Christian Nationalism is not Christian

There are times when the messages of my tradition resonate with what’s going on in my community more broadly. I love sharing my perspective while including or listening to other traditions in ways that increase our mutual understanding. But sometimes I hear things bubbling up within my religious tradition that are troubling, and I feel an urgency to speak to my own. This is one of those times. People are using the Christian tradition to promote ideas that are antithetical to the love of God and the messages of Jesus. This is my response to one of those troubling ideas. It is based on a sermon I preached on May 21, 2023.


“Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6)

This is the desperate question of the apostles when they realized that the Lord they loved and lost, who then came back to them, was leaving them again. When the trauma of crucifixion had passed and the shock of resurrection had sunk in, they confronted a new twist in the story of their journey with Jesus. He was leaving them again. He would ascend to the Father. Where does that leave them?

We can hardly blame them. After all, we know what happened after, we know what happened to them and because of them. But they were living it all in real time. And living through it in a harsh, brutal environment of occupation, violence, and poverty. No-one had ever experienced what they were about to experience. 

“Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom…is this the time when you will fulfill our dreams of controlling our own destiny, of living according to the covenant in the land you gave us? We’ve been expecting it for hundreds of years.” 

Indeed, God’s people have always been looking toward the fulfillment of God’s promise – of freedom from bondage, of a land of milk and honey, of a covenant community based in love. Like Abraham and Sarah, like Moses, like the exiles in Babylon – we are an expectant people always looking ahead, anticipating fulfillment of promise. Jesus’ followers are heirs of this expectation. And so are Jesus followers today. 

And yet time and again, we look for that fulfillment in social and political structures that are, let’s face it, too small for God’s promise. 

“Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?”

Jesus’ answer to them and to us is not what we want or expect to hear. He basically tells them three important things about God’s kingdom. It isn’t for you to know when or how God will establish the Kingdom.

And. The power you are expecting will not come from political or economic dominance but from the Holy Spirit.

And. Your role is to be witnesses to the power of the Spirit in ever widening circles – from where they are in Jerusalem to the region of Judea to their so-called enemies in Samaria and then to the entire world.

This new understanding of the Kingdom was radical and like nothing they had ever seen before. And yet they were to be witnesses to the whole world about it. It is much more comfortable to recreate the kind of kingdom that has already existed – maybe even a nicer version of the one you live in now. But that’s not what Jesus tells them. That is not the promise. 

They were focused on how the kingdom would be structured – who would be in charge, how power would be allocated and wielded, what the rules would be. But Jesus was pointing them away from structures and toward the content of the kingdom – which is love, the bonds of community that we have between us and that we have with God. 

We have seen this struggle play out over and over. Despite the witness of generations of Jesus followers, there have been calls for an earthly kingdom ever since. A couple of centuries after Jesus told the apostles they’d get spiritual power from the Holy Spirit, the church received political and military power from the Roman Empire – and carried the cross before armies. In the many years since, church leadership and national leadership have been intertwined or even fused together in various places and times. The church colluded with governments and monarchs to extend power around the globe, usually in brutal ways. Under the guise of bringing the love of Christ, they brought war, disease, and oppression.  

Today, the message of Jesus is important for us as we hear calls for Christian nationalism – both in our own country and in others. In some ways it is an understandable longing of people to control their destiny, to have a way to organize themselves that is based on faith and values. 

But there is a big problem with Christian nationalism. It is grounded in ideas that are antithetical to the desire of God. 

  • First of all, Nationalism of any kind is the belief that humans can and should be divided into distinct groups based on shared traits that are different from the traits of other groups.
  • Second that these nations should promote and protect their identity to the exclusion of others.
  • And third Christian nationalism in particular says that national identity is grounded in faith in Jesus Christ and that the government should take steps to keep it that way, using force if necessary. 

These characteristics fly in the face of what Jesus taught and his final message before he ascended to the Father. 

“It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:7-8)

Nationalisms of all kinds are contrary to the vision of God that all people share the trait of being created in God’s image and the mission of God for all of us to live in community. It is not the mission of the church to create divisions among people.

Jesus did not create disciples who would focus inwardly on their own political power. Jesus is sending disciples out into the world as witnesses to a different kind of power, the power of the Spirit. The Kingdom of God is a gathering of people from all nations, it unites people. It requires love, generosity, and going outward – not power, control, and pulling inward. 

“Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?”

Jesus shows them and us that the kingdom is bigger than we can imagine. Start where you are, he tells us, make God’s presence known there. Then go from where you are to other places where you are comfortable. Then go to people you despise, who make you uncomfortable. Then to people you don’t know at all and who are very different from you. 

This is the very opposite of nation-building. It is kingdom building. It is the mission for which the Holy Spirit has empowered us. 

There is room for you

When I was about 8 years old, my family – five of us at that time plus some cousins – went to the Smithsonian Institution. Specifically the National Museum of American History. At that time we lived in nearby Bethesda, MD, so we’d already seen the impressive monuments in Washington, but this was our first time going to one of the big museums. 

The whole gang of us parked, walked, and entered the massive building. Right away we saw the Star Spangled Banner, the flag that inspired Francis Scott Key to write what would become our national anthem. Honestly, I don’t remember much else about what we saw, the miles of corridors we walked. Except for the exhibit of First Ladies dresses, that enthralled me. All the different styles from very old to modern! The fabrics! The gloves! These were unlike any dresses I had ever seen in person. But I was sure I would wear something that elegant one day. To a ball, perhaps.

I walked from one inauguration gown to another. There were so many. And then I had seen them all and looked around for the next exhibit…and where was my family?

They were not there. Or in the next room. Or the next. I don’t remember being afraid – although I might have been. It was just confusing to be in a maze of rooms and halls. No matter where I turned I had no idea where I was. All I knew was that I was alone. My heart was troubled. 

Eventually I found a security guard and told him I was lost. He told me to follow him and we went back to the entrance where I stood next to a different guard. Together we watched people coming and going and chatted a bit. I got the feeling I was not the first lost child he supervised. 

After quite a while, I heard my mom call my name and she ran across the hall to hug me. Reunited! Everything was back to normal again. 

(Of course when this happened, I only thought about what I experienced. With hindsight, I can imagine what my parents and siblings were thinking! It is never an easy thing to manage multiple children in an unfamiliar museum.)

I think of this story often because it is a good memory – of my getting so absorbed in the exhibit, of being cared for by strangers (I have to admit I felt important standing next ot the guard at the door,). Mostly I love the part about being found. 

Today I think of this story because being lost is a great metaphor for what mental illness is like for many people. It certainly is for me. May is Mental Health Awareness Month and a good time to consider what life is like for people who live with mental illness, as well as what our faith has to say about it. 

Stories of being lost and found, of having a place to BE are central to my faith tradition. They are often the themes of parables or the great narratives of our ancestors. Being lost and found is a great way to think about our relationship to the God who created and loves us. 

John’s gospel tells a story about Jesus telling his disciples that he will soon leave them, and not in a pleasant way. They’re not too keen on the idea. 

Jesus said, “Do not let your hearts be troubled.”

For many, mental illness feels like a troubled heart. It can feel like not fitting in or not feeling at home anywhere. It can feel like the disciple Thomas might have felt when he tried to understand where Jesus was going. Jesus said to him, “You know the way to the place where I am going.” 

Thomas then asked, “How can we know the way?”

One in five of us will experience mental illness in a given year – sometimes it is an episode brought on by trauma or a specific event. For others it is chronic and managed over a lifetime. 

And if 20% of us HAVE a mental illness, you can do the math and realize that almost all of us know it through someone we love. If you think you don’t, you do now. I have depression. So now you know someone with a mental illness. 

Despite being so common – and in many cases very treatable – these illnesses carry a lot of stigma. What that means in practical terms is that people either isolate themselves out of shame that they are crazy, lazy, or incompetent. Or they are isolated by others because they are judged to be scary, weird, or immoral. 

What ends up happening in way too many cases is that people feel like like a kid lost in a museum – not sure if they wandered away or were abandoned, but either way they are in an unfamiliar place with no idea how to get un-lost. 

If you’ve ever felt that way, you are not alone. 

Think of all the people in your life who might feel this way – people with depression, anxiety, substance use disorders, bipolar disorder, PTDS, schizophrenia…

Think about people who’ve faced violence or poverty or abuse, which can cause trauma…

Think about people who are isolated due to illness or disability or language barriers…

Think of all the people who care for them. 

All of them feeling lost and without a place to be at home. 

All of them with troubled hearts. 

This kind of feeling might apply to a group of disciples who just found out their friend and teacher is about to be betrayed and is going to leave them. 

We have hope. We are not forever lost. In my tradition, Jesus tells us that God has a place for us and that place is in the very life of God with all of God’s other beloved children. 

Jesus tells his troubled disciples, “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?”

Jesus’ friends have troubled hearts, and Jesus offers them the comfort of togetherness, of being in a big house with room prepared just for them. 

It is important to notice the order of events here – 

We are lost and God comes to us

We suffer – Jesus suffers – and then we have a home in God. 

God goes through our traumas with us. With our depression and alcoholism and mood disorders and grief. And on the other side of all that is not isolation, but a home together. 

There will be a place for you. There is a place for you. 

The relationship with God is ongoing through suffering to the other side. God comes to us in the midst of our lives and carries our entire, broken selves into God’s own life. Into God’s House. 

Imagine your life as being like a big museum and you feel lost wandering the halls and rounding the corners. You keep hoping to see a familiar face or to even know where you are. 

Imagine a helper who stands with you while you wait, is present with you so that you are not alone. 

And imagine being found! Having the God who loves you run across a big empty hall to embrace you like my mom did when she found me. 

God is faithful to us. God is faithful to you. 

When you feel isolated – either because you are pulling back from others or feel they are pulling  back from you – please know that there is a room for you in the very life of God.