Instructions for Living in Exile

Instructions for Living in Exile

I once had dinner with an evangelical friend, one I doubt will even see this as he has since “unfriended” me in the wake of that sieve which 2016 election has turned out to be. He was mocking the environmental conservation movement and said, “It doesn’t matter, it’s all gonna burn anyway.” Needless to say I was shocked and I believe I came back with thoughts on stewardship meaning care of creation but my recent meditation on Jeremiah 29:11 highlighted this conversation anew.

For those of you lucky enough to not have grown up with this, there’s this idea–more than idea, almost core theology as there are sermons and songs a-plenty around this–that we are only passing through “this world.” Somehow our status as Christians means we are now no longer residents of this world and therefore removed from it in a way that Scripture never really intended.

Metaphors of resident aliens and exile abound and yet while many that subscribe to this narrow and damaging worldview cling to Jeremiah 29:11 as a life verse, they seemed to have missed the instructions for exile that are found in the chapter that surround it.

You see as I noted in Life Verses and the End of the World, the context of the future and the hope that is promised in Jeremiah 29:11 is that they will be in exile for seventy years. While this is not good news (this is a safe conclusion as 1) it’s exile and 2) Jeremiah assures them that God does have plans for their future), they are called to build a life, to grow and thrive where they did not want to be planted. And then there’s this: “But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare” (Jer. 29:7 NRSV). Even if you want to subscribe to a strict exile metaphor for the Christian life you can’t say that care for the people and creation around us isn’t part of that exile.

Now, I don’t subscribe to that metaphor as it’s trying to force a historical reality onto a current one as though that story was an allegory and it’s not. Can we learn from it? Yes. Can we force a narrative of Christians as the “new” Israel? No. And we can’t do that for many reasons, the most important being, there is still both a nation of Israel and a Jewish people. That opens up a whole different discussion, but I thought it needed to be noted in this context.

This is yet another example of the dangers of what I’m calling extractive theology. It goes beyond the concept of proof-texting in that I believe it is tied to philosophies and mythologies that have helped create a version of Christianity in America that is more American than in is Christian. From manifest destiny to the prosperity gospel, American Christians have extracted what they thought they had rights to, using scripture as an rationale to take what they wanted: land, people, resources, and so forth with no regard to the consequences on shalom or mutual thriving of people in creation. And sure, you can find words in the Scripture that if you yank them out of context would seem to give one permission to do all those things. That’s why we can’t just take scriptures and try to jam scenarios into our current moment to provide rationales, and this is why it is dangerous to read the Bible both on our own as individuals outside of community and to read just the Bible without any understanding of the context it was in so we can get a feel for the overarching intent.

If an action doesn’t lead to mutual thriving and care of creation, it’s safe to say that the arcs of Scripture don’t support it as they all lead to justice and liberation as we move closer to the Kingdom of God.