Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to live as an outsider, marginalized by society.
Being an outsider is the focus of a chapter I am currently working on for my next book: when I am not researching, I am writing and reflecting on the topic.
I have always struggled with a feeling of “outsiderness,” but the feeling has been getting stronger recently. I really don’t “belong” anywhere. Academically, I wear the scarlet letter of a failed PhD. Philosophically, I am a small-town Montana boy whose beliefs and values go against those of my city (Portland, Oregon). Temperamentally, I am an introvert in a society which prizes extraversion. And politically, I find the most popular candidates for president to be either childish and vulgar, or lacking in credibility, or both. So even in my own country’s political process, with “outsider” candidates capturing huge numbers of votes, I feel like an even bigger outsider than they are because I don’t understand what their supporters see in them. I don’t get it; I just don’t fit in. I keep thinking, Why am I so out of step with everyone else? What am I missing?
For most of my life I have been “on the outside,” but like most people I have never wanted to be – and I have wasted much time and energy fighting to get “in.”
I wasn’t always an outsider. In grade school, I was the “it” kid (whatever “it” is); my house was the happening place. I reached out to everyone, and every prepubescent person in our neighborhood congregated at the Hochhalters. At church I won every “bring-a-friend” contest, and each summer they sent a Vacation Bible School bus directly to my front door to carry all of the friends I invited (true, the bus did make a few other stops, but not many).
But after my parents’ divorce, everything changed. I became bitter, shy, and fat. I definitely wasn’t popular anymore. Kids no longer came over because I had “it”. They only came over because I had a BB gun.
I flunked sixth grade and started my journey as the reject, always dreaming about what it would be like to be cool again.
And then I added yet another undesirable “outsider” trait to my already-long list: gradually, over time, I decided that I was serious about being a Christian. This choice has only increased my “outsiderness”. Culturally, I long to be accepted and live in the center; but—especially in Portland, one of the most “unchurched” cities in the U.S.—I am marginalized. The harder I resist being rejected for my faith, the more society insists that Christians like me are outsiders, relegated to the margins.
Yet as much as I dislike my “place” on the outside, at the edges, in the margins, I see that it is here where God is the most comfortable—the most intimate and redemptive. It is here where grace shines the brightest. It is here where Jesus lives.
Jesus is the epitome of an outsider. At his birth he is laid in a manger (Luke 2:4-7), certainly not the hippest choice for a crib. He grows up in Nazareth, a town held in low regard (John 1:45-46). He lives to upset cultural and religious norms (Mt 10:34-39). He dies as a reject (Isaiah 53:3). And he says that, in this world, his followers will experience the same. Instead of status and prestige, he promises us hostility, saying: “You will be hated by everyone because of me” (Matthew 10:22).
Not the strongest recruiting line I’ve ever heard.
Throughout scripture, God is always working in the margins. In Genesis, he chooses as his people a bunch of nondescript nomads who become slaves in Egypt (Exodus 1:8-14) and, to lead them, Moses – a fearful, stuttering individual (Exodus 3:11, 13 and 4:1, 10, 13) with anger issues (Numbers 20:9-12, 27:17). After Moses dies, the people inhabit the Promised Land and eventually grow into the great nation of Israel, led by a succession of three great kings – Saul, David, and Solomon. But their golden age of wealth and expansion as a superpower lasts only a couple of generations; then Israel fractures into a divided kingdom and ends in another form of rejection and outsiderness: exile.
While the Israelites are living in exile, as outsiders in pagan Babylon, God does not promise immediate rescue but instructs them to embrace their “outsider” status for the long haul:
“Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper” (Jeremiah 29:5-7, NIV).
During this time, God never tells his people to seek recognition or acceptance in the center of society. He never tells them to fight for their rights – not even the right to worship him. In fact, he almost seems to prefer the times when they live as nomads, slaves, and exiles. If so, I don’t know his reason, but it could be that those are the times when his people are the most humble, teachable, and dependent on him.
In our time, God’s people are again being pushed to the margins. Many previously “Christian” countries, including the U.S., are now post-Christian; Christians have lost the culture war. More and more, we are in exile. We are outsiders.
This reality, though painful, is not necessarily a bad thing. Like the Jews in exile, maybe we are meant to accept and thrive in our outsiderness – because it is on the outside, in the margins, where the church really thrives.
Political pundit and former presidential speechwriter Peggy Noonan writes:
Pagans have been trying to kill Christianity for two thousand years, and each day it dies, and each day it rises. Force it underground and you empower it. You draw rebels, real rebels, the kind society doesn’t acknowledge till half a century later, but powerful people nonetheless. The faith will not only endure but flourish, and, as it does in times of adversity, produce real saints.
In fact, the most powerful periods in Christian history are not when Christians are in the center, but when Christians are on the outside looking in – or better yet, looking up.
So we must develop a higher worldview – a kingdom worldview. Our instructions are actually quite simple, but somehow very easy to forget: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” (Luke 10:27).
It’s only natural to try to avoid rejection if we can; I’m not saying we shouldn’t. But I am saying two things: First, we must stop confusing hurt feelings with real persecution (for example, stop complaining about losing our “right” to say “Merry Christmas” – while Christians elsewere are losing their heads). And second, according to Jesus, we should expect rejection and persecution, and face both as he did – with grace and courage (Philippians 2:5-8).
So being an outsider, much as I resist it, is part of the terms and conditions of my faith. Therefore, instead of fighting so hard against my outsiderness, I believe it’s time for me to start embracing it and trying to understand God’s purposes in it.
Following Jesus is not primarily about winning court cases, getting the right politicians elected, or being accepted by the culture. It’s not wrong to care about those things – but it is wrong to make legal and political victories our primary goals, because those things are not what matter most; Jesus is. Instead of raging against our post-Christian world, we should be loving it as he did – yes, even if it hates us.
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