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Cities have figured prominently in the Christian imagination: City of God, City of Jerusalem, the Heavenly City. The single English word “city” has varied referents that easily blur our vision. But the image has lodged itself firmly into our religious politics. The “secular city” (a phrase coined in the sixties) is filled with excitement and divine vocation. “Urban ministry,” a passion of this journal’s founder, retains its ethical allure. Cities hold most of our policy attention and snag our ministerial energies. Maybe they shouldn’t.

We can, however, understand why they might. Over half the world’s population—4.5 billion—live in cities, and the proportion is rapidly rising. Cities such as Chongqing and Shanghai have over 25 million inhabitants, while cities such as Cairo or Lagos have well over 10 million. If we include larger “metropolitan areas” and adjacent shanty towns, the numbers would be even higher. People are pressed up against others in unimaginable numbers. Population densities in Mumbai or Kinshasa are almost twenty times greater than that of New York. “Urbanism” is an inevitable defining outlook for our times.

But cities were traditionally viewed as suspect before the modern era, seen as places of corruption and oppression. Early critics of modernity such as François Fénelon praised the virtues of the countryside. Even Rousseau, a keen student of urban life, saw the city’s influence as unraveling the intimate communal bonds that ground the self. Both critics, if from different angles, saw the family as a chief casualty of city life, which assaulted the moral and spiritual integrities of the household. In our day, we can read studies of congestion and commuting patterns in cities such as Bangkok that detail the way family life is profoundly subverted by the hours it takes to get to work and school.

Perhaps the most famous modern Christian critic of cities was the French Protestant social thinker Jacques Ellul. Ellul is known as one of the pioneering philosophers of technology and the technocratic mindset. In one of his earliest writings, The Meaning of the City, Ellul traces the way in which the city functions in the Bible. He reads urban life as the worldly outworking of the curse of Cain, manifest in his invention of the city (Gen. 4:16–17). “The city is a cursed place—by its origin, its structure, its selfish withdrawal, and its search for other gods. As it develops, every city must receive and bear the curse on its own account; it is one of its basic elements.” We continue to work with and in the city, of course, and we can do so without dread only because we know its transfiguration through Christ in the eschatological city that grows out of God’s pardon.

Hostility to the city may be a peculiarly Protestant attitude. Ironically, given the Reformation’s social origins and expansion in small cities, Protestants have stressed the small household as an appropriate image for the Church, in contrast to Catholicism’s preference for the city as an ecclesial icon. Protestant experience of cities was mostly portrayed as negative, pictured in terms of Babylon’s destructive pressures. Over and against Babylon lay the household, the place where true faith could be nurtured and protected. 

Both household and city, of course, are essential scriptural figures. Israel was not a city but a group of “tribes,” which is to say extended families. But Jerusalem became central to the life of these families, both as the location of God’s gracious presence on Mount Zion, and finally as the gathering place of all the nations. (One critic of Ellul’s book called his judgments both “repulsive” and anti-Judaic on this score.) The New Testament, however, is mostly about households “on their way to Jerusalem.” When Jerusalem is mentioned, it is usually in reference to her troubles, sins, struggles, demise—at least until the Book of Revelation. I would put it this way: The city is the object of divine redemption; households are the human instrument of that redemption. 

One can approach this understanding from a purely socio-historical perspective. In the West, Rome at the time of Jesus had about one million residents. (Jerusalem, by contrast, may have had 20,000 inhabitants, whatever Tacitus and Flavius Josephus said.) It would take 1,800 years before another European city (London) reached Rome’s level. For the greater part of that time, the trajectory of the Eternal City was one of diminution, almost to the point of complete disappearance. (The East is another story—Byzantium, Baghdad, and cities in China all approached or surpassed Rome at its height.) Ancient Rome’s gargantuan size came with well-documented challenges, those of governance, economy, and disease. After Rome’s disintegration, most people in Europe felt they did not need cities. Life was organized around villages and a few towns. That state of affairs was not only sufficient, but thought to be better. Many today may nostalgically believe this again—myself included! Though such sentiments are at best a fond illusion.

Cities were, for a long time, factories of death; the death rate far outstripped the birth rate. Disease and economic burden (miserable hygiene, reliance on imported foods and goods) made city living far less nurturing than the countryside. These debilitating realities were seen by many to embody deeper spiritual travails: corruption, social manipulation, individualistic greed, and violence. The great literary debates about these vices in Rome, including Juvenal’s classic diatribes against urban life, are emblematic of this worry.

Why then did cities burst back onto the scene in the late European Middle Ages? The story is complicated and contested: population growth and the need to find ways to go beyond landed subsistence; the internal dynamics of trade that produced its own expansive energies; local and then more regional pressures for public organization in the quest of nation-building; better hygiene. There were great differences among cities. By early modernity, London had embarked on chaotic and “free market” growth (along with its enormous health challenges that could not be dealt with efficiently, from sewage to air pollution to housing) in contrast to the intentional expansion schemes of Paris. Later, Barcelona would become the model for the modern city, framing the concept of “urbanism” itself: centralized planning, applied theories of human organization and culture, programs of social well-being. In our day, the London-versus-Paris contrast can be seen in the difference between Cairo and Singapore.

Even cities in the laissez-faire tradition of urban growth are today subject to the universal demand for city planning. The rise of “scientific management” that aimed to increase industrial productivity (inaugurated by Frederick Winslow Taylor) largely presumed and built on the character of urban life. The images for this notion as applied to cities are telling. The social theorist (and social engineer) Otto Neurath, associated with the famous Vienna Circle of logicians and philosophers, portrayed urban managerialism’s efficacy as akin to the way the German military organized itself to provide food and clothing to vast numbers of soldiers in World War I. A less than reassuring parable: war as the epitome of urban organization!

It’s not a matter of sheer numbers. Whatever the global population, there seems to be no way, in a world in which so few work in agriculture, to organize human life apart from cities. America tried suburbs, but these quickly fused into congested agglomerations from which people sought to escape. But if inevitable, the complex structures for city organization have also now spiraled out of control, even from the shaping hands of the most starry-eyed urban planners. A pandemic, homelessness, fractured and antagonistic micro-communities, and disruptions of energy and food supplies in a war-torn and interdependent world economy—these challenges have turned cities into apocalyptic theaters that dystopian movies revel in depicting in exaggerated but nonetheless hauntingly recognizable forms. As Ellul noted, “If individuals don’t take responsibility for themselves, and if families are not supported, we’ll get just what Napoleon wanted, when he said, ‘society should be seen as grains of sand, that I will pile into a heap.’ I call this a totalitarian society.”

Jerusalem is the ground where prophets’ blood is shed (Matt. 23:37). Many of Scripture’s images of divine judgment evoke her streets, houses, and walls. Yet Jerusalem is not cast aside in scriptural hope; she is redeemed. This is important to stress. And we must acknowledge that households are not the figure of heaven. The Church is filled with “brothers and sisters,” friends and fellow citizens, languages and peoples. To a city without blemish—that is where we are heading.

But we are not yet there. Today the family is often portrayed as the seat of secret suffering and abuse. Its integrity is regarded as a “myth” of patriarchal power to be left behind. These judgments are decidedly false. Abram had a family. He and Noah had households. These were not primitive way stations toward some purportedly higher mode of community. Abram left the land of Ur and its primordial urban hothouse of Mesopotamian oppression. He did this to establish, not a city, but a people, a company of households. This human form of sociality seems to be given by God as the place where the seeds of the transfigured urban kingdom are sown. There is no more important political reality today than families. As we steward our dwindling energies of concern, let us be clear in our priorities: households now; cities later. 

Ephraim Radner is professor of historical theology at Wycliffe College.

Image by Katie Haugland Bowen licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped.

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