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.