meditations on exile (2): relating to the host country

But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ… Philippians 3:20

Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul. 1 Peter 2:11

In the same way that so many Old Testament saints were forced to live in a land other than their homeland, followers of Jesus today are exiles and sojourners. We are not living in our hometown. As exiles, we know, “This is not our home, this is not our culture, this is not our ‘normal.'”

Suffering makes this easy to remember. Worldly happiness and comfortable lifestyles make it easy to forget. The church in America is living – rather, dying – under a deadly addiction. Christians used to call it “worldliness,” a word not used much anymore. Elsewhere in the world, in churches without guaranteed safety or enough Bibles to go around – much less AC, coffee bars, or sound systems – the church thrives. Grows, like crazy. Jesus’ name is savored; luxury is foreign.

We must not forget who we are. We are sojourners on the earth, waiting for our real home. As such, we must ask: how should we relate to our “host country,” i.e., the world around us? The New Testament bans from us several options:

It bans revolt, a temptation not common among American Christians who have been raised to pledge allegiance to the flag:

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. Romans 13:1-2

Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people. 1 Peter 2:13-15

Perhaps the first temptation is so rare because the second is so widespread. The New Testament also bans assimilation:

Now this I say and testify in the Lord, that you must no longer walk as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds. Ephesians 4:17

Do not be conformed to this world, by be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. Romans 12:2

See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental principles of the world, and not according to Christ. Colossians 2:8

The prophets, Jesus, and the apostles propose to us another option for living out our identities as aliens. Shane Claiborne and Chris Haw, authors of Jesus for President: Politics for Ordinary Radicals, a book I just read and very highly recommend, call this third option “revolutionary subordination,” an alternate route between assimilation and revolt.

The Sermon on the Mount, the classic name for Jesus’ speech in Matthew 5-7, outlines in unforgettable beauty what revolutionary subordination looks like for disciples in a world gone wicked.

“They say ‘don’t murder’? I say, anger is murder. Allow nothing to delay you from reconciliation. They say ‘don’t commit adultery’? I say, lust is adultery. Stop at nothing to avoid sinning. They say, ‘he got what he deserved’? I say, do not resist an evil person. They say, ‘love the good guys, hate the bad guys’? I say, love the people making your life miserable.” On and on. At every turn, it rebels against things as they are with nothing less than creative genius.

Claiborne and Shaw explain one, now proverbial, part of this magnificent sermon in a particularly insightful way. “Turn the other cheek” did not mean “let anyone who wants to beat you up.” Rather, it meant, “To the person who gives you a backhanded slap intended to insult, show them you would be willing to take even a punch in the face without retaliating. You love them too much. Shock them, and their conscience, with the patience of your grace.” “Give the shirt off your back” and “go the extra mile” in the following verses mean similar things.

That’s revolutionary subordination. It means to refuse to accept the ways of the world. To turn them completely inside out in a subversive kind of submission. In many ways, all of Jesus’ teachings are an elaboration on this theme. His lifestyle was its embodiment. For him, apparently, it worked. Why then do we doubt his methods?

The church must be a peculiar people, to borrow a phrase from Claiborne and Shaw’s book again. God forbids that we value the things America values; he forbids that we call idolatry cool and sensuality normal. For a citizen of heaven, sin is never normal. It is the one thing in God’s universe that is not normal, the one thing which perverts every other good thing.

Patriotism is not a virtue Jesus admired. Nationalistic pride is founded on demonstrations of strength and hero-worship. It is a far cry from the otherworldly statements of Jesus about the meek and the persecuted being the victors of the universe. Yes, the “unBeatitudes” make promises too, but they are miserable ones and utterly opposed to God.

American culture values many other things Jesus hates, like having pride in yourself, living in luxury while others live in poverty, and lying about who God is. To the extent our churches and lives succumb to this kind of thinking and living, to that extent we deny the Jesus we claim to imitate.

“Beloved, as sojourners and exiles…” the Bible urges us. We cannot forget who we are. We are not home, but we are homeward bound.

More next time.

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