In 410, the Visigothic army under King Alaric conquered the city of Rome. They burned the buildings, slaughtered the inhabitants. But this military action meant much more than just the defeat of one city. For many in civilized society it was the end, the end of the world. Jerome, writing from Palestine, said this:
“If Rome can perish, what can be safe?” He continued, “The bright light of all the world was put out … the whole world perished in one city.”
And the finger pointing began immediately. The pagans blamed the Christians because the pagans had gathered all the gods of the nations in the city of Rome so that Rome would never be conquered. It was assumed the pagan gods would never allow the city they dwell in to go down. The Christians had different versions of what happened. Some believed that because Paul and Peter’s bones were buried in Rome, it would never be defeated. Some believed that because the Roman Empire had so broadly received Christ, God would never allow the city to fall. Augustine wrote “The City of God” to refute both pagan lies and Christian myths. This “god of the land” heresy is not new. It’s the idea that the way you protect your land is to worship the God who is over that piece of real estate to ensure the security of your way of life.
In my Bible reading a couple of weeks ago, I noticed in 2 King 17 this same mindset. At the time, Israel consisted of two kingdoms — the northern kingdom known as Israel or Samaria, and the southern kingdom known as Judah. Both nations, the north and the south, felt the hot breath of Assyria threatening their existence for decades. They survived only by alliances and paying tribute.
But God through his prophets — prophets like Amos in the north and Isaiah, as we looked at last week, in the south — warned the nations that their time was limited because of their idolatry, injustice, and immorality. In 722, Samaria, the northern kingdom, fell to Assyria. According to 2 King 17:24-41, four things happen.
Number 1, the people are taken away. The people are taken away. This is the Assyrian relocation plan. Verse 23,
“Israel was exiled from their own land to Assyria until this day.”
The king of Assyria, Shalmaneser V, would exchange one conquered people with refugees from another conquered nation so as to water down any risk of insurgency by mingling the people. The people are taken away.
Secondly, the lions are takin’ over.
“At the beginning of their dwelling there (verse 25), they did not fear the Lord. Therefore the Lord sent lions among them, which killed some of them.”
Many people are skeptical of this claim. They will say things like, “People kill people. Lions don’t kill people.” They apparently haven’t heard of the tsavo man-eaters. I first heard of that tsavo man-eaters with Tim and Cheryl. We were traveling from Nairobi, Kenya, to Mombasa. And this is really kind of them. They’re telling us about the tsavo man-eaters right before a bathroom break. And bathroom breaks there, you’re not stopping at a rest stop. You’re walking into the bush to use the bathroom thinking about the tsavo man-eaters.
These two guys went crazy sometime around 1899. There were two maneless male lions estimated killing about 135 railway workers. They would sneak into their tents at night and drag them off and devour them. So many men died that the construction of the railway had to be halted until a team of hunters could kill the lions. When they finally killed them, they measured from tip of the nose to tip of the tail, almost ten feet long.
Back in Samaria, many suppose that these lions that are ravaging the people probably got their taste for humans from the carcasses of battle that were left after the Assyrians departed. Shalmaneser’s advisers here, though, explain the lion problem as a “god of the land” problem. Look at verse 26.
“So the king of Assyria was told, ‘The nations that you have carried away and placed in the cities of Samaria do not know the law of the god of the land. Therefore he has sent lions among them, and behold, they are killing them, because they do not know the law of the god of the land.’ Then the King of Assyria commanded, ‘Send there one of the priests whom you carried away from there, and let him go and dwell there and teach them the law of the god of the land.’ So one of the priests whom they had carried away from Samaria came and lived in Bethel and taught them how they should fear the Lord.”
So, the people are taken away, the lions are takin’ over, the priest is taken back (number 3). And his purpose is to teach the law of the god of the land, according to verse 27. Now, this may sound good. Assyria is funding Bible classes. Who can be against that?
Three problems. Number 1, God is not worshiped as a pest control. Number 2, God has a unique covenant with Israel in a specific promised land. Number 3, God will not be added to a menu of deities. See, what they were doing is, they figure, “Okay, this land has this god, and this land has this god, and so this land needs this god.” That’s the god of the land mindset in order for the people to be secure. But God is not a solution to a problem. He will not be added to a pantheon of deities.
The people are taken away, the lions are takin’ over, the priest is taken back, and then number 4, the worship is taken down (34-41). Now, granted, their worship was already broken, which is why they’re in exile. But this passage provides an autopsy and an afterword. Verse 34,
“To this day they do according to the former manner. They do not fear the Lord, and they do not follow the statutes or the rules or the law or the commandment that the Lord commanded the children of Jacob, whom he named Israel.”
In other words, the covenant is broken. Look at verse 35.
“The Lord made a covenant with them,” that is Israel.
“Made a covenant” in the Hebrew is literally “cut a covenant.” The Lord cut a covenant. This was a blood covenant between God and his people Israel in a specific land with specific covenantal expectations. You’ll see two sets of three here that outline the covenantal expectations. Verse 35, “You shall not fear other gods or bow yourselves to them or serve them, sacrifice to them.” And then verse 36, the positive three, “You shall fear the Lord.” Lord there is Yahweh, which is God’s covenant name.
The one “who brought you out of the land of Egypt with great power, with an outstretched arm. You shall bow yourselves to him, and to him you shall sacrifice.”
But these people had merged a “god of the land” theology with their own worship. And so, verse 41 summarizes Samaritan worship.
“So these nations feared the Lord and also served their carved images. Their children did likewise, and their children’s children — as their fathers did, so they do to this day.”
We can be like these people. We can desire to worship God and other gods in order to ensure the security of our way of life. The people in 2 King 17 worship a pragmatic, pluralistic religion.
So, I want us this morning, July 4th, to talk about Christian Nationalism. And what makes this so difficult to discuss? Three things. First of all, it’s rarely defined. Secondly, it’s usually denied. Most people who would be labeled with this label would not agree with it. Not all, most. And third, it’s almost always negative, especially when it comes through the media. So therefore, it’s very hard to distinguish between — is there a good kind and is there a bad kind? And how do we know the difference?
Many who tag people with this label don’t distinguish at all. And this reached a new zenith. Can you have a new zenith? No, you can’t. This reached a zenith in January when the Capitol was breached, Christian prayers were prayed, and symbols displayed. To the media, those rioters represented many, if not most evangelicals. So, let’s try to come up with a simple, clear definition of Christian Nationalism in its worst form.
Christian Nationalism is an American god of the land ideology. That is, America has a covenantal relationship with God. If we worship him, we can solve our lion problem and name the problem. But what we end up doing is we’re patching together things that should not be together. It’s any time we wrap the cross with a flag, a kind of civil religion, a Christianized version of American exceptionalism.
So where are we on this? Well, the survey I sent out, I didn’t ask you a specific question on Christian Nationalism. I asked a couple questions which can point in that direction. Question 3, “The U.S. is a Christian nation.” 18% of you agreed, 74% of you disagreed, and 7% said you don’t know. I’ll let you take that in for a second. Most, the vast majority of you, disagree with the statement: The U.S. is a Christian nation.
What might help is to look at question 4. “The U.S. was founded on many Judeo-Christian principles.” Over 90% of you (this is one of the most dominant answers in the whole survey) said yes, 6% disagreed, 4% said you don’t know.
I believe question 4 is a dramatically different question than question 3. But some of you, based on your coming to me and saying you felt a little set up for that … I don’t know who said what. This is a completely anonymous survey. It’s just funny. Some of you explained, you agreed that it was a Christian nation because people in general know about Jesus. I understand. There are different definitions. Dr. King, MLK, believed that America is a Christian nation, and he was talking about the ideals that we’re aiming for and falling short of. I get it, a variety of definitions.
But let me be clear where we as a church, where our elders stand. There is a vast difference between question 3 and question 4. Question 3, I believe, must be answered, absolutely not. Question 4, I believe is, absolutely yes.
So why the big distinction? Well, what drives my conviction is not political, primarily. I hear people all the time saying, “Yeah, you can’t get preachers to stand up for truth and acknowledge we’re a Christian nation. They’re afraid of the IRS.” We’re not afraid of the IRS.
Just a little side note. One of several factors driving our passion to get debt free years ago and stay debt free as a church is the fact that one day we may lose our tax-exempt status, and that doesn’t change anything for us. We are going to continue to teach/preach the truth regardless of the IRS.
The point is not the IRS or separation of church and state and all that. Primarily, it’s a theological issue with us. When Jesus, for example, stood in the presence of Pilate, and Pilate was trying to intimidate Jesus and said, “Hey, it was your nation that delivered you.” What did Jesus say? “My nation, my kingdom is not of this world. If it were, you would know it. My servants would be fighting for me. And when he says servants, he wasn’t talking about centurions. He wasn’t even talking about drones. He’s talking about angels of death. How do you protect yourself from them?
So the point theologically is, Jesus was making a distinction between my nation, my kingdom is my people. And when I set up my kingdom, my nation fully visible, manifested on earth (which, as we talked about last week, is coming with the new heaven in the new earth), you will know it. There will be no racism or hundreds of years of slavery. There will be no millions of babies killed in wombs. There will be no sin, no injustice, no wrong in Christ’s nation. Amen.
And so we have to make this distinction. And what might help us, because our brains get all locked up between what the media is saying, what we see in the Bible, our longing for America to repent and come, Americans to know Christ. I get all that. This may help. Three kinds of nationalism. One is good, one is bad, one can be good or bad.
Number 1, patriotic nationalism is usually good. What do we mean by patriotic nationalism? Another word is civic nationalism. Several years ago, a team from here, we were in Colombia, outside of Cali in a barrio, and mid-afternoon we had to pull out. We couldn’t share the gospel anymore because the streets were so swollen with thousands and thousands of soccer fans, because Colombia was playing Chile. It was a beautiful scene of yellow and blue. The people were so energized to cheer for their nation. Not long after that, some of us were in Ethiopia when Ethiopia beat South Africa in a game. We thought our car was going to get flipped. There was so much joy, you feared for your life. That, I believe, can be and is usually a healthy kind of nationalism. It is beautiful to behold.
A few years ago, our family was traveling through Boston on July 4th. We were going to take a ferry across the harbor. And as we were traveling, we look out, and the USS Constitution, Old Ironsides, was floating by, and they did this July 4th 21-gun salute. Now, when you stop for a moment and think about what you’re looking at … This ship was named by George Washington. It is the oldest ship afloat in the world. It has defeated many of our nation’s enemies and captured many pirates. It defeated the Black Pearl, some say.
It’s moments like that, when you get goose bumps … Or at least I think if you’re an American, you should get goose bumps. And it’s a good kind of nationalism. When you go to a national cemetery, and you see a level of sacrifice that will take your breath away, that is a kind of nationalism that we can never lose and need to be willing to emulate — a love of country that is healthy and good. And this is, in certain places in our country, disappearing quickly. Often college campuses can be characterized by an anti-Americanism and the assumption that if you love your country, you’re automatically xenophobic, automatically a racist. If you love your country, you automatically hate all other countries? Do those two have to follow? Because you love your wife, you hate women? Because you love your husband, you despise all other men? You love your children; you hate kids who aren’t your children. Because you love (Lewis talks about this), you love the old chair that fits your body perfectly; your wife wants you to throw it away. There’s something about a hometown, a home country, a familiar place that can be a good and a beautiful thing. We’re not gnostic. We don’t just float in spirits. God has put us in a place with a people and that’s a good kind of love.
C.S. Lewis, the Oxford professor, in his “Four Loves,” talks about love of country.
“The actual history of every country is full of shabby and even shameful doings … The heroic stories, if taken to be typical, give a false impression of it and are often themselves open to serious historical criticism. Hence a patriotism based on our glorious past is fair game for the debunker … I think [and this is such a significant statement], I think it is possible to be strengthened by the image of the past without being either deceived or puffed up.”
See what he’s saying there? We can be strengthened by the image of the past without being deceived as if it’s flawless or puffed up as if we are somehow better than other people. That is delusional. So, what Lewis is describing is a love of country that is not blind superiority. He goes on.
“I once ventured to say to an old clergyman who was voicing this sort of patriotism [the blind superiority kind], ‘But, sir, aren’t we told that every people thinks its own men the bravest and its own women the fairest in the world?’ He replied with total gravity … — ‘Yes, but in England it’s true.’ To be sure, this conviction had not made my friend (God rest his soul), a villain; only an extremely lovable old ass. It can, however, produce asses that kick and bite. On the lunatic fringe, it may shade off into that popular Racialism which Christianity and science equally forbid.”
That blind superiority that leads to the second kind of nationalism, Racial Nationalism. And this is always bad. This is what Lewis calls racialism or what is often called ethno-nationalism. It’s when one racial group is valued over the others and results in an unjust society. An obvious example today is Richard Spencer with the Alt Right. In an interview a few years ago, he shared a dream of establishing what he called a white ethno-state. He said this.
“What really defines the American nation? … Is the American nation purely defined by the Constitution …? No. The American nation is defined by the fact that it is derived from Europe, that European people settled this continent … Which people truly defined what America is? Anglo-Saxon protestants were the essential people; they defined it in a way no other people did.”
When he was speaking these words, an African-American reporter was interviewing him. And I thought he was amazingly patient. He kept trying to give him an opportunity to pull back. “Are you saying people like me should not be here?” And Spencer kept pressing in saying, “No, no, no. It’s okay you’re here, but there’s only one essential people.” That is a despicable, blind superiority that can never be connected with Christianity. Can we get a stronger amen on that? It can never be connected with Christianity. His words reek of a kind of superiority — “Those kinds of people are out, these kinds of people are in.” And for Christians, that goes against everything within us, everything the Scripture says. Let me just give you one example. Colossians 3 Paul describes life in Christ. We put to death who we were. We put off the old self with its superficial markers. Colossians 3:10.
We “put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator. Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all.”
Now I know he’s talking about the church there, who we are as believers. But this has huge repercussions on how we think about our ethnicity, our nationality, our relationships with others. Our ethnicity is not our primary identity. You can still be a Colombian or Kenyan or an American, but primarily you are a Christian. You are Christian. That’s who you are, and that changes the way you think about everything. Lesslie Newbigin writes:
“It is good to love and serve the nation in which God has set us; we need more, not less [true] patriotism. But to give absolute commitment to the nation is to go into bondage. Family and kinship are precious gifts to be loved and cherished, but racism is a corruption of what is good.”
Patriotic nationalism, usually good. Racial nationalism, always bad. Economic nationalism, can be good or bad. This one’s a bit more complicated, as Dr. Bruce Ashford has pointed out. It’s usually a reaction against globalism, but at times it locks arms with one or the other kinds of nationalism. As Caldwell and Reno point out, globalization typically benefits the rich and the immigrant but often hurts blue collar workers and the poor. The challenge is to find economic policies that don’t lead to an isolationism that will hurt everyone in the long run, but at the same time, don’t damage working class families and the poor.
So, what we really get back to is, what does “love of neighbor” look like economically? And that’s a complicated question. We’re going to talk in a couple of weeks about how theology shapes policy, because that is not a direct line or an automatic answer. And Christians are going to differ with one another on that.
But today we’re talking about the root of that. For example, Hebrews 13:2 says, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers.” Those three words, hospitality to strangers, is one word in the Greek. It’s the word philoxenia. The first part, philo, is what? Love. Xenia? Stranger, foreigner. So, it’s love of stranger. Hospitality is love of stranger. Or you could translate that partnership with strangers. J. Koenig writes this:
“Fundamental to the building of partnerships with strangers is a community that experiences itself as the guests of God.”
And I’ll give you a minute just to take that in, because that is beautiful. This is the way Christians think. We know we do not deserve to be in the family of God. There’s not one person in this room that deserves to have a relationship with God, right? To eat at the table of God, to spend eternity with God. None of us deserves it. It’s all by grace. It’s all God reaching out to that which is a stranger, us sinners, and through Christ drawing us to himself. That kind of reaching out, drawing in, loving those who are different is burned into Christian thinking. Do you feel the tension between what we just talked about — love of family, kinship, country — but yet in Christ, love of stranger, the one who’s different? And all this flows from who we are in Christ. Look at 1 Peter 2:9,
“But you [Christians] are chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation [It’s not talking about America. It’s talking about the Church, followers of Jesus], a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were a “non-people,” but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. [Loved ones] Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul. Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God in the day of visitation.”
That’s our goal. To bring glory to God, who found us, a non-people and made us a people. That’s our call.
So, how do we distinguish between this healthy kind of nationalism, healthy kind of patriotism, and an unhealthy, unbiblical kind? Let me throw out a few questions for us to chew on, just some thoughts for us to pray through.
Are you willing to ask the Spirit right now to expose parts of your heart that might latch onto unhealthy parts, kinds of nationalism? This is really important. In other words, you can’t just leave it up here. We’ve got to bring it down. A couple of ways we can do that.
First, I know I may be embracing an unhealthy kind of nationalism when my emotional state rises and falls with political events. As if Jesus is on or off the throne, depending on who is in or out of the White House. This gets dangerously close to Jerome’s words when Rome fell. Remember, he said, “If Rome can perish, what can be safe?” Some of us believe that about America, don’t we? We really think if America goes down, the hope of the world is gone. Really? Do you ever imagine that? I try to do that to keep things in perspective. Let’s say Jesus doesn’t come for a couple of thousand more years, and let’s say America gets two pages in some people’s history books. That’s a good exercise for us, isn’t it? I don’t see you guys saying amen-ing that one. Wasn’t there a place called America? I’m not saying I want that. I love America; but put it into perspective. Christians loved Rome and thought the world could never exist without it.
Second, when I divide with other believers over political issues. This may be an indication that my political identity is my primary identity, and my Christian identity is secondary. Now, let me clarify. I do believe there are some issues that are so tied into the Scripture that you’re going to have a hard time, I would have a hard time being a member of a church that didn’t take a stand on a couple key issues. I get that. But today, I believe we as evangelicals are separating far too often online and in person over issues we should not be dividing on. And I’m not going to develop that anymore because we’ll talk about that later in the series.
This is similar. When I struggle to be around people who hold different political perspectives. And I want to clarify, I am not saying that all ideas are created equal, they’re not. Some are stupid. All people are created equal, right? All people. We treat all people with respect. We don’t treat all ideas with respect. Some ideas are wrong. That being said, how do I do being around people who hold different positions from me? Can we be a church with people with different political views? And the elders are really passionate about the fact that we must be if our identity is primarily in Jesus. Even on the elder board, there are elders who hold political views that differ from one another. I think some of the elders’ views are crazy, and they think some of mine are crazy. And we love each other and serve Jesus together. And what’s beautiful about that is, I see my blind spots in a way that I would never otherwise see them. And if you don’t think you have blind spots, I’m scared for you.
Next one, when political news is shaping my political views more than the Bible. Now, again, I’m not saying that the Bible is going to outline the details of your economic plan or your immigration policy. But if you trace that policy and plan back to its roots, what do you find? Fear? You’re stealing my country. Whataboutisms? Do you know what I mean by that? When you talk to some people, you never can talk about the issue, because they immediately talk, “Well, what about them? What about them? What about that?” And they’re pointing to what everybody else is doing. No, no, no. Let’s talk about what does God’s Word say and where should our hearts be so that we can think clearly about this policy.
When I conflate political wins with gospel advancement, as if I can bring in Christ’s kingdom through political engagement. Okay, these last two are getting a little too close to home. Some of you may need to go to the bathroom right now. I say that only because some of this God has been really working into me. I have strong political views, and I constantly have to bring those back to: What does God’s Word say? What is my priority? Bring them under. And some of these exercises help me.
Here’s another one. When I seek to protect my freedoms, but not the freedoms of others. Now, in theory, all of us would agree with that. But what about when a mosque is scheduled to be built down the road from your neighborhood and people are passing a petition to oppose the rezoning? What about them? And I understand, some of you were really concerned about Sharia Law. But for a Christian, what is our first response? What did Jesus tell us to do? Go therefore and make disciples of America, baptizing them in the red, white, and blue. Is that our commission? No! Go therefore and make disciples of all nations. And so, when the nations come here and want to set up a mosque down the road, and you have a golden opportunity to live on the mission field right down your street, and your first response is, “No!” That should cause us to pause, should it not? Why am I living here? Why has Christ put me in the neighborhood he put me in? What are my first priorities? Yes, I have had very candid conversations with Muslims here in Greenville about Sharia Law. I have deep concerns about that. But what is my priority? Will I defend the freedoms of others, as I would hope they would defend our freedoms if we were going to build a church?
Finally, when I’m more passionate about protecting my way of life than I am about my neighbor’s well-being. In 1961, the Freedom Riders rode buses through the South to test the 1960 Supreme Court ruling that desegregated interstate transportation. Men and women, black and white, traveled peacefully. But in many cities, they were met with hostility. Buses were burned. People were attacked. What makes this most disturbing is the people involved. These are not jihadist terrorists. Most of these people are not even the KKK. As Alan Cross demonstrates, who was a pastor in Montgomery, in his book, “When Heaven and Earth Collide,” a book our elders went through. Many of the people that attacked these riders were moms, dads, children, preachers coming with bricks and garden tools. John Lewis, who was there, describes what it was like to watch men hold people down so women could scratch their faces. It’s unimaginable. See most of us, we can say, “Oh, yeah, those are the freaks. We would never do anything like that.” But something weird happens to us when we feel vulnerable, when we feel like the victims.
If you read the early propaganda in Germany, it was very much, “The Jews are attacking our way of life.” And so, I say that not to not to make a perfect equating of the two but to alert all of us as believers to fight against being in a victim mindset. Because once you put yourself in that place, it can justify anything, any response makes sense. Why wouldn’t you attack them? They’re “commies” coming to kill us! They’re trying to take over our culture. And if protecting our way of life is our first priority, their response seems reasonable.
Now, I am not saying we shouldn’t be concerned about our way of life. I am. But as believers, what is our first priority? What gets us most passionate? What do we pray about the most? When we meet someone whom we differ with, what do we want them to know the most?
When Jesus told the story of the Good Samaritan, who did he make the hero? The Samaritan. Think about that from a Jewish perspective. It’s like preaching on Christian nationalism on July 4th. Who’s stupid enough to do that? Jesus was holding up a Samaritan as the hero of the story. Who are the Samaritans? The Jews despised the Samaritans as threats to their way of life. They called them “Proselytes of the Lion,” lion converts (2 King 17). You only became fake Jews because you wanted to solve the lion problem. And Jesus holds a Samaritan up to a Jewish audience as the hero of the story to communicate what? Not that he didn’t love his own people, he died for them. But that your lifestyle is not more important than a life. A life is more valuable than your lifestyle. Think about, who is my neighbor? Let that drive your views on everything. And that doesn’t mean we’re all going to come out at the same place, but it will change the way we think about what it means to be an American, to be a Christian in America.
Let’s pray. Father, first, we want to thank you for the freedom and privilege of living in this country. We don’t take it for granted. We ask that you would make us good stewards of the freedom you have entrusted to us and the opportunities we have to be engaged politically. We pray that you would forgive us when we try to use you as pest control, we try to worship you, talk of you, that you might protect us, that you might make our country the envy of the world. Lord, forgive us when we are first citizens of this nation before recognizing our citizenship in heaven. We pray, Lord, that you would take away our fear, take away our apathy. We repent, Lord, of using you as a means to our patriotic end. You’re not just a solution to a lion problem. We ask that you would fill us with awe and wonder as to who you really are — the King of kings, the Lord of lords. We see your hand at work in this nation. In the midst of all the brokenness, Lord, we see your hand at work. Your mercy is great, and we just ask Lord, because of what you’re speaking to us about this morning, that we would be a people who are humble, running to you first, finding our satisfaction, our hope, our security in you. And then, Lord, knowing how to live that out in this country. So, please continue to speak specifically to our hearts, we pray, in Jesus’ name, amen.