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Why is sin urbanized?

The question comes to me as to why I think it is that we so often see sin most systemically in the urban context. Good question. Here are my thoughts:

Because the operative word for defining systemic sin is “social justice.”

Because, when we define “justice” in general terms and “social justice” in sociological terms, we bifurcate the two and see the biggest problems in the urban context. This is a mistake.

Here’s why: the word “justice” is no different than “social justice” in biblical categories — just run your eyes quickly through Exodus or Deuteronomy or the prophets (and don’t just go to Micah’s famous text). There you learn that “justice” refers to “what is right” (say, tsedeqah or mishpat) and what is right is determined by “what God says” (Torah) and behind what God says is “who God is” (the perichoretic splendor of love and holiness and beauty). So, in biblical categories “justice” is indistinguishable from “social” justice because it is the Nature of God that determines — we are talking ontology here — what is right because God is What is Right.


So, when we define “social” justice as the cracks into which the poor fall and the marginalized can be found, we most often are operating now with a meaning of justice that comes from Mill and Hume and those sorts, in other words, from what gives us individual freedom and protection of rights and personal happiness. But, this is not biblical at all: Christian justice is anything that conforms to God’s perichoretic splendor — in other words, Love. As Jonathan Edwards said it, “heaven is a world of love.”

When we define justice as “social” justice, instead of God’s justice, we find its biggest glaring problems in the City and so we focus the terms on those problems. But, friends, think about it, urbanites and suburbanites each struggle with the glory of God.

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posted May 25, 2005 at 10:23 am

I appreciate your past 2 entries. I’ve not thought about them much, and on the same line of thought. Thank you for helping expand my thought.About a year and a half ago, I became the pastor in a very small town in the smallest county in Arizona. Thought I was leaving most of the social issues we faced in Phoenix. Found out that our county has the highest meth use per capita in the entire state. The needs of people to be transformed by Christ are no different here than in large urban areas. The only difference that I see is I know more of them personally now.

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Scot McKnight

posted May 25, 2005 at 10:56 am

He who has ears, let him (or her) hear what the people are saying.

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Brad Boydston

posted May 25, 2005 at 10:24 pm

All injustice is rooted in a social problem that occured in a rural garden (that garden out there by the Tigres and Euphrates rivers). So it’s not right to speak of it as an “urban” issue. But it is right to speak of it as “social injustice” because it is rooted in the way we have excluded ourselves from the society of God — back to that whole notion that St John of Damascus called perichoresis — interpenetration or connectedness. It seems that the language of “connectedness” provides the framework for understanding all things theological — including justice.

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Mike O

posted May 26, 2005 at 7:16 am

I think churches “market” the urban paradigm well. What I mean is that it is common for suburban (which is where most Christians live) churches to have a program for the urban setting. They visit city missions, soup kitchens, collect clothes, tutor kids, and a number of other ministries.The urban setting is handy, only a short drive from suburbia. And it’s efficient. Many of these missions are run by wise leaders, focused on a few needs, and administering them well. With a sense of wisdom and “street smarts”, that usually requires a “tough love” style.About 8 percent of America lives in a rural setting, not near one of the big SMSA’s, but the closest city is less than 15,000 people. A very difficult, and inefficient ministry to be involved in. Much like RMC’s challenges.Lots of elderly, mentally challenged, drug addicted people. Maybe we need a means of “adopting” a county?

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posted May 26, 2005 at 11:57 am

i see sin everywhere, but i see it most clearly in the suburbs…almost all my Christian life I’ve been connected to urban ministry (even when I used to live in the burbs). many of those the most obvious ills of the urban areas are often suburban problems that play themselves out in the city. you could call it “commuter-sin.” i lived in central london (UK) for a number of years and all my friends avoiding going out most saturday nights (amateur night) because of the influx of suburbanites “out to party.”

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posted May 26, 2005 at 5:14 pm

Another question might be… why have we made “social justice” into something equal to a government issue? People make up the government, sin is in people, therefore we are not fighting against “the man”, we are fighting against ourselves.I have been thinking much lately about the connection between individual brokenness and communal/social brokenness. Both are real, both are compelling, and I believe both are inextricably connected. It’s sort of circular. The individual exists for the whole, and the whole exists for the individual. The healing and redemption of Jesus is for both the whole and the individual.All that to say… yes, urbanization is a narrow and incomplete view of sin. If only we all knew how to love more… (sigh)

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posted May 26, 2005 at 5:47 pm

Scot,An interesting article, but in your discussion of “confining,” you limited justice issues to urban and suburban areas without and did not mention rural issues.Being raised in suburbia, I got a good schooling in the Biblical injustices that are destroying small family farms and rural communities when I was pastor of a rural church.Entire communities have been decimated as large companies have nearly wiped out family farming in parts of the country. Many farmers are having to sell to developers because they can either no longer afford to farm, or their children have decided not to carry on the work because the deck is so stacked against them.It pained me to see people in my congregation struggle to hold on to the farms that had been in their families for years because of policies of economists who admittedly do not figure human cost into their economic equations.During the Clinton Admin, the Ag Dept, released a lengthy report that said small family farms were best for the environment, the social fabric, and providing quality food, and even security.And yet all those subsidies you hear about are going only to the wealthy corporate farms and not to the little guy.You don’t have to look hard in the prophets to find the host of related justice issues. I have ministered in urban and suburban settings, but still get frustrated when the church puts so much effort into urban ministry and neglects rural areas.Grace and peace.Stan

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posted May 26, 2005 at 7:21 pm

Can anyone provide me with numerous Scriptures that tell us that we, as the community of God, should work toward the resolution of social ills outside of the community of God (i.e., Israel or the Church)? Or is this just assumed? Please provide me with Scripture and not “well we should as Christians because, etc.” ThanksPondering

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J B Hood

posted May 27, 2005 at 5:11 am

Anonymous,It’s a great question. A few quick ones here as I have time. The Good Samaritan answers that question: “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus is clearly driving at the fact that your neighbor is NOT the guy who shares your religion, etc. Note especially the last two verses (Lk 10:38-9, I think).There are maybe dozens of OT texts that talk about mercy for sojourners (not gleaning the edges of your fields for orphans, widows, and sojourners; equal protection and care; e.g., Ex 23:9).We seem to forget that the killing of Canaanites did NOT apply to other people groups–not even to Egyptians, who were “not to be despised” since Israel had sojourned (protected from famine!) in their territory; same for other ‘neighbors’ like Edom, Moab, etc–originally, at least, until they betrayed Israel.Jesus notes that Elijah went to a non-Israeli widow instead of Israelite widows; and Elisha helaed a Syrian rather than many Israelites. Luke 4:24-30.God’s mercy on Nineveh, and his judgment on Jonah for failing to desire mercy for Nineveh (even the cattle?) is trenchant.Most important, though, are the ways we’re told to help outsiders. One example here: Galatians 6:10: “Therefore, as opportunity exists [and boy does it ever these days!!! Unless your church, like some I’m around, ghetto themselves up and never talk about justice, mercy, etc…], let us do good to all people, especially those of the household of faith.” Note that, even though there is some priority for believers, we are STILL required to do good for unbelievers. There’s more of this around Paul and elsewhere.Above all, the model of Jesus making himself poor so that others could become rich (II Cor 8-9) is vitally important.As is the idea, Gen 12:3, that “all nations will be blessed” in Abraham and his seed. As we are now “Abraham’s seed,” we’ve got the ball! Granted Jesus was the supreme blessing, the idea was NEVER to keep that to ourselves (a huge part of Israel’s problem), but to send it out to the world, and in so doing winning many to the Lord…

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bill bean

posted May 27, 2005 at 7:21 am

While I agree with the point Scot is making regarding God’s justice vs. social justice I’m not sure you can read the bible and not come away thinking that the poor, widows, and orphans receive special attention. I’m not sure it’s what you are saying but what I’m hearing is that there really isn’t much difference between the suburban middle-class struggle and that of the poor, that their problems are, in some sense, equal. Maybe you could clarify your point a bit more or flesh out the “so what” of what you’re saying.

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posted May 27, 2005 at 10:30 am

Hi jb hood,thanks for answering, but I’m not sure any verses you quoted answer my question. The Galatians verse was the only thing that came close. Certainly we are to do good, but what does that mean? Does that mean Paul set up soup kitchens and lobbied the government for better housing? Let me talk about some of the things you quoted:1. The Good Samaritan cannot mean that everyone is our neighbor otherwise the man should have answered Jesus’ question by stating, “Everyone is my neighbor,” rather than just the Samaritan man. The point of the text then would be that the true “Jew” is your “fellow believer in the community,” which is what the Hebrew word for neighbor means in the first place.2. I’m not sure how being hospitable to sojourners equates to solving social ills in their culture. I would transfer this over to those who come into the community, but are not specifically of that local community (note that the sojourners must also obey Yahweh, so this might mean they are believers). Secondly, we certainly should be good to those who are not of the body coming to see what it is all about, but once again where is the spending of time to solve social ills in all of that?3. Everything in the Deuteronomistic History (like the story of Elijah) seems to be conveying that the true Israelite is one that serves God, not those who are simply ethnically so. The Widow to me then is not a secular person, but one of the household of faith.4. Nineveh is evangelistic. Jonah is not going to deal with the poor quality of water in the town. He is going to tell people to repent and turn into a relationship with Yahweh. I certainly would include in that that their sins include social evils, but I see no concern about solving them outside of converting people to God (note that if they had not repented, there would be no more social issues at all since God was going to wipe them out).5. Do you really mean to argue that because God didn’t kill everyone, that means He wanted Israel to solve everyone’s social problems? That’s quite a stretch. Note that in Scripture, God saves Egypt from famine because of Israel, not because of Egypt (although we certainly can say God watches over the nations, is it theh Church’s job to do that, or to watch over those within its community?).6. Galatians may be speaking of something different. pas “all” may mean “all classes of” since that seems to be what Paul is talking about in the letter (Jew and Gentile, slave and free, man and woman). The word for “especially” is a hard word. It may actually mean “specifically,” so it depends on how you take it, but I would note that we should do good to everyone, but once again, what does that mean?8. 2 Cor 8-9 is more of a stretch on your part. Is Paul meaning to say that because Christ became poor, we should deal with the situations of the poor in general, i.e., the unbelieving and disobedient poor? Or would you view this as an outreach for the Gospel? I don’t think 2 Cor 8-9 would speak to an idea that we can’t just preach the Gospel without making social ills or anything else a gimic to sell the Gospel.9. Why does Paul say in 1 Tim 5:3-16 limit those widows who are helped to be among the faithful if everyone is to be helped?10. Gen 12 I think has its fulfillment more in the Gospel, as mentioned both in the OT and NT passages we noted above.So I have yet to see numerous definitive verses that really tell the community of God to concern themselves with the social ills of the community of the world, but instead see a lot about the community of God being told to hospitably invite the community of the world to give up its community and join ours.Pondering

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J B Hood

posted May 27, 2005 at 2:52 pm

Pondering, I appreciate your care for exegetical focus, but I think you need to be even MORE careful!FYI, I’m certainly not saying that NT Christians necessarily see soup kitchens and govt. aid of any sort as the answer. Just that there IS responsibility. Furthermore, there is SUCH AN IMMENSE amount of work to be done for poor Christians in the US (I spent 4 years working in their schools) and ESPECIALLY overseas. The question, then, is often going to be meaningless–it is frequently impossible to fully isolate the covenant community from unbelievers. We should be more than willing to help others (with all the biblical admonitions about work, conditions for help, etc. assumed), and assume that this is going to sometimes encompass more than believers. But don’t argue with that–just look at the texts below.For a great resource on helping those in need as part of evangelism, see World Relief (NAE relief agency)–they always, where possible work THROUGH local churches so that those in need see the mercy flowing through the Cross.Now to the text:1) You’re right about the def of neighbor, but Jesus is redefining the definition of neighbor by using a Samaritan! He’s not just saying “Love your enemy,” but 2) Sojourners aren’t believers. Some could be (Ex 12:48); but a study shows it was NOT a category of the covenant community. Let me give you modern application–refugees come to this country every day, and are almost always put in dire settings (gang-infested housing complexes, failing schools, etc); I’ve seen refugees raped, economically abused by landlords and bosses, placed in schools that guarantee their failure, etc. I have a responsibility as a Christian to address these issues, whether they are Christian (like my Sudanese brothers and sisters) or not. A Christian response to this should probably be holistic, focused on social ills, not just trying to address singular problems. 3) She may be an Israelite to you, but she was a Gentile in the DtrH, and to Jesus in Luke 4, where she and Namaan the Assyrian are contrasted with lepers and widows in Israel.4) Good words on Nineveh, in general I’d agree, but would want to add, though, that “evangelism, gospel-ism” is never merely “spiritual” and separated from physical justice, mercy, etc (based on what we know of YHWH and his laws, repentance probably had to include this!!! see Luke 3:7-14 for a NT example). Note the “much cattle”–not just SOULS God cares about.5) Just a reminder, not an argument; go to the text for my argument, regrettably I don’t have time to find the verses in the Pentateuch.6) Paul’s specifically/especially or however we define it is applied to a category BEYOND and WITHIN the category of “all”. Granted pas can go lots of ways, in this instance it only makes sense as “all people”. There are other Pauline references here that are almost identical but I can’t get them at the moment. I don’t think there was much doubt for him about what “doing good” meant (see especially Gal 2:10 to find out what was really important).8) I’m not trying to make an argument with II Cor 8-9, just give an example of being ‘sacrificial’ (even when those for whom you are sacrificing don’t appreciate or understand the sacrifice) and showing God’s love.9) Paul is talking about the official “list” of widows. He’s not saying, “don’t do this for others,” but describing how to go about the organized work of caring for the truly needy in the covt community. 10) You are right on this; but I don’t think the Gospel is just about “spiritual” things, however–see Luke 4:18.Hope that helps!JBH

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J B Hood

posted May 27, 2005 at 3:00 pm

Sorry, anon., forget to add one:Jeremiah 29:7 (read the context) mandates a concern even for wicked Babylon; for its peace and prosperity (social situation). Daniel also seems to indicate likewise that God’s people aren’t to completely withdraw from their environment, but seek the good of those among whom they live.This is my point on the other nations surrounding Canaan–the goal was not antagonism (though that usually happened), but peace, prosperity, mutual assistance in time of need. Sorry I couldn’t find the verses!JBH

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Milton Stanley

posted May 28, 2005 at 5:36 am

I couldn’t find trackback here, but wanted to let you know I’ve linked to your post from my blog. Peace.

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posted May 29, 2005 at 5:13 pm

jbh,thanks again for responding. Just a few things. My concern is that our work gets so stretched out that it is of little importance to those we aid. I used to belong to Phil Yancey’s old Church on Lasalle St in Chicago, and we used to take up whole Sundays talking about stopping building projects which would infringe on poor neighborhoods. I really don’t think that is what a worship service should be about, but it goes into a generalized focus. But let me address some things.1. The Samaritan is used because he is the TRUE JEW by action. That is one of the major points of Matthew and all of the Gospels (one of the few things they have in common in their theological emphasis). The same for the DH. The widow is an Israelite spiritually, not ethnically. She, like Rahab and Caleb in Joshua, show themselves to be God’s people by their allegiance to Him (contrasted with Achan, a Judahite in the royal tribe, who becomes a Canaanite through his disobedience and thus is destroyed–herem–in the same mammer as the Canaanites).2. The category of pas here hinges on the use of malista as not something within and beyond. See 1 Tim 4:10, “For it is for this we labor and strive, because we have fixed our hope on the living God, who is the Savior of all men, malista (especially/specifically speaking) of those who believe.” Unless you’re a universalist, this verse would not be stating that God is the Savior of all men without exception, but all classes of men (here poor and rich, lower and higher class) specifically speaking of those who believe (malista would be a clarification of who is REALLY being talked about).3. I’m not sure we can make a distinction between some official list and some unofficial aid given. Paul actually does say “refuse to put” all sorts of widows on the list for lack of qualification (namely, faithfulness in the community of believers). So there are people being excluded from receiving aid. Are you really saying that officially they can’t receive it, but unofficially Paul wants people to give to those who reject Christ, live in ungodliness and use their time to spread gossip (would the Church not be funding ungodliness by doing so?)? I think that might be a distinction you are making, but I don’t see that here or in the early Church.4. Jeremiah states that the reason why they are to seek the shalom of the city because through its shalom you will have shalom. This I’m not sure of. The reason being is I’m uncomfortable translating a physical nation’s prosperity (Israel’s) through a physical nation’s prosperity (Babylon’s) to a spiritual nation’s blessing through a physical nations prosperity. I don’t think that works well. There seems to be something not right in that example. Notice also that the reason for doing this is not love of the other people, but for self prosperity/well-being (or shalom here could also be the peace from war as well). In other words, I’m not sure how using it this way would guard against political moralists or health and wealth advocates. Notice also that the solution for them is not to set up programs but to PRAY for its well-being. This could also be the attitude God wants them to have in accepting their new situation and not bringing rebellion and war on the nation themselves. So I’m not sure on this one, but I have to think some more on it.I really don’t mean we shouldn’t care or do nothing for unbelievers, but I just don’t see the EMPHASIS in Scripture, but rather that THEY will know we are Christ’s disciples by our love for ONE ANOTHER. The examples in Acts, James and John (as well as the Pauline letters which mention Churches giving money) are always to other Christians, never to unbelievers. The list of widows to me is consistent with this. Do you know of any other passages in the NT where unbelievers are given money or aided by the Church in their social ills without becoming Christians?Pondering

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J Hood

posted June 2, 2005 at 6:31 pm

Anon,thanks again for your thoughts. Let me try to summarize what I see in the NT. Christians are called to a fundamentally different way of relating to strangers and enemies. See the Sermon on the Mount on this. The imperial overtones (conscription to carry things, anti-zealot language, etc.) make it clear that “loving your enemies, doing good to…those who persecute you” is not just about Israelites or fellow Christians. You MUST seek their good, their benefit!This does not answer your question about social care and concern, of course. Few Christians of any sort would argue that you have to care for able-bodied, unresponsive people. But there is a whole concept in Scripture that deals with kindness and charity to those in dire circumstances, regardless of race or creed.Hospitality (philos+xenos) is NOT what so many Christian women might assume today, i.e., tea parties for people just like us from Sunday School. Rather, it was the necessary instrument in the ancient world for providing care for strangers traveling for various reasons, including famine-induced relocation, etc. The connection with “hospital” is strong, historically–basically, this is care for people who cannot care for themselves, or who are learning to care for themselves.It’s true this is often applied to Christians, but by no means could this be an exclusive application–it’s certainly true that it was NEVER treated as such in the early church. On point 1, I understand the theological point of being a “true Israelite” but I don’t think, in either case, that’s entirely what the text is about. They are both about (at least for Luke–this is one of HIS major themes) bursting the bonds of ethnicity and learning what it means to love as a Christian. Caring for a beaten, helpless Samaritan just might have to come into view!No time to respond to the others, too much to say below…On your final thought from your other post, though, I frankly don’t see very many churches doing what they should for the CHRISTIAN poor/fatherless/sojourners in America and especially around the world, living out “good news for the poor.” Thus, there’s not much of a light to which folks could be drawn–although I agree with you entirely that this is what is supposed to happen. One note, though–the Gospel ain’t just about “spiritual” things. If children aren’t fathered/nurtured, and refugees aren’t cared for, and dying folks in Africa etc. aren’t bandaged and fed, there is NO GOOD NEWS. Period. Jesus and co. are VERY clear about that–it ain’t just a SPIRITUAL thing–the gospel must impact all of who we are. Note that God cares about more than “souls” in Nineveh (their cattle matter as well!), for one small example.Thanks for getting me thinking on this. I think there are lots of reasons why we simply don’t have a lot of evidence on this–there are few stories of this sort in the New Testament, because there isn’t really much lengthy discussion (comparatively speaking!) of how to relate to those outside the household of faith. I guess if you get all your bishops/presbyters appointed, and your men quit sleeping with their mother-in-laws, and people quit showing off with spiritual gifts, the poor are well-treated in public worship and in the community, the starving Xians in Jerusalem are fed, etc., maybe THEN you can come back and talk about your vocation RE: outsiders and the community.After all, there were almost NO Christians back then. If there are 100 Christians in Rome (out of 1 million people), no need to worry too much about a big social agenda. But what happens when there are 100,000? Or even more? Surely then we need to think about what our vocation as “lights of the world” might mean, say, when it comes to the prevalence of fatherless children (it’s easy to complain about, but very hard to go MENTOR and BE a father to those kids, lovingly evangelizing them). But note that helping these folks even if they aren’t Christian, though hopefully it will convert many, may simply only have the effect of lowering crime, “blessing yourselves” as you bring shalom to the city. That’s a more than decent reason (provided, as you mentioned, we don’t spread ‘too thin’).Let me see if I can end the conversation this way: if you don’t feel compelled to do any works of grace for unbelievers, that’s fine–just focus like he** on the fatherless [Christian] children in our nation’s ghettos, or the [Christian] sojourners/refugees in our country from Sudan and elsewhere, or those [Christians] dying of AIDS in Africa, or the unemployed [Christians] in Argentina. Because that is very, very high on Jesus’ agenda, as you probably know. Just don’t get too put off if some of that trickles off the plate of the “children” and down to the “dogs”.Grace and Peace.

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