When the City of Man Creaks

Eating out just hasn’t felt worth it these past couple months that we’ve been back in the US. While restaurants in the states are open again, most are understaffed and alarmingly expensive. The lack of staff usually means pretty poor service, and even the quality of food usually strikes us as not what it used to be. Hearing others in the US voice similar sentiments means it’s not just those of us who have been living overseas who notice these differences. The food service industry is creaking, trying to lurch back to what it was before the pandemic. There is this sense that – convenience though it is – we can’t count it like we used to.

Food service is not the only system struggling to regain its pre-pandemic efficiency. International air travel has still not recovered either. We’ve never had the kind of travel difficulties that we’ve experienced over this past year. Even business behemoths like Amazon seem past their, ahem, prime. More seriously, crime has also skyrocketed in many American cities, with the understanding in some places that if you are the victim of certain crimes, you are on your own.

The strange thing about all this for highly-educated millennials like us is that we’ve hardly ever known the systems around us to get worse, perhaps with the exception of our elected government. By and large, we’ve only known the infrastructure and services offered in the West to (eventually) get faster, more efficient, and more user-friendly. This was also the worldview of our parents’ generation. Progress in the systems we rely on for life necessities or conveniences has been assumed. The pandemic and its aftermath have challenged this assumption and, whether temporary or long-term, the systems around us are showing their weakness.

Systems don’t last forever. The prophecy of the twelve eagles was right – Rome would fall. The Roman legions would leave places like Britain in 409 and never come back. Which meant the structures of empire that the Romanized residents of Londinium (London) relied upon would have slowly but surely broken down. A thousand years later the Portuguese would successfully sail to India – thereby causing the economic collapse of the Central Asian silk road. Trade routes that were kept safe by the wealth and power of regional regimes would become frequented by violent robbers and be slowly abandoned by the caravans. Empires rise. Empires decline. At some point a certain generation realizes that things are breaking faster than they can be repaired, and life is likely going to get a lot worse before it someday gets better.

As the systems of West have begun to creak, we’ve had an opportunity to get a glimpse of what it might be like to live in a declining empire, what it’s like to have things regress, as it were. We’re nowhere near what someone like Augustine would have experienced as the Vandals laid siege to his city during the last year of his life. Bad food service, late packages, and lost luggage are not nearly the same thing as barbarians at the gate. But if we stop and pay attention, we might be able to identify just a little more with all those communities throughout history that have known what it’s like to have their faith in their systems shaken. This is not all bad.

Who among us in the West has not at times believed the myth of our society’s unceasing progress and influence? It’s only human to believe that the way things are is the way they are going to be – certainly for our lifetimes, if not for much longer. But a shockwave through society’s systems can function much like a personal health scare. It can awaken us to our own transience. Our lives are like a vapor (James 4:14). So are our civilizations. Like Ozymandius, all the great boasts of this world will one day end up the equivalent of a monument buried in sand, abandoned and forgotten. Remembering our transience fosters humility. And our God gives grace to the humble (James 4:6).

Creaking systems can also foster a hunger for better ones, those that cannot be shaken (Heb 12:27). It’s no mistake that Augustine writes The City of God in the twilight of the Roman Empire, and in light of the first sack of Rome. When the temporary systems (the City of Man) that we live in get shaken, believers are forced to cling to our true home, our eternal one (the city of God). Just as all the transitions of a refugee’s or a TCK’s upbringing can cause him to hope more tangibly in an eternal home, so the church collectively can come to believe more deeply in the steadfast kingdom of God when their own societies of sojourn are coming undone.

Shall we grieve for our Babylons when their time has come? Yes. The losses are real, if indeed we sought the good of the city where we sojourned. And yet there is also hope and a renewed clarity that must intermingle with the grieving. We knew all along our common grace systems were eventually going to fail. But we also knew that their creaking and their failure would also (ultimately) serve as the prelude to the eternal story of the New Jerusalem.

Finally, these things also help us identify with the Church global and historical. When we ourselves wrestle in faith to trust God in the breakdown of our systems, we learn better how to pray for Christians who live in failed states or economies, for those whose societies experience a great deal more instability and turmoil than ours have. We are reminded that we should have been primarily identifying with them all along, rather than with our temporary fellow citizens and partisans.

When the city of man begins to creak and groan we may naturally feel a good deal of fear or disorientation. I don’t think there’s any way around this. But this creaking is also an opportunity for humility, for renewed faith in the New Jerusalem, and for identification with the historical and global Church. In this way, no matter if the cracks get worse or if they get patched, we will be able to maintain hope, to serve our brothers and sisters and even the perishing, and to point to what is coming.

For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come.

-Hebrews 13:14

Photo by Pawel Czerwinski on Unsplash

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