As with many Americans I find the resurgence of downtowns, urban infrastructure, and public art to be exhilarating and encouraging. I love the ambiance of a working urban community where streets, sidewalks, public spaces, and creative urban design speak of vitality, commerce, safety, beauty, and being friendly for common use. I like the preservation of the old with the innovation of the new.
My calling as an urban pastor means however that this is not the only part of the city that I live in, or that I care about. While I am in such developed and dynamic neighborhoods I see passing through those same streets pan-handlers and homeless street walkers that I sometimes see in other contexts, namely the neighborhoods where their relatives live or the shelters which they frequent.
When I am in other urban neighborhoods, (those populated by a majority of single parent homes, failing schools, corners for the drug trade, sites of recent and future shootings and murders) I am struck with how different the present and the future look from this perspective. On a thankful note I realize that in these poor neighborhoods I often see faith at work, while in the new urban centers I sometimes see none.
For many Christian urban ministers and ministry workers the statistics of poverty with all its attendant pathology are not simply numbers but people with names and faces; people with babies, people with wounds, people in court and prison, and people we have buried. These facts and figures of urban and moral decline contrasted with the wealth of the new urban nestors and investors brings up challenges to our faith. Can our Christianity make any difference to these friends of ours who are crushed by poverty and failing neighborhoods?
It might be nice to be ignorant of another resurgence in our country, and that is the growth of unbelief. The philosophical trends of unbelief add weight to the foot on the neck of the urban poor. Poverty has always been around, just as God told Moses it would and as Jesus reminded us. It is a result of the fall into sin of mankind, and the result of the disobedience of people which has cost them the blessing of an abundant land and fruit from their labors. It is a result of sin in many parts including but not limited to that of oppression and theft from others, from the results of our sinful choices and behaviors, from corrupt governments or well meaning but stupid government. However, unbelief has added to the complication of trying to change poor urban communities.
As Evangelicals we have had the idea that if we could just save enough souls the world would change. We celebrate the testimony of one benighted soul led to God, and we see that person begin to make choices that start to raise them up both morally and economically. We still see that dynamic, we still see people being converted. Yet, in the context of present American urban poverty, one wonders if it isn't spitting against the wind. The tsunami of modern liberal thought has so destroyed the theological and moral foundations of every institution that protects us that individual soul saving seems to barely make a difference.
When the world was pagan and Christianity was new the insurgent germ of faith, hope, love, and Truth began to penetrate society. Intellectual and philosophical ideas were forming and one can even then see a yearning in them for something sure and comprehensive. Revelatory Truth from Scriptures that devastated other belief systems by exposing their inadequacies, immorality, and superstition began to change whole cultures and civilizations.
I am caught however in the present realization that the philosophies of unbelief have combined with poverty to complicate the plight of poor people. This combination will continue to hurt and destroy them, until the cultural framework is renewed so that the values of life, gender, marriage, family, morality, authority and Truth are built on a sure foundation. I am struck by the fact that some of the urban renewal we see is accomplished by people who value art, beauty, and enterprise but whose moral philosophy is terribly bankrupt and corrupt. While these progressive folks are enjoying the benefits of a renewed urban landscape the ideology they have accepted at American universities, in American law, and in popular culture has opened the gates toward an amazing self indulgence that excuses the killing of preborns, a destructive sexuality, the dissolution of the marriage bond, the abandonment of faithful and involved fatherhood, the blurring of distinction between men and women, and the despising of the authoritative role of institutions (including parenthood).
So what are we to do? Can we continue to obey the Great Commission while failing to fight the battle of the Cultural Mandate? Yes, we can, and we have, but are we making any difference for the community by just rescuing isolated individuals? The fault of most Reformed Theologians or at least those of the practitioner kind (pastors and elders) in Reformed churches, has been to study the battle of the Cultural Mandate while neglecting the battle, and failing miserably in the fulfillment of the Great Commission. Yes, like the story of the boy and the starfish washed up on the beach, throwing one back in made a difference for that one. So also the conversion of one, poor, rich, or middle class person makes an individual difference. Yet, the scope of the need is so vast that the present lack of urgency or speed of Reformed Evangelicals in bringing the Gospel to poor communities and the present surrender of cultural institutions of learning, law, government, and art to the purveyors of unbelief combines to simply crush those who live in those communities, and sometimes crushes the hope of those who wish to change them.
I write this not because I am in despair. I write it because I am angry. I am angry that the battle is bigger than I am, that its component parts seem beyond my ability to influence. I am angry that the philosophies of unbelief make life so cheap that the majority of black conceptions in New York City end in abortion. I am angry that men make babies and don't stay to raise them. I am angry that unfathered children have no culture of obedience and respect and that this lack of discipline with low parental oversight creates chaotic schools. I am angry that a liberal philosophical system castrates educators so they can't discipline children but have to appease them. I am angry that women can't respect men, and women have taken on some of the worst aspects of uncivilized men. I am angry that there are too many talented and beautiful men in prison, and not enough educated black men to marry some of these beautiful sisters.
I am angry that the one thing Jesus told his disciples to do so that he could make them like himself we don't seem to want to do; "follow me and I will make you fishers of men." I am angry that instead of wearing two guns, one called Cultural Mandate and one called Great Commission, we instead seem to go through life unarmed wearing only clothes that make us fit in. I guess what I am asking for are some radical Christian (metaphorical) cowboys to come to the city and kick the culture's ass, and love like Jesus, and live like Jesus, and be Jesus to our people.