by Jonathan Tame, 10th November 2016.
One of Donald Trump’s rallying cries in his election campaign was the commitment to ‘make America great again’. It remains to be seen what that will constitute in terms of policy goals or outcomes, but since so many evangelicals voted for Trump, it’s worth reminding ourselves what national greatness might look like from a biblical perspective.
Let’s start with the early nation of Israel. Abraham was called by God to leave the city of Ur (in modern-day Iraq) and go to another land, where God would make him into a great nation. Not much is said initially about the nature of this greatness, but in chapter 18, God explains it further: ‘Abraham will surely become a great and powerful nation, and all nations on earth will be blessed through him. For I have chosen him, so that he will direct his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is right and just, so that the Lord will bring about for Abraham what he has promised him.’ (Gen 18:18-19)
Christopher Wright emphasises that Israel’s greatness (the fulfilment of God’s promise) would come about through their ethical distinctiveness – not their wealth, political power or military strength. This was the essence of their national mission: to be a model to the surrounding nations of living according to God’s ways, which were right and just. The content of this ethical code was subsequently fleshed out in the Mosaic Law. In God, Justice and Society, Jonathan Burnside emphasises that right relationships were the common denominator of the Law, and that ‘Israel’s vocation is to show the nations what a relationally well-ordered society looks like.’ (p.347)
So national greatness in God’s eyes is outward focused, and rather than being the object of God’s blessing, any material prosperity was to be seen as an outworking of their obedience to God’s ways. Stewarding that prosperity entails an openness to share; isolationist policies are incompatible with this ideal.
There are occasional vignettes in the Old Testament where we see this demonstrated. The book of Ruth is a lovely example – the story of how the Law enabled a destitute, foreign widow to be integrated into Israelite society to such an extent that she became the great-grandmother of King David.
When the Queen of Sheba came to visit his son King Solomon, she praised him not only for his splendour and wealth, but also for the wisdom of his governing, the happiness of his people, the justice and righteousness of his rule and his devotion to God (1 Kings 10:1-9). Interestingly, there was a significant element of trade in the visit too, as gold, spices, jewels and more were exchanged.
More often though, Israel is rebuked for not living up to God’s ways – demonstrating the opposite of greatness. Idolatry was usually the first failure – not only the crude bowing down to images of false gods, but also the more subtle worship of created things rather than their Creator, which is the spiritual root beneath consumerism today.
Then there were a range of economic sins: distorting the market by using corrupt weights and measures (Amos 8:5); disregarding welfare obligations towards orphans and widows (Zech 7:9-10); and exploiting low paid or immigrant workers (Deut 24:14). God’s measures the greatness of an economic system not in terms of what it can deliver to the smartest people, but whether it provides the basic needs of everyone in society.
The justice system was also distorted, as the rich could bribe their way out of trouble and the poor were denied justice (Amos 5:12). When cost of obtaining legal representation today is prohibitive for the poor, it’s no surprise that only people on low incomes end up on death row.
In what may come as a surprise to many today, God commanded Israel to set an example of ethical warfare: among other laws, there was to be no conscription, diplomatic routes to peace were to be pursued first, and a scorched earth policy was forbidden (Deut 20). When Israel’s neighbours violated these principles, the prophets Isaiah and Amos chastised them for their military excesses. As the world’s largest military power, the US has the responsibility of setting the example when it comes to the rules of warfare today.
Greatness in God’s eyes is associated with humility; the Israelites were warned in advance never to lose sight of the fact that God’s unmerited grace was the source of their blessing, nor to assume proudly that their own power and ingenuity made them wealthy (Deut 8:10-14). In fact the truly great probably never use that adjective about themselves; likewise caution should be exercised when applying it to one’s own nation.
All these threads and more make up the tapestry of qualities that constituted Israel’s greatness as a nation, and which can inspire other nations today. Crucially, they were all meant to work in an integrated way to shape and govern God’s ideal for society in a fallen world. Consequently, there is no biblical basis for elevating just one or two ethical positions to the exclusion of all others, which can give rise to the kind of polarising animosity and single-issue voting which has divided so many in America’s culture wars. It’s only Jesus who has the authority to say what the greatest law is – and according to him it’s to love God wholeheartedly and to love others (including our enemies) as ourselves.
Talk is cheap; delivering it is much harder. Our prayer is that God will equip the churches in America to do their part to help make their country great again – not by rallying around a flawed partisan agenda, but by serving and witnessing together in the pursuit of God’s kingdom and righteousness – the kind which exalts a nation (Prov 14:34).