Christians and Cities

In a post not long ago I mentioned that Christians have an especial calling to tend their cities.  I see this taking many forms, such as using their chapels, land and homes for community centers, and patronizing the arts and their libraries, but also taking the form of serving on town councils and working in urban planning.

Why?  Fundamentally, because the church is called to be a counterculture that serves the common good.  But why cities and urban planning?  Here are a few reasons  I see that emphasis as central.

First, cities are central to the scriptural narrative.  There is an overall movement from a paradise built in a garden (Gen 1) to a paradise built around a megalopolis, a city descended from the sky with gates that are always open for trade; a city that never sleeps (Rev 21).  At the center of this movement is the earthly city of Jerusalem, the city where God said to David, “Would you build me a house?”  But it is significant that in the “New Jerusalem” of Revelation, there is no temple.  The city is altogether a place for worship.

Even when God’s people find themselves as strangers in strange cities, scripture instructs them to

Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper. (src)


So cities are essential to the shape of the people of God and to their calling.  Many of the church fathers picked up on this theme, but none so centrally as Augustine of Hippo, whose masterpiece is entitled Civitas Dei – The City of God.  Augustine didn’t take up specifics on urban planning, though, and always remained a theopolitical voice.  Aquinas, however, addressed urban planning specifically, viewing the city as a place where individuals come together so that they can live better lives than they could singly.

His goals in urban planning, which he offered as “advice to the king,” were to provide the urban context in which virtuous living is facilitated.  The king, according to Aquinas, must provide for the community a city that guarantees a place

  1. Suitable to the preservation of the health of the inhabitants. Aquinas mentions specific geographical conditions and building facing in the best direction for air circulation and balance of sunlight and shade, since “the social life is related to the natural life.”  This makes sense when we consider that it is plumbing and air circulation that have done the most to lengthen lives in the west, rather than the sixteen percent of the GDP spent on crisis-care medicine.
  2. Fertile enough to provide them with sufficient food.
  3. Pleasant enough “to give them enjoyment.”
  4. Defended enough to afford them protection and security.
  5. Finally, there must be “places suitable to worship, for the final end of the multitude united in society.”

So we have Aquinas proscribing physical conditions to satisfy physical, existential and aesthetic needs for those who live there.  He bases this on an Aristotelian, common anthropology, where all people were created to be happy and can only find happiness in living well together.  For Aquinas, the city becomes a moral landscape, shaping groups and individuals.

Embracing this view, Christians can see a great deal of potential and danger in the city.  Christians can take part in shaping it toward human-centered ends of happiness together (at least) and worship of God (at best), and resist the shaping of cities that promotes atomism and alienation from one another and from God.  Some specific issues for Christians to bear in mind in urban culture:

  • The increasing prevalence of gated communities
  • The increasing prevalence of ghettos
  • The increasing prevalence of homeless in our cities and the dispersal of “homeless communities”
  • The increasing prevalence of public surveillance
  • The disappearance of public, non-commercialized space
  • Segregation by race and by class

While none of these are overtly theological issues, I believe they press on Christians and urge us to add urban planning to our already long list of active stewardship.

What do you think?  Are cities especially important for Christian involvement?  What issues would you add or change on the list?  What involvement have you seen churches engage in with cities?


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