Strangers in a Strange Land

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St. Peter once offered his new Gentile converts some advice about the task of being in the world while not being of the world: “Beloved, I beseech you as aliens and strangers to avoid fleshly desires which wage war against the soul” (1 Peter 2:11). Note this last bit: he urges them to avoid worldly desires because they are no longer of the world, but live in it as “aliens and strangers”. Citizens of a country are expected to conform their country’s customs and norms, but aliens who come from another country and strangers who are merely visiting are not expected to fit in. They will live and behave differently from those around them.

That, St. Peter says, describes us Christians: planet earth, the society in which we live, is no longer our country, since our true citizenship is in heaven (Philippians 3:20)—or, in the words of Jesus People Larry Norman in 1972, we are “only visiting this planet”. We will therefore no longer fit into the secular society where we live. Fleshly desires are for those in the world, not for Christians who no longer belong to the world. Though we are in the world, sharing earthly citizenship with others in society, partaking of its voting rights and its patriotism, we are no longer of the world. The flags under which we stand and to which we may pledge earthly allegiance no longer ultimately define who we are. We are no longer fundamentally Americans, Canadians, Russians, or Scots, but Christians, and our true countrymen are those who share our faith in Christ, regardless of their colour and nationality, and regardless under which flag they stand. That is why St. Peter, later on in his epistle, tells his readers not to act like the Gentiles do (4:3), despite the fact that they were Gentiles. Or, more specifically, they used to be Gentiles. Now they were Gentiles no longer, and so should not act like them. Now they were a chosen race, a holy nation, the Church of the living God. It would be like writing to American Christians and telling them “Let the time that is past suffice for doing what the Americans like to do”. St. Paul says the same thing, mentioning the Church of God as a third category, separate from Jews and Gentiles (1 Corinthians 10:32).

This Biblical teaching finds an early echo in the letter of an early church father who wrote an open Letter to Diognetus sometime in the early second century. He described Christians like this: “They dwell in their countries, but simply as sojourners. As citizens they share in all things with others, and yet endure all things as if foreigners. Every foreign land is to them as their native country, and every land of their birth as a land of strangers.” In other words, Christians belong primarily to Christ and therefore to the age to come, not to any earthly nation. They live in this age simply as those who are passing through.

It is important to remember this basic Biblical truth, and not to become so invested in the political storms around us that we forget that the land in which we cast our votes and eat our bread is not really our native country. We may love our nation, but must not let it define us, and certainly not to the point of separating us from our true countrymen, the Christians who live in other countries and who share our faith. That would be to indulge the fleshly desires which St. Peter tells us to avoid, for by “fleshly desires” the apostle was not speaking only of sexual desires, or of gluttony. By “fleshly desires” he meant any appetite or consuming passion which grips and controls us—including the passion of anger, enmity, disputing, dissensions, and factions of which St. Paul warned us in Galatians 5:20—passions which often characterize those entangled in political turmoil. Politics is very interesting, but we must cast our votes with the knowledge that in the final conflagration at the Second Coming (2 Peter 3:10) all flags will burn, including our own. But that’s okay, for we did not wrap ourselves in any flag, but stood under a cross, and that cross is completely nonflammable.

The emphatic and consistent teaching of the New Testament is that we live in the last hour, so that the form of this world is passing away (1 John 2:18, 1 Corinthians 7:31). We must live in this age and in our society as those with a certain detachment—not the detachment of indifference, for we must still love our neighbour and seek to lift his burdens and meet his needs. Rather, we live with the detachment of those who know that they are already dead to this world, and that our true life is hidden with Christ in God (Colossians 3:3). Here in this world, for a while, we live, and love, and rejoice, and give thanks to God for the good things we find here, including good things that may characterize our nation. But our true native land is elsewhere, and our desire is to depart and be with Christ, and to finally come to our true home.

Used with permission.
Rob M 1/27/2019 11:22 pm
Of course, when Letter to Diogenetus was written, there were no Christian nations, no Christian rulers. There was no United States of America, and precious little in the way of what we would call a modern nation-state.

There is a sentiment attributed to the first Republican president, and the first murdered president, Abraham Lincoln, that our "Constitution is not a suicide pact". Similarly, I do not think we need to take our faith as a suicide pact either, especially on behalf of our nation.
Scripture ALSO admonishes us to be mindful of the laws & leaders of our lands. There is smarmy innuendo in this article that suggests we collaborate in assisting others in doing just that. Humbug.
Alexandra7/30/2018 6:09 pm
In regards to beginning a local project to help your community, do not be afraid to start small, and let it grow into something larger in later years. For example, perhaps there is a school nearby which your church could work with to find one or two families who are struggling - you could start a collection for them, and provide gifts and food for Christmas. Or collect school supplies and donate them to a school. Or encourage people to volunteer at a local food bank, etc. It is easy to criticize the whole for not doing enough, much more difficult to personally step into the position of starting to change the situation.
Alexandra7/30/2018 6:00 pm
Mary, as Susan said, our presence in the US is very small in comparison to Protestants - even in comparison to Roman Catholics. We do not have the resources to do as much as they do - materially speaking. However, in every liturgy we pray for the sick and suffering, for those in captivity, for the poor, for orphans and widows. Is it not a great help to them, to bring their situation before God? If your parish is not doing as much in the community as you would like, perhaps you should find projects and present them to your priest and other people in your church? Or submit specific prayer requests which you would like included?
Susan7/28/2018 11:55 pm
Mary: Please also keep in mind that the Orthodox Church is very small in comparison with the Protestants in the U.S. I don't know what church you go to, but that seems to be a problem with your particular parish. Of course we could all do more, but we just don't have the scale of Protestants. The U.S. is basically a Protestant majority country (if it's anything).
Mary7/28/2018 7:59 pm
I’m in the US and after except for abortion or events happening in the Middle East or Russia not one word is said about and nothing is done about what is going on in THIS country. I take that back, churches with predominantly American clergy do feed the homeless or help unwed mothers.

But how embarrassing that Protestants are trying to do something about the kids ripped from there families and I’ve yet to hear a word at church. Or the rampant police brutality. i attend is full of wealthy members and nothing is done for the community. Long prayers for their home country and honoring their vets, but what a disconnect.

In my mind this article just makes it easier to remain disconnected.
Alexandra7/27/2018 11:29 pm
Fr. Lawrence, could you shed some light on this? We were created by God as physical and spiritual, but it seems like many people teach to reject the physical aspects of ourselves entirely. Is the physical body not as much a part of our being as the spiritual is? When the Fathers speak about forgoing fleshly things, are they not speaking of the passions rather than a literal rejection of our body, or resentment of the body itself? Will we not be resurrected, spirit along with body, as an entire being? I realize you didn't address this directly, but there is some connection between our own physicality and the nation we belong to...rejecting the latter seems like tacit rejection of the former.
Susan7/27/2018 11:10 pm
Mary: I don't think this article is in any way saying that we shouldn't get involved in helping address problems in society if need be. There are too many examples of this to name here, but in the countries where Orthodoxy is the majority religion there are many ways that the Church helps out in society. As for relief work in other countries, we can cite the Greek people's activities in African countries.
Alexandra7/27/2018 11:09 pm
Mary, what is wrong about helping people in your own country if there are so many who need it? Should we ignore the brother who is suffering right beside us to instead help others abroad? I am not sure what you mean when you say that Fr. Lawrence's article is a copout - he says: "We must live in this age and in our society as those with a certain detachment—not the detachment of indifference, for we must still love our neighbour and seek to lift his burdens and meet his needs." Does this not indicate that we are supposed to help those in need?
Mary7/27/2018 11:03 pm
Sorry, but this Sounds like an excuse not to get involved in helping out with real problems like police brutality , children taken from their parents, Refugee detentions. I don’t see Orthodox churches doing anything to help anyone but their native countries. Please provide examples my assessment is mistaken.
Mary7/27/2018 10:14 pm
Typical copout. The Orthodox generally just help people and causes in the native countries. Orthodox in America are generally conservative and prejudiced, that’s why. Copout.
AncientPrederence7/26/2018 10:09 pm
I would beg the author to include among the list above material things and social trends. People are eaten up with trendiness of all sorts and it all is a distraction and a waste.
Michael7/26/2018 6:56 pm
This is a tricky problem, since the world (or rather, its prince) is also clearly invested in getting people away from their traditional cultural and ethnic identities (through individualism, globalism, etc.) and it certainly isn't in order to bring people closer to God.

As Americans or Western Europeans, it's easy to disregard a culture/nation that has become completely degraded and toxic, but I have a lot of respect for those in my own and other "ethnic parishes" who actually have something worth holding onto.
Joel7/25/2018 9:23 pm
A graphic reminder, thanks.
Anthony7/25/2018 10:56 am
I think that Fr L F has a point but only to a certain extent ie to the extent the Orthodoxers shouldn't be consumed by their passions, which are now legislated for, and worshipped by men. However!!! A Christian ought not to simply be an innocent onlooker and not speak their minds and stand up for the faith when required to do so - see what Ayios Paisios Ayioreitis has to say on the matter - and he especially castigated the clergy for not doing their bit to speak out in defence of Orthodoxy -
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