Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Sermon: "'The King of King's County' and the Ethics of Suburban Living" (Delivered 12-31-06)

Opening Words
Up until two-hundred years ago, this land was wild. This land, right here. Bear, beaver, wolves, and elk roamed this land. The only humans were the Kaw and Kansas Indians who intermittently passed through. In 1825, the Shawnee were moved here from Ohio, onto a 1.6 million acre reservation, which was later reduced to 200,000 acres. Thirty years later they were again displaced to the Indian territory of Oklahoma.

Next to come were the farmers. This land, right here, supported several generations of farmers. In the early twentieth century, the land just to east of where we sit was developed as suburban upscale dwellings. The rise of the automobile rendered obsolete the trolley line that passed just a stone’s throw from right here.

In the mid-twentieth century people moved here in droves to pursue a vision of the good life, although racial tension, conflict, fear, and inequality were also a part of this history. Fifty years ago, the houses that surround this property were brand new. Roads to the south and west were still dirt. The sprawl of today was yet to come.

Today’s service has to do with the history of this land. It has to do with the history of Johnson County and Kansas City. Everyone who has lived here has come seeking “the good life.” But, this has meant different things through the years. We are no different. We, too, seek to live well – and history can help us to learn what it truly means to live well.

The reading this morning is from the book Kingdom Coming by Michelle Goldberg. It is not a passage I necessarily agree with. In fact, it is a passage that comes across as condescending. Goldberg is, self-admittedly, a secular New Yorker, someone who feels out of place if she strays too far from metropolitan life. Here is how she describes a visit to suburbia and to suburban mega-churches:
“These churches are usually located on the sprawling edges of cities, in new exurban developments that almost totally lack for public space – squares, parks, promenades, or even, in some places, sidewalks. With their endless procession of warehouselike chain stores and garish profusion of primary-colored logos, the exurbs are the purest of ecosystems for consumer capitalism. Yet, the brutal, impersonal utilitarianism of the strip mall and office park architecture – it perversely ascetic refusal to make a single concession to aesthetics – recalls the Stalinist monstrosities imposed on Communist countries. The banality is aggressive and disorientating. Driving through many of these places in states from Pennsylvania to Colorado, I’ve experience more than a few moments of vertiginous panic where I literally could not remember where I was.

“Because most exurbs are so new, none of the residents grew up in them; everyone is from somewhere else and there are few places for them to meet. In such locales, megachurches fill the spiritual and social void, providing atomized residents instant community…

“While megachurches look like everything else in the newly developed parts of America – they’re usually enormous, unadorned boxy buildings, designed to resemble shopping malls or multiplexes and surrounded by acres of asphalt parking lots – they provide an outlet for energies that aren’t rational, productive, or acquisitive, for furies and ecstasies that don’t otherwise fit into suburban life.”

So, how many of you have read The King of King's County by Whitney Terrell? Each year around this time, the book club selects a book from their previous year’s reading for me to speak about in a sermon.

I want to give you a quick overview of the plot of the book. It begins set in the 1950s in Kansas City and centers on the life of a boy named Jack Acheson. Jack’s father is Alton, a bulbous con-man who idolizes the old-fashioned robber-barons. Alton envies the power and prestige of local developer Prudential Bowen and schemes a way to grow rich by speculating land along the Eisenhower interstate that is to run Southwest of Kansas City. As Alton secures shady-investors and convinces Johnson County farmers to sell-off their soon-to-appreciate land, we follow the lives of childhood chums Jack, Geanie Bowen, and Lonnie and Nikki Garaciello as they come of age in Kansas City attending Pembroke – I mean Pemberton Acadmeny.

It is a work of historical fiction. Prudential Bowen, most obviously, is J.C. Nichols. Instead of Nichols developing the Plaza based on the architecture of Seville, in Terrell’s book Bowen develops the Campanile based on the architecture of Florence. The book touches on a number of issues in the history of Kansas City: the corruption of Pendergast, the role of organized crime, and especially the role of housing discrimination and racially-based fear in influencing the rise of the suburbs.

The characters in the book itself are fairly miserable. Even Jack, the protagonist, is jealous, insecure, possessive, held captive to guilt, embarrassed and disloyal. That it is set in Kansas City is a great deal of the book’s magic. For example, I read that Prudential Bowen’s initial development was centered on a piece of property located at Fifty-first and Grand… and my jaw drops because I live exactly at Fifty-first and Grand!

Of all the themes that Terrell’s book touches upon, the greatest are the roles that duplicity, fraud, deceit, racism, fear and downright dirty greed played in the growth of the suburbs of Johnson County, Kansas. And, departing from the book, that is the topic I want to take up.

This past Summer I went to take the free tour of the Johnson County museum, located at sixty-third and Lackman. If you’ve never been, it is definitely worth a trip. The permanent exhibit is entitled “Seeking the Good Life” and traces the history of this land that I sketched out in the opening words above – from the days of the Shawnee Indians and the missionaries, to the farmers, to the advent of suburban living, to the modern day exurban lifestyle. What is striking about the exhibit is that as you pass from era to era, the exhibit repeats this wonderful and haunting refrain that goes something like this, “People came here seeking the good life. But was this the good life? For whom? And who was excluded?”

But was this the good life?

It occurs to me to mention that those who choose to dwell in the suburbs have no monopoly on, quote, “seeking the good life.” If you think of all people who have ever lived on the earth throughout the entirety of recorded history, when have people ever not sought after the good life? Of course, the lives of so many have been so difficult, so miserable, so desperate that by the good life they might have imagined good living simply as having regular meals or freedom from violence. But my point is that all people everywhere have sought to align their lives with “the good” – to employ a kind of Platonic abstraction – and isn’t it remarkable the different strategies and different ideals that people have adopted in pursuit of “the good life”?

And none of us – or few of us – are so lucky to get to set down with a clean slate and just intuit, just deduct, what the good life is. We all live amidst culture that makes competing claims on us – that tries to tell us, that tries to persuade us, that tries to sell us on what the good life really is. I speak not only of peer pressure and advertising, but also powerful cultural forces at work all around us.

Which makes this sermon relevant for two reasons: First, of all the various functions of religion, probably one of the most important is to play an instructive and illuminating role in helping those of us here to discern what the good life really is. Which cultural messages are legitimately good and which ones are giving us the bait and switch?

And second, it occurs to me that today is December 31st which is a time when a lot of Americans are taking time in the quiet week before the New Year to be reflective about their plans, their dreams, their aspirations for the coming year. We’re doing things like making resolutions… resolutions that reflect on the ways in which our lives have fallen short of “the good life” and are we are pledging with resolute resolve to aspire to a better life, happier life, healthier life, or otherwise more fulfilling life in the year ahead.

The good life indeed. As much as there have always been dreams of the good life, there have always been critiques of the ways in which that conception of the good life falls short.

The nationally famous Unitarian folk-singer Malvina Reynolds parodied suburban living in her most famous song, “Little Boxes.” She sang,
Little boxes on the hillside, little boxes made of ticky-tacky /
Little boxes, little boxes, and they all look just the same.
There’s a [beige one and a beige one and a beige one and a beige one] /
And they’re all made out of ticky-tacky and they all look just the same.

And the people in the houses all went to the University /
Where they were put in boxes and they came out just the same. /
There’s doctors and lawyers and business executives /
And they’re all made out of ticky-tacky and they all are just the same.

And they all play on the golf course and drink their martinis dry /
And they all have pretty children and the children go to school /
And the children go to summer camp and then to the university /
Where they are put in boxes and they come out just the same.”
Michelle Goldberg used a bigger vocabulary to say pretty much the same thing, speaking about an “endless procession of boxy, warehouselike, chain stores with a profusion of garish primary colored logos.” Henry David Thoreau epitomized critical thinking about life in society. His book Walden is as lucid an expression as have ever been written of the sentiment, “Please don’t box me in.” “I do not wish to live what is not life…”

Similarly, others have offered critiques of the suburban good life. Anti-racist analysis points out the effects of white flight. In Kansas City racial covenants were used to keep dark skinned people out of Leawood. This is not conspiracy thinking by the way. The Declaration of Restrictions which went into effect in 1945 and remained in effect until the late 1960s prohibited ownership or occupancy, quote, “by any person of Negro blood or any person who is more than one-fourth of the Semitic race… including… Armenians, Jews, Hebrews, Turks, Persians, Syrians, and Arabians” although an exception was made for domestic servants. Today, quote “good schools” and quote “safe neighborhoods” are sometimes terms that are flung about and often do not reflect objective analysis but, instead, are euphemisms for segregation.

And finally, one of the most powerful critiques of suburbia has come from environmentalists who point out how unsustainable “the good life” can be. In January we will be beginning a documentary film series. The first film in the series is actually entitled, “The End of Suburbia.” Its premise is that we have constructed our communities on a peak-oil paradigm that assumes a ready supply of affordable fossil fuels. Once peak-oil goes away we will be in a canoe up a creek without a paddle… or, perhaps more aptly, stuck in an SUV in a cul-de-sac without a fill-up. This film predicts a cataclysmic inversion where exurban sub-divisions become the ghettoes of the 21st century and where the urban core becomes primo real estate.

I will say this: the themes which appear in The King of King's County can get a person talking. A Washington Post review of the book says that “Terrell brilliantly dramatizes the confluence of federal funding, state zoning, racial tensions, family ideals, and local shenanigans that created the places in which most of us live and work.” The review goes on to imply that just as the narrator, Jack Acheson, grapples with the anger and shame that are the legacy of his proximity to all of this, so must each of us contend with the way “each generation creates or miscreates a home for the next one.”

So, allow me to name the elephant in the room. Some people will probably leave today feeling picked-on, indicted, or implicated. Others of you, I’m sure, are sitting there giving thought to this and thinking that I am picking on, indicting, or implicating not you, but those people – those people who live south of a certain road, or west of a certain road, or in that school district, or in that zip-code or that sub-division, or who drive an automobile that gets worse than that certain number of miles per gallon. But, if you think I have decided to stand here and sanctimoniously judge, I hope you will listen because actually my message is quite different.

Our human instinct is to stereotype. Many of the stereotypes that our parents and grandparents may have held unquestioningly are now considered by us enlightened folks as unfortunate, ignorant, and common. And even today, there are other stereotypes that are more permissible, and equally unhelpful. Whether Michelle Goldberg calls us artless, soulless, and materialistic, or someone on the Missouri side says whatever it is that people over there say about people in Kansas, I will say that stereotypes tend universally to be both counter-productive and counter-intelligent.

I heard on NPR several weeks ago a demographic report that said that there are now, in the United States, more people living below the federal poverty line in suburbs than there are in urban environments. What does that say about seeking the good life?

Furthermore, demographic trends say that increasingly it will be the Johnson Counties of the world, along with the Wyandotte Counties, Platte Counties, and Clay Counties of the world that will contain greater and greater percentages of the United States population. Accordingly, that will mean a greater political power concentrated in the suburbs.

And I want to conclude by saying a little bit about what this will mean for us. I’ve written and thought quite a bit about Unitarian Universalism being slow (and slow is a charitable evaluation) to respond to the demographic population shifts that are happening in the United States. The way I see it, we Unitarian Universalists have quite a bit of valuable things to say about the good life, and it is our choice about whether we will show up and play a role in changing culture or not.

It has been a long time since our churches were filled with conformists beholden to culture. We’ve tried being counter-cultural. Now, we have the chance to be shapers, transformers, and shifters of culture. If we show up. Stereotypes are not helpful. What is helpful is to think, really introspectively and reflectively and historically and honestly… about what it means to live the good life. I know, from my day to day intersecting with your lives how you’ve reflected on the lives you are living, and made amazing decisions about what it means to live well.

How are we seeking the good life? Is that good life, in fact, good? For whom. Who is excluded? Or, who is now more included by virtue of your good living? It is your life. I thank you for making this church a part of it. Have a blessed and just 2007!

It occurs to me after having delivered this sermon that there is much more I might say about this subject and what it means to live well in this environment. Also, I’ve gotten some wonderful feedback. Click here for more reflections.