On a muggy night in September of 1751, a six story tenement in Edinburgh, Scotland, collapsed. What should have shocked many, shocked no one, as this was just one building among many made of rickety old boards. The likelihood of a building failing in Edinburgh was about as likely as rain on a cloudy day. Yet, people lived in them as there was no space for new neighborhoods to be built. The Nor’ Loch bordered the city to the north. The lake had been made for defense, which it kindly provided, but it was neglected and was now only stocked with sewage. When the people managed to dodge falling buildings and sewage filled waters, it was the fires, disease, and crime that caught them off guard. Edinburgh was a ghetto, and it needed help.
However, help would not come. Scotland hadn’t held royal court since 1603. Help from their federal government was about as likely as suddenly finding cell service when your car has broken down on a deserted mountain highway. People would also not get any assistance from their local city government. The city which had limited resources, was also led by a buffoonary of men. They often held their meetings in taverns, acting more like drunken frat boys than officials running a city. The possibility of the citizens of Edinburgh receiving help from anyone in government seemed bleak.
The people of Edinburgh faced a choice. They could have left. Truthfully, that is what I might have done. I might have packed up my family and my possessions and headed out to the countryside. I could have found a bit of land, livestock, and lived on my own far away from the problems found in the decaying prison of Edinburgh. One man, however, did not leave. He chose a second option, reform.
George Drummond was a hard worker. He had to be to get ahead, as he wasn’t born into money or power. George worked his way up through the ranks, first serving on the board of customs, then as city treasurer, and finally as Provost of the City. It was as Provost where Drummond began his life’s work.
Revolted with what his city had become, Drummond launched the Commission of Proposals for Public Works, with an ambition to “improve and enlarge the city and to adorn it with public buildings which may be for the national benefit.” It was an audacious goal, considering he had no money, government support, policy, or even the belief of the citizens that it could be done. Undeterred, he fought like a heavyweight boxer to get legislation passed. Slowly, over the course of more than ten years, legislation was developed and money was raised. City administrators, however, dug their heels in and drug the planning on for another year before finally approving the architect’s designs. It was arduous work, but Drummond met the challenge.
Eventually the city would be improved. George would begin the Royal Infirmary, one of the world’s chief teaching hospitals. He was pivotal in seeing the University of Edinburgh expanded. The crown jewels of his accomplishments, which he wouldn’t live to see their completion, was the building of Edinburgh’s “New Town” and the draining of the Nor’ Loch. The work would take most of his life, but Edinburgh would go from ghetto to renowned city because one man did not give up.
Unfortunately this would not be the last ghetto this world would ever see. The world we live today in is becoming increasing polluted. Hatred is ravaging our streets. The internet is littered with trash. Our schools are papered with violence and drugs. The sense of despair leaves millions worried and concerned. Society is hurting. However, our society is not the ghetto, at least not yet. The ghetto is actually created by the church’s response to this culture. One author put it this way:
Today, the lack of a “critical mass” of Christians who are visibly present in their communities may be the biggest single barrier to churches becoming local movements. With the secularization of the West, a great many churches have circled the wagons, often withdrawing into Christian enclaves or networks in which Christians socialize with each other; buy their homes, furniture, appliances, and cars from Christians; exercise at the church’s gym (rather than the local health club); homeschool their kids or send them to private school (rather than the public school); and send their kids to Christian colleges (rather than state or secular colleges), while preparing to eventually retire in a residential facility for senior Christians. As Pope Francis has observed, far too many Christians now live in “a ghetto of our own making.” George Hunter III in Go: The Church’s Main Purpose
A ghetto of our own making. Many Christians, often with great intentions, make a choice to abandon the society around them. They witness the hatred, violence, drugs, despair and decide to go live a life that is separate, more Godly, more pure and holy. What they end up creating is indeed separate, however, it is something that is inbred, ungodly, and unholy.
The dead sea is an overplayed illustration, but it’s overplayed because it is often the perfect illustration, as it is here. The dead sea is just that, dead. It is dead because although it receives all sorts of nutrients from the everlush Jordan River, it has no natural outlet to let nutrients go. Great nutrients come in, nothing goes out, things get overloaded, and everything dies. It’s just what happens when you get too much of a great thing. Unfortunately, this is also what the lives of many Christians look like. They obtain all their healthy nutrients and vitamins from their walk with God, daily devotions, churches, and faith. Then, like the Dead Sea, that is always receiving and never letting anything go, they too get overloaded and die. Lots of christians dying in this way creates some rather abhorrent christian ghettos.
Other illustrations from the Bible make the point equally well. Christians are to be the salt of the earth, a city on a hill, and the light of the world. When Christians withdraw they end up being nothing more than salt in the cupboard, cities hidden behind walled gates, and lights only to their own homes. We are not living the way God intended if we withdraw from society.
I can hear people saying, “yeah, but shouldn’t we support christian businesses?” “Yeah, but are we not suppose to fellowship with other believers?” “Yeah, but God invented education, and christian schools to teach His word and values.” Please don’t get me wrong, we should faithfully support christian businesses, fellowship with believers, and pray about whether God would have us send our kids to christian schools and colleges (in fact, I personally have attended three christian colleges and seminaries); however, we should also pray about how God wants us to be involved in our community. The challenge might simply be, do we at least put as much time and prayer into how we influence our neighbors for Christ as we do trying to avoid them influencing us? Do we actually think about how we can be a light into our kid’s schools, or do we just think about how to afford getting them out of the public school system? Do we invite our neighbors over for dinner, or do we just enjoy hanging out at church potlucks? Jesus, our best example, ministered to a lot of ungodly people, however, many christians spend all their time avoiding them.
Edinburgh was a ghetto. The only way to fix it was to drain the swamp and build some new buildings. Ignoring the problem wouldn’t have fixed it. Moving might have saved some individuals some pain, but ultimately the city would have went completely to ruin. Thankfully there was one man that stood up, worked hard, and made something better.
The lives of many christians today are ghettos. The way to fix them, like in Edinburgh, is to drain the swap and build some new buildings. We need to get out into our communities and build some new relationships with those around us. We need to be involved in our children’s schools, coach their soccer teams, volunteer in community organizations and serve in city government. We need to engage our neighbors and be the light to them that God has called us to be.
I said earlier that our society is not the ghetto, at least not yet. I hope and pray that it never will be. It is no doubt hurting, but if christians will stand up and engage the culture around us, like George Drummond stood up for Edinburgh rather than running the other way, I believe we can make this a great place once again for God’s glory.