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Exile and Political Theology

In the beginning, everything was whole and pure. Out of his infinite self-possession, God diffused goodness into being, and created this cosmos with human beings at its apex, in a Garden for their first home. In the Garden human beings had everything they needed: food and land, each other, access to the gift of eternal life, and most importantly, fellowship with the Creator himself.

But we all know how the story goes. We listened to the serpent’s lies, and so found ourselves dispossessed of the good we once had. We corrupted our heart and our nature, and our impurity, being repulsive to God, fated the loss of his blessings. The fall of man took away ease in labour and childbearing, harmony in interpersonal relations, and brought in war with the serpent and his seed. Further, it cost us access to the Tree of Life, and ultimately to God himself. For the Garden was also a temple, and the temple was God’s home. To be excluded from his home was to be cast out from his presence.

Outside, in the wilderness east of Eden, we found the opposite of all those good things. We found murder, and we found death. We found sin crouching at the door of our heart as an enemy seeking to destroy us, and along with that sin Azazel, the spirit who presides over the realm of exile, the Adversary who wanders upon the face of the earth, seeking to persecute God’s people.

This world fell into deep corruption, until God could stand it no more, and called Noah to preserve humanity through great cataclysm. He obeyed, and preserved humanity, but even after the deluge, human nature had not changed, and human beings still had not returned to their original home. What they received instead was a mandate to maintain a basic level of decency and order in society by force if necessary. Along with this they received Adam’s vocation once again: to take dominion over the earth, and fill it with a human society reflective of God’s goodness and justice. Of course, with the fall of human nature this was no longer achievable in perfection, but a less than perfect approximation of God’s ideal was possible thanks to God’s ongoing grace, including the grace of civic justice.

Later, God confused and divided the nations to prevent another total corruption of the earth, and then out of one of those nations called Abram to be his vehicle of restoration to the world. Nevertheless, while God promised one day his descendants would return to a land with God’s presence in it, he never received that land. When the Lord brought Israel out of Egypt, he began to restore a semblance of the Edenic order in the Tabernacle. But even while, in a way, bringing Israel closer to that order, the Tent nevertheless did not bring them all the way back. It also reminded them that they were still east of Eden. Only one day a year could one human being return to God’s presence and to the life and light he gives, and only under specific circumstances, including bringing a shield of blood for himself. Whatever else that ceremony tells us, it reminds us that the deepest problem that caused humanity’s original exile had not been fixed.

This dwelling for God became more glorious under Solomon, but the same principle continued to apply. For the centuries in which Israel dwelled in its land, they were continually reminded that they were still ultimately in exile. They had still not really returned to their true home, the home that Adam once had, in God’s direct presence. Instead, they continued to dwell in the valley of death, in a world where human beings continued to sin against God and each other, and continued to face the fatal consequences.

When Israel’s sin became unbearable as humanity’s once had in the days of Noah, God removed even this small taste of his presence, and dispersed the descendants of Jacob into the nations. A little later he brought them back and rebuilt the temple, but the people recognized even then that they were still in exile from their true home.

Then God came to us as a human being, and opened the door back into paradise. But he didn’t do it all at once. He died and rose again in order to secure future blessing, but then he ascended into heaven and left us here on earth. We have still not returned to the state we once had, in the beginning. We do have his Spirit, and because of that we are renewed inwardly. Yet this renewal is not total; we also still struggle with the consequences of our fallenness, and the worldliness remaining in our minds. We all feel the drag toward sin; we all must still face death. And we all still have a common enemy, the spirit of the world who still wanders the earth, seeking to persecute God’s people.

And so we are still in exile; still seeking God’s face, and still waiting for the day when we will see him as our first father once did.

What does this mean for our vocation as Christians in this age, before the king finally restores us to, and even beyond, the blessings of our original state? Though we are sojourners, and still waiting for our true land and the fullness of God’s rule, there’s no reason that we cannot participate in that ancient Noahic call to maintain social order, even by force if necessary. The reasons for the use of force to maintain that order are still present: we still carry sin within us, and we are in danger of plunging into a war of all against all if we as a society allow it free rein. Further, because we are mortal, the potential consequences of doing evil remain as permanent as ever. Though a severe blessing, the maintenance of social order is indeed a blessing, a sign of God’s justice and goodness. It is not unfitting that those with the Spirit, with the renewed inner man directed toward the blessing of humanity, participate in bringing this good thing to others.

Given this biblical theology of exile, could there be a “Christian state”? It of course depends on what one means here.

No, if it means something like Israel was, or even wanted but never had, which is a land occupied by a people with God’s permanent presence and blessing. Christ remains bodily absent, in heaven, which has yet to descend to earth, and while his Spirit dwells within us, that is not the same as dwelling permanently in any geographic territory. Further, the continued presence of sin in the hearts of all human beings, of death, and of the great persecutor the Devil, ensures that the answer is “no” if one imagines a Christian state to be a realm where those things are not present.

But yes, if all one means is one or both of the following: (a) that the majority of inhabitants of a given politically defined territory have the Spirit dwelling in them, and/or (b) that professing Christians might rule such a territory, even perhaps where a majority of its inhabitants are not Christian in any way (as in the case of Constantine after his conversion, or an hypothetical non-Christian democratic society electing a Christian leader for reasons other than his faith). At least, there doesn’t seem to be a reason to rule these out as possibilities, given what we have said above.

Nevertheless, such a “Christian state” would still exist under the fundamental condition of exile relative to Adam’s original condition and the condition that Christ will establish at the end of all things. We still lack a permanent holy territory, we still must deal with sin in the hearts of every human being. Death continues to stalk us. And so does the devil. Indeed, the devil continues to seek to persecute the people of God, and continues to have access to human instruments for this purpose. Further, due to incomplete nature of sanctification, even those who have the Spirit dwelling in them can at times become instruments of the devil and live according to the principles of “the world”. Even truly regenerate Christians can give the devil a foothold in their lives. Thus those seeking to live a godly life even in a politically defined territory populated by a majority regenerate society will inevitably face persecution of one kind or another. The devil lives to do nothing else, and as long as he is free to do so, he will.

This means that in this age any “Christian state” will remain a distant reflection of the perfect home Christians truly seek. Christians are still mortal, and are still sinners. Even if a Calvinist doctrine of perseverance of the saints is true, there is no particular sin or social disorder that could not afflict such a polis (perhaps excluding the sin of final apostasy on the part of those truly regenerate). As C.S. Lewis once pointed out, what sanctification does is ensure someone will be better than they would have been as unregenerate, not better than some arbitrarily chosen imperfect level of holiness. Further, given that a hypothetical geographically defined polis with a majority of regenerate subjects will reproduce in the normal way, there’s no guarantee of a perpetually regenerate population in an officially Christian state. For there is no guarantee that the children of regenerate people will persevere to the end as regenerate, even if (hypothetically, according to a Lutheran or Wesleyan theology) the children have faith at one point.

Even the best of Christian states will ultimately only exist under a condition of exile, and those regenerate people living in it would still have to recognize their pilgrim condition. What they truly seek is not any relatively good but imperfect order; it is the heavenly Jerusalem itself they long for, come down to earth. They desire the end of the curse, and the permanent arrest of Satan’s persecution. They desire eternal life. They want to see God face to face. Until that day they will be restless, for they only have one true home, and they will suffer until they find it.

5 replies on “Exile and Political Theology”

A common fault Christians who use exile as an analogy have is that they reduce our relationship to the world to exile. Of course, the biblical example being used is that of the Babylonian exile.

But it should be apparent that other parts of the Bible should also be included to describe our relationship to the world. For though use of this exile helps us to live amongst nonChristians in the world, we should remember that those in exile had been immediately removed from the Promised Land where we have not. We are pilgrims in a foreign land waiting for entry into the Promised Land and so that also makes us somewhat like the Hebrews as they wandered the wilderness.

But we also have other imageries to consider. We need to choose between which Jesus Christ to imitate as we follow Him. After all, we have Christ who came as a suffering servant in His first coming and we have Christ who will bring judgment and entry into the final Promised Land in His second coming. Should we imitate Christ in only one of His comings and if so which one? Here, it is helpful to consider not just the charge Christ gave us in the Great Commission, we need to remember how he also told us to not to be like the Gentile who like to rule over others. And we need to remember how Jesus and Paul considered the world to be a place where Christians and nonChristians coexisted. We should also remember that the most severe form of Church discipline is that of excommunication–as opposed to death in the Old Testament.

And finally, we need to look at the horrible mistakes of the past when Christians did rule over a land. We need to remember Christian Europe’s anti-Semitism whose fruit is seen today in how Israel relates to its own Arab citizens as well as Palestinians and those of its neighbors. We should remember how Luther inspired and taught the Nazis how to relate to the Jews. We need to remember Calvin and Geneva as they persecuted and burned witches and heretics. We need to remember how, in a moment of self-flattery, early Christian settlers of this country helped ethnically cleanse the land of its indigenous people because they viewed themselves as the New Israel. And we should remember the intolerances early Christians showed each other.

Then we should note how Christian Europe engaged in such bloody religious wars along with how it established colonies and ruled over others they had no right to rule over. Though at the time it seemed like a good idea, Post Modernism, and its rejection of Pre Modern metanarratives, is reaction to past attempts at domination. Then we can look at the pendulum effect in this country over equality for homosexuals in this country. Whereas in the past, from a time when homosexuality was criminalized to the near present where gays were denied the right to marry those whom they choose, Christian rule equated calling homosexuality sin with stigmatizing and persecuting gays. And now that the pendulum has begun to swing the other way, we see that our past has made it more likely that we could become victims of persecution, revenge–in other words, our past rule has become a stumbling block for others.

So we must ask if there is any other acceptable Christian State to have other than having the majority of people in the state be believers? Or should we become like the Gentiles of Jesus’ day and rule over others? Here, which Christ we are called to imitate becomes a guide.

At the same time, we do need justice particularly for those who are vulnerable and the oppressed. Is it possible for us to pursue social justice without ruling over others? Does the answer to that question imply that we need to work and play well with others– with nonChristians? And if the answer to that question is yes, does that imply that we should repent of trying to pursue a state where Christians rule and, instead, pursue states where Christians become coworkers with nonChristians in maintain justice?

Mr. Day,

Thank you for your comments. You raise a number of separate issues, and I confess I can’t reply to all of them at this time, but in lieu of a proper reply, permit me to refer you to an old post by Peter Escalante:

I’ll note that I don’t think Jesus intended to teach pacifism or anarchism, as I’ve argued elsewhere. But I am also certain that Jesus did not intend his followers to oppress non-Christians; much the opposite. I concur with the vision expressed in the link above.

I appreciate the response. Of course, reading the link provided and Hart’s post was a bit much especially since I found the difference between NeoCalvinism and 2K to be forever floating between the well-defined and the nebulous depending on the political issue. Same-sex marriage, for example saw both NeoCalvinists and 2Kers in the same bed together in terms of their objections. If one draws a line representing the history of Christian attempts to influence/control society, one would start with Withdrawing from society on one end of the continuum to collaborating as equals with nonChristians to Christian Paternalism to Constantinianism to theonomy as its last stop, My sense is that 2kers and neocalvinsts would be at different points of the Christian Paternalism part of the continnum.

But yous guys favor neither and tend to be somewhere between Christian Paternalism and Constantinianism noting that the neocalvinist and 2kers I’ve been exposed to exhibit a stronger reaction against Constantinianism than yous guys do.

There are 2 points I would like to draw attention to. The first point is the definition of society as seen in the New Testament. That definition is best brought out in which the NT writers are talking about Church discipline (see Matthew 18 and Romans 5). That society is a place where the Church and those not in the Church are to coexist.

The second point is that those of us who have deep ties to an ideology are more prone to interpret the world by our definitions rather than by the facts on the ground. So when you write that you oppose Christians oppressing nonChristians, one has to ask what determines your definition of oppression. The more tied you are to ideology, and most of us theology students are, the more we will use our own definitions to determine if we have oppressed someone. The less tied to ideology we are, the more we rely on listening to testimonies of those who claim to be oppressed.

Finally, when Christians seek some kind of control over society be it through Christian Paternalism or a Christian state or theonomic rule, There must be attempts to justify the privilege of ruling either in part or completely. During the same-sex marriage controversy, 2Kers used a Biblical notion of natural law to claim the privilege of opposing same-sex marriage. I mention them because they are slow to admit that even they will push for a Christian Paternalism because such seems to contradict what they claim to believe in. Ah, such are the complexities of life.

While others appeal to the Bible for Christianity’s privilege, not right, to exercise control over the state, you use the history of ideas bandwagon as at least one of your grounds for a Christian state. The specific idea(s) you, at least your website did, paraded were the associations of freedom with Protestantism (see the article linked to in your response). Such carries the implication that without us, there is no freedom. And that is both deductively and inductively arrived at only the latter used a very small sample size in proving its case. The question becomes this: If we enlarged the sample size, would we come to the same conclusions?

But we have to come to grips with two realities before assuming our “rightful” place on the throne of the state. First, can we honestly say after surveying our own history and the history of every nonWestern societies that freedom came about only because of Christianity’s influence? And the kind of freedom I mean here is the kind that is recognized as freedom by every legitimate group within a society–including nonChristians. The second reality we have to come to grips with is Jesus’ prohibition against being like the Gentiles who liked to lord over people. How can a Christian state avoid doing according to the experiences of the majority of nonbelievers?

Mr. Day,

Thanks for your further reply. Unfortunately at this point I don’t have time to respond further, though you raise a lot of important issues that would merit further discussion. Thanks for your interaction!

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