Christians are used to thinking of themselves as citizens of heaven, but have we thought enough about what it means to be a citizen in a particular place on earth?
In the first wave of the coronavirus pandemic, two ancient principles that the modern world has tended to leave behind re-emerged with a vengeance: the importance and particularity of place, and the essential role of community. Increasingly, through international travel and trade, the explosion in information technology, and the slow universalisation of culture through social norms and entertainment, we had begun to think of ourselves as global, interconnected beings, not tied to anyone or anywhere. Orders to stay in place, restrict travel and act as if we were all vectors of virus transmission have starkly reminded us that we exist in particular places, tied to the fate of our co-inhabitants in that space, and dependent on one another to be mindful of collective risk. This renewed sense of location shifted our focus back on to the people and places around us – not to abandon the global family of humanity in the name of local particularity, but to correct our arrogance in thinking that we could leave place behind.
Good theology has a similar effect. Although our citizenship is indeed in heaven (Philippians 3:20), calling us not to conform to the patterns of the world (Romans 12:2) nor to love the things of the world (1 John 2:15), this is not a command to withdraw from the earthly places we inhabit and only concern ourselves with the ‘things above’ (Colossians 3:2). Not only would this enforce the false dualism of sacred and secular, spirit and matter, it would misunderstand what being a ‘citizen of heaven’ means, leading Christians to think of the civic obligations of earthly citizenship as a kind of extra-curricular activity, secondary to matters of eternal consequence.
Instead, our role is to act as ambassadors of that heavenly reign, manifesting the values of God’s kingdom ‘on earth as it is in heaven’ (Matthew 6:10), reflecting the love and justice of God as image-bearers into the places where we are situated. The doctrine of the incarnation, of the God who ‘became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighbourhood’ (John 1:14, MSG), who made his dwelling among us, born into poverty and suffering, trading his divine glory to take on the nature of a servant and to be humbled to death on a cross (Philippians 2:6-11), leaves us no choice but to participate in our neighbourhoods, to give ourselves in love to others, and to serve those around us. We are not given the option of blissful isolation from the world, but to love our neighbours well by stepping beyond our individual interests, taking on their concerns and collectively seeking the common good.
The label of ‘citizen’ is not just a private legal identity, conferring rights and membership of a community, but also a public calling to participate in civic life. As Christians, we have a kind of ‘dual citizenship’, being in the world but not of it (John 17:14-16), with a calling to engage with the world, outworking our heavenly identity. This empowers us to be active citizens in the world, sent in the power of the Spirit to faithfully represent Jesus in the collective spaces of a life shared with others.
At present, there is an opportunity to learn the lessons of the pandemic and reshape society based on the biblically-affirmed principles of rootedness and subsidiarity. There is, in particular, an offer on the table for faith groups to play a key role in the reshaping of civil society as the government seeks to ‘level up our communities’. The response that the Church must make at this time – in an institutional, local, and personal sense – is to communicate our Gospel to the world, expressing a theology made concrete in the context of human relationships. We can either sit on the side lines as isolated actors, setting ourselves apart from the world, or we can enter into productive working relationships with our fellow citizens – even those we disagree with – to seek positive change in our communities. Either way, a theology of citizenship will be key.
Matt Ceaser is one of the participants in the Jubilee Centre's 2020/21 SAGE Graduate Programme. He has a degree in Human, Social & Political Sciences from Cambridge University.
To read Matt's full research essay - and to see a video of his presentation at the 2021 SAGE Conference - click here.
This is a post by a guest contributor. The views expressed by guest writers are their own, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Jubilee Centre.