Nationalism in Ancient Israel and the Contemporary U.S.

I was reading over Kingdom Ethics (by the well-known just peacemaking theorist Glenn Stassen, co-written with David Gushee), and read over some lines that caught me between the eyes.  It seemed as though their reflection about Ancient Israel and the nature of how religion and politics were caught up in each other struck an accord with some of our culture in the U.S. Quoting at length to retain context,

Isaiah 56:7, “My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations,” is part of the declaration in Isaiah 56:1-8 that God’s purpose is to bless all who are being excluded, the foreigners, eunuchs and outcasts. “During his entire ministry Jesus has been gathering in the impure outcasts and the physically maimed, and has even reached out to Gentiles. He expects the Temple to embody this inclusive love. . . . In Jesus’ day the temple had become a nationalistic symbol that served only to divide Israel from the nations” (Garland, NIV Application Commentary, 438). -Stassen and Gushee, 348 italics added.

Considering that Israel was to be a nation of people that offered itself as an example of all the good things of God and facilitate other nations to see a glimpse of a God that hated oppression (See Exodus 19 for a thorough treatment), how is that Israel began operating in a more nationalistic manner? Particularly as it pertains to the Temple and the worship of God from this people? That is, when did a people who were delivered from slavery come full circle to dividing themselves from other peoples and where “the temple is functioning as a cover-up for injustice” (349)?

Where has the church co-opted today with a nationalistic theme? Without ripping off an exhaustive or caustic list, one could start with why one finds an American Flag in the front of many churches.  Or the marriage of political parties (of either side, mind you) with one’s faith: the moral majority and it’s co-opting of the Republican Party or the efforts of some socially just-active churches to promote Democratic Party Platforms. Further, this time unabashedly raising a controversial issue, how the U.S. church scene (read: white churches, and mostly Evangelical as well, as this institution is the power base for theological discourse today) participates in systematic racism.  After all, Sunday at 11am is the most segregated hour of the week, no? Frederick Douglass said once that

“The slave auctineer’s bell and the churchgoing bell chime in with each other, and the bitter cries of the heartbroken slave are drowned in the religous shouts of his pious master.”

Has much changed in this regard from either the slave days of the U.S. or Ancient Israel? Many aren’t able to come to the temple of today’s U.S. Churches unless they give up all else of their perspective, heritage, or theology – not to mention culture – to enter in. What does it mean when “orthodoxy” becomes oppressive in this manner? Which isn’t to say anything of the cultural slavery which non-white folk are relegated to: two to three jobs to make ends meet; lack of quality health care and education; immobility both geographically and vocationally, etc.  In this case, where is the U.S. church in proclaiming a voice and acting as a participant to remove the systemic injustice perpetuated by lifestyle decisions of those in power (i.e. moving out of the city for one’s child to go to “good schools”)?

I realize I may be constructing a straw man out of some of these statements, but they also come from conversations around a Black Theology course I’m enrolled in and the cultural structures that racism operates within. There are further connections between this reading and the two entities, but we’ll leave it at this for now (unless y’all have other thoughts and variables to bring into conversation).

Any thoughts?

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~ by Brian Shope on March 3, 2010.

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