Hubris and Fall: A Lament for Detroit

detroit 3A must-see is a haunting TIME magazine photo essay, “The Remains of Detroit.”  A post-apocalyptic world unfolds:  a grand theater turned into a parking garage; a cavernous abandoned train station; settlements of the homeless in decaying auto factories; a vacant hotel ballroom.  We learn that Detroit’s unemployment rate today is 28.9%.  20% of postal addresses are unoccupied, many neighborhoods over 40%.

It is an album of lament if followed with a cry to God, as it begs for.  We engaged the biblical practice of lament in our Journeys of Reconciliation class yesterday:  learning how, with the Psalmists, to see, feel, and name the brokenness to God.

Lament also calls us to ask “what happened?”  The story TIME tells of Detroit’s fall is a story of racialized allegiances and greed, a story of the profound failure of institutions, a story of hubris and fall.  “Most of us thought Detroit was pretty wonderful back in the ’50s and early ’60s,” writes TIME, “its mighty industrial engine humming into gear, filling America’s roads with the nation’s signifying product and the city’s houses and streets with nearly 2 million people.”

Yet at the heights of power lay the seeds of of decline.   “Of course,” continues TIME, “if you were black, it was substantially less wonderful, its neighborhoods as segregated as any in America.”  In addition to white flight, the “Fall of Detroit” list pinpoints African-American mayor Coleman Young and the politics of racial rhetoric; the hubris of both the auto industry and the United Auto Workers; and the pandering of politicians like Congressman John Dingell and his “delusional dependence on the auto industry.”

What can we learn from Detroit?  The point of lament is to slow us down, to see and sit with the brokenness for a while, to not move on quickly.  Detroit’s church story amidst this decline and institutional failure is not one that TIME tells.  Is there a lament there as well?  I find it extraordinary that TIME has bought a house deep in Detroit and relocated a team there to belong to the community and report for a year.  The church can learn from this–taking seriously the need for relocation, listening to and telling the right stories, seeing deeply what is going on before deciding “what do we do?”

There will be no true “recovery” if we do not learn from the story of Detroit.  This is what lament calls us to see.

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