Over the last several weeks I’ve tried to lay out a call to the church, and to leaders of the church, that would summon us to courage and clarity with regard to our role in the world of our time. I have drawn from Martin Luther’s model of “The Babylonian Captivity.” I have also drawn from the more biblical model of “living in exile.” I want to return to the idea of exile and develop it positively in terms of the opportunities that we have to live in faith, hope and love in the twenty-first century.
The biblical concept of exile is seen in the story of Israel in the Old Testament. But the model belongs to “us and our children” because Paul refers to the church as “the Israel of God” (Galatians 6:16), thus clearly connecting salvation/covenant history. Whether or not it was God’s intention (revealed plan) to create a church that was culturally at home in what we call Christendom is debatable. That such happened, and that we inherited the fruit of this marriage between church and state, or between the people of God (laos) and the surrounding secular culture (cultus), is beyond any doubt. By culture here I am not a naysayer or one opposed to developing culture at all. By culture I have in view the “integrated pattern of human knowledge, belief, and behavior that depends upon the capacity for learning and transmitting knowledge to succeeding generations.” All peoples and societies develop culture as much as a farmer cultivates his fields. Christian faith creates a culture, an alternative culture, a culture that is found inside the Christian community. The question is thus not overly complicated: “How does the church influence surrounding culture, especially when it finds itself in a state of exile within that culture?” This is where I believe we are today – in a state of cultural and spiritual exile with little or no enduring impact upon what happens around us. The church does not so much shape and impact the culture as the culture has shaped and impacted the church. But the church has also tried to change the culture through various means that have failed; e.g. political partisanship, powerful attempts to force change by law, creating sub-cultures that promote “Christian” values, etc.
I believe the place we should look, to find a paradigm for living in exile, is in the Old Testament prophetic writings. I begin with one of the most important texts in all the Bible for our careful meditation and application to our time, namely Isaiah 42:1–9:
Here is my servant, whom I uphold,
my chosen, in whom my soul delights;
I have put my spirit upon him;
he will bring forth justice to the nations.
He will not cry or lift up his voice,
or make it heard in the street;
a bruised reed he will not break,
and a dimly burning wick he will not quench;
he will faithfully bring forth justice.
He will not grow faint or be crushed
until he has established justice in the earth;
and the coastlands wait for his teaching.
Thus says God, the Lord,
who created the heavens and stretched them out,
who spread out the earth and what comes from it,
who gives breath to the people upon it
and spirit to those who walk in it:
I am the Lord, I have called you in righteousness,
I have taken you by the hand and kept you;
I have given you as a covenant to the people,
a light to the nations,
to open the eyes that are blind,
to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon,
from the prison those who sit in darkness.
I am the Lord, that is my name;
my glory I give to no other,
nor my praise to idols.
See, the former things have come to pass,
and new things I now declare;
before they spring forth,
I tell you of them (NRSV).
The “servant of the Lord” here is understood by most Christian commentators, and the themes taken up in the New Testament, to refer to the messiah, Jesus. It is to verse 6 that I wish to draw your attention for the moment. God says he has given us as “a covenant to the people, a light to the nations.”
Our role in culture is to be a “light” to those in darkness. I think most readers who are serious Christians are with me to this point. But here is where the paradigms break apart.
Many evangelical Protestants have a view of culture, and the city of man, that is filled with disgust. We tend to think of ourselves as righteous and the “world” (or unbelievers and their culture) as unrighteous, or dark. It is thus an “us vs. them” mindset that we bring to the culture. This is especially true when we talk about morals and manners. We bring the truth to those who reject it. This creates a polarizing effect and the church is thus seen as increasingly irrelevant to the life and nourishment of the culture.