- May 25, 2012
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A Cosmopolitan Christianity
Psalm 46.5; Acts 1.12-14
Russ Dean, May 20, 2012
Amy’s father was wise and funny, and James Jacks had a way with words. We carry a number of his economical expressions with us – not expressions about money, mind you, just his pithy sayings that required few words to convey their message. “Act like you’ve got parents,” he would say. Amy quoted this in a sermon once, and I heard one of you repeat that admonition this past week! One of the last times James visited Charlotte before he died six years ago, he arrived at our house completely exasperated. He’d seen more traffic between I77 and Eastburn Road than he’d seen in Clinton, SC in the last 6 months. The noise. The congestion. The chaos. He’d hardly gotten in the front door that day before he croaked, “You know what would be the first thing I’d do if I lived in Charlotte?” “What’s that, Pop?” we dutifully asked. “I’d move!”
The tension between us citified, city-slickers, and our less-congestified and rural neighbors is probably as old as the first city, and it’s not likely to go away anytime soon. James Jacks was certainly not alone in thinking that Charlotte might be a tolerable place to visit from time to time, if you just had to go to see the grandsons, but that it was no place to call home! But in 2008 he became part of the minority on that score. World population experts had predicted it for several years, and in 2008 we tipped the scales. As of last year’s numbers, according to the Population Division of the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, of the world’s total population of almost 7 billion people, 52% now live in cities. 73% of Europeans are city-dwellers, and 82% of all Americans. Though the African and Asian continents are still mostly rural, the demographic shift toward urbanization is “mostly taking place in Africa and Asia, largely in low-income settlements in developing countries.” According to a report in the Christian Science Monitor, “by 2015, there are likely to be 59 African cities with populations between 1 million and 5 million… and 253 [such cities] in Asia.”
Ancient Babylon was often depicted in scripture as a caricature: she was the evil city opposing God and God’s ways. By contrast Jerusalem was “the city of God.” Gerald Janzen introduces an article called “A Tale of Two Cities,” with these words:
When Aristotle postulated that “man is a political animal,” he did not refer to the art of government, but to something more fundamental. The distinctive human habitat is the city, the polis, and the forms of life distinctive of humans are those proper to communal existence in the city… only gods and beasts can live in the wilderness.
Humans are city dwellers – and we are becoming more so, day by day. I understand the call of the quieter, slower-paced life of the small town, the bucolic attraction of rural America, but the city is a microcosm of the world, and there is beautiful energy in that that is life-giving. Art and architecture, theatre and industry, the city opens our horizons – there is a world beyond our little world, and it’s actually here, among us. Reading about the people of the world in a school book is one thing; interacting with them as your schoolmates and neighbors is quite another. Cities, despite all the attendant problems of crime and poverty and pollution, broaden our understanding of community – and in a world that is getting smaller and smaller through technology, this is a good thing. Globalization means that we are going to the world. All of our biggest companies are international. Many of you deal across national lines as a regular part of your work. But globalization also means the world is coming to us. When you walk the streets of any of the world’s great cities, you meet the world as you go. Rich and poor. Black and white. Educated and common. People of every race and creed and clan.
It should not go unnoticed that in the recent statewide referendum on the so-called marriage amendment, only seven of North Carolina’s counties recorded a majority vote against the amendment – and all seven of these counties are urban. They are counties with a concentration of diverse people and with centers of education. Counties with broader population diversity – and counties with the influence of higher education – voted differently than small town, rural precincts. Country people are NOT dumb — but they are less in contact with the world, and becoming aware of the world, asking as Jesus once asked, “Who is my neighbor?” changes our world.
Maybe it is no mistake, then, that the Church was born in a city. No mistake that Christianity spread as an urban movement. Today’s scripture is today’s lectionary text; it is Ascension Sunday on the church calendar. After 40 days, and resurrection appearances to many of the disciples, after preparing them that he would leave, but that he would not leave them alone, the book of Acts says they went with Jesus to the Mount of Olives, just a short walk from Jerusalem and he was lifted up into a cloud. They stood staring, wondering what to do, until an angel called them out of this trance and said, in effect, don’t just stand there… do something. So they went… to the city. They left the mountain-high of this “other-worldly” experience, and they entered the noise and the congestion and the chaos of one of the world’s most cosmopolitan places. The word cosmopolitan comes from two Greek roots, “people” “of the world,” and Jerusalem fit that bill as well as any place in the ancient world. People of the world gathered in Jerusalem. The city-fication of Christianity is not a new thing. Our faith was born as a cosmopolitan expression.
John Buchanan, editor of The Christian Century magazine reminds us:
In the first century, as Christianity spread from its Hebrew/Palestinian beginnings along the trade routes of the Roman Empire, the young church quickly became an urban institution. Paul wrote letters to churches in cities: Corinth, Ephesus, Thessalonica, Rome.
As our world, specifically our world which is Charlotte, NC, as our world gets bigger and bigger and smaller and smaller – as we encounter Jews and Hindus, Muslims and Bahais, Buddhists and Sufis and other Baptists and secularists along the way – what will it mean for our Christianity? As we are walking through the Bible this year, charting the progression of the biblical story, we’ve been talking about the church for the last few weeks. Created as a result of an experience called resurrection, the church was born in silence, and found its voice among believers and doubters. The church received its corporate charge when the disciples’ early encounter was formulated into a centering and summarizing theology of resurrection, and the church grew when it wrote its own mission statement, based on Jesus’ command, “Go into all the world and make disciples…” (Matthew 28.19).
It’s no longer necessary to go in order to take the gospel to the world. The world is here – and since Christianity was born in a city, this is nothing new. But the cities are growing, so we need to ask how do we do Christian theology in a pluralistic world? How does Christianity interface with a world of competing claims to truth? Let me make three suggestions.
We begin by recognizing community. It’s not us and them. No matter how you try to slice and dice it. Race or socio-economic status or education or political party or gender or sexual orientation or religion… It’s not us and them. The Dalai Lama, Tibetan Buddhism’s great leader has recently said,
I find that because of modern technological evolution and our global economy and as a result of the great increase in population, our world has greatly changed: it has become much smaller. However, our perceptions have not evolved at the same pace; we continue to cling to old national demarcations and the old feelings of ‘us’ and ‘them.’
Jesus was constantly offending the religious establishment, who wanted a neat and tidy definition of us and them, who was in and who was out, and Jesus was constantly breaking down these barriers. Religious elites were the outsiders, the so-called pagans were his candidates for sainthood. East and west will meet at the table, and eat with Abraham… (Matthew 8.11) he said… All are welcome in the City of God – for there is no us and them. We’re all just us. Reach out, this week. Reach across the aisle, or across the street. The world is at your fingertips. If you want to find a place to meet the world which is Charlotte, call Mecklenburg Ministries and get involved. You can’t do anything better for yourself or for our world than to broaden your horizons through a friendship with someone who is different from you. The fact that we are all children of God guarantees that the book title has it right – they’re different, but just The Same Different as Me. Your Christianity, and Christianity at large, will deepen, as you find your own humanity in the eyes of the world.
In the second place, be open to the ever-changing “truth” of God. Oh, some would argue, piously, that God’s truth never changes. Maybe not… but there’s hardly any practical difference in God’s truth and our understanding of God’s truth. 100 years ago in Charlotte, you would have been hard pressed to find a Baptist Christian who didn’t know that God’s truth included a clear demarcation between the races, which primarily meant that white people were superior to black people. Thanks be to God that “truth” changed! God’s truth keeps changing. You can read it in history as clear as the ink with which it is recorded. We think we understand… but then we realize, that wasn’t it… at all. George Bernard Shaw once said, “All truth begins as heresy.” We need a little humility in our doctrine. Maybe we don’t really know what we think we know.
In an article about doing theology in our global context, Richard Cunningham says:
The [once] presumed [universality] of theology… was and is an illusion. All systems are deeply embedded in specific cultural situations… Theology is the church’s interpretation of the historical message of the gospel and its faith confession in its own generation’s contemporary setting.
These are bold words for a Southern Baptist professor: the gospel is always culturally conditioned – which is just to say, our understanding of the gospel will always be determined, in part, by the context in which we live – and our context is changing. So, Cunningham says, “Our challenge is always to remain open to a new word from God or a new breeze of the Holy Spirit without being enticed by every siren’s song that catches our ears.” To be sure, there are many siren songs that echo through the streets of the city. They do not all speak truth. But Christianity has nothing to fear from being part of a pluralistic conversation, by speaking our truth in love, as one of many voices that echo through Charlotte. Your faith will deepen as you become part of that dialogue.
And finally, and most importantly, be a witness to love. In some gospel-preaching traditions, the preacher will pause at various points of the sermon and ask, “Can I get a witness?” Someone is supposed to either say “Amen!”or stand up and testify. Christianity began in just this way. A handful of untrained, mostly ineloquent disciples – simple people: a fisherman and a tax collector and a prostitute… simply telling their stories. “His name was Jesus… he told me… I saw him… he touched me…”
It’s the simplest – and most powerful – of all forms of communication: your story. Who is Jesus to you? What does this Christian story mean for you? What is faith, if you have it? And why are you still here, even if you don’t? What does it mean to be a person who is trying to find God – and believing that the best way to accomplish that is to be a part of a worshiping community?
Be a witness to truth. And speak it, as the Bible says, in love (Ephesians 4.15). Your experience. Your truth. In your words. Christianity does not need to compete with the religions of the world. We need to communicate with them. It’s not us or them. We’re not in and they’re out. We’re all in God’s world and God’s love – and we need to hear their stories as much as we need to tell ours, and we need to trust that in that ever-enfolding narrative… God will speak.
Live in community. Be open to truth, which is always becoming. Witness. Be a witness to love.
These practices have always made Christianity cosmopolitan – and as the people of the world become more and more the people of our world… may it be so.
A cosmopolitan Christianity – may it be so!