Even if the good is the same for a city as for an individual, still the good of the city is apparently a greater and more complete good to acquire and preserve. For while it is satisfactory to acquire and preserve the good even for an individual, it is finer and more divine to acquire and preserve it for a people and for cities. Aristotle Nicomachean Ethics
Pray to the Lord for the city where you are living, because if good things happen in the city, good things will happen to you also.” Jeremiah 29:7
In a previous post, I discussed what it means to grieve over a city, stating that grief leads, ultimately, to sufferable action. In this post, I want to unpack what it means to love a city.
To love a city is to move beyond the grief in order to care for the good of the city. Love, as I mean it here, is rooted both in the concept of Agape and Compassion, two ways of articulating the image of love that leaves no room for mere sentimentality.
Agape, as C.S. Lewis writes, is the love that brings forth caring regardless of the circumstances. It is the love of the wounded healer, to quote Henri Nouwen. The love that knows no greater expression than to lay its life down for the other. Such a love always bears a limp, always carries scars. It is wearied, worn out, broken, exhausted, divine. It transcends friendship, eros, and affection, and, in transcending them, gives life to them each. It is the highest of the loves, and, because it always hopes, always trusts, always perseveres, the deepest.
Compassion has two articulations: the first, visceral, the second, relational. Compassion as the Greeks understood it (splagchnizomai) literally meant letting your innards (your intestines, your bowels, your entrails, your guts) spill out on behalf of the other, becoming enmeshed with theirs until their pain quite literally becomes your pain. The other articulation is the Latin etymology found in the word “compassion” itself: “com” meaning with and “passion” meaning “to suffer” so that com|passion literally means “to suffer with“.
Thus, to love a city as I am defining “love” is to spend oneself on behalf of the city, to seek the good of the city such that you are worn out and exhausted, feeling its suffering as your own, feeling its pain deep in your bowels, your entrails spilt upon the very pavement. Not a pretty image, for sure, but a true one.
Perhaps the best way to articulate what it means to love a city through agape and compassion is to identify what this does not look like. One who loves a city in this manner goes beyond feeling sorry for someone, volunteering at the homeless shelter once a month, writing a check at arm’s length, or tithing once a week; it is a very mode of living that puts actionable compassion to one’s grief over the deep injustices committed within the community. It is re-imagine systems and organizations through the lens of agape. It is, to borrow from Walter Brueggemann, to engage in prophetic imagination.
Such love is not sentimentality; it is costly, dirty, dangerous business. It is not for the faint of heart. Indeed, it is not something most people are able or willing to do, for it always involves sacrifice. To “suffer alongside ” means I have to lay down my life in some way—perhaps my finances, my standing, my career, my location, my future, even my life. It requires a critical-consciousness that moves beyond well-wishing or well-meaning; it requires a re-orientation to the world that often involves pruning and purging, and almost always pain.
This version of love is not at all safe; indeed, as C.S. Lewis reminds us, it is this lack of safety that makes this deep love…love. No, to love a city is never safe, but, as Mr. Beaver says of Aslan, it is Good.
To love a city, then, is to move beyond serving hot dogs once a month to inner city families to moving into the apartment complex next to them in order to break bread together as equals. To love a city is to hold the hand of a single mama as her children are taken away because she took out life’s pressures on them, and to work like dervishes to see her made whole in order to get them back. To love a city is to sell all your possessions and move into the most dangerous crack and prostitution neighborhood in the city in order to “re-neighbor the hood.” To love a city is to start a small, 8 person school for refugee students who land in your midst afraid, alone, and shattered by the illusion of the “American Dream.” To love a city is to quit your high-profile job to enter into the muck of broken dreams and failed lives. To love a city is to sweat blood day after day to place the lonely in families.
To love a city is to be rooted, to be in it for the long haul, to be obedient to the same geographical place for transformative purposes. To love a city is to see one’s vocation beyond profit, resume building, networking lunches, corporate ladders or positional opportunities. It is, in fact, a recanting and a repentance of these very things.
To love a city, ultimately, is to lay one’s life down, to be broken, to be trampled, to be crushed in order to bear witness for the oppressed, to give voice to the voiceless, to empower the powerless, and to make all things new.
***The examples I list in this post are of folk I know personally who are, indeed, splaying their guts in order to love my city, Oklahoma City. I would love to hear from you of any examples you have of individuals or groups in your city who are loving it in the ways I describe here. Feel free to respond in the comment section.