Is “exile” a good word for the state of the church in the post-Christian West? The metaphor is commonly used, especially by those who see some missional potential in the marginalisation (another spatial metaphor) of the modern church. See, for example, Michael Frost’s Exiles: Living Missionally in a Post-Christian Culture. John Goldingay, however, has reservations:
We are not in exile; we are simply people who have been outvoted, literally and/or metaphorically. Exile happens to people who are not citizens and not members of imperial powers. We can’t use the image of exile to let ourselves off the hook of responsibility for the violence our nations undertake. Further, it’s surely not the case that most Christians see themselves as increasingly on the edge, at odds with the empire, or in exile from their culture – you might even suggest that the problem lies in our not seeing ourselves thus. I don’t think that most Christians in (say) Uganda or the United States think in that way. Further, while Europe and countries such as Australia, New Zealand, and Canada are post-Christian, most of Africa and the rest of the colonial/postcolonial world are not, and neither is the United States (which is of course a postcolonial entity, with the appropriate love-hate relationship with its European forebears). In the United States, I like to say we are living in the time of Josiah, not the exile.1
Goldingay has a particular set of concerns in view: the political responsibilities of Christians in the post-imperial West and the tendency to overlook the strength of the global church. But the title of the essay suggests that he is also taking “exile” as a biblical motif, and his critique makes me wonder just how the narrative frames the crisis faced by the post-Christian church in Europe, Australia, New Zealand and Canada.
Throughout the biblical-historical narrative the people of YHWH has gone through a number of difficult transitions.
The Israelite tribes underwent an exodus from Egypt—a mass departure from exploitation as a migrant work force. The journey took 40 years, the people endured many setbacks and much suffering, but eventually they took possession of the land which God had promised to the patriarchs.
Things did not go as well for them in the land as was hoped, and in the sixth century Israel was forcibly removed from the land and taken into exile in Babylon. Jeremiah wrote advising the exiles not to expect an early rescue and to pray for the peace and prosperity of Babylon for their own sakes—this is not a missional text. The journey back to the land, some 70 years later, was a second exodus.
The next difficult transition was the imposition of Greek and Roman control—culturally, religiously and politically—over Israel in the second and first centuries before Christ. By the time we get to Jesus we see a nation struggling to preserve its distinctive identity as the people of YHWH after years of Hellenization and subjugation by Rome.
(A significant number of Jews were living in the wider world as part of the diaspora or dispersal—not an exile but a sort of outreach to the nations that would prefigure the mission of the early church.)
This process culminated in the destruction of national Israel in AD 70, but Jesus of Nazareth had established a narrow and hazardous path of escape leading to a new future for the people of YHWH. His followers had to make another difficult transition, by a way of persecution and opposition, to the life of the age to come.
This journey led them into the Greek-Roman world, where the conviction took shape and hardened that sooner or later YHWH would judge the whole pagan system and that the people who believed that YHWH had raised his Son from the dead, etc., would inherit the nations. The followers of Jesus became a priestly-prophetic people, serving the interests of the one true living creator God, in the formerly pagan empire.
So the biblical story presents us with a number of different transitions: exodus from a powerful foreign country, exile into a powerful foreign country, subjugation by a pagan imperial force, escape from invasion and destruction, dispersal amongst the pagan nations, inheritance of the nations, which ultimately was the coming of the kingdom of God.
Does the current difficult transition that the Western church is going through match any of these biblical transitions? A people in exile desires or expects to return home. Do we imagine that we will return—a second exodus from captivity—to that place of prominence and authority that we had under Christendom? Dispersal resonates in the same way that exile does, but biblically the churches were dispersed for the sake of the eventual annexation of the empire by Israel’s God.
On the above reading of the story, the better metaphor would be disinheritance. The early churches scattered across Asia Minor and Europe eventually inherited the Greek-Roman world. Christ displaced Caesar as Son of God. The churches displaced the pagan priests.
Most of Christian history later, the wheel of fortune turned again. Christ was displaced by Reason. The Church was replaced by scientists and philosophers and technologists and artists. Our inheritance has been taken away from us. We have been disinherited.
The exportation of Christianity to the European empires certainly extended the reach of the European churches, and perhaps for now Christianity should be regarded as a successful global rather than a failing Western religion. But for how long? Do we have any reason to think that the global church will do a better job than the European church of resisting the forces of secularism?
I don’t know. But either way, the post-Christian church in the West—including increasingly the American church—has to work out how to negotiate the current difficult transition of disinheritance. Where are we going? How are we going to get there? Loosely applied, the “exile” metaphor undoubtedly captures something of the experience of the disinherited church, but paradoxically we are both still here—Goldingay’s point—and we are not going back. A more fundamental narrative rethink is needed.
- 1. J. Goldingay, “Four Reflections on Isaiah and Imperial Context,” in Isaiah and Imperial Context, eds. Andrew Abernethy et al (Pickwick, 2013), 211.