“Exile is strangely compelling to think about but terrible to experience.” –Edward Said
The exile of ancient Israel was both phased and climactic, involving multiple failed rebellions against the Babylonian Empire. In 587 BCE the Babylonian king, Nebuchadnezzar, laid siege to the city of Jerusalem. The temple was destroyed, the city laid to waste, and a portion of the Jewish elite–including the king–were exiled to Babylon. Despair. Cries. Rage. Confusion. Psalm 137:1, an exilic psalm, states:
“By the waters of Babylon,
there we sat and wept,
when we remembered Zion.”
The Babylonian exile was a crisis for both the Jewish way of life and theology. Books like Jeremiah, Daniel, and Esther grapple with the “why did this happen?” and the “how do we now live?” of exile.
But now many American Christians see themselves in Israel’s exilic experience. Israelite history becomes a metaphor to describe American Christianity’s current state.
Carl Trueman wrote in First Things,
“We live in a time of exile. At least those of us who hold to traditional Christian beliefs.”
Mark Labberton said in Christianity Today that this exile is a gift:
“What do I mean by the ‘gift of exile’? Now that Christendom—the forms and structures of a Christianly-oriented culture—has fallen away, the church is having to ask itself, “Who are we? What are we really about? What defines us and distinguishes us?"
The appeal to exile doesn’t claim any military trauma—American Christians are not being chained and deported—but a cultural one. In most of these articles, this exilic state is seen as both something to lament and embrace. These authors suggest that similar to the Israelites, the American church needs to learn its exilic lessons.
However, there is a plasticity of the appeal to exile: electoral, institutional, individual, and emotional. Any form of cultural friction is marshaled as evidence of American Christianity’s growing exilic state. This is not to downplay what these articles identify, there is real dislocation occurring; losses that have thrown old habits out of line and created discomfort in the public square. But exile? If this is exile, then apparently the 114th Congress is bursting with Daniels of a sort.
The claim of exile is further complicated by the fact that mainline churches see different signs in the same cultural and political tealeaves. Instead of standing as evidence of exile, Obama’s presidency and the steady court victories for same-sex marriage are, for some, victories for the kingdom of God. While some admit to the complexity of claiming exile, this doesn’t seem to lead to a questioning of the term.
If American Christianity is experiencing exile, it is a cozy one. The loss of the easy alchemy of faith and electoral politics is not exile. The loss of a frictionless cultural existence is not exile. The ever-growing cultural catechesis of moralistic therapeutic deism is not exile. There is a danger to claiming exile where simple erosion exists. American Christianity has a lot to learn from the theology and practices of exile found in the Hebrew Scriptures, but that doesn’t mean we share in the experience.
At its root, this abuse of the theological vocabulary stems from a failure to understand where and what our “home” is. Part of this failure involves the lack of full engagement what different New Testament authors mean when they call Christians “exiles.” New Testament Christians are not exiles because they have lost some form of cultural power or normativity. Christians are eschatological exiles, those waiting for Christ to return, complete the work of redeeming all things, and establish the new heavens and new earth. They long for the promised Jerusalem, the home they have yet to experience.
The present invocation of exile lends a sanctifying word to the way things were within America. Yet there has been no exile, but merely a slow unveiling of what America actually is to American Christians. The Christian claim of exile nostalgically presumes the America of old was in some manner Jerusalem. This is a failure of memory, America is not and never was Jerusalem; it was and is Babylon. While the individuals and communities that created America might have intended to build a New Jerusalem, they built a sequel to Nebuchadnezzar’s city instead. What is claimed as exile is simply Babylon developing a new dynasty.
In 2013 Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, acknowledged the end of the Christian moral majority. This end is a gift. The pursuit and exercise of certain forms of power can act like a radioactive material, live amongst it too long and it causes mutations. The godsend is that American Christians are losing forms of power that consistently misdirected our ecclesial energies.
Failure to recognize our current home for what it is means American Christians will continue to cut ribbons on ruins, throw press conferences in dead languages—a never-ending misreading of what constitutes success or failure, what deserves lament, or serves as a faithful object of hope. Those who have failed to identify home will advocate for return or retreat, and American Christians must do neither.
Former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams says, “The hardest thing in the world…is to be where you are.” The how of our public life—being where we are—should look very old and oddly new for both Christian individuals and institutions.
In this current moment, the language of exile with its emphasis on a hostile culture can lead to the same problematic civic efforts that presuming Christianity’s normativity does, resisting the reality that our political life involves mutual dependency with those outside of ecclesial circles. Both “exile” and presumptions of normativity tempt us to forget, as Benjamin Myers states: “the church itself has no good except the common good.”
What does “being where you are” mean? It certainly requires that Christians engage in a principled pluralism, but more so, it leads to a peculiar pluralism. Institutionally, it should involve new forms of Christian unity, public and confusing works of inter-religious partnerships—acts of institutional friendship, where pursuit of common communal goods occurs through mutually dependent relationships.
It means ending the idea of “neighbor love” as a vague charitable largess, and understanding it as a mutual pursuit of justice. Currently, “being where you are” doesn’t require a restriction of the idea of worship and formation, but its expansion. Whether in the church, the street, or the office, each space provides an opportunity for faithful activity that is faithful worship.
Our home is not a specific cultural place or quantity of power, but a way of life.