The biblical tale of the Tower of Babel paints a simple enough picture: humans building a city with a tower that reaches to the sky, then God responding to their power-game by dividing them into numerous confusing language groups.
This story is not unique to the Bible. It has parallel tellings all over the world and archeology has found that multiple towers meeting this description had been built in the same geographic area. It is not likely a simplistic way of explaining various languages but rather it is thought to be a satire of the threat and the foolishness of the growing Babylonian empire of the time.
Let’s take a close look at this part of it from Genesis 11:
‘Come, let’s build a great city for ourselves with a tower that reaches into the sky. This will make us famous and keep us from being scattered all over the world. But the Lord came down to look at the city and the tower the people were building.“Look!” he said. “The people are united …’ – Genesis 11:4-6a, (NLT) (emphasis and edit mine)
Notice in those sentences that God doesn’t seem concerned with the city or the tower ‘that reaches into the sky’ as is usually assumed. Rather, God takes issue with humans formalizing their unity for the purpose of fame and destiny. Or to put it a different way, it is not the buildings or the technology that concern him but rather the thirst to consolidate control of an empire.
What lengths are united groups willing to go to in order to maintain or expand their proud unity? Well, the best way is for one united group to kill the other united group.
Us against them. Because we want more. Because we’re more important. Because.
Christians don’t have any reason to be overtly patriotic but that doesn’t make us bad citizens. Christian citizens care about their fellow countrymen physically, emotionally and spiritually for deeper reasons than because we live with the same flag, constitution or piece of real estate.
I have often gone back to the earliest believers in this series because they were closest to those who knew Jesus and were responsible for the wildfire growth of The Way throughout the nations of the world.
Jesus had laid out a divine idea for people to be citizens of a new kingdom on earth – one that united itself around his teaching and the leadership of the Spirit. In one sense the believers weren’t a very organized group: they were obeying a dead teacher who they believed had come back to life then returned to heaven, with the help of an invisible spirit guide to help them… Kind of a haphazard, open-ended way to change the world, right?
Yet in the end something mysterious and powerful united this new tribe and they became a force even while they lived under strict Roman rule.
Here are some more brief observations on early Christian citizenship:
- First, as Paul had said, their citizenship was in heaven – not meaning a castle sitting in the clouds of course, but in the presence and arms of God, while they lived on earth.
- This meant that their primary purpose was not to ensure the viability of their country but to live out the Kingdom of God.
- This didn’t mean that they renounced their country but rather that they refused to worship it;
- nationalism was seen as an alluring temptation – not evil in itself but a dangerous downward spiral;
- patriotism was seen as the religion of empires – words, oaths, rituals of the two were (are?) very much alike.
- They would abide by the law of the land but refuse to be defined by it.
- This meant not swearing their whole allegiance to their nation or killing others for it.
- Christians made it their goal to be good citizens in every other way and to be peacefully governed.
- ‘As far as is within you live at peace…’
- There are records of Christians who were killed for refusing to worship Caesar yet publicly prayed for Caesar as they died.
- I’ve written previously about Christians risking their lives to remain in cities that had been struck by the plague and nursing the sick and dying people who had been left behind by fleeing officials, neighbours and family.
- In the empire infant exposure was a completely normal practice. It was both legal and normal to leave your baby (mostly girls) on the street to die if you couldn’t take care of it. People would walk past the dying child without a second thought. How did Christians respond? They began to take these babies in and raise them as their own. Obviously, within a generation there was a notable uptick in the population of young women contributing to society and giving leadership to the church.
What They Said
Here are just a few quotes from first and second century Christians about citizenship and military service:
“The Lord, in disarming Peter, disarmed every soldier.” (Tertullian)
“I do not wish to be a king; I am not anxious to be rich; I decline military command… Die to the world, repudiating the madness that is in it.” (Tatian)
“Above all, Christians are not allowed to correct with violence.” (Clement)
“A soldier of the civil authority must be taught not to kill men and to refuse to do so if he is commanded, and to refuse to take an oath.” (Hippolytus)
“Those soldiers were filled with wonder and admiration at the grandeur of the man’s piety and generosity and were struck with amazement. They felt the force of this example of pity. As a result, many of them were added to the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ and threw off the belt of military service.” (Archelaus)
“Christians could never slay their enemies. For the more that kings, rulers, and peoples have persecuted them everywhere, the more Christians have increased in number and grown in strength.” (Origen )
“Whatever Christians would not wish others to do to them, they do not to others. And they comfort their oppressors and make them their friends; they do good to their enemies. Through love towards their oppressors, they persuade them to become Christians.” (Aristides)
Now can you understand how Christians could be considered bad citizens when it came to nationalism but exceptional citizens when it came to goodness? Can you see how they separated themselves from their culture, not by campaigning or politicking but by loving? And can you see that there had to be something more powerful inside of them, motivating them, than just politics or nationalism?
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I’ve heard it said that if it wasn’t for testosterone-fuelled young men, countries would never be able to fight wars. How sad is it that politicians and dictators are more than willing to use them.
This past May 23 the United States Army naively tweeted out this question to both current and veteran servicemen: ‘How has serving impacted you?’ They fully expected to receive affirming answers that would promote patriotism and encourage the troops. Oops. While the majority were positive, the New York Times reported that a distressing number of them were as brutally honest as these three:
- ‘Depression, anxiety, still can’t deal well with loud noises. I was assaulted by one of my superiors. When I reported him, with witnesses to corroborate my story, nothing happened to him. Nothing. A year later, he stole a laptop and was then demoted. I’m worth less than a laptop.’
- ‘lemme think I didn’t serve but my brother did he never went to war but still shot himself in the head so’
- ‘Never met my grandfather thanks to a long battle with melanoma from Agent Orange in Vietnam but thanks for asking’
We can’t create and train tribal killers to do our bidding around the world and then expect good to come from it. We just can’t.
If people matter; if God’s creation matters (and they do), then war is literally good for nothing.
As we pause these days and rightly remember the sacrifices and carnage of D-Day 75 years ago, it remains a deadly serious and godly question. Maybe war is unavoidable – I don’t know – but perhaps making peace is the truly patriotic choice.