Thinking about nationalism and faith
By Kurt Willems
For the past several years I’ve prayed that God would bring friends into my life that aren’t “churched.” That God would move me beyond the bubble of the church so that I can interact with folks from various walks of life. And then 18 months ago I struck up a conversation with a guy named David as I was sitting in a Starbucks.
David has attended a major California university and indentifies as a spiritual agnostic. I tried to avoid revealing that I’m in ministry—it can be an instant non-Christian friendship blocker—but then David asked about my job. In spite of learning about my occupation, David agreed to hang out the next week to talk about life and politics.
The following week as I sipped on my iced grande nonfat white mocha, the conversation quickly turned toward Christianity in America. I think David was attempting to shock me into showing my true colors when he said this about evangelicalism: “When you mix religion, nationalism, imperialism and fear—people do really bad things.” I had his full attention when I told him I couldn’t agree more and talked about the Jesus of Anabaptism.
Changing my views
When I was a teenager and into my early 20s, David’s statement would have offended me. At that time my conviction was that America is a Christian nation and that the purposes of Jesus and our country often go hand in hand. This core conviction included the belief that the role of the church—among other important issues like evangelism and discipleship—was to support the most “Christian” country on the earth. Essentially, I believed that American nationalism reflects a God-honoring worldview and that although violence and war is terrible, they ought to be supported. These two issues summarize David’s critique of his perception of evangelical Christianity.
Four years ago something began to change. As I read the New Testament with fresh eyes, I realized that the early church found herself in the midst of the great Roman Empire. In this empire, nationalism and religion also went hand in hand. Except instead of using a Deist version of the Christian God, the emperors were worshipped as gods. In fact, we have evidence that Caesar Augustus was referred to as “son of god,” “savior,” bringer of “peace” and “salvation,” and the full embodiment of the “good news” for society. What was good for the empire’s agenda was good for the incarnate deity king—and therefore good for worshipping peasants who believed that appeasing the gods would lead to prosperity.
Connecting nationalistic zeal with religious practice created a climate in which the Caesars could continue to order the world in oppressive ways that marginalized the poor and powerless. With the threat of violence always looming and with the warmongering nature of imperialistic Rome, people didn’t rise up against the empire. The easiest way to demonstrate allegiance was by participating in the religion of the nation. Otherwise one could be viewed as a revolutionary and everyone knew such people ended up hung on a cross.
What belongs to God?
This climate is significant when we read Luke’s gospel, especially the birth narrative of chapter two and the question of paying taxes in chapter 20. Luke intentionally subverts the philosophy of nationalism and pax romana (peace through strength) by demonstrating that the true King of the world was born in a manger. And when asked about paying taxes, Jesus says that we give to Caesar what is his and to God what is his.
This begs the question: What exactly is God’s? Just as Caesar’s image is on a coin, God’s image is on humanity. We give God our whole selves and that makes a greater impact in the world than any coins we’d want to refuse to pay to the kingdoms of this world. As I began to understand the political situation of Jesus and the early church, I started to ask new questions. And my particular questions led me to embracing Anabaptism. I grew up Mennonite Brethren but it took me 23 years to fully agree with our Confession of Faith and to cherish it.
Article 12 of our Confession of Faith reminds us that “the primary allegiance of all Christians is to Christ’s kingdom” and that “Christians are called to resist the idolatrous temptation to give to the state the devotion that is owed to God.” We therefore are called to “…cooperate with others in society to defend the weak, care for the poor, and promote justice, righteousness, and truth” while maintaining our distinctness.
Article 13 complements the former by making clear that “violence in its many different forms (is) contradictory to the new nature of the Christian” because “the evil and inhumane nature of violence is contrary to the gospel of love and peace.” Not only so, but during times of war, “we believe we are called to give alternative service” and in so doing, we “alleviate suffering, reduce strife and promote justice….”
Questions and crossroads
Historically, Mennonite Brethren communities opposed both nationalism and violence with the hope of living as a counter-cultural kingdom of God community. Today we Mennonite Brethren find ourselves at a crossroad. The next generation asks similar questions to David’s. Most Christian mission experts agree that our urban centers are becoming less Christianized in their ethos. In other words, the days of the institutional church being the dominant influence in society is quickly fading.
In these situations, the only bit of Christianity that many people know is the caricatures they see in the media. Non-Christians associate Christianity with power, violence, nationalistic agendas and scandal. But we Anabaptists have a better story to tell! When we embrace the fullness of what it means to be Anabaptist in these areas we are no longer part of the typical evangelical stereotype.
During our first full-length conversation, David intended to shock me with his disdain for the way American Christianity and America’s nationalism often go together. Instead, he was surprised to hear about a Jesus who calls us to radical ways of living—promoting justice for the oppressed, speaking truth to power, forsaking violence and giving our full allegiance to the kingdom of God. I shared with David my frustrations with the bad press that Christianity gets and how the Jesus I follow invites me to join in his mission to bring peaceful restoration to all creation. David was nearly speechless. By the end of the conversation he said, “I think that we were supposed to meet…like it was meant to be or something.”
David is not a Christian at this point—I certainly hope that he will become a follower of Jesus one day—but we have a mutually beneficial friendship that continues to grow. When we visit over coffee and attempt to solve the world’s problems, David wants to hear my “different kind of Christian” ideas. In this case, my Anabaptist heritage is not something to shy away from but an entry point into someone’s life.
I’m convinced that countless numbers of “David’s” exist in our changing culture. Anabaptists in general, and the Mennonite Brethren in particular, have a story to tell that beautifully defies the logic of nationalism and violence. Jesus-shaped-logic, the folly of enemy love modeled to us in the non-retaliation of the cross, invites us to show the world a better way. May we who come from the Anabaptist stream of faith choose to embrace the richness of our tradition as we ourselves continue moving into the mission of God. Our impact on tomorrow’s culture may depend on being true today to who we are.
Kurt Willems is a final year Master of Divinity student at Fresno Pacific Biblical Seminary in Fresno, Calif. He is a freelance writer for various print and online publications, including his personal blog hosted by the religion Web site Patheos.com.