Sheep in the Ruins

(A Wine Before Breakfast meditation on Isaiah 5.8-17)

by Chris D’Angelo

Over the Christmas holidays, my wife, Lindsey and I decided that we should get out of town for a few days. After a bit of discussion about where we might go, I convinced Lindsey that we should make the trip four hours down the 401 to Detroit (a city that you may not be aware was once dubbed the Paris of the Mid-West). Appropriately then, our plan was to gaze at cultural artifacts until exhaustion set in and visit a few of the city’s most delicious local restaurants and bakeries.
While we were there we made sure to visit the Detroit Institute of Arts where we came across a photography exhibition entitled, Detroit Revealed. This exhibition was put together from the work of a diversity of photographers with the aim of shedding light on life in Detroit during the past decade, a time described as being characterized by unique challenges that continue to influence the landscape and society of Detroit in the post-automotive era.

In fact, the challenges that have shaped Detroit in the past decade are mostly a continuation of the same kinds of challenges that have confronted Detroit, and similar manufacturing cities in the American rustbelt, for more than fifty years. Aggressive, breakneck industrialization and economic growth from the turn of the twentieth century through the roaring twenties meant jobs, and lots of them. And as people migrated in search of a decent wage, the city experienced a building boom of houses, schools, places of business, beautiful modern factories and opulent skyscrapers.

Yet, Detroit and cities like it eventually became sites of precipitous post-war job losses, ongoing racial and class conflict, riots, white flight, government corruption, misguided attempts at urban renewal, gang violence, and grinding poverty. The result, for Detroit, has been that it now has an official unemployment rate close to 30% (which some believe is actually closer to 50%) and a decline of population from close to two million people in 1950, to close to 700 000 in the most recent tally.

What this looks like in terms of the physical geography of the city is that this is a place with thousands and thousands of abandoned buildings.

In Detroit, to use Isaiah’s words, many houses are desolate, even large and beautiful ones without inhabitant. In many parts of the city, in fact, abandoned houses have long since been scrapped or demolished leaving vacant fields where neighbourhoods once stood, what some have begun to call urban prairies.

It is also a place where, in terms of productivity, what is now produced within the city is a pittance of the once enormous yield of manufactured goods that once flowed from the Motor City to all parts of America. To apply an agrarian metaphor to an industrial situation, indeed a homer of seed now yields a mere ephah.

In the Detroit Revealed photography exhibition there were predictably pictures of decaying factories and disappearing neighbourhoods. There were also images that portrayed the city’s diverse inhabitants and small-scale attempts to rebuild. But one image in particular, jumped back to mind as I read Isaiah 5.8-17.

It was a picture taken at a working farm at the Catherine Ferguson Academy on Detroit’s westside, a charter school for teenage mothers which incorporates farm work into the life of the school. The image that sprang to mind was a photograph of a sheep that literally grazes as in pasture among the ruins of Detroit.

You see, the urban farm at the school where the sheep is kept is located not far from both the corner of 12th Street and Clairmount where the 1967 riots broke out and also not far from the icon of Detroit’s decay: the hulking, beaux-arts Michigan Central Station which has been left to rot since the last Amtrak train departed in the late eighties.

The farm at the Catherine Ferguson academy is emblematic of the hope that as one set of purposes for the ordering of city life continues to pass away, another might emerge in its place and that Detroit might become the first truly post-industrial green city. Although the extent to which people have begun to grow their own food in the city is encouraging, the full measure to which this kind of vision might actually come to be realized remains to be seen.

Yet, especially given the way that modern cities have been intentionally set-up to reinforce a sharp division between rural and urban, the image of a grazing sheep amongst the ruins of Detroit is a prophetic one. It encourages the sort of imagination that we need to envision the possibilities for how life in particular places with particular stories and particular wounds might more fully align with God’s desire for the flourishing of urban life.

In this passage from Isaiah, the prophet encourages us to see that when one way of living upon the land ends in destruction and desolation, the holy God of justice and righteousness has a desire to return the land to productive use. The opening section speaks of a people who join house to house, and field to field, until there is no room for anyone but themselves. The result is humiliation, starvation, thirst, the fruitlessness of the land and ultimately the loss of what has been so unwisely sought after in the first place.

Yet, in the end, we are told that lambs, fatlings and kids, shall feed among the ruins that remain as reminders of this unsustainable way of life. The land that once yielded so little and led to a deadening isolation as people sought to voraciously acquire buildings and space will be the place where domesticated animals become nourished and fattened.

Although human beings are capable of forgetting what the land is meant to be for and thereby greatly misusing it, there is a sense in which we cannot wholly frustrate God’s intentions for the productivity and fruitfulness of it.

We do well to remember that in the Old Testament, as Wendell Berry points out (especially in the essay, “The Gift of Good Land” found in The Art of the Commonplace edited by Norman Wirzba) land is understood as a sheer gift, not a free or a deserved one, but a gift given upon certain rigorous conditions.

It is a gift because the people who are to possess it did not create it. And, as a result, the gift is given along with careful warnings against the human tendency towards hubris and warnings against the folly of claiming that “My power and the might of my own hand have gotten me this wealth” (Deut 8:17). Indeed, it is stated unequivocally and repeated again and again in the Old Testament, “that heaven and the heaven of heavens belong to the Lord your God, the earth with all that is in it” (Deut 10:14).

What is given is not ownership, but a sort of tenancy, the gift of habitation and use: ‘The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine; with me you are but aliens and tenants” (Lev 25:23). And the gift of blessed habitation and use is dependent upon Israel’s willingness to honour their Creator, to honour the limited carrying capacity of the land and willingness to care for those most vulnerable: the widow, the orphan and the alien in their use of the land.

It is also worth noting that the way that the Bible speaks about the challenge of living faithfully in an urban context is always set in the more comprehensive context living faithfully in possession of land. Although we might be inclined to think about rural and urban life as constituting entirely separate settings and lifestyles, Old Testament scholar Ellen Davis encourages us to recognize that this mindset would have been completely foreign to the prophets.

Given the way that ancient Israelite cities functioned, there was simply no such thing as the sort of deep rural-urban divide of the kind that industrialization has established so firmly that it now seems inevitable. As a result, in her recent book, Scripture, Culture and Agriculture, Davis encourages us to appreciate the extent to which the Old Testament holds a vision of the interdependence of cities and their surrounding area. She also encourages us to realize that the writers of the Old Testament would have presumed that a flourishing city would include urban agriculture and animal husbandry within its boundaries too.

Not surprisingly, therefore, when listing the blessings promised to Israel if they remain faithful in covenant with the Lord in Deuteronomy, Israel is told: “Blessed shall you be in the city, and blessed shall you be in the field” (Deut 28:3). In biblical faith, “Blessing…is a kind of ecological phenomenon; it connects God and creatures in a complex of interlocking relationships” (Davis, Scripture, Culture and Agriculture, 164).

There is no such thing as blessing without the fruitfulness and integrity of the many interrelating, mutually supporting parts that were deemed to be part of the goodness of creation. And so, voracious appropriation by the few of potentially habitable dwellings and acres of potentially workable land is not the action of those who regard the deeds of the Lord or see the work of his hands.

Nor is revelling in drunkenness and feasts without recognizing that the joyous gifts of food and drink are ultimately the sacred gifts of the loving, creative work of God.

The fact of the matter is that our thinking about cities must return to an appreciation of the way that urban health and vitality is no less an agricultural concern for us than for the biblical writers. After all, even though we might live in cities we still have to eat. In places like Detroit, it may be that the greater flourishing of the city depends upon making use of the agricultural possibilities associated with having lots of unused space and a high rate of unemployment.

In places like the Greater Toronto Area (GTA), it may be that we need to more fully embrace a compact lifestyle in order to ensure that land is preserved for larger scale food production in some proximity to the city (particularly if we are inclined to want one- or two- acre properties complete with a patio, pool and gigantic perfectly manicured lawn). Or it may mean that we need to become more knowledgeable about the food systems that sustain our urban existence (since we tend to be so cut off from them) so that we urbanites might take responsibility for the way that land is used to feed us well outside of the boundaries of our city.

Or, maybe it would mean trying once again to support efforts aimed at encouraging the limited use of animal husbandry within the city by advocating to have the ban on backyard chickens lifted.

As we go forth into the world attempting to live faithfully in the city, let us give thanks to the creator God who desires the flourishing of urban life, even despite and beyond the waste, folly and isolation that have characterized so much of our human story upon the land here in North America.

Let us give thanks to the God who sends us prophets to provoke the imagining of new ways of living in place in a manner that brings glory and praise to the Creator and joy to one another. Amen.


One Response to “Sheep in the Ruins”

  1. Randy Gabrielse

    Chris, et. al.

    Thank you for sharing your visit to Detroit, and thank you for your probing eyes and mind that investigated more than just the urban decay.

    I was born in Detroit because my parents sought to do some community development work following the riots. I have seen a number of photo exhibits of the type you mention. I value the eyes through which you share because to some, such pictures have become known here on the West Side of Michigan as “Decay Pornography.” I am a historian and I am deeply pained when I see some of the photographs, particularly Central Station, which a state planner has told me can never be restored due to Asbestos. But as a friend reminded me, “these are just human creations.”

    OTOH: I have been rejoicing these last few years to hear little stories of little restorations (resurrections?) among those who remain in the City. I think your post has been just the kick that I need in order to actually visit Detroit and see some of what you have seen so that I may rejoice in hope, even as I mourn the losses.

    Randy Gabrielse


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