At the Telos Collective, we believe the Gospel of the Kingdom is the basis of Christian life. That is, Jesus’ announcement of the availability, in and through Him, of God’s Kingdom, is the crux of the gospel and the foundation upon which our lives as Christians are built and take shape.
If we take the life, ministry and teaching of Jesus as emblematic of the character and nature of the Kingdom of God, then this frame of reference directly contrasts with Christian nationalism.
Our founder, Bishop Todd Hunter, defines Christian nationalism as “an effort to impose on a nation one’s understanding of Christianity and, given that view, its corresponding role in political, personal and social life.” He goes on to say, “Christian nationalism creates a synchronism between the Kingdom of God and nation-states. It is a form of civil religion that makes one’s earthly, national citizenship, even if only inadvertently, equal to, or above, one’s citizenship in the global people of God.”
Given all the ways we’re seeing Christian nationalism play out at the moment, we thought it would be fitting for our inaugural edition of the Intersection Journal to take up this issue. We’ve recruited the voices of leaders who can speak directly to the ways in which the Gospel of the Kingdom is at odds with the notion of Christian nationalism. Our main concern, however, is not ideological, but theological and practical. We want to better understand what is deficient in our understanding of God and his purposes in the world when Christian nationalism takes root in the life of the Church. We also want to explore what sort of theological imagination naturally leads to the formation of leaders and congregations that not only reject Christian nationalism, but are equipped to embody a political witness in keeping with Jesus’ Gospel of the Kingdom.
The Rev. Dr. JR Rozko
Executive Director of the Telos Collective
The Insurrection and Inauguration of Kingdoms: Reflecting on the State’s Colonial Vision With Saint Óscar Romero
The Rev. Dr. Shawn McCain
Rector, Resurrection Anglican Church, Austin, Texas
February 4th, 2021
What does Jesus of Nazareth’s announcement of the Kingdom mean for the Church’s role in the public political space?
Whatever our immediate answer to this question might be, recent events have drawn attention to the Church’s relation to competing kingdoms on a national level. On a local level, parish leaders regularly deal with a version of these same church-and-state crosswinds. From “stay out of politics” to the inability to distinguish partisanship from discipleship, we find ourselves in an ongoing negotiation between the Church and political powers. If church leaders are going to help navigate the faithful through this complex socio-political space, they need some pastorally thoughtful and theologically clarifying examples of the Church witnessing to the Kingdom.
On January 6, rioters prayed on the Senate floor led by the “QAnon Shaman” Jacob Chansely. On January 20, leaders prayed at the steps of the Capitol at the inauguration. The one thing they all seemed to agree on is that it “is sacred space” (Jacob Chansley) and “hallowed ground” (the Rev. Silvester Beaman) at a “sacred time” (Fr. Leo O’Donovan). I have many questions about what makes this time sacred, but I most appreciated how the Rev. Beaman offered context to the “hallowed ground” as the site of human suffering and oppression. He says, “…where slaves labored to build this,” but goes on to call it a “shrine to liberty and democracy.”
If the Capitol grounds are indeed the site of worship to something other than God, what does this mean for the Church’s involvement in their civic liturgies? What makes one abhorrent and another acceptable to so many Christians?
After breaking into the Senate floor, the horned rioter Chansely prayed “in Christ’s holy name,” thanking God for helping them break in, ridding them of their enemies, and allowing the country to be “reborn”—to which the group replied several times, “Amen.” While this prayer was offered in the name of Christ, it is far from the means of Christ. On the other hand, Christian clergy at the inauguration prayed not in the name of Christ but to the “Holy Mystery of Love” and “the strong name of our collective faith,” though their peace and goodwill far more resembled the means of Christ.
Would it have been better for the clergy to pray in Christ’s name? Perhaps not, especially if the intent was hospitality to other religions in civic space. But at what point do political events become liturgies in sacred spaces directed at something other than the true God? If lex orandi, lex credendi (the rule of prayer is the rule of belief) is true, can the Church say “Amen” to the beliefs these prayers suggest? And what does leading these liturgies reveal about the Church’s functioning relation to the state? When religious language is used to sanctify political aims or adorn state rituals, is the state’s colonial vision over the Church exposed—using the sacred as a lever of power?
Whenever the sacred is leveraged for power, it is not for the sake of God, but for the sake of something else. While pursuing the “common good” of society should be in view for the Christian, that rationale is also used to ensconce a colonial vision of the state over the Church, or the Church over the state, rather than their separation. We can recognize this vision posed in a question like: “Shouldn’t the Church build the Kingdom through government and politics?” To this, it would be good to ask, “Does the Kingdom really lack for power in ways that the state could help?” A colonial vision can also be found in questions like: “Shouldn’t the Church focus on the gospel and stay out of politics, justice and the issues of the world?” In response, it would be good to ask, “Is the Kingdom only in the business of ‘saving souls’ and unconcerned with whatever is left of life?”
Is political theologian William Cavanaugh right when he states in his book Theopolitical Imagination that politics is simply “theology in disguise”? Did we not witness talk-of-God (theology) being worked out in the events of January 6 and January 20? Whether a violent overthrowing or supporting of the state’s status quo, both events signaled a heavenly backing for aims. Both were less concerned for the Church as a sign of the Kingdom of God than the cause they wanted blessed. Both cast a colonial vision upon the Church, one that stands in utter dissonance with the announcement of Jesus of Nazareth that “the Kingdom of God is at hand.”
This raises many questions, one of which I find critical and very practical: “What does Jesus of Nazareth’s announcement of the Kingdom mean for the Church’s role in the public political space? In response, I find the pastoral example of Saint Óscar Romero to be of help. He was the Salvadoran archbishop who actively resisted the state’s colonization of the Church and was eventually martyred for it in 1980.
The particular story I want to focus on, coincidentally, surrounded the inauguration of El Salvador’s new president in 1977. There was mounting violence—including the torture and murder of priests—against the Church that Archbishop Romero now led in El Salvador. The death squad responsible for most of this violence was called the White Warrior Union, and was known to have circulated a flyer that read, “Be a patriot, kill a priest.” The outgoing and incoming president did not intend to bring justice to this persecution of the Church, and in response Romero boycotted all government events, including the upcoming inauguration. The Bishop of San Miguel, José Alvarez, strongly opposed Romero’s decision to boycott. Their exchange resembles the questions we face today, revealing a view of the Church and politics that offers clarity if we are to help untangle the confusion of Christian nationalism and the colonizing tendencies of our own situation.
In Bishop Alvarez’s view, the Church was supposed to support and legitimize the government’s authority for the sake of social order. For him, this was the only way for the Church to stay out of politics. According to Alvarez, the violence inflicted on clergy and the faithful was brought on by the unlawfulness of Christians, not their witness: “There is no persecuted church. There are some sons of a church that, wanting to serve, lost their way and put themselves outside the law.” In his insightful book Revolutionary Saint, Michael Lee points out that this exposed a “colonial vision in which the church serves as protector of the status quo, a dual-ordered status quo in which the church supports the government in political affairs because its domain is that of spiritual affairs.” Alvarez concluded that Romero’s refusal to attend the inauguration was an inappropriate political act.
About a month later, Romero wrote a pastoral letter in response. He argued that the Church’s mission is not determined by the colonial vision of the government and it is not animated by partisan politics. The Church’s mission centers on something far more disruptive to the status quo—the announcement of the Kingdom of God. In one of his homilies, Romero preached that because “God is walking with the history of the people,” the Church has no other allegiance than to the Lord, and no other security than when it travels with him. In another homily, he preached that the Church’s mission is to proclaim the wonders of God’s mercy, to call people to conversion, and denounce “everything that prevents us from making ourselves ready for God’s coming.”
Notice that Romero’s vision of the Church doesn’t fall prey to the dualism of real-world politics as opposed to spiritual matters. He also doesn’t draw up a view of the Church in light of the state, but—and this is key—in light of the Kingdom of God. As Lee further recounts in Revolutionary Saint, Romero calls the Church a “sacrament of salvation,” not merely pointing away to heavenly realities, but making Jesus present in the Church on earth. Refusing the heaven-or-earth dualism, and imagining itself as a sign of the Kingdom, the Church bears witness to the gospel announcement that “God who walks in history with the people” and is establishing justice. Because the Church is Christ in history, it joins the same mission announcing the Kingdom of God, which calls every person to conversion and renewal, and the outworking of the goodness of God in the real-world concerns of life. We can’t help but hear the echoes of the Lord’s prayer: “…on earth as it is in heaven.”
If the Church exists as a sign of the Kingdom, then it disrupts the colonial vision of the state over the Church. The Church does not run the errands of the state; it is not captive to its order, nor does it prop up the state’s desired status quo. Unlike the state, the Church is constituted as the Body of Christ and filled with the Holy Spirit to herald the Kingdom of God. This is why Cavanaugh writes in Theopolitical Imagination, “It should be obvious that state power is the last thing that the Church should want.” The Church doesn’t need to make Jesus king in the White House, because his death, resurrection and ascension have already secured him as Lord of the cosmos. Those who act in the name of Jesus have no need of colonizing the state.
Further, the Church is not relegated to a private prayer closet, the task of merely saving souls. The Church should not be kept out of the public and political because the reign of God is concerned with the real world. The Church exists, then, to herald with Christ the good news to the human poor, incarcerated, blind, and oppressed (Luke 4:18). The Church is the sign that the Father is setting things right through his Son and by his Spirit. Therefore, the Church is supremely and inherently political (not partisan) because it exists in human history addressing all of human society, and the Church is profoundly public because it concerns all of creation.
Romero’s witness reminds the Church that it is a sign and instrument of only one kingdom announcement: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15). This is the basis for the Church’s witness in any public political space. This grounding in the Kingdom of God delegitimizes any vision of a Church “out of politics” or a Church inextricable from partisan aims. Instead, when the reign of God is in focus, the Church is freed to persist in its witness, unthreatened and un-tempted by the terms of any other kingdom.
In our local parishes, our preaching, fellowship and reconciliation signify to others that God is concerned with our neighborhood. When we consider the formative forces and allegiances tugging at us, we can more clearly see the importance of surrendering ourselves to the narrative of Scripture, the work of the liturgy, the allegiance confessed in our creeds, our diet of the Eucharist, and our openness to God in prayer.
With the Kingdom of God at hand, the Church is emboldened to be itself, traveling with the God who walks in human history and calls the real world into alignment with His way of doing things.
You’re probably wondering how to put this call to Kingdom allegiance into practice in your everyday life. I’ve created a free resource to help you do that. Download “3 Ways to Practice Living in the Kingdom of God” below.
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Christian Nationalism: The False Gospel We Must Confront
The Rev. Kimberly Deckel
Associate Rector, All Souls Phoenix, AZ
February 11th, 2021
During Epiphany, one of the gospel readings was Mark 1:21-28, where we see Jesus enter the synagogue and remove an unclean spirit—or demon as some translations say—from a man. In this passage, Jesus’ authority is undeniable, and it’s a different type of authority than the people have experienced before. I couldn’t help but think about our present-day demons, perhaps the most notable being Christian Nationalism. It has corrupted and occupied so many individuals and systems. It has become a systemic issue, flowing into our churches, homes, schools, businesses and neighborhoods. So many Christians, rather than being a people formed by Jesus and who he is, have been shaped by this idol that places the United States over and above all others, even Jesus and his teachings.
As a young child growing up in a suburb of St Louis, I never felt a strong sense of patriotism. I questioned my lack of patriotism because so many around me proudly clung to a deep love of our nation and the notion that America could do no wrong. Unquestionably, we have many privileges in terms of education, wealth, safety and so on, but is this really because we are so exceptional, so deserving, God’s chosen people—and others are not?
Even as a child, I had a strong sense that America was not that great for everyone. I am Black, but growing up I was mostly surrounded by White culture in school, my neighborhood and our family friends. Even though I was surrounded by White culture, I felt as if I was looking in as an outsider. I was often the victim of racism at the hands of White people. As the descendant of enslaved people and sharecroppers, I could see in my own family the ways in which hundreds of years of oppression in America had affected so many of them, the same way it has affected so many other Black, Indigenous, and people of color.
You see, I didn’t grow up in church. I started following Jesus in middle school, and during this time, I was “formally” introduced to the marriage of nationalism and Christian faith. There were no excuses made for this unhealthy wedding of faith and the idol of nationalism. It caused me to wonder if there was a place for someone like me in the Church.
Fast forward to 2021. We find ourselves in a time and place of reckoning as the American Church. We specifically see the harm that this decades-long buildup of Christian Nationalism has caused to the Christian witness. For the Church in America, Christian Nationalism has become the water in which we swim. The Church has been indoctrinated by it, making it even easier to overlook and minimize its harm.
I think much of what I was sensing as a child is what Kristin Kobes Du Mez so clearly lays out in her book Jesus and John Wayne. She says, “For evangelicals, domestic and foreign policy are two sides of the same coin. Christian nationalism serves as a powerful predictor of intolerance toward immigrants, racial minorities, and non-Christians.”
A stark contrast exists between Christian Nationalism and the teachings of Scripture. For example, Zechariah 7:10 says, “Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the foreigner or the poor. Do not plot evil against each other.” Micah 6:8 says that we are to act justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with God. These words should bring us to our knees in confession, lament and repentance because of America’s protectionist policies. Instead, we often see a Christianized defense of Nationalism as the “right way,” and “upholding God’s laws,” etc. But through his ministry on earth, Jesus showed us the way of the peaceful Kingdom. A Kingdom where the only allegiance one makes is to Jesus, the King of the Universe. A Kingdom in which all things will be made right again, especially for those most neglected by society.
When we place things such as political affiliation, status and consumerism over and above Jesus and the Gospel of the Kingdom, we are being discipled by and discipling others in these things, rather than the Gospel of the Kingdom. We fall prey to a false gospel, one that is shaping so many people today. It is not the gospel of liberation, unity and peace that Jesus offers.
When confronting Christian Nationalism, it is important to speak plainly and acknowledge its pervasiveness amongst White Evangelical Christians. All too often, we shy away from hard truths in protection of someone’s feelings or fragilities, when as sisters and brothers in Christ, we are called to hold one another accountable in love. Christian Nationalism is a problem specific to White Evangelicals. To say differently is to minimize the damage White Evangelicals have done throughout history to Black, Indigenous and people of color.
In the United States and among Evangelicalism, White people are the majority and hold the majority of power in terms of money, education, government and so on. Looking at polling data from the last two elections, we see that White Evangelicals overwhelmingly supported Trump—81% of them voting for him in the 2020 election (Understanding the 2020 Electorate: AP VoteCast Survey). So much of what Trump stood for as a candidate does not align with the teachings of Jesus, but it is in lockstep with Christian Nationalism. It’s hard not to conclude that many White Evangelicals are Christian Nationalists or are participating in the ideology in some way. Additionally, if we consider the most influential voices over the past several decades in the world of Evangelical Christianity, the vast majority have been White men, such as James Dobson, Billy Graham, Wayne Grudem, Jerry Falwell Jr, and John MacArthur. They all preached a certain type of American Exceptionalism and protectionist policies.
Just as Christian Nationalism is oppressive for marginalized people groups, it also inflicts harm on those who espouse it. Sadly, oftentimes people are unaware of the grip it has on them. Christian Nationalism is in direct opposition to Jesus’ command to love our neighbor and our enemy. Christian Nationalism emphasizes many of the unhealthy things White American Culture was built on, such as individualism, a scarcity mentality, power, misogyny, and colonialism.
Jesus calls us to follow him by “carrying the cross,” which calls us to give up self-interest and competing loyalties. Christian Nationalism negatively impacts the witness of the Church, as it can cause those who don’t know Jesus to see Christian Nationalism as the only way one can exist as a Christian. It can also lead followers of Jesus to leave the Church as they become disillusioned with a way of thinking that does not align with the Gospel of the Kingdom of God.
So often as imperfect human beings, we find ourselves distracted by the faults, fragilities and failures of others. This is just as true amongst Christians as it is amongst non-Christians. When we are overly focused on others’ faults, rather than examining our own hearts and false ideologies, we fail to deeply consider the ways in which the Christian witness has been prostituted to align with the powers and principalities of our day. In order to be set free from our idols, we must recognize that they exist, we must name them, and we must examine the ways in which they are harming others and ourselves. America’s false idols cause us to bow down in worship of country, political power and money, rather than worshiping Jesus. This is not the way of the peaceful Kingdom of Jesus. We must allow the transforming power of the gospel to work in us and through us, enabling us to pursue the real action steps needed to uproot Christian Nationalism and the stronghold it has on the American Church.
In his book The Christian Imagination, theologian Willie James Jennings says, “If Jesus draws into himself the social hierarchies of his people and among his people, he also displays the power to release people from them.” In our calling as a people of God, let us reject an America-first mentality and social hierarchy. Let us embrace policies that benefit not only the majority, but also the least, lost and lonely. Let us move forward in a posture of arms wide open, following the Holy Spirit who transgresses national boundaries so that all might take part in the inheritance of God. Christian Nationalism has no place in the Kingdom of God.
I’ve created a free download with some practical resources to help you become more aware of Christian Nationalism and embrace God’s abundant inheritance for all his children. Sign up below.
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The Medium Is the Message: Christian Formation and Kingdom Witness
The Rev. Hannah King
Associate Rector at Village Church Anglican, Greenville, SC
February 18th, 2021
In 1964, philosopher Marshall McLuhan prophetically stated, “The medium is the message.” A communications theorist, McLuhan wrote a thesis pertaining to the transmission of information. He argued that the way we convey information is as important as the information itself. All means of communication contain their own meaning, their own message. In other words, no medium is neutral; rather, it is formative. The problem is that we aren’t aware of this. In Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, McLuhan wrote, “It is only too typical that the content of any medium blinds us to the character of the medium.”
Sixty years later, McLuhan’s prescient insight has proven chillingly accurate. Much has been written on the formative power of television, the internet, social media, and other means of communication we once deemed “neutral” tools. But McLuhan’s thesis has theological import as well. God Himself is a brilliant communications theorist. He has chosen to speak His Divine Word to the world through the medium of the Incarnation. God did not simply say “Emmanuel,” He lived it. He became God with us, conveying the message of the gospel through the person and presence of Jesus Christ. The medium is the message. It has hands and feet and scars.
I think there is also a warning for the Church in McLuhan’s words. American Christians have been tempted to take up the medium of political power and a nationalist agenda in the name of God. We claim that we need to gain or keep power in order to establish God’s righteous rule in our country. We excuse grievous moral failings—or even violent behavior—in pursuit of these ends. The problem is that we are unaware of how the means are shaping our own character and witness.
If Christians insist on political power—over other Americans or other nations—what message are we really telling the world? What Kingdom are we really bringing? Christian political engagement is good. But if the medium is the message, then our primary means of actualizing God’s Kingdom cannot be through a political party or the regime of a nation-state. Right or Left, our vision for American civic life cannot equal or usurp our vision for God’s redemptive work in the world. If it does, we will invariably preach a false gospel.
It’s worth asking how sincere Christians have gotten so confused in the first place. How have we settled for a lesser version of God’s Kingdom, and how do we change course? Asking these questions requires us to explore the complex layering of American exceptionalism, Christian nationalism, partisan politics, and conspiracy theories. As I’ve listened to various friends and perspectives so far, I have discovered two areas for further reflection—two areas of weakness in the American Church that I believe make us vulnerable to destructive political ideologies: our ecclesiology and our eschatology. In order to discover and inhabit an alternate medium of engagement, we must revisit these two aspects of the Christian message.
1. We Need A Better Ecclesiology.
Ecclesiology asks, “What is the Church?” Christians differ on exactly how to answer this—but historic, orthodox Christianity consistently identifies the Church as the multi-ethnic, transnational people of God. Revelation depicts the Church as a great multitude from every tribe and tongue and nation who will worship at God’s throne (Rev. 7:9-10).
In other words, the Church is not an ethnocentric organization. It is a Christocentric institution. This is why the Holy Spirit prevented the apostles from Judaizing Gentile believers in the earliest churches. Peter’s vision of the “unclean being made clean” taught him to recognize the Gentiles’ salvation and to baptize them apart from circumcision (Acts 10). This controversial act gave birth to a multiethnic family of faith that has continued to grow throughout the centuries.
American Christians have often lost sight of this global understanding of the Church. We might pay lip service to God’s love for the nations, but with a big-brother kind of superiority that sometimes borders on colonialism. From our inception as a country, American Christians have at times actually conflated the Church and America, inserting our national identity into biblical texts about God’s universal people.
To name just one example, John Winthrop’s famous sermon describing America as “a city on a hill” in 1630 was not an isolated incident of biblical appropriation; it has been quoted by a significant number of US Presidents including John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama. Across the political spectrum, Americans are often tempted to confuse God’s special purpose for the Church with our own nationalist ambitions.
Sometimes we leave out the Church altogether and conflate America with ancient Israel. Christian Nationalists often use Old Testament language—depicting God’s historic, theocratic relationship with Israel—to warn Americans to repent and “return to God” as a nation. Messianic Rabbi Jonathan Cahn recently put it like this in a YouTube video that has amassed almost 3 million views this month:
“America, as did Israel at the height of its prosperity, has turned away from God…in place of His absence we’ve let in other gods and served them…we have done as we were warned not to do and we wonder why the blessings of Heaven are being removed from our land. When judgment came to ancient Israel, it manifested in the form of an enemy attack, a strike on the land, a wakeup call. It came to America in 9/11, 2001…”
This threatening language exploits our weak ecclesiology. America is not the new Israel. America is not God’s chosen people. America is not a city on a hill. Those descriptors belong to Christ’s Church alone. Patriotism is good. But unless American Christians are able to differentiate between church and country, we will misunderstand and misrepresent our calling.
2. We Need a Better Eschatology.
Christian Nationalism does not flourish merely because of weak ecclesiology. It also preys upon weak eschatology. Eschatology asks, “Where is history headed?” Many Americans have been trained to believe that America is a central actor in the answer to that question. We’ve interpreted our prosperity as God’s blessing, His endorsement of our privileged global position. God has chosen America, some feel, to be His instrument of renewal in the world.
In one sense, of course, this is true. God can—and does—use all kinds of people and nations to bring about His sovereign purposes. To the extent America is blessed or a blessing, we can give thanks. But we must be wary of the exceptionalism and triumphalism that can creep into our thinking around our role in God’s redemptive work. History is headed toward Jesus Christ and His glory. His Kingdom is coming into this world with or without American “help.” Jesus told us that His Kingdom will arrive not through the rule of nation-states but through the poor in spirit and the persecuted (Matt. 5:3,10).
Poor eschatology can lead to grandiosity. But it can also lead to anxiety. If we fail to grasp God’s sovereignty over history, we can become overly concerned about elections and policies. We wring our hands in fear over injustice and corruption. We feel responsible to usher in God’s Kingdom—now, in our power, by whatever means available—as if it’s up to us.
I am not advocating for Christian passivity or complacency. Paul urges us to “not grow weary of doing good” because we are called not to give up. But he reminds us that “in due time we will reap” (Gal. 6:9). Christian hope is a mysterious combination of perseverance and patience. Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again. This is true regardless of what happens in American politics.
Robust Christian eschatology frees us from anxiety about the current state of the world by reminding us of God’s unshakeable promise to renew all things. For this reason, theologian Joel Lawrence recommends we teach apocalyptic literature (of all things!) as an antidote for political conspiracy theories. He says that rightly taught, apocalyptic literature “functions to call the Church to faithfully witness to God’s enduring rule in the midst of the fleeting rule of politicians and nations, not to locate God’s rule in those nations through a secret gnosis.”
Instead of reading the Bible (or the news) in search of clues for the apocalypse, we must learn to rest in the God of history. We must repent of false, nationalistic notions of God’s Kingdom and believe the good news of what Jesus has actually come to do, and how, and for whom (Mark 1:14-15). As we do this, we will find a new way to live the story of our faith in and for the world— a medium befitting the message entrusted to us.
You’re probably in regular contact with people in your church, family or community who espouse some facet of the ideology of Christian Nationalism. I created a free, downloadable resource to help you move forward in your conversations with them.
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“Fear God. Honor the Emperor”: Christian Nationalism as Misplaced Worship
The Rev. Dr. George Kalantzis, Ph.D., F.R.Hist.S.
Professor of Theology at Wheaton College, Wheaton, IL
February 24th, 2021
I am a Christian theologian—a historical theologian, to be more specific. As such, I do not look simply at the present and theorize about who we are and how we act today, but rather I look first at the past so as to understand our now within the arch of history, to make sense of the punctiliar as part of a much longer story that runs deep into the narratives of those who have been faithful to God before us.
Of the many images bequeathed to us by the insurrection of January 6, 2021 in Washington, DC, one comes to mind again and again. It is a photograph of a white man standing with his back to the United States Capitol, holding three flags in his hands. In his left hand he holds two US flags, one large, weathered and tattered, and another, new, of equal size, with the words “Make America Godly Again” emblazoned across it. In his right hand he holds a Trump 2020 hat and a flag with the face of President Trump photoshopped onto the body of the fictitious Rambo, holding a M60 machine gun—the so-called “Rambo Trump” flag one can buy at Amazon for $18.99.
(PHOTO BY TAYFUN COSKUN/ANADOLU AGENCY VIA GETTY IMAGES)
Of all the images from that day, I find this one especially troubling. But why?
Perhaps because it reminds me of another image, this one from Easter 1934, when Gerhard Hahn, a Protestant pastor and leader of the Deutschen Christen (German Christians), the Christian nationalists in Hanover, Germany, published a pamphlet, a sermon, titled: “The Cross of Christ and the Swastika” (Christuskreuz und Hakenkreuz). In our contemporary idiom we could translate the title of his pamphlet as, “The Cross of Christ and the National Flag.”1 There, Hahn proclaimed with the same boldness of this anonymous, white, middle-aged man at the US Capitol that:
“The cross of Christ and the swastika do not need to oppose each other, and must not do so, but rather they can and should stand together. … The cross of Christ points toward heaven and admonishes us: Remember that you are Christian people, carried by the eternal love of the heavenly father, free through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, sanctified by the power of God’s spirit. The swastika, however, points to the world as a divine creation and admonishes us: Remember that you are German, born in German territory to parents of German blood, filled with the German spirit and essence, formed according to German nature. Both together, however, the cross of Christ and the swastika, admonish us: Remember that you are German Christian people and should become ever more whole German Christian people, and remain so!”
Representing the voice of the influential minority German Christians, Hahn insisted that Christians throughout Germany ought to recognize “in Adolf Hitler the Führer sent to us by God,” something he insisted that was self-evident on Holy Week, 1934: “It was our faith that made battling for and following Hitler a holy ‘duty.’”
And thus, concluded Hahn, reminiscent of the divine call to the German Christians, he had no doubt that “the hour had come, to fight against ‘the Satan of Bolshevism,’” against the lies spread by the “bourgeois press” controlled by the Jews, and to recognize that “… National Socialist thinking and feeling should be at home within the church, so that it can be permeated by the free gospel that is the directing and saving command of God, sovereign over all. Give the old gospel new strength for young Germany!”
Gerhard Hahn’s call is indistinguishable from the myriad of images and religious tropes of language that have captivated our contemporary imagination long before January 6. This is Christian Nationalism. Pure and simple: Nation-ism wrapped in a Christian flag—a perversion of the Gospel.
As Hahn was publishing his pamphlet, another German theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, was preaching a series of sermons on Paul’s categorically contra-cultural proclamation: “I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me” (2 Cor 12:9b2). Bonhoeffer’s sermons stand in stark contrast to the relationship between Church and national identity propagated by Hahn,
Against the new meaning which Christianity gave the weak, against [the Christian] glorification of weakness, there has always been the strong and indignant protest of an aristocratic philosophy of life which glorified strength and power and violence as the ultimate ideals of humanity … Christianity stands or falls with its revolutionary protest against violence, arbitrariness, and pride of power, and with its plea for the weak. Christians are doing too little to make these points clear rather than too much. Christianity has adjusted itself much too easily to the worship of power. It should give much more offence, more shock to the world, than it is doing. Christianity should take a much more definite stand for the weak than to consider the potential moral right of the strong.3
What Bonhoeffer identified in this sermon is the relationship between the competing narratives of power and weakness that form the irreducible dialectic between those who claim the name of Christ and the structures of domination that surround them. Bonhoeffer’s hermeneutical premise is neither localized nor idiosyncratic. Neither is his admonition. Bonhoeffer’s exhortation stands as a diachronic first principle that stems from the seemingly oxymoronic Christian claim that the Savior of the World hung on a cross—the ultimate glorification of weakness against the omnipotent State. What the German Christians could never understand is that at the core of the Christian message is not power, but love.4
This is not an ordinary kind of love, as one has for one’s kin. It is God’s love for God’s enemies. It is the love of God for the world, expressed in the divine self-giving through the incarnation of the Son, a love that reconciles God’s enemies with the Triune God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.5 The result of that reconciliation is peace: God’s shalom. This is a peace unlike any other. This is not a peace based simply on the absence of conflict but rather peace based on the proactive love of one’s enemies as the sine qua non of the community that claims to have been born of this Gospel of Peace.6 This is a peace the world cannot recognize.
The Christian idea of the βασιλεία τοῦ θεοῦ, the “kingdom of God,” inaugurated in Luke 4:19 and given structure in the Sermon on the Mount (Mt 4:23-7:20; especially 6:9-13) could not but be seen as a threat to the “kingdom of Caesar,” and the peace which Christ bequeathed the disciples (Jn 14:27) threatened the pax deorum (the peace with the gods of the State) that guaranteed Rome’s eternal place. From the earliest expressions of their self-identity, Christians rejected the dominative claims of Rome and instead confessed Jesus as Dominus et Deus, “Lord and God,” not Caesar—a public declaration with grave temporal as well as eternal implications.7 The Incarnation of Christ was a radical shift in history, and the dominical command to non-violence, to love one’s enemies, was unrecognizable by the culture around them because it took the form of civil disobedience as the mark of a transnational community bound together with the bonds of baptism and the Eucharist.
The Christian refusal to submit to the orders of the emperors, obey the law, honor the gods and participate in the public rituals of civic religion that preserved order was seen by the Romans as an act of civic and religious blasphemy. It was an act of sedition; or, that is how the State saw it. Christians, however, insisted that their refusal to acquiesce to the simulacra of justice and worship was instead a call to the State to repent and acknowledge its proper place under the authority of God.8 This was an incontestable principle early Christians inherited from the teachings of Christ and the New Testament (e.g. Matt. 26:52).9
Christians honored the emperor and the governors as his appointed authorities not by conceding to the demands of the State, but by following the example of Christ in refusing their consent and, at the same time, by submitting themselves to the consequence of their rejection—including scourging and death. That is what “rendering to Caesar what is Caesar’s” would look like in the new economy: a simultaneous ‘yes’ and ‘no’ that points back to God as supreme. In doing so, Christians overturned one of the most prevalent understandings of dominance and showed how, for the Christian, power is gained through submission, not violence. This was a truly countercultural movement that society around them did not comprehend.
We are now in Lent. This is a time of remembering. A time of entering anew the narrative of God and His people. We must resist the temptation of transmorphing the path to Jerusalem into a tidy and edifying story that excises the complexities of lives lived in space and time. Lent is a story about power—the power of God overcoming the usurpation of history by the forces of oppression, sin and evil: cosmic, systemic and personal. Lent is the time when we are set free from “the crippling imprisonment of what we can grasp and take for granted, the ultimate trivialising of our identity.”10
Early Christians understood that Christ’s claim of authority over all (Matt 28:18) marked a radical shift and a move from a bordered national identity, with a religion to defend and a people and lineage to protect, to a universal call to discipleship and a new family of God through Jesus. The Church was a family that transgresses national identities and gender and societal constructs through the realigning effects of Baptism and the Eucharist.11 From that time to today, the Church has been a family that brings all into a new kingdom, a kingdom whose only defense is the empty tomb: the proof that all violence has been subsumed and conquered on the Cross.13
The Incarnation produced a community that honored Caesar by disobeying his demand for obedience and sacrifice and blood and showed how and why Christians could not participate in such models of being and worship, namely, because Christians acted out of the abiding conviction of the power and hope present in the resurrection of Jesus. Against the draw of the State, the brute force of the Empire, Christians stood in imitation of Christ. The result was a resounding alienation from the world’s orienting structures of loyalty and ownership because of the new Lord, Jesus.
To help us overcome selective forgetfulness and remember well, we must be aware of counterfeit narratives throughout history. I’ve created a free downloadable resource to help us identify counterfeit narratives in our own culture.
1 The so-called swastika flag was adopted as the one of Germany’s dual national flags in 1933. It became the national flag of Germany from 1935 until 1945.
2 Paul’s statement, of course, is predicated on Christ’s own, immediately preceding, promise: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (9a).
3 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, My Strength is Made Perfect in Weakness (Sermon for the Evening Worship Service on 2 Corinthians 12:9. London, 1934), in Isabel Best ed., The Collected Sermons of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2012), p. 169; also DBW 13, pp. 401-4.
4 For a more extended discussion on this topic see George Kalantzis, A Witness to the Nations: Early Christians and Narratives of Power, in George Kalantzis and Gregory W. Lee, Christian Political Witness (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2014), 90-111. Also, George Kalantzis, Caesar and the Lamb: Early Christian Attitudes on War and Military Service (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2012).
5 Cf. Jn. 3:16; Jn. 1:14; Rom. 5:10.
6 Cf. Jn. 14:27; Mt 5:43-44; Eph. 6:15.
7 Cf. Jn 20:28; Rom. 10:9; 2 Peter 3:18, etc.
8 Cf. Jn. 19:11.
9 Everett Ferguson, “Early Christian Martyrdom and Civil Disobedience,” in Journal of Early Christian Studies, vol. 1, no 1 (1993), p. 81. Here Ferguson follows David Daube, Civil Disobedience in Antiquity (Edinburgh: University Press, 1972), pp. 1-4, 43.
10 Rowan Williams, Why Study the Past? The Quest for the Historical Church (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005), p. 24.
11 Gal. 3:28; Eph. 2:14.
12 Rm. 6:1-3; Gal. 3:27.
13 1 Cor. 15.
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