Like people, cities – nations, and even civilisations – rise and fall. While I cannot condone the rioting/looting we have seen in English cities over the last week, there is a sense in which I believe we must embrace these events as gift.
Cities need to learn that they are special. This very often happens at their outset, for most cities have their birth in some particular gift – for example, Sheffield began because its fast-flowing rivers were ideal for powering the small-scale cutlery mills at the start of the Industrial Revolution. But the city must periodically be reminded that it is special, as some of its people love it enough to invest in regeneration programmes, or in hosting special events – such as European City of Culture, or the Olympics. These things in turn enable the wider population of the city to rediscover that they love their city, and so for the city as a living thing to rediscover that it is special.
Cities also need to learn that they are good. This happens as they experience success, as they grow and thrive. And cities are good. Theologically, I would want to point out that our story ‘ends’ with a city, with the New Jerusalem coming down to earth from heaven; with our world – including our cities – being made new, being all they could be without fear and hurt and self-centredness and prejudice and violence and tears. Cities point to the future – to both the continuity and discontinuity with what is to come. Cities grow. But as they grow, they face the temptation to believe that they are immortal, above all others, that their name should go out to all the earth, a testament to their greatness and glory forever. This is what happened at Babel. This is why cities need to experience failure.
Cities need to experience failure, in order to learn that God is good. In order to learn that God does not give up on the city. In order to learn that God sits with the city in its ashes, and, in time, may take her hand and lift her up again. But even if not – for our world is full of abandoned cities – the unrecoverable death of a given city is not the death without hope of resurrection of the city as a way of life. I believe that cities, on this earth made new, are the eternal home of most of humanity; and that our made-new cities will reflect the New Jerusalem as places of beauty and places of healing for the nations.
Only as we accept failure, face up to it, overcome it, and redeem it will our cities more faithfully point to, anticipate, and usher-in God’s coming to dwell among us.
And so rather than seeking to rebuild what was before the riots – to go back to success – we need to learn the lesson of failure; and, having learnt the lesson, move forward to a new moment of discovering that we are special; and go on to new and deeper success...
In this sense, the riots have been a gift. An opportunity, if we will learn.