This week we ponder the story of Israel’s exile in Babylon, when God’s people lost everything they knew and loved and were forced into an unfamiliar world.
One of the most difficult issues facing Christians of any culture or time is how to support, resist, or participate in the governing power structures of their day. Should followers of Jesus endorse any political movement that is or isn’t religious? What are the dangers of joining our allegiance to Jesus with loyalty to any nation or government? Religion and politics are highly-charged topics in most cultures, and many of us wonder if the Bible has any wisdom to offer as we navigate this tension.
Daniel and his friends are exiled to Babylon and made to serve in Babylon’s royal court. They’ve lost everything they know and love and are forced into an unfamiliar world. Notice the balance they strike between resistance and cooperation, demonstrated by their adherence to the Israelite food-laws. Daniel is willing to serve Babylon, but not when it requires compromise in serving his God.
But it comes in the form of a narrative, not a series of direct commands. The Bible tells the story of God’s purpose to rule the world through his image-bearing creatures. The picture of humanity’s “home” is a garden-mountain-temple in Eden, where we steward God’s world and further its beauty in harmonious partnership with our Creator. And this all sounds awesome until the humans rebel and create kingdoms that elevate their own wisdom and values that demand total allegiance. In the Bible, the key image that symbolizes human autonomy and rebellion is the city of Babylon introduced in Genesis 11.
For the rest of the biblical story, the image of humanity trapped in Babylonian exile becomes a dominant theme. Abraham and his family are called out of this region to journey to the new promised land, but his later descendants end up back in Babylonian exile after a long history of rebellion. And there in Babylon, we find many books of the Bible focusing on the paradoxical situation of God’s people…
Jeremiah writes a letter to a community of Israelites who were recently exiled to Babylon. He encourages them to settle in and build communities that seek the well-being of their captors. They are to seek peace and harmony not because they’ve given up, but because of their bold hope that God will rescue them and restore them to the promised land one day.
Should they withdraw and cloister in a holy-huddle, or should they participate in Babylon’s culture to become God’s agents of blessing? The books of Jeremiah and Daniel offer a surprising perspective by telling us stories of Israelites who were both loyal and subversive to Babylon. They offered their best efforts to seek the well-being of Babylon, while also critiquing and resisting its idolatry of power.
Peter addresses followers of Jesus in the Roman empire, yet he calls them priests of God who are living in exile. He calls them to distance themselves from the value system of their surrounding culture, while at the same time being faithful to God and those around them.
When we turn to the New Testament, we find Jesus adopting this same posture and mindset toward the power structures of Rome and Israel in his own day, and he taught his disciples to do the same. This is why Peter in his first letter calls followers of Jesus “foreigners and exiles,” and says that the “church is in Babylon” (1 Peter 1:1). And when he talks about how Christians should relate to the governing powers of their day, he describes a way of life that is similar to the stories of Daniel and Jesus (1 Peter 2:13-25)
Followers of Jesus offer their ultimate allegiance to their risen King, and they are to critique any kingdom that exalts its own values and power to the place of God. But at the same time, they are to seek peace and offer their best efforts to the communities in which they live. This is loyalty and subversion energized by the hope that one day King Jesus will return and replace our “Babylons” with his eternal Kingdom.
While the Bible doesn’t give a simple answer to this complex set of issues, it does give us a story to live by as we seek to be loyal to Jesus and his Kingdom.