June 2018


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:

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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.

This is one in a series of posts about a recent trip to visit Biblical archaeological sites in Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey). I’m well along in the series; I’ve already written about Roman architecture, Roman religion, the exercise of imperial power, and the apostle Paul’s message to Jews and Gentiles. There are a few more topics I want to reflect on, including why Christianity appealed to the populace and how early Christians responded to oppression. This post will be about the second of those topics.

I’ve previously discussed the expectation throughout the Roman Empire that everyone offer sacrifices to or in other ways venerate the Roman gods, among them the emperors, who were typically awarded divine status posthumously, and sometimes when still alive. Adherents of Roman and Greek religious cults had no difficulty with this requirement; the person who worshiped Zeus on Monday could worship Aphrodite on Tuesday and the emperor on Wednesday without dissonance. Monotheists worship only one God, though. If they are being faithful to that one deity, they will refuse honoring all others. This was an issue for Jews before there were any Christians. After Palestine had come under Roman rule, in the days of Augustus, they were granted an accommodation. They didn’t have to make sacrifices to the emperor. Instead, it was considered sufficient that sacrifices were made for the safety of the emperor in the Jerusalem temple. Throughout most of the empire, first-century Christians were considered Jews, and so they benefited from this exemption.

There was some persecution of Christians by Romans even when they ostensibly had the benefit of the Jewish loophole. In particular, Christians were persecuted by Nero in Rome in the 60s. Both Peter and Paul were martyred there. Rome’s understanding with Judaism was strained when temple sacrifices for the emperor were suspended in 66 A.D., shortly before the Jewish revolt. Jews also became more concerned about losing some from among their number to Christian conversion and became determined to not allow those converts to continue to identify with synagogues. “The Curse of the Minim,” found in a Jewish document written around 90 A.D., was intended to end the practice of Christian converts associating with Judaism.

Thus, toward the end of the first century, Christians became less able to depend on the Jewish exemption to the expectation that they worship the emperor. That was also when emperor Domitian intensified efforts to get the entire populace to participate in emperor worship. In his commentary on Revelation, Paige Patterson, after summarizing the above history, indicated that “Christians, especially Jewish Christians, found themselves facing the unhappy alternatives of either denying Christ and embracing Judaism entirely or else preparing themselves for serious persecution at the hands of both the Romans and the Jews.” (Revelation)

The book of Revelation was probably written in the 90s, and the letters to the churches in chapters 2 and 3 address the increasing likelihood of persecution or at least hardship because of their faith. Thus, the church at Smyrna referred to “the slander of those who call themselves Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan.” (Lexham English Bible) This may sound like anti-Jewish sentiment, but, as N.T. Wright notes, “this was essentially a struggle within Judaism, not against Judaism.” (Revelation for Everyone, p. 16) The church had Gentiles in it, but also had a fair number of Jews who believed they were the ones who were properly worshiping the God of the Hebrews. Those in the synagogue disagreed, and were probably telling the Romans that followers of Christ were not true Jews. John, the writer of Revelation, warned that the outcome would be persecution:

“Do not be afraid of the things which you are about to suffer. Behold, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison so that you may be tested, and you will experience affliction ten days. Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life.” (Rev. 2:10)

The last phase seems to suggest that some in Smyrna would be martyred. We don’t know whether the believers there remained unswerving in their faith, but it’s fairly clear that in some of the churches there were believers who compromised when faced with hardship. This seems to have been the case in Pergamum, which had major temples to Zeus, Asclepius, and Athena and was becoming an important center for the imperial cult.

Base of altar for sacrifices to Asclepius, Pergamum.

Remains of temple to the emperor Trajan, Pergamum.

A believer named Antipas had been martyred in Pergamum. John commends those who remained steadfast despite the danger: “you hold fast to my name and did not deny your faith in me….” Yet there were others who weren’t to be commended:

 “But I have a few things against you: that you have there those who hold fast to the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the sons of Israel, to eat food sacrificed to idols and to commit sexual immorality.” (Rev. 2:14)

John is referring here to an episode during Israel’s exodus from Egypt in which Balaam, a prophet hired by Balak, the king of Moab, instructed Balak to send Moabite women to entice Israelite men to sin. Those in the church who hold fast to Balaam’s teaching have apparently decided that it is acceptable for Christians to compromise with the surrounding culture in a manner similar to how the Israelite men acted in response to Moabite seductresses. G. K. Beale gives the following explanation of the temptations that were present in Pergamum:

“In particular, what may be included are trade guild festivals involving celebration of patron deities through feasts and sometimes immoral activities. Refusal to participate in such activities could result in economic and social ostracism (cf. 1 Pet. 3:11–21). Therefore, there was much pressure to compromise. And just as Israel was influenced to fornicate both sexually and spiritually, the same was true of Christians in Pergamum.” (The Book of Revelation, p. 249)

We tend to think that early Christians were regularly being thrown to wild beasts or being told to recant or die. Though such things did happen, what was probably more common was the kind of social and economic pressures found in Pergamum. Membership in one’s trade guild, and with it one’s livelihood, depended on participating in an occasional festival honoring a pagan deity. It would be easy to rationalize such compromise. Yet John makes it clear that Christ wouldn’t tolerate such betrayal of the faith among his followers. All this makes me wonder whether there are compromises I’m making that Christ finds equally distasteful. We Westerners are in a culture that doesn’t erect statues to Zeus or Athena, Still, there are abundant idols for us to worship–fame, money, power, pleasure, self. It takes considerable discernment to recognize whether we’ve been bowing the knee to any of these. Reflecting on the situation in Pergamum has made me more attuned to this issue in my own life.