Yesterday I started a brief little series going through some lessons I have learned from my first semester back in seminary. I first talked about how (at least in my mind) cities had to be taken off their pedestal. There are desires and needs of the human soul that can’t be met in cities. We need other types of livable environments as well.
And yet, through this semester I was re-grounded in my belief in the essential importance and centrality of urban settings. Above, you’ll find a video reflection I had to make in which I give my perspective on this question: Why should Christians engage in cities? In it, I speak about some of these dynamics that are in greater detail below. (Sorry for the poor video quality.)
Lesson: Cities are the Well-Spring of the Earth’s Flourishing
I’ve realized that cities are a (the?) source of both life and death for most every other livable space in the world. The structures of power, politics, media, arts, philosophy, education, and culture begin in cities and flow outward to the suburbs and even rural areas.
When Rome fell, the “Dark Ages” began.
The research and inventions of urban research institutions are applied on farms across the country. The Farm Bill has historically also included food stamp benefits precisely because politicians understand that the fate of the cities and the rural areas are intimately tied together. What happens in cities flows outward.
Suburban wealth was caused by the wealthy leaving cities and moving outward. The contemporary economic injustices in cities are now pushing minorities into the suburbs. When cities flourish and prosper, these benefits affect the areas around them over time. The tax revenue that ends up funding schools, public works, scientific research, and infrastructure often comes from cities.
There’s a reason all of the major newspapers and 24-hour news stations all have their offices and bureaus in cities. It’s where things happen that change the world.
Philosophically, we can see the postmodernism from urban academic settings seeping into suburbs and creating a general suburban isolation and malaise–especially the newer housing developments that have only popped up in the past 30 years or so. Many of them are completely contextless livable spaces. Many of them, have no history or identity of their own. Instead, they seem to consist entirely of (some of the worst?) aspects of the city that have flowed into their area when people left the cities.
They are areas built around fast urban pace, limitless commercialism, utmost convenience, rabid consumption, and heartbreaking isolation. These (again, I’m talking about the newer suburbs) are areas with no story, culture, or identity to call their own that might provide a human narrative in which people can participate with those around them.
But in the end, this all holds great excitement, especially for Christians. For better or worse (depending on your perspective) Christians feel they have a responsibility to care, love, serve, and effect change in this world. Wherever we are, we are to seek the good of those people and places around us.
The good news is that, for those Christians in cities, there is an exponential effect in the work we do. As we work to counter-act the prevailing systems, injustices, corruptions, and sins that beset our cities, we also work for the good of the entire world. The smallest decisions in your relationships, your time, your money, your resources, and your vote have massive implications for the regions around us, and even the world–especially considering the diversity of nations that come to cities to learn, research, and work.
Throughout the Bible and Church History, whenever great worldwide movements of God were to take place, they mostly came out of cities. In order to spread the Christian message as quickly as possible through the Roman empire, the earliest missionaries first went to cities. Not because they didn’t care about rural areas, but because they were confident that this urban work would flow to the countryside. And it did.
This is also one of the reasons why I take so much pride in the work that I do. I work for a relatively small social work agency that is doing huge things. Our consistent grace and service for those we work with has begun to change many of the paradigms in which this work is done. Our model is now the official model for how the Veterans Administration wants homeless veterans to be served.
They want this done all over the country. And it started in cities.
The little things all of us do–wherever we are–matter in this world. But where it all starts–both good and bad–is in cities. So be encouraged and be steadfast. For us urban dwellers, in a very literal way, the world is in our hands. Let us steward it well.