The Gospel Meets the Humpty Dumpty Zoning Ordinance

Near the end of the Second World War, Winston Churchill remarked of war-torn England, “We shape our buildings, and afterwards our buildings shape us.” Churchill understood buildings as more than pretty pictures on souvenir postcards. We learn many things from the bricks, stone, mortar, sidewalks, streets, and plazas in many cities. Our buildings, rooms, corridors, streets, sidewalks, landscapes, and skyscapes affect and influence us in very profound ways. All those things around us that we take for granted, such as the width of a street or sidewalk, the distance to a pub or a grocery store, or the height of an apartment building or townhouse, may seem of little importance to Christians living in this fallen world. But, in part and in whole, the things we build speak to us and reveal our deepest convictions. So what do our cities say to us? Do they speak to God’s goodness and mirror His wise rule over all creation, or do they deny it? What do they say about the community of men, imaging forth the Trinitarian community of the Godhead and the host of heaven?

As a pastor and an architect, we are Presbyterians with a love for the Reformed faith. We also love art and architecture, but here we see a disconnect between the patterns of community written on our hearts and the patterns of community written on our twenty-first-century streets and highways. Things like human scale, the interaction of different classes of people in mutually enriching ways, the family as the first institution, rhythms of work and rest, the harmony of God’s works and the works of man, and the church as the final institution—all these things and more echo the message revealed in the Bible. In the first instance, many cities not only ignore all these things, they actively suppress them, just as all sinners suppress the truth in unrighteousness (Rom. 1:18).

Think of what Ahab could have accomplished with modern zoning!

In 1 Kings, chapter 21, we are told that King Ahab wanted Naboth’s vineyard. There were two ways—and only two ways—for King Ahab to get it. The first way was the voluntary method. King Ahab asked him for his vineyard and offered him compensation. We know Naboth turned him down. The second way was the coercive method. Jezebel arranged for Naboth to be falsely accused and stoned to death, whereupon his property was seized by the king. The Lord told Elijah to tell Ahab, “Have you not murdered a man and seized his property?” (21:19). The end result was God’s wrath upon King Ahab and his offspring.

The story of Naboth’s vineyard brings up two questions for us as we consider the built environment: First, why would Naboth not sell Ahab the land? And second, would it have been any less of a theft if King Ahab had just changed the zoning, taken it by eminent domain, or raised the property tax rate to force Naboth out?

The first question is answered by Deuteronomy. The land Naboth possessed was the inheritance given by God to his ancestors. Naboth saw himself as a temporary superintendent. It was land held dear, a patrimony to pass on. For the twenty-first-century Christian, it is easy to see that we have given up our inheritance, exchanging a world made with people in mind for a modern world of machine-like efficiency.

The second question is one that also must be considered. In 1926, the Supreme Court decided, in Village of Euclid, Ohio v. Amber Realty, that a city could use zoning laws to force prescribed land uses on property owners as an extension of their policing powers. This led to an explosion of zoning ordinances across the country as modern leaders seized upon the opportunity to make a world in their own image. One could easily argue that these changes led to the dismantling of depth and richness of a world built for community. For example, zoning laws separated the uses of home and work and of faith and family. Buildings previously integrated into the community, especially churches, were pushed to the perimeter of the city—not in search of needy souls, but in need of the required number of parking spaces. With this blow struck, today’s communities have largely gone the way of King Ahab’s family. “Dogs will eat those belonging to Ahab…” (21:34). In other words, modern cities are places where people get eaten, not places where people thrive.

Church on the roadside in Columbus, Indiana. Photo: Duncan Stroik

The silence of Christians about these matters speaks a loud message to the world. It says that we have little regard for the promotion and protection of our common humanity in all the ordinary things of life, such as at the heart and center of our cities. It also suggests that an atomistic and materialistic understanding of social life is a matter of indifference to Christians. The result of our silence is that churches are physically relocated far away from the center of the city. Many observers have described twenty-first-century cities as “cities with no there there.” For the Christian the missing “there” is the promotion of human wholeness and the presence of Gospel-churches at the center of cities.

Learning to See Again

Romans, chapter 1, says that “the wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness.” The truth, while being temporarily suppressed, is not ever contained. By the 1970s, urban theorists like Jane Jacobs, in her book The Death and Life of the Great American City, and Christopher Alexander, in his book The Pattern Language, began to point out the inhumanity of our cities. As a countermeasure, Jacobs and Alexander attempted to identify systems and patterns that are present in vibrant, living cities. Their work influenced a generation of architects and planners. Certainly, what has been produced has been a step in the right direction. Their contributions to city planning have even been received with open arms by many Christians. But one danger is that they continue to use King Ahab’s coercive methods to achieve their ends, and so the results are mixed. These are not communities finally motivated by love of neighbor; they are still modern beneath the surface but covered over with a Thomas Kincade-type façade.

Westminster Cathedral, London. Photo: Duncan Stroik

Saint Peter Church, Geneva, the home church of John Calvin in the 1540s. Photo: Daniel Jolivet

Genuine life is always organic, springing up by the power of God. According to scripture, governments are tasked with honoring and protecting life, not necessarily reproducing it. When they try, the results are often artificial and ugly. Modernity is guilty of many crimes against humanity, and the reason is that modern men do not know what a human being is. The modern condition breaks things down into their smallest material parts; but as with Humpty Dumpty, modernity does not know how to put things back together again. And in the process it kills what it seeks to understand. That is why modern cities are so charmless and inhuman. Everything is sorted into classes: financial districts here, industrial zones there, bedroom communities over there, shopping centers—you get the picture. But where are the people? And where are the institutions that connect people and God?

We need to see that cities are complex and organic things that spring up freely, not mechanisms made by governments. Secondly, we need to re-claim the inheritance of older cities like London or Geneva where there was a visible presence of the community of Christ, the Church. As Christians, we must resist trading with King Ahab for better parking, freeway access, and more land for the surround-sound auditorium. Thirdly, we need to expose King Ahab’s plots to marginalize the church in urban life. We are in for a fight—zoning commission meetings can be very pugilistic!

God’s creation is designed for community, from the interaction of the largest city down to the smallest sub-atomic particle. Everywhere we look we see reflections of His glory and signs of His plan for human flourishing. The Gospel brings us into community and fellowship with the living and Triune God, Who then empowers us to reflect that fellowship in communities far and wide.

Rev. C.R. Wiley is senior pastor of the Presbyterian Church of Manchester in Manchester, Connecticut.  David Stocker is an architect and founding principal at Stocker Hoesterey Montenegro in Dallas, Texas.

This article originally appeared in the Jan/Feb 2014 edition of Modern Reformation and is reprinted with permission.