Some Advice for Christians Who Think They’re Living in a “Time of Exile”

Carl Trueman
Carl Trueman – Westminster Theological Seminary

“We live in a time of exile,” writes Carl Trueman in the August 2014 issue of First Things. “At least those of us do who hold to traditional Christian beliefs. The strident rhetoric of scientism has made belief in the supernatural look ridiculous. The Pill, no-fault divorce, and now gay marriage have made traditional sexual ethics look outmoded at best and hateful at worst. The Western public square is no longer a place where Christians feel they belong with any degree of comfort.”

At one level, I read claims like this and respond like John Turner:

One senses a heightened tension and anxiety within evangelical America today…. This evangelical anxiety is nothing new, and therefore evangelicals should not panic, certainly not about whether their churches will be relevant in ten or twenty or fifty years. Our problems are relatively minor, not existential, as facing many Christian communities around the world today. There is no war on women, and there is no war on Christianity or religion. At least not in the United States.

Indeed, in light of what’s happening to their sisters and brothers in Christ in Iraq right now, it would be faintly ridiculous for American Christians of any stripe to feel anything stronger than discomfort as they bemoan the loss of cultural influence or respectability.

But if you’re a theologically conservative Christian feeling that the problem is actually “existential,” let me suggest a couple of ways to approach the experience of living “in a time of exile”:

1. Accept exile — welcome it, even

If you’re feeling like an exile, it’s because you are one. We’re promised nothing else as citizens of the City of God temporarily sojourning in this world. Not comfort or influence or popularity or power. Exile.

Perhaps a nagging sense of never being truly at home in this world will be familiar for older evangelicals, a group that Turner describes as having long “thrived as an embattled minority, generating a healthy sense of tension with their surrounding culture.” (I’m still startled by Roger Olson’s reflection that, in the evangelical circles he grew up in, people fully expected “that someday, probably in our own lifetimes, society and even government would arrest us and possibly even torture us for our fervent loyalty to Jesus Christ above ‘this world.'”) But Trueman suspects otherwise, since “Evangelicalism has largely wedded itself to the vision of America as at heart a Christian nation, a conception that goes back to the earliest New England settlers.”

If he’s speaking to you and you want to protest that America is a Christian nation, one that needs to be “taken back,” then you need to pause for a moment. And ask yourself, as a good, Bible-believing Christian:

If you accept scriptures like 1 Peter as being inspired and authoritative, then shouldn’t you expect that being “foreigners and exiles” (2:11) goes hand in hand with being counted among God’s “chosen people” (2:9)? Shouldn’t you savor how political, social, or cultural exile will help you learn anew to “Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human authority” (2:13)? To “Show proper respect to everyone” (2:17), living “such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us” (2:12)?

It’s easier said than done, I know. So where do we find guidance? Let a historian give you a totally non-surprising answer:

2. Learn from the past

“What does it mean to be a Christian?”, asked a curious Roman named Diognetus at some point in the 2nd century. “Clear out all the thoughts that take up your attention,” came back the still-anonymous answer, “and pack away all the old ways of looking at things that keep deceiving you.”

And I can’t think of better advice for present-day American Christians who have, for too long, made the adjective the primary source of their identity (rather than an accident of birth) and need a reminder of the meaning of the noun:

For Christians cannot be distinguished from the rest of the human race by country or language or customs…. They busy themselves on earth, but their citizenship is in heaven. They obey the established laws, but in their own lives they go far beyond what the laws require. They love all men, and by all men are persecuted. They are unknown, and still they are condemned; they are put to death, and yet they are brought to life. They are poor, and yet they make many rich; they are completely destitute, and yet they enjoy complete abundance. They are dishonored, and in their very dishonor are glorified; they are defamed, and are vindicated. They are reviled, and yet they bless; when they are affronted, they still pay due respect. When they do good, they are punished as evildoers; undergoing punishment, they rejoice because they are brought to life.

Church history offers no shortage of Christians who have lived out the calling of exile in settings far more hostile than 21st century America. “Traditional” Christians would do well to heed the wisdom of that tradition.

11th century painting of the martyrdom of Perpetua
11th century painting of the martyrdom of Perpetua and her friends, ca. 203 – Wikimedia

Trueman, an Orthodox Presbyterian pastor who teaches at Westminster Theological Seminary, points evangelicals (and Roman Catholics) to his own tradition: “…of this I am convinced: Reformed Christianity is best equipped to help us in our exile.”

As a non-Reformed Protestant, I can see how Trueman finds something valuable in the Reformed emphasis on a liturgy centered in the hearing of the Word of God, and in His sovereignty: “For those in physical exile, for those suffering for their faith, for those despised and marginalized by the world around them, the knowledge that history is under God’s control provides encouragement.” And he may be right that the Reformed tradition is too marginal a presence in American society to worry about the “loss of social influence and political aspirations that now confront Evangelicalism and Roman Catholicism.” (Though I think that describes the older Reformed communities more than the “neo-Puritan” evangelicals who have gravitated to Calvinist theology.)

More problematic is the way that Trueman, a church historian, tries to make his case by historical allusion:

…[Reformed Christianity] was itself forged in a time of exile, often by men who were literal exiles. Indeed, the most famous Reformed theologian of them all, John Calvin, was a Frenchman who found fame and influence as a pastor outside his homeland, in the city of Geneva. The Pilgrim fathers of New England knew the realities of exile, and the conditions that it imposed upon the people, only too well. Winthrop’s famous comment about being a city on a hill was not a statement of messianic destiny but a reminder to the colonists of the fact that their lives as exiles were to be lived out in the glare of hostile scrutiny. Exile demanded they have a clear and godly identity.

So selective a reading of Reformed history begs objections from historians like Jonathan Wilson:

Meanwhile, the Puritans who left one England for a newer one soon exiled those whom they viewed as endangering their “clear and godly identity.” (Even for those 21st century Christians who find Calvin’s or the Puritan approach to living “in exile” admirable, I wonder how many would be willing to accept the church discipline that played such a key role in forging Reformed identity in times of religious persecution and warfare…)

Again, I’m not Reformed, but if I were to seek a “usable past” in the history of that tradition, I’d look to the case of the French Protestant minority known as the Huguenots.

Jewish children in Le Chambon
Jewish children being sheltered in the Reformed village of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, ca. 1942 – US Holocaust Memorial Museum

Never more than 10% of the population, they were targeted by their own government in the Wars of Religion (1562-1598), won a measure of religious freedom in the Edict of Nantes that was revoked in the next century by Louis XIV, and then left France in droves. For those few who remained, writes Philip Hallie, “France was almost always le désert (a wasteland) for her Protestants. Their temples (and even this word originated as a term of derision suggesting pagan rites) were razed, so that worship had to be conducted in darkened homes or in secluded fields and woods. The Protestants had learned to expect all of this from the law of France: le mal (evil, harm).” Their pastors “were often living, visible counterparts of a persecuted Jesus.”

The descendants of the Huguenots gained status as citizens in the French Revolution, but had been reduced to a tiny minority (1-2%) that clustered in small enclaves, particularly in the east and south of France. (The motto of France’s Reformed churches was inspired by Exodus 3:2 — “I am burned, but not consumed.”) If that often produced a kind of insularity that’s not uncommon to Reformed communities in American history, it also prepared one Reformed community to risk their own lives for the sake of thousands of Jewish refugees during the Holocaust.

Hallie, Lest Innocent Blood Be ShedHallie’s book, Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed, tells the story of the village of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, whose 5000 largely Protestant villagers (under the leadership of a Reformed pastor named André Trocmé), sheltered an equal number of people fleeing Nazi persecution, some 3500 of them Jewish children and teenagers. All this despite Le Chambon being just 200 km south of Vichy, the capital of France’s collaborationist government. (Here’s a condensed version of the story via the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.)

“The Holocaust was storm, lightning, thunder, wind, rain…,” one Jewish woman told Hallie at the end of one of his lectures. “And Le Chambon was the rainbow.” Her three children had found shelter in that village.

Why did these French Protestants take such a risk on behalf of non-Christians? Hallie repeatedly refers back to their collective memory of persecution and alienation. Their sense of living as exiles in their own country had “helped make them clear-cut in their thinking and firm in their convictions. Having been tested by adversity, they had kept themselves alive by remaining lucid and unshakable” (pp. 132-33).

But more importantly than conviction, exile taught them love. Of God, of each other, and of those quite different from them.

“Full of love” is how one Vichy officer described the village, after he arrested Trocmé. That heroic pastor (who survived internment and, with his wife and cousin, was later placed among of the “Righteous among the Nations” by the state of Israel) preached Christ-like love in a church whose main door is crowned by the inscription, “Love one another.” In his 1989 documentary about Le Chambon, Weapons of the Spirit, filmmaker Pierre Sauvage asked the surviving members of Trocmé’s flock why they had risked their lives for his parents and the other Jewish refugees. “We were used to it,” said one woman. “Love your neighbor,” said a man.

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