“But our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ” (Philippians 3:20).
These words of the apostle Paul are part of a letter addressing a church audience that likely included both Gentiles and Jews. Some were Roman citizens, and others were not. However, Paul identifies all of these Christians, regardless of their political nationality, as citizens of another kingdom—God’s kingdom.
Once we decide to follow Christ, our supreme allegiance changes. We turn from anything else that demands our obedience and give loyalty to Jesus as our ultimate and unique Lord. We become part of a transnational community of others who also give their highest loyalty to Jesus and him alone.
That is one reason the Roman Empire sometimes persecuted Christians during the first centuries of the church. The church affirmed Jesus’ supreme lordship, even over the emperor, which was an offence punishable by death.
Being citizens of God’s kingdom makes us ambassadors and representatives of that kingdom to societies and governments where we live. Citizenship in God’s kingdom grants us a new identity as members of a transnational community.
We see this same idea of heavenly citizenship and our role as kingdom ambassadors in 2 Corinthians 5:20 and Ephesians 6:20.
Do not get me wrong; I am not saying that there is something evil about loving your culture, land, customs, language and the people where you grew up. God does not ignore or suppress our cultural identity (see Revelation 7:9-10), but as ambassadors, our exclusive allegiance is to God’s nation and its king, Jesus.
As God’s kingdom ambassadors, we do not believe in political leaders who introduce themselves as saviours, because our only saviour is Jesus.
We do not support the idea of “Christian” countries because the divine nation we represent includes citizens from all languages and cultures and has ambassadors in all the kingdoms of this world.
The tendency to confuse human political systems and empires with God’s kingdom has been a tragic pattern in church history. Starting with the conversion of the Roman emperor Constantine in the fourth century, Christians have too often identified God’s kingdom with a political empire.
Because the emperor supported the church, people perceived Constantine as an anointed leader, a saviour who would enhance God’s kingdom on earth. He learned to use Christian symbols to manipulate the faith of Jesus’ followers for political purposes.
Since his reign, many other political leaders have governed in alliance with the church, using similar strategies. As a result, many of God’s kingdom ambassadors have lost their proper role in society and ended up supporting imperial politics that contradict Jesus’ teachings.
That was a painful lesson Mennonites learned right at their beginnings in the 16th century and through their history until today. Among the thousands of martyrs in our tradition, the vast majority have been persecuted and killed by governments of so-called Christian kingdoms or nations.
Very early in their history, Mennonites saw the need to separate church from state to guarantee the church’s viability.
Unfortunately, in our history, we have not always kept that vision.
In contexts like Colombia, our churches need to recover this vision. We often find people speaking about Colombia as a “Christian” country or promoting the approval of laws that reflect Christian values but are oppressive for people who do not share the same convictions.
Although Christians are called to promote general morality in society, this cannot be done by the imposition of specific Christian values on people who are not Christians, even if they are a minority.
Christian values are for Christians. Christian morals may be practiced by others only when that results from persuasion and honest conversation. The practice of Christian values always needs to be embraced voluntarily. Violence emerges as a natural response to oppres- sion when that is not the case.
Religious freedom, in other words, is a condition for the possibility of peaceful convivence.
Peace, another key Mennonite value, is directly related to religious freedom.
Today, 500 years after our beginnings, religious freedom continues to be a crucial need in many countries. Religious freedom keeps being a call to Christians, who, in many places, like my country, end up oppressing minorities in their search for political power and privileges.
Working for religious liberty opens the door to creating new mosaics, new societies where people of each faith and no faith can offer their values. A new mosaic where, through honest conversation and consensus, peaceful coexistence is possible.
This three-part series is adapted from a speech Mennonite World Conference general secretary César García gave as a featured speaker at the 9th World Congress of International Religious Liberty Association. Reprinted with permission.