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Elections, Nations, and God

The right of national self-determination does not exist in the Bible. Before God nations have neither a right to exist nor a right to liberty. They have no assurance of perpetuity. On the contrary, the lesson of the Bible seems to be that nations are swept away like dead leaves and that occasionally, almost by accident, one might endure rather longer.

~ Jacques Ellul

Today is a particularly tempting day for American Christians, whether you are electing to vote or not. The temptation is to think that this election will change the course of history, that what happens in the polling booths across America really matters in terms of the direction and meaning of history.

Whether one thinks that they should, as a Christian vote or not, let us not be seduced into believing that the institutional self-maintenance and extension of the apparatus of this particular nation-state is of any sort of ultimate or lasting importance. The truth of the matter is that is that nations have virtually no significance within the drama of God’s salvation of the world.

On this day of fixation, panic, and misplaced confidences, perhaps we would do best to remember the words of the Prophet Isaiah, which call us, not to excessive preoccupation with the state of the nation we sojourn in, but rather in our missional vocation as God’s people:

Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good tidings;  lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings,  lift it up, do not fear; say to the cities of Judah, “Here is your God!”  See, the Lord God comes with might, and his arm rules for him; his reward is with him, and his recompense before him. He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.

Who has measured the waters in the hollow of his hand and marked off the heavens with a span, enclosed the dust of the earth in a measure, and weighed the mountains in scales and the hills in a balance?  Who has directed the spirit of the Lord, or as his counselor has instructed him?  Whom did he consult for his enlightenment, and who taught him the path of justice? Who taught him knowledge, and showed him the way of understanding?  Even the nations are like a drop from a bucket, and are accounted as dust on the scales; see, he takes up the isles like fine dust.  Lebanon would not provide fuel enough, nor are its animals enough for a burnt offering. All the nations are as nothing before him; they are accounted by him as less than nothing and emptiness.

~ Isaiah 40:10-17


  1. Bobby Grow wrote:

    Certainly the “nation” of Israel has had an lasting role in mediating salvation to the nations; and the particularity of that nation will be forever tied to the Jesus of Nazareth.

    But I agree with the sentiment against the narcissistic self-importance that does indeed typify the American psyche, in particular, and many nations of the world (esp. Western), in general.

    The awesome thing about the gospel is that it is never chained by any particular regime, whether that be Marxist, Capitalist, or Totalitarian.

    Tuesday, November 4, 2008 at 1:55 pm | Permalink
  2. dcrowe wrote:

    I’m sorry, I know this is a serious post, but my brain immediately cued this up: “Don’t be too proud of this technological terror you’ve constructed. The ability to destroy a planet is insignificant next to the power of the Force.”

    I’m sorry, I couldn’t help it.

    I have a post up on a similar topic, namely that people seem to be hoping for an eschaton of some sort tonight, and it’s not just limited to supporters of the political candidate maligned as “The One.” Just in the narrow view of even the American political reality, that’s unrealistic.

    I’ll save a retype of my post and just include the link:

    But I agree with you totally. We should not let our view of history, of God’s history, hit an invisible ceiling constructed by national self importance. The meaning of history soars much higher than that.

    Tuesday, November 4, 2008 at 2:47 pm | Permalink
  3. Evan wrote:

    This Ellul quote seems utterly sloppy biblicism to me. He seems to say that because national self-determination is not found in the Bible, it doesn’t exist. He then appears to conflate “national self-determination”, “[a nation's] right to exist”, and “an assurance of [a nation's] perpetuity”, as if they are all the same thing or at least that one implies the others… and that if one falls because it “does not exist in the Bible”, then they all fall.

    As to the course of history, I don’t see why one election can’t change the course of history, or why it doesn’t “really matter” for the direction or meaning of history. Lots of things can do that, without offering any threat to God’s providential drama of salvation. One must conflate history itself with the drama of salvation enacted by God in history to see someone’s assertion of the historical significance of this or any other election as an “extensive preoccupation” or “misplaced confidence”.

    It’s troubling, but mostly rather boring, that this struggle against genuine political investment seems to be the most damning charge many Christians find themselves able to make against ungodliness. Really, there are bigger fish to fry.

    Tuesday, November 4, 2008 at 3:09 pm | Permalink
  4. Nate W wrote:

    I don’t think anyone’s struggling against “genuine political investment,” Evan. If you think that going out and casting an anonymoust vote is doing politics, think again.

    Tuesday, November 4, 2008 at 9:32 pm | Permalink
  5. scott wrote:

    I understand your point, that ‘nation-states’ (which do not necessarily map onto a biblical conception of ‘government’) have no ‘ultimate or lasting’ – i.e., eschatologically salvific – significance.

    But your more generic assertion that “nations have virtually no significance in the drama of God’s salvation of the world” strikes me as sheer and uncareful hyperbole. It’s an appropriate warning to those who would look to their heads-of state or simply read of their histories the will of God – but it seems to take no account of the place of ‘the nations’ and even ‘pagan’ governments (a word I think we should be cautious to throw around) within God’s eschatological and providential rule of the powers that be, which are significant in the drama of salvation perhaps not as the ‘main players’, but certainly as agents on the scene, whose works affect the material existence of billions.

    I’m looking for a more careful line to be drawn, not between ‘the nations’ and ‘Christ’ as mediators of God’s salvation, but between Christ as the sole mediator of the salvation God is bringing and the responsibility of the forces that govern to take some account of what time it is. The utter relativization of all human institutions in the light of God’s singularly redemptive power does not render historical structures of power insignificant – it seems to me Yoder understood better than most and in a much more nuanced way than your comments reflect. By your standards, how could we speak of ‘better’ or ‘worse’ governments in any sense?

    Moreover, prophetic critique of the governing powers (a phrase I use to specify a distinction between ‘the biblical category of ‘the nations’ and the actual heads-of-state) seems categorically different thing than sheer indifference – the bible has a definite interest in Pharoah and Cyrus, Pilate and Rome.

    Wednesday, November 5, 2008 at 3:05 am | Permalink
  6. Evan Kuehn wrote:

    “I don’t think anyone’s struggling against “genuine political investment,” Evan. If you think that going out and casting an anonymoust vote is doing politics, think again.”

    Well, I do think that voting is a part of the political process, and one can say that without granting it any undue importance.

    But I didn’t bring up voting, because I didn’t have a problem with what Halden said about this. Genuine political involvement which recognizes the place of the nation-state in history is where I based my response to Halden, and I think that was more or less clear. Also, the sloppiness of the Ellul passage, which seemed to conflate a large number of distinct political concepts and do away with them all based upon a debatable appeal to the Bible. I don’t see where I’ve questioned anything Halden’s said about voting here.

    Wednesday, November 5, 2008 at 6:06 am | Permalink
  7. trev wrote:

    I’m surprised at this post Halden. In your other posts you seem to be sympathetic with Jenson and McCormack in their historicisation of theological ontology. Surely this isn’t limited to the incarnation (it certainly isn’t for Jenson). Yet here you seem to be suggesting that the drama of salvation somehow plays out irrespective of historical circumstances and development. Surely it is precisely in and through history that this drama is expounded and developed. I think that your statement, “The truth of the matter is that is that nations have virtually no significance within the drama of God’s salvation of the world,” is a little rash. To turn to the quote from Ellul, surely it is the importance of nations within the drama of salvation that would move God to sweep them away. I’m not trying to make a political point, I’m certainly not trying to give privilege to America or democracy, but I’m wary of abstracting divine activity (even ontology!) from historical actuality, as though one had no bearing on the other.

    Wednesday, November 5, 2008 at 3:31 pm | Permalink
  8. CTN wrote:

    Personally I don’t see how Ellul’s or Halden’s comments lead to abstraction or biblicism. Surely God’s actual (and thus potential) sweeping away of the nations in Scripture testifies to the glory and majesty of God as our True King. Our God is judge. The danger of abstracting nations and government from the drama of salvation doesn’t come from Jenson or McCormack but probably from certain Anabaptist ecclesiologies. I think Halden’s comment on nations having virtually no significance was meant to be a dialectical statement – i.e., that nations and nation-building are judged by God as idolatrous (religious in their own way!) in thinking that they do have lasting significance, and “our” political investment recently (however genuine) especially on the leftist-evangelical front is in danger of using myopic Kingdom of God-theology to back this up. The other side of the dialectic is that it is God’s good pleasure to use the nations and their kings (creation itself) as the theatre of the drama of salvation.

    Thursday, November 6, 2008 at 11:08 am | Permalink
  9. Danny wrote:

    The symbolic importance of this election will be discussed by historians 1000 years from now. I believe it does have course changing potential because it is entirely unprecedented. This has nothing to do with what I think of Obama, but rather the fact that someone from such unusual circumstances has become the most powerful person in the world.

    I think it must be realized how significant Obama’s election is for African-Americans in particular. Such excitment and feelings of pride are inseparable from historical circumstances that seemingly made something like this election previously unimaginable. From the perspective of this blog seemingly, the myriad of African-Americans who voted have been duped by captialism and a false hope in the nation state. What would you say to a black person who is savoring this moment? That their excitement is misplaced? That all of this is really of no grand historical importance? I have to agree with Anthony Smith when he states that he gets suspicious when white men tell him not to vote.

    Saturday, November 8, 2008 at 12:32 pm | Permalink

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  1. Good Post by Halden Today « Return Good for Evil on Tuesday, November 4, 2008 at 3:06 pm

    [...] Post by Halden Today Check it out. Published [...]

  2. [...] higher kingdom and nation. I was reminded of this when I reading Halden’s post on the “Elections, Nations, and God.” He provided a great quote from Jacques Ellul: The right of national self-determination does [...]

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