Who God Cares About

I’m in full agreement with Stanley Hauerwas when he says a fundamental problem with American Christian ethics and social thought is that it focuses on America, and not the church, as the place where ethical action takes place.

Because of this I have always been one of those for whom something akin to political theology — politics and social policy built on an understanding of God’s commands to god’s people to order the world in some positive way — is anathema. Now, I admit, this is because when I was Muslims I spent some time as an aspiring jihadist, and the aim of revolutionary violence was to order the world the way God intended humanity to order the world.

And so I concluded — God has left no work undone. It is not the task of humanity to purposefully order the world according to divine demands, command, or covenant. Perhaps I have gone overboard in this, but this is where I am.

This is how I put a few years ago in an essay about a book on covenantal theology in Anglo-American history:

Since a “covenant” is a product of revelation, and since no one can produce any evidence that God has made a covenant with the state (in this case, it would be the American state), I do not and will not believe that any covenant with the civil order exists. The only covenants that God has made are with God’s people Israel and with the church (and they are one in the same). At least Moses came down from Sinai with tablets and Jesus actually called disciples. But the American sense of fallenness and chosenness is merely a self-assertion. Heck, the very Calvinist notion of covenant is a self-assertion grounded in nothing except a transference of “Israel” to the Calvinist polity.

I may have been more emphatic somewhere. But I think you get the point. The ground of ethical action for Christians is not the nation-state (which doesn’t matter to divine history), but the church. The ekklesia. Israel. The called out people of God. Who are a failed polity, subject to the rule of others.

We don’t order the world on behalf of God. We are the gracious recipients of the gift of God’s order. That’s what it means to be subject. The be conquered. To be exiled. To be the eternal guest, with no place to lay our heads.

And I still believe this. But a few months ago, something occurred to me as I was reading the Bible that made me at least consider alternative possibilities.

Specifically, I was reading Jonah, the prophet sent to preach judgment upon Ninevah.

1 Then the word of the Lord came to Jonah the second time, saying, 2 “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it the message that I tell you.” 3 So Jonah arose and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly great city, three days ‘journey in breadth. 4 Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s journey. And he called out, “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” 5 And the people of Nineveh believed God. They called for a fast and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them to the least of them.

6 The word reached the king of Nineveh, and he arose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. 7 And he issued a proclamation and published through Nineveh, “By the decree of the king and his nobles: Let neither man nor beast, herd nor flock, taste anything. Let them not feed or drink water, 8 but let man and beast be covered with sackcloth, and let them call out mightily to God. Let everyone turn from his evil way and from the violence that is in his hands. 9 Who knows? God may turn and relent and turn from his fierce anger, so that we may not perish.”

10 When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil way, God relented of the disaster that he had said he would do to them, and he did not do it. (Jonah 3:1-10 ESV)

Nineveh is not the people of God. It is not Israel. It is not the church. It is a giant city, the capital of Assyria, the nation that in 2 Kings 17 conquers and settles the northern kingdom of Israel and in 2 Chronicles 32 ravishes Judah. They are the enemy.

More importantly, they are a polity. A polity that is not Israel. God cares about this nation enough to demand Jonah preach judgment. God cares enough about Nineveh to avert the promised doom — Yet forty days and Nineveh shall be overthrown! ע֚וֹד אַרְבָּעִ֣ים י֔וֹם וְנִֽינְוֵ֖ה נֶהְפָּֽכֶת — when Nineveh, beginning with its king, repent.

As God later tells Jonah:

And should not I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle. (Jonah 4:11 ESV)

This isn’t quite a covenant, not the one many Western Christians have transferred from Israel onto their nation states (and the notion that underlies American exceptionalism). But God cares enough about Nineveh to proclaim judgment, and accept repentance. (The prophet Nahum would have a much longer, and much harsher, judgment for Nineveh, which would perish at the hands of Babylon.)

It’s that last bit that matters — accept repentance. In the case of Nineveh, it’s a corporate repentance. That begins with the people hearing and understanding their sinfulness, the king himself (either because he feels it or fears just how widespread this is) ordering mourning and penance for the city’s sins.

It’s never specified what these are. War? Conquest? Greed?

I think something similar is at work with Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 18 & 19. These are not the people of God (though Sodom is described as Israel’s “sister” in Ezekiel 16), and they have no relationship with God (aside from maybe the same covenant all humanity has thank to God’s promises to Noah). Indeed, God has to “go down” to investigate Sodom’s sin. Which leads to Abraham interceding on that city’s behalf, getting God to promise to save Sodom if ten righteous people could be found there.

I find this all unsettling. Not that God cares about people — or communities — that have no relationship to God (are not called as God’s people), but rather that, in the case of Nineveh, a people can collectively and politically repent. I don’t like that. I don’t like that at all. It suggests there is room for a prophetic politics that pronounces judgment, even demands change (and accepts it), of a people who are not God’s people.

Jonah doesn’t do anything but proclaim doom. (In Hebrew, it’s a five-word sermon.) The people of Nineveh see their sin, repent, do penance, and are saved. But the program isn’t Jonah’s, anymore than the program to save Sodom is Abraham’s, who is merely giving advice to God, and bargaining on behalf of people he’s likely done business with. He waged war on their behalf a few chapters earlier, in Genesis 14. Sodom isn’t saved from the consequences of its sin (anymore than Benjamin is from a nearly identical sin in Judges 19-21).

All the same, there is a room here for a politics to and amidst people who are not Israel and not the church. There is a ground for ethical acting by the church in and toward the world. I don’t like it, and I wish it wasn’t this way, but there it is.

3 thoughts on “Who God Cares About

  1. We can’t help belonging to and working amongst polities, whether they be nation-states, neighborhood associations, jihadist cells, or Boy Scout camps, because that’s how much of the work of surviving and everyday living and accomplishing whatever kinds of goals attract our interest gets done. That is not an attractive truth to me, since I am not a naturally socializing person. I am also skeptical about the virtues that such groups tend to attribute to themselves. But I dislike anarchy even more than socialization. In practice, anarchy is just a more brutish form of socialization, the least predictable and the least survivable. So I accept organizations, and sometimes even admire them. When the “external” communities get really bad, they get really bad for the church. (Except in the woeful sense that adversity builds character, etc.) Sometimes we are just patient teaching martyrs, and at other times we can be reformers. And if we don’t know any better (that any alternatives even exist), we are citizens of Christendom.

    The question still arises in my mind, why does the church have such a hard time *today* untangling the church from the US of A? They were often considered connected in the past. The Boy Scouts once had (and maybe still do?) a God-and-Country award which could be earned by a combination of patriotic and pious acts. The Scout Oath itself was a promise to do one’s duty “to God and my country”. These are emblematic of the Civil Religion which used to hold sway in the first half of the 20th century. So it is not a new thing that the two should be confounded. But still it’s different now. Sure, it goes back to the conservative reaction to the counter-culture in the 70s, which led to massive recruitment of young families — parents who didn’t want their kids to be serial killers or porn stars. Out of this religious demographic shift (away from the mainline denominations) came the Moral Majority and the rest. There was often an idealization of the American state, but it was usually some imagined past form of the state (pre-60’s). In actuality, by the 90’s, after Waco and the various offenses of the Clinton administration especially, the Federal Government was anathema to these very people. In 1996, we took our youngest son to Orlando for his 13th birthday and went to Universal Studios, among the various other theme parks. There was a Ghostbusters “play”, with the same major characters as the movie. I was shocked when the EPA official appealed to the audience for support as an authorized agent of the Federal Government against the scruffy and poorly credentialed ghostbuster team, and was heartily booed by the crowd for his affiliation (as of course anticipated by the producers). Such a thing could not have happened in the 1950’s, unless the audience were all of the very extreme left or right.

    I guess what I am trying to say, is that the church as it exists today, or at least the majority of those who are self-consciously Christian, are products of a cultural process, in reaction first to the liberal hubris which pushed the power of the therapeutic state beyond what the public could accept, and then to the counter-culture, which opposed the liberal state, but in morally anarchistic ways which not only offended but terrified large numbers of people. This fear, along with an idealistic and sentimental vision of the past by those who no longer have concrete memory of earlier times or their practical realities, has replaced an older view of life from a more precarious time, when many children did not live to be adults, when many women did not survive childbirth, and many men went off to far places to seek a better future, some of whom simply were never heard from again. That is life as it was for nearly the whole two millennia of church history. Not that such experience itself made for correct theology, but it did make the Bible less foreign. Today all many people have is America and its civil religion, as remembered in cultural artifacts. And they think that is the church. The Spirit can teach differently, and often does. And in a sense you are right that God has left no work undone. Except that we still have to live our lives. And love God. And love each other. And sometimes we even do that through polities, risky as that is.

  2. As to whether God himself works through or addresses polities other than Israel and the Church (whatever sort of entity we understand that to be):

    Jonah’s mission to Nineveh could be considered a beta test of the church — of Israel’s duty to be a light to the nations. Or it could have been more.

    It was the collapse of the Bronze Age empires which allowed little Israel the chance to become a big fish in the local pond, but ultimately the world of empires closed in around them again. The same collapse also allowed the Greeks to become a cultural alternative to empire. When Rome finally swallowed the whole Mediterranean world, they adored and imitated Greek culture, and provided a Commonwealth within which Jewish and Christian communities could thrive, in spite of occasional persecution. Greeks and Jews and Christians conquered Rome from within. So God did use enormous polities in this way. But already around 400, Augustine showed that imperial triumphalism was the wrong way to think about it.

  3. Just for completeness: The Persian Empire (in its various forms in Late Antiquity) also provided a commonwealth for Christians and Jews, a very important one in the case of Jewish history. And there was independent Armenia, the first Christian nation. When most of these areas, as well as Roman north Africa, Syria, Asia Minor etc., were overwhelmed by Arab expansion and Islam, the latter also provided an Imperial shelter of sorts, though a little less benign, since Islam was a monotheistic rival to the Christians and Jews. Jews (up to 20% of the population in places) disappeared from the region suddenly with the founding of the state of Israel. Christians have been fading gradually over the past century: first Greeks and Armenians in Asia Minor, then the Assyrians in Mesopotamia, the flight of Lebanese Christians, and now the final blow from groups like ISIS, in the general mutual holocaust that the middle east is becoming.

    The population of Bethlehem was 90% Christian Arab a century ago. Last I heard, several years ago, it was 5%. By now it may already be zero.

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