Christians are no longer the head, but are closer to the tail. No one is listening to Christian leaders, except to high profile religious leaders who rebuke other Christians for being, well, Christian. We Christians are reduced to begging for "just a place at the table," and we live in a time when this is considered to be an incredibly lofty ambition!
The reason for our dilemma is two-fold. Over the past several generations Christians have stopped thinking and acting as Christians, which means that the salt has lost its savor and is not good for anything. When we are fortunate enough to have a Christian assume a position of power or influence, that Christian doesn't do much differently than the non-Christian did. We have a President who testifies of his conversion to Christ, and I believe President Bush is a Christian. But he is a product of a Christianity that mimics liberalism — good intentions, not Biblical actions, are what's important. I believe John Ashcroft is a fine man and a Christian, but this high-profile conservative Christian man elevated to the top law enforcement position in the nation continues to uphold and promote the mindset and operating methods of all those non-Christians before him. So even when we're at the head of the political table, we're still beggars!
While America has deep Christian roots and many of the forms or structures arising from Christian thought still remain, America has ceased to be a Christian nation and, therefore, has no desire for Christian culture. Most of the time it has no clue what Christian culture really would look like. (I don't believe we're completely "post-Christian," as some have asserted. Nazi Germany was post-Christian, and despite all the horrors of modern American life, we're not there yet. Believe me, you'll know when and if America ever becomes "post-Christian.")
Welcome to Babylon!
Today, America is more like Babylon: powerful, prosperous, and tolerant of almost anything. After conquering Israel and scattering its people, Babylon was tolerant of the Jews and granted them much latitude. In fact, Jews show up everywhere in Babylonian culture and history. They were granted favors by the Babylonian government, mostly because no one thought highly enough of them to worry about what they did or would do. For the most part, Jews lived quietly among the people.
This concept of "just living life" is powerful and worthy of examination, because at this time in history, God has seen fit to place us in a new Babylon. Furthermore, it appears that our Babylonian experience may last for quite some time. Am I pessimistic about this? Absolutely not. The concept of Christian "normalcy" — "just living life" — and the power it has to transform our culture excites me. Let the enjoyment begin!
We read in Jeremiah 29:4-7:
Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, to all who were carried away captive, whom I have caused to be carried away from Jerusalem to Babylon:
Build houses and dwell in them; plant gardens and eat their fruit. Take wives and beget sons and daughters; and take wives for your sons and give your daughters to husbands, so that they may bear sons and daughters — that you may be increased there, and not diminished. And seek the peace of the city where I have caused you to be carried away captive, and pray to the LORD for it; for in its peace you will have peace.
In this passage God tells us to stop whining and longing for the "good old days," and instead to live the life He's given. We should be encouraged by the Lord's command to the Israelites who were to spend many generations in captivity. He encourages them to build new homes though their first homes were taken; to plant new gardens and vineyards though their lands had been taken; to marry and have children just as they would have in Jerusalem; to pray that Babylon, like Jerusalem would be a city of peace; and to build a synagogue to replace the temple that had been taken.
God tells the Jews in Babylon a couple of amazing things. First, they must take account of the marvelous land and the opportunity it affords. It is a good place to build a house and live. They must stop complaining about Babylon, because even though it's not home, God has made it very good. He reminds them that the land is fertile; so they should plant a garden and when it produces fruit, sit back and enjoy it. So, too, He tells them to eat, drink, and be merry — not because tomorrow you will die — but because "this is the day that the Lord has made. I will rejoice and be glad in it." In essence, God is saying to them, "The land is set forth before you and it is a good land. Take dominion and transform it in every way, physically, religiously, into a good place to live that will not only bless you and your family, but will also prosper and bless those around you."
This was true not just then, but now as well. We get involved in this land and have great expectations, for tomorrow is ordered by the Lord. We are not longing to die, but rather to increase more and more until we come to that point (in Israel's case, 70 years in the future) where we can go home. We rejoice specifically because there is a future and our work is not pointless, but worthy of all effort to establish long-standing projects, to produce works of significance.
The Peace of the City
God commanded the Israelites to "seek the peace of the city," and John Calvin believed it was "to be understood [by] prosperity." Christians are to seek the peace and prosperity of the place where they live, even if it's "Babylon" and not "Jerusalem." The footnote in Calvin's commentaries by his editor says this:
To "seek the peace of the city," was, no doubt, to promote it by their efforts, to be careful in preserving it. To "seek the land," in Deuteronomy 11:12, was to care for it; "not to seek the day," in Job 3:4, was not to regard it. Hence, to "seek the peace of the city," was to care for, or regard it, so as to do everything to promote it . . . therefore the first sense given by Calvin is the right one.
There is a proper place for the social critic, but having a brilliant, analytical eye and a loud voice does not qualify a man to lead. Rather than cursing the darkness, he should light a match. This is an important point. We will never lead the culture if we fail to care about the well-being of our communities or their culture and fail to get involved in advancing them. People are tired of complainers, but there is something very attractive about doers. Cultural leaders understand that everyone knows we've have major problems, so they don't spend much time and energy denouncing failing institutions, but rather invest their time building new, Biblical ones.
How do we become cultural leaders? By seeking the true peace and prosperity of the city, rebuilding on solid foundations all those mediating institutions and ministries that teach, heal, and sustain life — and life more abundant. We must stop the whining that masquerades as some prophetic vision and start producing something of value and service to our land.
We shouldn't spend time whining about the evils of government schools, but should start Christian schools, even if it's with just a few students, or even if it's just with one family's children in a home school. Today everyone knows the dangers of even the best government schools, and non-Christians probably outnumber Christians in looking for alternatives for their children. We should stop whining and start building a Christian school where people can enroll their children. If we build it, they will come.
We see the bankrupt intellectual status of Harvard, Princeton, Yale, and countless others, all universities originally established through the financial gifts of God's people. But rather than bemoan our losses, we should start new colleges and universities like Whitfield College and Bahnsen School of Theology. We've lost the old ones; yes, it's tough, but we must toughen up and build new universities that are faithful and excellent in every way.
Build for the future, because we're going to be here a while. Build because you love your neighbor as yourself and you seek the welfare of their children as surely as you seek the welfare of your own. For a city to flourish and be at peace, it needs good schools, schools that impart the fear and knowledge of God.
Bloom Where You Are Planted
Without suggesting blanket approval for government funded colleges and universities, I'm glad that Michigan State University, in downtown East Lansing, Michigan (and right around the corner from my home and church) is prospering. Our community benefits tremendously from the school in so many ways it's almost incalculable. MSU is not a "Christian" university, but many Christians are employed there, and many others are professors and students. Much world-class research being done in agriculture and forestry is being undertaken at MSU by Christian men who have accepted invitations to share their knowledge and expertise with our church and boys' academy. While I don't appreciate much of what is transpiring on the campus, a healthy and strong university is vital for the life of our community. Without downplaying the evil, I can work to celebrate the good and utilize God's gifts in a redemptive way by supporting and edifying (even as our church benefits from) the Christian faculty and students. (Also, like Babylon, MSU has beautiful gardens and they're open to the community. I must say, as I walk through the sprawling complex with stunning colors and relaxing fragrances, it occurs to me that we're foolish not to take the prophet's advice to the Jews: Enjoy Babylon to its fullest!)
In that same vein, we must envision Christian universities that are beneficial to and influential in their respective communities. In other words, just as MSU makes people and resources available to our communities, Christian universities should not be walled fortresses keeping out evil culture, but rather dynamic, productive educational and research centers that extend the gospel of Christ throughout the community in terms of knowledge, productivity, and service.
We "just live life" by building new schools where we are. Whether at the elementary, secondary, or college level, we should start today with ten children or young adults and expand to twenty next year and fifty the year after. There is nothing "heroic" in just living lives and building homes and planting gardens and eating, or just rebuilding all those institutions that have collapsed around us.
We shouldn't whine and complain about ungodly medical practices and unjust health insurance companies. Instead we should recruit some Christian doctors to start a community health clinic that young people can afford and old people can trust. Hospitals, doctors, insurance companies, and Medicare/Medicaid are wildly off base today and face huge problems, so we should reestablish charitable ministries to the truly needy. We should help and minister to people as opposed to simply directing them to a government agency that supposedly "helps" them. We must seek the peace of our cities by establishing medical institutions that love and care for their people as Christ loves and cares for us.
We should stop whining about corrupt courts and the trial lawyers and learn what it means to be an elder, including the judicial function of binding and loosening in the legal affairs of church members. Instead, establish Christian courts based upon Canon law. Teach elders to judge impartially according to God's law in all matters so that even non-Christians will come to them for judgment.
If this doesn't seem practical, consider that almost 90% of all cases are settled before going to trial, and private arbitration is huge today. One of the top attorneys in Lansing, a Christian man who practices law for one of the top law firms in the Midwest, is also a professor at a local law school. This attorney is well known for his work in conflict resolution and is willing and able to help churches establish the structures to handle the requirements. He probably doesn't even think about it, but over time he will become a cultural leader as he changes the way people think and behave in the area of law.
We shouldn't complain about how Christians get no respect. We should learn our vocations so well and do such a good job that we are called upon by the leaders of our communities to work on the most important projects, build the most important buildings, design the most important landmarks, write the most important presentations, head up the most important associations, and serve on the most important committees.
Go out and build a home that says we're committed to our community and are here for the long haul. Make it a credit to the community by keeping it up and adding beauty to the neighborhood. Grow a garden that brightens the area and, in fact, exists just "for beauty and for glory." Throw a neighborhood block party with lots of good food. Get married and stay married, have children, and raise them up in the fear and admonition of the Lord. Be godly leaders in your household and constantly seek the peace of the city where God has caused you to live.
Don't spend your life complaining about what's wrong, but rather do something today that's right and will contribute to the prosperity of your city. Stop whining and start rebuilding.
Jeremiah encouraged the covenant people:
Build houses and dwell in them; plant gardens and eat their fruit. Take wives and beget sons and daughters; and take wives for your sons and give your daughters to husbands, so that they may bear sons and daughters that you may be increased there, and not diminished. And seek the peace of the city where I have caused you to be carried away captive, and pray to the LORD for it; for in its peace you will have peace.
To put it bluntly: Enjoy life! Enjoy God's blessings! And without a doubt, enjoy Babylon!