Nearly 600 years before the birth of Christ, the city of Jerusalem was besieged, conquered, and razed by the Babylonian empire. The victorious invaders captured the king, destroyed the temple, and took thousands of Israelites into exile in Babylon.
Christians have long looked to stories and prophecies from the Exile era for guidance in how to live as “foreigners and exiles” (1 Pet. 2:11) whose “citizenship is in heaven” (Phil. 3:20). There’s the wisdom of Daniel, the shrewdness of Esther and Mordecai, the righteousness of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. The exile framework for examining our lives and conforming them more to Christ can be especially useful in times of political and social upheaval, and this year is certainly one of those times.
The presidential election results bring exile to mind for many American Christians. For those on the political right, the victory of President-elect Joe Biden may seem like the start of a season of hardship. Author and legal scholar F. LaGard Smith made this link explicit in a recent contribution to The Christian Post, warning that our country is “headed to Babylon” because of how a Democratic administration will facilitate an ongoing “national moral rebellion” that will curtail religious liberty. For those on the political left or center, meanwhile, the defeat of President Donald Trump may seem a kind of release and restoration, an opportunity to return to older, better patterns of life, as the Israelites did when they were finally able to rebuild Jerusalem.
I too am troubled by the drift of public opinion on religious liberty, and I too am glad Trump will leave public office—that is, I understand why both perceptions make sense. But I also think both are built on too delimited an idea of exile, one that turns on the erratic shifts of national politics rather than a distinctive vision of the Christian life.
We are not headed to Babylon. We’re already there. For American Christians, the United States is not our true home. Scripture insists that to be a Christian, by definition, is to be foreign to any earthly nation (1 Pet. 1:17). America is no exception; nor is any American president. The Biden administration is not a new exile, and the Trump administration was no Jerusalem.
That is a difficult truth. For all the advantages of representative government like ours, it presents a unique temptation to Christian faithfulness that many of our forebears in the faith never faced: We can wield power. We can elect politicians who promise to serve our interests as we see them. We can be lulled into deriving our security from our leaders.
This lulling effect knows no partisan bounds, so it must equally be said that we are not heading home from Babylon now. The Trump administration was not a new exile, and the Biden administration will be no Jerusalem.
More moderate, independent, and progressive Christians may not be swayed by the overt civil religion popular among some conservatives. That should not be mistaken for invulnerability to the temptations of democracy and its illegitimate claims on our allegiance. It is one thing to be pleased by the prospect of incoming policies we believe will improve on the old. (No doubt Daniel had preferences among the several kings he served.) But if any election outcome makes us feel newly at home in our political system—if it has us sighing in relief, “Ah, now we’ll be okay”—something in us is awry. It suggests we’ve forgotten to look for our real ruler’s final return, triumph, and redemption of the whole of creation (Rom. 8:19–21; Rev. 21:3–5). It is a sign we have lost an exilic attitude that should identify followers of Jesus.
The Old Testament texts on exile can help us to cultivate that attitude, to answer the question that is as urgent now as then of how to live in this strange land with its strange customs and ethics and rulers and gods. Some of the exiles in Babylon chose assimilation, some resistance or escape. But in a letter to remnants of the Jerusalem community, the prophet Jeremiah offered a different message from God:
Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper. (Jer. 29:5–7)
To this Jeremiah added warnings as well: Don’t be deceived by lies, he wrote, and don’t forget that you are God’s people whom God will rescue. This exile is not forever, it is not the end of God’s plan for human history, and it should not end his people’s hope (Jer. 29:8–14).
There’s a tension here: Put down roots—but remember you are not at home. Never give Babylon loyalty you owe only to God—but remember to work and pray for its good. Which of these reminders we require may vary with each election, but no matter who is in office, that is the exilic attitude we need.
This is not to say politics doesn’t matter. Politics can be a literal matter of life and death! If we have not learned that lesson from two decades of constant war, the past nine months of pandemic should have made it clear. Nor is there no difference between these two administrations. I’m often inclined to declare a “plague o’ both your houses,” but they’re not identical houses.
In the midst of that difference, however, and the accelerating pace of change in our political life, there is—or should be—a truer and deeper constancy for Christians. “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever” (Heb. 13:8), and we are always equally called to a rooted, generous, and peaceful faith.
Bonnie Kristian is a columnist at Christianity Today.