I was listening to The Seminary Dropout podcast the other night (Shane Balckshear), specifically the interview with N. T. Wright (at the behest of a reader) and I came to realize I was wrong about something.
For the longest time, I had seen exile as the church’s fundamental condition, the condition God corrects in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
And while I’ve been thinking for a while on this, and even “preached” on the matter last Sunday, it took Wright quoting Luke to finally get me to a place where I realized exactly what was wrong.
Exile is not the condition of God’s people (though I am sympathetic with those post-exilic Israelite scribes and teachers who believed that, even with what Cyrus the King of Persia had done, Israel’s exile never really ended). Occupation is.
And that changes how I see what Christ does, what the kingdom is, and what the church is.
There is a huge difference between exile and occupation. Exile is an earned condition, the consequence of Israel’s sinfulness. “Therefore I will hurl you out of this land into a land that neither you nor your fathers have known, and there you shall serve other gods day and night, for I will show you no favor,” the Lord tells Israel through the prophet Jeremiah. It’s also, fundamentally, an elite condition — it’s Israel’s elites (mostly) who are hauled off to Babylon, who settle in a place they call Tel Aviv along the banks of the Tigris, who mourn and weep for the loss of home, and who discover that God — who had been so tied to that house in Jerusalem — actually came with them. Into exile.
Occupation, however, is not a consequence of sin. Not like exile. It is not something Israel contributed to in the way Israel clearly brought about its conquest and subjugation at the hands of Babylon. Over the years, Israel’s circumscribed independence is given over to the Greeks, hard won in a brutal war of independence, and then slowly given over to the Romans as — I understand it — Israel’s elites vied for power.
This is the Israel Jesus is born into. An occupied nation, a powerless one, controlled and dominated by outsiders, and not to the benefit of the people of God. This is the nation Jesus proclaims the coming of the kingdom, calls for repentance, reads from the scroll of Isaiah of good news for the poor and liberation for the captives. Everything Jesus does, everything Jesus is, addresses this condition of occupation.
The beatitudes, the sermon on the mount, love for neighbors and for enemies, all of this are instruction on how to live faithfully under occupation. Grace, the kind Jesus constantly displays and describes in his parables, is not for a powerful people, but for the powerless.
Jesus does not end the occupation. He doesn’t even necessarily turn it on its head. He does, however, live and proclaim that the power of the occupation to subjugate, dehumanize, and destroy, is not “real.” I mean, it is, but it isn’t. (I’m not saying this well…) It’s not final. It is not the last word. And therefore, the ways and means of the occupation — the ends of occupation (what I think other Christian scholars have taken to calling “empire”) — are not ultimate things and do not matter in the eyes of God. Jesus is merely repeating, in and with his life, what God tells Daniel following his vision of the four beasts: However, frightening this vision might be, “the saints of the Most High shall receive the kingdom and possess the kingdom forever, forever and ever.”
When we live the commands of Jesus, when we love one another, when we counter the violence of the world with the kind of love Jesus commands us to, we live out the kingdom. Love is an act of resistance to the power and violence of the occupier.
I suspect even St. Paul’s pietistic twaddle can — and should — be looked at from this perspective, that he was writing to a church that was struggling to witness to the truth of God’s grace and love under occupation. I will consider that as I read Paul from now on.
The question of what this means for us is also important. Christendom was an odd condition. It was the church, the people gathered to live faithfully and fruitfully under conditions of occupation — people who did not control or determine their own lives — that embraced occupation it self, in much the way Israel demanded the king it should not have. Christendom was, then, the church of the occupation, using law, order, and power to shape and rule the world. (This is what always happens when we decide we’re good enough and smart enough to put the last first and the first last.) Much good came of Christendom, but because of Christendom, most Christians lost sight of where God really was in the world.
God remains with the occupied. They are the people who truly matter to God. Christ may have ascended to sit at the right hand of the Father, but the people God truly cares for — the people to whom Good News, healing, and the forgiveness of sins is proclaimed — are the poor, the occupied. The rich and powerful can hear, and be moved by these things (as they clearly are, such as the Centurion and Zacchaeus in Luke, or the rich man who wants to know how to obtain eternal life, or ), and invited to become of the community formed by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. But it’s not primarily for them, and part of what they must surrender as they become part of this community are the privilege and power that being an occupier gives them.
I’ve lived and believed this understanding of the Gospel, and of Israel’s history, for a long time now. But until recently, I’ve not actually had language to speak it. I do now. I expect much more will come of this realization in the future.