Embracing Exile

This article was originally written in June 2019.

Unfairness–real or perceived–gives us no platform to respond in with unfairness, unkindness, and untruthfulness.  

It has been both fascinating and frustrating over the past 12 years or so, watching presidential elections and the commentary surrounding two Obama presidencies and this most recent Trump presidency.  During Obama’s first campaign I was surprised and discouraged by much of the commentary I heard coming from Christian circles—there was clearly fear and uncertainty at work, among other things.  What I have seen and heard since Trump became President, though, has gone completely off the rails. So much of this boils down a question of the connection between state (or empire) and the Christian community.  I shake my head and, at times, feeling great remorse at the way those who carry the name of Christ speak of, and act toward, those who do not share their priorities, worldview, and faith.

Just prior to writing this I was listening to an NBA podcast and the topic of Muslim players fasting during the NBA playoffs came up.  The guest spoke for more than 20 minutes about the intricate details of Muslim faith and the decision whether or not to fast during the basketball season.  While I found it interesting, I also thought to myself, “It would have been deemed inappropriate, at best, to have had a discussion about whether NBA players ought to play basketball on Sunday, or some other discussion that would have been labeled as “Christian.”  Is it fair?  No, it’s not.  But perceived unfairness gives us no platform to respond in with unfairness, unkindness, and untruthfulness.

I am growing more and more convinced that Christianity doesn’t work well—or at least as it should—when tied with the yellow-brick-road of power.  It’s like biscuits and gravy flavored ice cream; two things that should be put together.  Could it be in America that the church has no idea how to live and work and function apart from the power, favorable legislation, and wealth that it has enjoyed for so long?  It seems to me this may be the case

“Embracing exile is not a pause in the missional purpose of God’s people. Embracing exile may, in fact, be setting God’s people free to rediscover their true mission and the powerful reasons for their divine creation in the first place.”   

Daniels, Exile, Kindle location 1218

My biggest concern and question for the church in America today goes something like this—if our attempts to maintain some semblance of Christendom in our national power and legislative structures become our mission and purpose, do we only end up looking like the bullhorn brigade outside the Rose Bowl? 

Do these efforts please God, or do we do more damage than good to our witness?

Are we losing our saltiness and snuffing our these little lights of ours?

Is our primary purpose to uphold and defend the Kingdom of American and its perceived Christian roots and ideals, or is our mission to live out the “alternative way ” of the Kingdom of God in our world no matter what the political, social, and economic climate? 

No doubt, some have trouble distinguishing between the two Kingdoms, but Jesus was clear, “No one can serve two masters”  (Mat 6:24).

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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 K:  “I’m just trying to sin as little as possible before I can go to heaven.” This disposition, while on the surface could be seen as righteous, has damaging consequences on mission and witness when people begin to think, for example that there is no point in working if this will only get worse until it all burns.

You pointed out clearly how this affects eschatology, ecclesiology, and soteriology.  Each of these have a clear connection to the way we live in this world and the way the church carries out its mission.  Thank you for the clear reminder.

          My response to K:  Thank you, K, for this great response.  Like you, I appreciate the message of hope conveyed by Daniels that is appropriate for all believers in every place at all times, regardless of how we interpret the metaphor of “exile” used in this book. In Genesis we also see the reality of the human dilemma and, by extension, the reality of the church; that is, all the good that God created was changed drastically by this thing we call sin.  The perfect paradise of Eden was no longer.  The perfect Shalom between God and humanity, and between Adam and Eve (and by extension all humanity) was broken.  The world is not as it should be…and this is the world where we live and breath…this is the context of our lives. 

It’s not perfect.  It’s not right.  It’s not fair.  We are in exile from Eden, so to speak, and always have been.  But there is hope; a hope that cannot and will not be quenched.

          Follow-up reply from K :  I am amazed at how often in the last 10 months the story of Genesis has come to meet me in the study of his word.  As I have the opportunity to lead women’s ministries the word “believe” has been the pinnacle in planning and preparations.  It started with studying Genesis 3, Eve was presented the first question in scripture: “Did God really say?”  I believe that is the question the enemy used first and it has been his gaming question since. 

In this book, Embracing Exile, Daniels mentions the importance of imagination .  It can be used for our good or our harm.  When the enemy gets us to imagine that what God says isn’t really true then we are in trouble. Eve doubted and sin entered the world and every time we doubt what God really says we open up the opportunity for the gap (separation) of the broken humanity to pull us away from the path to which we are called.   

Women are so good about forgetting, or just not believing, what God really does say about them. Of course, it’s not just women who have this problem!  The enemy was able to get Eve’s imagination off track even in the “perfect paradise of Eden” that you mention.  Adam proved himself to be no better.  How much more is the struggle to not truly believe what God has said in our broken world that is not at all what it was designed to be.

Scripture

As the church, we ought to so immerse ourselves into God’s saving story in Acts 1-4 that we know “how to live authentically in ways that carry the great story forward.

The tradition folklore of the Asian country where I live is full of crazy, fantastic stories about gods and spirits and wars that somehow resulted in the thousands of islands that make up this nation.  If you ask people if these stories are historical realities—did they really happen?–they will answer clearly, “Of course not, they are legends.”  But if you ask them if the stories are true, they will answer, “Yes, of course,” and then explain clearly the deep foundational truths that are contained in the stories.  They are “untrue” stories that are chock full of truth that have been passed down generation after generation.

I once told a group of students that “God teaches people using ‘untrue’ stories,” and then paused, taking the opportunity to watch their faces.  “Are you saying the Bible isn’t true?” a student finally asked.  “Not at all,” I replied, “I believe the Bible to be both true and trustworthy, but we can also see clearly that Jesus taught deep and difficult truths by telling parables, stories that have no historical basis.  They aren’t true in the way that most people use that word today.”

I am convinced that the opening chapter of Genesis comes to the people of God in this pattern because they wanted their children to interpret the world God created through the three words of separation, filling, and blessing.

Daniels, Exile, Kindle Locations 398-399

I love it when Scripture comes alive and the truth behind the words is seen in a new and deeply meaningful way, far more meaningful than simply the face-value of words on paper.  My faith has been strengthened and deepened in recent years through a desire to find the truth of Scripture through the story being told.  I really appreciate how Daniels points out the metanarrative of separation, filling, and blessing that is found below the surface of the creation story in Genesis 1. The more I read Scripture, understand its context, and begin to better understand how ancient writers wrote and the tools they used to convey meaning, the more the Bible comes alive and the story of God, the story of Israel, the story of Christ, the story of the church, and our story that we are living out in the here and now take on new significance and weight. 

In cross-cultural ministry I am working with a young man who is trying to build relationships with non-Christian-background people.  Early on I told him to start by telling the Old Testament story of creation, but don’t go immediately to sin.  “Spend a little time in the goodness of creation,” I told him.  Having grown up in a typical evangelical church where “sharing the gospel” meant “talking about Jesus,” he wasn’t too sure why we would waste time in Genesis.  After meeting with one particular man with whom he had been sharing regularly, this young man came and shared with me how excited that man has been to read the first two chapters of Genesis.  I wanted Jonah to begin in Genesis 1 to give him an opportunity to talk about a personal, creative, loving God that created this world for a good purpose and plan.  What I hadn’t thought about it explicitly, before reading these chapters from Exile, was that this young friend of mine was also introducing a new story to his friend—new foundational understandings of God and our existence in this world.  And this happens whether or not we view Genesis as literal, historical reality.  It’s full of truth, regardless.

I can only answer the question “What am I to do?” if I can answer the prior question “Of what story or stories do I find myself a part?”

Alasdair MacIntyre

Of which story am I a part?  Daniels explains briefly some of the stories prevalent in the West—success, nation, humanist, to name three. Part of the transformative power of exile is that it forces us to re-center our story.  When the path to easy success is littered with obstacles, then what?  When nation is finally seen to not be the mirror image of the Kingdom that we wanted it to be, where do we turn? 

As the church, we ought to so immerse ourselves into God’s saving story in Acts 1-4 that we know “how to live authentically in ways that carry the great story forward.” What story am I telling with my life? What story is our church telling through it interactions with each other and the world? Where is balance between “becoming all things” (1 Cor 9:19-23) and remaining distinctively different?

 

For further reflection, please see:

Daniels, T. Scott  (2017-02-26). Embracing Exile: Living Faithfully as God’s Unique People in the World (Nazarene Publishing House. Kindle Edition).

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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 R:  ” I am nervous that although we can articulate who we are suppose to be in the world, we really have a hard time living into it. I believe we struggle with this because we miss empire. We miss the power. And the truth is we cannot chase after God and empire too.”

My response to R:  You nailed the crux of our human weakness on the head. We know intellectually what we should be doing; it’s fairly easy to put it into words and not all that hard to explain.  But actually doing it?  That’s the hard part.  Being part of the empire is rather easy…but easy makes lazy.  Life in the kingdom brings with it power and authority…but Jesus, himself, told us to go lower and empty ourselves.  Life in the kingdom comes with safety and security…but life in the kingdom is reflected in the question Susan posed to Mr Beaver–

Is Aslan quite safe?  I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion.”

”Safe?”  said Mr Beaver …”Who said anything about safe?  ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”

How is the church to live, move, and breath as as a church in exile?

The Church in Exile

Although exile is a prominent theme throughout the Old Testament, it has not generally been a lens through which the history of the church has been interpreted.  In his book Embracing Exile; Living Faithfully as God’s  Unique People in this World, T. Scott Daniels presents a thesis centered around the idea that the church, particularly the American, church, is in the process of being exiled.  Indeed, he argues, it has been for quite some time.  In this brief reflection I will argue that Daniels is correct—

the church is in a state of exile

—but not in exactly the same way as he envisions in his book. In recognizing the state of exile in which the church exists, there are both dangers and opportunities that must be recognized.

What is Exile?

Daniels explains from the beginning some of the ways in which the metaphor falls apart. These are important to recognize, but there is one additional aspect of this important metaphor that needs to be addressed.  Mainly, exile means that we have left one place—either by force or by choice—and now exist in another. 

The underlying implication is that the place left behind represents what should be, the place where all is right, and that the place of exile is less-than-ideal, the place where what should be is not.

In the same way, to understand that the the church in America is entering a period of exile has two basic implications.  First, that the cultural, political, and religious context of the past, and the way in which the church functioned in this context, was the ideal, the way things ought to be.  Second, the cultural, political, and religious context in which the church is feeling exiled is not ideal, not the way things ought to be.

Madeleine L’Engle wrote, in The Rock That is Higher: Story as Truth, that

…we are all strangers in a strange land, longing for home, but not quite knowing what or where home is. We glimpse it sometimes in our dreams, or as we turn a corner, and suddenly there is a strange, sweet familiarity that vanishes almost as soon as it comes.

The faithful people of God are in exile and always has been.  In Genesis, after God separates, fills, and blesses as described by Daniels in chapter two of Exile, sin enters through the disobedience of humanity.  The perfect paradise of Eden was no longer available. The perfect Shalom between God and humanity, and between Adam and Eve, was broken.  The world was no longer as it should have been, as it was created to be. This is the world in which we live.

Adam and Eve were exiled from the garden and into the less-than-ideal world where sin works to break all that was good.

Their exile is our exile. This is the world in which church exists today, as it always has—as a people of God in exile.

As Peter reminds us,

You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession”

1 Peter 2:9

Therefore, he continues,

I urge you, as foreigners and exiles, to abstain from sinful desire, which wage war against your soul.  Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they may accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.

1 Peter 2:10

Past generations were not more perfect or less broken by sin.  The exiled reality of the church was a truth then as it is now.  The difference now is that in the past the prominent and respected place of the church within the cultural, economic, and religious context of America made the reality of exile difficult to see. Comfortable people have a hard time seeing what it really happening all around them. Today, the clouds are clearing, the support systems are crumbling, and the plot of America’s cultural narrative is shifting. 

A new reality is dawning for the church and it feels uncomfortable and frightening…

…but it’s not the reality of exile that is new; rather, the reality of a Christian-friendly cultural milieu is rapidly fading into the past.

The dangers of exile

What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul?

Matthew 16:26

The first danger of exile is seen in the church that forfeits itself to the world in which it exists. I have raised my children outside of the American context, so Daniels words regarding the loss of identity make sense–

The book of Daniel recognizes that if the Judeans weren’t careful, at some point their children would cease to be Judeans living in exile in Babylon and would instead become Babylonians who attended the synagogue on occasion

Daniels, Exile, Kindle location 1078

In raising my children, I don’t want them to cease to have any sense of their American identity or their connection to their passport country–that cultural and national identity of their parents, grandparents, and home church.  In the same way,

…the church in exile must not lose sight of its home country—the kingdom of light of which God’s people are citizens. 

The cultural values of this kingdom define who we are, form the foundation of our faith, and inform our practices. We may not see it clearly yet, but the process of discipleship brings us to a deeper understanding of the values and ideals of our “home country” (the heavenly household of God). Yet, our day-to-day existence is lived out in a foreign kingdom of exile. 

For me, that foreign kingdom is my passport country of the United States. Your foreign kingdom might also be your passport country or some other earthly national identity that is most comfortable for you–your “home.” The closer we come to Christ, however, the greater our awareness of the foreignness of our earthly home, our “comfort place,” our God-given national identity.

Just as Jesus was a man very much shaped by his earthly geographic, cultural, economic, and religious context, so we are a product of the context of our particular corner of the globe.  To keep our home country (the new heaven and new earth promised in Scripture) always in sight takes no small amount of effort. As such,

…the first great danger of exile is that we begin to look more and more like the place of exile and less and less like Christ. 

In doing so the church is no longer separate from the world.  As a result, the church then loses its opportunity to fill and be filled by the Spirit and to be a blessing to the nations. In the world of missions this is known as syncretism, a melding together of spiritual truth with cultural and philosophical values to the point where they can no longer be distinguished one from the other.  As an American I was taught to carefully avoid syncretism in overseas ministry, but no one ever mentioned that my passport country, itself, may be one of the best of examples of near perfect syncretism in the world today!

A second danger lies on the opposite end of the spectrum; that is,

…while living in exile, the people of God fail to fill the earth with God’s glory while also failing to be a blessing to the nations,

…not because they identified too closely with world, but rather because they have separated themselves to the point of losing all meaningful impact and influence. N.T. Wright comments about the sort of “fortress mentality” in Surprised by Hope:

First, what is the ultimate Christian hope? Second, what hope is there for change, rescue, transformation, new possibilities within the world in the present?  As long as we see Christian hope in terms of “going to heaven,” of a salvation that is essentially away from this world, the two questions are bound to appear as unrelated.  If the Christian hope is for God’s new creation, for “new heavens and new earth,” and if that hope has already come to life in Jesus of Nazareth, then there is every reason to join the two questions together.  Christian hope is surprisingly different from what they had assumed and that this same hope offers a coherent and energizing basis for work in today’s world.  

In other words, the second danger of exile is that life in this world becomes meaningless; nothing more than separation and withdrawal from the world, in such a way that the life of the church has no meaningful impact or influence in the community. As a result the church loses its ability to be filled with Spirit and to be a blessing to the nations. 

Opportunities in Exile

The great opportunity in exile, from the perspective of Missio Dei (God’s mission and purpose for God’s people) can be seen clearly in the words of Jesus,

Let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven”

Matthew 15:16

While the church waits for its return to the home country, there is ample opportunity to bless the world in which we currently live.

In 1 Peter 2:11-12, Peter writes,

Be careful to live properly among your unbelieving neighbors. Then even if they accuse you of doing wrong, they will see your honorable behavior, and they will give honor to God when he judges the world.  

Not only is the church expected to “live properly” among the not-yet-believing community in which it exists, but to do so in a way that bring glory to God from the lips of unbelievers. 

The lives of those who are called the church bring glory to God while being appropriately different than the surrounding culture but yet actively and meaningfully engaged at the same time.

Paul, writing to the Colossians, states,

Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; making 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 2:5-6

Clearly, for Paul, the life of the church in the greater community was of great importance; particularly the way they communicated with outsiders.  The assumption for Paul is that the church will be engaged with the culture and community in which they exist, and in doing so have the opportunity to do good, speak grace, and be, as Jesus taught, the salt of the earth—

…a valuable, meaningful, preserving influence in the world.

Finally, in the fifth chapter of his letter to church in Colossae, Paul adds,

I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people—not at all meaning the people of this world who are immoral, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters. In that case you would have to leave this world. But now I am writing to you that you must not associate with anyone who claims to be a brother or sister but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or slanderer, a drunkard or swindler. Do not even eat with such people.”

Colossians 5:9-11 (italics mine)

For Paul, it is not the place of the church to build walls and isolate themselves from the surrounding culture and influence; rather, while living in the world the church must insure that its story remains clear, relevant, unwaveringly full of grace…and filled with love. 

Conclusion

The church has always been in exile—all is not as it should be, hope for return to the home country remains yet unfulfilled, and even in the best of cultural, economic, social, and religious contexts, the church has, is, and will continue to face dangers and uncertainties at every corner.  While the particular state of exile may differ from one village to the next, one nation to the next, or even one continent to the next, all face the same basic dangers–syncretism on one extreme and absolute irrelevance on the other. Each, as well, has within reach the same foundational opportunities–to be the wellspring of grace, hope, and life as they walk the way of Christ while inviting others on the journey.

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Bibiography

Daniels, T. Scott. Embracing Exile: Living Faithfully as God’s Unique People in the World.  Kansas City: Beacon Hill Press, 2017.

L’Engle, Madeleine.  The Rock That is Higher: Story as Truth.  Chicago: Shaw Books, 2002.

The Holy Bible, New International Version.  Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1984.

Wright, N.T.  Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church. New York: Harper Collins, 2008.