From the Letter to the Ephesians:
So [Christ] came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling-place for God.
(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Ephesians 2:17-22 (NRSV) – January 17, 2013.)
For many years, I have rather liked Paul’s citizenship metaphor for our participation in the household of God. It made sense . . . but I’m not sure it makes sense any longer because I’m not sure we understand any longer what citizenship is!
A historical review of the understanding of citizenship going back to the earliest Greek city-states suggests that there are two basic classical theories: the humanist and the individualist.
The humanist conception of citizenship emphasizes our political nature viewing citizenship as an active process of involvement in the affairs of the state. Under this theory, being a citizen means being active in government affairs; citizens and the government are mutually interrelated. An ideal citizen is one who exhibits good civic behavior and acts out of a commitment to civic duty and virtue. The individualist view, on the other hand, assumes that human beings act not out of civic morality, but out of enlightened self-interest. Citizens are seen as essentially passive politically, as sovereign, morally autonomous beings primarily focused on their own economic betterment. Nonetheless, between citizen and state there is a mutuality of obligation. The citizen is expected to pay taxes, obey the law, engage in business, and defend the nation if it comes under attack; the state has the duty to respect and protect the civil and political rights of the citizen.
The Enlightenment vision of citizenship, which gave rise to modern democratic republics like the United States, incorporates both of these classical models.
At the recent Emergence Christianity conversation, Phyllis Tickle used the examples of a beehive and an anthill to contrast traditional and emerging notions of leadership. Beehives are hierarchies with a controlling matriarch, the “queen”, and all workers exist to serve her needs and follow her direction. Anthills have “queens” but they are non-directive. The ant queen serves her function in the community (producing young) but does not control what others do. Instead, anthills exhibit a collective intelligence which does not depend upon the decision-making or direction of any one individual or even small group of individuals; in fact, there are no individuals, only the collective. Ms. Tickle suggested that because of the increase in knowledge and communication, which the internet and social media perhaps exemplify best, human society is moving away from the beehive and toward the anthill. One might say we are becoming “ant-i-fied”.
She may be right . . . and that’s the problem with the “citizenship” metaphor now. Neither the beehive nor the anthill understands the concept of “citizen” and if modern human society has been or is becoming patterned on either, Paul’s use of the term to describe our relationship with one another and with God in the context of the church becomes meaningless. Furthermore, if we human beings are becoming nothing more than “ants” in a collective intelligence, there is push back against that, and that push back is also counter to the classical notions of citizenship. The reaction to the “ant-i-fying” of human society is equally destructive of the citizenship metaphor because it has emphasized the individual over against society rather than the individual within and mutually related to society.
We are, Paul wrote, citizens with the saints and members of the household of God. If we do not understand what it is to be citizens of a human society, if we are all simply workers in a beehive hierarchy, or faceless units in an anthill collective, or individuals over against a society, can we make sense of this metaphor? Let us hope we can so that our understanding of Paul’s citizenship model will shape not only the church, but our society as well.
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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.