Exiles and Strangers…They are Us.

SYRIA-CONFLICT

Syrian internally displaced people walk in the Atme camp, along the Turkish border in the northwestern Syrian province of Idlib, on March 19, 2013. The conflict in Syria between rebel forces and pro-government troops has killed at least 70,000 people, and forced more than one million Syrians to seek refuge abroad. AFP PHOTO/BULENT KILIC (Photo credit should read BULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images)

For much of the last decade I have been trying to figure out what keeps rubbing me the wrong way about Christianity and the politics of power. I have heard all sides that present a reasonable presentation (both Liberal and Conservative) and both have a certain rationale that is consistent once you buy into the a priori assumptions.

Of the two, there is no denying that it is the more “Liberal” view that puts more food, clothing and attends more wounds – and is more aligned with the overwhelming concerns of both the Old and New Testaments – a dominant concern whether you read the Bible as the Word of God or as simple literature.

But then the Liberal agenda has it’s own downfall. I find its zealots just as dogmatic and extremist as those on the Right. Usually it involves eradicating God. Yeah, good luck with that (oh and how “open-minded of you” by the way).*

It’s why I stopped writing about politics altogether six years ago and started serving people face to face.

I like it; they like. The rest of you can go hang flapping your gums and doing absolutley nothing.

This is not writing about politics. This is theology.

I really don’t care about Liberal/Conservative politics at all. Having just spent nearly a year on the streets of West Oakland right in the heart of the actual mess I only really care about getting food, bedding, clothing, medical supplies and fresh water to actual people.

You will humor me if I am a stickler for that.

No with this recent controversy over Syrian refugees coming to the United States and all the posturing and usual partisan war of words I was once again thrown into that uncomfortable place of asking about Christianity and power and the place of the State and authority and faith and the whole dang mess.

Then it came to me – it is so simple. I am a Christian, and as such I am, by definition one of them: a stranger and an exile.

In fact it is what I am to aspire to as my highest achievement.

The author of the New Testament book of Hebrews has a list of what we now call the “heroes of faith” in chapter of eleven. This is the “who’s who” of the Bible – the cream of the crop; the All Star team: Abraham, Sarah, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Rahab, Gideon, Samuel, David…the list goes on.

He says of them,

13All these died in faith, without receiving the promises, but having seen them and having welcomed them from a distance, and having confessed that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. 14For those who say such things make it clear that they are seeking a country of their own. 15And indeed if they had been thinking of that country from which they went out, they would have had opportunity to return. 16But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; for He has prepared a city for them.

St. Augustine would seize on this contrast (and also find it throughout scripture) between the “City of Man” and the “City of God” and expound on it.

My point is simpler: We are them. We are the strangers and exiles here who live by faith.

You cannot have it both ways. You cannot live by fear and the exercise of power in response AND then claim to live by faith and love.

You must choose. Let the world choose to live by fear and coercion, but you – if a believer, must not.

And it does take faith  and a gutsy one. I have looked down the barrel of a gun inches from my nose and I have gone (recently) toe to toe with drug lords in West Oakland and told them that my camp was off limits.

Two weeks later one of them came to me to barter a peace deal with a guy he could not handle.

I am not talking passivity, nor turning any kind of blind eye.

But those people fleeing Syria are US…exiles and strangers.

Do you see yourself – as a Christian as an exile and stranger looking for another country which is truly your home; or are you really trying to make this your final destination with some mild hope of some ethereal afterlife?

We have had our Hollywood fill of these ridiculous End Times movies and Tim LaHaye’s long-term book deal telling us the world can end at any moment (how’s that?) – but really Jesus spelled out the real end where He separates the sheep from the goats in Matthew 25:31-46.

31“But when the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the angels with Him, then He will sit on His glorious throne.32“All the nations will be gathered before Him; and He will separate them from one another, as the shepherd separates the sheep from the goats; 33and He will put the sheep on His right, and the goats on the left.

34“Then the King will say to those on His right, ‘Come, you who are blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. 35‘For I was hungry, and you gave Me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me something to drink; I was a stranger, and you invited Me in; 36naked, and you clothed Me; I was sick, and you visited Me; I was in prison, and you came to Me.’ 37“Then the righteous will answer Him, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry, and feed You, or thirsty, and give You something to drink? 38‘And when did we see You a stranger, and invite You in, or naked, and clothe You? 39‘When did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?’ 40“The King will answer and say to them, ‘Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them,you did it to Me.’

41“Then He will also say to those on His left, ‘Depart from Me, accursed ones, into the eternal fire which has been prepared for the devil and his angels; 42for I was hungry, and you gave Me nothing to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me nothing to drink; 43I was a stranger, and you did not invite Me in; naked, and you did not clothe Me; sick, and in prison, and you did not visit Me.’ 44“Then they themselves also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry, or thirsty, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not take care of You?’ 45“Then He will answer them, ‘Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to Me.’ 46“These will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

No political, ethnic or other criteria are imposed. In fact the word “stranger” is deliberate.

I think it is telling that most every healthy churches I have attended have had vibrant ministries to the poor and a great concern for them. My current church cannot yet even sustain its own operating budget yet (it is barely a year old) – yet was gladly a ready resource for me in the Tent City when I was there laboring and has continued to look after the guys and maintain a relationship.

I will no longer have an irritation when it comes to the question of Christianity and political power. I get it. Our Political allegiance is to the Kingdom of God, our manifesto is the Sermon on the Mount. Anything else is some form of idolatry plain and simple. It may have some pragmatic value and be worthwhile in many ways. Good – but let’s stop venerating it for that is idolatrous – especially if the fuel of that veneration is fear and anger.

___________

Note: I was watching a video recently sent to me by a friend with four famous atheists (of which I only knew Dawkins and Hitchens) and they were speaking about the fire they had drawn for their views from religious people.

This made me think of the reverse and how Christians complain of “persecution” in this country. I hardly know what they are talking about having been one for over 40 years. Sure, I have been disliked, criticized – possibly misjudged by people due to my faith, but one can hardly call this “persecution.”

Christians in America are utter wimps. And atheists, by and large are too. In academia, the atheist has the upper hand most of the time and it is up to the Christian to simply make a better case – to work harder. I know this well – I am pursuing an M.A. in Berkeley where the “hermeneutic of suspicion is King, er…Queen.”

Criticism or being disliked or misjudged is hardly persecution. More often than not it is bore out of ignorance from people whose notion of Christianity stopped at about Jr. High (if they are my age) when they were given the option of attending church or not. Or there is simply an utter vacuum and they know as much about it as they do Lacrosse.

Now if you were a Lacrose player and someone started criticizing you for playing  sport that employed ponies would you get all bunched up about that or have a good laugh?

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