Problems in the public schools? Bring back prayer.
The fix for welfare? Mandate personal responsibility.
The economy? Vote in the Republicans/Democrats.
Immigration? Send ‘em all back.
World hunger? Tell people to get a job.
Global warming? It’s a conspiracy. Ignore it.
Simple fixes. Complex problems. Snap your fingers and they’ll all go away, huh?
It doesn’t work that way. Most of the big issues of the day are shrouded behind years and years of habit, systemic and personal sinfulness and are protected by both formal and informal power structures. There’s no easy fix.
That doesn’t mean we walk away from the problems facing us. We’re called as Christians to be visible and potent in this world. We’re called out and beyond our spiritual ghettos. We fight evil. We pray. We become a presence. We advocate for reform. We resist the temptation to simplify the complex and make complex the simple. And as Jesus followers we’re asked to enter into the suffering with our brothers and sisters who indeed are suffering. When we do they can become our teachers and guides. Relationships are built. We can give of our gifts and talents to people we now love and acknowledge as friends.
I’ve been thinking about this because I read two books in the past ten days. Right after I finished reading a book called A Mile in My Shoes by Trevor Hudson I started to read a book called Code of the Street by Elijah Anderson, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania.
Trevor Hudson is a pastor in South Africa. That’s a tough place to be a minister. The issues are deep and persistent. He insists that “our times cry out for a gospel shaped spirituality that is both intensely personal and deeply aware of our suffering neighbor.” And of course our neighbor is more than that nice family next door. Hudson writes from a Jesus perspective and that means our neighbor is that not so nice family three doors down and the people fifteen miles away who we don’t know and don’t want to know and those folks thousands of miles away that show up on commercials for feeding, sheltering, and clothing the poorest of the poor. A Mile in My Shoes is a short book. It's a little over a hundred pages but it got me wanting to read it again. It’s a call to develop compassion in our lives. Compassion opens the door to opportunity, I think. That’s a doorway people of faith need to walk through. Too many of us avoid it because walking through it means entering into a world that will probably make us uncomfortable. We favor comfort.
I certainly needed that ‘compassion fix’ when I cracked open Code of the Street. It’s both enlightening and disturbing. Using under resourced Philadelphia urban neighborhoods as a back drop Anderson patiently paints word pictures that describe the ever present 'code of the street' that influences virtually everything it touches. It has at its foundation a nihilistic philosophy which encourages skepticism about ...well, just about everything. It does battle against hope.
In this world of extreme skepticism street codes have evolved around a complex need for 'respect’ and the jockeying necessary to be 'respected'. The need is deep. The skepticism is real. The fall out almost makes you want to cry. This is a tough read. Stories of lives being cut short by violence, education snubbed, municipal indifference, generational wounds, intergenerational sinfulness, and lack of role models aren't easy to digest. But if you want to understand poverty, violence and urban sociology this is an important read.
Anderson maintains that the forces at work in many of our urban neighborhoods make it “increasingly difficult to maintain a sense of community.” He writes: “A vicious cycle has been formed. The hopelessness many young inner-city black men and women feel, largely as a result of endemic joblessness and alienation, fuels the violence they engage in. The violence then serves to confirm the negative feelings many whites and some middle-class blacks harbor toward the ghetto poor, further legitimating the oppositional culture and the code of the streets …unless serious efforts are made to address these problems and the cycles are broken, attitudes on both sides will become increasingly hardened, and alienation and violence, which claim victims black and white, poor and affluent will likely worsen.” Whew. Welcome to the future.
I’d love to give this book to everyone who has an easy answer for what plagues urban America. Read it and then tell me that there are ‘easy answers’. And if it doesn't make your heart ache then check for a heart beat.
I’m not discouraged though. I know more today than I did yesterday. I’m more committed than ever to cultivate compassion in my own life. I’ve got questions but I also know where to find answers. And I still believe that stacked decks can be unstacked. I also know that where there is deep need God is at work already. His people are there. They're in inner city Chicago. They're in that township in South Africa. There's that 'wise head' on every block who tries to nurture the children. It's that grandma on her knees daily asking God to work a miracle in her community. It's the small church ministering to those with AIDS. It's the mission providing the free meals. It's the after school program refusing to give up on the young. They're there. My job is to find them, join them, give to them, and pray for them.
Anderson’s book Code of the Street helps me to understand the depth and breadth of the issues many face day in and day out. Hudson’s book A Mile in My Shoes gently challenges me to yearn to ask God to cultivate compassion deep within my heart and then to join with God’s people who live with hard realities that might cripple the average suburban church goer.
It's been a good week of reading.