Urbanism and Unfaith

Urbanism and Unfaith

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

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