Wednesday, April 19, 2017

On Mostly Agreeding with David Congdon: Some Lingering Questions about Christians and Exile

David Congdon has written a considered, measured, thoughtful piece at Sojourners on the use of the trope of "exile" in the recent writing of conservative Christians like Rod Dreher and Russell Moore. My agreement with what David writes there hovers between 70 and 90%. He and I have had some gentle disagreements about this topic in the past, and it was helpful to see his thoughts on the matter laid out so clearly and concisely. Given our considerable agreement, I wanted to take a moment and emerge out of my self-imposed blogging exile(!) in order to formulate some questions in light of his piece.

1. Given David's understanding of the church's mission according to the New Testament, what is the role of "distinctness" or "uniqueness" (or "holiness") as a description of the church community vis-a-vis the society in which it resides? Secondarily, what is the role of Old Testament texts like Deuteronomy (to which he refers) within the church's reading of Scripture—texts that place a heavy emphasis on such distinctness as befitting God's people—with a view to the church's own life and mission?

2. David writes: "If everything is exile, nothing is exile." Is this adage intended to take the "sting" out of the calling of Christians to be, or the feeling on the part of Christians as, exiles? If not, to what extent is it appropriate for Christians to self-identity as and/or to "feel" like exiles in the societies in which they reside? What, in other words, is the shadow side of living as exiles on earth, awaiting our eschatological home in the kingdom of God?

3. David writes: "Every culture is equally close and equally distant from the new creation." I agree with and affirm this claim, from one angle. From another perspective, however, it seems oddly flat, generic, non-particular, and a-historical. Some cultures are hotbeds of legalized terror, torture, persecution, slavery, injustice, oppression, and totalitarianism; others are not. Granted, all cultures lie on a continuum; there is no qualitative difference, no absolute distinction between Good and Bad cultures. But, at any given moment, at some particular moment or period in time, one culture may be objectively, unquestionably less unjust (on the whole) than another. Of what actual use, then, is the claim that both such (hypothetical) cultures are "equally close and equally distant from the new creation"?

4. The next sentence reads as follows: "For those who follow Jesus, every person is a neighbor and every place is a home." This is true. But neighbors, sometimes, are enemies, and homes, sometimes, are hostile. That does not preclude love, but it may involve departure, emigration—even, in a literal sense, exile from one's natural or original home and neighbors. Christians are not strangers to refugee status. My question for David is: If life in this world, for Christians as for all others, is highly differentiated, and neighbors and homes can be friendly or hostile or anything in between, then of what concrete use are statements like "every person is a neighbor and every place is a home"? More to the point, why is the biblical trope of "exile" not available to Christians for whom life in this world is, truly and sincerely, precisely as a function of their faith, the experience of exile? Why is "exile" excluded as a mode of self-understanding for Christians whose experience is aptly described by the term?

5. Is there a charitable but fitting way of interpreting or appropriating the "exile" language of Moore et al? That is, David is right to characterize much of this kind of move as nostalgia for Christendom or "Christian America," and to point out that America neither was nor is the church's own culture (over against some other land or country). And to the extent that recourse to "exile" language is a way of claiming "America" as somehow properly "the church's," only to repudiate the entirety of it, I agree with David. I wonder, however, if there might be a way of affirming the recent move to exilic language, under certain conditions or given a certain understanding. In short, the post-culture war, post-Trump wake-up call to conservative Christians can be an impetus, not to total separation from (as a hard pendulum swing from total affirmation of) American culture, but to the realization that, precisely as David articulates it, the church always was, always is, and always will be a community of exiles in this world, no matter where it finds itself—which means both a kind of perpetual alienation from and a special hospitality toward its host societies. I suspect that, if not Dreher, then at least Moore, along with many others, would perhaps be amenable to this way of formulating it. That is to say, perhaps the language of "exile" can be a goad to productive conversation regarding church and culture, rather than one more unbridgeable divide between so-called conservatives and so-called liberals. (I speak here as an outsider, not being an evangelical myself.)

6. Finally, David writes: "This does not mean, of course, that a church contextualized within the United States would uncritically affirm the culture. . . . Reclaiming home does not mean uncritically adopting whatever seems fashionable at the time. It means approaching cultural changes and developments with an attitude of openness and hospitality, with a readiness to embrace rather than exclude. Reclaiming home means obeying the biblical injunction to live wholly without fear or anxiety. . . . Perhaps a future generation will yet say that 'Christians love everything outside of the church.'" I confess to being confused on this point; I find it the one feature of the piece that is less than clear to me. David is—rightly—a fierce critic of a variety of aspects of American culture, not least (to take only one example) capitalism. What does it mean to "approach" capitalism "with a readiness to embrace rather than exclude," or to "love everything"—including capitalism—"outside of the church"? American culture—like every other culture in this world—is constituted in part by systemic injustice and demonic powers that oppress its most vulnerable members. Should not the church's posture to such a culture be entirely determined by the particular feature (aspect, component, idea, practice, law, person) before it? To be sure, the church should, as a matter of principle, be oriented to "the world," that is, its neighbors, in a posture of love and hospitality. But that is different from the particular features of a particular culture that I take David to be speaking of here. I see no reason to assume in advance that that posture or relationship will be a positive rather than a negative one. It all depends on context, and cannot be known or decided in advance. I therefore see no reason to concur with David's (to me surprising) rhetorically rosy prescription at the conclusion of his piece.

But especially on this sixth and last point, it may be that I have misunderstood him. At any rate, David has done us a service, and I look forward to further conversation on all six points. My thanks to David for his generous and careful reflection on this topic, and for instigating what I hope is an equally thoughtful reply on my part.