I’m a city kid. I grew up in Flint, Michigan and was only an hour away from Detroit. The 1970s, my childhood, was the time when we heard a new phrase: white flight. It was a time when whites who lived in cities like Flint and Detroit, left the inner cities to head to a new life in the burbs. At least in Michigan, the move to places like Rochester Hills, Farmington Hills, Troy and Southfield created segregated metro areas with a black and poorer inner core and a white outer ring.
So, I grew up with an antipathy towards the suburbs. They were places that were gated paradises filled with racist white folk who couldn’t give a damn about the folks in the cities.
Twenty years later, I don’t have the same hatred of suspicion of the burbs. They are still not the places I prefer to live in (thought I did live in the Washington, DC suburbs of Arlington, VA and Silver Spring, MD in the years following college). Part that is because I actually started paying attention to what is going on in the suburbs. Over the years, I’ve learned that hunger take place in suburbs like Maple Grove, Minnesota, which is just west of Minneapolis. I’ve learned that domestic violence takes place and that there are shelters for women and children in the tony suburbs of Oakland County north of Detroit. I learned that runaway youth who live in the burbs need a place to stay. I learned that suburban schools are becoming more diverse, handling people from different parts of the world. What I’ve learned is that the suburbs are not some fascist utopia, but are real places with real problems.
But while the burbs are far more complex than I was led to believe, they old stereotype still exists, especially in churches. Church leaders constantly rip the burbs as being against the will of God.
Last week, Acton Institute blogger Anthony Bradley blogged on how the new radicalism being preached by several evangelical ministers seems to favor the bold and daring instead of ordinary. Here’s a key paragraph.
In the 1970s and 1980s the children and older grandchildren of the Builder generation (born 1901 between 1920) sorted themselves and headed to the suburbs to raise their children in safety, comfort, and material ease. And, taking a cue from the Baby Boomer parents (born between 1946 and 1964) to despise the contexts that provided them advantages, Millennials (born between 1977 and 1995) now have a disdain for America’s suburbs. This despising of suburban life has been inadvertently encouraged by well-intentioned religious leaders inviting people to move to neglected cities to make a difference, because, after all, the Apostle Paul did his work primarily in cities, cities are important, and cities are the final destination of the Kingdom of God. They were told that God loves cities and they should too. The unfortunate message became that you cannot live a meaningful Christian life in the suburbs.
This led to a response from the folks at the Fare Forward blog who countered Bradley’s assessment of the suburbs. They believe that Christians in America should abstain from suburban living:
Yet some forms of cultural resistance should be universal, because some aspects of “normal” life in America are deeply unChristian. Bradley laments that “anti-suburban Christianity” has lead to this kind of legalism. But there are some things deeply unChristian, and deeply counter to even natural virtue, in the suburbs. Will Seath does a good job of laying those out in his article from the winter edition of Fare Forward. Bradley suggests that the anti-suburban Christians advocate for urbanism at the expense of the suburbs. But, as the buzz around Rod Dreher’s latest book on moving home, a lot of the anti-suburban sentiment comes from people who support small town living just as much as from those who support city living. And the thing that unites the city and the country against the suburbs is the belief that the suburbs are not, as a matter of fact, ordinary, natural life, but a strange artificial construct that hinders ordinary live and ordinary relationships (see Seath for more).
Notice what’s being said here. It’s not that suburbs aren’t optimal to Christian living. No, suburban living is unChristian, it goes against what it means to be a Christian. I haven’t read the Will Seath article, but even without reading it the above statement is astounding. What is being said here is that nothing good comes from the suburbs, and that millions of Christians in America are basically committing a grave sin because they chose to live outside the city.
In some ways what we are seeing here is a religious version of the war between sociologists Joel Kotkin and Richard Florida. Florida is well known for his book of a decade ago called “Rise of the Creative Class.” Florida tends to focus on America’s cities and focuses especially on cities that can attract the “creatives” persons in the arts that can enhance the life of a city. Kotkin on the other hand, tends to focus on America’s suburbs and less cooler cities. It’s obvious from the tone of this post that I tend to agree more (though not totally) with Kotkin. If you want to get a different view on suburbanism, read Kotkin’s 2010 essay “The War Against the Suburbs.”
My point isn’t that the burbs are better than cities or small towns. My point is that I think Bradley has a point that we are called to live a godly life where we are planted, be that a big city, small town or sleepy suburb.
Are there unChristian things going on the suburbs? Yes. But last I checked unChristian principles like greed are found in the city as much as in the suburbs. Wall Street is in New York, by the way.
I think the guys at FareForward are dressing up their prejudices against the suburbs and for the city in biblical garb. There’s nothing wrong with preferring city over suburb. What is a problem is trying to use the Bible to justify your views.
I think God calls us to different places. We might be called to an inner city neighborhood, or a small town or a suburb. Rod Dreher was mentioned in the blog post by FareForward. Dreher wasn’t saying just live in small towns or go back to your hometown, but that we must put down roots in the communities where we live and work. Dreher commented in a recent blog post about his book The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, a memoir about his sister living and dying with lung cancer:
I want to push back against people who say you should not leave the country for the city — that was my sister’s view — and against the view of people who say that you should leave the country for the city, which, broadly speaking, is the view of my class. The truth is, we are not all called to do the same thing, or, as I’ve learned, to do the same thing for all of one’s life. I had to leave the country as a young man, not only for my own health, but to fulfill what I believe was my divine calling to be a writer. The sojourn I took in the mid-1990s, trying to move back to Louisiana and failing, confirmed to me that God had a calling on my life, and it could only be accomplished away from here. Now, though, nearly 20 years later, I was able to see through my sister’s fidelity to her own calling here in the country, that He was calling me to do a new thing, outside of the city. What did it was being impressed — overwhelmed, actually — by the extraordinary good my sister Ruthie did living here in this little country town, and seeing in that a model of faithful presence that challenges my own ambitions, and the ambitions of many, many people like me…
This vision was expanded by my attending the funeral of my Great Uncle Jimmy, who was a common man of uncommon goodness and greatness. I came home from that a changed man by what I had seen and heard, and started Orthodox Holy Week in a far more prayerful state of mind because of him. All week I’ve been thinking about how much people need to know about the Ruthie Lemings and James Fletchers of this world, and how I am not necessarily in a position to do the things they did, but I am in a position to write about it, to tell others. This is how I can use the gift and the opportunities God has given me.
Are there Ruthie Lemings and James Fletchers in the city? Absolutely; Uncle Jimmy lived in one, actually, in industrial West Monroe. Goodness knows nothing of the city and country distinction — and neither, it should be said, does evil, though country people and city people sometimes flatter and delude themselves that those who live in the Other Place are more susceptible to wickedness than they are. My point is simply that for me, given my own personal and professional story, I have discovered, to my very great surprise, a calling back to the country. Because of the sort of person I am, I could not, or at least did not, “see” the Uncle Jimmys and Ruthies when I lived in the city, though they were no doubt all around me. It took leaving the city for me to be able to do this. Since Little Way was published, I have heard from so many readers who have written intense, heartfelt letters telling me how much this story about a little town and its people has changed their perspective on life and how to live it…
My point, in terms of Christian vocation — which is what Alan brought up — is that God can use us in the country, He can use us in the suburbs, and He can use us in the city.
He goes on to say about how young Christians want to do Big Things, and they do. I wanted to change things when I was in my 20s. But now in my 40s, I want to live a good life, live to be used by God wherever I am.