Urban Hinterlands (3/10): On the Quest for Livability


Admittedly, the term “livable” can be ambiguous. Some cite a diverse local economy, while others claim it is about aesthetic beauty in the built environment. Still others note the presence of a progressive political climate, low crime rates, positive health statistics, and so on. So what is livable and why was it one of the impetuses for me to leave Tucson in search of a hipper and happier city? What were my motives?

Making decisions based upon livability, while natural and innocent, can actually be dark and insidious. I say that as I look into the inner recesses of my own heart. Last week I began reading In the Company of the Poor by Dr. Paul Farmer and Father Gustavo Gutiérrez. Like a spotlight searing the cobwebs of my heart, working through this book has been both liberating and painful. It was not only a painful reminder of the reality of mixed motives, but it has been a clarion call to continue to die to self for the sake of the gospel.

In the chapter titled “Conversion,” Gutiérrez writes, “As a conversion is a break with sin it will have to have both a personal and a social dimension.” Our call to Christ is not only personal, but there is also a social dimension. It begins transforming us on the inside and that then spills into every other area of our lives—our relationships, how we treat others, our finances, how we live in our neighborhoods. But does it then also influence where we live?

Earlier in the book, Father Gutiérrez states:

I do theology as one who comes from a context of deep poverty, and thus for me, the first question of theology is how do we say to the poor: God loves you? I understand that the words “God loves you” are not difficult to say. But this message––as true as it is––presents a monumental challenge given the daily life of poor persons and their experience of exclusion and nonlove, of being forgotten, of having no social rights .... And so, what does it mean to take seriously the question of how to say and to show persons living in the structure of violence, living in social injustice and seeming insignificance, that “God loves you?”

Framing livability with that mindset as the backdrop changes the entire conversation. Most often, when we talk about livability the focus is on what we are getting out of it. Cities are amenities to be consumed. However, when the lens of the gospel is applied, the narrative decisively shifts to what we will give. Christ died for us. He gave himself so that we can give ourselves. Jesus said, “As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.”

But I didn’t always see it that way.


This is an excerpt from the book Urban Hinterlands: Planting the Gospel in Uncool Places.