Sunday, March 11, 2007

The Atlantic Yards and Two Biblical Images

There are moral issues with the Atlantic Yards development. The moral issues are what the church can speak to. In the American system of church and state, where the state is meant to be neutral in religion, the moral issues need to be addressed by institutions like the church.

It is not for the church finally to judge the Atlantic Yards project, or to approve it or deny it on behalf of the public. That belongs to the government. But the government, in its judgment, must take moral issues into account. And the voice of the church can contribute to the moral discussion which will inform the decisions of the government.

Let me say in passing, that in the case of the Atlantic Yards, the government appears to be prejudiced. It has bypassed the normal processes of public judgment. If the government is supposed to be an umpire or a referee, in this case, it is playing for one of the teams.

That itself is a moral issue. And it's an occupational hazard of government. Governments are drawn to power. No wonder, because governments are designed to manage power and deal in power. We give power to government, that's the point. Or, I should say, that's one point.

The other point is that we give power to government in order to bring justice (and in the case of democracies, liberty and equity) to all the other holders and users of power. What we see so often is how power loves power. Those who are given power for government are drawn to the interests of those who have power from other sources, especially the economic.

The concentration of power is a moral issue, because it affects human freedom and human choices, especially the freedom and choices of the weak and powerless. The Bible regards the secure possession of private property and its protection from eminent domain as a sign of human freedom and dignity. The defining story is 1 Kings 21, the story of Naboth's Vineyard.

Naboth had a vineyard. A little vineyard, because he was a nobody. But it was close to the palace of King Ahab, and Ahab desired it. Had Ahab been king of any other people than Israel, he could have just taken it. It's what kings do. But the Torah forebade it. The Torah protected as sacred the private property of the family. But Queen Jezebel, herself a gentile, and familiar with the ways of gentile kings, found this preposterous. So she used the tools of royal power to get Naboth's vineyard.

They got away with it. God did not intervene. But the anger and judgment of God was made clear, and in the end, the House of Ahab paid. "Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's house." In the Israel of God, not even kings have eminent domain.

The moral issue is what kind of country do we want? What kind of concentrations of power? What protections of private property? Who determines the public good, especially when the differences in scale are so great, and the government is drawn to the interests of the economically powerful? In the Torah, the public good is determined by the interests of the small piece of private property.

The second Biblical image is the Tower of Babel. It's in Genesis 11. The Torah is pretty clear on this. God was against it.

Not because God is against big buildings and skyscrapers as such, but because of the concentration of power which the Tower represents. Such concentrations always require hierarchies, and bosses, and dictators, and centralizations, and the sublimation of the individual to the vision of the leadership.

The second reason that God was against the Tower is because it represents the refusal to accept our limits. We don't know when to stop. We don't know how to say No, Enough.

It's not wholly different from the original sin of Adam in the Garden. The chance to not eat the fruit is what made Adam a human being, and the opportunity to say no to the fruit is what gave him wisdom. He had to use his judgment. He had to accept his limits.

Tragically, Eve and Adam couldn't accept their limit. They wanted more. They wanted to be like gods. And the builders of the Tower of Babel wanted to live among the gods.

I don't know what Frank Gehry wants. I don't know what Bruce Ratner wants or what Marty Markowitz wants. I don't think they want to be like gods. But apparently they don't know when to say, No, Enough.

The Bible is not against development. The Bible does not advocate a return to the garden. The Bible's vision for the future is a city. Buildings, streets, gates, towers. But it requires some moral expertise to judge between one kind of city and another, between, in Biblical terms, Jerusalem and Babylon.

The scale of a project can affect its relative morality. I recently saw the documentary Brooklyn Matters. The scale of this project is astounding. Are people aware that its size is monstrous? It's a moral issue.


James Brumm said...

O.K., no sermon for two weeks, that's cool, but where are you going to preach this stuff? It needs to be preached, and your elders need to be preaching with you. I'll be praying for it.

Old First said...

Thank you kindly. A good admonition from one preacher to another. My excuse is that the relevant text has not come up in the lectionary, and I don't want to force it. But a very good admonition anyway.

Dope on the Slope said...

Amen, and nicely written.

I was unfamiliar with the vineyard story, but I'm glad to know it. The Babel reference could work for so many grand, hubris-laden endeavors that are being pushed down our throats both locally and nationally.

If I remember correctly, the consequence for building the tower was that everyone suddenly ceased to understand one another. The situation with Atlantic Yards is kind of interesting in that none of it's proponents really sought to understand the diverse "voices" of the many people who will be affected by the project, and ultimately determine if it is successful economically, culturally and environmentally.