1998 Forum Lecture: J. Ronald Engel, Civitas in Horto: Toward a Public Theology for the Chicago Region

1998: “Civitas in Horto: Toward a Public Theology for the Chicago Region”

Professor J. Ronald Engel
Unitarian Church of Hinsdale, Hinsdale, Illinois, May 21

Introduction to Civitas in Horto: Toward a Public Theology for the Chicago Region

Ronald Engel, James Luther Adams Forum Lecture, 1998

This lecture, sponsored by Meadville Lombard Theological School and delivered at the Unitarian Church of Hinsdale, Illinois, on May 21, 1998, provided Ron with the opportunity to bring together the work he was doing at the time with the Chicago Academy of Sciences and the Hastings Center for Bioethics on the theology and ethics of democratic ecological citizenship with his long standing scholarship on the public theology of James Luther Adams and its generating sources in the eventful years 1936-1956 when Jim and Margaret Adams resided in Chicago and took leadership for its public life.   Ron addressed what Adams called the “war of the gods,” the fundamental structures of faith contending for allegiance in Chicago civic imaginary.  Ed Searle, minister of the Hinsdale congregation, and Bryan Covell, Ron’s student at the University of Chicago Divinity School and an intern at the church, were extremely generous in organizing the event, and prepared a free dinner for participants prior to the lecture.  Don Browning, a colleague of Ron’s at the Divinity School, Al Sharpe, executive director of Protestants for the Common Good, and Stan Johnson, chairman of the I&M Canal Civic Center Authority, responded to the lecture.





James Luther Adams Memorial Lecture

May 21, 1998

Unitarian Church of Hinsdale

by J. Ronald Engel

         My wife, Joan, and I, and our two-year old son, first came to Chicago in the fall of 1960.  We had spent the summer at a ranger station on Isle Royale National Park in Lake Superior.  On that bright September day we drove straight through from Michigan to the southside of Chicago where I was matriculated as a student at Meadville Theological School.  The next morning we took a look at our student apartment on 61st street, with the bullet-riddled front door, and the half dozen locks that began at the floor and ended at the ceiling.  Chicago seemed anything but what the city seal read: “Urbs in Horto,” City in a Garden.

What won us to this city and kept us here are its citizens, those who have had eyes to see the beauty of this place, its land and its lake and its people, who have fought the good fight for justice and the environment–the great parade of joyous, feisty, patriotic men and women with whom we have been running to catch up for thirty-eight years.

We met these citizens, we heard the drums, on the day of our arrival:

— Mrs. Marcus Herschel, whose husband worked with Clarence Darrow, in whose home we stayed that first night, who sent Joan off the next day to Carson Pirie Scott to buy a dress so we could join her for a SANE fundraiser at Orchestra Hall (to our dismay each of our table companions stood up and pledged $200 for the cause but they gracefully let us off the hook for a lot less);

— and Joseph Sittler, of the University of Chicago Divinity School, who speaking at the rally afterwards declared that when atoms are subject “to the ultimate hurt then the very atoms must be reclaimed for God”;

—  and baton-waving Chris Moore, the first Meadville/Lombard student I encountered, who founded the interracial Chicago Children’s Choir, the best school in citizenship we could ever have found for our daughter;

— and Chris’s wife, Judy, who has devoted her retirement years to building networks of citizens concerned for ecology;

— and Jack Hayward, my first and always theological mentor, who taught me to see in Abraham Lincoln and the feast of Thanksgiving “all darkness notwithstanding, a long-term trust in the good destiny of the human drama”;

— and Muriel Hayward, one of the most effective members of the Chicago League of Women Voters;

— and Neil and Mary Lou Shadle, with whom we shared the richest years of our lives in urban ministry, when Lincoln Park was yet a neighborhood where Eastern Europeans gathered grapeleaves from their neighbors vines and Puerto Ricans played guitars on porches at night, and we were awakened by roosters;

— and Dick Brown and Johnnie Mae Robinson who were our mentors in ministry, and who staffed our community organization, the Neighborhood Commons;

— and the column stretches out to Indiana to include the scouts that led the movement to preserve the Indiana Dunes, Dorothy Buell, Sylvia Troy, Charlotte and Herb Read, and on and on to include many people who are here tonight.

But I must stop.  It would take the rest of the evening for any one of us to name the persons we have known who have exemplified citizenship in the Chicago region.  And all our lists together could not begin to tally the names of those who over the course of generations have lived lives of exemplary citizenship in this place.

The person in whose name this lecture is being given is one member of this procession in whose footsteps we walk.  Jim and Margaret Adams came to Chicago in 1936 so that Jim might take up his post as Professor of Theology at Meadville and they left only a few years before Joan and I arrived.

For those of us who knew James Luther Adams, the first thing that comes to mind was his appetite for conversation.  JLA was a raconteur and interlocutor.  He had a way of making his conversation partners feel that they thought and spoke better than they did.  After a conversation with Jim Adams, the world had changed.

Of course conversation was also Jim’s undoing, one reason he never got a systematic statement of his theology written.  One of my most lasting memories of Jim took place on an afternoon during the year he and Margaret returned to Chicago in the early 1970s.  I was the young faculty member charged with protecting him so he could write his book.  I was on the telephone telling someone that no, Jim could not speak at their church or class or club, that he had a book to write, when I chanced to look down from my second floor office window to see him talking away on the corner of 57th and Woodlawn, the same spot where he had carried on numerous impromtu symposia during his twenty years in Chicago, talking away with some new acquaintance as if he had all eternity.  We will be back on that corner with you tonight, Jim.

It was Adams’s genius to see that public-regarding voluntary associations are the locus of meaningful citizenship in the modern world.   He tells a story in his autobiography about how late one evening some board members of one of these voluntary associations, the Independent Voters of Illinois, began to ask: “We’ve all got jobs, why are we doing this anyway?  What’s it for?  What’s really gnawing at us, what makes us tick this way?  Why are we willing to put all this energy into it?  What’s our philosophy, what’s our notion of it–democracy, or whatever it is. . . ”

Then one of the assembled citizens turned to Adams and said: “Jim Adams, you’re a theologian.  Now, tell us.  What’s the theology?  It’s the theology that makes us tick.  Tell us what it is.”

Jim did better than anyone else I know with that question, but he was never satisfied with the answers he found, and neither am I satisfied with what I can offer you tonight.  But it is a task we must keep hammering at together.

The Spiritual Matrix of Citizenship

The title I chose for this lecture: “civitas in horto”–is the motto the city fathers should have chosen for Chicago.  It is of no small significance that they chose “urbs” over “civitas” for their ideal of the city in 1837, four years after they forced the Pottawatomie to concede their land around Lake Michigan.  Urbs is Latin for the built environment of a city, its assemblage of walls, traffic arteries and physical infrastructure.  Urbs is a good choice if one intends to build a great industrial and commercial civilization.  “Civitas,” on the other hand, was the word the Romans used to refer to the rights and duties of the Roman “civis,” or citizen.  But more than this: it also communicated what Peter Hawkins calls “the spiritual matrix of citizenship,” the vision of goodness that sustains and animates worthy action in the body politic, the vision that is borne by “the deepest network of associations, memories, symbols, myths, narratives and ideals” in the civic culture.

The thrust of my argument tonight is that we need to lay claim to the spiritual matrix of our citizenship, and work to expand and deepen our understanding of it, if we are to find the commitment and wisdom necessary to practice the kind of citizenship our region and our world call for today.

When the anonymous IVI board member in Jim’s story tried to put his finger on what this citizenship thing was all about the word he came up with was “democracy.”  The spiritual matrix of citizenship is closely associated with democracy, the ideal of a community whose members are co-equal in their moral freedom, in their responsibility for the common good, and in their active engagement in the deliberative process that is at the heart of political self-government.  We have only to think of the great procession of radical democrats that have strode across the world stage in recent memory, Vaclav Havel in Czechoslovakia, Wei Jingsheng (way jingshuhng) in China, Martin Luther King in the United States, Aung San Suu Kyi in Burma, Wangari Maathai in Kenya, Nelson Mandela in South Africa, Ken Saro-wiwa in Nigeria, to catch a glimpse of “the deepest network of associations, memories, symbols, myths, narratives and ideals” that animate worthy citizenship in our epoch.  There are other important meanings of democracy (I can hear Jim Adams putting a word in for covenant right now), but it is the vision of citizenship in this sense of free and equal responsibility for the public good with which we will be concerned this evening.

But the ideal of “civitas in horto,” citizenship in the garden, is more than democratic citizenship in even this radical sense, and certainly more than citizenship as we customarily understand it: the exercise of our constitutional rights and duties as members of a liberal state.  It points to the fact that citizenship today involves responsibility not only for the social commons, but for the natural commons as well.  Because “ecology” has come to stand  for the diverse values and interdependencies at stake in human activities impacting the biosphere, a number of persons such as myself have begun using the rather clumsy term “democratic ecological citizenship” to point to the kind of citizenship we need today.  I doubt that when the city fathers chose “horto” for the city motto that they had this kind of responsibility in mind, although they did have the foresight to set aside a tract of lake front as a “Common to Remain Forever Open, Clear, and Free.”        And they had the imagination to choose an evocative word, “hortus,” “garden,” to symbolize the region within which the new city was to be built.

Like civitas, hortus suggests a spiritual matrix, a vision of goodness  that we also need to retrieve if we are to find the commitment and wisdom necesary to practice the full meaning of citizenship today.  The garden is one of the richest poetic metaphors in the total matrix of associations, memories, symbols, myths, narratives and ideals by which we have come to understand and appreciate our relationships to the natural world.  Next to the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the ground we stand on, there is no more elementary tie to nature than the food we gather from the cultivation of the Earth.  The act of eating together is the most basic of sacraments–binding us in friendship and mutual obligation to one another, to those whose labor provides the food, and to the ultimate sources of life.

The garden is not antithetical to the city, as we often believe, but an intrinsic part of it.  The capacity for agriculture provided the surplus food necessary for the building of the first cities.  In the 1830s the American midwest, with its fertile prairie soils, was widely believed to be the garden of the continent, a refound Eden, whose plenteous produce could feed the world.  Although the processes of commodification and market exchange that dominate the contemporary city tempt us to forget the source of our daily bread, most urban dwellers still want a garden.  It is one reason we move to the suburbs.  I will never forget the well-tended vegetable and flower gardens Neil and I found in the yards of otherwise shabby houses in our neighborhood in the 1960s, or the story Ronne Hartfield at the Art Institute once told of how teenagers in the Robert Taylor public housing project named gardens as the number one need of their community.

Every metaphor has its limits, however.  The image of the garden by no means exhausts the values of nature, and in some ways can be destructive of those values, as in the idea that we have a divine mandate to plow the prairie under.  Although contemporary ecologist Daniel Janzen argues that “the more quickly we can move the remaining large lumps of wild biodiversity into garden status, the greater the chance that they will still be with us into perpetuity,” I would call our attention to the variety of valuable habitats that compose the great commons of our planet, including wilderness areas, and the fact that there are many good ways humans interact with nature, including the arts and crafts, all of which need to be included if we are to claim the full spiritual matrix of democratic ecological citizenship.

All of which is to say that there is more than one primordial vision of goodness that can and should inform our pursuit of citizenship.  This evening we will focus on the vision of “civitas in horto.

          I will try to show why our contemporary public situation makes it so important to retrieve it, how it is present in our experience and in our cultural and religious traditions, how for centuries persons have been struggling to realize its universal implications, and how it was incarnate in movements for progressive reform in the Chicago region and lives among us now as a source of hope.

The Demand for Democratic Ecological Citizenship

Jim Adams often spoke of the “war of the gods,” the conflict between ideals that compete for our ultimate allegiance.  Every minute we are called to choose which god to worship.  For Jim this meant choosing among forms of power, and the myths that sustain them.  By “reading the signs of the times” we discern what gods are in combat, what the decisive battlegrounds are, and what decisions of faith we are called to make.  During the 1940s the warring gods were the community-forming powers struggling for democratic world governance and the community-destroying powers of Fascism, with pietism as the perennial temptation.  As Adams declared in 1944: “The German churches tried to be purely spiritual; they got fascism as their reward.”  How do we read the signs of the times today?

The great fact that makes our age a turning point in planetary evolution is the world-historical process we call “globalization.”  The primary locus of globalization is the international network of urban industrial centers such as Chicago where nearly 80% of the world’s people now live.  These are the engines of global economic productivity, competing with one another for dominance of the world market, and for access to global resources.  I take as my definition of the Chicago metropolitan region an area at least as large as what the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago defines as the “Lower Lake Michigan Megalopolis,” including the six county metropolitan area in Illinois, Northwest Indiana and seven Wisconsin counties.

The god that appears to have the upper hand in this region is the god of market capitalism, a god that has ruled Chicago since its founding.  The workings of this god are everywhere evident.  Political power is local, fragmented, and weak, in accordance with the ideology of classical liberalism that puts a premium on limited, dispersed government.  Since the forces of the market and private preference predominate, persons and corporations who can afford it settle in communities on the edge of the metropolitan region.  Here they can engage in restrictive and low-density land use practices for the least cost, freed from the dense core of poverty in the central city and the growing social needs in the older suburbs.  In the past decade the area of land placed in new development throughout the region increased 50% while the population gain was only 4%.  This process means an interregional transfer of tax base from the most poor and troubled communities to the most thriving and affluent, a process aided by massive regional infrastructure expenditures such as highways.

The litany of consequences is long: gross disparities in job prospects,  skills, and income; concentration of the poor in older areas of the city; lack of affordable housing for workers near jobs; gross disparities in school funding with some school districts raising 15 times more revenues per pupil than others; increasing auto travel with worsening congestion; air, water, and ground pollution; loss of farmland; disruption of neighborhoods and stable communities; loss of natural habitat and open space (we must note that the Chicago region has some of the most valuable biodiversity in the midwest).  Poor education and political disenfranchisement contribute to the deterioration of the environment, and environmental deterioration contributes to further human impoverishment.  It is not just this or that injustice, or this or that habitat loss, but the destruction of a rich and vital shared life for everyone. In the words of Larry Rasmussen: “the world, all of it, becomes game and booty and landfill.”

I know this, you know this.  Many of you are either aware or contributing to the growing number of initiatives focusing attention on these regional issues — the Center for Neighborhood Technology, the Openlands Project, Habitat for Humanity, Northern Illinois Planning Commission, the Chicago Biodiversity Council, the Metropolitan Planning Commission, Prairie Crossings, Protestants for the Common Good, the Interreligious Sustainabiity Project, a project with which Joan and I are involved called Nature, Polis, Ethics, the Metropolis Project of the Commercial Club of Chicago.  You are familiar with others, I am sure.  The Commercial Club promoted the famous “Burnham Plan” in 1909.  Now, a century later, the club is preparing to launch a plan to guide the region’s growth in the 21st century.

Consensus exists among these groups concerning what kinds of new regional policies are needed: mass transportation, tax-base restructuring, reinvestment in the central city, vastly upgraded education, new forms of  governance and political collaboration, land-use planning.

Who is going to make this happen?  By most accounts, it is citizens.  Regional citizens.  Citizens with larger than local and private loyalties.  A recent briefing paper for the Metropolis Project concludes with a quotation from Daniel Burnham: “There is no stronger appeal made to the American citizen of today than comes from the call of one’s native or adopted city to enter upon the service of creating better surroundings not only for one’s self, but for all those who must of necessity earn their bread in the sweat of their brows.”

But has anyone begun to measure what regional citizenship–democratic ecological regional citizenship–entails?  Let us think a minute.

To be a regional citizen means to engage in intelligent public debate while simultaneously identifying with the common life of the people and the ecology of the region.  It means bringing critical judgment upon the economic processes that are shaping the region and mobilizing the political power necessary to bring their technical and productive capacities into the service of the communities they are now destroying.  It means transcending entrenched private interests and creating a common bond across race, class, gender, ethnic lines.  It means having the courage to ask whether ever-expanding economic and population growth is an absolute good.  It means facing honestly the truth of what we have done to our common world and the racism and other forms of violence we have visited on others.  It means redressing the imbalance of power and the injust distribution of social and natural resources.  It means restoring the natural commons, institutionalizing sustainable farming, manufacturing, lifestyle practices.  It means rebuilding our cities and suburbs along just and sustainable lines.  And it means doing all this with expert knowledge, dogged determination, civility, sacrifice, self-restraint, saving humor, hope and compassion.

Nor is this all.  There is no way citizens can tackle the regional issues without also tackling the global issues because the same god rules both.  Thus, to be a regional citizen also means taking account of the impact of our way of life on people and ecosystems elsewhere, and on the biosphere as a whole.  It means asking what people must do to produce the goods we import, what they find it necessary to do to each other and to their land.  As regional citizens we must inspire our metropolitan region to become a leader for global justice and sustainability.

But what could possibly be the basis for such a transcendent ideal?

At this point we can no longer avoid going to the root of the question: the faith of the 10 million persons who reside in the lower lake Michigan megalopolis.  The greatest power we face is not the power of market capitalism as such, but the commitment that sustains it.  William Cronon, in his book NATURE’S METROPOLIS, argues that what ultimately built Chicago was the faith that Providence had ordained the inexhaustible natural resources of the midcontinent to be the instrument of the greatest industrial and commercial center of the New World.  The Chicago metropolis was destined to be.  This is the god whose visage is so boldly etched on the Chicago skyline and across the sprawling urbanized landscape of three states and this is the god we must refute.  The core of this faith is the conviction that we are bound to a fate over which we have no power of choice, but only the hope of turning its remorseless workings to our personal benefit.  Inequality and the destruction of the commons are the tragic sacrifices that must be made if we are to privately flourish.  If you tuned into the WTTW account of what the residents of Hinckly, Illinois, are saying about the prospect of their community becoming engulfed in new development it was this: we do not like it, our quality of life will deteriorate, but “progress” is inevitable.

Can we wonder why, if this is the prevailing commitment of our time, despair is rampant?  Cornel West speaks of the “nihilistic threat” as the real cause of the malaise of the ghetto.  But “nihilism” threatens us all.  At some level we know that if we continue to give ourselves in obedience to the God of the global market there is no future worth having for our children, or the world we love.  Can there be anything but despair when what we call justice is the equal opportunity to compete for a personally advantageous position in a productive system that is visibly destroying the world?

The most popular alternative is throwing up our hands in dismay, declaring society, politics, and economics beyond our grasp, and immersing ourselves in the details of our private lives and the delights of the consumer culture.  The god of pietism, “fissiparous individualism,” Adams would have called it!

We are beginning to get some sense of the size of the faith that is involved if we are to dissent from the reigning orthodoxy that the powers of the world economic machine are omnipotent, and marshal the resolve and wisdom necessary to engage in regional citizenship.  It is precisely the radical democratic faith that affirms the fact that we are created to make such choices, to choose our gods, our ultimate ends, and that it matters what choices we make because our ordinary lives and our ordinary worlds matter–matter ultimately.  Jim Adams drummed home every chance he got democracy is a “heresy” and heresy means “I choose.”

But then Jim would be quick to add: the faith that we have the power to choose is itself rooted in a much larger faith.  This is the faith that the truly reliable powers, the divine powers, are the “community-making powers” inherent in nature and history and that we participate in these powers when we engage in “free, cooperative effort for the common good,” meaning, when we give ourselves over to the life of citizenship.  We are not citizen-aliens, we are created to be citizens of Earth.

We are now deep into the spiritual matrix of citizenship, but not yet deep enough.  The faith that the reliable powers of life are those that thrive when we choose to engage in “free, cooperative effort for the common good”–that is, when we choose to live an active life of committed citizenship–does not appear out of nowhere.  It arises out of our encounter with the transcending visions of goodness that are carried by our traditions of citizenship.  These are visions of a life worth living for its own sake, of an existence so good, so overwhelmingly, lovingly, lastingly good, that our wills are transformed, and we are stirred to be citizens.

The Vision of the Republican Banquet

By his own account, Jim Adams underwent a religious conversion to democracy in Germany in 1927.  As he told the story on numerous occasions, he found himself one Sunday afternoon standing on a street in Nuremburg in the midst of a crowd watching thousands of singing Nazis passing by in parade.  It did not take him long to get himself into a heated conversation with some of the bystanders on the meaning of the swastika and the Jewish question.  At that moment, as he “bore down in the argument against these defenders of nazism, asking more and more insistent questions,” he was suddenly seized by the elbows from behind, pulled roughly out of the crowd, and marched down an alley.  At this point in the story Jim would pause for effect and note how at this moment his “palpitation rose quite perceptibly.”  Then he would recount how his assailant shouted at him: “Don’t be frightened.  I have saved you.  Don’t you know that when you watch a parade in Germany today you either keep your mouth shut or get your head bashed in?”  The man who pulled him from the crowd was a young German workingman, unemployed, and an anti-Nazi.

What happened next sometimes seems like a footnote in Jim’s story.  The unemployed worker took Jim to his home, a barren tenement up four flights of stairs, with missing treads and bannisters, deep in the slums of Nuremburg.  There he was invited to join the man’s wife and three children in a simple meal of “rather greasy dumplings served from a large dish at the center of the table,” washed down by beer served in a large mug, from which everyone took sips as it was passed from hand to hand.  And as they partook of this earthy communion, Jim talked freely with his new companions about the economic distress out of which Nazism was born, how one organization after the other that refused to bow to the Nazis was being threatened with compulsion, and the hopes they still had for the future of a free Germany.

In that humble meal and free fellowship in a 4th floor tenement in Nuremburg in 1927 we are close as we can come to the experience that led Jim Adams to insist that participation in voluntary associations concerned for public policy was a religious experience and a religious vocation.        Speaking about his Nuremburg experience in 1941 Adams said that it made him vividly aware how freedom of talk counted above life itself.  The experience clearly had the force of revelation in his life, showing him how precious, how sacred, were those free spaces where natural human sharing was joined with uncoerced discussion.

Implicit in this experience is a primordial image of unity in diversity, of each unique human being bound to every other unique human being by ties of mutual recognition and concern, of humanity as one body of many members, each with something to contribute to the common good and to free speech about the truth of the common good, each with equal claim upon the commons for the means of their personal flourishing.  William James came closer than anyone I know to expressing the universal potential of this image when he used it as a metaphor for how we might think about the goodness of cosmic reality, asking in his essay WILL TO BELIEVE:  “Why may not the world be a sort of republican banquet. . . where all the qualities of being respect one another’s personal sacredness, yet sit at the common table of space and time?”

I want to emphasize that we are not talking about a uniform or static vision of the goodness of reality, but a contested vision pluralistically experienced and conceived, a vision that is at the center of struggles for greater equality and freedom and rationality, for a wider compassion and sharing, for an expanded awareness of the community of life, indeed, for everything the image itself implies.  If today we have in front of us a vision more inclusive of who may sit and speak at the table of our shared citizenship than previously was the case, we also have an increased awareness of how much it cost the dissenters who made these changes possible.

The life of Nelson Mandela is a paradigm of what I am talking about.  Mandela spoke movingly at the 1962 Rivonia trial that sent him to prison of his eagerness to live, and his willingness to die, for what he called the “pure democracy of the African tribal inheritance, a communal democratic vision,” in which the land belonged to the whole tribe, and no one went hungry.  In his autobiography he describes the vision of the republican banquet he experienced as a youth at the tribal meetings that took place at what was called “The Great Place.”  Let me quote: “Everyone who wanted to speak did so . . . chief and subject, warrior and medicine man, shopkeeper and farmer, landowner and laborer.  The foundation of self-government was that all men [and alas, it was indeed all men] were free to voice their opinions and were equal in their value as citizens.  A great banquet was served during the day, and I often gave myself a bellyache by eating too much while listening to speaker after speaker.”

One of the most determinative struggles for democratic citizenship in Western history went on for centuries in Greece, and it was never fully won.  We catch glimpses of the beginnings of the struggle in the Odyssey, and we can see it stretching out through Greek history through the Peloponnesian Wars to the great dialogues of Socrates recorded by Plato.  We know the cost Socrates paid for his belief in freedom of talk.  Aristotle struggled mightily with the vision of the republican banquet, evident, for example, in his search for an analogy that would explain the Athenian idea that the best political judgment was achieved through the participation of citizens in the polis, meaning in the life of freedom and equality shared by those who form a body of peers.  In Book III of The Politics he argues:

“When the law cannot determine a point at all, or not well, should the one best man or should all decide?  According to our present practice assemblies meet, sit in judgment, deliberate, and decide, and their judgements all relate to individual cases.  Now any member of the assembly, taken separately, is certainly inferior to the wise man.  But the state is made up of many individuals.  And as a feast to which all the guests contribute is better than a banquet furnished by a single man, so a multitude is a better judge of many things than any individual.”

How fraught with implications for the future was the struggle in the Hebrew prophetic tradition for a more inclusive vision of who can come to the communion table of life.  Listen to the prophet Isaiah describe how God calls the people of all nations to eat together in peace:

“Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters.

Hearken diligently to me, and eat what is good.

And I will make you an everlasting covenant.

Behold you shall summon nations that you know not, nations that know you

now.” (55th chapter)

Isaiah foretells a banquet that will celebrate the reordering of a chaotic, broken universe.  In the face of human apostasy, he envisages a restoration of the universal covenant of creation, when the desert will again become like the garden of the Lord, when good news will be preached to the poor, the blind recover sight, and those who are oppressed set at liberty.  We see Isaiah’s vision of the Messianic Banquet breaking out in the ministry of Jesus, who made a deliberate point of breaking bread with slave and free, male and female, rich and poor, outcasts and sinners, and who spoke at these egalitarian meals, as the original Greek text has it, “in the manner of the symposium.”

The world has been slower to recognize the garden within which the great banquet of life is spread, and the creation upon which all our eating and conversing ultimately depend.

But the Spanish writer Cervantes, who struck a blow for democracy when he made the peasant Sancho Panza, the hero, and the knight Don Quioxte, the butt of ridicule, also struck a blow for a vastly expanded vision of the republican banquet when, after Sancho Panza and his faithful donkey Dapple fall into a pit from which there is no escape, he has Sancho offer his last piece of bread to Dapple with the words, “Bread is relief for all grief.”

Albert Schweitzer helped lift the vision of the republican banquet to the level of universal moral principle as he traveled upriver aboard a small steamer in Africa in 1915:

“Except for myself, there were only natives on board, but among them was Emil Ogouma, my friend from Lambarene.  Since I had been in too much of a hurry to provide myself with enough food for the journey, they let me share the contents of their cooking pot.  Slowly we crept upstream. . . Lost in thought I sat on the deck of the barge, struggling to find the elementary and universal conception of the ethical. . . Sheet after sheet I covered with disconnected sentences. . . Late on the third day, at the very moment when, at sunset, we were making our way through a herd of hippopotamuses, there flashed upon my mind, unforeseen and unsought, the phrase, ‘Reverence for Life’.”

The loving, lasting vision of the republican banquet lives in the great memories, narratives, and texts of our cultural inheritance, and in our personal experiences and memories, as these stories show.  It is available to bestow wisdom and strength on us in our search for a faith strong enough to challenge the false gods of our epoch.

The Republican Banquet of Chicago Regional Citizenship

Jim Adams may have been converted to democracy in Germany in 1927, but it took Margaret Young, whom he married the same year, to get him to make good on his commitment.  He freely acknowledged her responsibility for seeing that he made his ideals practicable, pointing out that Margaret always hung her bathroom towel to the left of his.  Although Jim had admired Jane Addams from afar, and read her books, it was Margaret who took the initiative soon after they arrived in Chicago to meet Edith Abbott and Sophinisba Breckenridge, leaders of the Chicago settlement house movement.  Through Margaret’s contacts in the field of social work, Jim became involved in Chicago reform, doing what he called “the humdrum work for democracy.”  His activism became legendary, promptlng Leo Lerner of the Lerner newspapers to call him a “Chicago firefighter,” and a “Supreme Court of lost causes.”

Jim was one of the founders, and then, with Charlotte Carr, a successor of Jane Addams as head of Hull House, co-chair of the Independent Voters of Illinois, the organization that played a critical role in electing Paul Douglas to the Senate and Adlai Stevenson to the statehouse in 1948.  In IVI he learned that “hits win ball games,” meaning delivering votes wins elections.  He and Margaret worked to racially integrate Billings Hospital, Laboratory School, First Unitarian Church, the community of Hyde Park.  And all this time Jim was also carrying responsibilities in national and international organizations, active in Americans for Democratic Action, the American Civil Liberties Union, several labor unions, ecumenical study groups of the National and World Council of Churches, leading a national protest against the dropping of the atomic bomb.  Jim was a cosmopolitan regional citizen.  Given the paranoia of the time, it is no wonder that he was brought before the Illinois State Legislature for allegedly belonging to 48 communist organizations, or that, as we later learned, there was an undercover agent covering Jim’s farewell party in 1957.   All of this became material for his courses at the University of Chicago, under such titles as Religion and Politics, Power and Democracy, Voluntary Associations and Citizen Participation.

When I began to do my research on the movement that fought for a century to stop industrial sprawl and preserve the Indiana Dunes I was surprised by the fact that Jim seemed to know many of the people involved even though the issue was not especially hot during his years in Chicago.  I discovered that I had unwittingly stepped into a continuous history of independent citizen action in the Chicago region, the same history Jim and Margaret had stepped into in the mid-1930s.  A remarkable fact about this history is that so much of it leads back, both symbolically and literally, to a primary originating center, the settlement houses that flourished in Chicago in the early part of the century.

The Chicago settlements were the originators of what historian Robert Gottlieb in his book FORCING THE SPRING has called an alternative environmental movement in American history–a social democratic environmental movement–one committed to the systemic transformation of the urban industrial order for the sake of both greater justice and ecological sustainability.  Gottlieb traces a direct line from Hull House through Rachel Carson in the 1960s to the new environmental justice movement, inaugurated by Lois Gibbs at Love Canal in the 1980s and highly visible in the 1991 People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit.

Graham Taylor’s 1896 explanation of how he chose the name “Chicago Commons” for his settlement house is a classic description of the spiritual matrix the settlement workers drew upon for the new idea of citizenship they were promoting:

“When in search for the Settlement’s name, we groped for weeks after some title which had at its root . . that good old English word common, for the idea of the sharing of what each has equally with all, and all with each, of what belongs to no one and no class, but to every one of the whole body, is the idea underlying not only this word and its equivalents in many tongues, but the very conception of that community and communion in which society and religion consist, and which constitute the essence of the settlement motive and movement.”

He then added: “As the freemen of the race organized in their early shires, municipalities and guilds, and later on combined to form one body representing the whole people, so the represented people, without any primary distinction of class, came to be known as ‘the Commons’.  To this ideal of social democracy the name adds the suggestion of those few patches of mother earth still unclaimed as private property, which at least afford standing room equally for all, irrespective of pecuniary circumstances or social status.”

By all accounts Taylor’s revolutionary old English common had a powerful rebirth on those patches of mother earth that held the dinner tables, coffee houses, and debating clubs for which the settlements became famous, where everyone was treated as equal and the most animated exchanges were held about the quality of civic life.  Dorothea Moore described the dinner hour at Hull House with its combination of guests and residents as “the meeting ground of the day.” “The exchange is the vital thing,” she said, “this is the reason of the settlement; the rest is pure facade.”  According to Jane Addams the only persons who lost their temper in such exchanges were college professors who weren’t accustomed to being talked back to!  Edward Burchard, Hull Houses’s first male resident, wrote to Ellen Gates Starr about those years: “It seems like yesterday and the jolly evenings around the parlor table when Miss Addams and you, and Julia Lathrop and Florence Kelley and Mary MacDowell ate apples and bananas that I stocked up from Halsted Street, while you all told unforgettable incidents of the days work. . . ”

Likely the idea of the first urban playgrounds came up at such a republican banquet.  We know that it was in the course of regular Sunday evening dinners at the home of architect Dwight Perkins that he and Jens Jensen and Jane Addams declared themselves a “Committee on the Universe” and came up with the idea of the Cook County Forest Preserves.  Perhaps it was the popcorn and milk which Perkins’s son remembers being served that sparked such cosmic creativity!  We know too that it was back home to Hull House discussions over tea that Alice Hamilton, one of the first women medical doctors in the United States, returned each night after she had spent the day investigating the occupational hazards of workers in the city.  Likely it was at such dinner banquets that Florence Kelley, the chief political organizer of Hull House, found courage to take on the sweat shop system and lobby for the elimination of child labor.  We know it was back home to her Northwest Settlement in the Stockyards District that Mary McDowell returned after work to talk and eat with Upton Sinclair while he was preparing the material for his account of stockyard conditions, THE JUNGLE.  And we know the inspiration these occasions had for John Dewey and others trying to create a religious philosophy of democracy.

The history of the settlement movement has achieved a certain mythic status for citizens in the Chicago region and well beyond.  In the 1960s many of us found ourselves reenacting the myth without realizing its original source.

Altgeld Gardens

But in our culturally and geographically diverse metropolis, there are also other world-transforming sacred histories of regional democratic ecological citizenship, other efforts to reclaim patches of mother earth that “afford standing room equally for all,” other banquet tables of republican aspiration and virtue, from which we can draw sustenance in our contemporary struggle for a faith in our capacities for self-government large enough to govern the urban growth machine.

It would be difficult to find a better example of  the ideal of “Civitas in Horto” than Altgeld Gardens, the name chosen for a low-rise public housing project built during WWII on the south side of Chicago to shelter African-American families who arrived to work in the steel mills.  “Altgeld” was for John Peter Altgeld, the radical democratic governor of Illinois and close confident of Jane Addams.  Altgeld Gardens at the time of its construction is remembered as a beautiful place–high quality housing with Dutch-style gables and abundant green areas, schools, community center, plots for vegetable gardens.  Now the steel mills are gone, unemployment is high, and the physical condition of the project has deteriorated considerably.  The most noticeable change is in the environing region.  Altgeld Gardens has become the center of what local citizens call the “toxic donut,” an encircling network of toxic facilities for waste disposal and manufacturing: a sewage treatment plant, a transformer storage area emitting PCBs, mountains of waste from a major regional landfill, an incinerator, paint factories. . .

The result is an environment that assaults eyes, ears, nose, taste; a scene straight out of hell.

Here Hazel and Cheryl Johnson, mother and daughter, run a community organization called People for Community Recovery.  Hazel and Cheryl have become somewhat famous in national, and even international, circles for the leadership they have given this organization in its struggle against environmental racism, and to the environmental justice movement more broadly.  I first met them some years ago at a meeting of the National Council of Churches.  There is good reason for their notoriety.  While they have the freedom to leave, they have chosen to stay in order to run the little store front office of People for Community Recovery, the closest thing to an all-purpose social center the housing project now affords, and take on a myriad of environmental social battles: everything from trying to stop the landfill from expanding into a biologically rich wetland, home to Black Crowned Night Herons, to efforts at lead abatement, providing jobs for residents, and shutting down the incinerator.

Why do they do it?  Cheryl explains it this way, “we’re all in this together,” “the air, the water, the land, it is common to us all, all the people of the Chicago region,” “if we continue to do what is being done here, there will be nothing for our children.”  Why do they do it?  If you are lucky enough, as a few of us were one morning this winter, to be able to tour the area with Hazel, you may hear her describe the great community homecoming that takes place in the park on the third weekend of every August, a weekend that begins with a dance and continues through Saturday and Sunday with non-stop barbecues and picnics and conversation, a homecoming that enables everyone to renew friendships and family bonds, to relive memories, to restore hope that life may someday be different.

Here is a story of democratic ecological citizenship big enough, tragic enough, redemptive enough, to reveal the reality of our situation a full century after the founding of Hull House.

Who Will Be the Bards of Our Sacred Stories?


The question I wish to leave you with is this: how, and by whom, are such stories to be told?  Who are to be the keepers of the sacred narratives of our modern urban civilization?  The narratives we inherit from the past and the narratives we are living our in our civic life today?  Without such storytellers, the great deeds and faith of our fellow citizens will be forgotten.  Our society will be without redeeming civic narratives that give it direction, hope, and meaning.  We will become, in fact, what we largely are today, citizens oblivious to the spiritual matrix of our own citizenship, wandering about as in a daze.  Even the best of us will have to ask, as those hardworking members of IVI asked Jim Adams, “why are we doing this?”


Before Joan and I left Baltimore for Isle Royale and Chicago in 1960 the minister of our Unitarian church told us of how his vocation of ministry was shaped by Jane Addams.        I would like to think that Addams’ vision of democratic ecological citizenship and the aim of providing a “patch of mother earth” where it may be celebrated, practiced and encouraged, a commons that “affords standing room equally for all, where “we turn out for one another and carry one another’s burdens” is at the heart of our liberal religious faith and identity.

A close reading of some of the most basic symbols informing our Chicago area Unitarian Universalist churches confirms this hope.  Think of the rich vision of civic humanism our congregations bear here in the Midwest, of Robert Collyer’s ministry-at-large to the working people of Chicago and his hope of creating a church whose doors would swing open and wide for all manner of persons; the dream of a civic cathedral of Von Ogden Voget; the revolutionary decision by Jenkin Lloyd Jones to put his congregation of All Souls Church at the center of a settlement house called Abraham Lincoln Center.   Peoples Church and the powerful influence on Chicago civic life of Preston Bradley,  The vision of religious meaning built into Unity Temple; the murals of Third Unitarian that portray the faces of exemplary citizens from Thoreau to Gandhi to Jane Addams, Harriet Tubman, John Peter Altgeld and Paul Robeson.  It is all there when we open our eyes to see it!

The work of Civitas in Horto is the vocation of all citizens of this region.  It is as sacred a vocation as any of the sacred oaths and vows that have been taken throughout the history of the world, and with consequences for the world and for the future as great or greater as any history written.  I have tried to provide grounds for thinking that if we were to expand and deepen our understanding of the great networks of associations, memories, symbols, myths, narratives and ideals that animate our citizenship, we might find wisdom and commitment powerful enough to challenge the ruling gods of our society, and fullfill the true promise of this place we call home.