Christians regularly feel the tension of dual citizenship. They stand as citizens of penultimate secular geopolitical entities and as those of an ultimate sacred kingdom. Ephesians 2:19 informs Christians of their citizenship and fellowship with God; I Peter 2:11 describes Christians as sojourners and exiles, those who are scattered throughout the world. This passage would have referred contemporary readers back to an anticipatory moment in the Old Testament (Jeremiah 29), a time when God’s people were given instruction on how to live while under the occupation of another power. Those who are called out of this world are directed to work for the peace of whatever governing authority they find themselves under as they await the final consummation in the new heavens and new earth.
The Christian’s ultimate citizenship does not cancel out his or her penultimate citizenship on this earth, but it does accent a certain irony—an irony that has become much more salient as a result of the COVID-19 crisis. Wherever they may make their earthly home, Christians will always live as pilgrims, holding as secondary not only their cultural identity but also their political rights. This mindset may lead some toward a kind of escapism. “Let the world burn; it’s not my final home,” some might say. But an understanding of the Christian’s ultimate citizenship should not lead to an abandoning of the world; it should, rather, compel Christians to be the best citizens any nation has to offer.
Living in a foreign country illustrates quite well the biblical concept of being a sojourning pilgrim. My family and I currently live in Shanghai, China, a top-tier city about 500 miles east of Wuhan, the origin of this now-global pandemic. In the early days of the outbreak, we watched as Chinese citizens, with the SARS crisis back in 2002 still fresh on the country’s collective memory, took immediate action to stamp out the spread of the virus, doing so even before the government acted. As much as it inconvenienced us, and especially because of the novelty of the virus, my wife and I followed the directives of neighbors, friends, and colleagues. What convinced us to act was not what we knew about the virus, since not much was in fact known in the early weeks and months, or because the government told us to do so, but rather because, as guests in a foreign country, we sought to live at peace with our neighbors. We were neither asked to do anything immoral nor coerced to violate our commitments to God’s higher laws (though officials have tried). In fact, we often find ourselves complying with local practices out of a sense of respect for our host country, though residing in a place like China regularly requires subtle maneuvering.
Much of the battle against COVID-19 depends on our attitude—an attitude toward both self and others. Plenty of Christian Americans have been moved to practice virus-preventative measures like mask-wearing and social distancing not out of fear or submission to the state—personally, I am not convinced that the state even needs to be referenced in this whole epidemiological imbroglio—but out of a love for neighbor. A love for neighbor may include temporarily muting, though not abandoning, our own needs, desires, and rights for the sake of others. Admittedly, it has been somewhat easier to comply with stay-at-home directives as a foreigner. This is not my home; I have no ultimate claim to it. So, I began to think about the practical effect of applying a foreigner mindset in my own home country of America. To wit, what if we applied the reality of being a sojourning pilgrim to such motivating love?
An essential part of being a foreigner is understanding the social and cultural environments we find ourselves living in, working out of respect for our host country to understand both history and culture. This requires listening, a practice of taking in the experience of another on their terms, not for the eventual purpose of “sharing”—often a euphemism that conceals selfish motives—our own experience. The person who listens demonstrates biblical wisdom. Fools close their ears and open wide their mouths; they are not interested in listening (Proverbs 12:15; 13:3). (There is a reason why “talk is cheap.”) The wise person is temperate and contemplative, slow to speak yet quick to listen. The foreigner strategically suspends his or her own position in a social context for the sake of the other. Working hard to learn a new language or to understand the idiosyncrasies of a society and culture demands critical listening, which, in a way, elevates the other above ourselves. This is an important step in cultivating social harmony, of living at peace with all. Those who practice social harmony, elevating the lives of others above their own, tend to be the best citizens. People are drawn to those who show interest and care for others, who recognize the needs of others—material, physical, psychological, spiritual—and act to meet those needs.
There is no reason to accept the notion that the protection of our individual rights should necessarily conflict with a love of neighbor. Sadly, however, COVID-19 has revealed the wall separating the two. A number of American citizens, particularly, have prioritized (even idolized) selfishness over that of self-sacrifice, placing their rights, without offering serious consideration on what constitutes a “right,” conflating penultimate with ultimate, over and above the lives of others. There are, to be sure, rights granted by a government (e.g., gun ownership); there are also universal creational rights that cannot be eradicated in an absolute sense by any institution. And we should make clear that even given rights like gun-ownership rest on higher universal rights (e.g., the right to life), but there are more ways than one to protect these rights. We should not confuse one mode of protecting our rights as the right itself. At the same time, however, existence of universal rights like that of speech does not necessarily mean that such rights have no boundaries in terms of practical application. Even the right to speak, the most sacred of rights, can be limited, depending on the context and who or what is limiting such rights.
Christians should always prioritize the life of others over their own individual rights, doing so by discerning the situation in which best to exercise their rights. The reason for this rest on the fact that a Christian’s rights are not grounded in a final sense in this life. As a Christian, the regulation of my language, for instance, centers on my calling to be a witness to the world. I may be free to spout anything I want, but I must be aware of the impact my language may have on both myself and those around me. Our words reflect our identity. (And believe me: I have, many times, contradicted my Christian identity because of my words.) I may not be able to speak freely in a company, a church, a school, or, in my case, in a particular country, so I will watch what I say, not out of fear of institutional coercion or suppression, but out of a love for Christ and neighbor.
The foreigner status allows us to consider others more highly than we do ourselves. It compels us to soften appeals to our individual selves and affirm the value of others always and everywhere. What would happen if Christians applied a biblical sojourner mindset in every social context? What if they considered themselves guests in the presence of their own neighbors or as foreigners in their own country? What if they deemed the rights and life of others more important than their own? What if they kept silent, spoke (and wrote) with a softer tone, worked quietly with their hands (I Thessalonians 4:11) for the sake of the peace of their own beloved country? Finally, what if they developed more creative ways to exercise their rights while at the same time actively loving their neighbor? I suspect that the many expat Christians living and working abroad, those Christians willing to suspend the temporary expression of their national citizenry, would have a more effective witness. If so, let us apply such an ethic both to our foreign and domestic situations.
Ryan C. McIlhenny, PhD, is the author of To Preach Deliverance to the Captives: Freedom and Slavery in the Protestant Mind of George Bourne, 1780-1845 (2020), part of the Antislavery, Abolition, and Atlantic World series of Louisiana State University Press.