Choosing the Gospel Over Nationalism (repost)

With the recent debate about how to handle families including children at the US border, I want to spend a few days reposting some old blog posts I wrote for Progressive Redneck Preacher about immigration. Hope they bless you!


stephen-barnwell-empire-of-america-moneyIn a previous post, I shared about how both Democratic and Republican administrations have failed to live up fully to the call of Scripture to welcome the immigrant, refugee, or displaced person as if in them they welcome Christ.  And so we must really be willing to take on a critical stance not only to those of whatever political parties and viewpoints oppose us (in my case, not just criticizing political conservatives), but let our faith and values critique the political and social groups that feel like our tribe.   For Christians, this means letting the Gospel of Christ, not political allegiance, be our standard.  It means seeing our ultimate allegiance not to our class, race, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, or even nation but first and foremost to the reality Jesus points to when he says in Mark 1:14, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”   Ultimately we must learn to see the Kingdom of God as the place of our truest citizenship, its values pointing toward another and deeper reality.

I think as we face into a new kind of political reality in America in a populist nationalism which says “America first”, this call of the Gospel takes on more and more significance.  After all, isn’t the call of “America first” at the heart of calls to shut down the borders, to deport immigrants and refugees, and to restrict free trade?   We have a belief that ultimately our tribe is or ought to be the best (hence “make America great again”), believing that this being great can not happen for us if other people, other nations, other communities, also are great.

empire_us_aAn overcharged negativity bias and scarcity mindset lies at the heart of this rising nationalism. This nationalism rests on a belief that there isn’t enough for everyone in God’s good earth. So we must hoard our stuff and our opportunities from those we deem too different like a child on the playground clinging tightly to all the toys saying “mine”.   This impulse ultimately is what leads people to not build longer tables but instead higher walls .
Being Gospel people, Jesus following people, as the Christian faith calls those who identity with it to be, necessarily flies in the face of this nationalistic approach.

In a way, this is a bold and surprising thought for some.  After all, don’t our nationalists in America right now have wide support from the religious world?  Aren’t big named preachers endorsing this approach as sent by God to restore America to being a light on a hillside?

Though there is religion and theology being brought to bear by big named preachers, largely from white churches, like Franklin Graham and Pat Robertson for instance, in support of this rising nationalism in our country, ultimately the Gospel itself stands against any attempt to use theology to prop up empire and nation.

In their book The Last Week on the final week of Jesus’ ministry leading up to his crucifixion, Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan explain that, just as we have nationalist theologies which prop up our American system claiming it is endorsed by God, so in Jesus’ day there was a theology used to prop up the Roman empire’s claims supporting imperial expansion, including its oppression of other people &nations including Jesus’ own.  Notice:


“According to this [Roman imperial] theology, the emperor was not simply the rule of Rome, but the Son of God.  It began with the greatest of emperors, Augustus, who ruled Rome from 31 BCE to 14 CE.  His father was the god Apollo, who conceived him in his mother, Atia.  Inscriptions refer to him as ‘son of God,’ ‘lord’ and ‘savior’, one who had brought ‘peace on earth.’ After his death, he was seen ascending into heaven to take his permanent place among the gods.  His successors continued to bear divine titles, including Tiberius, emperor from 14 to 37 CE and thus emperor during the time of Jesus’ public activity” (The Last Week,  Borg and Crossan, 2-3).

When this Roman imperial theology is laid out in such clear terms, how clearly the story of Jesus in the Gospels acts as a foil to what Rome claimed for the emperor: Jesus, like Augustus, is announced as Son of God, Savior, Lord, and bringer of peace on earth.   Jesus, too, is said to be born of a virgin mother and God.   Jesus, too, is said to likewise rise again from death and ascend to God’s side in heaven.

Multicultural Jesus 1

Whether you view all the miraculous elements of the Gospel story as literally true or not (and Christians are divided on that question), what is clear is that the way the Gospels tell the story of Jesus, based on the preaching of the early church, presents Jesus as a counter to Caesar.   Confessing Jesus is Lord as Romans 10 challenges us to do is not just about personally accepting some kind of salvation in your soul or mine but is also about saying Caesar is not.   Ultimately Jesus and the way he paves for us to follow in his teachings and example are being presented as central to true peace.

And we are being called in his words to repent and believe the Kingdom is at hand, even while active in the midst of other kinds of communities, to change the patterns of our lives and relating so that we enter into and live as members of a new kind of community, the Kingdom of God.

Borg and Crossan explain this call and reality like this,

“’Passion’ means ‘consuming interest, dedicated enthusiasm, or concentrated commitment’… The first passion of Jesus was the kingdom of God, namely, to incarnate the justice of God by demanding for all a fair share of a world belonging and ruled by the covenantal God of Israel.  It was the first passion for God’s distributive justice that led inevitably to the second passion by Pilate’s punitive justice.  Before Jesus, after Jesus, and, for Christians, archetypically in Jesus, those who live for nonviolent justice die all too often from violent injustice” – Borg and Crossan, The Last Week

To answer the call of the Gospel to repent and believe in this kind of Kingdom is to choose to put central in our lives a whole different pattern for living.

empire america paxWhat was the way of living embodied and modeled by the Caesars & their imperial theology?  Strong over weak, controlling and crushing them through domination systems.  As Roman historian Tacitus puts it, ““to plunder, steal, these things they misname empire; they make a desolation and they call it peace”.

What is the way of living Jesus embodied?   The type of lifestyle described in Matthew 5-7, the Sermon on the Mount: of seeking to be a peacemaker who doesn’t return evil for evil, violence  for violence, but turns the other cheek.  This is not just rolling over and accepting abuse and injustice, but a choice to resist these systems of oppression like Rome built, and as continue in their own ways in every culture (even America today!)

As the late Walter Wink wrote in his  the Powers That Be,

“Jesus is not telling us to submit to evil, but to refuse to oppose it on its own terms. W e are not to let the opponent dictate the methods of our opposition. He is urging us to transcend both passivity and violence by finding a third way, one that is at once assertive and yet nonviolent. The correct translation would be the one still preserved in the earliest renditions of this saying found in the New Testament epistles: “Do not repay evil for evil” (Rom. 12:17; 1 Thes. 5:15; 1 Pet. 3:9). The Scholars Version of Matt. 5:39a is superb: “Don’t react violently against the one who is evil…

“The examples that follow confirm this reading. “If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also” (Matt. 5:39b). You are probably imagining a blow with the right fist. But such a blow would fall on the left cheek. To hit the right cheek with a fist would require the left hand. But the left hand could be used only for unclean tasks; at Qumran, a Jewish religious community of Jesus’ day, to gesture with the left hand meant exclusion from the meeting and penance for ten days. To grasp this you must physically try it: how would you hit the other’s right cheek with your right hand? If you have tried it, you will know: the only feasible blow is a backhand.


“The backhand was not a blow to injure, but to insult, humiliate, degrade. It was not administered to an equal, but to an inferior. Masters backhanded slaves; husbands, wives; parents, children; Romans, Jews. The whole point of the blow was to force someone who was out of line back into place.

“Notice Jesus’ audience: “If anyone strikes you.” These are people used to being thus degraded. He is saying to them, “Re-fuse to accept this kind of treatment anymore. If they backhand you, turn the other cheek.” (Now you really need to physically enact this to see the problem.) By turning the cheek, the servant makes it impossible for the master to use the backhand again: his nose is in the way. And anyway, it’s like telling a joke twice; if it didn’t work the first time, it simply won’t work. The left cheek now offers a perfect target for a blow with the right fist; but only equals fought with fists, as we know from Jewish sources, and the last thing the master wishes to do is to establish this underling’s equality. This act of defiance renders the master incapable of asserting his dominance in this relationship. He can

“By turning the cheek, then, the “inferior” is saying: “I’m a human being, just like you. I refuse to be humiliated any longer. I am your equal. I am a child of God. I won’t take it anymore.”


“Such defiance is no way to avoid trouble. Meek acquiescence is what the master wants. Such “cheeky” behavior may call down a flogging, or worse. But the point has been made. The Powers That Be have lost their power to make people submit. And when large numbers begin behaving thus (and Jesus was addressing a crowd), you have a social revolution on your hands.

“In that world of honor and shaming, the “superior” has been rendered impotent to instill shame in a subordinate. He has been stripped of his power to dehumanize the other. As Gandhi taught, “The first principle of nonviolent action is that of non-cooperation with everything humiliating.”

“How different this is from the usual view that this passage teaches us to turn the other cheek so our batterer can simply clobber us again! How often that interpretation has been fed to battered wives and children. And it was never what Jesus intended in the least. To such victims he advises, “Stand up for yourselves, defy your masters, assert your humanity; but don’t answer the oppressor in kind. Find a new, third way that is neither cowardly submission nor violent reprisal.” (taken from’%20Third%20Way.pdf)

common-working-people-2Choosing to live out this calling to live this other way – a way that chooses peacemaking over violence, that chooses servanthood and sharing of power and possessions over dominating other people, that chooses simplicity rather than pouring our resources into markets that oppress and exploit the disenfranchised – is the heart of Jesus’ teaching.  It is a way to transform our world and our communities.   Ultimately, as I noted the Rev. Dr. Jill Edens as highlighting in her preaching on this Sermon of Jesus, it is not possible as a solitary individual but becomes possible when we chose to work together creatively to choose an alternative way in community.  Wherever we enter into and foster such community, that Kingdom of God Jesus preached about is breaking out.

Such radical living re-shapes us and re-shapes our communities.  As we choose to embrace it, we join great company.  As John Mabry notes,

mandelaquote“Rosa Parks is an imitator of Christ, not because she suffered for taking her stand (or keeping her seat, in her case), but because she had the courage to believe in her own dignity and fought for it in spite of the conflict that resulted. Nelson Mandela is an imitator of Christ, not because he suffered in prison, but because he held out for peace and justice, and led a nation to resurrection. In each case it is not the suffering that is redemptive, but the courage to pursue justice in the face of pain and evil(Rosa Parks is an imitator of Christ” — see John R. Mabry, Crisis & Communion: The Remythologization of the Eucharist – Past, Present, and Future (Berkeley, CA: Apocryphile Press, 2005), 129.

The call to repent and believe, for the Kingdom of God is at hand, is a call to live out this courage.  The call to live as citizens of the Kingdom, not with first allegiance to nation, race, tribe, class, sexuality, is a call to pursue justice for all and reject every idol that makes evil possible.

Ultimately it is a call that dethrones this rising tide of nationalism that excludes and oppresses immigrants, refugees, and all who don’t fit our image of “good Americans”.   It is a call we must courageously and willingly take up.

Please, feel free to share how you have embraced this call yourself.  And let’s continue on this journey together.

Your progressive redneck preacher,



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