This is interesting for several reasons: One, John is writing to cities, to communities, and to places with their own rhythms and rituals embedded in what each city means by governance, politics, religion, education, commerce, and culture. These are not just “church” communities; they exist within overlapping matrices that web a certain way of seeing and being in the world together.
Two, John writes these letters to “the” church in each city; that is, to a certain institution operating as an umbrella of multiple organizations within that institution. That is, though there may have certainly been multiple house gatherings in a particular city, he addresses them all with the overarching “the church” as if to say, “Yes, I know there are several gatherings of believers in your community, but I want to address the larger Church of the city.”
And third (and this is where it gets really interesting), John addresses these letters not to the pastor, the elders, or even the congregation itself, but rather to the “angel” of each church. What in the world is going on here?
What scholars tell us is that, while it might not be incorrect to think of John writing to some cherubic being in the sky, to some harp-wielding creature with wings, what, perhaps, John is really addressing is the corporate spirit, the collective ethos, the communal personality of the institution of the church in that city. One only has to think, in the context of my state of Oklahoma, of the corporate spirit that is Thunder basketball or the collective ethos that is OU football to get a sense of what this “angel” might be like. Scholars have long talked about a zeitgeist, a defining mood or disposition of a country or organization that seems to consist of definable parts, and yet, in some transcendent way, is much more than the sum of its parts. If this rings true, what scholars tell us is that John is addressing the corporate spirit of a particular institution embedded in a particular time and place that gives rise to a particular way of seeing and being in the world. And, as one reads these letters, one sees that five of these “angels” are sick (suffering from such ailments as consumerism, accommodation to power, apathy, fear, and self-sufficiency) and two are healthy (because of their compassion and persistence against the “beastly” forces of the Roman empire).
What does this have to do with education in our cities? Let’s imagine John sitting by the tallow light of the candle in a darkening room in Patmos, turning his eye not towards the churches in first-century Judea, but, instead, towards another institution in another city, far, far away. Were he to set quill to ink and address the institution of schooling in _________ (name your city). Since I am from Oklahoma City, I am going to address the letter to my community, if he were to write a letter to us—“To the angel of School of the City in Oklahoma City…”—what would he have to say to us?
First, the critical piece here is to again understand that John writes to an entire institution within each city. The import here is for those of us in schooling, and the larger group who are concerned about children in our city, to reimagine the deeper work of education in a given city done not merely by schools in the city, but as the larger purview of the collective School of the City. When we do this, we come to see that all of the children in this city are our collective responsibility, not just the kids my kids play with or not just the students at my school; instead, every child in this city is my responsibility to love and serve well. This means that formerly siloed work must now become the shared responsibility of every person in the city. It means that rival schools (rivals on the football field or in terms of letters of acceptance) must put aside their historic differences in order to help each other serve the entire city’s children well. Private schools and public schools must come together, as must faith-based and charter schools, homeschool and alternative schools, to share best practices and push each other towards the higher mandate of human and communal flourishing.
Nelson Mandela once stated that there can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children. Reimagining the work of education within our city as a collective effort—shaping out a School of the City—means schools must see their work as larger than preparing students for “college-and-career” readiness; indeed, they must become what one scholar calls a workshop of desire, reorienting loves from highly consumptive ends towards highly creative ones. A School of the City operates within the city on behalf of the city. Educators in such a vision of schooling do not hang their hats nor rest their laurels on college acceptance rates; instead, their measure for success is in long-term, prophetic visions of prisons turned into playgrounds, of neighborhood meals and walkable streets, of safe communities devoid of predators (whether they come dressed as the bogeyman or the payday loan shop), of orphan-less homes and fathered families, of empowered women and invested men. Students operating within this vision are educated beyond the satiation of their own stomachs; instead, they are discipled towards the shaping of their kardia (their hearts) through a baptism of the imagination that leads to new practices and new habits of virtue and compassion.
This also means that everyone in the School of the City comes to see him or herself as an educator, not just those who do this work professionally. This means that the artists and architects, businesswomen and bakers, CEOs and CPAs must see their own work as helping to shape the next generation of agents of change in the city. In this prophetic view, coffee shop owners, bankers, auto mechanics, and songwriters willingly take on apprentices from amongst the youth in the city, passing down the knowledge of their trade, and (more importantly) the character of their person to future generations.
It is time the Schools of Our Cities heed John’s words to the angel of the church in Sardis to, “Wake up! Strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have not found your deeds complete. Remember what you have received and heard; obey it, and repent” (Revelation 3:2). Repentance is more than merely acknowledging a laundry list of sins; it is also committing to a new way of seeing and being in the world. This, then, is the call to the faithful of a given city when it comes to the children in that city: to repent; to attune our ears to the cries in the street of children orphaned and abandoned, yes by neglect and abuse, but also by our own greed and distorted sense of self-assuredness; to beg forgiveness for the ways in which we have overtly or covertly helped to legitimate and perpetuate systems of structural violence whose ends are consumptive and consuming; to seek reconciliation within our own communities for the harm we have done by maintaining “business-as-usual”; to lay our lives down, if we must, to see our cities become, as one of our SALLT members, Chris Brewster, exhorts, the best place to be a child.
Only then might the ancient prophet locked away on a forgotten island in time smile as he writes his letter to the Schools of Our Collective Cities.
Founder & Executive Director
Odyssey Leadership Academy