In the early 6th century BC, the small, independent kingdom of Judah was crushed by the power of Babylon, a huge global superpower. The king was executed, the nobles abducted, the temple burned to the ground, and many of the population were forcibly relocated to a new home deep into enemy territory, where they were surrounded by people with different customs, religions and languages.
Psalm 137 (which made a brief but infamous appearance in the British charts in 1978 at the hands of Boney M) is a lamentation about this experience of going into exile. It refers to pain, a desire to go back, and a lust for revenge. Their mocking captors had asked them to sing one of their folk songs to entertain them, but this just reminded them of the home that they couldn’t return to. ‘How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land’ becomes a shorthand reference to the challenge of living as an insignificant minority in a hostile culture, where there are multiple religious beliefs, a variety of practices which the faithful may be forced to participate in, and a complete lack of tolerance for their previous national customs.
This is a situation not unlike western Europe today, as Christians struggle to come to terms with the fact that Christendom is no more. Christianity no longer provides a moral compass even if David Cameron himself claims that Britain is a Christian country. There are too many competing voices now for that to be completely true. There are Christian elements to our world, and a huge Christian heritage shaping much of our public practice and principle, but effectively now we are a post-Christian country. Like the exiled Jews, we need to come to terms with it.
In fact, throughout most of history God’s faithful have been in the minority. In Genesis, just eight people made it onto the ark, and the Abrahamic covenant was made with just one family among many tribes. Throughout the rest of the Pentateuch they were just twelve tribes among the Egyptian oppressors, or wandering through the wilderness among hostile neighbours. Under the judges they were just one nation amongst many. Under the kings, they were battling with external threats and against internal apostasy. Ezra, Nehemiah, and Daniel had to deal with the challenge of being subjects of a huge multinational empire and the whole of the New Testament takes place against the backdrop of the oppressive might of Rome. Subsequently Christianity spread around the world but often had to deal with suffering and persecution at the hands of others – particularly in communist or modern Islamic countries.
For only one significant period of history has there been an exception to this rule: the bizarre 15 or so centuries when Christendom thrived in Europe in an alliance between church and state that ‘christianised’ nations and ‘authorised’ church. But today Christendom is crumbling. People of other faiths (and no faith) have a voice. Christians are losing ours. We are going into exile and we don’t like it. Old familiarities are changing, old paradigms are failing. People stronger than us have taken us into exile. Now our challenge is to work out how to live alongside others on their terms, not on ours.
Some of the issues that face us include: keeping Sunday special, ethical issues surrounding the beginning and end of life, accommodating other faiths, the possibilities of witness in the workplace, and the church’s attitude to those who sexual and gender preferences are different to those traditionally sanctioned by the church. When we are not Biblically literate, we struggle to determine our response to these issues. But we can rely on different precedents to indicate how we might approach these situations, which range from opposition to compliance.
Daniel (Chapter 6) chose to react with open defiance when ordered to pray only to the king. When Jesus (Mt 22:15-22) was given the opportunity to encourage people to revolt against paying taxes to an illegal occupying force, he chose to focus on our devotion to God. Paul (1C10:31) would have felt it was ok for Christians to eat halal or kosher meat as long as they felt they could do it with a clean conscience. Nehemiah (Neh 13:23) clearly thought it was wrong to marry an unbeliever while Paul said that if you’ve already done it, you should not divorce them (1C7:12).
What each of them is doing (in their own context) is determining which issues are worth fighting over, and which we can safely going along with. Each of us, together in our church contexts, and not in isolation, needs to work this through too. Sometimes the church fights on the wrong ground, making a stand on things that could comfortably compromised over, or giving way easily over massively significant issues. Some guidelines to help us extrapolate biblical teaching into contemporary contexts may include asking ourselves the following questions:
Would our compliance contravene the 10 commandments (Exodus 20:1-17), or any other clear scriptural injunction?
Does resistance prevent us keeping the Great Commandment (Matthew 22:32-40)?
Does compromise help us to fulfil the Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20)?
Often, Christians who make a stand on an issue can easily alienate and offend the very people we hope to reach out to with the love of God. So we need to be careful in how we express ourselves. We need to remember that in a post-Christian, multi-cultural world it can be evangelistically counter-productive and morally dubious to force non-believers to comply with our views, even if we believe we are right.
Jeremiah wrote a letter to the Jewish exiles . He wasn’t popular for it, but it was good advice from God. He said:
‘Build houses and live in them, and plant gardens and eat their produce… Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare your will have welfare’. (Jeremiah 29:5-7)
In other words, get used to it. Don’t live in a dream world; don’t carry on complaining that this is wrong. Get over it. Adapt and thrive.