How do we make sense of the clash of nations? Every week the media harrow us with people in distress. Mostly we say, "how awful," and go on to other news. Does the Bible suggest a model of how God might see the situation? Consider the words nations, nationality, and nationalism.
This interest in nations first surfaces in the Table of Nations (Genesis 10). Two chapters later, Jews remind us of their title deeds in the promise to Abraham, but they too easily forget the third strand of the covenant: "In you all the families of the earth shall be blessed" (Genesis 12:3). Isaac and Jacob are given exactly the same message (Genesis 25:4; 28:14). Jesus picked up on this when he said, "Many will come from east and west and will eat with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven" (Matthew 8:11; see also 24:14; 28:19).
Paul the Apostle was converted from a model of life based on racial exclusivity. He came to see that God "made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him -- though indeed he is not far from each one of us" (Acts 17:26-28). Having seen the implications of this, Paul not only fought for the right of people of all nations to eat at the Lord's table, but he made it his business to plant a church in every city from Jerusalem to present-day Croatia (Romans 15:16-19).
The Bible ends with a vision of all nations making their contribution to the glory of heaven: "The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it . . . People will bring into it the glory and honour of the nations" (Revelation 21:24-26). Evidently we are offered a model in which nations are valued as important for God's purposes. This theistic model has an internal logic and flavour which is very different from other visions that people have adopted.
Outside every village in India the pariah dogs snarl and fight until they die. Among nations that is one model of tribal survival. Original Buddhism suggested a nirvana in which individuals eradicated all their desires, which might suggest complete indifference to our own and other nations. Communism tried to enforce a model in which people of all nations would give according to their ability and receive according to their need. In a moment we will consider the logic of a nationalistic model.
Culture relates to such things as how people dress, eat, marry, enjoy music and the arts, manners, conventions, and civility of social behaviour. An obvious requirement for a nation to bring its glory into the richness of heaven is that the best fruits of its distinctive contribution should grow in the soil of its culture. This can only happen when people are free to enjoy their own culture. This is why they hate being dominated by the culture of another nation.
It seems that God approves each nation's cultural freedom. Paul's words about "the boundaries of the places where they should live" (Acts 17:26) imply that God opposes the invasion of one nation by another. But there is also the paradox that God can permit a nation to be disciplined by others, and then rebuke the invaders for heartless and excessive force.
Culture requires a language of communication. It is often suggested that if everyone spoke the same language all would be well. Esperanto has been promoted as the language that could save our world. When Christians fanned out from Jerusalem some said that Jesus spoke Aramaic (also called Syriac), so that should be the language of the universal Church. In the first centuries when Christians were a persecuted minority in the Roman Empire there was a huge growth in the east by churches that used Syriac for their services.
Others said Greek was the language of the Old Testament Septuagint and the New Testament, so Greek must be the language of God's choice. There are Greek Orthodox who imagine that to this day. Latin, however, was the language of the Roman Empire, and for fifteen centuries Christians in Europe were certain it must be the one language of the Church. Muslim fundamentalists assume that God prefers to speak Arabic. The British and the Americans wonder why other nations can't all be sensible and speak English.
Martin Luther's great contribution was to translate the Bible into German, and also insist on the right of every nation to read the Bible and worship in their own language. The events of the day of Pentecost suggest that in heaven people of every nation will be able to understand each other. That should be no more difficult for God to arrange than simultaneous translation in the United Nations.
So it seems that God permits the flowering of national cultures and languages. A nation's moral vision is more problematical. It can be distinguished by noting how the ten categories of moral judgement (usually called the ten commandments) are interpreted. What does the nation say about God, the rituals of worship, hypocrisy, work and rest, respect for parents? Every tribe and nation agrees that some kinds of killing are wrong. Incas thought it was acceptable to capture enemies to be eaten for their needed protein. In western nations enemies can be killed in a declared war, but once they hold up their hands or run up a white flag they should be treated as brothers. There is a similar wide range of interpretation for adultery, stealing, false witness, and a greedy lifestyle. As the people of each nation discuss what is right or wrong under each category they clarify a particular mix of their national or tribal moral vision.
Islamic nationality for example combines the absolute justice of God with worship on Friday in mosques that abhor idols. A holy war (jihad) is not murder. Adultery requires the death penalty, but it is no sin for men to have additional wives, concubines, and enjoy foreign women. The fuss about President Clinton's affair and the lies he told are totally incomprehensible in Muslim nations, as they are in just about all the United Nations. In North America covetousness is deemed a virtue. Other cultures honour parents by elaborate rituals for ancestors.
Even among Christian nations there is a mix of moral values. After five crusades failed to exterminate the "infidels" in the Middle East, the Inquisition was invented for the good people at home. Eastern Orthodox nations venerate icons, which North American Christians abhor while they use pictures of Jesus for their own Sunday Schools. Evidently Moses' ten categories of moral judgement had next to no content, and the way they are interpreted varies immensely.
If every nation, and every group within a nation, can interpret a mix of the ten categories of moral judgement as they choose, what function can they perform in our model of nations bringing their glory into heaven? A simple answer is in the astonishing statements Jesus made in the Sermon on the Mount. He took half a dozen examples of his own Jewish nation's interpretation of the ten commandments and in each case said, "But I say to you." Jewish nationality culture and language is approved, but their moral values and judgements need to be corrected in the light of the Kingdom of God.
Since God is the God of all nations, we can assume that the Son of God also wants to say, "But I say to you," concerning the moral values and judgements of every other nation. In that sense every people has its own Old Testament, which is the mix of culture and moral values they live by today. In the same way, every nation's moral values needs to be corrected in the light of the love of God. Turning the other cheek, going the extra mile, loving enemies, praying for others, and blessing those who curse us, are all part of the moral vision that God longs to impart to his children.
What, then, is God's agenda for the year 2000? On the one hand, there has to be an assignment of consequences for sin. Children and nations learn most often when they experience wrath. In the Old Testament, the prophets spoke out about the consequences of unacceptable behaviour. And a careful reading of each nation's history suggests that there have always been true and false prophets to clarify or muddy their moral vision.
In the New Testament, the Son of God not only came to make visible the
moral vision of heaven, but he plans to establish a church in every city
to offer a pilot project of love life in the Spirit. In this model neither
individuals nor nations can begin to love God and their neighbours without
the inspiration of the Holy Spirit of God.
When the Nazis managed to brainwash Germany into nationalistic expansion, other nations decided to excise the cancer. In some cases the carcinoma is cured by inner disintegration of an empire. British and Russian nationalism have both gone into remission in this twentieth century. There can also be, however, a nationalism of the weak. In a small nation such as the Israel of Jesus' day, self-righteousness was organised to treat all others with contempt. It was in that context that the Son of God had to free Jewish Christians from the food laws and judgementalism that would have prevented the building of his Church.
The Bible and world history also make clear that from time to time the Lord, as King of the nations, comes in to terminate a nationalism gone cancerous. The means used are the work of ordinary sinful human beings, but they turn out to be the instruments of God's wrath. As Mary saw very clearly, "He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly" (Luke 2:51-53). Strangely, she had the faith to believe that it was the babe in her womb who had done this in the Old Testament and who would continue to do it in the days to come.