Last year I had the privilege of being one of over 45,000 people who attended the United Nation’s Habitat 3 conference in Quito, Ecuador. The conference was a coming together of city leaders, urban planners, academics, NGO’s and representatives from many consumer and societal groups. At the conference the New Urban Agenda which is setting the path for the development of cities over the next twenty years was officially adopted by all the UN member states. For those of us who are used to serving in our neighbourhoods and working to eradicate poverty at a grass-roots level the UN processes can seem a bit of a yawn. However, as grass-root activists passionate about seeing shalom or the values of God’s Kingdom become more normal in our communities, I am convinced it is an important document to get our heads and hearts around. As we gain an understanding of the global direction cities are headed in, we will better be able to position ourselves to partner with others towards the beautiful picture of shalom.
Perceptions of the City
Over recent years, as a reflective practitioner I have had cause to spend time thinking about the nature of cities. Already over 50% of the world’s population lives in an urban environment with that expected to rise to 60% by 2030. Many of the cities that will accommodate this growth are yet to be built and will be centered around rapidly urbanizing countries in Africa and Asia.
Cities are places that hold in tension the hope of the ‘good life’ and the despair of an impoverished existence. I live in Fitzroy and am very grateful for my inner-city abode and the vantage point it gives me of the world’s most livable city. From my balcony on the seventh floor, I can see the sun glinting in the windows of the buildings opposite or look down the street and see it coming to life in the morning light, the cafes opening, familiar strangers greeting each other at the tram stop and the smell of coffee and fresh baked goods filling the air. However, even in Melbourne this is not everyone’s perception of the city. On the way to meetings I’m as guilty as anyone of rushing past the person leaning against a shop window with a sign that says, ‘Hi, my name is…’ The city seems very different to people experiencing homelessness or some other form of marginalisation as they wonder if they will get enough to eat, be able to stay warm, free from abuse and if they can sleep the following night undisturbed. Again, how would the city appear for those 600 million people who live in urban slums?
Shalom and Imagination
Cities hold both the hopeful promise of an abundant existence for individuals and their families, a shelter perhaps from the harshness of an agrarian based society, and the crushing urbanised despair of broken dreams and aspirations. I wonder though if we can imagine something other than these two extremes and how scripture might help us in this task? Theologian, Walter Brueggeman, suggests that passages like Isaiah 65:17-25 can in fact promote a new social imaginary. It can be a struggle to bring a sense of imagination to our reading of Scripture however this practice is quite normal for rabbis, Christian mystics, monastic orders such as the Franciscans and even Jesus may have evoked our imagination once or twice in his story telling.
The Isaiah passage and others like it in Jeremiah and Ezekiel point to an alternate approach to the systems of the world. In my teaching on these passages I often ask, what would your community look like if the Kingdom of God or shalom was more visible? I wonder what comes to mind for you? More inclusion, a greater degree of connectedness, less poverty, less crime, an embracing of diversity, ordinary people helping ordinary people, beautiful environments, pride in our local community, more people exploring faith and so on. As you picture these things you are imagining the new social reality that Brueggeman and others point to. Tom Wright is particularly helpful here as he reminds us that because of Jesus death and resurrection the creating of this type of world has begun and our role is to enjoy being co-labourers with God in its ongoing creation.
Over the last fifty years there has been a lot of debate around the understanding of shalom and thus this new social reality. Some have wanted to see it as the absence of war and have limited the definition to peace, however this does not do justice to the holistic nature of the Hebrew worldview. Westermann, an old testament scholar puts it like this; In the context of a greeting, he understands that shalom is asking about everything needed for a healthful life. This includes good health, a sense of wellbeing, good fortune, the cohesiveness of the community, relationship to relatives and their state of being, and everything else deemed necessary for everything to be in order.
What if this picture of the world could become more normal? I believe it can.
Shalom - A Framework for Creative Responses
In the past couple of months I’ve had the honour of delivering training for the Red Cross and a local government in Melbourne. In the training, I’ve outlined what I call a framework for flourishing which is akin to shalom. I’ve been developing this framework as part of my PhD studies, looking at shalom / flourishing and social infrastructure. Based on passages like Isaiah 65:17-25 and the thinking of Westermann, Brueggeman and others, this framework becomes a check in for how our communities are doing as well as a road map to help them move towards God’s picture of the way life can be. As we briefly explore the framework please hold in mind this is a developing prototype, also it is not a hierarchy and in fact these elements work together concurrently.
In the context of community (as working at an individual level is not in the Hebrew worldview), shalom or flourishing is experienced when someone has;
- Their basic needs met: food, shelter, health
- A sense of belonging to land and to others
- A growing sense of purpose: being able to live out interests and skills
- Their contributions valued as well as valuing the contribution of others
- A chance to celebrate: achievements as well as culturally significant event
- A growing spirituality: a growing sense of something bigger than themselves (for us this is faith in God)
For me one of the exciting things is that one church, organization or group can’t hope to work on all these fronts. In fact, it is only in partnership and the embracing of diversity that as a whole community we can each play a part in us all moving towards the wonderful possibility of shalom. I wonder what your group’s part is? And who they could partner with to see the whole community move towards shalom? As I interact with people in the social services, local government and beyond I am heartened to see like minds and desires to create great spaces and places. They may not use the same language but the heart is the same. This is why I believe it is important to work not only at the grassroots but with the policy makers, urban planners, academics and those exploring big picture issues in our cities, so we get to be a part of the conversation.
Shalom encompasses God’s dream for our communities and cities, this dream can only be reached as we move from our isolated silos to embrace, pray with and work with others. As we do this we may just find our own shalom.
If you’d like to explore more about shalom and its place in the creation of great cities why not consider joining us in Singapore in November (http://urbanshalomproject.org/events-and-forums/) As well you can check out the New Urban World Journal (http://newurbanworld.org/publications/
Andre is a writer, researcher, consultant and PhD candidate with a background in grassroots community development. His desire is to empower others to strengthen their communities and play their part in creating a better world. He has also released his first book entitled ‘Building Communities of The Kingdom.’