I love the south. I love fried everything, I talk to every stranger, and I am a rabid football fan.
But as a Christian who has wrestled with Jesus’ command to love all people, I’ve struggled with the nationalistic false teachers in the south urging others to abandon God’s call for love. For years, I’ve claimed southern culture, while judging those held captive by false teaching.
However, the letter to the Church in Pergamum in Revelation demands I repent.
Within the letter, Jesus addresses those that have advocated for compromise by referencing the story of Balaam. Balaam was asked to curse Israel. He knew that God would not allow another nation to destroy the Israelites, but believed if he led the people of Israel to sin, God would withdraw his blessing. Balaam succeeded in convincing the Israelites to indulge in sexual immorality and to eat sacrificial meat. The Lord’s judgment was swift: “The LORD said to Moses, “Take all the leaders of these people, kill them and expose them in broad daylight before the LORD, so that the LORD’s fierce anger may turn away from Israel.” Because of the Israelites compromised with Balaam, 24,000 Israelites died.
The mention of Balaam reminds Pergamum that there are some who are choosing spiritual adultery by comprising with the imperial cult – a form of state religion that worships the emperor as a god.
In the letter, Jesus demands the uncompromising faithful to repent.
My American cultural lens balks at the suggestion that I’m responsible for others’ sins. I want God to judge my faithfulness. The letter of Pergamum smashes the myth of individualism.
Because I know God, I am responsible for all his people, even those who are being led astray by false teachers. In the South, the false teacher – nationalism – is convincing some to ignore Jesus’ command to love their neighbor in the name of patriotism.
I grew up in Saudi Arabia. Living in an absolute totalitarian monarchy made me appreciative of our democratic country. It also gave me the privilege of seeing the sacrifices of the military. Those experiences made me a patriot but loving the United States does not make me blind to our countries problems.
My love for the United States does not compare to my love for God. And while I live here, my allegiance is to God's kingdom. As a believer, I am called to usher in God’s kingdom. Wherever America or another country stands in the way of God’s kingdom, I must vehemently side with God, making me an enemy of nationalism.
When the church compromises with nationalism, patriotism becomes the goal and faith becomes a means to the end. In Screw Tape Letters, by CS Lewis, the demon explains how patriotism can kill a man’s faith, “Let him begin by treating patriotism… as a part of his religion. Then let him, under the influence of partisan spirit, come to regard it as the most important part. Then quietly and gradually nurse him on to the stage at which religion becomes merely a part of the ‘cause,’ in which Christianity is valued chiefly become of the excellent arguments it can produce… Once he’s made the world an end, and faith a means, you have almost won your man, and it makes very little difference what kind of worldly end he is pursuing.”
The NFL’s ruling that players will be fined if they kneel during the National Anthem is another compromise to Nationalism.
The hypocrisy of Nationalism is highlighted by the NFL ruling coming out the week of Memorial Day when most Americans will ignore the US Flag Code by wearing images of the flag and eating off plates that bears the flags. Our culture chooses to celebrate that type of disrespect because it’s considered patriotic, but when men kneel during the national anthem demanding justice for black lives, nationalism silences their voice. Nationalism chooses the version of Patriotism that supports the status quo at the expense of the poor, the immigrants, the people of color and women.
And the church, out of compromise to Nationalism – our form of the imperial cult – stays silent.
If the church followed Jesus’ command to love their neighbor, then the church would kneel during the national anthem until black lives really do matter in the United States. But compromise with Nationalism is seductive, so the church chooses silence.
And while I want to wash my hands of those in bed with Nationalism, the letter to Pergamum demands that I repent. Jesus says, “I will soon come to you and will fight against them with the sword of my mouth.” If I stay silent, I’m condemning my brothers and sisters to God’s judgment.
When false teachers are given space, it is the whole community that suffers. While I might not be condemning the NFL protesters, I too have made compromises with the American Imperial cult. The presence of the nationalism in our church corrupts the whole church and makes it easy to excuse small compromises. It doesn’t matter that my sins are not as great as “those,” because when I compromise, I am still choosing adultery.
Jesus ends his letter with hope. He says, “Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who is victorious, I will give some hidden manna. I will also give that person a white stone with a new name written on it known only to the one who receives it.”
For those that are victorious, God will sustain with manna, and they will be given a white stone proclaiming their innocence and a promise sealed with a new name. The letter ends with hope so that we can stand against false teachers such as nationalism.
If I truly love the Southern church, then I have to be willing to speak out against the false teacher of Nationalism.