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Most of the stuff we post are our own thoughts, wonderings, and stories that emerge from our lives, our living, the world around us and the world within us.

You'll find us reflecting on our travels, our faith, justice, and what it means for us to live well in 21st century America. 

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« Downtown with Daniel | Main | To Living Hope on the eve of MLK Day, 2011 »
Sunday
Feb202011

Motives for a Better City

In case you missed the memo, a little over a year ago I started a slow journey toward my Doctorate in Ministry degree.  The first course took me to Ghana where I spent two weeks learning about how people of faith and good will are affecting change in amazing ways.  Then I spent the better part of 8 months reflecting on and writing about that experience.  And if you're ever interested I've got a 112 pages of pure brilliance that I'm happy to show you as a result.  

I've just begun my second class, which is remarkably closer to home (online, at my dining room table), yet decidedly longer (the course is 4 months, I have no clue how long I'll take to write).  The course topic is the Nature of Cities.  I'm in the class with 3 professors (one from Seattle, one from Canada and one from LA) and a half a dozen students from Kenya, Ethiopia, LA, NY and one cat from Memphis!

One of the first topics dealt with people's motives for making a better city.  Below is my abbreviated response.  

_____________________

 

Motives for a Better City

Why do you think many have tried to develop a better city? What do you think is wrong with cities and what can be done about it? Do you think Christians should tell non-Christians how to live and how to achieve a more just city?

What a fantastic series of questions right out of the gate for us to consider.  Even as I begin to form a response I have a sneaky suspicion that, after several weeks with the class, I’ll return to edit and amend if not delete altogether. 

Nevertheless, in all my city ignorance, here we go. 

As Bakke and others have stated - despite our bucolic beginnings, we as a people and community, ultimately ‘end in a city’[1].  And though Dr. Boyce has pointed out in his Prologue to the Nature of Cities[2] and other places that cities address God’s plan for humanity to ‘be fruitful, multiply and subdue the earth’ I think that another divine hardwiring is also in play; namely a groaning for the future city. 

I wonder if part of the desire for many to develop a better city is not somehow bound up in, what Pascal would describe as a God-shaped void.  Similar to the ways that people, myself included, recognize a longed-for connection with the One who created them and seek to address that connection in ways both God-honoring and God-awful; likewise is there a longed-for connection to a Home that was lost in the Garden but will be found in the Better City.  Our efforts at developing, in my case, a better Memphis is an outgrowth of my longing for the city to come. 

Just as I might feed the hungry because I long for the day when no one is hungry, or I clothe the naked in protest for the day when all are well clothed, or house the homeless in anticipation when we all live in the places that Christ has gone to prepare for us – I labor, now, for the city whose foundations and builder is God as a part of my preparation for the City to come. 

Even if I don’t know the Biblical narrative regarding the urban trajectory of redemptive history there is something in me that longs for a better city, a place that is most fully ‘home’.  Maybe this is why many of us have tried to develop a better city. 

What is wrong with cities and what do we do?    The answer to that is both painfully simple and enormously complex.  People are what are wrong with cities.  We fallen image-bearers of God are the ones who have made a mess of the world.  Because of the sin that entered the world through the actions of people, sin has tainted not only the human heart but the world as well; including cities.  Cities did not make themselves sinful, people did.  Systems and structures did not become marred with sin by themselves, people made them so. 

And yet, the solution to the human condition is also the solution to the urban dilemma.  Christ died for the sins of humanity, and yet that sacrifice has implications for the whole world.  The gospel of God has something to say even to the soil and sidewalks which are groaning to be set free from their slavery (Rom. 8:19-22).  Oftentimes, tragically, my understanding of the gospel and its implications falls short of an urban solution.  I allow the gospel’s power to terminate on me rather than seeing the fuller, deeper more penetrating and holistic ripples of the Cross event.  Certainly Christ died and rose to save people.  But that same power holds the possibility to transform our cities.  As Dr. Melba Maggay states, “Structures are transformed, they do not get saved”[3].  As the bumper sticker on the backs of so many Memphis cars says, “Jesus is the Answer”.  This is true.  Both for fallen people and for broken cities.  That is the simple part.  The complex piece is how is Jesus the answer, especially as it intersects with cities.  How is Jesus the answer to homelessness?  How is the gospel the answer to racial and economic segregation?  How is Christ the best and only response to grinding poverty?  Frankly, it is this ever-elusive 'how' that keeps me up at night; and keeps me enrolling in classes such as this one.   

I think that more often than not, rather than telling others how to achieve a more just city, we Christians might do better to show others how to achieve such a city.  We should embody a city that reflects the City to come.  The City to come doesn’t have ghettos that isolate people from commerce, education and meaningful living, so in the ‘city-now’ we should work to dismantle the structures that communicate isolation.   In the Cross, ‘no-bodies’ become ‘some-bodies’.  Likewise as those marked by the Cross, we labor against cities that say to people, “Because you live here, you are a no-body” and we rebuild communities that communicate, “because of God, you are some-body”.  We do this, again, out of our own groaning for the City of God. 

-watson

 


[1] Bakke, Ray.  A Theology as Big as the City.  Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1997

[2] Boyce, Ronald R.  The Essence of Cities-An Introduction to the Nature of Cities: BGU, 2010.

[3] Maggay, Melba Padilla.  Transforming Society: Reflections on the Kingdom and Politics.  Quezon City, Philippines: Institute for Studies in Asian Church and Culture, 2004.

 

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