In For the Life of the World: Letters to the Exiles, we routinely point to Jeremiah 29 as a primer for life in exile, prodding us toward active and integrative cultural and economic witness, and away from the typical temptations of fortification, domination, and accommodation.
As Christians continue to struggle with what it means to be in but not of the world — whether in government, business, the family, or elsewhere — Jeremiah reminds us to “seek the welfare of the city,” pointing the way toward truth and light even as we serve our captors. “We are to “pray to the Lord for it,” Jeremiah writes, “because if it prospers, you too will prosper.”
As for what that looks like in actual application, the Biblical examples abound — from Jeremiah to Joseph to Esther to Nehemiah and beyond. And there’s perhaps no more popular or prominent an example than the prophet Daniel.
Filling a myriad of roles in an overtly pagan government and society, Daniel shows us what it means to be invested but not absorbed, serving while not enabling, compromising yet neither accommodating nor retreating. In so many ways, Daniel demonstrates the paradoxical, upside-down virtues of being in the world but not of it.
Or as Robert Joustra and Alissa Wilkinson provocatively put it, drawing from their recent book, How to Survive the Apocalypse: Zombies, Cylons, Faith, and Politics at the End of the World, Daniel is “the patron saint of our apocalyptic age,” pointing the way to “faithful compromise” and active, embedded witness.
At a time when Christians feel isolated and exposed, tempted to turn away and construct protective barriers, whether in church life, political life, economic life, or otherwise, Daniel shows us the value of sticking around and cheering for our “adopted homeland,” with our hearts, our heads, and our hands:
Daniel is our patron saint because religious people, and especially evangelicals, often feel unsettled or out of place in this Secular age. Often, we religious types take a hard look at this modern culture, its crisis of individualist authenticity, its slide to subjectivism, its double loss of freedom, and judge—not unintelligently—that this is all going to hell. And rather than tackle some of these big, pernicious pathologies of modernity head on, we soap up and wash our hands of the whole thing.
But Daniel didn’t wash his hands. Daniel was a faithful compromiser. He stood his ground when he had to (“Daniel in the Lion’s Den”). But he made some deals when he didn’t. Dragged from home, given a new name, the driving question of his life and mission was “how to sing the LORD’s song in a strange land?” (Psalm 137:4). His answer was what the sociologist James Davison Hunter might call faithful presence, or—maybe a bit more to the point—a faithful compromiser . He was on Babylon’s side, rooting for his adopted homeland (the one he was dragged to, against his will) not to flame out, but to prosper and flourish. And he didn’t do it as an idle observer: he pulled up his socks and got in the game himself.
This isn’t to pretend that the world is a fanciful place, or even that this world and its institutions can or will someday be our home or kingdom. “The barbarians are in the City; the Cylons are in the walls; Frank Underwood is eyeing the White House; the dead are up and walking,” they write. “These are apocalyptic times.”
Our secular age poses plenty of challenges, but these are challenges that require an active, embedded response, moving and speaking and serving in the routine, mundane activities of civilizational life. They require an active witness that keeps its eye on the good of our neighbors both in the here and now and not yet.
“That’s Daniel kind of work,” Joustra and Wilkinson write. “Those are the lessons of a loyal opposition. It doesn’t yield the city to the barbarians.” Daniel retained a distinct prophetic voice in the King’s court, but it was tethered by good service — transformative action that shifted his surroundings in a common-good, common-grace sort of way.
Even as we see and are surrounded by threats and risks, we can continue to sow seeds of life and destiny, in our jobs, in our policymaking, and in active fellowship and prophetic community among the people of God. Whereas many evangelicals would prefer to stay secluded, delegating “outreach” to the occasional mission trip or routine street evangelism, Daniel demonstrates a more steady yet varied vocational trajectory, requiring active discernment, obedience, and sacrifice as it relates to culture itself.
As faithful exiles, let our own cultural influence and economic action mirror that sort of embedded, integrative faithfulness, proclaiming truth and life across all of spheres of society and in multiple manifestations. It will require intensive discernment and wisdom, and the result will be far more complicated than many of our existing categories and approaches are willing to allow.
“Like Daniel, we must make compromises,” Joustra and Wilkinson conclude. “That means we must temper our expectations and not become defeated when everything is not perfect, yet. But some compromises are better, and others are worse. Wisdom is knowing the difference. Our culture is already very busy trying to discern that. We could do worse than join in.”
For more on what that approach might look like, see For the Life of the World: Letters to the Exiles.