Mentioned in this episode
Where Mortals Dwell: A Christian View of Place Today by Dr. Craig Bartholomew
Crossroads Christian Church in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, NY
Light to the World: Making Politics Safe for Christian Community by Center for Christian Civics
Rick Barry (Host): At the time that we’re putting this episode together, we don’t have all of the results in the 2018 midterm elections yet. Tonight’s still pretty young, but one thing is already looking to be very clear: no matter who you are, no matter what you’re approach to politics is, no matter what Your partisan identity is, tonight will be a mixed bag for you. One party is going to take the majority in the House of Representatives, while the other party is going to widen its majority in the Senate. And the internal fights over ideology and strategy within each party are only geared up to get deeper.
Tonight’s election is probably going to end up offering a little something for everyone to be comforted by, and a lot of things for everyone to be frustrated by.
That means that this is one of the rare times that Christians across the political spectrum can all honestly and sincerely offer up remarkably similar prayers for our political process without praying openly together becoming too fractious, embarrassing, or frustrating for any of us. So, in a few minutes, we’re going to come back together and I’m going to offer up a model prayer for us all. It would be great for you to be praying along with me while I do. It would be even better for you to find someone in the church who had very different hopes for this week’s midterms than you did and pray along together. And, as always, if you’re a pastor or ministry leader, feel free to use this prayer when you’re leading worship. You can steal it whole cloth or use it as a jumping off point for prayers of your own.
Before we get to that, though, I wanted take a few minutes to think about something that you’re also probably going to be hearing a lot about over the next couple weeks. As pundits and—let’s face it—armchair pundits and Facebook pundits try to unpack what this week’s election results mean for the state of American society, one thing that’s going to come up over and over again is the partisan divide between urban voters, suburban voters, and rural voters.
This is a pretty regular theme in political analysis, because it’s a recurring reality in our election results. When election results come in, big cities and rural communities are often at opposite ends of the partisan spectrum, with small towns, exurbs, and suburbs forming something of a gradient in between them.
Earlier today, while I was watching some election analysis, I heard two talking heads from opposite political parties each mention this phenomenon. Not only that, but they both seemed to take it for granted that the reasons big cities tend to have Democratic majorities while smaller towns tend to have Republican majorities is that people of similar political persuasions “flock together.” They even said that! That we’re making a deliberate choice to live near people of similar politics. And that’s one explanation. I have certainly met people who told me they moved because they wanted to be around more people who vote like.
But my suspicion is that that’s actually pretty rare.
Thinking about this reminded me of a conversation I had earlier this spring that I’d love to share a little bit of with you now. Through the magic of teleconferencing, I got to talk with Dr. Craig Bartholomew and with pastor and church planter William McGee. Dr. Bartholomew is the director of the Kirby Laing Institute for Christian Ethics at Tyndale House in Cambridge, United Kingdom, as well as the author of Where Mortals Dwell: A Christian View of Place for Today.
Pastor McGee had recently moved to Brooklyn New York to take over pastoring at Crossroads Christian Church, in my old neighborhood of Bay Ridge.
I talked with Dr. Bartholomew and Pastor McGee about theology of place—how we understand how God feels about the places we live what a godly relationship to those places looks like. We talked for a long time. I’m not going to inflict the whole interview on you right now—it was I think close to about an hour and a half. I’m just going to grab a quick segment from it for now, because I think at least checking in on this interview will help us keep a bigger picture in focus as we all work through how we feel about the election results.
I’m going to jump into the conversation right as Dr. Bartholomew starts talking a little bit about how, when it comes to the way we think and behave, the places we live might actually influence more than we think.
Craig: Well, I think it’s a very human question because, if you think about it, one of the big differences between God and humans is that God is everywhere but humans are always and everywhere in one place. So we might say that to be human is to be placed. And then I think what happens is that the places that we live in shape us, and our experiences and our narratives shape the places. So this dynamic emerges of living in a place, being shaped by it, and also shaping it.
All sorts of things emerge out of that. The way our towns are shaped, the houses we live in, the neighborhoods we live in, the churches we build, gardens, etc. And you start to see that place is actually everywhere, and it’s so much everywhere that, remarkably, we easily ignore it.
Rick: Let me ask you what you mean when you say the places we live shape us. We like to think that we bring ourselves wherever we go, but the idea that where we go might shape who we are is maybe a new idea.
Craig: Okay, well, you know maybe the best way to answer that questions is to give you an example. So, if you think, for example, how we build urban communities nowadays, one of the great characteristics of urbanism in North America Is suburban sprawl. And another characteristic is the big house. And what faces the road? The double garage, which we enter electronically and then we seal ourselves off in our house. Now as many, many analysts have noted, suburban sprawl does not help us develop community. So if you live amidst suburban sprawl, it’s easy not to know your neighbors. It’s easy not to develop community. There you have an example of how the way we build our cities shapes the way we live.
Rick: It’s interesting. I just remember in my own experience, when I was living in apartment buildings in New York, I spent more time seeing and talking with my neighbors than anywhere else I’ve lived, despite the reputation New York might have for being an inhospitable or lonely place. William, I know you’re relatively new to New York—have you found that to be true? How has that transition been for you?
William: Absolutely. I’ve lived in the suburbs, as well, and it’s very difficult to meet your neighbors. Like Craig mentioned, we pull our cars into the garage and we go into our living room. If we do go outside, it’s to a backyard, no longer a front yard. It’s very difficult to know your neighbors in that context, whereas in New York I hear my neighbor’s all the time! I mean, they’re playing their guitar above me and their kids are running around and you have to contend with that. You live in the same building; there is no backyard; there is really no privacy.
And so, I would agree with you, Rick. We know our neighbors better than we’ve ever known neighbors before in the past—which is, as you said, ironic, because New York has the reputation of being standoffish. But it’s been an incredible experience for us.
To Craig’s point, though, New York shapes people, as well. The stereotype of the New Yorker is that we’re hurried, that were busy, that we’re fast-paced and that we’re rude. But if you actually look at the way the city is built, it’s built on a grid. If you’re standing on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan and you look up, the actual building of the city points your eyes upward and forward. The way those buildings just move off into the distance, it looks almost like a track and it almost makes you feel like you’ve got to move quickly. The city is built for efficiency and productivity and speed and that shapes us. I think that’s why there is a sense of angst and why living in New York can be so tense and so stressful.
Our actual environment shapes the way we see our surroundings. No matter where we live, the built environment is going to shape us in these unique ways. And I think people talk around it a lot. Most New Yorkers could talk about how they feel pressure but I don’t think they think about how it’s the built environment that’s actually doing that to them. Or, in the suburbs, people may complain about feeling disconnected or lonely or not having friends, but I don’t think they have the vocabulary to understand that it’s actually our back porches and our zoning laws that are actually making us lonely.
Rick: One of the things I learned a few years ago that I thought was wildly interesting about city planning or civil engineering is one of the surest ways to slow down traffic in residential neighborhoods when people are complaining or afraid that cars are going too fast and it’s a danger for their kids who are playing in the street is to make sure that the streets are lined with trees whose branches actually overlap the street. When you’re on a street and the sky is open above it, people inherently drive faster. When it feels more enclosed—even a street that’s the same width, with the same number of cars going down it—the traffic will go slower if the trees basically form a canopy over the road.
William, you’ve recently started ministry by moving into a new place. You moved to New York specifically for this call to join this church. Is that correct?
William: Correct. That was three years ago.
Rick: Where were you before then?
William: In the last 15 years, I’ve ministered in a college town, suburban Raleigh-Durham and then most recently rural Alabama and now New York city.
Rick: And for folks who don’t know, share a little bit about what the neighborhood you’re ministering in in New is like, because I think when you say you’re pastoring in New York, it might cast initially a different image in peoples’ minds from what ministering in Bay Ridge is really like.
William: If you just saw an aerial view of it, Bay Ridge looks like a typical Brooklyn neighborhood. It’s on a grid, the buildings are six floors high, but it is just a really unique neighborhood. About probably half of the neighborhood has lived there for generations and generations and generations. But then on the other hand you have people that are moving there for lower rent prices. And so you have a lot of people that are coming with suburban tendencies and you have people that have grown up in this neighborhood their whole life. But then on top of that you also have a large Arabic population that, over the last 10–15 years, has moved into the neighborhood. So you’ve got all these strange tensions within the place of people who have suburban tendencies and suburban expectations of life, but then you also have people who have very urban tendencies and urban expectations of life. But then you also have people who are bringing these expectations of place that were informed on the other side of the world, in a place that’s very different—not only different from the neighborhood, but from the United States.
It creates a lot of unique conversations that make it a very interesting place to minister in.
Rick: How has the diversity of your background enabled you to pick up on things that people are engaging with or dealing with or being shaped by that they may not have noticed themselves?
William: Well, one of the things I found helpful is that because I’ve lived in so many different types of places, I’m able to see where people are similar. And I think by seeing where they’re similar you’re able to locate points of difference.
For example, when I pastored in rural Alabama, most of the people in my congregation and most of my friends had what we would call rural sensibilities. But they loved their place. They loved where they were from. Most of them had lived in the same small town their entire lives. They knew the land and they loved where they were from. On the other hand, here in New York, while they’re very different—their accents may be different, their interests may be different—they seem to appreciate their place in the same way that say someone with a rural sensibility would. The way that they talk about Bay Ridge sounds very similar to the way that someone in rural Alabama talks about their town or their county.
Rick: If we’re supposed to be conformed to the image of Christ, if we’re supposed to be learning to grow and walk in line with the gospel, does that mean that the influence of our places is something we have to actually struggle against? Are we supposed to be de-conformed from our places in order to be conformed to the gospel? Is there a practice of the Christian faith that is divorced from the inhabitation of a place? Or does our location actually have to have something to do with what discipleship looks like for us?
Craig: If I can just revert back to our discussion of suburban sprawl, these are the links that need to be made. It’s very clear I think and I hope to all our listeners that suburban sprawl shapes the way we relate to our neighbor. Now, at the heart of the Christian faith and Christian discipleship is to love your neighbor as yourself.
These are the links that I think we have to become conscious of: That architecture, town planning, suburban sprawl, whether we like it or not, whether we are conscious of it or not, those things affect the way we love our neighbors as ourselves. A big thing that I hope will emerge out of this discussion is that people will start becoming conscious of the places we live in and how they shape us.
Now then, in my opinion, because I believe this world is God’s good, fallen-but-being-redeemed creation, the notion of place is a fundamentally good thing. To be a human being, you have to be in a particular place and that’s not an evil. That’s a wonderful thing. However, the effect of sin is that places get miss-shaped. We develop the worst aspects that undermine community. But then you’ve also got loads of other examples where places are developed to facilitate community.
Christian discipleship needs to—and churches in general—we need to become conscious of this so we can recognize the good things in our places and we can work to reshape those things that are not good.
PLACE AND VOTING
Rick: Alright, that was a small part of my lengthy conversation with Dr. Craig Bartholomew and pastor William McGee.
In our classes and in our Bible study guide, Light to the World, we talk a little bit about the cognitive effects of the fall. And one of those cognitive effects is that we have a tendency to treat complicated things as though they’re simple. One of the things I liked about this part of the conversation is that it called out the fact that our relationship to our communities might not be as simple as we think it is. We are called to be good stewards of our communities, to take responsibility for their health and their well functioning. But that relationship isn’t a one-way street. We can change our cities and our states, but while we do that, they’re also changing us, and we have to be aware of that.
As we all take stock of this election season, we’re probably going to find out that people who voted differently from us live in different places from us—maybe in bigger cities or smaller towns. Maybe in apartments rather than houses. But it’s important for us to remember that they’re not the only ones whose politics are, at least in part, shaped by the place they live. We are, too. God wants us to be aware of our place because it helps us love those places better, but that means being aware of the way those places shape—and maybe even mis-shape—us.
Our good and gracious God,
You reign in heaven, and the Kingdom of heaven is already advancing into this world, and the gates of Hell can not withstand it. Thank you for the promise and the guarantee of a future kingdom whose government rests on the shoulders of Jesus, who wields and distributes authority with wisdom, grace and perfection. We need that promise, because we don’t wield and distribute authority with wisdom, grace and perfection.
This week, we, together with our fellow citizens, have appointed hundreds, probably thousands, of new officials to manage the work of our country and our states. And, honestly, we probably didn’t make the best choices in every case. We always hope that, with each election, we’ve put a few Josephs or Daniels into Congress or the State House—servants of humility, talent and goodwill. But it is a hard job, and it can beat down even the strongest of us. It can confront even the most sincere with confounding dilemmas and temptations. So we pray for the men and women who we’ve asked to step into government service.
We pray that the incumbents can enter their next term with fresh eyes, fresh hearts, and a willingness to engage with their new colleagues. We pray that those preparing to serve their very first terms learn quickly and bear all of our neighbors in their hearts and minds as they discharge their work—not just the neighbors who were most likely to vote for them. And for all of our public servants, we pray that you open the eyes of their hearts to impress on them the awe and honor of the work they do. We are all called to give order to the world—that was something you commissioned us to do in the garden—but we’ve hired these men and women to make giving order to our communities their full-time work for the next few years, and that is daunting. We pray for rest, for sabbath for them. And we pray for friendship, that the responsibilities we’ve tasked them with don’t leave them cut off from the people they most need to feel rooted and restored.
And we pray for ourselves, the citizens and neighbors who populate this country. When the dust of 2018 elections clears, the bitter partisanship that has been growing over the past twenty years is not going to stop. The way things are shaping up, that partisanship has everything it needs to just going to keep growing worse. And we have a part in that. We’ve hardened our hearts to our political opponents, who are made in your image. And we’re sorry for that. But you are the God that turns stone hearts to flesh. Make your hand felt, seen and understood. And start with us. Break our stony hearts. Remove them from us. That will be hard, because it’s going to cut us off from some angers and hatreds and animosities that we like having. That we nurture. Lead us away from the path of bitterness, resentment, fear and wrath. Help us to pay out kindness where we may think it is not deserved—and in so doing refine our opponents, reconciling them instead of alienating them—if not to us, then to you.
We pray these things in the name of your Son, Jesus Christ, who, in his capacity as King, reconciled US to YOU when WE were your enemies