Posted by: rogermitchell | June 4, 2020

Unhelpful mindsets

It is now seven years since the publication of my book The Fall of the Church https://www.amazon.co.uk/Fall-Church-Roger-Haydon-Mitchell/dp/162032928X Although I shared a lot of the content here on my blog while I was writing it, it is likely that many of you now reading this have never read it. This is even more likely to be the case with those who follow my Facebook page and who want exposure to my theology, politics & social comment, but haven’t realised quite how radical that is!

So I’ve decided to re-post some of the final chapter on “Myths and Obstacles” in several posts starting today, and link them to my Facebook page so that those who wish can have a serious think about them and respond if they wish. The most resilient of these myths and obstacles come within what we sometimes think are Christian mindsets but actually are obstacles to the testimony of Jesus. They can be summed up in three categories. The first of these consists of problematic beliefs about the gospel narratives or “gospel myths” that significantly undermine the Jesus story. The second is made up of idolatrous perspectives towards Britain, the United States of America, and particularly Israel that regard all three nation states as in some sense “promised lands.” Finally come the peculiar beliefs about the end times that I term “ghastly eschatologies.”

I’m going to begin with the second of these mindsets that is particularly prevalent at the moment and that I call “Promised Lands”.

Promised lands

This is a problem that is particularly deeply rooted in Britain and the United States of America. This is the manifestation of the partnership of church and empire that is religious patriotism. I am not referring here to love of one’s country, but the idea that one particular country or another is especially favored by God in being positioned over against others in a morally or culturally superior manner. This is sometimes referred to as exceptionalism or manifest destiny. It tends to carry with it the idea of a special relationship or covenant with God that apparently guaranteed the nation’s past and present prosperity. The thinking is that such an advantage will continue into the future as long as the nation involved keeps to certain conditions at the heart of its political construct, such as the ten commandments. While this reading of the relationship between God and nations might conceivably be defended from the Old Testament story of Israel, just as long as one avoids crucial parts of the message of the prophets, it runs counter to the fullness of the divine character and purpose revealed in the incarnation. As we have already seen from Jesus’ final public remonstration with the temple authorities, it was precisely this selfish promotion of national dominance that aligned Israel with empire and lost its calling to the nations.  

1. The purpose of Israel

If as God’s initial promise to Abraham stated, the blessing of God is for all the families of the earth,[1] then the gift of land, culture, and people is to be stewarded for the rest of humanity. The advent of Jesus and his identification with those displaced by empire, such as women, the homeless, the asylum seeker, and the poor, made clear that the kind of society that sided with empire for its own survival and prosperity was far from the kingdom of God. Israel’s chronic inability to understand their kenotic purpose as God’s loving agents provided the background to the incarnation story. As chapter 2 has already pointed out, the radical prophetic stream constantly called them back to their original destiny. They were to be the means of making “wars to cease,”[2] of speaking “peace to the nations,”[3] of leveling social stratification,[4] and of bringing “justice to the nations”[5] until “the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of God as the waters cover the sea.”[6] As Luke’s famous Magnificat sums it up in Mary’s own prophecy of the incarnation, it was to pull down the mighty from their thrones and exalt the lowly.[7] In these terms the purpose of Jerusalem was as the mountain of the house of the Lord to which the nations came to see the governance of God demonstrated.[8] It is this that Jesus speaks of rebuilding in three days[9] and Paul describes in Galatians as “the Jerusalem above.”[10] It was this destiny that the gospel testimony saw as completed in Jesus, including the fullness of the battle prophecies of Zechariah, Jesus’ most quoted Old Testament book. At the cross all the prophesied eschatological battles reached their culmination. Now “all the tribes of the earth” could “look on Me whom they have pierced . . . and . . . mourn,” and not only the tribes of Israel who represented them.[11] We can say confidently from the testimony of Jesus that if there is any ongoing prophetic destiny for the Jerusalem “below” it must be as a place of inclusive blessing for all nations, including its enemies. 

Despite this incarnational fulfillment in Jesus, the idea that God’s covenant guarantees the ownership and rulership of the land by a particular state or people has continued to define world politics. As we have already seen, the assumption that this was the nature and purpose of God’s blessing to Israel played a key part in the foundation of the Western nation state in Britain during the seventeenth century, and often continues to uphold it. Gilbert Burnet drew on the supposed sign and parallel of ancient Israel[12] in his legitimation of William and Mary, and William Paterson did the same in securing the Bank of England’s currency of debt on the future prosperity of Britain. Even William Penn drew on an idealized view of native English justice to undergird his Holy Experiment instead of drawing on the egalitarian loving justice of the incarnation.[13] Had he done the latter he might have written kenotic love deeper into his initial configuration of the American Constitution.

2. Subconscious mythologies of the nation state

It is this background to the Western nation state that makes patriotic practices such as the pledge of allegiance to the American flag and the singing of jingoistic national anthems, something much more than love for the land of one’s adoption or birth. Personal identification with the deep subconscious mythologies of the nation state works strongly against the necessary challenge to the status quo brought about by the practice of civil disobedience advocated in the previous chapter. Romanticized notions of nationhood such as those summed up in Shakespeare’s “this sceptred isle”[14] and songs like “Rule Britannia,” “Land of Hope and Glory,” “America the Beautiful,” and “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” all occupy the space that Jesus obtained for egalitarian grace. Gratitude for the gift of a land and culture to steward for the blessing of the other nations of the world is undoubtedly a good thing, but the proud, violent national idolatry that emerges from below the surface of our supposed promised lands is dangerous and destructive. 

Since the establishment of the nation state of Israel after the horrors of the Holocaust, the danger of it coming to embody the idea of God’s commitment to special lands and people has been very real. Instead of encouraging Israel to pursue its ancient heritage of being a blessing to all the families of the earth, there has been a tendency for the United States, Britain, and other nations to invest the modern nation state of Israel with special status as a talisman of justice and blessing. Supported by American and British vetoes at the UN council, defended by atomic weapons, and financed by Western investment, it has become the archetypical symbol of the political currencies of law, violence, and money that undergird the whole Western imperial project. It is crucially important to point out here that while the parallel promotion of the Palestinian people as a rightful alternative claimant for ownership of the so-called promised land is fully understandable in the circumstances, it only replaces one symbol of sovereignty with another. In so doing it makes the more striking the destructive implications of the exclusive ownership of land for a particular people instead of its stewardship by all its inhabitants for the common good. From both a creational and incarnational perspective, land is the context for every tribe and tongue and nation to live together in peace and harmony. The current Middle Eastern tragedy is a clarion call for kenarchy coming from the very place of its source.


[1] Gen 12:3.

[2] Ps 46:9.

[3] Zech 9:10.

[4] Isa 11:6.

[5] Isa 42:1.

[6] Hab 2:14.

[7] Cf. Luke 1:52.

[8] Isa 2; Mic 4.

[9] Matt 26:61; John 2:19.

[10] Gal 4:26.

[11] Zech 12:10; John 19:37.

[12] Mitchell, Church, Gospel, & Empire, 123, 121.

[13] Murphy, The Political Writings of William Penn, 394.

[14] Shakespeare, King Richard II.Act 2 scene 1.


Responses

  1. Reblogged this on Andrew James.


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