The injustice of gated communities

People familiar with psychologist Abraham Maslow’s famed hierarchy of needs know that personal safety is right at the top of the list - or near the bottom of the pyramid, if you will. That fact alone is enough to explain the existence of gated communities. Those who can afford it enjoy the feeling of being protected by walls and gates that purport to keep intruders at bay.

The term “intruder” would presumably include a person like Trayvon Martin, who, tragically, was killed walking through a gated community in Sanford, Florida. Of course “intruder,” like “threat,” is somewhat in the eye of the beholder, isn’t it?

In an op-ed for the New York Times that touches on the Martin slaying, author Rich Benjamin describes some of his observations from having sampled a number of gated communities in the United States as an African-American man. Benjamin has written a book about the experience called Searching for Whitopia, a book I would read with relish. In my city, there is a suburban subdivision called White Haven. No kidding.

According to Benjamin, more than 10 million American households exist sheltered behind walls. While that’s just under 10 percent of U.S. households, it represents a sizeable minority hunkered down in fortified bunkers. There must be a lot of bad guys out there.

One question to ask about gated communities is, how real is the threat they purport to avoid? Speaking broadly, there is a slightly better than one percent chance that your domicile will be assaulted this year by people intent on thievery. Stated another way, a U.S. household is due to be burgled every 73 years, on average. Obviously, your mileage will vary considerably depending on where you live and how vigilant you and your neighbors are. And that is the argument for gated communities in a nutshell: they want to reduce that 1.4 percent chance to as close to zero as is humanly possible.

Of course, a responsible householder will take prudent steps to avoid being a victim of crime. But thinking Christianly, one must ask what are the costs - beyond expensive real estate - to be borne by someone living in a gated community?

I believe those costs are considerable. We are created for community, but gated communities are communities of the narrowest sort. They are designed to exclude: the poor, the homeless, the renter, the boulevardier, the itinerant worker - in short, anyone who’s not landed gentry. And incidentally, the very people that the Bible indicates God is most concerned about.

Part of justice is seeing that accused criminals are treated fairly by the courts. But there is another aspect to justice: simply being aware of the existence of our fellows, and in being aware, having the ability to respond to their needs. Gated communities prevent this latter sort of justice entirely, even while they tip the former toward considering non-landowners, like Trayvon Martin, as potential suspects. Residents with remotely controlled gates can effectively avoid contact with strangers altogether on their hermetic commutes. That is unjust in the latter sense and deprives the resident of much of the richness cities have to offer, a richness best seen at a farmers’ market or a fair.

The great thing about fairs and festivals is the mix of people that come to them. You get to rub elbows with many people who are emphatically not just like you and your nearest neighbors. Fairs and festivals are, in that sense, small foretastes of the kingdom of God, which will be far more demographically diverse than the pews of any particular church. And this joyous diversity is the very thing that gated communities intentionally avoid, out of fear that any diverse group must include criminals intending harm.

But Christians are supposed to operate from a posture of love, not a posture of fear. Jesus said “Fear not” so often that we assume it was some sort of vocal tic. But it wasn’t. He knows our natural tendencies better than we do. Our presuppositions almost always start with fear. One fear drives the George Zimmermans of the world to cruise their own neighborhoods on the lookout for strangers. Yet Jesus reminds us, constantly, to fear not. But fearing not is not the same thing as hiding behind walls.

Gated communities address a particular fear, the fear of crime. But in doing so, they deprive their residents of the rich tapestry of human life that every city, large or small, offers in abundance to urban dwellers who are willing to exit their vehicles long enough to experience it.

What Do You Think?

  • Is there a Biblical case against gated communities?
  • What has your experience been with such communities?
  • What sort of residential lifestyle best represents a Biblical ideal?

 

Comments (10)

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I'd go a step further. I think that even homeowners' associations can be unbiblical. We should have far more concern for our neighbors as people than for whether the appearance of their home affects our property value. A gated community encourages people to live in fear and keep non-neighbors out; homeowners' associations encourage people to live in greed and keep neighbors out of their lives.

(By the way, there is a town called White Haven in Pennsylvania, but its name has nothing to do with segregation. It's named after its founder, Josiah White.)
Wow, we're so on the same page David. I just wrote about this as well, although I didn't explicitly talk about gated communities in my piece. http://www.lauraziesel.com/2012/04/why-im-more-afraid-of-white-picket.html But I did mention gated living in a few marketing tweets, and that did raise some eyebrows.

I think a good principal we try to live by is, Does ______ exist to serve me, or am I trying to serve others? This can be gates, homeowners associations as Shannon discusses in the comments, or any number of things. I think when we look out for ourselves or those who "belong" to us (family, friends, etc) above strangers or people we are uncomfortable with, we run the risk of unChristian living.

Okay, I could talk about this for awhile. But I'm glad the conversation is continuing!
I'm sorry... From biblical perspective, this is just weak... The Bible calls us to live as a community of faith. The primary litmus test of our discipleship is that our love for "each other" according to Jesus. And while this does not exclude the command to love our neighbors (the proverbial Samaritans=those not like us) it raises the stake on how we treat each other within the community of faith.

Certainly, the Bible teaches us not to sequester ourselves into some sort of monastic spirituality (in the world but not of the world), but it's a gross oversimplification to say that God is most concerned over the plight of the economically disadvantaged. Jesus reached out to people regardless of their social standing, including a number of notoriously wealthy tax collectors and religious leaders.

Our current culture has created a pariah of the wealthy... in much the same way as first century Jews (Jesus' culture) created a pariah of Samaritans, women, lepers, etc...

Instead of asking if gated communities are unbiblical (which is a moot question since the Bible never purports to address the issue) or marginalizing the people who choose to live in them, we should instead, be asking how would Jesus reach out to these people.

How would Jesus calm their fears? How would he speak peace to them?

There's nothing wrong with social justice, but Jesus' primary interest was not social justice. His primary interest was bringing the hearts of men and women (regardless of what society though of them and irrespective of their economic situation) into His kingdom.

That can happen in a gated community just as gloriously as it can in a subsidized apartment complex.
I'm sorry to hear that this has been your experience in an HOA community. Our neighborhood has a number of very servant-hearted followers of Jesus who have chosen to reach out to our neighbors who need assistance in HOA compliance. Believers in our neighborhood have made repairs, painted, shoveled snow for our neighbors as needed.

Whatever you believe the culture of gated communities or HOAs "encourage"... Jesus commanded us to live outside of that culture and in His kingdom-culture, we serve our neighbors, wherever we live.
"The primary litmus test of our discipleship is that our love for "each other" according to Jesus."

I get a different sense from Matthew 25, where Jesus explicitly says that all of us will be judged based on what we did for "the least of these." Why don't we quote Matthew 25 as much as we quote John 3:16 in terms of our soteriological outlook? Maybe because it would challenge the wealthy and comfortable.

"...it's a gross oversimplification to say that God is most concerned over the plight of the economically disadvantaged. Jesus reached out to people regardless of their social standing, including a number of notoriously wealthy tax collectors and religious leaders."

Yeah, but what did he tell the rich and powerful? He told the wealthy that in order to enter the Kingdom, they'd almost certainly have to give away their wealth, and the tax collectors like Zacchaeus responded to Him by paying their victims back multiples of what they'd taken from them. He told the religious leaders that the veneer of separation and superiority they had over the normal people had to go, that they had to stop pretending they were better than everyone else.

"Our current culture has created a pariah of the wealthy... in much the same way as first century Jews (Jesus' culture) created a pariah of Samaritans, women, lepers, etc..."

Wow. So the wealthy are victims, so unfairly persecuted by those of us who see the hungry and homeless outside their gated communities and wonder why they can't just share a bit more of their obscene wealth in order to help everyone get the basics of life.

"...we should instead, be asking how would Jesus reach out to these people. How would Jesus calm their fears? How would he speak peace to them?"

We don't have to ask; we know how Jesus reached out to them, because we see it in Luke 18. "Sell all you have and give it to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come follow Me. [...] It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than it is for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of God."

That's not a message of peace for the wealthy; that's a clear command and challenge. The comfortable don't need a message of peace; they need their comfort disrupted, they need to feel uneasy about God's requirement that they forgo their wealth. And the Church needs to stand with Jesus in proclaiming His word, that anyone who remains wealthy is putting their place in the Kingdom in severe jeopardy by failing to heed Christ's challenge.
Gated communities remind me of my apartment complex. People have to be buzzed in by residents if they want to wander the halls. This discourages solicitors and crime. I wouldn't begrudge other people of choosing to live in a place like that. I feel that this argument maybe has more to do with disliking people who are perceived to be richer than oneself.
I think Tim is right on. My biggest problem is with the word "injustice." It seems to cheapen the word to call what we may choose wise and loving a matter of justice. If one is acting unjustly by living in a gated community, he should be prosecuted. I don't think the author world go that far. I respect the person who chooses to avoid a gated community for all the reason mentioned above, but it goes beyond Scripture to assert that it is a matter of being just.
Maybe I am sheltered, but the people I know who live in gated communities are retirees. Many of them are quite feeble, being 15-120 years into retirement. They would be soft targets. Plus the gated community allows them to travel to visit family while their home is not only secure, but the lawn is taken care of and such. I'm having trouble finding fault with their choice.
I think you're missing the point...

There is no record of Jesus challenging Zaccheass... And only one anecdotal occurrence of Jesus telling someone to sell everything and give to the poor. I'm not saying that the poor should be abandoned nor am I saying that the wealthy are victimized...

I am saying that the Church needs to temper its rhetoric. We represent Jesus poorly when we vilify anyone... whether we're talking about the poor, the rich, the fundamentalists, the homosexuals...

And the tone of this article is charged, rhetorically, with a clear opinion that the wealthy are less spiritual because they live in gated communities...

The ability to provide physical comforts for your family is not a sin. And I have know wealthy individuals in the kingdom who were generous as well as wise about their giving. These people do more than sell a piece of property and lay the money at the Apostles feet... The continue to create wealth as so are able to continue giving generously over years...

As for the "eye of the needle" passage, the disciples' response says it all, "Who, then, can enter the kingdom?" They realized that the real issue for the rich, young ruler was the priority of his wealth and that they, each in turn, had priorities that trumped the kingdom. Eventually, Jesus asked each of them to lay those down... Some of them even died...

Ultimately, I stand with Jesus in proclaiming that the Kingdom is here and is still coming... I won't make myself the judge of whether anyone is in or out.
"There is no record of Jesus challenging Zaccheass... And only one anecdotal occurrence of Jesus telling someone to sell everything and give to the poor."

That's the thing: Jesus didn't *have* to challenge Zacchaeus, an example of someone who has made a lot of money cheating people out of theirs; the spontaneous response of such a person to an authentic encounter with Christ isn't just the empty "repentance" of the Sinners' Prayer, but an attempt at restorative justice, making things right with his neighbor to the best of his ability.

And I have a hard time accepting a hermeneutics that presents "anecdotal occurrences" like Jesus's encounter with the woman at the well as presenting universal theological truths, while Jesus's encounter with the rich young ruler is contextualized as singular advice. Why is it that when wealth is implicated, the interpretation suddenly shifts to "that's an anecdote!" or "that's a metaphor!"?

"The ability to provide physical comforts for your family is not a sin."

That depends on the definition of "comforts," I think. Certainly, I wouldn't argue that providing for one's family and their financial security is a sinful thing—but when it’s a choice between spending more money on one's already-comfortable family or spending it to give a family that has nothing the means to survive, there's no confusion where Jesus would urge them to place their treasure.

"Ultimately, I stand with Jesus in proclaiming that the Kingdom is here and is still coming... I won't make myself the judge of whether anyone is in or out."

Nor will I judge; that's why I said that the Church's message should be that wealth makes one’s Kingdom life in "severe jeopardy.” God makes the decisions, but God makes it clear through Jesus's words that those who have earthly wealth are significantly less likely to find the Kingdom, and that the surest way for them to do so is to forgo their wealth.

 

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