The Church, Society and Race: Part 3 (Exiles and Sojourners)

This is a multi-part series. Read part 1, part 2, part 4 part 5, part 6, part 7, and parts 8a and 8b.

In the last post, I briefly discussed the idea that we, as citizens of the kingdom of God, live our lives in this world now as exiles. In this post, we build and expand on this point.

 1. The Christian as Exile

Let’s begin by unpacking what I mean when I call us exiles. Scripture is replete with descriptions of dominion transfer. That is, when we become Christians, our loyalties, citizenship, identity all transition. For example:

Every single Christian has experienced this transfer of loyalty and allegiance. You were in the world, in darkness, under sin’s power, under death’s grip – but now you belong to heaven, in the light, under Jesus’ lordship, made alive.

And yet, there is this tension. In the Romans 6 passage, we still face the opportunity to present our members as instruments to sin (Rom. 6:11f). In Colossians, we discover that we are to set our minds on the things above, where Christ is – not where we are yet. In Philippians, we yet await our transformation. In 1 John, we face a world hostile to us because we are in life and not death.

This tension is captured most succinctly in 1 Peter passage, where he gives a name to this tension: “Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul. Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation. (1 Pet. 2:11-12, ESV)

A sojourner is a person who is “just passin’ through.” An exile is one who is living as a foreigner in a land not her native home – usually through hostile expulsion. And yet, unlike Israel, which was forced out of the land because of God’s judgment, we are not expelled from heaven. No – it’s not that we’ve been expelled from the place of our citizenship; for we’ve become exiles-in-place.

In our world, a person becomes a political exile or refugee when he or she is forced to leave his or her native land for safety or survival. And yet, every Christian has become an exile right where they stand because their citizenship in this world is annulled, as they take up a new identity under Christ’s Lordship. When I am baptized into the threefold Name, I cease to belong to this world, and instead belong to Christ’s kingdom.

Which means that I find myself a stranger, a sojourner – an exile – in my own culture. My primary allegiance shifts from this world, to Jesus, and I in fact undergo a profound cross-cultural transformation in terms of what truly matters to me.

The consequence of this is that a) we are obligated to live according to a different standard that what we had been living under – a higher standard: the ethic of the kingdom. But if we are faithfully living according to this standard, then it further introduces b) the potential for conflict and hostility from the world around us, resulting from a kind of spiritual xenophobia. The world doesn’t know what to do with these people who adhere to an otherworldly standard, and so conflict emerges.

This is the background to Peter’s instructions to the churches in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia. He instructs them to a) avoid the passions of the flesh (living according to the old way) and b) keep their conduct honorable (in such a way that their surrounding society would recognize), so that “when they speak against you as evildoers (spiritual xenophobia), they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation” (likely a reference to their eventual conversion). In other words, the church is to faithfully be the “salt and light” Jesus commanded them to be, which we saw last week.

He then goes on to outline several specific ways for these churches to keep their conduct honorable – the bulk of which here involve submission to authorities and suffering mistreatment well.

I find this self-identification as exiles to be tremendously helpful as I think about my relationship to the world around me. Because even though I was born into this world, and speak the language of this world, and participate in the social structures of this world – there’s a disconnect; a dislocation that I nonetheless experience.

But we need to do a little more contextual development on this idea. For while I relate to the concept of exile, I relate less to the oppressive context into which Peter writes. In fact, the American context is vastly different than that of Peter’s readers.

 2. Conflict and Influence

Here’s what I mean. Christians in the first century lived mainly in tension or conflict with broader society. There was no separation of church and state in ancient Rome; the political, cultural and the religious were in many ways intimately bound up with one another. So when Christianity exploded on the scene, and its members began proclaiming that Jesus was κύριος (Lord), rather than Caesar, it raised all kinds of suspicions – and eventually, all kinds of oppressions.

Peter wrote at a time when public opinion towards Christianity was generally suspicious and slanderous, but not yet violent. Within a few decades, however, the people of Jesus were actively hunted, harmed and killed.

In such a context the relationship between the church and society is a defensive one. In seeking to survive and thrive in the midst of oppression, it keeps its conduct honorable with the hope that God’s truth and glory will shine in the midst of suffering. This is still the case in many closed or oppressive countries.

It is not, however, the experience of the American church. To be sure, and especially in recent decades, the ethical and moral distance between American culture and the kingdom of God has increased, and it has become slightly more costly to be a Christian in our context.

And yet, even in the most difficult of circumstances, we find ourselves living in a representative democracy, bound and guided by the Constitution and its Bill of Rights, in which we find the words,

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”1

We not only possess the right and freedom to voice our opinions and practice our religion, we have the right and privilege to vote and elect our lawmakers and our leadership. In other words, we are in a vastly different situation than Peter’s readers were, subject to the empire of Rome and its (sometimes tyrannical) emperor.

So in contrast to the relationship of tension and conflict experienced by Christians in the 1st century Roman empire, we have, as Americans, what might be described as a relationship of influence to our society. Our protected right to free speech, exercise of religion, and ability to elect lawmakers, etc., thereby enables us to shape and influence our society in structural ways that were never available to Christians in the Roman empire.

But I would argue that it goes beyond opportunity. Not only do we have the opportunity to shape and influence society, we have an obligation to. If we take seriously Jesus’ instruction that we are salt and light to the world (Matthew 5:13-16) and Paul’s, “as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith” (Gal. 6:10), then we are indeed obligated to pursue these avenues.

Let me venture one step further. In the OT prophets, we see some of the most forceful language about the need for God’s people to pursue justice at a societal level. Texts such as:

Clearly, the prophets spoke these words into Israel, as a theocratic kingdom, which is not where we find ourselves. The church does not have jurisdiction over the land in which we live, nor is the Constitution of our country, to which our leaders are bound, the Bible. At the same time, He does presently reign in His church, and the day is coming when the King of kings will reign over all the earth, and will uphold His kingdom with justice and equity (cf. Isa. 9:7).

Until that time, however, the responsibility of the church is to manifest the goodness, righteousness and love of the kingdom as fully as possible within the kingdom of God (the church) and in every space in which God’s people exist.

But here’s where we have a unique opportunity in our own context: if we have the opportunity to influence society, to call for justice, to correct oppression, to confront corruption, and on, then we must do so. To fail to use this opportunity is to pass by the man on the side of the road, rather than to be the Good Samaritan.

If this is the case, then we need to think for a moment about how we can do this. What are the ways that we, as average Christians, can influence broader society? The following serve as a sampling:

  1. Through ideas. We can infiltrate the academy and the media, to produce ideas which are just and true and which provide goodness and truth for society.
  2. Through law and public policy. We can influence politicians and lawmakers as they seek to develop policy which influences the larger directions of society, and the laws which govern it.
  3. Through community and civic involvement. We may get involved in our homeowner’s associations to create neighborhoods which are not only safe, but just. To personally invest in community programs which benefit our city. We can interact with our aldermen and city leaders to petition for practices and policies which promote peace and justice and are unilaterally constructive.
  4. Through the marketplace. We can create businesses which seek to do good to our communities, which invest back in society in constructive ways, which hire the underprivileged and disadvantaged (and formerly incarcerated), and which pursue more than purely the bottom line.
  5. Through the arts. The arts play a major role in our society. In many ways, the artists of our day follow the philosophers of yesterday. We can get involved by creating through mediums which reflect God’s glory and truth, to connect to and challenge the hearts and aesthetic tastes of society.
  6. Through nonprofit organizations. Many nonprofits specialize in particular areas of service, compassion and justice.

My point in all of this is to show that, even though we are exiles, because of our unique location as Americans, we have both the opportunity and obligation to seek the good of this nation, for the glory of God. Not because we believe that we will usher in a utopian society, but because we seek to reflect the generous goodness of our God into a dark world.

 3. Confirmation and Confrontation

Now, before we leave this important subject, I want to touch on one additional point that is crucial for our thinking on cultural engagement as Christians. Because even though we’ve talked a bit about our disconnected relationship to the world (as exiles), and our obligation to it (as exiles), we haven’t necessarily touched on where the world’s culture stops, and where the kingdom culture begins. And if we don’t think hard about this, we run some interesting risks. Let me explain.

Every society possesses certain values, beliefs and expectations which constitute its culture. That is, each society possesses certain shared beliefs about reality, and expectations about how human beings should act in light of that reality. These values and norms create a unifying bond which sets one particular society apart from another. So, for example, we may talk broadly about “Western culture,” by which we may mean those political, religious, artistic and philosophical ideals and values generally held in common among peoples in Western Europe and the northern Americas. This is in distinction to, say east Asian or African culture. Distinct with these larger groupings, however, we discover smaller subsets. We all know that there are distinctions between, say American and German culture. And on we go.

This is why we see so much difference (and disagreement) in the world around us; every culture is in a sense operates from a different “manual” with regards to what is “right and normal.”

I say all of this to underscore the point that each of us is shaped by our culture. The way we understand reality is in many ways framed and shaped by those norms and values everyone around us shares. When the culture values democratic ideals, we grow up believing that democracy is the only way to go. When it socializes us to believe that the state must be theocratic and conquest-oriented in nature, we grow up believing just that. If our particular culture teaches us that we are individuals who must realize our potential through self-exploration, self-development and self-actualization, then we will probably follow this narrative script. But if it teaches us that we find our meaning only as a member of a community, as a part of the whole, then our perceptions of reality will be shaped by this narrative.

In other words, each and every one of us is, in some way, a product of our culture; each of us have been catechized by culture from birth. We are born as sponges, and create definition and meaning as we are taught by those who have entered the world before us, and the patterns, norms, expectations, etc. which came before us.

Now, we must keep in mind that there is much about each culture which is good. God made humanity in His image, and though the fall certainly corrupted our ability to reflect His glory, it did not annihilate His image in us. Furthermore, God in His common grace keeps humanity from becoming its worst. Indeed, He endows unbelieving scientists with knowledge, unbelieving engineers with inventing creativity, non-Christian artists with a love for beauty, farmers with the ability to produce food, philosophers with a sense of reality and lawmakers with a desire for justice. This is what we call common grace. Even in our broken world, the echoes of Eden still reverberate.

But, and it should be clear enough by this point, every culture also has sin woven throughout. For sin is parasitic, corrupting the good. Lawmakers pursue corrupt and selfish aims, artists delight in destruction, philosophers relativize reality beyond recognition, and scientists create ingenious weapons of mass destruction.

It is into this moral mishmash that we each are born, and by which each of us are shaped.

However, when we are made alive in Jesus, our allegiance changes and as mentioned earlier, we undergo a cross-cultural transformation. For if every culture is in some way a dim reflection of the truth of God, then the kingdom of Christ is where the true and righteous norms, values and beliefs shine forth brilliantly.

And what happens when we are made members of this kingdom is that we experience both confirmation and conflict. We experience confirmation when we discover that the values of our native culture reflect the values of heaven. We embrace these cultural values as good, and pursue them as beneficial for society. On the other hand, we experience conflict when the values of heaven collides with the values of our native culture. We now view these values as things to be confronted and challenged by the truth of His righteousness.

 4. The Need for Renewal and Prophetic Distance

One final word. For what I have just outlined gives us not only a framework for thinking about how we conflict and confirm the culture in which we live, but it also creates a struggle within. For on the one hand, we recognize that we are in the process of being renewed. We do not enter the kingdom and experience a complete and total transformation of mind. Quite the opposite. We instead discover that we are called into a process of transformation and renewal (Ephesians 4:20-24; Colossians 3:9-10). What this means is that we should expect to find the truth of Scripture regularly challenging our conformity to the world in ways we had not contemplated, and renewing our thinking about reality (Romans 12:2). We must therefore live our lives in a posture of humble, self-critical evaluation of our beliefs. If the Scripture pushes back on or challenges a cultural value or belief we hold dear, if we are to walk by the Spirit, which must win? God’s ethic.

Related to this is the reality that our native culture still exerts influence upon us. Every time you read an opinion piece in the newspaper, or from your favorite blog, you are exposing yourself to influence. Every time you watch television, you are exposing yourself to a particular influence. And every time you join God’s people on Sunday morning, you are exposing yourself to a particular influence.

If we think that we live an influence-neutral existence, we are naive. We live in a dynamic space, whereby we exert influence on society, and society exerts influence on us. And yet, because of our “dual citizenship,” influence is exerted upon us in two different directions: by the culture in which we live and the culture of the kingdom of God. And whereas our relationship with earthly society is in some ways dynamic and reciprocal, the kingdom of God simply exerts its influence upon us.

Now ideally, Christ will transform us, and we will influence society. But knowing this weakness, we must always maintain a level of humble, self-critical reflection, eager to be transformed and renewed by the kingdom of God and His righteousness. For if we are not, how could we ever have enough distance from our culture to be able to confront and challenge what stands opposed to God?

 Conclusion

So in summary, we are exiles, because we belong to heaven, while living here, in this world. And I have tried to argue that we are called, as members of the kingdom of Christ who have the opportunity to influence society for God’s glory, to do so – much like Israel in Jeremiah 29. In other words, as we have opportunity, we must seek to impart the goodness, mercy, justice and righteousness of God into our society.

But we also must recognize that we are enculturated creatures, influenced ourselves. And so we must seek to think hard and well about not only how the culture around us might be confirmed or confronted, but also how we are shaped by the culture around us. We must always have humble self-evaluation that seeks to be renewed by the Spirit in all things.

All of this leads us then into our particular focus for this study: the racialization of American society. If racism is still a live problem in our society (and it is), and we can clearly determine that it is contrary to the ethic of heaven (for it is), then God’s people should be eager to understand where it appears, and how to confront it, in our pursuit of the good of our society.

 
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