SUMMARY: The church, specifically the American church in the context of Postcards from Babylon, has been seduced by the allure of power and influence. This is not a new phenomenon, but has been going on for hundreds of years. The intertwining of faith and empire has blinded our eyes to the teachings of the Bible that calls the church to be a counter-cultural, prophetic voice against violence.
“If Christianity is not seen as countercultural and even subversive within a military-economic superpower, you can be sure it is a deeply compromised Christianity,” Pastor Brian Zahnd writes.
Zahnd touches on the major idols of our age – patriotism, nationalism, the military, and the economy – which will surely make many angry. Pointing out this idolatry may seem like a personal attack to many individuals, but that is what Zahand is attempting to get at. American Christians have put their faith and allegiance in things other than Jesus, or at the very least, have elevated country and security over Jesus. As a result, the means almost always justify the ends.
“The failure to see the clear difference between Jesus sacrificing his life while forgiving his enemies on the cross and the sacrifice of a soldier slain while waging war on a battlefield is an indication of the degree to which a commitment to militarism has obscured the implications of the gospel,” Zahnd says.
Zahnd traces a significant part of this shift to the Vietnam War when “the American de facto state church shifted from Mainline Protestantism (which often opposed the war) to conservative Evangelicalism (which unequivocally supported the war).”
Another factor that contributed to American nationalism is the way many American Christians have been taught to read the Bible. Myriad Americans read the Bible as the oppressed and as the ones with a covenant with God. In many Christian circles, the founding of America is taught as being grounded in Christian values. These interpretations and teachings have resulted in Americanism becoming a religion “complete with creation myths, holy days, holy ground, founding fathers, canonized saints, canonical texts, revered hymns, hallowed temples, sanctified statues, liturgical gestures, and sacred liturgies.”
The truth is, America is the most powerful nation in the world and is waging war on almost every continent. America is not a kind of Biblical Israel and we are not a chosen Christian nation or a chosen people. This much needed truth needs to be preached across the country. We need to read the Bible with humility and, because we are reading it from the point of view of the most powerful nation on earth, we should read from the eyes of the Egyptians, the Babylonians, etc. and not from the eyes of the Israelites.
“This needs to be made clear: America is not an extension of the kingdom of Christ, America is a continuation of Babylon,” Zahnd writes. “America may (or may not be) a gentler, kinder Babylon, but it’s a Babylon nonetheless. To put it another way, King Jesus is not the best version of Caesar; King Jesus is the anti-Caesar. This is what ‘Jesus is Lord’ has always meant.”
He believes that Christians should be counter cultural. By studying the life of Jesus as a poor, immigrant minority along with his consistent instruction to seek justice for the poor, the oppressed, the widow, and the prisoners, Christians have a clear picture of what it means to be counter-cultural. Declaring Jesus is Lord is profoundly political. It means we will make people angry on both sides of the political aisle. It will confuse people, but intrigue others.
Zahnd consistently points to the hope that Jesus is the king of the world right now, not some day in the future. Because Jesus died and rose from the grave Babylon has already fallen. The kingdom of God is moving and changing the world at this very instant.
KEY QUOTE: “I am a (relatively) wealthy white American male, which is fine, but it means I have to work hard at reading the Bible right. I have to see myself basically as aligned with Pharaoh, Nebuchadnezzar, and Caesar. In that case, what does the Bible ask of me? Voluntary poverty? Not necessarily. But certainly the Bible calls me to deep humility — a humility demonstrated in hospitality and generosity. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with being a relatively well-off white American male, but I better be humble, hospitable, and generous!”
BONUS: Don’t have time to read the book? Listen to Zahnd talk about his book on the Libertarian Christian podcast.
DID YOU KNOW?: Sunday to Saturday has a Good Reads page where we post all of the books we have read – even the ones that didn’t make the cut.
More from curated resources on nationalism:
Hope in Jesus. Trust in Jesus. Most Christians would unequivocally agree that those two statements are an important part of being a Christ follower. Therefore it is sobering that a large part of Scandalous Witness takes aim at patriotism being conflated as a Christian orthodox principle.
Occasionally you think a documentary is going to be about one thing, but it completely surprises you. Sometimes that is good thing and sometimes it completely fails. In the case of J.E.S.U.S.A. it is the former. While the trailer, the marketing material, and the first 13 minutes of the film all point to exploring the conflation of American nationalism and Christianity the core question that the film truly attempts to answer is whether Christians should engage or abstain from violence.