The Common Good
August 2010

The Beauty of Roots

by Christopher Smith | August 2010

On being the people of God in a particular place.

In our neighborhood of Indianapolis, Near Eastside, we in the Englewood Christian Church community have seen firsthand the wounds inflicted by a consumerist economy of scarcity. As in other urban neighborhoods, about 30 years ago many white neighbors uprooted themselves from here and moved to the bigger and greener pastures of suburbia. Into this vacuum has poured a host of greedy landlords, transient renters, and a wide variety of addicts—all of whom are held captive by perceived or actual economies of scarcity. And here we sit in the middle of it all, a church community that has weathered storms in this place for 115 years, seeking a life together that proclaims God’s liberation, abundance, and reconciliation to ourselves and our neighbors.

Four books I have stumbled upon in the past year have especially resonated with our church’s experiences and history, and have energized us to continue seeking the healing and transforming work of God in this place. Although these diverse books have been pertinent to our journey as an urban church, I believe they also hold great riches for congregations in any type of location who are seeking to be faithful together in a specific place. These books are Journey to the Common Good, by Walter Brueggemann, The Wisdom of Stability: Rooting Faith in a Mobile Culture, by Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, Leavings: Poems, by Wendell Berry, and Crow Planet: Essential Wisdom from the Urban Wilderness, by Lyanda Lynn Haupt.
There are few books that can stir the imaginations of church communities today as powerfully as Brueggemann’s Journey to the Common Good, which begins with the observation that the powers in any given place work to “resist the common good.” This is particularly evidenced in consumerism’s economies of scarcity, in which “we imagine that something more will make us more comfortable, safer, and happier.” Focusing on stories of the Exodus, Solomon, and Isaiah in the Hebrew scriptures, Brueggemann vividly depicts how scarcity economics work against the common good, and describes God’s call for a people who will live as a contrast society in the freedom of the Creator’s abundance. To the extent that we are able to immerse ourselves in God’s abundance, he notes, we “are able to get [our] minds off [ourselves] and can be about the work of the neighborhood.” Brueggemann masterfully uses the scriptural stories to stoke our imaginations with the idea of being the people of God in a particular place and seeking the common good (or to use Pauline language, “the reconciliation of all things”) there, making this work essential reading for churches.
Journey to the Common Good dovetails nicely with Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove’s newest book, The Wisdom of Stability. Brueggemann’s work assumes at least a degree of stability: i.e. we need to be rooted sufficiently in a place in order to understand it and imagine its transformation toward the common good. Drawing on the rich tradition of Benedictine stability, Wilson-Hartgrove crafts a superb argument for all Christians to anchor themselves geographically as well as spiritually. This new book draws on the commitment of the Wilson-Hartgrove family to the historically black Walltown neighborhood of Durham, North Carolina. Indeed, the book is graced by a delightful series of “Front Porch” reflections, in which Jonathan spins tales from his own experiences that highlight key aspects of stability.
In harmony with Brueggemann, Wilson-Hartgrove emphasizes that our desires need to be transformed. Specifically, we must “[unlearn] the habits of a culture that tells us the answer to our problems is always somewhere else.” Although Wilson-Hartgrove’s laid-back, narrative style is captivating throughout, his finest work is the depiction of the psychological experience of journeying toward stability, and the demons—particularly ambition, boredom, and vainglory—that assault us as the adventure of committing to a specific community fades and our will to continue has been worn down.
Wendell Berry’s newest book of poems, Leavings, not only offers the wisdom of a life lived rooted in a particular place, but also helps us imagine the transformation of our own places. Berry—like Brueggemann and Wilson-Hartgrove—is keenly aware of the powers at work in the world to divide and ultimately destroy us, as perhaps most clearly seen in the insight and wit of “Questionnaire”: “State briefly the ideas, ideals, or hopes ... / for which you would kill a child. / Name, please, the children whom / you would be willing to kill.”
Or also the opening verse of “Sabbaths 2005 #XII,” which particularly reminds one of Brueggemann’s idea of the oppressive nature of economies of scarcity: “If we have become a people incapable / of thought, then the brute-thought of mere power and mere greed will think for us.”
But Berry is not one to give up hope in the face of these daunting powers. Perhaps the crowning jewel of this new collection of poems—and certainly so when one’s mind is already traveling down the path carved out by the previously mentioned authors—is “Sabbaths 2007 #VI.” It begins with the admission “It is hard to have hope,” but then proceeds to describe poignantly the transformative hope of a people rooted in a place. “Hope then,” Berry says, “to belong to your place by your own knowledge of what it is that no other place is, and by your caring for it as you care for no other place.” Berry’s work again reminds us here particularly of Brueggemann (e.g., “Belong to your place by knowledge of others who are your neighbors in it”). Berry concludes this poem by alluding to the failures of imagination brought on by acquiescence to the powers of the contemporary world. This poem offers our churches a deep well of hope, if we incline our ears to its wisdom and allow its transformative words to settle into our souls. Many other poems in Leavings also energize us and give us hope as we continue on our local journey toward the common good.
Personally, as a discipline to reorient my desires from the elsewhere of global consumerism toward the Englewood neighborhood in which I live, I have been experimenting with urban naturalism over the last two years, as a means to come to a “knowledge of what [our neighborhood] is that no other place is.” As I have been exploring the abundant manifestations of God’s creation here, I have been particularly encouraged by Lyanda Lynn Haupt’s wonderful book Crow Planet, which recounts her own experiences in urban naturalism, particularly her engagements with the ubiquitous crows of her place. I also was struck by Haupt’s argument for the impermanence of concrete and the reminder I found therein that the abundant life of God’s creation bursts forth even in the face of the most adamant human resistance. Crow Planet stands out because it is full of such reminders of the beauty, abundance, and tenacity of God’s creation, even in spaces that appear to be dominated by human creatures.
God’s people cannot continue to live in the oppressive Egypt of consumerism, but are called in the abundance of God to be communities deeply rooted in specific places and seeking there the reconciliation of God. This begins with our own journey of transformation, of having our desires reoriented toward a place. These four books, I believe, will help get us started. May God give us the courage to follow on this narrow path in the direction that they point us!
Christopher Smith is the editor of the Englewood Review of Books and occasionally blogs about his experiences in urban naturalism at urbannaturalism.com.
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