When in Rome: Reframing our expectations as the post-Christendom church

I’ve loved two recent posts provocative posts from Stephen McAlpine on the church and our position in the Australian landscape:

McAlpine’s thesis (it’ll be easier if you duck over to those two links and read it for yourself) is, as best as I can sum it up, that the post-Christendom landscape is shifting so that our culture is moving from an attitude of ambivalence about Christianity to naked hostility. A shift, his pieces suggest, from Athens to Babylon. His solution is that we change the paradigm accordingly, and that this will mean changing the way we engage with the world.

They’re provocative pieces. Certainly. And should shock us churchy types to the core. We’ve made our bed by buying into Christendom, and then a kind of soft-exilic reality, and now we have to figure out how to lie in it. It’s going to get pretty uncomfortable with all those spiky rocks we’ve accidentally carried into bed with us in our combat boots (or Converse All Stars for the contempervant amongst us).

I’m hoping I haven’t misrepresented his arguments above, and that I’m not simply splitting hairs in what follows. But I think there’s something missing, certainly in the posts so far.

I’m completely convinced that exile is the paradigm we should be operating in as the Church. I think Christendom was a theological anomaly, that the Christian church is meant to operate at the margins of worldy society for the sake of those who are marginalised (and largely made up of the marginalised). I think we’re meant to be counter-cultural. I think nominalism is bad, and we’re not seeing a decline in Christianity in the Western world but a reduction of those who identified as Christians because the church operated at the centre of the corridors of power rather than in these margins. I think fleshing this out would require more words than I’m able to write in response to these two posts, but basically, if the church is the body of Christ we should probably expect our experience of life in this world to mirror the experience of our Lord, the head of the body. Who was crucified by the powerful worldly people. I think Paul carries this expectation into the church in 1 Corinthians where he says some things like:

Where is the wise person? Where is the teacher of the law? Where is the philosopher of this age?Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 21 For since in the wisdom of God the worldthrough its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. 22 Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, 23 but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, 24 but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25 For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.”

But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. 28 God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are,   — 1 Corinthians 1:20-25, 27-28

Too often we’ve wanted our engagement with the world to be clever and powerful on its own terms. There’s a sense where I think we want to be speaking the language of the world in the way Paul does in Athens, and the way he suggests we should in say 1 Corinthians 9, and Colossians 4. We often read these verses from Colossians 4 and forget the incredibly important context — Paul is in chains. He’s following the example of his crucified king. These are a guide to being culturally engaged, wise even, but expecting to be crucified…

Devote yourselves to prayer, being watchful and thankful. And pray for us, too, that God may open a door for our message, so that we may proclaim the mystery of Christ, for which I am in chains.Pray that I may proclaim it clearly, as I should. Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; make the most of every opportunity. Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone. — Colossians 4:2-6

You can’t hold up Paul’s experience with the cultural elites in Athens where he heads to the Areopagus as a model for expecting us to transform the world from the top down via “cultural engagement.”

“When they heard about the resurrection of the dead, some of them sneered, but others said, “We want to hear you again on this subject.” —Acts 17:32

 

The results aren’t great. Sure. Some people convert, but most of them think he’s an idiot. The results aren’t great, but I think you can/must hold it up his method as a model for the Church in exile (stage one, two, three, or n).

Paul is phenomenally culturally engaged he quotes poets and philosophers — he’s speaking to the movers and shakers in the city — and while there’s some fruit from this (and so I think this remains the model for us as Christians trying to continue Jesus’ pattern of communication which I’d sum up (in many, many words if you want to read my thesis) as Accommodation through (cruciform) Incarnation. The cruciform bit is in brackets. But it’s the most important bit — we should be ‘incarnate,’ understanding the culture, engaging with the culture, critiquing the culture using the language of the culture, but our expectation should be persuasion through crucifixion. That is how God works.

What’s interesting, I think, is that Paul views Christians as exiles (I think that’s what’s going on when he talks about citizenship in Philippians, that he’s largely in sync with Peter’s exilic thinking at this point). Despite his Roman citizenship being a thing he uses to advance the Gospel, he doesn’t see the Church as part of the Roman kingdom but as the Kingdom within a kingdom.  I think he views Rome – specifically the worship of Caesar, and the imperial propaganda machine that supports it – as the worldly kingdom that is both powerful, and the antithesis of the Christian message. Caesar is the anti-Jesus. The propaganda around the Caesars involves claims and titles that Jesus claims for himself. The word Gospel is a Roman media term about the proclamation of a world-changing king. Again, I could write more about this, but let me assume that premise. The Roman empire is what makes Christians exiles, the Roman Empire is also (along with Israel) complicit in the murder of Jesus. It’s a Roman cross he’s nailed to after a trial under a Roman King, and the charge against Jesus is ultimately that he claimed to be King when Caesar really is…

“From then on, Pilate tried to set Jesus free, but the Jewish leaders kept shouting, “If you let this man go, you are no friend of Caesar. Anyone who claims to be a king opposes Caesar.”

But they shouted, “Take him away! Take him away! Crucify him!”

“Shall I crucify your king?” Pilate asked.

“We have no king but Caesar,” the chief priests answered.

16 Finally Pilate handed him over to them to be crucified. — John 19:12, 15-16

Jesus might have been executed in Jerusalem, but he was executed by Rome. You can’t reach any other conclusion reading John’s account of Jesus’ trial. It’s a smackdown. Jesus v Caesar. The most powerful king in the world is responsible for killing the King who created the world, whose true, infinite, power dwarfs anything Rome can muster. This is the foolishness of the Gospel. This is the Gospel.

Rome kills Jesus.

And yet. Paul resolutely sets out for Rome. That’s where he’s going in Acts. That’s his goal. It seems he wants to take the Gospel to the heart of the empire. To Caesar himself. Trial after trial he appeals to his rights as a Roman citizen, and appeals in order to have his case herd before Caesar (even when people want to release him). Trial after trial, as he appears before Roman governors, Paul tries to convert them.

When he appears before Festus, Paul launches this appeal — an appeal that would see him follow in the footsteps of Jesus.

 If, however, I am guilty of doing anything deserving death, I do not refuse to die. But if the charges brought against me by these Jews are not true, no one has the right to hand me over to them. I appeal to Caesar!”

12 After Festus had conferred with his council, he declared: “You have appealed to Caesar. To Caesar you will go!” — Acts 25:11-12

Then…

“I found he had done nothing deserving of death, but because he made his appeal to the Emperor I decided to send him to Rome.” — Acts 25:25

In Acts 26, Festus has Paul explain his situation to King Agrippa. Who says something similar:

28 Then Agrippa said to Paul, “Do you think that in such a short time you can persuade me to be a Christian?”

29 Paul replied, “Short time or long—I pray to God that not only you but all who are listening to me today may become what I am, except for these chains.”

30 The king rose, and with him the governor and Bernice and those sitting with them. 31 After they left the room, they began saying to one another, “This man is not doing anything that deserves death or imprisonment.”

32 Agrippa said to Festus, “This man could have been set free if he had not appealed to Caesar.” — Acts 26:28-32

I’ve included a fair whack of Bible already. But bear with me, I think it’s important. At the end of Acts, Paul has made it to Rome. In chains (or house arrest). He’s chained, but the Gospel is unhindered. That’s how Acts ends. In the heart of the empire. But Paul’s story doesn’t end there — it’s clear he’s getting closer and closer to his goal when he writes to the church in Philippi. The start and end of the letter reveal these interesting little details about the result of his chained (cruciform) ministry of foolishness (remember, he didn’t need to be under arrest, it’s his choice).

Now I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that what has happened to me has actually served to advance the gospel. 13 As a result, it has become clear throughout the whole palace guard and to everyone else that I am in chains for Christ. — Philippians 1:12-13

All God’s people here send you greetings, especially those who belong to Caesar’s household. — Philippians 4:22

At this stage I’m not disagreeing with anything McAlpine says. Just to sum up.

1. Exile is the paradigm for thinking about life in this world as Christians.

2. We should expect those who hold worldly power to oppose the Gospel (and when the Gospel seems to support worldly power we should probably ask questions about that).

3. Athens, where there’s a marketplace of ideas and everyone gets a hearing, is not the paradigm for life in exile (even if Athens wasn’t the fair marketplace for Christianity we sometimes assume simply because Paul was invited to speak at the adult’s table and he managed to convince them).

We’re not in Athens anymore (or were we ever?)

There is much to like in McAlpine’s pieces and they’re certainly a wake up call for people who might either not be operating as though we’re in exile (like those who would lobby parliament on the basis of “Judeo-Christian heritage” and the size of the “Christian constituency). But here’s where I think his analysis goes slightly off target. I’ve tried to cut bits out of this section of McAlpine’s post, but it’s all so useful…

“For all of the talk about exile, the language of Athens, and the need to find a voice in a culture of competing ideas, was far more prevalent than the language of the true city of exile, Babylon. We were exploring ways to deal with the culture being disinterested in us, not despising us.  I well remember myself saying “People are not walking past your church and saying, ‘If I never go to church, that’s the one I am never going to.’ No, they don’t see it at all.” That’s Athens talk, and assumes that if we can just show a point of connection to the culture then the conversation will flow and we will all get along.

I have changed my mind on this one. If the last five or six years are any indication, the culture (read: elite framework that drives the culture) is increasingly interested in bringing the church back into the public square. Yes, you heard that right. But not in order to hear it, but rather in order to flay it, expose its real and alleged abuses and to render it naked and shivering before a jeering crowd…

If the primary characteristic of Exile Stage One was supposed to be humility, the primary characteristic of Second Stage Exiles will have to be courage.   Courage does not mean bombastic pronouncements to the world, not at all.  It has to be much deeper than that.  It will mean, upon hearing the king’s command that no one can pray to any god save the king for thirty days, that we go into our rooms with the window open towards Jerusalem and defy that king even as our accusers hunt us down.  It means looking the king in his enraged face and saying, even in our God does not rescue us from the flames, we will not serve your gods or bow down to your statue of gold.  Unlike Athens, Babylon is not interested in trying to out-think us, merely overpower us. Apologetics and new ways of doing church don’t cut it in Babylon.  Only courage under fire will.”

I think his reading of the culture is about right. Although. As a quick aside. I think I’m slightly more optimistic that if we were to offer grace, and turn the other cheek to our opponents, if we were quicker to give other voices a place at the table with the adults, we might get treated with a bit more respect. What would the gay marriage debate look like if we’d recognised that change was coming and tried to lovingly facilitate it in a way that recognised the longings at the heart of what our gay neighbours were calling for, but sought to maintain our ability to see marriage between two different people — male and female — as a reflection of the Gospel. What if we’d joined together to ask the Government to get out of defining marriage altogether, adopting what Michael Bird once called an approach developed via an “ecclesiology of exile”? I wonder if it’s too late to try to participate well in exile, as exiles who seek the welfare of our city, living good lives in our cities, and gaining a hearing on that basis… But anyway. Let’s assume the hostile exilic reality is right. Because it certainly is in some parts, and there’s certainly something prophetic about McAlpine’s warning.

I think he’s read the culture right, but I think his Biblical answer is incomplete (unless he’s using Babylon in the metaphorical sense the New Testament does — but his examples are too specific to the Old Testament for me to think this is what’s happening).

Rome, not Babylon (or Athens)

The reality now isn’t Athens. It isn’t Babylon. We’re in Rome.

We’re living in the world that killed our king. Jesus. And given the chance, this world we live in would do it again.

We’re in Rome.

The model isn’t Daniel. It’s Jesus. Daniel anticipates Jesus. We need to be prepared to be nailed to a Cross — probably metaphorically — and we need to be prepared to do that because we love our world, and our neighbours, even as it (and they) treats us as the enemy.

Briefly, on the exile as a model for interactions with the world — I think the Old Testament exile, and the exilic texts of the Old Testament like Daniel, anticipate the real exile. Throughout the Biblical story .those who aren’t finding their citizenship in God, but in the broken world, are hostile to God, and to his people. We’re exiles in our own home, because the world still does belong to God. The wicked tenants of Jesus’ parabolic vineyard, who killed the owner’s son, want to kill everyone who belongs to the owner. In a sense, the exilic motif begins with humanity being booted out of God’s presence in Genesis 3 and only ends in the coming of the New Creation (and there’s a taste of what’s to come in the Old Testament through the Tabernacle and the Temple, and in the New Testament in the coming of Jesus, and the gift of the Holy Spirit to the Church).

I think John makes this point in Revelation, where Babylon is used as a metaphor for this godless empire that is slaughtering God’s people, the church. Babylon in the Old Testament is a shadow. It’s a tiny fish, Rome is a shark.

Revelation talks about what it will look like for the faithful church to be a faithful witness to Jesus in a hostile world. The world that killed him. Get beyond the apocalyptic weirdness of some of the imagery in Revelation and this is the stark picture of exilic reality for the Church — in Rome, not Bablyon, following Jesus, not Daniel (though imitating Daniel, and Paul, as they imitate Christ, before and after the event of the Cross). There’s enough out there identifying Babylon in Revelation with Rome that I don’t feel like I need to defend or spell out this idea here… but I think this passage makes it clear enough given the way John himself depicts Jesus’ trial as being the coming together of Jerusalem (in a terrible act of betrayal), with Rome (in an horrific act of self-preservation at the expense of the rightful king of the world).

The two prophets in this passage from Revelation are the two faithful “lampstands”— which the start of John’s apocalyptic letter tells us are the Churches. The body of Christ. His representatives in the world. This is talking about what will happen to the faithful church in this messed up, hostile, world.

Now when they have finished their testimony, the beast that comes up from the Abyss will attack them, and overpower and kill them. Their bodies will lie in the public square of the great city—which is figuratively called Sodom and Egypt—where also their Lord was crucified. For three and a half days some from every people, tribe, language and nation will gaze on their bodies and refuse them burial. 10 The inhabitants of the earth will gloat over them and will celebrate by sending each other gifts, because these two prophets had tormented those who live on the earth.

11 But after the three and a half days the breath of life from God entered them, and they stood on their feet, and terror struck those who saw them. 12 Then they heard a loud voice from heaven saying to them, “Come up here.” And they went up to heaven in a cloud, while their enemies looked on. — Revelation 11:7-12

This should be our expectation when we enter the public square, no matter how culturally engaged we are, no matter how well we point people away from their idols and towards the living God. We should expect to be crucified. Cruciformity — a blend of courage and humility — is what will be required, and we should expect success to be from the margins, for the sake of the marginalised, even as we try to take the Gospel to the centre of the empire.