Have you ever been homeless, spent time without a roof over your head? I have. In the autumn of 1971, in Amsterdam, no money, my best mate and I slept in a derelict building for a couple of weeks. Not a pleasant experience. Fear of intruders, fear of the police, but, above all, it’s the cold I remember most – we had only our Moroccan burnooses for cover – the interminable sleepless wait for sunrise and warmth. That was for only a fortnight. But for some people it’s a way of life – and death.
That’s one kind of homelessness – the “homeless and broke” kind. Here is another kind. Remember ET, Steven Spielberg’s 1982 sci-fi film? ET is an extra-terrestrial who, stranded on earth, befriends a lonely little boy who lives in a fatherless household, whose name is Elliott (observe that Elliott’s name begins with “e” and ends with “t”). ET begins to learn the local language – English – by listening to words that Elliott’s little sister repeats as she watches Sesame Street. And the first word he picks up – home; and with Elliott’s help he builds a device to “phone home” (a phrase BT was quick to deploy in a famous advertising campaign). The rest of the film is all about how ET finally heads for home – and also about how Elliott himself gets home, in the sense that he ceases to feel “alien-ated”. Why was ET at the time the most financially successful film ever? Because, I think, it tapped into deep feelings of rootlessness (the Emmy Award-winning TV mini-series Roots ran five years before ET) and a longing for home – wherever that is.
Here is a third, historical take on homelessness: the Palestinian people. In 1915, during the First World War, Britain made a deal with the Sharif of Mecca: in exchange for an Arab revolt against the Ottoman Empire, Germany’s ally, the promise of British support for an independent Arab kingdom when the war was over. But then, in 1917, Britain reneged on the deal and issued the Balfour Declaration, promising to support the establishment of a Jewish state – in Palestine. Here, as Arthur Koestler put it, was one nation promising another nation the land of a third nation. It was a formula for a catastrophe. Fast-forward to 1947-48, the UN partition plan, and the blessing of the establishment of the state of Israel for the Jewish people becomes a curse for the Palestinian people – 700,000 uprooted, evicted. Palestinians themselves call this massive dislocation the Nakba, which is Arabic for – “Catastrophe”. Over sixty years later and one generation of homeless, refugee people has become three. There is no reason to be optimistic that it will not become four.
Do these varied experiences of homelessness have anything in common? I think they do. A sense of isolation and vulnerability for one thing, and, conversely, a yearning for safety and peace: a roof over your head and an electric fire, the return to a world from which you’ve been separated, or a land from which you’ve been forcibly expelled. You Welsh will understand: hiraeth – a connection with the land, the valleys and the hills, a sense of “belonging” (the title of a rather good Welsh soap), and if you have the misfortune to live beyond Offa’s Dyke, chronic homesickness.
And yet, without belittling in the least all these feelings, or the terrible life of the homeless or the landless, indeed praying for their rectification, I wonder: for Christians, is not homelessness a metaphor for the way of life that we sign up to at baptism? How interesting, and noteworthy, that Peter addresses his first letter to “God’s chosen peoples who live as refugees [NRSV: exiles]” (1:1). And later on in the letter (2:11), he appeals to his readers as “strangers and refugees” (NRSV: exiles). And in the Epistle of Diognetus, a second century Christian writing, the author says that while “Christians are indistinguishable from other people by nationality, language, or customs,” nevertheless “there is something extraordinary about their lives. They live in their own countries as though they were only passing through… Any country,” the author declares, “can be their homeland, but for them their homeland, wherever it may be, is a foreign country.” On this reading of discipleship, the church is an outpost for pioneers colonising an alien territory in which we can never be at home, because, as Paul writes in his letter to the Philippians (3:20), “we are citizens of heaven.”
There has been a lot of talk over the past decade or so about the church at the end of Christendom being a church in exile, often rather glib talk, in my view, because it has neglected to acknowledge the Old Testament significance of exile, and the traumatic experience of exile, namely, God’s judgement on Israel, God’s punishment of Israel by their dispersal to Babylon. Without this recognition, it is easy for Christians to slip into a victim mentality, in which we blame church decline on secularism or atheism. Without this recognition, we rather too quickly start “re-imagining the future” (as the process of renewal was called in the URC in Wales) without confessing and repenting the sins of our past – sins mainly of taking too much for granted, sins of apathy and lethargy, the sins of civic religion.
And then there are the three dangers of living in exile. The first is nostalgia, pining for the good old days and trying to re-inscribe them in the reality of today. But – remember King Canute – you can’t command the tides of time to withdraw. The second danger is withdrawal, disengaging from the big bad world of today altogether and circling the wagons. This is the sectarian option and it is not only cowardly and faithless, it is also a recipe for further decline and ultimate disappearance. And then there is the third danger, assimilation, whereby we think we can save the church by aping the ways of the world, as if all we’ve got to do is to market and manage the church more strategically and effectively to be “successful”. But then the customer, not the gospel, becomes sovereign, and though the church gain the whole world, it loses its soul.
What then do I suggest? I suggest what I suggest that Jesus himself and the New Testament suggest: that it is by living in exile that Christians find their true home, that living in exile, which begins as a judgement, actually turns out to be a blessing, turns out to be our vocation. Remember Jesus himself was homeless, permanently homeless, itinerant, from his time as a child with his refugee family in Egypt, to his vagabond ministry when he says: “Foxes have holes, and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lie down and rest” (Luke 9:58).
And what do we do as a church in exile, a church of permanent dispersion, diaspora? Exactly what the exilic prophet Jeremiah, in a letter, told the Israelites to do in Babylon. While false prophets were engaged in a cover-up and calling for a return to the land (preaching old-time religious revival, if you like), Jeremiah modestly, but radically and bravely, advised: “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 29:7 NRSV). Which is not to romanticise exile – far from it: Jeremiah recognised that a deracinated, decentred life is lonely and hard; that swimming against the stream takes determination and energy; that being mocked and mistreated erodes your self-esteem and confidence. Nevertheless, exile is just the right place to prune and refine, to explore and experiment, to make tactical critiques of prevailing cultural norms, and to practice that peculiar counter-cultural way of being human called “discipleship” which is embodied in the Sermon on the Mount. Freed from the compulsion to be in charge, and from the delusion that we control our own destiny, we can get on with being faithful, being Christian, being church, being mission.
Many in the church are still in denial about exile, or we grieve our losses, yes, but don’t repent our failures. I think it’s about time we lose the self-pity and move on – and out: to embrace our homelessness, and travel on with the fearless conviction and hope of a people called and sent to do just one thing: to bear witness to the new humanity, the new creation, disclosed in the eruption of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. “Blessed are the homeless” is a beatitude truly in keeping with the teaching of our Lord.