I know I should cherish the fact that some people in the world think well of me, but sometimes the compliments people pay make me wonder what exactly I’m doing wrong. In those cases I realize that something about the way I conduct myself resonates with something that my interlocutor deems valuable, and if I’m uncomfortable with that resonance, I should probably do something about it.
I won’t get into some of the more embarrassing compliments I’ve been paid in this stream, but one that consistently puzzles me is when people, fairly often my students, say that I’m “apolitical.” Now I know one of the narratives that informs this strange praise: when one story that governs the world of college learning is that of the abrasive agenda-pushing professor (either of the sort that AM radio types talk about or in the form of the idiotic urban legend about the philosophy professor and the chalk that won’t break), students rejoice when they find a teacher who encourages students not to opine but to argue, and who values arguments as part of common life, and who rewards students not for agreement but for articulation. I think that’s just a misconception about college life that happens to fall in my favor.
But sometimes my colleagues at the University of Georgia would say the same of me, and I was not their writing teacher. I’ve come to believe that my relatively equal disdain for the DNC and the GOP have lead some to think that I simply have no politics. Such an impression could not be more wrong: I care deeply about the politics of republics and of congregations and of classrooms; I simply do not wish to throw my hat in with one of the big-money factions.
If I had to start theorizing about Christians’ political lives, I could do worse than to start in Jeremiah 29. The writer of Hebrews is fairly clear, and Paul hints, that we Christians do well to imagine ourselves as exiles as Israel was in exile in the days of Jeremiah. Because the Church is a community that by definition exists across international lines (as the Jews lived in Egypt and in Babylon in Jeremiah’s time), so the Church is in the world, in all the world’s geopolitical diversity. And because we have our own ways of being a polis together among and across international lines (Yes, I do read a fair bit of Stan Hauerwas. Why do you ask?), we do not kill in behalf of this or that geopolitical power entirely precisely because its enemies might well include our sisters and brothers in Christ. On the other hand, because they are our neighbors, we do love and pray for our neighbors-among-the-nations, and we indeed function as a city on a hill when we live together as ekklesia as we should.
So when I read Jeremiah 29, I see a way for Christians to live in the world and even love the world as God loved the world–as YHWH tells the Jews through Jeremiah, their shalom rests with the city’s shalom, so to work for the shalom of the city is no betrayal of YHWH but an acknowledgment that YHWH has put one in the city. There’s no sense that the Jews should start calling Babylon the new Israel or that they should murder anyone who threatens Babylon, but there’s also no call for anything like absolute withdrawal. Instead, the people who once had farmland should plant gardens, and the folks who built in Palestine should now build in Chaldea, and the business of raising families should go on here as it did there. In other words, participation in the life of a place does not start and end with the city of Jerusalem; to work for the good of Babylon is to work for the good of the Jews who live in Babylon. Obviously this adds to rather than takes away from the complexity of what people mistakenly call “church and state” disputes (a carryover from when there was a political force in the world coherent enough to call “the” church), but if nothing else it offers a starting point for reflection as the two big-money factions jockey for “the evangelical vote.”
When Jesus sends the ten (former) lepers to be deemed clean at the temple, he recognizes that, in certain and limited ways, their horizons do overlap with Jerusalem’s. But when he tells the grateful Samaritan to go on his way, he at least implies that the horizons of a Samaritan can also be faithful, so long as he makes disciples of the King of all kingdoms as he goes. May we likewise work for the city where we sojourn and march ever on towards the city where our true desires await.