"Brother Mac, how are you?" I asked that question each Sunday. Brother Mac's answer seldom varied: "By the grace of God, and a whole lot of struggling on my part, I'm doing okay." I never knew who was supposed to receive the most credit-God or Brother Mac. He had gotten into the Kingdom by God's grace, but the larger project was proving to be something of a challenge.
Let's face it. Becoming a Christian is a piece of cake when compared with being Christian. That doesn't minimize the radical change involved in becoming a Christian. But submitting one's entire life to redefinition and reconstruction is a downright Herculean task. Anyone who ignores the magnitude of what is required shouldn't even bother getting started (Luke 14:28-30).
No one can accuse Jesus of "bait and switch." He almost lost all His followers for indelicately spelling out the requirements of discipleship. At that point, few would have invested in His future (John 6:60-69).
The New Testament has much to say about how one enters the kingdom of God. But it says even more about the rigorous and unending process of bringing one's entire existence under Christ's lordship. It allows absolutely no provision for making "entrance" the "terminus" (Philippians 3:7-16). Every pulse of human life is subject to reconstruction by the Holy Spirit. Every parcel of human real estate must be surveyed by its new owner, turned over to Him for "site preparation," and then left to His architectural designs. "Prepare your minds for action," Peter tells us (1 Peter 1:13).
But for the grace of God and the power of the Holy Spirit, the magnitude of the project would provoke despair. In the Gospel of Mark Jesus calls His disciples to be with Him and share His work (Mark 3:14-15). But He also sternly warns against carelessness (13:32-37) and lethargy (14:37-39).
Some dimensions of life are more easily submitted to reconstruction than others. Some are monumentally demanding, often because of their complexity, and because we tend to overlook their importance. Nationalism is a pointed illustration.
For many Christians, nationalism is a subversive and yet unrecognized threat to discipleship. It matches both of the previous descriptions: complex and easily overlooked. Mentioning nationalism as a threat needing attention is enough to make some folk shoot the messenger.
What is Nationalism?
What is nationalism? Its precise origin is disputed. Historian Jacques Barzun (From Dawn to Decadence) thinks nationalism arose in the wake of the destructive wars of religion that followed the 16th century Protestant Reformation in Europe. Those conflicts hastened the 17th century Monarchial Revolution characterized by the two-fold idea of "monarch-and-nation." Its goal was stability and peace.
The idea guiding the rise of nationalism was that of a politically and geographically definable and stable (sovereign) territory. "Nation" contains a population essentially similar-ethnically, religiously or politically. Nationalism originally included a single source of authority-a monarch.
Slowly, for some nation-states, the monarch as the source of authority was either replaced by "the consent of the governed" or its authority was constitutionally modified. Modern forms of "democracy" and "nationalism" became partners. Rather than a nation's population being "subjects" of a monarch, they became "franchised citizens" who bore responsibility for their nation's well being-domestic and foreign. This included such things as a centralized government, preserving civil order, educating the young, and defending geographical borders.
As an historical development, nationalism is neither good nor bad. It is simply the social and political structure in which many Christians live.
The Christian and the Nation-state
What should a Christian's disposition toward a modern democratic nation state be' The New Testament doesn't offer an unambiguous answer. Should Christians view nation-states as their enemy-the "mother of prostitutes and of the abominations of the earth" (Revelation 17:5)? Or should they assess them positively as institutions ordained by God (Romans 13:1-5) to which Christians should be "subject" (Titus 3:1-2, 1 Peter 2:13-17)? The context of each text requires careful examination.
While the New Testament has much to teach us, we should not expect to find there a detailed road map for modern political life. There are vast differences between the first century political context and our lives as franchised citizens in modern democratic states.
Christians who are citizens of modern democracies have a stake in civil order that characterized only the elite in the first century. The Apostle Paul was a Roman citizen, and there might have been other Christians who were, but Rome was a totalitarian political regime. It made provision for taxation, but not for voting booths. Paul had "rights," but the burden of the state did not rest on him as it does upon many of us. As franchised citizens, we have responsibilities and privileges neither Paul nor Peter ever imagined.
Most Christians living in modern democratic states believe it their Christian duty to shoulder their share of responsibility for establishing and cultivating social structures. This includes voting and paying taxes, serving as police officers, prison guards, judges, and teachers. But doing so makes it impossible to apply Jesus' "Sermon on the Mount" (Matthew 5-7) to sociopolitical existence consistently. That was never intended anyway.
In that sermon, Jesus fulfills expectations that the Messiah would definitively interpret the Torah (the Law). To provide a blueprint for a secular state was not His purpose. Citizenship in a democratic state is a creative project of Christian discipleship, not a strict biblical recipe to be followed.
However, the Bible does make one thing absolutely clear. No human structures or institutions are to be assigned divine importance. Diligence must be exercised to make sure it doesn't happen. This is clearly a warning against idolatry. The New Testament declares that Christians have citizenship in a Kingdom that makes all other kingdoms and forms of citizenship secondary. All the kingdoms of this world will become "the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he will reign for ever and ever" (Revelation 11:15).
That claim was made against the backdrop of a dazzling empire that applied those claims to itself. The Apostle Paul tells us that in the end, Christ will put every earthly kingdom under His rule. The kingdom of God-the kingdom of righteousness-not earthly dominions, is sovereign (1 Corinthians 15:20-28). So, Christians are to live as persons who recognize that their primary citizenship is in the kingdom of God (1 Peter 2:9-12). All values, loyalties, and participations are superseded by that citizenship.
But sometimes many of us lose our way. In the process of rightfully taking seriously our responsibilities as franchised citizens, we begin to assign importance to our earthly nations and party affiliations that should be given to God alone. We can even marginalize other Christians who are not of our own nation or political party. Like the servants Jesus described in Matthew 21:33-45, we forget to whom we belong and to whom the kingdoms of this world belong. We begin to act as though they are eternal-and ours.
The most subtle temptations to idolatry arise from the most legitimate things-family, employment, human sexuality. God once used a bronze serpent attached to a pole as a means for delivering the children of Israel from poisonous serpents (Numbers 21:4-9). In time, King Hezekiah recognized that the people had begun worshiping the serpent. He ordered it destroyed (2 Kings 18:4). We begin to confront idolatry only as we begin to recognize its subtle and subversive presence among us.
It was not difficult for John on Patmos at the end of the first century to recognize Rome's idolatry of itself, calling it the "mother of prostitutes and the abominations of the earth" (Revelation 17:5). He had very little invested in that empire. But fast forward to 410 A.D. after Christianity has become the official religion of the Empire. Word reaches St. Jerome-translator of the Bible into Latin-in Bethlehem, that Alaric has sacked Rome.
Jerome responds, "My voice sticks in my throat| and, as I dictate, sobs choke my utterance. The City which had taken the whole world was itself taken." He can even compare the sacking of Rome to the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians! Two Christians, two radically different assessments. John could never have treated Rome as an idol. Jerome could have been so tempted. In Nazi Germany many Christians adopted the slogan: "Germany the ends, Christ the means."
For many of us, no greater temptation to idolatry exists than the temptation to make a golden image of nation and political party. It is time for a great revival, a revival of the sovereignty of God and of memory, of remembering that "here we do not have an enduring city, but we are looking for the city that is to come" (Hebrews 13:14). The architect and builder of that city is God (11:10).
Maybe it's time to call in Brother Mac.
Al Truesdale is emeritus professor of philosophy of religion and Christian ethics, Nazarene Theological Seminary.
Remember . . .
- No human structures or institutions are to be assigned divine importance.
- No one can accuse Jesus of "bait and switch."
- We begin to confront idolatry only as we begin to recognize its presence among us.
- We can even marginalize other Christians who are not of our own nation or political party.
- Every parcel of human real estate must be surveyed by its new owner, turned over to him for "site preparation," and then left to his architectural designs.
- To provide a blue print for a secular state was not Jesus' purpose.
Holiness Today, September/October 2010