Elections and Idolatry
Placing National Elections in Theological and Historical Perspective
Author: John C. Nugent
Christians in America are all too often drawn into the nationalistic rhetoric that permeates election seasons to such an extent that they stray from the biblical vision of church and state. This essay was developed as a three-part blog series immediately before the 2012 presidential election. It informs Christians of the disturbing religious dimensions of nationalism, the history of the state's domestication of the church, and the biblical basis for the proper relationship between Church and state.
Part One: Nationalism, Elections, and Idolatry
I have been reluctant to vote in national elections for as long as I can remember. My reasons were not novel or profound: I was paralyzed by the poor options, I didn't want to invest the time it would require to make an informed choice, I didn't want to encourage politicians who already had an over-inflated sense of self-importance, and I wanted to combat the notion that the only or best way to be politically involved is to dedicate 15 minutes every once in a while to checking boxes. This time, however, my reasons are a bit different. After the third presidential debate I began to wonder whether voting for either of the two leading candidates could mean unwittingly participating in idolatry.
Let me explain—but you will have to be patient. To understand my position, you need to wade through some technical material. The payoff, I believe, is worth it. I was recently asked to write an article on the subject of "nation and nationalism" for the Oxford Encyclopedia of Bible and Ethics. My intention with this project was to restrain my strongest convictions about the subject and to state the facts as objectively as possible. I realized that an encyclopedia is no place for sermonic rants. For me this would be difficult; my first book focused on God's approach to politics in Scripture, which changed the way I look at politics. But I knew it would be a helpful exercise.
To curb my passions I thought it best to begin not with the familiar stable of go-to theologians, but with nationalism scholars who write for broader audiences. My findings surprised me, to say the least. They also had the exact opposite effect of what I originally expected.
Modernist Approaches to Nationalism
The first thing that the nationalism literature taught me was that a seismic shift is happening within nationalism studies. For quite some time, the modernist school reigned supreme in the field. As the name suggests, this school holds that the nation was the invention of modernity. Its proponents claim that there have always been "states," by which they mean political entities with some form of government over a group of people that reserve the exclusive right to use force to keep order within their realm. The nation or nation-state is something fundamentally different. It affirms that some kind of bond inherently unites a specific group of people and entitles them to shared rule over a specific territory.
A nation, properly speaking, does not belong to an elite family. It belongs to the people themselves. Before there were nations, kings ruled over territories with the help of hand-picked elite warriors and administrators. Commoners did not give their lives for their countries; the king's favored ones gained prestige by working for the king and keeping his reign secure. The masses did not identify with the king or his realm. They learned to make a living for themselves under the conditions imposed upon them by those who happened to be in charge at the moment.
As the modernist tale goes, industrialization, the printing press, and the breakdown of imperial religion created within the people a sense of having outgrown the confines of the old state pattern. Increased literacy and the rapid spread of ideas made it possible for people to develop an immediate sense of camaraderie that was larger than their local clan or family unit and qualitatively different from the king's shifting realm. Realizing this, according to the modernist account, certain elite persons commandeered the ethnic, linguistic, and cultural resources of specific territories and forged the notion that a certain people exists within a certain land with innate commonalities that unite them and entitle them to shared rule over their land. Since religion was part of the imperial glue that kept former states together and because it had led to excessive warring, some nations sought to establish themselves on the notion of religious neutrality. So they kicked religion out of the political sphere where they believed it did not belong.
In sum, the modernist account holds that nation-states emerged at the same time as modernity and that they delivered Europe from deadly religious wars and outdated monarchical forms of rule. The emerging concept of the nation rescued the state from monarchy and religion and made possible a more humane way of life for all.
In recent decades, the modernist paradigm began to shift. Nationalism scholars began questioning many of its basic tenets. The timing was called into question, the causes were called into question and, most significantly for my purposes, the role of religion was called into question. In particular, they have recognized that nationalism itself is highly religious. It has become a new public religion that has filled the void left by traditional religions, which in turn have accepted demotion to the private sector. To achieve this new sacred status, nations have parasitically drawn from the Christian faith. In other words, the early founders of nation-states kicked authentic Christian faith to the curb and used overtly religious resources to create an alternative national religion.
Let me be clear at this point. I am not here giving my unique revisionist spin on the founding of nation-states. I am summarizing what nationalism scholars themselves have been saying as they survey the historical data and connect the sociological dots. Take, for instance, Adrian Hasting (The Construction of Nationalism, 1997). He observes that nation builders pillaged religion for seven specific resources. Here I will discuss four that are perhaps most salient (omitting the social function of clergy, the spread of printed vernacular, and autonomous state religion).
First, they borrowed the notion of a sanctified starting point. Israel and the church could point to a sacred founding event, like the call of Abraham, the Exodus from Egypt, or the death of Jesus. In the same way, nations identified particular founding events and imbued them with a sacred providential aura. Only an act of God could account for their extraordinary yet humble origins.
Second, they learned from the great religions to mythologize and commemorate great threats to their national identity. Christians can point to Egyptian enslavement, various destructions of Jerusalem, or to the martyrdoms of Jesus, his apostles, and the early church as fundamentally shaping their identity. It has long been acknowledged that the church was founded on the blood of the martyrs. Seeing the powerful unity of a common legacy of martyrs, nation-builders were keen to identify and commemorate with national holidays and monuments those who gave their lives so that all citizens might enjoy the benefits of nationhood.
Third, nation-builders drew upon Scripture for their model of what a nation could look like. Old Testament Israel, as they understood it, embodied much of what they wanted for their nations. The Israelites had a sense of entitlement to a specific territory rather than a constantly expanding or retracting borderless realm. Israel had a sense of ethnic identity that connected them to their property as well as their own set of laws. Perhaps most importantly, every citizen in Israel had a sense of belonging, even ownership of their kingdom. The king did not own the territory; God did, and he bequeathed it to all the people. The king came from the people and was expected to rule according to a common set of laws to which he was also subject.
Fourth, nation-builders learned from Jewish/Christian religion that a sense of unique national destiny provides powerful cohesion for a people. For this reason, they sought to identify a particular national destiny for themselves—even better if, like Israel and the church, they could link their unique destiny to God's providential role in guiding world history toward its intended end. They therefore linked the prosperity of their nation to the best interests of all nations. People will kill and die for their nation if they understand their "political" commitment to the nation as a necessary counterpart to their "religious" commitment to God's purposes in this world.
Hasting's striking summary is worth quoting at length: "Once a Christian history has been constructed for a nation from the baptism of a first king and on through great deliverances . . . once the Bible is meditated upon in one's own language with all the immediacy this could bring, once one's own church is fully independent of any other and identified in extent with that of that nation, the more it seems easy to go the final step and claim to be a chosen people, a holy nation, with some special divine mission to fulfill. The Old Testament provided the paradigm. Nation after nation applied it to themselves, reinforcing their identity in the process" (196).
Hasting is not alone in his account of nationalism. The foremost nationalism scholar in our day, Anthony Smith, acknowledges this religious turn by identifying nationalism itself as the religion of the people (Chosen Peoples, 2003). In his estimation, religion provides four sacred foundations—very similar to Hasting's—for nations and nationalism. First, it provides the notion of a community of chosen people. Second, it provides a holy land in which people dwell. Third, it recognizes a golden age that preceded a specific decline that justifies the nationalist reaction that ensued. Fourth, and finally, it furnishes an account of personal sacrifice by national patriots that reinforces the nation's sacred identity. According to Smith, nations sift, reinterpret, and synthesize various elements of religious and ethnic communities in order to cast themselves as the fulfillment of some sort of salvation narrative.
Hasting and Smith are not theologians, ethicists, or exegetes. They are not writing for Christian audiences in order to move them toward any sort of action. They are historians and sociologists. They are writing to fellow historians and sociologists in order to discern where nations came from and where they fit in the wider global historical picture. They are not ashamed of what they have discovered. It does not offend them that nation-builders would overtly co-opt the biblical story and the unique soteriological role of God's people within it. This is history to them. Nations and states have always done this sort of thing.
Why Should Christians Care?
Can followers of Jesus be so neutral? Should it be acceptable to us that nations would usurp the biblical narrative and insert themselves into it? Christians proclaim that Christ alone is Lord, that Christ alone is the hope of the nations, and that Christ's body does not take the form of a single state or nation that is geographically, ethnically, or culturally confined. Christ's body, the church, is a transterritorial, transethnic, and transcultural community. As such it is properly positioned to be a blessing to all nations.
It is only after stripping God's people of their former provincial status as a geographically bound ethnic enclave, which God began doing with the collapse of Israel's monarchy and completed with the work of Christ, that God was able to propel them into global mission by the power of God's Spirit. Under Christ's global reign, states of all stripes have a role of serving particular territories and maintaining a basic level of order and stability. But that is the extent of their jurisdiction. They do not carry out God's saving purposes in this world; they carry out the necessary task of old world maintenance. They are like giant utility companies that provide an important service on behalf of the local community. They don't represent God's kingdom, the new era in world history that was ushered in by the Messiah of Israel. Only the church has been divinely called and equipped to bear witness to God's kingdom. Nation-states are part of the old order that is passing away. Only by Christ's power and Spirit can the new era break into world history. When they are at their best, the nations of the world keep relative peace so God's people can go about their work of spreading the good news of God's inbreaking kingdom. The most significant movement in world history is carried forth by the work of God's people among all nations, not the achievement of any single nation.
It is not hard to find evidence that America has been particularly susceptible to nationalistic idolatry. Take, for example, David Gelernter's recent book Americanism: The Fourth Great Western Religion. Gelernter unashamedly professes faith in the religion of Americanism. Bill Bennett praises his book, saying, "David Gelernter is a national treasure, a patriot-scholar. In Americanism, he explains what America is to him—an idea, a belief, a religion. The City on a Hill has no greater or more powerful an advocate." This endorsement, with its deliberate appropriation of biblical language, is as eerily disturbing as the book itself.
It would be one thing if this position were a marginal one advocated only by fringe groups with little public influence, but it is not, which leads to the point of this essay. In the third presidential debate, Barak Obama claimed that America was "the one indispensable nation." What could this mean, except that either God is not in charge of the nations or that God would not be able to run this world without America's help? This is not just a statement about America; it is a statement about God. Not wishing to be outdone, Mitt Romney, the president's rival, claimed that America was "the hope of the earth."
If these candidates hope to position America as the one indispensable hope of the earth, then they are not running for president, they are revolting against the lordship of Jesus and striving to usurp his position as Messiah. Has it gotten to the point that American citizens are no longer free to vote for a "president" and can only vote for a messiah? How can a Christian vote for that?
Part Two: Answering a Fundamental Objection
In part one, I expressed my increasing discomfort with voting in certain elections. I grounded this discomfort in my growing awareness of the nature of nationalism and its idolatrous pretentions. American nationalists are not content to view America as Scripture does—as one among many powers and principalities that God uses to keep a basic level of order within a defined geographic region. Recent debate rhetoric from President Obama and his challenger, Mitt Romney, provide ample evidence for this. Their bold language is not unique to debate rhetoric. They have spoken this way on multiple occasions. Nor are these men unique in mooching off of the specific status that God accords his people and his Son in Scripture. In his 2003 State of the Union address, George W. Bush claimed that “there's power, wonder-working power, in the goodness and idealism and faith of the American people.” This is an obvious allusion to the Christian hymn, “There is Power in the Blood,” which is speaking about the blood of Jesus.
In Scripture, there are many ways to commit idolatry. The most obvious is to worship a god different from the God we know in Jesus. Another way is to worship the Christian God the same way pagans worship their gods. A third way is to use the God of Scripture to serve one’s own purposes. To do so is to bring God down to our own level or attempt to manipulate him just like the Canaanites did with Baal and Asherah. If nationalism (in the strongest sense of the term) amounts to idolatry, and if the leading candidates for the presidency are self-identifying as nationalists, then why would Christians want to participate in nominating an idolater? Such was the logic of part one.
I can hear the objection now: these candidates are not talking about religious salvation or spiritual hope; they are merely talking about politics. They would never suggest that Christians forsake their faith in order to be good patriots. Yet this objection presumes the nationalist lie that Christian faith is concerned primarily with one’s spiritual life—that is, one’s beliefs about deity, afterlife, personal morality, and inner life transformation. Nationalists claim to care only about public matters like economics, education, judicial affairs, national defense, and international relations. John Locke, whose political and philosophical writings are often credited for many of the ideas contained within the U.S. Constitution and Declaration of Independence, sets forth this framework in his famous "Letter Concerning Toleration." Repeatedly he asserts that the church should focus only on people's souls and the nation should focus on the public life of the commonwealth.
The problem with this division between spiritual and public concerns is that biblical faith unites the two. What God has brought together, humans over the course of history have sought to separate. Ignorance of this history has led many people to misunderstand the nature and role of God’s people, the proper shape of their witness, and the specific ways they should and should not relate to the states in which they live. Another historical overview is therefore in order, beginning with Scripture, moving through church history, and culminating in contemporary nationalism. In essence, we will be zooming out and locating the phenomenon of nationalism within its wider historical framework. This task may seem overly academic to some, but it is necessary. American Christians all too often go back to the founding of America in order to establish their political bearings, when we must go back to God’s founding of Israel and the church.
A Chronicle of Unlawful Separation
In Scripture, God is forming a distinct people whose life together is ordered both by genuine spirituality and a vision of economics, education, justice, and security that stands in sharp contrast to that of world empires. Biblically speaking, Christian faith is an all-encompassing worldview that relegates the state to the margins of the forward movement of world history. What nationalism scholars have taught us is that nationalism, too, is an all-encompassing worldview—only it seeks to relegate faith to the margins of the forward movement of world history. Who gets to relegate whom? The one who relegates the other is the true religion.
For the church to accept relegation to the margins is to reverse the direction of world history as the Bible sees it. Before God called Abraham to form a people, the states and empires of the world integrated all aspects of human life under the corrupt umbrella of self-glorifying kings. Under their jurisdiction, a minority of the people enjoyed the majority of resources. The masses were forced to battle over what little was left behind. In the Old Testament, God’s people are called to be a separate and alternative political entity to that of surrounding empires. It was clear to the Israelites that the Egypts and Babylons of this world stood at cross purposes with God’s vision of human flourishing. It was also clear to them that God called them out of world empires so they could forge an alternative all-encompassing politics that reflects God’s vision. God did not do so in order to play favorites, but to properly position Israel to be a blessing to the world.
In the New Testament, God’s people continued to be a separate and alternative political entity. A noteworthy development, however, is that they are called to do so only as a trans-territorial entity. They were no longer centralized in Palestine. They were a nation without borders. This had to be in order for them to serve and represent God’s global reign. Jesus completed the formation of God’s people, toppled the walls that divided different ethnic groups, empowered them by his Spirit, and sent them into the world as aliens and strangers whose citizenship is in heaven. Jesus did so in order that the separate life to which he called his followers would be visible in every city, state, and empire of the world. Worldly forms of governance continued to be the foil to God’s people, and God’s people continued to see themselves as offering a superior all-encompassing politics. Leading Bible scholars from all over the theological spectrum have been gravitating toward this sort of interpretation for several decades now. If this is news to you, it is probably time to catch up.
Throughout history, various world rulers have observed and appreciated the strength of the biblical vision. They especially admired (and eventually coveted) the sacrificial commitment of God’s people to live and die for their faith. Beginning in the fourth century, the Roman Empire gradually donned the Christian mantle by overtly claiming to be Christian and by acclimating specific Christian practices to imperial life. The empire itself did not convert to Christian faith, which would have required it to adopt God’s economic, judicial, social, and spiritual vision. This never truly happened. Rather—and this is important—what pagan gods formerly did for the empire, the God of Scripture was now "privileged" to do. The emperor called upon God to grant him victory in battle, to legitimate his reign in the eyes of his subjects, to decorate his coinage, to offer transcendent hope when things look bleak, to furnish a system of sacred days and seasons to order the imperial calendar and channel the people’s religious fervor, and to supply a priestly caste that would officiate at important public and private ceremonies. Of course, the emperor would also have to tweak his empire in specific ways to maintain his image as God’s chosen king. Overtly pagan religious practices would have to stop. Pagan shrines would have to be replaced by Christian ones. Certain laws that don’t detract from the emperor’s agenda or diminish his power would have to be adapted to fit the masses' newfound religious scruples.
Though sixteenth-century Radical Reformers rejected the church-empire merger with its domestication of Christian faith, the Magisterial Reformers repackaged it in different ways. Martin Luther sought to purify the church by separating religious practices from those of the state. Whereas this had the positive effect of purifying certain religious practices, it nonetheless perpetuated the notion that political, economic, and judicial affairs were concerns of statecraft and not church witness. Luther also encouraged Christians to remain active in state governance, albeit not utilizing the specific resources of Christian faith and Scripture, but drawing upon the generic resources of natural law. John Calvin’s approach was slightly different. He advocated a structure similar to Luther insofar as he acknowledged two kingdoms that are governed by two different sets of standards. However, Calvin distrusted natural law. So he encouraged Christians to govern the public sphere using the Old Testament and the private sphere using the New Testament.
The political experiments of the Magisterial Reformers would have been more interesting had the Old Testament or natural law been interpreted as saying something significantly different from what Roman emperors were inclined to think anyway. But they weren't. It all amounted to human reason, so the political fallout was the same. Governing officials continued ruling the world by human standards in God’s name, and the specifics of Christian faith were relegated to the private sphere. The radical political, economic, judicial, and social impact of the gospel was ignored. The people God commissioned to serve the nations by exemplifying his alternative politics chose, instead, to rule over the nations with principles much like their own. The Christian difference was reduced to theology, personal ethics, and ceremonial practices.
The rise of modern nation-states did not fundamentally change things. They continue to marginalize specifically Christian language and practices from the public sphere and they continue to govern economic, judicial, and social matters according to human reason. Realizing the divisive effects of “religion,” however, they are less inclined to allow overtly religious principles to dictate their political structures and policies. As John Locke puts it in his Letter Concerning Toleration, “The only business of the Church is the Salvation of Souls.” God gives humans collective wisdom to determine what is best for public life and he gives them religion to guide their private lives. This does not stop them, as noted above, from attributing religious significance to the collective identity of their nations. Nation-states may not be “religious” entities, but they came into being by God’s providential hand in order to carry out a specific divine calling that requires religious devotion on the part of their citizens. They may not be carrying out Israel or the church’s spiritual commission, but their existence and mission are equally God’s work. As such, they are just as comfortable as the Roman Emperors calling upon God to grant them victory in battle, decorate their coinage, offer transcendent hope, provide a channel for religious fervor, and supply a priestly caste for public and private ceremonies.
How Could Christians Let This Happen?
This survey clarifies how the western world got to the point when a nation may exercise messianic sovereignty over the public sphere while granting Jesus jurisdiction over people’s private lives. Yet, as noted above, this is a far cry from the biblical vision. Scripture is quite clear that Jesus is Lord over every aspect of the lives of all people everywhere. It is also clear that he has called his followers to bear witness to his comprehensive reign by the comprehensive witness of their life together. Nonetheless, many God-fearing Christians have bought into the nationalist lie that nation-states may receive religious accolades and devotion in public matters as long as they give Jesus full reign over people’s private lives. They do not do so, it is important to note, because they wish to intentionally dabble in idolatry. Nor do they do so because Scripture recommends it. They do so because they have inherited from well-intending Christian teachers a faulty mindset that is rooted in the fourth-century merger of church and state. The public dimensions of biblical faith have been domesticated for so long that it seems natural to the most faithful Christian to believe, contrary to Scripture, that God has always willed it to be this way.
Compounding this problem is that several brilliant noteworthy theologians have also been duped and have supported their faulty view with creative exegetical and logical arguments. How could this happen? A definitive answer cannot be given. Different explanations are appropriate to different persons. It is worth acknowledging, however, that when it comes to social issues, it has been difficult for Christians to imagine that things should be any different than they are. After all, with clean consciences, their most faithful forebears have always believed and acted as such. One need only point to the substandard treatment of women and slaves by God-fearing Christians in America—with the full support of leading theologians. Such treatment goes back to the earliest centuries of the church. How could that be? There are a variety of explanations that space does not allow me to pursue right now, but who can deny it? Sometimes the most humble people and God-fearing and insightful theologians simply miss the mark on an issue that seems rather simple in retrospect.
Toward a Solution
I have taken the time to sketch this history because how we got to where we are has everything to do with how we should move forward. Many have recognized that the church is an inherently political institution. Yet there are many paths forward from this recognition. Some seek to retrieve the church’s political nature by tracing our steps back to the modern separation of church and state. They are fond of highlighting that those who advocated separation nonetheless allowed their faith to heavily influence their politics. Such was the case because many who advocated the separation were Christians, and they did so in the interest of spiritual or ecclesial reformation. The separation therefore had a Christian feel. It was difficult to imagine not moving forward in a Christian sort of way. Yet when that same separation is later inherited and enforced by unbelievers, the outcome is quite different. A similar thing happened with the Reformation. Luther could advocate that the state be guided by natural law and be quite pleased with the results because most state functionaries would be Christians and their convictions about what is natural were deeply informed by Christians faith. But later, as nonbelievers begin occupying state posts, what appears to be natural doesn’t seem so Christian anymore.
This has placed Christians who desire to express their faith publicly in an awkward position. They must attempt to reverse a trajectory that their forebears set into motion without realizing how it would eventually backfire. They are right to emphasize how Christian many of America’s forefathers were, but they are wrong to insist that they didn’t mean what they said when they advocated a separation of church and state. They actually created the most “secular” nation imaginable at the time. They just couldn’t imagine that a separate state would ever begin reasoning in ways that were not deeply Christian. It seems to some as if there are only three ways forward: to reverse this separation, to inundate wider society with Christian convictions until they begin to seem natural again, or to strategically infiltrate the upper echelons of public decision-making and to legislate Christian convictions back into public practice. All three of these options seem highly unlikely, although the third may have occasional success in places where Christians still enjoy a comfortable majority.
These approaches are highly problematic, however, because they strive to exercise public influence in ways that are alien to the biblical story. The problematic turning point—away from the biblical vision—is not the modern separation of church and state or the Reformation separation of church and empire. The problematic turning point, although it had earlier roots, is when God’s people decided in the fourth century that their holistic witness to God’s all-encompassing reign could be grafted into the provincial reign of any state. The way forward is therefore not to recover a power that the church may have gained temporarily when it found a way to ally with the empires and states of this world, but to recover a sense of what it meant to have an all-encompassing witness before the Roman Empire began courting the church. Of course, we cannot exactly stuff the cat back in the bag either. There is no retreating to a pristine pre-Christian world; there is only imagining what an unyoked holistic witness might look like in a post-Christian world.
This prospect need not be frightening. Paul’s teaching on marriage to the Christians in Corinth is instructive. Paul is quite clear, in 1 Corinthians 7, that not marrying has advantages for service to the Lord. Those who are married are concerned with everyday family affairs that need not monopolize the time, energy, and resources of God’s people. Moreover, if one must marry, one may only marry a believer. Elsewise, those everyday affairs may become a deterrent, since one’s unbelieving spouse will not want to order family life according to God’s kingdom. Still, Paul acknowledges that, in their ignorance, people may have found themselves married to an unbeliever, whom they would never have married had they known they would soon commit to the Lord. In such cases, Paul encourages believers to hang in the marriage in order to be a witness as long as they can. Once released by the unbelieving spouse, however, they are free to move forward in single-minded devotion to the Lord. They should not insist upon staying together since God has called them to a peaceful witness (vs. 15).
The church should never have wed itself to the state—yet it did. If there were ever a time when it was appropriate for the church to remain in this marriage for the sake of witness, that time is clearly over. The state in the western world has effectively divorced the church. Now that God’s people are free and still in the relatively good graces of their former mate, the church is in an ideal position to explore what unhindered devotion to its all-encompassing worldview might look like. America has placed few restrictions on the church’s life together. We should not waste that freedom trying to engineer our way back into the illicit alliance. We should use our freedom to explore what God has been calling to us be and do since the beginning. Should the church refuse to let go, should we beg and nag the state to take us back, we might find the state escalating its efforts to send us away. This could lead to bitter blood and greater restrictions on the church’s freedom to be itself.
Furthermore, if the state wants to be the state without the help of the church, then part of the church’s witness is to exhort state representatives to stop co-opting the church’s language to serve state purposes. If the church cannot have it both ways, then neither can the state. As the church renews its identity as God’s set apart chosen people, it must therefore remind the state that it no longer possesses grounds for making this same claim. The hope of the earth is Jesus Christ and his body is the church, not the state. This is good news for the state and its citizens. For it disabuses them of the notion that they will ever find salvation by staring down the edge of the sword, the barrel of a gun, or the face of a ballot.
Part Three: The Power of a Priestly Kingdom
In parts 1 and 2 of this blog series I have sought to locate today’s presidential race in a wider historical perspective. Nationalistic rhetoric does not appear in a vacuum. It has a long and complicated history. My aim was to show that the founding of America happened in the context of burgeoning nationalistic sensibilities. These sensibilities, which have been encoded into America’s DNA, often conflict with some of the church’s core convictions. It is one thing for a nation to claim to be unique; it is another thing to claim exceptional status among the nations, as if they were God’s chosen instrument to bring hope to the wider world, whether spiritual or political.
Such language is eerily similar to Nebuchadnezzar’s dream in Daniel 4. “Upon my bed this is what I saw; there was a tree at the center of the earth, and its height was great. The tree grew great and strong, its top reached to heaven, and it was visible to the ends of the whole earth. Its foliage was beautiful, its fruit abundant, and it provided food for all. The animals of the field found shade under it, the birds of the air nested in its branches, and from it all living beings were fed” (vv. 10-13). Up to this point, this vision recounts Nebuchadnezzar’s view of his own kingdom, the sixth-century Babylonian empire. It certainly does not reflect the standard Jewish view (see Habakkuk 1-2). As the dream continues, he sees an angel command the tree to be cut down, the animals to flee, and the remaining stump to be reduced to animal-like status. The purpose of this leveling is stated in verse 17: “in order that all who live may know that the Most High is sovereign over the kingdom of mortals; he gives it to whom he will and sets over it the lowliest of human beings.” As Daniel interprets the dream he makes clear that Nebuchadnezzar is the stump who will be felled, but only for a short time. He will be restored to the more modest position that God had in mind for him, but only after he has learned that “Heaven is sovereign” (vs. 26).
Nebuchadnezzar has to be humbled not because he worshipped false gods (though he did), but because he entertained the notion that his kingdom was special—he fell prey to political hubris. He began to view all other kingdoms as little birds finding shelter beneath his magnificent wings. Nebuchadnezzar failed to recognize that God alone is sovereign over the kingdoms of the earth and that God has exalted him only a short while in order to accomplish specific purposes for the truly chosen people, which was Israel. Indeed, in Daniel 7, the great empire of Babylon is properly seen as one in a string of beasts that temporarily roam the earth eventually to be replaced by others. The only everlasting kingdom, according to the book of Daniel, is that of the “saints of the Most High” (v. 27). These are the chosen people that God has formed, set apart, and appointed to show all kingdoms what the divine reign looks like.
The book of Daniel is one of many Old Testament books that place the relationship between the kingdoms of this world and God’s chosen people into proper perspective. I fear, however, that this perspective has been abandoned by many Christians in America. This is partly because the notion of God’s chosen people has been conflated with America as a nation, as if the church is the spiritual extension of God’s reign and America is the political extension. We have picked up the mantle of the Puritan “city on a hill,” informed by a lingering sense of Manifest Destiny. American Christians serve God politically by doing all that is in their power to keep America on the right track, especially by electing the right officials. They do so spiritually through active service in the church.
Responsibility and the Constantinian Cataract
For this reason, “American Christians” find it morally reprehensible for believers not to vote. If Christians don’t vote, then the right people won’t get into office, and the wrong people will steer America away from God’s divinely ordained purposes. America will become just another nation. Its favored status before God will be relinquished, and all those less worthy nations will grow in power and influence. The world will be doomed! All of this presumes a logic that is not in the least biblical, namely, that Christians are partly responsible for governing the nations. This notion of responsibility is altogether absent in Scripture.
It is worth noting that whereas the Old Testament law was filled with instruction for how the Israelites were to live, care for, and discipline one another, it gives no instruction as to how they should participate in the civic life of surrounding peoples in order to steer them in the right direction. Furthermore, whereas the prophets scolded the Israelites for a host of social and political oversights, they never rebuked them for not tending to the needs of neighboring tribes and empires. The same goes for the New Testament letters to first century churches. It simply was not on the radar of God’s people in Scripture that their divinely appointed role involved helping the various kingdoms of the world become better worldly kingdoms, Jewish kingdoms, or Christian kingdoms.
Furthermore, the notion of “responsibility” that is often invoked today presumes a certain sociological posture that is alien to the divinely mandated posture of God’s people. Many well-intentioned Christians in America have succumbed to the majoritarian logic of liberal democracy. Only people who enjoy majority status have the luxury of assuming that the best way to serve their neighbors is to use whatever top-down power levers are available in order to dictate how the masses should live, for their own good. With great democratic power comes great democratic responsibility. This is not, however, a Scriptural principle. In fact, we find the exact opposite from Jesus. In Luke 22 he redirects his misguided disciples who were angling for privileged positions of top-down power, saying, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you; rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves. For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one at the table? But I am among you as one who serves” (vv. 25-26).
The disciples wanted the power and prestige of worldly kingdoms. Jesus warns that they have set their sights too low. Gentiles have that kind of power, and they use it to rule over others while claiming to be doing what is most beneficial for them. Of course, world powers seldom do what is beneficial for the masses. That is why Jesus disarmed and made a spectacle of them (Colossians 2:13-15). He did so by allowing those who purported to be benefactors to crucify an innocent man (himself) because they were threatened by his alternative form of power. Jesus instructed and modeled this alternative for his disciples. He modeled bottom-up service, not top-down power.
If Scripture does not advocate infiltrating the political structures to exercise top-down power over the masses, then why do Christians routinely assume this “responsibility”? The historical survey in part two of this essay points to an answer. Sometime after fourth-century Roman Emperor Constantine began incorporating the church into his imperial project, Christians stopped viewing themselves as a minority group that was uniquely empowered by its Messiah to serve the world with the bottom-up resources with which he entrusted them. It started to develop what Lee Camp, author of Mere Discipleship, calls a “Constantinian cataract” (21)—a new way of seeing the church’s relationship with the world. Yet God never intervened in world history to give his people a new vision of leadership and world governance. They simply assumed that, having become a majority, they are by default responsible for using the top-down resources now at their disposal to do good.
But what if the servant posture Jesus instructed his people to assume was not simply a temporary posture appropriate to the subordinate position they occupied in the first century? What if it was intrinsic to the nature of the unique mission of God’s people? If this could be demonstrated biblically, then having the opportunity to exercise top-down power would not automatically translate into being responsible for exercising such power. Instead, it would be a temptation to be resisted, akin to the temptation Jesus rejected in the wilderness, when the devil offered him control of the kingdoms of this world without having to serve it to the point of death, and in the garden, when he faced the temptation to resist those who were coming to arrest him—perhaps with righteous revolutionary violence—rather than submit to God’s will, God’s way.
Service and the Biblical Mission
A survey of the Bible story reveals that a servant posture, distinct from the nations, is what God always willed for Israel and the church. Here I offer a brief summary in terms of ten stages:
(1) In the beginning God creates a peaceful world in which humans live in harmony with God, one another, and nonhuman creation. Had humans never fallen into sin, the sword-backed state and other forms of domineering leadership would never have been necessary for maintaining order and justice. Unfortunately, the earliest humans use their freedom to assert their autonomy over and against God’s will, which leads to their fall from created harmony. Soon after, Cain murders his innocent brother Abel. This lays the foundation for fallen civilization with its vengeance-based state, fear-based society, and unnatural culture. God graciously uses the fear- and vengeance-based human reflexes to protect humans from one another and to maintain basic order in society.
(2) Nonetheless violence escalates upon the earth to such an extent that God is filled with grief and regrets creating humans. Rather than bring a decisive end to the created order, God washes the surface of the earth clean while preserving a remnant of all living species, including sinful humans. God reaffirms the sanctity of life by placing all bloodshed under divine jurisdiction and by covenanting with creation never to destroy it again. In so doing, God accepts the burden to find some way to guide creation and deal with sin other than to destroy it.
(3) God's solution is to call Abraham out of the heart of Babylon, with its advanced civilization, to become the progenitor of a peculiar people with a particular way of being in the world so that God may use them to bless all nations. Trust in God alone is the test of Abraham’s faithfulness and the foundation for the peculiar people that God is forming through him. Since his descendants needed to multiply in number without losing their distinct identity and because the residents of Canaan were not ready for divine judgment, God relocates Abraham’s descendants to Egypt where they are eventually enslaved.
(4) Though Egypt is an ideal place to grow in number, it proves an unfit place for Abraham’s descendants to order their lives according to God’s intentions. God therefore calls them out of the high civilization of Egypt and into the particular way of life set forth in Torah. Notice that God does not use the Israelites to take over Egypt and then use its vast imperially resources to do good, which some might consider the "responsible" thing to do. Instead, God delivers the Israelites without their help and instills in them a set of laws that must govern their life together. In so doing, God is forming a people that must depend on their Lord alone for their deliverance, security, and way of life. God is making them an exemplary people whose specific way of life may be used to bless all nations.
(5) After forging a covenantal relationship with Israel, God leads them into the land of Canaan—a land where no truly great empire has ever thrived—and begins to order their lives according to Torah. To make them a witness against the economic oppression and violent nature of empires, God establishes Israel without typical centralized leadership and a standing army. Instead, God reins over them directly through a plurality of decentralized offices and sustains them with the phenomenon of Yahweh war—a unique form of warfare that relies on God’s strength for victory and not strategic alliances and human military prowess. Without the egocentric aims of a human king, the Israelites would be better positioned to order their lives according to the radical economic, social, judicial, and political vision of Torah.
(6) Shortly after occupying the land, the Israelites forsake the covenant by abandoning Torah. So God stops blessing and protecting them, which leaves them vulnerable to attacks from neighboring tribes. Yet God does not abandon them altogether. Through mighty judges God gives them a taste of what long-term deliverance might look like should they renew the covenant. Rather than do so, the Israelites rebel and request a king like the nations around them. This decision launches a tragic detour in the life of God’s people. In choosing a king they essentially renounce Yahweh war, Yahweh’s kingship, and Yahweh’s law. In failing to trust God alone, they reject God’s strategy for forming them to be a blessing to the nations.
(7) Israel’s kings are at their best when they rely on God and at their worst when they rely on their own strength. Overall, the kingship lives up to God’s negative expectations for it and the prophets disparage it. They do not, however, forsake the concept of kingship altogether. In visions of future hope, they depict a truly faithful king who adheres to Torah and whose rule reflects God’s reign. Isaiah goes further than any prophet in remolding the notion of kingship to reflect the kind of posture God always desired for Israel: that of a lowly servant with universal significance (Isaiah 42, 49, 50, 52, 53).
(8) Though Israel’s historians narrate the monarchy in diverse ways, the cumulative canonical effect is a trajectory leading to monarchy’s collapse. Through Jeremiah, God calls the Israelites out of their self-imposed monarchical cul-de-sac and into a dynamic new scattered posture that is conducive to blessing the nations. This scattering is not a temporary hiatus from monarchy but a long-term arrangement that calls for a permanent change in Israel’s self-understanding and paves the way for the impending messianic mission. As strangers in strange lands, they must depend on God alone for their well-being and survival.
(9) God is not, however, finished with Jerusalem. He had chosen this city and its people as the launching point for the forthcoming messianic mission. To prepare them for this, God sends Ezra, Nehemiah, and others back from exile to reorder Israel’s life in the land as a Persian province, lacking political independence and monarchical organization. This community was like the diasporic Jewish communities insofar as it lacked political independence and had to order its life according to Torah under the conditions of foreign occupation.
(10) The ministry of Jesus and witness of first century congregations continue the Old Testament trajectory mapped out by Isaiah, Jeremiah, and the diasporic communities. In all their novelty, they make no attempt to reestablish anything like Israel’s kingship of old. Rather they proclaim a king, kingdom, and Christian community that stand in fundamental continuity with Old Testament strands that push beyond the monarchy, especially the lowly servant vision. Rather than position his followers for top-down political influence in Jerusalem and then Rome, Jesus prepares them to be scattered among all nations as aliens and exiles. They are ambassadors for the kingdom of God, living among all the kingdoms of this world. They had no aspirations for running worldly kingdoms because they knew that God looked after them by various powers and principalities. These kingdoms and their rulers, according to the Apostle Paul, are destined for destruction (1 Corinthians 15:24-26). Knowing this, the early church spent all its efforts filling the world with communities dedicated to God’s kingdom—the only kingdom that will last—and inviting all people to join them in seeking it first.
If this is the basic shape of the biblical story, then God’s strategy has always been to place among the various kingdoms of this world a people who live uniquely and fully under divine dominion. The rationale behind this is not selfish. It is in the best interests of all nations that God place in their midst an alternative, independent political community that orders its life exclusively on kingdom principles. God has plenty of agents who are willing to maintain the present order. What is needed is a kingdom community that is willing to order its life even now according to the future order. That unique life is God’s offer to the world. It is God’s pilot project or demonstration plot of the future of all creation. It is the evidence that God in Jesus has changed the course of world history. When this kingdom vision is grasped, it is like a precious pearl or priceless treasure that, once discovered, leads people to forsake everything else they once owned in order to possess it. According to Jesus, Paul, John, and James, part of what is left behind includes old world notions of responsibility, effectiveness, significance, and success.
How can a set apart people that does not get entangled in civilian affairs make a positive impact on the wider world? Could God possibly be calling us to leave the world alone on its path to destruction? Of course not. God has sent us into the world to help save it. But we must ditch the simple choice between (a) making the world a better place by leveraging democratic power in which a 51% majority get to tell the 49% minority how to live, and (b) doing nothing at all to help the world. In Scripture there is an alternative model for serving the world in such a way that is in the world’s best interest, but not on the world’s terms. I will use the priesthood of Israel to illustrate this model.
After bringing the Israelites into the land of Canaan, God divided them into twelve territories according to the tribes of Israel. Ten of Jacob’s sons inherited one territory apiece, Joseph’s two sons each received one territory, and Levi’s descendants received no allotment. When it came to property, economic, justice, another other civil affairs, each non-priestly tribe was given leaders to divide up responsibility and handle its own affairs. The Levites, on the other hand, were scattered among these tribes to dwell among them in a unique capacity. They focused on studying Torah, carrying out responsibilities connected to the sacrificial system, overseeing cities of refuge, signaling when God was declaring war upon an enemy, leading various festivals, and seeking God’s guidance when their host tribe raised questions for which Torah does not provide clear answers.
These Levites bore a heavy burden. They had much work to do that only they were positioned to do. To free them up to focus on their unique responsibilities, God excused them from tending to the everyday affairs of their host tribes. The Levites were not a part of governing the towns of their host tribes; the elders did that. They did not settle judicial disputes; the tribal judges did that. They did not go to war when their host tribes’ boundaries were threatened, nor did they execute capital offenders. There were many aspects of their host tribes’ life that they did not get involved in—they had to trust that God would meet such needs without their help.
Their relative disconnection from tribal life was not purely negative. Since they were not fighting Israel’s wars, they were able to impartially discern God’s will as to whether a given war was divinely sanctioned. Since they were not the judges, juries, and executioners for criminal cases, they were able to extend hospitality to killers who sought sanctuary in their cities of refuge until the tribe’s officials could determine innocence or guilt. Because they did not enforce tribal laws and were not closely related to the accused, they were objective enough to take ambiguous cases before God for a definitive ruling. Because they had no official territory of their own, they could help settle boundary disputes. Lastly, since the land on which they lived was not truly theirs, they felt free to leave it for extended periods of time in order to serve at the tabernacle.
One would be hard-pressed to accuse the Levites of being irresponsible for not seeking to involve themselves in the everyday affairs necessary for non-priestly tribe governance. It would indeed be quite irresponsible for them to abandon their divinely appointed posts to serve those of someone else. They can best render the service to which they alone have been called only if they can trust that God has other people lined up to carry out responsibilities that lay beyond their purview.
Now I know this analogy breaks down at certain points, some of which are important to my thesis. For instance, both the Levites and the tribes were a part of the same chosen people that God was setting apart to be a witness to all nations. Both confessed God’s kingship over every aspect of their life and adhered to the same Torah. This is why, when the messiah came, he could break down the wall that separated priests from non-priests to create a nation of priests. The church’s relation to their host nations is quite different. Modern nations are not God’s chosen people; they are fallen powers and principalities that God uses to uphold the old order. God’s chosen people, the church, has been called to live according to the new order of God’s kingdom. It could be said that the Levites carried out a chaplain-like function on behalf of the other tribes. They were on the same team but had different responsibilities. But that is not how Scripture portrays Israel or the Church’s relationship to the world. God’s people are set apart from world powers as those who are seeking a different kingdom, following a different Lord, and consequently receiving a different inheritance when Christ returns.
Nonetheless, is there evidence in Scripture that God’s people have a set apart role analogous to that of Israel’s priests? Is it possible that God sent us into all nations as aliens and exiles whose citizenship is in heaven precisely so we would not attach our identity to our host nations and would be properly positioned to serve our host nations in ways that only people who seek first God’s kingdom can? Does not our disentanglement from running our host nations free us up to love and serve those who are a burden or a threat to our unbelieving neighbors? Does it not better position us to bear faithful witness to an alternative kingdom that is here in part and will come someday in full? Could all of this have something to do with why God prefaces the covenant-making ceremony with the Israelites after delivering them from Egypt saying, “Indeed the whole earth is mine, but you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:5-6)? Could this be why 1 Peter, the New Testament book that most accentuates the scattered, alien, exiled nature of God’s people, echoes this Exodus passage and affirms the priestly status of the church?
It would be a mistake to deduce from this analogy that the church’s only contributions to wider society are in the spiritual realm. If churches around the world live out kingdom economics, for example, they will be helping poor people within the body and in their surrounding communities to make ends meet. Such persons would otherwise be a greater drain on the broader economy. It also means they will be discipling them as to good stewardship, helping them find work so they can join in helping others, and warning them against lying and cheating on their taxes and elsewhere in such ways that rob the wider community of valuable resources. Believers may additionally take the godly economic practices they have learned from Scripture and apply them to the extent possible in their jobs, many of which will have public ramifications. This may not be top-down influence on the wider economy, but it is a substantial influence that makes a positive contribution to that economy.
Similar things can be said about other aspects of public life. The church didn’t wait for a majority vote before starting up the first hospitals and Sunday schools when they realized that only the well-to-do were privy to quality health care and education. They began serving their immediate communities by offering what services they could with the resources of the Christian community. This witness had a positive impact on wider society. It raised awareness of various needs and got unbelievers thinking of ways that they, too, could contribute to the health and education of all people. This is what it means for the church to be salt, light, and leaven. We do what we do because God has called us to do so. We serve with the bottom-up power that Christ infused within us and we trust God to cause the seeds we plant to grow.
The above sketch of the Bible story and priestly analogy should suffice to demonstrate that Christians who choose not to get deeply entangled in the political affairs of their host nations are not simply lazy, unloving, or irresponsible. They are not dishonoring the blood that was shed by early Americans to establish the nation we live in today. They are honoring the blood that Christ shed and the Christian martyrs who have followed in his steps. These martyrs traded kingship like the nations for the reign of God and, in so doing, made possible the transterritorial eternal kingdom of which we are privileged to be a part. Since the mission of God’s people in this world entails forming faith communities among all nations that embody Jesus’ alternative all-encompassing politics, for the world’s sake, then focusing on this particular mission is not lazy, unloving, irresponsible, or ungrateful. It is rightly ordered energy, love, responsibility, and gratitude. It is God’s strategy of blessing all nations, which means it is the best way to preserve whatever is good and worth dying for in this world. Those who reject God’s strategy or who seek to merge it with the world’s strategies by making yet another pointless run at “kingship like the nations” are the ones who are acting irresponsibly, if not idolatrously.
“To Him who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood, and made us to be a kingdom, priests serving his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever” (Revelation 1:5-6)
To read the Afterword to this series, click here.