Finding the Sacred in the Everyday: Part II – Justice and the Other

We’ll begin today with a quote from Father Daniel Berrigan, who passed from this world into the next yesterday after a long life of faithful work for justice-

“Obviously there will be no genuine peace while such an inherently violent scheme of things continues. America will in time extricate herself from the bloody swamps, the ruined villages, the mutilated dead of Vietnam. But nothing will be settled there, nothing mitigated at home. Nothing changed, that is, until a change of heart leads us to a change of social structures in every area of our lives.”

Justice for the Other is a sacred task.

It’s a humbling thing to be talking about justice here today because I know this is a congregation for whom a desire for justice is woven into the fabric of your faith – we can see how it says so right there in your bulletin.

We talked last week about connecting with the sacred in ourselves – and I suspect for many here that’s a more challenging concept than the notion that we would find the sacred among others and especially among the Other – those whom our society marginalizes for one reason or another.

Today we are talking about how people in the spring of 2016 living in Birmingham Alabama, participating in the life of this congregation – how can you encounter the sacred in the lives of others and live out a path of justice?

First of all, I know that many of you already are doing so. Let us take a moment to celebrate the consistent witness of this congregation and you among it on so many vital issues. Let us be grateful that you create and hold a progressive, inclusive faith space in an environment where those can be difficult to find.

Do you do this perfectly? I suspect not. I’ve never known any congregation who did. But from what I know you strive to make the connections between how we ought to live and how we do live – and how we treat one another, both individually and systemically.

Thank you for that. That is a calling and it is a gift to you and through you to the broader community.

That ought to be said.

And because I know you take this commitment seriously, today I’m going to offer to you a few further reflections rooted in my own years of social justice engagement and in my sense of your community – each of you on your individual journeys and along your path together.

I am going to make 4 points (and don’t worry, I’ll make them briefly) –

1)  let us realize that we are not all called to do the same sort of work. This was the message I offered the young people – and let me reassert it now. Any work for justice is built on a variety of tasks. Some people are good at critique. Others create. Some people are the logistics folks. Vision and practicality. It takes all of us. Often we devalue our own roles. Or we criticize others because they are not just like us.

Don’t get me wrong – accountability is important and we need to examine critical words to figure out if we can learn something from them. Or to offer some critical words – from a place of love, not ego. But we’re in this together – and we do the work best when we do what we are called to do and support others in what they are called to do.

That acknowledges the sacred in ourselves and in the others whom we struggle alongside.

So that’s first. In the struggle for justice, let us keep building one another up.

2)  we know there is a constant struggle for justice and against oppression across difference.

We can name forms of oppression –

Systemic racism
Sexism and patriarchy
Homophobia and heterosexism
Ableism
Ageism
Colonialism
Militarism
Materialism

Systemic discrimination because of economic status or class, national origin, religion (or lack thereof). There are others.

And today we especially honor International Workers Day. We remember the long history of labor demands and the ongoing needs for wage justice across the globe. The obstacles to minimum wage legislation locally are just one example in the ongoing demand for dignity and a fair wage for all working people, for all who want and need to work.

Today is also International Family Equality Day, a world-wide celebration of the LGBTQ parenting and family community and a time of recognition that many parents and their children continue to face discrimination and the threat of violence. In a week that has seen Oxford threaten to jail transgender people based on bathroom use and Chief Justice Roy Moore publically reiterating his claim that same-sex marriage violates state law, we must celebrate loving and caring family in all of its formations.

Each of the causes, each of these demands for justice and experience of injustice bring their own specific conditions.

We can acknowledge that no paths are the same while we at once recognize that the forces of oppression have something in common.

Our culture continues to set forth a particular norm. And with that norm goes power in society. And across that norm – on the other side, you find less power, less value.

Across that norm, we move from subject to object. And if we look around the room, there are ways in which we all cross that norm – you might be a black straight woman or a low-income white man. You might be a Latino man with dementia. Or a trans Muslim youth.

We flip across the continuum of power in all of our identities – and we owe it to the quest for justice to recognize the ways in which we are granted power, even as in other ways we are denied it.

And further to understand that the intersections of those layers of identity render people especially privileged. Or especially vulnerable.

That is the reality of our world. The question to us is what we do with it.

IT DOES NOT HAVE TO BE THIS WAY. This is not some natural order. We have constructed a society in which difference is viewed with suspicion and denied full humanity – or the full respect of creation if we look beyond human life into the health of our ecosystems and the future of the planet.

This is human-made.

Injustice is persistent and pervasive but we always have choices. We always have the capacity to assert that the system as we know it is wrong.

We are not all the same. But our differences can be viewed as a source of richness, as the vibrant texture of our full humanity, as the opportunity to come to come into relationships of mutuality.

We have that choice. To embrace and assert the value of a pluralistic world, one that celebrates rather than erases differences and yet strives for full justice and full value and the recognition of the full humanity of all people and indeed the value and meaning of all creation.

This requires us continually to educate ourselves. No matter how much we know, there is more to learn. Change is a constant. And it is not the responsibility of people at the margins or those whom we have made vulnerable in our society to educate us. We must not assume that our good intentions entitle us to relationship. When we’re in the position of privilege – we have to do our own work.

We can learn to respect people as the subjects of their own lives rather than as the objects of our derision or mockery OR our charity or aspirations for them.

When we bring our open hearts and our open minds – and when we leave our defensiveness and our egos and our need to be the good white person/straight person/ally/and so on back at home – we can find the room to do meaningful work.

We may not always be setting the agenda. Maybe we just need to show up and listen and then take what we’ve learned back to our own communities and circles.

And there, even in the most hard-hearted places of ingrained racism or sexism or homophobia, maybe we find that through our commitment, our compassion, and our ever-growing wisdom maybe we find the opportunities to chip away at oppression at its source.

That is difficult and delicate work – and if we wield our truths like an angry hammer – well, sometimes we have to do that – but most of the time, if we look, we can find ways to speak truth to power has a chance to be heard. And a lot of times, it may not even be about the person you’re speaking directly to. Even if you are just disrupting the illusion of consensus, you may be speaking a truth that someone needs to hear – and doing what’s right because it’s right.

3) Okay, so having talked about justice as own specific identities and at the intersections, let’s widen the circle a little. The way that we do community can be a radical act of justice. In a world of commodification and consumerism, creating spaces of intentional genuine community – community that has porous borders, so that it’s open to all – community where people can join in relationship – that is a justice act.

And it is from that community and from those relationships that we come to understand the visceral realities of the structures of power and privilege. These connections can be counter-cultural. They can interrupt norms.

And I know y’all know that.  This congregation is one of those places.

But I also know that – as I said earlier – no gathering of human people is perfect. And I know that times of transition are hard. And the world that we live in today encourages us to harden our edges. So as a friend to this community, I want to take this opportunity to reiterate the importance of building real, non-exclusive, mutually-accountable, open-hearted relationships among yourselves.

This takes commitment and patience. It is active and evolving. We bring the world with us – and all of our own stuff – when we walk through these doors. But in your willingness to do this work, to dedicate this effort, you create something that is greater than the sum of its parts.

4) Finally, I know we could spend all day talking about layers and levels of injustice and the struggle to achieve justice, but I will close with one other matter that takes us out another level into the community.

One element of my own current work is a focus on how we regard the question of economic development in our city and in our state. There are a lot of wonderful things happening in Birmingham right now. But in some cases they are happening – as these things have ALWAYS happened here – on the backs of the poorest among us. I’m talking about what, depending on how you look at it, is described as neighborhood revitalization or as gentrification.

I’m all about cool places to eat and fixing up dilapidated housing and craft beer – seriously, we can say that in the UU church, right? Good beer is a great thing.

But once again it comes at a price – and it does not take much digging at all to realize that this is absolutely a consistent pattern over the whole of the history of this metropolitan area — we put the interests of business and of the relatively affluent above the needs of the poor.

In Birmingham, this is always a racialized narrative as well, so that we have the needs of poor black and brown people subsumed to the profit and pleasure of the affluent, who are predominantly, though not exclusively, white. Poor people of color are displaced in the name of so-called economic and neighborhood development. We see it decade after decade in the history our city and it is happening now.

Unfortunately, the sides on this argument have come to a point where everyone more or less knows what the other is going to say.

Add to that that these are complicated, nuanced issues, where the economic engines involved have become ever-more sophisticated in their presentation and the methods.

Add in the persistent pernicious ideology of globalization which is constantly soaked into our outlook. Gentrification is globalization made manifest at a local level.

If we take it out another level, we see the ways in which the economic development rhetoric in our state tends to happen at the expense of the natural environment.

Disposable people, disposable ecosystems.

Collateral damage laid on the altar of profit and productivity.

I raise these issue here today not because we can fully address it – I myself often have more questions than solutions, but because I would like to invite you as a religious community to participate in a broader religious dialogue on gentrification. This is not a centralized conversation, but instead a grassroots effort to bring our lens of faith to examine such questions as

Who benefits from economic revitalization and neighborhood (re)development and at whose expense does it take place? and

How should we as religious communities and individuals respond to the fact that current models of economic and neighborhood development do little to disrupt systems that marginalize significant groups of people – because they are rooted in neoliberal economic approaches and top-down strategies that reinforce outsider hierarchies rather than grassroots participation.

Make no mistake that they are more sophisticated than past blunt tools of legalized racial segregation and so-called urban renewal. But they are this century’s face of our continued neglect of the most vulnerable among us in the service of a cultural narrative of economic self-sufficiency and continued accumulation of wealth and power for a sliver of the populace.

In a world that does not now and will not ever IN the current economic system have enough living wage jobs for people to gainfully support themselves, I would argue that it is of great relevance on International Workers Day to question the status quo – and the violence it does to people on the economic margins.

If this question of a religious dialogue on gentrification and how you might bring a UU faith lens to examine these issues has any interest to you – either as individuals or as a community, please let me know. This is an organically evolving dialogue and I would love to discuss at some point in the days, weeks, or months ahead how we might productively generate such a conversation here and what sort of action might come out of it.

As we conclude these meditations on finding the sacred among us in everyday life, on living out a path of justice, I offer more words from Daniel Berrigan:

“For my part, I believe that the vain, glorious and the violent will not inherit the earth.  In pursuance of that faith my friends and I take the hands of the dying in our hands. And some of us travel to the Pentagon, and others live in the Bowery and serve there, and others speak unpopularly and plainly. It is all one.”

On the Opposite of Blight

When I first wrote about the question of blight (here) , I said I’d offer some follow-up thoughts. I have’t yet circled back around to the topic yet, but a morning walk with one of the dogs left me thinking about the opposite of “blight” — vibrant urban communities.

During our travels, we’ve stayed in busy city neighborhoods in the Bronx, New York and Jamaica Plain, Boston. This block of Centre Street offers a pretty good example of my basic point today.

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It has a spiffy little restaurant. In fact, it has several of them.

But it also has a dentist, a lawyer, a barber, a pet supplies shop, a travel agent, and a general goods store. Within a couple of blocks, you can find a grocery market, a bike shop, several more down-to-earth eateries, a beauty shop, a physical therapist, a co-op bookstore, a tailor, and a small park.

(though maybe not a parking space – but that’s okay because it’s possible to get around on foot and public transit here)

WP_20150530_08_33_32_ProThrow in a a little public art

Also critical – this neighborhood, known as Hyde Square, has housing options that support an economically diverse, multi-ethnic community. All of these components add up to a desirable, livable area for a range of people.

“Blight” as a term gets applied to dilapidated housing or commercial building stock. Blight, however, really ought to refer to communities barren of cultural vibrancy and relational vitality.

When we talk about revitalizing areas, too often we see a focus on creating playgrounds for the affluent – rows of upscale restaurants, renovated apartments with high-end countertops and appliances, and boutique-y shops that cater to suburban browsers. We fail to focus on the web of everyday interactions and transactions that make living possible and desirable.

Hyde Square has a rich variety of public space and private space, a necessary (although not sufficient condition – we’ll keep looking at that) condition for avoiding “blight.”

A Different Take on the Problem of “Blight”

The quest to do good things in the world is almost always a complicated process. Today I want to focus on one particular issue of language and power that keeps popping up in conversations of which I am a part — the deployment of the term “blight.”

These conversations in which I find myself are generally full of well-meaning people who care about their communities. I offer the following critique in hope of taking a potentially useful process – the quest to rid the city of abandoned and nuisance properties – and making it better. My explorations here are intended as a constructive set of musings from a fellow community-member.

Let me start out by conceding the following:

  • many cities (including my own) have a huge problem with abandoned and dilapidated buildings, both residential and commercial. Municipal regulations and policies often make it absurdly difficult to refurbish or demolish them.
  • non-profits, civic groups, and other associations may have as their primary focus finding ways to enable communities to deal with such properties.
  • there is much work to be done in this area and we need creative tools to do it.

Having established this, I want to talk about  two separate but related concerns that come into play with the concept of blight. For the first:  it’s one matter to cast that label (though the term is still loaded) on abandoned housing and commercial buildings. It is quite another matter altogether to label as “blight” what would be viewed by other people as “home.”

So even before we get to a much-needed discussion of systemic issues and substandard affordable housing, we have to ask what it means to label someone’s home “blight”.

Imagine you are living in the best rental house to which you have access. It may be in horrible condition, but for the moment it is your home. It is the container for your life – for your family and your clothes and your pictures and your pets. It’s where you eat breakfast in the morning and crawl under the covers at night. It’s where you gather with your friends or your grandchildren or your neighbors. It’s where you keep your collection of treasured ceramic figurines or your 3 cases of beer or every straight-A report card you made as a kid.

What does it mean for some other person to look at that structure and call it “blight”?

I am one child of God and you are another. And you look at my home and see “blight”. What does that do to me – and what does that do to you? How does that shape how you see the world?

It’s especially – but not only – problematic when that person is white and I am black. Or when that person has a college degree and I don’t. Or when that person is upper middle class and I am not. Regardless of the the power differentials, regardless of the good intentions of any of the people involved, in any given setting the overall framing of such situations are bound-up in historic deployments of power.

The second problematic element of “blight” is the larger issue in which the first problem is embedded. By way of explanation, let me turn first to a first hand example from a very different context:

When I was on a foreign study fellowship in India years ago, I met with varied individuals and groups involved in community organizing and grassroots development. In Mumbai (then Bombay), I ended up in a long conversation with a woman, whom I will call Daya. Daya dedicated much of her time to the beautification of the center city. Cool, I thought, maybe not a radical thing, but certainly related to basic quality of life issues for the urban populace. I eagerly accepted her invitation to accompany her on some of her activities one day.

As we sprinted through the morning in her Maruti car, I discovered that to Daya “beautification” of the city primarily meant chasing poor people off the sidewalks. These were individuals and families whose lives depended on the small square of concrete they could occupy to sleep, to eat, and to sell simple products. Often they had nowhere else to go.

I squelched my horror enough to hear Daya out. She was sincere in her conviction that her work was beneficial to the community as a whole. In her mind it was necessary and not at all unkind. That was all the justification she needed.

This is an extreme example, but it helps to spotlight how not all people share in what might appear to be a common civic interest. There are parallel potential risks anytime questions of urban (re)development and neighborhood renovation arise.

My concern then is about the potential for unintended consequences and the inadvertent play to old tropes that reinforce rather than interrupt systems of racism and classism.

The question is that of authority.

Who gets to define “blight”?

That’s a question that applies both to the big picture lens (“this is what blight looks like”) and to the specific structures that may be interpreted through that lens (“this building is an example of blight”).

By what right might you call my (white, middle-class) home blight? And by what right might you call the home of a low-income person of color blight?

The idea of “blight” – the word, yes, but also the broader concept that the word captures – has historically often been used against already marginalized communities.  The writer Rebecca Solnit offers an instructive tale in her book Storming the Gates of Paradise: Landscapes for Politics. Solnit describes the dismantling of San Francisco’s historic Fillmore neighborhood:

“By 1947, however, plans were being laid to erase this neighborhood. The word used over and over until it became a mantra and a justification was ‘blight,’ a word that was supposed to describe the poor condition of the housing and its alleged infestation by vermin but was in fact a code word for the human inhabitants, just as ‘urban renewal’ was recognized as code for what was also caustically described as ‘negro removal.’ The San Francisco Redevelopment Agency declared, ‘San Francisco is now developing programs to correct blighted and congested conditions and to deal with an accumulation of housing that is continuously aging and deteriorating faster than it is being rehabilitated or replaced . . . More than 50 percent of the structures are past middle age with an estimated average age of sixty-seven years. It is this condition which results in neighborhood blight and calls for both major public improvement and private rehabilitation and reconstruction.’ . . . Into the 1960s, campaigns to devastate this neighborhood were carried out. The rhetoric of urban renewal was that bad housing would be replaced with good housing – and good was defined in those squeamish modernist terms as efficient, up-to-date, and orderly . . . The agenda all along had not been the creation of better housing for the inhabitants but their replacement by more affluent inhabitants and increased profits for developers and landowners.”

Writing of a more recent “war on blight” in Philadelphia, scholar Robert Fairbanks notes that “Discussions of urban blight in [the mayor of Philadelphia’s] political discourse are typically replete with references to the usual suspects: abandoned houses, abandoned factories, vacant lots, abandoned cars, graffiti, dirt, crime, rats, tires, garbage, illegal dumping, and other general signs of urban decay . . . Undoubtedly the issue of urban blight weighs heavily upon the conscience of Philadelphia . . . [But] It is my contention that the conventional way in which ‘blight’ has been talked about – in the Philadelphia media and in the academic literature – is deeply problematic and in many cases densely ideological.”

Fairbanks’ point is crucial. The discourse around the concept of blight – and the actions that both emerge from and are embedded in that discourse – are inextricably intertwined with ideology. There’s no such thing as objectivity. There’s no such thing as an ahistorical blank slate. There’s no such thing as a process freed from the deep influences of the dominant culture. The language we use and the concepts we promote reflect the systems from which they emerge.

As a result, concern about and the effort to label “blight” can dovetail all too well with the most devastating aspects of gentrification. It can lead to the displacement of low income people, the erosion of cohesive neighborhoods (the exact opposite intent of many groups looking at this issue), and the elimination of already scarce affordable housing. Such outcomes are not inevitable, but blight concerns will be readily used that way by some people (often those with considerable power already) IF explicit care is not taken to prevent it.

It’s easy to say “but WAIT. WE don’t mean it that way.” The problem is that good intentions are a necessary but not a sufficient condition. That’s the complicated part of the game of language and power that permeates modern human existence. Just because we do not intend to reinforce oppressive structures and ideas does not mean that we avoid doing so.

Working for change requires a constant interrogation not only of motive but of implementation. The process is so complicated – because we are soaked our entire lives in inequitable discourse about race, class, gender, sexual orientation, ability status and so on – that it’s almost impossible to work through these issues alone. There are no constant or easy directions, no simple “this is always the right, clear-cut answer.” Continual examination and reexamination of both the process and the intended outcomes is essential. It may be exhausting, but it’s also necessary for the integrity of well-meaning groups that have the potential to have a useful impact in our city.

The best way forward is always fluid and, as noted above, almost always best determined in conversation with others who can help to identify the problematic areas that we ourselves miss. This piece is part of my contribution to that conversation. It is an effort to identify the problem, which then begs the question of possible solutions. I will never claim to be a definitive source of answers, but I can at least share some ideas. Since this post is getting quite long, I’ll talk about those ideas in my post later this week.

Sources cited:

Rebecca Solnit. Storming the Gates of Paradise: Landscapes for Politics. University of California Press, 2008.

Robert P. Fairbanks II. “Blighted Spaces and the Politics of Everyday Life” in Social Work and Society. Volume 1, Issue 1, 2003.