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Suburbia's 'family values' add to urban soup lines


Today is the end of the month, and the soup line at the Los Angeles Catholic Worker stretches down the full length of Sixth Street, turns the corner and continues on down the block. We will serve more than 2,000 meals in the space of a couple of hours.

Fortunately, tomorrow is the first of the month; welfare checks will arrive, and we'll get a breather for a few weeks until everyone runs out of money again.

But this month the new Welfare Reform Act takes effect. Some estimates are that this new law will add another 100,000 people to the homeless population in Los Angeles County alone. My fear is that the majority will eventually find their way to the front door of our soup kitchen.

By any standards this is a disaster in the making, but I am not angry at the politicians who have created it. I expect such things from politicians. Rather, I am angry at those who have spearheaded much of this brutal effort in the name of Christianity. The Christian family values agenda claims to take its authority from scripture, but whatever Jesus might have said in the gospels about family values is the complete opposite of what has been articulated as Christian family values.

The current success of the Christian family values movement reflects a desire to affix blame for our contemporary social disintegration on a decline in personal moral values. Issues of crime, sexual promiscuity, pornography and drugs will be solved by jails, censorship and renewed moral vigor. The blame for this moral decay seems to fall unduly upon the immigrant, the welfare cheat and the practitioner of gay sexuality -- in other words, the political, social and sexual outcast.

But it is simplistic to speak of the disintegration of civic virtue, public morals and family values without a recognition that our current crisis has been caused in large measure by the overwhelming impact of consumer capitalism. As Robert Wright notes in a recent Time magazine article:

"One reason the sinews of community are so hard to restore is that they are at odds with free markets. Capitalism not only spews out cars, TVs and other antisocial technologies; it also sorts people into little vocational boxes and scatters the boxes far and wide. Economic opportunity is what drew farm boys into cities, and it has been fragmenting families ever since. There is thus a tension within conservative ideology between laissez-faire economics and family values."

Sociologist Wright goes on to report that a marked increase in consumer propaganda leads directly to social decline: "During the 1950s various American cities saw theft rates jump in the particular years that broadcast television was introduced."

Much of the vitriolic bitterness of the family values debate has been fueled by the process of suburbanization, which created an ethos of estrangement. Ironically, the density and diversity of the urban experience, which so many middle-class people desired so desperately to flee, was a much more profoundly communal experience than the homogenous, isolated, "one-dimensional" environment of suburbia.

The "nostalgia for the suburban nuclear family of the 1950s," says Wright, "which often accompanies current enthusiasm for 'family values,' is ironic ... to worship the suburban household of the 1950s is to miss much of the trouble with contemporary life. ... It was suburbanization that brought the combination of transience and residential isolation that leaves many people feeling a bit alone in their own neighborhoods. (These days, thanks to electric garage-door openers, you can drive straight into your house, never risking contact with a neighbor.)"

The increased alienation of the suburban experience has led many middle-class people to become increasingly fearful, angry, perplexed and vindictive toward the phenomenon of urban poverty. The process of suburbanization and its inevitable abandonment of urban areas has directly contributed to the declining quality of life for the urban poor and to a backlash against urban areas in general.

This heartless, reactionary ethos has gathered momentum over the years and culminated in the virtual elimination of welfare payments to the urban poor with the passage of the Welfare Reform Act. The suburban voters have sent the poor an essentially cynical, political message masquerading in the rhetoric of Christian family values. The message is, "We don't care about your problems. Just get your act together."

While it is undoubtedly true that welfare programs are inefficient and that honest labor uplifts the individual as well as the community, it is also true that there simply are not enough fast food and security guard jobs to go around.

We must remember that, as the gospel tells it, it was the folks who attended church regularly, refrained from immoral and criminal activity, worked diligently and supported their families who killed Jesus. The priests, scribes and Pharisees who had Jesus crucified were good, solid, upright citizens, the equivalent to the latter-day family values crowd.

When Jesus fed 5,000 hungry, homeless welfare cheats out in the wilderness, the immediate observation of the Pharisees was: "He did not wash his hands." Their concern was for religious ritual and their own "personal relationship" with God, not with the fact that there were 5,000 hungry people in their neighborhood who needed something to eat.

If the teachings of Jesus have anything at all to say about family values, it is that Christians must begin to treat the homeless, the outcast, the welfare cheat and the criminal as we have been taught to treat our own families. If more Christians, in our homes and our congregations, practiced that kind of Christian family values, we would have no need for welfare, big government or even soup kitchens. Which is probably what Jesus had in mind in the first place.

Jeff Dietrich is a member of the Los Angeles Catholic Worker.

National Catholic Reporter, May 9, 1997