Not long ago, I attended a meeting of the Affordable Housing Committee in my township. For years there has been discussion about revitalizing downtown, which is just one block from my home. Part of the revitalization plan would include planning for additional apartment units, some of which would be classified as “low-income” housing, and others “affordable housing,” to satisfy our fair-share housing requirements.
Besides being interested in social justice issues such as affordable housing, and having a self-interest in the revitalization, I was very interested in the small line I had read in the (voluminous) documents ahead of the meeting. Qualifying police officers would get priority on the affordable housing lists.
I know very well that many of the professionals that keep our towns and cities running do not make enough money to live in the towns they serve. According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, you must make a minimum of $61,000/year to afford a two-bedroom apartment in New Jersey. That is well above the starting salary of most police officers, teachers, nurses, or paramedics.
What bothered me most was that we were talking about police officers as qualifying for affordable housing units instead of asking ourselves why we pay public servants too little to live in our neighborhoods.
I came to the meeting ready with my question, and my research to back up the reasonableness of my question, and I had talked through my concerns with friends that I trust to make sure I wouldn’t sound stupid. Still, I am a woman who would be questioning the mayor, deputy mayor, and his staff (all men), and I was nervous.
It was that kind of nervous dread you have when you have to confront someone, or when you have to give someone hard news. It was similar to the feeling I’ve had when I’ve had to let an employee go. I wonder if Gideon felt this kind of nervous anxiety when God told him to take down the altars to Baal? I imagine that as he tore down the altars in the dark of night, he was dreading the dawn when the townspeople would confront him and his actions would make him immediately unpopular.
Gideon does as God asks, and the townspeople get predictably angry. His father defends him and points out that they don’t need to fight Gideon. If Baal is such a worthy opponent, let Baal fight Gideon. This rightly reframes the problem back to its theological root, which was the aim of Gideon’s action from the beginning - to get the people to think about how they honor God and what kind of community they want to be.
I think I would have been less anxious about the meeting if it had occurred to me that even if the mayor laughed at me (he did), that I wasn’t asking for his approval. I was asking to shift the conversation toward what kind of community we want to be. The question was about how to fairly treat people.
Gideon’s action is what some scholars of Hebrew Bible might call a “prophetic sign action.” By tearing down the altars, he was hoping to perform an action that would point toward the kind of reform he was hoping would take root. If you read the rest of Judges you’ll find out that his actions didn’t cause people to decisively change their worship practices. But, it did get them to think about the question.
The conclusion of the affordable housing meeting did not bring about pay raises for police officers, nurses, paramedics, or teachers. I never thought it would, but it did cause a journalist from a local newspaper to find me after the meeting to ask me more about the questions I was asking. He was interested in other ways to think about affordable housing and was intrigued that living wage questions came up at what would otherwise be more like a zoning meeting. I hope maybe the question caused someone else to wonder at why some people cannot afford to have a home in our town.
We are living in a moment where everything is politically charged and people seem more divided than ever. It can be hard to take courage from your convictions and ask hard questions about what kind of community we want to have, but I think those questions are the most important ones to ask, even if you get laughed at.