The Historical, Political & Theological Roots of Urban Pain

26359563536I’m trying to get an early start on reading my seminary books (which I’m still trying to purchase–thank you so much to all who have helped out!). I’m currently enjoying Mark Gornik’s To Live in Peace: Biblical Faith & the Changing Inner City. I’ve read similar books before, and expected more of the same, but this really is a much higher level-analysis of urban policy than I thought it would be. He is writing from the context of the inner city community of Sandtown, in West Baltimore. I’m really liking it and encourage you to check it out yourself.

I wanted to devote my entire post today to a series of excerpts from his section going through the historical and theological roots of urban and racial difficulties. In light of recent comments–especially by conservatives–demonizing those who live at this level and at these places in the world (or demonizing the government policies that serve them), I found this appropriate in offering us some perspective.

On a side note, for newer readers: I do not ascribe to a particular party and I actively speak out against both of the main ones wherever I see injustice, hypocrisy, and absurdity. This just happens to be an area of policy where Republicans are far more guilty. Here are the excerpts (the bold-faced lines are my emphases).


In summary, the inner city in the post-industrial period was not created by the character flaws of the people who live there or by the welfare system, but by the searing dynamics of economy, place, and race. The result was a community in economic depression, isolated and excluded from opportunity. Life in its fullness was more deeply diminished….

In Baltimore, like every other city, most good jobs in the new economy require a highly developed set of knowledge-based skills for which Sandtown residents have not been trained. Current public policies and resources do not suggest this will become a priority. So the jobs being created for the poor are low-wage jobs in areas such as cleaning, food service, and maintenance. The city needs these jobs to keep the sectors producing higher wages operating. A new class division is therefore becoming deeply embedded in the urban landscape. This means a steady stream of low-paying jobs for the “right kind of person” from Sandtown, but usually without health benefits, retirement plans, job security, or potential for long-term advancement. Mixed in with these factors is the reality of the end of welfare and a decreasing social safety net. The new economy has “demanded” this….

In the end, far too many young men in Sandtown have found the period of the new economy to be only a growth era of incarceration. It is a shattering reality that so many African-American men are caught up in the criminal justice system. Economic redundancy married to globalization has resulted in social control as the dominant urban policy. When “peace” really means order, not public safety, then the global inner city becomes the incarcerating inner city. This is not the final word on the global inner city, on Baltimore or Sandtown. But it returns the neighborhood to where it started – working hard with a constricted horizon and being, in Roderick Ryon’s words, “restricted, controlled, watched over.”


What accounts for the high rates of joblessness, the concentrated poverty, the racial segregation, and the discouragement that form the inner city? No one should doubt that there is profound brokenness in many families, homes, and lives. Yet, by the power of the gospel, women, men, children, and families can, on an everyday basis, begin again in their lives and their relationships. Following Jesus, walking in the Spirit, and being transformed from the inside out does renew and restore people. That such a process is, by the word of the gospel, both progressive in nature and universal in requirement is typically overlooked. Equally neglected is the understanding that such change is, on Christian terms, a matter of grace, not moral determination.

Having said this, I also want to point out that the source of collective inner-city struggle is not due in any way to personal failings, the force of nature, a lack of collective activity by the community, the presence of neighborhood “pathology,” a lifestyle of sin, or any deficiencies in character or moral behavior. A lack of personal responsibility did not build the inner city. Instead, a historically accurate understanding of the inner city requires us to see inner-city neighborhoods as created by institutionalized racism, economic exclusion, and adverse political determinations. A theologically serious approach to the inner city requires us also to draw on the biblical categories of injustice, structural sin, and the powers that be.

Structures of Sin and Injustice

Because urban exclusion, poverty, and misery are bound up with larger and perverse social, economic, and political actions and priorities, a coalition of “institutions and intentions,” one of the requirements of biblical faith is to name such wronging as injustice and in so doing to take account of its urban character. At stake is not merely the distribution of goods but all of life, and in focus is not only the individual but also groups….

Injustice as the cause of social sorrow and the restriction of life is a basic biblical category, and is essential for comprehending our urban world….

I also think the ideology of the underclass, so prominent in the past two decades, is a significant part of this exclusion. “Underclass” is a label of moral deficiency rooted in a discourse of Otherness. Specifically, “underclass” refers to lazy and immoral individuals whose sorrows of extreme poverty are self-inflicted. It means the poor are poor in the inner city because of social pathology. By the ideology of the underclass, women – especially single mothers – are demonized, and men are criminalized. Our study of Sandtown’s development finds more than sufficient reason to reject this ideology, and gives great reason to be concerned when it is used to develop public policy or shape public opinion. Moreover, the ethics of the kingdom shifts the issues of what counts as right living rather dramatically….

Conversion and spiritual rebirth are central to the transformation of the inner city, not because the sins of the poor caused the sorrows of the inner city (they did not), but because these transformative experiences free all who have been “captive” for participation in God’s liberating order. A change of heart is necessary because it is the way to enter the kingdom which Jesus proclaimed and through which he is changing the world.


6 thoughts on “The Historical, Political & Theological Roots of Urban Pain

  1. A lot of flowery language painting broad strokes, but I’m not seeing a lot of substance.

    “A lack of personal responsibility did not build the inner city. Instead, a historically accurate understanding of the inner city requires us to see inner-city neighborhoods as created by institutionalized racism, economic exclusion, and adverse political determinations.”

    It’s nice of you to make those assertions, but what backs them up? You have but to walk down the street in such a neighborhood and you can probably meet, in person, no less than 3 people who will tell you to your face that their plight is caused by their own lack of responsibility, all in less than an afternoon. The other part of their plight is the inability or unwillingness to apply themselves. In this day and age you can practically teach yourself half or all of a college education on interwebs that are ubiquitous. And once you know just about all of it get yourself, by hook or crook, tuition, and get on with your life. If you’re failing in this US economy, you have little else to blame besides your own personal choices that I can see. Because at any given moment they can turn that story around. Literally, any moment they so choose. Their continued failure to do so speaks only to their own decisions.

    As I get older I have simply come to terms that there are some people that simply cannot be bothered to do what it takes. Just like I can’t be bothered to further improve myself in getting a further education beyond my bachelors. I’m too comfortable where I am.


    • look, I grew up in the south and in extremely conservative circles. I understand the perception from which you are speaking. but it’s simply not reality nor what the facts bear out.

      I don’t know if you read any of my biographical notes, but I’ve been in the Social Work field for going on about 5 years now. I spend my 40 hours a week with these people in these neighborhoods hearing their stories and trying to serve them well. I live in a gentrified neighborhood that still has drug activity, violence, and car theft :-). like I said, I get why you would say you think the way you do. I do. it’s simply not the full picture. there is indeed cultural and institutional alienation and exclusion that needs institutional changes to rectify it.

      and as far as the quotes go, in just the span of just those quotes I put up, there are nearly 50 endnotes and citations in the book. the section I pull those conclusions from, is a section devoted to an entire survey of the available (and some not yet published) research and findings. this is the limitation of the blog medium, and yeah, I post these conclusions while humbly and implicitly requesting the readers to trust that I would not put up such quotes if they had not been backed up in the rest of the peace from which they are written. if I have not earned such trust from you yet, then I appreciate you continuing to read, and I hope to earn it at some point in the future.

      genuinely, thank you for the comment.

      P.S. this was transcribed using my voice on my phone, so if I missed any typos, just sound it out and it should make sense.


  2. “When WAS the last time you spoke to 3 such people? ”

    When I was in a neighborhood around my university. Though their answers aren’t always verbatim “lack of personal responsibility”, they’re just variations thereof. Although I can have the same discussion in my own neighborhood around my house where I grew up. My own mother will have that discussion with me. She has become very aware of what it takes to make a successful career and she’s very busy at failing (or having already failed) at it, and she knows it, and she knows why, and she doesn’t have the determination to get it done. She lacks in the grit department.

    “”there is indeed cultural and institutional alienation and exclusion that needs institutional changes to rectify”

    I don’t dispute that there are factors weighing populations down. We all have those factors, or different ones. We must overcome them.

    I personally feel like the cultural ones are biggest, and they are the least likely to be fixed anytime in the next hundred years, or in fact maybe ever. You can’t stop people from making their own culture of poorness and delighting in it. You’ve got christian culture where the highest calling is to give away all you own, rich men are unlikely to get into heaven etc., you’ve got rap culture where being from the streets and gang activity etc. are enshrined above bettering yourself, the list goes on and on. And before you take issue with the christianity one, I will tell you I have some personal experience with it. My own mom has this mindset and other christian minsets instilled in her, mainly from religion, and they are undoubtably holding her back. I think she’s finally coming to realize this actually, at least somewhat. In any event, those are hard to stop, maybe impossible, and they’re probably the biggest factor.

    As to the institutionalized stuff, sure, there probably is some. But I really don’t know what it is, perhaps you can enlighten me. I’m all the time hearing vague rumors and not seeing much evidence. And perhaps you could also enlighten me as to why people are relying on these institutions to better their lot in life in the first place.

    Besides all that though, I don’t think you can get around the fact that their failure to overcome these obstacles is still a lack of personal responsibility. I could have decided to adopt the small town culture I grew up in as my own and not amounted to much. I made the decision to overcome it, a very similar person to myself did not, and didn’t amount to much though he is just as smart as me and otherwise similarly situated. It was his lack of personal responsibility that held him back. I see no difference in the other people’s culture holding them back compared to his holding him back. Same goes with the institutions, save perhaps universities. You shouldn’t be relying on institutions (other than perhaps universities) anyway. And I’m afraid, if anything, universities are racially biased for minorities, not against them.

    In short, I’d love to see the evidence for all this, but I don’t see it, and I thus don’t see the basis for your theological standpoint as a result.

    ” if I have not earned such trust from you yet,”

    I trust you to make proper quotes, I just don’t see the evidence yet and so don’t even necessarily believe your sources, even if properly quoted. At least to the extent they go to make a special exception for the inner city people as opposed to the rest of poor people all struggling with their own set of setbacks that they must overcome, and which they seem to perennially fail to do.

    Also, I’m not sure if you responded to the offer to buy you books if you’ll read the two by sagan, the thread says there are 7 responses (one more than when I posted mine) but the thread only shows 6. If you want the deal it stands. Trust me, pale blue dot and demon haunted world are both kind of dry reads around rather magnificent and trancedental topics, and somewhat written for a different age and so they might be slightly difficult to bear. But they get the point across just the same.


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