A week or so ago, Christianity Today published an essay by Canadian pastor Jacob Birch, arguing that “No, Western Christians Are Not in Exile.”
Birch is exactly right that exile language can betray some of the worst impulses of Western evangelicalism. But at the same time, I believe the language of exile is exactly what the Bible offers us to combat all that.
Birch starts by noting that many white evangelical churches today are accustomed to hearing themselves described as exiles, mostly in light of shifts toward secularization and the marginalization of Christianity. No doubt that is true in certain areas of the country and continent (including his Canadian context).
But alas, in my own Bible Belt context, the idea of “exile” seems absent altogether. Instead, ironically enough, I’ve found the metaphor Birch proposes—that of “occupation”—tends to be the governing analogy, even if not articulated in those words.
Occupation, after all, implies a hostile force has invaded one’s own territory, holding a people hostage in their own land. This is, at several points, a reality in the biblical story of the people of God. It is why, for instance, the religious leaders’ question to Jesus about whether to pay taxes to Caesar was so charged.
According to the mindset of many first-century Jews, saying yes to that question would be to affirm Rome’s occupation of their land—which they believed should rightly be governed not by a puppet government under Caesar but by the house of David. Jesus looked past this temporal occupation toward a deeper, more primal one—that of overtaking the strong man’s house (Matt. 12:29).
The question of occupation, however, was hardly unreasonable or unspiritual. It was a matter of God’s justice (“How could Israel’s God let this go on?”) and of a people’s humiliation. The problem was how to displace the occupiers from their illegitimate rule.
In fact, the question of how to deal with Rome’s occupation led to some of the most dangerous rifts among the occupied people—with a spectrum ranging from insurrectionists like Barabbas, to zealots like Simon, to collaborators like Matthew and Zacchaeus.
In an occupation, the “outsiders” (the occupiers) are the ones who are alien to the land. But in exile, it’s the “insiders” who are learning to navigate a strange place.
The language of exile is not the same kind of singular experience. It is part of the Christian story for those of us who are born into or grafted onto the house of Jacob. And the Bible applies that experience to us in an ongoing way, in the time between Christ’s ascension and his return.
Peter addressed the church as “God’s elect, exiles scattered throughout the provinces” (1 Pet. 1:1) and told them to “live out your time as foreigners here in reverent fear” (v. 17). This was not a recognition of how different the first-century church was but how much the same. They were not to find their pattern of life in the “empty way of life handed down to you from your ancestors” (v. 18).
The exile of which Peter spoke did not mean that the believers lacked belonging but that they had a different belonging: to “a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation” (2:9). Like Daniel in Babylon, such exile means that the objective is not to remove Nebuchadnezzar from his throne or to govern the Babylonian Empire. Quite the contrary, the goal was for the exiles to avoid becoming like the Babylonians.
In urging the church to be “foreigners and exiles,” then, Peter wanted them to see that their real problem was not the emperor or the surrounding culture. They could still show honor to everyone, including the emperor. Rather, the issue was to “abstain from sinful desires, which wage war against your soul” (2:11).
Being under occupation—in the sense of living in a land of promise dominated by enemies—the believers might seek to assimilate into the larger culture or rage against the occupiers. But Peter admonished that neither should be the case. Instead, they were to both live “good lives among the pagans” and see to it that their obedience was to God, not to that audience (v. 12).
Can exile be used dangerously to convey a sense of resentment at a loss of cultural power? Absolutely it can—in the same way that holiness can be used to suggest self-righteous perfection or that mission can be used to suggest colonization. But those dangerous uses do not reflect their biblical context.
In the original Exile, the people of Israel were constantly reminded that their plight was not the result of the Babylonians and couldn’t be resolved by finding some other power (say, Egypt or Assyria) to combat the Babylonians. God alone was responsible for their exile. That’s why the calling of the Israelites was not to find their own Nebuchadnezzar but to repent and reclaim their own distinctiveness as the people of God.
Moreover, the language of exile makes clear that the issue is not just about returning home. Both Jeremiah and Ezekiel clearly spelled out to the exiles that they couldn’t go back home. God’s glory had left the temple—not chased away by external forces but removed because of the sins of his own people (Ezek. 10; Jer. 7).
That’s the bad news. But the good news is that since God was the one who sent his people into exile, he was with them there. They could find him and sing the Lord’s song in a strange land.
They could build houses and have babies and adapt to some of the externalities of Babylonian life (like Daniel’s being called a Babylonian name and serving in Nebuchadnezzar’s court, for instance). All the while, they could refuse to yield to the expected idolatries or to the subtler pull to lose the “strangeness” and distinctiveness of their Abrahamic identity.
In fact, the point of exile language is exactly the opposite of the idea that Western Christians should lament or resent losing a “Christian culture.” The point is that in every place and culture, from the first to the second comings of Jesus, every Christian community is to consider themselves “foreigners and exiles.”
If we look back to a time when we felt we were not exiles, it’s because we had acclimated to and accommodated idolatry—like wishing for a previous Nebuchadnezzar to return. And if we ever look forward to a time when we can finally displace our sense of marginalization and find a cultural “home” in this world, then that too is because we are accustomed to idolatry—just like wishing for a different Nebuchadnezzar in the future.
That said, whenever we use exile language incorrectly to bemoan a darkening or growingly hostile culture—rather than to see our situation as fundamentally the same as every other era before us—then we don’t understand what the Bible means by exile.
Exile language does away with both our sense of entitlement and a siege mentality. We don’t attempt to merge into whatever seems “normal” in the society around us—and we don’t rage whenever we’re not accommodated there. Instead, we see our normal situation as a pilgrimage.
“All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth,” the writer of Hebrews told us.
“People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own. If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. Instead, they were longing for a better country—a heavenly one” (Heb. 11:13–16).
An exilic identity does not say, “Oh no, we’re being marginalized! How can we fix this?” Rather, it asks, “Why am I not more marginalized? Have I adapted to my own appetites such that I can’t feel a longing to dive deeper into the unknown?”
I believe the real danger for us today is not that Christians see themselves as exiled in a far country but that they might see their own country—the United States, Canada, or wherever they are—as the Promised Land. This means they will seek to either embrace everything around them as milk and honey from God or attempt to uproot whichever “Amalekites” or “Philistines” are taking “our country” away from us.
I believe Western Christians are exiles, as are Eastern Christians. Twenty-first century Christians are exiles in the same way as Christians of the previous 20 centuries.
But the resentment, entitlement, culture warring, and Twitter trolling we exhibit today are not the actions of strangers and exiles. Rather, they are signs we are not nearly exiled enough.
Russell Moore leads the Public Theology Project at Christianity Today.