Wine Before Breakfast

A city of refuge? Nice idea.

The Torah of Israel had a lot of crazy ideas.

You know, things like the Year of Jubilee when all slaves were set free, debts were forgiven, and all the land reverted back to its original owners. Crazy! I mean, who would ever do something like that?

Or the provision for cities of refuge. A city where you could find safety if you had inadvertently injured or killed someone and people wanted blood payment right away, regardless of any due process.

And here’s the thing. The Jubilee legislation isn’t some naïve overestimation of the people’s ability to seek economic justice. Rather, we need something like the Jubilee precisely because God knows something about the human penchant for oppression, foreclosure and exploitation.

That same thing can be said about cities of refuge. We have already seen this semester at Wine Before Breakfast that the Bible has no modern liberal cheap optimism about urban life. We have already seen that the city is, in the Bible, ambivalent at best.

Cities are walled-structures – both literally in ancient times and at least metaphorically in modern times. They were originally built for the security of their inhabitants and the areas around them that were under the control of the city.

Cities are places of safety. They actually are supposed to be for refuge.And people continue to come to the cities throughout the world today looking for refuge. Whether we are thinking of the rural poor who gravitate to the city for protection from the poverty and hunger on failing farmlands, refugees fleeing oppressive regimes abroad, or the abused teenage girl who needs refuge from an abusive home, people flock to cities looking for refuge.

But they seldom find it.
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Wine Before Breakfast

Sodom, Toronto and the Ford Brothers

You don’t generally meet a customs official who makes you laugh out loud. But I did the other night returning from a conference in Indianapolis.

The Canadian customs official asked me what the conference was about.

“Community development,” I replied.

“You should have taken Doug Ford,” the officer quipped as he handed back my passport.

I roared with laughter and told him that he had made my night.

Doug Ford. The brother, side-kick and spokesman for Rob Ford, the Mayor of Toronto.

I should have taken Doug Ford to a conference on community development because it would seem pretty apparent that neither he nor his brother know anything about community development. Indeed, it almost seems as if anything that would benefit the community but restrain in any way the freedom of individuals (especially car-driving individuals) or require that individuals have a responsibility to community development that would require any kind of taxation for the common good, is all simply outside of the worldview of these leaders of the good city, Toronto.

Now I don’t want to make a quick and cheap analogy between Sodom and Toronto. And I certainly don’t want to make any such parallel on the backs of the gay community – something that fundamentalist Christians continue to do.

But if you allow Ezekiel to interpret Genesis, then the parallels between our prosperous late modern city and the depravity of that ancient city are clear enough.

Here is what Ezekiel says about the sin of Sodom: “she and her daughters had pride, excess of good food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy.” (16.49)

They had excess of good food and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and the needy. Sure sounds to me like the Toronto that the Ford brothers are imagining.

Ours is a city of incredible prosperity, yet we have a growing homeless population and an administration that seems hell-bent on selling off the little and inadequate affordable housing stock that we have. Ours is a city of rich food, wonderful farmers’ markets and world class restaurants, yet the poorest of our neighbours depend on food banks and soup kitchens for their daily bread.
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