What cities do to/for Christians (Presence, part 3)

A few observations on what it means for Christians to live in cities, following up on the last two posts on Jeremiah 29 and the concept of “presence.” These are simple but, I believe, incredibly important.

Cities do not let us forget the poor. “Out of sight, out of mind” is a real thing. As someone put it to me recently, “The point of the suburbs is to get away from other people.” That’s putting it too strongly, of course: there is a legitimate joy in the beauty of a little bit of natural beauty and quiet. But suburbs do allow us to escape the reality of other people’s problems – and keep those problems from starting to feel like our problems. Isaiah may enjoin us to take the homeless poor into our homes, and Jesus may teach us that our neighbor is whoever we run across, but we can use our distance as shield: there are no poor in my neighborhood! If I see any, I’ll get moving. In North America, we use distance the way Eastern nations use walls: to separate our private realm from the problematic people outside. After awhile, we almost convince ourselves that the poor are no longer with us. (RPCNA history buffs will remember the 19th century “deacon controversy,” in which one side argued that there were no more poor to serve, and therefore no more need for deacons.)

Cities teach us that people who are different from us are not necessarily our enemies. It is human nature to be suspicious toward outsiders and identify treat them as antagonists. The distance that most of us live from groups of people that are very different from us exacerbates this. We stereotype and caricature, misrepresenting races, classes, and other social groups that are different from us. In a city, you cannot live around people who are all just like you. Each day you see and perhaps meet people that you wouldn’t necessarily identify with. And in so doing you find that your concerns, desires, and hearts are very much like yours.

Cities allow us to love our enemies by seeing that they also are children of God. Sometimes, of course, an encounter with the Other does not lead to peace and warm feelings. He may fulfill your worst expectations, wronging or disrespecting you. But even then, he is no longer an abstraction in your mind and a bogie man in your heart, a bundle of pathologies to be hated or at best ignored. He is a person, irreducibly a child of God, and inherently commands respect and love. There is no going back.


Presence, part 2

Last week I posted a few observations on a portion of Jeremiah 29:

4“Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: 5 Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. 6Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. 7But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.”

We looked at some details of the commands God gave to exiles in Babylon. Now a few notes on how it applies to us.

As for the ancient exiles, the alternative to this message is to act like “short timers.” They were being told that they would be leaving for home soon; many evangelicals teach that our time on earth will be short, so we shouldn’t plan for the long term. God’s command is to plan for the long term.

We are called to live in cities. No, not all of us. But more of us than do. The oft-cited statistic is that the US is 20% evangelical Christian, but that urban areas (dense, mixed-use, walkable) are only 2% evangelical. If that’s even sort of the case we are due for a correction. I’m in no position to tell another individual to move into a city, any more than I am in a position to tell someone to adopt a child. But I’m pretty sure more of us should live in town than currently do. And by the way, I don’t think this just means the City (Babylon, or NYC, or London). Cities of many sizes bring people into ongoing proximity that is at once very stressful and very stimulating.

We are called to have neighbors. We are not to think that corruption comes from proximity to unbelievers. As lovely as rural and suburban life can be (and can be wonderful!) the subtext of the suburbs is that people are the problem. Maybe this is built into the American pioneers spirit; I don’t know.

We are called to engage in economic activity whereby we invest ourselves in the community. This means that our well-being is very tangibly tied up in the well-being of our neighbors. When the neighborhood goes downhill, our homes drop in value. When the schools stink, we suffer – directly because our children don’t have good schools to attend, and indirectly with joblessness and youth crime. On the other hand, when we make the neighborhood a better place for all, we prosper. The ethic is the opposite of the absentee landlord, who looks at the neighborhood as a place from which to extract wealth.

We are called to cautiously identify our interests with those of the community around us. We are an “us” not only in family and church, but in neighborhood and city. To a large extent, “they” are “us.” There will be substantial, though not perfect, overlap in our goals and values with the community around us.

We are called to work for the common good at many levels of societal existence. This passage has application most immediately to living in cities. But it also applies to our professions, our workplaces, our larger civic boundaries (county, state, nation, international), and our voluntary organizations.

We are called to raise children in the midst of unbelievers. Not to hide them away, not to protect them from the corruption of the Other. Careful raising, in the fear and admonition of the Lord, is not the same as separatism. This can take many forms, practically speaking.

The cross vs. rules and authorities

In opposition to every politics of identity and self-complacency God has set the cross of Jesus Christ, before which, as the prophet said, “kings shall shut their mouths” (Isa. 52:15). In Christ’s cross he “has disarmed the rules and authorities, and made a triumphant public display of them” (Col. 2:15). It is a royal cross, challenging the conditions of earthly political authority with the coming of the kingdom of God. … The sweet cross (dulce lignum) has outshone the glamor and attraction that binds us to our political leaders; it has shown their appeal to be shallow and moody, by calling out the deepest springs of our loyalty and love. In the cross God has pronounced his “Ichabod!” upon the limelight of human importance. … The cross challenges the covenant with death which the rules and authorities have made. For the inexorable rule of human tradition is that societies flourish only ont he manure of their dead members’ flesh. … But through the cross of life God has taken his place alongside the dead, our victims. he has exposed our melancholy collusion with death by revealing the resurrection of the dead, and by calling to existence a communion of the dead with the living.(Oliver O’Donovan, After Judgment pp. 231-233 selected)