What we have seen in the United States this week — and in San Diego — has been coming for a long time. Sociologists and cultural analysts have argued that the United States has experienced an ongoing cultural, social, and economic bifurcation.
One can trace these bifurcations to the 60s. I’m slowly reading Andrew Hartman’s account in the University of Chicago Press book, A War for the Soul of America: A History of the Culture Wars. In the 60s, things start changing — the rise of both neo-liberal economics — a strong state to force people to act as “autonomous” to participate competitively in the market place — with the simultaneous rise of the New Left — a strong state to enforce individual rights to free oppressed groups from all local traditions — so that they can equally participate fully as autonomous individuals in the market economy. The New Left shifted Marx’s analysis from economics to cultural, particularly sexual and racial affairs.
Both sides share the commitment to a strong federal government — one side to force people into markets and to force resistant areas through military force into global markets (like Russia and Iraq and Iran and Syria — how has that gone?) and the other to grant entitlements and rights of oppressed groups. The federal government, particularly of the United States, becomes the means to bring about the political end to make human beings all independent and autonomous in participating in the full life style that they freely chose. As Slavoj Zizek so wonderfully states, “You are free to do anything you like as long as it involves shopping.” Here is the end of history, the outcome of the antagonistic struggle between the right and the left in which both sides look for full participation to be free to shop for everything, from the children genetically selected to Pokemon Go, to storing your body in liquid nitrogen at the Alcor Life Extension Foundation after you and/or your pets die for future resuscitation.
I wonder if we see the social unraveling this week in the executions of two African American males by police in Minnesota and Louisiana and the execution of police. San Diego police arrested a suspect for the setting four people on fire who lived without property rights — including one on Wednesday morning. We will find out about how things are on the streets soon downtown – with the major commercial opportunity of the MLB All-Star events beginning tomorrow. I am not alone, I know, in feeling the very social fabric pulling apart.
This morning I showed up on the streets in City Heights before 6:00 am. 150 or so people awaited as Will and I and Mrs. Chen began passing out numbered wrist bands to prepare for the “First Saturday” distribution — on the second Saturday. Two frozen young chickens, rolled oats, instant potatoes, two types of cranberry products, canned corn, pears, diced tomatoes, pinto beans — twelve items in all. I listened to stories from my friend, Willie, who grew up in the 60s and the 70s as an African-American male in Birmingham, Alabama. I had to relocate people from different language backgrounds from trying to jump line with always those from a different language background pointing out the problem. I broke down boxes as people went through the parking lot to receive the food. I watched my congregation and neighborhood volunteers greet, thank, distribute about 6 tons or so of food. Congelese, African Americans, white people, Chinese, Vietnamese, Mexican, Guatemalan, Puerto Rican, Ethiopian, Georgian (the country, not the state), Ukranian, Russian, Bahamian, Cambodian — and that’s just those of whom I know where through. Not one of us shopping; not one of us autonomous.
I think we had 22 persons from the congregation and volunteers. We surely could have used more help. I didn’t see a police officer all morning, I don’t think. Of course that doesn’t include the San Diego Foodbank and the governmental grant that bought the food/subsidized certain food industries — even if no one in City Height’s really wants more cranberry products.
Sure, the food helps. For many hunger remains a threat. All one needs to do is see the 8 year old girl uncertainly pushing her cart through the line to understand the importance. But more, the church’s presence in the midst of the direct action of works of mercy literally changes things. Friendships form; people care for each other, across lines that usually confine networks. Smiles, thankfulness, head nods connect where languages come. The invisible becomes manifest in the visible.
This was a hard week. I still mourn Donna Manning’s death and pray for Bill who remains intubated in the hospital. I mourn the ingrained racism that can threaten African American males life if/when they encounter police. I mourn the senseless murdering of police. I mourn the harassment and atrocities done to those who live without property rights in San Diego; I mourn the inroads of drugs and violence that these friends conduct upon each other. It was a hard, hard week.
I have no answers. I expect that the right and the left will continue to justify each others existence as they try to take control to impose their will on the general will of the United States through elections or the administrative state or the courts — to force people into autonomy of the market place “freed” from any historic tradition or institution like the Church. I expect violence, particularly as the rhetoric becomes ingrained in those unstable from trauma they have experienced, to break out within low intensity violence — I wish I didn’t more of the same, but I do.
But I also saw something different today. Very mundane, very imperfect, but something very different. I saw a social fabric of a neighborhood woven rather than strained. I saw that friendships have formed in the lines month after month, over the years. As groups become isolated more and more in lack of trust from each other in the United States, I saw people gathering together, learning to trust each other. Rather than entitlements, I saw thanksgiving. Rather than anger, I saw smiles. I saw the Body of Christ present and visible — and that Body made a difference. It wasn’t right or left; no one sought autonomy. And as I said above, no one was shopping.
It wasn’t a policy (although we thankfully received the economic re-distribution through taxes); it wasn’t a legal decision (the legal policies actually make it more difficult for us to do the work, though we earnestly uphold them); it wasn’t the present of “law-and-order” or the enforcement of “legal rights.” I saw a people. This people got hot; backs got tired; hands smelled of melting “chicken ice.” They kicked cardboard out of the way. They sorted waxed cardboard from non-waxed cardboard. They chased down people who hadn’t signed sheets appropriately less the government penalize us for not having our forms correspond to the numbers served. But something more happened there, something invisibly visible and visibly invisible, not an annulment of nature, but nature raising and perfecting towards its true end in God.
The light has shown in the darkness. And the darkness did not comprehend it.