I live in Kenya, but when the recent presidential election threatened to turn violent, I followed my US Embassy’s advice. I couldn’t participate with an alien card instead of an identity card, so escape was easy. My Kenyan friends joked, “You ran away, didn’t you?” All of them voted. But I didn’t vote in the United States’ election either – I failed to factor in weeks of shipping for an absentee ballot.
All this to say, I’m not a very good citizen of anywhere.
As a third culture kid, I’ve been a foreigner to some degree all my life. It’s hard to feel patriotic when you haven’t hardly lived in a country, but you haven’t lived down its stereotypes either. It’s hard to love a nation knowing immigration could deny you permission to stay.
But it’s also hard to form an identity without a place to belong.
As an alien on earth, I have found home among fellow Christians. I have taken comfort in being a citizen of heaven, a place where my wayfaring will end (see Hebrews 11). Being detached allows me to be more objective about controversial political disputes. I build bridges across cultural and political lines. But it that a cop out?
How do we acknowledge the supremacy of the kingdom of heaven and its claim on our identity, but still bring God’s kingdom on earth as it is in heaven?
Earlier this year, I decided to study Bible characters who we might call third culture kids today (most were also Hebrews 11 citizens of heaven). There was Joseph, the trafficking victim. Moses, the cross-cultural adoptee and fugitive. Daniel, forced to assimilate in captivity. Jesus, God with us in several human cultures. Paul, the diaspora local and foreign citizen.
Each of these people played huge roles in God’s mission. Joseph revealed God’s plan to Pharaoh and saved Israel from starvation. Through Moses, God displayed his power to all nations and led Israel to create a new culture in a new land. Daniel’s interpretation ended up in empire-wide proclamation of God’s reign. Paul communicated the inclusion of the Gentiles to them and to Jewish Christians. And Jesus reconciled God and humanity, of course. It fascinated me that none of these people could have achieved their mission in God’s kingdom had they not identified with their multiple earthly cultures. To be effective, they had to keep identifying with their captors, their betrayers, and their persecuted minority groups.
These Bible characters also all spoke God’s truth to rulers of their day – often the world superpower of the time. Whether through civil service like Joseph and Daniel, confrontation like Moses, or submission to criminal trials and punishment, they demonstrated that God’s kingdom can be proclaimed to the nations through the nations.
This drastically contradicts how Christians have at times withdrawn from society, focusing on personal piety, and pinning our hopes on the afterlife. It’s tempting, especially when our privilege protects us from the effects of the politics of the day. When I left Kenya, I demonstrated more concern for my safety than solidarity with my Kenyan friends. When we escape as Christians, we exclude ourselves from the world God gave us to steward. Don’t we follow the one given all authority on heaven and earth? Yet we tell the world that we’re more concerned for our own survival than their welfare.
We are all citizens of heaven and earth. Our dual citizenship should change our civic engagement. We should be different from other citizens of our country, because we also have allegiances and civic duties from another kingdom. Jesus’ attitude toward taxes demonstrated that God ultimately reigns, but he respected the authority of human religious leaders and kings by doing his civic duty. (Matthew 17:24-27, 22:15-22). The early church struggled with these questions too. On the one hand, they often refused to serve in the Roman army or government to avoid swearing oath to Caesar as Lord, and refused to participate in social events that glorified violence and sexual immorality. Yet they engaged in social issues. They rescued babies abandoned to die. During two major plagues, they stayed to nurse the dying while pagans fled. They wouldn’t pray to the emperor, but they prayed for him.
What does dual citizenship look like for us today? The day the Kenyan election results were announced, the news also featured white nationalist protests in Charlottesville, Virginia. Throughout 2017, the pressure in both countries has threatened to tear them into identity groups and political tribes.
As many parts of the world face divisive times, our dual citizenship means Christians shouldn’t completely blend in with our political tribe, racial group, or ethnic community. We should also find identity and unity as Christians. Biblical values should inform how we together respond to injustice and to earthly authority. How does God’s reign inform our involvement in social issues, politics, and work?
On the other hand, we can celebrate and preserve our earthly cultures to make our worship truly heavenly. Eminent African theologian Kwame Bediako said, “In becoming Christian I discovered I was becoming African again. I was recovering my sense of the spirituality of life. I was recovering my sense of the nearness of the living God. I was recovering my African sense of the wholeness of life. I find in becoming Christian, I am being more African than I think I was. I am being more who I am.” There is a way, somehow, for being a Christian to push you to improve your nation without making you nationalistic. There is a way, somehow, to live for God in the state.
As a third culture kid, when people ask, “Where is home?” I can’t choose. Truly dual citizenship allows you to embrace both the present and the future home. Dual citizens revitalize our countries, anticipating the day when we will all sing our mother tongue without conflict or tears. We work in anticipation of the day the nations themselves are redeemed to display the diverse glory of the King.
Now that’s an inauguration to look forward to.