Where Would Jesus Live: The Moral Dimension of Cities, Density, and Other People

The third in a series of essays on the other reasons why density and cities are important.

Look on the bright side: Apodments on Capitol Hill

Jean-Paul Sartre’s play, Huis Clos, is probably best remembered for the phrase, “l’enfer c’est les autres,” often translated as, “hell is other people.” In the play three people arrive in hell and are locked in a room for all eternity. Upon arriving the first “guest” is surprised not to find any devils with pitchforks or any devices for gruesome torture. The torture, instead, will be coming from his roommates who have yet to arrive. Once they do, the real pain begins.

There is no doubt that to be locked in a room with other people forever would be hellish, even if they were people we liked. The other is hell because other people can create all kinds of discomfort. The other is hell because he can be, for example, someone that reflects the failures of our own economy, society, and social order. Homeless people, visible and on the street, are a finger pointing at our way of doing things and a voice saying, “it’s not working.” The other is a thorn in our collective side. The other is hell because she can mirror what we like least about ourselves, our fears of what we were or what we might become.

But let’s turn to another phrase in which the other is featured, the Golden Rule. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” elegantly sums up a simple moral imperative. Other people are annoying, yet we need them. Other people are the way we learn to understand and challenge ourselves. Other people can threaten, cajole, and confuse us. What does it mean to treat others the way we’d want to be treated? And if we did, what kind of world would it be?

If we want to solve the pressing issues of social and economic disparity the best place to do that is in the city. Only in the city can we find the rich and poor, the sick and healthy, black and white, all living so close together. How can we really decrease the impacts of poverty, for example, if the only poor people we see are on television or in a newspaper story? How can all schools get better when those with means are only willing to send their children to “the good schools” in sprawling suburbs or high end neighborhoods?

It’s easy to vote for Obama and contribute to the World Wildlife Fund, but what happens when a halfway house for newly released offenders is going to be located in your neighborhood? Rather than fight it, shouldn’t you welcome it and in the end won’t having such facilities located close to you improve your knowledge of the issues faced by people newly released from jail? Wouldn’t those issues fair better if neighbors, like you, rallied for more funding and support for those people rather than battling against the facility because it would hurt your property values, or because you are scared?

Jesus of Nazareth wandered the countryside performing magic tricks and telling rustic parables about sheep and mustard seed, and it can be easy to think that his vision of heaven or the Kingdom of God as he often described it, as somewhat remote or inaccessible—or maybe even rural. At one point someone asked him to sum it all up. His whole point, he said, was to encourage people to love God, and love their neighbors as themselves. That’s it. Jesus left very few directives to his followers, which perhaps accounts for the 2000 years of heated argument about what Jesus really means.

Perhaps, though, Jesus was a density advocate. If we are to love our neighbor as ourselves, it’s awfully hard to do if we have no neighbors. Living in a city means having lots of neighbors and encountering otherness every day. How we deal with otherness, our neighbors, shapes how we deal with issues of public spending, priorities for policy, and how we organize our society. Our tendency can often be to push each other and unpleasant things away. Cities make that harder to do, turning the problems of other people into our problems.

Other people are hell when they make noise, smell bad, talk to themselves, take your parking spot, or wait in ridiculously long lines for the latest food fad. However, we humans can make the best of our short lives when we try to learn from and love one another; and what better way to do that than have lots of people close together? Maybe when Jesus talked about heaven or the Kingdom of God, he was thinking about a big, dense, crowded city.

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12 Responses to Where Would Jesus Live: The Moral Dimension of Cities, Density, and Other People

  1. matt dellinger says:

    I take your point, often forgotten today among Christians, that the biblical Jesus wanted most of all for us to work together and be good to one another. But drawing from that the conclusion, “Perhaps… Jesus was a density advocate,” is a little silly, historically anachronistic, and misses the point a bit.

    You’re having some fun, which is fine. I don’t want to take you more literally or seriously that you want to be taken. But you do make a serious point, which is that helping neighbors is a christian value, and should inform the way christians approach cities. Where you go wrong, in my opinion, is applying this idea to density, per se. Planners are obsessed with density. You think it’s the key to the kingdom, the holy grail, the way and the light.

    But it’s not easy to argue that Jesus would have been obsessed with density, or even necessarily in favor of it as a goal unto itself. Big, dense, crowded cities back then were great places to catch diseases, for one. And like today they were full of wealth and poverty. Didn’t the Romans run most of the cities in Jesus’ world? Weren’t they places of sin and corruption?

    In the bible I read growing up, Jesus describes virtue and happiness more often in terms of low-density agricultural locations and pursuits. Shepherding. Fishing. Green pastures. Places where you make bread and wine. When Jesus enters high-density places in the bible it’s usually to give a lecture or for a showdown with corrupt urbanites.

    So by all means, make arguments about what christian values mean for today’s urban poor. But you won’t get far arguing that Jesus wants us to live in apartments.


  2. Brock says:

    I take Matt’s point. But by the same token, Jesus didn’t seem to be an advocate for suburbs either. And fishing, shepherding, and wandering deserts aren’t exactly ways everyone can make a living these days.

  3. Anthony Avery says:

    I think it becomes very easy for density advocates and density opponents alike to overstate the importance of density. And when you start to assert that Jesus was or wasn’t for density, it’s easy to miss the point. To understand Jesus is to understand that everything He said and did was to point to and glorify God the father, and teach us how to do the same. He gives examples of healing lepers (Mark 1:40-45), acknowledging and recognizing the least among his followers (Luke 8:40-49), and calls on the most detested among His followers to change (Luke 19:1-10) as ways to interact with our fellow man that run contrary to our human nature/societal pressures.

    What we are seeing today in many of our new suburbs are things that Jesus talked of negatively. In the era of McMansions, and newer cars, and having “nice things” in a “nice neighborhood”, it can become very easy to strive to obtain things. Target, Wal-Mart, Home Depot, a 2,500 square foot house, and a BMW in the driveway all encourage the accumulation of wealth and possessions. This is something Jesus directly speaks against in Matthew 16:19-20, Luke 16:14-15, and Mark 4:18-19. We, as a culture have become more preoccupied with buying stuff, having more or better stuff than our neighbors in an effort to ourselves value, or to make ourselves feel better because “I’m better than that person because (I have a bigger house/I make more money than them/I have a nicer car).” Such an aspiration for a better house has blinded us as consumers to the quality of life we live in these secluded enclaves.

    So no, I don’t think Jesus was essentially going around saying “Build density, and prosper!” But I also feel strongly that he wasn’t saying “Build gated communities, build auto-centric subdivisions and a garage attached to your house so you don’t have to encounter a neighbor if you don’t want to outside the safety blanket of your car.” I believe the underlying theme of Jesus’ message, as it relates to community development, has more to do with interconnectedness. From an urban form perspective, it should be easy to meet a stranger or encounter a good friend randomly through your day to day lives by building connected streets and mixing uses at all densities so you are encouraged to walk or bike in your neighborhood to go to the store, school, work, or bus stop. Or if you drive, you’ll run into people because you inevitably have to get out of your car and become a pedestrian – something the sea of parking at the mall or Target doesn’t promote.

    A much more comprehensive, and better articulated view of what the bible teaches on urban characteristics and how smart growth can fulfill biblical principles, is a book called “Sidewalks in the Kingdom” by Eric O. Jacobsen.

  4. conservadox says:

    what a depressing song! It certainly wouldn’t make me want to live in a city if I didn’t already!

    And as long as you’re talking about Jesus, maybe a song about where he actually hung out would be better http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JH8gtdDA5x0

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