Exile Politics

In my last post, I put forward a suggestion that the church should view its role in society as a community in exile, a counterculture that serves the common good.  The foundational model for this sort of thinking is Jeremiah 29:4-7, where Jeremiah advises the Israelites taken into captivity in Babylon to

Build houses and live. Plant gardens and eat their produce.  Take wives and have sons and daughters. Take wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage so that they may bear sons and daughters. Multiply there; do not decrease. Seek the welfare of the city I have deported you to. Pray to the Lord on its behalf, for when it has prosperity, you will prosper.

The Israelites are not property owners.  When they maintain gardens, they are the sort of community gardens that exist in New York today.  A counterculture that serves the common good.

So what might the exile politics of the American church look like?

It must be said first that the primary social task of the church is not to make the world a better, safer place.  The primary task of the church is to be a community that lives under the lordship of Christ.  So, for example, the church’s first task isn’t to stop people from getting divorces, but to model for the world what faithfulness in a marriage might look like.  The church’s first task is not to rid the world of violence, but to be a community so shaped that it does not require violence to settle its disputes.

But granted that the first task of the church is to live in the reign of Christ, how does this qualify the ways we serve the common good?  Obviously, there is no broad articulation, but let’s look at four particular acts.

Voting – Should Christians vote?  Perhaps.  To many the answer is self-evidently yes, which reflects the degree to which voting is instilled into us through nationalized schooling as the solution to every problem.  But there are clear dangers to the church in seeing voting this way.  We all know that we are not really choosing when we vote, but only struggling to keep out of power the “more objectionable of two competing oligarchies,” as Mennonite John Howard Yoder has put it.  This is why Catholic ethicist Alisdair MacIntyre proclaims that

When offered a choice between two politically intolerable alternatives, it is important to choose neither. And when that choice is presented in rival arguments and debates that exclude from public consideration any other set of possibilities, it becomes a duty to withdraw from those arguments and debates, so as to resist the imposition of this false choice by those who have arrogated to themselves the power of framing the alternatives.  (src)

Perhaps Christians should vote.  Perhaps there will be times and places (particularly on the local level) where voting is a meaningful contribution to the common good and doesn’t violate faith or conscience.  But by no means is voting a responsibility that Christians need to feel compelled to do, nor is it a particularly Christian contribution.

Holding Public Office – If Christians can vote for those in public office, is it fair to say that Christians should hold public office?  Despite my Anabaptist heritage, I am inclined to say perhaps.  In some cases, Christians can hold public office, but only if two qualifications are met.  The first, which was brilliantly suggested by D. Stephen Long, is that we can hold public office only if we are willing to tell the truth.  Good luck getting elected by telling the truth, but there you have it.  What is more, we have to tell the truth that our ultimate allegiance is not to constituents or even to the nation, but to the Kingdom of God.  This is exactly opposite the stance taken by John F Kennedy or Mitt Romney, who both made speeches saying, in effect, that being a Christian would make no difference to the way they govern.  That is a good way to get elected, but it is a specifically unchristian way.

Military service – When you enter the military, you are no longer your own.  You do not make your own decisions, you do not decide when it is right or wrong to engage in this or that military action.  At times you will be given commands that are legal but that conflict with the way Christ modeled and called you to.  Regardless of any given stance toward violence or military action generally, Christians have to see that military service is inherently problematic.  The church in exile does not exist to prop up this or that nation-state.

The Pledge of Allegiance – The church in exile is in the same position as any ambassador from a foreign nation.  We can stand when the Pledge is being said, out of respect for cultural values, but our allegiance is not to this nation, or any nation, but to Christ and his Kingdom.

So what is our political responsibility toward whatever nation we find ourselves in?  First, we follow just laws.  We pray for our leaders and for the prosperity of our society, from top to bottom.  We work with all people of good will, not only those we primarily agree with, toward ends that are good for everyone.  We do not presume that there is a correct way to work out every problem, and realize that good people will see different solutions to the same problems.  Most importantly, we love those we disagree with, those who work against us, and those we are working for in concrete ways.

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