A Legacy of Alienation

Note: Continuing this series on an environmental theology of “Re-Place-ment,” I hope to try to post every other week rather than monthly as it’s been. Above: Donna Awatera; photo: Ross Setford/Getty Images, 2004.
Poet of the month: Jim Perkinson is a brilliant hip hop poet and urban theologian based in Detroit. A longtime radical Christian movement voice focusing on race issues, Jim’s a faithful contributor to the Word and World network (see http://www.wordandworld.org). Check him out reading a poem and talking about his experiences at: http://emergedetroit.org/podcast/jim-perkinson-detroit-villages (starts 2.5 minutes in).
Musician of the month: Since we’re on the theme of Detroit, Ange Smith is another local legend who has also collaborated with Word and World. Ange is a deeply spiritual and world-class blues, gospel and jazz vocalist who has performed around the world. She has several great CDs, two of which you can find at: http://www.angesmithonline.com/.
The dominant culture of North American urban modernity is fundamentally characterized by displacement and alienation. For most non-indigenous folk, mobility has been more important than roots. As novelist Wallace Stegner put it in 1992:
The inital act of emigration from Europe, an act of extreme, deliberate disaffiliation, was the beginning of a national habit… But the rootlessness that expresses energy and a thirst for the new and an aspiration toward freedom and personal fulfillment has just as often been a curse. Migrants deprive themselves of the physical and spiritual bonds that develop within a place and a society… American individualism, much celebrated and cherished, has developed without its essential corrective, which is belonging.
Indigenous rights advocate Donna Awatera was considerably less charitable in her assessment of this same phenomenon in her 1984 manifesto, Maori Sovereignty:
This [European] wrench from the land did not come easy, but once done, spirituality in white culture died. From the rural-urban shift, and the intra-urban shifts demanded by industrialization, the…urban-colony step was easy. Separated from the land, separated from tribal and clan loin bonds, the now individual person or family is free to disperse to the colonies. Rooted now in mechanical materialism and convinced now of its superiority over land-based living, the settler is ready to destroy “barbaric” savages to give them the benefit of the “civilization” he now has…that has disrupted their own spiritual immersion in their homeland. White culture is thus critical for colonialism because it is nomadic.
In short, Awatera contends, the “original trauma” of European displacement led inexorably to the dispossession of other peoples from their land.
The cost of this historical unconscious “repetition-compulsion” has been truly staggering—to those we European-Americans have displaced, to the land, and also to ourselves. There are at least three fundamental phases of displacement most dominant culture families have experienced over the last few centuries.

The first and most crucial phase is that spoken of by Awatera. It was the displacement from European land and culture, and displacement of Native American land and culture, which took place from the 16th through the 19th centuries. Still, despite this holocaust and their complicity in it, many European Americans developed their own affection for the new land they worked.
But this bond was in turn eroded by the second traumatic phase, characteristic of the first half of the 20th century: The migration, for mostly economic reasons, from rural communities to urban areas.
The third phase of displacement has occurred with increasing frequency since World War II: The atrophy or disappearance altogether of settled urban neighborhoods, in which a semblance of community was still intact. Today a majority of city dwellers live an atomized and isolated lifestyle (how many of us know our neighbors?).

Without a relationship to culture, land and community, is it any wonder the modern urban family is in crisis?
The family has been further dismantled by the work patterns demanded by 20th century capitalism, which displaced first one, and increasingly both, parents from the rhythms of domestic home life. This cumulative alienation has had profound erosive impact upon our humanity, which we have yet to comprehend.
As the social consequences of our First World way of life become increasingly impossible to suppress, however, we are being forced to come to terms with its cost. International development analyst Thierry Verhelst, in his 1990 book No Life Without Roots, summarizes our plight:
The West has become culturally underdeveloped because it, too, is the victim of the idea of progress and the model of development which it has transmitted to the Third World and which it imposes on itself. People in the West suffer from the “withering of consciousness”… Increasingly detached from their fundamental cultural identity, Westerners, too, find self-determination difficult to achieve. This is the meaning of the current crisis who’s economic, ecological, political and social features are only the visible part of the iceberg, emerging from the deep, icy waters of cultural and spiritual alienation. It is an alienation amidst plenty at least as dehumanizing as alienation in poverty (1990:69).
Sadly, Christian theology is only now beginning to address this alienation. Liberal theology has tended to celebrate the “secular city” and the freedom of mobility, while conservatives have sought refuge in interiority. But both trajectories are merely symptoms of the alienation itself, and of denial. The extent to which Christianity itself is to blame for this situation is the subject of my next post.