catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 8, Num 2 :: 2009.01.16 — 2009.01.30


Imperial cohabitation

My husband Rob and I are in the middle of teaching a three-credit January term course called “Pop Culture in the Empire.”  With a rhythm that goes something like work, teach, prepare for the next day, sleep, repeat, I’m pretty much thinking night and day in the language of empire vs. the Kingdom of God.  With an issue plunked down in the middle of our class, I can’t help but consider how these forces present a tension for cohabitation.

Part of the purpose of our class is to help our students begin to name qualities of the empire that surrounds them and demands their full allegiance, so I’ll start there.  According to Brian Walsh and Sylvia Keesmaat in Colossians Remixed, “If we live in an empire, it is the empire of global consumerism.”  I tend to agree with them and can see several ways in which the empire attempts to stamp its identity on us where we live.

Consider imperial message #1, which pops up in pop culture everywhere: You are a failure if you live with your parents.  If you graduate from college and move back in with mom and dad, especially if you’re married, you’ve gotten a zero on the first test of the American Dream.  The stereotypical adult “loser” is a heterosexual male emasculated almost exclusively by his inability to afford his own place.

Another message we absorb is that our privacy is too precious to sacrifice to the hard work of living with other people-in fact, living with others critically impairs our freedom and ruins our relationships.  In the most insidious circumstances, this lie creeps into marriage and family relationships; at best, we coexist and at worst we explode and scatter to even more private emotional and physical spaces.

Yet another: the property in which we live is a financial investment and if we rent or share with someone else, we aren’t maximizing the investment.  In addition to placing restrictions on creative sharing, an investment focus also tends to drive us from one neighborhood to the next, either as values shift according to demographics or as our credit rating allows us to afford better price brackets and more square footage.

Each of these arguments for the standard single-family home serves the purposes of the consumerist empire-from construction to food consumption to waste output, living in individually packaged homes perpetuates the linear system of stuff that is so crucial to sustaining the current North American lifestyle.  That said, there’s certainly a legitimate drive behind the desire for a space of one’s own.  A space is a canvas on which we can paint our own aesthetic tastes and deepest loves-a process by which we learn and re-learn who we are as children of God entirely unique starting at the very tips of our fingers.  A space is an opportunity for imagination.  However, we miss out on a fundamental aspect of who we were created to be if we always assume that the practice of self-centered imagination is inherently better than communal imagination, always seeking to answer the question, “Who am I?” without ever imagining that the answer might be found by asking, “Who are we?”

Many faithful Christians find joy and fulfillment in modest bungalows living with a spouse, children, one dog and two cats.  “Nesting” is a creational human instinct and it can take on so many interesting, beautiful forms, and indeed, living with a family takes on a character of communal living.  And certainly, there is a healthy instinct for solitude, silence, time apart.  What’s problematic is when we begin to define ourselves, particularly using religious language, according to a model that is dictated more by the global consumerist empire than the Kingdom of God.  And when our imaginations are captive to one vision of how we should live, we stand to miss opportunities to give of ourselves and our spaces.  We are at the edge of a cultural abyss when, even if we’re not prepared to choose the alternative, we just can’t imagine any other way of doing things.  Simply imagining and then acting upon alternative ways of living within our households, within our neighborhoods and within the household of creation can be radically subversive. 

Why not decide to share a house with that other empty nest couple down the block with whom you’ve been friends for 30 years?  That attic space above the garage would make a perfect bunkroom for when all the grandkids come to visit at Christmas.

Why not follow up on that announcement you saw in your denominational magazine to sponsor a refugee family in your home?  You could shift some things around to free up a couple of rooms as a hospitable stepping stone to life in a promising, terrifying new place.

Why not move back in with your parents when you get a job near the home where you grew up?  Chances are, you’ll come to appreciate each other in a whole new way as co-habiting adults who share meals, household responsibilities and many of the stories you couldn’t tell each other in the messy teen phase.

Why not share a big old house among several married and unmarried adults, building on what was good about sharing space in college and what you admire about the rhythms of monastic communities?

Why not invite your elderly, childless friend to move in with your young family if she would appreciate the care and company, as well as the help she could offer with the children and other household responsibilities?

And of course there are dozens-hundreds-of possibilities beyond sharing a house.  Recruit as many neighbors as possible to tear down the fence between yards on your block.  Move into (or start) a co-housing community like Newberry Place in Grand Rapids, Michigan.  Build a bat box in the back yard to house some of creation’s most falsely maligned critters.  There are so many ways to apply our imaginations to how we might live into the big, wonderful, fascinating Kingdom of God here and now, in our very homes and neighborhoods.  The empire wants to define every aspect of who we are as consumers.  To leap off that treadmill can be terrifying-but we might just discover we can fly.

your comments

comments powered by Disqus