The tide has turned.
Or so many now think. Times have changed. Christians are feeling the pinch on the exercise of freedom, the redefinition of marriage, the challenge of bioethics, the nature of family, the growth of Islam. It’s too much of a stretch to say we’re facing outright persecution, especially of a kind suffered by many around the world. But today’s culture seems more alien to Christianity than it used to be, and many of us sense the need to prepare for a period of increasing marginalisation in society.
What does following Jesus look like in such a context? How should we relate to the culture in which we find ourselves?
Possible options are fortification (hunker down and wait for Jesus to come back), domination (take the world for Jesus), or accommodation (give in and blend in). An alternative which has commended itself to many is what sociologist James Davison Hunter has called ‘faithful presence’. The model here is Jeremiah 29 – the prophet’s letter to the Judean exiles in Babylon, living in a very different culture from their true home, yet called on to seek its welfare.
Living in Exile?
It’s easy to overdo ‘exile’ language, particularly when it becomes a way of talking about the decline of society away from Christian mores. It can make us sound more beleaguered than we really are and cause us to forget the relative freedoms we still enjoy.
Still, although the time and situation are very different, Peter applies exilic language to his Christian readers spread across northern Turkey, who are both ‘God’s elect’ and ‘exiles scattered’ (1 Peter 1:1), called to live ‘as foreigners here in reverent fear’ (1:17). That’s in keeping with descriptions of disciples elsewhere as ‘not of the world’, though ‘sent… into the world’ (John 17:14-18), as those whose ‘citizenship is in heaven’ (Philippians 3:20), who, like Abraham, are ‘foreigners and strangers on earth… longing for a better country – a heavenly one’ (Hebrews 11:13-16).
Even given the differences between us and the 6th century bc exiles, the metaphor describes something of our status in relation to the world. As just one way of understanding our identity, the image suggests we are ‘resident aliens’ in whatever culture we inhabit. The links are thus strong enough to draw lines between the people of God then and now, allowing us to explore the implications of Jeremiah’s advice for us today.
Living with Purpose
Jeremiah urges them to establish themselves in Babylon. They still take their ultimate identity from Jerusalem – which remains their true home, and to which their descendants will one day return. Yet, through a combination of presence, productivity and prayer, something of that identity and hope is lived out in ‘foreign’ territory.
The very ordinariness of Jeremiah’s instructions in 29:5-6 may come as a surprise – ‘build… settle… plant… eat… marry… have sons and daughters… Increase in number’. It’s not too difficult to see echoes here of the original mandate given to humanity, the commission to cultivate his good creation (Genesis 1:28; 2:15). Here, in 6th-century Babylon is a reaffirmation of the significance of embodied, material, family, and social life, extended across generations.
How are ‘exiles’ to live? By carrying on doing what we have been called to do as those made in the image of God – to steward God’s good gifts to us, in relationship with others, in a way that represents his own gracious rule over all things.
We could still do this largely cut off from society around us, except that Jeremiah calls us to look outwards as well.
‘Seek the peace and prosperity of the city’, Jeremiah tells God’s people (29:7), where ‘peace and prosperity’ translate the single Hebrew word shalom, the wholeness and wellbeing that is a mark of God’s blessing.
The active seeking of shalom means that our ‘faithful presence’ is not a passive compliance with the status quo. We seek the welfare of the places we live through our everyday work, as we’re involved in doing business, manufacturing goods, providing services, teaching children, writing reports, designing software, mopping floors, stacking shelves, emptying bins, changing nappies – in different ways contributing to the broader welfare of society. It also involves being a neighbour to those around us – in our school, our university, our office, our canteen, our estate, our village, our town. It could involve becoming a school governor, joining a neighbourhood watch scheme, volunteering in a charity shop, getting involved in local politics.
It’s the same for Peter’s readers, neither abdicating from the culture nor attacking the culture nor absorbing into the culture, his direction for them is ‘to live… good lives among the pagans’ (2:12) – which he then applies to society, the workplace, and the home. It’s precisely in these arenas that his readers will be seen to follow a different pattern – the pattern of Christ, no less – where neighbours and colleagues and family members will be prompted to ask why they do so, even in the face of suffering.
Then there is one thing we can all do for the city: ‘Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper’ (29:7). This is perhaps the most revolutionary action of all. They were used to praying for the peace of Jerusalem (Psalm 122:6), but this was Babylon – pagan, idolatrous, God-defying Babylon! Again, here in the 6th century bc are echoes of Paul’s call to pray for those in authority (1 Timothy 2:1-2), and Jesus’ command to ‘love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you’ (Matthew 5:44).
Living in Hope
This being Babylon, there will be dangers – as the books of Daniel and Esther make all too clear. Daniel and his friends are known for their witness in the face of possible death; they bear the cost of being faithful to God. Even so, they do not retreat into a holy enclave. They remain faithful even while taking on pagan names, learning the language and literature of the Babylonians, and serving in the administration of the ‘enemy’. They serve the God of Zion, even while seeking the shalom of Babylon.
Resident aliens also live with an uneasy mixture of opposition and affirmation. Jesus warned his followers to expect persecution and that others would see their good deeds and glorify God (Matthew 5:10, 16). Peter also warns us to anticipate harassment, and yet to live in such a way that people will see our ‘good deeds and glorify God’ (1 Peter 2:12).
Through it all we live in hope. Jeremiah promises that God would end the exile and restore them to Jerusalem (29:10-14). For us too, we actively pursue shalom in our everyday spheres, even as we continue to pray ‘Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven’, confident that God will one day bring about the restoration of all things. Now as then, living with purpose in exile is a way of affirming that the world is in safe hands, as we set our ‘hope on the grace to be brought to [us] when Jesus Christ is revealed at his coming’ (1 Peter 1:13).
For the Life of the World: Letters to the Exiles (Acton Institute, 2015). A brilliantly-conceived, beautifully-filmed series of seven short films on how to live out our salvation ‘for the life of the world’.
Lee Beach, The Church in Exile: Living in Hope After Christendom (IVP, 2015). An overview of the theme of exile in the Bible and its implications for the holiness and mission of the church.
Greg Forster, Joy for the World: How Christianity Lost Its Cultural Influence and Can Begin Rebuilding It (Crossway, 2014). Looks at how Christians can bring the joy that comes through the gospel to bear on every dimension of life.