I am a Christian pastor who loves Christianity and the United States.
I was born into a Christian family living in the U.S. Christianity and the United States have been vital in forming me into the person I am today.
But there is a major problem. Unfortunately, both the Christianity and the United States that I love are under attack by something that threatens to destroy them both: Christian nationalism.
At the outset, I want to make an important distinction in this cultural conversation filled with explosive tensions. I will emphasize “Christian nationalism” as a force that threatens the Good News of Jesus Christ and that threatens the identity of the United States.
This emphasis is important because the problem we face is Christian nationalism, not Christian nationalists. A lot has been made about the violence we saw on January 6th, 2022, and rightfully so. But I am not going to condemn the actors who attacked the Capitol. I will leave the court system to make those decisions.
I am going to condemn the ideology that leads to such violence – and that ideology is white Christian nationalism.
In fact, I have found it counterproductive to blame individual Christian nationalists for holding their beliefs and attitudes. Blaming them tends to reinforce nationalistic ideologies. And, unfortunately, these beliefs and attitudes are part of our history and culture in the United States. There is a thread of Christian nationalism that has been here from the beginning. I grew up with this strand, and if you grew up in the United States, it’s likely that you grew up with it, too.
In conscious and unconscious ways, I have internalized the American myth that tells the story of the shining city upon a hill where all the heroes are white, where our founding documents declared Indigenous people to be savages, black enslaved people to be worth ⅗ of a human being, women didn’t have the right to vote, and, paradoxically, this nation is destined by God to be a force of freedom and justice for all.
Tragically, this ideology that believed so fervently in its God-given goodness led to the genocide of Indigenous population, enslavement of Black people, and continued racist and classist structures that harm people to this day.
Because of this, I don’t want to shame or blame individual Christian nationalists. Like me, they have been formed by a story of American and Christian supremacy that ignores many of the structures within the US that lead to oppressive policies that hurt all of us.
And so I believe it is much more important to struggle against the ideologies behind Christian nationalism so that we can deconstruct them and heal the divisions within ourselves and within our culture. But attacking Christian nationalists will only backfire as it reinforces their beliefs and ideologies.
As one early Christian writer put it in the letter to the Ephesians “For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”
In this guide, I’m going to show how Christian nationalism actually goes against Christianity and, while it has roots in US history, it goes against the prevailing democratic spirit of the United States.
I will do this in five steps:
My goal is to help you embrace the faith and the country that I love. Christian nationalism is an ideology of gaining power for itself through its own demand for special privileges and exclusion of others. As we will see, this is counter to the democratic impulse of the United States that is constantly moving toward more inclusion.
And when we take Jesus seriously, we recognize that any form of Christianity must be guided by his teaching that he did not come to wield power over others, but he came to serve others. While Christian nationalism wants to be first and ensure that the first shall be first, Jesus proclaimed that the first shall be last.
To be clear, the message of Christian nationalism is antithetical to the Gospel of Jesus Christ and to the United States.
Prominent scholars of Christian nationalism, Andrew Whitehead and Samuel Perry, define Christian nationalism in their book, Taking America Back for God: Christian Nationalism in the United States. They describe the research and data they collected through extensive surveys on Christian nationalism and define the movement as,
…a cultural framework–a collection of myths, traditions, symbols, narratives, and value systems–that idealizes and advocates a fusion of Christianity with civic life. But the “Christianity” of Christian nationalism is of a particular sort…As we will show, it includes assumptions of nativism, white supremacy, patriarchy, and heteronormativity, along with divine sanction for authoritarian control and militarism…Understood in this light, Christian nationalism contends that America has been and should always be distinctively “Christian”…from top to bottom–in its self-identity, interpretations of its own history, sacred symbols, cherished values, and public policies–and it aims to keep it that way. (pg 10)
I am not a Christian nationalist, but I do share some common desires with Christian nationalism:
I share these important goals. The problem is that Christian nationalism is doing tremendous damage to the United States and to Christianity in the pursuit of these desires.
As the greatest threat to the United States, Christian nationalism hurts everyone, including Christian nationalists.
Christian nationalism promotes the idea that the founding documents of the US make it a Christian nation. But it’s important to note that nowhere in the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, or the Bill of Rights are the words “Christian,” “Bible,” or “Jesus Christ” used. Nowhere in the founding documents is the idea that the United States is to be a Christian nation.
Instead, the United States is supposed to be based on these beautiful words near the beginning of the Declaration of Independence. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
There are two things to note about these words.
First, we are endowed by our “Creator with certain unalienable Rights.” Jews, Christians, Muslims, Hindus, and other theists can agree with that statement. Even atheists can look at historical contexts to interpret this passage in ways that include them.
Second, the phrase “all men are created equal” has evolved over time. The Founding Fathers didn’t actually intend to treat “all men” as equal. They only meant white land-owning men were “equal,” while these documents called Indigenous peoples “savages,” enshrined slavery, and treated women as inferior.
But over time people began to protest and demand that they be included in the phrase “all men are created equal.” Because of these protests, the political and judicial powers in the United States began interpreting the phrase “all men are created equal” against the intent of the Founding Fathers. The phrase has become increasingly inclusive.
And so “all men” has expanded to include Black and Brown men, women, and children. It includes Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, atheists, and agnostics. It includes rich and poor, Republican and Democrat, capitalist and socialist. This radical inclusiveness that “all men are created equal” is the heart and soul of the democracy of the United States and its impulse to progressively include more people is precisely what makes America great.
But Christian nationalism goes against these democratic principles. Christian nationalism doesn’t have an expansive “we.” Rather, it divides the world into “us,” who are Christian nationalists that deserve special privileges, and a “them,” who is everyone else. As such, Christian nationalism is anti-democratic, making it the greatest threat to the United States.
For example, in their Amazon bestseller, Christian Nationalism: A Biblical Guide to Taking Dominion and Discipling Nations, Andrew Torba and Andrew Isker explain their goal:
Christian Nationalism is a spiritual, political, and cultural movement comprised of Christians who are working to build a Christian society grounded in a Biblical worldview. This book is a guide for Christians to take dominion and disciple their families, churches, and all nations for the glory of Jesus Christ our King. (Matt. 28:19) (pg 15)
Part of the tragic irony of Christian nationalism is that since 9/11 it has been warning us that Muslims are out to take over the world. Christian Nationalism has claimed that Islam is on a jihad to take dominion over the world.
I have many Muslim friends. They do not use words like “dominion” or taking over the United States to form a theocracy and enforce their religion upon others. They point out that jihad literally means “struggle.” They state that the greatest jihad is the struggle within one’s self. My Muslim friends also point to passages in the Qur’an that lead them to appreciate diversity, such as chapter 49:13, which claims God created humankind, “from male and female and made you peoples and tribes that you may know one another.” Christian nationalism has been projecting its own desire to dominate onto Muslims. It has not been Muslims on a violent jihad to dominate. It’s been Christian nationalism.
Theologically speaking, Christian nationalism is actually more Manichean than Christian. Manicheism believes in a cosmic battle between absolute good and absolute evil where some people are good and others are evil. Early Christians declared religious movements like Manicheism heretical. Though claiming to be Christian, Christian nationalism functions as Manicheism. This is evident because Christian nationalism believes that Christianity is good and should have special privileges and powers in the United States, while anything and anyone that threatens their demands for special Christian privileges is deemed an evil enemy to be defeated.
I will say more later about Christian nationalism’s misuse of Jesus’ Great Commission in Matthew 28:19 as seen in the quote above from Torba and Isker, but for now I want to point out the explicit grasp for power in their statement. For Christian Nationalism, the Christological statement that “Jesus Christ [is] our King” is justification to wield power over and against others, not to do what “Jesus Christ our King” actually told his followers to do, which is to serve others.
Throughout his ministry, Jesus devoted himself to healing the sick for free and feeding the hungry. He didn’t reveal a God defined by the power to dominate. Rather, he revealed a God defined by the power to love.
In fact, the vast majority of his miracles and teachings were about healing and feeding people. He also relentlessly criticized greed and excessive wealth. But nowhere in Torba and Isker’s book do they ever discuss Jesus’ miracles or his harsh criticism of greed. Instead, their book is primarily a screed against things Jesus never mentioned – our transgender and gay siblings.
Torba and Isker never mention Jesus’ greatest commandment. When some of his opponents ask Jesus what the greatest commandment is, he responds by quoting Deuteronomy 5 and Leviticus 19 – to love God and to love your neighbor as yourself. But Jesus’ radical teaching on love and service are missing from Torba and Isker’s book. That’s because they are missing from the ideology of Christian nationalism.
Whitehead and Perry make a helpful distinction about this point,
Appeals to someone’s religion, in this case Christianity, may involve a plea to live out transcendent Christian values of love, mercy, or justice. Appeals to Christian nationalism, by contrast, involve either a proprietary claim or a call to arms, always in response to a perceived threat. In short, Christian nationalism is all about power. (pg 81)
One of Jesus’ most important teachings comes from Matthew 9 and Matthew 12. In both of these passages, Jesus quotes the prophet Hosea to his opponents. In Matthew 9, his opponents accuse him of not following the law by eating with tax collectors and sinners. They wanted to exclude tax collectors and sinners from being included in Jesus’ community. In Matthew 12, Jesus and his disciples go against the plain meaning of the Sabbath laws by picking grains of wheat to eat. After his opponents accuse Jesus of not following the Sabbath law, Jesus quotes the prophet Hosea to them, saying that God “desires mercy, not sacrifice.”
Notice that Jesus does not say that God desires mercy and a little bit of sacrifice now and then. Jesus says that God desires mercy and *not* sacrifice. The word “mercy” in Hebrew is often translated as “steadfast love.” In Jesus we discover that God wants us to stop using religion – even religious laws – as an excuse to sacrifice others. Instead, God desires that we use religion as motivation to act in steadfast love and mercy toward one another.
According to the anthropologist René Girard, sacrifice performs an important social function. Sacrifice is a way of uniting a group of people against a common enemy. Whenever conflicts threaten us, the easiest way to solve our problems is to blame a scapegoat. In cultures both ancient and modern, people have sacrificed their scapegoats as their scapegoat becomes the glue that unites the community together. Uniting in sacrifice against a scapegoat brings peace where there was once conflict. The overwhelming sense of peace made our ancestors think that the peace was a gift from the gods. And sacrifice was the way to gain that peace. But over time, the Hebrew scriptures and Jesus reveal that God does not desire sacrifice. Rather, God desires mercy and love to be the glue that unites our communities. But Torba and Isker never mention these passages in their book, nor do they ever use the word “mercy.” That’s because the ideology behind Christian nationalism has very little to do with mercy. It only seeks dominion, which is a word that Jesus never used.
And in their quest for dominion, Christian Nationalism will not offer mercy to those it views as its enemies. Instead, it has a pattern of claiming to be a victim. This victim mentality gives Christian nationalism a sense of special privilege. Victimhood gives Christian nationalism an identity of being good while its opponents are evil. That’s why Christian nationalism seeks to be offensive so that people will attack it. This only reinforces its sense of being a righteous victim, which emboldens it to exert righteous revenge by sacrificing its opponents.
For example, prominent Christian nationalist politicians like Marjorie Taylor Greene claim that Democrats are not merely the opposition party. Rather, she claims that Democrats want to kill Republicans. This is part of the persecution complex that Christian nationalism often pushes. Greene stated at a Trump rally, “I am not going to mince words with you all. Democrats want Republicans dead, and they have already started the killings.” She provided examples for her claims, but her examples were quickly debunked.
This violent rhetoric is not fueled by a search for truth. Greene’s comments are fueled by a victim mentality of persecution that attempts to channel resentment and frustrations against a common enemy in a quest for power. Her dangerous rhetoric goes against Jesus’ message. Instead of loving your enemy, as Christ taught, Christian nationalism seeks to stoke fear of their evil enemies so that violence against them is justifiable. This was the same justification for the violence we saw on January 6th.
Christian nationalism is guided by what Friedrich Nietzsche called, “the will to power.” The “will to power” does not care about the individual person, not even the individual Christian nationalist. In its pursuit of political and religious power, Christian nationalism’s will to power runs over anyone in the way that it deems weak, including Christian nationalists.
January 6, 2021, is the most important recent example of this fact.
Motivated by President Trump’s will to maintain the power of the presidency, protesters gathered at the Capitol with American flags and Christian images. But they also brought weapons, including ropes to hang anyone thought to betray their movement.
In the wake of the mob, no one is safe, not even one of the most ardent Christian nationalists alive today – Vice President Mike Pence. Under Christian nationalism, this staunch evangelical conservative who has given his life to enforcing his Christian values as public policies was not safe from Christian nationalism as the crowd shouted, “Hang Mike Pence!”
But even more, policies promoted by Christian nationalist politicians hurt the very people they are elected to help. For example, many politicians espousing Christian nationalism rejected the Affordable Care Act. In her book, The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together, Heather McGhee describes the devastation this caused white communities.
…over the past ten years, 120 rural hospitals have closed, dealing a body blow to the economy and health of the country’s mostly white, overwhelmingly conservative rural communities. A quarter of the remaining rural hospitals are at risk of closing. One thing that all of the states with the highest hospital closures have in common is their legislatures have refused to expand Medicaid under Obamacare. (pg 53)
These policies have been devastating for everyone, including white working-class Americans.
In order to get people to vote for them despite policies that harm the very people they claim to help, Christian nationalist politicians resort to scapegoating. They tell the racist myth that the reason white Americans are struggling is because of immigrants or Muslims or “welfare queens” or Democrats are taking opportunities away from us – by which they mean white American Christians.
Marjorie Taylor Greene recently stated that Republicans, “…need to be the party of nationalism and I’m a Christian, and I say it proudly, we should be Christian nationalists.”
I wish that by claiming to be a Christian that Greene meant she was determined to love her neighbor as herself, but no. What she means is that white Christians should fear immigrants.
She claims, “Joe Biden’s 5 million illegal aliens are on the verge of replacing you, replacing your jobs and replacing your kids in school and, coming from all over the world, they’re also replacing your culture. And that’s not great for America.”
As president, Donald Trump used the same rhetoric against immigrants. He claimed when he first ran for president, “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems to us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.” Trump desperately wanted people to fear brown immigrants because it’s easy to unite against a common enemy. But at the same time Trump was making these comments, he was employing undocumented immigrants from South America to maintain his wineries and golf clubs throughout the country. That’s because so much of the US economy depends upon undocumented labor. Our economy demands undocumented immigrants, and then many who demand their presence to keep our economy running scapegoat the undocumented.
Welfare is another example. The myth in the US is that the people who benefit the most from welfare programs are poor Black “welfare queens.” This myth creates growing racial animosity, but as Business Insider reports, “…far more white people have benefited from US welfare programs over the years – reflecting their greater share of the population – while Black people and other people of color have been denied them in various ways…”
Of course, this shows the hypocrisy of Christian nationalist politicians, but there’s much more going on than hypocrisy. What this reveals is that Christian nationalism does not care about individual Christian nationalists. Blaming undocumented immigrants or those in need of welfare is not going to solve our problems. Many who identify as Christian nationalists are hurting economically and feel ignored. Unfortunately, scapegoating immigrants only distracts from the low wages, poor healthcare, and lack of affordable housing that many Americans face. We can only solve these problems when we stop scapegoating undocumented or documented immigrants and seek to find policies that will follow Jesus’ command to “love your neighbor as you love yourself.”
Before I expound on Bible passages that Christian nationalism uses to justify conquest and power, it’s important for me to explain Biblical interpretation.
Now, I know that some believe the Bible should not be interpreted – that the Bible is inspired by God, the Bible says what it says, that settles it, and we need to follow it.
But I don’t know anyone who actually treats the Bible that way. For example, Christian nationalism claims it wants to enforce “Biblical values,” but which ones?
After all, Deuteronomy 21:18-21 says that you need to take your stubborn and rebellious son to the center of your city and stone him to death. Thank goodness Christians today aren’t demanding the freedom to interpret this passage literally by killing their stubborn and rebellious sons. There would be no sons left!
And in the New Testament, 1 Timothy and 1 Peter both state that women are not permitted to have braided hair. 1 Corinthians states that it is unnatural for a man to have long hair, but a woman’s glory is her long hair. Yet you would be hard-pressed to find Christian nationalists on a crusade against women with braids, men with long hair, and women with short hair.
What is the answer to this conundrum? As a Christian, I would like to point out that the answer is actually pretty obvious – Christ. I agree with Torba and Isker that Jesus Christ is King. And I think we need to emphasize that Jesus is our King of Biblical interpretation. Christ is the key to interpreting the Bible. Indeed, he says as much.
In Luke 24:13-35, the resurrected Jesus is talking with two disciples who are walking on the road to Emmaus. The disciples are sad because Jesus has just been killed. In their despair, they don’t recognize the resurrected Jesus, who appears to them as a stranger. Jesus asks them what they are talking about. They tell him that they put their hope in this man named Jesus, but that, “our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him.”
Jesus’ response to these two disciples is the key, and it is consistent with how he understood his life, death, and resurrection throughout his teachings. He says to them, “Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” Luke then tells us, “Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets he interpreted to them the things about himself in all of scripture.”
As a Christian, I believe that the whole of scripture points to Jesus. In other words, we can see the presence of Christ throughout the Bible. But the key interpretive question is, “Where is Christ in the Bible?”
We tend to think that Christ is always the God character in the Bible, even if the God character is nothing like Jesus. This is the view that we don’t need to interpret the Bible because the Bible just says what it says. But this interpretation neglects the fact that Jesus “interpreted to them the things about himself in all of scripture.”
What are the things about Jesus in all of scripture?
I affirm that Jesus is fully God and fully human. As the Gospel of John says, when you look at Jesus you are looking at the Father. Jesus and God are united, as Jesus and humanity are united.
This is important because Christians are not supposed to pick and choose certain Bible passages and say, “This says God ordered the genocide of certain people, so God must have ordered it.” Rather, Christians are supposed to look at Christ and say, “This Person is true about God.”
After all, the key Christian teaching is that God became human. Not that God became a Book.
The point of the Gospels is consistent with Luke’s passage about the road to Emmaus. The religious elite “handed [Jesus] over to be condemned to death and crucified him.” Jesus did not respond to violence with violence. Rather, this shows that Jesus would rather have violence inflicted upon him than inflict violence upon others. That means that God would rather have violence inflicted upon him than inflict violence upon others.
If Christian orthodoxy is true and Christ is fully God and fully human, then we don’t find God in those who murder, even when the Bible says they do so in the name of God. Rather, we find God in the ones who suffer violence and murder.
In addition, if Christ is fully human, then according to the Gospels, to inflict violence and murder upon another goes against our full humanity.
With the interpretive key of nonviolence in mind, let’s take a look at two main passages Christian nationalism uses to justify their positions – the Conquest of Canaan and the Great Commission.
Part of the American nationalistic myth is that the white settlers were inaugurating a “new Israel.” They were entering into a new promised land, given to them by God, and they looked to the story of the conquest of Canaan for Biblical inspiration as they entered the “new world.” Which wasn’t new: it had been populated by other people for thousands of years, by “pagans.”
Tragically, the dominant forces of Christianity at the time didn’t view pagans as fellow human beings to be loved. They viewed pagans as objects to be converted, subdued, or killed.
Many Christians were motivated to spread the Gospel and save souls, but their methods were often infused with murder, war, enslavement, and broken treaties. In his Papa Bull titled Dum Divertus (translated as Until Different) Pope Nicholas V stated to Christian explorers,
We grant you by these present documents, with our Apostolic Authority, full and free permission to invade, search out, capture, and subjugate the Saracens and pagans and any other unbelievers and enemies of Christ wherever they may be, as well as their kingdoms, duchies, counties, principalities, and other property […] and to reduce their persons into perpetual servitude.
The Doctrine of Discovery and later Manifest Destiny were justified in part because of an interpretation of the conquest of Canaan. After Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt, Moses tells the Israelites to murder every living thing that is in the new land. Deuteronomy 7:1-2 states,
When the Lord your God brings you into the land that you are about to enter and occupy, and he clears away many nations before you—the Hittites, the Girgashites, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, seven nations mightier and more numerous than you—and when the Lord your God gives them over to you and you defeat them, then you must utterly destroy them. Make no covenant with them and show them no mercy.
As we’ve shown, the key for Christians when it comes to biblical violence is to understand it through the teachings of Christ. As Luke 24 reveals, Jesus interpreted scripture to his disciples the things about himself. And what does Jesus reveal? The fully divine and fully human one reveals that God would rather have violence inflicted upon God than to inflict violence upon others. Instead of “show them no mercy,” God is the one who eternally shows mercy and invites us to show mercy, too.
And at the same time, Deuteronomy 7:1-2 is part of the revelation of God in the Bible that we cannot simply throw away. But how should Christians interpret such passages in light of Christ?
The Gospels portray Jesus’ death on the cross in a very specific way. You might be surprised that the Gospels do not have a penal substitutionary atonement theory that claims God demanded Jesus’s death on the cross. God was full of divine wrath and needed an innocent victim to channel his wrath against. This view is not in the Gospels.
Instead, Jesus is handed over to be killed by other people. Matthew 27:1-2 summarizes Jesus’ understanding of his own death, “When morning came, all the chief priests and the elders of the people conferred together against Jesus in order to bring about his death. They bound him, led him away, and handed him over to Pilate the governor.”
Notice that God has nothing to do with the active murder of Jesus. If anything, God hands Jesus over to people, and people will either listen to him or kill him. But God doesn’t do any violence.
Instead, God through Jesus invites us to stop cycles of violence and replace them with cycles of mercy.
Notice that it is the chief priests and the elders who conspire against Jesus. In other words, it was highly religious people who thought they were doing the will of God who killed Jesus. But they were not doing the will of God. As Jesus states in John 16:2, “an hour is coming when those who kill you will think that by doing so they are offering worship to God.”
That’s the key to understanding violence throughout the Bible, including the conquest of Canaan. We always *think* our violence is justified by God or by secular notions of peace or justice or security. In religious language, we project our own human violence onto God, but it is always a projection because, as Jesus reveals, God is nonviolent love. (1 John 4:16)
But even within the story of the conquest of Canaan, there are two different ways that the story is told – one of human violence and one of divine nonviolence. Greg Boyd discusses these strands in his book, Crucifixion of the Warrior God. Indeed, there are passages in the story that command murder. Deuteronomy 20:17-18 states,
You shall annihilate them—the Hittites and the Amorites, the Canaanites and the Perizzites, the Hivites and the Jebusites—just as the Lord your God has commanded, so that they may not teach you to do all the abhorrent things that they do for their gods, and you thus sin against the Lord your God.
But Exodus 23:28-29 states something different. The people won’t have to use violence to defeat the people in the promised land because God will drive them out for the Israelites.
I will send my terror in front of you, and will throw into confusion all the people against whom you shall come, and I will make all your enemies turn their backs to you. And I will send the pestilence in front of you, which shall drive out the Hivites, the Canaanites, and the Hittites from before you. I will not drive them out from before you in one year, or the land would become desolate and the wild animals would multiply against you.
Notice something important happening in these two verses. The one where human violence is justified comes from Moses. Just to emphasize the point, these statements that justify human violence are the words of Moses. Moses says God commanded them to annihilate others.
But the words from Exodus 23 are directly from God, and they do not justify human violence. Rather, they say that God will do the work to drive out the inhabitants of the land.
Boyd points out this distinction by stating there’s a difference between “what was ‘said’ and what was ‘heard.’” He says that Moses and the people were conditioned by the violence all around him to,
distort Yahweh’s word by conforming it to what they expected to hear. While Yahweh had said, “You will possess the land,” Moses and the people heard, “You must mercilessly destroy the indigenous population.” And while Yahweh had said, “I will drive out the inhabitants,” Moses and the people heard, “I will deliver the inhabitants over to you.” (979-980)
Here we see that from within the Biblical story of the conquest of Canaan that there is not a consistent understanding of God’s plan. One plan that Moses hears is to conquer and kill. The other plan is God’s, which is to drive the inhabitants out of the land without killing them.
Now, neither of these is particularly Christ-like, but a careful reading of the story shows the biblical strands between human violence justified in the name of God and God’s nonviolence emerging as the Bible unfolds. For Christians, the ultimate revelation of God is seen through Jesus, who reveals that God is nonviolent love.
When Christians justify violence in the name of God, we aren’t hearing the true God. Instead, we hear the voice of violence that we are conditioned to hear.
Another passage that Christian nationalists use is the Great Commission found in the Gospel of Matthew. Torba and Isker center their book promoting Christian Nationalism on this passage.
After Jesus is resurrected, but before he ascends to heaven, Jesus tells his disciples “to make disciples of all nations.” The passage is so important that I will quote it in full,
Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’ (Matthew 28:16-20)
There are a few things to notice here. First, it says that when the eleven disciples “saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted.”
In his book, What is the Bible, Rob Bell asks why Matthew would include this little detail. After all,
If the point of your book is that Jesus is the Messiah, the King, the long-awaited Savior of the World, the one everyone has been waiting for, why would you reach the crescendo of the story and then include a line about some of his followers doubting? Doesn’t that ruin the moment? Doesn’t this undermine everything you’ve been saying in your story? (187)
The surprising answer is that it’s okay to doubt. The disciples’ doubts don’t undermine the moment of resurrection at all. In fact, this detail shows Luke’s brilliance as a storyteller of the Gospel. Here is the resurrected Jesus appearing to his 11 disciples, “but some doubted.” The key here is to notice how Jesus responded to their doubts. Does he respond with violence or threats of violence? Does he respond by threatening eternal conscious torment of hell upon his doubters?
No. Instead of threatening them with divine judgment unless they believe in him, Jesus continues to believe in his disciples. Including the disciples who doubted him. This is key because Jesus inspires faith in his disciples without instilling fear in them. Because as 1 John states, “Perfect love casts out fear.”
Jesus doesn’t threaten his disciples because they have doubts. Instead, he continues to give them a mission, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit…”
It is tempting to interpret this command as if Jesus is telling us to force people of other nations to believe in him and become his disciples. But there were disciples who doubted Jesus.
Apparently, you can be a disciple and you don’t have to believe in Jesus. You can doubt.
But just as important is to know how Jesus “made disciples.” Did he make disciples through threats of violence?
No. Instead, Jesus just said, “Follow me.” And then he began his mission, which was centered around teaching people about God and healing the sick. In fact, teaching people about God and healing the sick are intimately connected – something that Torba and Isker never mention. But after Jesus healed the sick, more people followed him and became his disciples. Matthew 4:23-25 states,
Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people. So his fame spread throughout all Syria, and they brought to him all the sick, those who were afflicted with various diseases and pains, demoniacs, epileptics, and paralytics, and he cured them. And great crowds followed him from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea, and from beyond the Jordan.
So how should Jesus’ followers go to the nations and “make” disciples?
Not through force or coercion. Not through threats of violence and hell. Not by scapegoating our LGBTQIA+ siblings. But by following him. By teaching about God’s love for all people and enacting that love by living into the Spirit of healing one another.
The Great Commission is not a command to force others to convert to our side, it’s a command to love people and to work for curing the sick. If Christians were known for loving people and working to freely cure people, then “great crowds” would be inspired to become disciples.
The main thing that I appreciate about Torba and Isker’s book is their emphasis that Jesus is the King of Kings. I love this point.
The problem for Torba and Isker is that Jesus is not the King of Kings that they desperately want.
They interpret the phrase “King of Kings” as Jesus having dominion over others. After all, the kings of the earth have dominion over their subjects. Since Jesus is the “King of Kings,” he must be like all the other kings, only more King than any other. Jesus is the King on steroids. If you took all the power of earthly kings and gave them to Jesus, you still wouldn’t have the dominion and power that Jesus holds.
That’s how Christian nationalism understands Jesus the King of Kings. And in understanding Jesus this way, it entirely misses the point.
The power of Jesus’ Kingship is not the power of dominion over others. His Kingship is the power to serve. Jesus consistently reminds his disciples that he came not to be served, but to serve.
Yet, Torba and Isker’s favorite word in their 89-page book on Christian nationalism is “dominion.” They use it 21 times. It’s a word that Jesus never used. They use the word “serve” only four times, and never in the context of service toward others.
While Jesus is the King of Kings, it’s important to note that he resisted gaining political power through acts of scapegoating or physical violence.
Many Christians say that Jesus was not political because he only cared about the spiritual world. But make no mistake, Jesus was political because politics is about how we live together here and now. And it is especially about how we exert power in our communities. Political power is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, political power can be very good. We can use political power to love our neighbor, who, as Jesus reminds us, includes even our enemies. Or we can use political power to dominate or scapegoat our neighbor.
Luke 4 explains the political dynamic of Jesus’ life. After his baptism, the devil led Jesus into the wilderness to be tempted three times. First, to turn a stone into bread. Second, to rule the kingdoms of the world. And third, to test God by throwing himself off the pinnacle of the Temple.
It’s the second temptation that’s most important for our conversation about political power. The scene goes like this:
Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, “To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours. (Luke 4:5-7)
Matthew, Mark, and Luke each tell the story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness. In Matthew and Luke, it is the devil who tempts Jesus. In Mark, it is Satan who tempts Jesus.
The word “devil” and “satan” have similar meanings. The word for devil in the original Greek of the New Testament is διάβολος, or diabolos, which translates as, “one who engages in slander.”
The word satan can mean “adversary” or “tempter,” but can also mean “accuser.” Job chapter 1 often translates the word “satan” as “accuser.”
The devil showed Jesus all of the kingdoms of the world and offered them to Jesus, but only if Jesus worshiped the devil.
To worship something means more than just offering praise and glory to the entity we worship. When we worship something we are formed in its image. We become like the thing we worship. If Jesus worshiped the devil, he would have become like the devil. He would have gained political power by slandering and accusing his political and religious opponents.
But Jesus resisted the devil’s temptation to gain political power through worshiping the devil and the methods of slander and accusation. Jesus replied to the devil, “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.” In seeking political dominion, Christian nationalism does not worship God. It is giving into the temptation to worship the devil.
Tragically, we have a hard time following Jesus in this regard. It’s easy for us to gain political power by slandering and accusing our opponents of being evil or even satanic. Whenever we do this, we unwittingly play into the satanic game of accusation.
Christian nationalism claims that the United States is God’s chosen country, but Jesus didn’t have a nationalistic attitude. After Jesus preached his first recorded sermon in Luke 4, he tells the people that God cares about others who don’t belong to their nation or their religion.
He tells them that during a drought, Elijah didn’t help an Israelite. Instead, he helped a foreign woman from Zarapheth. And then he tells them that Elisha helped Naaman, a Syrian general and one of Israel’s enemies.
The idea that God had chosen people from outside of their nation and religion enraged the people so much that they wanted to throw Jesus off a cliff. If Jesus showed up today, his declaration that God has chosen all people, including non-Americans and non-Christians, would be a direct challenge to the ideology behind Christian nationalism.
Luke tells another story that is often titled, “The Good Samaritan.” Before he tells the story, Jesus affirms a lawyer’s statement that the way to inherit eternal life is to love God and love your neighbor as yourself. But the lawyer asks Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” This question prompts Jesus to tell the story of the Good Samaritan.
A Samaritan was from the land of Samaria – which means the Samaritan in the story was not “one of us.” Samaritans were from a different nation and held a similar but different religion to Jesus and this lawyer. The religion of Samaritans and Jews was much like the relationship between Judaism, Christianity, and Islam today. They are similar but also different. Because of this, Jews and Samaritans often viewed one another with suspicion and distrust.
In the story, a man is robbed and beaten and left for dead by the side of the road. A priest notices the man suffering, but walks by on the other side of the road. Then a Levite saw the man and also walked by on the other side of the road. The priest and Levite were one of us. They were the national and religious good guys who surely would do the right thing. But they don’t.
It was a Samaritan, the one from a different nation and a different religion, who fulfilled the command that gains eternal life. He was the one who loved God and loved his neighbor as himself. Jesus told the story in such a way that a Samaritan, someone who was nationally and religiously “other,” was the hero.
If Jesus were alive today and a Christian nationalist asked “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus might tell a story where a Christian nationalist pastor and elder of a church ignore a poor man suffering on the side of the road, while a Muslim from Afghanistan helps the poor man and becomes the hero of the story who loves God by loving his neighbor as he loves himself.
A major problem with Christian Nationalism is its belief in violence. Christian nationalism is passionate about carrying guns and protecting the Second Amendment. As I mentioned earlier, this was on full display on January 6th, 2021, as Christian Nationalists stormed the Capital of the United States, claiming Jesus Christ as their Lord and Donald Trump as their president. They chanted threats of violence against Democratic lawmakers and even brought rope as they threatened to “hang Mike Pence” for not following Trump’s orders to deny the will of the people in the 2020 election.
But Christian Nationalism needs to deal with a major question: Did Jesus promote using weapons? Anyone who is a Christian should care about what Jesus said about weapons.
The fact is that Jesus never used weapons to defend himself or others. Instead, Jesus reprimanded one of his followers for using a sword to protect him during his arrest.
Suddenly, one of those with Jesus put his hand on his sword, drew it, and struck the slave of the high priest, cutting off his ear. Then Jesus said to him, ‘Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword.’ (Matthew 26:51-52)
When Jesus had the chance to use weapons to protect himself from his persecutors, he refused. In addition, Jesus scolded his followers for using violence to protect him. Jesus lived his life by the nonviolent principle of this passage because he knew that those who live by “the sword will perish by the sword.”
Christian nationalism interprets this passage as a particular command for a certain time and a certain place. Thus, it is not a universal teaching. It claims this passage only refers to Jesus fulfilling a prophecy about his death. But Jesus’ statement that “all who take the sword will perish by the sword” is a universal statement that doesn’t refer merely to his death. Rather, it refers to a way of life.
In addition, after this event, Jesus’ disciples followed his nonviolent teachings. They refused to pick up the sword to protect themselves or others. Tradition tells us that all of the disciples were killed by some form of state-sanctioned violence, except for John, who was exiled to the island of Patmos. But he still refused to use a weapon to fight against being exiled. In fact, John would later affirm Jesus’ nonviolent ethic in his book of Revelation,
Let anyone who has an ear listen:
If you are to be taken captive,
into captivity you go;
if you kill with the sword,
with the sword you must be killed.
Here is a call for the endurance and faith of the saints. (Revelation 13:9-10)
There are a few passages that Christian nationalism might use from the life of Jesus to suggest they should carry a gun. But even the passages from the Gospels that might be used to justify carrying weapons are taken out of context. In fact, one prominent passage shows that Jesus thought it was a form of “lawlessness” to carry weapons. When Jesus is about to be arrested in Luke, he tells his disciples,
But now, the one who has a purse must take it, and likewise a bag. And the one who has no sword must sell his cloak and buy one. (Luke 22:36)
Jesus and his followers were experiencing a crisis. He was about to be arrested by soldiers carrying swords. Indeed, Jesus told his disciples that now is the time for them to get their own swords.
But here is what Christian Nationalism misses: Jesus gives his explicit reasons for the disciples to now carry swords. His reason is *not* so that the disciples could wield their swords to defend Jesus or to defend themselves from the coming violence. Rather, Jesus’ reason for his disciples to now carry swords was to fulfill prophecy,
For I tell you, this scripture must be fulfilled in me, “And he was counted among the lawless”; and indeed what is written about me is being fulfilled.’ They said, ‘Lord, look, here are two swords.’ He replied, ‘It is enough.’ (Luke 22:35-38)
Two swords were enough, not for his disciples to use them violently to defend themselves, but for scripture to be fulfilled that Jesus would be “counted among the lawless.” Here we see that Jesus thought it was actually a form of lawlessness to carry weapons. Anyone who uses Luke 22 as a justification to violence is woefully taking the passage out of context and missing the point.
Another story from Jesus’ life that might be used to justify violence is the scene where Jesus cleanses the Temple. All four Gospels tell the story, but they tell it with slight differences. For example, only John 2 tells us that Jesus made a whip of cords. Some claim that this is an example of Jesus using a weapon, and so his followers should use weapons, too.
This argument is misguided because Jesus didn’t use the whip to kill anyone. In fact, according to John, Jesus didn’t use the whip against humans at all, but towards animals who were about to be sacrificed.
In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables. Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. (John 2:14-15)
Jesus drove “all of them out of the temple,” but who is included in “all of them”? John immediately tells us that “all of them” refers to “both the sheep and the cattle,” not the people.
This matters because Jesus didn’t channel his anger against people. He didn’t use the whip as a weapon to harm individuals. And if he were to hit anything with his whip, it would have been the sheep and the cattle that were about to be sacrificed. He thus would have blemished these animals and rendered them not worthy of sacrifice. This would have saved the animals from certain death.
The fact is that Jesus didn’t use a whip in order to protect himself. He didn’t use a whip in order to kill or harm people. Rather, he used the whip in order to stop sacrificial violence in the name of God from taking place. Because, as Jesus claims by quoting the prophet Hosea, God “desires mercy and not sacrifice.”
Matthew 25:31-46 is one of the most important passages when it comes to understanding the nonviolent politics of Jesus. The first thing to notice about this passage is that Jesus is talking about nations who have never heard of him. He’s talking about nations that do not explicitly follow him. According to Jesus, the nations will not be judged on whether they confessed him as Lord. This would make Jesus a narcissist. Rather, the nations will be judged on how they treated the poor and the vulnerable in their society.
Because Jesus is not interested in dominion. He’s interested in love and service.
The second thing to notice is that there is an unfortunate mistranslation of these verses into most English versions of the Bible. This mistranslation downplays the radical political message that Jesus delivered.
For example, the New Revised Standard Version starts with this,
When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the *nations* will be gathered before him, and he will separate *people* one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats on the left.
I’ve highlighted the two words in this passage that are the most important for our discussion. The word for *nations* in the original Greek is ἔθνη. It is often translated as “nations,” but is sometimes translated as “Gentiles” or “heathens.” Translating ἔθνη as *nations* makes sense in this passage as Jesus is referring to national entities.
I don’t want to pick on the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible. It’s my favorite translation, but it has problems and most translations follow its lead when it comes to Matthew 25. The problem is with the Greek word αὐτοὺς in this passage. It’s usually translated as *people* in Matthew 25, but that’s a bad translation. The word αὐτοὺς never translates as *people.* It literally means *them.*
This passage should be translated, “All the *nations* will be gathered before him, and he will separate *them* one from another…”
Jesus is making a clear political statement about the *nations* in this passage. The problem is that versions of the Bible that mistranslate αὐτοὺς as “people” allow for a crucial misunderstanding of Jesus’ point. It gives the impression that Jesus was talking about the judgment of individuals as opposed to the judgment of national systems.
Brian Zanhd shows the importance of this in his book A Farewell to Mars, “Jesus spoke of nations being judged, not individuals. And the criterion for judgment has nothing to do with ‘receiving Jesus as Savior’ but with the treatment of the underclass with whom Jesus claimed a particular solidarity” (149).
Of course, Jesus cared about how we act as individuals. That’s why he claimed that the most important commandment is to love God and love your neighbor as yourself. But Jesus also deeply cared about national politics. It is the nations, not individual people, who are judged in Matthew 25. The nations are judged by their policies – not by whether nations had policies that led to success in war or had economic policies that produced wealthy elites. Rather, nations are judged by whether their policies lead to caring for the hungry, thirsty, sick, strangers, prisoners, and the naked. The nations that cared for the vulnerable received eternal life, while the nations that didn’t receive eternal punishment.
In 2018, prominent Christian nationalist Jerry Falwell Jr told the New York Times, “I don’t look to Jesus for what my political beliefs should be.”
Christians, especially those of us who want to conserve the foundational principles of our faith, should primarily look to the teaching of Jesus in every aspect of our lives, including politics. After all, we profess that Jesus is our Lord and Savior of our lives. He is the King of Kings who radically transforms our understanding of Kingship away from dominion and toward service.
Jesus teaches nonviolent principles of turning the other cheek and loving our neighbor, including our enemies, as we love ourselves. But Christian nationalism doesn’t want a King of Kings who teaches us to turn the other cheek or that those who live by the sword will die by the sword or that the nations will be judged by how they treat the poor.
Christian nationalism rejects the teachings of Jesus precisely because his teachings subvert an us against them mentality. When Jesus says to love your neighbor as you love yourself, he includes even our enemies. That’s because, as Paul wrote in his letter to the Ephesians that Christ “has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.”
Jesus seeks to break down the wall of hostility between us and them, so that we recognize that there is really only us. This is an ever-expanding “us” that includes “them.” This is not only a major principle of Christianity, but it is also a major principle of American democracy.
Unfortunately, Christian nationalism wants to repair the dividing wall that Christ broke down. But tearing down the dividing wall of hostility is not only the heart of the Christian Gospel, but it is also the heart of American democracy.
That’s why patriotic Christians must not merely be against Christian nationalism. We must work for a Christianity and an America that continues to work for an ever-increasing expansion of the phrase “We the people” that includes all the people.
But what can you do to combat Christian nationalism? I’d offer one suggestion.
Jesus says that God “desires mercy, not sacrifice.”
While Christian nationalism doesn’t pay attention to this important teaching, we need to do just that. To combat Christian nationalism, we need to resist the temptation to respond in kind to Christian nationalists. Christian nationalism is all about sacrifice. We need to be about mercy.
This is why creating the distinction between Christian nationalism and Christian nationalists is so important. In order to be different from Christian nationalism, I think it’s important we find creative ways to be merciful and caring toward Christian nationalists.
We can start by talking with Christian nationalists about their goals and their fears with as much of a non-judgmental presence as we can offer. Ask them questions, not in a “gotchya” kind of way to shame them, but in a curiosity kind of way. Try to find areas of agreement with their goals and fears.
Many Christian nationalists sense they are losing their identity – their sense of self. That can be really hard for all of us. If you can acknowledge that fear and identify with it, that will go a long way to building trust. Over time, you might be able to acknowledge the fear and at the same time invite them to see that Christian nationalism actually hurts everyone, including the white Christian nationalist.
In this way, we move more towards engaging Christian nationalists with mercy, not sacrifice. And I think that is the key.
Because the future of Christianity and the United States depends upon it.
Christian nationalists don’t need our scorn or contempt. They need the truth. And maybe more importantly, they need our love because Christian nationalists are suffering under the impossible expectations of power and dominance of Christian nationalism.
With this in mind, let’s try to avoid the trap of an “us against them” mentality as best we can. When talking about this big cultural issue, it’s natural to fall into the trap. But when we do, hopefully we can crawl out as we remind each other that the real problem is Christian nationalism, not the people who have become captive to its principles.
Christian nationalism seeks to exert political power by enforcing “Christian values” throughout the United States. Dr. Samuel Perry, Professor of Religion at the University of Oklahoma and expert on conservative Christianity, claims Christian nationalists, “…believe that bringing about the kingdom of God requires institutionalizing biblical principles as the law. They want to declare the United States a Christian nation. They want to institute Christian values as a part of our national policy.”
“Biblical values” must be put in quotes when talking about Christian nationalism because Christian Nationalism doesn’t want to enforce all Biblical values. If Christian nationalism emphasized what Jesus emphasized as the greatest commandment – which is to serve others and to love God and love your neighbor as yourself – I wouldn’t be as alarmed by its values. But Christian nationalism picks and chooses Biblical values to use as power grabs against political opponents and minority groups. Because of this undisguised political agenda, Christian nationalism has become a violent strand within Christianity that goes against the very Christ that Christians claim to worship.
Kristin Du Mez has an updated version of the quote from Kinnaman and Lyons. She writes in her book Jesus and John Wayne:
“Christian nationalism–the belief that America is God’s chosen nation and must be defended as such–serves as a powerful predictor of intolerance toward immigrants, racial minorities, and non-Christians. It is linked to opposition to gay rights and gun control, to support harsher punishments for criminals, to justification for the use of excessive force against black Americans in law enforcement situations, and to traditionalist gender ideology (4).