Can a city ever be holy?

Göbekli Tepe

One of my disciplines for maintaining my not very great knowledge of the Spanish language is reading the newspaper El Pais, and especially its weekly scientific bulletin. This week I read about archeological excavations at Göbekli Tepe in Turkey, where some 20 yeqrs ago an ancient “temple” was uncovered. It has been dated to around 12,000 years ago, before any known farming culture and before the urban settlements which farming made possible. It belongs to a palaeolithic culture which was perhqps on the cusp of transformation from a purely hunter – gatherer mode of living to one involving settlement. Göbekli was probably not a real temple and certainly not part of a city, but rather a sacred site, where religious rituals and communal gathering took place; where also it was possible for strangers to meet in peace and exchange useful information as well as goods. It was therefore the prototype not only of the temple, but also of the market and the city. Doubtless those who used it thought it full of promise for the future of human beings. It was abandoned maybe 2500 years later, by which time proto urban civilisations were developing in the Fertile Crescent, dependent on settled agriculture which produced a food surplus and made possible the division of labour, including the  existence of a bureaucracy and priesthood.

In the same science bulletin I also read a report of the World Health Organisation which predicted that within 25 years three quarters of humanity would live in cities if present trends continue. They also made the critical judgement that present day cities are not designed for people but for cars, creating conditions which are very bad for the health of human beings, and most living things: serious and increasing air pollution, lack of living and green space, lethal traffic speeds, damaging excesses of light and noise. From the initial division of labour in cities which may have been liberating, there has developed an extraordinary division of social class and wealth, whereby some of the richest people in the world live cheek by jowel with some of the poorest. Such conditions constitute a crime in themselves and are the mother of crimes. The WHO report simply records the facts and their present consequences, while looking with horror at the probable future. The dream of human richness which may have animated the creators of Göbekli Tepe has become a nightmare.

Paris air pollution

The biblical book of The Revelation pictures this nightmare city as Babylon, the Great Whore that attracts the allegiance of rulers and merchants the world over, and trades in human lives. The prophet John foresees the punishment and destruction of the Great City while those who have been victims of its violence sing, “Alleluia, and the smoke of its burning goes up forever!”

Nevertheless, when the prophet finally writes about the dwelling place of God and God’s people, he chooses the image of a city – “And I saw the Holy City, New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven like a bride adorned for her husband.” The city is a place of order and equality, even its throne is occupied by a Lamb. The water of life is freely available to all, the leaves of its trees heal the wounds of the nations, and God himself performs the motherly duty of wiping tears from the eyes of those who weep. It is a carefully formed image of the common life of God and humanity, but it is the fruit of the sacrifice of Jesus and his followers who refused to give their allegiance to  Babylon, and suffered the consequences.

For the writer of The Revelation, the city could be an image of evil, but could still also be an image of perfection.

IMG_0457Is this still the case today or should we admit that there has never been a city whose benefits outweighed its appalling injustice and that there never will be; that even God cannot bring together hundreds of thousands or millions of human beings without also bringing injustice and squalor. Should we admit that the human dream expressed in the creation of cities is a busted flush, an idol that has presided over oppression and bloodshed for 10,000 years, which cannot be cleansed even by the blood of the Lamb?

It’s a bad thought, since almost all the glories of human thought and art have been produced in cities. Against that evidence I can only set my argument above and two small examples of something different.

1. Wendell Berry the American ecologist, philosopher and poet, has argued over many years for the small, family farm as an ideal form of human cooperation with others people and with nature. He is convinced that the sheer difference of scale imposed by urban dwelling means neglect of the particularity of people and nature. Only a precise and modest knowledge of living creatures can lead to the kind of mutual care which is our salvation.

2. In the Gospel story of the Feeding of the 5000, Jesus is faced by an urban sized crowd which looks to him for leadership. Before he feeds them he makes them sit down on the “green grass” in “groups of ten and fifty.” Doubtless the writer saw in this a prophecy of the small communities of the Christian churches, scattered throughout  the territory of the Great City, Rome. Perhaps he wanted to show Jesus insisting on face to face community as the right unit of God’s justice and sharing.

The WHO report argues that the future of cities is an urgent issue for societal planning. I think it’s also an issue for Christian theology.

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