Thursday, March 31, 2016

Living Out Our Exiled Citizenship

I've been studying Philippians quite a bit recently. It is becoming one of my favorite letters and has a lot to say about our current ecclesiastical and political environment. I find the central thesis of the letter to be 1:27-29 and later in 3:20.

"Whatever happens, live out your citizenship* in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ. Then, whether I come and see you or only hear about you in my absence, I will know that you stand firm in one Spirit, striving together as one for the faith of the gospel without being frightened in any way by those who oppose you. This is a sign to them that they will be destroyed, but that you will be saved - and that by God. For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe in him, but also to suffer for him, since you are going through the same struggle you saw I had, and now hear that I still have."

"But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ..."

Quick history and geography lesson. Philippi was the site of several major battles between Julius Caeser and Brutus versus Octavian (later called Augustus) and Mark Antony. After Octavian and Mark Antony won, they rewarded the entire city of Philippi with Roman citizenship. They also made Philippi a city where Roman military vets could settle down after serving. All of this would make the city one of the most patriotic places in the ancient world (Sprinkle, 153). 

Did you also know that terms like Lord, Savior, and Son of God were applied to Caesar before ever being applied to Jesus? The "peace" of "our Lord and Savior" would more commonly refer to the Pax Romana, or the "Peace of Rome" gained by Caesar through military conquest. They would even send heralds to various Roman cities and pronounce the gospel of military victories. The good news of Rome was spread throughout the land, and certainly would have been ever so present in Philippi where military vets took pride in the freedom they had gained their people (Sprinkle, 155-158). 

This is all beginning to sound familiar, isn't it? 

Nationalism and Patriotism are both the products of pride in one's geographical identity and were ways of life for the Philippians, but Paul calls the church away from such identity and allegiance, and to see themselves as citizens of another kingdom entirely - pledged to a different king.

Paul assures them in chapter 3 that if there is anyone who should take pride in their earthly identity, it is Paul himself. Roman citizen, Pharisee, every reason to have pride. However, Paul considers all of these a loss for the sake of Christ, indeed, he considered them garbage that he might know Christ (3:7-8). That word we translate as garbage is a little stronger than what we can translate without Focus on the Family breathing down our necks. Needless to say, Paul considers all nationalistic identity markers pretty worthless compared to finding identity in Christ. 

He illustrates this completely and utterly with Jesus himself, who modeled something so completely opposite of pride. 

"Who, being in very nature God,
   did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
   by taking the very nature of a servant,
   being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man, 
   he humbled himself
   by becoming obedient to death - 
      even death on a cross!" (Philippians 2:6-8)

This is what the Philippians' relationships are supposed to be like, because they are told to live in unity with one another (2:1-5). Christ's humility is given as the reason they are to act selfless, and put others' needs before their own as they seek to be unified.

I feel as though Nationalism and Patriotism are often held up as positive things because they help unify nations. Here though, Paul is writing to a group of people who are not of this world, and so any identity with earthly nations tends to merely get in the way of unity. Nationalism creates "us" and "them" while Christ encourages us to see others as brothers and sisters. Nationalism puts up walls while Christ tears them down. Nationalism creates fear of others and asks for better defense while Christ gives the peace that surpasses all understanding and asks for patient suffering and endurance. 

Perfect love casts out fear, or should I say that it trumps it?

This is not a call to whitewash nationality, ethnicity, and all other cultural background of the people around us. Those things can indeed help us understand each other and appreciate each other as long as they are viewed properly. This is instead a call for us as Christians to view people through a different lens entirely - the lens of Christ. We find unity not through excluding everyone who is different than us but by putting others before ourselves (Philippians 2:3-4) and loving each other despite our differences. 

This also doesn't mean that we don't work for the welfare of the place we live. Jeremiah certainly encouraged the people of Israel to seek peace and do good in the place where God had sent them as an exile (29:7). However, the trick is remembering that you're still an exile, and your citizenship remains somewhere else.

I pledge allegiance to no nation because ultimately, my allegiance is unequivocally pledged to Christ. While nationalism and patriotism create boundaries between us, Christ tears those boundaries down and helps us see each other as we truly are - children of God. Perhaps when we stop seeing lines, we can truly make the world a better place.

*While many translations choose to render this word as "walk in a manner" or "conduct yourselves" - the word itself has something to do with citizenship since the root word is polis (having to do with city) and the overall context of the letter seems to insinuate such a reading.

Works Cited:

Sprinkle, Preston. Fight: A Christian Case for Nonviolence.  Colorado Springs, CO: David C. Cook, 2013. Print.

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