Christian Nationalism and the Nation State, Part 1

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The fact of my ongoing dispute with kinists, and it is in fact an ongoing dispute, does not mean that they cannot mount any legitimate points or raise legitimate questions. They can, and do. And when that happens, it is important to address those questions straight up the middle, without flinching.

One of those questions has to do with the biblical meaning of ethnoi. Jesus told us to disciple the nations (ethnoi), baptizing them, and teaching them obedience to all Christ commanded (Matt. 28:18-20). The objection they mount is this. We obviously get the word ethnic from this, and the biblical usage is therefore assuming the ongoing existence of ethnicities, and these are the tribes we are to disciple. According to this view, the Lord did not have the modern nation state in view at all.

To which the reply comes, well, yes, He did—but give me a minute to get there.

How Ethnicities Formed

When the Lord came down and confused the languages at Babel (Gen. 11:5-9), the end result was a dispersion of all the people in accordance with which people you could understand. You would, as a rule, only marry within that group because you would would want to marry someone you could understand—or at least as well as any man can understand. Once that group congregated together, the reinforcement of certain ethnic traits began to emerge as a function of intermarriage within that group, a group now isolated from others by rivers, mountains, and such. The longer that isolation continued, the more the distinctiveness was thickened by natural generation and fortified by worship, customs, laws, diet, and so on.

Now there is no question but that these resultant groups were right at the center of the Lord’s command. Disciple the ethnoi mean that the Christian church was to disciple, in this sense, the Scythians, the Greeks, the Armenians, the Zulu, the Navajo, and so on. Cheerfully granted.

As the gospel came to these ethnic groups, certain of their distinctive features had to go. The worship of Woden comes to mind. But the ingestion of beans and rice, or jalapenos, or bison meat, did not have to go. And though the language would be affected by the arrival of Christianity, once the Scriptures were translated, the language itself did not have to go. In fact, the language probably solidified at that point.

The Right to Preserve . . . What?

So as the old gods were toppled, provided the gods were toppled, what do we call it when some of the old timers in these tribes still wanted to keep some of their old customs alive? I would suggest that it is not helpful at all to call it anything like “soft kinism.” A demand to jettison all such specific customs should be called imperious cosmopolitanism, and the bigotry should be assigned there, and not to the tribal conservative who wants to keep certain things from going extinct. That is not soft kinism at all—it is natural affection, which Paul says is bad to lose (Rom. 1:31: 2 Tim. 3:3).

Let me give three illustrations, all related to some of my family members. My sister was a missionary to Turkey, and her cover there was an English language class that she taught. One of her students became my brother-in-law, an Armenian who was in the process of emigrating to the States. After they married, they settled in the LA area, where there is a thriving Armenian community, one that in many respects is just a smaller Armenia. But the reason this community retains much of its ongoing vitality is that, taking one thing with another, parents care very much about their kids marrying Armenians. Depending on the attitudes in it, this could be hard kinism, soft kinism, or just common sense. You don’t thicken the soup by putting more water in it.

One of my grandsons has a real aptitude for languages, and taught himself both Nez Perce (the Indian tribe just south of us here), and Gaelic. One time when his family was traveling in northern Scotland, he had occasion to speak with an elderly woman in Gaelic, whereupon that woman wheeled on a young native woman there, and asked how come this American is speaking Gaelic, and you can’t? That was an interesting moment. And he also spent a summer helping some elderly Nez Perce women in the task of recovering and retaining some of the hymns of their childhood. What is this? Quaint? Endearing? Soft kinism?

If every Navajo made it a point of globalist pride to marry a Swede, a Mexican, a Japanese, or a Brit, and so on, you could kiss that tribe good bye. And if such a policy were insisted upon from the outside the tribe, then it could be called ethnic cleansing. But how can you care about this stuff without caring about it?

Now Push the Other Direction

So where does the nation state come in?

It is not as though tribal conservatives can’t have a problem with ethnic sin. As I never tire of saying, this comes in the form of malice against other groups, and in the form of vainglory over against other groups. But it is not just the problem of one tribe over against another tribe, the Greeks against the Jews, for example. Problems can also arise between the cosmopolitans and the tribes, the empire-men and the tribes. And it can run both ways. The cosmopolitan elites are certainly capable of malice and/or vainglory, and the local tribe can certainly develop sinful attitudes about the cultural influence pressing on them from outside the tribe.

But with that said . . .

I grant that the nation state is a modern construct, but I deny that it is a construct unlike anything else in the history of the world. The nation state is not sui generis. The reality of America is far closer to the Roman Empire than it is to, say, the Magyars. In other words, when we go back to Scriptures in order to get the direction we need for our modern troubles, we do find something there to compare ourselves to. We do find a yardstick to measure ourselves by. There is something there we can reason from.

The Roman Empire was a political and civic order that encompassed and included many ethnicities, while at the same time having one of those ethnicities in a dominant position. The Romans ran the show, but that show included a vast array of jostling ethnic groups. Sound familiar?

There are those who say that the nation state cannot command our loyalties and allegiance. But America has mine. And it has the loyalties of millions of others. The thing happens, and has happened. What we are discovering now is that it cannot be sustained apart from the biblical idea of covenant, and see below.

Into Some Details

Now the fact that citizens of the Roman Empire need not have been bound together by blood did not mean that there was no common bond. Our civic commitments can be layered, and often are. Look at Saul of Tarsus. He was a Jew, of the tribe of Benjamin, circumcised on the eighth day (Phil. 3:5). He was a citizen of Tarsus, no mean city (Acts 21:39). And he was a Roman citizen, a fact that he used in order to flex on more than one occasion (Acts 16:37; 22:25). He was a Roman, not a Parthian, he was from Tarsus and not Susa, and he was of the tribe of Benjamin, not Judah.

Now what happens when he meets up with Jew from the tribe of Judah who grew up in Parthian Susa, and this fellow loves the Lord? And on the same day he meets a fellow Roman from Tarsus, also a Benjaminite Jew who hates Christianity? How do his loyalties break then?

“As we have therefore opportunity, let us do good unto all men, especially unto them who are of the household of faith.”

Galatians 6:10 (KJV)

Kinists want to say that if I have a glass of water that is needed by two men, a white guy and a black guy, and I can only share it with one of them, with all else being equal, I have a duty and responsibility to give it to the white guy, because of our shared color. But this is to approach the world as it actually is—and no offense meant here—like a simpleton. That’s not how the world comes at us, and “all else” is almost never “equal.” Suppose the black guy is a fellow Presbyterian, a paedobaptist, a Van Tilian theocrat, and a host on CrossPolitic? And suppose the white guy is a Proud Boy, and worships Thor with arcane ceremonies? Now what?

America by Covenant

This next point is going to require some unpacking, which will have to wait until Part 2. But let this last section serve as a trailer for the movie, dropping on Wednesday. I will entice you with alluring phrases like the Constantinian dilemma.

Secularists who love America want it to be a nation founded on a creed. Now that their version of the creed is giving way, revealing the bankruptcy of secularism, numerous other voices are clamoring to fill in that void. These are the aggrieved voices representing various colors and tribes and persecuted or neglected minorities, and it is important not to exclude the hearing impaired with substance abuse challenges.

Now I want to maintain that taken in the secularist way that they have been, Lincoln’s words are lame sauce. “A new nation . . . dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” The weight that secular nationalists put on this is all on that word proposition. America is dedicated to an idea. It was founded on a proposition. Our national experiment was supposed to be creedal. America is dedicated to the ideal of America, and so if we all want to go upstairs to the nicer rooms, we should just grab ourselves by the shirt collar and carry ourselves on up.

The national cookie is crumbling to bits, and now it is becoming apparent that the secularists had no idea what the gluten was that held it all together. For a sprawling nation like America, the only possible gluten is covenant. Covenant with God.

We really need to focus on two other words from that phrase—created, and dedicated. Created, certainly, but by whom? We are in fact created equal . . . unless we are not created at all. If we are just meat puppets at the tail end of a long evolutionary chain, then equality is not really the word that comes to mind.

And the word dedicated provides no cohesion at all unless it is a covenantal dedication. America is not an idea. This is not a philosophy class. We are a nation. But we are a nation, if we are a nation at all, by covenant. And a covenant is a solemn bond, sovereignly administered, with attendant blessings and curses.

More on Wednesday.