As a Jew teaching in a Christian seminary, I work with students in learning how to bring the Hebrew Bible to bear not only on their work in the parish, but also on their engagement in the public sphere.
Many of these students are troubled by the growing scourge of Christian nationalism, both in the United States and across the globe. The recent election of Mike Johnson (R.-La.) as House speaker brings the issue to the fore. According to the Yale sociologist Philip Gorski, Johnson “checks every single box on the Christian nationalism checklist.” Two examples that Gorski and research scholar Anne Nelson provide: Johnson’s praise of people like Christian nationalist David Barton, who believes the country’s founding documents were based on the Bible, and Johnson’s previous inclusion in the directory of the Council for National Policy — a secretive group of conservative donors and activists committed to restoring “Judeo-Christian values” in the United States.
My seminary students are eager to confront the challenge Christian nationalism poses, including its simplistic use and cynical abuse of biblical texts. Christian nationalists wield the Bible as if it were a static authority, perverting its vision of peoplehood to emphasize homogeneity. Yet the biblical writings themselves are characterized by lively exchanges, competing perspectives across multiple generations, and appeals to care for the stranger.
The Hebrew Bible is an astounding achievement. Nowhere else in the ancient world do we witness a community’s effort — and such an elaborate and collaborative effort at that — first to document and depict its own defeat, and then to use this narrative history as a framework for rethinking every facet of its existence.
The generations of scribes who curated the biblical corpus were not only theological in their orientation; they were also profoundly political. Imperial powers — first the Assyrians and later the Babylonians and Persians — had conquered and destroyed their land. Working through their collective trauma and writing in the dark days of the post-destruction period, the biblical scribes did not seek to transform Israel into a religious sect after the kingdom’s downfall. On the contrary, they imagined a robust and resilient national identity, one capable of withstanding military defeat and the encroachment of imperial, colonizing powers.
Yet in sharp contrast to Christian nationalism, the Bible’s notion of nationhood — what I call “peoplehood” — is about members of a political community coming together to make positive contributions to the wider world for the future of our globe. This understanding of peoplehood contrasts with myths of American exceptionalism that suggest it is “a city on a hill” and a “new Israel” meant to bring light to non-white, non-Christian “heathens.” As Harvard professor of American history Jill Lepore writes in her book This America: The Case for the Nation, nationalism is focused on who we are not. Peoplehood, on the other hand, is about who we are. Christian nationalism feeds on insecurity, fear, and hate. Peoplehood grows out of love, openness toward the other, and hope for the future.
The biblical authors articulated this vision of peoplehood for their war-torn communities. They needed to bring together rival groups and inspire their members to collaborate in (re)building projects. To do so, they appealed to a shared past, a sense of kinship, written laws, and a transcendent deity. Their objective was not to eliminate communities from the national fold. To be sure, their corpus includes many “texts of terror” such as the command to wipe out the Canaanites when they enter their new homeland. However, later generations went to great lengths to revise these texts and make room for the Other. Thus, the book of Joshua begins with the Israelites finding a way to save the family of Rahab (2:1-21) the first Canaanite they encounter. Likewise, later biblical texts make it clear for readers that the command to exterminate the Canaanites was a thing of the past and was not to be applied in the present.
The Bible’s model of peoplehood embraces diversity, an ideal exemplified in the weaving together of competing traditions and texts. Although this corpus is heavily redacted, it does not speak with a single voice. Instead of one view, its authors set forth a shared text.
A fundamental question facing any nation is this: Whose story should be the defining one? Thus, when writing a history of the United States, should we begin with the British colonists? What about the Indigenous people who had lived on the land long before Europeans arrived on American shores? The issue is especially tangible at Thanksgiving, when the widest array of schoolchildren — from those who can trace their lineage to the first settlers, to those whose families entered at Ellis Island or crossed the nation’s borders more recently — are expected to perform pilgrim pageants and make the dominant narrative of the United States their own.
But in creating a narrative for a new nation, the biblical scribes rejected the temptation to embrace a dominant narrative of Israel’s past. The family story of Genesis connects disparate clans and communities — with names such as Benjamin, Judah, Reuben, etc. — to common ancestors, while the story of the Exodus tells us how a group of freed slaves consolidated to form a nation and migrated to a new land, embracing a “mixed multitude” along the way that included non-Hebrews like the Kenites and even some Egyptians (Exodus 12:38).
In these and in other innovative (and often breathtaking) ways, biblical texts construct bonds of kinship and filiation that could hold together competing communities — and we have much to learn from the authors of these texts. They realized that the law without a story is ineffective. Thus, the command to “love your neighbor as yourself” is followed throughout the narrative by stories that answer the question, “Who is my neighbor?” Likewise, the command to “love the stranger” is embedded in a larger narrative that portrays Israel’s origins as a group of refugees who make their way to a new land after escaping bondage; this story of liberation lays the foundation for the law.
As I help students study and communicate the Hebrew Bible’s vision for a nation, they have to confront how Christian nationalism perverts the Bible’s notion of peoplehood. The history of Christian nationalism is long and complex, but what unites its many iterations is the appeal to the biblical model of Israel as a political paradigm, one that governments should apply to all realms of society and public life.
In asserting this claim, Christian nationalists run roughshod over the biblical project of peoplehood, which represents a concerted effort to think beyond the state. This holds true both for the Israel of the Hebrew Bible and its adaptation as the kingdom of God in the New Testament. In both cases, peoplehood is not about the exercise of political power over a country or a (liberation) movement establishing a new state. To the contrary, the biblical project is about strategies for communities that lack political power and live in the shadows of the empire. This new nation is founded not on military might and ethnic purity, but on education, covenantal loyalty, love for God, and love for one’s neighbor.
Is the biblical model of peoplehood adaptable to the exigencies of modern secular democracies? Perhaps not. But the task at hand in our own nations is to find new ways of bolstering a sense of kinship, as the biblical authors did in their time. Both then and now, the most powerful means of creating community is to tell stories. In this period of populistic upheaval — fomented by cynical, corrupt leaders who deem themselves to be above the law — we need narratives that reflect the diversity of our communities, temper the hostility that often characterizes national discourses, and offer tangible reasons why we should cultivate affection for our laws. As we create these narratives, perhaps we will discover a unifying force under whose aegis we will be able to face an otherwise frightening future.