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May 16, 2021 | Doug Sauder
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Recently, a friend of mine was given the opportunity to do a semester abroad in a European country. He and his wife are spending a month in Switzerland as he studies design in one of the most influential countries in this field. The whole idea of studying abroad is an interesting one: You get to live in another country, a place where you don’t speak the same language as everyone else, surrounded by unfamiliar sights and unfamiliar people. And whether you live there for a few weeks or several years, it’s still not your home . . . you’re still not a citizen of that country. You may take up residence there, but you know you’re from somewhere else.
Over the last few decades, there’s been a rise in the United States in what‘s known as nationalism. By definition, nationalism is “an extreme form of patriotism, especially marked by a feeling of superiority over other countries.” According to September 2015 Lifeway research, “Despite headlines lamenting the global decline of the United States since the Cold War, 54 percent of Americans believe the nation is on the upswing . . . Only 4 in 10 think ‘America’s best days are behind us.’”
Sadly, this rise in nationalism has impacted the international reputation of Americans. According to a 2016 CBS News report, Americans are not the most well-perceived people in the world. And although there were a few supporters, the majority of people polled had mixed feelings about Americans. While being cited as good tippers, innovative, technologically advanced, and lovers of freedom, the overall perception skewed more towards the negative. One person interviewed stated, “The first word that comes to mind when I hear the word America is 'arrogance.' They are big and loud and they are in charge of everything." Other words associated with Americans were powerful, excess, consumerism, imperialist, entertainment, and superficial. One person went as far as to say, “Americans are American because they feel (they are) better than the rest of the world but in reality we are as good as they are. They simply don't see us as their equal . . . but we are.”
While we know it’s not fair to categorize the whole of Americans this way, nor is it true that we’re all arrogant, loud, and superficial, this is the perception that many around the world share. And sadly, this ideology of American superiority known as nationalism is very real, and it’s becoming rampant across the country.
Now, you may be wondering what studying abroad in a foreign country has to do with nationalism. Today, I want to explore a disturbing philosophy that has become all too common in the fabric of American churches as a whole: the intermingling of nationalism and Christianity. I want to share why this is dangerous thinking for a believer, and why we as Christians are like foreign exchange students.
The God of America?
Did you know that despite the fact the United States Constitution does not mention God, Lifeway found that “53 percent of Americans say they believe God and the nation have a special relationship . . . even a third of atheists, agnostics, and those with no religious preference believe America has a special relationship with God.”? Isn’t that interesting? Where does that thinking come from? Why is it that so many Americans have come to believe that God shares a special relationship with this country that He doesn’t with others? Why do so many refer to this country as a Christian nation but others as Muslim countries or Hindu countries? Why do some call America God’s country, as if the rest of the countries of the world, and its people, belonged to someone else?
Now please hear me when I say that I wholeheartedly believe the Lord has blessed this country immensely. We have most certainly experienced God’s grace, and He has allowed us to prosper as a nation. We have seen great revivals take place and the gospel spread to all corners of the earth through the work God has done here in the United States, with more Christian missionaries being sent from this nation than any other in history. There’s no doubt that God has shed His grace on the United States of America. But as we say that, we would also do well to remember that God is NOT an American. God is not for America more than He is for any other country. We would also do well to remember that America is not the new Israel . . . We do not have any unique, special covenant with God that any other nation does not have. Nor should we want that.
A Covenant People
Consider for a moment that the Mosaic covenant God made with the people of Israel on Mount Sinai after rescuing them from Egypt was a conditional covenant. It was what is called a Suzerain/Vassal treaty. In the ancient world, treaties between kings and rulers were commonplace. The greater king was the Suzerain and the lesser ruler was the vassal. These treaties contained three parts: 1) the preamble, which illustrates to the vassal how much the Suzerain has done to protect and establish the vassal who therefore owes submission and allegiance to the Suzerain, 2) the stipulations, outlining in detail what the vassal is required to do, and 3) an outline of the blessings and curses of the Suzerain, based on the vassal’s faithfulness to the aforementioned stipulations.
In this case, the Suzerain was God and the vassal was the people of Israel. His blessing and protection upon the people of Israel was dependent upon their faithfulness to Him. When the people would turn away from Him, when they would follow wicked leaders and worship false gods, His conditional blessing would be taken away. There were consequences to their rebellion and wickedness. This is what led to the split of the kingdom after Solomon, the Babylonian/Persian captivity, as well as a number of severe trials and tribulations as a nation. Now, I don’t know about you, but I for one am glad that the blessings of God through Christ Jesus are not conditional and not dependent upon the whole of one nation. Otherwise, we would be in trouble.
No, friends, the blessings of the new covenant that we receive in Christ do not depend on us as individuals or on any nation. They are freely given to us because of the saving work of Christ, who fulfilled the Mosaic covenant by living the perfect, sinless, faithful, obedient life we never could, reversing the curse of Adam by taking our sin debt upon His shoulders, dying the death we all so rightfully deserved, and conquering the grave so that all who receive Him may be given the right and privilege to be called children of God (John 1:12)!
This promise is not reserved for one nation. That’s why God told Abraham “in your offspring shall all the nations of the earth be blessed” (Genesis 22:18 ESV). God has always been, and will always be, the God of all nations and all people. Psalm 86:9 (NIV) says, “All the nations you have made will come and worship before you, Lord; they will bring glory to your name.” Psalm 22:27 (NIV) says, “All the ends of the earth will remember and turn to the Lord, and all the families of the nations will bow down before him.” 2 Corinthians 5:15 (NLT) tells us that Jesus “died for everyone” because God “loved the world [so much that] He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16 NLT). And before ascending into heaven, Jesus told His followers to “go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19 NIV emphasis added).
Our God has a special relationship with all nations because His children, the men and women who make up the Church, with whom He shares a special relationship through Christ Jesus, are spread throughout every nation and every corner of the earth. And we should be a people who love and embrace the nations because 1) we have brothers and sisters in Christ living in every nation and every corner of the earth and 2) we have been commissioned to make disciples of all nations. There is no room for nationalistic superiority, or superiority of any kind . . . this is what the Pharisees did regarding their superficial holiness; this is what the people of Israel did regarding other nations. I pray we do not become Pharisees for America. I pray we do not view other nations as the Israelites did—referring to non-Jews as “Gentile dogs” and hating the Samaritans, their neighbors with whom they shared common ancestry.
What Happens When Nationalism and Faith Collide?
Why has nationalism become such a widespread issue? I believe much of it can be attributed to the politicizing of Christianity. Sadly, while the term evangelical comes from the Greek word euaggelion, which should mean that this group is solely defined messengers of the good news of the Messiah, it has honestly become more about a person’s politics than his or her faith. This, my friends, is absolutely backwards, so much so that it led one prominent Christian leader to say, “Evangelicals are people of faith and should be defined by their beliefs, not by their politics or race.”
Ask yourselves . . . are we American first or Christian first? To whom do we pledge our primary allegiance? Old Glory or the glorious God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ? Where will our ultimate allegiance lie if one day America begins persecuting Christians as the Roman Empire did?
And if our primary allegiance is to Christ, where does our concern for protecting our borders and ensuring the prosperity of America end and our concern for the least of these come to the forefront? At what point do the politics and party lines go by the wayside and the hunger for justice and righteousness take center stage? When does our love for the American way give way to our desire that all people know the way, the truth, and the life?
As believers, we need to remember that, like a foreign exchange student, we are citizens of another nation . . . “We are citizens of heaven, where the Lord Jesus Christ lives. And we are eagerly waiting for him to return as our Savior” (Philippians 3:20 NLT, emphasis added). Our allegiance should be fully pledged to heaven and its King, our devotion to the advancement of His kingdom. We are not of this world, as Jesus is not of this world (John 17:16).
And here’s the thing about heaven: The gates are open to all those who receive Jesus! And as foreigners, as sojourners and pilgrims on this earth, the apostle Paul says, “We are therefore Christ's ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ's behalf: Be reconciled to God” (2 Corinthians 5:20 NIV).
Christ-follower, as His ambassadors, we need to ensure we are prioritizing the advancement of the kingdom of God by living, speaking, and acting like Jesus. We need to ensure we don’t let our patriotism for our temporary country overtake our mission for our eternal kingdom and our gracious and good God. We need to ensure we’re not compromising our faith or our mission to make disciples in order to support any sort of political movement on either side of the spectrum.
As His disciples, we need to be singularly focused, we need to operate in unity and love, we need to seek His kingdom and righteousness first, and we need to ensure that above any and everything else, we are clothing ourselves with love for all people, just as our King does.
If you’re an American, please know it’s perfectly okay to love your country, but do not make an idol out of your country or wrap your identity around being an American. You are a child of God and a follower of Christ above everything else—above your nationality, race, gender, social class, profession, etc. If you’re an American, be grateful for the opportunity to live in a country that allows you the freedom to worship Jesus openly, to speak His name, and to share His message with others. People in other countries don’t have that luxury, and even today they are being killed for their devotion to Him. Be grateful and seize the opportunity to share this message with your family, friends, neighbors, coworkers, classmates, strangers, and people from around the world. Arise and go to the ends of the earth . . . arise and step outside your door, because God is bringing the ends of the earth to your very backyard. This is our calling and commission, it’s our great and holy privilege as ambassadors for Christ and citizens of heaven
Danny Saavedra has served on the staff of Calvary since 2012, managing the Calvary Devotional and digital discipleship resources. He has a Master of Arts in Pastoral Counseling and Master of Divinity in Pastoral Ministry from Liberty Theological Seminary. His wife Stephanie, son Jude, and daughter Zoe share a love of Star Wars, good food, having friends over for dinner, and studying the Word together as a family.