Christendom left Christians, particularly European and American Christians, with a sense that they were empowered and entitled to organize the world. And with that came an obligation to do good and confront evil.
It makes sense that, in a Christian world, the teaching of the church would be far more prescriptive — telling people how to act and how to live in accordance with God’s wishes for humanity and the good order of creation — than descriptive — merely stating the what, how, and sometimes even why of puzzles humanity finds itself dealing with. The church, after all, has an order to uphold and protect, an understanding of what it means to be human.
In the millenia-and-a-half of functional Christendom, the church came to understand God primarily as creator rather than redeemer. Redemption could be taken for granted (in the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ), and so the creation needed to be explained.
The problem with this is that it doesn’t really reflect Israel’s experience and understanding of its encounter with God in scripture. In the Bible, God is met primarily as a redeemer rather than creator. The creation could be taken for granted (it was always there, and it wasn’t going anywhere, and so it didn’t really need explaining), so what needed to be understood was redemption.
Because God was met not in the phrase “let there be light” but in the words “Do not be afraid.”
The creation-centeredness of our theologies has forced us to focus on the right order of the world. Coupled with power, Christians have come to believe the world was ours to organize the way God wants it organized, either because we are imposing order on the world or simply helping the order inherent in God’s good creation realize itself. Creation-centered theology is a theology that wants and needs power — it needs to shape and form the world and all those in it.
But the Bible is not the story of a powerful people. It is the story of one man and his (rather sizable) family told to leave him home for a place he will only be shown when he gets there. It is the story of promises given to that man, to his descendants, to a kingdom that rises and falls, is conquered and occupied and carried into exile. Throughout this story, this people — Israel — are constantly subject to the whim of others, mostly enemies, and what they have, they have solely because this God of the promise has given it to them.
They have earned nothing. They have conquered nothing. They have not even fought for much of anything. God did the fighting. Most of what they have been given is taken from them, and they are left weak, defeated, and scattered, with nothing more than the promises that old man was given long, long before.
This story — promise, rise, defeat, exile — is our story as the church. We have forgotten it is our story because we think we have transcended it. Because we have taught ourselves for so long that we must confront evil and defeat it, that we have a duty to order the world, that we must remain pure and upright and always do good in order to save our souls, we forget that our story is one of sin and consequence, of conquest and subjugation and exile.
And serving those who conquered and exiled us.
This is especially important as Christians — mostly conservatives — wonder what to do with modernity, with a secular politics in the West (especially America) that no longer treats their faith with much respect or privileges their truth claims or institutional structures. The desire to protect themselves, to find a champion (Damon Linker’s interpretation of Donald J. Trump’s appeal to evangelical Christians) who will subdue enemies, seems to have guided much Christian thinking in the West for the last century.
But how should Christians deal with enemies?
The gospel is clear: love them. I constantly focus on the fact that the Beatitudes is a guide for faithful living while occupied and oppressed. Israel was not free, and was not going to be free through its own efforts. Freedom came another way — in love, a love that would not flinch in its encounter with the enemy oppressor, but would also not meet violence with violence. It was a love grounded in solidarity, in generosity, that met inhumanity and violence with forgiveness and “follow me.”
But even before Jesus meets his people in the midst of violent Roman occupation (and predicts far worse), the Hebrew Bible tells us of what it means when Israel is beaten, broken, and carried away into exile.
1 In the third year of the reign of Jehoiakim king of Judah, Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon came to Jerusalem and besieged it. 2 And the Lord gave Jehoiakim king of Judah into his hand, with some of the vessels of the house of God. And he brought them to the land of Shinar, to the house of his god, and placed the vessels in the treasury of his god. 3 Then the king commanded Ashpenaz, his chief eunuch, to bring some of the people of Israel, both of the royal family and of the nobility, 4 youths without blemish, of good appearance and skillful in all wisdom, endowed with knowledge, understanding learning, and competent to stand in the king’s palace, and to teach them the literature and language of the Chaldeans. 5 The king assigned them a daily portion of the food that the king ate, and of the wine that he drank. They were to be educated for three years, and at the end of that time they were to stand before the king. 6 Among these were Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah of the tribe of Judah. 7 And the chief of the eunuchs gave them names: Daniel he called Belteshazzar, Hananiah he called Shadrach, Mishael he called Meshach, and Azariah he called Abednego. (Daniel 1:1–7 ESV)
Nebuchadnezzar laid waste to Jerusalem. He killed its leaders, destroyed the temple — the house David promised and Solomon built for God to live in — and carried off the best and brightest of Israel as well as what remained of its wealth and its ceremonial objects. Because of what he did, it would be impossible to worship, and the people of Israel must have wondered — on that long trail of tears from Judah to northern Iraq — what would become of them now that the one thing that held them together — worship — was no longer possible.
If there was ever a reason for non-cooperation with any kind of government, it would be now. It would have been more than appropriate for Israel to tell the Babylonian king to go screw himself sideways and let them weep by the banks of that distant and foreign river by themselves.
Instead, the best and brightest go to serve Nebuchadnezzar, the king who destroyed their temple, conquered their people, and carried them off into exile.
How do you deal with your enemies? You love them. You serve them. This isn’t gospel squishiness … this is hard-headed Hebrew Bible history.
Oh, you speak truth to your enemies. You bear witness to the God who redeems. You refuse to bow down to their idols. You don’t eat the king’s food. You worship even when it is outlawed. You remember and confess who you are and whose you are. But you do this still serving, still loving, and trusting in God.
The church, with its rules and laws and teaching, has forgotten how to trust God. It has forgotten how to be church when the world isn’t organized in its favor. It has forgotten how to be church when it doesn’t have social and political power. Because to be Christian in Christendom is to live with a sense of agency and power, something Israel possessed only sporadically. The church has forgotten that our calling as God’s people is to be faithful, and not successful. The promises we have been given do not include success. Or power.
It will be tough to be faithful in modernity, to eat only vegetables rather than meals cooked in the king’s kitchen, to pray with the windows open so everyone may see. Modernity is all about reducing human beings to mere things to be used, consumed, discarded, and abandoned. It is about forming a standardized and commoditized humanity that conforms easily so individual human beings can be used easily. While we should not be about that, the church in modernity has easily surrendered itself to this objectification of humanity, embracing all the various ways human “things” can best be managed and put to use. It is because of this surrender to modernity, I think, that we have been defeated, and have been carried off into exile, into Babylon, where we are beginning to gather by the river’s edge and weep for what we have lost.
But we can, in good conscience, serve Nebuchadnezzar. We can, in good conscience, serve state and society in modernity, even given all modernity is and does. So long as we remember that the king of Babylon was only a man. That modernity is a transitory thing. It has come, and it will go. And that we have a promise of deliverance, a promise real in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ, who lived and died and rose under occupation. Who showed us what it meant to love and even serve our enemies.
Enemies who ruled us without pity.
We can still serve them, our enemies. We can still bear witness to the truth of God’s redeeming love. We know will be delivered because we have already been delivered. We do not need a protector or an avenger like Donald J. Trump. His promise of power and protection is akin to that of King Zedekiah, who started a pointless war with Babylon he could not win. We have Christ, who has overcome the world and defeated death. We have the promises of God. And they are true. They have not failed us.
They will never fail us.