Willie James Jennings on Nationalism

This semester CSF Berks and Brandywine are studying the book of Acts, following our study of Luke in the fall. Since I read, and loved, The Christian Imagination by Willie James Jennings in the fall I was delighted to learn he had a theological commentary on Acts. I quickly picked that one up to read while I prepare our weekly studies.

Last evening we covered Acts 1-2. In Acts 1:6 the disciples ask the risen Jesus if this is the time he is going to restore the kingdom to Israel. They, in essence, want their nation back.

Jennings spends a few pages talking about this temptation to Nationalism and it is incredibly relevant, so I want to share some of what he says here.

The disciples ask the nationalist question: When will we rule our land, and become self-determining, and if need be impose our will on others?” (17).

Nationalist desire has tempted Israel from the beginning and in fact tempts all people. The nationalism suggested here is not a historical nationalism bound to the anatomy of Israel, but the deeply human desire of every people to control their destiny and shape the world into their hoped-for eternal image. Nationalist desire easily creates a fantasy of resurrection and the fantasy of resurrection appeals to people’s calling forth a triumphal vision of a nation that rises from death and is filled with conquerors and the powerful. Jesus, however, is not a sign of resurrection. He is its Lord. Resurrection will not define him. He will define resurrection’s meaning and resurrection’s purpose. It will not be used by these disciples as an ideological tool for statecraft” (17).

We begin with the disciples and their nationalist question. But, as Jennings notes, nationalism tempts all people. Way back in 2004 I took a class studying the book of Revelation and was confronted, for the first time, with a message not of some distant future but one relevant to today: are we worshiping the beast or the lamb? Ever since then, I have believed nationalism is the greatest idol facing American Christians.

Recently White Christian Nationalism has been spoken about in various news articles. White Christians are susceptible to looking back to some mythical “good old days” of perhaps the 1950s or 1880s or 1790s. Whenever we look back to, we lie to ourselves by thinking going back would make us better. Those days were not good for everyone. Yet white Christians had more cultural power then. Thus, looking back is not rooted in their faith in Jesus but rather their faith in a specific view of America’s past.

Further, White Christian Nationalism both elevates the nation and ignores Jesus. Jesus is reduced to a sort of secretary of after-life affairs. Once we believe our eternal destiny is set, we then lay Jesus aside and essentially are open to any means necessary to achieving that nationalist “good old days” mentality.

Nationalism, as Jennings goes on to say, is not good for everybody but only benefits one group of people:

Nationalism always engenders zero-sum calculations, where we win by controlling our borders and/or controlling our identities, or we lose by being overrun with aliens who confuse our identities and resist assimilation. Nationalist vision is weakness and fear masquerading as strength and courage, because it beckons the world’s peoples to postures of protectionism and leans towards xenophobia. . . To think toward national existence is already to be thinking toward captivity and death” (21).

If we are Christians, we are called to a much higher commitment then just our nation. As Isaiah said, the nations are merely a drop in the bucket compared to God (Isaiah 40:15). Yet, does this mean we do not care at all for our nation. Jennings goes on:

Should disciples of Jesus love their nation, the one they claim and are claimed by? This is the wrong question. The question we are compelled to ask and answer by our lives is, How might we show the love of God for all people, a love that cannot be contained by any nation, a love that slices through borders and boundaries and reaches into every people group, every clan, every tribe, and every family” (21-22).

The book of Acts is a direct, unequivocal assault on nationalism in all its forms. God from the very beginning of the Acts drama will not share holy desire with any nationalistic longing that draws borders and boundaries. The Holy Spirit will break open what we want closed and shatter our strategies of protectionism for the sake of a saving God who will give back to us precisely what we cannot hold onto with our own efforts and power, the continuities of our stories, our legacies, our hopes and dreams for a good future and a thriving life. God who will be all in all desires to bring all into all, the man into the many, just as the One is now in and with the many. Nationalism give energy to the false belief that only by its own single efforts can a people sustain its story, its hope, and its life. Such belief is unbelief for a Christian because we know that God offers a new way found in a new life, a joining that brings stories, hopes and life in a shared fork of knowing, remembering and testifying” (23-24).

The best way to love our nation is to love something more: Our Creator and Savior God, fully revealed in Jesus who enlivens us with the Holy Spirit. We are patriotic citizens by pledging ultimate allegiance to a higher authority.

Because of this, we must repent of our worship of the idol of nationalism. As a white Christian, I confess the sins of the white Christians who have gone before me and I invite others to do the same.

Point – Nationalism is the biggest Idol in the American Church today (especially of the white Christian nationalist variety). To be a disciple of Jesus is to renounce Nationalism. It is the simple question – is our primary identity the Church that encompasses all times and places, including people from every nation, tribe, people and language OR is our primary identity an American/Christian amalgamation that makes Jesus merely secretary of afterlife affairs and elevates a specific view of America’s past and present?

Related Posts:

Reconciliation Requires Repentance

The Dragon in the Room: Christianity, Nationalism and White Supremacy Part 1

Are you a Christian or a Christian Nationalist: Christianity, Nationalism and White Supremacy Part 2

What the Book of Revelation is Actually About: Christianity, Nationalism and White Supremacy Part 3

I Believe Systemic Racism Because of My Theology: Christianity, Nationalism and White Supremacy Part 4

The Moral Conundrum: Christianity, Nationalism and White Supremacy Part 5

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