Who are “my people”?

I wanted to share one more thought on nationalism and faith, then I’ll leave the topic for now. I’ve written a lot about citizenship, because I believe when we understand where our true citizenship lies, we will have a different outlook on the world and the people around us.

People often bring up the apostle Paul and his citizenship. “Look!,” they say, “Paul freely claimed to be a Roman citizen.”

That’s true. As I mentioned, I see that as a bureaucratic reality. Paul used Roman citizenship in situations where that legal status was to his benefit. Yet did he identify as a Roman?

When Paul writes, “For I could wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, those of my own race,” (Romans 9:3) is he talking about the Romans? Other citizens of the empire that he was a citizen of. Nope. Let’s finish the sentence: “the people of Israel.” (Romans 9:4)

Excuse me, Paul. You weren’t born within the territory that belonged to Israel. You are a citizen of Rome. You are writing to people in Rome. Let them know clearly who your people are.

“I am talking to you Gentiles. Inasmuch as I am the apostle to the Gentiles, I make much of my ministry in the hope that I may somehow arouse my own people to envy and save some of them.” (Romans 11:13–14)

Paul makes a sharp contrast between “you Gentiles” and “my own people.” He was a Roman citizen, but the Romans were not his people. The Jews were.

That said, Paul embraced Gentile Christians as sharing in the same citizenship that he held: “For, as I have often told you before and now say again even with tears, many live as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame. Their mind is on earthly things. But our citizenship is in heaven.” (Philippians 3:18–20) Many of the Philippians were Roman citizens, but Paul doesn’t remind them about sharing that. The important citizenship Paul shared with these believers was their heavenly citizenship.

Paul never spoke of “my fellow Romans,” at least not in what is recorded in the New Testament. Roman citizenship was a technicality. His Jewish heritage defined his race and his people. A shared faith defined who his co-citizens were.

How about you?

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