Hate the City, Love the City Jonathan K. Dodson By Jonathan K. Dodson July 20, 2010

As I looked up at the towering bastions of capitalism shimmering in the sunlight, I thought to myself: “These skyscrapers are monuments to man. Their strength and beauty exist for the glory of man, not the glory of God. The facades don’t fool me. I know these stunning buildings sustain the devilish systems that deliver Americans their daily dose of soul-corrupting materialism. Men don’t need the city; they need the gospel.”  This was my theological perspective of Dallas, Texas during college – hate the city.

Several years later I moved to downtown Minneapolis, Minnesota, where I witnessed some of the more complex issues associated with urbanization. Living in an old neighborhood of economically, socially and mentally handicapped people put flesh on my collegiate urban reflections. Cities don’t just represent corrupt systems; they are filled with victims of injustice. Although cities account for vast amounts of global wealth and technological innovation, the distribution of such resources are often slow to make their way to those who need them most. In fact, what cities lack in equality, they often compensate for in crime. Good Christians should hate the city.

Prior to urbanization, downtown neighborhoods used to be places of diversity and life, crime was restrained by the sheer number of people on the streets. Now desolate financial districts and unpopulated public spaces foster accelerating and anonymous crime. Poverty, murder, squalor, theft, rape, racism, drunkenness, domestic abuse, drug addiction, abortion, extortion, gentrification, homelessness, prostitution, pride, prejudice and envy fill the hole of the sub-urban donut.[1] In light of the urban monuments that rise from derelict donut holes of injustice, how can anyone love the city? There is so much to hate. After all, doesn’t the Bible support a God-against-the-city stance? Doesn’t the Bible hate the city?

The Genesis of the City

In the first eleven chapters of Genesis, urban development is associated with the cursed line-the line of Cain, not the blessed line of Seth. The first mention of a city in the Bible is associated with Enoch, son of Cain the murderer (Gen 4:17). Enoch came from a long line of criminals. His offspring cultivated cities of immorality (polygamy, murder) and culture (music, metallurgy). The story of the Cainite line appears to lead to the conclusion that cities are evil; that they are hotbeds of hostility and immorality, dwellings of dangerous people and devilish culture. Doesn’t Genesis endorse hatred of the city? A conclusion further warranted by God’s solution to flood the earth and start over with the creation project?

After the Flood, a new Adam and Cain arise. Noah cultivates a garden. Noah falls and Ham murders his father’s reputation. Ham is exiled from his father’s blessing, made to serve his brothers. The Eden redo is a bust and paradise is lost (again).

Things go from bad to worse. The wicked descendents of Ham start building cities (10:6-12), culminating in the construction of Babel: “Come, let us build for ourselves a city, and a tower whose top will reach into heaven, and let us make for ourselves a name, otherwise we will be scattered abroad over the face of the whole earth” (11:4). The implication seems obvious-cities are a refuge for the wicked, a place where people seek their own fortune and fame over against the welfare of their fellow man and the fame of the Creator. God’s solution to concentrated wickedness and hubris is to halt urban development by confusing the people’s language and by scattering the wicked to the rural four winds. The Bible’s urban perspective seems abundantly clear-hate the city.

Fight or Flight?

The first eleven chapters of Genesis appear to advocate a YHWH-against-the-city theology. The line of Cain, not the Sethite line of promise, is consistently associated with urban development and culture-making. Cain and his posterity are judged and rejected by God, whereas Seth and his posterity are described as righteous, as relatives of God in Christ (Lk 3:38). YHWH obviously hated Babel, Sodom, and Gomorrah enough to destroy them. Are we then to conclude that those who claim sonship of YHWH and discipleship to Jesus should also hate the city? Is this the biblical stance? Hate the city?

Hate is a strong word.  Perhaps we should just flee the city? Abram left polytheistic Ur and Lot fled depravity-ridden Sodom and Gomorrah, just before the divine brimstone fell. Fight or flight, those seem to be the two options for the Bible reading Christian. In 1900, about 8% of the global population lived in cities. Today, over 50% live in urban centers. However, by the year 2000 more Americans lived in the suburbs than in central cities and rural areas combined, and this number is on the rise.[2] The Church is no exception to the urban exodus. As U.S. cities have become more dangerous and dilapidated, churches have steadily exited into the safety of the suburbs leaving the city-zens to fend for themselves.

Judging from his flight from Ur, Abraham has much in common with the American church. However, a closer reading of Genesis demonstrates that cities would come from Abraham. God promised to make him into a great nation, Israel, whose cultic center was Jerusalem, the city of God (Gen 12). The symbolic and geographical center of Israel wasn’t the countryside; it was Jerusalem, a thriving urban center. Moreover, all the peoples of the earth would be blessed in Abraham. Kings, who rule in cities over countries, would come from him (Gen 17). In particular, Abraham’s grandchildren would form twelve tribes that cultivate the cities of Canaan. Far from an anti-urban stance, Scripture depicts Abraham as the father of peoples and cultures who would urbanize the world.

However, what are we to make of the Genesis narrative prior to Abraham, where cities seem to go hand in hand with sinners? What of God’s dissolution of Babel and scattering of its citizens? A closer reading of the narrative reveals that the author was not developing a theology of the city, but theology of promise. God had promised Eve offspring who would crush the serpents head while bruising his own heel (3.15). This sacrificial son would reverse the curse and restore humanity, fostering a fruitful multiplication of the renewed image of God having dominion throughout the earth. Babel was an affront to God’s command to be fruitful and multiply and to fill the earth with his image. It was localized dominion. Therefore, God’s scattering at Babel was not anti-urban agenda, but an expression of his commitment to the creation mandate, to populate the earth with a diverse humanity whose future hinged on the birth of the promised son. God didn’t want one city; he wanted many cities, cities filled with creative expression of his image and glory.

How then should we respond to the city? With most of humanity still in glorious ruin, how are we to live in the city? If the city is not inherently evil, what can we learn from it? If we are not called to hate the city exclusively, how then do we love it? In the space that remains, I will address these questions by drawing on my recent experience as a church-planter in Austin, Texas.

Live in the City

Once we settled on Austin for church planting, the housing frenzy began. Moving from the Boston area, we were convinced we would get more house for our money. The only problem was that we were committed to living downtown, among our target people, the creative class.[3] This translated into less house for more money. Suburban Austinites kept telling us to look north, not east. A waitress gave us a tongue-lashing for even considering raising our kids “East of 35.” Even our family questioned our decision. But we knew if we were to redemptively engage the peoples and cultures of urban Austin, we could not do it from the safety of the suburbs. We chose to live in the city.

So far, living in the city has been better than we imagined. A five-minute drive and I’m at Austin Java, a microcosm of the creative class, a place where I can interact with professionals, students, and artists, all over a cup of dark, rich, organic coffee. It is here that I get to hear the joys and the pains of urban life, stories of banking bucks and starving artists, of beholding God and bonding with nature. Here I come face to face with the city, its peoples and cultures. By living in the city, you put yourself in proximity to its personality, a place where you will learn to both hate and love the city.

Learn from the City

The city also has much to teach us. The unofficial slogan of Austin is “Keep Austin Weird,” and it is spot on. Weird is a weird word. Its plasticity of meaning makes moral assessment and cultural engagement incredibly difficult. So it goes with the city. There is the bad weird, the kind that makes you hate the city. Men with beards, boobs, and boots. Million dollar mansions next to rat-infested shacks. College students dismembering college students. Wretched weird. This kind of weird informs me of the need for a people-redeeming, city-restoring, justice-pursuing gospel, a whole gospel for the whole city, requiring a whole church.

Then there is the good weird. Austin is teeming with artists-painters, musicians, poets, and so on. In an effort to learn more about the city, our family took a trip to the Austin Art Museum. There was a lot of wretched weird on display, which made the good weird stand out. Some of Barbara Kruger’s artwork was on the wall. I was particularly struck by the large black and white image of a ventriloquist doll head overlaid with a white-on-black and black-on-white caption that read: “Whenever I hear the word culture, I pull out my checkbook.” In an instant, Kruger prophetically cut me to the heart, reminding me of the commodification of our culture, the way my consumerism can cheapen the city.  So often we want to purchase, not produce culture. Instead of investing in our culture, making our cities better, safer, and more attractive places to live, we try to buy culture so we can look cool and receive acceptance from other solipsistic consumers. Our trip to the art museum was a good weird. It warned me that the power of money and the absence of the gospel in the city makes checkbooks(cards) out of its citizens. It simultaneously reminded me of the goodness of human creativity. I learned how to better love the city.

Love the City

How do we learn to love and hate the city effectively, redemptively? Left to ourselves, we will swing one of two directions-liberal left (all love and no hate) or fundy right (all hate and no love). Those of us that lean left easily justify uncritical participation in urban culture, making allowances we shouldn’t, condoning messages we can’t. In the name of love, we “relate” to the city. We blunt the scandal of the cross and sell out to the culture. Our love is cheap, more of a love affair than a life-denying, Christ-exalting, people-loving, culture-renewing, city-serving devotion. Perhaps we need more hate in our love.

Those that lean right quickly back into a fight or flight mentality, judging and withdrawing from the city, refusing to dine with sinners and flocking to worship with saints. In the name of truth, we trounce the city, crushing anyone and anything that doesn’t measure up to the truth. We cleanse the cross of its blood, denying Christ the power of redemption and delivering God the Father’s condemnation. Our hate is hollow. It is not outpaced by love, unrelenting in the face of atonement, of the redemption of peoples and cultures. Perhaps we need more love in our hate.

Redoubling our efforts to hate what is despicable and love what loveable will not bring about a biblical, Christlike response to the city. Living in and learning from the city can be done by worldly citizens, people who, to a significant degree, appropriately love and hate the city. Were this not the case, courts and charities could not exist. In order to avoid ascending the moral ladder of self-determined, well-timed urban love and hate, we need some other power. We need the gospel.

The gospel affirms a dual, paradoxical response to the city, but at the same time provides the power of redemption to effect eternal change. Remember, the city is not the problem. We are the problem. Thus, the gospel deals with the citizen first and the city second. Urban culture is the varied expression of its citizens attempting to be truly human. However, they-we-are fallen humans, in glorious ruin requiring the gospel of Jesus Christ to repair the devastating damage of sin. Only after the human heart is broken over its rejection of the Creator-Redeemer, over seeking personal fortune and fame instead of the riches of God’s eternal glory, can it receive redemption.

The power of redemption, in turn, changes the heart of man who can change his culture and his city. Liberated from the power and penalty of sin, the redeemed are released into true humanity. In turn, we devote ourselves to living, learning, and loving redemptively. We hate the presence of sin and love the presence of righteousness. We offer the city a future as bright as the promises of God, a “city of blinding lights.” We point to the luminescent Zion and join Bono in the song of Yahweh: “Take this city; city should be shining all night long. Take this city if it be your will. Take this heart and make it break.”

As it turns out, my collegiate urban reflections contained only half truths. The shimmering skyscrapers may sometimes be motivated by pride and greed, but they can also be stimulate the urban economy and contribute constructively to human culture. The city certainly needs the gospel, but a whole one at that. In the end, the city can also be a monument to God, especially when it is constructed by citizens that love, hate and redeem the city.

[1] For detailed crime statistics and analysis see Francis Fukuyama, The Great Disruption (New York: Touchstone, 2000).

[2] Albert Y Hsu, The Suburban Christian: Finding Spiritual Vitality in a Land of Plenty (Downers Grove: IVP, 2007), 15.

[3] Richard Florida, The Rise of the Creative Class: Transforming Work, Leisure, Community and Everyday Life (New York: Basic Books, 2002).