Monday, July 23, 2007

Justice in the Burbs review

The new book Justice in the Burbs: Being the Hands of Jesus Wherever You Live by Will and Lisa Samson has just been released. I met Will a few years ago and just saw him a couple times in the past two weeks. Will is a doctoral student in sociology, and Lisa is an award-winning novelist in the Christian market. They both bring their skills and expertise to their joint book, half of which is an engaging fictional narrative about a suburban couple exploring justice issues, and the other alternating half is nonfiction exposition and commentary about the topics at hand. Here's a key paragraph:
. . . doing missions means doing the work of the kingdom wherever you are sent. And the best place to think about where you have been sent is to see where you are. God is a being of great economy. He works before you even realize it and before you sign on, and he's placed you where you are today for a reason. If you find yourself in the suburbs, welcome to your mission field.
The book, especially the later chapters, have lots of practical ideas for missional suburban living, in terms of better use of resources, decisions in eating and transportation, connecting with latchkey kids, practicing simplicity, purchasing fair trade, etc. They provide a realistic portrait of challenges and obstacles to suburban justice, and they point out that there is no "silver bullet" or "quick fix." Rather, justice requires commitment for the long haul and long-term investment in our neighborhoods and communities. This is itself countercultural considering how transient suburban culture is.

This book deserves a wide reading. The title is somewhat of a misnomer - the Samsons aren't just talking about suburban justice; they're really discussing the totality of holistic suburban life and discipleship. There's a danger that the book will read mostly by a self-selecting audience of those who are already concerned about justice issues. Really it's for any suburbanite who has a sense that the suburban life is not as it should be and that something must be done about it.

One minor quibble or critique is that despite the title, the majority of the narrative seems to focus on justice in urban contexts or rural settings, whether urban ministries or mountaintop mining issues. Comparatively less space is given to discussing justice in actual suburban areas. Much of the book seems to assume that most suburban Christians are fairly affluent and need to be investing themselves in justice issues elsewhere. While this may be true, I would have liked to have seen more material and analysis about the increasing issues of suburban poverty. I read an article recently about how food shelves in suburban areas have seen increased demand of 300% in recent years (while food pantries in urban contexts have had roughly the same amount of demand and need).

David Fitch argues that "new forms of poverty are taking over the suburbs as thousands have been talked into sub-prime mortgages and various other enslavements which leave them with little or no money for other necessities despite having a suburban home to live in." Julie Clawson made these perceptive comments on David's blog:
Out here in the far west Chicago suburbs I see this all the time. Kendall County is the third fastest growing county in the nation. We have tons of those cheaply built cookie-cutter homes that create the "house poor" culture out here. We are too rich as a county to get any government aid, so social services are nonexistent.

I see this with the moms in playgroup all the time. They got the house but they have no connection to anything. No phone, no TV, no internet. Their husbands won't give them money for gas so they are stuck in their big homes with no connection to anyone. More and more these moms are "homeschooling" (no real education, just basically having the kids at home) so they they don't have to pay all the fees of public school (which are quite hefty out here). If our playgroup happens to meet on their block they show up and stay hours longer because they are desperate for some contact with people.

Every other house in some of these 2-3 year old neighborhoods has a "for sale" (read foreclosure) sign on it. I've heard countless stories of the men just disappearing to escape it all and leaving the mom who has been out of the workforce for a number of years stranded with a few kids, a big house, and a lot of debt.
These are real issues of suburban injustice - predatory lending, lack of social services, as well as denial on the part of local municipalities regarding suburban poverty and homelessness. I hope that readers of Justice in the Burbs will be motivated and mobilized to pursue justice at home in their suburban neighborhoods as well as wherever God may lead them - urban, rural, global, wherever!

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