What Exile Looks Like

A few weeks ago, a reader of this blog asked,

Charles, what would exile look like today (or in the future). Can you sketch out what exile would (will?) look like?

I think I can, and I would like this to be my contribution (such as it is) to the conversation on The Benedict Option — the talk about what preserving the church from an age of “barbarism” might look like.

First, let me say this: I don’t like the term “Benedict Option.” I don’t like the term because, while it draws from church history — specifically from the centuries immediately following the collapse of the Roman state — it doesn’t draw enough (or at all) on the biblical story. It sees the situation the church is in as something potentially preventable (in the ways that the collapse of Roman civilization could have possibly been better managed), and thus the product of bad policies. It doesn’t diagnose the problem, the situation the church finds itself in, properly. It is, sadly, little surprise to me that the Benedict Option was concocted largely by Catholics more interested in the teaching and history of the church than the story of God’s people in scripture. Because the Bible isn’t so much a story of a people and their encounter with the divine, but the foundation for a series of moral and philosophical precepts.

Exile, however, draws upon a rich and deeply meaningful biblical story. It tells us who we are, who God is, and how to cope and have faith in the promises of our God in the midst of our inevitable and inescapable failure. It also helps we know how that story ends. So we do not need to to worry in the interim about our clear and apparent defeat. It is not a permanent thing. We know that our redeemer lives. And that we are redeemed.

GOD’S JUDGMENT ON GOD’S FAITHLESS PEOPLE

What follows is a sketch, and the product of roughly eight years of thinking about this on my part. This isn’t as systematic as I would like, nor as thoroughly researched. I don’t have all my i’s dotted and t’s crossed.

The most important thing to remember is that exile is the end result of God’s judgment upon Israel’s idolatry and faithlessness. Israel, through it’s worship and service of false, foreign gods, will suffer God’s brutal and violent judgment. This is laid out in Leviticus 26, Deuteronomy 28–30, again in the Song of Moses in Deuteronomy 32. In each of these, Israel’s future is laid out, blessings for Israel’s obedience and curses for Israel’s disobedience. In both Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28–30, the curses are far more detailed (war, death, destruction, deprivation, suffering, slavery, expulsion from the land), with Deuteronomy contained both/and language — that Israel will be both blessed and cursed but after all is done, Israel will be redeemed. This is not, as it first seems, an if/then set of promises. Rather, it is a forecast of the entirety of Israel’s coming future. Blessings AND curses, not blessings OR curses.

So, the coming judgment of God on Israel’s faithlessness cannot be escaped. And it will manifest itself in history as Israel is conquered, plundered and ruled by its enemies (Deut 28:45–51). It begins during the conquest of Canaan under Joshua and the period of the Judges as Israel refuses to fully drive out the Canaanites (whatever that might mean, anything from expulsion to extermination) and instead simply enslave them (Joshua 16:10). (Actually, God promised to do the work if Israel made the effort. Israel stopped trying after a bit.) The failure to expel or exterminate the Canaanites mean their presence in the land will be a constant distraction for Israel — including that of their gods (Judges 2:1–5). Thus, Israel falls into a pattern of serving Canaanite gods, יהוה gives Israel over to its enemies, and then after a time, יהוה hears Israel’s suffering and raises a redeemer to rescue Israel. This is the pattern for Israel’s history and ours — God gives, Israel eventually responds faithlessly, God imposes judgement and consequence, and then hears Israel’s groaning and redeems Israel, frequently violently judging those who were the very agents of God’s own violent judgment upon Israel.

This is the history that matters. And it is the only history that matters. Jesus altered how this works, bringing it to a final end, and I will get to that. But when we who are Christians look at history, we need to remember that this is the only history that contains any meaning. It is the only history that has any real moral value for us. Everything else might be a good story, but no other history truthfully tells us who we are, whose we are, what we are promised, or where we are going. If we fail to read the history of the church in light of this story — in light of the truth — then ST. Benedict doesn’t have much to tell us.

Eventually, after the united Kingdom of Israel collapses in rebellion and civil war, God adds a rejection of David and his patrimony — through which the promise of final redemption of Israel (and eventually the world) is made — to the things that will curse Israel. The northern kingdom, formed by the rebel Jeroboam, rejects David utterly (1 Kings 12:16), and goes its own ways, worshiping false gods in much the same way Israel did in the wilderness while Moses was atop the mountain engulfed by the Glory of the Lord. Kings of Israel and Judah were frequently faithless, sometimes faithful, and their conduct could determine the fate of the nation for a generation or two. Eventually, Israel succumbs to the Assyrians, and disappears from history.

7 And this occurred because the people of Israel had sinned against the Lord their God, who had brought them up out of the land of Egypt from under the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt, and had feared other gods 8 and walked in the customs of the nations whom the Lord drove out before the people of Israel, and in the customs that the kings of Israel had practiced. … 22 The people of Israel walked in all the sins that Jeroboam did. They did not depart from them, 23 until the Lord removed Israel out of his sight, as he had spoken by all his servants the prophets. So Israel was exiled from their own land to Assyria until this day. (2 Kings 17:7–9, 22–23 ESV)

Exile and annihilation are the direct consequence of Israel’s idolatry.

Judah eventually suffers this consequence at the hands of Babylon, a promise God swears for Judah despite the faithfulness of King Josiah, who cannot — despite his efforts — undo the faithlessness and idolatry of a previous king, Manasseh:

And the Lord said, “I will remove Judah also out of my sight, as I have removed Israel, and I will cast off this city that I have chosen, Jerusalem, and the house of which I said, My name shall be there.” (2 Kings 23:27 ESV)

2 Kings ends with the conquest and exile of Judah’s elites (the poor were allowed to remain to till the land) after Babylon successfully besieges, captures, loots, and destroys Jerusalem. It is this long war against Babylon that several of the prophets — particularly Jeremiah — address. And I will get to that in a bit.

Israel’s story is our story, the story of the church. If we are facing conquest and exile — and I believe we are — it is because we are dealing with the consequences of our idolatry. Nothing can be done to escape this.

What do I mean? Enlightenment and modernity are false gods, idols to which the church has committed itself to serve. I don’t mean just some portion of the Enlightenment or modernity — I mean the whole damn thing, from the nation-state to economics to the social sciences to progress to the sexual revolution. The church could no more accommodate modernity, or come to terms with it, than Israel could successfully defeat Assyria and Babylon. As church, we grew comfortable with our wealth and power in Christendom, and like Solomon, we modern Christians were careless and promiscuous in who we “married,” allowing and accepting false worship (of science, of moral progress, or reason — name your idol) of gods who could do nothing for us but demanded much bloody sacrifice on our part.

There is no saving the church. Not now. Babylon is at the gates, surrounding the city. Like Jeremiah told the people of Jerusalem, and as Jesus repeated, anyone with any sense will flee. Will surrender. Because there will be nothing left when the Babylonians are done with their siege. Resistance is futile.

Now, at this point, I need to say that this reading of our history is purely metaphorical. It’s a metaphor because I think history — in the sense I’ve outlined it here, as the story of God’s redeeming acts in history — came to an end with the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. There are no new redeeming acts to follow. Everything was accomplished on the cross and in the empty tomb. We await the promised new heaven and new earth, but in this long moment between the ascension and the parousia, nothing else can or will happen. No judge will redeem us. No king will rule us in justice and mercy. Human history is fun and interesting and effectively meaningless.

Nonetheless, I do believe the crushing forces of modernity and enlightenment on the church do represent God’s judgment upon a faithless and idolatrous church. We will, at some point, stand powerless before our conquerors, and we will be sent into exile. This is has been long coming, and there’s nothing we can do about it.

THE CHARACTER OF EXILE

This realization frees us, I think, from thinking we need to save ourselves. That somehow we can. There are several ways to approach what living in exile means, and I think all of them will and should work.

The first is contained in Jeremiah’s letter to the exiles in their Babylonian settlement of Tel Aviv in Jeremiah 29:

4 “Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: 5 Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. 6 Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. 7 But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” (Jeremiah 29:4–7 ESV)

This letter comes a response to false prophets who are predicting a quick return. That everything will soon be as it was. God, speaking through Jeremiah, says it will not. Do not live like a people waiting. Wait like a people living. Because even as an exiled people, God tells Israel:

11 For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope. 12 Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will hear you. 13 You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart. 14 I will be found by you, declares the Lord, and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, declares the Lord, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile. (Jeremiah 29:11–14 ESV)

Patience. In the meantime, live like this place of exile is your home.

This is not a small thing. When God calls upon exiled Israel to “seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you,” God is asking Israel to seek the welfare of the very people who have captured and enslaved Israel, who taunt and demand songs! (Psalm 137) Seek the welfare of your enemies, your conquerors, your captors, your tormentors. Not for their good (we are asking God to bless their conquerors, remember?), but for ours. And our posterity. Because our children may inherit our captivity, but their children (or some descendant of ours) will be redeemed. Will go home.

Then there is the call of Jonah. God sends him to Nineveh, the sprawling capital of Assyria, the enemy of conqueror of Israel, to preach doom. And Nineveh repents! (Nahum lays out the sins of Nineveh in great detail, and it is worth reading his small book.) It is possible that our enemies may hear sweet reason, may understand and take to heart the warning of God, and turn their lives around. Enough so that God will relent. Because God cares even about a corrupt and idolatrous modernity. So, there will be those called to speak words of judgment and impending doom to the modern world — it may be they will listen. (It is likely they will not, but we cannot simply take that for granted.)

Finally, and most intriguing for me, there are the examples of Elijah and Elisha, who as prophetic figures spend most of their time engaging the enemies of Israel rather than Israel itself. This shows me that we can be the faithful presence of God amidst our enemies — people at war with us — and yet still be grace to and for them.

In the call of Jeremiah to live ordinary lives, the preaching of Jonah and Nahum, and the deeds of Elija and Elisha, I see Jesus — we are called to be Jesus in the world. Not a kind, generous, compassionate world of friends, but a world in which we face murderous enemies bent on our destruction, enemies who have conquered us and torment us, enemies who do not share our faith or our understanding. We are not to be defensive, or combative (I know Catholics and Orthodox have Bible books that go beyond Daniel, Ezra, and Nehemiah, to show God present in Maccabean war of liberation against the Seleucids, but I’m not sure that understanding of our fate is all that helpful or hopeful, given that ends up with Roman occupation and the eventually destruction of Jerusalem), but rather hopeful, humble, and faithful. Our attempts to save ourselves through the deeds of our own hands end in failure and tears — our history shows us this. We are to wait upon the redemption of the Lord, knowing we already have both the reality and the assurance of redemption in Jesus Christ.

Toward that end, I see several characteristics of an exile church.

First, we are to lives intensely and intentionally relational lives with each other and with those around us. One of modernity’s great sins — a human failing that mass, industrial modernity amplifies a thousand-fold — is that human beings are mere things to be managed. Objects to be used and discarded. It is not to be so among us. We must be fully human and fully children of God to each other. This will be hard, and we will regularly fail. But in order for this to work, the structures we build must be small, places where we can purposefully engage each other as persons united in and by Christ. It may be we are going to create networks of small churches, communities, businesses — an easy thing to do in any age, but especially in ours. We won’t all like each other, and we won’t always get along. But it is important that we not treat each other or ourselves as things for pleasure or profit.

Which means we need to reclaim Christian friendship. And deal with the tyranny of the erotic that so defines our age by learning to properly restrain our passions. (Note: we will fail.) I think the fictive family that life in Christ creates — “Whoever does the will of God, he is my brother and sister and mother” — is the place to start with this. Conservative Christians have idealized and focused so much on the biological family that they cannot appreciate the tragic aspect of family life. The fictive family, created by (likely informal) adoption and acclamation, united in friendship and common love, becomes a place where the unwanted, the unloved, the abandoned can find a home and belonging.

Second, we are not to care about the political order of the world. Because our salvation and redemption does not lie in governing arrangements. Partisan politics in the United States has long been a dead end. I personally do not vote, and have not voted for years. I won’t recommend that, but I will suggest it. This does not mean we do not work with government, to seek protection for ourselves and our institutions, but we do so remembering that the city whose welfare we seek is the city of our conquerors, and we have little or no say in its governing arrangements. As Christians, we are free riders on the order of the world — we have no obligations as citizens even as we have obligations as Christians to love our neighbor. We are solely to be subjects of order, and not participants in crafting it. The realities of exile will make this easy and likely make it very clear.

Which means we are called, I believe, to live profoundly non-ideological lives. Ideologies are incomplete truths, and they tell us almost nothing worth knowing about the world. They can be useful — like the other tools of modernity and enlightenment — but they pretend to be truthful ways of explaining how the world does and should work. An exile church should be neither conservative nor liberal, progressive nor reactionary, in any meaningful sense. An exile church should have no partisan political attachments or desire a say in how political or social power is used. Rather, as followers of Jesus, it is our call to show the world there is another way to live, a way of life grounded in the truth of a God who sacrificed himself for us, rather than demanding we sacrifice for him.

Power is being taken from us. So, let us lay it down our own accord. And walk away from it.

Third (and I forgot this initially), we need to embrace liturgy and the unreasonable/irrational things our call imposes upon us. And proclaim them. Jesus was God, he died, and he rose from them dead. He will come again. Every claim we make in the Apostles Creed is an absurd faith statement, none of which can be supported by anything remotely resembling reason or evidence. Too many Christians, from argumentative Evangelicals to wanna-be Thomist Catholics believe our faith is rational and reasonable — in fact, Christianity is the definition of what is reasonable. It is not. Nothing we believe is reasonable. And we should revel in that fact.

As part of this, we need to stay grounded in the liturgy of the historic church — that practiced by the church catholic and apostolic. This way of worshiping is as old as the church, and the form keeps us linked to each other in space and time. When we celebrate the Lord’s Supper, time ceases to exist, we are one with Jesus and the disciples in the upper room, and one with the church triumphant. Again, nothing about this is reasonable, but everything about it is true. Liturgy is a drama and story telling that connects us to God and to each other, a truth we tell every week that forms us as a people who wait like we’re living. Our redeemer has come. And he will come again.

Finally, we live with hope, knowing that if Enlightenment and Modernity are God’s judgment upon a faithless and idolatrous church, then our descendants will be redeemed. Babylon fell to Persia (it was Persian soldiers bashing the infants of Babylon against rock!), which allowed Israel to return from exile and rebuild Jerusalem. Rome, which was God’s judgment on faithless Israel, fell to the church. (This, I have come to believe, is the promise of Revelation.) We have both the promise and the realization of redemption in Christ, and we can know faithfully that modernity, enlightenment and secularism will themselves be judged, and will fall. This is how our history works. Even if Christ brought an end to any meaning in secular history, we still have the story, and we still know that the history that matters is shaped that way.

Exile, as I envision it, means living purposefully in the world and with each other. It means living know we have a redeemer, a future, and hope. We plant trees, beget children, and love our neighbors and wish the best for our enemies knowing that what is really important all belongs to God.

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6 thoughts on “What Exile Looks Like

  1. A counter-balance to my general agreement: Even if Christians lay power down and walk away from it, sometimes it gets put back on them whether they want it or not.

    Esther, queen of the exile, has to involve herself in politics to save her people. She is not exactly Ms. Proactive, and needs a lot of persuading. Mordecai tells her in Ch 4: “For if you keep silent at this time, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another place, but you and your father’s house will perish. And who knows whether you have not come to the kingdom for such a time as this?” Sometimes we come to the [secular] kingdom for a reason.

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    1. That’s different. I believe, for example, that the church is *not* called to rule. But some individual Christians clearly are.

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  2. That’s a good way of putting it. The Church cannot rule, even if Christ is Lord. There was something from N. T. Wright recently calling for a kind of “theocracy”. I haven’t read it yet, so I can’t comment on details. But I had a realization a couple of years ago, that Wright, who has said many worthy things, when he occasionally says something that looks a bit batty, it comes from a basic assumption of his whole career, which is that the poor old Church of England still has a decisive role to play in British society.

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