Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.
Serving the City, Shaping the Political Community
By David Kim
May 11, 2015
[This article is based on remarks delivered by David Kim at the Center for Public Justice’s 20th Annual Kuyper Lecture.]
Five hundred years ago, Martin Luther put forward the idea of the priesthood of all believers. Five hundred years later, Dorothy Sayers wrote an essay discussing how the church has no sense of what is going on in the world. We might start to wonder what we aren’t seeing if, after five centuries, we still don’t seem to get secular vocation right in the church. Much of our posture at the Center for Faith and Work is really about exploration. We are trying to understand what it is like to be a Christian in a place like New York City and what resources the church can provide for there to be a faithful witness in the world. The big question for us all to wrestle with is how our theology works on the ground and how it enables us to approach our world in a distinctive way that resonates with Biblical teaching and the hope of the Gospel.
Nowhere is this question more relevant than in a place like New York City and other similar urban centers. When we live in dense communities where the space is a luxury, we must be able to discern what it means to be a good neighbor. We need a rich and deep theological foundation to think through the complex questions that people face every day. To that end, I’d like to explore the uniqueness of the city context, some particular lessons learned from Abraham Kuyper, and how we’ve begun to apply that particular theology in our New York City context.
The Uniqueness of Cities
When Kuyper visited New York City on September 1, 1898, he wrote,
That is the aftereffect of Calvinism. The whole of life here meets my expectations entirely. Far more than in Europe. Under everything a higher foundation. Precious as gold, in my eyes. And then no paupers. Only well-dressed people… The beauty of life here is: Strength through confidence, which gives a person inner peace. Things are arranged much better than in Europe. Everything is colossal in size. Houses with sixteen stories in abundance. And yet peaceful, far more than in Paris or London. Everything is also healthier and more ethical. There is also vice of course, but more latent. The aspect of life is purer.”
In contrast, Edward Glazer describes New York City thirty years ago, “Thirty years ago, New York City’s future looked far less bright. Like almost every colder, older city, Gotham seemed to be a dinosaur. The city’s subways and buses felt archaic in a world being rebuilt around the car. The city’s port, once the glory of the Eastern seaboard, has sunk into irrelevance.”
These quotes demonstrate the reality that cities rise and they fall. In the 1950s, Detroit was America’s fifth largest city, with a population of 1.85 million people. And in 2013, that population has dipped to 689,000 people, less than half its former size, and it continues to lose its population steadily.
One of the characteristics that allows cities to really flourish is the ease of collaboration across industries and across sectors quickly, intimately, and efficiently. Cities enable people to work together much more efficiently, and ideas can transfer very quickly, and these places become gateways to international ideas. This presents a distinct advantage to progress and innovation because of the density and having people from diverse backgrounds coming together to solve particular issues.
When people live this closely together, a thriving political community becomes indispensable. For example, Bryant Park thirty years ago was a drug-infested "needle park" and center of prostitution. Transformation happened when a few individuals representing different sectors came together to create a private non-profit corporation that would then take responsibility for bringing this city park back to health. In a few years, there was a dramatic transformation to what you now see today, and Bryant Park is hailed as one of the most beautiful parks in the world. More recently, something similar happened with the development of the High Line. Two particular individuals who lived in that area decided to form a non-profit to restore a decaying rail line into a long, vibrant stretch of public space.
These examples show us how individual citizens came together to create a private corporation that then worked together with the government to transform places that were literally falling apart into places that are being imitated throughout global cities. This larger context then raises the question of how the church might promote flourishing in the city. Given the density of work and also the necessity of political community to contribute to the thriving of a city, how does the church fit into this?
Lessons from Kuyper
The Scattered Church
In writing about the church, Kuyper says this,
There are only regenerated and confessing individuals, who, in accordance with the Scriptural command and under the influence of the sociological element of all religion, have formed a society and are endeavoring to live together in subordination to Christ as their king. This, alone, is the Church on earth- not the building- not the institution, not a spiritual order… For Calvin, the Church is found in the confessing individuals themselves,- not in each individual separately, but in all of them taken together, and united, not as they themselves see fit, but according to the ordinances of Christ. In the Church on earth, the universal priesthood of believers must be realized.
In that statement, Kuyper says the church is a collection of individuals, not to be reduced to individuals, but is in its essence the invisible church, the organic church that spans throughout time and space. The church exists not to strengthen the institutional church, but to strengthen the scattered church. The church is really for preparing people for life outside in the city, and not for preparing people for life inside the church. This should shape the way we think about ministry and the kind of programming that we have in the church. For us at the Center for Faith and Work, this has meant rethinking our perspective of how we engage in ministry in this city.
First, the “scattered” perspective reinforces an outward rather than an inward orientation, assuming certain difficulties and challenges to be part and parcel of our earthly calling, rather than pursuing the elimination of these discomforts as our goal. Part of our existence as the church is discomfort. Second, the scattered perspective reminds us that our calling extends beyond personal piety. It leads us to understand the importance of contextualizing our discipleship beyond merely inward therapeutic self-improvement tendencies. Third, the scattered perspective pushes back against a triumphalist approach to the culture around us and reminds us that we are called to distinctly work and serve the world as God’s people. Our home is not here but awaits us in the future with the return of Christ. Fourth, the scattered perspective reshapes our understanding of discipleship and the kind of disciples we are to nurture. We help train disciples to enter into the world with a developed sense of the importance of public engagement, both vocationally as well as in seeking the common good.
The second piece of theology that I want to highlight comes from Kuyper’s inaugural address where he articulates the idea of sphere sovereignty.
Thus the sovereignty of the State, as the power that protects the individual and defines the mutual relationships among the visible spheres, rises high above them by its right to command and compel. But within these spheres that does not obtain. There another authority rules, an authority that descends directly from God apart from the State. This authority the State does not confer but acknowledges… Even in defining laws for the mutual relationships among the spheres, the State may not set its own will as the standard but is bound by the choice of a Higher will, as expressed in the nature and purpose of these spheres. The State must see that the wheels operate as intended. Not to suppress life nor to shackle freedom but to make possible the free movement of life in and for every sphere…
The question here is how then do we appropriate that into the city context? The concept of sphere sovereignty communicates a deeper meaning to the work that people engage in. When people begin to see that these spheres embody a particular essence that is an expression of God’s sovereignty and his character, this assigns a deeper meaning to their work.
When thinking about a fundamental society, we begin with the initial sphere of family. And then families, as they gather together, invariably form economic agreements that allow greater prosperity to happen. And also invariably disagreements happen, and government is needed to adjudicate so that people don’t kill themselves or each other. And, invariably, as people do these things, there’s artistic expression and typically there is religion at the heart of these spheres, shaping the way that these particular spheres develop. Each of these spheres uniquely embodies a particular attribute or characteristic. In the case of the family sphere, nurture is that critical essence without which that sphere would cease to exist. In the economic sphere, the generation of opportunity is critical. Without opportunity, economic structures cannot last very long without uprising. The government sphere needs justice, and the arts sphere needs imagination, and so forth. The company you are a part of is part of a larger industry which is part of a larger sphere, and that sphere plays a critical role in our society. The work we do is a concrete expression of God’s manifold glory.
Individualism vs. the Common Good
The third piece of theology comes again from the inaugural address, where Kuyper talks about two particular threats to political freedom,
Sin threatens freedom within each sphere just as strongly as State-power does at the boundary… The chief culprit is the citizen who forgets his duty, wastes away his strength in the sleep of sin and sensual pleasure, and so loses the power of his own initiative.
Here, Kuyper recognizes that there is sin within each sphere that threatens the political freedom of the individual and of society. Philosophers like Charles Taylor have been helpful in thinking about particular threats to our industries. In his book The Ethics of Authenticity, Taylor writes:
Another one of the common axes of criticism of the contemporary culture of authenticity is that it encourages a purely personal understanding of self-fulfillment, thus making the various associations and communities in which the person enters purely instrumental in their significance. At the broader social level, this is antithetical to any strong commitment to a community. In particular, it makes political citizenship, with its sense of duty and allegiance to political society, more and more marginal… On the more intimate level, it fosters a view of relationships in which these ought to subserve personal fulfillment. The relationship is secondary to the self-realization of the partners. On this view, unconditional ties, meant to last for life, make little sense. A relationship may last till death, if it goes on serving its purpose, but there is no point declaring a priori that it ought to.
A sin that can corrode a particular sphere is seeing the value of our work not for what it produces for society, but for how it validates who we are as individuals. Work becomes a means of self-fulfillment rather than as a means of promoting the common good. This very individualistic perspective is particularly dominant in the millennial generation’s understanding of work. Taylor discusses how this approach corrodes a sense of political citizenship. Work becomes flattened and mundane because people aren’t able to see beyond the way that it serves them as individuals.
Our Communal Calling
As a church, how does this shape the way we think about ministry? We can begin with rediscovering the communal nature of our calling. This doctrine of calling shows us to be a people of God defined by a God who himself is communal, and it defines not only who we are, but what we are called to do. Our calling involves both our identity as well as our purpose, and there is a communal element to both of them. This is not something to just address once in a while, but is an ongoing process that pushes back against the tide of how individuals see themselves and their work. We have to create a system of communicating calling in a way that is regular and consistent.
To do this, we need reorient the way we think about our church services, our liturgy, and the programs that we do that reinforce this individualistic ethos. We must wrestle with what it means to be people who are committed to a communal vision of our society and who recognize that people are created in the image of God. This has profound effects on the way we work with people.
One of the ways that the Center for Faith and Work hopes to work this out more concretely is at our next annual Faith and Work conference, which will have the theme “Beyond Collaboration.” Collaboration is a key buzzword in our work society. However, this context of collaboration instrumentalizes people’s gifts, seeing others essentially in terms of what they can contribute to an individual’s company or work. While that may have some good effects from a business perspective by bringing in more creativity and innovation, it is still driven by this ethos of individualism. This is corrosive to our society because it doesn’t appreciate and see others as individuals created in the image of God. When we only instrumentalize people, we then try to resolve issues through power. We try to amass a certain kind of power, whether it is glory, fame, money, position, or status, and then we use that power to get our way.
The church can speak prophetically into our culture where this individualizing of our identity has been particularly destructive in many respects. We hope that churches throughout the world will reclaim this historic doctrine of calling and reappropriate it, especially for this next generation of millennials. The local church can be the local expert on calling, a beacon to people showing them that their work and who they are have meaning beyond what they provide in an instrumental way.
Kuyper outlined four conclusions in his final lecture that provide us with real depth and wisdom as we think about the church in a city like New York and elsewhere. He said,
That Calvinism shall no longer be ignored where the after-effects of its influence are still manifest; that Calvinism shall again be made a subject of study in order that the outside world may cease to misrepresent it; that its principles shall again be developed in accordance with the needs of our time, and consistently applied not only to Theology, but to every department of life; and that the churches which still lay claim to confessing it, shall cease being ashamed of their own confession.
Questions for Reflection:
- Do you agree with Kim’s assessment of the uniqueness of the city context? Why or why not? How might some of the ideas outlined here translate into semi-urban or rural communities? How might the church work for the common good differently in those contexts?
- How do Kuyper’s ideas of the scattered church, sphere sovereignty, and individualism challenge or change your understanding of how the church might diminish or enhance the flourishing of the city?
- How does a greater understanding of our communal calling change the way we think about our work and the role of the church in the world?
- Rev. David Kim is Executive Director of the Center for Faith and Work at Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, and an alumnus of CPJ’s Civitas leadership program
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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”