A theology of the crash

The type of economy particular to my community trundles along as it always has. I understand that for the middle- and upper-classes, the recession really bites. They are the hardest hit and their lives are undergoing significant changes. I guess lifestyles can be downsized just like corporations.

May 29 th 2009

"Life is the sum of our choices."
—Albert Camus

I wrote most of this article in Ottawa while attending an event entitled "Forum on Faith and a Sustainable Economy," hosted by the Canadian Council of Churches' Commission on Justice and Peace. The Forum brought together religious professionals, theologians, politicians, academics, aboriginal leaders and NGO types, each with their own perspective on the challenges facing Canada due to the global economic recession, particularly in the areas of poverty and the environment. The word "sustainable" was bandied about frequently.

The earnest intent of the Forum participants provoked some thought, but in truth I was only mildly interested. So far the economic crisis hasn't really affected me or the people I live with much at all. Maybe it will in the future, but for now it barely registers. I live and work in Canada's oldest and largest housing project, Regent Park—Toronto's original "hood." We are a community of multi-generational poverty. Most people here have never owned stocks, bonds, shares or RRSPs. Many don't have jobs. No one ever visits Bay Street, Toronto's financial district, and life has always been an economic crisis of some sort. So why all the fuss now?

"The economy isn't necessarily in crisis, but a certain type of economy is."
Photo: Annie Ling
Chess

My family has been in The Salvation Army for at least four generations, which means, among other things, that we've had to count our pennies for four generations. I've never owned any stocks, bonds or shares in anything either. I have no savings and I don't have a credit card. I have no credit rating and live from paycheck to paycheck. So what has changed for me, now that it is "officially" a crisis?

As one politician at the Forum remarked, "The economy isn't necessarily in crisis, but a certain type of economy is." Maybe this is true, though it's difficult for me to tell. What I do know is that the type of economy particular to my community trundles along as it always has. I understand that for the middle- and upper-classes, the recession really bites. They are the hardest hit and their lives are undergoing significant changes. I guess lifestyles can be downsized just like corporations.

The church is panicking about the recession too. The reason for this is because church pews are mostly full of middle- and upper-class people. This is who the church ministers to and among. This is who we are—or, at any rate, who we have become. The truth of is that, by and large, poor people don't join churches or even attend them. While there are various reasons for this, a couple of key factors result from two choices that the church made sometime during the early 1950s.

The first was to "follow the money." As the second wave of urbanization washed over North American cities following the end of the Second World War, cities expanded outward by building suburbs, otherwise known as "suburban sprawl." People started moving out of the city, particularly the downtown neighbourhoods, to populate the new tract housing being quickly erected out in suburbia.

Not everyone moved out of the downtown, however. The population in these areas recorded sustained growth during those years. Certain people stayed and these certain people were, for the most part, the poor. Chances are the majority weren't churchgoers, but even if they wanted to be, their options narrowed considerably during this period because as the middle-classes moved out they tended to take their churches with them. Some estimate that in Toronto, between the end of the Second World War and the year 2000, approximately 400 church congregations moved out of the broadly defined downtown.

The second choice follows naturally from the first. Though geographically shifting away from the poor, the church still accepted their responsibility to do something for them. This was sorted by "outsourcing caring for the poor"—creating missions and para-church organizations, organizing nonprofits, giving money to groups like The Salvation Army and relying increasingly on the government to look after those people who historically had comprised a fundamental part of the church's core constituency.

As people of faith, we no longer wanted to live in those neighbourhoods or with those people or send our kids to the same schools as their kids or join the same sports teams or shop where they shopped or create community together or attend the same churches. We chose to live our real lives elsewhere, mostly among people like us. And we came up with church planting theologies and mission strategies to back our choices.

In moving away from the poorer communities and breaking community with them, we consequently needed to invest in a service provision approach to caring for those we left behind. Community development and community capacity initiatives, as rudimentary as they may have been at this time, were abandoned in favour of the more distanced and detached approach of providing services.

The church would build, operate, support and pray for the hostels and rehabs and feeding lines in the city. Some of our people would even drive down Monday to Friday to work in these places and service the people who formerly were our friends but now had become our clients. But they always returned home to their real communities and friends and neighbours in the evening and on weekends. This is where we built our churches and how we chose to live in community and with whom we would share our lives. These were our primary relationships.

In Matthew 25, Jesus gives us a snapshot of the Day of Judgment in the well-known story of the sheep and the goats. This time around, however, Jesus refers to the nature of our relationship with the poor in order to help him decide where we will spend eternity. This is a reminder that he has entrusted us into each others' care, and also a typical "upside-down kingdom" reversal of roles in which the world's "losers" are somehow the judges of the world's "winners."

But what happens in a world where (as the financial experts keep telling us) winners are dwindling fast and we're mostly left with losers? In a world of have-nots, how then do we now act toward one another? Out of what do we help each other? How do we sustain caring in such a world?

Jesus never told us to refer the stranger to a hostel—he said to take them home with you. He never said to give the naked a thrift store voucher—he said if we have two shirts, give one of them away. He said to share our meals, and not do it on someone else's dime. He said we are to love our neighbour, apparently not anticipating that his people would be so shrewd and selective in choosing their neighbours.

As service providers we choose a "certain type of economy"—one which constantly and continually requires resources because service provision is about giving things to people. "Soup, soap and salvation," as we say in The Salvation Army. It is inherently disempowering, maintains control in the hands of the giver and perpetuates dysfunction and dependency. "Rescue missions" have a place, but they are often more "mission" than "rescue." A service provider gives out of his wealth and not out of her poverty, and this is something with which Jesus seems to have an problem.

Community development looks at things differently. Rather than viewing a neighbourhood like Regent Park as a place to professionally visit and the residents of the community as needing to be given things, the church in the community is viewed as ready to "journey in community to express aspirations, discover assets, confront limitations and generate solutions for peace and well being," in Glenn Smith's words.

It means that the people of God, as agents of community development rather than service delivery units, need to be a presence in such communities (live life there, not just work a job there); facilitate reconciliation rather than exacerbate segregation (economic, class, opportunity, religious as well as racial); enhance ownership in the community (not only of private property but also of people's lives); provide leadership development from the community and not primarily imposed from outside (what better vehicle for developing leaders than the local church?); model just distribution of resources within the community (among many other things, this means shopping in the community). It's not about the servicing of people, but the sharing of life with them. And it is sustainable, regardless of the economy's condition.

So what if the financial crisis is really simply "good news preached to the poor," as Jesus heralded? What if it is a God-given opportunity to re-think our theology and re-imagine our churches? What if it is more about who your friends are than who your broker is, and where your church is rather than where your investments sit? What if it is actually more a theological crisis than an economic one?

What is your theology of the crash?

 

Geoff Ryan is a Major in The Salvation Army, continuing a family tradition that goes back four generations. Following a year-long assignment in the First Nations village of Gitwinksihlkw in Northern British Columbia, Geoff and his wife Sandra were appointed as members of a six-person team sent to reopen the work of The Salvation Army in the Soviet Union following a 70 year absence. Three years of service as a church leader in St. Petersburg was followed by six years in the southern city of Rostov-on-Don. Geoff’s final two years in Europe was spent as The Salvation Army’s Regional Officer for Southern Russia, a position that included oversight of operations in nine cities and relief efforts in the war-torn Republics of Ingushetia and Chechnya.

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