Freedom and Nationalism: A Pauline Perspective

True Christianity frees us from narrow and exclusivistic nationalism and opens the horizon of an inclusive new creation.

Nationalism is a major characteristic of human history. Long before it emerged as the defining force of the modern world, it existed in the hearts of communities, going back to ancient times. When the disciples asked Jesus just before His ascension, "Will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?" (Acts 1:6),* they were reflecting the nationalistic tenor and hope of their times.

Indeed, restoration theology--the affirmation that the glory and power of the reign of David and Solomon will once again be restored to Israel--dominated the thinking of the Jewish people at the time of Jesus. God would restore the fortunes of Israel. The Roman yoke would be broken. The Jewish nation would once again rise to its glory among the nations.

Nationalism, therefore, was the pivotal force of Jewish hope and theology. The restoration of the kingdom to Israel was central to the Jewish Weltanschauung (worldview). Israel was the key player in world history. The salvation of the Gentiles depended on the reversal of the fortunes of an Israel which at that point in history lacked national independence.

The Messianic hope of Israel's restoration accounts for the numerous Jewish uprisings in Herodian times. Even though the Herods in general were rather good to the Jews--building for them magnificent cities and the temple in Jerusalem, gaining for them significant religious rights within the Roman Empire--they were hated as stooges for the Romans. It is against this background of Jewish national aspirations that I would like to consider Paul's approach to freedom and nationalism.

Freedom through Christ

For Paul, freedom is rooted in Christ. At the center of his gospel rings that affirmation, "For freedom Christ has set us free" (Galatians 5:1). The apostle also reminds us, "Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom" (2 Corinthians 3:17). Paul, however, was a realist when it came to freedom. He understood that freedom is not just a slogan to be shouted by the masses in emotional ecstasy, but a reality to be experienced in life.

Any talk of freedom must define what we are free from, and what we are free for. Paul gave this kind of specificity to freedom. He did not claim that freedom was necessarily enjoyed just because there were Christians present. He said that there was freedom where the Spirit of the Lord is, which means that, among God's creatures, freedom is to be found only under the Lord. For Paul, to proclaim freedom from the law, from sin, and from the evil powers of the cosmos, and affirm freedom for the obedience of faith, for righteousness and for God, was to turn the Jewish worldview upside down, even though he himself did not wish to discard his Jewish identity.

Paul recognized that freedom was not something a person obtains as a private possession. Rather, it is a condition that may exist for those living in community. As a possibility, it depends on external powers that sustain it. Within different communities, people may have the possibility of achieving different kinds of freedoms. If freedom is to extend beyond the limits of a person's individual life, it must have its source outside that person. A freedom that originates from a particular ideology like democracy, capitalism, or communism may be achieved only within the horizon of that ideology. A freedom sustained by economic wealth lasts only as long as that wealth exists. A freedom that has its source in brute force or military power is limited to the strength of its arms.

The ultimate freedom

Paul was concerned with ultimate freedom--freedom from death, a freedom that was for God and for life. He understood the gospel as the power that brings about this freedom. He therefore defined the gospel, not as a set of doctrines worthy of our intellectual consideration, but as "the power of God unto salvation" (Romans 1:16, KJV). In that power lies the source of Paul's concept of freedom.

Now, the question is: Did Paul understand freedom as the fulfillment of Jewish hopes for the restoration of the national fortunes of Israel? The answer is an obvious No.

Paul was an apocalyptic Jew, but his understanding of salvation differed from the one held by most Jews. Apocalyp-ticism among the Jews shared the philosophy of restoration theology: a final and certain triumph, assuring the re-establishment of the throne, the temple, the altar, and the city of Jerusalem. These were the symbols of the nation that enjoyed salvation, the truly good life.

However, in Paul's vision of things, the temple, the throne and Jerusalem play no role whatsoever. Israel was not the linchpin in human history. The nation had lost its soteriological role.

Paul envisioned salvation as a glorified existence in which the whole of creation participated fully and equally (Romans 8:21, 30). He expected the Parousia of the Lord, who comes to judge the world, raise the dead and translate the living saints (1 Corinthians 15:24-26, 51-54). He anticipated that glorious appearance of his Lord to occur during his lifetime (I Thessalonians 4:14).

Paul's vision of the future, however, did not negate the reality of the present. He lived a life of commitment on earth, experiencing the assurance brought about by the death and the resurrection of Christ. He saw the Christian communities on earth as the means by which the body of Christ was present, not mystically but socially, in the midst of the hustle and bustle of human activity.

Paul was concerned that Christian communities should not be fractured by those factors that usually divide humanity: politics, economics, culture, and ethnicity. He came to view all these divisions as artificial and unreal. He understood that Christ brings freedom from dividing walls and boundaries within the human community (see Ephesians 2:14). The power of the gospel means freedom from all divisive prejudices. In Christ "there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus" (Galatians 3:28).

Freedom and the body of Christ

Paul's teaching is realistic on two counts. While on the one hand we depend on God, on the other we are agents of the divine will on earth. Paul expected the Christian communities to exercise their responsibility so that their members function as the body of Christ. Paul kept in tension his future vision of a glorified existence with the realities of a present life where the love of God was to be acted out. Christians, according to Paul, are required to live out in everyday society the power of the gospel to liberate and to save. This power, however, never becomes the exclusive possession of an in-group capable of keeping others out. The power of the gospel ultimately frees Christians from the temptation to subject others to what they conceive as God's will; thus the power of the gospel is not to be equated with an ideology, not even a Christian one. The gospel must indeed free us from any human ideology and bind us only to the power of God's love.

Second, Paul was also a realist about the agency of salvation. Salvation is not brought about by simple or pure human agents, or by a nation that has purified itself, as restoration theology in his time and Marxism in our own have taught. One of the things to keep in mind about Paul is that he abandoned the language of purity--the language of purging or cleansing away whatever is seen as deformed, unnatural, or contrary to nature. Much in modern nationalism, on the other hand, is characterized by its necessity to establish criteria that eliminates the impure elements in the nation.1

Nationalism finds in an ideology of nature or of culture the norms to judge who is worthy to participate in the salvation to be achieved as a nation. But Paul taught that the power of the gospel takes away from humanity the necessity to exclude others (Romans 14:1-10; 2:11). His teaching went beyond mere tolerance or coexistence. According to Paul, God's election did not take place in the past once and for all. Pedigree cannot be the key to life and salvation. God's election is dynamic in history and always open to new candidates (Romans 9:6-24). For Paul, the gospel frees us from the necessity to become gods and divide humanity according to our own prejudices, including our nationalistic loyalties. That is why we must recognize that Paul's theology, at its core, tackles the basic question of election and the law,2 which had become spiritually devastating to restoration theology.

Denationalization: Paul's theological legacy

This does not mean that for Paul, Israel should cease to exist. He considered that in Christ there was neither Jew nor Gentile, even though he did not himself cease being a Jew. It only meant that Israel as a nation should not see itself as the exclusive agent of salvation that held the power of life and death over others. Paul's lasting theological legacy is to denationalize our understanding of freedom and salvation.

Restoration theology nationalized the eschatological hopes of Israel.3 Paul broke with this constricted vision of salvation. His cosmic Christ was not a Jewish Messiah. For him, even though Jesus was, according to the flesh, the son of David, what counts is that, by the power of the Spirit released at the resurrection, He is now a new Adam in whose image all humanity is to live (Romans 1:3-4; 1 Corinthians 15:47-49).

How did Paul escape his culture's restricted view of nationalism? Not by declaring it an illusion, an invention of intellectuals, poets, and patriots. He escaped nationalism's exclusiveness by his understanding that humanity was to recognize the transcendent new situation in which it found itself as a result of the new reality brought about by the power of the Spirit, who raised Christ from the dead. Justice and peace are not waiting for the rule of law on a transnational level. They are waiting for nations to cease their own self-destruction in attempts to purify themselves, their culture, or their language, and welcome all its peoples as worthy of the life God gave them. The idealization of purity is anti-relational.

The power for life and freedom does not come from any nation or its laws. That is where Paul radically contravened the Judaism of his time. He denied the claim that life and freedom were to be found in the law; instead, they are to be found only in Christ, in the Spirit. If life is found in the law, then the nation that lives by the law and uses the law to distinguish itself from "the other" conceives itself as the bearer of salvation. But when law and order become the goal of life, oppression and injustice find their way in. Freedom may be found in the nation, but should not be restricted for the ideologically defined nation. Unless freedom is for the life of all in the community, it is not freedom at all.

No nation can find its salvation in its idealized past or in its collective goal, as restoration theology proclaimed. Nations may joyfully exist and glory in their cultural or material wealth, just as Paul gloried in his being a Jew of the tribe of Benjamin. As Yael Tamir has argued, a well-tempered nationalism is the precondition to civil society.4 People do have the right to cultural self-determination. But their salvation as human beings lies in the divine power that will transform them to love God and embrace "the other." In this process they will enrich themselves even more, and live in peace with their neighbors.

When the Christian gospel is nationalized and becomes a cultural tool for governing, it loses its power to bring about freedom and salvation. Paul, on the contrary, de-nationalized Christianity in order to allow it to function as the agent of freedom through the power of the eschatological new creation. The gospel is not to be the tool for an imperialism either of culture or of nature. Rather, it is to be the power for freedom from imperialistic claims of any kind. Ultimately, it is Christ's gift--freedom from death and freedom to love.

Herold Weiss (Ph. D., Duke University) teaches religious studies at St. Mary's College, Notre Dame, Indiana, U.S.A. He is the author of several articles, including "The Apostle Paul: An Intellectual?" (Dialogue 4:2), and the book Paul of Tarsus (Berrien Springs, Michigan: Andrews University Press, 2nd ed., 1989). His address: Dept. of Religious Studies; St. Mary's College; Notre Dame, IN 46556; U.S.A.

* Unless otherwise noted, all Bible quotations are from the Revised Standard Version.

Notes and references

  1. See Walker Connor, Ethnonationalism: The Quest for Understanding (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1994) for the use of language and religion as criteria.
  2. Victor Paul Furnish, "On Putting Paul in His Place," Journal of Biblical Literature 113 (1994) 3-17, (17), also identifies election and law as the core of Paul's theological enterprise. See also E. P. Sanders, Paul (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), p. 117.
  3. Paula Fredriksen, From Jesus to Christ: The Origin of the New Testament Images of Jesus (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1988), p. 172, sums it up: "In brief, Paul denationalizes Jewish restoration theology" (emphasis hers).
  4. See Yael Tamir, Liberal nationalism (Princeton, N. J.: Princeton University Press, 1993).