Recently Q Ideas, the conference and TED-like Christian event, posted talks given by Rod Dreher, a conservative journalist for The American Conservative, and Russell Moore, the president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. The two talks are titled, “The Benedict Option” and “The Prophetic Minority.” These two titles represent a wave of Evangelical rhetoric flooding social media timelines and trending topics. Moore and Dreher are proponents of framing the current American Evangelical experience as an “exile.” In an op-ed publishing by The Washington Post, Moore closes his piece by saying, “We see that we are strangers and exiles in American culture. We are on the wrong side of history, just like we started. We should have been all along.”
That same day, Dreher published a piece in Time and on his blog hosted by The American Conservative saying Christians “are going to have to learn how to live as exiles in our own country. Voting Republican is not going to save us, nor will falling back on exhausted, impotent culture war strategies. It is time for the Benedict Option: learning how to resist, in community, in a culture that sees us orthodox Christians as enemies.”
Language that hints at marginalization or exile from a white male is tough to stomach in the 21st century. I recently heard the novelist Nick Hornby say he stopped writing white male protagonists in his latest book, Funny Girl, because, “I can’t figure out what their problems are anymore.” With a history of privilege, we lack humility and self-awareness when we buy into our own marginalization.We actually have no idea what that even means.
What is an Exile?
But perhaps on a deeper level, there is something sadly untrue about the marginalization rhetoric surfacing amidst the evangelical church. Maybe even deeper lies a misunderstanding of what the “exile” and the “sojourner” meant Biblically. Yes, Scripture (particularly in 1 Peter) identifies Christians as “sojourners” and “not of this world” with “citizenship in heaven.” But are events like the Supreme Court decision and losing culture wars what the Biblical authors had in mind when they used these terms?
My guess would be that if Paul were reading our history, he would not chalk up these moments as our identity as “exiles.” He would probably tell us this is life as a Christian. Jesus, Peter, Paul, and the early church never had anything go their way, nor did they have any hope in the political system to begin with because their beliefs were not predicated and assisted by a political system. It was based on an eternal kingdom that you could not see.
The exile language is Jewish language, belonging to the people of Israel first as a key identity piece that actually reminded them of their sin and disobedience to God (2 Kgs 17:7-23, Jer. 29:4). The word is used, depending on your translation, nearly 100 times in the Old Testament; it is used six times in the New Testament—only four of those times are they referring to Christians, half of which are found in Peter’s first letter.
Where Peter calls the Christians, “exiles” and “sojourners,” it is important to remember he was writing to the church in the Diaspora, or “the Dispersion,” which “originally described Jews or Jewish communities scattered throughout the world (see Isa 49:6; Psa 147:2; 2 Macc 1:27; John 7:35 and note).” This term—again, only used four times in the NT for Christians—is vague but refers to all believers everywhere who await the New Jerusalem as their final home. This is simply a spiritual term used for the broader family of God, which are those who claim Jesus as Lord and fall under the New Covenant. They are, like Israel, exiles in the spiritual sense, not the political.
We Were Always Exiles and Sojourners
Politically and nationally, I do not see evidence of how the culture wars have had an affect on the lives of most Christians everywhere. Yes, we are exiles who await the New Jerusalem, a time where Jesus returns to “make all things new.” Until then, we do, yes, wander the earth as people who are not fully home.
But as Americans we are quite well-off. Furthermore, as a white male pastor, I do not understand how we can apply this heavy word during a time of fantastic freedom and religious liberty. Every day of my life is—despite common suffering and troubles of life as a human being on earth—remarkably good and easy.
For the Christian in America, it seems absurd to claim marginalization politically or culturally. These arenas are still dominated by white men and offer a lot of freedom for Christians to practice worship and preach the gospel. Even though the political and cultural landscape is changing little has changed that will affect our ultimate and eternal mission as we await our new home.
We were wanderers and exiles 10 years ago, and 25 years ago, and 1,500 years ago. That is our spiritual identity and it always has been. As we see the waves of culture and politics go back and forth, we continue to serve the unseen kingdom—serving the poor, widow, and orphan, preaching the gospel, and remaining unstained by the world. That is what we have always done and that is what Christians will always do. Nothing has changed.
Chris Nye (@chrisnye) is a pastor and a writer living in Portland, Oregon with his wife, Ali. His first book will be published by Moody next year.