After the Exile

The language of Christian Nationalism is the language of conquest. America is Israel, the analogy goes; the Promised Land is the North American continent. Just as ancient Israel was given a divine mandate to conquer the land of Canaan, so White Americans took upon themselves a sense of Manifest Destiny. A conviction that God wanted descendants of European immigrants—and descendants of European immigrants alone—to subdue every inch of the North American continent.

Sometimes this connection has not even been taken metaphorically. At the turn of the 20th century, theologians developed a theory called Anglo-Israelism, claiming that White American Protestants were the literal, genetic descendants of the ancient Hebrews (and that modern-day Jews were not). “Today it is manifest to all eyes,” Aaron Merritt Hills—pastor, professor, and founding president of three American Christian colleges—wrote in 1906, “that the Anglo-Saxons are of all peoples that ever lived, the best fitted and circumstanced… If the Anglo-Saxons did not derive their fitness for their great mission from forefathers who underwent a training for it in the land of Canaan, we know not how else to account for it.”

With a belief in the surety of America’s connection to Israel, and the rightness of the vision of Manifest Destiny, has come to a sense that the divine approval of those ends justified any and all means: Genocide of the land’s indigenous inhabitants. Enslavement of those who did not hail from the supreme continent. Shooting human beings who did not appear—in the eyes of their attacker—to belong here, while they went about the business of shopping for food at their local TOPS. 

If three thousand years ago, the ancient Hebrews were ordered by God to bust down the walls of Jericho, the logic of Christian Nationalism assumes that today’s White American Protestants are equally authorized to roll up into the public square with guns blazing.  

This is wrong. 

And the American church, especially the White American church, must rise up to repudiate it. 

The identification of America with Israel is, first of all, a theological error. As Willie James Jennings reminds us in The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race, only Israel gets to be Israel. “Gentiles may never claim for themselves,” writes Jennings, “what was true only for Israel.” The rest of us are always, only grafted in. 

But the identification of America with Israel is also a literary error. In the story of the Promised Land, Israel is the little guy. The ancient Hebrews were oppressed and enslaved. As Americans of today—with our bloated military, supersized economy, and massive influence in world affairs—we simply cannot find ourselves, as a nation, in the sandaled nomads who fled from Pharoah in the middle of the night. It is a misread. We are not escapees; we are an empire.

I would like to suggest an alternative reading. If we Americans are determined to locate ourselves in the story of Israel—not as the literal genetic descendants of the chosen people of God, but as people who find resonance in other people’s stories, the way people do—we must stop trying to enter in at the moment of conquest. It just doesn’t make literary sense. Perhaps, instead, we might find ourselves after the exile.

Seven hundred years after the ancient Israelites entered the Promised Land, God sent them into Timeout. They had sinned, and they came under God’s righteous judgment. For seventy years, they languished in exile under the Babylonians. Then, with the leadership of Ezra and Nehemiah, they returned. And one of the first things those Israelites did after the exile, according to Nehemiah 9:2, was “They stood in their places and confessed their sins and the sins of their ancestors.”  

God never sent America to the Promised Land. We were never told to annihilate our enemies. But maybe God is calling us now to stand in our places and confess our sins and the sins of our ancestors. 

By Sarah, Sanderson

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