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Aliens and Strangers in the World
Popular amongst some Christians is the idea that this world is not my home, that there is a radical dichotomy between earth and heaven, and that if I am a Christian I should have a greater concern for (and focus on) the things of heaven than the things of earth. In biblical language this is the idea that we are 'aliens and strangers in the world'.
The concept of being aliens and strangers is a very important element of a Christian worldview – but interestingly, it means virtually the opposite to what many of us assume it means.
In 1 Peter the apostle addresses his letter "to God's elect, strangers in the world.1 A chapter later he says "Dear friends, I urge you, as aliens and strangers in the world, to abstain from sinful desires, which war against your soul".2 Clearly he sees this idea as foundational to their identity and an important framework for thinking about Christian living.
Something of that worldview is reflected in the closing of the letter, "She who is in Babylon, chosen together with you, sends you her greetings and so does my son Mark".3 However Peter is not in Babylon, but in Rome.
By calling Rome 'Babylon' he interprets the experience of the church through the lens of the Old Testament story of Babylonian exile, where Judah was carried off to exile by the Babylonian Empire and made to live as aliens in the foreign land of Babylon. Babylon thus becomes a negative symbol for 'the evil empire', a symbol of living in a system other than that controlled by God.
If this is as far as the image goes then it seems to suggest that we do dwell in a place we don't belong in, waiting for a rescue and deliverance so that we can go to where we really belong. However, this image has its roots in other, older biblical traditions which force a reinterpretation.
Another New Testament writer also uses the image of 'aliens and strangers' but this time the roots of the image are made explicit. The writer of Hebrews draws on the story of Abraham and says of him "By faith he made his home in the promised land like a stranger in a foreign country; he lived in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise."4
Here we see that the concept of aliens and strangers has an earlier resonance than the Babylonian exile. It goes right back to Abraham, and this is where things get exciting!
The Abraham paradigm of aliens and strangers is a very different image to that of Babylonian exile. In this case a man (Abraham) has been promised some land, but that land is currently under the control of another system so he must spend his life living there as an alien, waiting – not for deliverance out of that land but for a change of the system controlling the land – so that he may become the heir to it.
Here the person is not defined as an 'alien' because he is in a place in which he doesn't belong, but rather, he is an alien because he belongs in that place but it is currently under the control of another system. He is waiting not for deliverance out of the place, but for a change of system so that he may receive the place as his inheritance.
Several verses later the writer widens the motif to include not just Abraham but the other heroes of faith. "All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance. And they admitted that they were aliens and strangers on earth."5
To admit to being an alien and stranger on earth is not to say we do not belong here. In fact it is to say the opposite – we do belong on the earth because it has been promised to us, but we do not 'fit' with the fallen systems currently controlling this place. Think of the promise of Jesus: "Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth."6 We are aliens and strangers as we wait for the realisation of this promise.
For Abraham the promise was a central part of the covenant.
I will establish my covenant as an everlasting covenant between me and you and your descendants after you for the generations to come, to be your God and the God of your descendants after you.
The whole land of Canaan, where you are now an alien, I will give as an everlasting possession to you and your descendants after you; and I will be their God.7
In a poignant moment Abraham is forced to beg for land to bury his wife. "I am an alien and a stranger among you. Sell me some property for a burial site here so that I can bury my dead."8 This is the land promised to him, but he has no part of it.
This sense of dwelling in a land that God would someday transform is passed down the generations of patriarchs. Isaac says to Jacob: "May he give you and your descendants the blessing given to Abraham, so that you may take possession of the land where you now live as an alien, the land God gave to Abraham."9
(As an aside, in Psalms this concept of 'alien' is widened to include the whole human race. In Psalm 29 we read: "Hear my prayer, O LORD, listen to my cry for help; be not deaf to my weeping. For I dwell with you as an alien, a stranger, as all my fathers were."10 In this sense we are all aliens and strangers because we have no permanent home – we are passing through.)
In the Abrahamic sense of 'living in one system while waiting for another' the two alternative systems can be represented by two cities: 'Babylon' representing the system currently controlling the land, and 'Jerusalem' representing the system of God that is to come. Hebrews states that Abraham was an alien living by faith because he "was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God".11 Abraham waited not for deliverance out of that place but for a new city to be set up in that place.
What is interesting, then, is how the Babylonian motif is incorporated into this earlier story of 'dwelling in a promised land as aliens' and in the process quite radically reinterpreted.
In the Babylonian exile, to be an alien is to hope for deliverance from this place and return to a different location – our true home symbolised by Jerusalem. In the Abraham motif the hope is for the fall of the current system in control of the land and the coming of a new system in that place, represented by Jerusalem.
Another New Testament writer makes this explicit. In the book of Revelation John has a vision of a hopeful future. John sees the world currently under the control of a system which like Peter he calls Babylon, but he can see a time when that system will topple: "After this I saw another angel coming down from heaven. He had great authority, and the earth was illuminated by his splendour. With a mighty voice he shouted: 'Fallen! Fallen is Babylon the Great!'"12
The whole chapter is worth reading for the sense of this splendid, extravagant and fallen system coming to an end. John goes into detail about the glory of this system and the great sense of mourning from those who, rather than seeing themselves as aliens in this system, saw themselves as citizens of it: "The kings of the earth committed adultery with her, and the merchants of the earth grew rich from her excessive luxuries."13
Interestingly, at this time the people of God are called to come out of the systems, whereas up to then they are called to participate in the systems – but without losing their identity in them. "Then I heard another voice from heaven say: 'Come out of her, my people, so that you will not share in her sins, so that you will not receive any of her plagues'."14
John makes clear the pride and arrogance of the system:
Give her as much torture and grief as the glory and luxury she gave herself. In her heart she boasts, "I sit as queen; I am not a widow, and I will never mourn." Therefore in one day her plagues will overtake her: death, mourning and famine. She will be consumed by fire, for mighty is the Lord God who judges her.
"When the kings of the earth who committed adultery with her and shared her luxury see the smoke of her burning, they will weep and mourn over her. Terrified at her torment, they will stand far off and cry:
"'Woe! Woe, O great city, O Babylon, city of power! In one hour your doom has come!'
"The merchants of the earth will weep and mourn over her because no one buys their cargoes any more . . . .
"Every sea captain, and all who travel by ship, the sailors, and all who earn their living from the sea, will stand far off."15
Perhaps surprisingly, the people of God are called to rejoice over this fall: "Rejoice over her, O heaven! Rejoice, saints and apostles and prophets!"16
But what happens next completely subverts the Babylonian exile story and recasts it in the Abraham story. John does not see the people of God as now set free in order to escape to their true home, Jerusalem. He sees them as having been freed to now possess the land they have dwelt in – and rather than them moving to Jerusalem, Jerusalem now comes to them in place of Babylon, and the people of God at last receive their promised land.
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband.
And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, "Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away" . . .
And he carried me away in the Spirit to a mountain great and high, and showed me the Holy City, Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God. It shone with the glory of God, and its brilliance was like that of a very precious jewel, like jasper, clear as crystal. It had a great, high wall with twelve gates and with twelve angels at the gates.17
For those who dichotomise spiritual concerns with worldly ones, there seems to be less religion in the New Jerusalem and more time for the 'earthly' pursuits of business:
I did not see a temple in the city, because the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple. The city does not need the sun or the moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and the Lamb is its lamp. The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their splendour into it. On no day will its gates ever be shut, for there will be no night there. The glory and honour of the nations will be brought into it.18
Maybe this all sounds obscure, but I believe it has radical implications in terms of our Christian worldview and shows us a holistic way to integrate some difficult dichotomies in traditional Christian spirituality.
For instance, the distinction is not between heavenly pursuits and earthly pursuits. It is not that prayer, evangelism and worship are heavenly while business, money, agriculture and the arts are earthly. The distinction is between the 'systems' under which these activities operate.
I don't know about you, but floating around in a dress playing a harp doesn't really do much for me! However, the idea of the wonderful creation of God one day being transformed so that righteous, just systems of life replace the fallen systems that currently dehumanise and oppress and exploit us here on earth – now that gets me excited!
With this understanding in place we can revisit a number of passages like this one from Philippians: "But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Saviour from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body."19
Yes, our citizenship is in heaven but we are waiting not to go there, but for a Saviour to come from there and transform our reality here. We come to see that the negative 'world' refers primarily to the systems of this place, not to the planet. We are reminded that Jesus taught us to pray for the kingdom to come to our earth from heaven.20 And so on and so on!
So what does it mean to be aliens and strangers in the world?
First, we are called to love this earth and the complex business of living here. It's our promised land. One day we are going to inherit it. We are called to celebrate life, enjoy life, and participate in the affairs of our life here and now. That deep thrill of life is not opposed to Christian spirituality, it is central to it and a deep witness to the reality of the Christian vision. And when we encounter brokenness, we are to yearn not for extraction but for transformation.
Secondly, we are called to the difficult task of participating in the systems of the world without over-identifying with them. This is the essence of being an alien and stranger. In particular, we need to refuse to find our identity according to the values and priorities of these fallen systems of the world.
Often it is only when something goes wrong that we realise how much we had 'sold out' – how much we were finding our identity in a job, in money, in status. We notice it when we lose a job, get passed by for a promotion, go bankrupt, get ill, suffer a mental illness, or simply when we start noticing the effects of age.
That is when we realise how much we have got enmeshed. How we have stopped being aliens and instead have become citizens of a system with different values to those of God's kingdom.
The powers associated with that system are seductive. When we are alienated from those powers it is relatively easy to keep our distance from the system. It is far more difficult to avoid being seduced when we are comfortable and succeeding in that system.
Thirdly, the challenge is to find our identity in God's story of bringing the New Jerusalem system to his good and broken world. In 1 Peter some of the greatest titles and concepts used to describe Israel are applied by Peter to the struggling, persecuted group of Christians to whom he is writing: "you are God's chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation" – but that is another story! First we have to settle the fact that we are aliens and strangers in the current system.22