Fear and dread are a ruthless duo. They take no prisoners. They respect no boundaries. They eat faith, hope, and love for lunch. They make us forget who we are and who God is. When I went through a prolonged period of tribulation a little over a year ago, I fell under their toxic spell for a few days.
Entire populations can fall under their spell too. The recent attacks in Paris have triggered our collective PTSD from 9/11. Twenty-seven U.S. governors have now declared opposition to settling Syrian refugees in their states, and many are applauding this sentiment. Fear and dread have driven off the empathy we felt just 2 months ago when we saw the photos of Aylan Kurdi, the three-year-old Syrian refugee boy who drowned in the Aegean Sea (along with his mother and 5-year-old brother) and washed up on a beach in Turkey. His father’s anguish has slipped into the sea of irrelevance. And now we speak of Trojan horses.
This reaction is not unexpected.
Since 2001, the year that the U.S. declared war on terror, 5,379 Americans have lost their lives in combat and 52,385 have been wounded, mostly in Iraq and Afghanistan. Many are struggling to maintain mental health. We have paid a hefty price for the War on Terror with currency consisting of dollars, limbs, lifeblood, and mental integrity. Allowing anything to threaten the sacredness of what we have expended is unthinkable.
Unless we have an allegiance to a more sacred obligation, a higher cause.
As Christians, we do. We are citizens of the kingdom of God – a kingdom independent from any earthly empire. “My kingdom is not of this world,” said Jesus.[a] It’s a kingdom whose citizens’ way of life is characterized by a commitment to feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, welcoming the stranger, clothing the naked, caring for the sick, visiting the incarcerated, and seeking the salvation of all people.[b] Its citizens, therefore, can never identify as full citizens of an earthly empire that prioritizes and pursues its national security, interests, and power above everything else.
The duty of the nationalist is to secure the interests of the state by subduing and destroying its enemies. He is willing to employ military force, propaganda, deception, manipulation, racial and religious discrimination, denial of entry, and torture to achieve this end. He is governed by fear, liability, and the need for control. In contrast, the duty of the kingdom citizen is to love, pray for, and forgive his enemies, and to hold steadfast to the reality of their imago dei.[c] It is also to welcome and care for immigrants and refugees seeking asylum from violence and destitution.[d] He is governed by love and mercy.
Nationalism, unfortunately, has insinuated itself into the landscape of American Christianity in much the same way it wove itself into the fabric of German Christianity in the decades preceding World War II. As God’s people, we have an obligation to divorce ourselves from the priorities of earthly empires in order to pursue the priorities of the kingdom of God, who has been in the business of opposing the spirit of nationalism in his people for several millennia now, even Israel’s.[e] The story of Jonah is a good example.
We know Jonah as a reluctant prophet, but we should recognize that much of his reluctance stems from being an Israeli nationalist. When God instructs him to prophesy to Israel’s sworn enemies in the Assyrian capital of Nineveh (near modern-day Mosul in northern Iraq), Jonah bolts. When he does, though, instead of sending another messenger, God goes to great lengths to retrieve him. God seems as interested in liberating Jonah from his tribal mindset as He is in seeing the people of Nineveh repent.
After a series of unpleasant events, Jonah travels to Nineveh and delivers God’s message. To his chagrin, the people repent and are spared. Jonah is livid. His hatred of the Ninevites is on full display by the end of the story. They have committed atrocities against the people of Israel, and Jonah prefers to see them judged and destroyed. He can’t see beyond the injustices they’ve committed. God, however, sees both the children in the city and the future generations that He wants to spare. He invites Jonah to see them too. People in northern Iraq today have come to know Christ because God spared their ancestors.
Seeing as God sees requires us to follow Jesus’ footsteps to Calvary. We have to take up our cross – whether it’s fear, hatred of “other,” or idolatrous nationalism – and drag it to Golgotha. Only after we have died to the earth-bound things we hold dear can we be raised up and liberated to live a life in which fear, dread, and death have no dominion over us.[f]
The ten Booms, a Dutch Reformed family in the Netherlands, understood this dimension of their faith. They saw the threat of the Nazi empire from a distance before it arrived at their door, and they prepared themselves not by gearing up for war, but by readying themselves for service to their King. When the time came, they at great personal risk sheltered and smuggled Jewish refugees to safety. Their underground network saved an estimated 800 Jews. The family was eventually betrayed, arrested, and sent to concentration camps, and only Corrie survived.
As horrifying as it is to think about, God’s people around the world are sometimes called upon to suffer oppression, persecution, and martyrdom at the hands of atheistic and terroristic regimes. Until Jesus returns, empires will continue to rise and fall, and heavenly citizens will continue to get caught up in the matrix of conflict. Christians in America should not think we have been granted a special divine dispensation against this possibility.
We pray for our earthly government to exercise its protective power and authority justly on our behalf, since it wields the power of the sword.[g] But we must be about our Father’s business.
a John 18:36
b Matthew 25:31-46; 2 Corinthians 5:11-21; 2 Peter 3:9
c Matthew 5:43-48
d Matthew 25:31-46
e Genesis 17:6, Psalm 67, Romans 15:8-12
f Matthew 16:24-26, Romans 6
g 1 Timothy 2:2; Romans 13:1-5
- Fantz, Ashley; Brumfield, Ben. “More than half the nation’s governors say Syrian refugees not welcome.” CNN.com. November 16, 2015. Accessed at http://www.cnn.com/2015/11/16/world/paris-attacks-syrian-refugees-backlash/
- Smith, Helena. Shocking images of drowned Syrian boy show tragic plight of refugees. TheGuardian.com. September 2, 2015. Accessed at http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/sep/02/shocking-image-of-drowned-syrian-boy-shows-tragic-plight-of-refugees.
- Casualties. Department of Defense. November 17, 2015. Accessed at http://www.defense.gov/casualty.pdf
- “The German Churches and the Nazi State.” Holocaust Encyclopedia. Last updated August 18, 2015. Accessed at http://www.ushmm.org/wlc/en/article.php?ModuleId=10005206
- ten Boom, Corrie. The Hiding Place. Old Tappan, NJ: Chosen Books, 1971. Print. Website: “About the Ten Booms.” Ten Boom Museum. http://tenboom.org/aboutthetenboomsc48.php