Citizenship: a prize or a calling?
Last fall, I was sitting in the San Antonio airport whiling away the time before my flight when my attention was drawn to the woman next to me and her toddler. The woman perched on the edge of her seat while her little boy roamed in half-circles in our aisle only as far as her skirt, his chosen tether, would allow him. I recognized the blue bag leaning against the woman’s leg as the kind given to refugees by volunteers at the bus station downtown, a block from my church.
Having traveled overseas with toddlers myself, I knew a slice of this woman’s concerns, but only a very thin slice. My stomach lurched to think of what it would mean to leave the known world behind, to sit in this strange airport with my child. The woman turned to me, holding out her ticket, already worn soft by the sweat of her palms. “Where?” she asked. Between the limits of my Spanish and her English, I found out that she didn’t actually know where she was being sent. It was 7:30 in the morning, and her first flight, to Phoenix, was scheduled for 2:30 in the afternoon. She had a close connection, and then another flight to Sacramento. She had never heard of either of these places.
If I could have stretched my citizenship like a shawl to encompass the three of us, I would have. How did we get to this place, where citizenship is seen as a boundary, not a set of relationships and responsibilities? How did citizenship go from being a sacred duty to a lottery prize, awarded for the geographical coordinates of one’s birth? What is the connection between my citizenship and her suffering?
How did we get to this place, where citizenship is seen as a boundary, not a set of relationships and responsibilities?
Citizenship and the Gospel.
As a New Testament scholar, I know that citizenship is not a recent invention, that Roman citizenship sounds a steady hum behind the texts I study, especially the letters of Paul. The Greek city of Philippi was a particular hotbed of citizenship issues, having been forcibly colonized at the end of the Roman civil war in 42. B.C.E., and local farmers divested of their land when it was handed over as a reward to veteran Roman soldiers. Those Greek-speaking local farmers became the economically vulnerable artisans who were drawn to the teaching of Paul concerning a certain Christ.
References to citizenship echo throughout Paul’s letter to the Philippians, but in ways that are masked by the English translation. The letter’s key counsel “Live your life in a manner worthy of the Gospel of Christ,” is better translated something more like, “Conduct your citizenship in a manner worthy of the Gospel of Christ” (Phil 1:27).
What could Paul possibly intend when he says, “conduct your citizenship,” to a group of colonized people who were precisely not Roman citizens? He explains later in the letter: “Our citizenship (politeuma) is in heaven” (3:20).
The politics of God: love’s discernment.
Is Paul trying to lessen the sting for these non-citizens by spiritualizing their politics? I think the opposite is the case. Paul (writing, by the way, from a Roman prison) is bringing divine values to bear on the perplexing stresses of daily life for the Greek populace of Philippi. As Rome relocated its veterans to Philippi, conferring citizenship upon them, Paul dares to relocate these marginalized non-citizens at least imaginatively into citizenship in the realm of God, thereby shifting all of their allegiances.
Paul doesn’t tell them what to do or think, only how to think about it: “May your love overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you discern what is best” (Phil 1:9-10). For Paul, love is the fundamental instrument of moral knowledge and insight, the light by which issues are seen most clearly.
Paul is bringing divine values to bear on the perplexing stresses of daily life.
The mind of Christ.
At the center of the letter is a passage usually referred to as the Christ Hymn (Phil 2:5-11), which functions somewhat like a national anthem for this new citizenship. What the Philippian anthem brings to light is not the survival of a battle-scarred flag, but the mind of Christ and the consistent ethic that grounds all of Paul’s letters, the shift that love requires, from “what is right for me?” to “how will my actions affect my most vulnerable neighbor?” (Phil 2:3-4).
This shift of the center of moral reflection, from the self to the other, is really the whole of Paul’s practical teaching, especially as he combines it with discernment of relative power. Those with more power and authority incur a set of responsibilities—patterns of self-offering. It is the powerless (“the weak for whom Christ died”) who have rights (1 Cor 8:11).
For all the waving of bibles and claims of religious faith by American politicians, there is scant evidence of politicians’ ability to put the most vulnerable clearly at the center of our policy-making. Nor do they appeal to other Americans to attend to the vulnerable. These failures are especially disheartening at a time when so many of our most pressing issues—systemic racial injustice, mask-wearing protocols, economic fragility, climate change—come into stark clarity through the lens of Paul’s ethic that focuses on the vulnerable neighbor.
In the Voting Booth.
In a matter of days, I will be standing in a voting booth, and you may be doing the same. I remember having to stand outside the little curtain while my mother voted, because no one, not even a child, was allowed to violate the privacy of the voting booth. I get that. And yet I also hope that when I stand in the booth I will not be alone, but will be surrounded by the urgent presence of those whose well-being is most on the line. Over and through their voices I hope to hear Paul’s prayer, “May your love overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you determine what is best” (Phil 1:9).
Those with more power and authority incur a set of responsibilities—patterns of self-offering. It is the powerless (“the weak for whom Christ died”) who have rights (1 Cor 8:11).