Colin Smith, a missionary in the deeply divided city of Nairobi, describes an incident in which a ‘poor man at the gate’ interrupted him while washing the family car.
Dishevelled and homeless, the man grasped Colin’s hands and poured out a prayer in which he expressed his own pitiful condition and asked God to touch the heart of his rich brother and make him generous. Colin honestly records the anger this manipulative prayer provoked, designed, as it was to create feelings of guilt and compel a response to the poor man’s need. At the same time, he confesses to an underlying awareness of the fact that this encounter reflected ‘a truth about the realities of our very different lives’.1
Missionary presence in the deeply divided cities of the twenty first century will frequently trigger such encounters, and the perplexing questions they raise. The ethical, theological and spiritual challenges that confronted Christians in the industrial cities of Britain in the nineteenth century are now being writ large across the globe and they present world Christianity with a profoundly important test of the credibility of its claim to be the bearer of good news for all nations.
the ethical theological and spiritual challenges of cities are … a profoundly important test of the credibility of the Church’s claim to be the bearer of good news for all nations.
The challenge of the divided city
Year after year the research of UN-Habitat describes the urban divide as ‘the face of injustice and a symptom of systemic dysfunction’. A new form of urban existence is now taking shape in which overcrowded cities expand until they begin to merge together, creating what have been called ‘expansive megacity regions’. The flood of people moving into these areas creates massive problems, including a global slum population that is predicted to reach a staggering 880 million people by 2020.
Urban geographers Edward Soja and Miguel Kanai point out that, despite the mind-blowing pace of urbanisation in China, the most rapidly urbanising continental region of the world is Sub-Saharan Africa, which on present trends will have an urban population greater than that of Europe by 2030. They conclude that we are today witnessing a ‘shift in the world’s urban centre of gravity’.2 What is striking about this phrase is that it corresponds exactly to the way in which Andrew Walls has described the demographic transformation of world Christianity, a change in which ‘its centre of gravity has moved from the north to the south’. In other words, the new heartlands of the Christian faith are to be found in precisely those parts of the world in which urbanization is most evident, and among the millions of people living in the divided city. As a consequence, as Walls observes, ‘issues arising from race, poverty, institutionalised oppression and the use of the world’s resources have figured on the agenda of Christian theology in a way not conceivable at an earlier time’.3 Christians in Europe and North America have some way to go if they are to come to terms with this shift and make the changes in thought, worship and behaviour required to become part of God’s mission in an urban world.
The rich man and Lazarus
Let us return to the scene in Nairobi with which we began. Colin Smith describes the parable of the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16 as holding up a mirror ‘to the economic distortions of our day’. The two human beings in this narrative are divided by a huge spatial, economic and relational chasm which gives us insight ‘into the realities of an urbanising world’. In the divided global city we are able ‘to communicate across the globe, but not always across the street’. He concludes, ‘In cities, and in the gaps within and between them, we must constantly rekindle our imaginations as to what it means to share a common place, a common table and confront that which contributes to division and exclusion in urban space. We will need to find ways, in the name of Christ, to enter the gaps to reconfigure them, anticipating the day when the rich man and Lazarus share bread at the one table’.4
Dr David Smith
University of Aberdeen
David Smith has taught in Nigeria and elsewhere in Africa, is now in active retirement after leading the development of a postgraduate degree in Ministry in an Urban World at International Christian College in Glasgow, and is the author of a number of books including Seeking A City With Foundations and, most recently, Liberating The Gospel: Translating The Message of Jesus in a Globalized World.
- From Luke’s Gospel on the Divided City (Portland: Urban Loft Publishers, 2015), 13-14. This book interweaves a narrative concerning work in the divided city of the Global South (in this case Nairobi) with comment on Luke’s text in a manner that is enlightening and deeply challenging.
- Edward Soja and Miguel Kanai, ‘The Urbanization of the World’, in Ricky Burdett and Deyan Sudjic [eds], The Endless City (London: Phaidon Press, n.d.), 58.
- Andrew Walls, ‘Christianity’ in John Hinnells [ed], A Handbook of Living Religions (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1985), 113-114.
- Colin Smith, Mind The Gap, 88.