America may be our nation, but it is not our home. Our eternal home will be with God in the new heavens and new earth. Yet for now we are here–paying taxes, mowing the lawn, and following the news as exiles in America.
How should we live in our country as we anticipate our home? Historically, this has been one of the most challenging questions facing the church. The pendulum has swung from one extreme of monks hiding in the desert to the other extreme of the Pope crowning the Holy Roman Emperor.
In America, we the people get a say in crowning our leader, and the presidential primary season presents its own set of questions for how exiles live in America. How should we respond to all the animosity, division, and corruption revealed through the election process? Personally I have oscillated between the impulses to “fix the system” and to ignore the hopeless task altogether.
These extremes have reminded me of the characters Celie and Sofia (played respectively by Whoopi Goldberg and Oprah Winfrey) in the harrowing, beautiful film adaptation of The Color Purple. Both women deal with harshly abusive men in their lives, yet cope in radically different ways. Celie resigns herself to the abuse, even advising Sofia’s husband, Harpo, to beat her in order to tamp down her strong will. Her acquiescence rested on the conviction that “Dis life be over soon. Heaven last always.”
Sofia was a different story. Upon learning of Celie’s betrayal, she declared (with all the fiery indignation Oprah could muster), “All my life I had to fight. I had to fight my daddy. I had to fight my uncles. I had to fight my brothers. Girl child ain’t safe in a family of mens. But I ain’t never thought I had to fight in my own house! I loves Harpo. God knows I do. But I’ll kill him dead ‘fore I let him beat me!” Sofia had much different advice for Celie regarding her husband’s abuse and heaven–“Girl, you oughta bash Mister’s head open and think about heaven later!”
The film reveals both women’s approach to be problematic. Celie eventually reaches a breaking point of how much abuse she can abide, and Sofia’s combative spirit yields tragic consequences. Yet their stories portray in miniature the fallout of the church’s extreme approaches to life in exile. When we ignore injustice around us and simply wait for heaven, we risk complicity in others’ harm that we could have prevented. In this we abandon Jesus’ great commandment to love our neighbor as ourselves. On the other extreme, when we charge into the corrupt systems of this world to put everything right, we will inevitably hit some wall of human power that reminds us that shalom will not be restored until our King returns.
There is another option–not simply middle ground between the extremes but one that combines our longing for heaven with our daily life on earth. It is the exile’s action best exemplified by Daniel, whether he was fighting for his life or ruling as the second most powerful man in his host nation. It is our means of mourning over suffering, holding fast to God’s promises, and acknowledging the authority of our King. What is this chief of exile activities? Prayer.
Prayer, as one writer phrased it, is “rebelling against the status quo.”* Through prayer we give voice to our rising frustration that the world is not as it should be. Through prayer we acknowledge that God is the only one who can bring lasting change, thus we cry out to him to make things right. All the great works of God–the exodus, the cross, the missionary journeys, to name a few–were preceded by prayers by God’s faithful.
So the next time you find yourself wanting either to give up on this world or to bash some heads, resolve to do something that will actually make a difference. Take all your anger, bewilderment, and powerlessness to God. Do the work of prayer and be ready for God to involve you in his answer. You may not change the outcome of an election or the course of a nation, but if you are submitted to the will of the eternal King, you can “be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain” (1 Corinthians 15:58).
*See David Wells’ excellent article.