|UNDERSTANDING THE CITY
By Dr. Tim Keller, Pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church, New York City
Thesis: As much as possible, Christians should live, serve, and be deeply involved in the lives of our largest cities. They need to be involved in the life of the whole city, not just their own particular enclave. If you can live and serve in the city, you should.
The Christian church must concentrate the great portion of its resources on ministry to the city. It is our “reasonable service”. To fail to render it is as foolish as it is disobedient.
A BIBLICAL THEOLOGY OF THE CITY
Harvie Conn, “Christ and the City: Biblical Themes for Building Urban Theology Models”, in Discipling the City, R. Greenway, ed. (Baker, 1979)
Robert Linthicum, City of God, City of Satan: A Biblical Theology of the Urban Church (Zondervan, 1990)
1. THE IMPORTANCE OF THE CITY
The city is God’s invention, it is not “only” a sociological phenomenon or invention of humankind.
God began history in a Garden, but he will end it in a city. In’ the beginning, God put Adam and Eve in a garden with a river and the Tree of Life. But they were not to rest content with this paradise. God told Adam to multiply and develop a civilization that would glorify him (Gen. 1:27-28). Adam fails, and through Christ, the second Adam (I Cor 15:22) God does get a civilization that glorifies him, but Hebrews and Revelation 21 show us that this world is depicted as urban. “For he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose builder and maker is God.” (Hebrews 11:10).
The climax and purpose of Christ’s redemption is the building of a city. “I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coining down out of heaven from God...” (Rev.21:2) When we examine this beautiful city, shining with the glory of God (Rev.21:10-11), we see that it contains a crystal river and the Tree of Life on its main street (Rev.22: 1-3), bearing fruit and leaves which heal the nations of the effects of the divine covenant curse. Thus the New Jerusalem city is in a sense, the Garden of Eden, remade. The City is the fulfillment of the purposes of the Eden of God.1
Is this description of the future “only” metaphorical? We must remember that the metaphors the Bible chooses to describe God and his salvation are never “only” illustrations. For example, God is called a Father who is building a spiritual family (Gal.6:10; John 1:12). To say that God is the head of a family means that human families are extremely important and are based on something in the mind and nature of God. That means that, though the earthly family is an institution corrupted by sin, we are to seek to redeem and rebuild human families. So if God is a citybuilder who is building a spiritual city, that means that, though the earthly city is an institution corrupted by sin, we are to seek to redeem and rebuild human cities. As we are to redeem human families by spreading within them the family of God, so we are to redeem human cities by spreading within them the city of God. We know that the power of family is such that, as your marriage goes so goes your life. So the power of cities are such that, as the city goes, so goes society.
2. THE FUNCTIONS OF THE CITY
God designed the city with the developmental power to draw out the riches and resources of creation (of the natural order and the human soul) and thus to build civilization.
Though cities are hard to define exactly, they are easy to describe. There is: 1) proximity (a density of people and options for activity geographically close and accessible) 2) mixed use (businesses, residences, cultural activities not segregated but integrated in the same place) 3) shared public space (street life, parks, neighborhoods make us face and relate to others as neighbors). These dynamics of a city give it at least three basic functions:
a) First, the city (as the Garden of God) is a place of refuge and safety for diverse peoples. The city has always has been a place where people come who are too weak to live other places. In the earliest days, cities provided refuge from wild animals and marauding tribes and criminals. When Israel moved into the promised land, the first cities in the land were built by God’s direction as “cities of refuge”, where the accused person could flee for safety and civil justice. And by its nature, the city is a place where minorities in any society can cluster together for support and the establishment of their own institutions.
Thus today, people like the poor, or ethnic minorities in general, or new immigrants, or people with “deviant” lifestyles must live in the city. Even single adults, who are often disdained in the broader culture, need to cluster together in the city where they are not seen as “freaks”. Minorities cannot survive in the suburbs and small ,towns until they gain cultural power (which they often can do through the dynamics of the city--then they are free to go anywhere in the country). So the city is always a more merciful place, a shelter, for minorities of all kinds. The dominant majorities often dislike cities, but the weak and powerless need them. Thus too cities are places of diversity, unlike the suburbs or even most small towns. They reflect the Future City where there will be people of “every tongue, tribe, people, and nation”.
Practical note: Many people hate cities because of the diversity of cultures, people “not like us”, but we see that God enjoys and wills the diversity of cultures as bringing forth the richness of his creation. In one city that sought to be homogeneous (Genesis 11), God forcibly imposed diversity (see below)! Christians should rejoice and enjoy diversity of cultures, recognizing that they contain both grace and sinful elements judged by God’s word.
b) Second, the city (as the Garden of God) is a cultural mining/development center. The city stimulates and focuses the gifts, capacities, and talents of people, the deep potentialities in the human heart. It does so by bringing you into contact with a) people unlike you – very diverse and providing different perspectives, and with b) people like you who are just as good or better at what you do. The concentration of human talent, both by “competition” and cooperation, produces greater works of art, science, technology, culture. The city moves you to reach down and press toward excellence.
Even the description of the wicked city of Babylon shows the power of the city to draw out the resources of creation--of the physical world and the human soul. In Rev. 18 we see the city is a place of 1) Music and the arts (v.22a), 2) crafts and work of all arts and manufacturing (v.22b), 3) of trade and retailing (v.23c), 4) of technological advance (v.23a), 5) of family building (v.23b). This is what the city was designed by God to do, as an instrument of glorifying him by “mining” the riches of creation and building a God-honoring civilization.
The city, then, has a powerful magnifying glass effect. Since God invented it as a “cultural mine”, it brings out whatever is in the human heart. Since the human heart is made in the image of God and is totally depraved, therefore the city brings out the very, very best and worst of human capabilities. (See below).
Practical note: We can all feel this aspect of the city. Nothing challenges and presses you to excellence like the city. Nothing drives you to reach down deep and do well. Whatever you do, you know that it must be good to make it in the city. In small towns, tenure and pedigree is more important, but in the city, achievement is predominant.
c) Third, the city (as the Garden of God) is a place of spiritual searching and finding God. Ancient cities were religious institutions. They were usually built around a “ziggurat” – the original skyscrapers! They were temples where a particular god was thought to “come down”. The cities were seen to be the royal residences of the god, and the city was dedicated to him/her. The city was where the cultus for that god was centered, and where you went if you wanted to serve him or her. All of this was probably a twisted “memory trace” of the original design of God, that the Edenic city, the new Jerusalem, would be the place where people would meet him, where his temple/presence would be.
Even today, the dynamics of the city – functions #1 and #2 above – make cities “spiritual hotbeds”. (#1) In cities, you are forced to see and face people with extremely different world-views. In more homogeneous contexts, you can pick up your religion or life-philosophy without thinking about it or without ever being challenged concerning it, but in the city you are forced to ask, “why do I believe what I believe?” (#2) The competitiveness and intensity of the city can put you through many changes and turmoil and it often leads individuals to seek a spiritual center.
As a result, cities are places of spiritual searching and finding. That is because earthly cities, despite sin, still reflect much of what God intended the city to be. In the earthly Jerusalem, God’s dwelling place, the temple, stood as the central integrating point of the city’s architecture and as apex of its art and science and technology – it was its “skyscraper”. But Jerusalem was only a sign of the city God is building (Heb.11:10) which will be the ultimate place of finding God (Rev.21:3,23). All true believers even now are citizens of that city – it is as our mother, “the Jerusalem that is above, is free” (Gal.4:26).
Practical note: Therefore, we see today that our cities are both the home of the most virulent unbelief, of the most blatant human idolatries and ‘hostility to Christianity, yet at the same time, cities grow the best churches, with the greatest and richest ministries. That is because of the dynamics of the city – all #1, #2, #3 – serve to make it a place where there is far more obvious need (#1) and far more openness (#2) and more gifts and qualified leaders (#3) for the ministry of the gospel in both word and deed. Christians in the city sense this paradox. On the one hand, they find the city “harder” and far more challenging to live in as a Christian, on the other hand they find the city far more fruitful place to minister.
3. REBELLION IN THE CITY2
Because of human sin, now the city 1) draws out both the best and the worst in the human soul, and 2) builds a civilization which worships humanity and the self.
The first city of history, the City of Cain, is built as a refuge from God and as a substitute for the City of Eden. Cain built the first human designed city and named it after his son, Enoch (meaning “initiation” or “to take charge”!) (Gen.4: 17). The city of Cain was his substitute for Eden--an effort to find happiness apart from God. The city was to be a place of self-sustaining security without God.
But the quintessential City of Rebellion is seen at Babel. Here we see most clearly how sin distorts and abuses the original functions and dynamics of the city. “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves and not be scattered over the face of the whole earth.” (Gen.11:4). We saw how the architectural/spiritual focus of the city of God is the dwelling of God – but Babel’s architectural focus, the first “skyscraper” is really a “temple” to the glory of human power and independence. The goal of the City of Rebellion is “to make a name for ourselves”. That means, in essence, to display human independence from God, to say to God, “I do not need you, I am my own master”. This deep drive in the human heart for self-salvation and independence from God is now a major factor in the building of any human city. It is to a great degree what attracts people to the city. Quite literally, people are building great buildings, businesses, careers – to make a name, to be one’s own lord and savior through achievement. It is a spirituality of darkness of enormous force. This makes the three functions or purposes of a city (in a.2 above), work “backwards”. It creates:
a) Fragmentation and exploitation of peoples, not shelter.
Instead of being a place for diverse peoples to find refuge, the city becomes a place of exploitation and strife between people groups.
We see Babel was built at a time when God was bidding humankind to spread throughout the earth and people it everywhere. God had told Adam and Eve to “multiply and fill the earth and subdue it” (Gen. 1:28) He repeated this command to Noah and his family after the flood (Gen. 9:7). Genesis 10 shows that the clans and families of humanity were spreading out and differentiating. It was God’s will that humankind spread and develop diverse cultures and civilizations to bring out more of the riches of creation. In defiance of this plan of God, the Babel-builders specifically sought to build a city that would specifically defy God’s scattering and differentiating (“that we not be scattered” Gen.11:4b). God descends and forcibly diversifies it into different language groups (Gen.11:7-8). So human effort at unity strength based on common defiance of God actually results in greater fragmentation and greater disunity.
So today, cities built on human defiance of God and for “making a name” for the human builders will engender’ strife and hostility between diverse peoples. The city-dynamic of shelter for diverse people works “backwards” under sin to some degree. When new people groups come into the city, the dominant cultural groups do not honor or respect their differences, but seek to use and exploit them, and to keep them powerless. Racial and class strife is thus very high in cities.
b) Culture building against God, not for God.
Instead of being a place where culture developed for God’s glory in dependence on him, the city becomes a place where culture is developed for our personal glory to create independence from him.
The first skyscraper – the Tower of Babel – is built in clear defiance of God. The original mandate of God to humankind was to be “miners” of all the riches of creation. They were to turn the natural resources of the physical universe and the personal resources of their own natures in the image of God. They were thus to be culture builders, developing science and art and civic life, building civilization that glorified God as its source and ground. Now we have a city dedicated to “mining cultural riches” for human glorification – as a way to show humanity’s independence of God.
So today, cities built on human defiance of God and for “making a name” ‘for the human builders will engender much art, literature, technology, and enterprise which dishonors God and thus is dehumanizing to people. On an even more practical level, the city-dynamic of culture development can make the city exhausting, leading to burn out. Working to “make a name for yourself is self-salvation and it will lead either to great pride and arrogance for the winners (human pride is far more obvious and pervasive in cities) or to burn out and despair for those who do not succeed.
c) Escape from God, not finding God.
Instead of being a place where people search and find God, the city becomes a place where people go to escape traditional morality and true religion.
We said that city-dynamics make cities both spiritual hotbeds and refuges for the weak. But we see Cain misusing the city to make his city a refuge from God. So today, the city often becomes a place where people with deviant lifestyles and/or with extremely strong hostility to religion and/or with very bizarre religious aspirations can go and flourish because of the natural tolerance the city breeds toward those different.
While the city of Cain and of Babel show us the dynamics of rebellion in the city, the final result of sin in the city is shown in Revelation in the vision of Babylon the Fallen (Revelation 18), which has perverted every function of the city. It is 1) a place of excessive riches, (v.3b – merchants grew rich through her excessive luxuries). People who have spend disproportionate amounts to satisfy their own appetites. There is an unjust concentrations of wealth, with many “haves” refusing to share. Materialism-idolatry and economic oppression; 2) a place of false religions and persecution, (v.24 – in her was found the blood of prophets and of the saints, v.3 – she has become a home of demons and a haunt for every evil spirit) Theological-idolatry and oppression of the faithful; 3) a place of violence (v.24 – In her was found the blood...of all who have been killed on the earth.) Power-idolatry and oppression of people through crime and racial violence; 4) a place of societal pollution (v. 3a – For all the nations have drunk the maddening wine of her adulteries, the kings of the earth committed adultery with her; v.23b – by your magic spell the nations were led astray.) As the city goes, so goes the nations and cultures. Babylon’s spiritual adulteries and oppressions led astray nations and kings/leaders, because the city’s influence in the world is so great. Leaders worship at the city as shrines of human glory.
4. BATTLE IN THE CITY.
In every earthly city, there is a struggle, a spiritual battle. There are two “kingdoms” present, two “cities” vying to control. They are the City of Satan (the god of this world) or of Man and the City of God.
a) Two cities. Throughout Bible depicts two competing pictures of the city – Babel or Babylon and Jerusalem. At the climax of the book of Revelation these earthly cities are revealed as imperfect reflections of two “cosmic” cities – at war with each other, Babylon (Rev. 18-19) and Jerusalem (Rev.21-22). The City of Man – Babylon – defies power and wealth and human culture itself (making art, technology, business and end in itself instead of a way of glorifying God). It is marked by pride, injustice and cruelty. The City of God – Jerusalem – is marked instead by the Lord’s shalom (Jeru-shalom) – his peace. Shalom is a condition in which stewardship of God creation, justice, compassion, and righteousness leads to harmony and family building and cultural development under God.
b) Proper perspective. Believers are not to treat earthly cities as intrinsically evil and incorrigible. God told the Jewish exiles in Nebuchadnezzar’s Babylon – one of the most violent and oppressive cities ever – to pray for and seek the shalom of it! (Jeremiah 29:7) In fact, the Lord says that his people’s prosperity (shalom) rises or falls with Babylon’s shalom (“for if it prospers, you too will prosper” v.7). We must not miss how striking this directive is. God tells them to bring Jeru-shalom, the City of God, into Babylon itself! Thus, even the earthly city of Babylon is not to be treated as an irredeemable city of rebellion. The people of God were not allowed to flee it or hate it.
Sum: In every earthly city, there are two “cities” vying for control. They are the City of Man, and the City of God. (See Augustine’s City of God.) Though the fight between these two kingdoms happens everywhere in the world, earthly cities are the flashpoints on the battlelines, the places where the fighting is most intense, and where victories are the most strategic. Because of the power of the city, it is the chief target of the forces of darkness, because that which wins the city sets the course of human life and society and culture.
Our relationship to cities. How do we apply this letter to the Jewish exiles to ourselves as Christians today? Very directly. Both James and Peter refer to Christians as “God’s elect, strangers in the world, scattered throughout ...“ (I Peter 1:1) and as “twelve tribes, scattered among the nations” (James 1:1). We are citizens of Jerusalem above (Phil.3:20) temporarily living in exile as strangers and exiles in earthly cities (I Peter 1:17; 2:11; cf. Heb.11:13). All these references repeatedly and forcefully seek to have Christians conceive of their status in the world as parallel to that of the Jews in Babylon. The early church understood itself as being in “dispersion”. What did this mean?
The Jews on the one hand did not expect to turn Babylon into a Jewish city- -they had not utopian or literally revolutionary schemes. On the other hand, the Lord’s directive forbid them from having a “ghetto” mentality or having a hostile attitude toward the city. They were to pray for the city, to live in it and grow in it and serve it and work for the common good (Jer.29:5-7).
Now if the Jews are given this mandate to Babylon, who surely had a great deal of warrant to hate this city as being cruel and oppressive, then surely any believer today must look at the great cities of their country in the same way. We are also exiles from Jerusalem here to spread the Lord’s shalom in the earthly cities. We must also see that we have been “sent” (Jer.29: 4) to our cities. We too must see that we are called, even in oppressive cities like Babylon, to overcome evil with good deeds (Rom. 12:21) and let the gospel shine out through ministry of deeds and service (Titus 2:10; 3:2; I Peter 2:18). We must seek to spread the city of God within our city, and to battle the city of Satan within it.
SUM: We are to see that, though the fight between these two kingdoms happens everywhere in the world. earthly cities are the flashpoints on the battlelines. the places where the fighting is most intense, there the war can be won.