Uncovering the Untold Urban Stories

Uncovering the Untold Urban Stories

SOCIAL JUSTICE URBAN THEOLOGY

We welcome Glenn Jordan as one of the presenters for our forthcoming day conference Renewing the City: A Christian Vision.  Glenn comes with the wisdom of many years of ministry in the inner-city area of East Belfast close to the former shipyards.  A vision of an ‘urban commons’ has marked his work, with the goal of demonstrating in both design and architecture the reality of God’s shalom amidst the sectarian ugliness that has been so prominent in the story of this city.

He also brings the insights of significant PhD research that relates to the reading of Third Isaiah in the context of various urban challenges, but particularly those that have become demanding in his own contextual environment of East Belfast.  The nature of a number of his theological contributions are especially noteworthy and will undoubtedly lend themselves to our discussion, reflection and practice.  These invariably move us to seriously consider how Scripture in general, and a storied approach to Third Isaiah in particular, can inform the means and goals of urban ministry today.

Foremost amongst those, I think, is his suggestion that Isaiah invites us to move from ‘the mundane to the mythological’.[1]  This borrows, as the author notes, from the idea of ‘rereading,’ credited to J. Severino Croatto, in which preterist leanings can and should be challenged by a hermeneutic of finding further meaning in biblical texts in such a way that relevant practice might be encouraged.[2]  This is not as subjective as it sounds, but actually serves to understand Isaiah not only as a prophet but also in an apocalyptic sense, where actual political events serve to honour God’s prerogative as to what happens next in our own story.  It inspires, in other words, a view to the future that promotes credible shalom action now.

Another notable emphasis gleaned from Glenn’s excellent study is his undaunted commitment to reading Isaiah in terms of stories that inform both the original and the contemporary outworking of an ardent narrative theology.  In this way, the story-laden character of the sacred text is held in high honour, but not in such a way that it diminishes the need to release its formative capacity into the treasured stories of urban congregations.  This is critical as it affirms that history and tradition actually matter greatly, not only in their biblical settings, but also in lived biographies of people in distinct times and places.  It encourages an essential element especially suited to and situated in the midst of urban realities, one that amounts to the purposeful uncovering of hidden or forgotten stories.  It acknowledges that these stories matter a great deal in and of themselves, but also that the honouring of them significantly contributes to healthy urban ministry.

Potent endeavours like these can achieve a movement from story to story, in which, as Jordan puts it, the ‘interweaving of themes and ideas across the final text of Isaiah may have actually been part of the strategy of Third Isaiah to secure support for a radical new vision of the city and the community.’[3]  Perhaps more of us can give attention to the hidden, forgotten and untold stories that demonstrate the specificity of the good news of Jesus for our cities.  These stories themselves, as they deliberately relate to the biblical narrative, cannot help but excite a new vision of shalom that must always be understood in terms of the radical peace that expresses the reign of God.  In that way, they activate renewal, hopefully more and more in Inner East Belfast and in many other urban settings as well.

Dr Wesley White
Lecturer

Join us for Renewing the City: A Christian Vision on Saturday 7th January 2017, 10am – 4:30pm, at the Parkhead Church of the Nazarene, Burgher Street Glasgow, G31 4TB.

[1] Glenn Jordan, unpublished PhD dissertation, ‘Renewing the City: Reading Third Isaiah in Inner East Belfast,’ (2016), p8
[2] J. Severino Croatto, ‘ “The Nations” in Salvific Oracles of Isaiah,’ VT 55 2 (2005), p160
[3] Jordan, Renewing the City, p184-85

Smart Cities, Wise Cities

Smart Cities, Wise Cities

URBAN THEOLOGY

In 2011 the Harvard University economist, Edward Glaeser, produced a landmark contribution to urban studies entitled Triumph of the City. Among other things that condition and qualify successful cities, he cites the place of what he calls ‘smart cities’.  By way of example, he gives serious consideration to Boston, Milan, and Minneapolis.  According to Glaeser’s criteria, others could certainly be mentioned – perhaps Copenhagen, Johannesburg, and Beijing?

The common denominator between them is, not surprisingly, education.  This is spelled out by Glaeser in terms of the number of college degrees infiltrating the populace, the presence of institutions that promote biomedical, scientific, and technological research, a quality of life shaped by the arts and widespread appreciation of the arts, and a political ethos that encourages inquiry and a high regard for all that contributes to healthy curiosity.  In essence, Glaeser suggests that smart cities attract smart people who are entrepreneurial and enterprising to such a degree that their immediate urban environment benefits significantly.

Theological constructs that are worth their salt would have no argument with these suggestions, but with one very important caveat: smart cities are not necessarily wise cities.  The Hebrew tradition of wisdom offers a depth of thinking, reflection and practice that graciously confronts the realities of urban hegemony and goes way beyond what might be too easily described as ‘smart’. The main word that informs a rubric for what is wise in Hebrew is חכםה (hokma, pronounced with rough h), literally meaning ‘skill’ or ‘know-how,’ but know-how (skill) directed at the art of living life with the intent of living better and living honourably.  It is no doubt an intellectual and volitional ability, but it functions not so much in the accomplishment of specific tasks and more in the shaping and perpetuation of both personal and communal character.

How does honourable living demonstrate itself in the public square, and what might it offer by way of a political commentary on any sort of polis that can legitimately profess to be wise?  The recent American presidential election cannot help but come under evaluation and scrutiny when the relationship between smart and wise are on the platform.  If ‘smartness’ can be limited to and defined almost entirely by pragmatism, then perhaps some excuses can be made and begrudgingly allowed.  But when Hebraic wisdom is in view, there is little (if any) wiggle room for what qualifies as not only better but even more honourable living.  A public that elects someone whose rhetoric and action promote misogyny, racism, bigotry and arrogance is anything but smart, and certainly not wise.  It bespeaks a culture that has lost the way of wisdom.

What we are desperately in need of is not theoretical but incarnate wisdom.  How are we to conceive of this?  It is not without reason, nor should it escape our notice, that the Hebrew tradition uniquely personifies wisdom as a ‘woman’ (Proverbs 1-3). She is not to be crudely objectified, but rather subsumes all humanity in a subjective role under her tutelage.  But the Christian Scriptures go even further than this, giving the ultimate incarnational expression of personified wisdom a Christological focus.  The striking words of the Apostle Paul come to mind: ‘…Christ, the power of God and the wisdom of God’; “But by His doing you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God…’ (1 Corinthians 1:24,30).

Christ’s way unswervingly unveils the ugliness of what has proven to be a perverse public predilection for gender biases, racial bigotry, marginalizing of the already marginalized, the constructing of walls and the instigation of fear of otherness.  It has this revelatory power because it is the way of wisdom.  Seeking the development of smart cities can only take us so far.  If we aspire to a genuine neopolis, we cannot settle for anything less than encouraging a public propensity that happily opts for what is wise.

Wesley White, PhD, DMin
Lecturer

To explore further the Christian vision for a ‘wise city’, you can attend the next Neopolis conference Renewing The City:A Christian Vision. It will be held on Saturday 7th January 2017 at Parkhead Nazarene in Glasgow. Click on the conference title to find out more and to book tickets.

Urbanism and Unfaith

Urbanism and Unfaith

SOCIAL JUSTICE URBAN THEOLOGY

One of the ideas that becomes clear when we survey the Biblical narrative as a whole, is how shalom must be understood and lived out always in the shadow of empire. Empire power almost always (some would say invariably) exerts its influence with both hubris and hegemony, through the agency of an urbanism that is more shadowy than light-giving (which we might have hoped for with ‘a city set on a hill’).  In other words, we are faced with much more than the exigencies of the fast-paced, ever-expanding complexities of the built physical environment.

From both an historical theology perspective and from a biblical-eschatological perspective, this takes on greater and lesser prominence depending on changes in culture around us, which are not at all beyond the purvey of God’s sovereign work in the world.  That is to say, it concerns our hopeful gaze into the future.  Walter Brueggemann poignantly suggests this when he contends that there are times “when church and cultural context can live in some kind of mutuality; but this is not one of those times, for gospel rootage requires resistance to such aggressive antihumanism.  Such resistance in turn requires intentionality, embodied in concrete disciplines of body, mind, and heart.  For without such disciplines, it is evident that the church community will either be massaged and seduced until it is co-opted, or it will end in the powerlessness of despair”. [1]

A healthy response can be seen in the poetic-prophetic ministry of the prophet Isaiah in the 8th and 7th centuries BC, in which Israel was intended to display an intentional distinctive community in a world dominated by Assyria.  Another way to say this is simply that Judah existed in the shadow of empire.  The poetry of Isaiah is centred around the notion of shalom as the contrast to all the hallmarks of what Brueggemann goes on to calls unfaith.

It is poetry, in fact, that evokes either gentle refreshing waters, or water that can exact a terrible toll, like a torrent, and leave horrific destruction in its wake.  Isaiah offers the following imaginative evaluation:
“Because this people has refused the waters of Shiloh (note the ‘shalom’ root) that flow gently, therefore the Lord is bringing against it the mighty flood waters of the River, the king of Assyria and all his glory; it will rise above all its channels and overflow its banks; it will sweep into Judah as a flood, and pouring over it, it will reach up to the neck” (Isa 8:5-8).

The very hopeful part of this deeply concerning contrast is, of course, the waters of Shiloh (הַשִּׁלֹחַ מֵי אֵת) and their referencing of the shalom of God’s better purposes.   These are those waters that are meant to be gentle and caressing, evoking all that refreshes and nourishes.  It is poetic-prophetic art at its best, as it anticipates a resistance to anything that is destructive.  Furthermore, the point of the metaphor is to accentuate the contrast, exhuming the more common urban alternative of unfaith and exposing it as ‘that which abandons the defining marks of loyalty to God’.  This alternative produces a world of anxiety, collusion and self-indulgence as authorized and defined by, say, Assyria.  It is a fear-based, wrong-headed response (to which the uglier brands of urbanism are particularly liable) in the midst of the shadow of empire, alarmed by such capacity for social and spiritual destruction, like the effects of uncontrolled flood water.

The intent of Jerusalem, on the other hand, is to demonstrate substantive faith that finds a pathway for the gentle waters of Shiloh, even through the streets and avenues of the city of peace.  The city, in other words, need not be the breeding place of unfaith.  Quite the opposite, in fact, from God’s perspective.  But it requires a commitment to shalom that is actively resistant to even the shadows of empire.

Dr Wesley White
Lecturer

[1] Walter Brueggemann (2000), Texts the Linger, Words that Explode: Listening to Prophetic Voices (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress), p73

 

The upwardly-mobile, syncretistic city

The upwardly-mobile, syncretistic city

SOCIAL JUSTICE THOUGHTS URBAN THEOLOGY

Urban environments present their own unique challenges to the purposes of the gospel in bringing about lasting transformation. One of those is undoubtedly a syncretistic tendency that is particularly, and sometimes peculiarly, framed, shaped and nuanced by factors that make a city a city. They are usually quite subtle in their presentation, much more than the kind of blatant religious-tradition mixing that has no intent of camouflaging its agenda of social and theological blending for the purposes of easing caustic tensions or rendering a less demanding template of discipleship. Rather, they rear their head in the form of compliance with a form of liberal democracy that exonerates the wealthy and excuses them from more holistic social responsibility.

It is for this very reason that David Smith reminds us of the praxis orientation of some of the more noteworthy of the non-Pauline contributors to the New Testament (David Smith, Liberating the Gospel: Translating the Message of Jesus in a Globalised World, 109-115).[i] Smith approaches it with the urgent question as to “what saving faith in Christ crucified actually does”. The Letter of James, for example, does not hesitate to raise the economic stakes of gospel application by confronting the urban gentrification problems that follow in the wake of business purposes that blend in with the city and its culture, but in ways that leave the poor humiliated to an even greater degree (4:13). James decries this as an unacceptable mode of syncretistic mixing for those whose loyalties are to “the Lord of Sabaoth” (5:4).

John’s apocalyptic emphasis in Revelation, as Smith further and rightly suggests, has much of the same in view. Cultural blending in the Christian community, while John dwelt in exile on the isle of Patmos, had become not only commonplace, but was of such an insidious nature that it was not always easily detected, even though it was not any less extreme because of it. It took the form of accommodation to the necessary idols of a distorted capitalistic vision that was zealously caricatured as the fruit of the blessing of God, while at the same time giving scant attention to, much less critique of, the imperial motivations of Roman power that was its true beneficiary. This state of affairs was, in fact, the likely reason that John felt the necessity of resorting to an apocalyptic genre in the first place. It is not without significance, therefore, that John incorporates a serious note of stridency when he repeatedly refers to ‘Babylon’ in terms of her enticing (and money-exchanging) harlotries (Rev 17:5).

It is, in fact, the capitalistic susceptibility of urban modes of conflation that predisposes them, I suggest, to a type of mixing and matching that challenges a more rigorous understanding of the good news of Jesus Christ and its capacity to provoke transformation. Cities inherently promote the possibilities of entrepreneurial agendas that are rife with hopes of a better future. These hopes, however, are not always well placed and are certainly not always altruistic. They very easily deteriorate into solipsistic ventures that reap collective disparity in terms of rights, advantages, and the various factors that end up being determinative of who and who is not important. Pursuits of this kind require assessment, therefore, that does not hesitate to question both social and individual criteria of value.

The good news of the kingdom, among other things, is a hopeful enquiry into and an eventual declaration of ultimate value; where it lies and what is its source. It cannot concede, then, to the levelling effect of any form of syncretism, whether overt and programmatic, or to more sly versions that come in the guise of the reasonability of upward mobility that determines value solely on the basis of productivity. Concession of this sort may appear conciliatory and therefore advantageous. But it colludes with culture in such a way that robs the gospel of its central place in advocating for urban health and broader, more equitable happiness. The gospel, in fact, is emancipative in nature, freeing the imaginative capacity that continually seeks expression in the even nobler objective of the shalom purposes of God. It is a gospel, in other words, that rejects syncretistic temptations not in spite of, but in the interest of and for the sake of the city.

Dr Wesley White
Lecturer

Learn how to act bibically, theologically and reflectively in mission in the city by studying for our MA in Theology (Urban Mission).

[i] Use the code “SSCM” at the checkout for a 25% discount

Seeing Stars in the City

Seeing Stars in the City

URBAN THEOLOGY

There is little doubt that an ‘apocalyptic understanding of history’ was thoroughly Jewish in its origin (Sean Freyne, The Jesus Movement and Its Expansion: Meaning and Mission, 190).  It gave rise to the sincere expectation that the just would participate in resurrection and, thus, proffer flesh and blood to the metaphor of Daniel that the faithful would ‘shine…like the stars forever.’ (Dan 12:2-3).  Josephus, similarly, invokes this same expectation (Jewish Antiquities 13.172; 18.14).  As Daniel clarifies, it is a foreshadowing of an awakening that is the inception of everlasting life.  It is, however, hardly hidden, but rather starkly noticeable, at least to the curious and observant eye; like seeing stars on a dark, but cloudless night.

The gospel accounts certainly advance this same apocalyptic flow, purposefully retaining the prophetic stress on the symbolism of Temple and land in terms of Israel’s communal witness to the world.  The city of Jerusalem, however, is the apex for both of these concerns.  Luke, for example, certainly has more than time and geography in mind in his account of the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus that deliberately climaxes with the participial phrase, ἀρξάμενοι ἀπὸ Ἰερουσαλήμ, ‘beginning from Jerusalem.’ (Luke 24:47) The root, αρχω, clearly suggests Jerusalem in the sense of exemplifier.  It cannot help but invoke a story of death (crucifixion) and failure (betrayal and abandonment on the part of the first Christ-followers), but also a movement toward hope.  It is, in fact, an urbanely situated hope in which the narrative of failure and death is honestly depicted in order to provide encouragement to future disciples in the midst of very hostile situations.

The gospels, however, take things further by grounding hope pragmatically (theologically, of course, as well) in the historical narrative of the resurrection of Jesus.  It is a corporeal movement, in other words, from stories born in the ethos of death to historical narratives that depict the culture of life, highlighted by the stress on the empty tomb and the somewhat mysterious post-resurrection appearances of Christ.  R. E. Brown (The Community of the Beloved Disciple, 110-23) reminds us that at least one of the functions of these stories is precisely to highlight a corporeal resurrection Christology.  Life replaces death as the overarching goal of a faithful, first-fruits agenda that carries forth the apocalyptic flow of history.

Practical demonstrations of what we might refer to as life-expressions, such that expose and make rid of various narratives of death, become incumbent, then, in communities of faith where the resurrected Lord is honoured and ardently followed.  It could, in fact, lend meaning to the curious and infuriating statement of Jesus, clothed in the context of demanding discipleship, that we ought to ‘Leave the dead to bury their dead.’ (Matt 8:21-22).  Jewish piety as concerns the familial responsibilities of proper sons and daughters would be horrified.  Followers of Jesus, however, are to aggressively provoke the inception of everlasting life in all its many contours[1]. In so doing, we are given the opportunity to be the flesh and blood of the prophetic dream that the people of God might shine like the stars forever.  In the cities of our world, this is only doubly so because the stars are notoriously so much more difficult to see.

Dr Wesley White
Lecturer

[1]   Joel Kotkin (The Human City: Urbanism For the Rest of Us [Evanston, IL: Agate Publishing, 2016]) notes recent urban advocates for dispersion, for example, out of high-density, inner-city development defined by crowded living conditions and limited privacy, which thus contributes to a degrading quality of life.  But Kotkin rightfully questions whether dispersion of this sort simply results in suburban elitism, which can at least appear to be banal, homogenous and equally lifeless.

Reflections from an African City: Truth Performed in Kampala, Uganda

Reflections from an African City: Truth Performed in Kampala, Uganda

URBAN THEOLOGY

It is February 2014.  We are on a bus together, heading to a church hall in the centre of Kampala for a two-day conference with survivors of the Rwandan genocide who have made their way to Uganda over the succeeding years.  We will soon meet an amazing variety of people who humble us with their habits of concretely demonstrating the compassion, care and justice of Jesus in the aftermath of horrific atrocities.  The land I have travelled through is green, lush, beckoning, and in stark contrast to the urban poverty of Kampala that seems to stab at the soul like a murderous blade, already too familiar to these Ugandans of Tutsi and Hutu background.

After crossing the border, I am joined in my seat by a young African leader who keeps me engrossed for two hours or more with his story of survival, forgiveness and his efforts at reconciliation that are more about tangible love than forensic words.  Orphaned children depend on him.  They are housed and fed by him.  They are loved by him.  But he sees way beyond their immediate need to the roles they will assume in a new generation of leaders who will live justice in this land.  His vision is internationally transformative in scope.  As his story unfolds, I shake my head.  I gulp.  My eyes swim.  I laugh with him for joy.  I laugh in hope.

And suddenly in the crowded space of the bus, I need to be alone.  I retreat to a back seat by myself and open my Bible for some personal time with God.  A single sheet of paper slips out from the flyleaf containing notes I have recently taken during a seminar discussion at the University of Glasgow where I have been tutoring a few doctoral students.  My friend Christopher Seitz, from Wycliffe College, Toronto School of Theology, was our guest.  He had been urging us to consider the common Hebraic pedagogic ideal as seen, for example, in Psalm 111:1-8Verse 2 says, “Great are the works of the Lord; They are studied by all who delight in them.”

Seitz reminded us that behind a term like “study” lies a Hebraic pedagogic chiasm that goes something like this: Knowledge validated in Practice; Practice humbly seeking more Knowledge.  There is an interplay, in other words, between learning as study and learning as practice, and in the Hebrew mind they freely mix.  In this case, therefore, the knowledge gained through rigorous study is only validated through the practice of it, and healthy practice is humbly hungry for more knowledge.

The pedagogy intoned in this Psalm is concerned with the great works of the Lord.  What great works, in particular, does this poet have in mind?  Verses 3-6 describe them for us, but only when we come to Verse 7 are we specifically told what they are.  “The works of His hands are truth and justice.”  And then Verse 8 shows us how good Hebrew study habits cannot help but emerge in practice.  “They are performed in truth and uprightness.”  Truth performed is where this pedagogy has taken us.  Truth performed in the interest of justice.

I am reviewing all this in my solitary bus seat.  It has become holy space.  I feel vulnerable in this crowded, yet transcendent moment in the middle of this large African city.  And so I turn my head once more so as to stare out the window and pray.  I pray for this young African leader whose story, whose life, has made me laugh and cry.  And I pray for the many young Africans like him whom I have met over the past few days.  And then I realize why awe has risen as a lump in my throat in this land so easily swamped with despair.  These new black friends are adept at performing truth when it is so rare in the world at large.  They are, in the best sense of the word, studying the great works of the Lord.  They are Hebraic scholars of the highest sort.  And they stoop to include me in the stories of their lives.

Wesley White PhD DMin
Lecturer, Scottish School of Christian Mission

How do we create vibrant and human urban spaces?

How do we create vibrant and human urban spaces?

SOCIAL JUSTICE URBAN THEOLOGY

Stories and The City is a London-based initiative that attempts to promote the betterment of urban life by unearthing narratives that creatively expose experiences of both health and malaise that are part of the challenges encountered in any city sphere.  Their promotional material helpfully suggests that ‘a key principle of vibrant urban spaces is human scale and a sense of distinct character.’  Some of the more daunting aspects of city-dwelling certainly affirm that this is true, especially when the correlations between what enhances a sense of distinct character and the necessary humanness that accompanies it are so easily dwarfed by massive and (too often) mundane architecture, transport systems that unavoidably cater to cattle-like flow of bodies, systems technologies that can only account for numerical and, thus, monetary value, and so forth.

Noble aspirations of encouraging more ‘human scale’ functions and a variety of singular characteristics that define it are well and good, and are, admittedly, much needed in neighborhood cultures (local spaces and relationships) that are heavily influenced by urban realities.  The question, however, is whether or not such good and laudable objectives are achievable, and if so, how?  I want to suggest that theologically-laden contributions to concerns for the city ought to be resoundingly affirmative as long as the how side of the equation includes God’s triple focus on heart and spirit and Spirit.

This is precisely one of the burdens that the prophet Ezekiel carries in his message to Israel from Yahweh (יְהוִה אֲדֹנָי), the prophet’s favorite name for God that purposefully insists on the addition of ‘Lord.’  The ‘Lord God’ addresses the mountains of Israel in Ezekiel 36:1-2, that are further and pejoratively referred to by her enemies as ‘the everlasting heights,’ clearly reminiscent of Babel.  There is little question but that Hebraic use of the mountain metaphor (יִשְׂרָאֵל הָרֵי-אֶל) has urban prowess in view and, in fact, the enemies are correct in that the language of duration (‘everlasting’) and grandeur (‘heights’) carry clear overtones of hegemony that is too often the power-projection of any city.

It is in this context that the Lord God is concerned about vindicating the holiness of his great name (36:23), and thus he promotes the anticipation of a new covenant that is actually triadic in nature, involving human transformation that is described as a new heart and a new spirit (36:26), but also the result of the indwelling of his own Spirit (רוּחִי-וְאֶת) (‘My Spirit) that characterizes a collective people of distinctive faith.  However, a creational goal of renewing what could be thought of as ‘human scale’ attributes is surprisingly included by the prophet when the Lord God promises to ‘remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh.’   The problem, from divine perspective, is not that the populace has become too human, but that they are not human enough.  The heart of stone (הָאֶבֶן לֵב-אֶת) is replaced with a heart of flesh (בָּשָׂר לֵב).  City hegemony that too often and too easily defies God has produced calcified people.

We are talking, of course, about spiritual renewal that works from inside out, especially as it has significant impact on urban structures and experiences.  It calls for a triple focus on the human heart and the human spirit and the Spirit of God himself precisely because God, in fact, is greatly invested in what accounts for the human scale of things.  I contend that it is only this investment (theologically verified) that can ever actually promote and enhance the distinctive character of urban localities and situations that are set free from the common default to what could be minimally labeled as the banal and monotonous.  It is, after all, not unlikely that the Apostle Paul had Ezekiel in mind when he reminds us that ‘where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.’ (2 Cor.3:17).

Wes White

City (De)lights

City (De)lights

NEWS URBAN THEOLOGY

Wes White provides some reflections on what makes a good city.

The prophet Jeremiah (9:23-24) juxtaposes what God takes particular delight in with an arrogant spirit of human endeavor and attainment that is often manifest in the peculiar habit of boasting.  Jeremiah may be understood as intending this as a general evaluation of humanity in opposition to God, but given the context of Zion (8:5, 19; 9:11, 19) it is more likely that an untoward pride engendered by the city’s standing is in view.  That standing might easily be commendable, but not when it oversteps its bounds and becomes boastful, suggesting a destructive dénouement and ultimately placing itself in opposition to that which is delightful to God.

Jeremiah’s urban evaluation highlights three city realities that, while being perfectly wholesome in their own right, sadly bespeak abuse or idolatry, or both.  These include: 1) The wise person and her or his wisdom; 2) The powerful person (‘the mighty man’) and his or her power; and 3) The rich person and her or his riches.  Urban environments, in their better configurations, bring these together in the mode of providing places of higher education that rightly pursue wisdom, and might or power that comes with governance of larger swaths of people in terms purely associated with numbers, and the accumulation of wealth that is accorded places of accentuated commerce.  These can be representative of the better purposes of a city except when they lose their humble posture of service and become, rather, defined by arrogant boasting that is invariably a portend of destructive agendas in the Scriptures.

It is not coincidental that the Prophet’s alternative is likewise described in a three-fold way.  The only manner of boasting that is countenanced is that which has a theocentric perspective, summarized in the dual experience of both understanding and thus knowing God.   According to Jeremiah, anyone who knows God will invariably understand, contrary to urban arrogance, that the Lord aims purposeful action (‘exercises’) in the direction of that which directly contrasts with and contends against wrongful use of wisdom and power and wealth.  These include: 1) Lovingkindness, which is, perhaps, the proper framework and goal of education, the guiding grace of wisdom-seeking; 2) Justice, that both defines evil at work in the world and defies it; and 3) Righteousness, that offers a measuring rod of what will promote wholesome living, not just for the select few (i.e., the rich, the powerful, the wise), but for all.

The promotion of justice is necessarily central in this trio precisely because it cannot be ignored if the urban domain truly wants to maintain a theocentric vision.  It exposes the lie, so easily promulgated among the power bastions of boastful city-dwellers, that the Hegelian doctrine of progress will eventually bring equality.   Rather, real wisdom does not hesitate to affirm that altruistic philosophy (as Susan Neiman rightfully suggests) is actually an honest attempt to come to terms with evil in the midst of the good creation of God. (See her, Evil in Modern Thought: An Alternative Model of Philosophy [Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2004], 102.).  N.T. Wright similarly suggests that “the big question of our time…can be understood in terms of how we address and live with the fact of evil in our world.”  (See his, Evil and the Justice of God,  [Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2006], 39.)

Jeremiah, it might be said, goes deeper and further.  His ultimate concern is more about wrestling with what actually brings God pleasure in the actuating of lovingkindness, justice, and righteousness.  “‘For I delight in these things,’ declares the Lord.” (9:24)  What God delights in is the measurement of urban health from this Prophet’s point of view.  It is the provocative Hebrew word צחָפֵ (chahphats, חָפַצְתִּי chahphatsi “I delight”), blatantly indicating divine satisfaction and pleasure in terms of grace (hesed) and proactive justice that defies and replaces evil with good, and righteousness that takes on deliberately social contours.  The Prophet’s message has rich and significant implications for urban idealisation because it unhesitatingly contrasts the arrogance of Zion with an approach to the city that is all about the delightful ideals of God.

Peace in the City?

Peace in the City?

URBAN THEOLOGY

Wes White asks what it could mean to bring ‘peace’ to the city.

Added to the increasing range of necessary acumen demanded of urban ministry practitioners is a hermeneutical posture that is more and more defined by missional objectives.  Various scholars are rightly reminding us that this is understandably dependent upon the recognition of their own sense of being sent or having been sent on the part of local communities of faith who do not believe that they arbitrarily find themselves in the ebb and flow of a particular cities’ life.  They trust, in other words, that their sense of sent-ness is purposeful in accord with the ways and means of God.

Michael Barram, for example, suggests that this is far from a peripheral issue.  He urges, in fact, that we frame our approach to urban ministry quite sharply, understanding that a healthy missional hermeneutic requires our commitment to what we might call the sent-ness of the interpretive community as being ‘not merely one of a number of worthwhile hermeneutical considerations; rather, in some very real sense it seems to function as the fundamental consideration.’  He further offers that the apostolic posture of the entire community ought to be self-consciously explored, rather than implicitly assumed, as it ‘must be an explicit and guiding component of any interpretive enterprise seeking to do full justice to the biblical text. (See, Michael Barram, “Reflections on the Practice of Missional Hermeneutics: ‘Streaming Philippians 1:20-30” [unpublished paper delivered at the Gospel and Our Culture Forum on Missional Hermeneutics, November 21, 2009, p.9].)

Apart from this recognition of an avowedly missional raison d’etre, the urban church quickly loses the goal of what Michael Gorman refers to as ‘anticipatory participation,’ embodying as it were ‘a guarantee that the age of justice, peace, and joy is not a pipe dream but a future reality that can be known, imperfectly and incompletely but really, in the present.’  Communally focused incarnation is in mind as churches ‘become the gospel’ and actively ‘participate in the missio dei.’  (See, Michael Gorman, Becoming the Gospel: Paul, Participation, and Mission, 47.)  Our concern, of course, is for how this plays out particularly in those environments that are specifically shaped by urban pressures, both good and bad, that inform and mold patterns for healthy and unhealthy living.  What does becoming the gospel, in other words, look like in the context of the city?

I want to suggest that one of the ways this notion of what it means to gospelize ought to be spelled out when deliberately urban vernacular is required is in giving due attention to the Pauline emphasis on peace that is, perhaps, most noticeable in his letter to the Ephesians.  It is not incidental that the letter nears its conclusion (6:15) with a summary statement as to the good news the church is to embody in the world as ‘the gospel of peace’. Gorman, again, interestingly suggests that ‘the letter’s final prayer-wish seems to turn the Pauline triad of faith, hope, and love into faith, peace and love: Peace be to the whole community, and love with faith, from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. (6:23)

Peace is activated Christologically, amongst other things in the letter, as Jesus himself ‘is our peace’ in such a way that aggressively deals with the hostility between peoples.  Could it be that current global realities (refugees, asylum-seekers, population migration), as they come to particularly bear upon urban centres, gives the church the opportunity, yet again, to virtually become the gospel?  What does Christ-likeness collectively look like in the city if we take seriously Paul’s earlier summary, ‘For he is our peace’? (6:14)

The Book Of The City

The Book Of The City

URBAN THEOLOGY

Giving serious attention to a respectful theological agenda that reinvigorates an awareness of the urbanism ubiquitous throughout the Christian Scriptures is, I think, long overdue. We might turn to any one of many and varied biblical emphases to discover this, but perhaps none does so as flagrantly and deliberately as the prophet Isaiah, whom Alec Motyer refers to as “the chief propagandist of [this] city-based royal eschatology.” He goes further to suggest that, “The Isaianic literature could accurately be described as the book of the city.”

As we study the texts of Isaiah in detail, it soon becomes apparent that the prophet resorts to the language of Jerusalem, Zion, Mount and Mountain, and City as broadly interchangeable terms, all of which reinforce the centrality of the city in the divine thought and plan. Isaiah, in fact, invokes the city motif in what we might call a tale of two cities: one which assumes a communal order without God, and the other (that is not eschatologically distant, but is, rather, contemporaneous) with God himself at the centre, bearing the fruits of justice, righteousness and peace that impacts the whole cosmos.

Overarching it all is the grand design of nothing less than God’s shalom purposes for the world and, indeed, for the whole of the created order. This necessarily takes us back to a number of these hallmark passages in Isaiah, amongst others, but also points ahead to what now is undoubtedly an eschatological city, a truly new urbanism, called the New Jerusalem, envisioned by John at the end of the his astounding Apocalypse.

In the good tradition of Biblical narrative, it is left to us to flesh-out what this means in our current contexts. If nothing else, it leaves us, I think, with two critical questions: What does it mean for my city if it aspires to be a city of shalom? How does my involvement in my city serve as a harbinger of the New Jerusalem?

Wes White
Co-ordinator
Neopolis: the Scottish Centre for Theology and Ministry in an Urban World