Thursday, August 30, 2012

Politics of Exile

It is that time again when the matters of politics are found in nearly every headline and news broadcast. In addition to the national political stage, many of you are also aware that we have had some passionate discussions in our local politics right here in our own town, one particular discussion which I have participated in myself.  All of this has caused me to give renewed thought to a topic to which I often find myself returning: the relationship between faith and politics. 

At the same time I've been doing quite a bit of studying in 1 Peter.  In the opening line of this epistle, Peter addresses the churches of Asia Minor as "elect exiles" or "chosen sojourners."  In other words, Peter is telling these churches that they are a people who have been chosen by God but also a people who live in exile.  That is, even though (and, in some ways, because) they are a people redeemed by God they are also strangers, resident aliens, sojourners, foreigners, immigrants in this world.  In the very first verse of his epistle, Peter defines these Christians as outsiders and throughout the letter he reminds them that life as a follower of Christ will mean living as an outsider. 

I find this to be a striking image as we consider the ways Christians often interact with the politics of our own nation today. It seems to me that our approach to politics is usually to yell louder or out-vote everyone else. We are told it is our obligation as followers of Christ to "take a stand" and "defend our rights." Christians typically still are some kind of majority in many parts of the country so it seems we often assume that as long as we can garner more voices on our side of the issue than the other side then we ought to have the law in our favor.  The truth is that as American Christians we have actually become accustomed to being insiders, a people of power and influence.  The language of being an exile or outsider often seems to be a foreign idea to us. 

I am not suggesting that 1 Peter is an instruction booklet on the proper political actions of 21st century American Christians. After all, Peter was writing to a people who had little or no power to participate in the politics of their day whereas we live in a democratic republic which provides us the civic right and responsibility of participating in our own government, a reality for which I am truly grateful.  But I believe Peter was telling us something about what it means to be the Church in relation to the culture around us. By calling us exiles and aliens, Peter was reminding us of exactly where we stand in this world; not in the centers of power and influence but with the marginalized and alien. 

I am all for Christians fully participating in the political process of our nation.  I think it is great that so many Christians go to great lengths to be informed about important issues in our government and that many even hold office. All I am suggesting here is that even when we are the majority, even when we are the ones holding a powerful office, that does not erase our God-given identity as exiles in this world.  It is especially in those times where we find ourselves "in power" that we need to take extra care to step back and evaluate whether we are exercising the power we have as would Christ, who emptied himself of all power and took on the nature of a servant (Phil 2:5-11). I am convinced that as the people of God the way we go about engaging in politics is actually much more important than winning the debate.  I believe that a truly Christ-like politic will often have less to do with taking a stand and more to do with taking a seat at a table with those we disagree with most.  

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