Do you remember the Ferrero Rocher Adverts, the ones depicting the Ambassador’s Reception where the waitresses offer guests a Ferrero chocolate, from a silver platter? If you do you might be wondering what on earth this has all got to do with theology.
Christian Theology has always struggled with how Christians should relate to the nation state. We pray for the coming of the kingdom of heaven of heaven on earth. What does this mean? A transformation in government institutions so that they reflect so called kingdom values in their decision making, perhaps? For ‘secular’ governments to be populated by Christians of one sort or another, maybe? The removal of all forms of secular government in favour of the Christian state? Or, is our prayer a little more vague, would we prefer a little more love and niceness in daily life?
Of course for many of us, in the ‘Developed West,’ the issue isn’t that sharp. Life can be quite nice, we are not likely to be persecuted for our faith, the abundance of God is apparent in the form of good homes, pleasant gardens and, an idyllic countryside. Governments and political institutions may be experienced as mild, and abstract, irritants, to be complained about in polite, or not so polite, conversation, but not, I suggest, as real and manifest agents of abuse and tyranny. Go to parts of Africa, the Middle East and the Ukraine and the situation looks a little different. Our own inner cities and former industrial villages don’t equate to romantic notions of what the kingdom of heaven on earth might look and feel like.
Yet, we are all called on to answer a basic question: ‘As Christians to whom do we owe our primary allegiance?’ The answer must always, surely, be the Kingdom of God, and this means our relationship with other kingdoms must, unless those kingdoms mirror ‘the kingdom’ be somewhat provisional? As Christians we always occupy, in Augustine’s terms ‘two cities,’ and, to borrow, from Dickens we must learn faithfully tell the ‘Tale of Two Cities.’
No easy task, but perhaps there is a metaphor we can use to help and, an Old Testament Scripture?
Cardinal Donald Wuerl suggests that an appropriate metaphor is that of ambassador (hence Ferrero Rocher!). An ambassador is respectful of the customs and traditions of the country in which he or she lives and, where they enjoy diplomatic immunity. Ambassadors, are, however charged with representing the values of another kingdom, or sovereign state. Ambassadors employ the language of respect and diplomacy but, they must never become beholden to, or uncritical of, their place of temporary residence, rather they seek to further the interests of their own sovereign state and its citizens. Isn’t this our role? We are bound to support political institutions to the extent that they promote kingdom values: justice, the dignity of each individual and community, peace, reconciliation and love. We must oppose policies and institutions that fail to promote Godly virtues. Our task may make us unpopular, at times, but after all Jesus told us unfortunately at times our faith will cut us off from those who we would normally relate to (Matthew 10, 34 for instance).
Ambassadors may be sent to risky places, so might we. Ambassadors might have to speak uncomfortable truths- so might we? Ambassadors only real status is that of resident-alien. As ambassadors for The Kingdom surely this is also our status? All metaphors eventually breakdown and, unlike ‘real world’ ambassadors we don’t enjoy diplomatic immunity. Christians throughout the centuries have been sentenced to death for refusing to bow to the demands of the nation state. For Western Christians, this is unlikely to be our fate, but we should dare to risk all for ‘The Kingdom.’
Regarding ourselves as resident-aliens, or Ambassadors brings me to an Old Testament Scripture: Jeremiah 29, 4-14, the so called ‘Letter to the Exiles.’ The Israelites, in exile in Babylon, are mandated to act as ambassadors: They are told to (verse 5) ‘build houses, settle down, plant gardens and eat what they produce,’ and (verse 7) ‘work for the good of the city to which I have exiled you, pray to Yahweh on its behalf, since on its welfare yours depends.’ However, the Israelites are also told (verse 8) that they must not be deceived by the ‘false prophets’ that will inevitably emerge from within their own ranks; they must in other words embrace their status as ‘resident-aliens’ and ambassadors preserving their own ‘kingdom identity,’ whatever the cost.
We have to do likewise.
Are you a resident-alien, an ambassador, for The Kingdom? If so treat yourself to a chocolate!