I remember it well, because the question was transformative.
I was a first-year student at Hesston College, in the library studying to teach a lesson on eschatology to a junior high Bible study at Hesston Inter-Mennonite Church, now Kingdom Life.
Classmate Michael David asked what I was doing. Combining the figurative language of Revelation and recent historic events, I explained in some detail how God was restoring the Jewish nation. God’s gift of land to Abraham and God’s promises to his people were being realized in current events, beginning with Israel’s birth as a nation in 1948.
I showed him the book I was using, The Late Great Planet Earth by Hal Lindsay, popular then.
He asked, “Where does that leave me? I’m a Palestinian Christian.”
I didn’t have a good answer. He was complicating my theory of the end times.
The question sent me on a search. How could God’s purposes exclude Palestinians, or any group of people? Something was missing.
What I missed was the difference between a people and a nation-state. What I had missed was that God’s call to Abraham was to bless all families on earth. It was a call to mission and not as God’s favorites.
I had missed the mixed-race character of the Exodus people. I had failed to notice the many others who joined Israel along the way. It was not about ethnicity or Abraham’s DNA.
I hadn’t noticed that the sin of monarchy, in addition to the rejection of God as king, was the drawing of boundaries that limited people’s access to God. The limits of a nation-state and geography created boxes that kept people out.
The timeline we use for our Introduction to Biblical Literature course at Hesston College shows a steep drop at the point of the united monarchy. It indicates Israel’s unfaithfulness, their rejection of theocracy, their desire to be like the nations. The ever-gracious God doesn’t abandon the people but allows them to choose, in what we call God’s remedial will.
I had missed other things in my early teaching: That the good thing about the Babylonian exile was the smashing of boxes and the chance to reclaim the call to mission. That when the remnant of Judah returned to Jerusalem, Ezra created yet another box, ethnocentrism.
And how could I have missed Jesus’ challenge to ethnocentrism? His attention to Gentiles, to women, to the outcast? The abusive structures of power?
Fast forward to the Jerusalem Conference. Would Christians be required to keep Jewish rituals? The answer was no. Only one question mattered: “Is Jesus Lord?”
Paul called the church the new creation. This is what was new: Jews and Gentiles together. It was a radical new creation that broke boxes of ethnicity, geography and nation-state.
Before my classmate’s question, I was willing to settle for a narrowly defined national and ethnic definition of the church. I thank God for the question.
Now I wonder how radical we are as a church. Do we limit God’s everlasting grace to one ethnic group? Or one nation? Do we believe God endorses Israel’s violence today? Do we believe the United States is God’s favorite nation? One might think so, given much of the rhetoric of the presidential race. And that white America is God’s America.
Whether in the time of Israel’s monarchy, or when referring to the modern state of Israel or the modern country in which we live, nationalism is scandalous.
John E. Sharp teaches history at Hesston (Kan.) College.