by John Ellis
My family and I live in the DC area. Our house is approximately a mile and a half from the Pentagon and about five miles from the U.S. Capitol, as the bird flies. We live in the thick of one of the most powerful cities in the world. And we’re not big fans of the place, at least my wife and I aren’t. We’re type-B personalities (on a good day) living in a super type-A personality community.
However, after living here for almost five years, our kids have morphed into thoroughgoing Beltway “brats.” The parents of their school and church friends are some of the movers and shakers that can be seen on the nightly news. Our daughter and son know people who have direct access to the President of the United States and other world leaders. In fact, their own mother interacts with and influences some of the most powerful people in this country. Being a party in conversations with people who shape what’s seen on the news is par for the course for them. The peer pressure in their schools is to be the best in multiple areas of academia. Getting into Ivy League schools is already a topic of conversation among their friends, and they’re not even teenagers yet. And don’t get me started on their understanding of money; being surrounded by millionaires is their expectation to the point that it doesn’t really mean anything to them. Their perspective on society has a distinctly DC flavor. And to them, it’s all normal.
On the other hand, while appreciating and enjoying, from time to time, the Beltway lifestyle, if you will, my wife and I are not fans of DC. This is not our place.
I feel this acutely when I visit the Florida Panhandle where I grew up. The sounds, smells, and sights fit me. The musical cadence of the Flora-Bama accent causes me to realize how much I miss my boyhood place. Steaming bowls of gumbo next to plates piled high with fried mullet, gulf shrimp, and hushpuppies remind me that my people appreciate good eatin’.
Growing up, I roamed the landscape around our house. My playground was quilted together with forests of loplolly pines to explore, flat cow pastures to run through, and thick, Spanish moss draped swamps in which to discover all manner of creatures. And that’s to say nothing of the white sand covered beaches from which I caught crabs and kept my eyes peeled for dolphins playing in the surf.
Waking up every morning, my Florida playground beckoned, and I answered by charging barefoot into my place. My days were marked by the split caused when the hot summer sun was briefly hidden almost every afternoon by the violent Florida thunderstorms.
By the time the dark thunderheads swiftly overtook the sky and unleashed rain so thick that it was impossible to see to the other side of the yard, my play had begun to languish. Having been expending energy for hours upon end, the heat, stickiness, and driving haziness of the sun sapped me of my desire to play. The sudden cool wind, dark shadows, and intimidating energy of the imminent thunderstorm stirred my boyish heart and I would watch in awe at the power unleashed by Florida’s afternoon thunderstorms.
After the electricity left the air and sun came back out, the day changed. Large puddles brought mud and frogs. The air in the pine forests had been cleaned by the rain. Renewed by their brief respite from the oppressive heat of Florida, the creatures of the swamp came out to play.
By the time night arrived, I would be coated with Florida soil as I released my new “pets” from their boxes and jars that I had designated as their new place during the day. Going to sleep, I knew that the morning’s sun would bring more of the same. And I loved it.
Now, as an adult, I occasionally watch and listen to my Beltway children at play and wonder why I’ve brought them to this place. During those moments, I ask myself if I would be serving them better by taking them to the place of my boyhood.
Thankfully, I know that the answer is that my question is based on a lie. The Florida Panhandle is not my place. And by God’s grace, even if they live in the DC area their entire lives, DC will not be my kids’ place.
As a citizen of the Kingdom of God, my place on this earth is the Church. Specifically, my place is the local church in which the Holy Spirit has brought me to worship God and to serve King Jesus.
Of late, that belief has found a challenge in the form of Christian agrarianism. In brief, Christian agrarianism prioritizes agriculture as the ideal means on which to base and mediate relationships. Because of the prioritization of simplicity in working the land and stripping away the accoutrements of modern society that hinder relationships, the concept of “place” is important for agrarians, to the point of it becoming a religion. Being rooted in their place and communing with neighbors through soil-based activity is their liturgy.
For the record, I am not interested in providing a thoroughgoing analysis and critique of Christian agrarianism. In fact, there is much about the movement that I appreciate. My concern lies with how I’ve watched many Christians allow their focus and, ultimately, their identity be reoriented around the agrarian concept of place. This often happens to the point where a form of legalism is constructed that creates hierarchies of communities that looks down on those who don’t subscribe to the specific lifestyle choices of the adherents of Christian agrarianism. As a result, the philosophy frequently gets worked out in a way that prioritizes temporal concerns over and above the Kingdom of God.
What’s interesting for me is that many of those I know who now embrace Christian agrarianism were just a decade ago convinced that, first and foremost, God desires His people to redeem cities. That belief resulted in many of the same legalism that I see within the Christian agrarian movement. In both, living on a cul-de-sac in the suburbs is akin to being a tax collector during the earthly ministry of Jesus.
The thing is, the Bible doesn’t prioritize either gardens or cities. And it definitely doesn’t teach that Christians who live on a cul-de-sac and shop at Wal-Mart are viewed as less-than in the Kingdom of God.
Genesis, the first written chapter of God’s story of how He redeems His people back to Himself, opens with the chaos of nothingness, but through God’s creative voice the setting quickly transitions to a garden. God’s vice-regents, the first humans, are commanded to subdue the earth and to exercise dominion over it. Humans are to flourish and, in so doing, coax the rest of creation into flourishing.
At the conclusion of God’s revealed story, in the final chapter called “The Revelation to John,” the reader is left to marvel at and long for a coming city.
But it’s not just a city. It’s a city with a beautiful garden. Most importantly, it’s a garden-city with Jesus at its core.
In between the beginning and the end, one of the thematic elements tracking through the entire Bible is that God’s people are called to enjoy God’s good blessings in both rural and urban environments. It’s not an either/or. In fact, everything in the middle can be included, even the “sophisticated” class’s dreaded suburbs (think Bethany where Jesus stayed during the lead-up to the final events of the Passion week).
Any attempts made by humans to claim a priority of ontological superiority for either city-living or country-living does violence to the story of the Bible. And since the Bible is God’s revelation of Himself, the false hierarchies are attempted acts of violence against God. This is not a minor issue.
There are thematic priorities in the Bible that do speak to this issue, though. The primary through-line-of-action, the main plot of the Bible speaks to it.
After the first humans rebelled against God, all of creation was placed under the curse of sin and death. Nothing functions as well as it was intended. Things and people are no longer “good” the way God first declared His creation.
Sin and death creates a problem. God’s people are ethically separated from God. Mercifully, God solved that problem through Jesus’ life of perfect obedience to His law, his death on the cross for the punishment of the sins of his people, and his resurrection, conquering sin and death. Those who repent of their sins and place their faith in Jesus are adopted into God’s family and have their relationship with their Creator restored.
But that still leaves the problem of the fallen place that humans currently call their home. The curse of sin and death still bears down hard on creation. As the Apostle Paul writes in Romans 8:19, “For the creation waits in eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God.”
That “revealing of the sons of God” will happen on the Final Day when Jesus returns to judge the wicked and reward the righteous. Those who are repenting of their sins and placing their faith in Jesus will be rewarded their full inheritance as the sons of God. And part of that inheritance is a new place – the new heavens and the new earth. God is making a new, uncorrupted place for His children.
Whatever good exists in this current, corrupted place points to the final, fully good place where God’s people will enjoy God’s good blessings for all of eternity.
Now, and this is important, within the Story of Redemption is the story of two peoples – God’s people and not God’s people. I’ve already explained what happens to God’s people on the Final Day, but what about in the here and now?
Well, the story of the Bible reveals that God’s people are strangers, sojourners, in the here and now. We belong to the new earth, that’s our home. As Hebrews 13:14 says, “For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come.”
In 1 Peter 2:11, Christians are called “sojourners and exiles” as Peter urges us to “abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul.”
The story of Redemption culminates in Jesus bringing his followers safely home, to their real place. As he told his disciples, “In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and take you to myself, that where I am you may be also (John 14:2-3).”
In a striking statement, Jesus also said these stunning words to his disciples – “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me (Matthew 10:37-38).”
That passage means something, and one of the positive meanings is that God is making Believers into a new nation of all tribes and tongues. Once we’re Christ’s, we do not belong to this world. Our true family is Jesus; our true nation is the Kingdom of God. This current world is not our home; it’s not our place. The Florida Panhandle is not my place. By God’s grace, if my children repent of their sins and place their faith in Jesus, DC will not be their place. If you are a Christian, wherever you were born or grew up is not your place.
I contend that my desire for earthly roots, for my place, is a temptation to take my eyes off King Jesus. It’s a temptation to fulfill the lusts of the remnants of the old man in me, my flesh. Giving in to the fleshly, temporally-prioritized desire is a sinful denial that I have been given a new name and am part of a new humanity. It tempts me to claim temporal citizenship in a fallen place while denying that I am a citizen of the Kingdom of Heaven.
Thankfully, that doesn’t mean that I am doomed to wander utterly disconnected on this earth. God has provided His people with a place among His people. And that place is the Church, specifically the local church.
Although I don’t remember from whom I heard this (or where I read it), this isn’t original with me – local churches are embassies of the Kingdom of God.
While it’s true that Christians are sojourners, we’re sojourners with a mission. We are called to faithfully represent our King in holiness and righteousness. And we’re called to share the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ with those whom the Holy Spirit brings into our life. And we’re called to do these things through the context of our local body of Believers.
Sadly, though, too few of us are intimately connected to our local church. We view church as a part of our life; something that fits into our agenda. Instead of combatting our misplace priorities, Christian agrarianism adds fuel to the fire.
By teaching people that they need to be rooted in their temporal place, Christian agrarianism is stealing focus from God’s embassies, local churches.
Going back to me and my wife’s understanding that DC is not our place, even though that’s true, we’re content, filled with joy, and thankful for where God has us. And that’s because we’ve committed to living and serving within the local church to which the Holy Spirit has assigned us. No matter how out of place we feel in DC, we can’t imagine moving because, by God’s grace, our priority is our identity in Christ. The joy of serving alongside our church family far outweighs any desires that I have for the Florida Panhandle.
We recognize that we’re citizens of the heavenly kingdom and that any internal impulses to feel connected to temporal places only serve to distract us from serving God and tempts us to serve ourselves.
In conclusion, I sympathize with Christian agrarianism. Much of American evangelicalism has been steeped in an overly-spiritualized perspective on reality that owes much more to Neo-Platonism than it does the Bible. However, the answer isn’t found in tipping the worldview scale too far the other direction.
Yes, Christians should be marked by a joyful embrace of God’s good gifts in the here and now. Yes, Christians should be marked by the desire to be good neighbors by living in a righteous and just manner. We should be known for our desire to feed the poor, clothe the naked, and heal the sick. Our personal ethics should point people to Jesus. But Christians should never lose sight of the fact that this world is not our home. Our place is with Jesus in the eternal city. And as long as God has us here, we are to prioritize our place within our local church far above our temporal longings for nostalgic memories of earthly places.
Our roots are not in the soil of this fallen world. Our roots are in our identity in Christ. As such, the fruit we bear should be the fruit of the Spirit.