Entrance to auditorium, Ephesus. Cross on lintel shows it was converted into a church.

Following a trip earlier this year to archaeological sites in Turkey, I’ve been writing about the cultural setting in which the apostle Paul and other evangelists preached the good news of Christianity. I’ve looked at Roman architecture, religion, and politics, noting the forces arrayed in defense of the existing order. So why did what started out as a marginal movement located far from centers of power succeed at upending that order? Why, a little over three centuries after the first missionaries set out, was a majority of the populace Christian, while paganism was in decline?

We Christians are likely to respond that God was in it. Sure, but what means did he use? In The Rise of Christianity: A Sociologist Reconsiders History (1996: Princeton University Press), Rodney Stark tries to answer that question. Trevor Wax has provided a helpful summary of Stark’s main points here.

The numerical growth of Christianity of course depended on a lot of people converting, and Stark offers some interesting observations on what prompts conversions. In particular, he notes the following:

  • Converts are typically those who have strong relationships with members of the movement to which they convert–“conversion tends to proceed along social networks formed by interpersonal attachments.” (p. 18)
  • Converts typically don’t have pre-existing religious commitments that would interfere; they tend to be “the religiously inactive and discontented, and those affiliated with the most accommodated (worldly) religious communities.” (p. 19)
  • Converts to new religions are similar to early adopters of other sorts of cultural innovations. They tend to be “well among average in terms of income and education.” p. 38
  • It is only when such more privileged members of society are discontented with the conventional religious options available to them that there is an opening for a new religion to flourish.

In line with these general principles, Stark suggests the following about Christian conversion:

  • Paul’s missionary efforts were most successful among the middle and upper classes, so the early church was largely a movement of the more privileged members of society.
  • The Christian message was particularly appealing to the Hellenized Jews of the diaspora. They were socially marginal, and thus were not likely to obtain the rewards available to those more integrated in the culture. At the same time, corresponding to the second point above, they were “relatively worldly, accommodated, and secular.” (p. 60) They were also likely to have interpersonal attachments to Jews who were already Christians.
  • The social and religious structures were periodically overwhelmed by epidemics. “The epidemics swamped the explanatory and comforting capacities of paganism and of Hellenistic philosophies.” (p. 74) Whereas pagans tended to abandon those of their number that were ill, Christians cared for their sick and also for some of the non-Christians who were ill. Thus, a higher percentage of Christians survived. Non-Christians who survived often lost many of the attachments that kept them from converting and were attracted by the Christian ethic of caring for those in need.
  • Women enjoyed much higher status in the Christian subculture than they did in the society at large. Infanticide of girl babies led to a shortage of females in the broader society but not in the church, where girls were raised to maturity. There was a low fertility rate in the society as a whole, but not among Christians. Women converts often brought their husbands with them into the church (secondary conversion); intermarriage between Christian women and pagan men probably also led to conversions.
  • The cities of the Roman empire were places of intense human misery. They were extremely overcrowded, much more so than even the densest cities today. Most people lived in tiny tenements lacking furnaces, fireplaces, clean water, or efficient sewers. Besides the periodic epidemics, “illness and physical affliction were probably the dominant features of daily life in this era.” (p. 154) Mortality rates were high, necessitating a constant stream of newcomers, resulting in deficient attachments and clashes among diverse ethnic groups. The typical city was vulnerable to “attacks, fires, earthquakes, famines, epidemics, and devastating riots.” (p. 159) All of this misery may have led residents to desire something better.

The desire for an improved lot may be most acute when a society is in chaos, but it is something common to humans of every era and social situation. What did Christians offer that was better? Stark makes a couple observations about Christian belief that probably were radically new. Christians maintain that God loves humankind and shows mercy to us even when we don’t deserve it. In contrast, Greek and Roman gods were mostly capricious or selfish, not loving. In fact, the ancient world thought mercy and pity were weaknesses, qualities to be avoided. Christians also linked a social ethical code with religion–believers were to love others and act out that love in their social interactions. Pagans did have their own ethical obligations; for example they were to worship the gods by offering sacrifices. This was mainly a form of social exchange, though, and one’s faith didn’t create much obligation to treat others well. Christianity introduced ethical obligations to everyone, ethical obligations that were to be followed whether or not there was an expectation of immediate earthly rewards.

Of course such ethical standards were a matter of imitating God himself, who sent his son to care even for those in rebellion against Him. God is love. Love him and each other. That’s still the core of the Christian faith. The world needed that message in the first century. The world needs that message today.

Christian symbol etched into pavement of a synagogue in Sardis, Turkey

 

 

Denarius

This morning we had an interesting discussion at the Men’s Bible Study I attend. The passage we looked at was Mark 12, which includes an attempt by Jesus’ opponents to trap him by asking a politically charged question about whether it was permissible to pay taxes to Rome. Jesus first asks his questioner to bring him a denarius, the coin used to pay the tax. The passage continues:

They brought the coin, and he asked them, “Whose image is this? And whose inscription?”
“Caesar’s,” they replied.
Then Jesus said to them, “Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.” (NIV)

Our pastor suggested that Jesus was implicitly comparing the image on the coin–Caesar’s–to the image on the hearts of his hearers–God’s. In other words, Jesus was alluding to the account of creation in Genesis 1:

So God created mankind in his own image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.

A member of the group questioned whether we make too much of the image of God, thus neglecting that a couple of chapters later Genesis describes the Fall, an event in which humans lost a substantial part of what it means to be like God. This resulted in a lengthy discussion. My contribution was that we can mistakenly focus too much either on the ways we humans fall short of the image of God or on the ways we continue to display that image. Each is monumental in scope, and to lose sight of either is to have an erroneous view of what it means to be human. When we focus too much on how much humans fail to display godlike characteristics, we are tempted to dehumanize them. When we focus too much on the ways in which humans still have godlike features, we are tempted to idealize–and often idolize–them.

Thinking about this further after the meeting, it seemed to me that the major philosophical streams in Western society that inform everyone’s sense of self–enlightenment rationalism and romanticism–are both prone to these sorts of errors. To oversimplify here, the enlightenment rationalist may idolize humans who exhibit our capacity for godlike qualities such as reason, objectivity, and commitment to truth, while dehumanizing those they consider still trapped in superstitions like religion or respect for tradition. The romanticist is prone to idolize humans who take the inner journey to discover something true about their nature, but dehumanize critics who question the verities that inner journey supposedly reveal.

As I thought of the errors we make when we have either too high or too low a view of God’s image, I thought also of the political controversy of the moment in the U.S., i.e. the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation. Christine Blasey Ford presented riveting testimony of her memories of attempted rape. As a therapist who has had many conversations with trauma victims, I found her account convincing. To my mind, she showed in her brief time on the public stage a desire to tell the truth, a radical openness about a terribly painful experience, and a willingness to sacrifice her own well-being for the good of society. In all these things, I think she showed something of what God intended all of us to be. But couldn’t she be mistaken as to the identity of her assaulter? I tend to think her memory was accurate, but it might not be. She’s only human, after all. Those who think she couldn’t possibly be incorrect are overestimating human capability. Our memories aren’t godlike, after all.

So some are overestimating the image of God in her, seeing her as incapable of error. Others are making the opposite mistake, dehumanizing her so as to discredit her testimony. President Trump may unfortunately be among those losing sight of her humanity: at a rally last night, he took a mocking tone in describing her testimony, then added, “They [apparently meaning Dr. Ford and other accusers of sexual assault, though the reference isn’t clear] want to destroy people. These are really evil people.” So she’s not merely wrong, she’s one of those others, the evil ones, who are in some sense less than the rest of us good folks.

How about Judge Kavanaugh? I only heard about 20 minutes of his testimony, then saw clips from the rest of it. In the part I heard, he seemed arrogant, defensive, and entitled. His tone has generally been described as angry. It’s easier for me to come up with reasons he might deny a sexual assault that he actually remembers than to imagine Dr. Ford making up such allegations.

Yet I remember that he, too, bears God’s image. As such, there may be more truth in his denials than I am inclined to believe. I think his anger has resonated with conservatives, many of whom have had their motives impuged in a way similar to what they see in the commentary about Kavanaugh.  David French wrote of this in support of Judge Kavanaugh the day after the hearing:

“[I]t is a simple fact that time and again good conservative men and women have been subjected to horrific smears for the sin of disagreement, for in good faith believing in different policies, or in good faith holding different religious beliefs. They (we) have been called bigots, racists, and — yes — evil.”

In other words, they have been dehumanized for their political views. They’ve been judged not just as mistaken but as having evil intentions, as being somehow less than the enlightened ones on the Left. There have been plenty examples of this in responses to the Kavanaugh hearing. For example, Jeff Flake, who as much as any other Senator seems to be trying to hold in mind the humanity of both Ford and Kavanaugh, has for his troubles been labeled a “rape apologist” by the Woman’s March.

Ford, Kavanaugh, Flake, Trump, me–all of these bear the image of God. In all of them the image of God is distorted, shadowed by human corruption. To find my way through these troubled times I need to continually remind myself of these truths.

 

 

A Milwaukee Eviction. Image from Sally Ryan/ZUMA

I recently posted some thoughts about Matthew Desmond’s book Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City (Broadway Books, 2016). Desmond writes about a dozen or so individuals or families in Milwaukee who are struggling to keep roofs over their heads (or in some cases to find another roof after losing the one they had). Many of them spend 70 or 80 percent of their income on rent, so coming up with the monthly payment is often quite a challenge. Even small unexpected expenses can put them behind on rent and push them to the edge of eviction. One question that kept coming to mind as I read the book was “Who is there to help poor renters?” Some benefit from government programs, but these programs meet only a small fraction of the need. Who else is there to help?

Often the first person who provides help–limited and self-serving though it often is–is the landlord. One of the two landlords featured in the book, Sherrena, doesn’t immediately address the delinquency of one of her tenants, Lamar, because Lamar is legless and has young sons in his care. Her reluctance doesn’t last long, though. Desmond quotes her as saying “I guess I got to stop feeling sorry for these people because no one is feeling sorry for me.” Lamar tries to work off the amount in arrears, but Sherrena won’t give him credit for what he has done. The other landlord in the book, Tobin, quickly evicted some tenants who fell behind, but let others remain for months. Desmond notes one factor that affected whether a landlord would proceed with an eviction:

“How a tenant responded to an eviction notice could make a difference. Women tended not to negotiate their eviction like men did, and they were more likely to avoid landlords when they fell behind. These responses did not serve them well.”

Jerry, a biker who lived in Tobin’s park, responded to his eviction notice by angrily threatening to hit Lenny, the property manager. Surprisingly, that didn’t make the situation worse. Desmond attributes tolerance for such aggressiveness to landlords’ “gruff masculine way of doing business. That put men like Jerry at an advantage.” Jerry subsequently offered to work off the debt and was allowed to do so.

Renters facing eviction sometimes turned to family for help. Desmond describes the efforts that Larraine, one of Tobin’s tenants, made to get family help when faced with eviction. Two of her siblings had less income than her and couldn’t provide assistance. Relationships with impoverished family members may provide some benefits, but financial assistance isn’t one of them. Her sister Susan was a little better off but wouldn’t help because Larraine had mismanaged money in the past. Larraine hesitated to ask Rubin, her youngest brother, because they weren’t close and she didn’t want to imperil his future willingness to help by making frequent requests. The fear that a relative in position to help will decide that the person in trouble doesn’t deserve additional help is apparently a major reason why some relatives aren’t contacted.

Larraine can’t ask her oldest daughter Megan for help, since she hadn’t paid back an earlier loan, and Megan held that against her. She asks her daughter Jayne, who has a fast food job; Jayne promises to help but has no money until payday. Larraine goes next to her church, from whom she has gotten help previously, though she was only partly truthful when making that request, a deception that her sister Susan, who attends the same church, brought to the pastor’s attention. Pastor Daryl is torn. He believes that the church should help the poor, In Larraine’s case, though, he thinks that much of her hardship is because of her bad choices. Eventually he tells Larraine that the church won’t be helping this time. Finally, Larraine goes to Ruben, who agrees to help. In the end, though, Tobin refuses the money, having by this time decided he wants Larraine out of his park. Having family to ask, even family willing to help, by no means makes it certain that eviction can be prevented.

Since my church is currently discussing ways to help with the affordable housing crisis, I was particularly interested in what role churches played in the lives of those facing eviction. Though Larraine didn’t get financial help from Pastor Daryl on this occasion, her church is an important part of her life. She attends every Sunday and has loved going to church ever since she was a child. Regardless of whether the church provides emergency funds to poor congregants like Larraine, I couldn’t help but wonder if there was anything else that churches can do to better equip them for the hardships they faced, perhaps helping with budgeting or decision-making so that a housing crisis was less likely to occur in the first place.

Crystal was another struggling renter who was heavily involved in church. She was evicted by Sherrena and wound up in a homeless shelter. Even while homeless, she put a substantial portion of her monthly check in the offering plate. Her reasoning is as follows:

“I need something from God. So I sow a seed…. I need a house. I need financial breakthrough. I need healing from stuff. I need to be made whole.

She got some assistance from the church–an occasional bag of groceries, a place to stay once in a while. But she kept from everyone but the pastor that she was homeless. Desmond described her motives as follows:

“Crystal didn’t want members of her church to reduce her, to see her as an object of pity, a member of ‘the poor and the orphaned.’ She wanted to be seen as Sister Crystal, part of the Body, the Beloved.”

So Crystal got what she most wanted from her church–affirmation of her identity. I wonder whether the church has encouraged her transactional view of giving, though. If so, it seems her church is letting her down.

Lamar, Sherrena’s legless tenant, doesn’t attend church. One day, though, as he is sitting around with his sons and some neighborhood boys smoking a joint, Colin, a young pastor from a nearby church, comes to the door with his Bible and some cookies. Ignoring the smell of marijuana and sounds of a sexual encounter taking place in the bedroom, Colin opens his Bible and goes over some scripture passages. Lamar knows many of the passages by heart. When one the topic of the devil comes up, Lamar adds “And earth is hell.” Colin corrects him: Well, not quite hell.” Colin leads them in prayer and hands out a list of items Lamar can pick up at the church. Colin tried his best, and he’s certainly doing more than most churches do. Nevertheless, it seems that he misses what’s being said about how Lamar’s life is truly hellish. No matte what tangible help we offer, it’s important for those who seek to minister in Christ’s name to listen to those in need as carefully as he did.

So once one falls through the frayed safety net the government provides, it’s very much hit and miss as to whether those about to be evicted can find anyone else willing and able to help. I pray that God will help our church reach out to the Lamars in our city–and the Larraines and Crystals as well. May we be able to understand their struggles–including the hell on earth that some experience–and have wisdom regarding how we can help.

 

I have been writing about a trip I took in February to Biblical archaeological sites in Turkey. The first-century religious structures that we visited were not Christian churches but pagan temples, since Christianity had not yet achieved the societal status that would make dedicated Christian worship spaces feasible. I wrote earlier about pagan temples, where the gods of Greece, Rome, and Egypt were worshiped. Worshiping the Roman gods was considered a civic duty and necessary to maintaining good order. It was also a way to try to get the blessing of the god being worshiped. Many gods specialized in a particular type of blessing, and thus were sought out for that purpose. Most notably, one god was thought to provide insight into the future, and a related one was associated with healing.

Apollo was who you consulted if you wanted guidance concerning future plans–should you marry, take a journey, make an investment, or whatever. Our tour guide said that, besides the oracle at Delphi, there were three other main oracles in the ancient world, including the one we visited at Didyma. Here’s an article on the history of that site. The final temple to Apollo there (the Didymaion) was begun soon after a visit by Alexander the Great in 313 BC and was never completed, though work continued for hundreds of years.

The Didymaion

A Sacred Road led from Miletus, about ten miles away, to Apollo’s temple. Pilgrims coming to the Didymaion would offer a sacrifice at the altar at the foot of the temple steps. Then they waited until an opportunity was provided to ask a question to the oracle–or rather, ask a priest, since pilgrims weren’t allowed access to the adyton, or inner sanctuary. The Didymaion was unique among ancient temples in that the adyton was open to the sky and contained a sacred spring that was thought to be the source of the oracle’s power.

The Adyton

The pilgrim’s question was written down and carried to the oracle–one of several women who gave answers. It’s believed that the oracle would inhale fumes or chew some substance, inducing a trance that would facilitate communication from the spiritual realm. Whatever answer was given was then taken back to the pilgrim. The answers were sometimes subject to multiple interpretations and thus did not always provide clear guidance. I don’t know of any list of pronouncements by the oracle at Didyma, but here is a compilation from Delphi.

Healing was also associated with Apollo, but was even more associated with one of his children, Asclepius. Asclepius was said to be a demigod, having a divine father and a human mother. While he was in utero, an unfortunate love triangle developed, which Apollo resolved by killing his human lover and removing the baby from her womb, the first Caesarian section. As the myth goes, baby Asclepius was then raised by the centaur Chiron, who taught him the healing arts. He became a great physician–too good, in fact, for his ability to raise humans from the dead (with the aid of Medusa’s blood) evoked Zeus’ ire. Zeus killed him with a thunderbolt, but he subsequently became a god. Asclepions–places of healing–were established in several cities, and pilgrims came to these to be cured. The most prominent Asclepion was at Epidaurus in Greece, but there was also a major center in Pergamum, in Asia Minor. It was begun in the 4th century BC and reached its height in the 2nd century AD, when Galen was the chief physician there.

The Sacred Way to the Asclepion at Pergamum, looking back towards the Acropolis.

Pilgrims came to the Asclepion in Pergamum along the Sacred Way, a colonnaded street leading from the acropolis to the healing complex. They arrived at a courtyard containing an altar to Asclepius, where they made offerings to the god. They would stay for weeks or months awaiting healing. A library and theater were located in the complex.

From the top of the theater at the Asclepion, looking over the healing complex.

Our guide indicated that the books in the library and the performances at the theater were all designed to create an attitude conducive to healing. There were pools for bathing and for mud bath treatments. There was also a sacred spring, whose water was thought to have curative effects. Nearby there were sleeping rooms, where the pilgrims slept in expectation that Asclepius would appear in their dreams. Such a nocturnal visit would sometimes result in immediate healing, but in other cases the dreamed-about healer would prescribe some sort of treatment–baths, exercises, mud baths, massages, ointments, and the like. In the treatment center, there were tubes through the ceiling down to where the pilgrims sat or slept. Speaking into these, the priests offered words of encouragement, such as “Asclepius has heard your prayers.”

In the treatment center.

Ancient pagans believed that, by means of the oracles of Apollo and the priests of Asclepius, prominent gods concerned themselves with the affairs of humans. They did so in a way that wasn’t malicious or cruel, unlike the purported behavior of many other Olympian deities. (Not that Apollo always treated humans well; just ask Cassandra). This is not the same as having deities that actually care about the welfare of humans, though. Apollo and Asclepius both got something for their beneficent acts–the sacrifices made by those who came to them. Thus, it was an exchange relationship, not one based on affection or compassion. That’s one of the ways in which the Christian God and the pagan deities differed. And, as I’ll suggest in my next post, such differences in the nature of divine favor may have been a major advantage for Christianity.

In February I traveled to Turkey to visit the sites of several early Christian churches. I’ve been posting since then about those churches and their cultural context. Most recently, I wrote about the ways in which the churches to whom the book of Revelation is addressed were pressured to compromise with the surrounding culture. This post will look at how other first century churches responded to societal pressures. In Divine Honours for the Caesars: The First Christians’ Responses, Bruce W. Winter reviews the challenges and the church’s response in several local situations, as revealed in the New Testament and in contemporaneous historical sources. I’ll briefly describe three such situations.

When the apostle Paul first visited Corinth, the Jewish leaders opposed him and tried to bring a criminal case against him before Galio, the procounsul of the province of Achaea. However, as described in Acts 18:12-17, Galio indicated that this was an internal Jewish matter. That response meant that the Christian assembly in Corinth was considered a Jewish gathering. That matters because those who lived in the area were expected to participate in the cult of emperor worship. Jews were exempted from participation in veneration of the emperor, and Galio’s ruling extended that exemption to Christians. Still, some Corinthian Christians apparently participated in feasts at the imperial temple; this seems to be what Paul is talking about in I Corinthians 8. They were tempted both to enhance their social standing and to eat well:

“It is understandable, given the prestige and the sheer extravagance of such celebrations, that some Christians whose social status entitled them to participate rationalized their participation…” Winter, p.225

Compromise isn’t always due to persecution; carrots as well as sticks can motivate it.

Winter also describes the situation in Galatia, a region of Asia Minor visited by Paul during his first missionary journey. He later wrote a letter to the Galatians to challenge a group within the church–the Judaizers–who were trying to convince Gentile converts that they needed to be circumcised and follow ceremonial aspects of the Torah. The dispute between legalism and faith was a theological one but also had practical implications for living in the local setting. Whereas in Achaea Christians were considered to be Jews and thereby were granted an exemption from the requirement that they perform ritual sacrifice to the Roman gods and the emperor, the status of Christians was more ambiguous in other provinces, and thus there was more risk of persecution. This seems to be what Paul was referring to when he wrote in Gal. 6:12 about the motivation of the Judaizers:

” As many as are wanting to make a good showing in the flesh, these are attempting to compel* you to be circumcised, only so that they will not be persecuted for the cross of Christ.” (LEB)

Winter suggests that circumcision would make a “good showing in the flesh” in that those circumcised would be seen by society as having become Jewish–after all, they had acquired the fleshly mark that distinguished Jewish males. And if all the male Gentile converts underwent circumcision, the church as a whole would be insulated from legal sanctions:

“The results of this masterful solution proposed and so strongly promoted by some Galatian Christians, if accepted, meant that all Christians in Galatia had a legal status in the eyes of their fellow citizens. They would be considered Jewish either by birth or by proselytisation. They would be exempt from having to give divine honours to the Caesars and participation in other events that Rome had so skilfully linked into cultural events.” . Winter, p. 248

The problem was that this strategy for avoiding persecution was in effect a denial of a core component of the gospel message–that salvation doesn’t come through obedience to the law but by God’s grace extended to those who put their trust in Christ. It must have taken considerable courage to reject the false teaching of the Judiazers when doing so made one vulnerable to being prosecuted by the Roman authorities.

Agora in Perga, a city Paul visited after founding churches in Galatia

The book of Hebrews also alludes to ways that the surrounding culture created hardship for Christians. Again, the issue is that, by not expressing veneration for the gods and the emperor, the Christians aroused suspicion that they were subversive. David deSilva explains the public’s view as follows:

“Worship of the deities was something of a symbol for one’s dedication to the relationships that kept society stable and prosperous. By abstaining from the former, Christians (like the Jews) were regarded with suspicion as potential violators of the laws and subversive elements within the empire.” (Perseverance in Gratitude: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary on the Epistle “to the Hebrews,” p. 12)

In the past, this attitude toward Christian converts had resulted in harsh measures being directed against them. The sufferings they had endured are catalogued in Heb. 10:32-34:

“Remember those earlier days after you had received the light, when you endured in a great conflict full of suffering. Sometimes you were publicly exposed to insult and persecution; at other times you stood side by side with those who were so treated. You suffered along with those in prison and joyfully accepted the confiscation of your property, because you knew that you yourselves had better and lasting possessions.”

Winter indicates that the public insult the author refers to typically occurred at the local theatre. The person or persons to be so exposed would be put on stage and subjected to degrading comments from the audience. The purpose would be to shame the victims into complying with societal expectations. Such episodes also provided entertainment for the crowd. The “persecution” here could well have been public floggings. For some, humiliation was followed by imprisonment. Roman prisons didn’t provide the inmates with any sort of provision, so the situation of an incarcerated Christian was dire unless their faith community came to their aid. Finally, their property could be seized by the authorities. Roman law stated that “the property of those who ought to be accused, or have been caught committing a crime, or who have killed themselves should be confiscated.” (quote from Winter, p. 274)

Christians could be charged with the crime of not participating in ritual worship of the emperor. They could also be charged with meeting together regularly. Legislation under Augustus had forbidden all associations from meeting more than weekly. Jews were granted exemptions from both these laws, but it was under the discretion of the local governor as to whether Christians were considered Jews. The prohibition against frequent meetings puts the author’s admonition that they not neglect to meet together (10:24) in a rather ominous light!

So the consequences that the recipients of the letter to the Hebrews faced as a result of their faith were worse than those faced by the Corinthian Christians, and probably also than those faced by the Galatians. Still, there hadn’t been any martyrs yet in among the recipients (12:4). They endured their initial persecution. Would they continue to endure the hardships that come with being members of a reviled minority, though? Winter thinks that another, even more shameful and disruptive threat may have awaited some of them–exile. That might be the meaning of the suggestion that the hearers go to Jesus “outside the camp, bearing the disgrace he bore.” (13:13) Persevere, says the writer of the letter, and you will receive your reward. That is a message that heartened the followers of Christ throughout the ages. It’s by God’s grace that enough managed to persevere despite the terrible cost they bore.

 

I attended a Families Belong Together rally in Grand Rapids, Michigan earlier today. It was one of several hundred rallies nationwide devoted to the cause of reuniting families (and more broadly to promoting a more welcoming stance towards immigrants). Perhaps a thousand people gathered downtown at Rosa Parks Circle to wave signs, listen to speakers, and sing together in Spanish and English. It’s easy to be skeptical about what such rallies accomplish–at minimum, to be effective they need to be combined with more traditional and longstanding ways of exercising power. The protest rally perhaps is most potent as a modern liturgy, one that shapes our ways of thinking and of living with each other. In any event, here are a few pictures from the rally:

We all know, or at least know of, some poor soul who encounters one misfortune after another. They give us pause, the unfortunate; we feel sorry for them, we wish we could help, and sometimes we can do a little something that makes things marginally better. Usually they don’t occupy our thoughts for long, though: we quickly shift our focus to something more pleasant. Before doing so, we may try to come to terms with what’s happened by blaming (“If only he hadn’t done that“) or glib truisms (“Life isn’t fair.”) It takes quite a bit to disturb us in a way that sticks with us for days. For me, Matthew Desmond accomplished that feat with his book Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City (Broadway Books, 2016).

Desmond, a Princeton sociologist, moved into a dilapidated trailer park in southern Milwaukee and later into a rooming house in the city’s North Side. In both areas, he encountered plenty of people on the edge–people who were having to spend 70 or 80 percent of their income on rent. That left them vulnerable, like riding in an overloaded boat that can be swamped even by small waves. Once that happens, choices become extremely difficult–whether to buy food, pay rent, or pay a utility bill when there isn’t money for all three, for example. It’s become more and more likely that poor renters will find themselves in this situation:

“Since 2000, the cost of fuels and utilities had risen by more than 50 percent, thanks to increasing global demand and the expiration of price caps. In a typical year, almost 1 in 5 poor renting families nationwide missed payments and received a disconnection notice from their utility company.” p. 15

“In 2013, 1 percent of poor renters lived in rent-controlled units; 15 percent lived in public housing; and 17 percent received a government subsidy, mainly in the form of a rent-reducing voucher. The remaining 67 percent–2 of every three poor renting families–received no federal assistance. This drastic shortfall in government support, coupled with rising rent and utility costs alongside stagnant incomes, is the reason why most poor renting families today spend most of their income on housing.” p. 303

Once tenants fall behind, they lose many of their legal protections. They can’t withhold rent if the property is dangerous or in disrepair, and court eviction if they make a report to a building inspector. As a result, renters in arrears often have to endure miserable living conditions. For example, Doreen and her children, one of the families Desmond introduces us to, have holes in the walls, a door off its hinges and clogged drains in the toilet, bathtub, and sink. Desmond describes the eventual effect on the family:

“Doreen stopped cooking, and the children ate cereal for dinner. Patrice [an adult daughter] slept more. The children’s grades dropped, and Mikey’s teacher called saying he might have to repeat, mainly because of so many missed homework assignments. Everyone had stopped cleaning up, and trash spread over the kitchen floor.” p. 257

The family had previously lived for seven years in much better quarters, but had been evicted because police investigating a neighborhood shooting had come to the door, saw the house was a mess, contacted Child Protective Services, who in turn called the building inspector, who cited the landlord. Doreen was behind in rent because volunteering in New Orleans after Katrina had cost her too much. Thus the landlord could retaliate for being cited by evicting Doreen, so he did. In another incident, a young woman named Crystal called 911 to report domestic violence occurring in the apartment above hers. The police responded, but later contacted Sherrena, the landlord, notifying her that they were called because of nuisance activity on her property and would charge her for future enforcement costs. Sherrena responded by taking out eviction papers on Crystal.

Desmond describes the details of the eviction process, from eviction court to the moving crews and sheriff’s deputies that spend all day every day evicting one tenant after another. Those being evicted were given a choice; have all their belongings stacked on the curb or have them taken to storage and pay a monthly storage fee until they could get them out. Some choice! Some homes were neat and tidy, others not so much:

“Sometimes renters had already abandoned the place, leaving behind dead animals and rotting food. Sometimes the movers puked. ‘The first rule of evictions,’ Sheriff John liked to say, ‘is never open the fridge.'” p. 114

Some evictions seem vindictive, as when Ned and Sue were evicted from their trailer and moved in with friends in another trailer; the landlord decided to evict the friends as well. Sometimes a child’s problems are the cause: Arleen’s teenage son kicked a teacher in the shin; when the landlord found out she told Arleen she had to leave or would be evicted. Whatever the cause of the eviction, it’s often tremendously hard for the evicted family to find new quarters. Arleen had been evicted before, and called 90 landlords before finding someone willing to rent to her.

Evictions disproportionately affect blacks and women. In the poorest black neighborhoods, “1 female renter in 17 was evicted through the court system each year, which was twice as often as men from those neighborhoods and nine times as often as women from the city’s poorest white areas.” (p. 98)

Those who are evicted are more likely to subsequently lose their jobs, experience other material hardships such as hunger, and be depressed. Not only those who are evicted suffer, but the neighborhood suffers as well: Desmond found that neighborhoods with high eviction rates have higher violent crime rates the next year. Some of Desmond’s subjects found themselves on the verge of eviction because of poor choices they made. Yet most poor Milwaukee residents had an incredibly small margin for error, and some ended up on the street when the choice they made was reasonable given the circumstances. For example, Arleen’s previous eviction resulted in part from having helped pay her sister’s funeral expenses. What sort of society is set up so that providing a little assistance for a funeral puts someone at risk for homelessness?

Besides those who actually experience eviction, there are many who manage to keep a roof over their heads but struggle to do so. Desmond indicates that 1 in 5 renting families in the US spends half or more of their income on housing. They struggle not just because of low and stagnant wages, but also because landlords can profit by exploiting the poor. In the poorest neighborhoods, housing is dilapidated or in disrepair but only costs marginally less than in other parts of the city. Our housing problem can only be addressed by major societal changes. Desmond mentions especially legal aid to the poor and a universal voucher program.

In the meantime I’m troubled. I’m troubled for Doreen, for Crystal, for Ned and Sue, for Arleen, and for everyone who has been evicted. I’m troubled that I live in a society that does so little to help those without access to adequate housing. And I’m troubled by my inability to help. Thanks to Desmond, I imagine that I’ll stay troubled. I hope his message troubles enough of us that together we can make a difference.