The Complex Christ Chapter 5 – Christ in the City

by Kester Brewin

The Christian story of the city can be traced back to
Genesis 4, soon after Adam and Eve tumbled from Eden and, in troubled family isolation, brother killed brother. When challenged by
God [Cain] then added deceit to murder and so brought down a curse on himself:
he would be ‘driven from the ground, which had opened its mouth to receive
[Abel’s] blood’. (Gen 4:1) (p. 97)

Thus metaphorically separated from the earth and from God,
Cain has to construct a new existence from scratch, and he does so by ‘lying
with this wife…and building a city’. (v.17) This is the origin of the urban
species: human hands take divine soil and build a declaration of independence,
a statement of permanence. Told he would be a restless wanderer, Cain constructs
an enduring group of residences and, having severed links with his family, he
gets about the work of procreation, filling his city with his own kind. So
Cain’s city becomes the archetype of all our cities – frantically building in
some frenzied attempt to escape the curse of loneliness. (p. 98)

With Cain’s story, cities do not get off to a very positive
start in Scripture. They begin life as statements of everything that is wrong
with humanity: violence, damage to the environment and disregard for God. And
things do not get much better. (p. 99)

Having flooded the earth to wash it clean of evil, God then
faces the rise of the city again in
Babel.
The writer show us that the tower-builders’ intentions were very similar to
Cain’s: ‘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 aver the
face of the whole earth’ (Gen 11:4) God doesn’t like it very much. The unified
language…[and] the spires poking at the underbelly of heaven, the tower gives
God a wake-up call to the potential of what humanity could do if they continued
working together in the this way. (p. 99) [He] hits ‘escape’ for a second time:
the people are scattered, their language is confused and they stop their
building…for a while. (p. 100)

We have seen that this sort of violent action is pretty
characteristic of God in Genesis: casting out and cursing, flooding and
scattering, circumcising and bartering over the destruction of Sodom.
And like all revolutionary change its effects are not transformative. People
are scattered, but continue to build cities. Languages are confused, but people
still travel and communicate and share stories and myths. Just as the flood
failed to flush out evil, so the scattering of the Babel-onians failed to stop
humanity’s attempts to build Utopias east of Eden.

If God wanted to transform his creation then he couldn’t periodically pressing
‘reset’. A different mode of change was required if the problem of the city was
to be dealt with. (p. 100)

Jump forward an undisclosed period of time to a hotel room
in New York City… theologian
Matthew Fox [reflects on what he sees out the window]: bricks. Just clay
hoisted hundreds of feet by humans, supported by frameworks of steel mined from
the earth, with cars below turning on rubber tyres, burning fuel distilled from
the residue of dead plants from millions of years ago. He goes on [trying to
see] the essential naturalness of the city and concludes: ‘A city – as awesome a place it is – is also
earth, earth recycled by human who themselves are earth standing on two legs
with moveable thumbs and immense imaginations.

Regardless of the controversy surrounding some of his other
writings, this is a stunning insight; one which I believe helps us to unlock
God’s evolving attitude to the city. And clearly it must have evolved, for
between Genesis and Revelation God somehow becomes city-positive. At some point
God sees that a policy of continually trashing the cities his creations are
building is not going to work. Not only that, but God begins to love the city,
(p. 100) to be upbeat about it and, having begun in the plains and fields of
Genesis, Scripture ends up with the wonderful description of the Holy City,
where ‘the dwelling of God is with humanity and God will live with them’ (Rev
21:3) (p. 101)

In building cities, human hands have taken divine materials
and worked them to create new ones. Thus the very fabric of the city is
testament to the co-operation between God and humanity. It is a co-creation, a
partnership where God (p. 101)

Has provided the raw materials and we have worked them into
fabulous architectural masterpieces… (p. 102)

Yet if we truly believe that God is present in the city and
that the civic space is going to be the place God finally dwells, then we ought
to be able to find hints of God in our cities now. We need to train our ears
and eyes to pick up these subtle traces, just as with Fox we need to re-imagine
the buildings that surround us as reconfigured earth. In many ways the
principles of Fowler’s stages of faith can be paralleled with our journey as
city-dwellers. There are those of us at Stage 3, where everything in the city
is new and exciting and right. But for most of us who have lived in a city for
a while, we go through a Stage 4, where perhaps we are a victim of crime, and
the realities of the difficulties come crashing in on us. We either have the
option to escape all together, or cocoon ourselves deeper into our ‘nice’
ghettos and make a note not to venture out again. It takes a long time to
commit to a city, but a conjunctive, Stage 5 view of it does come, where we see
beyond the mean streets and bad areas and inequality to the deeper issues and
the essential goodness. It is only in doing this that the city-space can become
a spiritual resource for us. (p. 102) The problem is that, just as many people
spiritually never get beyond the naïveté of Stage 3, many seem unable to commit
to the urban journey to reach the conjunctive view of the city, and resign themselves
to the view that is ‘godless’, talking about having to head to the mountains or
oceans and rugged open spaces in order to ‘find God’. (p. 103)

Time spent ‘in the mountains’ is …important for us when
facing the ‘big questions’. In the presence of raw creation untouched by human
hands, clear channels of communication seem to open up and we hear God’s
assurances clearly. However, the messages that we hear from God in the sublime
places are similarly raw and straightforward: I love you. It’s OK. I exist. These
are important messages to hear from time to time, but they do not deal with the
day-to-day complexities of life on the ground in the city. (p. 104)

William Wordsworth wrote much of his poetry almost as an aid
to tolerating city life… My trouble with Wordsworth’s response to the problems
of living in the city is that his poetry is an attempt to ‘remove’ himself
personally from it. If our only answer to the obvious pain, greed and ugliness
that the city presents to us on a daily basis is to remove ourselves, then
there is no hope for improvement. One sees modern-day Wordsworths – plugged
into headphones providing intravenous classical music, while beggars shake tin
cans unheard; or sitting aloof in swathes of leather, high above the dirty
pavements in four-by-fours, as cyclist choke and traffic jams. They have solved
the problems for themselves alone, and seem disinterested in getting involved
in wider solutions. (p. 105)

Our destiny is not a quiet place with just god and us in
some highland croft. As Meister Eckhart advises,

Spirituality
is not to be learned in flight from the world, by fleeing from things to a
place of solitude; rather we must learn to maintain an inner solitude
regardless of where we are or who we are with. We must learn to penetrate
things and find God there.

We must learn to penetrate our communities and penetrate our
workplaces. We must learn to penetrate our cities and find God in them, for the
cities are our true destiny. They are where it will not be God alone, but God
and us and him and her and white and black and rich and poor and illiterate and
abused and gay and straight and Protestant and Catholic and the whole feast of
life. And only in the city can we get that message. (p. 106)

If somewhere along the line God became ‘city-positive’ then
I believe that it is Christ’s incarnation and subsequent ministry and passion
that are the clearest signs of the changed attitude. In them we see the
emergence of a new way of approaching the problem of the historical city as a
place of rebellion against God.

This is not prophet whose immediate urge is to get into the
city, into the main thoroughfares and meeting places and make huge
announcements and slamming indictments. On the contrary, although Christ
approaches the city deliberately, he does so slowly, gently and carefully. At a
young age we know he had been taken to Jerusalem by his parents and was clearly comfortable in those surroundings, yet it is in
the desert after his baptism that we first get a sense of his attitude to it. (p.
108)

One can read these temptation passages as a battle between
old and new modes of ministry. Was Christ going to default to the Old Testament
ways of revolution, or begin a new era of spiritual evolution?

He is first tempted to turn stones into bread. What better
way to spark a wave of interest, a stampede of support than with this
miraculous provision. Follow me and you’ll never need to be hungry again! Free
bread for life! (p. 109) But Christ knows this is no way to bring people to
God. They must choose to love, and we must resist the temptation to violate
that free choice with dressy claims of cheap salvation. (p. 110)

Christ is tempted to go to Jerusalem and climb to the highest point of the temple – the metaphorical centre and
focal point of the whole city- and from there to fling himself down and be
caught by a squadron of angels. A huge publicity coup, a demonstration of
enormous power – this would be the guaranteed way to stun the city into
noticing him, to whip up a froth of excitement and chatter…start a godly
revolution! Love will not be stunned into us, and we must resist the temptation
to make church a spectacle, to put on visual feasts or sensational healings and
blow people’s minds and lead them thus mindless into the pews.

Finally Christ is shown ‘all the kingdoms of the world and
their splendour’. This is a different tack – the temptation is not so much to
make the mission easier, but to give it up all together and settle for an easy
life. (p. 110)

He was tempted to try the commercial line and feed everyone
with bread, to try the celebrity line and stun the crowds with spectacular
tricks, and to just give up. And like Christ we face those temptations –
perhaps more in the urban church than elsewhere. And like Christ we must resist.
Christ stepped away from the desert as a divinity determined to do things
differently. God had turned away from violent revolution – in Christ he would
approach the city in a new way, refusing to rain down plagues and march round
its walls.

He knew that the city would resist him – that it still stood
as a symbol of rebellion and self-sufficiency. That the priests in power and
the money-changers in cahoots would not stand for his message of God and
humanity co-operating in a holy city which had ‘no need for a temple’ (Rev
21:22). But he had to go. His whole ministry was evolving towards this finale:
God’s humble approach to the place humanity built in defiance of him, asking to
be allowed in, like a parent approaching the room to which they sent their
child in a flash of anger…Gently knocking. (p. 113)

Of course, we celebrated initially, thinking we had won some
moral victory, and laid down palms and shouted in the streets. But soon it
became clear that this was no abdication, no admission of guilt. Expelled like
a foreign body, the organism of the city took Christ to a hill outside its
walls and finally got rid of him. Cain’s creation took up the knife and once
more spilt blood. (p. 113)

Christ’s attitude to the emerging city was not one of antagonism
or annihilation. Quite the opposite. Christ approached the city in order to
become a part of it, to infect it, to plant some seed within it that he hoped
would take root and grow, drawing the city toward its fulfilled stated: that of
the place of divine and human cohabitation. This is not where our cities are
now, but it is where they are destined to go. And for this reason we must not
give up on them. We must learn to appreciate that the very fact that there is
pain in our cities is why they are so vital. The city is the place where we are
forced to meet with and journey with ‘the other’: the drunkard, the asylum
seeker, the lonely, the homeless; it is a multicultural melting pot – all of
humanity is here. So we must stay and celebrate these things and try to make
them work because this is what the destiny of the city is: to be a place where
we can all live together. (p. 114)

For these reasons we are compelled to carry on the work
Christ started, not scared off by those who claim religious power or have
vested interests in the dominant modes (p. 115) of being. The city is the place
where our dreamy theologies must get their hands dirty and work themselves out
in praxis. The temptations will be there to attempt revolution, to pour
resources into big projects and top-down structures; to try to impress people
with our power and sell them salvation in exchange for needs met. It will also
be tempting to do nothing, to say that everything is too big, too complicated
for us to change; to move to the country where things will be easier. We will
be told that if we do attempt change we will lose out and people will mock. We
must ignore these one-dimensional messages. As Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote,

The
chief worth of civilization is just that it makes the means of living more
complex; that it calls for great and combined intellectual efforts, instead of
simple, uncoordinated ones, in order that the crowd may be fed and clothed and housed
and moved.

It is to this complex task in the city that the Church is
called. We must give ourselves humbly, give birth to new forms and organisms,
allow the Church to emerge and adapt, to work its way through streets and
subways, drawing, as the city always has, on God’s created resources, working
them with our hands, bringing our own creativity and technology to bear on
them, not for our own glory, not to state our independence, but for the glory
of God, for justice and equality, for celebration and unity. We are the
community that looks forward to the city where divinity and humanity will live
side by side, so we must give birth to an emergent, conjunctive, self-renewing,
adaptable Church that can model this in inclusivity, generosity, creativity and
flexibility, welcoming the Other, providing true space for pain, and real time
for carnival.