Well, there actually. We returned yesterday from a perfect week in western Illinois. Thanks to some generous friends who insist we use their cottage, our family has developed a wonderful rhythm of rest and play every summer. We’re glad to be home but you’ll have to forgive our occasional daydream about the lazy days back at the cottage.
The language of prayer occurs primarily at one level, the personal, and for one purpose, salvation. The human condition teeters on the edge of disaster. Human beings are in trouble most of the time. Those who don’t know they are in trouble are in the worst trouble. Prayer is the language of the people who are in trouble and know it, and who believe or hope that God can get them out. As prayer is practiced, it moves into other levels and develops other forms, but trouble – being in the wrong, being in danger, realizing that the foes are too many for us to handle – is the basic provocation for prayer. Isaac Bashevis Singer once said, “I only pray when I am in trouble. But I am in trouble all the time, and so I pray all the time.” The recipe for obeying St. Paul’s “Pray without ceasing” is not a strict ascetical regimen but a watchful recognition of the trouble we are in.
-Eugene Peterson, Answering God: The Psalms as Tools for Prayer (1989).
Each summer for the past few years our little family has retreated a couple of hours west of the city to a friend’s cottage. There we spend a week together cooking, exploring, swimming, and swinging in the hammock. Also, reading. That last activity requires stacks of books – no e-readers for this family – and so a trip to the bookstore is always in order in the days before we leave.
That’s Eliot getting a jump-start on one of his selection in the basement of our favorite used bookstore, Powell’s in Hyde Park. His mother was poking through the mysteries and I was choosing a couple of P.G. Wodehouse paperbacks. All signs are pointing to a great time at the cottage.
A lot of people were shot to death in Chicago this holiday weekend. A whole lot more were shot and survived. I won’t mention how many suffered because the numbers are obscene and the individuals who died deserve more than our passing obsession. Even a city that is accustomed to violence and death feels this weight. I sat in two different rooms yesterday with veteran community leaders who have lived with death for a long time. These women and men whom I respect and look to for direction sighed heavily and paused longer than normal as they mentioned the weekend’s shame.
There’s a question that comes up during these moments, sometimes spoken and often implied: Why not give up? The pastors, organizers, and neighborhood leaders I spend time with don’t have to give themselves to this work of compassion and justice. They could do other things. They could pursue jobs with observable metrics of success.
I don’t know how most of these folks would answer the question, but it’s been important that I have a way to answer- something that makes sense of these heavy and sad days while providing the rationale to stay present in the city.
In The Meaning of the City (1970) Jaques Ellul makes the theological point that the city is the systematized and entrenched sin and rebellion humanity experiences on an individual level. That is, the curse of sin that we each know is writ large in the city, something to which we contribute and by which we are destroyed. We may search for solutions for the city’s problems but, “while the search is going on, the vampire does its work and calls for more fresh blood. And new throngs of men take up residence under the rule of the curse.”
There has recently been a return to American cities by young people – white, mostly – who are reversing the migrations of their parents and grandparents. They are, as best I can tell, interested in what the city has to offer by way of experience and opportunity. The Christians among them often want to show compassion to those on the margins of the city. Both groups, according to Ellul, misread the city and its designs. The city is not neutral. “[W]e must admit that the city is not just a collection of houses with ramparts, but also a spiritual power.” The new urban dwellers can miss how cities intend to (de)form them.
Some of Ellul’s readers mistake him for being a pessimist, but that’s incorrect. Toward the end of the book, after showing again and again how the city opposes God’s intentions for the flourishing of all people, Ellul reminds the reader that the Bible ends not with a return to a garden in Eden but in a city.
God involves himself in an adventure completely different, for from this very city he is going to make the new Jerusalem. Thus we can observe God’s strange progress: Jerusalem becomes Babylon, Babel is restored to the status of a simple city, and this city becomes the city of the the living God. [Emphasis mine.]
This is, of course, the Gospel: rather than requiring humanity’s return to Eden, God inhabits our systems of rebellion and allows them to run their natural and violent course over his sinless body. His sacrifice makes real a future where our embodied collusion against God becomes God’s dwelling and ours.
Why not give up? Depending on one’s starting point, the question may not make much sense. For the person who came to the city for an urban experience or to make a noticeable difference the question and its variants will eventually become unavoidable. It will also become increasing difficult to answer with anything resembling joy. But Ellul – for whom humor is one of the evidences of the Christian’s presence in the city – proposes a different vocation for the urban Christian. Our call is simply to represent Christ “in the heart of the city.” We are not builders and we do not judge our success by the work of our hands. We bear witness to the crucified and resurrected Christ who will one day make the city his home.
Would we consider giving up our witness to Christ? For this is what the city-dwelling Christian is called to.
There is freedom here from the city’s tyranny. First, we are free from they tyranny of success. Among people who only affirm that which is measurable, Christians can remain present in the city regardless of perceived successes. Success for us has only to do with our faithful witness to Jesus, a work that is, by its very nature, impossible and dripping with grace because of its impossibility. We succeed in this witness-bearing vocation inasmuch as we confess our failure at it. Second, we are free from the tyranny of time. The Christian holds together the seemingly opposite convictions that the city is beyond our abilities to save and will one day become the symbol of God’s salvation. Yet this is no reason for isolating resignation. Worshipping a God beyond time inculcates us with humility about the ways we bear witness to Jesus in the city. We can remain faithfully present, submitted to God’s presence, without the need to judge the efficiency of our presence. Rather, we admit our ultimate inability to judge such efficiency.
In his essay, The Harlem Ghetto (1949), James Baldwin wrote about the Biblical passages that oriented his father, a pastor, in a city that was bent on his destruction. “The favorite text of my father, among the most earnest of ministers, was not ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what the do,’ but ‘How can I sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?'” Baldwin’s father was echoing the question of Psalm 137 asked by a people in exile. The Christian who abides in the city who has not asked this question is, we can assume, still enchanted by the city’s many idols. But for those with eyes to see and to those who are the city’s special focus of destruction the question is inevitable. God, Ellul writes, has an answer to this question found in Jeremiah 29. “But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you find your welfare…”
In these ways – simple but never simplistic and certainly never naive – we bear witness to Jesus in the city. We can speak truthfully of the city’s many horrors without being overcome. Though mobility is a societal value that can hardly be questioned, the Christian can and does question it, choosing to remain in this particular city unless the Spirit of God scatters us elsewhere- a call, we can assume, that will never be about our personal convenience though it will never be without joy.
The “protest ” novel, so far from being disturbing, is an accepted and comforting aspect of the American scene, ramifying that framework we believe to be so necessary. Whatever unsettling questions are raised are evanescent, titillating; remote, for this has nothing to do with us, it is safely ensconced in the social arena, where, indeed, it has nothing to do with anyone, so that finally we receive a very definite thrill of virtue from the fact that we are reading such a book at all. This report from the pit reassures us of its reality and its darkness and of our own salvation; and “As long as such books are being published,” and American liberal once said to me, “everything will be all right.”
- James Baldwin, Notes of a Native Son (1949).
Baldwin is my teacher this summer. In this essay he has in mind books like Uncle Tom’s Cabin- what they are meant to do and what they actually do for their readers. The section above reminded me of the recent collective reaction to Donald Sterling. For Baldwin it was a certain kind of book that provided the progressive citizen with the “thrill of virtue.” We are more likely to derive such assurance from the public figure’s racist comment or outdated assumptions about the world. I doubt Baldwin would be any more impressed with our tame outrage than he was by those taking solace in their enlightened literature.