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 (See, Michael Barram, “Reflections on the Practice of Missional Hermeneutics: ‘Streaming Philippians 1:20-30” [unpublished paper delivered at the Gospel and Our Culture Forum on Missional Hermeneutics, November 21, 2009, p.9].)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