A young reporter's draft of a WORLD story last month concluded, "Saddened by his own fate, he hopes that his organization's future may yet turn." I told the writer to drop the fatalistic language. The ancient Greeks wrote of doom-laden "fate," but those who read the Bible know that futures do not turn. God and people turn them.
That's the way it is with cities. People, some working to serve God or their neighbors, can make cities much better places to live. Others, working to serve themselves and their victims' short-term pleasures, can make cities hallways to hell. Both the biblical depiction of cities and our own eyes tell us that a city can go either way.
The Bible has many anti-urban passages. The first murderer, Cain, founded the first city, Enoch. God ended the Tower of Babel building project and destroyed Sodom. Pharoahs forced Israelite slaves to construct the Egyptian cities of Pithom and Ramses. Later, Jericho miraculously fell but Philistine cities remained strong. The prophet Hosea condemned urban corruption and said God would return Israel to wilderness. Invaders from the cursed capitals of Nineveh and Babylon served God's purposes by punishing Israel. The New Testament describes Babylon as a harlot and Rome as the beast of the sea.
And yet, the Bible shows how cities can be places of order, beauty, and civilization. Moses, who knew cities, listed them in Deuteronomy as one of God's gifts to the Israelites when they entered the Promised Land, "a land with fine, large cities." David, who loved God, chose the Jebusite city of Jerusalem to be Israel's political capital and religious center. Jeremiah instructed Israelites in exile to work for the prosperity of Babylon. The New Testament concludes not with the creation of a new Garden of Eden but with God's creation of a city, the new Jerusalem.
Dissertations could be (and maybe have been) written about our love/hate relationship with cities. Jerusalem itself, Ezekiel complained, was a venue for evil: "Your origin and your birth are of the land of the Canaanites; your father was an Amorite and your mother a Hittite." But the Psalms of Ascent show Israelite excitement upon approaching Jerusalem, and Jesus loved the city, despite its evil. He wept for it a few days before He died, saying, "If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace."
Negative references contend with positive references, so "here a verse, there a verse" proof-texting gives us a muddy portrait. Cities are clearly places of great potential-but man's sin can ruin every vista. Christians can improve cities if, through God's grace and within His providence, we invest in them our work and prayer. And, through common grace, non-Christians can also do things that glorify God, even when they don't understand why they do them.
Cities, in short, gain definition not by nature but by redemption. Eric Jacobsen has written well on this in his Sidewalks in the Kingdom (Brazos Press, 2003): "God takes our mistakes and reworks them into his divine plan and transforms our scars into something beautiful. . . . The fear of the residents of Babel that they might be scattered is redeemed when the Israelites find cities in the Promised Land in which they can gather. The Hebrews long to be free from their tyrant, Pharoah, and eventually find a good king in the city of David. And finally, the Babel residents' desire to make a name for themselves is met in Jerusalem, where God has caused his name to dwell."
Redemption: In this section we continue our regular WORLD practice of telling stories about what Christians (and some non-Christians) are doing to improve our cities. Everywhere we see that cities are not "fated" to prosper or falter; the day-to-day decisions people make can make all the difference. For example, Phoenix used to be a city without much of a center, and Christian organizations sat in their suburban headquarters and didn't have much to do with what downtown there was. The article that follows this introduction tells how a Christian group is working with city hall to rescue some women from the sex-trafficking trade.
Another example of falling and rising: Detroit in the 1960s was still flush with automotive profits and its suburb of Royal Oak was a dowdy bedroom community. Now Detroit is half-dead because of bad governmental and corporate decisions but Royal Oak is a trendy example of new urbanism because of some good decisions. Courts also make a difference, as our look at New London, Conn.-ground zero for the U.S. Supreme Court's Kelo decision-shows.
New York City is a never-run-dry source of stories: We have articles about Christian ministries in Queens and Brighton Beach and about a civil turnaround in midtown Manhattan. Florida and the Pacific Northwest also provide tales of renewal.
Those who minister in large cities are following the example set by our forebears in Rome during the early centuries of the Christian era. There they showed respect for God's human creations by burying bodies that officials threw onto garbage heaps. They showed their respect for life by rescuing newborn babies abandoned through the Roman practice called "exposure." Others in the Roman Empire acted similarly: Christian women in Alexandria saved lives and did in-your-face evangelism by nursing babies in front of a statue of Zeus.
Chapter 5 of the Epistle of Mathetes to Diognetus, a second-century a.d. apologetic, shows how Christians twisted "fate" into a brighter future. Mathetes wrote that "Christians are not distinguished from the rest of mankind either in locality or in speech or in customs. They dwell not somewhere in cities of their own, neither do they use some different language, nor practice an extraordinary kind of life. . . . They marry like all other men and they beget children; but they do not cast away their offspring. They have their meals in common, but not their wives."
The goal of Christians today should be what Mathetes outlined: "They find themselves in the flesh, and yet they live not after the flesh. Their existence is on earth, but their citizenship is in heaven. They obey the established laws, and they surpass the laws in their own lives."
None of this is easy: "They love all men, and they are persecuted by all. They are dishonored, and yet they are glorified in their dishonor. They are evil spoken of, and yet they are vindicated. They are reviled, and they bless; they are insulted, and they respect."
Two-plus centuries later, Augustine of Hippo watched from Africa as Rome fell to barbarians. In The City of God he distinguished God's eternal city from man's temporary constructions, but he noted that the command to love God and to love our neighbors pushes us to strive for the common good of the City of Man: We proclaim the gospel to our neighbors in the hope that they will become our brothers.
Today's burgeoning cities desperately need the Christian willingness to bless and respect despite insult. In 1950, 29 percent of the world's population lived in urban environments. By 1965 that figure had risen to 36 percent. Now the total has passed 50 percent and will likely be about 66 percent by 2025. The Latin word for city is civitas, and it's not clear whether the two-thirds of mankind that will soon be urban will also be civilized. If they are not, what's left of civilization will soon vanish.
Are Christians up to the difficulties of working in cities? Not all are called to that, but for an increasing number the words of Mathetes at the end of his chapter 6 are deeply meaningful: "To no less a post than this hath God ordered them, and they dare not try to evade it."
Phoenix, Ariz.: The fight against child prostitution | Lynn Vincent
New London, Conn.: Eminent domain leaves scars | Alisa Harris
Washington, D.C.: Philip Mangano is out to end homelessness | Mark Bergin
Miami, Fla.: Good news for uninsured workers | Jamie Dean
Bryant Park, N.Y.: Turnaround for a crime-ridden park | Kiley Humphries
Vancouver, B.C.: Bringing back a storm-damaged park | Mark Bergin
Queens, N.Y.: Reaching immigrants through English classes | Hope Hodge
Brighton Beach, N.Y.: Ministering to Jews in "Little Russia" | Kiley Humphries