There has been a lot written on the theme of the so-called exile that Christians are experiencing in the West as a result of the demise of Christendom. The argument goes something like this, Christians are no longer at the centre of society but instead they are on the margins. Gone are the days when Christians and the church could expect to be in a privileged position in the eyes of secular institutions and be given rights or inroads into broader society. In the same way that Israel was sent into exile by God, we have been sent into exile by our culture as it finds the church unnecessary and irrelevant to its day to day existence. Two great books on this theme are Michael Frost’s Exiles: Living Missionally in a Post-Christian Culture  and more recently, The Church in Exile: Living in Hope After Christendom by Lee Beach .
Many Christians like myself have used this image of exile as a tool to help us navigate the uncertain waters of our liminality in the West. Personally, instead of finding the image a negative one, as a few of my peers have, I have found it a source of comfort. It is in humble exile that God purifies us, draws near to us if we let him and speaks to us about the hope of the good things that are to come.
Anyway, why do Christians need to be at the centre? Were we not always a movement born from and nestled in the margins? However, the key idea here is how the church responds to our culture from its place of exile.
So I was interested in a recent article around this topic on The Gospel Coalition website by Australian Steve McAlpine. The article essentially says that not only has the church in Australia entered into exile but it has now hit a ‘second phase’. The first phase was characterised by our culture merely ignoring the church but the second phase is distinct because our culture has declared war on the church.
In short, it is a blood bath which the author describes with plenty of militaristic, fighting images and language. Moreover in the first phase, the church’s main posture is one of humility as it comes to terms with being ignored but in the second phase the posture needed by the church is courage. The author summarises that these are not days for ‘Jesus is my homeboy’ theology but rather a robust language and theology is needed as we contend for the faith.
Even though I have a few concerns about the article, it is a reflection that I think helps us as Christians think through in an even further and deeper way about this metaphor of exile.
I do however some questions that come to mind stemming from this article. Has the church in fact entered into a second phase of exile? And even if the church has entered into a second phase of exile and it is characterised by some of the qualities and descriptions that we read in this author’s article, then what is to be our response? Is warfare an appropriate metaphor for this season? I think some responses are worth considering.
Firstly, our response needs to be humility, a listening ear and a readiness to apologise, alongside an attitude of courage. I was speaking with a friend recently who has connections with people working on the Royal Commission into child sexual abuse and my friend was commenting on the continuing defensive posture of some sections of the Church as it is investigated. Phrases which more or less convey the sense of; ‘We are trying you know’, ‘It’s not all that bad’, ‘We did our best at the time’ and ‘Others were much worse’, are still being heard. What I find disturbing about these comments is not only the lack of acknowledgment of guilt and shame but most of all the lack of compassion and the absence of the word ‘sorry’. The church is certainly being punished at the moment in Australia but some of it is warranted and if that is the case, our first word needs to be ‘sorry’ and our posture must be one of compassion. We must not be overly defensive when we are legitimately critiqued and ridiculed in this season. This will certainly also require courage but with a good dose of humility.
Secondly, we need to identify and own our feelings of grief and anger lest they drive us to pick up weapons of war. Psalm 137 is a favourite psalm for those who connect with the image of exile. This is a song of the exiles as Israel sat by the rivers of Babylon and wept for their land. In it we can discern a few things. Primarily we see an attitude of grief as the Israelites lament the loss of their land. There is also a sense of wanting to return to the old ways , in other words, the way that life was like before the exile. Moreover, there is also an anger in the psalm towards those Babylonians who are tormenting them. This is a good psalm for us to think about in our exile today. Are some of our reactions to our culture based on a grief due to the loss of our status in society? Does the church react in regret and longing to return to the ways of Christendom when things were more stable? And are we reacting in anger or violence towards our tormentors today? We need to identify these feelings that might be driving us. In my opinion war images are not appropriate today in our exile. If the culture is ‘at war’ with us, then we will not pick up weapons of war but we will ‘fight’ with love, compassion, beauty and truth. As the Israelites were told by God to ‘pray for the city’ in which they were exiled, and to seek its peace and prosperity (Jeremiah 29:7), this is our posture also. We pray, we love, we always hope.
Thirdly, we need to recognise that not all of culture is against us but rather some are willing to work with us if we seek genuine relationship and understanding. When we keep in mind all of Scripture, we see that the ‘world’ is portrayed in a variety of ways. If we read John’s Gospel, for example, we see that the world does not come across very favourably in God’s eyes. Instead, it is a place of darkness which needed the penetration of the light of Christ so that salvation would come. This is true of course. However, if we look at other views of the world that are represented in Scripture, it is also a place that we can learn from because it is good, created by God and a gift to human beings. We most clearly see this in the book of Proverbs where the reader is encouraged to look at nature, human quirks and societal structures in order to understand God’s character and ways. We also see this clearly in the book of Philippians where the writer says that ‘Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable- if anything is excellent or praiseworthy- think about such things’. This refers various times to ‘whatever’ exists in the world. I am reminded about the conflicted relationship that Christians normally have with creation. Often we can see creation as a dark place to ‘go and do mission’ rather than realise that God’s Spirit is already at work there. We need to join with him and work with him on his mission already happening .
Some months ago theologian Miroslav Volf was on a panel on an Australian TV show called Q&A. If there is any forum in Australia where we Christians are regularly attacked for our beliefs it is here. The show is secular, popular, interactive with social media, sharp and often sets up the water cooler conversations for the next day at people’s workplaces. Yet Volf’s humble, winsome, relational, open manner caused even some of the most hard-line atheists to respect him. Even the prickly host seemed to warm to him. My point is that if we are in a season which is characterised by a public flagellation of the church, then even the most vehement proponents can be won over not by our defensive stance but by our genuine care and relationality. I stress that it needs to be genuine.
Lastly we need to ascertain if we are reacting to the continuing demise of Christendom or whether our faith is actually under threat. In my opinion, if we for instance react with hostility toward the government’s refusal to fund chaplains in schools, as is being debated in Australia, this is a reaction centred around the continuing ending of Christendom. However, if we react towards a culture which does not let us as Christians express our opinion on same- sex marriage for example, unless it coincides with the prevailing cultural view, then we can say our faith is under attack. The former in my opinion is not a legitimate rationale for hostility. The latter is a legitimate complaint since an opinion is being stifled in a democratic society. I think that discernment here is key. If like the Israelites in Babylon we are longing for the return of the way things were, while our anger and grief may be legitimate, we must recognise this new and different space that we are in now and discern God in that place. This does not mean we do not take action when needed, but it does call for a realistic and sobering perspective on the times we live in. In the West, Christians live in post- Christendom times.
There is much more to explore regarding this theme of exile, and I’m grateful for this article on a second phase in the experience of exile by the Western church which can hopefully precipitate further discussion.
What are your thoughts around this? How is the U.S climate different to what you read here?
[Photo: Madeleine Moulton]
(If you would like to read a follow up article by the author on this issue you can read it here http://stephenmcalpine.com/2015/06/01/athen-is-fencing-babylon-is-a-cage-fight/ )