Christians Today are Expatriates, Not Exiles

The Benedict Option, with its talk of "exile," drives us to nostalgic fantasy, not witness.

By Tom Gilson Published on July 27, 2015

Rod Dreher has been attracting attention promoting his “Benedict Option” to believers living in post-Christian America. Writing in Time magazine on the day of the Obergefell decision, Dreher had this to say:

Throughout the early Middle Ages, Benedict’s communities formed monasteries, and kept the light of faith burning through the surrounding cultural darkness. Eventually, the Benedictine monks helped refound civilization.

I believe that orthodox Christians today are called to be those new and very different St. Benedicts. How do we take the Benedict Option, and build resilient communities within our condition of internal exile, and under increasingly hostile conditions? I don’t know. But we had better figure this out together, and soon, while there is time. [emphasis mine]

It’s an intriguingly open-ended idea, since Dreher won’t tell us what it actually means. At least he’s honest about the reason: He doesn’t know. As John Zmirak points out, St. Benedict probably isn’t the role model best suited to Dreher’s purpose. So as proposals go, the Benedict Option lacks, shall we say, specificity.

In Search of an American Christian Identity

Yet something still resonates here. There’s a reason people are talking about Dreher’s idea: It offers a new American Christian identity.

We need a new sense of who we are, since surely we are no longer who we were. Christians once held the intellectual high ground, virtually unchallenged. Not only were we responsible for the early great universities, there was even a time (imagine this) when the town pastor was likely to be known as the local intellectual. But the Church long ago gave up any semblance of an effort to stand in that intellectual space.

Many of us can remember when Christianity held the ethical high ground, serving as a real conscience to real communities. We’ve lost that spot, too, though we’re still surprised when our communities don’t regard us with the same moral respect we once enjoyed.

Our place in our culture has tilted dramatically off axis, and along with it, so has our sense of identity. Who will we then be? Dreher suggests we think of ourselves as modern-day St. Benedicts, imitating that great monk in his willingness to create distance between himself and the surrounding culture in order to be more spiritually effective. One thing many find attractive in the term may be simply the offer of a new name for us to go by. We no longer know how we fit in this world, or even who we are. We’ve lost our identity. A name like Benedict suggests we might still be someone provided we can find a way to stand apart.

The Exile Option

Oddly, no one ever mentions a “Christ option” — employing the name by which we are truly known. The reason for this might be that “Benedict” evokes a particular stage in Christian history which our imaginations can grasp, and duly romanticize.

I suspect a similar dynamic is at work in the other identity Dreher suggests for us when he says that as things get worse, “We are going to have to learn how to live as exiles in our own country.” “Exiles” sounds so noble and tragic, dreadful and hopeful all at once — and isn’t that how we’d like to see ourselves? What is an exile, after all, but someone who, having been forcibly ejected, still lays claim (often a moral claim) on his homeland? And what identity could fit us more comfortably, we who really do belong on the moral high ground — for we are God’s people! — but have been tossed off it so unceremoniously?

But this, too, misses the mark. Citing St. Benedict gets the history wrong. Claiming that we are exiles mistakes our mission. For if an exile has any mission at all, it’s to get back to the homeland, and do what needs to be done back there. (Think of French exiles from the Revolution, or Russian exiles from Communism.) “Exile” does not accurately describe who we are, nor does it identify what we’re about, as we live our lives in a postmodern culture. We weren’t ejected from some previous, better place which is our proper home — a world where Christians were dominant.

Yes, the Bible says we are citizens of another country, so Dreher is correct in suggesting we need to re-identify ourselves as “not quite at home here.” But he has the image wrong. We are not exiles from Christendom. We are expatriates from heaven.

Expatriates Actually

An expatriate is a person living for a time outside his own country to accomplish some plan or purpose. The term encompasses students and businessmen, diplomats and missionaries.

Our country indeed seems less like home than it once did. It’s becoming foreign to us. But that fact does not make us exiles, waiting here for the chance to return home — that is, to a more Christian-friendly America — so that we can get to work once we’re safely there. Instead, like expatriate students or diplomats, we’re here on mission right here and now. We long for no other home; none but heaven, and when get there our mission will have been accomplished. For now we are exactly where we belong, at the time and place where God put us.

We don’t really want to see this. The very word expatriate carries little of exile’s romantic cachet. “Expatriate” evokes instead a quiet, patient sense of duty. You are far from home for a season with a job to do. It will demand discomfort and sacrifice. You might never be recognized for it, at least in this life. All this is true. But just how enthused are we likely to be about it?

Rod Dreher tells us there’s a conversation to be started about our identity in this new age. I agree. But let’s begin in a better place. Let’s discuss what it means to be expatriates, here on purpose and on a mission, for as long as God leaves us here. We may not be at home, but we’re right where He wants us. And we’ve got work to do.

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