The Politics of Church

Traditions

When I came to Fuller Theological Seminary, I struggled to find a church. I visited the many establishment churches and small, non-commuter churches scattered throughout the area. Like many churches in the suburbs, the churches typically were homogenous socially and racially. After expressing my dissatisfaction (admittedly, a consumerist dissatisfaction) with classmates, I discovered that many Fuller students attended churches downtown, outside of the suburb homogeneity: communities in art districts rife with homeless, artists, business people, graduate students, of all ethnicities and social classes. These communities are upheld as revolutionary and pointing toward the future church: a diverse and dynamic vision. While these churches appear to be examples of a coming community, they still operate within bigger problem of social, economic, and racial segregation that underlies the geography of the city. These Fuller students resemble frustrated political activists in the 1980s: both were frustrated with the political climate and sought more authentic communities.

Like the idealistic seminary students seeking more authentic communities, political activists in 1980’s were frustrated with Reagan politics and so they departed to Central America where real politics was happening. Unlike the politically stagnant culture of the U.S., Realpolitik was happening there: grass-root campaigns, political organizing, resistance to authoritarian regimes and U.S. intervention. The resistance groups welcomed the support initially, but ultimately the leftist groups would have preferred the northerners done something else more helpful. In a discussion he had on Conversations with History, Michael Hardt recalls a conversation he had with a political radical who thanked Hardt for his support, but told him that making revolution in the US would be more helpful. When asked for further clarification about to do this, the radical suggested going up into the mountains, like Castro and co., and planning revolution there. Although the idea of ascending the San Gabriel mountains to plan revolution seems silly, the radical’s point remains: political instability in Central America is caused by US intervention.

Two kinds of radicals made up the ranks of these political dissidents. There are those who came out of guilt: the U.S. and multinational corporations have ravaged these people’s land and my duty as an aware American is to atone for my guilt by helping to resist these regimes. Hardt criticized this group saying that the guilt complex never seemed to translate into creating effective allies. The second kind of northern leftist was the one who felt some form of call to political life. These people are likely aware of their guiltiness, but are not mired in it. Instead, they enjoy the life of political resistance and see it as the most enriching way to live. Of course, Hardt places himself in this category. In spite of Hardt’s moral evaluations of these two psychologies, both seem like valid postures toward the situation, but seem focused on internal psychology and less on the effectiveness of their aid.

This narrative parallels the way many students at Fuller approach attending church. There is a sense in which trying to do church in Pasadena is not optimal. Most of the churches in the area are large, establishment institutions with big bureaucratic structures and are supported by baby-boomers (there are exceptions of course). Moreover, churches in Pasadena (and Altadena) tend to be segregated either by class or race. Understandably, for postmodern evangelicals, it is hard to get excited about “doing church” in any sense when the area is so divided and conservative. While some Fuller students choose to stay in Pasadena and try to do church in suburbia-style infrastructure, many students at Fuller to more diverse churches downtown and in Hollywood. These communities, like their neighborhoods have diverse membership along cultural, economic, and ethnic lines. They seem to fit the model of the early church described in the New Testament, brimming with Holy Spirit and reconciliatory justice.

I don’t think that there is anything wrong with migrating to find a more diverse worshipping community. Also, I think many of us (I am mainly speaking to my white brothers and sisters) should feel a sense of guilt for how we perpetuate systems of racial and economic division. Guilt is recognition of injustice and the first step toward addressing the problem. Nor is there anything wrong with those who seek a vibrant community. They are a testament against the homogenous church growth principle. At the same time, those folks who choose to tough it out in seeking to make churches more diverse and inclusive in Pasadena should be commended as well. These are the folks who followed the radical’s orders and actually went up into the San Gabriel mountains to plan revolution. Pasadena (and Altadena) are in desperate need of racial reconciliation as well. However, unlike downtown churches, the segregated geography of Pasadena makes creating diverse socioeconomic and racial communities much more difficult. I think all of these folks, good-heartedly, recognize the problem and are seeking to fix it. Nonetheless, the way they are trying to fix the problem might be reinforcing it. Therefore, in order to properly respond, we need to think about the problem in deeper philosophical and structural ways.

At the surface, the problem appears to be geographic and related to the story of the city. The history of urbanization goes something like this: wealthy people provided the capital to build a city. Then, factories emerged which required a working class population to operate. These people begin to move into the around the factories where the wealthy lived. The wealthy then moved further to the outliers of the city. They built street cars and then freeways to get them from the suburbs to the city. Funding to maintain the city dwindles as the wealthy redirected to create more ideal suburbs. The living conditions in the inner city deteriorated. After WWII, politicians then used the baby boomers as an excuse to retake the city and weed out the poor by driving property values up and using a nefarious magic stick called eminent domain. Aiding this move back into the cities is tendency called gentrification, where white folks whose only culture is cable television start to buy property in ethnic communities to give their lives a meaning that isn’t a capitalist construction. This trend continues today. The point is, to make the grand return to the relevant, that the alienation that Fuller students feel is inherent to the architecture of the city of Los Angeles. Therefore, the problem is not in Pasadena and the answer is not in downtown or Hollywood or Echo Park. The problem is the city itself, which systematically keeps us separate and divided. The answer then is not in the city, in diverse communities downtown or elsewhere (but glimpses can be found), but beyond the city: where instead of traveling away from the segregated suburbs, all neighborhood churches are diverse.

The biblical solution is obvious; communion of all peoples regardless of race, class, culture and political status. The means, how to realize this ideal, is another thing. There is tendency to simply act: we see that there is segregation engineered into the city and we purposefully move into areas to bridge that gap. The problem is that folks that choose to move into those “run-down” neighborhoods bring the salary and lifestyle expectations with them. Moreover, they tend to bring the crowd of similar hip-minded folks. That is how gentrification works. So, what starts as an attempt to break the socioeconomic and racial gaps serves only to reinforce them by driving the poor out of the neighborhood as the well-to-do hipsters drive them out. What this shows then is that the architectural segregation is caused by economic inequality. In the story about the history of the city, the gap between the rich and the working class creates an alienation in the structure of the city. The solution to the alienated city then is not top-down city planning, which only disguises the problem, but massive economic redistribution. But where does this leave the church? Are we to work with the state to redistribute income? Instead of looking for statist answers, we should redirect our attention to approaches in our local church. A good place to start is by rethinking the idea of communion. In my tradition, we have the Eucharist each Sunday and all are welcome at the table. The theology underlying this is the table solidifies the Christian community into one body, either symbollically or sacramentally. This communal activity is meant to translate into actual unity in church life. The problem is that the Eucharist can become a place to hide disunity by emphasizing the symbolic unity over against the realization of that unity. Jesus diagnoses a similar problem in offering gifts at the alter:

23 “Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, 24 leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift. Matthew 5:23-24

If someone is need in the church body while another blithely enjoys wealth, then the unity of the Eucharist becomes an illusion and disrespects the intent behind the practice. Moreover, we can often confuse geographic proximity (there are people of diverse stati in the congregation) with actual unity (we operate as one body, in collective existence). It seems to me that going downtown to find diverse communities creates geographic unity without addessing actual unity. To be fair, many churches are seeking to bridge gaps and realize collective existence through economic sharing. I would propose that we seek a less spiritualized understanding of Eucharist and treat more as a celebration of actual unity, not a disguise for inequality.

 

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