It would be unthinkable to discuss the project of God and his work in the world without recognizing the role the city plays in every aspect. It is undeniable that, as Jean-Bernard Racine says, “Today the city has won the world.”1 Nearly every one of the earth’s inhabitants, in one way or another and whether they realize it or not, is connected to a city. The God who loves the world (John 3:16), who seeks by every means to reach each one of us with his love, is deeply interested in the complex and attractive space that is the urban milieu.
The City and Its Influence
The definition of a city cannot be limited to its geographical area. We must take into account its lifestyle and the influence it holds over all society. Perhaps this is why Racine added to his former comment,
The city is more generally an urban reality that generated from the heart to the society as a whole. The lifestyles, attitudes, mentalities, and values lived out in the city are adopted by the general population to the further corners of its geographical regions.
Dr. Ray Bakke confirms this as well. He has dedicated two of his books to call the Church to take up its responsibilities in light of the rampant growth of urban centres. In his book, A Theology as Big as the City, he wrote,
The spectacular growth of large cities on this planet represents an awesome challenge to the Church of Jesus Christ on all six continents. In 1900, eight percent of the world’s population lived in cities. By the year 2000, that number will be nearly fifty percent.2
Bakke’s thinking parallels that of Racine when he anticipated with amazing clarity the increasing importance of the city:
You see, there is no place to hide. The city is a media stage prop in this cybernetic era, and its presence will impact everyone eventually. So, even in places far from large cities, banks, businesses, and families are linked up to urban centres. We must acknowledge, then, that not only do nearly three billion of the earth’s nearly six billion persons live in cities, but the other three billion are being urbanized as well. Sorry, you have an urban future, whether you like it or not.
The overarching reach of a city is immediately recognizable when classed by function instead of size, density of population, location, or shape on a map.3
But is the city synonymous with evil? Does it represent a constant threat to the spiritual health of God’s people, as so many affirm by their attitudes and demonstrate by their negative opinions of cities? The following section will examine this question.
The Importance of the City in God’s Project
Even with the most cursory flipping through the pages of the Bible, we quickly understand that God loves the city and counts on her to extend his kingdom to the four corners of the world. There are 1,385 passages in the Bible that mention the city. Racine states, “Statistically, it is the twenty-first most common word in the whole Bible!”4 In contrast to what many believe, Racine continues, “The city is not evil, in and of itself: it becomes evil. And it will not always be that way, because the final act in the divine story is the manifestation of the city of God.” He also makes a poignant remark that demonstrates the supreme importance that the Almighty God accords to the city and its central place in his precious plan:
This story that began in a Garden at the beginning of Genesis ends in a city in the last chapter of Revelation. Here we find paradise once again, but this time, paradise is in a park situated in the middle of a heavenly city.
One of the clearest and most relevant texts regarding what God expects of his people can be found in Jeremiah 29, where the Jewish people find themselves in exile in the foreign city of Babylon.
General Considerations of Jeremiah 29
Underlying this text concerning the Jewish exile to Babylon,5 three great universal truths are revealed.
First, God knows how to address times of great confusion, sweeping away all prejudice. Acknowledging that Jeremiah was merely the one transmitting the message from God (who is the real author of the letter), we see that far from being closed off in a worrisome silence, God spoke clearly and he lovingly communicated his holy and unchanging will in times of confusion.
So many examples can be cited in the Old and New Testaments, when God clearly spoke into the clouds of confusion, which were also key turning points in his story. Was it not he who calmed the people panicking at the sound of Pharoah’s chariots at the time of the great exodus from Egypt (Exodus 14:15-18)? Centuries later, when Peter faced the momentous moment of entering Cornelius’ house to begin preaching to the Gentiles, the voice of God spoke clearly the same message three times (Acts 10:16). The fullness of the Holy Spirit fell on Cornelius and his household, witnessing to the clear message that God is not a respecter of persons, pushing against the Jewish preacher’s prejudices concerning non-Jews (Acts10:34).
In Jeremiah’s time, our God, the only true mediator, revealed to his people in captivity his own will regarding their host city by vilifying the false prophets.
Second, instead of opposing their integration into the host city, God ordered them to do so. Three of the first eleven verses of chapter 29 (5-7) demanded their integration into the urban space of Babylon. Of the sixteen verbs used in these three verses, ten are in the imperative, transmitting a commandment from God. He insisted on their participation in the social activities and fabric of a city they considered foreign (read: evil).
It was not a question of utilizing strategies of escape and marginalization, because there would be no other recourse during this time in God’s waiting room of exile. His objective was to see his people living fully their lives where he had placed them.
Jesus demonstrated this same perspective when he presented his followers to the Father in his prayer, “I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one.” In the same way that God is not a respecter of persons, we can conclude that he does not have favourite nor condemned places. His people and his Church cannot impose their own limits if they truly consider him master and Lord. The city is not a symbol of evil to God, but an opportunity to reach great numbers of people for which his Son experienced the most horrible of deaths.
Third, integration into the city is a dynamic, not a passive, action. The three aforementioned verses give eloquent and explicit instructions as to how God’s exiles should become a vibrant part of that city’s ethos in the three basic aspects of life: physical activities, emotional well-being, and in the spiritual dimension.
- Physical integration. The people were called to settle down in the communities. They should have participated in the construction and expansion of the city. “Building houses” contributed to the urban economic progress. “Planting gardens” made them treat the land as their own. They must have lived where they built houses and shared many of the aspects of their existence with their fellow citizens, such as food and pastimes.
- Emotional well-being in their adopted city. Beginning in verse six, their integration needed to penetrate to a deeper level to touch their emotional attachments. It is not explicitly stated that they should intermarry with the Babylonians. But it is clear that their new status in this city would not reduce their sexual needs and that they and their children were called to settle down in marriage relationships. To be free to marry in a foreign city demonstrated full integration into that culture. It allowed them to identify with that community and assured their future there.
- Spiritual integration in enemy territory. God commanded the captives to pray for the well-being of the city in which they were forced to live. This Jewish nation, these chosen ones among all the people of the creator God, had to be actively committed to pray incessantly for the welfare of the community.
The people of God were called to integrate into this foreign city: physically settling into neighbourhoods, creating emotional attachments through marriage and family and, above all, praying with spiritual conviction for the city’s prosperity.
Therefore, God’s plan for the city is not to extricate all his people from its evil, but to purify it and protect it by the presence of his people. He looks to select, transform, and equip men and women who will give clear direction and leadership in city life and who will preserve its well-being.
This is why Racine believes that the essential lesson here is that the city does not need new structures, but new people.6 The Church needs many change agents, and change must take place in urban centres.
A Brief Reflection on Urbanization in Haiti
So what is the particular reality of the influence of the urban centres in Haiti, my own country of origin? Haiti has not been spared the galloping urbanization we see across the world. After it gained its independence in 1804, the urban population was less than ten percent, with a rural population of over ninety percent. Today, forty percent live within the urban sprawl of several cities. All services are concentrated in the cities and the rural areas have practically none.7 In other words, reaching the city is to reach the whole Haitian population.
Thus, dialogue on the possibility of impacting this country in a positive and sustainable way must start with the cities. Any strategic plan of the Church for an eventual integration into the affairs of our society carries the kiss of death if it does not take into account the importance of the city.
Our prejudices in regards to urban life that carry the belief that our cities are too corrupted for God to find any pleasure in working there are the very thing that keeps our influence merely marginal. Yet God favours urban centres to carry out his plan. In the case of my country, we would say that he is counting on Port-au-Prince, Cap-Haïtien, Gonaïves, Jacmel, and other cities to realise his great project.
1. 1993. La Ville entre Dieu est les Hommes. Genève: Presses Bibliques Universitaires, 10.
2. 1997. A Theology as Big as the City. Downers Grove, Illinois, USA: InterVarsity Press, 12.
3. Bakke, Ray et al. 1994. Espoir Pour la Ville – Dieu Dans la Cité, Québec: Les Éditions La Clairière, 43.
4. Racine, 259.
5. We can still see the ruins of this great ancient city today near Baghdad, east of the Euphrates River. It was one of the largest cities in antiquity and knew its glory days under King Nebuchadnezzar II. The etymological sense of the word is “doorway of God,” according to Microsoft’s Encyclopedia, Encarta. This letter was addressed by God through Jeremiah to the captives of this great and imposing city. Babylon represented the greatest city humanity had ever built.
6. Racine, 14.
7. In contrast to many other countries, centralized services are predominant in Haiti. Everything is concentrated in Port-au-Prince: consulates, immigration and passport services, identity cards. In Haiti, we need our cities.