The relationship between the people of God and the world which God has created is a lengthy and complex subject. Christians have had different ideas about how we should relate to this present world. It is not my intention here to even remotely seek to properly enter into that enormous discussion.
But a few quick points can be mentioned. God’s people have always been a pilgrim people. We are just a passin’ through, as the old hymn goes. We can never become too comfortable in this world, as we await a newer, better world.
But at the same time we are called to live out our faith in the world we find ourselves in. Thus there will always be a tension in the Christian life. On the one hand, we are “strangers in a strange land” as Moses says (Exodus 2:22). On the other, we are to be salt and light in the world we live in, as Jesus says (Matthew 5:13-16).
We are, in other words, in the world but not of it, as Jesus mentions in John 17:14-15. How this is all to be fleshed out is, as I say, a major point of debate, and different believers of course have had different takes on this issue. But I want to pick up on this theme where I left off in a recent post.
Just recently I wrote about the Babylonian captivity, and how Israel fared as a people in exile: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2009/07/05/by-the-rivers-of-babylon/
I wrote there about how the church today is also in a captivity of its own, but that our attitudes tend to be far different from those of most Jews in Babylon.
Here I want to complete the story of this captivity. One of the most incredible passages in Scripture concerning this period in Israel’s history is Jeremiah 29. It is a remarkable passage, given what Israel was going through. The Jews of course wanted to get back home as soon as possible, and certain prophets were telling them that this would happen very soon indeed.
But they were false prophets, not God’s prophets (vv. 8-9). Thus real prophets before and during the exile – like Jeremiah, Daniel and Ezekiel – had to tell Israel the truth. And that truth was that they were going to be in captivity for quite some time. Indeed, Jeremiah says it will be for seventy years (v.10). (This may well be a round number. But if we reckon from the defeat of the Assyrian Empire in 609 BC to the defeat of the Babylonian Empire in 539 BC, then it is indeed a seventy year period.)
Thus Jeremiah tells the Hebrew captives to think about settling down. He actually tells them to build houses, plant gardens and get married – all in pagan Babylon (vv. 4-6). And then most incredibly of all, he says this: “Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the LORD for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper” (v. 7).
Pray for those lousy pagans? Seek their welfare? This is incredible. Yet it was the word of Yahweh to those captive Hebrews. And it is also a word for us. You see, the truth is, we are always citizens of two kingdoms: the earthly and the heavenly. We exist in both, and have responsibilities to both.
Augustine could write his classic work, The City of God in which he speaks of the two cities that we find ourselves in. So he rightly recognised that we have dual citizenship. And of course he was being quite biblical in recognising this. The New Testament writers made it clear that the church is in a sense in the continuation of the Hebrew exile. We are also part of the dispersed people. In fact, in James 1:1 and 1 Peter 1:1 that very term, diaspora, is used.
As we await the New Jerusalem, we are still in Babylon. So how do we live in this cultural captivity? What is our response to be? How should we then live? (Ez. 33:10). Jer. 29:7 seems to be part of the answer. We are to seek the welfare of the places we find ourselves in, be it Australia, America, or wherever.
Thus the Christian’s task has never been one of simply trying to get individual souls into a wispy heaven. We have a very real task right now to seek to see God’s will realised on planet earth. In case you think this to be unbiblical, I remind you of the words of Jesus in his famous exemplary prayer: “your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10).
So the salt and light business which Jesus spoke about is not some optional extra. It is actually part of the Christian job description, and something which every single one of us is commanded to carry out. Again, this will take many different forms and expressions. And how we are best to carry out these functions will not always be clear or easily discerned.
But that is part of what we are called to be and do as Christians. Yes we are a pilgrim people, and yes this is a world contaminated by sin and rebellion. But it is also a world which God has made, and he will redeem it for his good purposes. Indeed, the new heaven and new earth, however we understand them, seem to be perhaps a continuation of the present ones.
Interestingly, a recent book has sought to make the same case. I only just received it in the mail, part of a package of books from Amazon. It just so happens that the last book penned by Richard John Neuhaus before his untimely death earlier this year deals with this very theme. It is called, American Babylon: Notes of a Christian Exile (Basic Books, 2009).
Neuhaus reminds us that “The People of God is a pilgrim people”. Thus, “For those whose primary allegiance is to the City of God, every foreign country is a homeland and every homeland a foreign country”. He concludes his book with these words:
“It is a time of many times: a time for dancing, even if to the songs of Zion in a foreign land; a time for walking together, unintimidated when we seem to be a small and beleaguered band; a time for rejoicing in momentary triumphs, and for defiance in momentary defeats; a time for persistence in reasoned argument, never tiring in proposing to the world a more excellent way; a time for generosity toward those who would make us their enemy; and, finally, a time for happy surrender to brother death—but not before, through our laughter and tears, we see and hail from afar the New Jerusalem and know that it is all time toward home.”
I like his sentiments. Indeed, he spent most of his life thinking and writing about these sorts of topics. His very famous and influential 1984 volume, The Naked Public Square sought to examine how believers should live in light of “the enforced privatisation of religion and religiously informed morality”.
In his new book he comments on the Jeremiah 29 passage: “The time away from their true home was a time of waiting, but not only of waiting. They were to be engaged in the tasks of that time and place. It could have been otherwise. It could have been a time consumed by bitterness, a place of unrelieved pining for what they had lost. . . . To seek the peace and welfare of Babylon is to seek improvement, and another word for improvement is ‘progress’. Devotion to progress is devotion to the common good, including the good of those citizens of Babylon who seek no other city.”
That is why the Christian church has always insisted that the proclamation of the gospel is to be accompanied by acts of kindness, mercy ministries and social betterment. Wherever Christian missionaries went, they set up hospitals, helped women and children, cared for the sick and needy, taught literacy, established schools, worked with prisoners, and so on.
They sought the welfare of the city, in other words. And that is our calling today. That in part is the rationale for this website. I want not just to see individual souls saved; I want to see society transformed by the grace of God. Now is not the time to sit back and bewail our condition.
Sure, we should grieve over the anaemic condition of the church. But we should also be up to our ears in business for the kingdom, and that includes seeking the welfare of the Babylon that we find ourselves in. We may be a pilgrim people, but we are also a people with a very real mission on this planet.