Arguing with the Author

Acts: Willie James Jennings, ACTS

Further Reflections:  Christians, Jews and Nationalism

Jennings writes:

  • Nationalism is a seductive way of understanding collective existence.
  • Nationalist vision is weakness and fear masquerading as strength and courage, because it beckons the world’s peoples to postures of protectionism and leans toward xenophobia
  • To think toward national existence is already to be thinking toward captivity and death.
  • We struggle to imagine collective life beyond nationalist form
  • God, however, overturns what we might anachronistically call Israel’s nationalist desire through nationalist form—the son of King David, King Jesus, will not form nationalists even as he forms a new people, but disciples.
  • Desire for a people and desire for a place belong to God, having been born out of the divine life expressed in the gracious act of creation. What belongs to God, God seeks to direct. God seeks to direct such desire in us toward holy ends and not the ends of statecraft or global or local markets. 
  • This is why 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 many 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 work of knowing, remembering, and testifying.[1]

Today, I’m reading a small sidebar essay inserted between two sections about Chapter 1.  In it, Jennings asserts that all of Acts is a condemnation of nationalism, the act of being a country.  Nationalism is impossible for the Christian, Jennings says, because the very acts which are central to Christian faith are impossible to the nationalist and the very acts essential to the survival of nationalism are antithetical to Christian faith and action.

Is he correct?  Surely.  If, and it’s a big if, if we understand his claim to be that there are no moral nations anywhere in the world, that conflict and war are part and parcel of the nature of countries, if we believe that it is wrong for Christians to engage in commerce with the intention of making money, and if it is impermissible for a Christian to compromise, then nationalism in all its forms is forbidden to the Christian.

Can anyone point me to a group of Christians who have successfully lived as community outside the bounds of nationalism?  That’s right:  the Amish do so, and so do many Mennonites and some other groups of Anabaptists.  Some Quakers would say they live in that way as well.  Looking at their lives, it’s clear that those folks abjure more than buttons on their clothing.  Life for the faithful Amish person may well mean no electricity (at least at home), very little formal schooling, making a living by farming, factory work, or other low-skilled local industry.  Few Amish folks go to college, become physicians, etc.  If they do, they most likely move their affiliation over to the Mennonites in the area.

It’s clear that living in this way, following the path of such modern monastics as Shane Claiborne, is more than we can expect most folks who claim Christian faith to buy into.  While I respect Professor Jennings’ naming of the challenges of living in a world framed by nationalism and driving by capitalism, I am concerned that by presenting this as a binary choice (either give up your country and remain a Christian, or give up Christianity and remain part of the system)… we will drive more people to see Christianity as unrealistic.

To me, this smacks of a kind of perfectionism, a call that says since our faith will be affected if we live as citizens in a country, then we must give up citizenship.  Here’s the problem I have:  the safety of those Amish folk, those conscientious objectors, depends on the willingness of others to stand in the way of danger.  And by removing the most powerful critics of dangerous nationalism from the public voice, it gives the voice of toxic nationalism more bandwidth.

Nationalism always lives in tension with our faith.  There’s always a pull towards putting too much faith, too much power into our vision of our country.  But communities need structure, and that structure needs to be completely separate from our faith community, not because of the American political doctrine of the separation of church and state, but because combining a particular faith with a particular political community concentrates too much power in one place. 

Power corrupts.  Absolute power corrupts absolutely.  If we do not recognize this, we’ll find ourselves expecting unending self- effacement from our faith community and it’s just not going to happen.

I think that, from the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, folks have always recognized that he was calling us to a way that was close onto impossible for most people to follow, at least all the time.  In fact, I disagree with Professor Jennings that Acts is primarily about avoiding nationalism.  I think it is rather about living within the reality that is the intersection between nationalism and Christian faith.

That’s because I think Acts is about tough choices.  I do not think many of us have the calling to leave it all behind, to live as some sort of monastic, or in an intention community like Amish life.  For most Christians, life is complex.  We live enmeshed in a society that – lacking our witness to the importance of every life, would step on its own elders on the way to more  — more money, more luxury, more for me, less for you.  In other words, the world in which we live is soaked in self-centeredness. 

The challenge of existing in our present world will not be solved by saying we should step away from nationalism. Exiting would give unfettered self-centeredness the freedom to grab it all, and let the rest of the world die.  Who hasn’t seen that happening over the last four years in plain sight, and behind closed doors for centuries?  The challenge of today is how do we maintain a kind of dual allegiance which makes our Christian faith the rule against our secular loyalties are tested (and not the other way round, where we construct a faith which comports with the selfishnesses of the civic world).  

For that matter, who can’t see the sins of nationalism (power grabs, domineering behavior) among ecclesial organizations of every stripe?  Nationalism is not the exclusive province of countries, after all.  Churches want to maintain their eminence; church leaders want their perks, someone wants to control the endowment, someone wants things to be done their way and no others.  It is impossible to retreat from the sins which are part of every organization which attempts to control its members.  Even the loosest of organizations like the component parts of the United Church of Christ, fall prey to this sort of power-grabbing behavior from time to time.  We’re just not very good at it, unlike other more strictly organized denominations.

Last Sunday, Winston Baldwin, in his sermon, reminded us of the story of the time King David decided to build God what he thought would be a decent house.    He decided that he was the one who would make that decision.  God thought otherwise, and Winston reminded us all that though we’re always trying to put God in a box, to bring God’s call under control, to make it all about us and we and what we want, God has other goals, other aims.  And following God is not easy.  One of the things that makes it hard is that there are no hard and fast answers.

Instead, we are called to a more complicated relationship at the intersection of world and faith, nationalists who don’t worship nationalism, Christians who meet the world humbly, aware of our tendency to worship things and structures and people and power, instead of the God who has loved us.

[1] Jennings, W. J. (2017). Acts. (A. P. Pauw & W. C. Placher, Eds.) (First edition, pp. 23–24). Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press.

Author: tobelieveistocare

I am an interim pastor in the United Church of Christ, having served as a settled pastor for over thirty years. I play classical mandolin and share my home with a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel

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