Tuesday, August 7, 2007

If Jesus Lived in a Subdivision

On the flight back from New Orleans I happened to sit next to a white guy named Cooper. When he told me his name I laughed to myself. He fit the image of a Cooper that must be in the American book of stereotypes. He had long curly dirty blond hair. Every minute or two he took off his cap and brushed his hair back and then put the cap back on. It was a nasty University of Georgia baseball cap. The brim was bent and frayed at the tip and there was a sweat stain all around the bottom. He had on those big cargo shorts that they sell at Target and Old Navy that are a favorite of white boys just like him. He was also wearing flip flops and a close fitting t-shirt that said, “Property of Abercrombie and Fitch.” He couldn’t have fit the stereotype any better.

I learned that he was on his way back from New Orleans having completed a church mission to help rebuild damaged homes. He said that he had spent the earlier part of the summer in Guatemala doing missionary work with people in some small village. I asked if the work he was doing in New Orleans was missionary work too. He said yes, that while they were helping to rebuild people’s homes, “we were spreading the Word too.” Indeed, the airport had been full of these church groups going and coming from all over the place. There were whole gangs of white kids with matching t-shirts emblazoned with an old rugged cross on the front and some bible verse or another on the back wearing Livestrong and What Would Jesus Do? bracelets.

Religion is not a chitchat topic for a plane conversation, but you don’t learn much from chitchat topics. I asked what personal philosophy drove his missionary work. He immediately responded that he wanted to help share the keys to Christ and salvation with people. He followed that by saying, “that life with Christ is like such a beautiful thing and like it is based in so much love that like it only seems right to share that with people, and like give them a chance to experience it.”

I always assume that white boys that look like Cooper are super privileged and equally sheltered. Their worldliness, which is sometimes extensive, appears to be undone by the sense of superiority that they exude. They might go into Guatemala, for example, look at the people and say “By the Grace of God, I have the opportunity to make a difference in these people’s lives.” They do not say, “There, but for the Grace of God go I.” Nothing in their experience can help them relate to the circumstances of poverty and exclusion that they are so fond of visiting to spread the Good News. Based on that assumption, my reaction to him was that poor people in Guatemala and New Orleans and wherever else he had been do not need his faith, they need his privilege. They need the comfort and safety of his subdivision and the luxury of not being preoccupied with surviving. In New Orleans they need the sense that they as individuals and their communities matter, that if they are hurt someone will care. In Guatemala, those devout Catholics do not need faith, they need peace. In my view, the appreciation of faith born in privilege always seems weaker than the appreciation of privilege born in faith.

In my mind I was careful not to dismiss the fundamental goodness of what Cooper spent his summer doing – helping. It was obvious to me and he said as much, that his ability to do all this Christian good work was based on his parents’ ability to pay for him to travel all around the globe to do it. Despite that, what he chose to do with the resources available to him was significant. It bothered me though, that he was so steadfast in his belief that his experience of the righteousness of Christ was something that he felt compelled to share with poor people. In spiritual terms, what did he really have to offer? If these poor people accept Christ the way he had, that they would experience the righteousness of Christ the way he does? I wondered if it is possible for him to decouple the component of his identity that is privilege from the component that is faith? His faith was born in subdivision safety where all his needs were met and the righteousness of Christ’s love, if not its bounty, may have been fairly easy to focus on. Pastors are quick to say that Christ’s faith was not born while lounging by the side of a pool, but while nailed to a cross between two thieves.

I found the confluence of class and faith confusing. I also realized that not only was I bothered by Cooper’s professed evangelical righteousness, it made me angry. That triggered the need for me to reflect on the relationship between faith and privilege in me. Cooper left me with that personal challenge. He also left me wondering if Jesus’ word would be the Word if he had grown up in a subdivision?



willy said...

Ah labels and covers....

When we buy a pair of jeans, a latest book off the shelf -- or make a social assessment or judgment of another they can be a significant element to our decisions. And they can sometimes be quite deceiving...

I found your latest blogs very interesting, especially 'slapped by a white woman', and 'if Jesus lived in a subdivision' as they rely to some degree on the label-method-of-assessment -- one related to a young blond female (presumably never met or engaged) and the other related to "Cooper"

I was compelled by these two blogs to reflect on two couples that are both good friends to my wife and me -- both in their early 30s. Please indulge me as I offer a brief outward description of each, as they would be seen by a casual observer.

Couple one (we'll lable them 'Trent & Cindy') are often seen in casual attire looking like models from an American Eagle outlet - their favorite outfitter of choice (and Canadians yet -- go figure eh?) -- his frayed AE cap, T and cargo shorts and her dressed similarly.

The other ones (we'll tag with 'Mitch & Jill') a tall good looking couple -- her bubbly and "chirpy" him the quiet broody type. For all intents and purposes they could be perceived as a later rendition of Barbie and Ken...

That is their outward appearance..

Both couples have had the opportunity to be quite successful secularly. 'Trent' started as a tradesman and is a now Project Manager for a major construction company who has chosen to cut his work schedule to 3-4 days a week so he can devote upwards of 90+ hours/month volunteering to teach the bible in rural Eastern Ontario to those who are interested. He also serves his local congregation in various ways and means -- all of this in lieu of a more prestigious and lucrative secular career.

'Mitch' is a self-taught resident genius who designs, engineers, and builds mechanical enhancement kits for VW and BMW clients and has high priced customers from Toronto, Montreal, Michigan and many points between. Had he chosen to actively pursue a profession in the field of his specialty there is no telling the scope that his worldly success could have taken. His lifestyle and choices are similar to Trent's

'Trent and Cindy' have chosen to move from a nice single home on the water to very modest accommodations in a mobile home, in order to pursue their spiritual interests and keep their living costs down. 'Mitch and Jill' live similarly in a home he built -- as I said, the guy's gifted...

Both couples could have been spotted on a plane on their way to the Dominican Republic or in a VW Van headed for New Orleans to spend 6 - 8 weeks helping to repair or replace homes, houses of worship, and to preach and teach to those interested in hearing them. This type of activity is a regular practice for each couple.

How would these two couples be viewed and assessed by the casual viewer..? Depending on the viewer's shade of jade they could be perceived as "Coopers" and "Brittanys" in your latest blogs. Both couples work hard and devote a great deal of their time in the service of others -- irrespective of ethnicity, culture, etc.. Both enjoy a good time as well. You can find Trent and Cindy occasionally at the local downtown Rock/Blues watering hole sharing a pitcher of beer and yelling the war-cry-of-the-paler-skin ("wooooohooooo !") after a pounding set by the local rock band. (Sound like another white girl to whom we've been introduced..?)

All this to say that -- admittedly -- stereotypes are stereotypes for a reason, I guess. Obviously a large enough segment of a population carries a specific trait to the degree that we feel entitled to paint with a large monotoned brush. However there are two realties that I have noted in my (albeit limited) experience

1. Stereotypes are not always accurate, and are never accurate for all.

2. They are often (if not universally) accepted more by the outside observer than they are by the group in question. The group often feels uncomfortable at best and offended at worst by the stereotype.

These two realities seem to transcend race, nationality, creed, ethnicity, language. etc. I'm fairly sure we (you and I) have experienced both sides of this game...

On the subject of Jesus and his lack of privilege during his existence on the earth, it is worth noting a couple of interesting points that would challenge this assessment of his life. Granted he was the son of a carpenter during his young adult life -- prior to his baptism at 30 yrs of age. However these other scriptural facts must also be considered

Prior to his life on the earth, he was the only begotten son of Almighty God and His master worker -- a privileged position to be sure (John 3:16, Proverbs 8:22-31)

Following his death and ascension to heaven he was King-Designate of God's heavenly kingdom -- equally a role that is nothing if not lofty (Luke 22:29, Revelation 8:22-31)

Even during his earthly ministry, in spite of his modest lifestyle, he enjoyed occasional incidences of luxury:

His inner garment was considered to be of high enough value that the Roman Soldiers chose to draw lots for the entire piece instead of cutting it (John 19:23,24)

He was anointed with an oil towards the end of his ministry that was so expensive that it was considered to be worth 300 denarii - or a year's wages (Mark 14:3-9)

He even had an appreciation for fine wine (Luke 5:39, John 2:10,11)

All of this to say that I suspect our reigning King (and his father) is capable -- both from experience and perspective -- to judge the motives, values, and intentions of the human heart no matter where it resides -- uptown, downtown, midtown or suburbia.

And I guess -- if nothing else -- we can all agree that we should be thankful that our final judgment will be the responsibility of one who is not fooled by the label...

NikkiJ said...


I'm almost certain that many years ago, I told you that for me, what the bible says about faith is true. That faith "is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen." I'm sorry that I wasn't able to convince you back then. Therefore, when considering this phrase, faith is born in your heart and not necessarily in poverty or wealth. What the poor hope for is undoubtedly different than what the non poor hope for. Jesus said, ".., It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God." And this is why I believe that Jehovah did not place his son Jesus in a subdivision. The rich don't need to use their faith as much as everyone else and so therefore their faith develops differently. For some reason I feel uncomfortable calling their faith weaker, but I know that the more that I have to actually test my faith, the stronger it gets. And it is because of this that I've learned that God is faithful to His Word. Wonder no more.

Love, Nicole (still the same, but very different).

luvlife0702 said...

After spending all summer running into missionaries in Belize (stayed with some that literally scared the Bejesus out of me and they actually said they saw jesus in me which is too much for an atheist trying to get a swim in before dark), Guatemala (Guatemala was particularly overrun), Uganda, Kenya, Costa Rica and having students run off to work on 'missions' i was knee deep in your blog entries i'm finally getting a chance to read due to the travels.

What's interesting to me was the evangelical Reverend with whom I spent two nights in the Babadogo slums of Nairobi. He knew I did not believe in God and not once did he try to convince me of anything. We already had decided to work together on improving the plight of the people to whom he ministered and religion was not at the heart of it: love was. mine. his. and the doc's. and though he turned his life from drugs and theft and alcohol because of religion, he was all about social change and not about conversion of beliefs. and THAT'S why, he and I are all love and peace. As for the rest of 'em, as I say on my Facebook, "send cash and stay home". many of these folks are converting christians from one set of beliefs to another. to have missionaries in Antigua, Guatemala where churches are on every corner jsut cracks me up, especially when homie in the airport with the cross on his T-shirt tells me that he's there to tell them they don't need an intermediary to get to God. I told him to call that in and send the airfare to the orphanage instead of coming to hug a baby and go on prayer walks which make a Jehovah's Witness visit seem like your cousin came without the kids. who wants 12 people at their door praying. would scare the christian out of anybody. and don't get me started on the Mormons who ran out of white folks and now are out walking the bushes of Africa and the streets of Kingston. okay, i'm done ranting. but it touched a nerve!!! okay, my spine. LMAO!

Hill Rat said...

Kamau - Everyone on this blog is so damn serious! I'm gonna try to lighten things up a bit by asking you a question: why all the hate for cargo shorts?

For real man, should we all go back to rocking those tiny ass OP cord shorts from 1983 or would you prefer that everyone wore basketball shorts with no pockets and walked around with their wallet, keys, and cell phone in their hand all day?

You've got a little one, you should know that cargo shorts with those big ass pockets are a gift to a Dad that rolls out with his seed. When my baby and I go to the park I can stick a couple of diapers and some wipes in one pocket, a sippy cup of water and a bag of carrots in the other and I'm ready to roll!

Seriously son, stop snacking on the Hater Tots and go get yourself some cargo shorts.