Reflections on Christian Nationalism

“The opposite of faith is not doubt”, a wise mentor once said to me, recalling a line from Christian writer Anne Lamott; “the opposite of faith is certainty.”  Religious claims of certainty have been surging on public platforms and in various political expressions.  And much has been said and written about Christian nationalism, which to my mind is a manifestation of certainty, and which has become a boon to some and a bane to others. 

What is distressing to me about Christian nationalism is that its priority – as far as I can see it, is to protect the certainty.  The certainty of righteousness, the certainty of scripture, the certainty of American exceptionalism.  The veil of protection covers those who subscribe to the certainty; and vilification and repudiation is visited upon any and all who don’t.  The protection easily becomes aggressive and rigid.  Those who don’t submit to the party line are regarded as unpatriotic or, in some cases, guilty of treason.  In religious terms, they would be regarded as heretics.  For much of Christian history, convicted heretics have suffered horrendous punishments.

The word heresy has its roots in the Greek word hairesis, which means to choose for oneself.  Heretics are people who have chosen an idea, a belief or a path that is outside the norm, and then because of this choice are ostracized, removed or put to death.  Galileo’s idea that the earth rotated around the sun was deemed to be heretical, and he was excommunicated in 1663.  Thomas Cranmer, Hugh Latimer and Thomas Ridley, leaders of the newly formed Anglican Church, were burned at the stake in 1556 for their heresy of offering an alternative to Queen Mary’s established religious practice.

There is a long and sordid history of prevailing Christian attitudes and structures imposing its dogma and punishment on those whose actions and beliefs fall outside of its paradigm. As I see it, Christian nationalism is part of this legacy. Christian Nationalism seeks to suppress, if not prohibit, peoples’ choices that are contrary to its framework of certainty.    

Like most people, I have made a series of good and poor choices for myself over the course of my life.  In some cases those poor choices were hurtful to others.  In all cases my poor choices were hurtful to me; they ended up being self-destructive.  In some sense, it could be said that those poor choices represent heresy.  But in my experience – and I suspect for most people, those choices were based on impulses or instincts, and not on the basis of theology or ideology.  Those were times when I desperately wanted to get out of a stressful and painful situation – and while some of the choices I made worked out, many of them did not – and made things worse.  Eventually I was brought back to myself – through time, through the love and support of family and friends, and through the faith community that I was a part of.

Like most people, I harbor an inner desire for certainty.  The myth of certainty promises that life’s confounding questions will be answered clearly and completely, providing a pathway of living that is free of barriers – be they physical, intellectual or spiritual.  To embrace certainty as one’s faith assumes a protection of a theology and ideology that keeps me safe.

But the life of faith is not about protection or certainty – or an aggressive posture toward heresy.  The life of faith is about vulnerability.  Acknowledging our frailty and brokenness – and seeing it as the doorway to hope and strength.

This Sunday, March 24, is Palm Sunday in the Western Christian Church.  It recounts the story of Jesus triumphantly entering the city of Jerusalem.  He is greeted with palms and hosannas.  The expectation is that he will assume the throne as king, drive the Romans out, and all will be well.  Protection will be restored.

When their expectations were not met, the crowd turned on him; the echoes of hosannas were drowned out by the shrill cries of “crucify him”.  And Jesus was crucified, on a cross– an image of the most grotesque form of vulnerability.

In the Christian faith, the pathway to new life is not through protection or certainty, but through vulnerability.  To my mind, love comes from vulnerability, and is nurtured by vulnerability.  Vulnerability is a paradoxical form of strength.  It carries its own power. Jesus chose that path.

There is a part of me that can imagine my standing with the crowd 2000 years ago, waving palms and shouting hosannas as Jesus came into Jerusalem, harboring the hope that he would successfully carry out a regime change.  I can also imagine Christian nationalists being among the crowd as well, eagerly cheering Jesus on. 

They are still there.




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