In the midst of the turbulent times we are now facing in our nation, Americans are advocating any number of responses ranging from ordinary to outrageous: making peace with the status quo, walking away from public life in resignation, expressing outrage via social media flash mobbing, calling for revolutions, and urging anarchy.
These responses are wildly disparate from one another, and reflect the fact that many Americans feel that we are facing a level of social and political breakdown that is unprecedented in our lifetimes.
Evangelicals are no exception. Like other Americans, we sense that the social, cultural, and political “ground” beneath us is shifting to the disadvantage of Americans in general and evangelicals in particular. At once, we are experiencing the emerging dominance of the secular progressive agenda, an upsurge in public expressions of racism, an increase in calls for the restriction of religious liberty, the devolution of a political party we thought had our best interests in mind, and a number of other troubling developments.
As we seek to get our bearings, from whom should we take our cues? I suggest that we should not take our cues from the sweated rants of so many radio talk show hosts. Nor should we discern “true north” by watching in earnest the cynical calculated instigations of market-driven cable news networks who use real-time tracking and emotive metrics to rig the “news” in a way that plays to their core constituencies.
Instead, we should get our bearings from Christian Scripture. More to the point, we should reflect upon the words of the prophet Jeremiah as Israel was experiencing exile in Babylon. In Jeremiah 29:5–7, he says to Israel:
Build houses and dwell in them; plant gardens and eat their fruit. Take wives and beget sons and daughters; and take wives for your sons and give your daughters to husbands, so that they may bear sons and daughters—that you may be increased there, and not diminished. And seek the peace of the city where I have caused you to be carried away captive, and pray to the Lord for it; for in its peace you will have peace.
In this passage, Jeremiah does not call for revolution, though in some situations historically, revolutions have been justified. He does not call for anarchy, cultural accommodation, withdrawal, and other errant responses. Instead, he calls the Jews to serve the city of Babylon while still maintaining an identity separate from the city. The peace of Babylon, pagan though it may be, would mean peace for Israel as well.
I think there is an analogy between the Jews’ situation in Babylon and evangelical Christians’ situation in the United States. The situation is not the same, to be sure. The United States is not a thoroughly pagan nation in the way that Babylon was, and the church is not a nation in the way that Israel was.
Like Israel, however, we should see ourselves as “alien residents.” We are residents of this created world and of the nation we live in. God planted us here and we should serve our cities and countries. However, we are alien residents, in that we will not be truly at home in this world until Christ returns to renew and restore it, to purge it of sin and sin’s consequences. Our feet can be firmly planted on American soil, but our eyes will also be firmly fixed on the future kingdom.
This view of ourselves as alien residents, oddly enough, provides us with the only possible way to provide our society with a preview of Christ’s future reign of peace and justice. Because our lives are shaped primarily by the biblical narrative instead of the predominant cultural narrative of our day, Christians will always seem a little bit strange to society. The world, of course, is quick to assume that it is our Christianity that is off-kilter. But the biblical narrative reminds us that this fallen world is off-kilter and will remain so until Christ returns to set it aright.
C. S. Lewis depicts this interestingly in his magnificent space trilogy. His main character, Ransom, meets with creatures called “eldila,” something similar to angels. But whenever they appear—as beams of lights—they are slightly tilted, not quite at a right angle to the ground. Yet Ransom, in their presence, senses that it is not the eldila who are askew. It is rather the earth itself. They are upright; he is crooked.
It is the same with us. The biblical narrative may look tilted to those who are not Christians, but, if so, they have it backwards. It is, in fact, the only available portrayal of “upright,” the standard by which sin’s crookedness can be made straight and true. And as we seek to live according to the shape of Scripture, we provide a chance for our society to flourish, to regain some of that shalom that was lost when our first parents sinned.
When I meet the Lord one day, I will meet him first and foremost as a Christian. But I will also meet him as an American. Being an American is not the most important aspect of my identity, but it is an inescapable aspect and one for which I will give account. For that reason, I owe it to my nation to live an upright life in an off-kilter nation, that I may seek the peace of the city where God has caused me to be born, that I may pray to the Lord for it, for in its peace we will have peace.