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Dr. Lee Beach is Assistant Professor of Christian Ministry and Director of Ministry Formation at McMaster Divinity College. He has also taught courses in Pastoral Care at Tyndale Seminary.

July 2012

Current Volume 4

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The Hopefulness and Helpfulness of an Exilic Paradigm

The growing marginalization of the church in Canada is well documented. At one time the church occupied a role near the centre of power in Canadian life. There once was a day when the Christian preacher could go into the pulpit believing that there was a rough cultural consensus that affirmed many of the basic ideas that were contained in the Bible from which he or she was going to preach. The consensus may have been loose, but at least one could work from it. That is now far from the case and only the most foolish of preachers assumes it. However, can we legitimately employ exile as an appropriate way of understanding our place in current Canadian society? Exile conjures images of fleeing under the cover of darkness, sneaking across borders, or at very least being cast out of one’s homeland by government decree. Can such harsh realities accurately describe the experience of the church in Canada?

In order to appreciate the full potential of the motif of exile we must understand that the concept  entails more than being displaced from one’s native country as a result of forced expulsion or voluntary separation. Walter Brueggemann writes that while the notion of exile is initially thought of as geographical displacement this is not its essence.  It is a cultural, spiritual condition that is experienced when one finds themselves in an alien environment and where conforming to the norms of that environment would mean to adopt values that are incongruent with one’s own faith.1 Likewise, Paul Tabori has noted that though exilic experience may include  physical displacement, it should not be limited to this..  He underscores the fact that one can be “in the land” and yet still be in exile.  Exile is, in its very essence, living away from home.2 It is the reality of once having had some amount of cultural power, only to find your power largely gone. It is the move from feeling at home to feeling like you are away from home.

It must be said that when appropriating a motif such as exile one must do so cautiously and with deep respect for the seriousness of the term.  Exile has been a terrifying reality for many peoples throughout history. Glorifying the idea of being stripped of cultural power may seem romantic on the surface, when it does not actually infringe on personal rights. It is far less appealing when it results in actual violence, forced removal, and disenfranchisement. However, the motif of exile offers the church in Canada some genuine possibilities as a generative paradigm for self-identification and mission. Our experience of being de-centred places us in both theological and sociological kinship with Israel, Second Temple Judaism, and the early church in a way that the resources that they produced can inform our contemporary experience.

Determining How to Respond

Exile provokes many responses in those who experience its reality. Some will throw their lot in with their conquerors and become collaborators with the new status quo.  Others may choose a separatist approach and shirk back into cultural enclaves that remain largely detached and unengaged with the broader culture. In Canada today we can see both of these responses being played out in the church.  On the one hand there is a decline in the church that is in part a response to the challenge of living in an unwelcoming setting. In a post-Christian culture the Christian faith seems less plausible because it is not widely practiced and thus it is easier to conform to a status quo that is increasingly un-Christian. On the other hand, for some the way forward is to lurch back to expressions of faith that emphasize traditional doctrinal formulations and behaviours in the face of the challenges of marginalization.

While similar responses can be found in the literature and history of ancient Israel, at its core Israel responded to exile with theological reform.  What is clear is that while exile demonstrates the disorientation that new social realities bring, in the life of Israel exile brought responses of faith to effectively engage new social realities. Brueggemann observes that exile did not lead Jews in the Old Testament to abandon faith, despair, or retreat to privatistic religion.  Instead, exile evoked the most daring literature and fresh theological thinking found in the Old Testament.3 Thus, a brief consideration of how Israel reoriented itself in its new state of exile can be informative for our contemporary exile.

The Practices of Exile

Three practices that guided ancient Israel in exile can help to form the foundation for exilic hope in the Canadian church as well. The first of these is a commitment to authentic holiness that results in a genuinely alternative community. Identity formation for God’s people in exilic situations is foundational to their survival. Israel found itself seeking to define its distinctiveness from Babylon and Persia by re-engaging with the law and calling for a renewal of Sabbath keeping (Jer 17:19–27; Isa 56:2–6; Ezek 44:24).  Figures like Nehemiah and Ezra radically challenged Israel to live separately from their foreign captors. A character like Daniel tells a story of integrated holiness. A call to the practices that made them distinct was at the heart of Israel’s success as a people in exile.  For the church in Canada a renewal of the practices of Christian holiness is crucial to our success. A core tenet of the church’s identity is the understanding that, in all of its imperfections, it is called to somehow demonstrate the life of Jesus to the world.  Put another way, the church is itself the logic of the gospel as it demonstrates the difference that Jesus can make when he is taken seriously and his teachings are followed, even imperfectly.  In this sense the church is created to make the gospel plausible to those outside of it and this self-understanding is increasingly necessary for both the church and the world. As Israel returned to its law so too the church needs to seriously engage with key texts that define the distinctiveness of its life (i.e. the life of Jesus as found in the gospels, the Sermon on the Mount, the book of Acts) and allow itself to be formed by the patterns of life that are described there. In doing this the church establishes its alternative identity but also presents itself as a genuinely alternative community for people to participate in that is different from the broader culture.

Second, Israel’s continued survival through exile was guided by a willingness to reflect on its faith and offer fresh articulations of it in light of its new circumstances. One place where this is most clearly seen is in its renewed theology of God’s presence outside of the land of Israel itself (Jer, 29: 4-7, Ezekiel 1). The experience of exile is one that causes us, just as it did ancient Israel, to think about God differently.  It must awaken us to the idea that our theology must always be open to new discoveries and new ways of understanding what it means to live faithfully in our current context. The work of church leadership in a time of exile is to help congregations think theologically about their identity as God’s exiled people, and to consider what the implications of these circumstances are for the practice of their faith. A new context inspired Israel to read scripture with different eyes and rediscover aspects of its meaning for a new set of circumstances. It also led to new stories (Daniel, Esther, Jonah) that helped Israel discover the potential of exilic life. Similarly, we will have to allow our exilic context to interpret our faith in fresh ways. New circumstances will cause us to read scripture with new eyes, to discern the activity of the Spirit in new ways, and thus express our faith in ways that are different from past generations who lived in the pseudo-Christendom that Canada once was.

Christian leaders in Canada today must have to courage to lead their congregations in the work of theological reflection so as to make the Christian faith contextually appropriate to its specific place and time. This means ongoing change, which is never easy. Yet exile is not a time of settledness but a time of transition and adaptation. We must lead our churches from this paradigm in a way that addresses it. Admittedly this is a risky venture, but it is a risk that Israel and the early church accepted and that our present circumstances call for.

Third, exile calls for a renewal of mission. Exile enabled Israel to rediscover its role as light to the nations (Isa. 42:5–7; 49:5–6).  In the same way the marginalization of the church in the Western world is awakening a new missional focus that is both a response to the new relationship between church and culture and a rediscovery of the church’s true nature. Today it is ironic that the de-centering of the church and the challenges of a post-Christian culture provide an impetus for the church to rediscover its true identity and re-think how it can fulfill its mandate to mission. Exile forces both an inward and an outward focus. It causes you to look inward in order to define your new identity as an exile and gain strength from it, but it also causes you to look outward at the challenges that you now face as an outsider and decide how to meet those challenges with new initiatives that engage the broader culture as one who lives on its margins. Simply put, exile means the end of a cultural pride of place and the dawn of a missional, outward vision that realizes that we must earn the right to be taken seriously.

Conclusion

Exile is a time for rediscovery of one’s core identity and reorientation of one’s relationship to the world. In light of this it could be that the recovery of an exilic paradigm as a means of self definition is absolutely necessary for the church in post-Christian times. Indeed, exile tends to infuse communities with new creative energy that rises to meet the challenges of new cultural circumstances.4 Accordingly, the responses to exile that are offered by the communities depicted in Scripture provide resources to the contemporary church and its own formation as an exilic people.  That is, exile is an appropriate motif for the Western church’s understanding of itself and its mission in its current setting. A robust biblical and practical theology rooted in both the Old Testament and New Testament visions of exile can inform the contemporary church’s self-understanding and mission.

While exile was devastating for Israelite life and faith and life for the early church was a continual challenge, their circumstances proved to be a time of development that generated a better future for both. As Ephraim Radner eloquently states regarding Israel’s exile, “exile is also a movement by which our Lord delineated deliverance.  As such, it can hardly be a cause for fear.”5 This can also be the case for the Canadian church in the twenty-first century if we are willing to learn from the wisdom of our ancestors in the faith.


Notes

  • 1 Walter Brueggeman, Cadences of Home, 115.
  • 2 Paul Tabori, Anatomy of Exile, 32.
  • 3 Brueggeman, 3.
  • 4 Zygmunt Bauman, “Assimilation into Exile,” 321.
  • 5 Ephraim Radner, “From Liberation to Exile,” 934.

Bibliography

  • Bauman, Zygmunt.  “Assimilation into Exile: A Jew as a Polish Writer.” In Exile and Creativity: Signposts, Travelers, Outsiders, Backward Glances, edited by Susan Rubin Suleiman, 321-352. Durham: Duke University Press, 1996.
  • Brueggemann, Walter. Cadences of Home: Preaching Among Exiles. Louisville: John Knox, 1997.
  • Radner, Ephraim. “From Liberation to Exile: A New Image for Church Mission.” Christian Century 30.18 (1989) 931-934.
  • Tabori, Paul. The Anatomy of Exile: A Semantic and Historical Study.  London: Harrap,
    1972.

4 Comments

  1. avatar

    Great writing Lee! Found it really interesting!

  2. avatar

    This is a good summary of “Cadences of Home.” It’s instructive to note that the time of exile was also the time of emergence of the synagogue. Intriguingly – the synagogue was not a lecture hall, but a place of debate centered around the text. perhaps Brueggemann’s argument for “de-centered preaching” (testimony) is one we should also heed, finding new ways to open a creative commons for dialogue in our communities.

  3. Rose
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    Great article. The first statement in the conclusion is so profound and deep. I couldn’t have said it better. God uses the time of exile to awaken His church and His people; to let them see who they are and where they are heading. I myself am in the process of rediscovering my identity; the meaning of my life, who am I as a Christian and why God has brought me here and why now?

  4. Revd Margaret
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    I’ve been looking at what it means for Christians in the UK to consider themselves ‘in exile”. Your article about Canada resonates with what is happening for us in the UK. Exile means so much more now in the light of what is happening in the middle east, yet it is still a relevant concept for Western Christianity. You clarified some muddled thinking for me. Thank you.

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