Citizens in a foreign land

Aug 2012    

“In many of the developed nations today, the demands of the global market economy have created a deeply unsettling influx of hordes of foreigners. Singapore has its fair share of this phenomenon in recent years. The better-off citizens are often sheltered from its direct impact, but the average citizen feels it most acutely.”

“THEY LIVE IN THEIR OWN COUNTRIES as though they were only passing through. They play their full role as citizens, but labour under all the disabilities of aliens. Any country can be their homeland, but for them their homeland, wherever it may be, is a foreign country.”

These famous words from the Letter to Diognetus written by an unknown Christian probably in the second or third century in defence of Christians against the false accusations of their persecutors, depict the paradoxical nature of the Christians’ relationship with the world. As a people living in the world, they conduct themselves as responsible citizens, yet no earthly institution claims their absolute loyalty. In their own country they feel like a foreigner and in a foreign land they are perfectly at home. They are simultaneously citizens and aliens since they now belong to a kingdom not of this world.

The peculiar identity of the Christian portrayed in the Letter is not a new idea but could be traced back to the New Testament itself where Christians are pictured as “sojourners and pilgrims” (1 Pet. 2:11) embarked on a journey to the celestial city (Heb. 11:13-16). The early Christians developed a radically changed perspective of themselves because they understood God’s great work of salvation as a transfer of citizenship. God “has delivered us from the power of darkness and conveyed us into the kingdom of the Son of His love” (Col. 1:13). This event is enacted at baptism where the Christian is incorporated into a new community and given a new name signifying a new identity. In Christ he dies to his old self and is raised to new life (Rom 6:4). He is now a citizen of heaven (Phil. 3:20).

As heavenly citizens, Christians live by a new set of values quite different from the values of this world. This is how we must understand the radical ethics of Jesus seen especially in the Sermon on the Mount. His teaching sounds very strange to our modern ears. He says “Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth”

(Matt. 5:5) when everything in our world seems to confirm the opposite: It is the moneyed and mighty who have taken over the earth. The world says, “First come, first served,” but according to Jesus, “the last shall be first” in God’s Kingdom (Matt. 19:30). The ethics of Jesus seems to throw all our accepted conventions into disarray, but in point of fact what it reveals is a world already turned upside-down, and what He has done is simply to turn it right-side-up. Strange as it may sound, the ethics of Jesus is not meant to create a ghetto community insulated from the world; rather, it exposes a flawed world in need of the redeeming grace of God in all aspects of life: personal, social, political and economic.

The Christians’ unique perspective of the world, therefore, far from making them socially irrelevant, is actually quite critical for the well-being of the world.

First, by showing that Christians owe absolute loyalty to nothing else but the Kingdom of God, it relativises all earthly institutions. For example, when it comes to patriotism, the Christian is a critical patriot. He cannot stand for “my country, right or wrong”. Blind patriotism is ever in danger of creating the opportunity for the rise of a Hitler. Only a critical patriotism could save a nation from the reckless adventures of megalomanic leaders.

Second, as “foreigners and exiles” (1 Pet. 2:11) the Christians’ paradoxical relation to the world as depicted in the Letter may at first appear ambivalent, but in fact it is crucial for addressing a serious social issue in our world. In many of the developed nations today, the demands of the global market economy have created a deeply unsettling influx of hordes of foreigners. Singapore has its fair share of this phenomenon in recent years. The better-off citizens are often sheltered from its direct impact, but the average citizen feels it most acutely. Those who are fortunate enough to own a horrendously expensive car, for instance, may not understand the frustration of the daily, mad jostling in over-crowded buses and trains, but for the many less fortunate, one could understand why “foreign talent” (abbreviated to FT) has become something of a curse word – just visit the many social media websites!

But as citizens of God’s Kingdom, Christians relativise both the foreigner and the citizen and see beyond the foreigner-citizen divide. By transcending the division they are uniquely placed to sympathise with the alien as well as the frustrated citizen who feels like an alien in his own land. To the foreigner, they offer the hospitality of home, knowing that they themselves are a pilgrim people constantly on the move (Heb. 11:13-16). To the exasperated citizen, they offer an alternative vision of home, namely, that belonging to a nation – even a rich nation – is not everything; there is a more fundamental identity marker than earthly citizenship. The unique place they occupy straddling the foreigner and the citizen empowers them to be peacemakers in a highly conflicted world. “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God” (Matt. 5:9). They are effective peacemakers precisely because they are sons of God belonging to His Kingdom, able to see things from a transcendent perspective.

Their simultaneous detachment from their homeland and being at home in a foreign land radicalises their behaviour in other areas of life as well. The early Christians valued marriage and family and would go to no end to protect these divinely-ordained institutions.

The Letter goes on to remind Diognetus: “They [Christians] marry and have children, but they do not expose them. They share their meals, but not their wives.” Two practices, very unconventional by the common standards of their day, are highlighted here. First, in an age when unwanted babies were exposed to the elements to die, the early Christians saved these babies. Our “enlightened” world could take pride in the fact that it no longer carries out such barbaric acts; yet, how many unwanted unborn babies are being killed daily in our hospitals? Is it any less barbaric because the killings are carried out safely and with clinical efficiency?

Secondly, the early Christians practised a very radical form of hospitality. They shared what little they had with the poor in an age when social services were simply non-existent. But they also drew the line where the sharing ends: They upheld the absolute inviolability of marriage in an age when free love (homosexual, heterosexual, and pederastic) was the rage and flippant divorce was rampant. (In this respect ancient Greek and Roman civilizations had outdone our 21st century libertarians by including pederasty as an acceptable form of sexual behaviour! But it will only be a matter of time before our modern champions of free choice add paedophilia to their definition of an “inclusive” society.)

The Letter ends by throwing a challenge at the world: “It is by the Christians, detained in the world as in a prison, that the world is held together.” Despite the opposition from the world, despite the sharp clash of values, it is the Christians’ love for the world that gives hope to the world. That bold statement reminds us of one of Jesus’ sayings in the Sermon on the Mount: “You are the salt of the earth; but if the salt loses its flavour, how shall it be seasoned? It is then good for nothing but to be thrown out and trampled underfoot by men” (Matt. 5:13). The Letter answers the flipside of Jesus’ question: What if salt is trampled underfoot despite its saltiness? It will continue to do its work of preserving the world from decay.

Citizenship in God’s Kingdom carries vast social and political implications.

But it makes a difference only when it is embodied in the Church as the foretaste of the heavenly city and lived out in the world. It will not convince if it remains only a grand vision. As Peter reminds his fellow “foreigners and exiles”: “Live 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” (1 Pet. 2:12).

Rev Dr Simon Chan is Earnest Lau Professor of Systematic Theology at Trinity Theological College.


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