From my Manhattan apartment window close to Macy's I can see Greeley Park, a small triangle bounded by Broadway, Sixth Avenue, and 32rd Street. The statue in the park is of Horace Greeley, editor of the New York Tribune from 1841 to 1872, who purportedly uttered the famous line, "Go west, young man." He was also a secularist and communalist who undermined both Christianity and capitalism.
Christians dominated journalism until the Civil War-The New York Times started out as a Christian newspaper-but Greeley and his disciples undermined that approach. Manhattan's journalistic saga is the opposite of today's Las Vegas slogan, "What happens here, stays here." What happened in New York spread around the country.
Greeley's statue now dominates the little park below me the way skyscrapers dwarf steeples and the secular leaves only Sundays to the sacred. At the other end of the pocket park is a water fountain dedicated to Jerry McAuley, the Christian founder in 1872 of a Manhattan rescue mission, but the fountain is waterless and easily overlooked.
Urban Christians like McAuley throughout the 19th century dominated poverty fighting, and their teaching spread around the country. In the 20th century, though, evangelicals lost influence as they abandoned the cities. Some came to have a distorted sense of sin and how to fight it. They started to think that the countryside was purer than the city. They thought that folks who went to the city were likely to be corrupted by their surroundings.
Their fears had a basis in fact: Urban anonymity allowed newcomers freedom they did not have within small town social strictures. But they were wrong to associate rural life with purity, since the Bible teaches that sin comes from within. David in Psalm 51 and Paul in chapter 7 of Romans write of indwelling sin.
Internet-age evidence backs up the indictment Jesus offered in Matthew 23 of Pharisees who wash the outside of the cup. Anti-porn activists used to be able to concentrate on shutting down storefront raunch and lap dances, but now every laptop offers temptation. One or two clicks away lie visualizations of adulterous thoughts. City and countryside both have problems.
On the positive side, the biblical understanding is that human beings are the crown of God's creation-so cities with lots of human beings are places of great beauty. Jeremiah's chapter 29 includes his famous instructions to the Israelites in exile: "Build houses and live in them. . . . 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."
Early Christians followed Jeremiah and became blessings to their Babylons. The apostle Paul began his major ministry activities in Antioch, then the third-largest city in the Roman Empire. Paul sent his epistles to residents of the largest cities of the Roman Empire: He wrote to the Romans, the Corinthians, the Ephesians. The church grew fast in urban areas, while rural areas were filled with pagans: The word itself comes from the Latin paganus, meaning an old country dweller, one who lives in the countryside, a hick.
Today, sadly, the pattern is reversed: Christians are mostly in the countryside, and city-dwelling pagani dominate journalism, education, the arts, and so on. Today, we need Christians who will follow Jeremiah 29 in being good neighbors to the Babylonians around us. We need Christians who appreciate and learn from urban diversity, seeing people as people, good and bad, but all needing Christ.
Many Christians are now paying attention to the urban hope offered in Isaiah 58:12: "Your ancient cities shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to dwell in." The New Testament concludes with a city, the new Jerusalem, rather than with a new garden of Eden.
We cannot create a new Jerusalem by our own efforts: That requires God's action, in God's timing. But many Christians are now reversing the 20th-century evangelical tendency to head to the hills, or at least the suburbs. City life may be stressful, and concerns about terrorists are legitimate. But there are dangers all over, and we are always safest when we follow Christ, wherever He leads.