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Restoring Shalom in the Citadels of Dead Capital: The Church and Vacant Land

In Jeremiah 32, the prophet Jeremiah enters into a land deal with his cousin Hanamel in one of the worst real estate markets imaginable. This paper examines the circumstances, methods, and contemporary applications of their transaction for the urban church.

Bodies in the Vacants

Season four of HBO’s crime drama The Wire opens with Snoop, an unlikely assassin in west Baltimore’s raging drug war, shopping in the power tool aisle of a Home Depot. The battery on her Dewalt 410 cordless nail gun doesn’t hold a charge when it’s left for too long in the trunk of her vehicle. The knowledgeable salesman suggests a gun powder-actuated nail gun such as the .27 caliber Hilti DX 460 MX and she buys it based on his detailed, favorable recommendation.

Several episodes later, Detectives Lester Freamon and Bunk Moreland are searching a vacant lot near an abandoned playground where a missing drug dealer named Lex was last seen alive. Scanning the periphery, Detective Freamon begins to get an idea. He walks through the lot to a nearby string of abandoned row homes and methodically examines the fasteners that seal them shut with plywood. Noting that some are fastened with screws and others with nails from a nail gun, Freamon says to Bunk, “I need a crowbar.” “For what?” Bunk asks. “This is a tomb. Lex is in there,” Freamon boldly replies as he walks away. “By the time the police discover the ploy, the vacant neighborhood has become a macabre cemetery, bodies literally coming out of the walls” (Tran 65). (YouTube clip: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o5vWGV1rqkA *language warning*)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o5vWGV1rqkA

Vacant lots and buildings are never listed in The Wire’s closing credits, but they are major players in the unfolding narrative of every urban neighborhood. The same was true in ancient Jerusalem. The Lord had spoken through his prophet Jeremiah warning Israel to turn from worshipping other gods. Mocking Jeremiah and placing him in jail, King Zedekiah soon found Jerusalem consumed in a Babylonian siege with its own macabre cemetery akin to that of The Wire.

“For this is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says about the houses in this city and the royal palaces of Judah that have been torn down to be used against the siege ramps and the sword in the fight with the Babylonians: They will be filled with the dead bodies of the people I will slay in my anger and wrath” (Jeremiah 33:4-5).

The Lord, hearing the cries of Snoop’s west Baltimore and Zedekiah’s ancient Jerusalem, calls his people to action. “At the very moment when the guilty past has crashed into an inescapable present, God asks Jeremiah to invest in an almost inconceivable future” (Wright, The Message of Jeremiah 346). In neighborhoods with vacant, blighted property reeking of dead potential, how can God’s people today press on towards a Kingdom vision?

"231 W. Wyoming Ave." | clumsyfly215 | flickr | All rights reserved. Used by permission
“231 W. Wyoming Ave.” | clumsyfly215 | flickr | All rights reserved. Used by permission

Faith Without Deeds is Dead

From his jail cell in besieged Jerusalem, Jeremiah received a word from the Lord. “Hanamel son of Shallum your uncle is going to come to you and say, ‘Buy my field at Anathoth, because as nearest relative it is your right and duty to buy it” (Jeremiah 32:6). Soon after, cousin Hanamel visits Jeremiah in prison and asks him to buy his field in Anathoth, not far from the city. According to Israel’s ancient land laws, Jeremiah is obliged to assist: “If one of your fellow Israelites becomes poor and sells some of their property, their nearest relative is to come and redeem what they have sold” (Leviticus 25:25). Against all sound market analysis, Jeremiah responds in faith. “He was mocked when he preached doom in a thriving city, and he was probably mocked when he preached hope in a dying one” (Wright, The Message of Jeremiah 341).

“I knew that this was the word of the Lord; so I bought the field at Anatoth from my cousin Hanamel and weighed out for him seventeen shekels of silver. I signed and sealed the deed, had it witnessed, and weighed out the silver on the scales. I took the deed of purchase – the sealed copy containing terms and conditions, as well as the unsealed copy – and I gave this deed to Baruch son of Neriah, the son of Mahseiah, in the presence of my cousin Hanamel and of the witnesses who had signed the deed and of all the Jews sitting in the courtyard of the guard.

“In their presence I gave Baruch these instructions: ‘This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says: Take these documents, both the sealed and unsealed copies of the deed of purchase, and put them in a clay jar so they will last a long time. For this is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says: Houses, fields, and vineyards will again be bought in this land” (Jeremiah 32:8-15).

Why would the Lord tell Jeremiah and Baruch to record in such detail the process of conveying a deed? To answer this question, we must examine the nature of a deed and how it relates to the welfare of a city. When Jeremiah paid seventeen shekels of silver to Hanamel, they both agreed that from that point forward Jeremiah had sole rights over the property. This agreement is represented by the deed which, by itself, is worthless. “Capital is born by representing in writing – in a title, a security, a contract, and other such records – the most economically and socially useful qualities [associated with a given asset]. The moment you focus your attention on the title of a house, for example, and not on the house itself, you have automatically stepped from the material world into the conceptual universe where capital lives” (de Soto 50). “[T]itle deeds are not themselves property rights, but rather representations of property rights” (Smith, Mark, and Ehrlich 44). Thus, the invisible economic potential of Hanamel’s field, agreed by both parties to be equivalent to the paltry amount of seventeen silver shekels, could be liquidated and transferred by means of a legally binding social contract (covenant, perhaps?) represented in writing.

We make similar transactions every day. A Southeastern Pennsylvania Transit Authority (SEPTA) token has no innate ability to transport me from Hunting Park Station to City Hall Station on my daily commute. The token is merely representative of a social contract that SEPTA has made with the public to provide transportation services. In modern economies, we rarely trade items of actual value for services. The SEPTA station attendant will not accept a carton of eggs in exchange for my morning commute, but my neighbor may give me a token in exchange for my eggs. If I exchange my eggs for a token, that token now represents the invisible potential of my eggs in a form recognized by SEPTA. If SEPTA goes on strike, however, my token loses all value and no longer represents a trip from Hunting Park to City Hall. Our city is in chaos until the strike is over, even though we may have all the tokens in the world. Their value is contingent. We can’t eat tokens for breakfast.

Hernando de Soto argues, “It is the ‘invisible infrastructure’ of asset management upon which the astonishing fecundity [fertility] of Western capitalism rests” (qtd. in Smith, Mark, and Ehrlich 44). To illustrate the point, de Soto imagines a type of SEPTA strike writ large:

“Imagine a country where nobody can identify who owns what, addresses cannot be easily verified, people cannot be made to pay their debts, resources cannot conveniently be turned into money, ownership cannot be divided into shares, descriptions of assets are not standardized and cannot be easily compared, and the rules that govern property vary from neighborhood to neighborhood or even from street to street” (de Soto 15).

De Soto highlights Cairo, Egypt as one such place, noting that “Outside Cairo, some of the poorest of the poor live in a district of old tombs called ‘the city of the dead.’  But almost all of Cairo is a city of the dead – of dead capital, of assets that cannot be used to their fullest. The institutions that give life to capital – that allow one to secure the interests of third parties with work and assets – do not exist here” (de Soto 16). During the Babylonian siege, Jerusalem had become a Citadel of Dead Capital if there ever was one:

The sound of wailing is heard from Zion:
‘How ruined we are!
How great is our shame!
We must leave our land because our houses are in ruins.’
…Death has climbed in through our windows
and has entered our fortresses;
it has removed the children from the streets
and the young men from the public squares (Jeremiah 9:19-21)

Singleness of Heart and Action

After giving the recorded deeds to Baruch for safekeeping, Jeremiah prays to the Lord who then promises to “give them singleness of heart and action so that they will always fear me and that all will go well for them and for their children after them” (Jeremiah 32:39). This could be read as a simple statement that Israel will once again worship only the Lord and that he will in turn bless them. However, this singleness of heart and fear of the Lord results in clearly economic benefits. Only a few verses later, the Lord promises to turn Jerusalem from a Citadel of Dead Capital to a land of “astonishing fecundity”:

This is what the Lord says: As I have brought all this great calamity on this people, so I will give them all the prosperity I have promised them. Once more fields will be bought in this land of which you say ‘It is a desolate waste, without people or animals, for it has been given into the hands of the Babylonians.’  Fields will be bought for silver, and deeds will be signed, sealed and witnessed in the territory of Benjamin, in the villages around Jerusalem, in the towns of Judah and in the towns of the hill country, of the western foothills and of the Negev, because I will restore their fortunes, declares the Lord. (Jeremiah 32: 42-44)

John Searle, one of the primary originators of Speech Act Theory, has extended speech acts beyond individual intention to what he calls “collective intentionality.” Human beings “are able to engage with others in cooperative behavior in such a way which involves sui generis types of beliefs, desires, and intentions. Often these involve human beings collectively awarding status functions to physical parts of reality – which means: functions those parts of reality could not perform in virtue of their physical properties alone” (Smith, Mark, and Ehrlich 40). It is the “collective intentionality” of SEPTA and its customers that allows an inexpensive token to represent my daily commute.

Could it be that in his pronouncement of a great economic comeback for Jerusalem, the Lord, the God of Israel, prefaced his comments by promising to restore a collective intentionality to the local economy which he phrased in Jeremiah 32:39 as a “singleness of heart and action?” Jeremiah’s deed represents property rights for as long as the collective intentionality of his community honors the status function of his deed as a representative of those rights. “Fields will be bought for silver, and deeds will be signed, sealed and witnessed” says the Lord. This is more than a statement promising future real estate transactions; it is also a promise to restore the social, economic, and legal conditions that make real estate transactions possible and binding. “In this way the records and representations constituting the formal property system bring a new domain of [capital] into existence, whose growth is intimately associated with those advances in human welfare which are associated with economic development” (Smith, Mark, and Ehrlich 46). By giving the Israelites “singleness of heart and action,” aka collective intentionality, the Lord will restore Shalom in the Citadel of Dead Capital.

In The Mystery of Capital, de Soto demonstrates that bureaucratic barriers to documented formal economic transactions stifle development and the distribution of wealth among the poor. Dysfunctional economies favor the rich and powerful, but the Lord promised that “deeds will be signed, sealed, and witnessed” in Jerusalem once again. This promise of a formal economic system is fundamentally about justice for the poor. “In the biblical understanding, the litmus test for measuring the extent of justice in society is how its most vulnerable members are faring. The most salient indicator of injustice is where people are deprived access to the essential resources they need to survive and flourish as free and productive human beings” (Marshall 41). The formal economic system that God promised for Jerusalem still does not exist in many nations of today’s world. “The poor inhabitants of these nations – five-sixths of humanity – do have things, but they lack the process to represent their property and create capital. They have houses but not titles; crops but not deeds; businesses but not statutes of incorporation” (de Soto 7). The absence of these documents and processes in the poorer regions of the world and in our urban centers creates widespread poverty and injustice in Citadels of Dead Capital.

Prophetic Imagination for the Citadels of Dead Capital

"4501 N. Reese St." | clumsyfly215 | flickr | All rights reserved. Used by permission

Philadelphia is home to more than 40,000 vacant lots. Stitched together as one parcel of land, they would represent the largest swath of green space in Philadelphia. These vacant lots constitute a modern Citadel of Dead Capital. The overwhelming majority of these lots are abandoned and tax delinquent. The owners are either dead or disinterested. A 2013 study conducted by the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine and published in the Journal of Urban Health found that in 50 in-depth interviews with Philadelphia residents, “Vacant land was thought to affect community well-being by overshadowing positive aspects of the community, contributing to fractures between neighbors, attracting crime, and making residents fearful. Vacant land was described as impacting physical health through injury, the buildup of trash, and attraction of rodents, as well as mental health through anxiety and stigma” (Gavin et al. 412).

In an article titled “The Crying of Lots 2120-2134,” Isaiah Thompson looks at eight vacant parcels of land that were previously listed at a Sheriff’s sale but received no bid:

“The last time deeds were transferred on the lots was before 1979, when the Philadelphia Department of Records began keeping digital records.

…That the empty space has been a blighting influence on the neighborhood is evident, not just from neighbors’ accounts but from records from the Department of Licenses and Inspections, which has cited the properties for various violations of codes requiring that they be kept up, all issued during the Nutter administration [2008-present]. Since there’s no one around to act on these violations, the lots were tidied up by the city’s Community Life Improvement Project, for which the city typically bills the property’s owner – the owner who, in this case is long gone.

The space at the end of the 2100 block of Bellmore represents exactly the kinds of challenges Philadelphia’s up against in trying to get a handle on the tens of thousands of vacant and abandoned properties across the city.

It also demonstrates flaws in the primary method the city has for acting upon blighted tax-delinquent lots, which is selling them at sheriff sale – or trying to anyway.

…What is clear is that in this city, there exists a universe of vacant and abandoned property for which the current mechanisms in place for collecting debt and turning properties over to new owners on the private market simply don’t work.

Tax delinquent property, and abandoned vacant lots in particular, comprise a Citadel of Dead Capital in need of Shalom. Complex barriers to transference of ownership of these properties stifle the “singleness of heart and action” or “collective intentionality” within distressed urban real estate markets making it difficult and costly for communities to steward this land in order to determine the character of their own neighborhood. Persistent delinquency and vacancy represent entangled forms of injustice created by taxpayer abandonment and bureaucratic inefficiency resulting in blighted neighborhoods, increased crime, decreased property values, underfunded schools, physical and mental health risks, and years of wasted potential for each property remaining under absentee ownership.

The crying of lots 2120-2134, and indeed all of Philadelphia, does not go unheard. Walter Brueggemann has described God as a “magnet for cry.” All throughout scripture, and particularly in the Exodus narrative, the Lord responds to the cry of his people. “Bringing hurt to public expression is an important first step in the dismantling criticism that permits a new reality, theological and social, to emerge” (Brueggemann 12).

“The Lord said, ‘I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering. So I have come down to rescue them from the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land into a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey” (Exodus 3:8).

The Lord raised up a prophet, Moses, to confront Pharaoh. The Lord responded to the cry of his people by sending one of their nearest relatives to them. It wouldn’t be the last time. As we look around our neighborhoods and hear the cries coming from Citadels of Dead Capital, God is very likely sending us as his agents of deliverance.

For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God. (Romans 8:19-21)

Brueggeman contends, “The task of prophetic ministry is to nurture, nourish, and evoke a consciousness and perception alternative to the consciousness and perception of the dominant culture around us” (Brueggeman, p. 3). What is the alternative? The biblical concept of Shalom stands as a framework for prophetic imagination.

Shalom “is the state of soundness or flourishing in all dimensions of existence – in our relationship with God, our relationships with each other, our relationship with nature, and our relationship with ourselves” (Marshall 13). In the case of a city full of vacant lots, “doomsday budgets” for our schools, or a world full of greed, violence and poverty, the patterns of Shalom are instilled deeply in each one of us. We were created to bear witness to God’s heart for Shalom in hard places. “So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. God blessed them and said to them, ‘Be fruitful and increase in number, fill the earth and subdue it” (Genesis 1:27-28). “The earth he has given to mankind” (Psalm 115:16). “You made them rulers over the works of your hands” (Psalm 8:6). “Humanity was put on the earth with a mission – to rule over, to keep and to care for the rest of creation. This enables us to see ecological concern and action as a valid part of biblical Christian mission” (Wright, Mission of God 425).

Looking around at his city under siege, the Prophet Jeremiah challenged the dominant culture and put his life on the line to nurture an alternative perception of Shalom for Jerusalem. Against all evidence to the contrary, Jeremiah listened to the word of the Lord and had the prophetic imagination to believe that his cousin Hanamel’s field was

[Not] just a prosaic physical space but a repository of larger cultural and theological meaning. It [was] a symbol that God will renew the land, the city, and the people…. Jeremiah bases his culture-advancing act [of buying Hanamel’s field] upon the hope of God’s urban recovery plans (Jeremiah 32:37-41). Unconstrained by the political impossibilities of the moment, Jeremiah makes public God’s vision of a renewed city by buying a vacant and abandoned lot. This was not just a real estate purchase; it was, as Walsh puts it, a daring ‘act of hope in the face of despair.’ The same sort of creative, imaginative, and committed embodiment of hope – the ‘normative shalom-bringing cultural activities’ that Jeremiah engaged in – is demanded of Christians today. (Gornik 234)

In the Citadels of Dead Capital, Christians must look for those places where life, creativity, entrepreneurship, and joy are caught in bottlenecks of bureaucratic or systemic inefficiency.

In the Citadels of Dead Capital, Christians must look for those places where life, creativity, entrepreneurship, and joy are caught in bottlenecks of bureaucratic or systemic inefficiency. We must take to heart the conviction that we are all made in the image of a creation-redeeming God and we must nurture an alternative perception of Shalom that restores “singleness of heart and action” to the economic and legal systems that govern the land over which God has tasked us with stewardship. With prophetic imagination, we must “wage a more proactive, more sophisticated, and smarter fight against vacancy and abandonment” (Heins, Payton, and Abdelazim 66) as part of the “normative shalom-bringing cultural activities” that conform our fallen neighborhoods to the Shalom of the city to come.

Jubilee for the Citadels of Dead Capital

As we move from imagination to incarnation, it is noteworthy that the “right and duty” which compelled Jeremiah to purchase his cousin Hanamel’s field originated in the context of the Jubilee pattern for Israel’s economic life laid out in Leviticus 25 whereby every fifty years the land was to be given rest, property was to be returned to its original owners, debts were to be forgiven, and slaves were to be set free. The Year of Jubilee was to be a complete economic reset through which God protected the Israelites, individually and collectively, from oppression and economic calamity.

So enduring is the notion of Jubilee that every year, more than one million visitors travel to Philadelphia to view the Liberty Bell on which is inscribed a portion of Leviticus 25: 10, “Proclaim LIBERTY Throughout all the Land unto all the Inhabitants Thereof Lev. XXV. v X.” Since 1751, this Jubilee proclaiming bell has served as a worldwide symbol of religious liberty, political self-government, abolition and women’s suffrage.

While this broad concept of liberty has inspired generations of activists, we cannot simply lift detailed Jubilee provisions out of the socio-economic context of ancient Israel and apply them literally to ours today. However, Christopher J.H. Wright contends that we are on stable footing to explore contemporary applications of ancient Jubilee ethics. “What God did with Israel in their land functions for us as a model or paradigm from which we draw principles and objectives for our socio-ethical endeavor in secular society” (God’s People in God’s Land 175).

How, then, can faithful people begin to apply ancient Jubilee ethics in bringing Shalom to today’s challenges of vacancy and abandonment? In his socio-ethical analysis of the Jubilee provisions for returning land to its original owners, Wright begins to connect the dots between ancient Israel and today’s Citadels of Dead Capital.

That all people should have access to some of the resources of the earth that is God’s gift is a basic human right which takes priority over the unchecked accumulation of private ownership. Israel, as God’s redeemed, ‘model’ community, were given an institution [Jubilee] designed to protect this principle in their own stewardship of their land. So we may justifiably take it as a moral paradigm and apply its force as a ‘lever’ in Christian-based arguments for land reform. (God’s People in God’s Land 177).

With the moral force to extract paradigmatic application of Jubilee ethics, Gornik plants us back in the neighborhood with an eye for Shalom.

The Jubilee reminds us that ultimately the community’s use of its own resources takes priority over the use of the community as a commodity. Biblical norms of justice require us to hold that a neighborhood is not rightly redeveloped if the people who live there, especially those most excluded and vulnerable, do not have a realistic claim on acquiring the means to sustain their families and maintain or own their homes in the community. Let us not forget that there is a right to shalom embedded in Scripture, a vision normative for the world. (218)

In a context of utter devastation, unfaithfulness, abandonment, and despair the Lord called Jeremiah to a prophetic act of Jubilee.

In a context of utter devastation, unfaithfulness, abandonment, and despair the Lord called Jeremiah to a prophetic act of Jubilee. The people said “This land is a desolate waste. Get out while you can. Don’t invest here.” But this is what the Lord said: “Fields will be bought. Deeds will be signed, sealed, and witnessed.” Today there remains in Philadelphia a bell that reminds the world of Jubilee and a few miles from there my humble neighbors, like Jeremiah, apply Jubilee ethics to a vacant lot with prophetic imagination.

Foreclosure as Jubilee

Carol has lived on Wingohocking Street in Hunting Park since 1980. Her husband George serves as their block captain and one of our neighborhood’s best ambassadors. They are low income community elders who have raised a family and contributed to the Shalom of our community in a multitude of wonderful ways. And our community needs it. The Philadelphia Police Crime Mapper website shows that in the last six months 143 crimes have been reported within less than a mile of George and Carol’s home including 3 homicides and 21 aggravated assaults. Census data show that only 4% of our community holds a bachelor’s degree or higher and the median household income is $22,755. In the midst of so much community pain, George and Carol have consistently sought Shalom through vacation Bible schools, movie nights, barbecues, swim parties, Mothers’ Day breakfasts, family reunions and more in the vacant lot next to their home throughout the fifteen years that I have known them.

In 1972, the property next to George and Carol’s home was a beautiful twin row-home just like theirs. At that time, a deed was issued to a real estate investor for a sale price of $12,000. Turning tax delinquent in 1986, the neglected home began to deteriorate until the city designated it “imminently dangerous” and demolished it in the late 1990’s. By this time, the property had fallen $11,999.40 tax delinquent and the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas issued a decree in 2000 authorizing the sale of the property to the highest bidder at Sheriff’s sale in hopes of collecting those unpaid taxes through foreclosure and placing the property under the care of a new owner who would remain tax compliant. The property was listed at Sheriff’s sale in 2005 and 2006 but was unable to attract any bids. By 2014 it had amassed an accumulated tax delinquency in excess of $32,000 while its assessed market value was only $6,900. There was no chance that the delinquent taxpayers, if still alive, would pay $32,000 to redeem a property worth $6,900. The lot next to George and Carol had become a Citadel of Dead Capital.

It is important here to distinguish tax foreclosures from the justice implications of mortgage foreclosures, subprime loans, and Wall Street. Rather than protecting the interests of banks, tax foreclosure protects the interests of citizens of municipalities that depend on real estate taxes to fund vital government services. Government programs assisting the poor are often the first to be cut when municipal budgets aren’t met. Cuts to programs helping the poor compound the already disproportionate impacts of tax delinquency on the physical and social conditions of low income communities. In Philadelphia, 55% of real estate tax dollars go to our chronically underfunded school district but the uncollected real estate tax burden hovers around $500 million. In 2013, Philadelphia delinquent tax collection and foreclosure efforts delivered over $50 million to Philadelphia schools yet it was not enough to cover the district’s budget deficit. Budget cuts “reduced the number of nurses in the district from 289 in 2011 to 179 in the 2013-14 school year” (Superville 7). Reflecting on the deaths of two students at Philadelphia schools with no nurse on site, one from an asthma attack and one from complications of a heart condition, Superintendent William Hite remarked “During times of tragedy, our community should not have to question whether an extra staff member or program would have made a difference” (Superville 7).

Anyone working for Shalom learns quickly that there are no easy answers. In true urban complexity, many taxpayers fall into tax delinquency due to cycles of financial hardship and poverty which qualify them for the very services their unpaid taxes have been earmarked to provide. Thus, there will always be a need for legislators with a passion for Shalom to craft strong tax collection policies protecting the budgets of government services needed by the poor and vulnerable while also providing relief for tax delinquent owner-occupants with legitimate financial hardship. Tax collection policies striving for Shalom will be marked by sophisticated inclusion of the interests of the poor, clear and transparent communication of the law, uncompromising enforcement, and ongoing reform. As a necessary component of just and effective real estate tax collection, foreclosure can be a tool for Shalom in its ability to ensure consistent revenue for vital government services impacting the lives of the poor and, ironically, it can be a tool for Jubilee in its ability to return distressed property back to community control. And so we return to Carol and the vacant lot next to her home on Wingohocking Street.

Carol inquired with the Philadelphia Department of Revenue about the status of the lot next to her house in May of 2014. In response to her inquiry, the property was once again listed for Sheriff’s sale in November. As the only bidder on the property, Carol offered the minimum opening bid of $2,900 and won, effectively doubling the legal footprint of her home and increasing its value considerably while sending a modest amount to the school district budget and the City’s general fund. George and Carol are relieved to have the property in their name and, prior to the Eagles collapse this season, they were talking about renting outdoor heaters to host a Super Bowl viewing party in their newly purchased lot for the kids on the block. An outdoor Eagles Super Bowl party for neighborhood kids in a heated Philadelphia lot is extreme prophetic imagination indeed!

The full potential of this lot for Shalom on Wingohocking Street and in Philadelphia, along with the full potential of George and Carol as its stewards, was locked beneath a complex web of taxpayer neglect, bureaucratic inefficiency, market forces, and citizen apathy. In promising to Jeremiah that he “will give them singleness of heart and action” and that “deeds will be signed, sealed, and witnessed” in Jerusalem once again, the Lord was signaling that he would bring Shalom by way of functional economic systems and “restore the fortunes” of the entire region around Jerusalem. Through prophetic imagination, perseverance, and financial sacrifice, George and Carol grabbed ahold of this vision for Wingohocking Street, navigated complex bureaucracy, placed a winning bid, proclaimed Jubilee upon a tax-delinquent, vacant, and abandoned lot, and restored their land back to community ownership with a “signed, sealed, and witnessed” Sheriff’s deed of foreclosure to meet the needs of their neighbors. Like Jeremiah, they made “public God’s vision of a renewed city by buying a vacant and abandoned lot” (Gornik 234) and in so doing they have moved closer to God’s creational intent of Shalom for their vacant lot, for themselves, for Wingohocking Street, and for the city of Philadelphia.

“It is Your Right and Duty to Buy It.”

Has the church abdicated our duty of stewardship over Citadels of Dead Capital to local government?

Pointing back to Jubilee regulations, the Lord told Jeremiah (32:6) it was his “right and duty to buy” Hanamel’s distressed field. He has “made [us] rulers over the works of [His] hands” (Psalm 8:6). However, “as one [government] official… stated, ‘You own the problem, even if you don’t really own the problem,’ pointing out that regardless of who legally owns a problem property, the public expects the local government to address it” (Heins, Payton, and Abdelazim 9). Has the church abdicated our duty of stewardship over Citadels of Dead Capital to local government? Were Jay Z and Kanye right? Is there “No Church in the Wild?” What is the role of the church in restoring physical creation?

The task of the church is to preach the kingdom of Christ in a way that effectively reverses the Fall and brings wholeness and peace [Shalom] to individuals and community. A world-centered spirituality – bodies without souls – will not do. A soul-centered approach – the soul without the body – will not make much of an impact. A God-centered spirituality touches all of life. Life is not compartmentalized but seen as a whole, a covenant agreement broken but now healing. God is concerned about the total person, including relationships and environment. (Conn and Ortiz 348)

What kind of church have we become when, by default (in the literal use of that phrase), our communities place their hope in local government to bring Shalom to the Citadels of Dead Capital? “The church in community is the best vehicle for holistic community transformation” (Conn and Ortiz 350). As a collective body, we must be deeply saturated in the contexts of our communities to know the sources of its pain and its best prospects for vibrant and actualized Shalom. As we walk from point A to point B we need to pay close attention to the rhythms of the neighborhood, ask questions of those we encounter, and develop a daily discipline of looking through lenses of prophetic imagination to see past the brokenness of the Fall until our focus on the Shalom of our reconciling God is so tangible, and our hearts so hungry for a taste of it, that we have no choice but action.

George and Carol had a tangible vision of Shalom for the lot next to their home that had been brewing for many years. They had to act. If there was any doubt that God was the author of George and Carol’s vision for Shalom, that doubt was quickly erased. When she inquired about the status of the vacant lot next door to her house, Carol did not realize that her call would be routed to me, her neighbor of fifteen years whose job it is to collect taxes on that property, and others like it, through Sheriff’s sale foreclosure. Our neighbor Susan stepped in to help Carol and George navigate the process. God led four of his people, in longstanding relationship with him and with each other, to be deeply saturated in their community and their city in order to pursue a vision of Shalom for Wingohocking Street. “Transformational development… is owning a problem and working jointly to respond” (Conn and Ortiz 348).

In post-industrial cities like Philadelphia where decades of manufacturing plant closures,  job loss, and population reductions have resulted in high rates of vacancy and blight, followers of Christ cannot abdicate our responsibility to restore Shalom in the Citadels of Dead Capital. Scripture does not say that “all creation groans in eager expectation for the next government plan to be revealed.” The church has a “right and duty” to understand, leverage, and reform complex systems in order to apply the moral force of Jubilee to reclaim community stewardship over distressed property and restore Shalom in the Citadels of Dead Capital through tax foreclosure, land banks, efforts like Chicago’s LargeLots.org, Baltimore’s PowerInDirt.com, and myriad other strategies. “It is your right and duty to buy it.”

Our “Nearest Relative”

History and scripture record that the Lord kept his word to Jeremiah and Israel to “plant them in this land with all my heart and soul” (32:41). The Edict of Cyrus (2 Chron 36:23, Ezra 1:1-4) sent the exiled Jews back to Jerusalem to rebuild the temple and restore their fortunes. “Once more, the people of Israel would know themselves to be God’s people in God’s land in a renewed covenant relationship” (Wright, The Message of Jeremiah, 344). But the Lord’s ongoing work to restore Shalom to the Citadels of Dead Capital does not end there. “God’s redemptive purpose, initiated through Israel and their land, will ultimately embrace all nations and the whole earth, in a transformed and perfect new creation” (Wright, Old Testament Ethics for the People of God, 184).

The Lord looked upon an entire world in distress. “For the creation was subjected to frustration… in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God” (Romans 8:20). He sent his Son, Jesus, to our land in distress and “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us” (John 1:14).

Pointing to his disciples, Jesus identified himself as our nearest relative. “‘Here are my mother and my brothers. For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother’” (Matthew 12:49). As a young man, Jesus, our nearest relative, announced his intention to fulfill his right and duty to purchase our distressed creation and proclaim Jubilee.

The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. (Luke 4:18-19)

The Lord had told Jeremiah that “The days are coming …when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel” (31:31). “In those days and at that time I will make a righteous Branch sprout from David’s line; he will do what is just and right in the land” (33:15). In Jesus, those days and that Branch had finally arrived. “Now the first covenant had regulations for worship and also an earthly sanctuary. …But only the high priest entered the inner room, and that only once a year, and never without blood, which he offered for himself and for the sins the people had committed in ignorance” (Hebrews 9:1, 7). “In the same way, after the supper [Jesus] took the cup, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you” (Luke 22: 20). The Son of God, Jesus Christ, our nearest relative,  was sent to purchase all of creation at the full price of his precious blood through his death on a cross “so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil—and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death” (Hebrews 2:14-15).

When Jeremiah purchased Hanamel’s field, he gave the Lord’s instructions to Baruch, “Take these documents, both the sealed and unsealed copies of the deed of purchase, and put them in a clay jar so they will last a long time” (32:14). Like Jeremiah, the Lord sealed his purchase of creation. “When you believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God’s possession – to the praise of his glory” (Ephesians 1:13-14).

The imagery and language of Jeremiah 32:14, as well as the historical facts of document preservation in clay jars, may suggest an alternative reading of 2 Corinthians 4:7. The primitive technology used by Baruch to store Jeremiah’s deed was quite effective. The Dead Sea Scrolls, dating as far back as 960 BC and discovered in 1947 were preserved in similar manner (deadseascrolls.org.il). Commonly understood in reference to human frailty and unworthiness, Paul’s use of the phrase “we have this treasure in jars of clay,” may instead refer to the eternality of Christ and the New Covenant in his blood, important messages preserved for posterity in Christ’s followers as “jars of clay” and sealed with the Holy Spirit.

When the Citadels of Dead Capital where we live are under siege and defeat seems imminent, the Lord’s words to Jeremiah are as true today as ever.

You are saying about this city, ‘By the sword, famine and plague it will be given into the hands of the king of Babylon’; but this is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: I will surely gather them from all the lands where I banish them in my furious anger and great wrath; I will bring them back to this place and let them live in safety. They will be my people, and I will be their God. I will give them singleness of heart and action, so that they will always fear me and that all will then go well for them and for their children after them. I will make an everlasting covenant with them: I will never stop doing good to them, and I will inspire them to fear me, so that they will never turn away from me. I will rejoice in doing them good and will assuredly plant them in this land with all my heart and soul. (Jeremiah 32:36-34)

Like Jeremiah, we live under a new promise from God to restore our land under siege. We must use prophetic imagination to live into this vision of new life in Christ and a creation restored and perfected under Him. It is our “right and duty” to “buy the field” of our own calling against all sound market analysis. “By going forward with the everyday activities of life and faith, we give a steady and living witness to God’s promise of shalom for our neighborhoods. And by reclaiming vacant land for housing, gardens, and community centers, we show our faith in God’s future” (Gornik 234).

Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,” for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” Then he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.” (Revelation 21:1-5)

God has heard the cry of his creation and has sent a Prophet to redeem the field of his enslaved brothers and sisters who owe a debt they cannot repay.

God has heard the cry of his creation and has sent a Prophet to redeem the field of his enslaved brothers and sisters who owe a debt they cannot repay. Jesus is our Jubilee. His purchase was conveyed through a new covenant in his blood that is sealed with the Holy Spirit and preserved in us. He is making everything new and restoring Shalom in the Citadels of Dead Capital, transforming them into a Holy City where he will dwell with his people as their God.

Works Cited

Brueggemann, Walter. The Prophetic Imagination. 2nd ed. Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2001. Print.

Conn, Harvie M., and Manuel Ortiz. Urban Ministry: The Kingdom, the City, & the People of God. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2001. Print.

“Discovery and Publication.” The Dead Sea Scrolls. Israel Antiquities Authority, Web. http://www.deadseascrolls.org.il/learn-about-the-scrolls/discovery-and-publication 09 Jan. 2015.

De Soto, Hernando. The Mystery of Capital: Why Capitalism Triumphs in the West and Fails Everywhere Else. New York: Basic, 2000. Print.

Garvin, Eugenia, Charles Branas, Shimrit Keddem, Jeffrey Sellman, and Carolyn Cannuscio. “More Than Just An Eyesore: Local Insights And Solutions on Vacant Land And Urban Health.” Journal of Urban Health 90.3 (2013): 412-26.

Gornik, Mark R. To Live in Peace: Biblical Faith and the Changing Inner City. Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans Pub., 2002. Print.

Heins, Payton, and Tarik Abdelazim. Take It To The Bank: How Land Banks Are Strengthening America’s Neighborhoods. Rep. Center for Community Progress, Web. http://action.communityprogress.net/p/salsa/web/common/public/signup?signup_page_KEY=8120

Marshall, Christopher D. The Little Book of Biblical Justice: A Fresh Approach to the Bible’s Teachings on Justice. Intercourse, PA: Good, 2005. Print.

NIV Study Bible. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011. Print.

“Philadelphia Crime Maps and Stats.” Crime Mapper. Philadelphia Police Department, n.d. Web. http://www.phillypolice.com/crime-maps-stats/ 7 Jan. 2015.

Smith, Barry, David M. Mark, and Isaac Ehrlich. “Searle and De Soto: The New Ontology of the Social World.” The Mystery of Capital and the Construction of Social Reality. Chicago, IL: Open Court, 2008. 35-51. Print.

Superville, Denisa, and Evie Bond. “Pupil’s Death Renews Calls for School Nurses.” Education Week Vol. 33, Issue 33, Page 7 June 2014.

Thompson, Isaiah. “The Crying of Lots 2120-2134.” AxisPhilly.org. Axis Philly, 30 Apr. 2013. Web. http://axisphilly.org/article/the-crying-of-lots-2120-2034/ 01 June 2013.

Tran, Jonathan, and Myles Werntz. Corners in the City of God: Theology, Philosophy, and The Wire. Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2013. Print.

Tranquilli, Michele. “Delinquent Property Tax Collection on the Rise.” Philly.com. Philadelphia Daily News, 28 May 2014. Web. http://articles.philly.com/2014-05-28/news/50125552_1_delinquent-properties-tax-delinquent-properties-city-schools 09 Jan. 2015.

Wright, Christopher J. H. God’s People in God’s Land: Family, Land, and Property in the Old Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans Pub., 1990. Print.

Wright, Christopher J. H. Old Testament Ethics for the People of God. Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity, 2004. Print.

Wright, Christopher J. H. The Message of Jeremiah: Against Wind and Tide. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2014. Print.

Wright, Christopher J. H. The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2006. Print.

1 thought on “Restoring Shalom in the Citadels of Dead Capital: The Church and Vacant Land”

  1. Ryan K

    UPDATe: This article attempts to address the WHY of using foreclosure to pursue Shalom in blighted communities. At my day job, we’re developing some HOW tools. In Philadelphia, check out phila.lgbs.com, nationally, taxsales.lgbs.com. For questions about Philadelphia tax sales, email me at phillytaxsale@lgbs.com

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