Place and Scholars' Roles
As readers of my posts may discern, I am very interested in questions concerning where people live out their lives, how they live in those places, and the consequences of both. Housing segregation plays a prominent role in my book project on Catholic civil rights activism (hopefully to be in print in about 18 months!). In the past year and a half, I've had the opportunity to read widely and think further about the connections between places, religion, and race. I'd like to share some of my thoughts, and welcome your feedback, as I explore not only Catholicism, place and race, but evangelicalism, place, and race as well.
American society is one in which places have been replaced by space, which has led to a culture of homelessness.* Homelessness is often conceived as a problem plaguing the poor and marginalized who stay in shelters or live on the streets. Yet homelessness also includes the affluent who have few ties to a particular place, who do not have a place that can orient them to the world. According to the writer Wendell Berry, "our present leaders – people who have wealth and power – do not know what it means to take place seriously: to think it worthy, for its own sake, of love and careful work. They cannot take any place seriously because they must be ready at any moment, by the terms of power and wealth in the modern world, to destroy any place."** This destruction could be literal, or the severing of ties because one moves to indulge career aspirations.
Evangelical Christians have contributed to America's culture of homelessness by baptizing placelessness with explicit and implicit theologies.*** Explicit theologies are the doctrines a church adheres to formally, while implicit theologies can be determined by observing the practices of a church body. In terms of explicit theology, evangelicals often downplay the significance of place in Christ's Kingdom, as compared to place's relevance in the Old Testament, with its emphasis on land. They might read Jesus's discussion with the Samaritan woman at Jacob's well in Sychar about the appropriate place to worship to suggest that in Christ's kingdom, place does not matter because Jesus told the woman, "a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. . . the true worshippers will worship the Father in Spirit and in truth" (Jn 4:21, 23 NIV ).
In terms of implicit theology, today many people drive out of their neighborhoods passing many churches they agree with theologically along the way to attend the church of their choosing. They prioritize worshipping with people like themselves politically or socially (other families with young children, or young professionals, or hipsters), want to listen to a particular pastor, or desire to worship with others who share their particular denominational, theological, or doctrinal positions. The homogenous unit principle of church growth, which became popular among evangelicals in the late twentieth century and emphasizes that groups that are alike one another will grow larger and faster, supports American evangelicals' tendency to drive to churches.**** Mega churches, televised sermons and podcasts, though valuable, can further this amnesia surrounding place. The implicit theology revealed by these practices suggests a consumer mentality regarding church that (likely unintentionally) can prioritize comfort over rooting in a particular place.
Many white American evangelicals not only fail to account for place, they think of where people live in the United States as shaped by free choice – a decision made voluntarily and unstructured by systemic forces. Many considerations go into a person's decision about where to live, such as job locations, proximity to certain activities, church community, neighborhood of origin, quality of schools, community "feel," and where friends are living. These factors influencing a person's decision can be amoral, but they operate in a larger system marked by racial segregation. That system has a complex history of sometimes intended, sometimes unintended consequences. Many blog readers may know the history, which involved restrictive covenants, government-sponsored segregation through the FHA and Home Owners Loan Association, contract buying, and some fascinating baptizing of particular geographies with theological significance (and I can share its contours in a later post, perhaps). *****
What role can scholars play in helping others pay attention to place and its racial consequences? Recently, Wheaton College installed an art exhibit called "Wrestle On, Jacob," which can be read, in one sense, as a call for evangelicals of all racial backgrounds to continue to wrestle for racial justice and reconciliation. Willie Jennings, whose book The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origin of Race articulates ways Christianity created racial distances between people, gave a lecture to open the exhibit (for open-access reviews of the book, go here, here, and here). Jennings called the mostly-academic audience to be rigorous in its thinking and scholarship so as to break down the detrimental racial hierarchies embedded in American society. Based on my interactions with my mostly evangelical students who haven't taken classes on race before, few young evangelicals know the details of this history. Perhaps this is a place historians can step in and make connections to the present (while still recognizing the foreignness of the past, lest we become presentist!). I think that when people who are inclined toward justice see that there is a racial and structural history to housing segregation and placelessness, they will be inspired to think about, and perhaps modify, their individual decisions. What do you think?
*Steven Bouma-Prediger and Brian J. Walsh, Beyond Homelessness: Christian Faith in a Culture of Displacement (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2008).
** Berry quoted in Ibid., 6.
*** Nancy Ammerman et al., eds., Studying Congregations: A New Handbook (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1998).
****Rah, The Next Evangelicalism: Freeing the Church from Western Cultural Captivity, 97–98.
***** A few helpful books are Kenneth Jackson Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States (Oxford University Press, USA, 1987); Beryl Satter Family Properties: Race, Real Estate, and the Exploitation of Black Urban America (Metropolitan Books, 2009); Thomas, Sugrue, Origins of the Urban Crises: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1996); Massey, Douglas, and Nancy Denton, American Apartheid: Segregation and the Making of the Underclass (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993).