The city is a miracle. Matthew 23:37-39 “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! See, your house is left to you, desolate. For I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.’”
Cities are always broke. You knew that, right? New York City had to be brought back from the brink of bankruptcy in 1977. Sixty-three out of America’s most populous seventy-five cities do not have enough money to pay all of their bills, according to Forbes Magazine. Boston is about 5th after NYC, Chicago, Philadelphia, and San Francisco.
But where do all the skyscrapers and glass emporiums come from? How come there is a Miracle Mile and a Sears Tower in Chicago, a Copley Square and the Federal Reserve Bank in Boston, a Rockefeller Center and Wall Street and the World Trade Center in NYC? City governments may be broke, but the engines of the city aren’t broken.
It makes me think of the young maid imprisoned in a dungeon, whom Rumpelstiltskin helped to turn straw into gold with her spinning wheel.
The city is such a spinning wheel. The city takes and takes and takes and takes–from the sweat of immigrants’ brows, from the vain fantasy of ignorant investors, from the earth and water around it (stolen in our case from the indigenous peoples), from the bedroom suburbs, from regional farmers, and loggers, and trappers, and miners–it takes and spins from them riches that only the richest kings once knew. Cities operate with impunity, where anything can be bought, and anything can be sold. Including your soul. A city is a free-agent, never heeding the health or safety of those it attracts. Until it is made to.
Whoever pointed the fact out? Jesus certainly did, as did the prophets of Israel before him. They called their leaders out because they who put their thumb on the scale were in dereliction of the covenant with Yahweh.
Fast forward into our post-Industrial era, the prophet was a novelist, Charles Dickens in England, where the Industrial Revolution had combined with greed and ethical blindness to render city life universally a hazard to health and hope. In America, writers like Upton Sinclair, Theodore Dreiser, Richard Wright, and F. Scott Fitzgerald held the mirror up to the vanity of the ambitious. It was a social worker named Jane Addams in Chicago who in the first third of the 20th century was the one-woman battering ram that compelled city politicians to address poverty and disease in the poorest part of the city (she also won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1931, the second woman to do so). In NYC it was Margaret Sanger promoting family planning and contraception. It was Lilian Wald who founded the Henry St. Settlement House in the lower East Side of NYC, it was a Protestant minister by the name of Walter Rauschenbusch in New York City and a Catholic laywoman by the name of Dorothy Day. Cities chew people up, and modern prophets keep redirecting attention to the people victimized. Why? Because people are the wealth of cities. Our question today as a church–what is the churches’ role in the city, whether that be the City of Newton or the greater Boston megalopolis.
But did these prophets change anything? Yes, they added to the pressures upon cities coming from every direction. After the Great Depression hit, a great social safety net was created, labor unions were legalized, new sanitation and housing standards were set. Even so, cities remained a vortex of exploitation, crime, and disease. Who are the successors today to Addams, Sanger, Wald, Rauschenbusch and Dorothy Day? Community organizations like the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative, Cooperative Metropolitan Ministries, Black Ministerial Alliance, etc. And we should be asking what is churches’ role in the city?
Eventually, in the mid-twentieth century, cities became somewhat more habitable and hospitable. In order to survive, cities had to. They need tourists to fleece, knowing fools and their money are soon parted. Cities need to keep the elite residents, too. And cities need artists who live in low-rent districts as the advance guard of the gentrifiers. Urban renewal was conceived to scrape poverty aside and residents shunted into high-rise housing projects for the poor. Cities have been manicured to the degree of a movie set in order to fleece all those people on the duck boats. But the facade disguises the fact that city governments are always operating at a subsistence level and that the wealth of the city engines is created off the backs of millions of people who themselves live at a subsistence level. The volume of products made and sold in a mass society creates economies of scale which yield up volumes of wealth. But people are the wealth of the city, regularly squandered.
The cityscape masks the deals that Trump wrote about in his book, the high-risk profiteering and the borderline illegal (and outright illegal) maneuvers deal-makers make. But there are plenty of legal millions made in the city where human labor and natural resources are taken advantage of. Trump is only the latest example of what the Old Testament prophets railed at Jerusalem about in the books of Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel. Jesus himself wept as he viewed Jerusalem prior to his entrance there. The lack of religious leadership, the corruption of the temple oligarchy compromised a city’s wealth. The lack of standards and enforcement undermines the greatest of cities and invalidates their wealth. The bearers of such criticism encounter lethal reprisal from those in power. They do not welcome restriction. Markets must not only be free, they also must not be questioned. Cities cannot afford to be respecters of persons and still compete.
But cities are indeed wonders to behold–the skylines, the parks, the avenues and promenades, the monuments and memorials. What Pierre Charles L'Enfant did for Washington DC, what Baron Haussmann did for Paris, Frederick Law Olmstead did for New York and Boston, fulfilled more grandly what every city strives for–public distinction that makes its citizens feel proud just for living there. And we should never underestimate the creativity and innovation which are only possible in cities, not to mention the satisfaction, the fun and the cultural riches found in them. The city is a miracle, the most advanced artform of human civilization.
Cities have a concentration of financial capital, but human capital constitutes the wealth of any nation. One economic theory (Jane Jacobs) holds that a state without a city is a poor state. And that is exactly the lack that Vladimir Putin thinks he will correct by taking Ukraine, because in that country are multiple vigorous cities like Kyiv, etc. Then beyond Ukraine are Poland and all Eastern Europe with their great cities for the taking. The city is indeed a miracle, and Russia badly needs a miracle.
Vanity, vanity, all is vanity if the city’s wealth is won at the expense of the women, men and children who populate the city. The existence of the church in the city can serve to remind all the relevant parties of the plumb line held by Yahweh before all people. Whether business heeds it or not, the plumb line determines all–and the religious communities make that known.
In the greater city, of which Newton is a small part, people struggle for survival. Race and ethnicity place thick filters over the doors to opportunity. It is interesting that Pope Francis pauses in his encyclical about global warming to remind us that love of nature is empty without love of humanity. That love is scarce when city governments have their own racial blinders on, and often collude with the financial power brokers. Cities deserve judgment, and they deserve support. How can a church, like the one situated here at Newton Corners, do that? Consider calling a minister who serves as a city missioner in a city setting and acts as a chaplain to the congregation on Sunday mornings. Or dedicate a portion of the endowment earnings to a non-profit or agency in the city who fulfills our mission as a proxy.
I have been at pains since I came to Eliot to help you see yourselves as a “city church.” The day you do, you will discover your mission and your destiny.