An essential part of being a foreigner is understanding the social and cultural environments we find ourselves living in, working out of respect for our host country to understand both history and culture. This requires listening, a practice of taking in the experience of another on their terms, not for the eventual purpose of “sharing”—often a euphemism that conceals selfish motives—our own experience. The person who listens demonstrates biblical wisdom.
Christians regularly feel the tension of dual citizenship. They stand as citizens of penultimate secular geopolitical entities and as those of an ultimate sacred kingdom. Ephesians 2:19 informs Christians of their citizenship and fellowship with God; I Peter 2:11 describes Christians as sojourners and exiles, those who are scattered throughout the world. This passage would have referred contemporary readers back to an anticipatory moment in the Old Testament (Jeremiah 29), a time when God’s people were given instruction on how to live while under the occupation of another power. Those who are called out of this world are directed to work for the peace of whatever governing authority they find themselves under as they await the final consummation in the new heavens and new earth.
The Christian’s ultimate citizenship does not cancel out his or her penultimate citizenship on this earth, but it does accent a certain irony—an irony that has become much more salient as a result of the COVID-19 crisis. Wherever they may make their earthly home, Christians will always live as pilgrims, holding as secondary not only their cultural identity but also their political rights. This mindset may lead some toward a kind of escapism. “Let the world burn; it’s not my final home,” some might say. But an understanding of the Christian’s ultimate citizenship should not lead to an abandoning of the world; it should, rather, compel Christians to be the best citizens any nation has to offer.
Living in a foreign country illustrates quite well the biblical concept of being a sojourning pilgrim. My family and I currently live in Shanghai, China, a top-tier city about 500 miles east of Wuhan, the origin of this now-global pandemic. In the early days of the outbreak, we watched as Chinese citizens, with the SARS crisis back in 2002 still fresh on the country’s collective memory, took immediate action to stamp out the spread of the virus, doing so even before the government acted. As much as it inconvenienced us, and especially because of the novelty of the virus, my wife and I followed the directives of neighbors, friends, and colleagues. What convinced us to act was not what we knew about the virus, since not much was in fact known in the early weeks and months, or because the government told us to do so, but rather because, as guests in a foreign country, we sought to live at peace with our neighbors. We were neither asked to do anything immoral nor coerced to violate our commitments to God’s higher laws (though officials have tried). In fact, we often find ourselves complying with local practices out of a sense of respect for our host country, though residing in a place like China regularly requires subtle maneuvering.