From Revelation Old and New: Sermons and Addresses by P.T. Forsyth, edited by John Huxtable (London: Independent Press, 1962)
THE IDEAL CITY
(preached at the Congregational Church, Llandrindod Wells, on 2oth July, 1913, on an occasion when the Urban District Council Association Conference attended the service.)
City of God."
Isaiah 60:21, "Thy people shall also be all righteous."
WHEN the saintly Baxter died, he humbly congratulated himself on having cherished what he called "a public mind." And says Goodwin, "Godly men have public spirits." It has been the glory of many English Christians that they have been citizen saints. They cherished the public and practical pieties, not the rapt or recluse type of sainthood. They have been the backbone of our municipal institutions, and that means, of our English freedom and constitutional stability.
Two great currents meet in Western history, represented by two well-known terms, Church and State. The State is the contribution of the ancient Paganism to the modern world. The Church is the Hebrew contribution. In Greece, the Church vanished before the State. In Judaism, the State vanished before the Church. But Christianity restored the civic idea of Hebrew faith, blended them on a new level, and produced the greatest imaginative reality history knows in the City of God, the Heavenly Kingdom.
What are the marks of a Christian City? Broadly they are three—ideas, justice, and kindness.
The mark of a Greek city was pervasion by ideas,—by large ideas. The city was the centre of the best culture and the best devotion of the time. It was so also with the mediaeval city. It was small, yet led by men of mind and force.
But in Christian history, a town used to be technically a city if it had a cathedral and was the seat of a bishop, the capital of an ecclesiastical province. That once meant a great deal. It meant being lifted out of mere local and humdrum politics into the larger life of Europe. The Church in these days was the depository of the great world-ideas. She was the great representative of the widest and noblest human interests.
But we do not now make a see a condition of a city. We can make a town a city by wealth and enterprise, by large ideas, by dignity of interest, by the culture of its citizens, by the possession of a University—now more important than a Cathedral for civic purposes,—by the conduct of municipal affairs in more than a vestry spirit, and by drawing that stamp of man into affairs. Otherwise, a town sinks to be a large village, and its council becomes the object of vulgar little ambitions and the scene of intrigue or jobbery. We make a town a Christian city by the presence of the largest Christian ideas and the rule of the most just and Christian principles. It is not alone by possessing many Christian institutions like churches or hospitals; but by the abundance and prominence of large, bold, worthy, and able men who honour Christian intelligence, principle, and sympathy above all else. They are able men, and they have practical sagacity, but also they have moral sagacity. The rarest of all wisdom is moral wisdom. They love righteousness for its own sake. They are above the temptations of popularity, because they are filled with the sense of duty. They are free from the vulgarities of the pushing self-seeker. They are therefore proof against fits of popular passion or ingratitude. They are answerable to conscience more than to the public. They are sometimes familiar with the higher culture, yet they freely spend time, money, care and labour in far less tasteful service. They can surrender chances of private gain when these collide with public good. They say, "I will vote for this. It will hurt me, but it will be for the public good." If we have only men who push particular interests, sectional class interests, or personal, we have no city. A city is not a huge mass of egoists; it depends for its dignity on the number of men in it who can take the largest views of public good, and give them effect. A time is coming, I hope, when mere self-seekers in public places shall be boycotted in some telling form. We should exclude from public life all who regard the community as an orange to suck instead of a trust to discharge. "Do unto the public as you would the public should do unto you". That spirit in general makes a town a city. It used to be a maxim of one of the great citizens of Birmingham, "elect nobody to your council whom you would not like to see as Mayor."
Further, a community has the spirit of a city when it makes a real contribution to national liberty. It is only by the development of local government that a spirit of liberty can be maintained in a nation. Municipal spirit of the right kind is the condition of national freedom. Rotten boroughs mean a corrupt realm. It has been one of the perils of military Empire that municipal life was arrested, and local freedom was repressed. We cannot exaggerate the value of free thought and free speech and free action,—especially in local affairs. "Local assemblies of citizens," says the great publicist, de Tocqueville, "constitute the strength of free nations. Town meetings are to liberty what primary schools are to science; they bring it within the people's reach, they teach them how to use and how to enjoy it. A nation may establish a system of free government, but, without the spirit of municipal institutions, it cannot have the spirit of liberty." Every candidate for Parliament should, when possible, serve his time to local government first. It would be strange if, in a mixed assembly, all admired Chamberlain; but who can fail to see that this was the secret of his career.
I have spoken of the Christian city as the sphere of ideas, the field of ability, the arena of conscience, and the nursery of liberty. I wish to speak of it further as the field of love, and the sphere of mutual help of a just and considered kind. For neither ideas, abilities, nor liberty makes Christianity, but faith and love. "Thy people also shall be all righteous." That is the goal of the Christian city. If any young man is in doubt what side to take in public affairs, let him take the side of general justice and public righteousness. But the Bible means much by righteousness; more than personal probity or legal justice. It is a word of more imagination, more depth, more kindness than that.
The Christian city in the first place is one where the civic virtue, whatever it is, is common to all. The people are all righteous. That is true of civic property; it should also be true of civic manhood and virtue. And, in the next place, that righteousness means a conscience warmed with heart. It is not only just, but helpful. Now what is our current idea of heart in connection with righteousness Is it not the idea of making exceptions from the law, easing its pressure, granting immunities for hard cases But surely the true idea is to suffuse the law itself with the spirit of help, so that its own effect is the true order, kindness and blessing. God's law is but one expression of His person and its love. There is no Divine righteousness which is mere justice; it is at least equity. And Divine equity goes always with final kindness. God's public righteousness is His public kindness no less. He is a just God and a Saviour. The city, therefore, will not be Christian if it does not foster a kind and wise care of the less fortunate majority. And it must put the souls, the characters, of the many before the property of the few, when a real collision arises. Men are more than money; person is more than property. The moving spirit must be love. "All sentiment !" says one. But there is a better form of love than sentiment. There is service and sacrifice. The mother that caresses and neglects her child is no mother. The form that Christian love takes in public affairs is not sentiment. It is righteousness. Mere charity honeycombs a society. No town can thrive on doles, or tips, or cheap sympathies which flow after dinner, and ebb after sleep. Love is here sympathetic justice, justice like God's to us, where the judge is on the culprit's side, and is his Saviour. To illustrate, the city soldier is the policeman, and the policeman's duty is not merely to guard property, and seize offenders; it is also to regulate traffic; to ease progress; and help women and children at dangerous crossings. He never looks better than at such work. Has our public policy nothing to do with helping the weak side of society through its perilous places?
A city is a focus of sound, social energy and service whether corporate or voluntary. It makes much of the housing of the poor, as a first condition of their helping themselves. It ought rigorously to help the poor and weak by enforcing the law against publicans who make people drunk or drunker. It is not new laws we need here so much as power and will and public spirit to enforce existing laws. The city ought by education to soften manners, and destroy church or class antagonism, as well as instruct children. The city should be on a large scale what a family is on a small,—a sphere for the cultivation of service and even sacrifice for the common good! How many examples of this we have had ! Unpaid work is often slovenly, I know. But I am not sure whether the best work done for the world is not its unpaid work, whose chief reward is with posterity or eternity. What a debt we owe to the public voluntary service of many a citizen,—some in connection with churches, some with socieities, others with our civic institutions. Some, it is true, may do it for ambition. I do not object to some ambition in public affairs. Others, from lower motives (jobbery or snobbery) hoping for the meaner sorts of gain. But the best, most respected and most remembered men do it from a sense of duty and public spirit. They return to the city some of the advantages which the city gave them. Others do it from real heart love of the people they meet in the streets. There is no point, in which the difference between the ancient citizen and the Christian is more marked than in the nature and extent of this self-denial. We take the whole public into account, not a class.
Christianity gives infinite moral value to every soul, and from that follows in the end equal political value. If he is not worthy, yet he can be made so. Make him responsible. The great mass must be taken into account in the modern city if it is Christian. How difficult without demoralizing them ! Yet what opportunity ! How much richer is Christian citizenship than Greek, in scope, living interest, and living problems. The Athenian made his sacrifices for a caste. He saw in the mass only hands, slaves, a supply of needful labour; we see in them men, souls, with great possibilities and the right to be anything they can. They are free men like the rest. They have a claim on the public conscience to institutions which shall give them all the help possible for a career. We have therefore what the cultured Greeks had not,—people who sacrificed pleasure and leisure and class prejudices for the Christian task of making things better for the million at a later day. The good old Greek denied himself the lower pleasures for the higher. The good new Christian renounces many of the higher pleasures themselves for others' welfare, for social duty, and brotherly love. For a city we need more than culture, we need sacrifice, not only for one class but for the whole, and especially for the ignorant and the out of the way. The only effective inspiration for this is the Christian. Christ alone can control the egoism, sectionalism, professionalism, and trades-unionism of a complex, prosperous, and heedless age.
Again, the service of the town is a sphere for the application of Christian principles by men who believe in a church, and are made and fed by it, but who are not fitted for Church forms of "Christian work." Do not limit that to excellent things like village preaching or district visitation, or anything in connection with religious organization. The man who so, by his public life, has raised the standard of public virtue, has done what the churches may sometimes fail to do. Civic work is just as indispensable for the goodness of society as religious. Civic duty is part of applied Christianity. Our education in cities is part of our education in Christ. It answers the question, "What must I do when I am saved " Otherwise we fall into monasticism, sectarian-ism, clericalism, conventionalism, cliqueism, other-worldliness, and trivial pietism.
But the true civic spirit is to be shown not only in measures or enterprises of a beneficent sort. We cannot hope to carry all the measure we think right, useful, and good. But one thing we can do, we can always carry the Christian spirit into the conflict and out of it. We can take it into our manner of discussing and conducting public business. If we must fight, let us fight like gentlemen. Fight clean. Let us not attribute mean motives until we can prove them. And motives are difficult to prove. There are many right-minded men on both sides. Little places may exhibit low-bred scenes. But the spirit of a great city is the spirit of the Christian gentleman. It is eager, forcible, earnest. It may take the gloves off; yet it is reasonable, temperate, conciliatory, magnanimous. It has good sense, good fellowship, good temper. It enters into the give and take of affairs like neighbours who have to meet each other daily, or whose families do. Rival politicians need not always cease to be friends. The man of bitter and irritating temper may do far more by his tongue to ban society than by his measures to bless it. His bitterness may do more to dissolve society than his reforms to unite it. The raspy reformer is really an obstructive. Large affairs are defiled by mean methods. The common good is degraded and poisoned by ill-conditioned men who put volumes of passion into matters of mere pence. They may sometimes be men of a certain ability. But a man of incurably bitter tongue, with a weakness for insinuation, an acuteness of suspicion, and a propensity to sneer, is, as a public example, dear at any price of ability. He lowers the public standard and debases the social coin. The true blessing is the man from whom we cannot differ without respect.
The religion of Jesus Christ has greatly enlarged and enriched the sphere of active manhood. The gospel of the city of God makes men, and the real wealth of a city is men. The great purpose after all of a city with common and corporate life is not to promote business, but to make men. The old States reared splendid buildings; let us not neglect anything so noble; but let us aim chiefly at building a city of living stones, a true community, a moral fabric. Let us do all we can to give scope for developing the possibilities of human nature, national and moral. English cities are for the creation of English citizens. They are to enable such men to enrich their national heritage of freedom, and their soul's destiny of dignity. But we soon find that civic institutions will not of themselves make good citizens. Men do more to make the city than the city to make men. "Governments," says the great Christian statesman, William Penn, "depend on men, rather than men upon governments. Like clocks, they go from the motion men give them. Let men be good, and the government cannot be bad. If it be ill, they will cure it. But, if men be bad, let the government be ever so good, they will endeavour to warp and spoil it to their turn. Some are of opinion that, if they had good laws, it was no matter what sort of men they were who executed them, but such ought to consider that, though good laws did well, good men did much better; for good laws might want good men, and be abolished or altered by ill men; but good men would never want good laws, nor suffer ill ones." We shall not be the best citizens unless we are more. The State cannot be separated from the Churches. See how the ancient cities fell because their men were citizens and no more. They had no heavenly citizenship. They were not kindled by the vision of the righteous city of God, growing up through all the cities of men. They did not seek first the Kingdom of God. What have we among us to make men, to make good men and discredit bad ones ? What is to protect us from that anti-social passion for sport and pleasure, for instance, which is breeding gamblers and bleeding citizenship, which throngs to football but cannot be dragged to vote? We are in more danger from the slow perdition of subtle selfishness and popular materialism than from gross and palpable wickedness. The one is the soil in which the other thrives. On what is our citizenship, our public spirit to live in future? The men, who have done most for our cities in the past, have been moved by the faith, brotherhood, and Kingdom of God. What are we trusting to, to keep that flame alive and burning in time to come? What is the tendency of our creed, the prospect of our religion? It is making men or mere religionists, citizens or sectarians, mere Churchmen on one side and mere Dissenters on the other, mere delegates of interests, mere self-seekers even in their Salvation, mere fugitives from Hell? "The sheep of my pasture are men, saith the Lord." What a text ! And when God would save the world, He sent it a Man to set up a Divine Kingdom out of all the cities of earth. And if our public life is not made by men who are made by Christ, we have nothing to look for but the doom of the old Empires. The men we need are men who are not only unashamed of a Christian faith but men who consult the will of God in private about every great public movement or step in which they are engaged.
They are men whose conscience is educated by the conscience of the gospel.
May God, who set up the Kingdom of His Grace in a true and holy Man, send us true men always to build our cities. But, if we be left with cities inhabited only by pushing egotists, then we shall need all His mercy, for we shall have neither beauty, worth, power, nor prosperity in the end.