I'm excited Daniel is here to write for us today because he brings some necessary push back to the series--he, for one, doesn't think the term "downward mobility" is near enough. I am grateful for his perspective (although I don't agree with all his presuppositions or conclusions--which is great!) and this is exactly what I need to expand my horizons and continue on the path of asking: what next, Jesus? Daniel is that rare combination of being both a thinker AND a do-er, and I am glad to have him here today.
Seeds of Incarnation; Guest post by Daniel Karistai
Becoming a part of a city
My wife and I have lived in New Orleans for nearly three years and I consider this city to be my home. This is a big deal for me because I have moved around a lot in both my childhood and young adult years. It wasn’t until my wife and I moved to NOLA that I saw the very real possibility of staying in the same place, establishing roots in a community, raising our children and eventually be buried above ground with my own second line and everything (those who live in New Orleans are typically buried above ground in a family mausoleum and a “second line” is a type of funeral procession that is unique to this city. For more information GOOGLE “St. Louis Cemetery” and also “Second Line Jazz Funeral” and you’ll learn all about it). For someone like me where mobility has been more or less a lifestyle this experience of coming home for the first time has been both profound and unique. The other side of that coin is that Amanda and I know we are outsiders, we don’t pretend to be anything else and this knowledge is often reinforced by the disposition of new people we meet. It’s an interesting tension because while we are embraced with a hybrid of a laissez faire celebration of life and the warm embrace of Southern Hospitality there is also a distance kept between us and them. We are not met with cynicism or skepticism when we’ve talked about our love for this city and hopes for the future. It’s just a simple look on their faces or a tone of voice that says “time will tell”.
There isn’t enough space in this post to talk in depth about the ways the New Orleans’ population has always been in flux. From being owned by Empires to becoming one of the greatest cities of tourism in the world there are a lot of faces that do not stay long enough to become known. The other side of this distance we encounter in our neighbors is the fact that the zeitgeist of this city was galvanized by Katrina. For those of us who came after the Storm there is a core component to this culture’s collective story that we just don’t know because we weren’t there. That’s okay, though, all is not lost in the process of becoming a true New Orleanian because we’ve also never experienced the attitude of “You’ll never be one of us because you didn’t go through Katrina”. Instead, there is this question which sort of floats over all other conversation that no one dares to ask because the rejection would be heartbreaking: will you stay when times get tough? Will you send your kids to the same schools are ours? Will you suffer alongside us with the same love for this neighborhood and city that you have when you’re celebrating with us? The rub in trying to answer these unasked questions is that only time will tell.
Downward Mobility and the Incarnational Life
I share this tension that I live in to create a framework for understanding what I see as a parallel difference between downward mobility and living incarnationally. In a word, downward mobility is transformed into an incarnational lifestyle when the choice to opt-out of the suffering that comes with downward mobility is surrendered.
First, let’s define “downward mobility”. The definition D.L. offers at the beginning of this series is a good, straightforward one: the movement of an individual, social group, or class to a lower status. I really like this concept. I think more people need to become downwardly mobile for all sorts of reasons – many of which are discussed in the other posts of this series. Personally, as we have embarked on our own journey toward a more simple, less consumer driven lifestyle we have experienced an incredible sense of freedom to be whom God is creating us to be. On the other hand, I am also one of those people whom this series had previously mentioned that doesn’t believe downward mobility is enough. I believe it is a crucial aspect of the incarnational life but I’m noticing more and more confusion between these two concepts that I want to press into. Downward mobility is a cultural critique of western capitalism, the American Dream or Modernity itself. The Incarnational Life inhabits the vacuums created by the upwardly mobile (For more insight on this particular point check out Sister Margaret M. McKenna’s chapter “Relocation to the Abandoned Places of Empire” in School(s) for Conversion: 12 Marks of a New Monasticism by the Rutba House). Downward mobility is an architect’s blue prints and the Incarnational Life is the cathedral that those plans will eventually become. Please allow me to outline three reasons why I understand downward mobility in this fashion:
Downward Mobility doesn’t have the capacity to levy the kind of critique it tries to. Social mobility as we know it finds it genesis in the creation of the bourgeois social class during the sixteenth through eighteenth centuries. This is an inherently Enlightenment construct with the sovereignty of the individual at the heart of it all. The socio-economic status of a person is the direct result of his or her life choices. I don’t want to capitulate too much into my next reason here but for now the underpinning logic of downward mobility is a choice that is no more different than moving up in the world. When we use “downward mobility” as a locus of meaning for engaging our neighborhoods and cities we are playing according our culture’s own terms. Rather than levying a critique of our culture downward mobility seems to only shift which direction we ought to go on this linear scale. Ultimately, downward mobility reinforces one’s status in a social class construct rather demonstrating the absurdity of it all.
Downward Mobility is still a position of transcendence. For every choice you and I make that is intentionally downwardly mobile there will come seasons when the authenticity of those choices will be tested. In those crucible moments we are empowered with a choice that not everyone has – to get out or suffer through it. This choice makes the downwardly mobile transcendent from those who don’t have a choice. When those who are practicing downward mobility surrender that choice they cross over the threshold into living incarnationally. I’m going to return to this in a minute.
Sometimes Upward Mobility is a good thing. There is an NPO in New Orleans called Café Reconcile (cafereconcile.org). This organization’s mission is to equip at risk youths with job skills they would need to be successful in the restaurant and hospitality industry – for this city that can be a rather lucrative career. More than just giving people a job they offer a holistic case management service that has helped hundreds of people get off the streets, recover from any number of addictions and out of domestically violent environments. Is this not upward mobility? Is this also not something good? It’s easy to fall into it, but we must resist the temptation to categorically denounce upward mobility in our advocacy for experimenting with its counterpart.
Downward Mobility has a great amount of potential and can take us far in emulating God’s own method of engagement with his creation through the humanity of Jesus. In of itself, however, downward mobility does not have the ability to bridge the gap between living a transcendent, privileged life and an incarnational one because the individual remains sovereign. Returning to reason number two, what would the gospel story be like if at Gethsemane Jesus called down a legion of angels to take him away from the immense suffering on the horizon? No, the story of the Incarnation is not complete without the cross…and neither is ours. The Incarnational Life requires of us to not only drink from the cup of His new covenant but also the cup of suffering for the purpose of accomplishing what work God has called us to. Acts of downward mobility are seeds of the incarnational life. They invite us into an entirely different genre of life; one of surprise and wonder. When we cross that threshold we enter into a world of parables where we see with our own eyes what the Kingdom of God is like. This transformation from downward mobility to incarnation requires a steadfast commitment to the hope we have in Christ’s resurrection, a willingness to suffer alongside those we journey with and the prophetic witness of simplicity within our cultures of desire and hyper-consumption. As for our neighbors, if we remain committed to the incarnational life time will certainly tell a magnificent story of solidarity, suffering, redemption and even ascension into the resurrected life.
Daniel and his wife Amanda live in New Orleans and are members of an organization called Communitas (www.communitas-ic.org). When he's not at work, hanging out with his wife, dog and/or community you can usually find him at the neighborhood coffee shop drinking coffee and working on his thesis. From time to time he posts on his own blog at www.urbanmonastic.org. You can follow him on twitter (urbanmonknola) or befriend him on Facebook (http://facebook.com/drkaristai).
For all the posts in the Downward Mobility series, click here.