Though I am happy for the positive change on the West Side, and for the Powell family, there are a number of assumptions behind the show that should not remained unchallenged.
Of course, the show said little about God, so to say that it is sharing a theology might not be the most precise of language, but it does have a specific and identifiable worldview that touches on the great faiths. It also promotes theologies that are both helpful and harmful.
My favorite theologian, Bono, has said: “”…the thing that keeps me on my knees is the difference between Grace
and Karma. At the center of all religions is the idea of Karma. You
know, what you put out comes back to you: an eye for an eye, a tooth
for a tooth, or in physics – in physical laws – every action is met by an
equal or an opposite one. And yet, along comes this idea called Grace
to upend all that…. Love interrupts, if you like, the consequences of
your actions, which in my case is very good news indeed, because I’ve
done a lot of stupid stuff.”
Now I, like Bono, am a big fan of grace (I need it as much as he does), but despite grace being at the heart of Christianity, American civil religion – which sometimes looks like Christianity – has had a hard time embracing grace. Our rugged individualism has led to the idea that a person can make it on their own, and thus people deserve what they get.
If “people get what they deserve” is at the heart of our theology, then a show where people get lots of free stuff must make the case for giving those goods. Certainly, Ms Powell has done some amazing things, but the question has been raised again and again of whether she deserves a new home, scholarships, and all the rest.
Despite the amazing things that Ms Powell has done, nobody deserves what she and her family have received. I don’t have a reality show benefactor, but I am already aware that I have received more than I deserve. I didn’t do anything to cause myself to be born in America to middle class parents who cared about me and made sure I got education. Nor do I deserve any of the other blessings I have received.
I would like to call the blessings recieved on the show “grace” rather than “deserved,” for a number of reasons. First, it insulates the Powell family from the criticism and analysis of others who have no business judging their “worthiness” as has happened (in part due to the framing of the show). Secondly, it keeps other neighborhood activists from thinking they “deserve” the same things, which is unrealistic. Finally, deserved rewards can simply be things that are enjoyed because they were earned. Gifts of grace bear a responsibility to share grace with others – a competing theology that the show also made explicit.
However, not all of the gifts can be called “grace”. For Disney, the price of a vacation was a small price to pay for the promotion of the idea that happiness can be found in a theme park in Florida. Sears, along with countless other companies, gave gifts not from grace, but to create desire in the viewers that would not be receiving them for free. This is not “grace.” At best, it is a fee for promotions; at worst, a family gets used as a marketing pawn.
Still, thousands of volunteers, investing in a neighborhood other than their own, for no material gain at all, represents grace. Grace was present, even as Disney was.
Grace is the best hope for the West Side, and for Buffalo. Divine grace and human grace, received and extended again. While there is much to criticize, grace was the truth that held the show together, and grace is the truth that will allow us to find a life that we honestly don’t deserve at all.