Nation-state myth and the Kingdom of God; or patriotism and salvation history

Worth recalling: myth-making is essential to nation-building and nation maintenance. A leading American historian explains the basic concepts:

A nation is a people who share a common ancestry. A state is a political community, governed by laws. A nation-state is a political community, governed by laws, that, at least theoretically, unites a people who share a common ancestry (one way nation-states form is by violently purging their populations of people with different ancestries). As nation-states emerged they needed to explain themselves, which they did by telling stories about their origins, tying together ribbons of myths, as if everyone in the “English nation,” for instance, had the same ancestors, when, of course, they did not. Very often, histories of nation-states are little more than myths that hide the seams that stitch the nation to the state.

Jill Lepore, These Truths, page 8

This was true in ancient times and is still true. English usage disguises the fact that “ethnic” is an adjectival form of “nation.” (Latin natio translates Greek ethnos.) The mythicizing is benign and salutary when it takes the form of “Let’s all treat each other as brothers and sisters.” It becomes malignant when it takes the form of “Those people don’t deserve to be treated the same as us because they are not our kinfolk.”

The Hebrew scriptures functioned deliberately in nation-building. Everyone is descended from Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; sure, we have distinct tribes—but they are descended from Jacob’s twelve sons, so they were all brothers. Does that seem implausible? OK, then, they were all half-brothers: four different mothers, but same father. And those two bothersome neighboring nations, not quite as good as us, that we had to fight and annex: descended from two brothers who were grand-nephews of Abraham, and wait till you hear how that happened!

But recall this: the Hebrew scriptures also included repeated commandments to treat aliens living within the national territory as family, and they insisted that God’s choosing and blessing of one particular nation was a step on the way to the blessing of all nations—who are also all relatives: Adam/Eve (and in Christian transformation the New Adam, Christ) eventually trumps (even if it never obliterates!) Abraham/Isaac/Jacob.

In our de-democratizing era, regressive nationalism, whether Russian (Putin) or US-American (Trump), tends to be mythicizing in the malignant way, not in the Hebrew-biblical way. It requires extensive, ongoing falsification of history, which is why you get propaganda regimes competing with normal journalism and with standard historiography.

For example, you get Fox News falsifying recent and current events and the Texas State Board of Education requiring textbooks to promote certain unscientific lines of thought regarding American history and to delete characters and events that don’t serve a certain narrative. It’s not mere love of random lying. It’s systematic, strategic falsification in service of the maintenance and extension of a more virulent (fascist-tending) form of the national mythology.

You can manipulate ancestors and patron saints to justify absorbing Ukraine into Russia. You can manipulate Founding Fathers to justify a state that privileges people of certain derivations (ethnic and religious) over others. This is mythicization in service of fascistic nationalism (chauvinism).

Biblical narrative, OT and new, is myth-making of the best sort. The psalmist’s declaration that this one and that one were born in Jerusalem, the apostle’s declaration of the ingrafting of the wild trees—it’s all about building the family (nation) of God through initial selection followed by a persistent process of progressive inclusion. It begins with the arbitrary (gracious!) (s)election of one ancestor for one particular nation—an inherently exclusive notion, but modified decisively from the outset by notification that this one nation is being blessed as a mechanism for blessing all nations, and then revolutionized in the Jesus-following transformation by the explicit inclusion of the gentiles (the ethnoi, the nations-that-are-not-Israel) in the family of God (the all-Israel that includes Israel-by-physical-descent and Israel-by-adoption, all of which is God’s-people-by-God’s-gracious-choice). This nation-building myth is the core story that runs through the whole Bible. It is also the truth that is the revealed word of God. It is the gospel. It is the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Neither DNA analysis showing that we can’t possibly all be descended from one original human pair nor fleshly us-but-not-them schemes favored by Israelites or Christians who can’t get through their special, thick skulls (not to mention their red hats) that those other people are also chosen of the Lord and precious will never be able to annul or defeat the adoption decree of the divine Parent who assumed and adopted not just one genetic strand but all human flesh. Fascist-tending nationalist myth-making that operates by way of defensive exclusion is doomed to collapse into nothing when the great feast assembles every language, tribe, and nation from east and west, north and south. Are Christians not called to anticipate that banquet not only in their weekly or monthly Eucharistic liturgies but in their daily life? Are you and I meant, when we offer back our life to God in thanksgiving, to hold back our civic life, dedicating it so some other god, some ideological golden calf? Are we to be loyal to a split and contradictory politeia?

Myth (or story, if you prefer) is a morally neutral category. Both truth and falsehood, good and evil, can don mythic garb. “This is our story and we’re sticking to it” is well and good, but we need to get our story straight before we get too rigid in sticking to it. It matters what story you are telling. There is an essential moral and spiritual difference between myth-making that aims at division, exclusion, and domination and myth-making that aims at unification, inclusion, and fellowship. The latter is godly, the former ungodly. The latter is the story told by Christ, who is always tearing down the dividing wall of partition and abolishing enmity. Division and exclusion is the alternative truth peddled by anti-Christ. Moderate patriotism can be an element in the life of either, a stage on the way to either.

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