During 17 years of living as bi-vocational missionaries in a “closed” country in East Asia, my family and I have grown accustomed to the small twinges of reverse culture shock that we inevitably experience whenever we return to the U.S. for a home assignment: orderly traffic, beautifully manicured green lawns, large people, and a bewildering array of deodorants to choose from in the “health care” section of the local Wal-Mart Superstore—to name a few.
But this past June, when our Boeing 787 Dreamliner touched down at San Francisco International Airport and we set foot on American soil to begin our current home assignment, I experienced an unexpected, visceral jolt of culture shock unlike anything I had experienced before. As we disembarked, I actually had the impression that I was returning to a different United States than the one that we had departed from four years before. More than that, it was as if the old United States simply no longer existed—as if I had somehow arrived in some strange new land, a “brave new world” akin to the one Aldous Huxley wrote about in his dystopian novel.
The source of my bewilderment was not hard to pinpoint. Just four days before our arrival in San Francisco, the U.S. Supreme Court had released its landmark ruling in the Obergefell v. Hodges case, nullifying all state laws that define marriage as exclusively between one man and one woman, and granting broad legal rights to all same-sex couples. From a moral and biblical point of view, if ever there was a “game changer” in Supreme Court rulings, it was Obergefell. Views and beliefs that had once been universally regarded as “moral” and “good” had now been legally re-cast as hateful, bigoted, and unjust by the highest court in the land. Conversely, views and behaviors that had once been universally acknowledged to be “immoral” and “evil” were now being celebrated as the new gold standard of morality. Henceforth, I and other God-fearing, Bible-believing Americans like me would increasingly be regarded by our law courts and social institutions as standing “on the wrong side of history.” Huxley’s “brave new world” had officially begun.
So then, is it time for us as American Christians to simply hoist the white flag, withdraw from the public arena, and barricade ourselves behind locked doors with our seemingly “outmoded”—and soon-to-be-labeled “dangerous”—Christian views on life? By no means! In fact, from the perspective of the global Christian community, this dramatic shift that Christians in America are currently experiencing with respect to our role and position in society is actually bringing us closer to what most Christians living in other parts of the world and in other eras of Church history have universally experienced as part of the normal Christian life. Based on my own experiences and observations from 17 years of ministry overseas in a country where Christians routinely experience both societal and governmental disfavor, I would like to offer a few thoughts on what “living in exile” might mean for Christians living in 21st century America.
First, we should recognize that the privileged position the Christian Church has occupied in American society from colonial times up to the end of the 20th century actually represents an anomaly—a historical blip of sorts—in the overall landscape of Christian history. Because of the unique and unprecedented confluence of powerful democratic ideals and deep reverence for Scripture that gave rise to the American political experiment 250 years ago, Christians in America have generally experienced remarkable favor in both the outer world of public policy-making and the inner world of human sensibilities. That serendipitous confluence is rapidly collapsing in America, however, as our culture’s insidious thirst for finding and “protecting” new “personal rights” leads us increasingly astray from the stable bedrock of universal, scriptural truths upon which our democratic practices have always been grounded. The great American democratic experiment is coming to an end, and we are beginning to see and experience Christian life as most Christians in other times and places have experienced it.
Second, we will need to develop a new understanding of what it means to suffer for the name of Christ. The Church in America has never had much cause to formulate a full-bodied theology of suffering, largely because we have not experienced much persecution over the past three centuries. That will change in the years ahead. I have come to admire the perspective on suffering that many older Christians in our East Asian country have adopted after experiencing sustained levels of state-sponsored persecution in past decades. In those earlier periods of persecution, when told that Christians in other parts of the world were praying for the persecution to end, these persecuted Christians replied, “Do not pray for persecution to end! Rather pray that we would remain bold and faithful in the midst of persecution.” After all, Jesus said to his closest followers, “If they persecuted me, they will persecute you” (John 15:20). Even with times of persecution, the Church in our East Asian country has experienced remarkable spiritual vitality and growth. The Church in America can as well.
Finally, we should remember that the darker the environment around us becomes, the brighter the light of the gospel will shine forth through us. As laws become more restrictive, it will become particularly important for American Christians to demonstrate the transformative power of the gospel through compassionate acts of kindness done in the name of Christ. “Let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:16). My wife and I have been able to live openly as Christians in our “closed” country in East Asia largely because of the “good deeds” that we do in our professional roles and in the mercy ministries we oversee.
Like the Jews of Jeremiah’s time, we are now called to “seek the peace and prosperity of the city” to which the Lord has “exiled” us (Jeremiah 29:7).
Dr. Joel C. is executive director of a Christian non-profit organization that places and supports Christian students and professionals in cross-cultural ministry contexts within East Asia for the purpose of expanding God’s kingdom on earth.
Visit Lutheran Brethren International Mission at: www.LBIM.org