“The letter was sent by the hand of Elasah son of Shaphan and Gemariah son of Hilkiah, whom King Zedekiah of Judah sent to Babylon to King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon. It said:
Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But 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 you will find your welfare.” Jeremiah 29:3-7, NSRV.
Babylon was the ancient imperial power of its time. And Babylon was the place of exile for God’s ancient people when they habitually replaced the wisdom of the LORD with the wisdom of power and empire. The exile was a time for people to learn to depend upon the Creator when most of their central religious practices had been destroyed by invading armies. These invasions resulted from God’s people following the logic of empire rather than living in faithfulness to the LORD.
Hundreds of years later when the Emperor Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Roman world, the Church became used to a position of priviledge and power in wider society. This alliance between church and state has echoed throughout more than 1.5 millenia and has come down to us in various modified forms. The national motto of Canada, along with the other versus of scripture on the Peace Tower, and the motto of the order of Canada are all artifacts of this echo of a priviledged position for Christian life and practice within the nation state. This is a great heritage. But there is a darkside, namely the confusion of empire and faithfulness to our Creator: native residential schools were but one aspect of that darkness.
Things have changed. Now the so-called “main line” churches, such as the denomination to which I belong (The Presbyterian Church in Canada), find ourselves increasingly alienated within a society that has become foreign to our religious practices. Historically, we are used to a certain amount of attention and prestige within the wider society. Culturally, we are used to a certain amount of support for our religious practices and our ways of thinking. However, it is as if over the course of several decades we have gone from being “main line” institutions in society to being “side line”. It is as if we are in exile in our own land. How can we sing the LORD’s song in a strange land where people do not understand our ways? Many of our children and grandchildren find the religious institutions that we cherish to be irrelevant to their ways of life. What does the LORD have in store for us as we relearn how to depend upon the Creator in this strange and alien land?
How do we exercise our faith and citizenship to have a godly influence as Daniel did in his day, or Joseph in an even earlier time? The temptation to relive imagined “glory days” and to seek to impose ourselves upon this strange world is ever before us. It seems we have been usurped from our rightful place and we can get quite fussy that things are not like they used to be. But what does it mean to follow the Curcified One who said to the empiral official who held the power of life and death:
“My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest … . But now my kingdom is from another place.” John 18:36, NRSV