Inclusive, Particular and Being Down and Out in Austin.

by Brian Walsh

On March 17 I had the incredible honour of speaking along with my co-author, Steven Bouma-Prediger at the “National Symposium on Homelessness” in Austin, Texas. This event, hosted by a dynamic ministry called “Mobile Loaves and Fishes,” brought together around 250 people who either are involved in homelessness issues and services or who were formerly homeless for a day of reflection on “What is Home and How do we get there?”

In my presentation I spoke about how home is always rooted in memory. There is no homecoming apart from story. And I then offered a telling of the biblical story of home, homelessness and homecoming as a powerful story that could sustain both on the street ministries and transformed social policy.

Now I knew that a number of folks in the room were not Christian, but chose to be explicitly and openly Christian anyway. The fact that the majority of people involved with helping their homeless neighbours are indeed Christian and that a majority of the homeless in Austin also identify themselves as Christian, together with the fact that I am a Christian and can only speak honestly and openly from a transparently Christian perspective, I figured that non-Christians in the room might be willing to hear a take on the biblical story that just might be new and perhaps even appealing to them.

Not surprisingly, the question of Christian language in such a context, the need for plurality and the fear of Christian proselytizing all emerged in the response from the audience. In an email exchange one person suggested that the liberal view of social welfare needed to be affirmed on all kinds of grounds and that she had heard me to say that I was in fact against inclusiveness in these matters. In my reply I attempted to clarify my position as follows:

I am sorry if something that I said sounded like I was against inclusiveness. That is not the case. I may not agree with liberal notions of inclusiveness, and I may even find that the hegemony that liberalism has had in the social services and the public square has been far from inclusive, but that doesn’t mean that I am against inclusiveness. If I was to describe my position it would be principled pluralism.

We need to acknowledge and affirm the plurality of worldviews in our society and find meaningful and respectful ways for various faith communities to make their contribution to the common good. Now I also happen to think, on anthropological grounds, that we are all members of faith communities, but that requires an expanded notion of faith that breaks through the religion/secular dualism that has been championed by Enlightenment modernity. I think that all people live their lives out of some foundational worldview or narrative that is, at heart, religious in character, even if that religion is self-consciously “secularist” or atheist.

Now insofar as the liberal agenda has brought us things like medicare, social welfare and the like, I am not in disagreement. I said in my talk that I believed that structural change in our socio-economic systems was necessary, and for a lot of that change I can make common cause with the liberal agenda. My concern, however, is deeper. Essentially, I think that liberalism just isn’t radical enough because it does not question a capitalist worldview at its core.

In Beyond Homelessness, Bouma-Prediger and I argue that the problem with liberalism is that it is an ethical system and a worldview that is too thin to sustain the kinds of socio-economic reform that most liberals most deeply desire. My whole “sermon” (and I’m happy to call it what it was) was an attempt to offer a narrative that is alternative to the dominant western mythology of civilizational progress rooted in a technologically driven ideology of unceasing, ever expanding economic growth. This is a worldview, in my opinion that is disastrous for the poor, for the environment and pretty much for all of us.

So what just happened to my “principled pluralism” in those critical comments about liberalism you might ask? Well, principled pluralism will always have its limits. When the Klu Klux Klan moved into my neighbourhood in Toronto (yes, Toronto!) I helped organize a “ban the Klan” march and rally. That was an act of profound inhospitality and indeed, exclusion. This was an act of ideological NIMBYism that I would do again.

Yes, principled pluralism, but not a racist and violent worldview such as the Klan espouses. Same thing for Apartheid in South Africa back in the 80’s. For me, same thing for the American mythology of Manifest Destiny, American exceptionalism, the myth of American goodness, etc. And the same thing for an economic liberalism that will place economic growth as the foundation of society and social welfare as an act of care that will come after, and always subservient to that economic growth.

So maybe what we need to talk about is just what do we mean by inclusiveness. If what we mean by inclusiveness is that we need to find ways to bridge the gap between various groups, whether Christian of various stripes, Muslim, Aboriginal, feminist, gay/lesbian, liberal or even neo-conservatives (a stretch likely for both of us!) to fight against poverty and to seek the common good, then of course, count me in.

But count me in as a Christian.

Let the various groups make their contribution – often on their own, but sometimes in coalition where that will be most effective – but let them make their contribution with their worldview clearly in the forefront, not hidden behind some veil of religious neutrality. That imposition of religious neutrality is, in fact, one of the oppressive legacies of the liberalism that I am opposing.

Let me add two more quick points.

First, let me be clear that this is not an endorsement of the faith-based groups initiative of the former Bush administration. Was that an act of privatization and government shirking of responsibility under the guise of openness to religious groups in the public square? You bet it was. And it was also a cynical duping of the Religious Right in America. That was Bush getting them on side. But it was all smoke and mirrors. It was the deceitfulness that the rest of the world clearly recognized in that administration.

Second, let me also be clear that this is not an endorsement of everything that has been done in the name of Jesus. Have Christians been harmful in their engagement with the issue of poverty, and specifically in the lives of the poor? Yes, we have! And for that we need, in our own religious language, to repent and confess our sins. And I might add that that repentance is most needed in relation to how the Christian community has treated women and the gay/lesbian community.

I hope that these remarks clarify where I am coming from and precisely what kind of inclusive pluralism that I think we should embrace.

Brian Walsh
Brian is an activist theologian and the CRC Campus Minister at the University of Toronto. He engages issues of theology and culture, and has written a couple of books you might want to check out. His most recent offering is cowritten with Sylvia Keesmaat and entitled Romans Disarmed: Resisting Empire, Demanding Justice.

One Response to “Inclusive, Particular and Being Down and Out in Austin.”

  1. ben adam

    Thanks Brian! I just encountered a discussion with a roommate over a similar issue. You phrased this very… helpfully. Peace!

    Reply

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