give to very real, hurting people only serves to dull our collective awareness that profound change is needed.

Some would say that government, for example, should get out of the “business” of helping people and essentially leave them to fend for themselves, somehow believing that the causes of poverty lie in the motivations of individuals and that, if properly motivated- by starvation and deprivation presumably- they will “pull themselves up by their own bootstraps.” I would hope it’s obvious that this approach ignores the very real systems and institutions that actively work, violently if necessary, to keep some people poor so that others can be rich. There are reasons why people of European descent in the U.S. are far richer than people of color, and why the U.S. is the richest nation in the history of the world, and if you don’t think violence has anything to do with it, you’re not paying attention. Sure, choices that individuals make have a lot to do with their fortune, no pun intended, but people rarely make choices merely as individuals. We are connected to the systems that make our society possible, some of which we have little awareness of and littler still control over.

In any case, there is a line of thinking by some (not necessarily the ABCD folks) that would suggest that if social service was done away with, the suffering that would result would create mounting pressure underneath the fabric of our unjust society, so much so that the real change that is necessary might be forced to occur. A revolution might be born. Meanwhile, people would probably be dying (even more than they already are), and a cynical response would be to ask if even this would be enough to bring about real, lasting change. A related concern is that if violence is used to keep some people poor and others rich- and it is, even/especially here in the U.S.– would violence be the only means deemed sufficient to bring about the kind of “revolution” that might be needed? I fear it would be.

Jubilee

That said, I spoke above of ABCD being a half step “in the wrong direction” because I think it fails to connect the poverty of the poor with the wealth of the wealthy. I think what ABCD seeks to do is essentially to help people be better capitalists, and I believe that “capitalism is just another ‘ism Jesus wants to save us from.” I’m a proponent of God’s economy, an economy that exposes the myth of private property as a lie that keeps us from living like everything belongs to God. God’s economy, unlike capitalism and socialism or any other ‘ism, is one in which there is abundance, and all is shared. It is an economy that responds to God the Giver by allowing each of us to live into our vocation as givers. We don’t need to harness the “assets” of under-privileged communities so that they can develop to the point where their members have a “decent” middle-class USAmerican standard of living without government help; we need to recognize that absolutely everything- including the air we breathe- is a gift from God, given for the good of all. We’re all playing with “house money.” What we really need, is Jubilee. We need Jubilee on a global scale. Most of us in developed nations need to give away much of our wealth, privilege, and power. Our standard of living needs to come way, way down, so that the standard of living of the poorest of the poor and everyone in between can come way, way up. After all, what if God doesn’t want us to “help” the poor, but rather wants us to become poor (by USAmerican standards)?

How do we do this? Of course I have no idea how to bring about global Jubilee, Biblical instructions to ancient Israel notwithstanding. However, I do have some clues about how to spread God’s economy. Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove suggests that God’s Economy will grow like kudzu, a plant that only needs a small start to overtake a garden. Or maybe it grows like a mustard seed, another plant that begins humbly before reaching a strength and stature that wouldn’t have been thought possible. The point is, it starts small, and Jesus says it starts by giving to those who ask of you:

38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’[h] 39 But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. 40 And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. 41 If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. 42 Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you. 43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor[i] and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. 46 If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? 47 And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

It’s worth noting again that the command to give to those who ask of you is nestled in the imperative to love one’s enemies. The poor become our enemies when we become rich by hoarding what God has given to all, for the benefit of all. It is Jesus here who makes a connection between giving to those who ask of us (presumably the poor or those who lack what we have) and violence. I’ll have to explore that in another post. Meanwhile, the critics of a government response to poverty and injustice are right to say that government can’t supply the answers we need. A big government initiative or program, even arguably good ones like the New Deal or the War on Poverty, can’t finally eliminate injustice. However, those same critics are wrong inasmuch as they think the answer lies in utilizing the assets of underprivileged communities to help develop said communities through capitalism, as if the world’s economy could ever be anything other than self-serving. Meanwhile, Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove suggests another way:

 

 

We need to end the poverty of the poor, to be sure, but also need to end the wealth of the rich. Jonathan reminds us that Jesus says it’s hard for the rich to enter God’s kingdom, and he says this is because “if a rich person gets in he won’t be rich anymore” and likewise “if a poor person gets in he won’t be poor anymore.” Why? Because “we’ll share with whoever has need,” like Jesus taught us. We simply have to give to those who ask of us. When we do, more and more we become children of our Father in heaven.

But I digress.

Small Steps

All of this is why I struggle with my current professional role, one which has me firmly entrenched in the social service “industry.” My challenge is to keep reminding myself that just like our move to NE Mpls. and relatedly our enrollment of the kids in new schools, moving to the job I’m at now is but a step in the right direction as I keep seeking proximity to Jesus and to those on the margins. I’m not “there” yet, and I know I never will be. Still, being at this job, so close to our new home, again meant after all that I could bike to work and we could therefore give away one of the cars we had to someone who asked, to a family that had need of it.

It’s a very similar struggle that has me wondering about my commitment to run for Team World Vision and raise money for clean water in Africa. Surely the need is real, and profound, and every time I succumb to temptation and drink anything but the abundant clean water I have access to I flaunt my great wealth and privilege. I would like to believe, too, that World Vision does what they say they do, that every $50 I raise does indeed provide clean water for life to a person that didn’t have it. I can’t help but wonder, though, along the lines of the above, if the “help” World Vision provides fosters dependency so long as the domination systems that have created the unjust world we live in continue unfettered. After all, I of course have clean water that flows from my tap in multiple places in my home, but I’m so rich I ignore it and instead spend hundreds of dollars per year on sugar-filled carbonated water that will eventually kill me if I let it. If we think there’s no connection between my conspicuous “water” consumption and the lack of clean water at all for too many around the world, we’re fooling ourselves. Let’s say I’ve embarked on a long fundracing career with World Vision and over the course of the rest of my life I help raise thousands of dollars for clean water in Africa so that some kids stop dying of thirst or diarrhea, that would be good, to be sure. But would I have done more good than harm if I otherwise lived in such a way that the domination systems that again created this unjust world were allowed to go on? So again the rub has to do with congruence. Yes, there is a very real, immediate, life-or-death need that I can help address, and I have been asked to do so, but this is only the beginning. This is only a step. What I do with Team World Vision must be part-and-parcel of a life spent working to bring about God’s economy, however, whenever, and wherever I can.

It’s true too that the problems I’m wrestling with are big (“global Jubilee,” anyone?), while if I am to live the most congruent, faithful life I can, if I am to live in proximity to Jesus and those on the margins, then I must become small. There’s nothing smaller than a step, even a step of faith. Lord willing, these steps I and my family have taken of late are steps taken in the right direction on a lifelong journey. Undoubtedly other such steps will come. Right now, though, I’m glad for the ones we’ve taken, and I’ll sure be keeping my eyes and ears open as we try to keep close to Jesus, ready for whatever step might be next. Until then, I’ve got some kudzu to water.

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