Is There a Doctor in the House?
Home improvement as political theology
Bargain Block is a recent addition to HGTV’s line-up of home improvement shows. It features a gay couple, Keith Bynum and Evan Thomas, who renovate abandoned houses in Detroit using lots of recycled materials and second hand furniture — and sell them at affordable prices to local residents. Bargain Block is different in that it doesn’t involve high-end real estate and investor clients. But it is also unique in another way: Bynum and Thomas actually live in the houses while they fix them up.
These aren’t rich flippers with no connection to a neighborhood and no knowledge of what it is like to live in the houses they sell. Indeed, these guys move from one horrendous house to the next with their possessions in a grocery cart! In an article about the show, Bynum says, “We do tend to treat the houses like our children or a friend, and it gives them life. You walk through and find out all their ailments and get to work fixing them kind of like a doctor.”
And, with that comment, HGTV offers a theological morality tale about religion and politics.
When Christians approach politics, it is too often with the stance of an outsider. Whether it is liberal Christians with dreams of building the Kingdom of God on earth, white progressives with a savior complex, evangelicals seeking to restore a “Christian nation,” Catholics reasserting Christendom, or fundamentalists imagining a world under God’s dominion, each vision is shaped by the idea of the church having something the world doesn’t possess and can’t do. Fixing, restoring, saving, building — what have you — is an intervention from some expert who doesn’t really know the neighborhood.
Recently, on Morning Joe, Professor Eddie Glaude remarked how his Princeton students experience the world as “broken.” Who doesn’t? Climate chaos, economic inequality, democracy in turmoil, technology and disinformation reshaping human life, the pandemic . . . What isn’t broken? But Professor Glaude added this comment about his students, “They fear they may be broken too.”
It was an early morning truth bomb. Broken world. Broken people. That’s a brutally honest assessment of where and who we are.
You might say it has always been that way. Of course, you’d be right. History is a long story of broken people in a world broken by inequities, disasters, violence, and war. But, historical empathy aside and truth be told, I’m far more worried about our brokenness than that of people in 1385 or 1644 or 1861. Our broken people in our broken world is what we’ve got — it is our business.
And what are we doing about it?
Faith leaders, political leaders, business leaders, and thought leaders of all sorts are flush with schemes about how to fix things. That’s part of the divide we face — everybody knows stuff is broken and no one agrees how to fix it. Adding to the lack of any shared plan, everybody thinks everybody else’s plan has failed or will fail or is busy subverting rival proposals in order to forward their own. And, in the meanwhile, the brokenness of everything is breaking us — breaking trust, breaking relationships, breaking hopes, breaking hearts. It is a mess.
Broken people in a broken world. Those words keep running through my mind. Maybe something is wrong in the very way we understand the problems. Perhaps the emphasis shouldn’t be on broken. Perhaps the emphasis should be on the word in.
We’re in the brokenness. Not above it, not beside it, not beyond it.
I don’t think that things will change much until we realize that we live in the house that needs repair. We’re not expert flippers, rich investors, or distant developers. We can’t go home at night and leave the property until it magically gleams like an HGTV Dream Home. We’re right here. Dealing with busted plumbing, leaky roofs, bad wiring, and broken windows. Keith Bynum’s comment is about far more than an abandoned house in Detroit: “You walk through and find out all their ailments and get to work fixing them kind of like a doctor.”
My Jewish friends often speak of repairing the world, a kind of partnership with God to shape a better, more just society. Christians refer to saving the world. While some Christians misinterpret this only as saving people from the world to go to heaven, a more biblical understand of “saving” involves healing, restoration, and making whole. Kind of like a doctor.
When the Christian tradition speaks of Jesus as “the Great Physician,” it doesn’t mean that Jesus is a white-coated specialist with a fancy office and expensive treatments. It basically means that the doctor is in the house. That’s what the theological word incarnation means — that the saving and healing God has come to live with us, to dwell with broken people in a broken world.
That’s the model of fixing things. Living in the house when the roof is falling in. Doing the work of repair because if we don’t we’ll all be out in the cold. When we fix the house, we’re also fixing ourselves. That’s the meaning of salvation, of repairing the world, of this argumentative thing called “faith and politics” — broken people in a broken world. You pick up your tools. You raise the roof. You work together so everyone will be dry and warm and have a home. It isn’t about plans and power. It is about doing the work that must be done.
HGTV has another flipping show — one that promises that the successful house flipper will get a yacht, a private jet, and a beach house in California. Basically, it teaches viewers that you can get rich off of other’s pain and your own greed. Perhaps it is no coincidence that show now features flippers whose personal lives are an emotional and materialistic mess. It mostly proves that when you chase after only profit, you wind up adding to the brokenness of everything.
But repairing what is broken is a humble thing, like a gay couple hammering out a future of hope during the day while sleeping on a mattress on the floor at night. Perhaps dreaming of a better neighborhood, providing a haven for the homeless. And, in that work and those dreams, we discover that we are all wounded healers, alongside of the One who tends to the brokenhearted and binds up every open sore.
The doctor is in the house, with us, inviting us to assist in the work of repair.
Something went wrong, says the empty house
in the weed-choked yard. Stones in the fields
say he was not a farmer; the still-sealed jars
in the cellar say she left in a nervous haste.
And the child? Its toys are strewn in the yard
like branches after a storm — a rubber cow,
a rusty tractor with a broken plow,
a doll in overalls. Something went wrong, they say.
— Ted Kooser, from “Abandoned Farmhouse”
The large house in which we live demands that we transform this worldwide neighborhood into a worldwide brotherhood. Together we must learn to live as brothers or together we will be forced to perish as fools.
— Martin Luther King, Jr.
For a longer reflection, read Martin Luther King’s The World House speech in its entirety.
The great illusion of leadership is to think that man can be led out of the desert by someone who has never been there.
― Henri J.M. Nouwen
Our true home is in the present moment.
To live in the present moment is a miracle.
The miracle is not to walk on water.
The miracle is to walk on the green Earth in the present moment,
to appreciate the peace and beauty that are available now.
Peace is all around us in the world and in nature, and within us;
It is in our bodies and our spirits.
Once we learn to touch this peace, we will be healed and transformed.
It is not a matter of faith, it is a matter of practice.
— Thich Nhat Hahn
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