The holidays are over. And with their end comes also the end of the time of year when we have to deal with obnoxious family members. There seemed to be a spike in articles discussing how to deal with said relatives and their ignorant opinions—appropriately countered by Michael Brendan Dougherty, who suggested that getting to know our families better might be a reasonable alternative—but thinking of our relatives as people with noxious opinions that we must tolerate once a year is part of a larger trend of that is sometimes described as “polarization” but would be better understood as “self-segregation.” When we openly denigrate the potential of relationships with family, neighbors, or other human beings that we must encounter in the flesh because of our circumstances and not our choices, we contribute to the isolation and balkanization as we hinder meaningful reconciliation across social and cultural boundaries.
The best possible description of this ideology is expressed by Courtney Martin, who maintains that “[i]t is our families that shape us from the very beginning, but it is our friends that truly define us down the road. They are the ones we get to invite into our lives.” Martin goes on to describe the importance of choosing good friends, people who will shape us in the very best ways. With this concept I have no quarrel, for I think the choice to intentionally spend time with people who love you for who you are and who encourage you to be the best that you can be is, as Martin says, “one of our most thrilling powers.”We have the power to marginalize a wide variety of family members, neighbors, and vulnerable people from our lives as we surround ourselves with the like-minded.
The power to choose friends is indeed thrilling, and it ought to be used judiciously. Yet this power to choose our friends is not merely a matter of how to fill our social calendar—it is increasingly tied to where we live, work, worship, and play, as well as the things that we read, watch, listen to, and repost on social media. Many examples of this dynamic are found in “The Lines between Us,” a year-long exploration of inequality in my home region that explores the “lines” that divide people economically, socially, and racially. While the days of explicit racial discrimination expressed through actual red lines on maps have fortunately come to an end in America, their legacy lives on through this sort of social exclusion; much has been made recently of how narrow white Americans’ social networks are, and there is a growing trend towards increasing income segregation in housing. The fact that our building patterns accelerate this sort of sequestration adds to the dubiousness of the suburbs.
Patrick Deneen points out how this balkanization is inextricable from liberalism:
Today many are apt to conclude that growing evidence of “income inequality” or the division of the nation (and the world) into ever-more perfectly sifted “winners” and “losers” is a mistake or departure from liberalism that liberalism can fix. “Progressive” liberals—often educated at elite institutions of higher education, which have become one of the main institutional conduits for the sifting of the winners from the losers—bemoan the inequality, even as they flock to one of a half-dozen cities of the world where they live at great remove from those who have lost in the meritocratic sweepstakes, and live lives that have far more in common with their elite “conservative” political opponents (classical liberals) than with those whose lot they pity, but in no way seek to share.
As with many other freedoms, the freedom to relocate and choose our friends can disintegrate relationships and responsibilities that would otherwise “hold us back.” People in my own neighborhood—a predominantly African-American urban community devastated by decades of systemic racism—recognize how wicked it was that doctors and teachers could not move anywhere else, but mourn how much was lost when all of the professionals moved out once those racist barriers were lifted. Combined with the other forces working against faith and family, my neighborhood and the churn that defines its population represents the worst-case scenario of power and privilege being used to segregate. If some are concerned about a Kristallnacht against the rich, perhaps it is because there are enough lines between us to imagine throwing rocks across them.
The most potent example of this untethering instinct has to do with family—particularly to children. While winning a debate with our racist uncle across the Thanksgiving dinner table is a relatively harmless urge—especially since we wouldn’t want any of our other kin to be dragged down with him to the Wrong Side of History—the relationship and responsibility to the children that we bear has real consequences for human lives. The social conventions and cultural attachments developed over the millennia that bind parents to their children are so strong, I believe, in part because raising them is so much work and requires so much of our bodies (figuratively for tired dads, but literally for mothers), The forces of capital, then, require the knife of liberal freedoms to cut these attachments; the desires for financial stability or advancing one’s career can even require abortion to manage the desires the market creates.
Even if ignoring one’s crazy uncle, emptying an urban neighborhood of its best residents, and aborting a child represent different permutations of using our power to choose our attachments, surely it is an overstatement to tie them all together, right? Perhaps it is—and when technology is both the balm we use to salve our loneliness and the acid that keeps the wound open, we have to acknowledge that in many ways, the genie is out of the bottle. Even as we valorize the little places and the little ways of loving them, there is no going back to Port William as the default way of life for most of us. It has to be chosen. There is more power than ever before—and if we’re not careful, the differential between the haves and have-nots will wreak greater consequences than ever before.
Indeed, only the weakest among us lack the power to choose associations beyond place and kin. People in prison (and those just leaving prison) are often the most vulnerable, in part because their power to move about, work, and associate with others is so profoundly limited. It’s not privileged people like you and me that are suffering the most in the “age of loneliness” (though social media has certainly allowed the privileged to broadcast their loneliness into the cacophony of Twitter and Tumblr)—, it’s people at the margins of society that we’d never follow on Twitter even if they were on it. If one accepts, as Michael Brendan Dougherty asserts, that “political equality isn’t something we discover in nature; it’s something we must create,” then we have to accept that as people with social and economic power, we will naturally gravitate to one another and exclude the weakest.
How can we use this power for good, then? Letting your aunt cluck her tongue about all those lazy ne’er-do-wells blowing our tax dollars on soda is hardly going to do anything for a man who can’t get a job and support his family because of his felony convictions for dealing drugs. This question can get especially difficult because of the power dynamics within families—particularly when other members of our family have hurt us in the past or continue to do so. Allowing these ties to bind us will bring suffering, just like when we choose to love other vulnerable people who have often learned violent and destructive patterns of behavior. It is up to each of us to take stock of our capacity to love others and cultivate relationships where our giving is reciprocated as carefully as those where it is not.
For those of us whose vocation brings us into contact with the suffering regularly, the tightrope is even thinner: our work naturally requires compassion (literally, “suffering with”), and we have fewer natural ties to those we serve unless we live in the same physical place as our workplace. As Howard Thurman says, “It is exceedingly difficult to hold oneself free from a certain contempt for those whose predicament makes moral appeal for defense and succor.” This sense of “moral appeal” works both ways: we are more likely to develop contempt borne out of frustration and conflict when the vulnerable are distanced from us by layers of bureaucracy and professionalization and our neighbors or family members are distanced from us by technology, design, and ideology.
Overcoming these tendencies to exclusively sequester ourselves with those who like us or are like us takes (again, borrowing a phrase from Michael Brendan Dougherty) “a political—or even theological—assertion against any fact of history or science that would tempt us to think otherwise.” The conservative political movement in America has demonstrated little regard for any thought that would oppose social inequality (even if a number of conservatives would find such thought appealing), and the liberal political movement has reached for some approximations in “solidarity” against a variety of oppressors, both real and imagined. The theological impetus towards relationships that defang inequality has long been stressed by the African-American church’s theological reflection and carries the potential to overcome the gravitational pull of our other political loyalties if we are thoughtful enough to cultivate it.
To lay a foundation for how theology might help us to change our behaviors, there are two stories that I think are helpful to reflect on. The first is in the Wendell Berry story “Watch with Me” (in That Distant Land), wherein the character Nightlife (who appears to suffer from bipolar disorder) steals a gun and threatens to shoot himself after wandering into the woods. Most of the story is taken up with the chase that the neighbors give to Nightlife, following him through the woods and waiting for an opportunity to snatch his gun away. At one point, the men in pursuit decide to light a fire:
And yet sitting there in the room of the light [the fire] made was a fearfully simple, almost a brutal, act of faith. It made them visible to all the distances around them, and made those distances invisible to them. All they could hope was that if Nightlife saw the light of their fire, he would come into it and not shoot into it. They did not think he would see it, but the chance that he might shaped that odd little hope in them, and it kept them silent for a while, glowing, all of them, in the firelight.
(Of note: I have had several rural family doctors describe to me that this sort of care that small towns exhibit towards the mentally ill has led them to require emergency services for mental health crises far less often than in other practice settings.) This passage illustrates the vulnerability that we take on when we put ourselves in proximity to others, echoing the vulnerability that Jesus experienced when he put on flesh and dwelt among us. In turn, vulnerability requires proximity, but we live in an age when we have the power to minimize our proximity to the vulnerable more than ever before. In order to steward this power, we will have to surrender it to other forces and let the ties of family or neighborhood exert more power over us.
The second story is a familiar one, that of the Good Samaritan. In that story, proximity was a crucial element of the Samaritan’s neighborliness—for he was physically present when the Jew’s need arose and did not move to the other side of the road like the priest and the Levite. Yet it was not proximity alone, for the priest and the Levite had greater reason than the Samaritan to stop and help a fellow Jew. The Samaritan, then, exercised his agency to demonstrate compassion and allowed the circumstances that placed a needy person in his midst to overcome whatever ethnic bias might have prevented him from helping. We are, by contrast, aware of many more needs than ever before in our time, which can often be overwhelming when so many different organizations are asking for funds and our work, school, neighborhood, and church all represent different places. Committing ourselves to first putting ourselves within reach of a specific group of people and then making a priority of loving them allows us to focus our energies and steward the gifts that we’ve been given.
We have the power to marginalize a wide variety of family members, neighbors, and vulnerable people from our lives as we surround ourselves with the like-minded. While this power can often be used to make us more effective (particularly when it serves the end of stabilizing our own mental health), it must be used judiciously or else it will insulate us from those in need. While our obnoxious family members may sometimes seem to be in need of nothing more than a slap upside the head, the potential for our relationships with them remains boundless—as is the power we have to change anyone’s life for the better when we are constantly face to face and side by side with them.