A State of MindGeorge A. Mason January/February 2020
Many fundamentalists, who used to eschew the politics of this world and thought the kingdom of God was only for our hearts now and for heaven when we die, have entered the fray with a fervor we haven’t seen in ages. And they have taken center stage in this engagement. They have gained the ear of the White House and Congress and the Supreme Court, and their version of engagement has changed the face of our faith in ways we have to confront with our faith.
Christians—again, primarily White evangelical Christians—have courted the corridors of power and have curried favor to gain power over their enemies. They have been changing the principle of religious liberty into a license to discriminate against people who offend them, on the basis of their sincere religious convictions. This is not something a Jew or Muslim could successfully claim in this America.
We have forgotten that once we were no people, but now we have become the people of God (1 Peter 2:10). “Once we were slaves in Egypt,” Jews say during Passover. “My father was a wandering Aramean,” the Hebrew confession begins (Deuteronomy 26:5). Once, we were rejected by popes and bishops and left to worship in hovels and homes and clearings in the woods. Once, we had to pay taxes to the state so that somebody else’s minister could be paid, while we couldn’t even hold the office of dogcatcher in our town because we were Baptists or Quakers or some other unauthorized sect. Once, we boarded ships to flee persecution and find a place to worship and work where nobody told us that some human beings had more purchase on the right to call themselves children of God than we. . . .
When people make the claim that nations are sovereign and have the right to secure borders, we tend to think this is unassailable logic. But part of the unwinding of all this is to challenge that idea at its core. Where is it written? The modern nation-state is a social construction, not a God-ordained natural political right.
No one knows for sure where the idea of the modern nation-state comes from. There are several theories, but they are just that. The most common is to trace it back to Europe and the Peace of Westphalia in 1648 that ended the Eighty Years’ War between Spain and the Dutch, and the Thirty Years’ War that included the Germans. Prior to this, empires came and went, marching across the landscape to gain ground for their glory until they were defeated by a stronger empire.
Westphalia laid the groundwork for a modern sense of internationalism that recognizes territorial sovereignty of a people. But still, there are questions of whether these nations can simply declare themselves or must be recognized by others in order to be legitimate. And then there’s the question of whether ethnicity and culture should be the determining factors in the constitution of a nation-state.
In its more benign form, the idea that the people who naturally inhabit a region and share a common language and culture should determine their identity as a nation-state seems appealing. There’s a certain coherence to that theory, giving a clearer sense of identity to a people. But we have seen the malignant version of this in the “blood and soil” mantra of Nazi Germany that viewed the Jews as a scourge upon their land. So maybe that isn’t a solid moral basis for establishing a nation.
We translate the New Testament Greek word ethnos as nation, and we’re supposed to go into all nations to preach the gospel. Is every ethnic group on the planet supposed to have its own nation-state? What about the Kurds in northern Iraq, then? What about the Rohingya people in Myanmar? The Jews lived in diaspora for centuries before returning to Palestine—some claiming it as a divine right. They declared themselves a nation-state in 1948, but 30 states, primarily Arab ones, still do not recognize Israel. Yet neither does the State of Israel recognize the right of Palestinian people to their own national sovereignty in the land of their birth.
And what about many nations that have many ethnic groups within their borders? The word “nation” comes from the Latin root natio, meaning birth or tribe, and thus means something like where or to whom you were born. So most nations have this idea that if you are born within its borders, you have a claim to citizenship. But now our current administration in Washington is controversially trying to change that in order to discourage unauthorized border crossings and, in a more covert way, to protect a certain culture.
If you consider the American case, the natural inhabitant part quickly falls apart, since Native Americans are the only ones with original claim on the land. We decided that we would become a nation by declaration and that certain ideals about humanity would inform us—all men being created equal, for instance; each having the natural right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
But when your nation has to construct a narrative to justify its claim to land, it tends to neglect certain factors in favor of other factors. So we tell a story of people seeking freedom from persecution, the right to worship as we please, the opportunity to pursue prosperity, etc. But no sooner do we do so than we privilege certain aspects of that story. For instance, we initially privileged White, northern European Protestant immigrants. We didn’t consider African slaves fully human, so they weren’t a problem; they were just property. When the Irish and Italian Catholics started coming over, we weren’t sure they could be integrated fully into this WASP-dominated nation, because of their higher loyalty to the pope. In 1939 America turned away 900 Jews on the MS St. Louis who were fleeing Hitler’s genocide. No room at the inn. So much for Emma Lazarus’ poem at the Statue of Liberty that ends with these flourishing lines:
Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!
I tell you all this to remind you that when we hear people talking about borders and the rights of a nation-state to defend its borders, there’s a more fundamental question about the definition of a nation-state that we aren’t addressing. The nation-state is a social and political construct in search of a natural and universal grounding that falls apart with every attempt. It may be the best construct we have to work with today, but it isn’t absolute or divinely ordained.
The more anxious we become about it all, the more likely we double-down on defending the indefensible. Nationalism is one such attempt. In the case of the United States, nationalism is always mixed up with White supremacy, no matter how much nationalists try to deflect that. . . .
[The Bible] shows us how God is working out God’s will and way against previous assumptions of how the world should be organized. There is a trajectory to Israel’s understanding of how to account for insiders and outsiders that reaches a more universal moral grounding in . . . Isaiah with the vision of Israel becoming a light to all nations, bringing salvation to the ends of the earth.
So Jesus doesn’t just appear out of nowhere with these boundary-blurring ideas that burst the bubble of Jewish nationalism. He escaped Nazareth by a whisker when He interpreted Isaiah’s word to mean that He would rely on the examples of the prophets Elijah and Elisha, who in their day served and healed Gentiles as well as Jews (Luke 4:24-27).
And then the early church in the book of Acts takes up this border-crossing, boundary-crashing work. The Spirit continually moves the apostles to accept God-fearing Gentiles, eunuchs and women without regard to traditional religious identity markers such as circumcision and purity laws. The early church had to reckon with this as it continued to move beyond Palestine into Roman territory—whether in Asia Minor, Greece, or North Africa. The gospel simply would not be defined by nationalism.
And so today we find ourselves in need of reimagining our role in the world as the church of Jesus Christ. We have a history of Christian missions to draw upon that, while respecting national borders to some extent, saw the imperative of trespassing those borders at times in order to bring the gospel to unreached people groups. Likewise, we have transnational corporations that argue for a global economy that requires nations to compromise the extent of their sovereignty for the sake of the greater good. . . .
The people who most egregiously defend the cruel and inhumane policies of policing our borders against desperate people yearning to be free almost always claim Christian warrant for their behavior. But it would be better if we would instead take ourselves to task and renew our commitment to being the salt of the earth and the light of the world.
We can start by remembering the distinction Martin Luther King, Jr., made in his “Letter From a Birmingham Jail” between a just and unjust law. A just law is a man-made code, he said, that squares with the moral law or the law of God. This is to be respected and honored. An unjust law, however, must be resisted and opposed.
One who breaks an unjust law must do so openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the penalty.
I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for the law.
He was specifically dealing with segregation laws in his own day, but it didn’t take him long before he trespassed into other areas of militarism and materialism. Today I believe he would also speak against an ungodly nationalism that divides us against one another within our borders and against one another across our borders. . . .
Defending the right of our nation to make our border all but impenetrable to outsiders on the basis of Romans 13, as some do, is both horrible hermeneutics and terrible ethics. Paul claims there that we are to be subject to governing authorities, because authority comes from God and governing authorities are instituted by God. Some Christians today, especially those who are controlling the public understanding of our faith, see our current administration as wielding just such godly authority—although they didn’t claim that for the previous administration. But this view conveniently passes over the historic struggle of the church to reckon with what to do with leaders who violate our sense of the universal moral law.
Martin Luther was challenged on just such a point in the early sixteenth century, the civil and ecclesiastical authorities calling upon him to be subject to their rule. The Swiss Reformed theologian Philip Schaff comments on this moment for Luther: When tradition becomes a wall against freedom, when authority degenerates into tyranny, the very blessing is turned into a curse, and history is threatened with stagnation and death. At such rare junctures, Providence raises those pioneers of progress, who have the intellectual and moral courage to break through the restraints at the risk of their lives, and to open new paths for the onward march of history…. Conscience is the voice of God in man. It is his most sacred possession. No power can be allowed to stand between the gift and the giver. Even an erring conscience must be respected and cannot be forced.
George A. Mason is senior pastor of the Wilshire Baptist Church in Dallas, Texas. This address was first presented as the Campolo Lecture at Eastern College/Palmer Seminary on April 26, 2019, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. This article is excerpted from its publication in Christian Ethics Today, Summer 2019. Used by permission.
The issue of immigration and how we treat the stranger is a huge one in the United States today. It is also a huge issue in most of the rest of the world and is rapidly changing old political realities. In approaching the topic, Liberty is not empowered to suggest that our laws be ignored in the current crisis. A nation indeed has an obligation to law and order and to maintain policies for the good of its inhabitants. But no nation, no people, have a divine mandate to ignore the moral absolutes expressed powerfully in the Sermon on the Mount and embraced so masterfully in the Declaration of Independence, with its recognized “inalienable” rights for man. Lincoln Steed, Editor.