Today's post is by UM & Global blogmaster Dr. David W. Scott, Mission Theologian at the General Board of Global Ministries. The opinions and analysis expressed here are Dr. Scott's own and do not reflect in any way the official position of Global Ministries.
I have been reading Robert P. Jones' White Too Long recently. The book is a searing indictment of the role of white American Christianity in creating and upholding white supremacy and should be read widely by white American Christians for the sake of their own souls as well as the sake of racial justice.
Among the book's larger argument, I was struck by a passage on p. 75-76:
"While white Christianity was protecting the interests and consciences of those under its canopy, white Christians were also staunchly defending the purity and innocence of the religion itself. They accomplished this principally by projecting an idealized form of white Christianity as somehow independent of the failings of actual white Christians or institutions. ... The problem with this defensive posture is that it prevents us from seeing areas where the religion may have gone off course; where new bearing are needed."
Although Jones is primarily interested in support for white supremacy as an instance in which American Christianity has gone off course (as it certainly is), I got to thinking, "What, speaking broadly across geography and time, are the sorts of ways in which Christianity tends to go off course?"
One of the answers I came to is that Christianity tends towards nationalism. By this I mean that there is a repeated tendency for Christian institutions and individuals to portray the nation (both in the sense of ethne and of nation state) in which they are located in a way that identifies the nations with God's will and action in the world; provides moral covering for the actions of those nations, even when those actions are morally unseemly; conflates national and Christian identity; presents national boundaries as God-ordained; and/or identifies service of the nation with service of God.
Certainly, Jones' book can be read as a description of American Christianity as a support of white nationalism. Another of my recent reads, Kristin Kobes du Mez's Jesus and John Wayne speaks persuasively about (primarily white) American evangelicalism as a form of American nationalism. And this trend of religious nationalism in the United States goes all the way back to the notion of America as a "city on a hill" with special religious significance for the world.
But this tendency does not only appear in American Christianity. It pops up repeatedly in Christianity around the world and over the centuries, from Eusebius' support for Constantine to the autocephalous churches of Eastern Orthodoxy to the Peace of Westphalia to the patronado system,to the cozy relationship between Christians and governments in many nations in Africa and Latin America today. Time and again, Christian institutions, theologies, and symbols have proven themselves to be able to be bent in service of the ends of nations, even when those ends or the means used to pursue them go against central teachings of the religion.
While there is nothing intrinsically wrong with nations--society has to be organized somehow--what is problematic is Christians' willingness to identify the this-worldly aims of nations, which are often characterized by a quest for power and resources and moral compromises in their pursuit--with the other-worldly truths of a God of love, justice, and righteousness.
Still, it is possible to see this tendency towards nationalism as the negative side of what, in other ways, is a positive feature of Christianity. This is what Andrew Walls has called the "indigenizing principle"--the ability of Christianity to adapt itself to the cultural and national homes into which it moves. It is this indigenizing principle that has allowed Christianity to spread around the world and take root in so many different places and contexts.
Thus, the solution to Christianity's tendency towards nationalism is not to do away with the indigenizing principle. It is instead to ensure that this principle remains balanced with the other important principle Walls identified in Christianity--the pilgrim principle. It is the pilgrim principle that prevents Christians from becoming too comfortable in the world or in a particular national context. The pilgrim principle reminds Christians to engage with the other, to see God in the face of those who are different from them, to make a distinction between their faith and their nation.
The pilgrim principle can be supported in many different ways, but one of the most significant ways in which Christians have emphasized the importance of the pilgrim principle has been through mission. Mission takes Christians beyond their home national and cultural contexts and shows them God at work elsewhere in the world. It teaches them to see their home nations with different and more critical eyes.
Of course, not all missionaries have been proponents of the pilgrim principle. Some have used mission as a venue for promoting their particular form of nationalism, as the history of Western mission over the past several centuries so amply shows.
Still, as the activity of the church that is most connection to internationalism, mission remains a crucial force in maintaining the balance of the church in its relationship with nations--able to work in any nation, but also able to distinguish itself from the moral justifications and claims to ultimate ontological status that almost all nations engage in. In this way, mission is part of what keeps Christianity honest, what keeps Christianity from going off course.