Walter Brueggemann on the Unrest in Our Cities

This year’s unrest in our cities merits restorative attention.

The attention that unrest receives from our political discourse and reactive policies has not shown itself to be restorative. Indeed, we can recall speeches that, without a cubit of understanding, declared the “carnage stops now.” Of course, the unrest has not stopped, and our leadership has done nothing to stop it. There is no awareness of or interest in what causes and sustains the unrest. Our leadership is unable to grasp the fact that such unrest is inevitable when, over a long period of time, disadvantaged and vulnerable people are forced to live in cramped quarters without adequate resources.

They are unable or unwilling to connect the dots that by red-lining, zoning, and sustained government resolve, such conditions are imposed on many of our citizens (See The Color of Money: Black Banks and the Racial Wealth Gap by Mehrsa Baradaran). It does not compute that such policies are the residue of plantation capitalism that thrived on the labor of those who were enslaved. Such oppressive policies assure a continuation of thriving on an exploitation of labor from a significant number of Americans who are fed up with the racial and economic inequities in this country.

We know through the witness of Scripture about cities that may fail in injustice.

Already in the prophetic tradition, we witness a city suffer under a predatory economy that preys on the vulnerable:

Run to and fro through the streets of Jerusalem,
look around and take note!
Search its squares and see
if you can find one person
who acts justly
and seeks the truth…
Then I said, “These are only the poor,
they have no sense;
for they do not know the way of the Lord,
the law of their God.
Let me go to the rich
and speak to them;
surely they know the way of the Lord,
the law of their God.”
But they all alike had broken the yoke,
they had burst the bonds (Jeremiah 5:1, 4-5; see vv. 26-28).

Already there we have a city permeated with injustice that is sure to be assaulted and destroyed:

For thus says the Lord of hosts:
Cut down her trees;
cast up a siege ramp against Jerusalem.
This is the city that must be punished;
there is nothing but oppression within her…

And I will make this city a horror, a thing to be hissed at; everyone who passes by it will be horrified and will hiss because of all its disasters…

For I have set my face against this city for evil and not for good, says the Lord; it shall be given into the hands of the king of Babylon, and he shall burn it with fire (Jeremiah 6:6, 19:8, 21:10).

Already in the poetry of Israel, we know that such a city will evoke tears of pathos and loss, tears by the city and tears for the city as it is remembered and now seen as failed:

How lonely sits the city
that once was full of people!
How like a widow she has become,
she that was great among the nations!
She that was a princess among the provinces
has become a vassal.
She weeps bitterly in the night,
with tears on her cheeks;
among all her lovers,
she has one to comfort her;
all her friends have dealt treacherously with her,
they have become her enemies…
Zion stretches out her hands,
but there is no one to comfort her (Lamentations 1:1-2, 17).

The city is left helpless and bereft. Already in the horizon of Jesus, we see the city is grieved. The city is grieved because it “was not willing” to be under the protection of God as a mother hen:

Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! (Luke 13:34).

Already the city is grieved because it refused to know the things that make for peace:

As he came near and saw the city, he wept over it, saying, “If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes (Luke 19:41-42).

The indictment of the city is not credited to the poor who live there. It is credited rather to the leadership-ownership class that insisted on policies and practices of exploitative injustice.

It is easy enough to segue with the rhetoric of loss and grief from that ancient city to our own cities. Failed cities are cities that are ordered in the ways of greed, exploitation, and in our case, racism. Clearly, sending in storm-troopers is a foolish gesture that does not even begin to acknowledge the real issues in the wake of oppression of the vulnerable and all people.

While I am writing about cities because of our current urgent unrest, I am also, at the same time, thinking about “O beautiful for spacious skies” that serves as a sort of national anthem for us. Lore has it that Katherine Lee Bates took the train west from Boston, saw the “amber waves of grain” in the Midwest, and arrived at the “purple mountain majesty” of Pike’s Peak. As her train approached Chicago, she saw the impressive skyline of the city that led her to imagine and anticipate a future transformed city “beyond the years.” She imagined the city (and other cities; her usage is plural) of “alabaster,” “undimmed by human tears.” She imagined orderly cities that had no cause for tears, grief, loss, or pain. She saw beyond present cities that were less orderly.

Bates, a college professor, was alert to justice issues so her usage of “alabaster,” (an odd use at best!) was an image of wholesomeness. I have wondered, however, if the usage of “alabaster,” long after Bates, has for some of us come to serve for a distinct future, for “alabaster” is a white tinted calcite. A saving grace might be that many folks do not know the meaning of “alabaster,” or that many folks do not pay much attention to the words as we sing them. I do know that in my erstwhile home town of Cincinnati for decades there has been a sustained effort by zoning and finance to remove Black people systemically from the city (only recently has the city preempted a Black neighborhood for an unneeded soccer stadium!).

Of course, there is reason in faith to imagine the coming city that is “beyond the years undimmed by human tears.” It is indeed the work of faith to imagine the city promised in the resolve of God. The primary articulation of that coming city — the new Jerusalem — in Isaiah 65:17-25, a new city that will go with a new heaven and a new earth. That new city, however, is not of alabaster. It is a city, rather, constituted by policies and practices of neighborly humaneness which is of course the only effective way to deal with urban unrest.

...It will be a city without weeping, that is “undimmed by human tears”:

No more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it,
nor the cry of distress (Isaiah 65:19).

Why would there be weeping in the city? Well, because of political injustice, because of a weak, non-functioning infrastructure, because of a lack of a social safety net for the vulnerable, because of the wealth gap, and because of endless exploitation.

...The coming city will have no more infant mortality, because there will be better health care provisions for all:

No more shall there be in it
an infant that lives but a few days,
or an old person who does not live out a lifetime;
for one who dies a hundred years will be considered a youth,
and one who falls short of a hundred will be
considered accursed (v. 20).

No one dies young!

...The new coming city will be a venue for secure habitation:

They shall build houses and inhabit them;
they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit;
They shall not build and another inhabit;
they shall not plant and another eat;
for like the day of a tree shall the days of my people be,
and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands (vv. 21-22).

Those who build houses and plant vineyards need not be in jeopardy for fear of loss. There will be no exercise of eminent domain whereby the powerful preempt from the vulnerable. There will be no eviction of those who lack adequate resources (see Matthew Desmond, Eviction: Poverty and Profit in the American City). The new economy will not be based on the predatory power of the wealthy who greedily covet the property of others:

Alas for those who devise wickedness
and evil deeds on their beds!
... They covet fields, and seize them;
houses, and take them away;
they oppress householder and house,
people and their inheritance (Micah 2:1-2, see Isaiah 5:8-10).

...In the new coming city, there will be no trauma for new-born children, because all the new born will be protected and cared for:

They shall not labor in vain,
or bear children for calamity,
for they shall be offspring blessed by the Lord—
and their descendants as well (Isaiah 65:23).

Imagine all the children blessed! With good care and protection, with good preschools, and good health care, and none in cages!

The entire economy will be reordered to serve the needs of all of the inhabitants of the city. That of course is the way, the only way to stop urban unrest. The certain way to interrupt so-called “carnage” is with neighborly generosity and intentionality.

And when neighborly generosity is in place, we may trust:

...That God will be readily attentive to the pleas of the people:

Before they call I will answer,
while they are yet speaking I will hear (v. 24).

...That there will be a reordered life for the environment without hurt or danger:

The wolf and the lamb will feed together,
the lion shall eat straw like the ox;
but the serpent—its food shall be dust!
They shall not hurt or destroy
on all my holy mountain,
says the Lord (v. 25).

The mountains will not be destroyed by strip mining; the rivers will not be hurt by pollution. The new city imagined in prophetic vision does not specialize in alabaster. There are no big stately buildings, but rather a neighborly infrastructure of well-being.

Of course, we get a reprise on Isaiah 65 in the ultimate biblical vision of Revelation 21. Yet again new heaven, new earth, and new Jerusalem (vv. 1-2). The new city is marked in two ways.

First, God will dwell there, a riff on Isaiah 65:24:

“See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them; (Revelation 21:3).

God had vacated the old Jerusalem (see Ezekiel 10). God has seemingly abandoned many old cities that are too full of injustice. In the new city, God will be fully present with restorative resolve.

Second, there will be no more tears:

He will wipe away every tear from their eyes,
Death will be no more;
Mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away (Revelation 21:4).

This is a riff on the anticipation of Isaiah 65:19: “No more shall be heard the sound of weeping.” It is, moreover, anticipation of Bates, “undimmed by human tears.” The reason there will be no more tears is that the ground of tears, loss, and grief will be no more ... no more political oppression, no more predation, no more pollution, no more poor housing, no more inadequate health care, no more shabby schools. This is indeed, “All things new” (Revelation 21:5)!

The new city that will displace the old failed city is a gift from God. It will come “out of heaven from God” (Revelation 21:2). But the new city is not only a gift. It is also a task assigned by God. We have to do the work. That is why the primary urban theologian in the Bible, Isaiah, can issue a series of urgent imperatives. Isaiah has categorized the old failed city as “like Sodom ... like Gomorrah” (Isaiah 1:9), characterized as “like a shelter in a cucumber field” (1:8). But then, after that sad image of abandonment, the prophet issues a summons:

Wash yourselves, make yourselves clean;
remove the evil of your doings
from before my eyes;
cease to do evil;
learn to do good;
seek justice,
rescue the oppressed,
defend the orphan,
plead for the widow (Isaiah 1:16-17).

The work of the coming city as restorative justice is precisely attentive to the most vulnerable in the community — oppressed, widows, orphans — the ones done in by predation. Isaiah can, after this summons, declare his promissory verdict about what is to come:

Afterward you will be called the city of righteousness,
the faithful city.
Zion will be redeemed by justice,
and those in her who repent, by righteousness (Isaiah 1:27).

The new city will be a well-ordered community of care, compassion, empathy, and justice.

No mention of alabaster; no anticipation of tall edifices like walls or towers (see 2:15). Only neighbors! Neighbors need no storm-troopers. Neighbors do not ponder carnage. To get to the new city, beyond urban unrest, requires us to receive the generosity of God and do the hard work of economic formation that is committed to the wellbeing of all tribes, peoples, and languages. We may indeed pray that God will “mend thine every flaw” in our present cities!


Walter Brueggemann

Walter Brueggemann is surely one of the most influential Bible interpreters of our time. He is the author of over one hundred books and numerous scholarly articles. He continues to be a highly sought-after speaker.


Used with permission. Originally posted on Church Anew, a ministry of St. Andrew Lutheran Church in Eden Prairie, MN.

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