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Jesus is political, but he is not a Christian nationalist
As I’ve been talking about Jesus Takes A Side for the last few months, one of the critiques I’ve received is that Jesus didn’t come to change political systems. The argument is that Jesus didn’t come to overturn Rome and bring about a political revolution, and thus, we shouldn’t strive to change our political systems. This argument comes from politically “quiet” people, which Anabaptism is rife with. Of course, I argue that Jesus and the Gospel are manifestly political, but the politics of Jesus is not interested in political domination.
I think this is true across the Old and New Testament, too. Israel had its own political life, but it wasn’t an expansive Empire, like those that threatened it for thousands of years. Even during Jesus’ time, Jewish people wanted self-determination and freedom from Rome, but not the conquest that was typical of Empires at the time. Jesus brings that same humble Spirit and demonstrates a politics that protects those very humble and meek people.
So yes, my detractors are right, Jesus didn’t come to bring a political revolution that benefited him and his people. Jesus came for the poor and the oppressed, which is the political posture Christians need to take. Followers of Jesus are certainly political, but Jesus shows us another way to be political than to be dominant and violent.
What the political quietists critiquing me should be doing is assertively pushing back against the growing movement of Christian nationalism. For a while, a lot of Christian nationalists denied the term altogether, but as Kristen Du Mez reports, now we see “a new trend of openly embracing the term and advancing its aims. In the political realm, we’ve seen this shift most prominently with figures like Lauren Boebert and Marjorie Taylor Greene. On the publishing side of things, we’re seeing it with Andrew Torba and Andrew Isker, and Stephen Wolfe.”
The sort of politics that Jesus opposed was the kind that Christian nationalists support! Advancing the political priorities of Christians, making a Christian state, is antithetical to the Gospel. Jesus didn’t come to dominate and create a new political apparatus. Jesus didn’t come to collect political power but to self-empty of it. Jesus brought good news to the poor and the oppressed, and that informed his and should inform our politics. The aims of Christian nationalists are quite to the contrary in fact, and if we are following Jesus, our politics should oppose theirs, actually.
I think that we get into trouble at that point, however. Christians see the toxic fruit of Christian nationalism, and then shy away from any sort of political engagement. Political quietists, with no help from the media or our politicians, cannot help but distinguish between Christian nationalists and their opponents. They too often see any political engagement as trying to acquire personal power. Advocating for queer rights for example is the same as taking away the rights of women, but that inability to distinguish results in death and dishonesty. Jesus takes a side, after all.
Instead of this quietism though, Christians should be politically engaged against nationalist movements of all kinds, especially Christian nationalism. The fact that Christian nationalists are now embracing that title without any shame shows us how serious the problem in the U.S. is. We need to confront the most vocal of Christian nationalists, but we must also consider how Christian nationalism developed because it wasn’t out of thin air.
Christianity has been weaponized as a tool to advance oppression essential since its inception. Anabaptists point to the turning point being Constantine that turned Christianity into a political tool to advance his own political aims. I think we saw this throughout Christendom in Europe, in Christian colonialization across the world, and in the Atlantic slave trade as well. In the U.S., Christianity was used to justify slavery, Jim Crow laws, lynching, and segregation. And when that failed, Evangelical Christians took up the cause of abortion, and later opposition to gay marriage. All of these political issues originate outside of Christianity, but abused Christianity to advance them. But that separation is no longer clear; it’s hard to tell if racism isn’t just fundamentally Christian at this point or not, for example. Christian nationalism and white nationalism go hand-in-hand; Christian exceptionalism and white supremacy seem to be married to each other, as well.
When we think about guarding against Christian nationalism, I do believe that the place to start has to be the church and how we disciple our people. It’s important that we help form one another in the way of Jesus; but that way is not colonialistic or expansive, it is not oppressive or repressive. Those sorts of things are what Christian nationalism is made up of, but not Jesus of Nazareth. The hard part is that this resistance to Christian nationalism brings into question the notion of evangelism. Evangelism can be a nationalist endeavor; our goal might be to expand our church’s brand, influence, or reputation. It can be further used to advance Christian political aims. That doesn’t mean evangelism is wrong, but we need to be careful. We need to consider our own motives, our own exceptionalism, and really ask what it means to be a Christian disciple.
Christian disciples must oppose Christian nationalism, and we must embrace the poor and oppressed as a fundamental part of our faith. That will make us appear political, but political in a way Jesus was, not in the ways he was opposed to being. Jesus didn’t come to create a new state, but to bring good news to the needy. We can join him in that journey today, and yes, that means acting politically. And no that does not mean building a Christian nation.