In this week’s episode, the editors discuss Bishop Timothy W. Whitaker’s article about how the nations appear in the Bible, a 75-year-old article about communal repentance, and a conversation about Christian nationalism. Mark Melton also mentions his 2019 article explaining his skepticism about wanting every country to become a nation-state.
Tooley: Hello this is Mark Tooley, editor of Providence: A Journal of Christianity & American Foreign Policy, with another episode of Marksism, with fellow editors and fellow Mark(c)s, Marc LiVecche and Mark Melton. Today we’re going to talk about the Bible, Christianity, nation states, Christian nationalism, starting out with a piece by Methodist Bishop Tim Whitaker on the Bible and nations. He’s making the case that nations in the Bible are the nation states we would imagine today, but they were distinct peoples. And he examines that perspective in terms of today’s contemporary politics, warning against the extremes of identity politics and overemphasis on distinct ethnic or political or cultural subcultures that could be divisive, self-serving, and dependent upon a politics of grievance, entitlement, and resentment to affirm diversity, yes, but to also affirm the common good. And as Christians, ultimately, looking forward to that time when Christ himself will draw all nations unto himself with all their richness and diversity, but also supremely the commonality they will have under his lordship. So, Marc LiVecche, your thoughts on Bishop Whitaker’s Biblical overview of the nations?
LiVecche: Yeah, it was good. It was an excellent article. You gave a great summary of it. I think at least one of the key takeaways is this idea that it’s individuals, not nations, that enter into the Church. Which immediately, it seems, pushes away against the notion that there could be anything like a Christian nation. What would that even mean? At the same time, while it’s true that it’s individuals and not nations that are in the Church and that the Church, therefore, can be a part of multiple nations even nations that are directly hostile to the Church and to the Hebraic tradition, it also remains true, though, that nations, like individuals, can develop certain characteristics that are formed over time through habituated action. I think that’s largely true. America has a certain characteristic, there are things you could say about America generally that are true and certain things you can say about America generally that are untrue. And if that’s correct then nations can be Christianly, even if they’re not Christian nations. And that’s an important addition to what I think the bishop is saying, and I think that’s meaningful. And I think America in its history has demonstrated a Christianly disposition. In that sense, it’s something worth noting.
Tooley: Excellent. Mark Melton, your thoughts?
Melton: Yeah, I mean, it was an interesting piece. Looking at the theological perspective, you see the connection between the same word, that is the nations in the Old Testament being translated as the gentiles in the New Testament, but also the fact that this word is even ethnic. It’s the root word that we get ethnic from. And so, now they’re not nation states, in fact, the idea of a nation state, the modern nation state, can’t really exist arguably until after the printing press and more modern technology that allows these large groups of people to have a common identity. And so, instead we have much smaller ethnic groups when the nations are being referenced. And so, when I was reading this, I wondered like, why is this even being translated as the nations? It sounds like in more modern context, we should be calling these the ethnic groups, because that is the word that seems to be most closely correlated with what the Bible is talking about in these instances.
Tooley: On a related topic, I hosted a conversation this week with three of our Providence contributors, Paul Miller, Debra Erickson, and Daniel Strand. Paul Miller, of course, being a sharp critic of Christian nationalism and nationalism across the board. Daniel Strand has written for Providence in defense of a sort of Christian nationalism properly understood. And I suppose that Debra Erickson was sort of in between in that argument. Marc LiVecche, we were discussing this before our formal conversation, but if you could return to some of your earlier points?
LiVecche: Yeah, I’m happy that Providence is continuing to host what I think is an important conversation that needs to be had, and I like how the bishop’s article dovetails inadvertently into the conversation that you had. One of the things that struck me perhaps especially, my sequence was that I had watched your interview and then I read the bishop’s article. And having the interview in mind while reading the bishop’s article, one of the things that struck me is to recognize that while America is not a Christian nation under the bishop’s terms or Miller’s or even Strand’s, while it’s not a Christian nation, I assert, because I think the Founders asserted, that the Constitution was written for a particular kind of person. It presupposes a particular kind of people. And it at least presupposes a people for whom the Hebraic tradition is not anathema. They’re generally grounded in the Hebraic tradition; they generally breathe Judeo-Christian air. That’s not an oxygen source that they’re allergic to. If that’s the case, then I think another assertion can be made that we are increasingly not that people anymore, at least not in certain majorities, even maybe a defining majority. And that becomes a crisis, I think. And I think the question now as we seem increasingly to move away from being a “we,” and increasingly being preoccupied with being an “I,” whether or not that’s an individual or a particular identity group, we need to find something around which we can cohere. Otherwise increasingly the center does not hold, right, and we get further and further away from any kind of unity. And I think that’s something that those who speak most strongly against nationalism or Christian nationalism, while I may agree with many of their critiques, I want to see that addressed. A realistic perspective on international relations, I’ve said this before, I think would insist that the international order often works best when there is a hegemon. And then that hegemon can retract its power to certain degrees and become generous and inclusive in the way that it exercises that power, so that power is sufferable to the people, or to the nations, that are beneath it. I wonder if something analogous isn’t required in a liberal democracy where you have some group, some traditions, some ideology, that exercises a kind of hegemony from which we can then step back and be generous and inclusive. And if that’s the case, or if anything like that is the case, then I think despite all its warts, the Hebraic tradition has to be that hegemon. I’m not sure there’s another one on the market that has the potential to be as inclusive or as generous. And I know that given the history of Christianity in the world, for some that’s a scandalous thing to say, but I would hold to it. If nothing else, built in, baked in, to the Christian Hebraic tradition, as the bishop noted, is this notion that there is no longer Jew or Gentile. That’s supposed to be the point. And it’s that kind of disposition, and that kind of disposition alone, I think that allows liberalism to work. But it does us no good if on one side we have those who want to say there is no Jew, no Christian, we can do public life together, but on the other side there’s another contesting force that says no, no, no, there is no “we,” there’s “I.” And I think that’s where we’re at. We’re trying to sort that out.
Tooley: It seemed to me, expanding on that point, that Paul Miller, for example, was critical of the Anglo-Protestant tradition being exalted, but he was certainly speaking as an Anglo-Protestant. And his voice was distinctly Anglo-Protestant. And much of what we believe in terms of inclusion and tolerance and legal equality comes from that tradition, so we don’t want to enact by statute an exaltation of Anglo-Protestantism; at the same time, we do need to recognize culturally, historically that’s where these precepts come from, don’t you believe?
LiVecche: Absolutely yeah. One hundred percent.
Tooley: Mark Melton, your thoughts?
Melton: Right. Well, as I’ve written kind of elsewhere in Providence, and we can probably share a link to kind of give an overview of the distinction I make between patriotism and nationalism, I’m probably more in Miller’s camp as far as skepticism toward the nation state, especially from a foreign policy perspective, that I think there’s different types of nationalisms of liberal and illiberal. And sometimes they coexist amongst each other. And I think that, from a foreign policy perspective, wanting all these other countries to be nation states I think will be dangerous not only for religious minorities, including Christians, but for American foreign policy I think it will cause a lot of headaches and problems, because a lot of times it means separatism. And so, nationalism doesn’t necessarily mean loving your fellow citizen; sometimes it means the exact opposite. I know in Scotland, for instance, I have heard an interview of one person who said that they were supporting the Tories and the Union because they were anti-nationalist. And that perspective meant being against Scottish nationalism and against separatism of that sort. And so, we can’t necessarily in these countries know which direction the nationalism will go, but like I said, like in the articles I’ve written before, I kind of detail some more points on that. Well, probably best thing is just to link to that, because it kind of goes into more detail, but I do kind of make a note of what my vision of American patriotism should be. We need more localism. And I’ve mentioned this many times before, where if we want to have some hegemon, I don’t think that’s going to happen very peacefully, and I don’t think that we are really willing to do what’s necessary to do that. I don’t think Christians should, I think it would need a lot of coercion and force to do that. And I think in our constitutional system we have the tools necessary with federalism now. I think the problem with that is we’ve, for decades and decades, going back to the beginning of the income tax and this increasing administrative state and this imperial presidency where it becomes all or nothing, you win the Presidency or you’re completely lost. And I think we need a stronger federalism, have a stronger Congress and stronger local governments having the ability to make decisions for themselves. And this is a point that, I’m in the middle of reading Sam Goldman’s After Nationalism, an advanced copy of that, and I believe, I haven’t read through it all, but I believe that’s the point he’s going to make. And so, I think that is, I’m interested to see what others think of the book when it comes out.
Tooley: And then, finally, we published a 75-year-old piece by a World War II military chaplain writing for our predecessor publication, Reinhold Niebuhr’s Christianity & Crisis, warning against the concept, at least from a certain perspective, of communal repentance. He stresses that repentance needs to be individual. He was tired of people repenting of other people since the wake of the World War II, and he thought that path needed to be tried by the particular soul and not by communities. Effectively using the concept of repentance to denounce the failings of others. So, that concept is not just part of our own times, but that was obviously going on 75 years ago. Marc LiVecche, what are your thoughts?
LiVecche: Yeah, it certainly at least goes back to the end of World War II. You get the locution a lot made about Nazi Germany, or former Nazi Germany, that there’s no such thing as collective guilt. But because the notion of collective guilt seems to point towards something that seems real, some of them come up with a counter phrase. There’s no collective guilt, but there’s something like a collective responsibility that we have the shared history, we were a part of that, and because of that we can move forward in particular ways that address the responsibility that we now have as inheritors of that reputation. I think in certain ways, I wouldn’t repent for the things, if I had a terrible father, which I don’t, if I had a terrible father, I won’t repent for the things that that father had done. There’s some sense that my name in my patrimony has been tarnished by previous behavior, and that can be acknowledged. I think that’s important. There’s also a very good book that maybe takes the counter look at this called The Sunflower by Simon Wiesenthal. And this tells the story of a Jew who is working outside of a concentration camp on a work detail and was brought into a hospital to be addressed by an SS soldier, which was a terrifying experience. But this particular SS Soldier was swallowed in bandages and was dying and wanted this Jew to forgive him for the things that he had done to other Jews. And Wiesenthal, caught up in the moment, had no idea what he ought to do. He considered putting a pillow on the Nazis face. He considered forgiving him. But what he did was to walk out and leave him to die unforgiven. And then the last half of The Sunflower is a series of essays written by other people, addressing whether or not what Simon Wiesenthal did was right. And it touches on this idea of collective guilt that, you know, I can’t ask somebody to forgive me when they’re not the person that I offended. So, I think it’s the backside of the same kind of question: can I repent for something that I didn’t do, but my nation did? And even if I could, could non-victims forgive somebody who didn’t commit a particular atrocity against them? So, points to a human disposition that I think is real, but some things have to be left as they are.
Tooley: Mark Melton, I’m recalling the Eucharistic liturgy in which we confess that “we have been a disobedient church,” so there is an acknowledgement of communal responsibility and failing, but what are your thoughts?
Melton: I’m actually not sure if I know of that particular phrase, but again, this piece, he talks about like whenever we say we have committed a sin, it’s the I individual that committed it. That saying it, I mean, I’m thinking of when I read, I was thinking about liturgy that I’ve heard where it’s usually very broad and they get things like “we have been selfish.” Yeah, I think we can all say we’ve been selfish, but within that there can be very specific sins and whatever that people are repenting of. But I think in the piece, it mentioned like you would not say we have committed drunkenness when you haven’t. You can’t do that. And I think that theologically to me makes sense. So, yeah, but I wasn’t sure, I’m not sure what other traditions do. It sounds like me, my tradition has just always been very broad and vague. And then there’s also a vague confession followed by a moment of silence for your personal sins, but that’s just coming from a church that follows that type of liturgy. I’m not sure what the other traditions or even more of the nondenominational might do.
LiVecche: It would be interesting to explore, with this idea in mind, the notion that the sins of the father are past the sins of the children. I know people and they’ve done certain things in their life, and then they dove back into their family background only to discover that these particular weaknesses seem to run like a genetic issue through their family, whether it was somebody had an abortion only to discover their mother did and the grandmother did, whatever it happens to be. You see similar, it’s almost like Augustine was right about this original sin thing, and you see very particular strains of iniquities running through family lines. I don’t know if that takes us anywhere, but I find that interesting.
Tooley: Perhaps we as Providence editors should collectively own up to sins at Providence.
LiVecche: There’s been a few typos…
Tooley: Gentlemen, thank you for another episode of Marksism. Until next week, bye-bye.