“It would seem as though God’s people have almost always had to narrate their life through the lens of exile”

(T. Scott Daniels, Exile, Kindle location 180) 

Having lived for nearly 15 years in an Asian country where the Christian community is a significant minority, the idea of exile is a familiar one, though prior to reading T. Scott Daniel’s Exile I’m not sure I ever thought of it through the lens of exile.  In the context of the minority Christian community where I live, the reality of exile is the way things have always been and probably will be generations to come.  Modest increases in the demographic percentages of Christians nationwide, along with a general cultural religious tolerance, have made Christian communities fairly optimistic.  Even so, an underlying nervousness underlies the delicate political foundations of this nation as radical, hard-line non-Christian political leaders often receive strong support from somewhat small, but very loud, radical factions of the nation.

In the U.S., I see a very different form of exile, if it is appropriate to refer to this truly as exile.  Daniels writes that “many Christians are waking up to the reality that they are suddenly strangers in a strange time” (Exile, Kindle location 141).  The sense of exile I increasingly see and hear from my American friends has a very different feel than that of their Asian counterparts.  Here in U.S., the Christian community seems to be feeling the loss of something and so the reaction often takes the form of an aggressive “let’s get back what we had” mentality, especially as it relates to politics and changes in the American cultural landscape; perhaps even a “defeat the enemy invading our territory” kind of impulse. This has been demonstrated with great clarity over recent weeks of political debate and discourse leading up to a highly divisive presidential election.

Here in U.S., the Christian community seems to be feeling the loss of something and so the reaction often takes the form of a sometimes aggressive “let’s get back what we had” mentality…

The Asian world in which I live and work is a world to which I have grown accustomed and the world in which my children have been raised.  The American world is one in which many loved ones live, to which my children will return (much sooner than I’m prepared for), and to which I will certainly sometime return.  What sort of world will that be?  Will the American church continue to struggle against its cultural exile?  Or will exile be embraced and become a catalyst for unity in mission?

For my Asian friends what I fear most is that their view of God’s Kingdom and reign will remain small, characterized by a “waiting for the future eternal kingdom” that is disconnected from the here-and-now and easily manifested as a fortress mentality that builds walls between “us” and “them.” For my American friends and family, what I fear most is that the view of God’s Kingdom and reign remains tied political victories and maintenance of a cultural Christianity that replaces, for many, a more authentic expression of the church, and that when these things slowly begin slipping away—as seems to be happening—harsh words and actions said and done in the name of Christ will only serve to increase the distance between “us” and “them.”

For my American friends and family, what I fear most is that the view of God’s Kingdom and reign remains tied political victories and maintenance of a cultural Christianity that replaces, for many, a more authentic expression of the church…

Those are my fears.  My prayer and hope, however, is much the same as that expressed by Daniels, that “…when the people of God are in places of marginalization and need, they seem to allow the Spirit of God to dwell in them an empower them to live faithfully despite the challenges.”  If Daniels is right, then exile may well lead to transformation.  If that is the case there is reason to be hopeful, regardless of the results of any political battle, presidential election, or sense of cultural loss.

Our hope, ultimately, is not found in political system, leader, or legislation.

Our hope is in Christ…

Majority of minority.  Wealth or poverty.  Power or weakness.  Health of sickness.

Our hope is in Christ alone.

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This article was originally presented in a class and was responded to by other students.  I have reproduced a few of those responses below:

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Response from G:  Change in and of itself is hard and can bring about uneasiness and fear.  When that change comes creeping into something we hold sacred…then the fear is intensified and can take any number of forms.  

My reply to G:  I am not a pastor or a local church, but I see this fear constantly in the eyes of young people who sense that the church could and should be so much more than what they experience it to be, yet an older generation of leadership resists change and even sometimes seems to actively suppresses it.  

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Response from T:  I briefly touched on this above, but one thing that makes me nervous is seeing the church identify as an exile without giving allowance to hope or the restorative power that God has for His people. “

My reply to T:  This is an important observation, T, because it touches on what I see as a key difference between those who have lived as exiles (or as significant faith minorities) and those who have a sense that they are in the process of being exiled; that is, a realization or sense that they are in the process of losing something.  A significant difference is that of hope.  Those who have long been exiled look forward with hope, while those being exiled lament what they perceive is being lost.  My other thought, though not yet fully formed, is that perhaps exile is (at least part of) the way that restoration will come—not the restoration of a church buoyed by cultural norms and a basic Christian literacy; rather a restoration of what the church really is and it’s role in the world.

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Response from J:  God does his most transformative work when his people are in exile. God’s power and grace are manifested in times of exile not when his people are not in power.

My reply to J:  Similar to you, J, on a theoretical level (logically speaking) I can see what Daniel’s is saying here.  On the practical level, however, it’s not something most of us are ready to enthusiastically embrace.  I guess it is comforting to know that Israel also did not ask for exile or seek it out or embrace it when it came.  Yet, it was beneficial, albeit painfully at times.

Implicit in the quote above is an idea that when everything is easy and a general cultural worldview holds sway, God’s full power and grace cannot be manifested in the same way as when the people of God are powerless, marginalized, and defeated.  I think we can all give examples of times when “Christianity in power” had resulted in a less-than-Christlike witness, testimony, existence in the world; whereas the early church, for example, was virtually bankrupt of power yet became well-known for it’s love for each other.

These are challenging ideas, to be sure. 

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Response from R:  When I read your sentence about “true citizenship status” a brief though crossed my mind, something like this–what if tomorrow morning all of those who called themselves Christian were taken out of their context and then randomly reassigned to a Chrisitan life somewhere in the world.  For example, what if tomorrow I woke up as a Christian in a small village in Siberia while another Chrisitan from Africa suddenly woke up in my place.

What would each of us think?  Would the poor Asian Christian mother be happy in an affluent suburban church setting?  Would the successful pastor of a large church make it in a small South American village church?   What I mean is, how much of our experience is tied to our social, political, and economic realities.  And, if those were suddenly shuffled, how would it change our perspectives on the Kingdom of God and the church.  I have a “creeping sense” that the exile we dread may well be seen as a significant improvement if we were to trade places.

Response from R: Thanks for sharing, R.  Excellent thought!  I think your are right that in some ways our American “doomsday” fear may well be considered an improvement of circumstances for many of our global brothers and sisters.

  Just as you shared about  being an African American living in Idaho (culture shock!), far away from the familiar, I have also been through similar form of exile being among the few caucasian Christians in a region of the world dominated by darker skinned people (of various people groups) who claim a variety of religious backgrounds.  At first I definitely felt like I did not belong and longed to go home….now, I more and more feel like I belong here and less and less feel like I belong at home.  What I have realized, though, is that I really don’t fully belong anywhere.  

Children from one cultural background that grow up in a different cultural background are often called “Third-Culture Kids”– that describes my own children, but it also describes me.  Perhaps this is one way to look at exile, too.  We are somewhere in the middle.  Yet, if you ask me, I’ll tell you that the person I am today and whatever growth I have experienced over the several years are precisely due to the fact that I have been living in this “in-between” place, and I don’t think I would trade it for anything.