The theme of the Phoenix Convention, “Citizens of God’s Kingdom: Healed in Hope,” stirs up a jumble of thoughts and feelings, especially that word “citizens.”
Best I can tell, it is rooted in Philippians 3:20, where the Apostle Paul says that “we are citizens of heaven, and from heaven we expect our deliverer to come, the Lord Jesus Christ.”
Many said we shouldn’t even gather in Phoenix because of the harsh legislation Arizona passed to expel people who are not citizens of the U.S. Much of the bite of that law has been removed by the June 2012 Supreme Court decision that declared much of the Arizona law unconstitutional. But the Court left the “show me your papers” requirement in place so long as it is implemented without racial profiling. That will be a big “if” for our Hispanic brothers and sisters as they attend Phoenix.
What’s more, our most important civic ritual of citizenship – the election of a President — will still be fresh in our memories. Some of us will be pleased with the results and some will be distressed. But all will retain the awareness of how partisan loyalties leave us divided.
And all will feel the burden of living in a nation that has been continually at war for 11+ years now. Weaponized drones currently are attacking targets in six countries and U.S. leaders are threatening to attack another nation (Iran) that never has threatened the United States in any way.
So as we make our way to Phoenix, we will carry this question: how does being a citizen of heaven affect our citizenship in the USA?
Paul’s words are directed to the believers in Philippi, a Roman colony. Many of its leading residents had moved from Rome to Philippi with the mission of making it a shining example of what was great about the Roman Empire. They colonizers retained their connections to the Empire’s governing elite, thus ensuring Philippi would prosper through the attentiveness and special favor of the Empire.
N.T. Wright, the Anglican priest who serves as Bishop of Durham, argues that Paul used the phrase “citizens of heaven” to draw a parallel to those residents of Philippi who had received their citizenship from Rome and were expected to lead the colony in adopting the ways of Rome. What distinguished these elite members of the colony was their status and allegiance, not that they would return to Rome to retire. As Wright puts it, the Roman citizen’s task “was to live in the colony by the rules of the mother city, not to yearn to go home again.”
By analogy, Paul is asking us to lead our communities in adopting the ways of heaven.
Phoenix won’t be the first convention where we wrestle with all of this. For example the delegates at the 2007 San Jose Convention passed a resolution calling upon the Executive Board,
to formulate a process that helps us explore our identity as Mennonites living in what many consider to be the wealthiest and most powerful nation on earth. We ask for resources that help us live faithfully in Christ-like ways, sometimes at odds with our national culture, acknowledging that no culture is either completely redeemed or completely fallen.
Amid the many unresolved immigration issues, and as the post-9/11 aggressiveness of the U.S. military persists unchanged from one administration to the next, we need help in sorting through the conflicting demands of heavenly and U.S. citizenship. I can’t say how being together in Phoenix will meet this need. But given the tensions around meeting in Phoenix and the provocative theme chosen by conference planners, we can be sure it will be a significant moment in the ongoing conversation about the implications of following Jesus as Lord.
Berry Friesen: Minnesota native transplanted in eastern Pennsylvania, father of two daughters and grandfather of two more. Attended prior conventions in Philadelphia, Wichita and Pittsburgh. Author of Water from Another Time: Today’s Questions, Yesterday’s Wisdom.