In 1976 Francis A. Schaeffer wrote his highly influential book, How Then Shall We Live? While I’m a bit ashamed to admit that I’ve never actually read the book, the title and the popularity of this work have long stimulated my thinking about Christian discipleship. It strikes me as inherently plausible that Christians who want to take the lordship of Jesus Christ seriously must be asking such questions of everyday ethics if they are to avoid completely being “conformed to the world” through the pervasive influence of the surrounding culture.
While I continue to think that there is great value in a rigorous examination of one’s daily decisions in light of the claims of Jesus Christ, I have also become more and more convinced that many of our daily decisions are somewhat predetermined by other decisions that we may have made without much ethical reflection. Such “other decisions” sometimes turn out to be of fundamental importance to the architecture of our lives, even though we do not arrive at them reflectively. Albert Borgmann identifies purchasing a television set and placing it in a prominent spot in the living room as such a fundamental ethical decision. For many families, placing the television at the center of family life means that the relevant question has shifted from whether we will watch television tonight to what we will watch on television.
I would like to propose that, in contemporary American society, the choice of where we choose to live might also function as a fundamental ethical decision (I might make a parallel case for where we choose to work and where we choose to worship as well). Most Christians would agree that caring for the poor and showing hospitality to strangers is an imperative of the gospel. And many have given serious thought about how they might be faithful to this command in their daily life. However, given the realities of post-WWII development patterns, it is now possible to choose places to live, work, and worship that almost guarantee that we will have no incidental contact with strangers or the poor.
It is possible to go from house to garage, to office parking lot, to church parking lot without ever seeing someone who is not part of our own familiar social circle or who represents a significantly different socioeconomic level. In these cases, then, we can remove ourselves (inadvertently and unintentionally) from the sting of Matthew 25, ” . . . As you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me,” because we simply never find ourselves in places where we might see these least ones. We can decide to respond favourably and compassionately to the poor and needy when we encounter them, only to find that we rarely encounter them.
Many Christians are aware of this disconnect between their ethical intention and their daily reality, and seek to care for the strangers and the poor in more programmatic ways. Child sponsorship represents a less direct strategy and volunteering at the local food bank a more direct strategy for dealing with this problem. While I don’t want to dismiss the important work of child sponsorship organizations and food banks, I also don’t think that either strategy alone fully captures the mutual benefit of encountering the poor and the stranger on our own turf and dealing with the ethical dilemma that they represent as part of our everyday life.
For this reason, I believe that choosing to live in a neighbourhood that is mixed in income, mixed in use, and replete with inviting public spaces can be an important fundamental ethical decision. When we can walk from our home to the corner coffee shop or park with the realistic expectation of running into someone who is destitute in one way or another, we place ourselves in the uncomfortable realm of Christian decision making.
Neighbourhoods that maintain a place for the wider community and aspire to be more than “lifestyle enclaves” can be a significant school of discipleship for those who are willing to forgo some of the privacy and homogeneity of contemporary suburban living. I realize that the irony in even raising this question is that many urban neighbourhoods that seem to fit this description have become prohibitively expensive for many would-be residents. However, there continue to be a number of traditional neighbourhoods all across North America that, for one reason or another, have eluded the capricious attention of the real estate market and represent a realistic residential option for any number of Christian disciples. The recent decline of prices in many housing markets may also be bringing urban neighbourhoods back within an acceptable price range for some of us. And from a long-term perspective, I can’t think of any compelling reasons why the Christian community should support the current practice of building new communities that stifle Christian compassion.
How, then, shall we live? It’s an important question that should probably concern us for the rest of our lives. I’m simply suggesting that the answers that we formulate to this question might look very different depending on where, then, we choose to live.
(Parts of this article appeared previously in the blog Common Grounds.)