There’s Complicity, and There’s Complicity…

Apropos of a conversation of sorts taking place in the comments section (thank you Laurie and Doug), yes, we are all complicit in the societies in which we find ourselves. To some degree, which is why I don’t go anywhere near as far as some of the radical reformers (anabaptists) in saying society or community must be morally pure or else the believer’s salvation is at stake. It’s not, and nothing from a smart reading of scripture — especially the New Testament, and exilic documents like Daniel and Esther — suggests that if you understand that Christians/Jews were a minority living in a society whose terms they could not dictate.

Remember, in Matthew 25, the sheep and the goats are distinguished by acts of kindness and love for the weak and the vulnerable, not support for policies, politicians, governments, or regimes. That sort of thing he’s been beyond control of most people anyway (even in allegedly democratic polities).

Rather, what the “Benedict Option” for me is a state of mind, a realization of who the people of God really are. Modern Christians, especially Americans, have a deep and troubling problem of not being able to distinguish the moral order of the created (or redeemed) cosmos with the actual order they find themselves in. Americans in particular have theologized the American founding, and turned it into a kind of natural theology that seeks to, or should, order and govern the world.

Or, to put it another way, Western Christians have never entirely been able to tell the church and the state apart. Not as institutions, but as spacial entities. I am both a citizen of the United States and a baptized follower of Jesus Christ. Americans, especially (but are not alone in this), have confounded and confused the two, mistaking American values for Gospel values and a certain reading of scripture as supportive of the American endeavor in ways God does not seem to support God’s people in scripture. (Remember, Israel is “chosen” but also bears the worst of God’s judgment.)

Yes, Jeremiah passes God’s instructions on to exiled Israel:

4 “Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon:5 Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. 6 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. 7 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. (Jeremiah 29:4-7 ESV)

Do good, love your neighbors, and seek the good of the place you live, and the people amongst who you live, but never forget — you are an exile, a subject, and this is not your land. It can entail participation in politics (though I think that’s a distraction), but it must always remember — we are a subject people, and that is not ours to change. To quote Ezra and Nehemiah’s prayers, “we are slaves this day.” And this describes Israel’s relationship to Persia, the nation that ended its exile, whose king, Cyrus, was God’s “anointed.”

This is also the essence of Paul’s instructions to the church in Romans 13, especially when he reminds that church that *love of neighbor* and not love or loyalty to the state is what is at stake when he writes, “Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.”(Romans 13:8 ESV)

So, for me, the Benedict Option is a reminder that, as Christians, we cannot and should not expect that the moral order of the universe will or should reflect itself in the physical ordering of the world. And that exile, not dominion, may be the natural state of the church on this side of the eschaton. Israel wept for its exile, but lived in exile nonetheless, and ever after, Israel’s sovereignty was constrained.

It means remembering that America is just another contingent part of the natural order, an accident of history which has come and will, at some point, go. Because all things pass away. It is the church — and America is most definitely NOT the church — that will remain. To the extent that too many American Christians have deeply confused the two, struggling more for an American order rather than to follow Christ as Christ called us to follow, well, this is why we need something like the Benedict Option.

It is to remember what Paul wrote to the church in Philippi. That was are, in the end, citizens not of any earthly polity, but of a heavenly one.

17 Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us. 18 For many, of whom I have often told you and now tell you even with tears, walk as enemies of the cross of Christ. 19 Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things. 20 But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, 21 who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself. (Philippians 3:17-21 ESV)

3 thoughts on “There’s Complicity, and There’s Complicity…

  1. This is all true. But there’s a lot of space between an inevitable level of complicity and idolatry. We wander around in that space (in exile, as you say) as we live our lives.

    Nationalism to the point of idolatry in the US is less common and less fervent than what I remember of the 1950’s (an echo of the huge efforts and sacrifices of the war), and it was sometimes even more intense, I think, in earlier periods. And if Americans are more susceptible than many other nations to a confusion of church and state, it is often because in other places the national church is explicitly subordinated to the state, and so the state can be acclaimed directly, while the church is taken for granted.

    Paul walked as an enemy of the cross of Christ for a while. Some of Paul’s tears are for himself. As usual in scripture, the threats are more warning than final sentence. The fear of God is good for us. Sadly, this is often translated into terrorizing by the church, which is not good for us at all. One inspires love, the other … hardly.

  2. One more codicil: The book of Esther is all about “participation in politics” even in exile, in the sense of being willing to be used by God for the sake of his people. Marriage to a pagan overlord has to be the ultimate distraction (don’t try this at home!), and yet Esther has her own book in the canon, even if Mordecai is really the hero.

    The lesson here isn’t simple, and I’m not sure I understand it myself. But it seems to point to something I can’t leave alone, about the importance of participation in the culture (more than politics) in doing the will of God. You quote a great line from Paul, “the one who loves another has fulfilled the law”. Love can take many forms, including writing songs and schlepping furniture. I think my writing these comments (for all that they might be sometimes a self-indulgence) is an act of love for me — my energy is so low, I don’t think I would go to the trouble otherwise. I love God, and I want other people to love God and know that they are loved by him. This is one of the few ways a socially awkward guy like me can act on that desire, without coming across as dangerously mental. Well, OK — I guess I come across that way sometimes anyway. But it’s better than standing on the university campus and haranguing passing students about the Judgment, as somebody named Max used to do here. Hmmmmmm, ……… I’ve never actually tried it …. Maybe they would all repent like Nineveh! But then what would I do? Maybe get pissed at God for not destroying them all, like Jonah did. So I wouldn’t have to answer *their* questions about what to do next. Love hurts….

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