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.

Life Verses and the End of Time

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As a teenager in the 90’s at a non-denominational, evangelical megachurch, I joined several prominent movements among the youth of that day. I signed a “purity pledge” to go be strung on a pole at some national event, I wore a “promise ring” and I had a life verse. Far from in depth studies of context in scripture, single verses or groups of verses formed the content of our Bible studies, our youth group talks, and the sermons we heard on Sunday mornings (and evenings for the very spiritual among us). I was hooked on church and the independence it gave me as it was one of the few places I went regularly without my parents (at least for Sunday evening service, Wednesday evening youth group, and Friday evening cell group meetings).

I felt like I’d discovered my life verse on my own while reading, but its prominent placement on merchandise in every Christian bookstore makes me think I probably didn’t. Depending on your background, you probably know the one I mean. Yes, it was Jeremiah 29:11, “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future” (NIV). And yes, you read that right, I’d landed at one of those progressive mega churches. By progessive I mean they’d moved all the way from the New King James to the NIV.

And I wasn’t alone in this shared verse, like so many other approaches to individuality, we somehow had all ended up with something almost identical. And while we talked about the hope it gave us etc, I never remember talking about Jeremiah 29:10. You know, the one where Jeremiah is delivering the message to the nation of Israel that the exile they found themselves currently in was going to be seventy years long.

Yes, God has plans for your future. Some of those plans mean you might die in exile. The plans for the future are communal, sweeping, future-oriented and not necessarily interpreted as good news to those longing for a return to their homeland.

Putting this in our context today, it’s not that God doesn’t have plans to give you a future and to give you hope, it’s that some of our hope is eschatalogical. This means some of it involves understanding the hope that comes from knowing that in the end, God makes all things new. In the end, justice is served to everyone, and that justice is God’s merciful justice. In the end, relationships are restored between us and God, between each other, and between us and creation. All things are made new.

And we are in the midst of that in some ways, striving for shalom: for right relationships, striving towards renewal of creation, striving for justice and human thriving. But this work began long before us and will go on after us, only coming to completion in the new earth.

It’s not that plans to give you a future and a hope can’t be read on an individual level, it’s that as Bryan Stevenson put it, “We have no wholeness outside of our reciprocal humanity” (Just Mercy, p. 290). If you go back a couple more verses in chapter twenty-nine, you find instructions for the people to settle down, plant gardens, get married, and learn to thrive where they are, even though it’s not where they wanted to be. There are specific instructions to “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).

So while comfort can be gained in the idea of God’s plan, the plan is an overarching one that involves all of humanity, and may involve times of learning to grow where we didn’t want to be planted. That and the knowledge that things can get really bad, but God will ultimately make all things new. I find peace and comfort in those thoughts in the midst of turbulent times and a sense of being part of a story that is bigger than myself, which is something I was missing as a teenager: clinging to this tiny sliver of Scripture, extracted from its context and therefore robbed of a much fuller and richer meaning that helps one navigate our complex world that is brutal and beautiful not even by turns, but all at the same time depending on where you look.