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  • Writer's pictureWesley Snedeker


I've begun watching City Beautiful videos on my lunch break. They're wonderfully made, deeply nerdy, and exceptionally informative about, well, cities. City Beautiful is a youtube channel operated by a PhD candidate in urban planning who walks the viewer through the histories of various cities, certain movements in urban design, and kinds of public projects that enhance or erode the common good.

This youtube channel has fed in me a line of contemplation that emerges every now and then and has returned with a vengeance. I've been thinking quite a bit in recent days about what infrastructural alterations make a community a flourishing one, what shapes and paths and bits of concrete contribute to better human relationship. This vein of reflection could have been spurred by increased bike rides on empty roads during the pandemic, or perhaps it gnaws at me as I weigh options for a potential move away from my hometown. In my search for greater information about my future, however, I stumbled across a video on City Beautiful that speaks directly to my present in Southwest Florida, one that examines gated communities.

There is a striking segment of this video that begins around the 5:20 mark that considers how people within gated communities collectively construct a vision of outsiders as criminal. The video points to a 2001 article by Setha Low in American Anthropologist that examines the beliefs of people who move to gated communities. The individuals interviewed for the study saw homes outside of gated communities as vulnerable to theft, their bodies physically threatened, and their ideal way of life erased. People outside of gated communities were identified as either poor, dangerous, or both. "My daughter feels very threatened when she sees poor people," one responder commented. The article argues that gated communities exacerbate already present racial and income inequalities, restrict public access to open land, and deaden the creation of social networks. The video that draws from it effectively shows why people with the means to move to a gated community would do so (homogeneity, status, the illusion of safety) and how these temptations are a gateway into behavior detrimental to the common good (fostering in-group/out-group dynamics, organizing a portion of the electorate against public projects that won't be directly impacted by them). It isn't necessary to justify these arguments, as they have been repeated ad nauseam and hold up even better now than they did 19 years ago. Introducing a Christian voice to the conversation, however, could be a constructive enterprise. Putting the questions raised in this video about how to maintain a peaceful community into dialogue with some of Dietrich Bonhoeffer's considerations on true peace helps to clarify in distinctly Christian terms the central problem of the gated community—the production of hostility through an attempt to guarantee security—and to consider departure from them as a just act and resistance to their continued development as the work of discipleship.

The City Beautiful video above cites a troubling quote: "Gated communities churn a vicious cycle by attracting like-minded residents who seek shelter from outsiders and whose physical seclusion then worsens paranoid groupthink against outsiders." Gated communities are a further intensification of the race/class segregation paradigmatically represented by white flight to the suburbs in the middle of the last century (considered thoughtfully in this video). Whereas the implicit reason to move from cities to suburbs some decades ago was to use legal economic segregation to reinforce racial segregation, one of the explicit reasons to move into a gated community is the perception of all those not like onself to be a threat. The perception of otherness (racial, economic, sexual, familial) as threatening and the fortification against which is an attempt to coercively exercise one's cultural and economic power to control one's surroundings. In a way, gated community residents are arming themselves against the perceived threat of violence from "those people" (in many cases physical, but often cultural as well, as others seem to threaten one's "way of life"). As the City Beautiful video explains, this defensive stance leads residents to turn inward, ensuring the private operation of their own communities while further seizing land that could be used for public projects (or left alone) and voting against local improvements outside their walls. In an effort to guarantee some manufactured vision of peace, gated communities and their residents actually do indirect violence to the other residents of their town and produce factionalism and hostility.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer's meditations on peace stand in stark contrast to the artificial tranquility of gated communities. Writing in the 1920's, 30's, and 40's, Bonhoeffer confronted directly the rise of fascism in Germany and brought Christian witness against Naziism directly to the people of Germany. Bonhoeffer's writings dealt with questions of Christology, divine action, Christian ethics, and peace. Bonhoeffer made great strides in considering for Christian disciples what it meant to participate in Christ's being (-with-and-for others), the concept of divine self limitation or kenoticism (he famously wrote that the only helpful God is the suffering and powerless one on the cross), and intersubjectivity in theo-ethics ("i-i" rather than "i-thou" relationships). Having done most of his writing, teaching, and speaking in the years between the first and second world wars, Bonhoeffer's writing is often preoccupied with the maintenance of peace among nation-states.

Bonhoeffer's ideas about discipleship, kenoticism, and peace are intimately connected. For the Christian to truly be a disciple, not one who assents intellectually to "cheap grace" but one who participates in the being of Jesus Christ, one must follow Christ and do as he does. To do as Christ does is to call the powerful to the standard set before them by God (a social system of peace and equity, in which the distinctiveness of the other is not assimilated under threat of death but honored in her own dignity), yet it is also to embrace a radical vulnerability that exposes the faulty foundations of violence by refusing to participate in it. Jesus proclaims the supremacy of God over Rome and the temple authorities in solidarity with those they oppress, then refuses to return assault with further violence, understanding retaliation to exacerbate conflict rather than resolve it. In this way, Christ demonstrates the true nature of peace—a shared vulnerable state of recognition and service—and even makes it possible to have peace with the Romans and the Sadducees, although these groups refuse it. This is the foundation for Bonhoeffer's understanding of peace, which he speaks to in a 1934 address to an Ecumenical Conference. "How does peace come about?" he asks. "Through a system of political treaties? Through the investment of international capital in different countries? Through the big banks, through money? Or through universal peaceful rearmament in order to guarantee peace? Through none of these, for the single reason that in all of them peace is confused with safety." True peace is not the absence of tension, after all, it is the presence of justice, as Dr. King would later say. Military treaties, walls, guns, segregation, therefore, are all tempting smokescreens, but none of these ever bring peace. In fact, they simply produce the conditions for more elaborate tension. "Peace is the opposite of security," Bonhoeffer continues. "To demand guarantees is to mistrust, and this mistrust in turn brings forth war. To look for guarantees is to want to protect oneself. Peace means to give oneself altogether to the law of God, wanting no security, but in faith and obedience laying the destiny of the nations in the hand of Almighty God, not trying to direct it for selfish purposes." ("The Church and the People of the World." in A Testament to Freedom. 228)

Now, a couple disclaimers must be made in the application of Bonhoeffer's ideas. First, Bonhoeffer has a deep concern for self sacrifice throughout his work. It can be easy to view his work from a marginalized location and see it as just further justification for the suffering of the marginalized. In the case of peacemaking, the kind of vulnerability to violence described by Bonhoeffer in the eschewing of security for the reward of fellowship might seem foolhardy or inappropriate for individuals whose bodies are already threatened. While this is a legitimate critique, I'm not sure it's an accurate one. Bonhoeffer's audiences throughout his career were limited primarily to middle- and upper-class German students, intellectuals, and churchgoers. Bonhoeffer spoke directly to people of privilege, and he was explicit about this. The Cost of Discipleship states that it seeks to uncover what discipleship is for "the businessman, the soldier, the laborer, [and] the aristocrat." People in gated communities who attempt to secure themselves against outsiders are the ideal audience for Bonhoeffer's critical insights, not the "scary poor people" outside their walls. Second, Bonhoeffer is writing about war and, ultimately, the fate of humanity. The grandiose scale of his theology can soar over the heads of practical and public theologians, but his ideas are profoundly applicable on a smaller scale.

Placing Bonhoeffer's explorations of the faultiness of artificial peace that is "guaranteed" through security next to the attempts by gated community residents to do just that helps us address the problem differently. Through this lens, we can see how gated communities are simply repeating the problem of nation states in manufacturing tranquility by arming themselves against their neighbors rather than honoring their full humanity and embracing the task of mutual service. This can never be true peace because it excludes most people, and under this paradigm most people are seen as undeserving of socialization with "peaceful" people or participation in prosperity. This, obviously, creates real tension between people within the community and people outside of it. Further, through the collaborative construction by gated community residents of a category of people "out there," apart from whom the community should be set, the residents within the community feel more afraid living their lives, so this illusory peace isn't even a proper opiate.

Instead, through shying away from gated communities in city planning, moving away from them as residents, and resisting their further development as citizens, we compel our cities and towns to foster actual encounter between neighbors, limit sectarianism and isolation, and nurture the conditions for actual dialogue toward common good just by seeing all the residents of a city or town as in service of and collaboration with one another. Through actual recognition of our common lot, actual confrontation and examination of our economic inequality, and actual respect of the legitimacy and value of our neighbors' existence, we can finally begin to expand from personal experience to civic action to communal interaction with the underlying causes of social degradation. But not when we are divided into petty, one-up-ing status clubs that see the world primarily as the "like me in here" and the "scary ones out there."

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