Which Neighborhood Was Ben Sasse Talking about?

Like you, I found the spirituality of all those Trump supporters crowding into the Capitol on Wednesday, January 6 deeply unsettling.

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Wait, spirituality?

Should we use a term like spiritual to describe that horde of flag-waving, window-smashing, obscenity-shouting insurrectionists? I believe we should, especially if we’re looking for an alternative.

I have just completed a project grounded in qualitative interviews with forty-five organizational leaders, many of which assumed spirituality’s usual connotations of tranquility and kindness, compassion and peace. But one of my research subjects defined spirituality as what animates us, what propels us.

So, yes, those videos of crowds meandering through the Great Rotunda were making a certain kind of dark and rabid mysticism visible.

If on that janky Wednesday night, you also watched senators debate about certifying electoral college votes, you may have glimpsed another kind of spirituality. I’m thinking in particular of a speech by Republican Senator Ben Sasse, which located the center of American life not in the Capitol desecrated that afternoon, but in the neighborhoods scattered across this land. He used the word “neighbor” seven times in his short speech, talking about the ways that Americans can care for one another at Little League games or on the sidewalks of our hometowns. The senator from Nebraska has taken some heat for his blithe tone in the wake of a national crisis. Alexandra Petri tweeted that she “could have sworn I just heard Ben Sasse telling us the solution to all this was to shovel somebody’s driveway but I must have entered some sort of fugue dream state induced by too much news and not enough coffee.”

It’s a pretty funny line. But if we could allow our pupils to dilate just a bit farther in these dark times, we might see more than the cheery neighborhood capital that the senator pointed to. We might discern a kind of spiritual capital as well.

I need to read Sasse’s books to get to know his thinking better, but my hunch is that he’s talking about different neighborhoods than my research attends to. My data points to communities of color like those cultivated by Bree Jones in West Baltimore, where she builds cohorts of committed citizens to restore and care for dilapidated but valuable property. I’m thinking also of the Mortar accelerator, where Allen Woods, Derrick Braziel, and William Thomas in the Over the Rhine neighborhood, help to make Cincinnati a go-to place for Black entrepreneurship. I’m remembering DeAmon Harges’s partnership with Broadway United Methodist Church to uncover the often-overlooked resources of Indianapolis neighborhoods. I’m recalling Devonta Boston, a 24-year-old developer in Chicago Lawn, seeking to restore storefront properties in the neighborhood he grew up in. These people are seeking to love their neighbors, but they’re doing this by circulating a kind of spiritual attentiveness for overlooked goods in their communities. And that awareness is a much-needed counter-vision to the delusions on display in the Capitol on January 6.

Perhaps the difference between Mr. Sasse’s view of community and that of the people I just mentioned is that he seems to think our neighborhoods are basically fine as they are. Perhaps he’s half right. But over the course of this previous unsettling year, I have conducted a series of conversations for the podcast Spiritual Capitalconversations with social entrepreneurs working in neighborhoods where things don’t look all tree-lined and prosperous. These changemakers, I have gradually come to see, recognize possibilities for neighboring in fresh and generative ways. The resources they discern are often hidden, at least from the perspective of the mainstream economy. But these people are committed, as one of my interlocutors Kevin Jones has put it, “to preserve the value in the neighborhood.” And not just to preserve that value, but to animate it for the common good.

This year, the podcast Spiritual Capital launches Season 2, focused on neighborhood economics. I’ll be focusing on a multi-sectoral partnership emerging in the work of entrepreneurs and educators and designers, all seeking to build resilient homeownership in south and west Chicago. (You can read more about that project here.) I hope you’ll follow the pod to learn more about efforts to animate neighborhood goods. After this past Wednesday, I’m more convinced than ever that this sort of spiritual capital offers a vital alternative to the vituperative mysticism that we witnessed among the Capitol vandals.

(photo courtesy of cnn.com)

I research organizational spirituality among business activists and their neighborhoods. I also teach communication at Trinity Christian College.

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