America is seeing a steady rise in secularization, pronounced by accelerating declines in religious identification, church attendance, and biblical literacy. As the norms of “cultural Christianity” continue to fade, the call to “be in but not of the world” is stirring new questions about how we live, create, and collaborate in modern society.
In response, Christians are pressed by a familiar set of temptations toward fortification, domination, and accommodation – prodding us to either “hunker down,” “fight back,” or “give up and give in.” Yet Christians have never really been “at home” in America, despite the religious origins of our founding and the historical religious arc of our civic life.
Acton’s For the Life of the World film series argues we would do better to assume a position of active faithfulness in exile, regardless of our political or cultural context – working not out of retreat or survivalism, but toward an active, cooperative, and distinctive cultural witness across all spheres of society.
In a lecture for Made to Flourish, Pastor Larry Osborne promotes this same approach, offering several ways that such a perspective might reform and transform our work across the economic order. Comparing modern-day America to ancient Babylon, Osborne recommends that we look to the example of Daniel as a model of cultural engagement in the marketplace and beyond.
Contrary to the popular perception, Osborne argues, the story of Daniel is not primarily about “courageously standing strong” and “doing the right thing” so that you can personally “dodge the lions.” Rather, it’s a story about serving neighbors and captors faithfully, bearing witness to truth in love even in the midst of tyranny. It teaches us not how to survive, but how to thrive, focused on bringing value to neighbors who are culturally at odds with the kingdom, all while bringing glory and honor to God.
Based on Daniel’s example, Osborne observes three key steps for faithfully engaging in the marketplace and across society.
1. Embody hope and confidence.
Economic life is known to be filled with stress and anxiety. In America – where we encounter a strange mix of global competition, closed cronyism, and constant threats from the priests of woke capitalism – we can be easily driven by impulses of fear and protectionism. Yet Daniel shows us the value of embodying hope and confidence, regardless of the external circumstances:
Daniel was a man of hope and extreme confidence. We cannot make a difference in our world if we are pessimists. When we look at the bad news of the day, whatever it might be – in the marketplace, when barriers to entry in my particular industry has suddenly been taken down, or there’s political things, whatever it may be – when the people around us catch us having more despair than confidence, there’s a good reason that they don’t elevate us and give us opportunity or want anything to do with our God.
2. Love your culture through creative service.
Bearing witness in economic life is not about inserting the right phrases about God throughout our exchanges and partnerships. It is first and foremost about serving our neighbors and thus God – bringing Matthew 25 to life – not just through the words we say, but in the ways we treat people and meet human needs.
Our service proceeds from ends higher than mere self-interest. Thankfully, our free-market economy already incentivizes us to treat people well, even when we don’t want to. But as Christians, we go higher and further. We don’t just respect and serve others “for a paycheck,” Osborne observes. We do it out of sincere love for our neighbors and “for a Lord who laid down his life for us”:
Daniel was forced to study astrology and the occult – the language and literature of the Chaldeans – for three years, and then he was put in the service of a damnable demon-worshipping king who had destroyed the temple of Daniel’s God, and taken things from that temple, and put them up in the temple of his God to mock the true God. And now Daniel finds himself in [the king’s] service …
Daniel had favor with people, because he constantly respected them. … He served a godless king who had done horrific things to his city – and to Daniel himself – so well, so respectfully, that he kept getting promoted over and over and over. And because of those promotions, he was able to be close enough to the king at one point to declare the glory of God in a way where the king fell prostate before Daniel and declared the God most high to be the God most high. It can’t happen until we learn that we are respectful and we serve people, because they are made in the image of God. And that is our assignment.
3. Contribute with skill, credibility, and wisdom.
Even as a Jewish exile forced to learn a foreign empire’s ways, Daniel pressed in and absorbed all that he could – not out of a quest to dominate or accommodate, but so he could understand his neighbors more clearly, and love and serve them all the better. In learning new skills and wielding knowledge, he gained a reputation for wisdom and credibility in the face of new challenges – practical, spiritual, and otherwise:
We want to be a blessing to all as our Lord is a blessing to all. … We can only make a mark for the kingdom when we’re well respected – not just because somebody is “religious,” but because their “yes” is yes, their “no” is no, their skill is off the charts. … We have to teach our people not just the book of Romans, but we have to teach the book of Proverbs, as well. Because that is where God is honored, out on those front lines … We bring an attitude and a confidence. We bring respect, and we bring skill. And there you find the great heroes, especially in the Old Testament – all men and women who were not rabbis and priests but marketplace leaders that loved God and served in their roles incredibly well.
While our position of exile is longstanding, America’s post-Christian age poses plenty of unique threats. But these are challenges that require an active response – moving, speaking, serving in and across the routine, mundane activities of economic and social life. They require a perceptive and persevering witness that keeps its eye on the good of our neighbors in the present and the future.
Even when surrounded by antagonists, we can continue to sow seeds of life and destiny, in our jobs and entrepreneurship, in our families, in our policymaking, and in active fellowship and prophetic community among the people of God. Although we might prefer to either stay secluded or pick up the megaphone, Daniel demonstrates a more varied vocational trajectory, requiring active discernment, obedience, and sacrifice as it relates to culture itself.
As faithful exiles, let our own cultural influence and economic action mirror that faithfulness, proclaiming truth and life across all of spheres of society.
(Photo credit: his file comes from Wellcome Images, a website operated by Wellcome Trust, a global charitable foundation based in the United Kingdom. Refer to Wellcome blog post. CC BY 4.0.)