The following is an excerpt of a fascinating conversation between theologian Mark Baker and Robb Davis (right), the mayor of Davis, CA. We highly recommend reading the full interview HERE:
Mark: It would be surprising to many that an enthusiastic reader of Jacques Ellul would run for political office. How did Ellul’s work factor into your decision to run for city council?
Robb: I’ll start by that saying Ellul arguably is the reason I became involved in city politics. Maybe even more surprising than my claiming to have run for office on the basis of something Ellul said, which many might consider to be paradoxical, is that I am also a Mennonite. I wasn’t just trying to break some molds. I had spent about 25 years travelling the world. I was a technician, dispensing wisdom to many villages and communities all over the planet—45 different countries. I started reading Ellul, and Patrick Deneen, and they started challenging me about living and acting locally.
I realized that I didn’t know anything about my hometown Davis, California. So about 7 years ago, I stopped travelling. I decided not to get in an airplane anymore. And that changed everything, and not always in a good way. Because when you make a decision like that, all of a sudden everything that your identity is tied up in is no longer there. People in my hometown didn’t know me. When I started digging into my hometown I realized that the brokenness that I had experienced other places was actually more profound in Davis, California. We had a veneer of privilege and beauty, and not too far below the surface we had serious problems of addiction and homelessness and racism and exclusion. And the more I got involved, the more I realized that acting locally is really not fun. I didn’t really want to look at it. I wanted to leave, actually, but I stuck it out. While staffing an overnight shelter I saw firsthand how we fail as a society to treat mental health, how we fail as a society to deal with addiction, and how these things are syndromes that leave people broken, and our solutions are to toss the problems over to the nonprofits to try to figure out a solution. So what I want to say about that experience, and where I really drew from Ellul quite a bit, was the idea of the flourishing of intermediating entities outside the state. The state was incapable, even at a local level, of really effectively dealing with these problems. Into the interstices into the breach, came these small organizations. My commitment at that time was to try to work with them to make them stronger, to help them plan, to try to take some things I’d learned in my trips around the world, and to try to bring them into the community. And of course in a situation like that sometimes you do that for a while, and you’re asked to be on a commission, you’re asked to be on a task force, and then somebody knocks on your door one day and says, “Maybe it would be useful for you to run for office.” I didn’t believe that I should or could do it. And my main concern was some things that were raised today at this conference about power. Could I go into politics and authentically bring some solutions? The thing that pushed me towards the decision was the idea that perhaps in that role, and this gets back to power, I could encourage the flourishing of these intermediating agencies in the community. I could encourage them. Because one reality of being a political leader is, when you pick up the phone and say to someone, “Come to a meeting,” they’ll come. They will. I thought, “Maybe I can bring people around the table who aren’t talking to each other, maybe I can bring the school district together with the police department, together with the city, to do a restorative justice program.”
Another key factor that led me to run was born out of something I read in Ellul: “A key fact of this civilization is that more and more, sin has become collective and that the individual is constrained to participate in it.” (Ellul, Présence au monde modern, 1948, p. 19—Robb’s translation). I was talking to a friend of mine, and we realized that if we had someone in office who was engaging in regular confession about our participation in that collective sin, maybe that would be helpful to a community. And so I’ve tried to make it my practice to be confessional.
Mark: Let’s return to your comment about confession for collective sin. Can you give an example of how you do that?
Robb: I am asked to speak frequently at different events. Recently I spoke at a demonstration against Bakken crude oil coming through our town by rail. It is very volatile and there have been railroad accidents and explosions in other places, killing many people and causing significant environmental destruction. What I mean by public confession is standing in front of a group of environmental activists and saying, “You know the oil company is not going to the Bakken formation to make our lives miserable. The oil-producing company is not going to the Bakken shale to give us heartache, or to challenge our goal of local control of land use. They’re going to the Bakken shale because we’re telling them too. We’re asking them, we’re begging them, our society, our lifestyles are drenched in oil. That’s why they’re going.” Now, that’s my public confession of my participation in systemic sin. We’re raping Canada’s timber to build houses in California. We’ve despoiled the Ecuadorian rainforests to drive our cars. We need to say that; we need to acknowledge that. And I’ve felt like I could make a commitment to do that. And in the end to be confessional to acknowledge my role in the systemic.
Robb Davis holds a master’s degree in public health and a Ph.D. in population dynamics from Johns Hopkins University. He has over twenty years’ experience in international development in the field of maternal and child health and nutrition. He was the executive director of the Mennonite Central Committee. He contributed an article to the Ellul Forum (#46). He is fluent in French and reads Ellul in French. He was elected to the Davis, California, city council in June, 2014 and began serving as mayor of Davis in July 2016. In addition to his role in city government he also dedicates a significant amount of time to work on issues related to homelessness and restorative justice in relation to youth crime.
Mark D. Baker, professor of theology and mission at Fresno Pacific Biblical Seminary, interviewed Robb on July 7, 2016 as part of the conference of the International Jacques Ellul Society. What follows is an edited version of excerpts of that session, including two of the questions from the audience.