But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.Israel was supposed to be all those things. The Jews were chosen by God. He rescued them from slavery in Egypt and gave them the Promised Land so they could create a holy nation of priests. Israel wasn’t supposed to be like the countries around them. They were to live according to religious law. A person who followed the law would be a person worth following. The same thing applied on the societal level. The problem was no flawed human being (or society) could. The Old Testament is the story of Israel continually falling short of the standard God set for them, and then being redeemed anyway.
- 1 Peter 2:9
There was a system to receive forgiveness for breaking the law. A priest would offer a domesticated animal (like a lamb, goat, or bull) as a sacrifice on behalf of a sinner, and the blood of the animal would cleanse them of their sins. The Temple in Jerusalem was an assembly line where thousands of animals were sacrificed every year. PETA would have been horrified. Priests offered daily sacrifices on behalf of themselves and then society at large, while the big holidays saw Jews from all over the world return to be purified.
Christians call Jesus “the lamb of God” (1 Peter 1:19) because he was God’s sacrifice for us. It was an entirely different type of sacrifice than what had come before. Jesus followed the law to every last detail: he lived the perfect life we never could. His sacrifice changed the relationship between God and His people, making a new type of society possible:
Now there have been many of these priests, since death prevented them from continuing in office; but because Jesus lives forever, he has a permanent priesthood. Therefore he is able to save completely those who come to God through him, because he always lives to intercede for them.
Such a high priest truly meets our need -- one who is holy, blameless, pure, set apart from sinners, exalted above the heavens. Unlike the other priests, he does not need to offer sacrifices day after day, first for his own sins, and then for the sins of the people. He sacrificed for their sins once and for all when he offered himself. For the law appoints as high priests men in all their weakness; but the oath, which came after the law, appointed the Son, who has been made perfect forever.
- Hebrews 7:23-28The blood of an animal only covered someone once since they only died once. The blood of Jesus covers people permanently since he rose from the dead and now lives forever. His sacrifice atones for every sin a person committed in the past, present, and future. A Jew who accepted that sacrifice became a Christian. They no longer needed a priest to be the intermediary between them and God. They could be intermediaries for other people:
You also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.
- 1 Peter 2:5The Jewish religious leaders were expecting the Messiah to overthrow the Romans and Make Israel Great Again. Jesus came to establish a different kind of kingdom. There was not going to be an Israel 2.0. He did not tell his disciples to create an independent Christian nation. He told them to go out into the nations, live among the people, and spread the gospel. All Christians have to do is “declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness and into his wonderful light.” It sounds unrealistic. That’s it? Shouldn’t there be more to it? How would that ever work? And yet here we are. Every nation that was around at the time of the Gospels is gone. All their armies, all their might, and all their money: none of it could outlast one simple message.
People who think religion is on the wrong side of history don’t understand either. The United States, like the entire Western world, has been getting less religious over the last 50 years. The seeds of that decline were planted during the Enlightenment over 300 years ago. It’s easy to project that decline forward and assume Christianity is doomed. Zoom out to the perspective of 2,000 years, though, and these last few hundred look like more of a minor blip. Christianity has been around 7x longer than the US. It has proven staying power.
The things Peter wrote in his letter might seem archaic and old-fashioned, but people have grappled with his ideas and tried to apply them to their lives for thousands of years. While the interpretations might change over time, there’s always a baseline for them to come back to. The same doesn’t exist in our society. Ideas that were liberal 25 years ago are conservative today. Ones that were commonplace a century ago would be unthinkable these days. The spirit of the age is always changing. There’s no way to know how it will change in the future. We just know that it will.
Modernity is relative. The people of imperial Rome thought of themselves as modern. The court of Augustus Caesar had long since outgrown belief in the Roman gods. They would have laughed at the idea of a primitive religion based around blood sacrifice outlasting their empire. Americans are more advanced than them technologically, but have human beings really changed that much since? Has human nature changed? Has our biology? Maybe the same things that happened to the Romans will happen to us to.
In 500 years, there will still be Christians, Muslims, and Jews, and they will still be reading from the same texts we are reading from. There won’t be Republicans or Democrats. There may not be Americans at all. Winning a political argument means nothing in the big picture. Christians are in the business of winning souls not votes. It does people no good to live by the standards of Christian morality if they don’t accept the sacrifice Jesus made for them. There’s no point in giving them a long list of rules they won’t be able to follow. That’s what went wrong with Israel and the law. Jesus come so that there would be another way.
A Christian’s first loyalty is not to any nation but to God. The line commonly used in the church is that Christians “are in the world but not of the world”. Our identity is based on our relationship to God. Christians are not Americans who believe in Jesus. We are believers who live in America. We want what is best for this country, but our fate is not tied to it. If America falls, Christianity will be fine. Christianity will be around long after America is gone. The Western world losing interest in Christianity says more about the former than the latter. As the Western world has gotten less religious, the birth rates in those countries have all dropped below the replacement level of 2. These countries are dying and they don’t even know it (numbers via the CIA World Factbook):
2 is the replacement level for obvious reasons. The difference between 2.25 and 1.75 doesn't seem like a lot until you start getting into exponential growth over multiple generations. Here are the numbers for five:
2.25^5 (the rate of births) - 2^5 (the rate of deaths) = 25.6
1.75^5 - 2^5 = -15.18
The numbers are even more stark when you look at worldwide fertility rates between religious and secular people:
Secular people just don’t have as many children as religious ones. Mitt Romney has 23 grandchildren. Bill Clinton has 2. Take a look at this family picture, and now imagine each of his grandchildren having a similar picture with their grandchildren, and so on. The numbers start adding up really quickly:
The obvious objection is that religion doesn’t have the same appeal to modern people that it did for our ancestors. Just because religious people have more kids doesn’t mean those kids will stay religious. If a secular lifestyle makes people happier, that lifestyle will win out. However, if that were the case, why are rates of anxiety disorders and mental illness skyrocketing? Why does all the scientific research indicate that Americans are significantly less happy than they were 30 years ago?
“The main cause is a decline in the so-called social capital -- increased loneliness, increased perception of others as untrustworthy and unfair,” said Stefano Bartolini, one of the authors of the study. “Social contacts have worsened, people have less and less relationships among neighbors, relatives, and friends.”Translated into Christianese, what he is saying is that people aren’t living in community anymore. They have fewer friends and smaller families. Falling birthrates means fewer people have siblings, which means their kids will have fewer aunts, uncles, and cousins. I’ve seen the difference first-hand. I was the only child in a non-religious family, while my wife was one of four children in a Christian one. She has deep relationships with each of her three siblings. Dinner with her family takes forever just because there are so many different people there. Dinner with my family is over in an hour. It’s just me and mom. At a certain point, there’s only so much two people can say to each other.
My wife’s two younger siblings are still in school. They may not stay in the faith as they get older. There’s no way to know. Here’s the thing, though. The way exponential growth works means that it doesn’t matter how many kids leave the faith. As long as some stay, they will have more kids than their less religious siblings. Think of it like a family tree. The branches who stay faithful will have branches of their own. The ones that don’t will wither and die away:
I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes to that it will be even more fruitful. You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you. Remain in me, as I also remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me.
I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. If you do not remain in me, you are like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned.
- John 15:1-6Before I became a Christian, I thought church was like a weekly Ted Cruz rally, with the pastor talking about abortion and the Supreme Court. That couldn’t have been farther from the truth. The New York Times spends more time talking about Christianity than Christians spend talking about the New York Times. The people at my church talk about politics less than society at large does. There are people who voted for Bernie Sanders and people who voted for Donald Trump. It doesn’t really matter. Those things don’t divide us. America isn’t really our country. We don’t need to take it back. We are part of a better one.