Seek Shalom in the City of Your Exile

Shalom in the city

Ana was not happy to read those words. Though I have independently decided over and over to resign myself to my place and do the best I can, I did not want to hear these words. Not one to open a Bible, randomly choose a passage and then figure that is my command for the day, I am drawn to words, phrases ideas that come to me from diverse sources within a short time period. This thought started with the reminder from Wendell Berry and Ellen Davis, that an agrarian is one who knows the value of a little land.

Oh, that I know. Having moved from the farm where I could plant a garden almost anywhere in the yard and have it thrive, to a studio apartment where my only soil was what I could fit in pots on my steps, and now to the luxury of a few hell strips 10 feet wide that in some places get enough sunlight to grow tomatoes, I know the value of a little land and I am grateful for it.

I often feel in exile here. I do not understand these folks who like it, and even less those who think they are living in a ‘little town’. The new 20 something mayor is intent on urbanization, or as we old timers call it, Manhattanizing. Our downtown is set for an uglification project that if nothing else, is subjecting downtown to yet another season of intense construction that will discourage patrons in a city with an already peculiar traffic pattern.

Yet, it does make sense to pray for the Shalom of the city to which you have been exiled. If your city does better, you do better. Even for those who are outside the city in the Eden I hope to return to, the city is the market place, and its health means a better life for those who feed it. Its peace, infers peace in the countryside. (and let’s not forget vice versa)

And so I was encouraged to learn more about this Bible verse. I like this version that Ellen Davis(1) uses which translates it as praying for the Shalom of the city. Many translations use wealth or peace or even health. Shalom incorporates it all. I shy away from idea of the wealth, because in our times, wealth has become a tool for the powerful few to impoverish the rest of the population, and to destroy the health and peace of us all. This incorporation of ideas, brings to mind a balance, a measured relationship of one to another. [Shalom is] the webbing together of God, humans, and all creation in justice, fulfillment, and delight…. We call it peace, but it means far more than mere peace of mind or cease-fire among enemies. In the Bible shalom means universal flourishing, wholeness, and delight. (2)

Fred Bahnson in his essay ‘Learning to See'(3) speaks of his transition to a maker and teacher of small community gardens. He was working with a rural Methodist church to start a community garden which they called Anathoth after the field Jeremiah was instructed to buy during the Babylonian siege of Jerusalem. “Plant gardens and eat what they produce”.

The first search I made of the use of this scriptures landed on a sermon about them.(4)  It was reassuring to be told not to see the exile as a punishment from God,but rather a statement of fact. In other words – circumstances have led me to live in the city, I am not being punished, it just is what it is, and I should make the best of it. Certainly praying or working for the shalom of my neighbors, my city, is simply part of what we should all be doing everywhere. This is perhaps a better use of Ronald Reagan’s idea that “a rising tide floats all boats”. If we work together – everyone will have a place on a boat.

Ellen Davis points out that today agrarians cannot afford to forget the city since more than half the world lives in one, and in North America 4 out of 5 people reside in metropolitan areas. That is an incredibly depressing thought to me, though I have a cousin (who lives in a city), who says “good, let them stay there, it means it’s less crowded for the rest of us”. Did I mention he lives in a city?

This points out the rationality of my question when I started blogging, “why do they want us all out of the countryside?” The better for Monsanto, Dow, Cargill, WM to profit.

Ellen also points out that there has always been a city/rural tension because the power often resides in the city, and as a market, has its temptations to use unfair measures in trade. And for some reason for the city to see the rural as less intelligent, less worthy than the city dweller. An interesting concept toward the person who brings your food, and yet fully evident in the way we treat waiters and waitresses today.

And so, even as my eyes perk up at real estate listings, and ads for chicks and baby lambs, I will do my best to grow well where I have been planted. Not resigned but joyfully, to be thankful for my little piece of ground and to learn how to treat it well. And I will pray for my city (though the phrase ‘my city’ still sends a shiver up my spine) that it have shalom.

References Used:
Ellen Davis ‘Scripture, Culture and Agriculture‘ chapter 9 Cambridge University Press

Toward a definition of shalom/ paragraph 1

Making Peace With the Land‘ Chapter 2 Fred Bahnson & Norman Wirzba IVP Books

Good Shepherd Presbyterian Sermons, Charlotte, NC June 20, 2010