In 1976 Francis A. Schaeffer wrote the highly influential book, How Then Shall We Live?. While I’m a bit ashamed to admit that I’ve never actually read the book, the title and the popularity of this work have long stimulated my thinking about Christian discipleship. It strikes me as inherently plausible that Christians who want to take the lordship of Jesus Christ seriously must be asking such questions of everyday ethics if they are to avoid completely being ‘conformed to the world’ through the pervasive influence of the surrounding culture.
While I continue to think that there is great value in a rigorous examination of one’s daily decisions in light of the claims of Jesus Christ, I have also become more and more convinced that many of our daily decisions are somewhat predetermined by other decisions that we may have made without much ethical reflection. Moral philosophers call such ‘other decisions' fundamental ethical decisions. Albert Borgmann calls purchasing a T.V. and placing it in a prominent spot in the living room a fundamental ethical decision. For many families placing the T.V. at the center of family life means that the relevant question of daily life for that family has shifted from whether we will watch T.V. tonight to what we will watch on T.V.
I would like to propose that, in contemporary American society, the choice of where we choose to live might also function as a fundamental ethical decision (I might make a parallel case for where we choose to work and where we choose to worship as well). Most serious Christians would agree that caring for the poor and showing hospitality to strangers is an imperative of the Gospel. And many have given serious thought about how they might be faithful to this command in their daily life. However, given the realities of postwar development patterns, it is now possible to choose places to live, work, and worship that almost guarantee that we will have no incidental contact with strangers or the poor.
Many people can now go from house to garage, to office parking lot, to church parking lot without ever seeing someone who is not part of ones social circle or someone from a significantly different socioeconomic level. In these cases, then, we can remove ourselves (inadvertently) from the sting of Matt. 25, “ …. what you didn’t do for the least of these you didn’t do for me” because we literally don’t see them. We can make a personal commitment to respond favorably and compassionately to the poor and needy when we encounter them only to find that we rarely do encounter them in our daily life.
Many Christians are aware of this disconnect between their ethical intention and their daily reality and seek to care for the strangers and the poor in more programmatic ways. Child sponsorship represents a less direct and volunteering at the local food bank a more direct strategy for dealing with this problem. While I don’t want to dismiss the important work of child sponsorship organizations or food banks, I also don’t think that either strategy alone fully captures the mutual benefit of encountering the poor and the stranger on our own turf and dealing with the ethical dilemma that they represent as part of our everyday life.
For this reason, I believe that choosing to live in a neighborhood that is mixed in income, mixed in use, and replete with inviting public spaces can be an important fundamental ethical act. When we can walk from our home to the corner coffee shop or park with the realistic expectation of running into someone who is destitute in one way or another, we deliberately place ourselves in that uncomfortable realm of Christian decision.
Neighborhoods that maintain a place for the wider community and aspire to be more than ‘lifestyle enclaves’ can be significant schools of discipleship for those who are willing to forgo some of the privacy and homogeneity of contemporary suburban living. I realize that the irony in even raising this question is that many neighborhoods that seem to fit this description have become prohibitively expensive for many would be residents.
However, there continue to be a number of traditional neighborhoods all across the U.S. that, for one reason or another, have eluded the capricious attention of the real estate market and represent a realistic residential option for any number of Christian disciples. And from a long-term perspective I can’t think of any compelling reasons why the Christian community should support the current practice of building new communities that are so inimical to Christian compassion. In any case, we cannot evade questions of locational responsibility because of current demographics or market conditions forever. We must include these kinds of questions into our larger framework of Christian discipleship.
How, then shall we live? It’s an important question that should
probably concern us for the rest of our lives. I’m simply suggesting
that we've already begun to answer many aspects of that question once
we've decided where we're going to live.
© 2005, Eric O. Jacobsen.