by Lars Doland | 10 July 2019 |
I am not an American. My great-grandfather was, though later he moved to the United Kingdom. I am mostly of Scandinavian descent. I grew up in Denmark and now serve as a pastor of two churches in Norway.
I have been to the United States only once. Still, my country is saturated with American culture. We eat American food and stream American TV shows. We know a lot about America, as most people around the world do.
What we don’t do is celebrate the 4th of July.
I might not even have noticed that the date was July 4 except that in my social media news feed I saw a picture of the Statue of Liberty and the American flag. The caption said, “The greatest symbols of hope and freedom.” The Facebook user added his own caption, “Happy Fourth of July. May you enjoy the precious freedom paid with the blood and sacrifice of so many of my brothers and sisters in arms.”
What struck me the most wasn’t the post itself. It’s not my first encounter with military-tinged nationalism. What struck me was the poster and the context. It was by a Seventh-day Adventist minister, for other Seventh-day Adventists.
Some might think I disapproved of this because I am not American. Perhaps I feel jealous of these wonderful symbols? Perhaps I reacted negatively because I belong to the international “competition”? I can assure you that’s not the case. What bothered me is that I never would have expected an endorsement of this sort of nationalism by a Seventh-day Adventist, let alone a Seventh-day Adventist minister.
You may think me naive. Yet I really can’t emphasize enough just how strange such a statement seems in light of what I perceive Christianity in general, and Adventism in particular, to be about.
National Identity in the Bible
I do not believe that Adventism is opposed to love for country. Quite the opposite. We’re called to love our neighbors wherever we live. But we’re also called to love our enemies. This goes back to Old Testament times where the Israelites were even called to love the strangers among them, “for you were foreigners in Egypt” (Ex. 22:21).
It is true that this isn’t what you see practiced by God’s people through much of the Old Testament. Doesn’t the Bible say that particular peoples were “devoted to destruction”? God told Saul, “Now go, attack the Amalekites and totally destroy all that belongs to them. Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys” (1 Samuel 15:3). Saul didn’t follow the instructions exactly as God wanted him to, and was rejected. However, it is notable that Saul wasn’t rejected for being merciful, but for securing the booty for himself.
So if you want to support your nationalism with Bible verses, there’re plenty of verses to pick from. The Old Testament has many stories of genocide and tribalism, all perpetrated in God’s name.
This is where a Christian reading of the Bible comes in. Jesus is The Revelation of God. There’s a sense in which God’s ways were unknown prior to the first Advent. The gospel was “the mystery hidden for long ages past” (Rom 16:25). This includes national identity and how we are to think of people outside our own tribe. Jesus has revealed, in a unique way, God’s love for all people of the world.
Before Jesus, there were glimpses of that, such as in the divine promise to Abraham that “all peoples on earth will be blessed through you” (Gen 12:3). In between the gruesome stories of how God seemingly wanted Israelites to kill other peoples, one could discern a trajectory. Isaiah had visions of a future world of peace where all the nations, including Israel, would “beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks” (Isa 2:4).
Whatever those violent Old Testament stories mean, when read through the lens of the New Testament, we see that they do not show us the true nature of God. Now we’ve seen the loving character of God displayed in flesh and blood, most clearly on the cross (1 Jn 4:9). On the cross God “has torn down the dividing wall of hostility” (Eph 2:14) that used to exist between Israel and their national enemies, the gentiles, those “who once were far away” (Eph 2:17). In effect, nationalism and tribalism have ended, because Christ has introduced a completely different worldview.
The Nations in the Adventist Worldview
I can be grateful for this on a very personal level, because I wouldn’t have known God if Jesus hadn’t torn down the dividing wall between Jews and gentiles. As an ethnic gentile, I would not have paid any attention to the Hebrew scriptures, because I didn’t belong to the chosen people. But because of Jesus, all such ethnic and national barriers have been exposed as irrelevant and made completely obsolete.
This is true for the majority of Bible believers today: in terms of ethnicity and nationality, we’re gentiles. But the Gospel says this doesn’t matter. God didn’t draw those lines on our maps—we did. The territories we inhabit don’t even belong to us, we just get to live here. The whole world belongs to God. He generously shares it with us, and we should obviously share it with each other. I regard this as a basic truth of the Gospel of Jesus.
Yet, this seems not to be the Christianity taught in some evangelical churches. I might have ignored the nationalism taught in those churches, until I noticed that Bible’s generous understanding of the Gospel was met with opposition even among some Adventists. There are some (such as the pastor I referenced at the beginning) who seek to combine their faith with nationalism, as though God prefers their nation over other nations.
This tendency isn’t something that just appeared recently, of course. Christianity went through a major transformation in the 4th century when the Christian church conflated Christian beliefs and structures with worldly power. You might say that this was when Christianity lost its innocence in exchange for power. The Constantinian hijacking of the church has haunted Christianity ever since. It survived the Reformation, the Second Great Awakening and even the rise of Adventism.
It will be no surprise to Seventh-day Adventists that both Daniel and Revelation said this would happen. In these books, so important to us Adventists, imperial powers are described as beasts that suppress and attack God’s people. The powers of this world speak blasphemous words and raise their counterfeit thrones in defiance of the Lamb who has been seated on the heavenly throne. But judgment is coming, as the second and third angels remind us (Revelation 14). The violent ways of earthly empires will end. They will be replaced by a kingdom of peace where love reigns rather than force and fear. This is the “eternal gospel” to a world held captive by powers of darkness.
I’m confident most Adventist readers will recognize this as a thoroughly Seventh-day Adventist perspective. Our church affirms God’s love for all people. Prophetically, we are skeptical of human powers. I believe that this worldview leaves absolutely no room for nationalistic propaganda or a “my country first” mentality. The real symbol of freedom and hope is the cross, not the Statue of Liberty or the Stars and Stripes. If we know our gospel, we should be the last ones to be fooled by nationalist ideologies.
A Truly Christian Nation?
There’s only one country that matters in the end, and that is God’s kingdom on earth. The kingdom of God is not of this world. God reigns in a way that is significantly different from how human rulers pursue their interests. Jesus explicitly warned the disciples against thinking like human politicians.
“You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their superiors exercise authority over them. It shall not be this way among you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first among you must be your slave—just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many” (Matt 20:25-28)
If a real Christian nation existed, it would live out the servant principle on an international scale. A truly Christian nation would love her neighbour countries as herself—perhaps even above herself. Paul encourages the church in Philippi, “Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others” (Phil 2:3-4). How would Paul’s principle translate to foreign relationships? So Christian leaders who take the Gospel seriously ought to consider carefully what they mean by “our national interests.”
I’m not sure a truly Christian nation would be capable of calling attention to its own goodness.
There’s no doubt that Christians should strive to be good citizens wherever we live. We should pray for our leaders. We should all love our own country—but also love other countries. God loves America. He loves China, Sweden, Zimbabwe and North Korea just as much. There’s a reason God has gathered people “from every tribe and tongue and people and nation” and “made them into a kingdom of priests” (Rev 5:9-10).
I hope all my American brothers and sisters had a great celebration on their national independence day, and felt a deep appreciation for the place they live.
But I also hope they don’t lose sight of the Kingdom that’s coming.
Lars Dorland is the pastor of churches in Haugesund and Sør-Karmøy. He and his wife Serena are expecting their first child.