The desperate tragedy of the Grenfell Tower fire may prove to be a defining moment in our culture, a tragic combination of events that serves to reveal so much in British society, both bad and good. The tower stands as a charred obelisk as you drive down the Westway, like some terrible gash on the face of London that reveals tooth and bone such that you don’t want to stare but cannot look away. Last Friday I went to pick up my daughter from University, and with the car loaded with possessions (a poignant fact in the context), we drove past on our way out. At one point you can see daylight right through the building, where once there were homes with all their possessions and their shared human life. There are so many strands to this terrible tragedy, so much that could be written, but I want to focus on one theme. The Grenfell Tower tragedy has much to teach us about the biblical concept of home, and to highlight the problems of making a home in a vast global city.
God designed and created the idea of home. The Garden of Eden gave Adam and Eve a place to rest and enjoy God’s creation, just as God rested on the seventh day and delighted in all he had made. Eden was a defined place in which to share their new life together, and indeed to share the presence of God. We were not created to be solitary beings, but to have a shared life that reflects the shared life of the Trinity. Across the whole of Scripture, home is rarely if ever a place for one individual, but rather somewhere to share the life of a family. Even where someone is single, they are part of a wider family or household, because of our inbuilt need for human relationship. Any human home must include that sense of refuge from the storm, of sanctuary and total acceptance by our nearest and dearest, and of joy and relaxation. That needs to be part of our thinking when we build homes today, in terms of the size of homes we build, and in the way that they connect us with creation. It is true that a flat high in the sky can be a place of sanctuary, but it lacks a garden, and the connection that this gives with creation. It lacks the connection that comes from passing your neighbour’s front door in a street. High density housing replaced the community life of the London street, and it is striking to compare the old streets that have survived the onslaughts of town planners with those that were wrecked more by demolition crews than by the Luftwaffe.
A strong theme in Scripture is leaving home, often as a judgement from God, but sometimes because God has a new life for us. So Adam and Eve were banished from the garden, covering their shame as their marriage was cursed because of sin. Cain was driven from the ground as a restless wanderer, and Noah and his family had to take refuge in the ark to escape the coming judgement, leaving behind both home and society. Yet moving on can also be good, as the table of nations demonstrates in Gen 10, the sons of Noah spreading out and filling the earth in fulfilment of the cultural mandate of Gen 9:1. Trying to avoid that dispersal and the commission from God to build a wide diversity of homes and homelands, the builders of Babel tried to concentrate everyone in one place with one language, to outthink God, if only they could. God prevented their evil by confusing their plans with language barriers, and sent them on their way to find new homes across the world. But he also chose Abraham, told him to leave his home, to set out on a journey not knowing where he was going. Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were nomadic tent dwellers (see how often their tents are referred to in Genesis), yet even then you can read of them carrying their many possessions, and of the family tent being home. Perhaps that helps us to understand the concept of home as less about bricks and mortar as about people, family, meals and hospitality. We would do well to learn from that in a culture that idolises buildings. A biblical concept of home will be a secure place to live, but it is also a human, relational concept, not just something we build with materials.
The children of Israel lived as strangers and slaves in Egypt. When they were redeemed from Egypt, their longing was for a homeland of their own, the Promised Land. What is striking is the way the book of Joshua describes their settlement when the conquest of the land was complete. Joshua tells the tribes east of the Jordan to return to their homes (Josh 22:8). That new life of peace is centred on the home in the book of Deuteronomy, because the family life of the home is the key building block of the nation of Israel and of any society. That home life is summed up in 1 Kings 4:25 ‘During Solomon’s lifetime Judah and Israel, from Dan to Beersheba, lived in safety, everyone under their own vine and under their own fig-tree.’ What a great description of home – peace, safety, provision, rest.
Into such peace and tranquility came the refugee and the dispossessed, most notably Ruth and Naomi on their journey from Moab. Ruth was stigmatised as an outsider, and no one in her late husband’s family put themselves out to provide for her, so that she had to go out and glean what grain she could find. Once in the fields she was labelled ‘the Moabitess’, no one asking her name because her identity put her beyond the pale. But Israel had been explicitly told in Deuteronomy to care for the alien and the stranger, remembering that they themselves had been slaves in Egypt – the repeating chorus of Deuteronomy. The Book of Ruth is therefore a commentary on the law, to show how redeemed people should live, and how the outcast and stranger is to be welcomed and loved. Boaz presents us with the warm response of grace, kindness and redemption, which should characterise our response to the refugee, particularly at this time of international crisis.
Grenfell Tower was built, like thousands of other Council tower blocks, to provide quick, cheap homes for the poor. Le Corbusier had convinced the authorities that tower blocks were the future, but far too often they have not built community, and have been places people want to escape from. As the tragedy of the Grenfell Tower fire has shown, city tower blocks have become home for Britain’s growing migrant communities, especially refugees. Where one person was settled in a flat, they then took in friends and relatives who, having lived in the developing world, were not averse to putting up with very cramped conditions. This is a long way from the welcome that Boaz gave to Ruth. It is tantamount to saying ‘Live where we no longer wish to live, and let your own people sort out your problems.’ It encourages ghettos, and pushes the refugee away from the rest of the community because they live anonymously on the 23rd floor, often not daring to go out. All this happened at Grenfell Tower, just ten minutes’ walk from the iconic blue door of the film Notting Hill.
Meanwhile, in South Kensington, other people also live in flats, though they are so opulent that they style them as ‘mansion blocks’, for that is what they are. They may be five storeys high, but each Victorian home was built in the grand style, like a Parisian apartment. Where other sites have been cleared and new apartment developments have sprung up, they are specified as homes for footballer’s wives, and advertised in the property section of the Daily Telegraph. For this is the age of the cult of property, led by the high priests of property, Kevin Macleod, and Phil Spenser and Kirsty Alsop, as well as an army of estate agents who drive up peoples’ expectations of the value of their house for their own personal gain and the beggaring of the buyer. This kind of era was known in Israel, when, in the days of the prophet Micah, a property boom gripped Jerusalem. Micah came to excoriate the rich and their exploitation. ‘They covet fields and seize them, and houses, and take them. They defraud a man of his home, a fellow-man of his inheritance.’ (Micah 2:2) Micah reads like a tract for our times, and calls us to ‘act justly, love mercy and walk humbly with your God.’ The huge differentials between rich and poor revealed in our society by the Grenfell Tower fire, and the way that public housing was ‘upgraded’ in the cheapest and most dangerous way, while the Council tax payers of Kensington and Chelsea received a rebate because the Council actually underspent, are a stain on our nation’s conscience. They are a call to all of us to rethink our whole approach to housing, and to remember that housing is to provide a home for a family within God’s creation.
Has the structure of the housing market gone wrong in Britain today? When my grandfather came home from the First World War, Lloyd George promised homes fit for heroes to live in, and when he died of Sepsis in 1926, my Grandmother moved into a Council House in the street where I grew up. Even in the 1970s, the Council house stock was in good shape, but then the great right-to-buy sell off came along, with the ridiculous rule that councils were forbidden from spending the proceeds on new council housing. This created years of imbalance in the housing market, and shortage of supply has made home ownership impossible for the children of those who once shared Mrs Thatcher’s dream. It has also torn at family life, because both parents have to work to get a mortgage, couples therefore put off parenthood into their 30s, and children grow up with much less family time, all because more work is needed to pay the mortgage. And if you are a student, in London you will pay £170 per week just for one room in a student flat, and you will leave University with a debt of £60,000 before you even approach the housing ladder. If you can only consider the social housing sector, unless you are prepared to try a tower block, the options are few and the wait is interminable. This is life in our global city, and unless you are rich, housing really isn’t working. Yet in no recent election has anyone really got their teeth into the issue of housing. At the same time, I don’t find Christians applying their minds to the issue, even though Scripture says so much about home.
Perhaps that is because Christians are good at eschatology! We have a longing for another home, an eternal mansion (John 14:1-3). Quite right, and our weariness of earth should make us long for the New Jerusalem, a place of eternal rest and home after all the displacement and wandering of life now. But our view of the future should never be divorced from our life here. ‘Your kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven’ means that the values of heaven have to seep into our lives now. What should that mean for a Christian today? Much more than I can possibly expand on here, but consider this: Jesus did much of his ministry in homes, such as that of Mary, Martha and Lazarus. Some of his parables were taught at a dinner table. He loved to use meals as a place to express community, fellowship and mission. (See Tim Chester’s brilliant book A meal with Jesus.) But we never read descriptions of a double aspect lounge, or a discussion of the new window frames, or the nice furniture on which he sat (though Jesus knew plenty about furniture as a carpenter). The focus of these homes was the rest, community, and hospitality they provided. What is your home known for? Is it a place where people feel welcome and long to return? Is it a place where divisions of class and ethnicity are broken down? Is it a place of grace and mercy? Do you go out of your way as a family to spend time together, or have you allowed modern life to fragment everything, and replace time for people with the idolatry of things? Do you want other peoples’ housing problems pushed away for someone else to deal with, while you worry about the most important thing, protecting the rising value of your own home? Or is your home open to others and a colony of heaven shining the light of God’s grace out into the darkness?