“Where are you from?” she asked as we chatted on the elevator. I was so jarred by the question that I stuttered and responded, “uhh, from here?” to which she replied, “No, like where are you from from?”
I know that for many, this conversation is a familiar one. In the United States, if you are not white, more than likely, someone has asked you some version of that question. As one who is not white and is quite ethnically ambiguous, I have spent a lifetime fielding a version of this question. And I never know how to respond because most people aren’t looking for the real answer.
The real answer is that my mom was born and raised in Nagaland, but because many have never heard of it, more explanation is always needed. In sum, Nagaland is now a state in India made of indigenous tribal people. But, due to European colonial powers getting involved in regions not their own, and because they liked redrawing borders not theirs to draw, Nagaland was forcibly made part of India by the British and Indian governments. However, as a people, they have little to no ethnic or cultural similarities to India, yet are nonetheless “Indian” by national identity (at least by those not Naga). But, if one does genetic DNA testing (which I have done), Nagas are classified almost entirely as “Chinese.” So, for clarity, my mom is culturally Naga, nationalistically Indian, and, apparently, genetically Chinese. Plus, my grandfather is Lebanese on my father’s side, and while my grandmother has mostly European roots, her line also includes my great, great-grandfather from Chile. As you can imagine, I have no idea how to answer the “where are you from from?” question.
If all that was not enough, the hodgepodge of my family’s background crafted a face familiar to those from South East Asia, the Middle East, North Africa, Central, and South America, and some parts of Mediterranean Europe. As a result, I regularly disappoint my Chinese-speaking, Arabic-speaking, and Spanish-speaking neighbors when I only speak English. And living in East Harlem, I regularly have to say, “Lo siento, mi amigo. No hablo Espanol.”
All that to say, I don’t think the woman on the elevator was looking for that answer. She simply thought, “hey, something about you is different, and you don’t seem like you’re from here.” As I reflected on that interaction and the many others of my past, I kept returning to the biblical notion of exile. That is, when we feel the otherness of our surroundings, when our conduct stands out, when our very presence raises questions, the biblical notion of exile becomes more tangible. And what is that notion?
Exile is a consistent theme throughout the Bible. Exile begins in the garden when Adam and Eve are expelled from that garden, their truest experience of home. Since then, we have all consistently lived in exile, longing for that home. The People of God would enter a state of exile while in Egypt. As enslaved people, their homes were not their true homes. They lived in but were not part of Egypt, but instead were distinct people amongst the Egyptians. Of course, though, they eventually became a people with a home, a land, and a temple, but because of their idolatry, they lost that home. They would end up in exile in the pagan city of Babylon. Again, they were a distinct people living amongst another people.
Then, in the New Testament era, drawing on those experiences, the Apostles describe the people of God similarly in places like 2 Peter 2:11 and Philippians 3, where Paul argues that the Christian’s ultimate citizenship is not in this world but in heaven.
The importance of recognizing exile as a central theme of the Bible is the recognition that Christians are a distinct people called to live faithfully in the nations of the earth, but whose ultimate loyalties are not as citizens of those nations but as citizens of God’s Kingdom. And if I may be so bold, the constant pursuit of avoiding those tensions instead of embracing them is one of the main causes of unfaithfulness amongst God’s people.
The whole notion of “Until Zion” emphasizes the reality that we live in exile until we experience the fullness of God’s Kingdom when Christ returns. Until Zion, to be faithful, we must emphasize that we are exiles in waiting. This biblical category of exile is also why one of our core values is “centering the margins.” Those on the margins of society are often most familiar with being on the outside––outside the centers of power and influence––and, as a result, are those able to help us recover the faithfulness of exile. That is not to say those with power and influence cannot be faithful, but it is to say that faithfulness is directly proportional to our embrace of exile.
As we embrace exile, there are two sides to the same coin. Meaning, to be an exile requires a recognition this world is not our true home while also recognizing this world is nonetheless our temporary home––a home we should desire to flourish. When we forget that coin has two sides, we quickly err and become unfaithful. Some of us fail by over-emphasizing our heavenly citizenship and forget our earthly calling to seek the flourishing of our environments. Others fail by emphasizing our earthly citizenships and forget to take seriously how we ought to be distinct from this world. The challenge for Christians, however, is to embrace the consistency of being home but not home––exile.
For example, for many immigrants, a goal in life is assimilation. Many constantly ask, whether consciously or subconsciously: what must I jettison from my cultural heritage; how must I capitulate to the dominant culture; what is the pathway to the greatest acceptance; what choices will establish the least amount of resistance in this new home? For some, they strike a healthy balance of embracing enough of their new country to call it home while also maintaining enough of their cultural heritage to feel connected to it. But many also never find that balance, for various reasons, and instead, altogether jettison their cultural heritage as the path of least resistance.
Frankly, such a necessity is often a heart-breaking reality that I would like to unpack more fully one day. But what strikes me about that experience, as it relates to the biblical idea of exile, is that Christians are not free to assimilate into this world's norms, customs, and priorities. While the immigrant experience might sometimes necessitate such assimilation, the Christian experience of assimilation––the desire to pursue the path of least resistance––is unfaithful. And as a Christian, but also as a pastor who meets with people regularly, that pursuit is a constant temptation.
When Christians claim ultimate loyalty to a King of righteousness, but then we swear allegiance to earthly rulers who lack any form of integrity in order to achieve political or social ends, we have assimilated. We need a recovery of exile.
When Christians claim ultimate loyalty to a creator God who determines what is good, right, and true, but we then capitulate to the worldly perspectives that what is good, right, and true for me is something I discover within and not given from without, we have assimilated. We need a recovery of exile.
When Christians claim ultimate loyalty to a God of justice who created people in His image, but then willingly allow or actively participate in the silencing of the abused, oppressed, or marginalized so that we might maintain order, keep our power, and protect our friends, we have assimilated. We need a recovery of exile.
Why? Because living as an exile means the patterns of this world are not our own. And the patterns of this world is to live in such a way that the kingdoms of this world become my home, and I must therefore do whatever is necessary to curate it to my liking. But the true exile knows what it takes to be faithful to another Kingdom. The true exile is willing to relinquish influence and power in politics or societally if it means standing for righteousness. The true exile is willing to stand firm on truth even though it might put them at odds with those from whom they might otherwise want acceptance. The true exile is willing to confront injustice, no matter what it might cost them.
I started by reflecting on the immigrant experience, especially the experience of those who, by their very presence, features, or cultural expressions, is clearly an other. Such an experience is actually an extraordinarily instructive one. Immigrants and others who do not experience the benefits of being associated with the dominant culture often cannot escape the tension of exile. That tension––a tension some never feel and others work hard to avoid––is the very tension all Christians must embrace. Christians, while living and engaging in this world in which we live, must also, by their very presence, be viewed as the other. And if we are honest, we all actively seek the path of least resistance in some way.
So, the question becomes for every Christian: “how do I need to recover the experience of exile in my own life?” I pray the Lord gives us an answer to that question so that we might be a more faithful people, until Zion.