by Karl Stevens
In the 5th century, one of Christianity’s strangest saints became famous in Syria. His name was Simeon, and his fame derived from his decision to spend his life standing on top of a pillar. People began to come to him to learn spiritual wisdom and marvel at his asceticism. But they also came to him to settle land disputes, because he had proven himself so indifferent to worldly affairs that they knew he’d be an entirely impartial judge. This may seem like a strange beginning to a blog post about Moses, but Moses and Simeon Stylites held this in common – they were strange, and because of their strangeness people trusted and listened to them.
Moses’s strangeness was the result of his inhabiting two worlds. He was a Hebrew who was raised by two women, the Egyptian princess who adopted him and his own mother, who was masquerading as a wet nurse. Did his mother whisper to him in the night and tell him how he had survived a genocidal pogrom? He knew about it somehow, because it made him angry enough to kill an Egyptian overseer who was beating a Hebrew slave. When he fled to Midian he was already a stranger, neither completely Hebrew nor Egyptian. And he entered Midian as a foreigner, a fugitive, a man who didn’t fit anywhere.
Maybe that was exactly why God picked him. He wasn’t part of the Hebrew community. He wasn’t subject to any of the mingled loyalties and rivalries that fill any community. People could follow him without worrying that he would show favoritism to some other friend group than their own. And he knew the Egyptians, knew how they thought and how they worked, knew their magics and their arrogance and their ruthlessness. Unlike Simeon, he wasn’t generally indifferent to the politics and passions of the world. God had taken a side, and Moses served that side. But he was weird, and his very weirdness was his greatest strength.
We Christians have arrived at a moment of calling that is very similar to Moses’s, and I think that we can best emulate his call by embracing his strangeness. About a hundred years before Simeon Stylites chose to live on top of a pillar, Christianity had become the religion of empire. People like Simeon, and like Anthony, were opposed to this. They went up onto pillars or into the desert to escape empire and the kind of Christianity that kowtowed to it. Now, sixteen hundred years later, it is clear that Christendom, the imperial phase of Christianity, is at an end. The church is in decline in Europe and North America, and, in general, it doesn’t serve the state in Africa and Asia and the other places where it’s growing. In America, we’re having a hard time adjusting to this. Many American Christians want to force us back into a position of cultural and political prominence, and don’t seem to care whether the state they serve articulates or reflects Christian values. But what if we stopped trying to reassert our dominance and rejoiced in our strangeness?
My guess is that we would be able to do great good in the world. Like Moses, we would be able to reveal the ruthlessness of the powerful and act on behalf of the oppressed, without it mattering to us whether oppressed people belonged to our tribe or not. Part of the reason that Christianity is in decline is that many people, especially among the Millennials and the as yet unnamed following generation, don’t trust us. When they describe Christians, they aren’t describing people like Simeon Stylites. Instead, they describe the servants of Christendom, who, like Pharaoh’s magicians, can perform some miracles, but are indifferent to the plight of the oppressed. Our focus shouldn’t be on trying to win these young people over by showing them how nice we are. That’s simply a form of propaganda, and they’ll see right through it, understanding that our motives aren’t pure. Our call is to throw away all of our concerns with prominence and power and to embrace the fact that we’re strangers in the world, and that our very strangeness can be a gift to the world.