God vs. Defensive Architecture (update)


Urban spaces are more complex than we give them credit for. I guess we’ve all had the experience of wondering why a public bench is so uncomfortable, or why we’re stumbling over humps in the pavement. The answer, quite often, is that someone’s trying to manipulate our behaviour.

“Defensive Architecture” or “Aggressive Design” or whatever you want to call it went viral a while back. Photos of nasty looking spikes embedded in a doorway to deter rough sleeps hit Twitter, raising questions of how compassionate the design of our public spaces should be.

In one sense it sounds ridiculous to say that spaces can have a moral quality like compassion. But we build our cities, our civil structures, our open structures. They are designed and created and funded by us, and so spikes in a pavement can sometimes say as much about a society as our greatest cathedral. Sidewalk or sanctuary, there can be something intimately spiritual about public design.


We saw this again this week, when the Independent published a story about howhomeowners in Bristol have attached spikes to trees to stop birds from defecating on their cars. We’re manipulating our environment in an almost dystopian manner, weaponsing space to keep away unwanted animals, unwanted humans. Urban design needs its ‘swords into ploughshares’ moment.

Because all of this is dehumanising, and dehumanisation is an attitude born out of seeing people as problems to be ‘fixed’ rather than individuals of intrinsic worth. We should therefore celebrate the moments humanity wins through, however; in Manchester, anti-homeless spikes have now been removed because locals kept covering them with cushions. A similar thing happened in Liverpool, when an anti-homeless ramp was turned into a tea stall. I see that and I see hope, but I also remember the Homeless Jesus statue, and hope and apathy in an awkward dance.

There’s a command, way back in Leviticus, that talks about landowners not harvesting the edges of their fields – the produce there was to be left for the destitute and refugees. Now that’s predominantly an economic command, but there’s something symbolic about it – it reflects God’s heart for the poor and the marginalised, it forces an interaction between haves and have nots (the outcome of the Book of Ruth ties in to this passage) and it forces us to consider how we‘re using the spaces around us.

This consideration is vital because, as Matthew 25 implies, it’s the things we do for God when we’re not actually thinking about God that can be the real test of our character. How we create spaces for ourselves is evidence of how we feel about other people.

So yeah, homeless spikes send a message. But so does a lack of funding for hostels, or demonising food banks, and a thousand other things beyond rough sleeping – public toilets, wheelchair access, transport networks, benches, all of these have a moral dimension. They all take our spiritual temperature. And it would be wrong to say that this is entirely negative – here in the UK there are textured sections of pavement to help blind people and guide dogs cross the road, and my favourite piece of hidden design is a small gizmo on the underside of pelican crossings that rotates when the traffic lights change, thus alerting those who can’t hear the signal.

There’s an opportunity here for Christians. Think about all the land owned by our churches: do we need a revolution in ecclesiastical design? Are there ways in which we can transform our public spaces, develop missional architecture, reflect God’s heart for the world around through surrounding our sanctuaries with community gardens or libraries or art galleries or debt counselling, not to replace the heart of our faith, but to recognise that it expands into every corner of human experience. God cares about what we do with the edges of our fields; he cares about our church car parks too.

How do we respond to that?

Water is Life (2 Kings 2:19-22)

rh-healingspringatjerichoJericho had been inhabited for centuries, watered by springs that surrounded the town. The City of Palms was a fertile place, or at least it had been; now the water was bad, the life blood of the land poisoned, bringing death to crops and animals and people. The tainted waters, it was said, caused the soil to miscarry, and the people who lived there feared for their future and mourned their past.

The history of civilisation is, in some ways, the history of water – streams and rivers, irrigation and wells, sewage systems and canals. Water is essential, for farming, for hygiene, for life itself, and when water becomes polluted, when water dries up, civilisation starts to fade and move on.

The story of Elisha healing the water is a strange one, but let’s see it as a healing miracle for a whole community, rather than an individual; a resurrection miracle for the land rather than a person. Jericho is dying, but the prophet walks into town and brings the springs back to life in the power of God. Day to day urban practicalities sit alongside more spiritual concerns, the two not separate but intimately interwoven. There’s a darker side to that – in Joshua 6:26, Jericho is placed under a curse, with death promised to whoever rebuilds it. The weight of history sits heavily upon that community, but Elisha turns the situation round – the healing of the waters is also a healing of that curse, a new start for a community, an act of grace.

Nowadays, that healing would be a more controversial subject. Some of the biggest problems relating to the supply of water aren’t related to natural forces but to human greed and a refusal to consider the human cost of corporate ‘progress’. And, as with many issues relating to the environment, the forces of racism also loom large.

So, when the water supply to Flint, Michigan has been polluted by dangerously high levels of lead since 2014, we need to confront how those waters can be healed, but also why – especially as up to 12,000 children could have been exposed to what is effectively a neurotoxin, especially as the situation disproportionately affects black communities.

So, when the Dakota Access Pipeline is diverted away from the water source of the state capital and through the Standing Rock Sioux reservation lands, leading to assaults on protesters and the renewal of activity as the result of an executive order from President Trump, we have to see it in the light of the historic mistreatment of Native American tribes and a tendency for protests to be met with violence.

Like the story of Elisha healing the water, these are, on their surface, stories of anomalies, of problems that need to be fixed. But on the deeper level, they’re symptoms of a curse – of the way in which we’ve commodified resources as precious as water, of the way in which indigenous and black communities are often the first to suffer the ill effects of the way in which we manipulate our environment and disrupt our climate. And that’s a curse that needs lifting, healing, and while that still needs acts of grace all along the line, this isn’t just a case of Elisha throwing some salt into a spring; this is about working to heal the way in which we treat each other, the way in which we treat the land.

And so maybe, in these stories in which the corruption of water brings death, we can ask for the grace of healing, and see our communities resurrected. But that can only be done when the history of those communities is confronted, and present injustices fixed. Only then can the water be healed; only then can our lands start to prosper again.


Creation and Baptism, Floods and Doves (Genesis 1, Matthew 3)

In the beginning there was a timeless darkness, a primordial night shrouding an ocean of chaos. Apart from this chaos, there is a presence; holy, divine, a Spirit hovering over the waters. Ancient sages compared this Spirit to a dove hovering over her young, and as the Spirit hovered over the waters, suddenly Creation was called into life.

 This is how the Hebrew Scriptures begin, with the story of God creating the heavens, the earth and everything in them. It’s a familiar story, but it immediately establishes a tension with other stories from neighbouring lands. Many creation stories begin with the same primordial chaos and a divine culture hero warring monsters to bring the world into being. Genesis does away with this conflict; there is the chaos, and there is God, and he doesn’t need to go to war in order to create, he just speaks the words and the world appears. He is supreme over the chaos.

Reconcile that with science however you want, that’s not the point of this post. Instead, think about the chaos of the world, the darkness through which we stumble; prejudice, hatred, war, Aleppo, Charleston, slaughters at nightclubs. We’re surrounded by chaos, and often it seems like the chaos is winning. Heck, I feel like that right now. But those are the times we need to stop, to take a step back, to look for the Spirit hovering over the chaos and to see where the dove may lead us.

Because even when things are overwhelming, the hope of new life and new creation is still there, the promise of a restart, a rest a reboot. A few chapters after the creation story and the world is flooded, Noah and his family stuck on the Ark and praying for dry land. They release a dove, which flies over the water until it finds an olive branch, a sign that the world can start again, a sign that new life still emerges from the mud and the waves, a rainbow asserting that the tempest doesn’t get the last word.

Because amid the deluge and the whirlpools, the darkness and the rolling thunder, God is still there. Even when the monsters rise up from the sea and threaten to carry us away, God remains. He doesn’t fight the monsters, he commands them, like a pet. He goes fishing for Leviathans, and when Jonah is consumed by the waves, he’s swallowed a God-sanctioned behemoth who carries him to safety. The monsters may be terrifying, but they’re not God and eventually they come to heel.

(The name Jonah, incidentally, means ‘dove’.)

And when Jesus is baptised by John, the Son of God plunges beneath the waters, and as he emerges the Spirit descends, a dove once again. Because this isn’t just a ritual, it’s a rebirth of hope, the offer of resurrection, the chaos put on notice before Jesus walks the land, driving out demons and stilling the storms. He’ll go to the Cross, yes, the monsters of Empire and Dogma dragging him to a lynching, but even then the darkness does not win; it breaks out of the tomb three days later, creation begun anew.

Sometimes we need to just cling on to that hope, even it’s by our fingertips, even if the lifeboat’s taking on water.

Much of this post was inspired by the work of Pastor Jonathan Martin, but also a sense that the darkness and chaos are creeping ever closer, leaking through the edges of the world, threads beginning to unravel. That’s how it feels, at least, and I guess that it’s easy for those emotions to take hold. Maybe there’s always chaos before a recreation, maybe we plummet into the abyss before we’re reborn. Maybe the monsters need to scratch at our door before we learn to be brave. I don’t know.

But while the sun sets and the waters roar, hope still hovers; the light shines in the darkness because the darkness cannot overcome it, and the Spirit flies over the deep in the form of a dove.

My Father Was a Wandering Aramean (Deuteronomy 26:5)

Many centuries ago, as the ancient nation of Israel coalesced around Covenant and Law, the people were commanded to dedicate the firstfruits of their harvest to God. And so, once a year, they would take these firstfruits to the priests, and recount the story of their people, beginning “My father was a Wandering Aramean…

It’s an evocative phrase, harking back to their ancestor Jacob. Jacob the trickster, Jacob  the hero. Jacob the conman, Jacob the man of God. And after he ripped off his brother, he made a life for himself in Aram, and then was forced to flee and flee again, a great famine driving him and his family into Egypt, then political oppression and slavery leading them into the wilderness before entering their Promised Land.

And so when Israel remembered their story, when they gave thanks for the lives they’d been given, they remembered where they came from, remembered that their’s was a story of escape and freedom and movement and migration.

And so, centuries later, would Jesus and Joseph have brought their offerings to the priest, would they have recounted their story: “My father was a Wandering Aramean…”

It’s a distant story, one of the great origin stories of Genesis. But it feels a long way away – what do these stories of Jacob escaping death and violence and famine mean for us?

Why should we think on the identification of a Wandering Aramean?

Arameans came from Aram.

Aram is now known as Aleppo, in Syria.

Keeping the Bible Weird

800px-Gustav_Jaeger_Bileam_EngelThe Bible can be weird.

I don’t mean the laws about mildew. I don’t mean the miracles (which are there precisely because they’re, well, miraculous). I don’t mean the bits that don’t seem to tally with how we normally see Jesus. I don’t even mean the Book of Revelation. No, I’m talking about the really weird stuff.

I mean, there are giants in the Bible. Not just Goliath, who gets all the press, but Anak and Og and the Rephaites. There’s a talking donkey. There are demons who have conversations with Jesus, and there’s a witch who (apparently) successfully summons up the ghost of the prophet Samuel. There are sea monsters. It’s weird.

And you know what? I don’t know what to do with that. I don’t get the story of the Witch of Endor. I’m fascinated by the fact that the fledgling kingdom of Israel seemed to keep having problems with warriors of unusual size. I get what’s going on with Balaam himself, but why it has to involve a talking donkey is beyond me. The rational part of my brain would like to ignore them; after all, they seem to exist in a strange, liminal space that isn’t really touched upon by mainstream thought. We can point to mountains of philosophy and theology that talks about how Jesus can be the Son of God. There are fewer works on the obvious effectiveness of the Witch of Endor.

Sometimes it’s easier to ignore these stories. After all, they get in the way; if you’re trying to talk about Jesus, it’s no fun when someone else brings up the talking donkey.

And yet they’re there for a reason. The people who originally handed down the original scriptures kept them in, and they knew as well as we do that animals don’t talk. They didn’t worry about the giants lurking in the corners of the first few books of the Old Testament. And I like that, I’m glad they did that, because they knew all those weird stories meant something. And to ignore and disregard those stories because they don’t fit a 21st Century western worldview would be a mistake, because it’s never good to stop listening to people’s stories. And these stories supported a whole people throughout times of invasion and exile, and we should remember and respect that.

Of course, it’s easier to get embarrassed or frustrated by the giants and the donkeys if all those stories and poems and histories have become codified and canonised into a big leather reference book on the shelf. They’re perhaps a little more potent when you’re living in an alien land, and the night is dark, and you don’t know if you’re ever going to see your home again. The stories keep and sustain you. They forge your identity and carry your memories.

So I think I’m over my worries about the strange bits of the Bible. I still don’t know what to do with the talking donkey, but I’m happy for her to be there. And I’m happy for the Bible to keep being weird, because if it ever gets too easy, ever stops being challenging, ever ceases to provoke new questions and new ideas and new insights then we’re reading it wrong.

And maybe that’s when we’ll start fearing giants again….