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Engaging Babylon: Life as An Exile

By Chris Knerr, Director of the Integration of Faith and Learning and upper school history teacher 

I was recently given the opportunity to speak on our theme of the year, Living In Exile, in Chapel. The prophet Jeremiah, speaking to the Israelites who found themselves in captivity in Babylon, gave what must have been a somewhat disheartening message:

Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare, you will find your welfare. (Jeremiah 29:4-7)

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In other words, God tells his people: You’re going to be here for a while. Put down roots. Have families. Get a job. Oh, and by the way, work to flourish this completely foreign, pagan culture.

But what does this have to do with students at Westminster Christian Academy in Town & Country, Missouri? Are our students certainly not in exile in America? I asked the students to consider Augustine’s words in City of God and to reflect on which of these descriptions sounded more like our culture in modern America:

Accordingly, two cities have been formed by two loves: the earthly by the love of self, even to the hatred of God; and the heavenly by the love of God even to the contempt of self…For one seeks the glory from men; but the greatest glory of the other is God, the witness of conscience.

I certainly do not minimize the place of faith and biblical values that have had such an important influence on our history. But our students are not immune to the fact that more and more, our culture is looking far more like Babylon than the City of God, or even the America of 20 years ago. As Christians in an increasingly secular culture, we will feel more like exiles than citizens, more like captives than contributors. And Westminster students will feel the tension of life in Babylon.

In trying to help our students understand what it means to be an exile, I posed these questions: “Should we be surprised when Babylonians act like Babylonians? Should we expect Babylonians to act like Christians? Does sensuality and materialism come as a surprise to us? Are we shocked by the outlandish morality of cultural icons?”

If we answer “no” to these questions, what should be our response? Do we adopt a bunker mentality and completely disengage from our surroundings? Do we redouble our efforts to win the “culture wars”? Or, might it be best to embrace our status as exiles destined for another home, and while we are here work to flourish this increasingly foreign and pagan culture? If so, our teachers and students need to begin to see their context in a new light and prepare to engage Babylon.

At this point in my Chapel message, I directed our students’ attention to the life of the prophet Daniel, who was an exile in Babylon. I don’t know if they wanted to hear this after a week of tests, papers, and quizzes, but I told them that engagement with Babylon will require a great deal of preparation and hard work:

Then the king commanded Ashpenaz, his chief eunich, to bring some of the people of Israel, both the royal family and of the nobility, youths without blemish, of good appearance and skillful in all wisdom, endowed with knowledge, understanding and learning, and competent to stand in the king’s palace, and to teach them the literature and language of the Chaldeans…They were to be educated for three years, and at the end of that time, they were to stand before the king. (Daniel 1:3-5)

Like Daniel, our students will have to study! They will watch Babylonian films, they will read Babylonian literature, and they will engage the arts – not just for the sake of being “culturally relevant” but to understand Babylonian culture, just as Daniel did. Our students will leave our halls competent and prepared to flourish the city by being faithful to their calling, whether it be teaching, commerce, ministry, or medicine. Someday, some of our graduates may “stand before kings” and will serve those with great power and authority. My colleagues and I relish our role in preparing them well for such a task.

I was hopeful that our students would be encouraged by the fact that they would using their talents and skills to work for the good of the city, but I also wanted them to know that life in Babylon will not be comfortable and easy. Daniel understood that while he was to serve the city, he was also commanded to remain distinct from it. He “resolved himself that he would not defile himself with the king’s food” (Daniel 1:8). His fellow exiles, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, respectfully refused to bow to idols under threat for their lives saying, “…be it known to you, O King, that we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up.”

Our students must leave Westminster with a firm understanding that they, too, are set apart as God’s people who, though working to flourish the city, will also be required to stand apart and resist its rebellion when called upon to do so. I asked the students, “What things could defile you in this Babylon?” and “How do we handle the tension between engaging the city and our call to a life of holiness while avoiding being ‘holier than thou’?”

As a middle and upper school student years or months away from graduation, life in exile must seem abstract at best. “How do I engage the city I’m in now? I’m at Westminster. I have friends. I have schoolwork. Oh, and by the way, I’m not leaving any time soon.” I told them that we, in community, are to live the life of Daniel even within the walls of a Christian school. I challenged them to engage. How? By developing a sense of intellectual wonder by acting in plays, when writing poems and performing experiments, by playing instruments, and over time, by coming to the understanding that in using their talents and gifts they are contributing to this city. And we do all these things motivated by love for one another.

Our students live in a culture whose customs and practices are increasingly foreign and in many cases offensive. Yet in this land of exile, there will be numerous opportunities for them to be faithful to Christ by engaging the culture and working for its welfare. As a Christian educator, I pray with my colleagues that we will help to form young men and young women who will do just that.

I’m indebted to Denis Haack of Ransom Fellowship for the ideas that were the basis for this article. Read Denis’ 11-part series on life in Babylon at ransomfellowship.org.