Regeneration through provocation: Detroit, hope, and a new world order

Heidelberg ProjectWe drove down the street on a blustery day in East Detroit, pulling off to the side of the road to step out into the drizzle and the grey. As we emerged from the shelter of the vehicle, what I could describe seeing are the same tropes many people talk about, when they talk about Detroit. The boarded up and burned out and abandoned homes. The razed lots, the empty streets.

But then we turned a corner, entering a stretch of blocks which was the reason we came to Detroit in the first place: an art installation called the Heidelberg Project. Blending art and street, the Heidelberg Project reclaims abandoned homes and lots, creating an open conversation between discarded objects, the streets of Detroit, and the people who come to visit the place.

Let me be clear: this is not a neighborhood beautification project. Some of the homes are splashed with bright polka dots that spill out from the front porch to the sidewalk to the street, bringing whimsy and childishness into an area which for years has been characterized by redlined blight and poverty. Others are covered with oversized stuffed animals, stapled, misshapen, and weathered by time and rain – a grotesque nod to those who once inhabited the space, to the passage of time, to abandonment.

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People tell stories about Detroit. We like to think we know what happened in the city’s history: the rise of the automobile industry, Henry Ford’s promise that each worker ought to be able to buy his own car, and even for a brief moment, the promise of Detroit as a beacon for racial equality. Then, the closure of various factories led to sweeping unemployment, highlighting racial divides across the city. Wages depressed. The interstate plowed through the city, destroying vital areas of town, particularly the neighborhoods where black folks lived. The 1967 riots ensued. Vast white flight, paired with the devaluation of homes, meant that many houses were simply abandoned by their white owners as they streamed out of the city. Much of this time, the cheerful music of Motown was touted for bringing people together, even as the city, in many places, literally burned to the ground.

In some ways, Detroit reminds me of ancient Jerusalem, the Israelite capitol that was razed again and again by its empire neighbors, the Greeks, the Persians, the Babylonians, the Romans. Of course, the repeated destruction of Jerusalem was not necessarily within Israel’s control. Instead, it had much more to do with power to control resources. Because it held the trade routes that ran from Mesopotamia to Egypt, the narrow passage that made up Israel was especially coveted by whatever up-and-coming Empire was next in line.

More recently, the way we within the United States struggle for resources has become somewhat more “civilized”, shielding ourselves from direct contact of violence. Instead, with our silver sword of capitalism we defend any action that turns a profit, cannibalistically ravaging our own cities and our own people through the powers of the pure market run awry.

Walking through the art in the blocks of Detroit, I felt at once hopeful for the resurgence of the city and deflated for this place that some once called home. I felt provoked: Provoked to ask questions about who once lived here and what their lives were like; about who still lives here and what their lives are like. I wanted to know the various iterations this neighborhood took on over the last century, what external forces and structures created a system that turned its back from this place – and who made the decisions resulting in that system. More than anything, I felt an uncomfortable disturbance dwelling deep inside me.

Because it is not only wars and empires that raze and ravage the cities of God. Often, we tear one another down more indirectly – through the suppression of wages, through unjust financial practices, through the disinvestment of our government from certain people and certain places, through looking the other way when our neighbors are in economic pain.

Wages deflate beneath a living wage, and the standard response is to ask why the poor don’t just work harder. But a person should be able to work full time and support her family above the poverty rate.

People go hungry, and the standard response is to ask if they are really budgeting correctly. But when there is enough food to feed the world’s population, no one should have to go hungry.

A woman is bought for sex, and the standard response is to ask why she chose that profession. But the real question should be: how is it that we came to live in a world where a price tag is put on a human body?

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These arguments are so pervasive that it is easy to read texts like today’s in 2 Thessalonians and hear the standard response ringing through our minds. Ah, we read: “Anyone unwilling to work shall not eat.” Yes–such true and vast wisdom!

But a closer reading of the text reveals that the people to whom Paul is referring aren’t just refusing to work. Instead, they are active – but they are putting their energy to ill use, what Paul calls “mere busybodies,” stirring up discord in the community. This passage has nothing to do with whether or not a basic safety net should be in place in society. But it is about how to solve problems and be in community with one another – especially when the gossip of a few can destabilize the whole.

Paul isn’t talking about the work ethic of a few – he’s talking about work ethics of the whole.

And in a very real way, the prophet Isaiah addresses work ethics, as well.

At the time when this particular text in Isaiah was written, most scholars believe Israel was under the thumb of Persia – a period of time marked by the contractual agreement Israel had with Persia, promising extra labor and taxes siphoned from Israel – like the cream skimmed from a brimming pail of fresh milk. Or, rather: like half the milk poured out onto dry ground, nutritious nectar wasting away, nourishing instead the thing that oppresses.

The standard response at that time might have been that Persia had the power – that this was what Israel had to do to keep the peace, to maintain status quo, merely to survive. But Isaiah is very clear about the Jerusalem that God will make new again: They shall build houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit. For like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be, and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands. They shall not labour in vain.

God’s new world cuts against the standard interpretation of the economics of power and resources. God’s vision of a new world is material – but it is a world in which a body’s daily work means also its replenishment at mealtimes and at night. God’s world both boggles our understanding of the way things are, and restores our vision of the way things ought to be.

Earlier this week, one of the houses in the Heidelberg Project was burned down – arson was suspected. It was the second time in six months the Project has experienced this type of vandalism, and when I was there two weeks ago, I walked amidst the remains of a different house, the ashes still fresh, but wet and cold from the rain.

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I felt despair when I saw the remains of that house, and when I read this week that another had been set to flame, I felt it again. A loss of hope: that the beautiful, creative things in this world are more often set to flame than they are celebrated.

But even in death we are promised new life. I noticed, walking in amongst the ashes, bright pops of color and new discarded objects that someone had placed within the rubble. Even in its destruction the house took on a new form, not ceasing to exist, but becoming different, confounding, troubling; provoking even more questions of anyone who chooses to engage with it. This, too, is how Detroit will rebuild: in the destruction and provocation and regeneration of all that it is.

Isaiah offers up hope when the world feels beyond despair once more. When the standard responses crowd the mind, when it feels impossible to know how to continue on, God promises the hope of a world made new. Like a ravaged city that provokes and disturbs us, the way of God generates in us the will to rebuild, to start afresh, to make our world anew. Like a bright green dot unabashedly painted on an abandoned home, the way of God jars the senses awake, bringing the head and the heart into a new understanding of this world order,

so that we may train the wolf to lay down with the lamb;

so that we may tame the lion to eat straw;

so that together, we may bring the fierce things of this world to be made new.

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Finding Justice in Shrewd Subversion

A sermon preached on September 22, 2013
First Congregational Church of Minnesota, UCC

About a year ago, I met a woman named Vicki.

Vicki is a single mom, in her early thirties, working on her college degree. She had also only recently gotten out of a massive spiral of debt. With two kids and a full-time job in the service sector, making ends meet became increasingly difficult, and Vicki’s checking account would often empty before she had a chance to pay rent or purchase food for the next few weeks.

Using the only option she felt was available to her, Vicki took out a payday loan for $200 to cover her expenses. But when payday came around two weeks later, she wasn’t able to pay off the $200 plus the $35 fee in one lump sum. So she took out another loan – this time for $235 – and used it to pay off the first loan, with the promise that two weeks later, on her next payday, she would pay back the $235 loan, plus an additional $40 in “fees.” But two weeks later, Vicki wasn’t able to make that payment, either.

Things spiraled out of control. Financial emergencies came, and Vicki began taking out loans from a new lender to pay off the first. Her desperation led her to take out a loan against the title of her car. Before all of this ended, Vicki had lost $8,000 to escalating fees (which we might better name as an APR in excess of 400%). She had lost her car since she wasn’t able to pay off her car title loan, been evicted from her apartment, had become homeless, and declared bankruptcy. All of it led back to that original $200 loan – which she had thought she could easily pay back in two weeks.

There are many ways to interpret Vicki’s story. Some among us might gently scold her, chiding her for making such impulsive decisions about money. Others might commend her for her courage, doing anything it takes to survive. Myself, I lay quite a bit of responsibility at the feet of those who lent the money to Vicki in the first place: who are they to charge such sharply escalating fees, using Vicki’s own desperation against her in order to turn a profit?

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Photo by rutty on flickr

Ah, money. Such a fickle, essential, powerful, and injurious invention we humans have imposed upon ourselves. The word for money in today’s text – mammon – is much more complex than our English word, implying money’s all-encompassing presence in our lives. Translated as “that in which one fully trusts,” the word also not surprisingly has idolatrous undertones to it, recognizing money as a compelling force that counters the power of God in human lives.

It should come as no surprise that what this parable is trying to get at is just that – the power money has in all of our lives – the power to give and to take, the power to make or to break. What force other than God is actually so powerful in our lives? When it comes down to it, is there any part of our lives that are not touched by money?

This is a complicated parable. Just reading through it can be utterly confounding – nearly every commentary I read this week began with words like “this is the most perplexing parable in all of the Gospels” – and not one of them agreed on its meaning.

But just setting our parable within the context of the chapters surrounding it, and within the Gospel of Luke itself, can tell us a lot about the meaning behind it.

The story of the Shrewd Manager is the second of three consecutive parables about money in Luke. First, we have the story of the Prodigal Son, a warm fuzzy exposition about a father who forgives his son for squandering his inheritance. Often seen as an allegory exhibiting God’s great forgiveness for humankind, I wonder if it might be better understood as a teaching about prioritizing human relationships over even a massive loss of wealth.

The third parable, which follows today’s text, is the most challenging. It is about a wealthy man who in life, repeatedly ignores the pleas of a poor man who lives outside his home. In death, the poor man ascends to heaven, but the wealthy man descends to Hades. He repents his actions and begs for mercy – but because he did not act mercifully with his possessions in life, he receives no mercy in death.

All three parables are told before an audience that we are told includes tax collectors and Pharisees, who were notoriously concerned with money, and perhaps even exploited others to make more of it.

Add to this two final things we know about the book of Luke: one, it is the gospel in which Jesus most frequently aligns himself with the disenfranchised. And two, the author of Luke knew Jewish law and teachings. So he would have been very familiar with texts like the one we read today in Amos, which over anything, emphasized the injustice of preying upon the desperation of the poor. Luke would have been more than familiar with texts like Deuteronomy 23 and Leviticus 25, both of which condemn any interest charged on a loan, particularly a loan to someone living in poverty.

So holding all of these things together, let’s listen again to the basic storyline of the parable. Essentially, there was once a wealthy man who hired a manager to handle his finances, and who has just received word that the manager’s been squandering his properties. He decides to fire the manager, but asks that as he leaves, the manager put together an accounting of all of his wealth. So the manager goes about settling up his boss’s debts. Knowing he will lose his job, he cuts deals with his neighbors who owe his boss money. One man owes 100 barrels of olive oil; that debt is cut to 50. Another owes 100 containers of wheat; the manager makes it 80. In this way, he cultivates goodwill with the community, ensuring his survival when he’s no longer employed at the residence of his wealthy boss.

The standard interpretation of this parable is that the manager gets out of his predicament by falsifying IOUs, thus dishonestly depreciating the value of something belonging to his boss. But what is confusing about this interpretation is that the wealthy man then praises the manager for his dishonest actions – as does Jesus.

But like Vicki’s story, the parable of the Shrewd Manager can have many interpretations.

What if, for example, instead of dishonestly depreciating the value of his boss’s goods, the manager subversively acted in accordance with Jewish law?

That is – what if the amount the manager deducted from the olive oil was actually an unjust interest rate, immorally collected by his master? And what if the percentage of wheat he subtracted was also interest set at a usurious rate?

This would have been a clever move. Although the wealthy man would stand to lose some money, he would gain the honor and respect in his community by acting in a manner that would be perceived as just. Thus the manager gains his master’s praise, at least for his shrewdness.

Additionally, in reversing his actions from being one who squandered his master’s property to one who brings honor to it, the manager repents, in the same way the prodigal son begged forgiveness for squandering his inheritance. And, he does so in a way that not only brings redemption to himself, but brings the master and his debtors into a fair and socially just relationship, thereby earning Jesus’ praise.

Money can be a useful tool. With money we are able to provide ourselves with a sense of security – we can build a home; cook nourishing meals; keep the harsh winter cold at bay.

But there is something nagging, isn’t there, that some people have enough money to do all these basic things, and others do not. Recently, the United States reached the highest levels of income inequality for the first time since the years before the Great Depression, with the top 1% of Americans controlling 40% of all our wealth. At the same time, unemployment remains stagnant, the use of payday loans doubles over itself, and crucial government programs like SNAP (food stamps), and the Affordable Care Act are at real risk of being gutted.

Jesus makes clear that loving our neighbor has a material dimension to it. If one were to propose a “Love Your Neighbor” bill in the U.S. Senate, crafted after the teachings of this parable and the two that surround it, you can bet that it would trigger a substantial fiscal note. Loving our neighbor – that nebulous concept of emotional care for the other – in these parables, is not so nebulous after all. It means not simply that we feel for one another, but that we take care of each other in a very embodied way, with bread and with milk, with warm heavy blankets and sturdy roofs, with healing tonics and compassionate healthcare.

We do these things with money, but not because we trust money. When Jesus says, “You cannot serve God and money,” what he means is that we cannot have faith in money in the same way that we have faith in God. At the core of our selves, each of us knows that money is not something in which we can really place our trust. Wealth falls away with a sharp drop in the markets, with the onset of a costly illness, with even a small loan made by an unjust lender.

Choosing God over money means to place human relationship first. It is to provide our children with a piping hot dinner tonight. It is to acknowledge with compassion the one who stands on the corner near your home. It is to fill our food shelves with toothpaste and canned beans and shampoo and red meat. It is to advocate for policies that reduce income inequality, that stamp down predatory interest rates and unfair health care policies, that put food in the mouths of those who need it.

Indeed, it is to love our neighbor as ourselves. May that it be so.