The Solace of the Quotidian
When Trees Clap Their Hands

A Theology for the Ruins: A Response to "Detroit City Is the Place to Be," by Mark Binelli

166367894While there are certainly cities and towns in the United States that have experienced decline, no major city has experienced such rapid decline as that seen  in the last decades by the once prosperous city of Detroit. With a large land area of nearly 140 square miles, its blight is stultifying in its immensity: 30 percent of the city is vacant land, there are 90,000 abandoned buildings, including massive automotive plants, 25 percent of the population has left in just one decade, it's the most violent city in the United States. And the tragic list of statistics goes on.

Many come to gawk, to tour the ruins, taking a morbid curiosity or attaching a certain weird sense of hipness to the decline. Not so with Mark Binelli, the author of the recently released Detroit City Is the Place to Be: The Afterlife of an American Metropolis.  Having grown up in Detroit, his is a more sympathetic telling of its woes.  In 2009 he moved into the city and settled in to walk, bike, talk, and gawk --- to, in his words, ask "what happens to a once-great place, after it has been used up and discarded?" More than that, he says "I wanted to know if my hometown could be saved," and, if Detroit could be saved (though he might not put it this way), if we all can be saved. Binelli is a good writer, powerfully sustaining a narrative of ruin yet ultimately failing in finding a sustaining basis for hope.

There are several mini-narratives at play in Binelli's book, all well-known to those who have studied the city and its decline, and the author does a good job of bringing these stories home by recounting the particulars of people and place. For example, to give us a sense of the kind of violence that is routine, he recounts the story of the gruesome murder of David Morgan, Jr., 61, murdered and dismembered by two twenty-something cocaine dealers as a message to other drug dealers eager to move in on their turf. He finds plenty to write about under the heading of political corruption and mismanagement, from the bribery, kickbacks, embezzlement, cronyism, and sex scandals of Kwame Kilpatrick to the financially-challenged city council President Charles Pugh. And weird art? He ventures into the ruins of the old Packard plant to see an installation by artist Scott Hocking, which consisted of empty television boxes (found on site) on top of exposed columns.  Scrappers (scavengers of old buildings), firefighters, arsonists, and washed-up auto union workers are just some of the characters that people the rest of his tale --- to the extent you begin to ask where the "normal" people live (if they do) or where there is a real community, intact neighborhoods.  Detroit seems to bear not only physical ruin but a human ruin with very little in the way of hope.  The lingering question is whether it is but a harbinger of Ameircan decline.

But perhaps the author just didn't know where to look. He could have talked to Lisa Johansen, Executive Director of the Central Detroit Christian Community Development Corporation (CDC2), an organization staffed by Christians who live and work in the community, who work on bringing resources for housing, job skills, education, and community-building back into the neighborhood where they all live. Surely there are other churches, non-profits, and volunteer organizations making a difference.  But they're not recounted here.  Where in fact are the people of faith in Binelli's tale? Did he deem them irrelevant? It is curious to read such a powerfully descriptive story that entirely omits any reference to the spiritual temperature of the city. Binelli evinces no hostility toward religion or the church, but its absence makes incomplete his telling.

Underlying the mini-narratives of the author's book is an unspoken, underlying non-narrative: one of meaninglessness, of a decline and despair which is only temporarily relieved by an existential glimmer of hope, one he finds difficult to sustain. In fact, in a book of 288 pages, that glimmer of hope he allows himself bleeds out, finally, in only the last nine pages, a telling indicator of its ephemeral quality.

In another continent, in another time, another people saw decline.  Some of that story is told in the Old Testament book of Nehemiah. At the heart of Jerusalem's ruin was a people who were spiritually bankrupt. Casting off God, they were abandoned, for a time, to captivity in Babylon, taken from their lands, their city destroyed. And yet not finally abandoned. A broken man, Nehemiah repented of both his sin and that of a nation and cried out to God for help. In the end, the walls of Jerusalem were rebuilt in 52 days, much to the surprise and chagrin of the surrounding peoples, and a people came home.

None of this is to suggest a particular judgment of Detroit or that Detroiters or Americans are God's chosen people. It is, however, to suggest that the narrative that underlies all others is a spiritual one, a theology of ruin from a people who have abandoned God and forsaken what is good, true, and beautiful, a fallenness that manifests itself in violence, corrupt politicians, unbridled greed, racism, and moral degeneracy. Deeper still, though, is a narrative of grace, of a God who can heal and rebuild a city and its people, who can even rebuild a nation committed to Him.

Neither the Government nor capitalists can save Detroit. God can. Detroit doesn't need post-modern artists who have no basis for a sustaining hope, who have no answer for hopelessness. It needs a  city on its knees.  It needs people committed to living, praying, and working alongside its people, building communities that look upward for hope and move outward in love. Now that would be a story. That's a theology for the ruins.  That's the place to be.