Tuesday, 1 May 2007

Citizen of God

Patrick then helpfully reminded me of this passage...

I noticed the other day that the verb politeuomai occurs one other time in
the NT, in Paul's opening to the Sanhedrin in Acts 23: 1. ... Paul's Roman citizenship has been brought into prominence immediately beforehand 22: 25-29 at some length. However, it is Paul's 'Judaism' which is in view with pepoliteumai. "I have lived as a citizen for God with an entirely clear conscience upto this day." The explicit mention of God makes this statement seem to be one of service or worship (in all of life) similar to Paul's other comments about "being a better Jew than the rest of you" (paraphrase of Gal. 1: 14, Philippians 3: 2-11, 2 Cor. 11: 21 ff.). There is certainly much more than merely being a good citizen here. What do
you think of this passage?

Yes, there is more involved than merely being a good citizen. But perhaps that is because we have a truncated view of 'citizenship' (or 'subjecthood', as it may more properly be) in British culture today (and probably in many cultures). It may be that, in general, to live well as a 'citizen' of the UK, being law-abiding and doing a bit of voluntary work on the side is all that is required. But this is because so much is taken for granted, and because the idols of this age and this place are diffuse (state, consumerism, comfort, etc.) rather than bare-faced and monochrome like Turkmenbashi or Kim Jong-Il. But these idols still make their claims to complete lordship. The formal, explicit political structures of the UK are not much of an idol in themselves. Those structures are not well understood, and we are all familiar with the lament regarding declining participation in democracy. (And I think there is a further complicating factor regarding the establishment of the Church of England and public language/ceremonies that invoke the Trinity: are they politically relevant or desirable?) But when we defer to the state, or to the space created and guaranteed by the state in which we can worship our other idols (individualism, hedonism, etc), or to localism, or tribalism, then we may find ourselves living as good citizens, according to our national/birth culture, but not according to the city of God.

To put all this more succinctly: perhaps living well as a citizen encompasses more than we imagine. Perhaps we cannot live well as a citizen when all the terms are defined by secular liberals (or secular totalitarians) because we will not compromise on the lordship of Christ over everything and we will not give up our citizenship in heaven in order to gain the privileges offered by the various 'cities' here on earth. And at the moment in the UK that is largely overlooked and the rubber rarely hits the road - first, because we live in a post-Christian and generally tolerant sort of place, and second, because the idols around us are diffuse and disorganised so we don't need to be attacked for compromising on the world's definition of citizenship when Satan can distract and undermine us with a bewildering variety of activities and distractions that we don't realise are 'political' (because we forget about the claims of Jesus and about our being part of the body of Christ).

To bring things back to Acts 22. Paul's use of political language was more comprehensive than ours, because the prevailing system in the first century was not one that claimed to be neutral, merely providing a space for citizens to fulfil themselves. So, service and worship in all areas of life was considered 'political': politics was not the word for distant governmental wranglings, it was the responsibility of the citizen.

And the challenge for us is, how do we recognise and act on our citizenship today? It seems that the church should take priority, since we are first and foremost citizens of a heavenly city, not of earthly kingdoms. Political activity should be directed towards life in a community of believers, where the rules are different (peace, love and forgiveness rather than dog-eat-dog or hierarchies or pride) to those in worldly political communities. The pressing question of our interaction (as individuals and as churches) with those communities is one for another day, though, unless you live in Iran, Myanmar, Saudi Arabia, Eritrea, Belarus, Uzbekistan, Turkey, China, North Korea...