“Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: 5 Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. 6 Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. 7 But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” – Jeremiah 29:4-7 (ESV)
In 1975, the Americans pulled out of Southeast Asia and left many of the Hmong people stranded. My family was among the tens of thousands stranded in their own home country of Laos. Those who fought alongside the Americans, like my dad, were being hunted down and killed by communist forces. So they fled to the mountains and lived incognito for years before swimming across the Mekong Delta to find refuge in Thailand. My family survived years in the refugee camps before immigrating to Illinois in 1979.
Over the next 30 years, my dad achieved the American and Asian dream. He eventually got the nice house in the suburbs and he also got the doctor, the lawyer, and two engineers in the family! But at age 41, not only did he begin his journey into the American Dream, but he also began his journey into the Kingdom Dream—leaving behind a lifetime of Buddhism and Animism to follow Jesus as a Christian.
Over the last 15 years of my life, I’ve been trying to understand the bigger narrative we belong to besides the refugee narrative that brought our family to North America. If God is sovereign in the way the Bible says he is, then I have to wonder if God brought us here to North America for more than just the American/Asian Dream.
Those of us who are minorities often ask ourselves, “Why am I in North America? Why am I more American than I am Asian/African/Mediterranean/whatever-an?”
Those are the questions the Israelites are asking themselves in this Jeremiah passage. They found themselves in a strange country where they didn’t know if they were supposed to settle in or separate out.
If you’re a minority, you’ll have a unique perspective on this passage. And if you understand what God is saying to the Israelites in this passage, you’ll understand so much more the value of being a minority. You might even understand more what it means to become North American in our time.
EVERY MINORITY HAS A BABYLON
4. Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon
A little background first.
Jeremiah was a prophet of Israel. Prophets like him were supposed to be the God-conscience of the nation. Israel was tasked to take the message of God to the rest of the world so that everyone might know him. But Israel got majorly distracted and abandoned its mission. Not only that, its people lived even worse lives than those they were supposed to reach. They were religious HYPOCRITES.
By the way, if you’re new to church or at some point got turned off by religious people who act hypocritical, you’ll be relieved to know that the God of the Bible is also turned off by religious hypocrites. It doesn’t mean that he’s done with them. He’s not done with any of us! (Thank God.) And he’s definitely not done with you. But just so you know, at this time Israel is literally the biggest religious hypocrite in history. And like you would hope, God is dealing with them. He does this by allowing another Kingdom called Babylon to conquer them and to remove their political leadership from Jerusalem, their hometown, forcing them to live as political and cultural exiles in a new land.
In short, Babylon’s political strategy was oppression by cultural assimilation.
Now, God isn’t being mean to Israel. Like we said, he’s turned off by religious hypocrisy. So he’s dealing with it just like we would want him to. He’s allowing another nation to reform and refine his people. But why?
Because God knows that: wicked hearts + religion + politics = bad witness
God is removing the politics from Israel.
The idea of Israel’s exile was to temporarily separate their politics from their religion because the wickedness of their human heart couldn’t handle its combination. So God was removing politics from the equation to lessen their pride and to increase their faithfulness towards him.
God is changing the hearts of religious hypocrites to be sincere human beings who care for all people.
That’s why they are in Babylon. That’s the point of the exile.
That’s good news.
I think God’s doing that in our day. God isn’t about Liberal or Conservative politics. Christianity was never about bi-partisan politics. That’s American Christianity, not Biblical Christianity. And you know, sometimes like Israel, Christians have to lose the culture war to realize this.
But here’s an insight that I want to give to you that makes all the difference: God is placing Israel in a place of weakness as a minority in a foreign country. Because there’s something about being a minority that is a place of refining. Anthropologists call this liminality. It’s the detoxification of things that aren’t useful.
Here is the early beginning of the Gospel message: In God’s Kingdom, a person becomes weak in order for their life to help others.
If you feel like you were born with a disadvantage and you looked at it as a reason to pity yourself, you may have forgotten that God is capable of transforming your disadvantage into an advantage. God is for the underdogs. That’s why he likes to humble people, to make them the underdogs.
That’s what he’s doing to Israel.
That could be what he’s doing to you in your season of your life.
In the economy and the Kingdom of God, your weakness (minority, disadvantaged, lack of resources, etc.) is often a place of strength. There are graces and mercies from God so deep that can only be experienced in exile.
EMBRACE LIVING IN BABYLON
5 Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. 6 Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease.
What is God saying to the Israelite diaspora? He’s saying, “Go ahead and settle in. Babylon is the long-haul for you. This isn’t a short vacation, it’s a lifestyle change!”
At this point, other prophets were telling the political leaders of Israel, “Don’t worry, this won’t be long. You’ll be back in Jerusalem where you’ll be back to calling the shots, expanding your Kingdom, and ruling over Palestine.” The prophets were preaching a prosperity Gospel and Jeremiah was saying, “Nope. Don’t believe it. This is going to be a long rehab for yall!”
But more than that, God was also saying to Israel as the minority in a foreign country: Have a dream for your family here. Have children here. Grow your roots here. Love being here. Love this season of your life. Why?
Because the only way we truly change is that in our weakness and in our transition, we accept where we are. We embrace living in Babylon.
In this passage is a foreshadow of the Gospel for minorities and anyone else who feels weak and unsettled in a foreign place.
You don’t have to assimilate.
You don’t have to segregate.
You have to incarnate.
THE AMERICAN DREAM, THE CANADIAN SLUMBER, AND THE KINGDOM ALTERNATIVE
In America we say to minorities, “ASSIMILATE!”
America makes the minority blend in. George Washington said that anyone from any country is welcome to America, but you must leave your old nation behind. Embrace being an American. America is a melting pot. But the struggle with this is that minorities feel like they’re adopting a foreign history as their own. For instance, as an American, I know more about the American Revolution, The Civil War, the Great Depression, and the Civil Rights movement than I do the village my own father was born in.
In assimilation, we tend to feel like we’re losing our identity more than we’re gaining one.
In Canada we say to minorities, “Welcome, we’re MULTICULTURAL!” It’s okay to be you.
Canada has a policy established in 1971 that says no one has to assimilate or give up their culture. You can be as traditional as you want. Quebec can be French. The rest of Canada doesn’t have to know what it is, it just has to know that it’s NOT American! And while this sounds great, the reality is that it is more ideal than it is real. Many immigrants to Canada choose to live in ethnic enclaves because it’s much easier than fitting in with the mainstream. A vast majority of New Canadians find it difficult to integrate. Studies have shown that many Canadians do not feel a strong sense of belonging in Canada. In his book Selling Illusions: The Cult of Multiculturalism in Canada, Neil Bissoondath (himself a Canadian) argues that official multiculturalism limits the freedom of minority members, by confining them to cultural and geographic ethnic enclaves.
In a multicultural society, those who don’t integrate often get left behind.
But in the Kingdom, God says to minorities, “INCARNATE!”
The word incarnate means to “take on flesh.” In particular, it means to take on the flesh of the people around you. Do not keep yourself hidden from the mainstream. Do not reserve yourself for your own people.
Build houses, plant gardens. Build a life here.You cannot demand rights if you will not invest in a nation. Become owners and not just renters of the land. Because unless you become an owner, you will never care enough for those around you. You will always only care about yourself.
Incarnation is different from assimilation because a person who incarnates doesn’t lose their identity—they add to an already existing one.
You take on something. You are clothed with someOne.
Incarnation is different from multiculturalism because it’s not a pretentious diversity campaign.
You’re not happy to just keep sending money into the inner-city. And you’re not afraid to be a leader among the majority. You know yourself so well that like the great Apostle Paul you can say,
“For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them. 20 To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews…21 To those outside the law I became as one outside the law…that I might win those outside the law. 22 To the weak, I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means, I might save some. 23 I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings.” 1 Corinthians 9:19-23
Paul is speaking incarnational living to every Christ follower. When you live incarnationally, you choose to live among those who are different from you. Therefore, when you live incarnationally, you’re always a minority.
Know yourself so well that you can comfortably deny yourself in any situation in order to win people over—to benefit them—to save them.
That’s the fluidity of being a minority.
GOD THE IMMIGRANT
Only the Gospel says that God became diasporic, choosing weakness and foreignness in order to save the world. In Christ, God wasn’t born into the Greek majority world. He was born into the Jewish minority class. And Jesus, God incarnate, was quite comfortable enough with his identity that he didn’t mind becoming a minority in order to give his life so that he might save and win over BOTH the minority (the Jews) and the majority (the Greeks).
Pop-psychology and Liberal/Conservative politics will tell minority groups to either assimilate or to demand your rights. But politics would never dare tell a minority to give up their preference and sacrifice it on the altar to benefit others, including those who oppress them. It would be career suicide for someone to say this in politics. And it’s insensitive, to say the least.
But the Gospel can say that. Because in the Gospel, God himself became a minority to give his life for the majority. Therefore, he can ask the same of any minority and anyone who is politically or socially weak.
He can ask the same of you.
And as a minority, or a woman, or LGBTQ, or trans-gendered, or ethnic person–unless you are like Jesus, you can’t and you won’t give up your rights for the other. Especially for the majority.
It doesn’t make moral sense for you to lose yourself so that the “winners” can keep winning.
But the one factor that enables any man, woman, straight, progressive, fundamentalist, LGBTQ, trans-gendered, ethnic, Canadian, or American to give their life for the other is that first and foremost they have found their identity in the person of Jesus before they find it in anything else.
If you struggle with making God your primary identity then you will always struggle with all other identities.
IN CHRIST YOU LOSE YOURSELF TO FIND YOURSELF
7 But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.
You know how Western missionaries went into majority world countries to share the Gospel with them? They did that because God knew some years down the road these Western countries would need people from the majority world countries to be missionaries to them! Western missionaries were used by God to share the Gospel to war torn countries. And now God wants to use people from war torn countries to preserve the faith and the mission in the West.
That is a fuller understanding of Matthew 28:18-20.
That is the pain and the pleasure of being a minority in the Western world.
You are not here for the American Dream.
You are here for the Kingdom Dream.
As minorities in North America, you are charged by God to pray on behalf of your cities. Your status keeps you humble and meek so God can use you. Communities like yours are essentially rewriting the missional narrative of the West. Where some of you used to be victims of war, in Christ, you are now a part of the saving agency God is using to preserve Western Christianity.
But be humble.
You are a part of the fulfillment of God’s plan in the Western Church. This is your responsibility. You are no longer refugees or immigrants. You are owners of God’s church here in North America. You are no longer the mission field. You are the missionary. You are now called to lead along side those who used to lead you.
The Good News is foreshadowed in verse 7, “for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” You never ultimately lose yourself when your identity is found in Christ.
When you know that in Christ you are truly forgiven of your sins—especially the sin of making your ethnicity or sexual orientation or gender or social status your primary identity—then you can truly forgive those who are considered your oppressors.
When, like Christ, you seek the welfare of the other, then God will be faithful to look after your welfare.
What do you pity as a disadvantage in your life? Could it be the thing God is using to keep you humble? If it is, then pity it no more.