12th Assembly 2009

Visiting lecturer calls for church to recognise its minority status

Perhaps it’s inevitable that Daniel Smith-Christopher would develop an interest in the theology of exile: after all, he is named after one of the Old Testament prophets living in Babylon. However, in contrast to his namesake, who interpreted the dreams and visions of the king, Daniel challenges Christians to move away from the role of being “chaplains to power”.

For Daniel, the role of the exile, or the outsider, obviously sits comfortably. He comes from a non-conformist Quaker background and now is a Protestant lecturer at the Catholic Loyola Marymount University.

He is in Australia to share some of his insights into why a theology of exile is important for Christians figuring out what it means to be the church in the 21st century.

“Most of the Bible was written, and all of it was edited, in a context of exile, in a context of diaspora existence or occupation within their tradition territories,” he explains.

“The Bible leaves us in exile. When the text completes its message to us, historically, it leaves us in exile.”

Daniel says there is a strong correlation between the position of the Israelites in exile and the position the church finds itself in today.

“It’s about us waking up to the fact that we are exiles also,” he says.

In the mid 1990s, Daniel first started to explore this idea publicly at around the same time as he was invited to be a speaker at the National Christian Youth Convention in Tasmania. The language of exile found a deep resonance in the Australian people he met there.

“To my surprise and frankly my delight, it became very much a common language for us to exchange ideas and thoughts, he recalls.

“I learnt about Australia listening to Australian Christians reflecting on their place in society, concerns about social issues, concerns about Indigenous issues, and so it was absolutely fascinating for me.

“I’m convinced that many of the issues that Australian Christians are facing now are in the future of the American church.”

Daniel says, “I have no delusions of being able to do anything other than to listen to what people are thinking about and offer suggestions as to how scripture might be able to help.”

During the last month, he has spent time in almost every part of Australia, participating in the Wisdom’s Feast conference in Melbourne, travelling to Nungalinya College in Darwin, offering Bible studies in Nehemiah for the Congress National Conference in Perth and speaking at the School of Discipleship in Canberra.

Daniel has a particular interest in what the language of exile means for minority cultures — he currently runs a unit studying the theology of African-American blues music.

“The more we become aware of our status as exiles, we realise we’ve got more in common with cultural minorities that we thought,” he says.

“Maybe it’s the white folks, both here and in the United States, that are the ones that need to figure out that we’re exiles. The others have probably known it for a long time. When I interact with my friend who is an African American preacher of a little store-front church, they know very well what the language of Babylon is all about.”

So what is it really all about?

For Daniel, this isn’t just another intellectual discussion, but a call for a radical re-thinking.

“I think there’s evidence in the Hebrew Bible that at least some of the voices are people who really were struggling with that it means to have a transformed identity,” he says.

“In order to have a transformed identity, everything has to be on the table for negotiation. You can’t hold stuff back and say, we’d never change that.”

He says this has practical implications for the church, which has to confront the legacy of its time of power and prestige.

“One of the young women who was at Wisdom’s feast came up to me afterwards and said, ‘You know, one of the big issues for us here is how much property we’re holding onto and the tremendous burden of perpetuating the bill-paying and the maintenance for all this property.’

“Hopefully issues like that were included when we said ‘everything’ on the table.”

“If you’re really going to decide how do we be the people of God now, then everything has to be on the table.

“Because the holding back of stuff means we’re not being genuine. We’re not yet fully alive to the fact that we’re exiles in Babylon. We’re still wanting to pretend just a little that Jerusalem will come back and it’ll be the old way again.

“I don’t think there’s any going back.”

Dr Daniel Smith-Christopher will give the 12th Assembly’s Cato Lecture, “Overboard with Jonah; Over the Line with Ezra: Biblical Themes for the Church in Exile”, at Leighton Hall, University of New South Wales, Saturday July 18, at 7.30 pm.