A generation of younger evangelicals are still reeling from the misguided triumphalism of a generation past. Having watched their parents confidently seek to “transform” culture, only to see some of them end up as evangelistic shills for crony capitalism and worse, we can understand the rising generation’s humility and tentativeness. These younger evangelicals are more concerned with being faithful than triumphant. And that is something to be applauded.
But one could also worry that we’re confusing humility with retreat. Eschewing triumphalism shouldn’t be confused with abandoning aspirations for large-scale systemic change.
This all came to mind (again) as I was reading Brandon Rhodes’ beautifully written essay, “A Long Obedience in the Same Downtown.” Profiling Zoe Livable Church in downtown Tacoma, Rhodes celebrates a church that is seeking “the common good of a neighborhood already seeking a similar future.” So it was less a matter of “benevolent condescension,” whereby Zoe would come and “save the city;” it was a matter of listening and joining “what God was already up to.” They traded big and fast for small and slow. Indeed, the emerging theme is one of “slow” activism whose expectations are scaled down from the grand (indeed, federal) schemes of “cultural transformation” that captivated a prior generation.
So Zoe members aren’t getting behind U.S. Senate candidates or lobbying for Supreme Court nominations. Instead, they organize “farmer’s markets, block parties, and yarn-bombings” (a kind of fibre graffiti that is part of “beautification activism”). As Rhodes summarizes, this is a story about “an artist, a barista, and a nonprofit leader.”
Of course it is.
You’ll forgive me if I think this can sometimes feel like a Christian Portlandia. And I say that as someone who loves and lives in just such a neighbourhood and can’t help but smile at the yarnbombs on the traffic signals at the corner of Fuller and Lake, right here in Grand Rapids.
I’m not taking potshots at either Zoe or Rhodes. These are reflections from a friend of their endeavours. I’m a firm believer that this generation’s commitment to justice and the common good demands more than mutual celebration and cheerleading. We need to love one another—and love our neighbours—enough to also engage in criticism, the give-and-take that yields discernment.
And don’t get me wrong: I’m a card-carrying member of the “small-is-beautiful” party. I believe the quiet, mundane, behind-the-scenes labour of feeding the poor, parish nursing, and raising families are the subterranean footings of a healthy society. I’m a staunch believer in neighbourhood associations and the small, good work of public libraries. And with Klaas Schilder, I think the “wise ward-elder who does his home visiting in the right way . . . is a cultural force, although he may not be aware of it.” I believe in the parish.
But there is a sort of vague Anabaptism about the stories and strategies that we now seem to celebrate—a valourization of cultural labour that is certainly social and civic and “faithfully present” (as James Davison Hunter would put it) but also seems averse to treading on the terrain of law and policy as if that were all too “big,” too “fast” (?), too macro. We have scaled our expectations and our efforts as if the rejection of triumphalism means a retreat from systemic change. It’s like we’ve decided we should make lovely art not culture war.
But of course it’s not either/or; it’s both/and. It’s peach preserves and policy making. Coffee shops and court nominations. Block parties and bills in Congress. Parish and nation. While we rightly eschew triumphalism, that doesn’t mean we abandon the task of reshaping social architecture at the macro levels, since those state and federal policies impinge on micro neighbourhoods like downtown Tacoma. While it’s uncomfortable to consider it, we might have to realize that concern for the common good still requires a culture war. Rejecting the failed, misguided strategies of the Religious Right is not synonymous with retreat.
And let’s be honest: Slow and local is a luxury. Because slow means waiting, and those suffering injustice can’t wait. While Christian eschatology teaches us to wait in hope, that waiting is a kind of holy impatience, the sort that infused Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s excoriating reminder that often “Wait” just means “Never.”
I read stories like Rhodes’ within earshot of the city of Detroit which now stands as a colossal disaster of municipal government. I have no doubt that yarnbombs on Woodward Avenue bring a furtive beauty to bombed out areas of an abandoned city—like the dove bearing fresh olives leaves as a sign and signal that the flood of judgment is receding. But farmer’s markets won’t rescue the city. Good government will. Those of us seeking to follow the Prince of Peace can’t abandon the call to bend governing to look more like it rests upon his shoulders.