In our era of hyper-partisanship, often we think of political divides in simple terms of Republicans versus Democrats, or progressives versus conservatives. Nevertheless, even today there are some divides that cut across party lines.
One such divide is that between nationalists and “globalists” or “imperialists” (both pejorative terms given by nationalists to those who support greater international cooperation).
On the right, former President Donald Trump opposed many international trade relationships and generally called for an “America first” approach to foreign policy, including protectionist economic measures, less interference in foreign military conflicts, and withdrawal from the Paris climate accord, among other things. Many conservatives went along with some or all of these goals.
On the left, Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), as well as President Joe Biden, continue to support many of the same economic policies, including tariffs, even while strongly disagreeing with other points. These are all nationalistic in their own ways. There are many possible varieties of nationalism.
As for the more internationalist position, this cuts across right and left as well. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton negotiated and initially supported the failed Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, only walking back her support due to pressure from Sanders and his supporters. On the right, supporters of free trade can be found as well, such as Senator Charles Grassley (R-Iowa).
While bigger issues still divide us and our parties today, this is one division that cuts across political partisanship.
Thus, it should be of interest to all Christians, no matter their political persuasion, whether there is any guidance in the Christian tradition for sorting out these debates.
On the one hand, these are matters over which sincere Christians can disagree. On the other hand, the New Testament is clear that such disagreements should not be sources of division:
Now it came to pass in those days that [Jesus] went out to the mountain to pray, and continued all night in prayer to God. And when it was day, He called His disciples to Himself; and from them He chose twelve whom He also named apostles: Simon, whom He also named Peter, and Andrew his brother; James and John; Philip and Bartholomew; Matthew and Thomas; James the son of Alphaeus, and Simon called the Zealot; Judas the son of James, and Judas Iscariot who also became a traitor. (Luke 6:12-16)
Okay, “clear” might be an overstatement, but that’s not the New Testament’s fault.
When most of us read this today, we see a list of names whose significance is generally determined by who these men became rather than who they were at the time. Peter and Andrew were fishermen before Jesus called them, but we know them today as saints, apostles, and martyrs, for whom many churches are named.
The two names that speak to our present division over nationalism and internationalism are Matthew and “Simon called the Zealot.”
Matthew tells us in his account of the Gospel that he was a tax collector before Jesus called him. Tax collectors were generally hated by the Jewish people in Jesus’s time for their relative wealth (they were part of a very small middle class), and because collecting taxes for Rome, the foreign Empire occupying Judea, was perceived by many as traitorous to their own nation.
Simon, by contrast, was a Zealot, a fourth Jewish philosophical school alongside the Pharisees, Sadducees, and Essenes. In his Antiquities of the Jews, the ancient Jewish historian Flavius Josephus tells how the Zealots came about and what they stood for.
According to Josephus, Cyrenius, a Roman senator, came to Judea to take a census — “an account of their substance” for purposes of taxation. While many Jews decided to comply with his requests for “an account of their estates,” others were not so inclined:
Yet was there one Judas, a Gaulonite, of a city whose name was Gamala, who, taking with him Sadduc, a Pharisee, became zealous to draw them to a revolt, who both said that this taxation was no better than an introduction to slavery, and exhorted the nation to assert their liberty…. All sorts of misfortunes also sprang from these men, and the nation was infected with this doctrine to an incredible degree; one violent war came upon us after another, and we lost our friends which used to alleviate our pains; there were also very great robberies and murder of our principal men.
Josephus, who seems to have identified as a Pharisee and wanted to show the Romans that the Jews were generally peaceful, does not present the Zealots in a very favorable light: “This was done in pretense indeed for the public welfare, but in reality for the hopes of gain to themselves.”
Whatever the case, a few observations can be made. The census in question was the very same referenced by Luke as the occasion for Mary and Joseph’s journey to Bethlehem and the fulfillment of the prophecy that Jesus, the promised Christ or Messiah, would be born there. Meanwhile, as we learn from Josephus, Judas the Galilean was leading a violent attempt at revolution against imperialist taxation, seeking to once again establish a free Jewish kingdom.
For some, this was exactly the sort of person they expected the Messiah to be. This Judas is even referenced in the book of Acts, when the Jewish council is debating what to do with the apostles they apprehended for preaching in the name of Jesus:
Then one in the council stood up, a Pharisee named Gamaliel, a teacher of the law held in respect by all the people, and commanded them to put the apostles outside for a little while. And he said to them:
“Men of Israel, take heed to yourselves what you intend to do regarding these men. For some time ago Theudas rose up, claiming to be somebody. A number of men, about four hundred, joined him. He was slain, and all who obeyed him were scattered and came to nothing. After this man, Judas of Galilee rose up in the days of the census, and drew away many people after him. He also perished, and all who obeyed him were dispersed. And now I say to you, keep away from these men and let them alone; for if this plan or this work is of men, it will come to nothing; but if it is of God, you cannot overthrow it—lest you even be found to fight against God.” (Acts 5:34-39)
So what did it mean for the apostle Simon to have been “called the Zealot”? It meant that he was a nationalist and likely inclined to support violent revolution to free his people – not just from imperialism but from a literal empire.
Yet Jesus calls both Matthew and Simon to be his disciples, apostles, and friends. They both go out and preach the Gospel. Both, according to tradition, were later martyred for the same Lord.
And this isn’t all. When asked whether it is lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, Jesus called his hearers to think beyond the politics of their day
Then the Pharisees went and plotted how they might entangle [Jesus] in His talk. And they sent to Him their disciples with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that You are true, and teach the way of God in truth; nor do You care about anyone, for You do not regard the person of men. Tell us, therefore, what do You think? Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?”
But Jesus perceived their wickedness, and said, “Why do you test Me, you hypocrites? Show Me the tax money.”
So they brought Him a denarius.
And He said to them, “Whose image and inscription is this?”
They said to Him, “Caesar’s.”
And He said to them, “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” When they had heard these words, they marveled, and left Him and went their way. (Matthew 22:15-22)
The trick worked like this: If Jesus were to have said “no” to the Pharisees, he would have been identifying as a Zealot and a revolutionary, and the Herodians – supporters of Herod, the Roman-appointed ruler of Judea – would report him. If he had said “yes,” many people who believed Jesus to be the Christ would begin to doubt, for everyone knew that the Messiah would reign on the throne of King David. How could he acknowledge the legitimacy of Roman rule by approving of Roman taxes?
But Jesus’s kingdom is not of this world. And he points out how truly trivial the point is by his answer: Give to Caesar his little coin that bears his image, and give to God what bears his image – i.e., yourself. For “God created man in His own image” (Genesis 1:27).
The kingdom of God is so big as to render the kingdom of Caesar unimportant by comparison. And it was the Gospel of the kingdom of God that Jesus and his disciples proclaimed, not the gospel of Rome or Judea, neither imperialism nor nationalism.
None of this is to say that debates over national sovereignty and international cooperation are not worth having, but only that Christians would do well to put them in perspective in the light of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.