John Howard Yoder: On Withdrawing to the Artificial Suburbs

While discussing the various Jewish sects during the time of Jesus, John Howard Yoder, zones in on the communities that produced the Dead Sea scrolls, most often referred to by Biblical scholars as the Essenes. However, he turns its application to what he sees as artificial and synthetic suburban life. He says the following:

The days of real rural withdrawal are fast passing, but the synthetic countryside we call the suburb, with its artificial old swimming holes, artificial expanses of meadow, and artificial campfire sites, set up to maintain artificial distance from the city’s problems, still represents some people’s vision of what to life for… But Jesus, although his home was a village, found no hearing there, and left village life behind him. He forsook his own handicraft and called his disciples away from their nets and their plows. He set out quite openly and consciously for the city and the conflict which was sure to encounter him there.[i]

What do you think about this statement from Yoder?  Are the ‘burbs’ a synthetic and artificial attempt at escaping the ugly systemic realities of the city? What was the relationship between White Flight and Evangelical Church flight to the suburbs while the great migration of poor, suffering African Americans from the rural south and to cities was taking place?

[i] John Howard Yoder, For the Nations: Essays Evangelical and Public (Eugene  Or.: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 2002), 173.

Published by Drew G. I. Hart, PhD

Drew G. I. Hart is a theology professor in the Biblical & Religious Studies department at Messiah College with ten years of pastoral experience. Hart majored in Biblical Studies at Messiah College as an undergraduate student, he attained his M.Div. with an urban concentration from Missio Seminary in Philadelphia, and he received his Ph.D. in theology and ethics from Lutheran Theological Seminary-Philadelphia. Drew was born and raised in Norristown, Pa and has lived extensively in Philadelphia and Harrisburg, PA as well. Dr. Hart’s dissertation research explored how Christian discipleship, as framed by Black theologies and contemporary Anabaptist theologies, gesture the Church towards untangling the forces of white supremacy and the inertia of western Christendom which have plagued its witness in society for too long. As two traditions that emerged from the underside of violent and oppressive western Christian societies, he found Black theology and Anabaptism each repeatedly turning to the particularity of Jesus in the gospel narratives. From that arises an ethic of solidarity with the oppressed and pursuing liberation in Black theology and an ethic of radical peacemaking and ecclesial nonconformity in the Anabaptist tradition. Each challenge the violent and oppressive logics of mainstream western Christianity and salvage the call to follow the way of Christ. Together in dialogue they deepen our analysis of the churches failures and the need for Jesus-shaped repentance. His work beyond teaching and writing has included pastoring in Harrisburg and Philadelphia, working for an inner-city afterschool program for black and brown middle school boys, delivering lectures and leading anti-racism workshops, collaborating with local faith-based organizers and activists in his city, and doing a broad range of public theology. He is also a co-leader for a local Harrisburg faith-based relational network called FREE Together which has collaborated with POWER Interfaith, MILPA, the Shut Down Berks Detention Center movement, and a little with the Poor People’s Campaign. Trouble I’ve Seen: Changing the Way the Church Views Racism by Drew Hart, has received great reviews by Publisher’s Weekly and Englewood Review of Books. Endorsing this resource, Shane Claiborne said, “This book is a gift from the heart of one of the sharpest young theologians in the United States. Hold it carefully, and allow it to transform you--and our blood-stained streets.” As a text, Trouble I’ve Seen utilizes personal and everyday stories, Jesus-shaped theological ethics, and anti-racism frameworks to transform the church’s understanding and social witness. Trouble I’ve Seen focuses on white supremacy as an overarching framework for understanding racism, with careful attention to its systemic and socializing dimensions. However, unlike sociology textbooks on the subject Dr. Hart also considers the subversive vocation of Jesus and the nonviolent yet revolutionary implications his life ought to have for his followers today. His newest book project is entitled Who Will Be a Witness?: Igniting Activism for God’s Justice, Love, and Deliverance and will be published September 1, 2020. Who Will Be A Witness? invites the church to liberate its centuries long captivity to supremacist practices, and to expand its restricted political imagination in view of Jesus’ messianic reign. The book guides disciples of Jesus into joining God’s delivering presence through scriptural reasoning, historical reflection, practical theology for congregational life, social change theory, and the Christian call to love our neighbor. It is written for congregations, leaders, and students that understand that pursuing God’s justice goes way beyond waiting around for electoral seasons to come around. It is about the ongoing vocation of the Church right now, at the grassroots level, seeking after the wellbeing of their neighbors through faithful, strategic, and concrete action. Drew recently joined the Inverse Podcast team serving as a cohost along with Australian peace activist Jarrod Mckenna. Together they interview interesting people and explore how scripture can turn our ethical imagination and the violent and unjust systems of our world upside-down, which contrasts with interpreting the Bible as a tool for the status quo. Dr. Drew Hart was the recipient of bcmPEACE’s 2017 Peacemaker Award, a 2019 W.E.B. Dubois Award from a Disciples of Christ congregation, and in October 2019, Dr. Hart was chosen as Elizabethtown College’s 2019 Peace Fellow. Each award recognized him for his local and national justice work and public theology. You can find Drew Hart on Twitter and Facebook, or you can catch him as he travels and speaks regularly across the country to colleges, conferences, and churches. Drew and Renee, and their three boys (Micah, Dietrich, and Vincent) live in Harrisburg, PA and attend Harrisburg First Church of the Brethren.

10 thoughts on “John Howard Yoder: On Withdrawing to the Artificial Suburbs

  1. Yoder wrote that in 1966 on the heels of 1950 being the first year that suburbs were more populated than cities. So, yes at that time I’d totally agree with his statement and that the white/evangelical flights to the suburbs were wrongfully motivated attempts to avoid the systemic evils of the cities. However as we discussed on Twitter this morning I’d see the situation as more complex today.

    A few things make it as such:

    1. While attempting to avoid the systemic evils of the cities, other systemic evils arose in the suburbs: primarily individualism, consumerism, and American dreamism (for lack of a better term). I’d actually argue that they caused the suburbs to be created in the first place and so you could probably view suburbs at least as they began as one giant systemic evil that ensnared people. No it isn’t the systemic evil of poverty or crime but I’d still classify it as a principality and power to be overcome.

    Full disclosure and on a personal note: I struggled mightily in prayer about moving to the ‘burbs and not back the city when we returned from overseas. I felt very much as I sense you do in combatting racism, classism, and poverty but in relation to the ills of the suburbs including those I mentioned above. And being in the South, the decreasing but still idolatrous sense that the government will bring the Kingdom of God to earth. Working in my context I hope to prophetically speak against the suburbanite ills while at the same, create change, and cause people to combat the same ills you are battling.

    2. One reason that poverty is on the rise in the ‘burbs is a displacement of those who were in the city but who have been priced out due to regentrification (I just saw that you mentioned this on Twitter; this is one reason we chose not to move back into the city). And yes I agree with you that this is a totally different issue from those who have only recently entered poverty at the expense of what is surely a huge systemic evil: the financial system that created the economic collapse (and their own consumeristic impulses which have caught up with those in the ‘burbs).

    All of that is simply to say that poverty is now becoming more and more present in the suburbs and as the book I tweeted about earlier talks about there are not sustainable initiatives to handle either type of poverty. Cities have had decades of experience but only now as the consumeristic impulse is catching up with suburbanites are these areas having to learn to deal with it on a widespread and I’d dare say systemic level. Suburbs are no longer the idyllic place many once thought them to be.

    3. If Yoder were writing today he might chastise those who are actually moving to the city and creating the new evil of displacement through regentrification. Moving to the city today is more likely to perpetuate what I feel is a new and rising systemic evil. How are we to live among and have life together with those in the cities while at the same time not displacing those very people we are attempting to live with, be mutually transformed by, and love? Without coming across as colonialist and imperialistic?

    I’ve been pondering those questions much lately and I’m glad our paths crossed on Twitter so I can get the perspective of someone who is deeply engaged with them and ministering in the city. I hope I didn’t come across as devaluing ministry to cities this morning; I was simply attempting to give some pushback on those in my circles who implicitly and/or subtly devalue ministry in the suburbs. We are all called to different places and gifted to minister in different contexts and I was hoping to give my peeps some needed perspective.

    Thanks for pushing me to think more deeply about these issues and taking the time to converse with me.



    1. Randy,
      Thanks for engaging! I think I agree with 95% of what you said (which is to say that we generally have a similar perspective). But for the sake of discussion i will explore the 5%.

      You asked a profound question that strikes at the heart of my theological convictions: “How are we to live among and have life together with those in the cities while at the same time not displacing those very people we are attempting to live with, be mutually transformed by, and love? Without coming across as colonialist and imperialistic?”

      While I do not have any simplistic answers to this question, I wonder if the answer is at least partly embedded in the question itself rather than in your solution (don’t go anymore because of the evil it is causing). What if the regentrification and evil results of white re-entry into the city has its roots in Whiteness (as an ontological life of privilege and power) rather than a suburban vs. urban choice of location? That is, what if the problem is that people are moving to the city as “white people” rather than just people who are seeking to make solidarity with those in the community?

      Consider the way Bonhoeffer engaged Harlem and Abyssinian Baptist Church while attending Union Seminary. He attended a historic African-American church, in a historic African American neighborhood, under the leadership of a great African American leader (Adam Clayton Powell Sr.), and learned about African American history (discusses it extensively in his writings) and enjoyed African American culture (explicitly spoke about loving the Black Spirituals). And at the end of his life while in prison, spoke about having the privilege of seeing and exploring the world “from below” which for him was a better way to experience life. My point in all that, is that Bonhoeffer’s way of being was not “whiteness” in the privileged and hegemonic sense, but he genuinely (now in your words) attempted “to live with, be mutually transformed by” those that he came to love.

      Regentrification is largely the result of Whiteness as an identification and privilege being carried out in the city, which does come across imperialistic, but doesn’t John Howard Yoder’s call to take up the way of the Lamb or James Cone’s call for White people to take on blackness (as an ontological symbol of their social status) offer a third way that rejects Whiteness as a form a privilege and power but also invites people of European descent to make solidarity with those that have been so deeply damaged by existence of race as a technology of segregation and social management.

      Now, whether people are willing, or able to actually to be human in the fullest sense – in a way that rejects lives of dominance is another question. And if they are unwilling to engage black and brown communities on those terms, then I am with you, they should remain in the burbs. Anyway, just something to chew on as we consider the implications of Jewish and Gentile table fellowship as a central marking of the New Humanity.

  2. Ahh. I wrote a nice long response spilling over from our Twitter convo earlier, but alas it doesn’t seem to have posted. My points much more briefly (I had long paragraphs):

    1. Suburbs were formed by and have perpetuated the systemic ills of consumerism, individivualism, and American dreamism (no better way to put it). While not the same evil as poverty these are still I’d dare say principalities and powers that need to be continually reminded they are defeated through the cross of Christ.

    2. Poverty of the sort you mention on Twitter, through those displaced, and through those who are newly impoverished is on the rise in the ‘burbs and there are no sustainable initiatives or structures to deal with it. Suburbs are no long the idyllic places they were once thought to exemplify.

    3. I think Yoder might argue today that moving to the city is now an issue since those doing so often are displacing those around them through regentrification. Moving to the city now is actually (very slowly of course) pushing the very systemic evils people once sought to avoid to the suburbs and creating terrible situation for those displaced to a locale with no viable public transit to reach jobs, community etc back in the city. In some cases it seems as if American dreamism and consumerism is actually what is pushing people back into the cities and is a replaying of the ills that drove people to the suburbs in the first place. I know people who have regentrified areas and earned a 33% increase on there home in ten short years. Even after the collapse.

    The suburbs and the cities are different animals now than in 1966 when Yoder wrote that; he was following closely on the heels of 1950, the first year that the suburbs were higher in population than cities. This is a complex issue and as you said earlier it requires that we go to the least of these wherever we are called. All I was trying to do by tweeting earlier was to create some balance and perspective in my circles on the issues of ministering and inhabiting the suburbs as well as cities. Ministry in the suburbs has become almost “second-rate” amongst many in the missional community while at the same time the poverty rates are rising through displacement from cities, job loss, bankruptcy, and foreclosures and their are no structures to help overcome and aid those in need. It is sexy to move to the city. And to regentrify without examining the consequences.

    There are very obviously needs in both cities and suburbs and we go as directed by God to create radical communities that are centered on Jesus and embodying hope for the world through their very existence and actions against the principalities and powers. Sorry if I wasn’t clear and seemed to be anti-city and pro-suburb. I’m pro-reconcialation and renewal of the world.

    Grace and Peace,


  3. “The suburbs and the cities are different animals now than in 1966…Ministry in the suburbs has become almost “second-rate” amongst many in the missional community while at the same time the poverty rates are rising through displacement from cities, job loss, bankruptcy, and foreclosures and their are no structures to help overcome and aid those in need. It is sexy to move to the city. And to regentrify without examining the consequences.”

    I think that Randy brings up a really good point here. This is something that I’ve often thought about because of my own experience. I’m from a Long Island “suburb” that is includes a high immigrant population and lower income population (including people who were priced out of Brooklyn). Back in the 50s and 60s, it probably resembled the stereotypical idea of a suburb. But things have drastically changed since. Yet, people from my community have always had to deal with false perceptions outside of Long Island (i.e. assumptions based on the Hamptons, Great Gatsby etc.). It’s been such a issue, that a couple of alumni from my highschool made a documentary trying to undo inaccurate stereotypes of anyone growing up on Long Island… . And I do believe that these false perceptions have led communities like mine to be largely ignored or overlooked by “missional” minded Christians. There are often more resources and structures in place for similar populations in NYC. Whenever I share my passions for ministry for people, I’ve often gotten boxed into a urban ministry category with the assumption that I will have to work in inner-city NYC or Philly…when in reality, I’ve been talking about my own “burbs.”

    So this leads me to a question I’ve been asking for a long time: what does the word “suburb” really mean when we take into account newer developments (influx of immigrant and ex-urban populations)? Is there a category for suburbs like mine? I’m not really up on literature about this, so maybe somebody can help me out.

    (And BTW: Drew, thanks for bringing up Bonhoeffer…showing how suburban vs. urban choice of location can *both* function as modalities of whiteness…spot on)

    1. I think that fits in with the writing on 1st suburbs, which tend to be urban in characteristics in comparison to sprawling suburbs. Thanks for your thoughts and for commenting.

  4. The epicenter for evangelicalism has been suburbia for so long – most mega churches exist in the burbs, major evangelical institutions exist in the burbs and a ‘generally’ easier way of life can be found in the suburbs. The urban context has been generally been ignored for foreign missions and has been vilified as the place where ‘they’ live (the ones who need rescuing). As of recent a few preachers from majority culture write a few books about the city and now suburbia feels neglected? I’ve read folks complaining that doing laundry and dropping kids off to soccer practice should qualify as radical Christianity. I’m missing something here. There are opportunities to be radical in the burbs but simply going about as usual is not radical at all. .

    A slice of urban life includes ongoing gun violence, poverty, sub par education (closing schools), a hyper drug culture, etc. This is not to say that these things don’t exist in the burbs but the concentration of these kinds of ills make the city a unique place for ministry. It is my contention that due to the heightened despair in the urban context makes it a unique mission field. I would also add that urban life does not end at a certain city limit – most of what one might call a suburb (for economic reasons) is actually part of the urban local. Urban includes culture and location. Generally speaking as Christians we fight back when challenged on issues of lifestyle comfort.

    1. Thanks Kyle, good to hear from someone plugging away faithfully in the city. I think you touch on something important in the discussion: “The epicenter for evangelicalism has been suburbia for so long”. This is true. And while I also believe along with you that “there are opportunities to be radical in the burbs” in general suburban Christianity has been about avoiding suffering and in many ways regentrification patterns have also equally avoided black and brown people in the city who lack resources. Lastly, your distinction between City limits and Urban (location and culture) is good as well. The challenge is that people are using different terms to describe different things, so it is helpful when we define even the simplest of concepts so that we all are really on page.

      I am most interested in folks wrestling with issues of lifestyle and solidarity no matter where they live as being a part of the radical possibilities that exist to follow Jesus. However, I too am suspicious of the rhetoric often used that pulls attention away from urban contexts (whether it be Big Cities or older 1st Suburb towns).

  5. I feel like there is a strong correlation between evangelical white doctrine and white flight. I see evidence of this in my own community, which is mostly in white suburbia. I have engaged in some dialogue online with Anthony Bradley, who critiques the position that the city is somehow more holy than the suburbs. I think he has a point, but I still pushed back because I feel that there is something a little bit synthetic about the suburbs. Also, I think white people still need to wrestle with complicity in white flight, even if it was in the generation of their parents. Most of them, it actually was in their own lifetime. Bradley also feels that I overemphasize race, when I should be looking at class. In any case, I think race and class strongly intersect, and I still have to work it out as a white person.

Leave a Reply to Randy Boswell Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: