by Rodney Kennedy
Rodney Kennedy has his M.Div. from New Orleans Theological Seminary and his Ph.D. in Rhetoric from Louisiana State University. He pastored the First Baptist Church of Dayton (OH) – which is an American Baptist Church – for 13 years, after which he served as interim pastor of ABC USA churches in Illinois, Pennsylvania, and Kansas. He is currently interim pastor of Emmanuel Friedens Federated Church, Schenectady, NY. His sixth book – The Immaculate Mistake: How Evangelicals Gave Birth to Donald Trump – has recently been published by Wipf and Stock (Cascades). And his newest book, Good and Evil in the Garden of Democracy, will come out this December.
St. Thomas More once commented that searching for errors in the Tyndale Bible was similar to searching for water in the sea.
I feel that way when searching for outlandish comments that preachers make when they associate with the ReAwaken America Tour. This is the traveling circus and revival circuit of the Christian Nationalist Movement. Mostly, it’s a fund-raising ploy. At one recent rally, a “prophet” claimed the “death angel” would kill 30 prominent Democrats – names given and pictures shown on screen – before December 31, 2022.
Oklahoma pastor and failed U.S. Senate candidate Jackson Lahmeyer has accused folk like me of being “godless globalists.” The charge, taken from the bottom of the barrel of usual evangelical tropes, expands on exactly why he thinks we are a godless bunch.
Obviously, it is hard not to be impatient with disquisitions on the awfulness of religious beliefs uttered by preachers who have made no effort to ascertain what those beliefs are. My impatience means that a word fell from my lips before I could close them: gobbledygook. The word means language that is meaningless or is nonsense.
The words of King Solomon at the dedication of the Temple clamor for attention:
Likewise when foreigners, who are not of your people Israel, come from a distant land because of your name —for they shall hear of your great name, your mighty hand, and your outstretched arm—when foreigners come and pray toward this house, then hear in heaven your dwelling place and do whatever the foreigners ask of you, so that all the peoples of the earth may know your name and fear you, as do your people Israel, and so they may know that your name has been invoked on this house that I have built (1 Kings 8:41-43).
Imagine a place of worship for “all peoples.” One can’t be more global than that.
Then there are the words of Jesus at his ascension:
All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age (Matthew 28:18-20).
Jesus – the globalist!
And, in case the disciples missed the message, there’s this in Acts 1: “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.”
Christianity wasted no time becoming global. While there is lamentable, horrific baggage in the march of Christianity across the world – slavery, colonialism, nationalism, economic exploitation, genocide, and war – there’s never been a time when the faith was considered provincial. Christianity has advanced at the tip of bloody swords and wallowed in a crusader mentality no doubt. “Onward Christian soldiers” has too frequently been literal, but the zeal to spread the gospel gave birth to Catholic orders like the Jesuits and evangelical revivalists. During the first nineteen centuries of Christian existence, there’s a sense that evangelism – taking the word of Jesus to the world – mattered more than life.
And now, sadly, tragically, evangelicals only wish to stick it to the liberals.
As a child, I thrilled to the stories of missionaries that came to my country Baptist church each year from India, China, Europe, Africa, and South America. The Lottie Moon Christmas offering ranked as the highest and holiest offering of the year. We gave money we had saved to support foreign missionary work – evangelical work.
But Christian Nationalism mocks the Great Commission.
To launch an attack on a global Christianity is to attack the theological foundation of the book of Acts – the book that charts the spread of the faith. Suppose, as Kavin Rowe argues, we read the book of Acts as “a highly charged and theologically sophisticated political document that aims at the construction of an alternative way of life, a new kind of politics.”
Global Christianity is not a politics that desires to take the state. In the book of Acts, Christians do not want to replace the emperor. Today, unlike the Christian Nationalists, they don’t wish to elect a president who will give them a theocracy. They don’t need the president to be a Christian. Or to prop up their secularized faith with prayer in schools. Or live in the fantasy world of an amazing America that has no flaws. Or be in charge of absolutely everything.
The politics of Jesus unravels the very fabric of Christian Nationalism. One desire controls Christian Nationalists: How do we gain control of political power? One question dominates the politics of the Church opposing Christian Nationalism: What does it mean to be a living body of witnesses to the reality of the resurrected Jesus?
The key Christians of our time are not famous mega-church pastors with Fox News appearances, multi-million dollar television shows, or preachers turned political agents. Instead, it is the humanitarian workers/community organizers/witnesses whose purpose is to give the voice of Jesus to the precarity visited upon those subjected to various forms of violence and oppressed by ideologies like free market capitalism, fundamentalistic ideologies, aggressive militarism, and a growing authoritarianism that suggests a coming fascism. Global Christianity is the only thing that can save us from Christian Nationalism.
The church is meant to be the social, political, and material embodiment of the lordship of Christ. Not by lording it over others, but as suffering servants for the common good. We are to be God’s sacrament to the world. We must not allow the misplaced zeal of Christian nationalism to “bastardize and pulverize” (Cornel West) the preciousness of Christian faith as they engage in open idolatry.
Christianity can’t commit “adultery” with Nationalism. All the prophets cry out when God’s people drift into such perverted relationships. Christianity and secular culture are competing realities. The Christian call to repentance involves a turning away from the secular political world, a different way of life.
Christians are not meant to be “in bed” with secular politic,s because Christians are supposed to represent a real threat to empire, to culture, to status quo. Notice in Acts how many times pagans are riled by the Christians. Read the stories from Lystra, Philippi, Athens, and Ephesus. Christians are a threat. Christian Nationalists have rallies where they succeed only in riling up their own insecurities, fears, and outrage.
A key characteristic of the politics of Jesus is a cross that marks the rejection of messianic violence as a means of national liberation. Remember the haunting lines of Strang in the Broadway play, Equus: “The cross can mark a person for life.” Christianity offers a suffering and servant Messiah, the expansion of the community of faith to include Gentiles, and the ascription of the divine identity and lordship to the human Jesus. Miss this and you have missed what it means to be Christian.
Here is a political imagination that summons people, not to direct revolt, not to an insurrection, but to a form of life that promotes an antagonism about the secular political power. Jesus didn’t call his people to Washington D.C. on January 6, 2021, for an insurrection. The people of the resurrection are not in the business of political insurrection.
Idolatry Pure and Simple
Real Christians want a new culture, not a coup. The term “Christian Nationalist” is a false description – there’s nothing Christian in this messianic outburst of anger and violence. It’s idolatry arrogant enough to call real Christians a bunch of “godless globalists.”
Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene has given Christian Nationalism her full-throated approval. “We need to be the party of nationalism and I’m a Christian, and I say it proudly, we should be Christian nationalists,” Greene said in an interview while attending the Turning Point USA Student Action Summit in Florida. Her self-avowal of Christian nationalism follows her claim last month that Christian nationalism is “nothing to be afraid of,” and that the “movement” will solve school shootings and “sexual immorality” in America.
I think they are sincere people, but the problem is that what they are sincere about has nothing to do with the gospel of Jesus Christ. It is, quite frankly, not Christian. It is idolatry. That means that Christian Nationalism violates the first commandment. It doesn’t get any more perverse and wicked than a failing to obey commandment number 1 – the most important of all the commandments.
I suggest that Christian Nationalists stick out like the famous bronze serpent that Moses sculpted to save God’s people from death. The bronze serpent was a sign of healing and salvation, much like the early evangelical movement. Slowly, the serpent slithered its way into the imagination of the people as an object to be worshiped and found a place in the Temple. Nothing says idolatry in the Old Testament like Nehushtan, the subtle snake on a stick which was cousin to the snake in the ancient Garden.
And nothing says Christian idolatry like the American flag decorating sanctuaries by the hundreds. That a group of American Christians would insist that the American flag has a place of honor next to the cross, maybe in place of the cross, “is a sure sign that Christians no longer know how to recognize idolatry” (Stanley Hauerwas).
I am not fooling around here. In the tradition of the Hebrew prophets, I insist that Christian Nationalists do not know who they are messing with. Ignorant of the the idolatry that shapes their lives, they are the blind leading the blind into the ditch. Putting aside the reality that we are created to love God, Christian nationalists have ended up loving what they think will make them strong and powerful and in control.
If these Christians, up to their steeples in gobbledygook, don’t put down their flags and raise up the cross of Jesus, they are doomed to the fate of all idolaters. “Sheol beneath is stirred up to meet you when you come; it rouses the shades to greet you, all who were leaders of the earth; it raises from their thrones all who were kings of the nations.” “Your pomp is brought down to Sheol, and the sound of your harps; maggots are the bed beneath you, and worms are your covering.”
Note: Brian Kaylor and Beau Underwood have penned a brilliant response to the gobbledygook of “godless globalism”: “How Most Christians Became Godless Globalists.”