"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."
This text was apparently written to the Jewish exiles living under the dominance of the Babylonian empire. As exiles, they are still called to live their lives and to pray for the welfare of the larger culture.
We can probably imagine how difficult forced exile would be. The people are taken from their land by a powerful military force and relocated to a place and culture not their own. Over time they adapt and learn how to live in the new culture, all the while striving to keep the memory of their identity alive. Walter Bruggemann, commenting on the song of Moses in Exodus 15, says that the community of ancient Israel . . . "gathered around the memories, knows that it is defined by and is at the disposal of a God who as yet is unco-opted and uncontained by the empire." (The Prophetic Imagination, Augsburg Press, 2001, p. 19)
Aren't we glad that we in USAmerica are not in exile? But we are. As followers of Jesus, as the people of God, we will always live in the shadow of a dominant culture. We may not feel a sense of oppression here, but we do live in a dominant culture that is driven by consumerism (which is the strongest fueler of our domestic economy), militarism and the demand for personal rights. When we forget that we are called to live in the alternative reality of the kingdom of God, then we become exiles without memory. We find ourselves serving a god that has indeed been co-opted and contained by the empire. We end up worshipping a god that is wrapped in the nation's flag.
The idea that we Christians in the USA are a people in exile might seem odd to some. But we are a people (according to St. Paul in Romans 11) grafted into the life of Israel. The Israel into which we are grafted is an Israel in exile (at the time of Paul's writing, the exile was under the dominance of Rome). By our very essence, we are a people in exile, both theologically and existentially.
To recognize that we are a people in exile is not a call to despise the nation. But it is, I believe, a call to speak prophetically and with wisdom into the life of the nation by first of all speaking into the life of the church. The church needs memories--not sentimental memories of the various denominational traditions, but instead memories of the story that God has been writing throughout human history. The story is not national but global and eternal. It is a story of both salvation and mission. It is the story into which our lives are being written. It is the story of the exiles impacting the dominant culture just as yeast permeates bread dough.
Today is election day in the USA. Some may vote out of fear, party loyalty, anger, or the desire for power. By contrast, perhaps the votes cast by followers of Jesus could be given as prayers--prayers for the welfare of the nation, that we might find welfare.
If you are a USAmerican citizen, then I encourage you to vote today. But remember who you are.