The Nation and the Bible

My good friend at First Things, editor R.R. Reno, ruminates in this month’s print issue on “Christian Universalism and the Nation.” Against Christians who make too easy a jump from the universalism of the Christian church to effectively borderless nations—a camp that includes some Catholic bishops as well as some evangelicals—Reno writes “we need better theology.” He sketches this using several propositions.

Reno’s main thrust is that particular loves, such as love for family, neighbors, and fellow citizens, are the primary means by which God extends his providential care for humanity. I have argued similarly elsewhere. Yet there are some curious gaps in Reno’s sketch of a “better theology.”

The Scriptures include (at least) three signal events important to sketching nationhood in a Biblical key. They are the common ownership of the earth, the creation of the nations at Babel, and the calling of Abraham immediately after Babel. Aspects of these events cut in favor of some of Reno’s claims as well as against some of them.

First, God gave the earth to humanity in general to provide for our needs (Psalm 115.16, Genesis 1.26-30, 9.3, etc.). This and God’s providential superintendence entails the so-called universal destination of the earth and its goods (1 Chronicles 29.12,14, Deuteronomy 8.17-18, Psalm 24.1, etc.).

While sounding vaguely socialistic, it’s not. Private property, families, nations and others are particularistic means by which humanity makes use of its common ownership, and the primary means by which people produce and distribute goods. The teachings operate more as a reserve clause identifying the purposes that things like private property and national sovereignty must serve. These things must be prudentially modified if they do not serve the purposes for which they were created.

The implications of the common ownership of the earth are too vast to discuss in any depth here. One implication to note, however. St. Paul notes in his talk at the Areopagus that national borders are matters of God’s will, answering his providential purposes (Acts 17.26). God is the one who is ultimately sovereign over national borders, not nations.

This does not mean that national borders are or should be entirely permeable to cross-national movement. National authorities, however, answer to a higher power. Importantly, the reason people may need to cross national borders is an important consideration in their permeability. Political theorists like Hugo Grotius (aspects of which I discuss here, here, and here) and Mathias Risse, who develops a secular line of reasoning premised on common ownership of the earth, consider the different implications for the permeability of national borders based on different types of claims.

For example, Grotius draws on events in the book of Numbers to discuss the right to pass through a nation. In chapter 22 (verses 22-24) Moses asks Sihon, King of the Amorites, for permission for Israel merely to pass through the land. Sihon refuses, and Israel enforces her right of passage by going to war. Israel subsequently passes through Bashan and Moab. Interestingly, however, earlier, when the King of Edom refused permission to Israel, Moses simply turned Israel away. (Perhaps Edom was too strong for Israel successfully to fight, Luke 13.41.)

While the common ownership of the earth might auger more for cosmopolitanism than nationalism, the next event in the Bible offers more evidence to support nationalism than cosmopolitanism. Yet, it is a negative argument for nationhood, which may explain why nationalist Christians seems studiously to ignore it.

In the Bible’s story of the tower of Babel, a unified, monoglot humanity seeks to pierce the firmament and storm God’s throne room. In doing so humanity replicates the Original Sin, seeking to dethrone God and enthrone itself as King. In judgment, God divides humanity into different tongues and nations or family groups.

This event of the creation of the nations, narrated in chapters 10 and 11 in the book of Genesis, cannot be discussed separately from God’s calling of Abraham (Abram at the time) immediately afterwards, in chapter 12. God’s calling of Abram is his response to the judgment at Babel. God divides humanity into “nations” or ”families” at Babel—both words are used (Genesis 10.5, 16, 20, 31-32). Yet through Abram, God will bless the very families he just judged in chapters 10 and 11. Just three verses into the next chapter, God tells Abram that “in you all the families of the earth will be blessed” (Genesis 12.3).

God creates a different type of nation out of Abraham than he created at Babel. The differences are instructive.

The Babelian nations are extended families or clans. Their identities are formed primarily by blood. Not so with Israel. Blood relation with Abraham (or, ultimately, with Jacob) is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for national membership in Israel. What makes an Israelite is covenant membership alone. This is indicated (for men) by circumcision. A man who is biologically descended from Abraham yet who does not bear the covenant sign is “cut off” from the nation (Genesis 17.14). Similarly, a man who was not biologically related to Abraham (or Jacob), when circumcised, would become “as a native of the land” (Ex 12.48). Indeed, from the very start, the vast majority of those circumcised were not blood relatives of Abraham (Genesis 17.12, 14.14).

In the biblical narrative, Gentile nations were defined around family or blood, the nation of Israel was defined around covenant. Membership in Israel, with few exceptions (Deuteronomy 23.3), was a biologically open nation in which Gentiles, with receipt of the covenant sign, would become as “natives of the land.”

Reno writes, “The nation is a political community, a way of life in accord with shared loves, not a clan bound by blood.” By Reno’s definition, Israel was the first distinctively modern nation in the Bible. While particularistic, Israel also had universalistic mission to “bless the families of the earth.” She would do this by drawing the nations to the one God.

Because of this mission, the nation of Israel accorded a fundamental equality to non-Israelite aliens (“the stranger who resides with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself” Leviticus 19.34). Yet while rigorous equality was required, often ignored by Christians pointing to these laws of hospitality is that the law also allowed substantial distinctions between natives and aliens in Israel.

What mattered in Israel was allegiance to YHWH. While this was Israel’s universalistic mission, it was also her particularistic aspiration. While Mosaic law required that aliens and strangers be treated equally before the law, and Israelites had an obligation to love the alien as they loved themselves, because Israel was a community formed by and around YHWH, aliens could not fully be members of Israel, culturally, economically, or politically, without conversion or assimilation.

Despite the laws requiring Israelites to succor aliens (Deuteronomy 24.19-21, and etc.), aliens nonetheless could not own land in Israel (Leviticus 23.25) and could be charged interest on loans (Deuteronomy 23.20). Aliens could sell themselves permanently into slavery, something prohibited to Israelites (Exodus 21.2). While aliens were not required to profess YHWH as their own God, even while living in Israel, they nonetheless needed to avoid religious practices that would be inconsistent with the nation’s Yahwist culture (Leviticus 16.29, 17.12, etc.). Aliens, however, were allowed to sacrifice to YHWH (Numbers 15.14) and were invited to pray to YHWH (2 Chronicles 6.32-33).

There is a theological and a political upshot to all of this. First, theologically, Reno pretty much gets backward the picture of the gathering of the nations in Revelation 7 and the vision in Isaiah 49. Both pictures directly suggest the movement of the nations from Babelian separation to a unity restored by and under the one Davidic king. To be sure, these are pictures fully realized only in the age to come. Nonetheless, even as the nations and their kings bring their distinctive splendor and wealth into the age to come (Revelation 21.24, 26), their distinctive cultural inheritances are offered up to the King of Kings—that is, neither abandoned nor subsumed in new city. The focus of these pictures is not of whatever part of national identity continues into the age to come, but the summing up of those identities, such that, as St. Paul writes, “there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free” (Colossians 3.11). Babel reversed.

The political implications are more complicated. On the one hand, the Bible teaches first that God, and not the nations, is sovereign over national borders. On the other hand, hospitality toward aliens—a fundamental requirement to love the alien as oneself—coexisted along with social, political, and economic limitations on aliens in Israel. These limitations aimed to support and protect Israel’s fundamental allegiance to YHWH. This allegiance, not blood, was Israel’s distinctive trait among nations early in the Bible. National membership was open to those who wanted to convert and assimilate.

Yet assimilation is fundamental. And here, I think, is a political implication from the Bible even Reno might endorse: In ancient Israel there was content actually to assimilate to. But what about the U.S today? Much of the opposition to immigration today derives not from the strength of modern American identity, but from its weakness. Affirmation of autonomy requires no assimilation; it is the rejection of assimilation. The irony is that a thicker American culture—and religion is the heart of culture—could actually be less threatened by, and hence more welcoming of, immigrants than today’s affirmation of an empty center.