28 August 2022

Nation will rise up against nation.

Mk 13.8, Mt 24.7-8, Lk 21.10-11.

You notice the title of this piece is “Nation will rise up against nation,” yet when I translate the gospel passages which usually get interpreted that way, you’ll notice I render ἔθνος/éthnos as “ethnic group.” Because that’s what an éthnos is.

Mark 13.8 KWL
“For ethnic group will be pitted against ethnic group,
and kingdom against kingdom.
Quakes will happen various places.
Scarcity will happen.
These are first birth pangs.”
Matthew 24.7-8 KWL
7 “For ethnic group will be pitted against ethnic group,
and kingdom against kingdom.
Quakes and scarcity will happen various places.
8 All these are first birth pangs.”
Luke 21.10-11 KWL
10 Then Jesus told them,
“Ethnic group will be pitted against ethnic group,
and kingdom against kingdom.
11 Both great quakes and scarcity in various places,
and plagues will happen.
Both terrifying events
and signs from heaven will happen.”

Éthnos tends to be translated “nation” because for the longest time, people presumed a nation was a country consisting of a homogenous people-group. Ancient Israel consisted only of the descendants of Israel ben Isaac, and ancient Edom of the descendants of Esau ben Isaac, and Moab of the descendants of Moab ben Lot, and so forth. They all had the same ethnic background and race.

Racists especially liked this theory. Even though it’s not wholly true. The LORD let people immigrate, y’know, and become Israeli. Like Ruth the Moabite, or Uriah the Hittite. Like Moses’s Cushite wife. Nu 12.1 (This isn’t the same woman as Zipporah the Midianite, Ex 2.21 even though many Jews insist she is; this is someone from Cush, which is south of Egypt.) Like any of the various Hebrews and Canaanites with whom Israelis intermarried till Ezra ben Seraiah cracked down on the practice in the fifth century BC. Every culture has had intermarriage with neighboring countries and foreigners—and sometimes it was a scandal, and sometimes not. Pretending it never happened, of course implies it’s scandalous.

But racists still think of nation as meaning the very same thing as ethnic group. So whenever they talk about “this nation,” their nation, that’s what they believe it oughta be: A country which only consists of people like them. They wanna purge the country of other races—or at least make ’em second-class citizens. It’s not natural, they insist, for a country to be made up of, or led by, multiple races.

Nations and racism.

This kind of tribalism has been with humanity a very, very long time. Because all tribes originally began with families. Supposedly you could trust your family; not so much other families. So you kept things within your group. Over time the groups got large, and grew into whole countries, but the prejudice persisted: Trust your countrymen. Not so much foreigners.

Even when the foreigners were the very same ethnicity as you. The people of Israel, Edom, Ammon, Moab, and Midian were all Hebrews. They were all descendants of Abraham’s father and Lot’s grandfather, Terah ben Nahor. They all spoke Hebrew! But the bible describes ’em as four nations (and when Israel split into Ephraim and Judah, five), which didn’t trust one another. They considered one another foreigners. And fought one another all the time.

Most westerners are fully aware Europeans have done this too. They’re ethnically, genetically, even culturally the same. Russia and Ukraine, obviously. Yet they fight.

Why? Human depravity, of course. People think it’s in their personal best interests to dominate one another, so they try. Sometimes succeed. Sometimes not.

Anyway. The reason Jesus said nations would fight nations, then kingdoms fight kingdoms, isn’t just because he’s practicing a little Hebrew poetry. These aren’t really synonyms. He’s talking about ethnic groups fighting one another—then political groups fighting one another.

And sometimes the ethnic groups are part of the same kingdom. The United States, obviously. Ancient empires especially, whether Roman, Greek, Persian, Neo-Babylonian, Assyrian, Mongol, Chinese, and so forth; simply by virtue of conquering lots of people. But also Jesus’s homeland, the Galilee—which had both Judean settlements in it, like Nazareth; and Syrian Greek cities in it, like Sepphoris, which was only 6km away from Nazareth and predated it by half a century.

Jesus does away with any discriminations between Jew and gentile, and likewise gentile and gentile. But racists ignore this, and wanna keep demarcating which “nation”—which ethnic group—they are. And wanna fight. And try to fight. Nope, this doesn’t mean it’s the End; it means humans are just being human, and not following Jesus. As usual.

Jesus’s multinational kingdom.

In Jesus’s day plenty of people who sought Messiah, did so because they wanted Messiah to overthrow the Romans. But not just overthrow Romans: Drive out the Romans. And “Greeks”—by which they could mean

  • Ethnic Greeks; people from the Grecian peninsula.
  • Any of the people-groups conquered and assimilated into the Greek Empire. That’d include all the Syrian Greeks who lived in Palestine.
  • Greek-speakers. Which would, believe it or don’t, also include Jews who were too “Greek” for their comfort. (Like Paul.)

There was a group called the Canaaneans, who wanted everyone driven out of Canaan (i.e. Israel or Palestine) who wasn’t of Abrahamic descent. Simon, the student in the Twelve who wasn’t Peter, initially belonged to this group. Mt 10.4 Betcha Jesus including gentiles in his church really bugged him at first. But either you’re following Jesus or the Canaaneans; you can’t do both.

Today’s racists have the same quandary. Either you’re following Jesus, who “hast redeemed us to God by thy blood out of every kindred, and tongue, and people, and nation” Rv 5.9 KJV and has made us all equal inheritors of his kingdom—or you’re not, ’cause you have your own ideas about which nations belong in your kingdom. Yeah, you might call your fantasy “a Christian nation,” but Christian it ain’t.

And Christians need to speak up and say so. It’s not enough to not be racist. Christians have to be actively, vocally antiracist. Racism is sin, and threatens to drive people away from God’s kingdom. We should not abide this—and we abide it far too often, and pretend it’s not the gangrene it is. Racists need to be driven out of the leadership of our churches, and if they continue to disrupt the membership (as has been my experience), they’ll even need to be driven out of our churches. But I digress.

The church should be the one place where nation doesn’t rise up against nation, but accepts every ethnic group. Where no other kingdom but Jesus’s matters (but I’ll get to those other clauses in these passages another time). Where one should never feel uncomfortable because “I’m the only one of my kind in here”—fellow Christians should accommodate us, and alleviate our discomforts as best they can, because all are welcome. All.

Still, the reason Jesus brings this up, is because ethnic strife is part of sinful human history. It’s gonna happen. Race wars, “ethnic cleansing,” genocide, discrimination, apartheid, ghettos, holocausts, internment camps: They’re what evil people do to their neighbors, because they don’t love them and want them gone. We’re to fight it where we can.

But no, it doesn’t mean it’s the End yet.

And y’know, I don’t see a lot of End Times prognosticators pointing to racial unrest as a sign of the End. (That is, unless they’re pointing to the fights between Jews and Palestinians.) Partly because they’ve missed the proper definition of éthnos and think Jesus is only talking about countries; partly because they themselves have plenty of blindspots when it comes to race and racial reconciliation. Some of them are even racist.

I know far too many white Christians who think racism in America has been solved and done away with, simply because racial discrimination is largely illegal. It’s mighty naïve of them. But in their political circles, it’s a firmly held belief—used to justify not doing more to fight racism, and sometimes used to justify rolling back antiracist policies. That needs to be called out as well. The struggle isn’t over yet. Keep struggling.