It’s a common trope (and one I’ve maybe engaged in a little in the past) to frame the Christian life in the post-Christian world as a life of exile. Part of the post-Christendom reality and the apparent aggressive shunning of Christian assumptions about life is this sense that we are now outsiders from the corridors of power, or the seat at the table, we might once have occupied; in those good old days when the church was an ‘estate of the realm.’
There’s lots of theological reasons to run with the paradigm of exile, and it can be a reasonable sociological observation, but I’m finding myself increasingly uncomfortable with the paradigm (and with things I’ve said in the past). I think it’s fundamentally true that following Jesus as king positions one in opposition to human power as it is used in ‘cursed’ patterns in kingdoms that the Bible paints as beastly (like Rome). We are ‘exiles’ in as much as Babylon is our frame of reference for worldly societies. And yet, the history of the western world, as laid out nicely in Tom Holland’s book Dominion, is profoundly shaped by Christianity, so no western culture is capable of being exclusively Babylonian. As Mark Sayers puts it in This Cultural Moment we live in a time where people in the west want ‘the kingdom without the king’ — we’re trading off the fruits of Christianity but don’t want the source of that fruit given space in political decision making.
Exile is on my mind right now because, like many churches, we’ve slated a teaching series on the book of Daniel; because Daniel is an exemplary figure when it comes to navigating life in Babylon as a faithful presence. All the cool kids are doing it. I read the new David Kinnaman book Faith For Exiles to help frame some reasonable application for life in these complex times. It’s a reasonable book, but I find myself longing for a Christian approach to life now — whether it’s a political theology or simply an approach to discipleship (and evangelism) — that recognises the way exile functions as a paradigm in the Bible.
The question of exile is not primarily about whether one lives in the Promised Land in political power (though it is true that this is an element of exile). The question of exile, for Israel, in the Old Testament, is about living in God’s presence, under God’s rule. So Adam and Eve are exiled from Eden, and in a sense that begins humanity’s exile from God, while Israel is created as a non-exiled nation through the exodus, and they lose that status in the exile when they become just like the nations. Exile is predominantly framed by our relationship with God and his powerful presence, not the kingdoms of this world.
We’re working our way through Luke’s Gospel at the moment, where Jesus has set about bringing a homecoming of sorts; an end to the exile via a new exodus (he speaks concerning ‘his exodus’ literally in the Greek during the transfiguration). Jesus’ coming to Jerusalem and his judgment on the physical temple reveals that while its rebuilding happened after Israel returned from Babylon, Israel was still, ultimately, exiled from God. Waiting for the day of the Lord. Waiting for God’s glorious presence to re-animate the Temple. The tearing of the Temple curtain at the execution of Jesus shows that hope will not be realised. The temple is judged. Israel is ultimately, at that point, exiled from God. Jerusalem becomes Babylon (it’s interesting that Jesus’ apocalyptic section in Luke 21 seems to take a bunch of imagery from Isaiah, and especially from Isaiah’s pronouncement of judgment on Babylon in Isaiah 13) to apply it to Jerusalem, and then in Revelation John seems to do the same thing — equating Jerusalem with Sodom, Egypt, Babylon, and Rome.
It’s true that to be caught up in God’s presence again makes you an ‘exile’ from Babylon, or the cities of the world, but I’m not sure it’s the most hopeful description of our reality, and indeed, in the places where the New Testament encourages us to “live as exiles” in the world its actually in those places that our coming back to the presence of God, and being his presence in the world, are most stressed. We need to be careful with how we use the metaphor — acknowledging that the beastly kingdoms of the world are ‘exiled’ from Eden, and from God’s presence — and that we are now God’s presence in this world precisely because we are no longer exiled.
In Ephesians 2, where Paul is using a pronoun that probably applies to gentiles within his logic in the letter, Paul says the exile experienced in Adam — not being part of God’s people — is over for gentiles through Jesus and the coming of the Spirit. Such that:
Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.Ephesians 2:19-22
In 1 Peter, Peter writes to “God’s elect, exiles scattered throughout the provinces of Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynia” (1 Peter 1:1) — where there’s a juxtaposition of the two ideas of being God’s chosen people while being exiled in the gentile (Roman) world. The profound statement he makes in his opening (which might primarily refer to Jewish Christians) is that while they might be ‘exiled’ among the nations, they certainly aren’t exiled from God. It’d be a mistake, I think, for us to adopt one half of this paradoxical existence in our narrative, in a way that shapes our political theology. I suspect some of our ‘exile’ language — even amidst a call to be a faithful presence — might miss the triumph of the cross, and what is achieved through the pouring out of the Spirit into God’s new temple. The moment that exile from God, from Eden, and from the temple and the promised land profoundly ends (for funsies, I reckon the events of Acts 2 actually take place in the temple, where the church was meeting daily, and where ‘exiled’ diasporan Jews were gathered for the Pentecost festival). While we’re to live as exiles in the world — this is a posture we are to adopt, not one the world pushes us into (though by nature a beastly empire won’t deliberately make a bunch of room for God’s people). It’s not a reason for fear; or one we need strategies for. Our strategies — or disciplines — should be those that allow us to be a faithful presence — God’s temple — in the world, not one that starts with the foundational assumption that we are being excluded from the world, but that we have now been included in God’s people within the world. As Peter puts it:
… you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. Dear friends, I urge you, as foreigners and exiles, to abstain from sinful desires, which wage war against your soul. Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.”1 Peter 2:9-12
It’s not us who are the exiles; it’s the nations still exiled from Eden; still cut off from the presence of God. It’s only that we’re home with God, as he makes his home in us, that we become exiles to the world. The real exiles as Paul and Peter write are the nation of Israel, who’ve joined the nations in opposition to God, and expressed that by rejecting their Messiah. Those who don’t have the Spirit.
This sort of posture might remind us that the Gospel is actually good news; and that it creates an alternative kingdom as it makes us citizens of heaven who are then ambassadors to a world that so desperately needs what we have. This might allow us to adopt a more positive, less defensive, approach to both discipleship and politics even as we live amongst nations and communities that occur along a spectrum of those influenced by the fruits of Christianity in the western world, and those who, through idolatry, have become more beastly or Babylonian (or Roman). Those who because of their idolatry are further away from God; digging further into the conditions of exile. If ever we speak of exile without emphatically speaking of our new citizenship, we run the risk of making human power our frame of reference, rather than God’s presence, and that’d be a diabolical mistake. It’s the sort of thing that has Israel become Babylonian in its approach to Jesus; they’ve spent so long thinking like Babylon, and Rome, when it comes to worldly power that they marshall that sort of power against God, and in doing so the kingdom is taken from them and given to others — other exiles from Eden, brought home to God.