A while back David Fitch posted some thoughts on the power of “place” to overcome ideology in the life of the church. He states his argument, briefly as follows:
. . . it is only through “place” that we can break the cycle of ideological church. It is only through engaging in the practices of being the local expression of Christ’s body that we can break out of the entanglements of ideological cynicism. It is only in being the church of Jesus Christ, whose belief and practice is grounded in the Triune relation of God in the world, that we can avoid being ideologized. It is only in building communities that have their own internal integrity built in the on-the-ground participation in the Reign of Christ – that we can escape the ideologization of the church. No longer dependent upon ideological structure – we can then discern – resist- participate in the world in non violent non-antagonistic ways. This of course (I would argue) is the nature of the incarnation and incarnational communities.
Now, I want to say at the outset that I understand that Fitch is emphasizing “place” (as many missional and new monastic folks do, including myself) in an attempt to combat certain elements of the contemporary evangelical church, such as suburban commuter churches in which the congregates don’t share much in the way of meaningful common life. In the face of churches whose members may live anywhere and not necessarily anywhere near one another, the call to “place” seems to make some sense. Certainly the church is not faithful if it construes itself as a sort of abstract meeting place that does not call us into common life and mission together.
However, I’ve grown increasingly less confident in the notion of “place” to do the sort of heavy lifting that is often asked of it. First of all, in contrast to what Fitch seems to suggest, I don’t see how its possible for us to construe “place” in and of itself as giving us a way to “break the cycle of ideological church.” “Place” speaks of location, stability, longevity, peoplehood, cultivation, it conjures up the images of land and home. But this seems to be part of the problem: Is not commitment to “place” the greatest source of ideology in human history? Are not wars fought precisely in the name of “place”? Is not the effort to carve out and secure “place” at the very center of ideological conflict? To speak of “place” is speak of establishment, and as such, far from becoming a site of resistance to ideology, it forms the place of its very birth. Could not the call to seize upon “place” have the exact opposite effect as Fitch intends? Might it not drive the church towards a territorialism, a possessiveness, that insists upon securing its own “internal integrity”?
We do well to remember that “place” is not neutral. “Places” are created by blood, by division, by violence. It is decidedly easy for the images of belonging and stability that “place” conjures up to imagine that it is simply benign and beautiful. But the truth is that it is not enough to call the church to embrace “place.” Rather the church must be called to critically question and act in response to the forces and powers that divide the world. It is not enough to say “place”; rather we must critically examine the nature of the different spaces in which we find ourselves. The “place” that is the urban ghetto is a decidedly different space than the suburbs or the uptown. They are not really “places” at all, but rather are spaces, created by various forces of social and political (and spiritual!) power. Embracing the “place” that is the urban ghetto is decidedly not the same thing as embracing the “place” that most middle class churches inhabit.
It seems to me that the more pertinent call to the church is not simply to embrace “place”, as if that were some overarching category. Rather the church must discern how different spaces are created in this world, how the principalities and powers seek to divide, enslave, and dehumanize those for whom Christ died and in whom he still suffers. It is into those spaces, the spaces claimed by the idolatrous powers that the church must be found if it is to be counted faithful to the Messiah who proclaimed salvation and restoration to “the least.” In entering these spaces we are not promised the security of “place.” Quite the opposite: “The Son of Man has no place to lay his head.” Discipleship calls us, I believe, not into the security of place, but into the insecurity of obedience, of suffering with and bringing the good news to those who are being ground under the oppressive wheel of the powers. It may be that “place” is not a gift we will always be able to claim or assume upon. It may be instead that we are called to die to the security of “place,” and be driven, by the Spirit to pour ourselves out as a drink offering with, for, and alongside those who are driven out of “place.”