I never quite know how to answer the question, “Where are you from?” I was born in Brazil, came to the United States as an immigrant when I was six, and was raised mostly in the states of Arizona and Oklahoma. After finishing high school, I went to college in Virginia, where I spent the next five years studying theology. There I met my wife, finished college and got married. My children were born in Virginia, but between getting married and having children, I spent eight years in Brazil working as a missionary. And for the past five years, we've lived in Montana, Kansas and now Oregon. While living in Brazil, I desperately missed the United States. Now, having been back for eight years, I desperately miss Brazil. I feel homesick all of the time as I think about the places we’ve lived in, and yet I don’t know where home actually is.
Some people have the privilege of growing up and staying in the same place, often even the same home or property, all of their lives. These would have a difficult time relating to my experience. Then there are refugees who have had to leave their home for reasons outside of their control and live in a foreign land, learn a new language, culture, adapt to entirely new circumstances. How difficult that must be! I can’t fully relate to them because I’ve had a choice (at least in my adult years) every time I’ve moved to a new location.
The Bible speaks about a group of people that was displaced. Many Jews in the beginning of the sixth century B.C. were forced to live as exiles in Babylon. Among them were Daniel and his three friends. They lost everything they knew and loved and were forced into an unfamiliar world. This loss was devastating to these young men. They had to discover new ways to be faithful to God. The prophet Jeremiah wrote to these exiles, encouraging them to settle into their new home, seek the prosperity of the nation in which they reside, but above all, remain faithful to God (Jer 29).
As we read the book of Daniel, we find that Daniel and his friends strike a beautiful balance between resistance (subversion) and cooperation (loyalty). Daniel and his friends are willing to honor and respect the king of Babylon and live as exemplary citizens, but not compromise their allegiance to God (Dan 3, 6).
Peter addressed Christians facing social scorn, shaming, slander and stigma for believing in Jesus as “elect exiles of the Dispersion” (1 Pet 1:1). He saw similarities between the experience of Christians living in the Greco-Roman empire and Daniel’s exile in Babylon. In fact, he uses Babylon as a metaphor for Rome (1 Pet 5:13). The recipients of his letter living in Asia Minor had not been physically displaced, but were nonetheless experiencing a hostility like that of Jewish exiles in Babylon and Medo-Persia. To them it appeared that the power and glory of the Roman Empire was permanent. They had no rights and their destiny seemed entirely out of their control. This is why the New Testament has so many references to Christians as “sojourners,” “pilgrims,” “foreigners”, etc. (1 Pet 2:11; Heb 11:13; Eph 2:19), because their citizenship ultimately belongs in heaven (Phi 3:20).
Peter called Christians, “as sojourners and exiles” to distance themselves from the value system of their surrounding culture (1 Pet 2:11) while at the same time being faithful to emperor of Rome (2:13, 17). We learn from Jeremiah and Peter’s letters that faithfulness to God as exiles does not mean withdrawing from society, nor does it mean violent resistance towards a hostile, pagan government. It also does not mean full assimilation into culture and compromise of principle. So what does faithfulness to God look like today?
I’m a citizen of Brazil and the United States. I love both countries, and am committed to living as a law-abiding citizen. But my primary identity is not as a Brazilian or American, it is as a follower of Jesus. My unconditional allegiance is to God and his kingdom alone. Only the wisdom that comes from his spirit will enable us to navigate this tension between subversion and loyalty to our earthly governments.