Opposing Christian Nationalism as Followers of Jesus

I’ve become increasingly convinced that, for Christians in the U.S., a vital part of our discipleship to Jesus right now is to actively oppose the wave of Christian Nationalism we see surging in the run-up to the presidential election in November.

Christian Nationalism is a way of twisting religious piety into an antichrist instrument of oppression against those deemed unworthy of flourishing. It is a kind of idolatry, intricately connected to racism and patriarchy, that collapses the structures of a particular nation-state with the kingdom of God, and seeks to hoard power to dominate and control others by reaching for political influence in the name of Jesus.

Rather than just ignore it or dismiss it, I think that part of our discipleship to Jesus in this season is learning to discern and actively and openly oppose Christian Nationalism whenever we see it. This opposition will sometimes mean speaking up to denounce the ideology of Christian Nationalism when we hear it spoken, and proclaiming a better gospel, but our opposition can never be merely verbal or stay in the realm of ideas. It can’t be just about “answering” people or winning arguments. Our response must be more holistic, grounded in a concrete, embodied commitment to a way of life that actively dismantles the fear and violence that animate Christian Nationalism.

A vision of gospel life

I recently came across a passage from a third-century Christian bishop and writer named Cyprian of Carthage that gave me some language that I think is helpful for opposing Christian Nationalism in our day. In his teaching on the Lord’s Prayer, Cyprian remarks that when we ask our Father in heaven for his will to be done on earth as in heaven, “we pray not that God should do his will, but that we may carry out his will.”

He goes on to say that Christ gives us the example of what it means for humans to do God’s will. It’s a beautiful passage filled with virtues commensurate to the gospel that Christians ought to cultivate and be known for.

All Christ did, all he taught, was the will of God. Humility in our daily lives, an unwavering faith, a moral sense of modesty in conversation, justice in acts, mercy in deed, discipline, a refusal to harm others, a readiness to suffer harm, peaceableness with one another, a wholehearted love of the Lord, loving in him what is of the Father, fearing him because he is God, preferring nothing to him who preferred nothing to us, clinging tenaciously to his love, standing by his cross with loyalty and courage whenever there is any conflict involving his honor and his name, manifesting in our speech the constancy of our profession and under torture confidence for the fight, and in dying the endurance for which we will be crowned—this is what it means to wish to be a fellow heir with Christ, to keep God’s command; this is what it means to do the will of the Father.

Cyprian gives some detail on a way of life that actively opposes fear and violence and embodies the good news of the gospel. One would benefit greatly by meditating on this passage and allowing the goodness of this vision of life to seep into one’s soul. If we can revel in the goodness and beauty of such a life, it will propel us toward it (much more effectively than oughts and shoulds).

Cyprian’s vision of Christian life couldn’t be in starker contrast to the vision of Christian Nationalism, which mostly revolves around fear of and violence toward the “others” that are threatening “our way of life”. Rather than “a refusal to harm others” and “a readiness to suffer harm,” Christian Nationalism manifest a deep fear of suffering harm, along with a readiness to harm others to avoid suffering.

I was struck by how utterly theologically unserious Christian nationalism is. It seems to make no attempt to square its goals and aims with the life of Jesus and character of God. Rather, it is content to make only vague and shallow associations with scattered Scripture verses or sayings of Jesus, and sometimes flatly denies the authority of Jesus in order to use Jesus as a mascot for its agenda.

Christian Nationalism as a conflict about the “honor and name” of Jesus

The other thing I noticed about this passage about what it means to do the will of God was this specific phrase: “standing by his cross with loyalty and courage whenever there is any conflict involving his honor and his name.”

Because Christian Nationalism uses the name of Jesus to bolster its antichrist claims and goals, I think it qualifies as a “conflict involving his honor and name.” To use the name of Jesus without the slightest shred of commitment to live in the way of Jesus is the definition of taking the Lord’s name in vain. When a political candidate chooses “JESUS GUNS BABIES” as a campaign slogan, the honor and name of Jesus is being dragged through the mud.

In such cases, Cyprian tells us that to do God’s will is to “stand by his cross with loyalty and courage.” What would this mean for us to do this today, in response to Christian nationalism?

It matters that it is the cross of Jesus that we stand by. For Christian nationalists, the cross is an empty symbol they can use to signify anything they like, even violence against others (the deepest and most tragic of ironies). But if we’re going to take the cross seriously as the paradigm of how Jesus lived his life and the ultimate revelation of God’s love, then it can’t just be a hollow totem to use however we want.

Because the cross is a cross: an instrument of terror, torture, and death wielded by imperial power against those who challenged the dominance and supremacy of Rome. In his love for us, Jesus willingly endured suffering and death on a cross. As such, the cross is the ultimate example of “a refusal to harm others,” and “a readiness to suffer harm” instead, trusting in the non-violent love of God to work all things for good (even terrible things like suffering and death!), and specifically through the darkness of suffering and death, bring about resurrection: new life on the other side of death. This is how God saves the world, and it’s the paradigm for how we work with God in the renewal of all things.

Standing by the cross with loyalty and courage

To “stand by” the cross of Jesus, then, is to conform our lives to the shape of the cross, to live in a “cruciform” way, losing our life to find it, letting go of fear and embracing love, moving from scapegoating to solidarity, from a willingness to inflict violence to get my way to a willingness to suffer violence in order to let the truth be heard.

Responding to Christian Nationalism must be more than just having a good answer to Christian Nationalist talking points. This battle can’t be fought on the level of ideology. Any verbal interactions we have with Christian Nationalists must flow from and be grounded in a cruciform way of life committed to embodied solidarity with those that Christian nationalism seeks to marginalize.

I think we are only just beginning to learn how to do this, but here are a few commitments we can make with others in community that will help us continue to grow into a compelling embodied witness of the truth of the gospel:

  1. Learn to embody an everyday cruciform life. This isn’t as much of a “response” as it is a reminder that any specific response to Christian Nationalism must be rooted in a life shaped by the cross, especially in how I live with and treat those with less cultural power than me.
  2. Seek out embodied solidarities with the marginalized. Embodied solidarity means that our fates are caught up together. It’s putting our bodies on the line in solidarity with the marginalized populations, especially the ones that Christian Nationalists are targeting: Black and brown people, queer people, trans people, women, immigrants, and others.
  3. Speak up, even (especially?) when it’s awkward. Speak up when you hear words or see actions that contribute to harm. Make a commitment to not allow harmful actions to pass by unchallenged. This demands wisdom and creativity, of course, and depends a lot on what kind of relationship you have with the person who is participating in harm. But it can sound like “Where did you hear that idea?” or something more direct, like “That’s just not true,” or “Don’t talk that way about _____. It’s offensive and harmful.”

Having enemies, loving enemies

I will admit that commitment #3 is especially difficult for me. I don’t like to cause conflict. I like it better when people are getting along with each other. But to allow harmful actions to happen in my presence without challenging them is to reinforce and participate in the harm.

As I said in a sermon last year, the way some people talk about it, the worst thing happening in today’s world is the polarization we’re experiencing. “We can’t be civil and disagree charitably anymore, and if we all got off Facebook we’d feel better and get along better.”

But this way of framing the problem hides what we’re polarized about, and presumes that we’re disagreeing about inconsequential things. But that’s not what’s happening right now. Much of the “polarization” has to do with people waking up to very real injustice and oppression and insisting that it’s wrong and needs to stop. That kind of action reveals a division that has always been with us, but has been mostly invisible to those of us with some measure of privilege.

So what we’re “polarized” about is whether we should allow people to use the levers of coercive power to amass more wealth at the expense of the poor, whether we should sanction further control and exploitation of Black people, whether we should participate in the scapegoating of queer people, and the control of women’s bodies.

There are people actively seeking to implement these oppressive policies that work against God’s desire for all to flourish, ironically in the name of Jesus! They will continue to do so even if you get off Facebook and ignore all the “polarization.” All that to say, part of following Jesus is loving enemies, and part of loving enemies is identifying and naming enemies: those who are creating enmity in the world through oppression and violence.

Part of loving our Christian Nationalist enemies, then, is naming them as enemies.

Putting on the armor of God

How do we do this? It always depends on context, of course, and requires wisdom and discernment and courage and creativity and experimentation. I am reminded of the “armor of God” that Paul talks about in Ephesians 6:10-17. Paul reminds us that our real struggle is not against flesh and blood (i.e. human enemies) but against spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places that dominate our imaginations and keep us enslaved to fear and violence.

Paul then gives us some handlebars for what this spiritual battle looks like with the “weapons” he urges us to fight with:

  • The belt of truth-telling – I see this as a willingness to tell the truth and bear the consequences, rather than hide the truth in order to avoid making anyone upset.
  • The breastplate of righteous living – I see this as a deep commitment to, as far as it lies within our power, to live reconciled lives with each other, loving one another deeply, affirming our shared humanity with our enemies, refusing to treat anyone as less than human.
  • A readiness to proclaim good news – I see this as a commitment to use our words to proclaim hope to one another, and encourage each other to embrace the truth, rather than accuse and condemn.
  • The shield of faith, helmet of salvation, and sword of the Spirit – I see this as faith in God’s promise to liberate us all in the end. We love our enemies not because it always produces practical results we can measure, but because we trust God to deliver us from evil, and that this is how we participate in that deliverance in a way that doesn’t perpetuate the fear and violence that seek to enslave us.

In the midst of this current “conflict involving his honor and his name,” I hope these thoughts help you know what it might look like to oppose Christian Nationalism, i.e. “stand by the cross of Jesus with loyalty and courage” in our day.

This work by Gravity Commons is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

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