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DMin, Leadership and Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Nationalism and the Kingdom of God

Written by: on January 18, 2018

Imagined Communities represents one of the cornerstones of modernist thought in nationalism studies.”[1] Anderson proposed the idea that nations and nationalism are modern constructs whose establishment was rooted in the tandem development of print capitalism and the use of vernacular language, which enabled groups of people to create a shared identity. This shared identity—which exists in the imagination of the group—is so strong that its members are willing to kill and be killed for it.[2]

According to Anderson, the Enlightenment’s dismantling of religion and the weakening of monarchies paved the way for nationalism, as their mutual decline left an unmistakable void. But as I read the subsequent analysis, asserting that “three fundamental conceptions…lost their axiomatic grip on men’s minds,”[3] I began to ponder the fundamental difference between religion and the Kingdom of God.

The three “fundamental conceptions”[4] that Anderson identifies are:

  1. The idea that existential truths could only be expressed in certain languages (Latin for Christians, Arabic for Muslims).
  2. The belief that monarchs were divinely appointed by God.
  3. The notion that the origin of the universe is inextricably linked to the human existence.

It may seem paradoxical to say it, (perhaps even heretical to some), but I’m pretty sure God was cheering when these “fundamental conceptions” lost their “axiomatic grip” on humans’ minds. Or in plain English, I’d bet God jumped for joy when people finally started questioning what the Church and those in power had emphatically labelled “unquestionable.” Alas, isn’t that exactly what Jesus did?

“No surprise,” Anderson concludes, “that the search was on, so to speak, for a new way of linking fraternity, power and time meaningfully together.”[5]

No surprise, indeed. For humans have always used the intersections of fraternity, power, and time to understand their place in the world and to make meaning of life. And while I agree that these forces combined to give rise to nationalism, I see how they also paved the way for a new understanding of the Kingdom of God.

During the Protestant Reformation, leaders like Luther and Calvin contributed to the dismantling of these “fundamental conceptions.” Luther dared to translate the Bible into the German vernacular and Calvin “believed free election was the best method of establishing a ruler.”[6] In his book Heroic Leadership, former Jesuit Lowney reminds us that confident adaptation comes from “knowing what’s negotiable and what isn’t.”[7] Lowney says that “Luther and others fully exploited the full power of the printing press,”[8] demonstrating further that the Reformers started the ball rolling a century before the Enlightenment took center stage. While monarchs and the Roman Catholic Church may have held to these three “fundamental conceptions,” the Reformers clearly viewed them as “negotiable” and had already begun to dismantle them.

What’s more, while Anderson acknowledges that the Enlightenment brought these “fundamental conceptions” into question, it also brought with it “its own modern darkness.”[9] This darkness is related to the fact that the Enlightenment movement did not offer a satisfactory explanation for suffering, and therefore failed to give meaning to life. From Anderson’s perspective, this opened the door to nationalism. Reviewer Calhoun explains how nationalism attempted to fill that darkness, “Eventual independence movements were typically not simply negative rebellions against empire, but positive assertions of concepts, models and even blueprints for new societies.”[10] Humans need something to live FOR, not just something to be against.

It was the phrase “blueprints for new societies” that caught my attention and got me thinking about the Kingdom of God. Isn’t that Jesus’ “blueprint for a new society”? We, the people of the God, the Church with a capital C, are also an “imagined community,” but one born in the imagination of God. Christ himself challenged all three of the “fundamental conceptions,” but the result was not a form of nationalism, but rather the establishment of a “holy nation.”

“But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people of his own, so that you may proclaim the virtues of the one who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.”[11]

Unfortunately, nationalism often leads people and nations to believe that God is on their side, failing to recognize that God’s Kingdom is for everyone. It does not respect political borders. It does not refuse entry based on the color of one’s skin or the origin of one’s passport.

Beyond that, our devotion is not to the Kingdom of God, but to the King, who laid down his sovereignty to unite himself with his own people and to elevate them to the status of “joint heirs.”[12] And while we certainly do experience a “deep, horizontal comradeship,”[13] our shared identity is found in both partaking of and constituting the Body of Christ.

Think of how often Jesus taught, “the Kingdom of God is like….” What follows is never something that could be translated into a nationalistic identity.

It belongs to the poor. (Luke 6:20)

It comes to you. (Luke 10:9)

It’s tiny like a mustard seed. (Luke 13:19)

It’s open to those coming from any direction (Luke 13:29)

It belongs to children. (Luke 18:16)

It welcomes tax collectors and prostitutes. (Matt 21:31)

It will be taken from those who think they deserve it the most. (Matt 21:43)

This is the upside down Kingdom of God, the place I want to live. My loyalty is not to the Kingdom, but the King. The only truly sovereign Sovereign.

 

[1] Jason Xidias, An Analysis of Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities (London, 2017). 13.

[2] Benedict R. O’G Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, Revised edition (London New York: Verso, 2016). 8.

[3] Anderson. 35

[4] Anderson. 36

[5] Anderson. 36.

[6] “John Calvin: One of the Fathers of Modern Democracy | Christian History Magazine,” Christian History Institute, accessed January 18, 2018, https://christianhistoryinstitute.org/magazine/article/calvin-father-of-modern-democracy.

[7] Chris Lowney, Heroic Leadership: Best Practices from a 450-Year-Old Company That Changed the World, Reprint edition (Chicago, Ill: Loyola Press, 2005). 29.

[8] Lowney. 30.

[9] Anderson, Imagined Communities. 10.

[10] Craig Calhoun, “Nation and Imagination: How Benedict Anderson Revolutionized Political Theory,” Online News, ABC, May 9, 2017, http://www.abc.net.au/religion/articles/2017/05/09/4665722.htm.

[11] NET Bible® copyright ©1996-2006 by Biblical Studies Press, L.L.C. http://netbible.com All rights reserved. I Peter 2:9

[12] Ibid. Romans 8 :17

[13] Anderson, Imagined Communities. 8.

About the Author

mm

Jennifer Williamson

Jenn Williamson is a wife and mother of two adult sons. Before moving to France in 2010, she was the women's pastor at Life Center Foursquare Church in Spokane, WA. As a missionary with Greater Europe Mission, she is involved in church planting and mentoring emerging leaders. Jenn benefitted from French mentors during her transition to the field, and recognizes that cross-cultural ministry success depends on being well integrated into the host culture. Academic research into missionary sustainability and cultural adaptation confirmed her own experience and gave her the vision to create Elan, an organization aimed at helping missionaries transition to the field in France through the participation of French partners.

10 responses to “Nationalism and the Kingdom of God”

  1. mm Jean Ollis says:

    Bravo Jen! I love this…”It may seem paradoxical to say it, (perhaps even heretical to some), but I’m pretty sure God was cheering when these “fundamental conceptions” lost their “axiomatic grip” on humans’ minds. Or in plain English, I’d bet God jumped for joy when people finally started questioning what the Church and those in power had emphatically labelled “unquestionable.” Alas, isn’t that exactly what Jesus did?”
    Why do we assume that we shouldn’t still be questioning, probing, asking tough questions. We may still not have it right!!!???

    • mm Jennifer Williamson says:

      Those of us who are “in Christ” can start to think we fully understand Christ, and miss how radical and disconcerting his teachings are. We don’t question because we’re more comfortable with answers. I get that. But I’m learning to embrace the questions, to seek Christ as He really as and not as I imagine Him to be. To quote CS Lewis, “He’s not a tame lion.”

  2. mm Dan Kreiss says:

    What do you think the new fundamental conceptions are for our contemporary worldview? Have they actually lost their grip or rather been replaced by a more modern version? And what do we do with that, particularly when you consider your suggesting that nationalism leads people to believe that God is on their side?

    • mm Jennifer Williamson says:

      I think that the crossroads of politics and religion always results in new “fundamental conceptions” which (ironically) tend to be misconceptions. And I think you are absolutely right, we aren’t free of them, they’ve just changed names. As far as what we can do about it, I’m reading a book by Ronald Rolheiser called “The Holy Longing,” and I love what he says: “We will not always know what political strategy is best, but do know that God cares about all victims,that Jesus stands in the midst of brokenness, and that we are being faithful to the gospel when we stand there too” (188).

  3. Great post Jenn! My favorite part of your post was…”It was the phrase “blueprints for new societies” that caught my attention and got me thinking about the Kingdom of God. Isn’t that Jesus’ “blueprint for a new society”? We, the people of the God, the Church with a capital C, are also an “imagined community,” but one born in the imagination of God. Christ himself challenged all three of the “fundamental conceptions,” but the result was not a form of nationalism, but rather the establishment of a “holy nation.”” What a beautiful way to bring this concept of imagined communities into the frame of the Kingdom of God, which is the best, more imaginative community ever. I would love to hear more about how French nationalism is different than American nationalism.

    • mm Jennifer Williamson says:

      The French are wary of nationalism, so while it exists here, it is much more subtle. They are sucpicious of foreigners and proud of their language, their food, their wine, their philosophy, and their logic.

  4. mm M Webb says:

    Jennifer,

    I’ve never heard anyone describe God as jumping for joy. That really would shake heaven and earth. How would you compare God’s goal for the New Covenant to Anderson’s goal for Nationalism?
    Yeah! I am happy you described the community of Christ out of Anderson’s imagined community rhetoric. Better yet, the Body of Christ is a real community of believers whose members believe through faith, not imagination, where their hope for eternity resides, in Christ Jesus our Lord.

    Thanks for reaching past Anderson, leveraging his ideas, and connecting your ideas with something much greater than he imagined, the Holy Nation of God. If print media was a communication catalyst for humankind, I wonder what the created beings of the heavens use to communicate?

    Stand firm,
    M. Webb

  5. I really loved your descriptors for the Kingdom of God. Also, another interesting point you made was: “Unfortunately, nationalism often leads people and nations to believe that God is on their side, failing to recognize that God’s Kingdom is for everyone.”

    I’m glad the Catholic church struggled with the issue of language during Vatican II in the 1960s and finally reformed the Church. (It took long enough!) For those that believe the RC Church can’t change, there were some interesting developments, such as:

    –Mass was said in the vernacular languages and no longer in Latin
    –The priest faced the people during the mass, and not away from them
    –Use of other instruments (eg guitar) were accepted for worship, and new choruses were written and sung
    –Bible reading was encouraged, and contemporary versions were commissioned
    –The official position on Protestant denominations was that they were “separated brethren” not apostate

    Still lots more changes needed, but these were a start.

  6. mm Jason Turbeville says:

    Jennifer,
    Great discussion on the Kingdom of God and the community it creates. I loved your statement “Humans need something to live FOR, not just something to be against.” I have told my congregation time and again that to many know what Christians are against, what better way to change how people see God than to see His people living FOR him. Thanks.

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