Scandal of nationalism

Jul 4, 2016 by

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I remember it well, because the question was transformative.

Marion Bontrager shows the drop in the timeline during the united monarchy when Israel resorted to nation-state and geographical boundaries. Bontrager created and taught Introduction to Biblical Literature to some 5,000 students, sometimes team teaching with colleagues, until he retired in 2014. — John E. Sharp

Marion Bontrager shows the drop in the timeline during the united monarchy when Israel resorted to nation-state and geographical boundaries. Bontrager created and taught Introduction to Biblical Literature to some 5,000 students, sometimes team teaching with colleagues, until he retired in 2014. — John E. Sharp

I was a first-year student at Hesston College, in the library studying to teach a lesson on eschatology to a junior high Bible study at Hess­ton Inter-Mennonite Church, now Kingdom Life.

Classmate Michael David asked what I was doing. Combining the figurative language of Revelation and recent historic events, I explained in some detail how God was restoring the Jewish nation. God’s gift of land to Abraham and God’s promises to his people were being realized in current events, beginning with Israel’s birth as a nation in 1948.

I showed him the book I was using, The Late Great Planet Earth by Hal Lindsay, popular then.

He asked, “Where does that leave me? I’m a Palestinian Christian.”

I didn’t have a good answer. He was complicating my theory of the end times.

The question sent me on a search. How could God’s purposes exclude Palestinians, or any group of people? Something was missing.

What I missed was the difference between a people and a nation-state. What I had missed was that God’s call to Abraham was to bless all families on earth. It was a call to mission and not as God’s favorites.

I had missed the mixed-race character of the Exodus people. I had failed to notice the many others who joined Israel along the way. It was not about ethnicity or Abraham’s DNA.

I hadn’t noticed that the sin of monarchy, in addition to the rejection of God as king, was the drawing of boundaries that limited people’s access to God. The limits of a nation-state and geography created boxes that kept people out.

The timeline we use for our Introduction to Biblical Literature course at Hesston College shows a steep drop at the point of the united monarchy. It indicates Israel’s unfaithfulness, their rejection of theocracy, their desire to be like the nations. The ever-gracious God doesn’t abandon the people but allows them to choose, in what we call God’s remedial will.

I had missed other things in my early teaching: That the good thing about the Babylonian exile was the smashing of boxes and the chance to reclaim the call to mission. That when the remnant of Judah returned to Jerusalem, Ezra created yet another box, ethnocentrism.

And how could I have missed Jesus’ challenge to ethnocentrism? His attention to Gentiles, to women, to the outcast? The abusive structures of power?

Fast forward to the Jerusalem Conference. Would Christians be required to keep Jewish rituals? The answer was no. Only one question mattered: “Is Jesus Lord?”

Paul called the church the new creation. This is what was new: Jews and Gentiles together. It was a radical new creation that broke boxes of ethnicity, geography and nation-state.

Before my classmate’s question, I was willing to settle for a narrowly defined national and ethnic definition of the church. I thank God for the question.

Now I wonder how radical we are as a church. Do we limit God’s everlasting grace to one ethnic group? Or one nation? Do we believe God endorses Israel’s violence today? Do we believe the United States is God’s favorite nation? One might think so, given much of the rhetoric of the presidential race. And that white America is God’s America.

Whether in the time of Israel’s monarchy, or when referring to the modern state of Israel or the modern country in which we live, nationalism is scandalous.

John E. Sharp teaches history at Hesston (Kan.) College.


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  • Rainer Moeller

    Men form particular associations, ethnical associations and ethno-national states as part of their “pursuit of happiness” (of which the founding fathers took a benign view). Conflicts between ethnies and nations can be solved as simple and as difficult as conflicts between individuals.
    Exaggerated nationalism can be scandalous; but exaggerated anti-nationalism may become, in the end, as scandalous.

  • Dale Welty

    Regarding the nation of Israel or the USA, nationalism as I understand it is not scandalous but is Biblical. In regards to the land that God has promised Israel, Genesis 15:18 declares to Abraham, “To your descendants I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the Euphrates.” God later confirms this promise to Abraham’s son Isaac and Isaac’s son Jacob (whose name was later changed to Israel). When the Israelites were about to invade the Promised Land, God reiterated the land promise, as recorded in Joshua 1:4, “Your territory will extend from the desert to Lebanon, and from the great river, the Euphrates—all the Hittite country—to the Great Sea on the west.”

    According to Genesis 15:18 and Joshua 1:4, the land God gave to Israel included everything from the Nile River in Egypt to Lebanon (south to north) and everything from the Mediterranean Sea to the Euphrates River (west to east). So, what land has God stated belongs to Israel? All of the land modern Israel currently possesses, plus all of the land of the Palestinians (the West Bank and Gaza), plus some of Egypt and Syria, plus all of Jordan, plus some of Saudi Arabia and Iraq. Israel currently possesses only a fraction of the land God has promised.

    The Abrahamic Covenant was an everlasting covenant of promise between God and Abraham. It consisted of I, The promise of land for Abraham and his descendants. (Genesis 12:1). II, The promise of descendants to dwell in the land. (Genesis 12:2). III, The promise of blessing and redemption to bless the families of the earth through him. (Genesis 12:3). Unlike the later Mosaic Covenant which was conditional, the Abrahamic Covenant was not conditional nor did it have an expiration date. The word everlasting in this Covenant has the same meaning as it does in John 3:16.

    For those who subscribe to Replacement Theology, how do you explain why and how Israel reappeared as a nation in 1948 after not existing for over 2000 years? Further, if Israel has been condemned by God, and there is no future for the Jewish nation, how do you explain the supernatural survival of the Jewish people over the past 2000 years despite the many attempts to destroy them? Dale Welty

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