The Common Good

The Welfare of the City

"They pass their days on earth, but they are citizens of heaven. They obey the prescribed laws, and at the same time surpass the laws by their lives."

Girl on an urban street, Creativemarc / Shutterstock.com
Girl on an urban street, Creativemarc / Shutterstock.com

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The above is from a second-century letter to a Roman official has been making the rounds again. It’s been critiqued and analyzed by theologians and pastors alike. Suddenly relevant, the letter to Diognetus is an apologetic, an explanation if you will, of what it meant in the eyes of one writer to be a Christian in that day.

The letter is also an attempt to explain what it means for a Christian to be a citizen of an empire. The author wrote of loyalty, perseverance, and faithfulness, of what it means to be a citizen of heaven above and beyond any other citizenship.

It’s an uncommon rhetoric in our day, to be certain.

A curious early document, the author does not point to scripture as an authority. It’s too soon for epistles and canons. Still, I cannot help but wonder if Jeremiah’s words weren’t somehow in the mix, if the story of Jesus and the ten lepers weren’t in there too.

Heal society’s castoffs and then compel that same society to make peace with those they shun.
Work for the welfare of the place you live no matter what that place may be.
The letter reflects this venerable wisdom.

Listen to a little of this.

"For the Christians are distinguished from other men neither by country, nor language, nor the customs which they observe. For they neither inhabit cities of their own, nor employ a peculiar form of speech, nor lead a life which is marked out by any singularity. The course of conduct which they follow has not been devised by any speculation or deliberation of inquisitive [people]; nor do they, like some, proclaim themselves the advocates of any merely human doctrines. But, inhabiting Greek as well as barbarian cities, according as the lot of each of them has determined, and following the customs of the natives in respect to clothing, food, and the rest of their ordinary conduct, they display to us their wonderful and confessedly striking method of life.
They dwell in their own countries, but simply as sojourners.”

It’s a beautiful testimony of the activities of those in the church.

Sojourners.

In our scripture passages this morning, Jeremiah is offering advice to the people of God about how they are to live while in exile. They too are to be sojourners, looking after the welfare of the land in which they find themselves.

I’m entirely intrigued by the behavior of these early Christians.

Here we are in the midst of a government shutdown.
Every day we just keep digging deeper and deeper into the political quagmire.

I don’t know about you, but I find myself wondering every day how to be a good citizen of this land, how to live in peace with others, how to live in community with others.

I want to know how to live here and now but as someone who believes that God is here and that the Kingdom is now.

I also believe that we are called together, you know, one Body.
Christians are not called as individuals, but as a Body.
So whatever this looks like, this kingdom life, this God Reality, there are no Lone Rangers.
Faith is a communal venture. But we’re not to foist it upon others who don’t wish for it.

I grew up in the shadow of the Southern Strategy of the 1970s. Thus, sometimes it feels like the only model I have for how Christians embody the faith in relationship to their politics looks like the Religious Right.

Arm in arm with politicians, elected officials, appointed officials, or lobbyists, Christians are people who exert political power of some kind. That’s what being the church means: power.

This is a Christian nation, after all, “One nation, under God …” A creative addition to the American Pledge of Allegiance long after it was first written.

Political rhetoric baptized in theology is nothing new, of course.

The time of Diognetus was a time of oppression, of persecution for the Church. The Roman Empire had not yet made Christianity the law of the land, so Christians were suffering persecution. During the fourth century the tide changed. Christianity was not simply legalized; it was made the law of the land. For example, if you wanted to own property, you had to be Christian. Temples for other faiths were closed. Christianity was given a place of great privilege. And, of course, this was good news to many Christians — certainly better than being fed to lions. Why not rejoice?

The Empire did much in the name of Christ including going to war and using violent means to stamp out various heretical groups. It is a confounding legacy.

We have been living with the legacy for the past 1,600 years. It is still a puzzle. Even in the United States where there is a legal and institutional separation between Church and State, the separation often appears merely nominal, our national identity (for many) is so wrapped up in the Christian story that we cannot imagine how to welcome those who do not share our faith or we may cry “the sky is falling” when people practice no religious faith at all.

C’mon! This is America. Isn’t there supposed to be a steeple in every town square?

We struggle mightily with what it means to be American when what we need to be more concerned with is what it means to be Christian no matter where we may find ourselves.

Again, from the letter:

"As citizens, they share in all things with others, and yet endure all things as if foreigners. Every foreign land is to them as their native country, and every land of their birth as a land of strangers. They pass their days on earth, but they are citizens of heaven. They obey the prescribed laws, and at the same time surpass the laws by their lives."

I may not share the politics of those on the Religious Right, but I often find myself trying to mimic their methods. Is there a Religious Left? You bet there is. You can find them online, of course. Groups like Sojourners are often labeled the Religious Left.

None the less, this letter and its contents keeps nagging at me, asking me to think differently about what it means to be a citizen. The letter and Jeremiah’s advice catch me by surprise. Perhaps I suffer from a lack of imagination.

I want to know how to live here and now but as someone who believes that God is here and that the Kingdom is now.

What might it look like to work for the welfare of the city as Jeremiah tells the exiles? What of this second century wisdom?

"They love [every kind of person], and are persecuted by all. They are unknown and condemned; they are put to death, and restored to life. They are poor, yet make many rich; they are in lack of all things, and yet abound in all; they are dishonored, and yet in their very dishonor are glorified. They are evil spoken of, and yet are justified; they are reviled, and bless; they are insulted, and repay the insult with honor; they do good, yet are punished as evil-doers. When punished, they rejoice as if quickened into life …"

There are indeed Christians today who are persecuted by means similar to that of the first centuries of the history of the religion. Their churches are being bombed. They are dragged out into the streets in the middle of the night and executed. We have to be careful not to consign “Christian oppression” to the past.

Nor should we equate legislative frustrations in the United States with oppression. Christians are simply not oppressed in this country. We are accustomed to incredible freedoms. We might not even recognize where Christian identity and American identity begin and end. We might conflate the two entirely.

It’s a mess. Plain and simple.
But the call remains.
Heal. Go to the outcasts and live among them.
Challenge the status quo.
Show the powers that be that those who are most in need are no less citizens of the nation as any other person.
Put down roots.
Live in community with one another.
Seek the welfare of the city.
Pray for the city. Work on it’s behalf.
Seek the welfare of the castoffs.
Surpass the laws of the land in goodness, in healing, in miracles, in growing things.

I want to know how to live here and now but as someone who believes that God is here and that the Kingdom is now.

What might that look like? Are there contemporary examples, or do we have to go all the way back to the second century to figure it out? Maybe we’re inclined to turn to the 1960’s for examples of leadership, the grand scale of it all pulls at our imaginations. But maybe we need to look to someone else, someone a little surprising. Someone smaller.

Because this life we’re looking for might look like the 16-year-old Malala Yousafzai.

Malala is the young woman who was shot in the head by a member of the Taliban because she refused to stop going to school and working for educational opportunity for other girls in her part of the world.

She was interviewed on the Daily Show with Jon Stewart. The show is a satirical newscast, but Stewart had Malala on to promote her new book. At one point in the interview Stewart asked her if she knew she was a target and what she thought about that. This was her response.

"I started thinking about that, and I used to think that the Talib would come, and he would just kill me. But then I said, ‘If he comes, what would you do Malala?’ then I would reply to myself, ‘Malala, just take a shoe and hit him.’ But then I said, ‘If you hit a Talib with your shoe, then there would be no difference between you and the Talib. You must not treat others with cruelty and that much harshly, you must fight others but through peace and through dialogue and through education.’ Then I said I will tell him how important education is and that ‘I even want education for your children as well.’ And I will tell him, ‘That’s what I want to tell you, now do what you want.’"

Seek the welfare of my city.
My city, says God, where I will send you.
We are citizens of heaven.
Sojourners.
The children of God.
God is here. The kingdom is now.
Amen. 

Tripp Hudgins is a doctoral student in liturgical studies at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, Calif., and associate pastor of First Baptist Church of Palo Alto, Calif. You can read more of his writings on his longtime blog, "Conjectural Navel Gazing; Jesus in Lint Form" at AngloBaptist.orgFollow Tripp on Twitter @AngloBaptist.

Image: Girl on an urban street, Creativemarc / Shutterstock.com

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