By Walid Zailaa
Last Sunday, Lebanon commemorated Independence Day. A year has passed without much hope. The one-year-old revolution that did unite for the first time the dreams of the Lebanese people against the corrupted ruling elite is fading away and with it the hope of a true independent Lebanon is dying. This seemingly hopeless situation is driving many young people to emigrate out of the country and leading many professionals to start all over again in different parts of the world. But we think it is not really an issue for us Christians since we have a greater hope and with it a greater home that is made ready for us in heaven. How can followers of Christ maintain both a love of God and a love of country is the question that I will try to answer, using a theological understanding of physical space.
For a long time I lived the struggle of a dichotomy between what is above in heaven and what is here on earth. Due to my literal and out-of-context reading of some scriptural texts such as Colossian 3:2 “set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth…” and 2 Peter 3:10 “…and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed. Since all these things are thus to be dissolved…,” I silenced any sense of belonging I had to a country and replaced it with the sheer craving for the day I will be in my true heavenly home when I die. Historically speaking, this dualistic view has created the constant struggle between the physical (material/spatial) side and the spiritual (unseen/untouched) side of human beings, without a conclusive and corrective intervention from theology or doctrine. Until this day the language we sometimes use in our evangelical circles communicates, whether intentionally or not, this type of division by ranking what is spiritual and unseen at a much higher level than what is material. Words such as believers vs. non-believers; saved vs. perished; citizens of the new Jerusalem vs. citizens of the earthly world connote the mindset of spiritual superiority even if this type of language is not always explicit in our teaching and preaching. I am not critiquing our longing to be with the Lord; rather, I am addressing the way we live it here on earth, without compromising its validity.
Lately, I have become interested in the study of space, which has taken a dramatic turn in biblical studies. The localization of space in biblical studies is called “critical spatiality,” and this views space as a thoroughly social product and a cultural creation (product of our relations and connections with each other). Space does not only imply geographical locations. Geography is only one dimension of spatial consideration. Space becomes the understanding of the role that human beings, individually and collectively, play in creating the space they occupy. Critical spatiality understands space to be more than simply physical properties. The late Doreen Massey, who was a professor of geography at London’s Open University, describes the notion of “space” in a podcast interview: “Space concerns our relations with each other and, in fact, social space, I would say, is a product of our relations with each other, our connections with each other. Globalization, for instance, is a new geography constructed out of the relations we have with each other across the globe.”
In the past fifteen years, biblical scholars have been participating in the broader “spatial turn.” Massey is relatively unexplored by biblical scholars who draw strongly on the legacy of the French philosopher Henri Lefebvre and the postmodern political geographer Edward Soja after him. For the last six months, due to the global pandemic, ABTS launched a series of webinars in place of MEC 2020. The August webinar entitled “No Space or New Space? Navigating Exceptional Times as the New Normal for the Local Church” focused on the spatial form of the church. The keynote speaker Nabil Habibi, ABTS faculty and New Testament scholar, drew in his presentation on Soja’s three-part-grid theory to help us move beyond the simple notion of the church’s building (physical space) “firstspace” into a mental space “secondspace” and finally into a social space “thirdspace.” We can no longer think of “space” as a void container; rather, it is inherently relational and filled with meaning. By emphasizing the relational significance of space, we can perceive the spatiality of the kingdom as present yet not here in its fullness in a new way.
The Kingdom of God is not only temporal and historical but also spatial and geographical. Jesus’ description of the kingdom includes people. He usually describes the dominion of a king or master, but also a space or the location in which the ruler reigns. The idea of dominion is not only present but also the idea of territory and people. The king in Jesus’ depiction has a field, a house, or a wedding hall. In addition, the objects used to compare the kingdom of God point towards understanding the kingdom as a location (narrow way, gate, etc.). Speaking of space, I do not have enough space in this blog post to delineate the whole argument of the metaphorical images of the kingdom as a spatial entity. Therefore, I will present a few ideas on the presence of Jesus in flesh, which is coupled with the presence of God. To enter the kingdom does not simply imply a journey in which one travels from earth to heaven but to accept God’s rule in time and space (here and now).
When we think of God’s presence in Jesus, we think of the καιρος (Kairos: a set or proper season), which has again a temporal and historical tone. But the physical body of Jesus fulfills a new phase of presence. God’s place-centered presence is no longer in a tent or tabernacle but in a person, which has produced another dimension of spatiality: a relational dimension. Jesus as a person has naturally developed multiple levels of relations throughout His life and ministry on earth. Relations with those who are close to Him: family, friends, and disciples; relations with those who hated Him: Pharisees, Scribes, and religious leaders; relations with those whom He served: tax collectors, sinners, marginalized, poor, and sick. Jesus shepherded His circle of disciples, lamented over Jerusalem’s inhabitants; and provided to those who are in need both physically and spiritually. The ripple effect of relations that God’s presence in Jesus has produced will always be felt through the church. The relational dimension of the church’s presence in its local context is a continuity of Jesus’ presence in the flesh. It is an oversimplification to perceive our life on earth as a trip in which we do good deeds here and there as we journey toward our final destination in heaven. This line of belief will re-create the notion of duality I have described at the beginning of this blog.
It is Ok to love your country. Your country is not an evil, void, or purely geographical space. Your country is a space thick with meaning, values, and relations. In loving your country, you are standing for what is right; facing the oppressor; giving voice to the marginalized; helping the poor. In loving your country, you are being incarnated in your local context. Like Jesus, your incarnational presence is the type of spatial embodiment that is willing to sacrifice its own being for the well-being of others.
Thank you Walid for this insightful post (and for mentioning my webinar). I think another dimension is eco-theology. We are called to enjoy this space, earth, and take care of it. A dualistic notion of Christians being on a journey to heaven (over there) can lead us to neglect the environment. I once had a well-meaning Christian tell me: “Why should I take care of the earth? It is going to burn in the end!” I believe that the Kingdom understanding of the NT is firmly rooted in our place here and now. We are called to bring God’s Kingdom from heaven to earth.