by Father Mike Stubbs
How we should deal with aliens residing in our country remains an important issue in American politics. Should we welcome them as potential fellow citizens? Should we suspect them as possible terrorists? The attitudes in our populace range anywhere in between these viewpoints.
Two thousand years ago, Christians were considered aliens in the Roman Empire. They held a lower social status than citizens, without the corresponding rights and privileges.
We are constantly reminded of that subordinate position in the First Letter of Peter. For example, Sunday’s second reading urges: “Conduct yourselves with reverence during the time of your sojourning.” The word “sojourning” refers to residence in a foreign country. Elsewhere, the letter addresses its audience twice as “sojourners” (1 Pt 1:1; 2:11). It appears as a consistent theme throughout the letter.
Although Christians were evidently not facing outright persecution when the letter was written, they did have to struggle with various hardships. They were ostracized by their neighbors. They did not fit in with the mainstream of society. That is why the letter seeks to encourage them. It reminds them of the high value that God places on them: “You were ransomed from your futile conduct, handed on by your ancestors, not with perishable things like silver or gold but with the precious blood of Christ as of a spotless unblemished lamb.”
The reference to Christ as a lamb calls to mind the lamb eaten during the Passover supper. That meal commemorates the liberation of the Hebrew people from bondage in Egypt. As aliens in Egypt, the Hebrews had suffered oppression. Since the early Christians were also aliens subjected to many difficulties, they could identify with the Hebrews of old.
And just as the Hebrew people had found deliverance through their exodus from Egypt, so Christians found deliverance through Jesus Christ. He had redeemed them by his death. They were experiencing a new exodus. The Hebrew people had journeyed to the promised land of Canaan. Similarly, Christians were journeying toward the promised land of heaven.
The Christians’ sense of being strangers in a pagan world persisted long after the writing of the First Letter of Peter. For example, the Letter to Diognetus, written by an unnamed author late in the second century, pointed out how Christians resembled their fellow citizens in some respects, while they differed in others:
“With regard to dress, food and manner of life in general, they follow the customs of whatever city they happen to live in. And yet there is something extraordinary about their lives. They live in their own countries as though they were only passing through. They play their full role as citizens, but labor under all the disabilities of aliens. Any country can be their homeland, but for them their homeland, whatever it may be, is a foreign country. Like others, they marry and have children, but they do not expose them. They share their meals, but not their wives.
“They live in the flesh, but they are not governed by the desires of the flesh. They pass their days on earth, but they are citizens of heaven.”