In community we find home

By  John Dalla Costa, Catholic Register Special
  • September 18, 2008
{mosimage}Beyond Homelessness: Christian Faith in a Culture of Displacement by Steven Bouma-Prediger and Brian J. Walsh (Wm.B. Eerdman’s Publishing, softcover, $27.99).

Stone by stone, as he laboured to build his summer house on Lake Geneva, the Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Jung came to recognize that home — with its design, rooms, windows, corners and doors — mirrored the human psyche, with all its needs, shadows and spiritual longings. Home is foundational to individual identity and therefore acknowledged as one of our universal human rights.
Steven Bouma-Prediger and Brian J. Walsh argue the consequence of our callousness is far-reaching displacement on many levels, touching virtually all of us, regardless of wealth or social status. With breadth born of careful scholarship as well as personal experience from ministries in the ecology and among the homeless, Bouma-Prediger and Walsh’s Beyond Homelessness: Christian Faith in a Culture of Displacement brings the many dimensions of home into focus. The authors challenge what most of us take for granted as to awaken the possibilities and responsibilities towards home that now all of us are at risk of losing.

More than a comprehensive survey, Beyond Homelessness represents a sort of systematic theology of home. God’s creation is the gift humans experience as primal home, yet the abundance of this inheritance has been exploited and hoarded — so much so that environmental degradation threatens us with the ultimate displacement of annihilation.

{sa 978-0802846921}Home is a primary motif in Hebrew and Christian Scriptures. Sin uproots us from Eden, the home God intended for us. Abraham and Moses left their homes to discover the holy land to which God called them. Jesus brought prodigal children back to God’s home, while He Himself had “no place to rest His head.”

The Eucharist, welcoming us all into equal fellowship, sharing grace and hospitality at the table, forges a sacramental home for Christians. And our salvation as people, our contribution to making the kingdom (home) of God on Earth, pivots on the welcome we extend to the homeless — the widow, orphan, prisoner, hobo, refugee, abused wife, addict, unemployed person or institutionalized elder.

All of religious life aims to make our home together with God. To lose that home to pollution, or waves of displacement caused by economic aggression, indicts our morality and imposes on us social problems.

Bouma-Prediger and Walsh have got it right. They recognize that homelessness permeates our culture. Many people with houses may not suffer the privations of life on the street, but nevertheless suffer relational and spiritual disconnectedness to the point of being perpetually at a loss for home.

“Displaced by our own mobility, worried that if we ever stopped and stayed in one place we would be left behind, and suspicious of any calls to slow down as reactionary at best: we are a country of exiles who live in what William Leach calls ‛the landscape of improvisation,’ ” write Bouma-Prediger and Walsh.

Chronic busyness and relentless acquisitiveness prevent many of us from experiencing the prayerfulness, friendships and vibrant community which constitute authentic home.

The authors — unusually for scholars and theologians — interrupt their analysis with evocative reflections on Scriptures. Using what are like original psalms or stories, they use these biblical interludes to involve the heart and imagination in this analysis of belonging and home-building as the Christian calling.

The book pays considerable attention to the pitfalls of market economics and globalization as currently practised, but without moving the argument beyond its already exhaustively demarked ideologies. Critics of consumerism rightly expose the dehumanizing dynamics of a system that fosters idolatry of possessions, and worships success and wealth. However, this critique misses something about the ineffability of things. Studying homeless people in New York, anthropologist R. Paul Hill found that many people on the street collected discarded packages and advertisements as ciphers for the home they had lost, or for the safe place they hoped to once again recover. While excess is the problem, human need and identity cannot do without both the utility and significance of physical things. Making home therefore requires a theology that values objects as worthy elements of what we craft, share and relish within the giftedness of God’s creation.

The authors do not explore in any detail the homelessness that many Christians feel within (or now from outside) organized religion. I also wondered about two current dilemmas: creating community and commitment to home among a generation investing much of its time on the Internet with avatars in virtual space; and deepening a sense of home within the respectful diffusion demanded by diversity.

As it has been throughout Scripture, home will continue to be the puzzle of loss and longing that pulls us towards communion and justice. Bouma-Prediger and Walsh have generously provided all of us with an indispensible foundation for that essential task.           

(Dalla Costa is the founder of the Centre for Ethical Orientation , an author and a doctoral student in theology at Regis College in Toronto.)

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