Occasionally you meet somebody that shines with such virtue that you are, perhaps for the first time, made aware of your own poverty of spirit.
When I met Greg Thompson during our Thriving Cities symposium in late October, I almost immediately felt the weight of his glory. Before speaking to the crowd, he almost desperately asked me to let him know if there was anybody I knew at the event who had a particular hurt or pain that he could pray for. Unlike my concerns (Will the event be a success? Will people “like” the evening?), it seemed to me that his vision for the renewal of cities was almost completely driven by an other-worldly love.
It’s rare that I go back over a talk that a DIFW speaker has given several times to take notes, underline, and to pray. But when Greg spoke about our “shared wound and shared calling" to reimagine what a virtuous civic life might look like, it was not just my mind, but through sitting under his teaching, quietly my heart was drawn to the beauty of his vision.
Here are six movements Greg Thompson encouraged us to make as Christian people living in cities today.
“It's true, of course, that [Christians] are in fact an increasingly marginal people, a trend that looks to continue for a really long while — like a hundred years probably. And it is true that simply by virtue of having moral norms that we cling to, we can be seen as a moral threat to the aspirations of our nation. But it's also true that Christ is risen, and that while we may be marginalized, we can never be victimized, for heaven's sake. And to the contrary, we don't live in this world either as masters or as victims but as servants.”
Fear is rampant in American culture, says Pulitzer-Prize winning author Marilynne Robinson. And I’ve felt this fear too. Just saying you’re a Christian can be a recipe for career sabotage or becoming socially ostracized.
But fear is not a Christian habit of mind — love is. Even as Christians are losing public influence and public voice, Greg reminded me that night at the event that we may be pushed to the margins, but we need never adopt a mentality of victimhood. We are here neither as “culture-shapers” (masters) nor culture-defenders (victims) — we are simply servants. Those who have a deep, abiding hope in the risen Christ, and a enduring reason to love those with whom we live.
“One of the most painfully evident aspects of the Church's life — at least in public — is our fear and our contempt of those who differ from us. It is true that we do have and we must have deep differences with our neighbors. That's what it means to have convictions in a pluralist age. And it is true that some of our neighbors are going to be hostile to us because we're Christians… But it's also true that God loved you and me while we were enemies. Our neighbors, every single one of them, is made in his image and they have an irreducible dignity. And we have to be the people — the poets — who can recognize the beauty where it is and welcome them in.”
As Greg said this, I was convicted. Do I assume that I’ll be persecuted for my faith in a secular city, and is that why I’m always defending myself before a conversation has ever begun? Why is it that as a shrinking minority I feel the need to assert my “rights” to live a Christian? How might I simply open my workplace, my office, my dining room table and share my life with those that disagree with me? This is what Christ has first done for me — yet what I also find so uncomfortable in the reality of my Tuesday mornings — and Saturday evenings.
Yet inviting in the stranger is perhaps one of the most powerful things people of Christian faith can do in this pluralistic age.
“One of the most disappointing afflictions in contemporary Christianity is the way that we seem more eager to build a brand for ourselves than to build a common good for us all… “It is actually as we join together that we grow up into what [Paul] calls the full stature of mature, Christian personhood. And because of this, we're called to labor diligently to situate our gifts not simply in relationship to our own personal sense of calling, but to our brothers and sisters — to not simply get up in the morning and ask ‘What do I want to do?’ but ask ‘What needs to be done?’ ‘Who's doing it?’ and ‘How can I join them?’" I’m guilty of this. We all are. Brands must be built — it’s the only way we can market our products in a noisy world. I get this. But can the boundaries between brands and competitors melt a bit? Can we find ways to work together with rival schools, rival tech companies, rival businesses — even "rival" churches — for the good of all? (Could we even find ways to bless our competitors?) Finding a way to live in distinctive conviction yet humble collaboration is a huge challenge for the church today. And for me personally as I try to walk the narrow path of both conviction and compassion.
“Social healing in a disintegrated age cannot — it literally cannot — be a product of focusing on individuals, or even of focusing on individuals in aggregate and hoping by some math it will add up to a transformed society. It doesn't work that way. “We have to have an institutional horizon to our love. And the reason for this is because the social order that we inhabit and all the individual lives that we have are inescapably institutional in nature. We are formed by institutions at every point, and so if we're going to be a people who reimagine a civic ecology, we're going to have to take institutions very serious and learn that it's not unspiritual to do that.” Government employees, professional service providers, waitresses, nurses, engineers and even pastors are formed not only by individuals, but by the shared values, ethos and pathos that grow up in groups of people. Renewed cities require renewed institutions. Perhaps if we begin the counter-cultural work of thinking institutionally might witness and our service to the city might grow deeper.
“Politics does not in fact create [culture change], but actually expresses a larger cultural system of which it is a part. And so politics emerges out of this larger network of interpenetrating institutions that I'm calling the ‘public,’ or economics and politics and art and medicine and religion. All of these things together are forming an ecology. And because of this, we have to renounce our obsession with merely political change, because that is not how social healing works.”
Politics is downstream from culture. Because this is true, efforts to change the culture through electing the right officials will nearly always fail. Instead, culture springs up from an ecosystem of work — oil & gas, health care, finance, education, religion, restaurants and hotels.
Politics is important. It always has been for people of Christian faith. But being people of Christian faith in cities does not start in Washington D.C. It starts at work.
“One of the saddest features of our current cultural setting, which is definitely on grim display during the political season, is our tendency to think of the goal of all of our labors is actually the goal of conquest. To think that we're trying to win. This aspiration is to defeat our neighbors in a high-stakes culture war… “But listen: It is true that we serve a king — King Jesus — who right now is enthroned on heaven. Right now. Ruling all things. And as an expression of his reign sends light and wind on the righteous and on the wicked alike. He's giving gifts to people who are opposed to him. “And what that means is, if that's true of him, if we seek to inhabit his kingdom, where we seek the good not simply of ourselves, but of our neighbors… We are not trying to win; we are trying to love. Because of this, as we think about what it means to engage the city and to reimagine a civic ecology, we have to remember that our goal is not cultural conquest; it is to seek the common good.”
Jeff Haanen is a writer and entrepreneur. He founded Denver Institute for Faith & Work, a community of conveners, teachers and learners offering experiences and educational resources on the gospel, work, and community renewal. He is the author of An Uncommon Guide to Retirement: Finding God’s Purpose for the Next Season of Life and an upcoming two-book series on spiritual formation, vocation, and the working class for Intervarsity Press. He lives with his wife and four daughters in Denver and attends Wellspring Church in Englewood, Colorado.