OAKLAND, California, where I live, is not, as they say, a “prestige address”. The one thing people are most likely to know about it is that it has a high homicide rate, courtesy of a culture of gangs and violence among the inner-city young. Living here, one cannot ignore the shadows on post-modern urban life.
City government is faced with difficult choices, given the recent decline in its revenue, and the council has decided it will have to lay off 80 policemen. In more prosperous times, it seems, it agreed to give them generous compensation and retirement plans that are no longer affordable.
But existing contracts can be altered only with the agreement of the police officers’ union. The council and the union have been unable to reach agreement. And, because police and fire departments together take up 75 per cent of our city budget (while the servicing of our debt takes another ten per cent), the council has little room to manoeuvre.
We share such problems with the rest of the world. And there are no remedies on the horizon that do not involve some kind of pain. For the poorest among us, and especially for the inner-city young, the pain may prove fatal. Still, even in more prosperous times, we were not dealing very successfully with the realities of gang warfare and easily accessible firearms.
On the more positive side — and it’s a sin to ignore blessings — Oakland still has its beauties: the calm waters of Lake Merritt, with its necklace of lights, the architectural legacy of our Craftsman and art deco periods, the hills, the bay, the views of San Francisco. We also have a new and growing population of young, educated, apartment-dwellers, a burgeoning arts community, and enough excellent food —from the taco trucks of east Oakland to a growing list of higher-end temples of cuisine — to make the food writers of the east coast sit up and take notice.
Looking at the positive side, of course, can be little more than a form of denial. But if we retain some hope in human ingenuity and God’s grace, perhaps our assets will give us a chance to build better here. More police do not automatically make a healthier city: that demands a rebuilding of community. We are, by force of necessity, a laboratory for testing ideas.
It would be hard to think of a human community, civic or religious, right now, that is not in this situation. Old presuppositions are working poorly, if at all. Rather than expecting that we can buy solutions to our problems, we have to think about how we can either stop creating them or resolve them from our own limited resources.
For Christians, this means, among other things, listening more attentively to the Spirit, at work in our minds and imaginations, to show us new possibilities.
The Revd Dr Bill Countryman is Professor Emeritus of New Testament at the Church Divinity School of the Pacific in Berkeley, California.