The Price of Political Ambivalence

water shut offsBy Tommy Airey

When I see an act of evil, I’m not accommodated. I don’t accommodate myself to the violence that goes on everywhere; I’m still surprised. That’s why I’m against it, why I can hope against it. We must learn how to be surprised. Not to adjust ourselves. I am the most maladjusted person in society.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel

Detroit, Michigan

Last month, water shut-offs were ramped up for residents of this city two months behind on their bills. Tens of thousands already live in homes that do not have running water. Leaders of the city make claims that both payment plans and cash assistance are available for those who cannot afford water. Unfortunately, a vast majority of people take them at their word.

Payment plans are available to those who (A) actually have enough money for a down payment and (B) actually have the time and transportation to show up in person at one of the city’s payment stations.  These are pitched The 10-30-50 Plan: residents behind on their water bills need to come up with 10% of what they owe in order to get their water turned back on. If they cannot keep up with the monthly bills, they are given a “second chance:” water is shut off until they can pay 30% of what they owe. A “third chance” is given if they can pay 50% of what they owe.

However, as investigative reporter Curt Guyette reported a year ago, The 10-30-50 Plan has been an abysmal failure:

According to the most recent numbers provided by Detroit’s Department of Water and Sewerage, 24,743 residential customers are enrolled in a payment plan. Of that number, 24,450 are at least 60 days past due on their payments—meaning that their homes are in danger of losing water service once the city resumes shutoffs.

Stated another way, only 300 of the 24,743 customers put on the mayor’s payment plan were able to keep up with their payments and ensure their water will keep flowing.

Guyette has also reported that the $4.5 million of assistance provided by the newly minted Great Lakes Water Authority is not nearly sufficient to help low-income residents pay off what they owe, a combined $45 million in arrears. In addition, there are confusing requirements that make many (if not a majority) of the victims of water shut-off “unqualified” for assistance.

I’ve had the opportunity to canvass and make water deliveries with We The People of Detroit, hearing the stories firsthand of some of these Detroiters that city leadership calls “delinquent.” Abject poverty—not apathy or absentmindedness—is dehydrating these children of God.

As leaders advocate for neoliberal development schemes over the basic needs of long-time residents of the city, there is a haunting silence from the Christian community in Metro Detroit and throughout North America. Why? I’ve been wrestling with this question ever since moving to this city, aghast at how this can be happening in the wealthiest country in the world, in a region that boasts 20% of the world’s fresh water and enormous suburban wealth just beyond the city’s borders (neighborhoods that have all been resourced by Detroit’s water department for decades).

In Who Will Roll Away The Stone: Discipleship Queries for First World Christians (1994), Ched Myers suggests four reasons why North American Christians tend towards ambivalence, allergic to taking concrete stances on social, political and economic issues of life and death. First, most of us are seeking to live faithfully in contexts of comfort and privilege. We are insulated from those for whom “the system” does not work. We do not understand just how bad it is for millions in our country, many living in our own watershed, on “the other side of the tracks.” 40% of Detroit’s population lives below the poverty line and approximately 1/5 of those do not have any income at all, just surviving off of food stamps and section 8, if they are lucky enough to receive it (see the recent bestseller Evicted by Harvard’s Matthew Desmond). The construction of the interstate highway system and white suburban refugee camps have been key developments in the last half century towards the creation of this hidden suffering.

Second, there is a built-in assumption that our socio-political structures are the lesser of evils and we struggle to think of a better alternative. We shrug our shoulders cynically or apathetically and say, “that’s politics!” This is the best that “fallen” institutions can offer, we believe (many of us feel the same way about church).   We (think we) know just how much is stacked against us, the odds for changing anything too high to spend much time on it. The authorities and elites are going to do what they are going to do no matter how effectively we organize. In Detroit, an emergency manager (EM) took over the reins of the city for 18 months and the public school system is still controlled by an EM. For those living outside of the city, it is easy to get hyped up about “Detroit’s comeback” and settle for the allure of new restaurants, microbreweries, coffee houses and sports stadiums in downtown and midtown.

Third, we lament that contemporary political issues are too complicated for the church to deal with. It takes a lot of mental and emotional energy to go beyond newspaper headlines and research the whys and hows of ongoing poverty and oppression. This is both intimidating and exhausting. We lead busy lives—jobs, children, extended families, hobbies and a whole host of distractions and addictions we’ve accumulated to deal with the inevitable violations of love and trust we’ve persevered over the decades. Besides, most people aren’t sure where to go to find “the Truth” even if they had the motivation and energy to seek it (we all know the cable news networks aren’t going to deliver, but where can we go?).

Lastly, Myers writes, at the root of all of this, there’s “an ideological bargain Christian theology has struck with secular capitalism: It has conceded authority over the public sphere to the State in hopes of retaining a modicum of authority over the private sphere.” Churches play their role in The Drama: offering to meet “spiritual needs” and “eternal salvation” on Sundays and letting parishioners run the world Monday through Friday. The sanctuary is separated from the street by four walls and “conventional wisdom.” Just recently, on a drive north of Saskatoon, Ched pondered the church’s unique role in the struggle:

The church is the culture of forgiveness and healing. It views “the other” as human and not fodder. I’m not talking here about the church as an ideology, but as a lived, communal reality. A key problem is that when we attend activist meetings, we desperately need pastors and there usually aren’t any around. And when we attend church, we desperately need organizers and there usually aren’t any to be found.

Where do we go from here?

First, as a form of confession, we must repent of political ambivalence and resist its powerful forces. At  baptism, we were set free from the chains of denial, commissioned to be people who, as Rabbi Heschel describes, are surprised by evil and maladjusted to injustice. We can make the pledge to speak up and speak out, no matter how awkward, uncomfortable or inconvenient. Creatively and courageously, we will name injustice and oppression, especially those manifestations in our own watershed.  Now more than ever: silence is violence.

Second, we will seek and find reliable sources so that we have a less distorted picture of what is happening in the world. We all have “opinion leaders,” people we deeply respect, who point to what is going on in the world (I consider it a spiritual practice to weekly stalk these brilliant women on Facebook: Michelle Alexander, Rebecca Solnit, Lily Mendoza, Monica Lewis-Patrick, Jyarland Daniels and Laura Gottesdiener).  We desperately need these voices to check the toxic “conventional wisdom” that we breathe in every day.

Lastly, we can commit to joining ongoing efforts to organize for a more just world. Almost always, there is no need to start anything new. We can support organizations already doing the work on the ground, carving out time and devoting energy to attending meetings, participating in direct actions and boycotts and financially contributing to the cause.

After almost two years of studying the water atrocity in Detroit, I’m more convinced than ever that there is an inertia (of comfort, complexities, concessions and a lack of creativity) that keeps good people from participating in the divine movement for peace, justice and equality. As Martin Luther King reminded audiences 50 years ago, a new world only “comes through the tireless efforts and the persistent work of dedicated individuals who are willing to be co-workers with God.” Ambivalence kept far too many “white moderates” from marching with Dr. King.  Let’s not make the same mistake.

3 thoughts on “The Price of Political Ambivalence

  1. Pingback: A Call to Action – Radical Discipleship

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