Faith in the City

Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. Some of us know that line by heart. We’ve seen it written on greeting cards, cast in plaster, cross stitched on sofa pillows, and printed on coffee mugs.

It sounds like a definition, but it’s a door in a house with many rooms. The writer of Hebrews has already written about confidence and assurance, about the confessing of our hope without wavering, about provoking one another to love and good deeds and not neglecting the habit of meeting together, about endurance and not shrinking back – all of which are doors to the reality of faith.

Faith is about trust and obedience, loyalty, faithfulness and belief, and faith does things, it hopes, it sets out, it dares, it waits, it shapes our thinking, speaking, and doing. Yes, faith is something we have and do, but because it is what keeps our hopes from being empty and vain, it is also something that has and holds us. The writer of Hebrews wants to encourage us to live with our eyes open not just to current circumstances, but to the future, always trusting that God will keep God’s promises.

Reading chapter 11 of Hebrews, is like finding yet another door open and stepping into a kind of Hall of Fame with plaque after plaque reminding us of the heroes and heroines of faith who have gone before us. We read about Noah, Moses and the Israelites, Rahab, Gideon and Samson, David and Samuel and the prophets, and all they did and suffered. Faith, we understand now, is not captured by definitions but in lives faithfully lived.

I was still studying for my final exams at the university, when my friend Monika was preparing for her ordination. We had been in a study group together, and she asked us each to choose a passage from Scripture that we would read and briefly comment on during the service. I chose a passage from Hebrews:

By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; and he set out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he stayed for a time in the land he had been promised, as in a foreign land, living in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. For he looked forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God.

I chose that passage because it spoke to our sense of not quite being at home where we were; it spoke about our desire for a better country, and about servants of God and a church ready to live in tents, as it were – prepared not to settle down as long as God was calling us out, and never to settle for a faith that trades looking forward for looking inward. Faith gives substance to our hope. For me faith continues to be the tenacious longing for the city that has God’s name written all over it, the city whose architect and builder is God.

The cities dotting the biblical landscape, much like our own cities, contrast starkly: Babel, Sodom, Bethel, Corinth, Rome, and Jerusalem. Our own history of suspicion about cities and their harmful potential often leads us to assume that the landscape of faith is composed of ‘green pastures’ and ‘still waters,’ but that rather romantic view is woefully one-sided. The Bible has more to say about cities than it does about the countryside.[1]

One of the major tensions in Scripture is presented as a contrast between two cities, Babel and Jerusalem, because the problem with the city, according to biblical tradition, is the problem of power. I’m painting in very broad strokes here, but Babel is biblical shorthand for a city whose architects and builders are human beings with great ambitions, great technological capabilities, and a limitless capacity for idolatry. Jerusalem is not the golden city, not by its own merits anyway; it is the city that kills the prophets, but it is also the city where God raised the crucified Jesus from the dead, and where the Risen One told the disciples to stay and wait until they had been clothed with power from on high (Luke 24:49). A better power for a better city. The way I read it, Jerusalem is Babylon redeemed. Jerusalem, the holy city coming down out of heaven from God, is the human city redeemed and renewed, the beautiful bride of Christ. All of the pilgrims of faith, we read in Hebrews, “all of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them.” From a distance they saw and greeted the city that embodies the consummation of all history. The story of humankind begins with a garden and ends with a city.

The prophet Zechariah declared (Zechariah 8:3-6),

Thus says the Lord: I will return to Zion, and will dwell in the midst of Jerusalem; Jerusalem shall be called the faithful city, and the mountain of the Lord of hosts shall be called the holy mountain. Thus says the Lord of hosts: Old men and old women shall again sit in the streets of Jerusalem, each with staff in hand because of their great age. And the streets of the city shall be full of boys and girls playing in its streets. Thus says the Lord of hosts: Even though it seems impossible to the remnant of this people in these days, should it also seem impossible to me?

Faith is the tenacious longing for the city that has God’s name written all over it. Now I want to talk about Detroit for a moment. I hear the news out of Detroit, and I pray. I am reminded of a passage from on of T. S. Eliot’s poems:

When the Stranger says: “What is the meaning of this city?
Do you huddle close together because you love each other?”
What will you answer? “We all dwell together
To make money from each other”? or “This is a community”?
And the Stranger will depart and return to the desert.
O my soul, be prepared for the coming of the Stranger,
Be prepared for him who knows how to ask questions.[2]

I hear the news out of Detroit and many a city in this country and around the world, and I pray that in them there are men and women who are looking forward to the city whose architect and builder is God, men and women who are ready to answer the Stranger, “This is a community. And even though it seems impossible to the remnant of this people in these days, our hope is founded in God who keeps promises.”

Babel is biblical shorthand for a city whose architects and builders are human beings with great ambitions, great technological capabilities, and a limitless capacity for idolatry.

In his novel World’s Fair, E. L. Doctorow takes us to the 1939 World’s Fair in New York:

We rode across the Bridge of Wheels and got out, of course, at the General Motors Building. That was everyone’s first stop … In front of us a whole world lit up, as if we were flying over it, the most fantastic sight I had ever seen, an entire city of the future, with skyscrapers and fourteen-lane highways, real little cars moving on them at different speeds. … This miniature world demonstrated how everything was planned, people lived in these modern streamlined curvilinear buildings, each of them accomodating the population of a small town and holding all the things, schools, food stores, laundries, movies and so on, that they might need … It was a toy that any child in the world would want to own. You could play with it forever … it was a model world.[3]

In the 1920s most Americans moved by rail. Two hundred fifty thousand miles of heavy rail were in use across the nation in addition to extensive inter-urban lines that served regional travel needs. Within the cities electric streetcars were the principal form of transportation. Alfred P. Sloan was president of General Motors in those days, and automobile sales were stagnating. Only one in nine American households owned a car at that point, but few people considered purchasing one, since American public transportation was second to none. In 1922 Sloan formed a special task force within GM dedicated to replacing the local and regional passenger railways with cars, trucks, and buses. By 1936 GM had acquired New York Railways and run it into the ground. In the same year it formed, together with Firestone and Standard Oil, National City Lines, a holding company that proceeded to acquire and dismantle one hundred urban rail systems in forty-five cities across the country. In 1949 GM was found guilty of criminal conspiracy for its actions, but its “model world” of Tomorrow Town continued to shape urban development in the U.S.  Under President Dwight Eisenhower, an Advisory Committee on a National Highway System was formed and retired general Lucius D. Clay was appointed to chair it; he also had a seat on the Board of Directors for General Motors. In 1956 Eisenhower signed the National System of Interstate and Defense Highways Act, authorizing the construction of 41,000 miles of roadway, the largest peacetime public works project in the history of the world.

It may still be too early to grasp the full impact of those decisions for America’s cities, but we know that the suburbs boomed; and the sad irony is that Detroit became the poster child of urban abandonment.

The problem with the city, with every city, is the problem of power – but in faith we trust in the power of God and the divine promise to redeem what the power of sin has destroyed. The story of humankind begins with a garden and ends with a city, the heavenly Jerusalem, the beautiful city of God.

Ellen Davis compares Jerusalem to an icon: a holy, healing image that invites us into a different experience of the world and our place in it.[4] It is an icon that prepares our soul for the coming of the Stranger who knows how to ask questions. When he says, “What is the meaning of this city?” We will answer, “This is a community. We’re all at home here.”

[1] See William P. Brown and John T. Carroll, “The Garden and the Plaza: Biblical Images of the City,” Interpretation (January 2000), p. 4

[2] T. S. Eliot, Choruses from the Rock (1934)

[3] E. L. Doctorow, World’s Fair (New York: Random House, 1985), p. 252-253

[4] See Ellen F. Davis. Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture: An Agrarian Reading of the Bible (Kindle Locations 2420-2426). Kindle Edition.