The Voice of The Salvation Army in Canada and BermudaView RSS Feed
Jan15FriChurches must “think different” about their relationship to cities January 15, 2010 by Robert Joustra
You take nice, good-natured, welcoming people and throw them into a town hall meeting, and they'll tear each other's eyes out.” The director of a downtown Salvation Army ministry was just warming up, telling me about some of the challenges of his day-to-day work. He had stories about Ivy League professors, lawyers and even pastors campaigning against the operations of The Salvation Army. The Army's crime? They'd started operations in a nice part of town. There goes the neighbourhood!
- Filed Under:
The Salvation Army director taught me that professionals—whose self-described vocations were to help those in need, to teach, to mentor and to promote law and justice—fall victim to the NIMBY (“not in my backyard”) syndrome, just like everyone else. We rarely like taking our own medicine, and these folks were no different. No level of governance is as open or intimate as municipal consultations. Do we design a park like this, or like that? Do we allow this re-zoning or that re-zoning, and how exactly do we deal with all those different colours of garage doors on Elm Street? Municipal consultations are the church hockey league of politics. You'll never believe what your neighbours are capable of saying and doing in those settings.
Our cities are repositories of our deep passions because they are a microcosm of our shared life together. Cities don't have the grand politics of war and peace, the high-rolling international trade treaties or the silver-tongued, sharply dressed diplomats, but they embody stories about common life that big-time national and international politics don't tell. I once had a pastor say to me, “Show me your bedroom, and I'll show you who you are.” Similarly, I suggest, take me to your cities, your local places where you live out your everyday social reflexes, and I'll show you who you are.
Over my years of running Cardus' Stained Glass Urbanism Project (see box on page 25), I've come across a variety of perspectives and opinions on how people of faith—particularly Christians—can or should think about and interact with cities. I offer six common, internalized and therefore often unspoken assumptions about religion and the modern metropolis. These are not philosophical blockbusters or high-level policy problems, but they do point to revealing social and cultural assumptions that are in dire need of fresh imagination.
Assumption 1: Cities = Politics.
Reply: Sort of, but it really depends on how you define “city.” Too often we associate “cities” with the politics of “the City,” as though our municipal administrators retain comprehensive responsibility for the entire variety of activities that take place within its jurisdictional boundaries. The city as a network of differentiated communities contains a whole variety of authorities and institutions—often labelled under the nebulous term civil society—which contribute vitally to urban growth and revitalization. The City as a political body must occasionally adjudicate how these different communities can and should relate to each other, but it is not responsible for cultivating an exquisite arts community or a flourishing non-profit sector. Governments can pass family-friendly tax laws, but they should not try to legislate how many children people have. It may pass laws and provide incentives to facilitate certain things, but politics—even municipal politics—cannot and should not be all things to all people.
Assumption 2: Cities are the new mission ground of North America.
Reply: Yes, but cities are not simply a big conglomerate of the “unreached.” If our urban activities as people of faith are consistently predicated on conversion, we will quickly become very bad neighbours. I think of this as a kind of spiritual narcissism, which grows out of an interior insecurity about our own faith and life. Our exclusive goal becomes the conversion of the other—not out of love of our neighbour, but because our worldview cannot cope with any kind of fundamental diversity.
Cities are more than just political jurisdictions, and they are also more than just mission fields. The faithful Christian life is about more than conversion, as the Westminster Catechism usefully reminds us. The chief end of man is to “worship God, and to enjoy him forever,” and the chief end of human beings in the city is surely no different. City life for the thinking Christian is about more than proselytization. In fact, as missiologist Mike Goheen argues, the Great Commission is better translated: as you are going, make disciples of all nations. Sharing the gospel story and its message of salvation with our neighbours is not the exclusive focus of human life in the city, but rather an internal reflex we live out in all areas of life.
Thus we learn to live and share the gospel story in ways that far exceed a simple dualistic mission—we start to think of worshipping God and honouring him by building efficient transit, planning public spaces for social networking, putting a splash of colour here and there, and facilitating public artwork to cultivate the playful and imaginative joy of the human spirit created imago Dei.
Sadly, we truncate the gospel when we pursue conversion and proselytization as the exclusive goals of the Christian calling. Instead, the gospel in the urban metropolis calls us forth into all the manifold spheres of city life, to enact justice, sustain and cultivate beauty and become “the glory of God; human beings fully alive”—to quote Irenaeus.
Assumption 3: We must keep church and state separate.
Reply: Absolutely. Separation of church and state is an imperative founding principle of the American and Canadian political systems. In this context, separation of church and state means that the state doesn't endorse or privilege one religion over another; it is, at least ostensibly, a neutral space in which different perspectives, religious and otherwise, contest, debate and decide on the appropriate dispensation of justice.
This does not mean that religion is inadmissible in public debate, and it certainly doesn't mean religion should be marginalized. Author and former U.S. diplomat Thomas Farr goes so far as to argue that the Constitution of the United States, in explicitly protecting freedom of religion, is implicitly suggesting that religion itself is a public good—one for which the state should safeguard a place in a democratic society.
Following this logic, it is worth considering that the separation of church and state was never meant to indicate a chasm of dialogue or the cultivation of religious illiteracy, even though we often uncover both of these errors in municipal bureaucracies. Like business, religion is not within City governments' competency to specifically endorse, but it is in the cities'—and therefore the City's—best interest to provide the conditions within which business and religion, in general, may flourish.
Assumption 4: Working with government corrupts churches.
Reply: Sure, and hanging out socially with non-Christians corrupts Christians. Avoiding non-Christians is not only theologically silly, but socially and politically destructive; this assumption is a corollary of the separation between church and state argument from the other side of the fence.
Throughout my research at Cardus, I have found that this fear in churches, as in people, is linked to identity. Almost every church in a downtown area has struggled with it. Do we join a meals-on-wheels program? Do we open food banks or shelters? In the midst of pressing need, how do we prevent our church from losing its integrity and becoming just another non-governmental social service agency? Government programs are often the only financially sustainable way to cultivate a service agenda, but participation in them spirals into further identity conflicts about public service, confessional language and proselytization. The price tag on government money for most orthodox Christian churches is just too high.
What is Cardus?
Cardus is a North American public policy think tank, equipping change agents with best theories and practices of public life to renew North American social architecture.
Cardus thinks it is time for neighbours in finance, municipal politics, trade policy and the pastorhood to connect. Stained Glass Urbanism is a Cardus research project that actively works to facilitate these types of connections. Cardus' vision is a sustained, long-term project that will connect people of faith with people of government, help institutions to understand what makes good cities, and to facilitate discussion bringing better city living, planning and governance together.
In 2005, Cardus published a paper entitled Living on the Streets: The Role of the Church in Urban Renewal, focusing on Hamilton, Ont. This was followed up in 2007 with the publication of an investigative report entitled Toronto the Good.
The next step in this “conversation” between the church and the city was a mini-conference held in Toronto from November 6-7, 2009, entitled Think Different: Live Chat on Urban Faith Communities. In partnership with World Vision as co-sponsors and The Canadian Urban Institute in support, Think Different was held at St. Paul's Bloor Street Church.
Major Geoff Ryan, corps officer at Toronto's Corps 614, is a research fellow with Cardus.
It doesn't need to be. Working with governments—in any way—doesn't have to corrupt churches, water down their mission or turn their confessions insipid. Yes, government works with its own public, and at times secularist, agenda, one which may inhibit traditional proselytization. But surely a community consistently nurtured and rooted in a historical tradition of confession can retain a strong identity, in the midst of co-operation and conversation with those who believe differently, and perhaps those we even perceive as being directly at odds with us?
The Church is far more than a social service agency; nevertheless, the toxicity of government cheques or public moneys is exaggerated. When government money occasionally comes tied to expectations that overstep the legitimate authority of government, a church community with a strong, confessional identity should be able to wisely discern and decline; however, where the institutional church's own sphere of activity genuinely overlaps and interrelates with the government's, engagement is essential.
Assumption 5: Cities = $.
Reply: Often true. Cities, just like the rest of society, tend to uncritically ride the money train. Corporations and developers, responding to supply and (occasionally artificially stimulated) demand, are the ones who effectively build the social and physical infrastructure of our cities. It is important to refrain from demonizing the urban economic process, recognizing that city politicians are not weak-kneed opportunists incapable of tough action, urban developers are not heartless capitalists eager to undermine human scale community and the average consumer is not a mindless cog in the capitalist machine, out to buy his or her way into an ultimately satisfying identity. These are unfair caricatures that reveal more about our cynicism and apathy than they do about the cultural climate.
Assumption 6: We need action!
Reply: Ok, but we have been taking action, and it's been a spectacular failure. Evangelical Christians have mustered enormous political and social activism in the last decade, and seen incredible success in putting “their people” into the centre of power. But a sudden influx of evangelical people and money into the realm of politics hasn't solved a great deal, because it's not just about getting people into power or onto the streets to make change happen—it's about the quality of those people, that change and the means used. Evangelicals agree we need people in power, but outside of hot-button social agendas, we're not exactly sure why, or what being an evangelical has to do with, say, zoning by-laws or regional trade corridors.
In Cardus' Toronto the Good project, I learned that unprepared, ill-considered activism is endemic to Christian urban engagement. In Toronto, faith groups—often those from outside the greater Toronto area—frequently undermine the efforts of city governments and experienced NGOs to alleviate street poverty and homelessness. Parachuting Bible-tract-armed adolescents with blankets, food stuffs and toiletries into an urban core creates far more problems than it solves. The words that city managers and municipal administrators had for this kind of irresponsible and disconnected activism were not kind.
For people who are supposed to have “reason at all times for the hope we have,” Christians tend to be curiously pessimistic about our villages and cities. We wash our hands of our markets and decry the consumerism of our neighbours. We complain that our city councils won't hear religious perspectives, but privately avoid people who do not believe as we do. We may even completely excuse ourselves of a responsibility to the common good of our cities, consigning them to burn in the fires of avarice, and hoping only to save a few worthy souls.
Our goals, when they are worthy, tend to overemphasize ends and underemphasize means, believing in an ultimate vindication through the righteousness of the cause. But our means matter. They may even be decisively important. Our “common sense” isn't always right, and we—as church and as society—need space and time to rethink, research and rebuild better and more sophisticated and imaginative alternatives. Then our social, civil and municipal victories won't be over the bodies of our neighbours, but will be hard-won success among religious and non-religious alike.
Robert Joustra is a researcher with Cardus and serves as an associate editor of Policy in Public. He lectures in international politics at Redeemer University College in Ancaster, Ont.
Think Different captures in short, pithy snapshots the thoughts of front-line urban practitioners on religious communities in the modern metropolis. It responds to a single and simple impulse: are urban religious communities problem solvers or trouble makers? It is available for purchase at go.cardus.ca/thinkdifferent