Gentrification and the urban values aristocracy: A response to Marcus Gee

What use does a 70-year-old Italian housewife have for a brewpub? Does anyone care?

She may enjoy a cold one at the end of a hard day as much as the next gal. But at the cost of the 30-year-old neighborhood deli that it replaced? It would be understandable if she felt less and less at home in her own community.

This fictional story of gentrification is one being felt by real residents of big-city downtown communities Canada wide: the influx of young, mostly white trendsetters with cultural ambitions, and the cash to make them happen. Often viewed as saviors of derelict neighborhoods, they could also be described as a bulldozing force, stopping at nothing in its path.

To many, such a change is an unavoidable byproduct of market economics. Nothing personal – it’s just the invisible hand at work. Really, though gentrification is much more: it’s a change in what types of aesthetics, people, and cultures are valued. These values, far from being determined solely by equity-minded homebuyers, are largely shaped by the movers and shakers that draft our city blueprints, whether they are planners, politicians, or journalists.

Some see themselves as the paragons of such values, and prophesy the future of our cities in turn. Marcus Gee, the Globe and Mail’s always-eager zeitgeist correspondent, has embraced this role of urban aristocrat with fervour. In his recent article on gentrification in Hamilton (“How Hamilton is revitalizing its downtown to bring new life,” Globe and Mail, Jan. 2/15), he paints a picture of a “grim” downtown, full of crime, poverty and despair, being gradually, but steadily, “renewed”.

Gee feigns caution in his assessment – he clarifies that homeless people are, after all, still as numerous as hipsters – but ultimately lauds the gallant coalition of bureaucrats and investors that are bringing “new life” to the epitome of urban decay. For every greasy pizzeria that gives way to a trendy shop, Hamilton takes one more step towards something better.

But what’s the endgame? For all of his enthusiasm for Hamilton’s revitalization, he is more concerned with stigmatizing what was, than elaborating on meaningful socio-economic change. The “derelict” streets, the “sketchy no-go zones,” “dilapidated” buildings – it sounds more like he’s describing the zombie apocalypse, than a living, breathing community where people actually live. Notably, he mentions no crime statistics, and doesn’t profile any existing residents of business owners: the article reads, quite simply, like a dystopian tale of where no chic urbanite should tread.

The closest he comes to naming gentrification’s virtues is by lauding the “vitality and creativity” that follows in its wake. To Gee, these virtues are ostensibly synonymous with loft condos and bike lanes. Whatever, and whomever, existed before: we don’t care where you go, but make way.

His is a mindless diagnosis of urban dysfunction, and a myopic prognosis of change. In the spirit of Richard Florida’s “creative class” narrative, Gee assumes that middle class, educated, and cosmopolitan (i.e. gentrified) communities are the only agents of meaningful socio-economic change.

The nonsense of this notion is shown by the myriad organizations in my hometown, Toronto, that are mobilizing marginalized communities to spur change on their own. Take Sketch, the renowned art drop-in for street-involved youth, or The Stop Community Food Centre, which includes community members – regardless of socio-economic status – in its governance and programming. This is vitality and creativity, sans gentrification. And yes, people still ride bikes to get there.

Gee rightly identifies public investment in transportation and place-making as important for Hamilton’s future. This is undeniable. But in highlighting all of the buildings to be refurbished and neighborhoods reworked, he neglects to speak of those who have lived, worked, and played there for generations. In extolling the new and vilifying the old, Gee adopts the mantra of unbridled gentrification: those who are already here are as bereft of value as the grimy streets.

In the midst of snazzy designs and clever financing schemes, the urban aristocrats must be mindful of the power of their preferences. Who belongs in our cities? Who will be displaced and excluded by the new urban values? It’s something to think about over a pint at the local brewpub.

 

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Trepidation on our doorstep: Free Lulu

A child and her family – originally forced to flee their native Hungary for fear of persecution – face rejection and marginalization again, this time in their new home. They thought that they had left racism and arbitrariness behind, along with their family, friends, and possessions; that, despite the pain of leaving, they were ultimately sowing the seeds of a more peaceful future. Jozsef and Timea Pusuma, along with their daughter Lulu, uprooted themselves because they viewed Canada as a place where they can live in peace and prosperity, without fear.

A comparable enthusiasm drove me to Toronto to live and work with refugees in 2009. I joined the Romero House community harbouring a belief that people have an inherent right to seek refuge in other countries when facing oppression. I recognized that Canada, as a signatory of the international Refugee Convention, has promised to uphold these rights; as a Canadian, I was proud of this commitment, and was eager to do what I could to assist in upholding it.

Coincidentally, the Pusumas and I began our new lives in Toronto at around the same time. There are many experiences we share: we have been welcomed by new friends, offered warm hospitality, and begun contributing to our communities.

In recent years, however, Lulu and her parents have been subjected to great suffering. After being failed by an unscrupulous lawyer and subsequently condemned by Canada’s newly draconian refugee determination system, they were slated to be deported back to Hungary. The anti-Roma violence that had forced them to leave in 2009 had not subsided, and as such, returning was not an option.  A Toronto congregation, understanding this, offered them “sanctuary” in their church basement. The Pusumas, fully aware that they would likely be contained for a lengthy period of time, accepted this offer.

Their decision is probably puzzling to Minister of Citizenship and Immigration Chris Alexander, who has imitated his predecessor, Jason Kenney, in brazenly labeling Roma refugees as “bogus” claimants. According to this line of thought, people like the Pusumas are in Canada merely to take advantage of our supposedly ‘bountiful’ welfare and health benefits. However, in defiance of this narrative – having extinguished the pittance of support originally afforded them by our leaders and institutions – the family remains.

The Pusumas are safe, but – after 27 months in sanctuary – increasingly desperate. By forcing them to choose between certain danger in Hungary and uncertain tenure in a church basement, the Canadian government has done a great injustice to the most vulnerable in it’s midst. Most heart wrenching is the fact that five-year-old Lulu is about to spend her third straight birthday in hiding.

Reason for optimism still remains, however. The Law Society of Upper Canada has begun the process of disciplining the Pusumas’ former lawyer for misconduct, which could have important bearing on the family’s status. This process is slow, though, and much more public outrage is needed for authorities to muster the will to act quickly.

This is where we all come in. Take a few minutes looking over freelulu.ca, which outlines the family’s story in greater depth than I have here, placing a special focus on Lulu’s plight. Central to the online support campaign is a publication of letters of support of the family, which both adults and children are invited to write. Please take some time to write to the Pusumas; this has the double effect of encouraging them, and also drawing further attention to their desperate situation. The website also contains a link to a petition to Minister Alexander, which you should also sign.

An even more effective step would be to directly contact the minister’s office, preferably by phone at 613-995-8042.

If we are to create a Canada that reflects values of fairness, justice, and hospitality, we must start by having compassion on the vulnerable among us. In many cases, we have already failed them, but there is still time for reconciliation. Whether we decide to free Lulu speaks volumes to who we are, and what we intend to become.

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Rob Ford, a homeless shelter, and the discipline of political discourse

After working at a men’s shelter for five months, I find myself in a varied state of having 1) confirmed some of my existing assumptions about homelessness, 2) been proven wrong about an equal number of things, and 3) discovered new patterns and trends that I hadn’t associated with life on Toronto’s margins. Re: the first point, I’ve learned that a huge majority of my new friends struggle through cycles of addiction and mental illness. On point #2, I’ve been surprised to find that 118 middle-aged involuntary male roommates actually maintain order amongst themselves pretty well.

As for the third category, I’ve stumbled face-first upon the fact that the shelter drop-in is an inconspicuous bastion of Ford Nation.

It’s been baffling to personally confirm what some pundits have started to recognize: that Rob Ford enjoys wide support from low-income groups that he shows very little interest in from a policymaking standpoint. Since candidates began filling the mayoral slate last month, I’d estimate half of the men I’ve asked claim they’ll be voting for the incumbent. ‘He’s an average guy’ and ‘nobody else is cutting the waste’ are the types of justifications they offer, driving home the homogenous message percolating amongst an economically, socially and culturally heterogeneous base of support.

This paradox – the fact that a platform explicitly aimed at taxpaying homeowners can appeal to a large group of homeless men – could conceivably be explained in numerous ways. The Ford camp has utilized unsavoury, but unusually savvy, media stunts to project an aura of personal connection with folks on the margins. Further, they’ve effectively used blue-collar mediums to retaliate against liberal urban elites, whom they characterize as pompously indulgent and self-serving (maybe someone’s been tuning the drop-in radio to Newstalk 1010 on my off days. Grrrr…).

It could be so many things. Primarily, though, I think support for Ford  – both in the shelter and elsewhere – is a result of chronically low expectations of political leadership. Beyond the incompetency of specific figures, we hold our leaders to shockingly feeble standards. How else could a mayoral race in one of the most highly esteemed and economically successful cities in the world centre around perpetual quarrels over a three-stop subway line?

Such low expectations are a result of a more broadly bored and cynical civic forum, in which national politicians get away with reciting bullet point economic figures, and sending the media home before it can ask meaningful questions about the health of our democracy. With this climate persisting at the highest level, it’s unsurprising that our local political communities have faced a similar type of depreciation.

In his essay “Discipline and Hope,” American cultural critic Wendell Berry argues that such pettiness is a result of the devolution of politics from an art in which leaders defend their visions and principles, to a “shallow game” where “language ceases to bind head to heart, action to principle, and becomes only a weapon in a contention deadly as war”. He claims that just as farming has been alienated from land and marriage from love, politics has abandoned the disciplines that should be at it’s heart; namely, “considerations of fact and of principle and of human and historical limits and possibilities”.

Berry observes that marketing tactics designed to placate a need for immediate cultural and political satisfaction have replaced these disciplines of discourse. Such tactics are rooted in a ‘popular perfectionism’ that – like philosophical traditions such as Marxism – strives for a utopian society, but is uniquely childish in obnoxiously demanding it now. Such civic irrationality stems from a broader societal obsession with consumption and efficiency, which has resulted in the “relentless subjection of means to immediate ends”.

If Berry is right, it’s no wonder that we have come to expect so little of our leaders. The pettiness of their means is a direct response to the impatience of their constituents, who exercise their democratic rights with the same degree of resolve and commitment they demonstrate while channel surfing.

Whether our city’s public offices remain the “hunting grounds of mediocrity and vanality” that Berry describes ultimately does not depend on the inherent intentions or character traits of political candidates.  Rather, such a fate will be decided by citizens’ resolve to build engaged and sustainable communities, whether they live in condo developments, housing projects, or homeless shelters. In other words, we have to want responsible leadership much more badly than we currently do.

If I’m impatient with one thing, it’s widespread acceptance of leadership that appropriates public anger and disillusionment to destroy our civic institutions. On October 27, I’ll be voting for a candidate that shamelessly loves and embraces the discipline of political discourse.

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Ukraine: Community beyond imperialism

A few weeks ago, I spilled out some thoughts on the necessity of recognizing ethno-cultural difference. If you were so gracious as to have made a dent in the post (it was a bit on the long side), you’d have noticed the importance I place on multicultural societies managing a “unity-diversity” tension. I drew on Christian scholar Judith Gundry-Volf, who described how Jesus’s interactions with “the other” were informed both by an emphatic recognition of his Jewish heritage, and a willingness to courageously break through firm ethnic boundaries.

I suggested that ethnic distinctiveness is central to people’s identities, and must be accommodated and respected if there is to be peace. Ethno-cultural recognition is, however, a fragile concept. Like an unstable chemical compound, a change in environment can morph the molecules at its core into something far more volatile and dangerous.

As we speak, rhetoric of difference is being used in Central Europe as a way to justify imperialism. Vladimir Putin’s administration has aggravated ethnic tension so as to kindle Russian nationalism in eastern Ukraine and Crimea as a pretext to establishing its sphere of political, economic, and cultural influence. As Chrystia Freeland noted in yesterday’s New York Times, this is more political contest than ethno-cultural conflict: it is erroneous to assume that a “fratricidal separation between Russian and Ukrainian speakers” precludes peace. It is increasingly apparent, though, that the aims of belligerent elites oppose unity.

This is not to say that everyday people are merely pawns. Some eastern Ukrainians undoubtedly have decided – willingly and conscientiously – that they would rather be part of Russia. It is those at the levers of power, however, that have insidiously limited their choices to “stay” or “go”. Just as in ancient Israel, empire has destroyed the option of living out mutual respect in community, and created an environment where difference fuels fires of alienation and violence.

Where do the keys to peace lie in such a power struggle? Freeland might well be correct in asserting that Putin’s current ethnic experiment will fail, and he will not consolidate power as easily as he predicted. However, Ukrainians’ ultimate escape from imperialist bullying and oligarch-driven instability will come only through the formation of a strong civil society strong enough to defend its fledgling democracy. In addition to advancing liberal ideals of pluralism and multiculturalism, this movement must be defined by forgiveness and reconciliation – values that transcend common political vocabulary.

To me, this conclusion constitutes a wide view. To others, it may consist of nothing more than platitudes: it says nothing specific about gas pipelines, European institutions, or geopolitical positioning. These are important variables that will be decisive in whether war or peace defines Eastern Europe’s near future. In a tenuous post-Soviet order, though, Ukrainians initiate more conversations about the type of political community they want, and dream big – bigger than established powers can currently imagine.

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Street-involved youth: Citizens of the city?

In my last post, I spoke briefly about the emergence of a “consumer citizenship” that is increasingly defining the way that people see themselves within political community. It’s a poignant example of the way that the concept of citizenship is constantly shifting in response to changing social, cultural, economic, and political norms. Despite the fact that the content and character of citizenship is always changing, it’s power as a broader idea has never ceased: to be a citizen of a broad community, such as a city or a country, means to share identity, rights, responsibilities, and a sense of belonging with others.

Sociologist T.H Marshall, in his essay entitled “Citizenship and Social Class,” describes citizenship as a set of civic, political, and social rights formed amongst such community members. Civic rights consist of protections against injustices such as arbitrary punishment and discrimination, while political rights are those we associate with representative government, such as the ability to vote. Social rights include access to basic needs, such as a living wage, education, and health care – provisions that we often collectively refer to as a social safety net.

Marshall emphasizes that the maintenance of each category of rights is dependent on the integrity of the others; widespread political participation would crumble without good schooling, for instance, and universal suffrage is inconceivable without anti-discrimination measures.  He also notes that although such rights theoretically comprise citizenship, continued class disparities preclude the realization of it as a universal standard. In other words, although we all may be nominally “Canadian,” continued social and economic inequality renders this common citizenship practically meaningless in many aspects of everyday life.

Almost every day, I encounter folks in downtown Toronto that embody this paradox. I’ve discovered that people living on the margins –  whom I might quietly write off as  “bums” and leeches if I didn’t spend any time getting to know them – are often as intellectually curious as any 9-5’er working the grind at Bay and King. Many are aware of current affairs, and cognitively equipped to contribute to local and national civil society. Deeper conversation, however, reveals that they do not enjoy a wide range of civil, political, and social rights.

Street-involved youth are one such group of people. Sharon and I, along with a small group of volunteers, organize a weekly outreach to street youth in which we build community by listening to stories, enjoying sandwiches and hot chocolate, and making the odd housing or service referral. As we walk the streets each Friday night, we are led into rich conversation with bright young adults who, despite being citizens in a basic civic sense by merit of being born in Canada, live in extreme poverty and feel alienated from political life. Essentially, they do not experience the fullness of citizenship as Marshall describes it.

A popular perception is that street youth possess rights in the same way as everyone else, but neglect to claim them due to laziness, apathy, and ignorance. In a cogent piece on homelessness and employment, Stephen Gaetz and Bill O’Grady argue that such assumptions are themselves rooted in ignorance, in that they ignore the deep structural barriers that street youth face. They claim that youth struggle to find employment due to insidious patterns of social exclusion that deprive them of advantages other young adults have in preparing to enter the workforce.

Social exclusion extends beyond the work world to manifest itself in the comprehensive denial of citizenship to street youth. In addition to facing material depravity, youth are daily led to believe – by police, business owners, and passers-by – that they are of little worth to society. Rather than compelling them to “pull themselves up by their own bootstraps,” such indictments alienate street youth to prevailing social norms, and discourage them from exercising political rights and participating in civil society.

In this way, we commit a disservice not only to street youth, but also to our political community as a whole. We constantly speak of building up “future leaders” through investment in public education and healthy homes for our children; why, then, do we address another group of fledgling citizens with scorn and dismissal?

I plan on exploring questions like these in further detail as I spend more time getting to know street youth. It’s important to emphasize that I don’t mean to homogenize them into a single category: for many, the “homeless” label is one of the only things they explicitly have in common. I’ve also discovered, though, a common desire amongst youth to live in wholesome community and work towards social justice. If this isn’t at the moral heart of citizenship, I don’t know what is.

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Where Black Hawks mix with Bruno Mars: The Super Bowl is way more than a game

I’m sure my friends and I weren’t the only ones who began to zone out by the third quarter of last weekend’s Super Bowl matchup. True to the NFL final’s reputation as a generally lopsided and boring affair, it quickly became clear that this year’s version would lack anything resembling a climax. As such, my posse’s enthusiasm quickly shifted to anticipating the shirtless antics the Red Hot Chili Peppers would scandalize national TV with during the halftime show. After the people in charge inexplicitly limited his Flea and company to one song, my mind – thoroughly uninspired by unfolding events – began to explore deeper questions of what this pseudo-sporting extravaganza meant for broader society.

Clearer than anything was the fact that although the event was an abject failure on the field, it was wildly successful in building on its reputation as a hyperbolic spectacle of American cultural norms. From commentators labeling it the “world championship” (curious, given that all of the NFL’s teams are based in the US) to the awarding of a luxury pickup truck to the game’s MVP, kitschy Americana runs through contemporary Super Bowls as freely as light beer. Although the modern-day NFL layers it on extra thick, this emphasis on patriotic fodder at sporting events is nothing new: as the authors of a 2011 ESPN article note, the Star Spangled Banner has been inextricably linked with professional baseball matches since the 1918 World Series.

Of course, such early 20th century spectacles coincided with military mobilization associated with the two world wars. Given the rapid territorial gains and comparative power of enemy forces in both conflicts, the menace that faced the US and its allies in Europe was palpable to the average citizen. The masses actively participated in the war effort, with tens of millions of men and women having served as soldiers, pilots, and support personnel overseas, and countless others domestically employed in industries directly related to the war effort. War was on people’s minds, was part of their everyday lives – as such, it’s unsurprising that it featured prominently in public events, including sporting matches.

Although war continues to be a part of the lives of many Americans, the scale of physical and emotional connection today is much more limited. In spite of this, the displays of military grandeur at the Super Bowl would probably convince a resurrected President Eisenhower that the Russians were at the gates. Amidst comprehensive military withdrawals from decade-old combat theatres in Afghanistan and Iraq, the US military thought it prudent to arrange a multi-ship military helicopter flyover of MetLife Stadium to the tune of $100 million taxpayer dollars. It was a display that, in it’s pomposity, went far beyond the patriotic offerings Babe Ruth would have observed from the Wrigley Field dugout in the midst of the deadliest conflict the world had ever known.

This amounts to nothing less than government propaganda – an attempt to normalize the military-industrial complex in the minds of the 111 million viewers that made this year’s Super Bowl most-viewed telecast in American history. Although the air force flyover was a conspicuous display of geopolitical might on it’s own, it was the subtle meshing of this imagery with more “everyday” consumer messaging that made it insidious. While video screen transitions between images of waving flags and corporate advertisements is cheesy at worst, the prominent insertion of a military tribute into the middle of a halftime show featuring commercial teen pop idol Bruno Mars was more than just a strange juxtaposition. To a critical eye, it represents an emerging status quo in which military symbolism and commercial imagery interact regularly and seamlessly.

I think it’s safe to say that as long as US Army recruitment slogans exist alongside fast food logos, the former will become just as central to the American psyche as the latter. Consumer items and trends – from Barbie dolls to lawn mowers – have informed notions of what it means to be American throughout the latter half of the 20th century. Given the marketing prowess that goes into fostering such associations, they end up carrying profound consequences about how people view themselves within political community. Throughout history, boundaries of citizenship have been determined by the projection of military force, and recent commentary has pointed to the emergence of “consumer citizenship”. Is it far-fetched to presume that events such as the Super Bowl serve to incubate a hybrid of these forces of subject creation?

Citizenship that hinges dually on people’s identities as 1) consumers, and 2) nationals of a military power, is a scary prospect for democracy, sustainability, and international peace and cooperation. If such a citizenship already exists under the radar, the Super Bowl is one of the places that it rears its ugly head. With advertisers pay $5 million for 30 seconds of airtime, it’s doesn’t look like things are going to change anytime soon.

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Recognition and unity: A challenge for the devout

After five years in Toronto – much of it living and working with refugees and other newcomers – I’ve discovered that a great tension exists within diverse communities between the desire to express unity, and the need to preserve uniqueness. Proclamations of “I’m Canadian now!” are frequent, but they speak less to a budding nationalism than a desire to share the legal, social, and political aspects of citizenship they have in common with their new neighbours. At the same time, such folks actively strengthen ties within their respective ethnic communities, and show constant resolve in retaining their cultural traditions. It’s fair to say this is a tension that needs to be seen to be believed: many political and media figures speak of the impossibility of holding multiple ethnic and cultural identities concurrently, and anybody who doesn’t experience diversity in the context of deep community is vulnerable to falling victim to such sensationalism.

I’m fortunate to have been welcomed into a couple communities that intentionally strive to foster an environment where unity and diversity can coexist. Romero House, a refugee transitional housing organizations that I’ve been involved with since 2009, has a professed mandate to welcome newcomers regardless of their cultural background, language skills, or intention to “integrate” into “Canadian culture”. Romero House was founded in 1992 by a group of Catholic activists heavily impacted by the liberation theology tradition that has influenced the Latin American ecclesiastical and politician scene since the 1970s. This tradition – advanced by figures such as Gustavo Guitierrez, Leonardo Boff, and the community’s namesake Oscar Romero – understands Christ’s teaching to be primarily directed against the prevalence of economic, political, and social injustices. Particular emphasis is placed on Jesus’ mission to empower society’s poor and marginalized.

Although it is easy to see how liberation theology would inspire the devout to welcome – and advocate for the needs of – vulnerable people such as refugees, it is primarily concerned with material, or redistributive, justice. In A Spacious Heart, a volume he co-edits with Judith Gundry-Volf, Miroslav Volf observes that Christian justice-seeking traditions – including the liberation movements that grew out of Latin America – have placed comparatively sparse importance on protecting diverse cultural identities. Drawing on the ideas of political philosopher Charles Taylor, Volf asserts that ethnic conflict is exacerbated by lack of recognition and respect between cultural groups. As such, in addition to continuing to fight for redistributive justice, the Christian church has a responsibility to confront forces of cultural domination and assimilation (which, he claims, have been bolstered by the progression of technology and economic globalization).

Does this mean that Christians are obliged to defend official government policies of multiculturalism, many of which have been directly inspired by Taylor’s theories of recognition? Not necessarily. According to Volf, however, greater efforts must be made to develop theological responses to cross-cultural conflict. Furthermore, adherents who note the degree to which Jesus struggled with the unity-diversity tension throughout the course of his mission will recognize that it is a question central to their spiritual formation. In her contribution to A Spacious Heart, entitled “Spirit, Mercy and the ‘Other’,” Judith Gundry-Volf compares two examples of Jesus encountering gentiles – his meetings with the Samaritan and Syrophonecian women, respectively – to demonstrate the degree to which questions of ethnic identity characterized Gospel narratives.

Gundry-Volf begins by discussing  Jesus’ conversation with the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well [John 4:1-42], widely considered by theologians as a paradigmatic account of his cross-cultural mission to both Jews and Gentiles.  Jesus – thirsty in the midst of a long foot-journey from Judea to Galilee – stops to have a drink while passing through the region of Samaria. A resident woman, busy drawing water from the well, is surprised when he asks her for a drink; animosity ran deep between Jews and Samaritans, and they tended to avoid contact. A conversation ensues, in which Jesus reveals his divinity to her and alerts her to the redeeming power of God’s forgiveness. Gundry-Volf explains that by offering the woman the same ‘living water’ that he offers to the Jews, Jesus “transcends the boundaries dividing the figures in (the) story and envelops them in a new, inclusive fellowship” [p.15].

In light of this cross-cultural exchange, Jesus’ exchange with the Syrophonecian woman [Matthew 15:21-28; Mark 7:24-30] comes across as shockingly ethnocentric. The woman (who is alternatively referred to as a Canaanite in some accounts) implores Jesus to intercede on behalf of her daughter, who she says is being tormented by a demon. Jesus initially doesn’t reply to her, and she persists in her request; he subsequently appears to try and deter her, saying “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” [Matt. 15:24]. The woman is driven to her knees in supplication, but Jesus persists with an ethnically polarizing metaphor: “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs” [verse 26].

Gundry-Volf observes that Jesus channels what would have been a commonly-held view that a Gentile had no “right” to expect the salvation of the Messiah, and the Syrophonecian woman doesn’t challenge this view. Instead of appealing to a sense of ethnocultural justice, she implores Jesus to have mercy by alluding to the fact that “even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table” [verse 27]. Recognizing the power and creativity of her faith, Jesus supersedes his previous reluctance, declaring that her daughter is healed. Gundry-Volf emphasizes that Jesus wasn’t suddenly overcome with some type of  universalist sensibility; indeed, the content of their conversation highlighted ethnic (in addition to gender) otherness more than it overshadowed it. Instead, “Jesus’ sense of his mission (was) expanded” through the principle of mercy, in which the woman has so much faith [p.29].

While reading, I realized that although I was very familiar with the story of the Jesus at Jacob’s well, I had totally forgotten about his encounter with the Syrophonecian. This is likely due to selective memory: regardless of the outcome of the second story, to say Jesus’ initial comments unsettled my liberal sensibilities would be an understatement. Moving beyond initial impressions, however, it has become clear to me that Jesus’ mission was characterized by very similar unity-diversity tensions that we encounter in modern, diverse societies. Furthermore, it’s clear that he struggled with it: Jesus – just as much human as God – couldn’t comprehend disassociating himself from his ethnic heritage, and was passionate about liberating his people from the very real, material oppression of an invading empire. At the same time, the divine qualities that empowered him – mercy and unconditional love – made outreach to the “other” utterly irresistible.

Although I’m no longer at Romero House, I still live in a hugely diverse city, and as such constantly struggle to fully respect the other.  I’ll continually strive to learn how to acknowledge the common humanity I share with my neighbour, while also recognizing the differences that they cherish. More immediately, I look forward to working through the rest of Gundry-Volf/Volf – I’ll keep you appraised.

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