Note: This article describes one of the ON’s Economic Wisdom Project Talks, designed to be used as class assignments.
At the 2017 Karam Forum, Constantine Campbell of Trinity International University spoke on the tensions of Christian identity in the modern world. Followers of Christ are to be “chosen sojourners,” an identity of both great power and great vulnerability. This teaching tool is ideal for students to view and discuss in classes such as New Testament studies, ethics, missions, Christian anthropology and other settings where issues of Christian living are discussed.
Drawing from his own life, Campbell narrates the tension he feels between the Greek and Anglo sides of his own identity. Depending on the setting, he feels like he is asked to choose one portion of his heritage over the other. He maintains his identity by living with tension rather than trying to resolve it.
For Christians, as for everyone, the questions and lived experience of identity are fraught with tension. Who am I? What are my allegiances? Where do I come from? Where am I going?
Campbell draws from the language of I Peter 1:1, where believers are described as “chosen sojourners”, to provide the core concepts and tensions of the Christian identity. In the ancient near east, being a sojourner was a disadvantaged status, one who is experiencing economic and social hardship – similar to a refugee of today. However, Christians are also chosen, part of God’s people – a term that indicates great privilege and status.
There are dangers in emphasizing one aspect of our identity over the other. Myopically stressing our chosen status can lead one to “use your privileged status of being chosen as a way to oppress other people.” Meanwhile, concentrating too much on our status as sojourners can make us feel lonely and displaced, and cultivate a misguided tendency to blend into the larger society.
Campbell emphasizes how Christians are called to live into the tension of our identity as “chosen sojourners.” We are beloved children, graciously saved by the creator of the universe. But we are also those who are not truly home yet, we travel through this world longing for the full redemption of all things.
Maintaining and living into the tension of our status as “chosen sojourners” provides the way for us to faithfully live into our calling as Christians. Through our longing for the next world we can do good work for this world. By resting in our beloved chosen status, we can help bring healing and wholeness to a broken society. As Campbell states, “Christians make a difference by being different.”
We have provided a few sample excerpts from Campbell’s talk below. We hope you will find this a useful tool to provide your students with an understanding of a fuller picture of the tensions and Christian identity, and how it is only by rightly defining our identity that we can live faithfully in this world.
The Tension of Identity
Have you ever felt suspended between two worlds? I have, I’m half Greek and half Anglo….Is it okay to prefer one half of my heritage over the other?…Or is it better to hold the two together, in tension?…[There is a tension] that all Christians face, yet sometimes we want to resolve the tension in one direction or the other. But the right thing to do is to hold the tension, because it is a holy tension, a tension worth celebrating.
We are Sojourners
We find [this tension] in the apostle Peter’s in the very first verse of his first letter in two words. He describes his readers as “chosen sojourners.” Now most translations today will have “exiles” instead of “sojourners,” but I think that’s not the best translation…Exile is not the paradigm that Peter is working with, he’s not speaking about Israel being expelled out of the promised land, he has more in mind someone like Abraham, who has left his homeland and is sojourning his way to a new home, a promised land. That is what a sojourner is, someone who is on their way to their true home.
We are Chosen
Peter refers to his Christian readers as sojourners, but he also refers to them as “chosen.” And this is a term of extraordinary privilege, the chosen people of God, the nation of Israel in the Old Testament and Christians in the New, have been handpicked by him to belong to him, the creator of the universe. This is being in the inmost group in the universe.
We are Chosen Sojourners
What’s interesting is how Peter puts these two terms together, side by side. Chosen, a term of extraordinary privilege and sojourners a term of disadvantage. Until Peter writes this sentence, these two words are not found anywhere in Jewish and Christian literature. Because they are words that do not naturally go together, they jar against each other, they kind of form an oxymoron…These chosen sojourners live in a tension of privilege and disadvantage.
The Temptations of Being Chosen
We are tempted to try to resolve this tension between being chosen and being sojourners. What happens if you lean into your chosen status? You can exalt in your privilege. And you can use your privileged status of being chosen as a way to oppress other people…For nearly one thousand years the Holy Roman Empire ruled over most of Europe, and at the center of power stood the church. No longer was the church an underground movement, ostracized, persecuted, alienate from the culture. Now they were at the very center of things, calling all the shots. Palaces were built, thrones were built, crowns were gilded – and murder, intrigue and betrayal were abundant. Atrocities were committed in the name of the church, because the church forgot that this is not our home and it built a kingdom for itself here on earth.
The Temptations of Sojourning
What happens if you lean into your sojourning? Well it’s good, you are very conscious that this is not your home – you are on your way to another place, you don’t really belong here. But because you are so conscious of that, you maybe bend over backwards to try to fit into the world around you. You start to speak the same way as everyone else; you spend your time the same way as everyone else; you spend your money the same way as everyone else. And before you know it, you blend in to the world around you. You become a covert sojourner.
The Example of the Early Church
Did the early church change the world by just blending into the world around them? No, they couldn’t be more different from Rome. They took care of the poor, the sick, the marginalized, the widowed, the orphans. Whereas Rome neglected all those people because they believed they were suffering the consequences for offending the gods, they deserved it. So the Christians stood out, the Christians valued serving other people whereas Rome valued self-gratification. Christians valued humility while Rome valued glory and pride. The Christians forgave their enemies, Rome killed their enemies. The Christians died for the sake of Christ and Rome killed them for the sake of Christ….They remembered that they were chosen by God that they belonged to him, so therefore they should stand out from the world around them.
The Christians Who Did Most for This World…
C.S. Lewis once wrote that if you study history you will find the Christians who did the most for this present world were the ones who thought the most about the next world. And it is precisely because we have forgotten that next world that we have become so ineffective in this one. If you want to make a difference in this world you must live for the next world.