The other day on social media a friend dismissed the “exile trope” in American Christianity, noting how tired he was of it. I responded that this was above my pay grade, linking to a screen shot of 1 Peter 2:11, “Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul.” He called my response “disingenuous.” I don’t think it is, but I do think he has a point, depending on what sort of “exile” one is talking about.
Some, in the contemporary context, are speaking of “exile” as though this is a result of a narrative of cultural decline about contemporary America. Just as the Israelites were displaced from their land, forced to live among the Babylonians, Christians are “exiles” in “post-Christian America.” If this is what one means by “exile,” then I dissent.
This sort of exile narrative puts the church’s home in the wrong place—in a “Christian America” or at least a “moral America” that used to exist somewhere back there, in the 1770s or the 1950s or the 1980s. This sort of exile identity just continues the triumphalist rhetoric of the last generation, about “reclaiming America for Christ,” but with the addition of a gloomy “Those Were the Days” nostalgia.
That’s not the sort of exile we’ve been called to be.
The Scriptures call on all Christians everywhere to be “strangers and exiles” in whatever culture we inhabit. This doesn’t mean a lack of engagement. Exile didn’t mean that for Old Testament Israel (see Joseph in Egypt or Daniel in Babylon, for parts of their sojourns there). And it certainly doesn’t mean that for the church. Right after speaking of the church as exiles, Peter instructs the church on how to act among the Gentiles, how to respond to human institutions, including political institutions (1 Pet. 2:12-17).
The kind of exiles we are to be is not a bitter, resentful people, harkening back to better days, when we had more power and influence. We are to be instead those who know that the culture around us, whatever culture that is, is temporary. We are to pattern our lives not after nostalgia for the past but hope for the future. This means a discontent. We pray for the kingdom to come (Matt. 6:10). We groan with the creation around us for the end of the wreckage of the curse (Rom. 8:23).
The political and cultural climate of America does not make us exiles. It can, however, remind us that we are exiles and strangers, just as our ancestors were. American Christians can wake up from the hypnosis of an illusory “Christian America,” and learn to seek first the kingdom of God. We can stop counting on the culture to do pre-evangelism and moral catechesis.
This doesn’t mean a retreat to the catacombs, and it doesn’t mean returning to monasteries, real or metaphorical. We are gospel people, mission people, which means we must remain engaged with the mission field around us. But we engage in a different way, an older way, as those with a word from the future, from the only culture where we really belong.