Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Gated Community Ethics

Hi Marcia,

We've been here in Stellenbosch (Cape Town, South Africa) for a month. We have been guests of some dear folks while awaiting our apartment to become available. Being long-term guests has its own sidelights, but I am more troubled by where we are guests.

This is a gated community perched on a beautiful hillside with a view of some breathtaking mountains, surrounded by vineyards. There is a rather unsavory ramshackle settlement a few kilometers away and out-of-view with all the resulting problems of poverty and crime.

But we are ensconced in a mini-paradise of 1200-1500 architecturally impressive homes. An electric fence with proper warnings surrounds us. Two gates control ingress and egress. Residents have their index fingers registered to admit them without disturbing the guards. We are guests, so we sign in and out and guards scan our licenses and car registration every time we come and go. 

The guards at the gate are friendly souls, greeting us with banter over our Texas licenses and generally making folk feel good about how secure the haven is. And it is a haven. The roads are paved and bricked. There are ponds and parks, places to walk, garbage is non-existent, people are carefree as they walk their dogs and nannies push their children in prams. One hears peacocks screaming from the neighboring exotic animal farm and sees horses grazing on the hillside. Bucolic, serene, safe.

So what is my problem? It's a gated community.

Something in me doesn't like the whole idea. I will be relieved when we move our bits and pieces to a less remarkable place. Am I judging them or is this just what is right for me?

My concern is the basis for this type of lifestyle. It appears to be based on fear. Fear for the safety of one's family. Fear of what is going on in that random hodgepodge of shacks just over the next hill. It also appears to be rooted in comfort: the need to have everything just so. There are outdoor fireplaces (complete with chimney and weather vane) attached to most of these homes and one can smell the meat roasting many evenings. The gardens are delightful and attest to the creativity and means of those enclosed by them. The residents walk casually, barefoot or shod, absorbed in their mobile devices--confident that they will reach home safely.

Why does this disturb me? Shouldn't I be happy for them? That they have found security in such a volatile country? Just over those cut-out mountains, vineyard workers have rioted and burned and vandalized.

I suspect the folks are telling themselves some half-truths. And it's usually the half of the truth that isn't told that gets us.

1. They are telling themselves this isn't discriminatory. They are half right. Residence here does not discriminate on the basis of color. There are people here of every shade. This is a rainbow residence. But it does discriminate based on economics. And the cost alone is the factor that eliminates the riffraff. Where am I, as a follower of Jesus, in the midst of this?

2. They tell themselves that living here is a free choice. They are half right. People can choose not to live here, but they cannot choose to live here unless they meet certain criteria. What kind of free choice is that? Or perhaps am I too simplistic.

I look around me, and although it is very much like middle class America, I feel uncomfortable. Who am I to judge these people and what they have been through? I do not know their stories or the price they have paid to survive. But I wonder if Jesus came to South Africa today whether He would live in a gated community.

What do you think, Marcia?

Dear Karen,

I had to read your post several times to ascertain the real issue you present. I'm still not quite sure.

Is it fear vs trust?

Is it wealth vs poverty?
Or is it class discrimination?  

I don't live in a gated community, but I do live in one of the safer neighborhoods in my city. And those who can't afford the homes here can't live here. 

I like having neighbors who are gainfully employed, who don't make noise or trouble in the streets, who keep their yards neat and landscaped. The streets in our subdivision were resurfaced last summer, and I like how smooth they are. 

I'm feeling a little guilty right now. But not guilty enough to unlock my doors before I go to bed tonight. Not guilty enough to move out of my home and into a sketchier part of town. 

The Bible, both Old and New Testaments, is full of admonitions toward the rich: Don't oppress the poorBe generous. Be merciful.

But I don't see a passage that tells us that everyone should be financially equal. Jesus's advice to the rich young ruler is a thorn in our side, of course. But we certainly don't want to proof-text there! 

Would Jesus live in a gated community? Of course not. Should you? Definitely not. Should the people who live in your host home live there? Probably.

I think God gives each of us passions that everyone else will just not share. I read that Jim Elliot asked his classmates in college why they were not going into foreign missions. His passion, to him, was the correct one. 

And your passion, Karen, is to live closer to the poor so you may better minister to them. I am proud to be your friend. I'm proud of your ministry. And I'm so glad it's not mine. That irritation in your heart when you look through the gate to the other side? it's like the sand that irritates the poor oyster before he makes the pearl.

It will be a lovely pearl, I'm sure. I'm looking forward to seeing it. 

God's blessings as you and Phil begin your ministry.