Themes / Bible & economy

Living in Babylon (Part 2)

Shalom in the city

Jonathan Cornford

Manna Matters September 2014

In the previous Manna Matters (May 2014), I explored the meaning of the city as it is revealed to us in the Biblical narrative. In the primeval history of Genesis especially, the city is revealed to be the outworking of all our attempts to live independently from God and nature, and to fashion life in this world according to our own purposes. The city is the heartland of humanity’s rebellion. And yet, astoundingly, in the strongest of language, God declares that he will come into the city, that he will join his work to humanity’s work and make it complete – he will make it holy. The ultimate Biblical vision for the city is for its redemption from a place of dislocation and destruction to a place of shalom, a place in right relationship with God, will all people and with creation.

That is the vision that we are called to give our lives to, but that is not where we are now. Those who seek to follow God find that the city is a place which is so often working against them. More than that, we must face up to the reality that the city lies at the heart of economic injustice and ecological despoliation in the world, and yet most of us are bound to the city in one way or another. In Biblical language, we are exiles in Babylon, the enemy of God. How do we live in such a place? ‘By the rivers of Babylon we wept when we remembered Zion ... How do we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?’

The idea of exile sets the background to the whole New Testament proclamation of good news, and the challenge of living in the midst of Babylon is one of the foundational tasks that it sets out to answer. Though the subject matter is both deep and wide, we can perhaps sum up the Biblical ethos through two commands, given through two separate and quite different letters written to exiles in Babylon:

‘Do not take part in her sins’ (Revelation 18:4);

‘Seek the shalom of the city where I have sent you into exile’ (Jeremiah 29:7).

Put simply, we are enjoined by the Biblical witness to stop being a part of the problem and to start being a part of the solution. And that requires living differently from the norm.

How do we live well in cities? I shan’t pretend that I can answer this enormous and endlessly complex question. Our life circumstances are all so different and context is so important. Nevertheless, I would like to modestly suggest four areas of our lives in cities which at least deserve serious consideration, whatever we might feel our scope for action is in those areas.

1. Recognising the city as a spiritual force

I was recently talking to a young man from Melbourne who now lives in Bendigo. He was saying that although he was a part of groups and communities that talked a lot about the pressures of consumerism, it was not until he had spent some time living outside of Melbourne and then returned to it that he became fully aware of just how monumental is the onslaught of advertising and social pressure to participate in consumer hedonism. (These things are all present in Bendigo too, just not on the same scale.)

There is a huge literature that describes sociologically and psychologically the various effects that cities have on us individually and as a society. But the Biblical perspective takes us one step further, for it recognises the city is a spiritual force. And at the heart of the spirit of the city is the continual push towards disconnection. The primary manifestation of this disconnection, but perhaps the least noticed, is the way that the city provides the illusion of living independently from God. When continually surrounded by such an intense, complete and (seemingly) well-functioning human system, God becomes increasingly obscure, abstract, and for many, irrelevant. Whatever our religious confession, the city encourages us into practical atheism.

Disconnection from God leads inevitably to disconnection from one’s neighbours, and this is an effect of the city that most people are aware of at some level. The more humans you crowd into a small space, the less available they become to each other as human beings – think of a packed peak-hour commuter train, where thousands of people are crammed into a highly intimate proximity, all the while studiously ignoring each other’s existence. This is an understandable psychological defence mechanism, however the habit of ignoring the realities of other people is bad for our souls and bad for our societies.

Of course, by definition, the city is also a place of disconnection from creation. The implications of this are far greater than being distant from quiet places in nature where we can indulge in reflective sighs. The true cost of this disconnection is that we just cannot see one of the foundational truths about ourselves, which is that we are still entirely dependent upon the bounty and beneficence of the natural economy, and our inability to see this truth is killing us and the planet.

Although these disconnections are profound, we are either not conscious of them or apathetic about them, because the other genius of the city is its ability to seduce, divert and distract. Movement, lights, energy, grandeur, scale, food, culture, sub-culture, shops, opportunity, freedom, choice, anonymity, power, money, success – taken together all of these things amount to a very deep temptation to become complicit in the disconnections at the heart of the city.

If these things are true about the spirit of the city, then the Christian vocation in the midst of the city should be clear: it is re-connection. As with all false spirits, the spirit of the city must be resisted, which requires a reconfiguring of our mental world, and daily practical acts of defiance and resistance. We must find the ways to re-connect with God, with each other, and with the land, and we must find ways of resisting the seductions and distractions of the city.

2. Re-connection with people and place

One of the major forces for disconnection in the modern city is simply the way in which the geography of our lives is divided up over large, hard-to-travel, spaces. Home, work, friends, school, church, and shopping tend to be geographically isolated from one another and we effectively become placeless people. This has effects upon our stress levels, upon the planet, and severely limits what sorts of things are possible between people.

Therefore one very practical measure to counteract the disconnections of the city is to try, as much as possible, to limit the geographic scope of our lives and live as much as we can within our localities. I hasten to add that this is not something that is easily achieved, however we have no hope of improving the situation if we do not at least become more seriously conscious of the cost of spreading our lives across the city, and when we get the chance, starting to make alternative choices.

From a Christian perspective, this probably means that we need to make efforts to re-localise the church. The trend towards larger churches has tended to abstract the experience of Christian community from the experience of place – that is, from the experience of day-to-day life. It also means a church tends to be disconnected from the life and concerns of the immediate local area, and especially the concerns of the marginal and hurting. Re-localising church could mean a re-invigoration of smaller local churches, or it could mean larger churches putting much more energy into establishing localised cells and groups. When Christian groups begin to share something more substantive than just a statement of belief – schools, parks, shops, good works etc. – then it is much more possible for them to begin to apply their faith to these contexts.

3. Re-connection with the country

Which brings me to another critical re-connection. One of the most socially and ecologically damaging effects of urbanisation has been the way it has increasingly driven a wedge between the interests of the country and the interests of the city. City people tend to become dismissive and contemptuous of the country, and country people learn to be suspicious and hostile to the city.

One of the most practical and urgent things for city dwellers to begin reconnecting with, is food and the way we eat. As the article by Kim in this edition demonstrates (‘Urban Food Possibilities’), beginning to explore this area opens up how we connect with our neighbourhoods, with the people in them, but also with the country, with food producers, and with the earth itself. At a fundamental level, the city must become more aware of its dependence on the country, more grateful for what it produces, and more responsible for ensuring that the prices we pay, and the ways we get food, enable people, animals and the land to be treated with reverence and respect.

4. The challenge of housing

Perhaps the biggest and hardest challenge to living well in contemporary cities is the challenge of housing. One of the great travesties of our wealth-driven market economy is that the perceived interests of so many have been staked to driving up real estate prices, making the fundamental human need for housing one of the biggest arenas for profit-taking. The price of housing, whether ownership or renting, is an underlying structural determinant of what other life choices become possible for us in location, work, community etc. It determines the incomes we need to somehow raise and how much time we have available for other things; it affects our ability to locate ourselves more closely to friends and/or family; it limits how much money we can spend on making our homes more sustainable and efficient; it affects the nature and possibilities for church communities.

If we are to find ways of living well in cities – with deeper and fuller connections – then we need to find creative ways of making housing more affordable. Churches should actually be excellent places for undertaking such thinking – they are often multi-generational communities that include those with substantial capital, and those with very little. If only there were some more creative and Kingdom-minded accountants in our midst! But the challenge is there to start thinking creatively and looking for examples of others who have already done so. In the next edition of Manna Matters we will focus on this issue.


In conclusion, I hope it is obvious, but it is worth stressing, that rejecting the spirit of the city does not mean rejecting the city itself or the genuinely good things that the city may offer. However it does require exercising a far more active, critical and rigorous discernment of the human-contructed environment that surrounds us, and it requires daily acts of resistance to those forces which dis-connect us from God, from each other and from the earth. It is central to the vocation of Christian communities to be people who live well in the midst of bad living – to be people who in the myriad of their daily activities choose for shalom, even in the heart of Babylon .