It was a beautiful hike up the mountain. My wife and I were in Canmore for a retreat, and we had just enough time for a late afternoon hike. We’d fallen in love with the colour pallette of the Rockies in the autumn, which is very different from home in Quebec.
The terrain was relatively easy and the route well marked. But coming down, the trail became unfamiliar and we struggled to get good footing in the only casual shoes we brought with us. Suddenly we realized that we were off the trail and had to backtrack. Finally we found some other hikers who assured us of the best way down.
Life can be like that—the trip up the mountain exhilarating and rewarding, but the trip down exhausting and often disorienting. After all, it’s easy to set your bearings to the top of a mountain, but much harder to find a parking lot hidden in the canopy of the trees.
When we turn the pages of Scripture, we find God’s people in times of orientation and disorientation too. On some pages, we see mountaintop experiences, times of exodus out of slavery. On other pages, we read of valleys and desperate captivity. In both, in exodus and in exile, God leads his people to live faithfully in their circumstances.
At the Center of Tension, Not the Center of Power
There is general consensus today that we live in a post-Christian North America. For some, this is experienced as a greater resistance, unpopularity, and disfavour aimed at Christians. Others see it as moving past institutional forms of Christianity and as a response to their misuse of power and influence. It seems that our experience in Canada today is shaped more by exile than by exodus.
In North America, and in much of Europe, a majority of people still self-identify as Christians, yet only a minority of people would say they are practicing believers. Our history, our culture and much of our ethics are rooted in our Christian heritage in Canada. Particular beliefs and practices, however, are as lost or abandoned as the many empty religious edifices that dot our neighbourhoods.
I frequently meet people in Montreal who seem to have ‘inherited’ Christianity. Their parents or grandparents were Catholic, Anglican, or a part of the United Church. Some were baptised and confirmed in the Church. And while Christianity remains a facet of many Canadians’ stories, it ceases to define the type of person someone is, or the way they decide to live their lives.
The Church today is less understood and it no longer enjoys a role in establishing boundaries or definitions.
Once closer to the centre of Canadian life and society, it now inhabits the periphery. It has tried both firm separation from the world and also conforming to the culture that surrounds it. But in the end, the Church finds itself today at the center of tension, not the center of power.
In Quebec, post-Christianity à la Quebecoise largely interprets as “post-Catholic.” Institutional Catholicism (and in some places, Anglicanism) has left a lasting disdain in the imagination of Quebecers. Evangelicals at times benefited as a “post-Catholic” option. But for the first time, a majority of Quebecers have been brought up without any significant Catholic or Christian experience. It remains to be seen if the Church can reach not only their post-Christian neighbours, but their post-secular ones as well.
But do God’s people have a genetic disposition for exile? In his excellent book, The Church in Exile: Living Hope after Christendom, Canadian theologian Lee Beach argues that ‘exile’ may be precisely the motif that offers the most hope for the church today. Our hope lies not in regaining lost power, influence, or privilege in society, but active participation in the Mission of God. The Church today must present convincing reasons and a compelling witness of Christ in the land of post-Christianity. The Church must rediscover the art of living in exile.
The Moral and Ethical Causes of Exile
Jeremiah was a prophet and community leader when his nation was enveloped into the Neo-Babylonian Empire. When we hear the word “prophet” we often think of ‘future-telling.’ But, it is probably more accurate to say that prophecy was about ‘present-telling’ and ‘truth-telling.’ Jeremiah’s task was to reorient the people’s theological vision in the midst of exile.
Israel had been literally torn in two. The northern kingdom had been conquered by the Assyrians 125 years earlier. The southern kingdom of Judah remained and Jerusalem was its chief city. By the time of Jeremiah, the Babylonians had become the dominant regional power, filling a power vacuum after the implosion of the Assyrian empire.
When Judah revolted against the Babylonian rule, King Nebuchadnezzar responded with three invasions and a siege of Jerusalem. The city ultimately fell, and the deportation of survivors followed. Jeremiah witnessed this devastation, which was much more than just a geopolitical death. It was the death of a people.
The survivors faced an unimaginable reality. God had promised them: 1) their land of Israel 2) a King of their own 3) the city of Jerusalem and 4) their sacred temple. Cut off from their land, the people were cut off from their identity. How could Yahweh (God) abandon His people and abandon His own promises?
Jeremiah had to make sense of this theological crisis. This required confronting their view of national exceptionalism and deterministic view of their future. A sense of entitlement and power, mainly vested among the religious elites, allowed the nation to drift away from the moral and ethical commitments required of God’s people.
We have all read Christian cards that quote Jeremiah 29: “For I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord. They are plans to prosper you, plans to give you a hope and a future.” It’s often in the context of a graduation card or a note of encouragement. It might be more accurate if it included a warning, “These plans include the destruction of your homeland and your mass deportation into a foreign land.” God certainly wants what’s best for His people, but this never comes divorced from personifying His compassion, justice, and mercy (in the words of the prophet Micah).
The Art of Living in Exile
Jeremiah used the extreme pain of his people to reorient their theology and their spirituality. If the Church is in exile today—if Christians are living in an increasingly marginalized reality—then we should listen intently to how Jeremiah instructs his people.
In chapter 29 he lays out the art of living in exile for his people. First Jeremiah says, “Move in.” Settle in the land. Make it your own. This can seem counterintuitive for Christians today. In Cadences of Faith, Walter Brueggeman describes exile in the following way:
“[Exile] is a cultural, spiritual condition that is experienced when one finds themselves in an alien environment and where conforming to the norms of that environment would mean to adopt values that are incongruent with one’s own faith.”
But Jeremiah understood that the people needed to detach their sense of identity from the land and reconnect it with their living. The Church today must ask: what does it mean for us to make this society our home? Participating in and engaging in secular society is a crucial part of participating in God’s mission even as we cultivate our sense of “otherness” as God’s people in the way we live.
Secondly, Jeremiah encouraged the people to “plant something.” Planting gardens requires a certain amount of permanence. When neighbours start planting gardens, we know they will be around for at least a season. We must be a planting people, not only taking from the land we live in, but cultivating and contributing to it as well. Gardening is a larger image for being people with a social contribution, even in the context of a society that often derides our faith.
Jeremiah follows this with the strange instruction to “marry and have sons and daughters.” He even says to marry them off so that they can have more sons and daughters. Certainly marriage is a greater commitment than moving in and planting a garden. It goes beyond simply contributing to society. Literally, it requires the synthesis of language, culture, and ethnicity. When we espouse others, we espouse their ideas as well as invite them to espouse ours. This certainly requires discernment and is the most difficult part of living in exile.
Jeremiah insisted that the people’s identity was tied to “their ways and their actions.”
“Deal with one another justly, do not oppress the foreigner, the fatherless, or the widow…do not shed innocent blood, and do not follow other gods to your own harm.”
But he was also calling them to the tension of living out their faith, while integrating to a foreign land. We must ask today: what are we willing to commit to that actually changes a part of us so that we can become rooted in this new land that God has strangely led us to? Jeremiah challenged the people to write a new chapter for themselves and their children, even among those who had taken everything from them.
Jeremiah finalized this prophetic vision with a fundamental theological argument—“Pray for the wellbeing of the city…for your wellbeing depends on the wellbeing of the ‘others’ in your city.” They will not be like you. They will not believe the same things you do. But hope and pray for their wellbeing because their wellbeing and yours is interdependent and a part of God’s larger mission.
So often the Church in North America has responded to secularization and post-Christianity by separating itself rather than engaging the culture within which we live. This protective impulse attempts to assure us of our survival in exile. But it does not place us in a position to flourish because it ignores our interconnectedness with the wellbeing of the others in our community. It also ignores the greater mission of God in the world and that He is not only working in us, but also through us, for the good of others. The Church has a wonderful opportunity in post-Christian Canada, but it may require a shift in our theological vision.
Pastor David Swanson, working in a South Side neighborhood of Chicago captured this shift perfectly:
“Rather than thinking that we’ve settled into the land of God’s promise – or even that it’s around the corner, attainable by a bit more hard work or strategic ministry—we instead accept the foreign land to which we’ve been led by God. From this vantage point we begin to ask different questions about community, friendship, work, family, and church. We worship and work for the good of this foreign land without looking to it for approval or permission.”
We can flourish in this new land if we learn the art of living in Exile, if we learn to move in, get planting, and marry ourselves to the good of our community.
[Published in the Mar/Apr Edition of Seven Magazine, a publication of Promise Keepers Canada.]