To which polis do you belong?
I’m not asking in which geographical cities do we live, nor am I asking which nation-state do we inhabit? I am asking which polis shapes our identity, drives life, and defines our telos (the end toward which we live life)? Which polis gives our lives meaning and purpose?
Paul explicitly addressed this question with overt political language.
Philippi was a political settlement; it was a Roman colony, filled with retired legionaries. This was a precarious situation for a new, fledgling community that confessed “Jesus is Lord and Caesar is not.” We might imagine political and personal harassment from neighbors, perhaps even economic oppression of various sorts. Living in this polis (Philippi) entailed hardship for those who professed and acknowledged they belonged to a different polis.
Paul identifies the Christian polis in Philippians 3:20. “Our citizenship (politeuma) is in heaven.” The term politeuma has the word polis (city) embedded in it.
We might render the term “commonwealth” or “state,” and it identifies a political relation. “Our citizenship is in heaven,” while others find their “citizenship” on earth. The contrast is stark. The Christian community derives its identity from the reality of God’s new creation, inaugurated by the resurrection of Jesus who reigns at the right hand of God.
More particularly, politeuma was often used, as Silva writes (WBC, cv. Phil. 3:20), “to designate a colony of foreigners or relocated veterans (BDAG) whose purpose was to secure the conquered country for the conquering country by spreading abroad that country’s way of doing things, its customs, its culture, and its laws.” In other words, it is a missional outpost whose purpose is to transform the surrounding culture. In other words, the heavenly politeuma breaks into the earthly politeuma for the sake of bringing heaven to earth. This is, in fact, the essence of the Lord’s Prayer: “your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”
This, then, is the real political struggle–the transformation of the earthly politeuma by the in-breaking of the heavenly politeuma.
How does this happen? What kinds of practices serve this purpose? How do people, who belong to a different polis, live in the midst of another polis?
We might imagine all sorts of possibilities. These are but a few, and the list does not advocate for any but simply identifies possibilities.
- violent revolution where we achieve a new polis by violence, thinking that we are doing this for sake of the heavenly polis.
- democratic processes where we fully participate in the earthly polis, including its passions (whether good or evil).
- isolationism where we disengage from the earthly polis and hope for others to join us.
- prophetic witness where we speak to the earthly polis out of the values of the heavenly polis, advocating for the interests of the weak.
We might find ourselves attracted to one of these, or perhaps several of them, possibilities (or another unidentified possibility). There are many options.
The heavenly politeuma is our identity as disciples of Jesus, but it does not disconnect us from life. On the contrary, it calls us to live a particular kind of life amidst the earthly polis.
This is the real political struggle–which polis will shape our attitudes, actions, and practices.
Paul addresses the point in Philippians 1:27: “Only, live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ” (NRSV).
This plea–imperative!–is more significant than the translation “live your life” offers. The root verb is politeuesthai, “to live as a citizen” (the word polis is present in the verb). This is a call to live out one’s citizenship; to live out of the polis to which they belong.
In the broadest sense, according Brockmuehl (Philippians, p. 97), this is a “deliberate, publicly visible, and…politically relevant act which in the context distinguished from alternative lifestyles that might have been chosen instead.” This is God’s politics. Belonging to a different commonwealth, a different kingdom, and a different polis, those who embrace the good news of Jesus as Lord and Messiah embody a different ethic, a different way of being, a different political agenda.
This is not dual citizenship. Disciples of Jesus, in contrast to others, belong to the new creation, to the heavenly polis. Our commitment is not to the nation-state in which we live, but to God’s new creation.
We have a political imperative: “Above all, you must live as citizens of heaven, conducting yourselves in a manner worthy of the Good News about Christ” (NLT).
How do we so live? Paul does not leave us without some direction. Fundamentally, it is not about self-interestedness. Rather, it is about serving the other, considering others better than ourselves, and dismissing vain conceits for the sake of the other (Philippians 2:1-4).
This is embodied in the life of Jesus the Messiah, and we are called–as a community and a people–to become the gospel (see the recent book by Michael Gorman by that title), which is the life and ministry of Jesus.
We are called to serve others just as Jesus did, who–though he existed in the form of God–did not consider his equality with God something to use to his own advantage (NIV, NRSV). Instead, he poured himself out as a servant; he humbled himself and became obedient to the will of God, even to death on the cross (Philippians 2:6-8).
- Disciples of Jesus belong to a polis that is more concerned about the other than they are themselves.
- Disciples of Jesus belong to a polis that is just as concerned about Guatemala as it is the United States.
- Disciples of Jesus belong to a polis that is not interested in grabbing and holding wealth for the United States rather than sharing wealth with others.
- Disciples of Jesus belong to a polis that speaks up for the weak, oppressed, and persecuted, including the unborn.
- Disciples of Jesus belong to a polis that loves their enemies rather than spewing hatred against then and demonizing them, even when those enemies are political opponents in the United States.
- Disciples of Jesus belong to a polis that speaks kindly and gently rather than with violent anger or through disruptive intrusions.
The list could go on.
I don’t expect the earthly polis to conduct political campaigns by the values of the heavenly polis, but I do hope Christians who participate in the earthly polis do so with with the values of the heavenly polis.
Disciples of Jesus must clarify to what polis they belong, commit to how that polis supercedes all others, and–in the long run–no earthly polis can fully embody the heavenly polis.
We live in tense times, but the tension arises because self-interests war with each as they seek control of the earthly polis.
The real political struggle for disciples of Jesus is to engage the earthly polis with the values, attitudes, demeanor, and love of the heavenly polis. When disciples of Jesus become what they oppose, then the heavenly polis has no witness.
At bottom, whatever one’s earthly commitments to the political process are (whether Democrat, Republican, Libertarian, etc.), as disciples of Jesus our commitment to the heavenly polis is more fundamental, greater, and–in some sense–exclusive.
As Paul says, “live out your heavenly citizenship in such a way that you embody the good news of Jesus who poured out himself for the sake of others.”
Where we see hate, violence, intrusive disturbances, name-calling, war-mongering, bigotry, and fear, we know it arises from the earthly polis rather than the heavenly one.
“Our citizenship is in heaven.”
May it be evident for all to see!
May God have mercy.