I recently returned from spending two weeks in Zimbabwe. I was at Africa University to teach at the graduate school in theology. It was a great experience all around, but perhaps the one thing that excited me the most was meeting and interacting with Christians from all over the world. There were students at AU from thirty different African countries. I interacted with professors and administrators from Zimbabwe, Kenya, Ethiopia and other places. I met and conversed with other visiting professors from Germany, Denmark, and Congo. In worship and conversation, I experienced a glimpse of Revelation 7:9-12:
After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. They cried out in a loud voice, saying,
‘Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!’
And all the angels stood around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, singing,
‘Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom
and thanksgiving and honor
and power and might
be to our God for ever and ever! Amen.’
From its very beginning, the church has been a transnational community. The church cannot be tribalized and therefore minimized as a community whose primary loyalty is to a particular nation state or ethnicity. No earthly nation can be a Christian nation because only the church can hold that honor. To give America or Canada or Germany the status of Christian nation is to commit ecclesiastical idolatry. The Apostle Peter says to the church.
But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light (1 Peter 1:9).
It is quite the tragedy that through much of its history, the church has not embraced the truth of its existence by reverting back to making tribal loyalties central in a way that Jesus died to destroy. In reference to the tribal loyalties of Jew and Gentile, St. Paul writes in Ephesians,
But now in Christ Jesus you [Gentiles] who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, so that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it (2:13-16).
Any form of Christian nationalism is an aberration of the gospel of Jesus Christ and a denial of the true identity and purpose of the church. That does not mean that as Christians we do not love the nation of our birth or the nation we have adopted. I am an American. I love America and the good she has done. But I am also critical of the country of my birth because I want her to be better and I want her also to own up to the tragedy and evil perpetrated in her history as well– slavery, Jim Crow, the displacement of the First Americans, the Trail of Tears. History will be of no help to us moving into the future, if we selectively remember only the good things and forget or at least minimize the atrocities of the past. Any American who loves America will face history in complete honesty.
But, the one thing that Christians cannot do and still be faithful to the gospel and to the church is to have their ecclesiastical identity compromised by nationalistic interests. It must be more important to the followers of Jesus how American action in the world affects their fellow Christians in Iraq and Syria and Zimbabwe than in how it affects America. That is not always easy to distinguish, to be sure. There is often much ambiguity. But one thing is for certain and I now dare to say it– most Christians in America did not ponder how the invasion of Iraq would decimate the church there, nor have many of them considered what is now happening to Kurdish Christians given the withdrawal of American support from northern Syria.
Yes, it is true and must be true that as a transnational community, the church must be concerned about all persons (Christian or not) since everyone is created in the image of God and is a soul for whom Jesus died. But when we fail, at the very least, to consider the implications of how nation state actions will affect our sisters and brothers in Christ around the world, we functionally default to a nationalism that can only be described as idolatrous. Such tribalism is a betrayal of what the Holy Spirit began on the Day of Pentecost.
I close with a portion of the Letter to Diognetus, who was a tutor of the emperor, Marcus Aurelius (reigned 161-180 A.D.) The unknown author of this epistle truly captures the vision of the church as a transnational community.
Christians are not distinguished from other men by country, language, nor by the customs which they observe. They do not inhabit cities of their own, use a particular way of speaking, nor lead a life marked out by any curiosity. The course of conduct they follow has not been devised by the speculation and deliberation of inquisitive men. The do not, like some, proclaim themselves the advocates of merely human doctrines.
Instead, they inhabit both Greek and barbarian cities, however things have fallen to each of them. And it is while following the customs of the natives in clothing, food, and the rest of ordinary life that they display to us their wonderful and admittedly striking way of life.
They live in their own countries, but they do so as those who are just passing through. As citizens they participate in everything with others, yet they endure everything as if they were foreigners. Every foreign land is like their homeland to them, and every land of their birth is like a land of strangers.
Revelation 7:9-12 is not a vision to be fulfilled exclusively in the future; it is a reality the church of Jesus Christ must embrace in the here and now.