bonhoeffer and the neighborhood watch


On a cold morning this last month, a running truck was stolen out of a neighbor’s driveway. The owner, on his way to work, forgot his lunch in the fridge, ran inside and came back outside, only to discover that he was robbed.

I was informed of this by another neighbor, who met me while I was out with the fuzzy butthead on our daily constitutional a few mornings after the crime was committed. We don’t live in a bad neighborhood–more on that in a moment–just a lot of decent people who work hard, have families or are retired in a modest, working-to-middle class part of town. (The truck was recovered successfully, and all is well.) That other neighbor also was informed by local authorities that the larger area around our part of town has had a significant number of police calls and reports over the past 90 days.

Mecca is rotting.

You see, the holy city is, in essence, a box: the interstate highway forms the top, with three US highways comprising the other four parameters. Within the box, it’s a pretty straight-forward grid; outside of it, it’s suburban. Our city, a former stop along the erstwhile Route 66, is  showing signs of deterioration from its Gilded-to-Space Age glory. Like many cities, suburban expansion created rings outside the more metropolitan area and people with means moved out. People without means had no choice but to stay. So, throughout the city, one can see houses and neighborhoods that, even as recent as 20 years ago, would have been desirable but are now aging and giving way to societal entropy.

This is where we live. And, being proud of the fact that we take care of that for which we are responsible, we were perfectly justified in having a conversation about moving to another part of town. We have children on the way–sorry, but this is a recurring theme around these parts and will be for, oh, I don’t know, EVER–and certainly want our family to be safe. After the discussion, though, and another constitutional of mulling it over, we plan to stay; though we are looking for a home that would be more suitable for a family of four + pup.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer left Europe during the rise of the Third Reich to teach in America. He could have stayed here and made significant theological and philosophical contributions like his German contemporaries Paul Tillich and the Niebuhrs, and probably could have made a crapload of money in the meantime. (Not that he needed to, coming from a family of means back in Germany. EDITORIAL ASIDE: And he did leave some monumental works behind in his all-too-brief life, as well. His Ethics is far superior to the more perused but less fully-understood The Cost of Discipleship, which is a work often bandied about by evangelicals who would have irritated the author to no end with their cheapening of the thesis. I digress.) Bonhoeffer decided to go back, help create and fuel the Confessing Church, conspired against Hitler and was arrested and executed shortly before the Soviets liberated Flossenburg.

The reason he went back into Germany was because there was a need for him there.

White flight is exactly the opposite of Christ-like action. Those who lament the loss of urban America to violence, poverty and government subsidy have no right to condemn anyone but themselves. Those churches which sought the comfort–read: capital–of the suburbs have no one to hold accountable for the scariness of the city but those who darken their doorsteps. The church wife and I are a part of now moved out of the north-central part of town 20 years ago. We drive by the old facility every time we visit our primary care physician. White flight pushed a previous pastoral administration–and largely, an entire previous congregation–to a facility about two miles from where we live. And now, the new facility is surrounded by the leading edge of what happened to the old edifice.

Theology is nothing if it is not lived out. The gospel is nothing if it is not the fundamentally sustaining principle of a believer’s life. The present pastoral leadership made a decision that resonates loudly with what I have come to believe after years of involvement in an urban charismatic church and years of cross-cultural interaction and work. Social issues are not discomforts to be escaped and avoided; they are problems to be addressed and solved.

The church does not exist to retreat to a new ZIP code, we exist to redeem the ZIP code.

We are the neighborhood watch.

We make choices as to how we will stand against injustice, but we also need to make choices as to how to demonstrate Christ’s compassion. The track record of the Church, and manifested in many churches around these parts and throughout America, has been to get as far away from the problem as possible–the worst possible example of thinking outside the box–only to (maybe) send a small team or two back in as some sort of exercise in self-congratulation by handing out tracts and breakfast bars to homeless people. Borrowing from Bonhoeffer, this isn’t just cheap grace, it’s insulting grace.

The power of the gospel is not in how new and shiny our facilities are, but in how families and lives are restored, how crime rates drop, how people are allowed to convalesce from addiction and abuse and be free to pursue their dreams and ambitions, how children are given as good a chance as possible to get a good education. And how Christ is glorified through it all in lives reconnected to God through the power of the resurrection.

And so we commit to the city, preparing to engage the community with service and diligence, standing against injustice while standing against the mediocrity of the McChurches on the outside looking in. It may not cost us everything, as it did Bonhoeffer, but the willingness to follow that through is what matters, precisely because other people matter more than we believers do. We will be Christ for the community, never Christ for ourselves.

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