NIMBY and the Reign of Christ

Sermon for Sunday, November 20, 2022 || Reign of Christ C || Jeremiah 23:1-6

Today is the final Sunday of the church year, the day on which we celebrate the Reign of Christ. Next week, we begin a new church year with the season of Advent. Both today’s event and the season of Advent share a similar theological lens. They both celebrate a present reality that is always happening AND a future reality that fulfills or completes the present one, a future reality that we long for and hope for, but has not yet come to pass. 

We tend to shorten these two realities into two camps: the “already” and the “not yet.” The upcoming season of Advent is a time when we celebrate the constant presence of Christ (that’s the “already”) while we also wait in hope for the second coming of Christ (that’s the “not yet”). And today, on this day we celebrate the Reign of Christ, we recognize God’s kingdom as the ever-present reality undergirding all of Creation (that’s the “already”) while we also recognize the continual need to partner with God to make that reality even more present across our broken world (that’s the “not yet”).

Today is also the day where the Greater New London Clergy Association, a group of several dozen pastors, priests, and rabbis from the region, (we all) decided to preach on the same topic – the housing crisis in Southeastern Connecticut. So I thought to myself: how am I going to talk about the housing crisis and about the Reign of Christ in the same sermon? And the answer hit me very quickly. The biggest obstacle to solving the housing crisis is also something that runs absolutely counter to the Reign of Christ.

This obstacle is called “NIMBY.” I first encountered this term in my political science classes in college, particularly a very boring class on environmental legislation. What I learned about the NIMBY principle is that it transcends all political affiliations and stands as one of the most stalwart organizing forces our society has ever come up with. NIMBY means, “Not In My BackYard.” 

(Sometimes, the NIMBY principle is employed for positive reasons. Say, a big polluter wants to build in an area, and the government is offering massive tax incentives to do so. But independent analysis says the air quality in the region is going to take a big hit, meaning cases of childhood asthma are going to skyrocket. So the community comes together and says, “Not in my backyard.”)

But more often than not, the NIMBY principle has been used in negative ways that exacerbate the inequities that have been baked into our system since the founding of the country.

The clearest negative example of NIMBY has to do with housing. Right here in Southeastern Connecticut, affordable housing is more necessary than ever, due to many factors. New construction has been sluggish ever since the housing crash of 2008. Wages have been stagnant for decades while housing costs have surged. Since the beginning of the pandemic, investors have been snatching up real estate in our region, which both hikes prices and lowers supply. And on top of all that, building affordable housing is really hard to do because of zoning regulations that restrict the construction of multi-family homes.

The force of the NIMBY principle is on full display when it comes to such zoning regulations. And this is where the Reign of Christ comes back into this discussion. But first, for the Reign of Christ stuff to make sense, I need to talk for a minute about how a society is constructed. We build our collective reality by telling stories to each other. Our society is the macro level of the collection of stories we share. Small “p” politics is the competition over which stories are going to be more important for the collective narrative, and which are going to be less important. Some of our collective stories are so ingrained in our society that we hardly ever think about which stories got ignored or swept aside to make room for the dominant ones.

Over the course of the last century, one of the stories that has dominated our society is the story about how real estate prices dropped when people of color started moving to white neighborhoods. This pernicious story resulted in the rise of suburbs, which in many places Black people were not allowed to move to. This resulted in the practice of redlining, which designated in which parts of a city or town minorities could purchase property – usually the least desirable parts. And this resulted in restrictive zoning regulations, which found many ways to dissuade the building of multi-family rentals, which were attractive to families of color who could not afford to buy a house, due to the fact that their forebears were kept from buying houses. (The number one factor in generational wealth accumulation is home-ownership.)

The crazy thing about all this is that, when you get right down to it, it’s all just a story that has been told so many times that it became real. The only reason that housing prices dropped in white neighborhoods when Black families moved there is that the white families believed the housing prices would drop. So they sold their houses and moved and such flight made the neighborhood look like it was failing, which drove prices down, which made more white people move. And so and so on until the story had reinforced itself so much that it became an enduring and unjust reality in this country. And the NIMBY principle continues to reinforce the story to this day. 

So now, in 2022, with all the baggage of this narrative weighing down our collective story, we have to fight hard against the prevailing cultural forces in order to see how the Reign of Christ is trying to break into the story. Here’s what I see. If folks a long time ago decided that people of color moving into a neighborhood would lower the property values, we as a society can collectively decide in the here and now that that won’t happen; that indeed, a diverse population of many backgrounds and experiences, of many cultures and customs, is actually beneficial to the neighborhood – and, boy, wouldn’t we want to live in a place like that. Because such a place of justice, equity, diversity, and mutual welcome sure sounds like the Reign of Christ to me.

The NIMBY principle is a kneejerk reaction to a change in the status quo. We all have it, I know. But the Reign of Christ invites us to expand our view past our own backyards and discern how we can collectively tell new stories that star everyone. In our reading today from the Prophet Jeremiah, we hear a resonance of the Reign of Christ: “The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.”

Executing justice and righteousness in the land. That’s the Reign of Christ: a place where all people and all of Creation lives in right relationship with God and one another. The NIMBY principle too often halts the building of such a place before it even gets going. But NIMBY is rooted in fear, plain and simple. We are people rooted in love, and we can share that love by helping to write new societal stories full of justice and equity.

If you’d like to learn more about the story of the housing crisis in Southeastern Connecticut, I invite you to check out the “Housing Solutions Lab” of The Day newspaper. Their recent articles are eye-opening and full of important information about the local housing crisis. St. Mark’s will also be making a donation to the Homeless Hospitality Center in New London in recognition for their work walking with people hit hardest by this crisis. Such people include an increasingly larger population of unhoused elders, who are being priced out of housing due to fixed incomes not keeping up with housing costs. A second donation will go to Always Home here in Mystic whose primary work is keeping families on the brink of homelessness in their homes, as a large population of families in our region is a car repair or medical bill away from losing their home. This crisis is big and ongoing, and the story our society tells us that it is intractable. But it’s not. We can work together as a society to change the story.

Photo by Martin Kníže on Unsplash.

One thought on “NIMBY and the Reign of Christ

  1. The recent mid-term election here in San Diego included a match-up between someone wanting to “protect” neighborhoods and another person wanting to make housing more available to people of lesser incomes.
    I am happy to report that he second person won.

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