Book Review – “Chosen Nation” by Braden P. Anderson

Book cover image - Chosen NationFor years, the abuse of Scriptural passages to justify the aggressive exploits of nations has driven me nuts.  Whether it’s the the account of the conquest of Canaan, used by European colonists to take the New World and exterminate or marginalize its indigenous population, or the same story repeated by the Afrikaaner Dutch in South Africa, it’s always repulsed me.  And when revisionist American Christians use the covenental and missional language of the Bible to justify –even advocate for– the interventionist behavior of the United States, I positively want to scream.  Now Braden P. (Brad) Anderson has published a theological response to this abuse, and it’s an important work.

Chosen Nation is the product of Brad’s doctoral dissertation.  In this book, Brad takes on the topics of nationalism and faith through the discipline of theopolitics…an academic focus that looks at how theology is worked out in political frameworks…and does so with a rigor that few have bothered to master.  In doing so, Anderson makes a compelling case that we need to understand both Biblical claims and nationalist narratives before we all-too-lightly mash the two together.

Drawing on the work of William T. Cavenaugh, among others, Anderson takes a hard look at the American notion of exceptionalism, in which the United States is perceived by many to be chosen and ordained by God to perform a special function in the world, typically one that involves the projection of American power and the replication of American-style ideals and governance through the exercise of that power.  Already in the nineteenth century, but also seized upon by modern theologian Stephen H. Webb, Anderson describes a nation that arrogates to itself the role God intended for the church.  Quoting Cavenaugh, the nation “does not simply seek to follow God’s will, but acts as a kind of substitute God on the stage of history.”  The nation, Anderson says, “worships its freedom to worship, which is inherent to its identity, and thus worships itself.”  The resulting nationalism, he writes in his preface, “…is a challenge that rewrites the Christian salvation narrative, reconstructs Christian politics, and reorients disciples of Christ away from solidarity with each other and with those suffering around them.”

One of Anderson’s most important contributions in “Chosen Nation,” I believe, is his analysis of the meaning of God’s covenant with Israel in the Old Testament.  Beginning with the Puritans coming from England to the New World, right through the nineteenth century and into the nationalism of Evangelical Americans today, there has been a tendency to claim elements of that covenant language, and appropriate them to bless–even to promote–American hegemony.  But as Anderson leads us through the Biblical account, he shows us how God established Israel as a set-apart people with himself as the sovereign.  As the prophet Samuel testified, when the people of Israel chose to emulate the nations around by demanding a king and taking on the role of a nation-state, they willfully abandoned God’s sovereignty and abrogated the terms of God’s covenant with them.  “With the expansion of empire [under King David] and its attendant utilization of foreign alliances, slavery, and a standing army, realpolitik becomes institutionalized in the state, and Israel becomes that from which it had been delivered in the exodus.” (emphasis mine)

Paradoxically, then, as Americans (and others) appropriate to their own nations the covenantal language of the early Old Testament, they fail to recognize that the structures and conduct of the nation state are themselves incompatible with the God-directed people for whom that language was intended.  As Anderson says, “To the degree that Christians residing in various nations seek to (1) identify themselves according to a syncretized theopolitical narrative of identity, and (2) secure that national identity through the political ways of the powers, they participate in a form of Israel’s own error, directly altering their identity in the church of Jesus Christ.”

Later in the book, Anderson looks at the Biblical case for the church of Jesus Christ being the heir to God’s divine covenant with Israel (see 1 Pet. 2:4-10 among other foundational passages).  Since the church, rightly seen, is a transnational entity, it is therefore a fundamental error to apply to any modern nation-state that sense of chosenness that rightly belongs to the church.  The church, Anderson writes, “cannot be supplanted from this role without fundamentally altering the salvation narrative it proclaims.  Insofar as nationalists claim for their nation the mantle of the definitive community witnessing to God’s salvation and prefiguring the kingdom of God on earth, they distort the Christian gospel and make their nation a simulacrum or parody of the church.”  More pointedly, he later states about several Christian Right authors in the US that “…by misappropriating biblical Israel as they do, that is, by making the nation America the extension of Israel as central to God’s plans for global salvation, these authors supplant the church, and by implication, Jesus Christ as Lord.” (emphasis mine)

Anderson’s concluding chapter is not so much a conclusion as a challenge for the church to re-engage with its own identity as God’s chosen people on a transnational level.  As an American, his questions are directed particularly at his own people:  “What does it mean to be American when the very origin of the country is rooted in the act of Christians killing other Christians?  What does it mean to be American when the United States constitutes an earthly empire by most measures of the term, that is, military, economic, ideological?”  And perhaps most challenging of all:  “Can we be American as we live in robust solidarity with non-Americans (or even anti-Americans), especially as Christ has rendered any such divisions or exclusions null and void?

Difficult questions, indeed, and questions Anderson does not attempt to answer in any great detail.  The challenge is left for the reader to take up.  This book is not a quick read, and if you’re at all like me you’ll need to take your time to properly grapple with Anderson’s analysis and with the various theologians–conservative and progressive–with whom he engages.  It’s an important exercise, and well worth the effort.

Disclosure: This review is done on a copy of the book provided to me by the publisher.

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