by Alex Mayfield, originally posted on Engaged Pentecostalism.
The rise of populist and nationalist movements around the world is a fact of our time. A quick survey finds the tide rising the world over: the recent Brazilian presidential victory ofdictatorship-loving Bolsonaro, the many far-right groups gaining ground in European elections, the rise of violent Hindutva in India, and the increasingly abrasive Chinese nationalism fostered under Xi Jinping illustrate that nationalists movements have turned ethnic, cultural, and national identity towards increasingly troubling ends.
Here in the United States, Trumpian politics have risen to power by questioning the legitimacy of a black leaders and stoking fears over Hispanic migrants, and ethnno-nationalist ideas have gained renewed traction among conservative voters. While support of Donald Trump cannot be equated with an embrace of racism, it is no accident that radical white nationalist groups have been growing and becoming increasingly vocal in their support of the president; these groups are ideologically wrong, but they are not stupid.
These trends should be concerning for anyone who is a student of history: rampant nationalism tends to breed war. While undermining the international order is one thing, the rise of Trumpian politics has had a more concrete casualty: the public witness of Pentecostal and Charismatic Christians.
Leah Payne observes in the Washington Post, “Trump is popular in certain corners of Pentecostal-Charismatic Christianity because, while he flouts many traditional evangelical moral standards and political preferences, he uncannily demonstrates deep affinities with certain Pentecostal-Charismatic subcultures.” While there are many examples of support, the laying hands on Donald Trump by prominent Pentecostal celebrities have offered a clear signal to the world that Trumpian politics is considered god-ordained by many a Spirit-filled person.
A Tower of Babel Situation
In many ways, we are living in what might be termed a “Tower of Babel” situation. For those who have forgotten their Sunday School lessons, Genesis 11 tells the story of the people of Shinar who come together to build a great tower that “reaches to the heavens.” Their reason? So that they could “make a name for [themselves]; otherwise [they would] be scattered over the face of the whole earth.” In stark contrast to God’s command to fill and subdue the Earth, the people of Shinar decided to settle down in one spot and attempt to subdue the heavens.
God sees what’s going on and comes down to investigate. Angrily, he decides to stop the work by making everyone speak different languages. Without a common tongue, they could no longer complete their task, and the story concludes by God reaffirming his original command, He “scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city.”
God curses the people with different languages, effectively creating the different cultures of the world. The author of the Tower of Babel account adroitly recognizes the effects that differences in language and culture can cause. The ethnic, linguistic, national, and cultural barriers between peoples can stifle cooperation, impede mutual understanding, and prevent relationships from forming. Babel reveals the destructive power of tribalism: its ability to drive us apart. As far as curses go, human history has revealed the curse of Babel to be one of God’s most far reaching.
Following World War II and the Cold War, there have been real attempts at building an international order which sought to overcome barriers of Babel and to, at the very least, mitigate the extreme violence that our natural tendencies can produce. While imperfect and flawed (as all human efforts are), international governance organizations have made great strides in creating a more peaceable world. Rather than attempt to subdue heaven, modern international governance movements have, by and large, been an effort to fulfill God’s original command, to subdue the Earth and make it more peaceful.
Thus, it appears to me that our return to nationalism is a self-induced Babel moment. After attempting to overcome the barriers between us, we have given up, embraced the curse and championed it as righteousness.
The Day of Pentecost
What is so troubling about the Pentecostal-Charismatic embrace of Trumpian politics (and its implied ethno-nationalism) is that it cuts clear against the one story every Pentecostal-Charismatic should know: The Day of Pentecost.
In Acts 2, we are told that the followers of Jesus were together on the day of Pentecost. A rushing wind of the Holy Spirit came down and empowered them for service. Every person spoke in different tongues and glorified God. Verse 6 describes what happened next, “When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard their own language being spoken.” All of the followers of Jesus were simple Jewish folks from the region of Galilee, yet the crowd was made up of people from Iran, Mesopotamia, Judea, Cappadocia, Pontus, Asia, Phrygia, Pamphylia, Egypt, Libya, Rome, Crete, and Arabia.
In short, Pentecost was a linguistic miracle! It was a moment in which the curse of Babel was overcome. The barriers of language, culture, and ethnicity were overwhelmed by the power of the Spirit. Following the initial surprise, Peter got up and preached a message which everyone understood, and the Church was born. This radical new community was birthed as the balm to Babel, a place where nationality and language no longer mattered and were subservient to God’s kingdom.
It was not all miracles, however. The early church struggled to live into the truth of Pentecost. The Jewish church had to come to terms with their ethno-religious identity, and to follow the Spirit into uncharted waters of embracing Gentile pagans. The story of the New Testament is largely the story of these communities following the Spirit into this new, Babel-free mystery.
Let go of Fear, Embrace the Spirit
The fuel for today’s ethnic nationalism is by and large the same fuel that fed the people at Babel: fear. The people of Shinar feared being scattered, they feared being forgotten. Ultimately, they feared change.
Nationalist politics trades on this fear by creating an imagined past defined by clear markers of identity and stability. It holds this up to the complexity of real life and instills a sense of loss. Further, ethno-nationalism instills a fear of the other, a fear of being wiped out by those who don’t look like us.
That path cannot be embraced by Spirit-filled people because it cuts against the core of what we are about. As Timothy 1:7 reminds us, “For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind.” The Spirit enables us to move beyond fear, and into courage. It empowers us to embrace the changes of history, and to find God in the mix.
Throughout time Christianity has gone from being a majority Jewish, to majority European, to majority African and Asian religion. All the while, it has remained a multi-cultural experiment of the Spirit. Like the church, cultures and demographics change. It can be hard to embrace those changes at times, but I would hope that Spirit-filled people would never embrace the curse of Babel when they have the freedom of Pentecost in their hands.
Alex Mayfield is currently pursuing his Ph.D. in Mission Studies at Boston University, and he is a minister in the International Pentecostal Holiness Church. He is married to an amazing wife who puts up with everything those two facts entail. When he’s not reading or writing, he’s usually dreaming of eating Chinese food. View all posts by Alex Mayfield on Engaged Pentecostalism.
Cover image: based on Gage Skidmore’s photo of Donald Trump and a classic painting of the Tower of Babel by Pieter Bruegel the Elder.