the heresy of Christian nationalism

But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light….

For the Lord’s sake accept the authority of every human institution, whether of the emperor as supreme, or of governors, as sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to praise those who do right. For it is God’s will that by doing right you should silence the ignorance of the foolish. As servants of God, live as free people, yet do not use your freedom as a pretext for evil. Honor everyone. Love the family of believers. Fear God. Honor the emperor.

1 Peter 2:9, 13-17

We are beset and besieged by a Christian nationalism which though present from the inception of the United States, is now bearing its full fruit.

Christian nationalism plain and simply is pure heresy. Heresy has to do with wrong theology and the wrong practice which results from that. And Christian nationalism at its core is idolatry. It doesn’t matter how it expresses itself, or who or what party is in power. When we see it as sacred so that it has God’s imprimatur or signature so to speak written on it, then we’ve entered into profane space, bringing into what’s sacred and of God’s kingdom something which is only provisional and subject to God’s judgment.

What is especially egregious about the present expression of this heresy is actually nothing new, but it seems especially rampant and endemic now. I speak sadly about its presence set in evangelical circles, but also found in other churches such as mainline Protestant and Roman Catholic. An easy manifestation of its likely presence is when an American flag is in a church building with a Christian flag.

We must never ever give what is provisional sacred status as if it somehow is part of God’s reign and kingdom in Christ. And yet that is what many do when they equate the sacrifice for the nation to be like Christ’s sacrifice for the world. Or see the nation in its founding as pure good and pure light, and as some ideal it is called to live up to.

We can and should appreciate the good that we find in any and every nation. The ideal within the United States that “all men are created equal” should be something appreciated, which we should hold up as a goal for which this nation should aspire. While we can appreciate all the good, we must not have a blind eye for what is not good, no matter where that may be found.

And more to the point of the post: We must never invest in what is not sacred, the thought that somehow it is. That God is on our side, or at least on the side of the United States as it was formed in the beginning. And yet this is what Christians did back then, and continue to do to this day. And that is blasphemy.

“You will know them or whatever it might be by its fruits.” Heresies often have the same effect as cults in the present day understanding of what cult means. It has a choke hold which won’t let go, no matter what the result. And as we see in the present day, the result is far from pretty or good.

To follow Christ together as church in God’s kingdom present now by the Spirit is something completely different, even antithetical to that. It is an existence of love for all, even for our enemies, just as Jesus taught. With the knowledge that there is only one holy nation and sacred kingdom. That of God in Christ. Only one Lord to whom belongs our allegiance. One word which we follow: The good news in our Lord and Savior, Jesus. In and through Jesus.

Christ’s judgment on the nations

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left.”

Matthew 25:31-33

I wish this passage from Christ’s lips would be taken seriously by those who claim to be Christians. But when it’s not taught with its ramifications, then it will be largely lost, not a part of what faith and life consists of for the many who don’t even see themselves as Christ followers. This goes beyond that, and is really an indictment against the church, which can end up not only asleep at the switch, but even a part of the problem if it doesn’t really take seriously a passage like this, and its implications for life based on the rest of Scripture.

Jesus’s words here echo something of the concern of the Hebrew (Old Testament) prophets about God’s vision of shalom: peace and prosperity for all, which while we know will never be entirely fulfilled until he returns, nevertheless is at the forefront of Jesus’s words of blessing and judgment in this passage.

Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family,[a] you did it to me.’ Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

Matthew 25:34-46

Individuals yes, but also nations will be judged by how they treated those in need, and that includes how they treated all. The rich nations who do not help the poor, indebted nations. Who put their own prosperity ahead of ending terrorism and starvation. Who put national interest above the good of others, and are willing to kill innocents in the process. Nations which refuse to help those fleeing war and death. Nations which have made systems of evil and hold on to them, against ethnicities, here in the United States obviously, against African Americans, along with the Native Americans. And the widening gap between the rich and the poor cannot rightfully be ignored. Christ will judge all of that, and will judge whatever complicity we’ve had in it.

So we need to become aware of this, develop a conscience that is no longer seared, but becoming sensitive, so that we can begin to see Christ where we’ve never seen him before. And be present to help in whatever ways we can. 

In and through Jesus.

the mistake of Christian nationalism

But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.

1 Peter 2:9

I ring an old bell, one who is hardly qualified to do that, but we draw from Scripture, from the wisdom given to those who have studied and continue to study Scripture together, from whatever wisdom God might have given us. And I speak as one who is and has been alarmed for some time now over what seems to me to be a clear and present danger, significantly so because of the mistaken thinking of many sincere Christians.

By Christian nationalism I mean the idea that God sets apart a certain nation of the world, whatever nation that may be as somehow more or less a Christian nation, or if not that, at least a nation which has special purposes for the benefit of Christianity and the gospel.

That God uses nations for good and then judges them for the wrongs they commit is a matter of fact, attested to in Scripture and seen over and over again in history. The idea of Christian nationalism carries with it a close tie between the church and state, whatever tie that might be.

That God’s people should pray for and care about the good of the nation in which they live even as exiles was exemplified in Israel of old (Jeremiah 29:4-7). Christians will vary in what specifically that means. Some will be willing to participate in more or less all the activities of the state, though we have examples of those who won’t even vote, much less do any of that. Some of us are somewhere in between.

But the main point I’d like to make here is that we in Christ are the holy nation on earth whom God calls as a light to the nations. No nation-state on earth even has such a calling. At the same time we can hope that each nation in humility will learn to do better through God’s light that is present in Christ, and in the human conscience as well through “common grace.”

This is nothing more than hopefully a gentle heads up over what I see as a clear and present danger in that the ramifications and results from it will be nothing short of devastating, as we’ve seen clearly already in the United States. But we in Christ are called to follow one Lord as one holy nation together, by our good works to point to the greatness and goodness of the One we serve. In and through Jesus.

nationalism as a part of our faith is idolatry

They worshiped the Lord, but they also served their own gods…

2 Kings 17:33a

For some, probably too many here in the United States, if you don’t vote a certain way you’re not godly, or maybe they’ll say, even a Christian. And Christian metaphors, even Christ himself are routinely replaced by American images. What often happens on a subtle level which may raise some eyebrows then be forgotten, can become blatant, indeed a part of our religion. Anytime you mix anything with Christ and God’s work and kingdom in him, you have syncretism, and that is exactly what we see here. We never place anything on a par with Christ and the reality present in him. To do so amounts to plain old fashioned idolatry.

United States nationalism I believe is part of the religion of many white evangelical Christians, their version of the United States. You start wondering when you see a flag in a church “sanctuary.” That is a part of tradition, and doesn’t at all necessarily mean the pastor or church is caught up in this idolatry. But it’s far better to remove any such symbol to help prevent any of that from creeping in.

Idols don’t come down easily. Just so much as tread on this territory, and you’ll get vehement, long protests, defenses and even attacks. That maybe you are not really grounded in the faith like you ought to be. Well for sure, one is not grounded in their faith, which sadly includes nationalism, yes even patriotism.

We can and I think even should love our country, but never with the attitude of total allegiance. Our one allegiance belongs to our one Lord, Jesus, and to no other. And we should love all other nations, too. We should see our nation as just hopefully a humble contributor to the whole, and at least trying to do good, and avoid what is evil. Unfortunately good and evil will be in the fabric of every nation state. We are mistaken to act as if that’s not the case.

God in Christ with the Holy Spirit is our one God. No other gods beside him. None. Something we’ll have to keep our eyes open for, because nothing can be alongside much less replace God. Only God is God. Everything else is phony in comparison, good in its place, but nothing more, and easily out of place.

May God help us, have mercy on us, that he may purge us, and that we might purge ourselves of all idolatry, and continue to do that. In and through Jesus.

Christians persecuted in the United States?

Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

“Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

Matthew 5:10-11

You often hear from some that Christians are being persecuted in the United States. What seems to be in mind is loss of freedoms, position and voice. The sea change of culture is certainly trying to many. And continued change seems to be in the cards.

But what if we really followed the way of Jesus, loving our enemies, and living as if we belong to one kingdom and Lord, refusing to bow the knee to any other? What if we were a loving, engaging people, helping each other, and opening our doors to all?

It’s not like none of that takes place, or that there’s no persecution at all in the US due to believers sincerely following Christ. But when you compare the US and much of the west with the rest of the world, you arguably begin to see that we know nothing in comparison with the rest. Open Doors is helpful here (click each country for more details).

A basic problem is that we see our identity somehow wrapped into the state. Many of us Christians here see ourselves as Americans nearly on a par with our identity as Christians, or so it seems to me. Instead, if we’re to follow the way of Jesus and what we read of him in the gospel accounts, as well as the church afterwards in Acts, known as the Way, then I think it should give pause to how we see ourselves here and now.

If we really started following Jesus in that way, I think we would then face more real persecution, yes, right here in the US. But we would also leave people wondering. We would be known not for what we think the US is, or our identity in that. But as followers of something different. Counter-cultural and counter-intuitive for sure. In and through Jesus.

 

a new political imagination

After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. “The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!”

Mark 1:14-15

In Jesus’s time there was a profound, eager, if somewhat hushed among many expectation that the Messiah would at long last come and God’s kingdom with him, specifically to overthrow the Romans, whose grip on the people of God held them in a kind of exile in their very home. That’s where we have to begin if we’re to bring forward what Jesus’s words above mean in the present day.

We need to go on and read the rest of Mark’s gospel account, and along with that, the other synoptic gospel accounts, Matthew and Luke, with the final gospel account, John. Only then will we begin to understand the kingdom that God brings in Jesus, invading the world now, and ultimately destined to take over the world.

From this can come a new political imagination as we see the fulfillment of God’s promises to the world in Jesus, in King Jesus and God’s kingdom come in him. If we think it’s just about personal salvation and getting others saved to go to heaven someday, then we’ve missed the point. Yes, it’s in terms God reconciling the world to himself through the death of Christ, forgiveness of our sins and new life in Christ. But that includes the reconciliation of all things to himself and new creation. A kingdom no less is now present.

At the heart of that, or we could say inside of this reality in Jesus is a new way of life, a new way for humans to live not just individually, but with each other. Yes, a whole new way of life. One that we see in the New Testament fulfills God’s passion seen in the Old Testament for the poor, the oppressed, the stranger, those in chains and suffering, somehow as we find in Jesus’s teaching and what follows including even God’s enemies.

We know that God is at work even in what we call the state, nations and governments, kingdoms of this world. But we also know that God’s own kingdom work in Jesus is elsewhere and different. And that the kingdoms of earth will be ultimately judged and destroyed, exposed as the beasts they really are.

What can help us see and understand this new political imagination better is to understand the idolatrous hold nationalism can have on us. We American Christians ordinarily see politics in terms of left and right, conservative and liberal (and moderate), and whatever else might be floating out there. But surely God wants us to see through those paradigms for whatever usefulness and good they have in this world through the lens of God’s kingdom come in Jesus. We as Christians are called to be about that, and nothing more nor less.

That doesn’t mean that we can’t participate in one way or another in the world’s political system. It does mean that we do so essentially as outsiders, those of another political realm. Taking seriously the politics of this world, but only in terms of the politics of Jesus which has invaded the world, indeed the politics of the world to come. In and through Jesus.

Thanks to Stephen Backhouse whose work is renewing in a fresh way my own thought on this.

thinking in the new way (the Jesus way)

It is so easy for us to conflate what we read in the Old Testament about the nation of Israel and battles and whatnot with the United States. What we fall into is the precipice of nationalism from which there’s no escape. I’m finding these podcasts from Stephen Backhouse helpful in grounding us in the way of Jesus and exposing what is not.

We need to get back to basics, the basics of Jesus, what he calls us to as his disciples and church. That’s a far cry from what we’re accustomed to, what we’re caught up in. It involves what Jesus taught in the Sermon on the Mount. The fruit of the Spirit marks it.

One can be Spirit-filled, yet sadly mistaken on key points, as history has shown over and over again, and as Scripture, I think indicates. We need a new vision, the vision Jesus gives us. But it’s hard to break the old strongholds, and idols don’t easily let go since there are spiritual and systemic powers behind them.

This is not the idea that we’ll all the sudden get it right while most everyone else gets it wrong. This is an endeavor to question bedrock assumptions which we live by, often taken for granted to be true.

This gets us beyond national, and even international allegiance, to the one allegiance that we Christians are to hold to now and forever: the Lamb Jesus, and the kingdom of God present and to come in him. It’s not like we no longer have concerns about those matters, but that those concerns come from a different world altogether. Yes, meant for this world, but not of it.

But go to the podcasts if you want to learn more. And a hint: keep listening through the episodes to make the most sense of it.

the dignity and destiny of all peoples

Then I saw a Lamb, looking as if it had been slain, standing at the center of the throne, encircled by the four living creatures and the elders. The Lamb had seven horns and seven eyes, which are the seven spirits[a] of God sent out into all the earth. He went and took the scroll from the right hand of him who sat on the throne. And when he had taken it, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb. Each one had a harp and they were holding golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of God’s people. And they sang a new song, saying:

“You are worthy to take the scroll
    and to open its seals,
because you were slain,
    and with your blood you purchased for God
    persons from every tribe and language and people and nation.
10 You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God,
    and they will reign[b] on the earth.”

Revelation 5

As we draw near to the day on which we honor Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and in light of the present time, we do well again and again to reflect on the dignity and destiny of all of God’s created children.

That means we need to accept and learn to appreciate every culture. We might not celebrate or live out life like others do, but we need to see their strengths and our weaknesses. We need to look for and find the good in their way of life, and the not so good in our way. And we need to learn from them, and be open to appreciate ways in which God’s image is uniquely reflected in them.

We enslaved peoples from the African nations, on what pretext, I don’t know. Just because we could. And supposedly good people stood by, and ended up even participating, maybe trying to put a human face on this inhumane evil. And even the church stood by, either saying nothing, or at times, even justifying it.

And to this day there are people who see dark skinned people as somehow inferior. Today we have the scourge and lie of white nationalism. As if somehow we who are white are better, as if God created us a notch above the others. And in fact some have even argued that certain “races” (there is actually only one: the human race) are subhuman.

God’s word gives the lie to all of that in the truth that all whom God has created, God intends to redeem into the new creation. That all humans are made in God’s image. And that such are going to reign on earth.

What does all of this mean for us now? And especially where I live in the United States of America? I’m sure it means quite a lot, but from my perspective, I’ll name two. It means we need to live differently right where the rubber meets the road, in our relationships with others. That we need to go out of our way not to judge what ought not to be judged. One example from my own life: I am a worker, and while I can relate to people, I am a down to business person, who doesn’t like to “waste time.” But I notice that people from other ethnicities like to spend more time and visit, which for me cuts into the time during which I should be working. I leave room, and actually want to make room for such times when I can, but work itself is the priority.

I can learn from others to stop here and there, and appreciate the other. While also noting that these people work just as hard, and do just as well on that end, in fact they might make some contributions to the work itself which helps us do better. In other words, I need to see everything in its entirety and put the best case on everything, even if I may not be able to see it at the time.

For us, this means we have a learning, and more precisely a growing curve. The point I’m making here is that we need to stop putting others down, just because we don’t live the way they do. We need to ask what God’s values are. They have to put up with us, with our blind spots, and how often we put work over people and relationships. I’m sure work was important to Jesus. But never at the expense of relationships for sure.

My other point would be the church itself. How are we doing in showing the world the dignity and destiny, indeed, the beauty of all humanity? I wonder. Overall, with some exceptions I don’t think we’re doing all that well. There are white churches, black churches, and then other churches of other ethnicities right in the same city. And to some extent that’s understandable, and we’re not to force the issue, but be in prayer over it. But especially us white folks need to take it on ourselves, considering history, to purposefully open the door for a multiracial witness. That would mean taking people of other ethnicities onto the pastoral staff, and into the leadership of the church.

This is a part of our witness to the truth and reality and power of the good news in Jesus. In which we’re to live, and be committed to. Accepting others fully, just as God in and through Christ fully accepted us.

the primary problem with the flag draped over the cross

Yesterday, Christianity Today published an excellent critique by Andy Crouch of Donald Trump and his run for the presidency, aimed at challenging evangelicals who still support Trump, not leaving out some criticism of Hillary Clinton’s run. It is well worth the read. And Scot McKnight wrote an equally compelling piece from an Anabaptist, and certainly more importantly, a biblical perspective, questioning the allegiance of both the Christian right and the Christian left to an American political Christian position, as if America itself could, and therefore ought to be a Christian nation. Recently Jeff Manion at Ada Bible Church in his series on the book of Colossians challenged the idol that we can make of America, not questioning a proper patriotism Christians might adopt, but the kind which would see the flag draped over a cross.

The basic problem is that the gospel is not seen as a good news which is about a kingdom come in Jesus which involves all of life, but rather simply about one’s personal salvation. It is certainly that, but much more. It is about all of life, including the political sphere, a politic in and of itself in the grace and kingdom in Jesus. One enters into this through the good news of Christ by faith, and into a common life which is a precursor of the life on earth to come, when Jesus returns. It is political in that everything matters in the life of the church. The rich help the poor, while everyone is held accountable to live well, and grow in their lives together, as followers of Jesus, and no less than Christ’s body on earth. (Jesus Christ, of course; I try to use the terms in the way scripture places them.)

Of course the church can be a blessing to the state, but not by the politics of the state, except where the state wants to include the work of the church. That is where sooner or later it can be not only tricky, but downright deceptive, as the church looks to the state to provide what only the church through Jesus can provide.

Like most everything in life, this is more complicated than that, but that basic premise must never be left behind. It isn’t that what the state does, or fails to do matters. For example, I believe it shouldn’t even be an issue that there is some kind of universal health care provided through the state. Many people are not part of the church, not Christian, and God will judge nations on how they treat each other, especially the poor, oppressed and helpless. The church ought to be a model of what the state should do. Of course if the state provides services for citizens, than the church proceeds accordingly. But the point here is that the politics of the state is important. Yet the church is never to get entangled in such a way that they have an unhealthy and even idolatrous relationship with the state, seeing it as the source of blessing, rather than looking to God through Christ. The church must be careful never to get into a union with the state, and see its existence depending on the state. We know that this is simply not the case. The reality of the church is in the resurrection of Jesus and through the Spirit. The church will go on come what may. And the shalom/justice and peace, though present in some respects within the church through Jesus will not take root and flourish on earth until Jesus returns and reigns.

And so, in a kind of rambling here, I have shared a bit of what I understand to be the problem with the American flag draped over the cross, the union of church and state. Yes, American claims the separation of church and state, and in some ways we experience that through the religious freedom here. But all too often we are taken right back up into an allegiance and union in our thinking and practice which belongs to Jesus alone, and to God’s grace and kingdom present even now, in and through Jesus.

See also in this connection an important, helpful book by Allan R. Bevere: The Politics of Witness: The Character of the Church in the World.  

nationalism

I used to see nationalism as inherently a sin. Now I would say it easily becomes a sin while not necessarily so in and of itself. It is hard to find a good balance sometimes on subjects, and of course we want to think in terms of what scripture teaches with due consderation of the church’s teaching and practice through the centuries.

The church state relationship which began with the Roman emperor Constantine whose conversion to Christianity resulted in “the Holy Roman Empire.” Rome actually becoming a Christian state, ends up being questionable at best. While the state afforded the church protection, it really offered much more with strings attached. You had to be baptized as a citizen; it was after all a Christian nation by law. Yes, the gospel figured in but when such is coerced on families by the state, we begin to wonder where the scriptural precedent is for that unless one turns to the Old Testament. It doesn’t seem warranted from a reading of the New Testament and what we see in regard to the state in those books.

Paul used his Roman citizenship to help him preach the gospel especially to the Gentiles, which was his calling. And he could preach it to the Jews as well, since living under the authority of a state other than Israel was nothing new; we’re easily reminded of Daniel in the Old Testament along with others.

We can love our country and hope and pray the best for it. But we must beware that the church not be coopted into the goal of the state. Some Christians today want to “bring America back to God” and consider the United States at its founding, a Christian nation. That might be considered the case only in a cultural sense. I don’t agree with it, believing that the nation was built on a Modernist Enlightenment foundation, the scriptures read from that. And certainly the sin of slavery along with subjugation of native peoples is no small problems in contending for such.

What we don’t want is a civil religion which some Christians seem to want to promote, a Christianity which promotes guns and glory and even brings in the cross to sanction that. We need to think twice and more before we buy into that. We are to pray for those in civil authority (1 Timothy 2). The church is to receive protection from the state with no strings attached except submission in terms of laws which do not contradict God’s will, but hopefully promote a just peace (Romans 13). But in this life that won’t always be the case as we know all too well by considering the twentieth century alone right up to the present day.

The nature of the church sets it apart in its allegiance to the gospel and King Jesus, the good news of Jesus. We are not to be bearers of the sword, but of the cross. We are to live and die for Jesus and the gospel no less. Even while we honor those who put their lives on the line in the work of the state. But the church must beware lest its witness be compromised, sullied and possibly even lost in allegiance to the state. To a bad state, or even to one that is seeking to function well. Nationalism as in love of one’s nation is one thing, but to do so as those committed to the state’s agenda in full can easily be another. Nationalism can indeed become a sin.