My family regularly visits our county parks. We love letting our children run wild (within limits) at the playground, take part in T-ball games and ride their bikes through the nearby arboretum.
Recently, though, these parks became the subject of intense debate in our community. A county plan to expand the park system was challenged and ultimately defeated by a group of fiscal conservatives. The question came down to this: During an economic downturn, why should the county spend tax dollars on an apparently non-essential service like public parks?
While this must be answered according to the context of each local government, I propose a few questions, drawn from Biblical principles, to help Christians think about public parks and other public spaces.
Does this use of land honor God as its creator, sustainer and ultimate owner?
In our local debate over the county parks, many of the arguments against expanding the park system focused on the private property that would be used or taxed for the expansion. I support strong private property rights, but these rights should be balanced by the Biblical principle that the land and everything in it belongs to God and that we are primarily stewards of his property. The theme of stewardship runs throughout the Bible: from God's gift of the Garden of Eden to Adam and Eve; to the psalmist's reflection that the cattle of a thousand hills belong to the Lord; to Jesus' parable of the talents. With regard to parks, land doesn't exist solely for our own personal benefit or profit. We have to think about land use in a larger context: How would God desire us to use this land?
Does this use of land serve the good of the whole community?
Christians are called to work for the common good. This idea of all nations benefiting from God's people goes back to God's call to Abraham, which promised that his offspring would be a "light to the nations." Christians believe that this was fulfilled in Jesus Christ. Even in our more humble, day-to-day activities, though, Biblical writers counsel Christians to do good for everyone, so that "they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation" (1 Peter 2:12). Public parks create space for children in our public life and they enable people of all income levels to enjoy the common grace of God's creation. At various times in my life, I have lived in much smaller spaces than I would have preferred, yet I was able to enjoy the same public parks as my wealthiest neighbors.
Does this use of land help neighbors know each other better and strengthen the community?
A striking amount of Jesus' ministry took place in common spaces that belonged to the whole community: Jacob's well, where he met the Samaritan woman; Solomon's colonnade; the open areas where he gave the Sermon on the Mount; the marketplaces where he called many of the Twelve; even the Temple courts where he spent much of his time during Passion Week. These locations were natural areas for people to gather and natural places to see friends and neighbors on a regular basis. Because of the relative anonymity and privacy in contemporary American society, it can be difficult to get to know our neighbors, even those who live just one or two houses from us. Public spaces such as parks make it easier for us to meet, know and serve our neighbors, especially when these spaces are integrated with the immediate community.
Should local governments spend more money on parks? It's a question that can't be answered in the abstract, because it depends on each community's particular context. When issues arises, though, I hope that Christians will consider questions beyond mere finances.