Biblical perspective for Christian's living right side up in an upside down world.
In his first epistle, Peter addresses his letter to the “elect exiles of the Dispersion” and signs-off with a greeting from “she who is in Babylon” — that is, most likely, the Church in Rome in the first century. But who are these exiles? And why would Peter cryptically refer to Rome as Babylon? Hadn’t Babylon been destroyed?
In many ways, the Holy Bible is a tale of two cities — the city of God being depicted by Jerusalem, with the city of man often being symbolized by Babylon (or its predecessor Babel). And following the conquest of Babylon’s Nebuchadnezzar II in 587 BC, the Jewish people were taken into Babylonian captivity and were rendered exiles from their homeland. Thus began the first great dispersion.
The Jewish people understandably lamented for their failure to hear the prophets, for not only was their home ravaged, but so much of their law revolved around Jerusalem and the temple. You can imagine the questions that would have undoubtedly ensued: without the mechanisms to follow the law, how would they repent? As you’ve probably heard Boney M. say it, how could they sing the Lord's song in a strange land? (Side note: I am a total sucker for history put to music, and I could listen to the Psalms set to disco all day. So please comment if you have any good recommendations.)
Thankfully, the prophet Jeremiah had instructed them precisely how they were to live while they were in exile.
Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. 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.
Those who would follow the living God were called to obedience to government — even to pagan government — though their first allegiance would always be to The Lord. In that regard, God’s people were called into friction: they were to be the best citizens, but to keep their hearts loyal to God. Thus, while they were dispersed and awaiting their eventual return to the Promised Land, the exiles would need to learn to walk in the tension of obedience to both God and the king.
This too is the calling of those who would follow the living God, even on this side of the cross. So, it is understandable that, centuries later, Peter would appropriate this concept of exiles and dispersion to the followers of Jesus who were scattered throughout the Roman Empire. As the Lord has so famously put it, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”
In his letter to Timothy, Paul urged believers to pray for their governments with thanksgiving, despite their circumstances.
I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people— for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness.
1 Timothy 2:1-2
Lest we forget that Paul said these words while Nero was emperor, in a pre-Christian Rome. Paul would soon be beheaded under his rule. Nero can be called a lot of things, but he was certainly no creampuff in his zeal to persecute Christians.
So how does the godly man or woman live today, as we Westerners find ourselves in a post-Christian society, in a world that has seemingly gone mad and is increasing in folly by the day? As G.K. Chesterton once put it:
We shall soon be in a world in which a man may be howled down for saying that two and two make four, in which furious party cries will be raised against anybody who says that cows have horns, in which people will persecute the heresy of calling a triangle a three-sided figure, and hang a man for maddening mob with the news that grass is green.
Today we live through another great Dispersion, we again find ourselves exiles longing for the Promised Land. In other words, this world is not the final home of the Christian. But for now, we are called to walk in the tension between our ultimate allegiance to God and to our responsibility to be exemplary citizens. And as post-postmodernism is gripping all of our institutions, so too will the friction increase for those who will stand for truth.
Side note: For deeper reading on that particular topic, I can heartily recommend Rod Dreher’s book, Live Not By Lies: A Manual For Christian Dissidents. In his timely book, Dreher aptly identifies the soft totalitarianism which is infiltrating the west today, and interviews many eastern bloc soviet citizens who bravely chose not to live by lies. But I digress.
Back to the point.
Like the New Testament authors, we inhabit the age of Grace, and in that grace we are called to liberty; meaning that our response to that tension could look different at different times, and by different people. And so, in that light I would posit that the varying application of our liberty is compounded by the west’s very different relationship with government.
In 1215, European king’s began to acknowledge that they must be servient to the law, with the concept of power-to-the-people percolating over the centuries thereafter. By 1642, the English monarch learned a harsh lesson, that he should not have entered the House of Commons — a tradition which continues to this day. How much more did our relationship with our rulers evolve when our kings were sent away; with American democratic government being granted by the people, for the people? Unlike ancient times, many modern Western citizens were born into an enshrined civic duty to resist tyranny, as spelled out in their constitution. (Its worth noting that today’s American didn’t rebel to achieve this system, they were merely born into it.)
So, if the current system of government depends upon the free expression of its citizens, rather than absolute servitude to the state, wouldn’t our expression of fidelity evolve accordingly? Of course! But through what scope do we define it?
For guidance, lets again look to the words of our Lord:
And they sent to him some of the Pharisees and some of the Herodians, to trap him in his talk. And they came and said to him, “Teacher, we know that you are true and do not care about anyone’s opinion. For you are not swayed by appearances, but truly teach the way of God. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not? Should we pay them, or should we not?” But, knowing their hypocrisy, he said to them, “Why put me to the test? Bring me a denarius and let me look at it.” And they brought one. And he said to them, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” They said to him, “Caesar’s.” Jesus said to them, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” And they marveled at him.
Whose image do you bear? If it be God’s then you are called to love Him above all, and then to love your neighbour as yourself. In that is the law and the prophets, and ultimately the seeds of a good society. Pure and undefiled religion is to visit those in their affliction and to keep oneself unstained from the world.
So plant vineyards and take dominion by seeking the good of your fellow man. And pray for the government of
Babylon Rome wherever you may live, so that the Good News of Jesus may flourish and that you may live quiet and godly lives until He returns.
Fantastic! A good reminder to continue living, even while the world seems to crumble around us. And who doesn't appreciate Boney M?!
Great article! That tension is reverberated in Daniel, also. Vital for proper perspective.