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Capitalism, Community, Christianity

A conservative Christian pastor laments the destruction of his community by an enemy: its own members

Alan Cross, a friend and Southern Baptist pastor, just posted this on another thread. It was so good I wanted to make it a post of its own:

Globalization is not the whole problem and nationalism is not the whole answer. That would assume that the problem is “out there” and the answer is that if we would just band together in smaller national units based on culture, race, ethnic identity, and shared memory, then we can rebuild and survive. One can take that approach and use power to assert yourself, but it is not the Christian approach and I don’t think that Christianity is neutral and that each country can just organize itself according to race, tribe, ethnicity and then subvert Christianity to the ethno-cultural impulse to serve it as a chaplain, so to speak.

Rather, what has been missing from capitalism for a long time is any sense of morality, care for neighbor and community, and love for the “other” that Christianity absolutely demands, but that this current iteration of capitalism says is foolish. I am a big fan of many of the basic tenets of capitalism, but that is not what has been at work in our country. When capitalism was taken over by Darwinian philosophy and Christianity just bowed the knee to pursuit of the profit motive over the survival and flourishing of local communities, then you had the beginnings of the moral rot that would flash up in the 2007-2009 Economic Collapse and that now threatens us again. When greed, a vice, became a virtue and Christianity in America followed along, the only possible result would be the destruction that we now see. Instead of standing prophetically against the separation of business and care for community, we just moved along with it and supported market forces – as long as they benefitted us. When they don’t, we howl.

Working with the African American community, I have seen people work hard, invest, buy homes in stable neighborhoods, and try to advance themselves into the middle class. In the city where I live, for example, a huge section of town was made up of black and white families living in neighborhoods together. Home values were strong and middle class black families invested their money in home ownership. This was in the 1990s and 2000s. But, white flight ensued and local businesses began leaving – not because of crime and real problems, but because real estate speculators and developers were throwing up new neighborhoods on the east side of town. The newly refurbished mall (at a $70 million price tag) began to lose tenants and the “new” outdoor mall on the edge of town began to attract them. Within 10 years what was once a vibrant and solid part of town with 50,000+ people – both white and black – saw its businesses and people of wealth, mostly white, move to other parts of town or to bedroom communities. Home values collapsed, people lost their investments, and mortgages were upside down. Businesses were boarded up and by 2005, what was once a vibrant part of the city just 5 years before was in complete decline. And, this was BEFORE the economic collapse starting in 2007. Minorities, who had believed that if you work hard and try to make it then you can, suffered first and were the “canary in the coal mine” prophesying what was to come. But, what happened with the loss of millions and millions of dollars of home owner investment in just a few years in the older section (homes built in the 1960s and 70s) was not because of the Chinese manipulating currency or immigrants or any of the things that get blamed these days. It was because of greed, racism, fear, a desire for the “new” thing, and speculators convincing people that they needed the new house and that businesses needed to “chase rooftops.”

I was a staff pastor in a church and I lived in this community that over a 10 year period was completely devastated economically, not by outside forces or closing factories or liberal Hollywood or the Federal government, but by the basic decisions of businesses and those who could move and pursue what they wanted apart from any kind of thought (or concern?) about how it might impact their neighbor or community. I went to the city government, community organizations, and churches and warned them of what was coming – blight, economic despair, and a collapse of a quarter of the city that at the time was a good place to live but in a decade it wouldn’t be. No one cared or believed me. Every decision was individual and there was no thought given to how one decision would affect another unless you were a real estate developer trying to get ahead of the wave. Money was to be made, and if that meant cannibalizing one part of the city so they could make some extra money by developing another part, then so be it. The law of supply and demand was ignored because there weren’t new people moving in to the city. They were throwing up houses and neighborhoods and developments to take from one area and to develop a new area – because they could and it benefitted them to do so. When I expressed my objections about how all of this would affect families and neighborhoods and all of those who had gone to school, worked hard, and invested in their homes thinking they had arrived, I was told by city leaders, church leaders, and Christians – well, that is how capitalism works and what, are you some kind of a liberal?

Of course, all of them already had the means to surf the wave, sell early, get out, and buy or build homes in the new up and coming areas. They were not concerned with what happened to those neighborhoods left behind. They would just build new churches to attract the wealthy who could manage these constant changes. And, it wasn’t like they were bad people who didn’t care about people. They just never even thought about it. You just take care of yourself and you do what you can for yourself and that’s it. And, you ask God to bless it.

Now that this type of capitalism eats itself and has for a long time and only benefits those who can navigate its ever-changing dynamics, we blame immigrants, globalization, liberals, and everyone we can think of without realizing that WE have been a part of the whole thing and have been benefitting from it for a really long time. And, not everyone can benefit or navigate these changes. Not just Liberals, but Conservatives (and I am one) who know how to navigate this ever-changing landscape and can do it well are the real elites in our society. And, we continue to want things to work in our favor and get mad when it doesn’t.

I still remember talking to the African American gentleman about 15 years ago in the parking lot of the mall that was at the center of the community that was failing. He told me how he went in to the military, got married, had children, served his years, saved his money, retired, got another job, his wife got a job, and they bought a home in this community. And, he told me that the changes in the community being wrought by the overdevelopment on the other side of town had caused their 30 year old neighborhood to crumble in home value and he lost his whole investment and now they were upside down and could not move. He thought he was doing everything right and at the end of the day, because he picked the wrong neighborhood (right at the time but wrong 5 years later) and because he was black and white people didn’t want to live near him, he came out an economic loser and now could not recover. This was around 2002. He was angry and fearful. I will never forget that conversation. The homes being built were monstrosities that were 3000-4000 square feet and his modest 1500 square foot ranch style home was no longer good enough to maintain its value. No political movement arose to represent his interests and call for a moral capitalism that had concern for neighbor and community.

I am saying all of this to say that a discussion on capitalism is really important. But, we had a chance to introduce a moral component to it and we chose to use it to advance our own interests wherever we could. Not everyone is capable of keeping up with that. We’ve been destroying our own communities and selling them off for parts for a long time now and the church (in the South where I live, anyway) has been blessing the transactions without even questioning (or knowing how to question or even that they should) if the whole approach was right, moral, or godly in any way. And, now we are paying the price.

That section of our city now is in massive decline, schools are failing, property values have collapsed, and social problems have arisen. Poor immigrants have moved in and the white people have left, leaving poor or lower middle class blacks behind. The major businesses all left and no one wants to invest there. And, you might drive through that area and blame the people who live there or outside forces in the economy, but having lived there and seen what happened, I can tell you that there was a lot more going on that the people involved in making it happen did not even have a framework to understand. The results were predictable, but what were the alternatives? Stay, build community, love your neighbor, and forego a nice, new home and large profits? That was never an option because we don’t think that way, largely. But, that is where the breakdown is, isn’t? Not “out there,” but “in here.” And, if no one tells that story, then how can things ever be different?

UPDATE: Out of fairness to Alan, I should point out that he is not, in fact, a communist, or even an anti-capitalist. The context in which he made this remark as as a comment to a long post I made about a German economist’s claims about the socially destructive nature of the form of capitalism we have now (and how there really aren’t any realistic solutions to it).