City (De)lights

City (De)lights

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.