In The Case for Christian Nationalism, Stephen Wolfe hopes to “enliven in the hearts of Christians a sense of home and hearth and love of people and country out of which springs actions for their good.” (5)
Christian nationalism has been a part of the national conversation ever since the riot at the Capitol Building on January 6, 2021. It is almost universally condemned by Christians and non-Christians alike. But is this condemnation fair? Wolfe thinks not and seeks to make the case for it.
For the last three posts, I want to suggest an alternate path forward—one based on a recognition that we are aliens and strangers in the world. First Peter 2:11–12 reminds us that we are exiles on earth:
“Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul. Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation.” (1 Peter 2:11–12 ESV)
Peter recognized that the Christian worldview and lifestyle is not at home in the world. Paul recognized the same thing in Philippians 3:18–20:
"For many, of whom I have often told you and now tell you even with tears, walk as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things. But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself." (Philippians 3:18–21 ESV)
Both 1 Peter and Philippians use alien and citizen language to describe the Christian situation—we are citizens of heaven living as aliens on earth. Neither Peter nor Paul was inventing these images, they were simply applying the biblical story to their contemporary contexts. The words “alien,” “stranger,” and “foreigner” have rich theological meanings. Israel lived as aliens, first in Egypt and later in Babylon. When they were in captivity, their true citizenship was in the Promised Land while they lived their daily lives in exile. This is the theological paradigm for Christian “nationalism.”
My favorite passage in Wolfe’s book is in chapter 3, in which Wolfe talks about the significances we put in the stories of “spaces” to make them “places.” He writes:
“Memory is an essential element of place, creating sentiment between people and place. Sentiment here is a sort of affectivity that is generated by time and activity and intergenerational love. To understand the relationship of memory, sentiment, and place, let us return to house and home. The house of one’s youth is not merely another house among houses; it is your childhood home. As the place of your time and activity, it is set apart from the other houses. Even after moving out, that house remains unique; it is distinct to you from the rest of the houses in the row. And this is not your choice, as if one can freely ascribe this unique relation to any dwelling. It is an unavoidable product of your activity in that space—an activity that generated familiarity and lodged memory. If one’s childhood was generally positive, he relates to that space with positive affection. It is elevated with an affective value—a value that is neither transferable nor exchangeable, nor marketable; and yet this value is real for you and for others who were with you. I recently heard one man speak fondly of his grandparents’ front porch, where they and he would sit, talk, and eat. The grandparents are gone now, and a stranger owns the house, but when he drives by and gazes at the porch, he thinks of them and reflects on his memories. That house has captured these memories for him and his love for his grandparents. We all have lodged memories like this, which speaks not merely of a common emotion but of the power of place to enliven our world.” (124–25)
I love the imagery here and the distinction between house and home. The house that I grew up in has special significance to me. The house I raised my children in has special significance to me. No one else who moved into those houses could know the stories of those spaces or the significance they have to me. Reading Wolfe’s words reminds me of the biblical lament over Zion in Psalm 137:
"By the waters of Babylon,
there we sat down and wept,
when we remembered Zion.
On the willows there
we hung up our lyres.
For there our captors
required of us songs,
and our tormentors, mirth, saying,
'Sing us one of the songs of Zion!'
How shall we sing the LORD's song
in a foreign land?
If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
let my right hand forget its skill!" (Psalm 137:1–5 ESV)
Mount Zion was just a space to Israel’s Babylonian captors, but it was a place to the Psalmist. A place with a story. A place of memories. A place with songs. How could these songs be sung in a foreign land, to a people who don’t know the stories or the significance of the place?
This desire for a sense of place expressed in Psalm 137 is the same one that Wolfe expresses in The Case for Christian Nationalism. But our story is the story of God and our place is the kingdom of God. We currently live in Babylon, and the Scriptures tell us to live as exiles and sojourners. Again, Peter did not invent this image, he draws on the biblical story. When Israel was in captivity, the prophet Jeremiah told them how to live as aliens and sojourners:
“Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” (Jeremiah 29:4–7 ESV)
For Israel, living as an alien in Babylon meant living for the welfare of Babylon. It didn’t mean conforming to the ways of Babylon or later Persia, as the Books of Daniel and Esther make clear, but rather to stay true to one’s faith while seeking the welfare of the city of our exile. This is what Paul would later tell the Philippians:
"Only let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you or am absent, I may hear of you that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel, and not frightened in anything by your opponents. This is a clear sign to them of their destruction, but of your salvation, and that from God. For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake, engaged in the same conflict that you saw I had and now hear that I still have." (Philippians 1:27–30 ESV)
The Greek word translated “manner of life” is literally “citizenship.” The Greek is clumsy coming into English, but it would be something like “Conduct your citizenship worthy of the gospel of Christ.” In other words, the true Christian nation is the kingdom of God, and true Christian nationalism looks like living out the kingdom of God in the world. It does mean directing people toward the true king, but not in the way in which Wolfe suggests (more on that in the next post).
I love my town of Port Orchard, Washington. My wife and I were one of the first people to move into our development. We were 28 years old and expecting our first child when we moved in. I remember the first few weeks of living here—we met the neighbors and talked about the hopes and dreams we had for the nascent community. A blended family lived across the street. Our next-door neighbors had two elementary-aged children. Some newlyweds lived across from them. Around the corner were some retirees.
Fifteen years later, the neighborhood has changed. There are over 100 houses in the development now. The baby we were expecting when we moved in will learn to drive this year. The kids next door have grown and left home. Most of the other original neighbors have moved away. Some have passed away. My neighbors and I have shared stories—things like how we celebrate holidays, when we put up and take down our Christmas lights, how late we can set off fireworks on July 4th, and how we respond when we witness neighborhood kids vandalizing community parks or bullying smaller kids.
But with every family that moves away, new families move in, and the story of my community changes. These changes don’t mean the end of my community’s story, they just mean changes to it. Every good story has plot twists and character development, and we the reader don’t know what the next chapter holds. But as followers of Jesus, we know the Storyteller. This isn’t our story; it’s God’s story and we have been invited along to be a part of it. Our job is not to make sure the story doesn’t change. Our job is to be faithful to the Storyteller and to point others to Him.
What does it look like for you to “conduct your citizenship worthy of the gospel of Christ” in your neighborhood right now?