Essay / Politics

The End of Integration?

In a recent New York Times op-ed piece, David Brooks laments the ‘end of integration’. (Read the whole piece here.)

“Nothing is sadder than the waning dream of integration… Expecting integration, Americans find themselves confronting polarization and fragmentation. Amid all the problems that have made Americans sour and pessimistic, this is the deepest…

But it could be the dream of integration itself is the problem. It could be that it was like the dream of early communism — a nice dream, but not fit for the way people really are.

For hundreds of thousands of years our ancestors lived in small bands. Surviving meant being able to distinguish between us — the people who will protect you — and them — the people who will kill you. Even today, people have a powerful drive to distinguish between us and them.

…People say they want to live in diverse integrated communities, but what they really want to do is live in homogenous ones, filled with people like themselves.

If that’s the case, maybe integration is not in the cards…

Maybe the health of a society is not measured by how integrated each institution within it is, but by how freely people can move between institutions. In a sick society, people are bound by one totalistic identity. In a healthy society, a person can live in a black neighborhood, send her kids to Catholic school, go to work in a lawyer’s office and meet every Wednesday with a feminist book club. Multiply your homogenous communities and be fulfilled.

This isn’t the integrated world many of us hoped for. But maybe it’s the only one available.”

Now, I don’t know about America. Ours is a pluralistic society, and a pluralistic society calls for chastened expectations. This form of kindler, gentler tribalism (with the key modification of each person’s multi-tribal affiliation) may be a good, if modest, plan, or at least a fair description of the best we can do.

But it won’t work for the church. Sadly, some of Brooks’ words read like an Amos-infused denunciation: ‘[Church] people say they want to live in diverse integrated communities, but what they really want to do is live in homogenous ones, filled with people like themselves.’ Frankly, that’s true. We do want to live with (and go to church with) people who are like us. Doesn’t help that we are socioeconomically and ethnically organized in neighborhoods and communities in ways that underwrite our disdain for (or at least discomfort with) difference.

It is just here, though, that the church has an opportunity to function prophetically in society.

I remember once hearing a friend say diversity wasn’t a ‘biblical’ value. If by diversity, we mean merely the (secular) right of people to do whatever they want to, thank you very much, then he’s right. But let us not forget that history is moving towards that day when every tongue, tribe and nation gather together in worship before the throne of God and of the Lamb (Revelation 7).

We witness to the kingdom of God by anticipating it in our life together. For all of America’s rhetoric of inclusion (whether in the founding documents or in more recent paeans to ‘tolerance’ – for a withering critique of which, see Kristen Deede Johnson’s Theology, Political Theory, and Pluralism: Beyond Tolerance and Difference), we remain almost laughably exclusive. This applies on the right and the left, at the top of the tax bracket and the bottom, and across the color spectrum. What better place and time than here and now to live and worship with people with whom, apart from the gospel, we would have little to do? It’s a relatively simple, straightforward move, but one that calls for significant sacrifice – because it is easy, even pleasant to be with people who are just like me. Thing is, I don’t know if it’s very easy to be the church with people who are just like me.

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